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Critical Curricula, Boss Talks, and Buried National Treasure: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From sea to plastic sea, 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.

Older man wearing a military uniform sits at a table and gestures with his hands


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks during a congressional hearing on June 23, 2021.

Green Beret Leaves Critics Black and Blue

Curriculum controversies erupt all the time in education. Every college and every school district hosts a lot of different classes, taught by a lot of different people, covering all kinds of topics and books and challenging debates. Inevitably college presidents and school superintendents get asked to account for something contentious being taught somewhere in their domains, and they give reassuring answers about looking into it and making sure that students are getting a balanced view of the world. This week, the duty of responding to a curriculum controversy fell to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he took a rather more forceful approach. During a congressional hearing, General Mark Milley—a graduate of both Princeton and the Green Berets—was asked about a West Point class that includes a discussion of “white rage” as part of a unit on systemic racism. His reply is worth reading—or better yet, watching—in full:

I do think it’s important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. The United States Military Academy is a university. And it is important that we train and we understand. And I want to understand White rage. And I’m White. And I want to understand it. So, what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind here, and I do want to analyze it. It’s important that we understand that because our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardians, they come from the American people. So, it is important that the leaders now and in the future do understand it.

I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend? And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, non-commissioned officers of being, quote, woke or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there. That was started at Harvard Law School years ago. And it proposed that there were laws in the United States, antebellum laws prior to the Civil War, that led to a power differential with African Americans, that were 3/4 of a human being, when this country was formed. And then we had a Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation to change it. And we brought it up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took another 100 years to change that. So look, I do want to know. And I respect your service, and you and I are both Green Berets, but I want to know. And it matters to our military and the discipline and cohesion of this military.

Well handled, sir. —Eric Johnson

Bruce Springsteen, on the left, smiles while holding a guitar, and on the right Barack Obama laughs during a recording of their podcast

Rob DeMartin/Spotify

Springsteen? Obama? Podcasting?? The only way this photo can get anymore American is if someone set down an apple pie between the Boss and 44.

Born to Run a Podcast

Despite constant recommendations from friends and colleagues, I’m not a huge podcast fan. My general feeling is that if you’re wearing earbuds you should be escaping into a song. Podcasts sometimes feel too much like homework. But I had some rare time to myself this past weekend so I made an exception for Renegades: Born in the USA, a series of long conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate a country where a history-making former president spends his time reflecting on the meaning of American identity and the future of the country with the New Jersey-born king of arena rock. “Call it the not-so-odd couple, the first Black president and the Boss, two iconic American figures who are presented as being from different backgrounds but are united by a strong belief in their country,” NPR’s Nick Quah said in his review. “The conversations in Renegades are structured around several themes, among them race, money and, of course, music. Some episodes even come with a brief musical performance by Springsteen himself.”

While the podcast overall can be a little meandering—a little sanctimonious, even, given the enormous celebrity wattage of its co-hosts—one of its best moments comes from a musical interlude. Near the end of the last episode, as Obama and Springsteen are talking about their heroes, they wander into a discussion of Lincoln. Obama begins reciting Lincoln’s famous second inauguralWith malice toward none, with charity for all...—as Springsteen offers a harmonica accompaniment. That three minutes of improvised music and rhetoric feels like the reason podcasts exist.  

On some level, the entire series is about American identity. The title borrows from Springsteen’s best-known albums and one of his best-known songs, Born in the USA, which seemed to be blasting from every car radio and boombox during my freshman year of college. As a longtime Springsteen fan, I knew that neither the album nor the title track were patriotic anthems. The cover art has all the hallmarks of Americana, with Bruce in a white t-shirt and Levis in front of a flag backdrop. But even the most cursory listen will tell you that it’s an album of disappointed hopes and bitterness; a cry for better. Renegades certainly doesn’t have the same energy—this isn’t a boombox listen—but it feels driven by the same spirit. Two thoughtful guys who love their country enough to want better, hoping they’ll find the right words to bring others along.  —Stefanie Sanford

Photo of a young woman holding a box overflowing with empty plastic water bottles

Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

I hope your love of overpriced water convenience is worth all the ocean trash!


