I enjoy falling asleep listening to people much smarter than I am telling me stories about history. 

The blue light from my television set acts as a hindrance to my body shutting down for some serious REM cycles, some smart article from some smart person once informed me. And if I’m to have REM cycles, I should think I would want them as serious as possible. So I turned off the electrik TeeVee and instead started listening to history podcasts as I drifted off into sweet slumber.

Then I discovered iTunes U, and I can safely say, brothers and sisters, things done changed for ol’ Dave DeWitt. 

I remember playing tennis with a friend in the halcyon days of my teenage years and pondering with him between sets whether it would be possible to just go to school forever, earning degree after degree, living a life of the mind. Why not? If Michel de Montaigne could retire to his chateau at age 38 and live out his days in somber reflection, why couldn’t I dedicate my existence to lifelong learning?

As my more practical acquaintance was quick to point out, Montaigne was a French aristocrat born into wealth and prestige, blessed with the inheritance of a proper estate and no small amount of leisure time to spend as he pleased. I, on the other hand, enjoyed exactly none of those advantages, and would have to find my own way in the world, conducting myself by my wits and work ethic in order to earn my daily bread. Racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt I never intended to pay off over the course of many decades simply would not do.

So it goes. Instead I learned a trade – journalism, in fact – and since earning my Bachelor’s of Science degree in that, I have not pursued further higher education.

Which is not to say I’ve given up on my idea of being a lifelong learner. I’ve always had the libraries to engage my autodidactical fancy, and journalism itself provides near endless opportunities for new learning experiences.

One could make a sound argument that if our human existence should be based on personal growth, a dedication to lifelong learning is the only way to satisfy the intellectual component.

Holding this belief as I do, you may imagine the awesome joy that came over me as I discovered that iTunes U offers full audio and video lectures and other course materials from hundreds of colleges and universities across the world.

Is Ohio University on there? You bet it is. OU has two offerings: a Learning Community Seminar, with videos on time management, professional communication, study skills, and a “Fundamentals of Communication” course.

I, however, gravitated toward the Ivy League for one main reason: I wanted to know what they are teaching Ivy League students, many of whom historically grow into positions of immense power within our society.

I’ve downloaded and listened to well over 100 hours of lectures from places like Yale and Harvard on subjects such as ancient Greek history, the early middle ages, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War and reconstruction.

As I was falling asleep the other night, listening to Yale’s David W. Blight (author of “Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee”), I was struck by one particularly relevant passage of his lecture. It astonished me, in fact, because of how clearly this slice of history reflected what’s going on in our society today.

He was speaking on the nativist ‘American Party’ of the 1850s, also known as the “know-nothings.”

The party rose in opposition to a new influx of immigrants. They promised to “purify” America by suppressing the arriving Irish and German Catholics, preying on fears that these immigrants would overwhelm the country, “putting a confessional in every outhouse,” as Blight memorably characterized their bigoted paranoia. 

Fears abounded that these immigrants were flooding the polls with non-citizens and stealing elections. The Know Nothings were right-wing populists, distrustful of expertise, according to historian John Mulkern. They were temperance, and while they did exert some pro-working class  and anti-slavery rhetoric, their highest priority was attacking the civil rights of Catholic immigrants.

Of course, there is one major difference comparing the 1850s American Party to today: None of the “America First,” anti-immigrant, know-nothing bigots of the 1850s were elected President of the United States.

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