Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University and a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His first book was Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts, and his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, reminds us of the original purposes of public education: to promote equality, to foster effective citizens, to develop human potential, and to bring together a diverse society. Before joining a panel discussion at a Smithsonian/Zócalo “What It Means to Be American” event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston titled, “Do We Still Know How to Be Good Citizens?” he talked about food, living near Puget Sound, and giving Jefferson a better defense.
What’s the favorite place to eat in Bellingham (where you teach at Western Washington University)?
That’s a political question. My favorite place for lunch is Ciao Thyme—they do something called incognito.
Do you have a favorite San Juan island?
I would have a favorite, San Juan Island, but Lummi island in Bellingham Bay blocks my view. It’s the island I see the most.
How often do you get to Canada, just a short drive from you?
Before we had kids we would go pretty regularly. Now we’re trying to get ourselves back to going up to Vancouver more often.
What was the first voluntary association you ever joined?
Probably the Cub Scouts.
What about American higher education makes you craziest?
What makes me craziest is that we want to take something very complex that is about forming thoughtful people and boil it down to something that’s simple and uniform.
Who is your favorite Founding Father?
I have to stand up for Jefferson in these times of Hamilton. We need to stand up for Main Street in this time of Wall Street.
Where do you go to be alone?
Well, not sure this is exactly alone. But I work a lot at the Lettered Streets Coffeehouse.
What salad dressing best describes you?
I’d like to say I’m Thousand Island, but there are some days I have doubts about that.
For you, what does it mean to be American?
I’m an immigrant, so to me being American is to live in a society where being an American is not a part of your genetics or your color, but is something that people can become whether they’re born here or not.