Our planet and our bodies are 75% water, and oftentimes it feels like our culture is 75% plastic bottles containing that crucial element of life. They're so ubiquitous that the not-so-easily recyclable containers are found with alarming frequency and in ever-growing oceanic plastic patches in some ironic dystopian anthropocene gyre of anti-life. Bottled water is so omnipresent that it's easy to forget that it wasn't always this way—that seeing someone on the street carrying an Evian or Fiji or whatever—made you stop and point (and, if you were like teenage me in the late '90s, snicker and deride). How did this happen? How did we as a species get so hooked on repackaged water? Slate's excellent Decoder Ring podcast tackled this question in its latest episode, with host Willa Paskin tracing this triumph of beverage industry marketing (Aquafina and Dasani are just purified municipal water!) back to the creation of Gatorade in the 1970s and looping in multiple generations of health fads and a cultural move away from drinking water to quench thirst toward addressing the nebulous concept of hydration. "Water has become a solution to the problem of better living, of wellness," Paskin says. "But in this case, it’s a solution to a problem we don’t really have." It's a fascinating 30 minutes of cultural history that feels especially necessary now—not only because of the ecological damage done by all those PET bottles, but also for helping us understand why our cabinets are full-to-bursting with fancy reusable canteens. And it's a great reminder to never forget what Evian is spelled backwards. —Dante A. Ciampaglia

Black and white photo of two men, seen from behind, walking down a dusty road carrying bags and wearing cowboy hats, with a billboard to the right reading "next time try the train relax"

Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress

During the Depression, a lot of people were on the move—and many for reasons they outside their control. The American Guide Series of books was designed to put writers back to work and help Americans reconnect with and learn about their states and cities.

Brother, Can You Spare a Guide?

I love the art that flowed out of the New Deal. My university office is decorated with posters from the Works Progress Administration (“Back to Work —Back to School—Back to Books”) and modern takes on the era’s iconic National Park designs. So of course I loved this Atlantic piece on the quirky travel guides produced by the Federal Writers Project, which paid out-of-work writers to travel around the country and reflect on what they found. The American Guide Series ended up being more like a strange, state-level almanac than a pragmatic tool for trekking across the nation, which is why they still make for fascinating reading. “They guided tourists across the land but also deep into the national character, into a past that was assembled from the mythic and the prosaic, the factual and the farcical,” writes Scott Borchert, author of Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscovery America. “The tours seemed less accessories for motorists than rambling day trips through the unsorted mind of the republic. This shaggy opulence, this Americana maximalism, made the guides unusual.”

I used to find faded copies of the American Guides in used bookstores, and I’d give them as gifts to friends when they moved across the country for new jobs or new relationships. The North Carolina guide, which has a place of honor on my shelves in Chapel Hill, opens this way: “As old William Byrd of Virginia told it, the line between North Carolina and Virginia was drawn across the map with much bickering and boozing.” Who wouldn’t want to drive right into that history? And the description of public attitudes toward the University of North Carolina still rings true eight decades after it was penned: “Sometimes regarded with suspicion, sometimes attacked with bitterness, the university nevertheless is more often held in an almost pathetic affection by the State.” Public higher education will take any kind of affection it can get. —Eric Johnson

Two photos pf Vance Trimble smiling, side by side, the one on the left in black and white and the one on the right in color

Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame (left), Emily Siddiqui/Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame (right)

Journalist Vance H. Trimble seen in the 1970s (left) and at 106.

First-Drafting the American Century

Someone who could have benefitted from the Federal Writers Project was Vance Trimble. He began his journalism career as a cub reporter for the Wewoka Times Democratic when he was a 14-year-old high school student in Okemah, Oklahoma, and estimated that he worked at 25 newspapers during the Great Depression. “It was terrible… and papers were going busted,” he said. “I mean they weren’t going busted but they were rocky. They were retrenching savagely and it was hard to keep a job.” Trimble shared that memory, and many others, with Oklahoma State University for an oral history project—in 2013, when he was 100 years old. He died on June 16, age 107, and while the passing of a centenarian is always for grief at who was lost and celebration for the life led, Trimble’s story is a bit more outsized. As a journalist, Trimble had a front row seat for the American century, living through and chronicling the Depression and World II while exemplifying the necessity of journalism as the nation’s fourth estate. He won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting in 1960, while working for the Scripps-Howard News Alliance, for a series exposing corruption and nepotism in Congress; his 1990 biography of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton sold nearly 700,000; his final book, about Roy Rogers, was published in 2012, when he was 99. He was a reporter, an editor, a designer, an architect, and a witness to perhaps the most electric and consequential periods in human history.

Trimble leaves behind an impressive legacy, but his spirit of modesty and collaboration feels particularly important in an era of hyper-individuality and self-branding, especially among journalists. At the conclusion of his interview with OSU, he was asked what he wanted history to say about him. “Nothing,” Trimble replied. “No, I’m really not kidding. I’ve had too much attention I think, really honestly. It was fun to have people know who you are, and if they know who you are and they help you. If they know who you are and they fight you, that’s not so good, but I only wanted to be known, to be respected, and have help in whatever I was doing.” Godspeed. —Dante A. Ciampaglia