Priorities?

A recent news story tells us all we need to know (and then some) about what really matters in American higher education. Here’s how the story begins:

Proving it’s not only small, private, liberal-arts colleges that are susceptible to financial distress, Louisiana State University (LSU) announced that it’s in the midst of drawing up a financial exigency plan.

Bloomberg News, which reported the development, called the plan “equivalent to a college bankruptcy” and noted that it would let LSU fire tenured faculty and restructure its finances.

The Baton Rouge-based university with over 30,000 students is drafting the plan, in part, because the most recently proposed budgetary cuts by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal threaten to severely impact the higher-education system in the state. The governor’s plans would cut the budgets for Louisiana’s colleges and universities to the tune of 82%, according to Bloomberg.

The president and chancellor of LSU, F. King Alexander, stressed the bankruptcy plan was essential since there has been little movement in the state’s legislature to make updates to the budget.

“We don’t say that to scare people,” Alexander was quoted as saying in The Times-Picayune. “Basically, it is how we are going to survive.”

(Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/lsu-is-drafting-a-financial-exigency-plan-2015-4#ixzz3YKJHEFxy)

The economic struggles of small liberal arts colleges are well-known, but this is the first news regarding the financial struggles of a major university and the obvious fact that large universities have so much more fat to trim than do small colleges hardly needs to be mentioned. However, the news that L.S.U. may have to make draconian cut-backs, including the firing of tenured faculty, is a shocker. But it should be read in the context of several salient facts: Les Miles, the L.S.U. football coach makes $4.3 million a year and has 17 assistant coaches whose salaries are almost certainly higher than the tenured faculty who might be dismissed. In addition, like all other major Colleges, L.S.U. is allowed 85 “full-ride” athletic “scholarships.” Assuming that all of these are out-of-state students (which is a fair assumption) this amounts to $325,397.00 per year — just for football.

The “restructuring” may be a bluff on the part of the president, of course, to bring the legislature to heel. But a much bigger bluff would be the threat to drop L.S.U. football — or any of the sixteen sports teams. Now that would get their attention! But, come to think of it, the bluff almost certainly wouldn’t work: the legislators know that L.S.U. would never touch the athletic teams! Tenured faculty for sure, but don’t touch the coaches or the athletics program. They know what really matters in major American colleges and universities — and it’s not education.

Bad News, Good News

There’s actually more good news than bad in this month’s Sierra Magazine. So I thought I would pass it along, starting with the bad news.

BAD NEWS

• Polar bears are moving further North in search of longer-lasting ice.

•A Montana man was fined $30,000 for killing three grizzly bears (which is a bit of both, good and bad).

• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will allow the killing of up to 15 grizzly bears in Wyoming in connection with an elk hunt and livestock grazing.

•The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determining whether the monarch butterfly belongs on the endangered species list.

• Sea lion pups off the California coast are starving in record numbers, apparently because warmer waters are driving their prey to deeper areas farther offshore.

Now for the GOOD NEWS

•Bald Eagles are nesting in New York City.

•President Obama proposes to designate 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness.

•Coal prices have fallen by half since 2011 due to oversupply and reduced demand, especially in China.

• India’s tiger population has increased by a third in the past four years.

• Obama proposed to sharply restrict oil drilling in Arctic waters but takes steps to allow it on the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia. [A political trade-off??]

•President Obama vetoes legislation that would have approved the Keystone XL pipeline.

•Scotland bans fracking.

• Baby tortoises are sighted on the Galapagos’ Pinzon island for the first time in 100 years.

•The Senate voted 98-1 that “climate change is not a hoax.” [But, I dare say there is still a large number who insist the problem is not exacerbated by humans.]

• California broke ground for the nation’s first bullet train.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that the good news each month from the Sierra Club were to increasingly outweigh the bad news? Now THAT would be good news.

DUHHHHH!

You have probable seen this story which simply states the obvious. When will we learn? Or, will we learn?

The onslaught of seismic activity in Oklahoma in recent years has captured the attention of the nation.

