Newer, Not Better

In an article posted on Linkedin recently, the University of Phoenix was touting new “delivery systems” on the internet that will soon displace traditional learning “systems,” driving many marginal colleges and universities out of business. The only thing standing in the way, according to the article, are the accrediting agencies. Students want credits that will transfer from one institution to another and on-line courses do not, at present, transfer. But on-line colleges will soon find a way around the snag, the article promises.

One of the professors featured in the article is a tenured professor at Stanford who has given up his teaching position at that University to offer classes full-time on the internet. According to the article, “Sebastian Thrun, who retains a role at Stanford as a research professor, said he had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. ‘Professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ Thrun said in a presentation at digital conference in Munich, Germany.”

I have a couple of problems with this contention, though I do feel there is considerable truth in it as more and more “non-traditional” students will opt for the internet as an easier (and cheaper) way to earn college credits. The traditional students will continue to go to college for fun, as they do now, as long as their parents can send them. But, I wonder, is this really about education? I honestly do not see that the new way is better — unless we collapse the distinction between information and education completely. If we mean by education simply “information,” then the internet is a great tool. But if the student is seriously interested in getting an education rather than simply collecting college credits, the best way may indeed be “the same way they taught a thousand years ago.” I cannot imagine a better way to engage young minds and stretch them to new dimensions than sitting around a table with a small group of like-minded students and a great teacher. Does anyone really think they can improve on the Socratic method of learning? Get serious.

As I have said many times, the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to make them free. Information alone cannot do that, though it is a first step. There must be an active engagement with that information that results in real thought: one must not simply collect information, one must also learn how to process the information. The computer cannot teach that.

The University of Phoenix, and the other on-line colleges will doubtless replace many borderline colleges that are now struggling to survive. The costs of education are climbing exponentially and many students will be forced to fall by the wayside and will doubtless opt for the easy and cheaper way. But don’t for a minute think these people are getting an education. They are not.

As it happens, many in our colleges paying through their teeth for a “quality education” aren’t getting one either. However, there is always the hope that at some point the colleges and universities will wake up to their real purpose — which is not to provide students with “the best years of their lives,” but to engage their minds and help them achieve true freedom so they can become seriously committed citizens of this democracy and, oh yes, also successful professionals who both want to do well and to do good.

It’s not all about collecting credits. And accreditation is not the only thing standing in the way of on-line colleges. There’s also the matter of serious dialogue among several minds seeking answers to perplexing questions. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are those that cannot be answered. Computers don’t know what those questions are. Good teachers do. And that’s where education really starts.

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Gay By Choice?

“Cynthia Nixon learned the hard way this week that when it comes to gay civil rights, the personal is always political. Very political.”

So the story begins. It goes on to point out that Cynthia Nixon has been pilloried by the gay community for claiming that she is gay by choice, not by genetic disposition. Good grief! One would think that the gay community would gladly welcome one who is in sympathy with their sexual preferences  — or, more to the point, a well-known personage who is outspoken about being gay herself. But not so.

Apparently, there are those in the gay community who think that by saying she is gay by choice she will lead many to think that one can simply choose to be gay — or to cease to be gay. I can understand this, as it is certainly the case that many of those in the “straight” camp who fear gays make the claim that is is simply a matter of choice and therefore those who choose to be gay should choose not to be gay  (at the risk of becoming like their critics, of course).

But at the same time, as Nixon herself points out, those in the gay community should rejoice that a person of her standing would openly embrace their life-style and not remain in the closet pretending to be something she is not. In other words, what difference does it make why a person is gay — or straight? Whether it is a matter of choice or a matter of genetics or a matter of conditioning, or a magic wand, it matters not a whit. Those without, and especially those within, the group should realize that this is all about opening the minds of up-tight people to the issue of sexual preference. It’s part of our world and has been since the beginning. One would hope greater understanding will lead to less fear and wider acceptance. In this case, the end does justify the means.

The interesting thing about the story is the thought that being liberal no more means being tolerant than being conservative means being narrow-minded. I assume that most of those in the gay community are liberal,  but we tend to simplify things by identifying such notions as “liberal” and “tolerant,”  “conservative” and “narrow-minded” when, in fact, there is no necessary connection among these terms whatever. We can only say some liberal people are tolerant, some are not. Some in the gay community are liberal, some are not. Further, some conservative people are intolerant while others are not — assuming that we know what it is that defines a “conservative,” or a “liberal.” Once again, it is a matter of “showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” We need to define our terms and then proceed from there. My sense of things here is that any generalization in this case is questionable because we are talking about people and they hold different ideologies and embrace differing life-styles, for various reasons.

