Rock as Ruck

I am stealing this title from an article I read a while back and have long since lost. In the article, the author insisted that there are clear differences between “rock” music — by which he meant nearly all popular music — and “classical” music. The article aroused considerable interest and even passion as people jumped at the opportunity to defend their own taste in music and pillory the intellectual snob who wrote the article, knocking popular music, the music they love. That’s two things we are very good at these days, not listening and shooting the messenger. It’s precisely because we don’t listen very well that popular music is popular, while shooting the messenger is just something we like to do — and it’s easier than responding to what he happens to say. I will return to the issue of our unwillingness (inability?) to listen in a moment. In the meantime, what about the claim that there are important differences between popular music and classical music? I would contend that the claim is well founded.

Popular music, on the whole, is popular for the very same reasons that movies and TV sit-coms are popular: it requires no effort whatever on the spectator’s part. You just sit there and watch or listen. In the case of popular music, it isn’t even necessary to listen. It is often the case that popular music is turned up (loud) and ignored — except by annoyed neighbors or, in the case of cars passing by with the radio on and the windows wide open, people on the street. But popular music is “easy listening,” and depends on fairly simple melodies, repetition and pleasant harmonies attended by pulsating rhythms, usually in the base. Those are the sounds that go right through your head as the car passes on the street with its windows open!

Classical music, on the other hand, has more for the mind to get ahold of. It requires a good ear, memory, and careful listening. That is, it requires an effort — just like fine painting or sculpture. We must meet it half way, at least. As a rule, classical music does not rely on repetition. If there is repetition, it is employed for the sake of developing a musical theme. Classical music can be programmatic, or it can be “pure.” Programmatic music is the sort of music you hear and see pictured in Disney’s Fantasia, or “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by Mussorgsky. Many aestheticians insist that pure, non-programmatic music is the highest expression of art that is possible: it does not refer beyond itself or conjure up images as programmatic music does, or indeed many other art forms do. It demands undivided attention to itself and holds the attention of the spectator by virtue of the qualities the composer has put into it. And hearing all that is going on takes great concentration and an ability to connect themes.

We could say, then, that popular music appeals to the gut, whereas classical music appeals to the head, though that’s a tad simplistic. Some classical music is positively gut-wrenching, while some popular music can be quite sophisticated. We are dealing in generalities here, and I will stuck by my general rule.

To attempt a parallel, let’s consider Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Rockwell referred to himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. And he was right. His paintings were extremely well crafted, but they rely on common, home-spun themes that are downright sentimental: families gathered around the table for a Thanksgiving meal, kids fishing, or old men curled up on a sofa — always with a dog nearby. They were designed to provoke fond memories, not evoke aesthetic responses. They do not reward repeated viewings, and do not require the effort that all real art demands. They are well crafted and Rockwell certainly knew what he was doing — even if he usually worked from photographs (a tip-off). They lack the spontaneity and creativity that a fine painting by Vermeer or Rembrandt does, for example, which seeks to transcend the ordinary. That’s precisely why Rockwell is popular while Vermeer is not. Real art takes a lot of work to be enjoyed fully, and we seem disinclined to make that effort. Accordingly, popular music “sells” while classical music is rapidly passing out of fashion. If you are able to find classical music on iTunes, for example, you usually find it in the form of movements from concertos or symphonies. Rarely do you find the complete works; it’s just too much to ask of busy people. M.P.R. has also taken to playing segments of classical works. And classical CDs are no longer made in this country as they simply don’t sell.

To see the differences between popular and classical music (or art) you need only reflect on what the word “popular” means and ask yourself why something is popular. It is so precisely because it is readily accessible to a great many people who are usually busy doing something else. Popular music — especially country/western music which appeals to pure, unadulterated sentimentality (like Rockwell’s paintings) — is part of the “dumbing down” of America I wrote about in a previous blog. It is a product of the entertainment industry, and is not to be considered art in the true sense of that word.

Is “rock” then “ruck”? It is for those who prefer classical music to popular music, though I know many who like both, for different reasons. One really doesn’t have to choose sides on this issue. It is possible to enjoy popular music of all types, while also wanting to listen to classical music when the mood strikes and the person is willing to make the effort it requires to enjoy it fully.


Is It Porn Or Art?