State scientists say they have uncovered the root cause of the majority of the state’s earthquakes: the oil and gas industry’s disposal of billions of barrels of water underground. [Italics added]

Now, as the public absorbs this information, Oklahoma’s regulatory bodies are keeping a watchful eye on these disposal wells and planning their next moves.

Link between earthquakes and industry

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) issued its most strongly worded statement yet linking the oil and gas industry to the state’s earthquakes.

State geologist Richard D. Andrews and state seismologist Austin Holland say the spike in earthquakes — particularly in central and north-central areas of the state — is “very unlikely to represent a naturally occurring process.”

“The primary suspected source of triggered seismicity is not from hydraulic fracturing but from the injection/disposal of water associated with oil and gas production,” the report from the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) reads.

The seismicity rate in Oklahoma is about 600 times greater than it was before 2008, around the time dewatering started in the state.

Dreaming Aloud

When I am elected to be Philosopher King, I shall wave my magic wand to clean up some of the mess we are leaving for our children and their children, with special emphasis on the following:

1. Immediate cessation of fracking.

2. Promote the development of alternative energy with tax subsidies (commensurable with the ones currently enjoyed by Big Oil), including solar, wind,    and the tides.

3. Eliminate tax subsidies for oil exploration and development (shift them to #2).

4. Fund research into desalination methods to convert sea water into potable water for human and animal consumption and use in agriculture.

5. Tax the wealthy proportionally and reduce “defense” spending by half  to raise the money for the above.

6. Raise the minimum wage to $15.00 to help restore the middle class.

7. Mandate federal tax penalties on all families for any children beyond two to encourage “zero population growth.” Tax breaks for childless couples or those with only one child.

8. Restore, on a permanent basis, international family planning programs that have twice been eliminated by Republican administrations.

9. Eliminate teachers colleges and all certification requirements for teachers. Require all teachers to take a solid core of liberal arts courses and a legitimate academic major with a fifth year as an intern working with an experienced teacher.

10. Raise starting teacher’s salaries by at least 50% to attract the best and the brightest.

11. Disallow all electronic toys in schools, except computers, and require writing, reading, and memorization of such things as poetry and the multiplication tables.

12. Predicate all wages and salaries in all lines of work on years of schooling to encourage students to remain in school and pay attention.

13.Eliminate all donations above $100.00 in political elections and eradicate all lobbying by special interests at the state and federal levels.

14. Implement term limits in all public offices at the state and federal levels.

Well, I can dream, can’t I??

All Body and No Mind

In a recent comment to one of my posts, my friend BTG recounts a study done not long ago that pointed out a key difference between young people in 1950 and in 2000. Recall that in 2000 we were already into the age of the “millennials,” those young people that are unduly preoccupied with themselves. In fact, the study showed that in 1950 12% of the young thought they were “important.” In 2000 that percentage grew to 84%. This is an astonishing statistic and worthy of serious reflection.

Much has been made about the fact that our generation is passing along a world to the younger generation that has even more problems than we faced and failed to address. No doubt this is true. They will be forced to address those problems if they are to survive. This sounds like hyperbole to those who dismiss global warming as just another cycle that the earth has seen for thousands of years and who insist that humans are in no way responsible for those radical changes that are now affecting our weather, melting the ice caps, burning up huge areas of dried-up forest, thawing the permafrost, and drowning islands in the Pacific. These are serious problems and whether our generation can be blamed for all of them is a moot question which will become increasing irrelevant as those who survive us struggle to deal with them. And eventually they will be forced to deal with them. That much we know.

And yet, if these people think the only thing that matters is their very own self, and if they become increasingly unable to use the left half of their brains which does the thinking, we can predict that a collision is inevitable. The problems cannot be solved if they are never addressed or when addressed are dealt with by a generation of people whose only interest is in their own comings and goings, who do not know how to anticipate, imagine, or plan.