“I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here. It matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not,” Nixon told the Times about her decision. Hear! Hear! One would think the gay community should be all about tolerance. One would think. Cynthia Nixon’s declarations about her sexual preferences most assuredly should not be turned into a political issue. This sort of criticism from within the gay camp will close more minds than it opens.

Pot and Kettle

A new Gingrich television ad in Florida asked: “What kind of man would mislead, distort and deceive just to win an election?” The answer is “Milt Romney,” Gingrich’s major opponent for the Presidential nomination who seems to have Newt on the ropes in Florida. We might expect the ad to have come from the Romney camp! 

For those of us who are not irony impaired, this quote takes the cake. The man who seemed to be taking pages out of Goebbel’s manual of instruction as he brought political discourse to a new low criticizes his opponent for deception and distortion. This is indeed the pot calling the kettle black. But name-calling and hypocrisy are nothing new in politics, as we know. They go back to the beginnings of politics in this country and we inherited the practice from ancient Athens, though the Greeks didn’t have popular elections as we do now. In any event, they are the ones who invented the notion of “civic virtue,” so we can guess their politics were a bit more sedate than ours. The English also know how to throw around the nasty epithets during their elections. But they always seem to manage to spice them up with wit and even with charm, not to mention a deep sense of history. And the combatants would usually end up going to the pub for a pint after it was all over. And while in this country political contests have always been hot and heavy, there seemed to be a line between nasty and vicious that was never crossed — until Newt. Gingrich has indeed removed all restraint from political discourse during his long political life, and one wonders why he doesn’t applaud his opponent for learning from the master.

But there are a number of ironies in this political year besides Gingrich complaining about his opponent’s tactics. To begin with, we have an American president who is happily married with two lovely children. One of his opponents is a divorced man whose former wife has stated in public that the man should never be elected president. Yes, it’s Gingrich again who is running as a member of the party that stands for “family values,” whatever that means. Indeed, after Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich the phrase begins to lose all meaning. Whatever they were once meant to convey, the words “family values” clearly no longer stand against multiple marriage, deception, and illegitimate children in one’s immediate family.

One gets the feeling we are in for a long and ugly fight for the Presidency in this country. Again. But this time, the limits on corporate spending have been lifted and the money will really start to flow in both directions as the election nears. Taking the cap off political spending will simply give the wealthy more power. And those of us who just want to watch TV uninterrupted and have a little peace of mind will just have to endure the noise and mud-slinging. The mute will help, but it doesn’t make the problem go away.

One gets the feeling that much of the incivility we hear in political debates simply echoes the “discussions” on TV involving sports analysts and news reporters, the “talking heads” who seem to be in a contest with one another to see who can shout the loudest. Pardon the interruption. Fiddlesticks! That would be civil discourse and that disappeared with black and white TV. We now have a new world of bare-knuckles political battering and it will be ugly. The one pleasant thought is that Newt Gingrich seems to be on his way out and we may not have to listen to him much longer. That would be a good thing.

Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his “players’ box” and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, turns his eyes skyward and points to God after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he, too, pumps his fist and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who routinely threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his Grand Slam wins with a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. Presumably it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. If one dares to complain about the show of raw emotion  (the rawer the better) one is considered a bit of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL??)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron. It’s about telling the truth. And we know that sports is just like everything else in this culture: we tell people what we want them to know. Nothing more.

Just consider the cover-up culture which I have discussed in an earlier blog: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on before and after the  big game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. And besides, everyone else is doing it. In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” We commit it all the time.

So don’t let me hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car salesman, sports is only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — right there with the athlete who takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle. It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells his opponent that his shot was in, even though it costs him the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like several of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are not always pleasant. It is frequently very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.

Effecting Change

Generally speaking, radical change, if it occurs at all, comes from the top down. It is rare that those at the bottom of the food chain are able to effect meaningful change. There are exceptions, of course, as in the case of revolutions. But after their revolution,  the French would probably point out that the rascals who take over often exhibit the same qualities as the rascals who have been chased out. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It doesn’t seem to matter who holds the reins of power, they tend to choke those at the other end.

My good friend Dana Yost made an excellent suggestion recently about how to change the mess that is college football, where corruption is absolute and greed is the name of the game. He suggested that the NCAA be scrapped and that limits be placed on coaches’ salaries — at least in the public schools. This would be an excellent start, but unfortunately this won’t happen. And it won’t happen because the only people who can effect real change in this situation are those in power and they don’t want to cut off their noses to spite their faces. Or the change could be mandated by government. But that won’t happen either, because elected officials owe their place on the public dole to the wealthy power-brokers who will resist change. The NCAA has considerable political clout. And in this case politicians are smart enough (barely) to know you don’t mess with sports in this country. It’s tantamount to messing with religion.