One of the intriguing questions that arises in aesthetics is how to distinguish art from pornography. How does one determine, for example, that Rubens’ “Sleeping Angelica” is not smut? And if it isn’t, then what about the centerfold in Playboy? Or, again, what about the beautiful woman standing naked next to a bed while giving the camera a “come-hither- look” as she fondles a dildo? Clearly, there are differences, but what are they?

The philosopher Monroe Beardsley wrote an essay toward the end of his life where he addressed the question “what is art?” and he came up with the following definition: “An artwork is something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest.” Let’s unpack this. Keep in mind that Beardsley is the one who coined the term “intentional fallacy,” insisting that we can’t really determine what the artist’s intention is when he or she creates a work of art, so we must look elsewhere to determine what the work is all about. But the word “intention” plays a key role in his definition of the artwork above as we shall see. For now, let’s focus on the key words, the “aesthetic interest”; these words can help us determine whether porn is art.

The nude in the Rubens painting plays a central role in the overall composition of the painting; she is not there to arouse sexual interest. She seems pretty clearly to be there to arouse what Beardsley called the “aesthetic interest.” This notion refers to the response of closely attentive spectators that engages the imagination and arouses the gentler emotions of pleasure and approval; aesthetic interest is attached to the object itself, held there by the ability of the artist to create an object worthy of our full attention. It is clearly different from an erotic arousal which is somewhat violent and generates considerable physiological unrest, which we call “passions,” and which is not intended to hold our attention, but allow it to wander freely elsewhere. Erotic arousal leads to sexual encounters, as a rule. This is not what the Rubens painting is all about. It seems fair to infer this from the painting itself, even to infer what the artist’s “intention” happened to be. The same is true of the beautiful woman holding the dildo: she is there to arouse erotic interests, not aesthetic ones.

However, to be sure, the Rubens’ nude might in a particular case arouse erotic interest in a particular spectator — depending on how hard-up he is! But we are talking about the general rule here, and Rubens was pretty clearly on another tack; the erotic arousal wasn’t what he was going for. We can judge this from looking at the painting as a whole and giving it our full attention. But the adult photographer certainly was going for erotic arousal, and that is a key difference.

The interesting cases are those that lie on the border between the two, so-called “soft-core porn,” that seems to have both an aesthetic and an erotic appeal. In the case of the Playboy foldout, for example, because it appears in a men’s magazine, and the model is posed in provocative ways, the intention seems to be to arouse erotic, not aesthetic interest. But the latter could be the case, because the intention is not as clear as it is in the other two cases discussed above. Thus we are invited to focus on the nature of the “interest” we take in the photograph in this case: is it aesthetic or is it erotic?  And that’s the strength of Beardsley’s definition: it gives us an idea what criteria we should be looking for when we debate the question of porn versus art. Clearly, there are subjective elements in this definition; that cannot be helped. But there are also things we can look for and discuss that are part of our shared world. The issue may not be settled once and for all, but progress can be made toward a solution of the problem. And it helps us to determine what other objects are art and which are not as well. The piece of driftwood on your mantle is art if the one who put it there (the artist) placed it there with the intention to arouse aesthetic interest, to enjoy it for its sensual properties — its texture, color, and shape — for their own sake, and not for anything else. Is your attention drawn toward those properties of the driftwood? If not, should it be? Those are the key questions.

In the case of pornography, then, we ask ourselves, is it beautiful (do we find pleasure in the object itself?) or is is provocative (does it seem intended to arouse passion and lead the spectator’s attention away from itself to other things, such as sexual engagement with the object?) To the extent to which an object seems designed to hold our attention to it itself and hold it fast, it is art. But Beardsley was right to focus on the question of the intention of the artist: it is a key, but not the only one.

The Toilet Bowl

Don’t get me wrong. I sit glued to the TV during the end-of-the-year debacle known as the Bowl Season. I have yet to learn how to watch more than one game at a time, however, try as I might. But, let’s get serious, 35 bowl games in about two weeks is enough to make the head spin and the stomach turn over. The bowl games are now named after their corporate sponsors — how appropriate — and I am waiting for the Kohler/American Standard/Eljer Toilet Bowl to be announced next year. That one I want to watch!