I have blogged (some would say endlessly) about the “self-esteem” movement in our schools and homes. Given the growing body of clinical evidence, there is no question that this movement has contributed to the millennialists’ preoccupation with themselves. The movement insists that self-esteem can be developed and nourished only by telling the young, whether deserved or not, that they are wonderful and that the things they do are truly marvelous. That this tactic does not work has also been shown to be a mistake in those clinical studies that reveal the fact — known to common sense — that self-esteem can only be developed and nourished by honest appraisal that follows from hard word and genuine achievement. In a word, telling Johnny he has done a great job when you and he both know full well he did not only confuses Johnny and does not build his self-esteem. But it does reinforce the notion in Johnny’s mind that he is the most important thing in the world. This is not a good thing and leads to the age of entitlement that we now find ourselves immersed in. Johnny is sure to be faced with immense problems and he is not likely to be the least bit interested; and if he manages to attend to those problems he will be unable to think his way through to possible solutions, because nothing much has been demanded of him throughout his school years. This has already begun to happen as any one who has paid attention to recent developments, especially in this country, can attest.

A few months ago I quoted Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel in which he tries to come to grips with the forces that have brought us to where we are at this point in history. He talks about the intelligence of the so-called “primitive” people who must daily solve practical problems in order to simply survive, while we moderns ignore those problems, convinced they are not real problems or if they are someone else will solve them. He notes in this regard that

“. . .there is a . . . reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

This observation reinforces the claims that I, along with many others, have made about the problems we will increasingly face and be unable to solve. My concern with the self-esteem movement, which in itself may seem trivial, is rooted in this same concern: how will self-absorbed minds atrophied like ours are becoming be able to deal with real-life problems of survival which are increasingly complex and pressing?

Ironically, Thomas Jefferson, of all people, characterized such minds centuries ago when he was remarking about aristocratic people, whom he held in very low regard — such people as kings and their courtiers:

“Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, a stable, or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in  sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind. . .”

In my view this is why a good education is so important. The average person today lives the life of the kings and courtiers of Jefferson’s day. And they all have electronic toys — as was  made clear in a photo going the rounds on Facebook in which a dozen teenagers are sitting in a museum in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” texting. Every single one of them is attending only to the toy in his or her hands and ignoring the beauty around them — and each other. Our kids are becoming “all body and no mind” and this does not bode well for a future when these folks will be faced with problems we can only now begin to imagine.

To Tell The Truth

In several of my comments on posts by my friends Barney and BTG I have been circling around an issue that I think deserves expansion. It has to do with one of the central problems we face as a nation and as a human race, if that doesn’t sound like hyperbole. And it has to do with our increasing inability to tell (and recognize) the truth. On ESPN, for example, we hear about a “six pax of cold-hard facts” which turn out to be a load of opinions that amount to little and certainly should not be confused with facts — unless you can say that Jackson held the opinion that the Jets would be a terrific team this year. That may be a fact, but when Jackson says the Jets will be awesome, that’s his opinion .

Most of the problems that Barney and BTG write about are serious problems, such as the drought in California and the determination of the legislature there to continue to endorse fracking, which both he and BTG have written about eloquently and persuasively: it is madness. It is madness on a normal day, but when water is becoming increasingly precious it is double-madness. But there are other serious problems we face as a nation and as a people who seem determined to follow one another blindly off a cliff into oblivion. And, it strikes me, it comes down to two things: (1) overpopulation, which I consider the core problem at the heart of all the rest. and (2) education, which I go on and on about for a reason. If we cannot use our minds to think our way through these problems we are in serious do-do, especially if we hope to feed, and provide air to breathe and water to drink, the numberless mouths we seem determined to continue to produce.

One of the obvious signs that we are losing our ability to think is not only our inability to differentiate between facts and opinions, as noted above, but our inability to recognize the truth when it is staring us in the face. We are inundated with information from all sides and people make claims that we suspect are bloat and rhetoric, but have no grounds for rejecting. So we simply accept comfortable claims, the path of least resistance. On the contrary, we need to be suspicious of all we hear, but we also need to be able to recognize that when a scientist, let us say, who is operating within his or her domain of expertise tells us that the earth is in serious danger we need to listen and take appropriate action. This assumes that we can recognize experts when we see and hear them and that we can think our way to appropriate action when necessary. But the first step is to accept as true those facts that are undeniably true despite the fact that we find them terribly confusing or even deeply disturbing. As BTG tells us, we must beware of cognitive dissonance.