Solutions are sometimes so easy to see, not only in the case of collegiate football, but also in the case of the mess in our public schools, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions. It is quite clear that radical change is in order — elimination of the education bureaucracy that has a choke-hold on the system, among other things. But that won’t happen, either. The problem, again, is that those in power are not about to give it up. And only those in power can mandate change. It must come in this case from the top down. The idea that real change can be effected in the schools by reducing teachers’ salaries is positively stupid. Teachers are already underpaid, and that’s a big part of the problem. But while change in the schools is needed is also obvious, it won’t happen, either. The education establishment would have to be eliminated, or greatly reduced, and the only people in a position to do that are the members of the education establishment themselves. One might as well ask the local school superintendent to reduce the number of administrators in his school, or state university boards to reduce their own numbers instead of cutting academic programs. It isn’t going to happen if left up to the people in charge: it diminishes their control. Or, again, we could appeal to the politicians to make change. But the education establishment is powerful enough to exert considerable influence in political circles and politicians are smart enough (barely) to know which hand feeds them.

So, in the end, one must peck away at the fringes and hope that a sufficient number of people become disgusted enough to exert influence on those in power to counter the effects of those with big money who hold the reins. But, short of a revolution, it will take a huge effort to effect any of these changes, if it happens at all. And to make matters worse, there is no guarantee that change, if it comes, will be for the better. Often it is not — as the French will attest, and as we ourselves learned in the 1960s when we saw radical change initiated by the counterculture destroy civility in this country.

Polishing Joe’s Image

Joe Paterno’s death was a sad business. Sad because he was unable to win the fight against cancer, but also because he made a mistake that will certainly tarnish his image evermore. A friend of mine called his life and death an “American tragedy,” tragic because he brought his spiritual suffering upon himself and American because we  place our sports heroes on a pedestal from which they have so far to fall. And we also endow them with a sense of entitlement that is seldom deserved. But there is more to ponder here. In the wake of Joe Paterno’s death we are once again reminded of the growing tendency in this culture not only to turn ordinary folks into tin gods but also to shirk our responsibility.

To be sure, there were things about Paterno that were admirable, and his success as a coach and a supporter of Penn State University are well recorded. He deserves praise for his contributions to the world in which he lived. But our tendency to create a larger-then-life figure out of a man who was clearly flawed — like the rest of us — is somewhat distressing. ESPN spent the day of the man’s death polishing his image so bright that it blinds us to the man’s flaws: the man could do no wrong. This is a kind of dishonesty that flies in the face of one of the few values our culture is proud of embracing. Further, the attempt by some of his supporters to place blame on the Board of Governors at Penn State for firing Paterno after his refusal to take action against Sandusky in the recent scandal that rocked the university and the college world, or to blame the “media” for covering the scandal and throwing mud on Paterno’s image — whether or not is was well deserved — is disquieting.

In the end, Paterno looked the other way as one of his favorite coaches abused a child. After all is said and done, that fact remains a part of the man’s legacy. He himself was apparently willing to accept responsibility for his action — or lack of action. After all, the religion he practiced recognizes sins of omission as well as sins of commission. But a number of his supporters want to cast the blame on the world that responded to that wrong as though Joe Paterno himself was blameless, despite the immense power he had at Penn State and his knowledge of what was going on in his own locker room. Such a deed needs to be uncovered and we need to learn from it.

The actions of the Board in firing Paterno were entirely appropriate, and the media’s attention to the actions of Sandusky and the surrounding scandal, was also appropriate — though, as usual, the media tend to exaggerate and are given to hype. We need to learn how to place both blame and credit where they belong. And despite the fact that Joe Paterno did many remarkable things during his lifetime, he was also to blame in the Sandusky case, as he was willing to admit. “I should have done more,” might well have been his dying words.

But the tendency of Paterno’s supporters to find fault with everyone but Paterno himself is our culture’s tendency as well. We look elsewhere when the blame for our own mistakes lies with us and no one else. It would seem that this is one feature of a culture that refuses to grow up. We cling to youth as though, next to unlimited wealth, it is the only thing worth having, and continue to act like adolescents well into our 60s and 70s. We really are a culture of spoiled children who are used to having things our way and don’t know how to behave when things go wrong. Like the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we immediately look elsewhere to see where we can place the blame. As I say, Paterno was apparently able to accept responsibility for his failure to speak out. Perhaps we should take a page from his book and accept the fact that we are ordinary folks who make mistakes and we need to learn how to accept the responsibility that goes with the freedom we like to brag about. Now that would be a legacy Paterno could be proud of!