But the “Bowl Season” is just a symptom of something terribly wrong. The collegiate athletic picture in this country smacks of greed, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. I say that as a devoted game-watcher. But, seriously folks, what on earth does this have to do with educating young minds? Apparently it is not about that at all; it’s about fielding a competitive team in basketball of football, keeping the alums happy and the undergrads diverted so they don’t realize that their money is being squandered on what parents mistakenly think is a four-year degree that will give their kids upward mobility. Fiddlesticks! It’s all about having fun and getting into a bowl game — even if your team is 6 and 6, it makes no difference. The point is to get on TV and see your school’s name in lights.There’s money to be made, so don’t let education get in the way. Money for some, at any rate. But it isn’t money that improves the quality of education.

All of which simply confirms Curtler’s Law, which states that the quality of education at a Division I school varies inversely with the success of the football program. And I must add that as  Northwestern alum I worry that they are winning football games recently. It’s not about education: it’s about success on the field. If the money that is now pumped into Division I athletics, especially basketball and football, were spent on academic scholarships, think of the dividends it would pay. But that’s not going to happen, because the temptation to sell the university’s soul for publicity and wealth has been too much for several hundred universities around the country, very few of whom will ever see the money roll in. Just think of poor little cousins trying to keep up — like South Dakota State University.

Things are already rotten in the state of academia all over the country, at every level. But at the Division I level the problem is compounded by this sports mania. At every level, curriculum is incoherent and priorities are skewed and the students themselves,  ill-prepared for study, are busy planning the weekend’s next party. But at the Division I level it’s even worse: faculty are caught up in the publish-or-perish frenzy that directs their attention away from their students; classes are crowded, and students must sit in auditoriums while being taught by graduate assistants who have their own agendas and are therefore unwilling to push the students to do their best. What the large, Division I universities do not need is the distraction of big-time football and the diverting of monies and attention away from what is of central importance to any college or university. In the end, the student is the victim. But never mind. If we are lucky maybe next year we will make it to the Toilet Bowl.


In the delightfully funny “Big Bang Theory” Penny’s boyfriend, Zack, wants to talk with the genius scientists who live across the hall because the thing he loves about science is “there’s no one right answer.” The laugh track cuts in and the “audience” laughs while the four scientists look at one another with dismay. I hate laugh tracks, but while it is a funny moment it is also a bit sad, because Zach’s statement reflects much common opinion today when an alarming number of “educated” people in this country (which group does not, apparently, include Zach) have no idea what science is and what it is not. Just consider: a recent study done at the University of Texas revealed that four in ten public school teachers of biology think that humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time; three out of five adult Americans do not know that DNA governs heredity; and one in four Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth. And most Americans, I dare say, confuse science with technology.

Science is a word that describes a particular method of getting at the truth about our world and the universe in general. It leans on empirical evidence, gathered by the five senses, and/or mathematical proof. Both empirical evidence and mathematical proof are accessible to others in the scientific community and no scientific claim is accepted unless it is verifiable by anyone at any time. This notion of independent verification is key to the scientific method. When the claim was made not long ago that cold fusion had been discovered there was much excitement until it was later shown by other scientists that there were errors in the testing procedure and the claims were proved false. That is also a key: the claims must be open to independent testing and it must be possible to prove them false. If they cannot be proved false, they are accepted as true — subject to further tests.

Evolution is a scientific theory that has been supported again and again by empirical evidence to the point now where it is indisputable fact. But there are those who are convinced that evolution is incompatible with Genesis and either do not want evolution taught in the schools or want it taught alongside of creationism, or what has come to be called “intelligent design” in an attempt to make it sound more respectable. Both of these two views argue that God created the world and the assumption is that He couldn’t have done this if species evolved as scientists contend.

Now there are two things we need to consider: (1) are evolution and creationism compatible? and (2) is creationism science? The answer to the latter question is a resounding “no,” since independent testing is not possible; nor is it possible to prove the theory false. What would even count as a test for this view? But the answer to the first question is “yes,” and that’s why the battle that is going on in the schools is absurd. Both creationism and evolution can be true (for different reasons), since God could have chosen to create animal and plant life through evolution. But since creationism is not science, it should not be taught in the schools: it is a matter of faith, not reason. Thus while students should be taught evolution in science classes, they are also perfectly free to accept creationism on faith.