We are not in position to know everything. We need to rely on experts for many things from medical advice, to accepting the bad news from our mechanic about why our car engine goes “clunk.” And this means that we need to be able to differentiate between genuine experts and those who just pretend to be experts. This is no small order. There is a host of folks out there who claim to be experts; my rule of thumb is to suspect the lot of them and listen only when I know that the expert knows what he or she is talking about. For example, I listen when a geologist tells me that earthquakes in Oklahoma are becoming increasingly numerous, and I listen when he presents the evidence that suggests that fracking is almost certainly the cause of those earthquakes. And I tend to reject out of hand anything I hear on Fox News, just as a matter of principle.

We need to know whom to listen to and when to pay attention. We need to have a healthy skepticism and a suspicious attitude toward those who merely pretend to know. A good clue is to ask whether the speaker has a “hidden agenda.” If the “scientist” on TV wearing the white smock is being paid by Gulf Oil I suspect he is not telling me the truth. If he works at Cal Tech and is trying to live on a faculty salary, then he might have something worth hearing — even if we don’t particularly like what he is saying. The truth is not determined by what we like to hear and read. It is determined by evidence provided by impartial sources and tested by others who have no axe to grind.

Mental Health

A recent story about the spate of suicides at Tulane University raises several important questions. As the story tells us, in part,

No college is immune. The problem is growing, and it’s universal. Universities are welcoming a generation of students who are more anxious than ever, and who appear to be cracking under the weight of the growing pressure to get into a good college and then to pay for it. Society burdens kids with this pressure, and then sends them off to college to deal with it. At the heart of the wrenching debate is a touchy question: How much responsibility do colleges really bear for the psychological well-being of their students?

The question at the end seems to be the central one. But let’s take a look at the suggestion — which we hear a great deal — that today’s students are under more pressure than their predecessors. As one who has been connected with academia for the vast majority of his life, I have made the claim, which I stand by, that students have always been under pressure. Indeed, one could argue students were under even more pressure before the average grade became an A-. Previous generations had to meet much more stringent academic standards, most had to work their way through college and face such things as the draft. In a word, there was a great deal of pressure to succeed. In fact, there were frequent suicides in colleges that were  explained on the grounds that the students feel anxious because of the pressure to get good grades in competition with other students who are as bright or even brighter than they are. In high school this was not the case because high schools have a much broader spectrum of students, the bright students tending to feel less competition.

Whatever the case may be, it’s a moot question whether there have been more suicides in colleges and universities recently. But if we allow that the problem has grown, it does seem to me that this simply reflects an anxious age in which suicide in our culture as a whole is doubtless more frequent than it may have been in past years. For one thing, there are more people on earth now than ever before: it is becoming very crowded and the pace of life is faster than ever. For another thing in this country, at least, corporate agendas have taken priority in Washington and as a result the problems that increasing numbers of folks are becoming aware of, including the bright college students, are being largely ignored by those we elect to address them. This surely adds to the stress. And with families struggling to pay the bills, the kids growing up tend to be ignored and must feel a lack of connection with those they love. This increases the anxiety levels as well. So it’s not just college students who feel the pressure.

But the question at the end of the story above is central to the discussion. How much responsibility do the colleges bear to solve this problem? To what extent are they responsible for the “psychological well-being of their students?” I once argued that colleges are only responsible for training young minds, setting them free from prejudice and stupidity in preparation for a chaotic and ever-changing world. The family and the church mold character. I still maintain that, since I have seen what happens when the colleges start to address social problems and their sense of purpose becomes fragmented: they lose their focus and in trying to do everything they do nothing well.

I still maintain that their primary focus should be on training young minds. I would also add that no matter how busy they are, parents should be more involved in the lives of their children and many of these anxieties could be dealt with before they become mental health issues. And our churches should do more to attract young people who are staying away in droves. At the same time, colleges should assuredly be aware that the students feel pressures and there should be professionals available for counseling. But this concern must be secondary for the reasons given above: colleges and universities cannot be all things to all people. They cannot solve all of our society’s problems. But they can address them by training young minds to deal with those problems in new and creative ways. That is what colleges and universities are designed to do and what they do best — when they remain focused on their central purpose.

