Does that class contain a mix of religious and unaffiliated students?
I thought it would be mixed, because among people born between 1980 and 2000, the rate of unaffiliation is roughly 35 percent. That’s higher than it’s been in two centuries, but it’s not 100 percent. But my entire class is unaffiliated. Some were brought up in a household where there was a religious identity. Some never had one. Some bailed out in high school. It’s a mixed set of roads to a very common destination.
How are the class discussions?
Very interesting. They want to understand the country better, because they’re still a pronounced minority. Even if you’re secular, though, there are all these religious themes we don’t think of as expressly religious: calling somebody a “Good Samaritan,” “apple of my eye,” “brother’s keeper.” Our culture is suffused with that stuff, partly because of the grandeur of the King James Bible.
Since we’re speaking about faith, can you share a little about your own?
I am a lifelong, regular communicant and took my three kids to church every Sunday. One of them is now an Episcopal priest. And I live right around the corner from my new church, Grace Episcopal in Amherst.
What brought you to Amherst?
I got a cold call from [Associate Professor of American Studies] Robert Hayashi, who had heard after the shutting down of Al Jazeera America, where I was doing a daily news show, I would be out of work. I thought it would be nice to try this after I hung up the microphone.
Can you compare and contrast being a reporter and being a teacher?
Well, in that Venn diagram, there's a lot of overlap. You are acting as a proxy. You're packaging information in a way to make it consumable, trying to carve away extraneous elements. You're walking them through a set of inquiries where each new thing stands on the shoulders of what you were talking about before.
When you're on campus, do you think about your own college experience?
Yes and no. I went to New York University in the mid 70’s, and worked all four years at the college radio station, and two years at the newspaper. But I also worked mostly full-time all through college, as a cashier and clerk and hotel worker, in order to pay for it. And that was really less than ideal. I hardly remember those four years. They’re like a blur, because I just worked and slept, slept and worked.
It's such a pleasure to sit across from you right now. I used to watch you with my parents. They chose PBS for its non-incendiary, carefully reported news.
It’s also a pleasure for those of us on the other side of the camera, because the constant pressure to make stories shorter and shorter started to soak into every part of television, and there was constant downward pressure on the length of a story. To be able to have 7 to 11 minutes to tell a story, it was just amazing. At the big networks, it was barely 2 minutes.
What are you writing now?
I’m starting a book about the fight over what the country will be in 2044, when the U.S. Census Bureau says we’ll become a “majority-minority” country. These last couple of years remind us that the notion of this being a white, Christian country is not going to just quietly fold its tent and move on.