One is reminded of the medieval battle between reason and faith that went on in the universities and which the Catholic Church attempted in its way to adjudicate. In the end, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his monumental Suma Theologica to reconcile faith and reason, to show that they were perfectly compatible. If there were conflicts, of course, Thomas insisted that faith had the final word. That was where things stood when Galileo ran into the Inquisition and had to recant and allow that the evidence he had about the earth’s motion was merely a theory, since it was in direct conflict with the Bible which speaks of the motion of the sun. Now, except for that 25% exposed by the Texas survey noted above, we now know that Galileo was right, and most regard the Biblical statements as metaphorical — true in their way, but not matters of science.

The same seems to me to be the case with creationism: it may be true in its way, but it most assuredly is not science. And since it is a matter of faith, not reason, it should not be taught in the schools — especially in schools supported by taxes in a country that was founded on the separation of church and state. But it should not be taught in any school as science, which it clearly is not.

Let It All Hang Out.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early-on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Santa Lives!

The story began:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The young father stood in line at the Kmart layaway counter, wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots. With him were three small children.

He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.

“She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,'” recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.”

At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.

Amazing story. Apparently there is a number of similar stories of generosity at KMart stores around the country — with no hidden agendas, apparently. For some reason, the donors seem to focus on that chain (perhaps because KMart is struggling to survive in the contest with Target and Walmart). But whatever the reason, it is heartwarming to know that there are good people who want to do something at this time of year besides open presents.

I must say, I grow in my distaste for what we call “the Christmas spirit,” which seems to me to be antithetical to what a celebration of the birth of Christ should be all about. And when I think of the real need around the world that could be met with such generosity, I do wonder about our priorities. The purchase of toys for American children doesn’t seem to me to be terribly important, in the grand scheme of things. There are people in this country and all over the world who can’t put food on the table at Christmas time or any other time, for that matter. But when I read of this sort of thing it does make the cynic in me take a back seat and just feel good for the kids who will be having a merry Christmas. And perhaps even more gratifying is the thought that there are some very generous people out there who just want to make the world a better place. Let’s hope their generosity doesn’t begin and end at this time of the year.

Christmas Lessons From Iraq

It was never clear why the U.S. decided to invade Iraq — with the support of a coalition of friendly allies to convince the world that this was a group effort. The reported reason was to find “weapons of mass destruction” that Saddam Hussein was said to have hidden somewhere in a back bedroom. But the United Nations couldn’t find them and it was beginning to look like there weren’t any when suddenly George W. Bush decided to go it alone — or almost alone. The conservative thinker George Will insisted at the outset that if the weapons weren’t found this invasion could not be morally justified. As it turns out, of course, there weren’t any and Will was right: there can be no moral justification for our invasion of Iraq.

To make matters worse, the invasion which was supposed to last a few months lasted nine years, cost the lives of nearly 4500 American soldiers, and displaced countless thousands of Iraqi citizens from their homes, including an estimated 600,000 of the 1 million Christians who claimed Iraq as their home. Most of these never came back. And in the midst of the carnage small voices could be heard that this was an absurd venture that would rekindle a civil war between the Shiites and the Sunnis who have been at each others’ throats for countless generations.

Barack Obama captured the Presidency in this country on the wave of considerable opposition to the war in Iraq and with the promise that he would end it and bring the troops home. At last, it seems, he has done that — at least our involvement in that war. But the war goes on, which is to say, the war between the Shiites and the Sunnis, as recent events have shown rather graphically. On Thursday (December 22nd), fourteen bombings were recorded around the major city of Baghdad which killed 69 people and injured 176 others — at last count. These bombings have been credited to fanatics on both sides of what is clearly a centuries-old religious conflict that we stepped right in the middle of when we invaded the country nine years ago.

Whether we liked it or not, Saddam Hussein was keeping the warring factions at bay in Iraq during his reign of terror. At one time he was even an ally of the United States. We may not approve of his way of doing things, which is not that uncommon in that part of the world, but we certainly had no compelling, moral reason to invade his country and bring him to his knees. I must confess, I joined with others in expressing my delight and relief at the time when I heard the world was rid of him. But he wasn’t the reason we went into that country in the first place, and ridding the world of one more tyrant is not our job, nor is it worth the cost in dollars and human life. The end does not justify the means.