Feel-Good Schooling

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I want to return briefly to the problem in our public schools. I have addressed this problem in previous blogs and even suggested remedies for the problems. But I know full well that any suggestions I might make will fall on deaf ears. And that is the issue I want to address.

Until or unless the education establishment admits there is a problem in America’s  public schools, it goes without saying that the problem will go unsolved. There can be no solution if those who are involved see no problem in the first place. And that is clearly the case. I have been in contact with a number of teachers and without exception their posture is one of defense: excuses and rationalizations come tumbling out. I read these same excuses in the articles defending the status quo. There are none so blind as those who will not see, as the saying goes.

Those, like me, who are “outside” the establishment are dismissed because we simply don’t know what’s going on. The fact that I taught for a year at the elementary level and 41 years at the collegiate level and have read any number of books on the subject, in addition to writing one of my own, is deemed irrelevant. I am one of “them.” And unless you are on the inside you simply don’t understand what is going on — what the teachers have to put up with daily, and how they struggle against insuperable odds to open young minds. But I do know these things. I visited enough public school classes to know I couldn’t teach in our public schools. I wouldn’t last a month. I also know there are dedicated teachers out there who perform miracles every day, and exceptional students who go on to lead exemplary lives. But I also know there is a larger problem and it needs to be addressed.

Sad to say, those who dare criticize from within the establishment are not heard, either. I have mentioned Maureen Stout, who wrote an excellent book about The Feel Good Curriculum, subtitled “The Dumbing Down of America’s kids in the name of Self-Esteem.” She taught for years in the public school system in California and now holds a teaching position in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University in Northridge. Her book is a well argued attack on “the self-esteem” movement, which is described as “a radically child-centered, therapeutic model of schooling, which has transformed schools into clinics and teachers into counselors, creating a generation of self-righteous, self-absorbed, underachieving children.” Indeed so. But her book was never on the best-seller list and in the twelve years since its publication it has had no noticeable effect. The establishment simply refuses to listen to criticism.

The educational establishment resembles the A.M.A.in policing itself, a situation that is designed to breed corruption. But in many ways, the educational establishment is worse, because (so far as I know) teachers cannot be sued for malpractice — which is a way of curbing abuse, surely — and they have created a huge and powerful bureaucracy which protects them from political influence that might have meaningful results. The only thing parents can do, as they have done in Wisconsin, is to retaliate against the teachers themselves by reducing their public support. And that is cutting of one’s nose to spite the face. It is not the solution. Teachers need to be paid more, not less. That’s the only way to attract the best and brightest minds to a profession that now attracts students from the bottom third of the colleges and universities, nation-wide.

And, as I have written in an earlier blog, the only way to begin to solve the problem is to eliminate the certification process, thereby crippling the Blob that controls the education establishment, and return schooling to the best teachers, attracted to teaching by the expectation of greater prestige and higher salaries, and then given their heads. But this won’t happen. Indeed, nothing much will happen, unless the establishment, including the teachers themselves, admits there is a problem and opens itself to constructive criticism.

Self-Esteem

Let’s start with an obvious truth: high self-esteem must be earned, it cannot be handed to us. This is a truth that has apparently been lost on educators who have embraced the notion that by simply pouring praise into the heads and hearts of their students, no matter whether they deserve it, their self-esteem will rise and they will perform miracles. Or at least, they will pass their tests and make the teachers look good. This is absurd. Its absurdity was augmented in California not long ago when a school board member was confronted by data that showed that heaping praise on students doesn’t improve their performance one whit. His response: “I don’t care what the data show, I know it works.” Methinks the man is brain-dead. Perhaps he didn’t get enough praise as a child. But unwarranted praise doesn’t improve performance. You know it. I know it. Kids know it, too.

Maureen Stout knows it. And she knows whereof she speaks. Indeed, she has written a book that seeks to undermine the self-esteem movement in the schools. She says, in part, “The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually all aspects of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads [in education], and the most dangerous. But . . . it is not essential. In fact, it doesn’t even make much sense.”  The fact that Ms Stout taught in the public schools for years, holds a PhD in education, and now teaches in one of the prestigious California teaching colleges carries no weight with the education establishment. What she said in her book has been widely ignored. The education establishment doesn’t take kindly to criticism from the outside — or the inside, apparently. The self-esteem movement has taken over the schools.

