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Campus Care Crisis, Shirley’s Enduring Wisdom, and Loving Libraries: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From digging into primary sources to reassessing the words we use, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

three female students sit in a circle, wearing masks and all socially distanced, listening to a fourth female student as she speaks

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Science editor and former UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp argues it's time for higher education to seriously confront the student mental health crises on their campuses.

Drop the Stigma; Help the Students

Student mental health has taken a huge hit during the pandemic, accelerating an already worrisome trend. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine just weighed in with a major report that calls on campus leaders to move away from crisis intervention and adopt a broader approach to student wellbeing. Science editor and former UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp echoed that call in a great blog post explaining why universities struggle to put enough resources into mental health programs. “The university that successfully addresses the student mental health crisis will be the one that has the courage to worry less about how the university is perceived from the outside and more about how it is perceived from the inside,” Thorp writes. Basically, every university in the country is struggling with this. But since none of them want to be seen as struggling more than others, everyone is reluctant to take the big, culture-changing measures really needed to promote healthier behaviors and mentalities on campus. Thorp argues that it’s time to recognize we’re all in the same boat, working together on a generational challenge. “Instead of continuing a cycle of sporadically dispatching the student affairs staff to hire more counselors, trustees should let administrators know what sacrifices are acceptable to achieve a whole institution–whole student approach,” Thorp writes. “Such a shift could give universities a chance to live up to those smiling faces in the brochures.” —Eric Johnson

black and white portrait of a young walt whitman

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"What are you working on? Can I read it? You can trust me." Whitman, probably.

O Plagiarist! My Plagiarist!

In 1859, Walt Whitman wrote in a notebook, "I am the bard of Democracy!" He might also have declared himself the bard of habitual plagiarism. I appreciate Whitman's work, but I'm not well versed in Whitmanania. So when I opened official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn's latest post on his Our Game blog, I expected to learn more about the poet and the contested authorship of one of the most revered pieces of early baseball (excuse me, base ball) writing. I didn’t expect to discover just how notorious, or brazen, a copycat Whitman was. "In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing “base,” a certain game of ball…" famously opens Ken Burns' Baseball miniseries; the full version was originally published on July 23, 1846, in the Brooklyn Eagle with Whitman's byline. But Thorn methodically knocks down that it's a Whitman original, with the interesting wrinkle that it's possible (though unlikely) Whitman self-plagiarized. (He was “the laziest fellow who ever undertook to edit a city paper," his former bosses at the New York Aurora, once said.) Like Mark Twain, Whitman is one of those larger-than-life men of American letters whose experience contains multitudes, not all of them worth emulating. Thorn's piece adds another note to the song of Walt Whitman, and it's worth reading if you're a fan of his work (or if you just can't wait for the start of baseball season). —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Black and white photo of a man in a suit getting punched in the face with a boxing glove

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You really don't want to be that guy in meetings.

Maximum Impact

Most of Kevin D. Williamson’s National Review column this week is a scathing deconstruction of the slippery ethics and galling effectiveness of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. It’s good stuff, but my recommendation for the week is the smaller item toward the bottom of the column, where he always fields a question of grammar or usage. This week he considers the word “impactful” after a reader asks if it’s grammatically correct. “The word impactful is not ungrammatical,” Williamson writes, “it is stupid.” He goes on to give the word a beat-down so fierce that you will cringe the next time you hear someone pollute your eyes or ears by using it. —Bob Roe

Black and white photo of Shirley Chisholm smiling as she stands at a podium

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U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks at a podium at the Democratic National Convention, Miami Beach, Florida, July 1972.

Shirley for America!

Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress, and she ran a trailblazing presidential campaign in 1972 as the first Black woman to compete for a major party’s nomination. That history came up a lot this week as Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in—her purple coat was even a nod to Chisholm’s campaign colors, CNN reported—which sent me down a rabbit hole of reading Chisholm’s old speeches. (Going back to the primary sources, just as my APUSH teacher taught me.) Her most famous quote might be “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” but there’s so much more to Chisolm’s groundbreaking political career. “I have faith in the American people,” Chisholm said at the launch of her presidential campaign. “I believe that we are smart enough to correct our mistakes. I believe that we are intelligent enough to recognize the talent, energy, and dedication that all Americans, including women and minorities, have to offer. I know from my travels to the cities and the small towns of America that we have vast potential which can and must be put to constructive use in getting this great nation together.” The marvelous thing about reading history is learning that we’ve been here before. We’ve seen moments of deep division, of distrust in one another and our governing institutions. And we’ve found a way forward. “I would remind all Americans at this hour of the words of Abraham Lincoln: ‘a house divided cannot stand,’” Chisholm said. “We Americans are all fellow countrymen… I’ve always earnestly believed the great potential of America.” —Eric Johnson

Elderly woman holding a small child sit at a table covered in toys and kids books while connecting with a male loved one, who's face is obscured, via a video screen

Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library

A family talks with a loved one, who is incarcerated, in one of the Brooklyn Public Library's TeleStory rooms.

More Than Books Behind Bars

Libraries have been more than places to borrow books and media for a while. Besides offering crucial access to the internet, homework and resume help, and job placement, libraries also allow patrons to check out cookware, clothing accessories, WiFi hotspots, and musical instruments. In so many ways, libraries are indispensable. But what I didn't appreciate until listening to the latest episode of Borrowed, the Brooklyn Public Library's excellent podcast, is how much of a lifeline libraries are to the incarcerated. I knew jails and prisons often have libraries and that programs exist to get books to prisoners. But the Brooklyn Library's TeleStory initiative—which allows families of imprisoned individuals to connect with their loved ones via video chat from branch locations—was a revelation. Families face mounting challenges when they try to remain in contact with their incarcerated loved ones: prohibitively expensive phone and video calls, onerous restrictions and physical searches at prisons, the remote locations of the facilities. Even though it has been paused due to the pandemic, a program like TeleStory busts those barriers. It's just one way the BPL helps keep families together when separated by incarceration (lots more information in the podcast)— and further proof that the public library is perhaps America's greatest invention. —Dante A. Ciampaglia