We really must reflect on the deeper meaning of these events. Something of value should come from events that cost thousands of lives and countless millions of dollars otherwise wasted on a war that couldn’t be won and we had no business being a part of to begin with. And the deeper meaning is one that comes from what Christmas is really all about: if we cannot learn to love one another, we must learn at least to live with one another. That means tolerating differences and allowing for the fact that we may not be in the best position to decide for other people what is good for them.

Does this mean “it’s all relative” and we are not to be “judgmental”? Not in the least. As moral agents ourselves, we cannot help but judge others, as I have said in previous blogs. We do it all the time — when we pick our friends, for example. But it is one thing to say “Saddam Hussein was an evil man,” and quite another to launch a coalition attack on the man and his people. One can exercise reasonable judgment and still be tolerant of others. And that tolerance becomes a moral imperative when it helps us to avoid harming others, especially the innocent.

Peace On Earth?

Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited and treated as slaves. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that still echoes in the Occupy Wall Street movement: there are still those few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where a friend, one of the few Joe Hill has, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund, and he is another Swede, just like Joe. The difference is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Hill has become bifurcated in his thinking: all issues are black and white. There is no gray. But Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. They give us food for thought at this time of the year when we talk about peace on earth while quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. And while I wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I do recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing the navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the bosses would have sat down and listened to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Some times it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace. But it would do well for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund — especially at this time of the year when we are given to mouthing platitudes about “peace on earth.”

Liberals and Conservatives

I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.”  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.

As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.

My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.

Lowering the Bar

In 1994 the College Board in Princeton, New Jersey — which had been tinkering with test scores for years in order to try to make them more respectable — “took the more dramatic step of simply raising the average test scores by fiat. As a result of the College Board’s decision, the typical score on the math section [of the SATs] will rise by about 20 points, while the typical verbal score will jump 80 points with no improvement in achievement in either area.” This was written (with italics) a year after the “adjustment”  by Charles Sykes in his book Dumbing Down Our Kids.

Some time earlier, in fact, beginning in the early 1970s, the colleges started trashing core requirements on the assumption (false as it turns out) that students were better prepared by the high schools and knew what they needed to learn. Or, more likely, because the faculties at America’s colleges and universities were so narrow in their own areas of specialization they couldn’t answer student challenges when asked why they needed to study such “irrelevant” subjects as history. In any event, the core requirement was reduced or eliminated altogether in many major colleges and the minor colleges soon followed suit. The result, of course, is a rash of miseducated college graduates who know a bit about one subject and practically nothing about anything else.

In the past few years an organization has sprung up in Washington, D.C. called “The American Council of Trustees and Alumni,” headed by Anne Neal who is one pro-active individual determined to reverse the trend. Her group has conducted a number of studies that show how widespread the problem is and make it clear that only a handful of colleges are requiring much in the way of general education. And this in the face of the undeniable fact that the students who now enter college are ill-prepared for college-level work. Even at the so-called prestige colleges (we might say starting with them), students are simply given their heads — except for major requirements, which have tended to increase. The result is a shrinking core requirement — in some cases no core requirement at all — with overblown major requirements and a smattering of elective courses to fill out the undergraduate degree, producing young adults who can barely read, write or figure and who know precious little about much of anything except the material they need to know to pass out of their major.

Neal’s group has had a growing impact as colleges around the country have no idea how to respond to her challenge and alumni are becoming disturbed to think that their diploma may soon be worth less than the paper it is printed on. Whether or not the A.C.T.A. will have any lasting impact remains to be seen. They most assuredly are getting the word out, even in such prestige newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, due in large part to Ms Neal’s tireless enthusiasm. If trustees and alumni finally get sick and tired of the downward spiral which is American education, they can certainly play a role in reversing the trend. If the colleges start to require substantive core courses that enlighten the students and expand their minds, the high schools will have to raise their standards to prepare their students for the more challenging courses they will be required to take in college. And the elementary grades will also have to fall in line or see their students fail later on. This is an unlikely scenario, I admit, but it is the only real hope for American education which seems to be at present struggling to keep its head above the sludge of narrow self-interest, an unwarranted sense of student entitlement, and the illusion that it is preparing its graduates for the real world.