Aboard The Titanic

I am working my way through another of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels, titled Flight Behavior. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours, her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters, Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned, “For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.” Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.

Poor Loser

After the recent upset of Kentucky’s basketball team by the University of Wisconsin, one of the Kentucky players was heard to mutter a racial slur under his breath. While the slur was barely heard, it was the most highlighted moment of the interview — perhaps the game itself, as the following story suggests:

An open microphone and a frustrated Andrew Harrison made for a dangerous combination Saturday night.

When a reporter asked Karl-Anthony Towns what made Frank Kaminsky so difficult to defend in Wisconsin’s 71-64 victory over the previously undefeated Wildcats, Harrison appeared to mutter “F— that N—-” under his breath at the mention of the Badgers forward. Harrison tweeted an apology early Tuesday morning and said he’d spoken to Kaminsky.

There are several points I would make about this incident. To begin with, we are reluctant to say this Harrison was simply “wrong” to make the comment, excusing him on the grounds that he was “emotional,” “young,” “upset,” “thought he was off camera,” or whatever. One of the few I heard who actually said the man was wrong was Stephen A. Smith who reports for ESPN. But immediately afterwards Smith denied that it was a racial slur, though it would have been if Kaminsky had said it about Harrison. There’s your double standard: the “N word” is OK if used by blacks among themselves or toward a white player, but not if a white player uses it in reference to a black player.  The obvious profanity was ignored. Why do we make excuses for people instead of admitting that what they did was wrong and shouldn’t occur again? And why do we insist upon using a double standard to excuse what we know is simply wrong? Because, we are told, that would be “judgmental.” Fiddlesticks.

But if we take a step back and look at the larger picture, we must ask why a reporter on the air is not allowed to say or print what we now call “the N word.” It is offensive. I get that. But Bertrand Russell made an important linguistic distinction years ago between” use” and “mention.” If I use the word “bald,” as in “George Costanza is bald,” that differs from my mentioning the word as when I say, “Curtler just wrote that Costanza is ‘bald.'” In the latter case, the word gets inverted commas and we know that it is being mentioned, not used. The question I have is why in this politically correct age even the mention of “the N word” is considered offensive? I can see it if the word is used, though I would say it is offensive no matter who uses it.

But when a reporter has to continue to talk about “the N word” or print a bunch of spaces in the word (even though we know perfectly well what is missing!) then language takes a hit. And heaven knows our language has taken innumerable hits of late. We begin to realize we are reading or hearing a garbled report about an event that many regarded as important enough to talk about on a national network. In short, we have become so paranoid about certain words that even the mention of them is regarded as offensive. As a result, we skirt around the word and end up with a garbled report that is simply confusing. In fact, I heard this story several times before I learned what the words were that Harrison used — and I had to read the above story to learn that.

In itself it is not a big deal. In fact, it is a small deal. But as a reflection of an age that has become tongue-tied trying not to offend anyone, we have diminished our vocabulary and rendered communication problematic. And given that we think in words, this is a big deal. Words can be used and when used are, given the context, at times offensive. But when they are merely mentioned they should not be found offensive since they are not directed at anyone in particular and are employed to help us understand what is going on around us. And we need all the help we can get!

Good News!

It may be a small step, but Syracuse University announced today that they will divest over $1 billion in fossil fuels and invest only in clean energy in the future. This announcement came after two years of protest by students at the university. This is great news for two reasons: (1) It gives a boost to the clean energy movement. And (2) it shows that not all college students are wasting their time drinking and attending sporting events; young people who pull together for a higher purpose can have an effect.  I am delighted by both (all three?) of these facts.

Oh, yes. More good news: France has announced that all new construction must have solar collectors or gardens on the roofs!! You see, all news is not bad news. It’s just the news the entertainment industry chooses to provide us with!