As a result, as Ms Stout points out, “Schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and paying less attention to academics, which is the core of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated persons who know how to think. This is a radical transformation in the role of schooling.” And it is by no means clear that this transformation is of benefit to the children or society. On the contrary.

Nevertheless, the movement has so much steam that it has passed into the world of the elderly as well — though they worry more about lower self-esteem, which, they are told, is a function of aging. Only by continuing to act young and foolish will they maintain some semblance of their self-esteem. But it’s quite possible, as Wallace Stegner reminds us, that it is society that lowers the self-esteem of the aging, not age in itself. He has a powerful passage in The Spectator Bird that makes the case as only he can. After his narrator receives a questionnaire in the mail he vents as follows:

“Who was ever in doubt that the self-esteem of the elderly declines in this society which indicates in every possible way that it does not value the old in the slightest, finds them an expense and an embarrassment, laughs at their experience, evades their problems, isolates them in hospitals and Sunshine Cities, and generally ignores them except when soliciting their votes or ripping off their handbags and their Social Security checks? And which has a chilling capacity to look straight at them and never see them. The poor old senior citizen has two choices, assuming he is well enough off to have any choices at all. He can retire from that hostile culture to the shore of some shuffleboard court in a balmy climate, or he can shrink in his self-esteem and gradually become the cipher he is constantly reminded he is.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. But it is certainly the case that the elderly don’t get the praise they have earned, while the kids get praise they don’t deserve. Ironic, isn’t it? Maybe by the time today’s kids become elderly their self-esteem will have been boosted so high it can’t be lowered by treating them with disdain. I doubt it. They will feel cheated all over again. Things today, including praise, are simply too easy: nothing costs anything. And we don’t even have to wait until tomorrow to get what we want. This is unhealthy, and it breeds self-contempt, not self-esteem.

Go Figure

In the recent issue of Sports Illustrated in a section they call “Go Figure,” we find the following:

“$240,000 [is the] amount paid by a Wall Street businessman for a 70 foot RV — stocked with prime beef, lobster, and caviar, and staffed with two waitresses, a driver and a chef — to transport him and five other fans 20 hours from New York to Sunday’s Giants-Packers game.”

If the economy were booming this would be hard to fathom; in this economy it is positively obscene. It really doesn’t warrant further comment. But it is certainly worth pondering.

And speaking of obscenities, the same issue contains an editorial that suggests a plan to put some of the huge amounts of money generated by college football to good use. It stops short of the notion that the athletes who generate the money should themselves be paid (as I have proposed elsewhere), but suggests instead that the money be taken away from the “coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, and bowl officials” and doled out to the “destitute communities from which so many of their leading performers come.”  It mentions, almost in passing, that the average football coach at a BCS school today makes $2.1 million. Not a bad day’s pay!

The plan actually comes from Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart who himself recently signed a contract with that university for eight years at $9.6 million, also not a bad day’s pay. As it happens, Smart is wiling to put his money where his mouth is and has given of his time and money to the Richmond area where the university is located. He envisions a tithe system whereby money would be made available for academic scholarships “or a foundation to shore up school districts imperiled by budget cuts.”

It’s an intriguing notion and helps to draw attention the the rotting state the colleges and universities are in that take in huge amounts of money from athletes who now complain they can hardly get by on the amount given them in the form of athletic “scholarships.” In the face of the fact that the NCAA recently met and simply sidestepped the athletes’ request for some sort of assistance, one must suppose that Smart’s suggestion will fall by the wayside.

In addition to tithing, the editorial also endorses a plan to have top-tier NCAA schools  reduce the number of football “scholarships,” cut spending on non-revenue sports, and institute a NCAA football playoff — an idea that’s been “out there” for years and is discussed and dismissed summarily by the football conferences who see it as a reduction in their profits. And there’s the rub: any plan, no matter how sensible, will not fly because it will take money away from those making huge profits from college football and basketball. As I say, it’s obscene, especially since these are supposed to be educational institutions.

The Good Life

Socrates, among others, spent his adult life searching for the Good life. He was convinced in the end that it consisted of the search itself. Needless to say, as a philosopher he prized the life of the mind, and I recall when I was teaching how the students for the most part would dismiss his ideas as totally irrelevant to their own. They didn’t intend to spent their lives thinking about thinking. They had a fixed purpose and it didn’t have anything to do with Socrates or the Good life.

Most of us don’t think about the Good life much because we figure we know that it obviously consists of having as many things as we can and as much fun as possible in the process. We as a society are focused almost obsessively on pleasure and possessions as the only goods. We don’t need any damned philosopher to tell us that his kind of life is the best for us. We know better.

But this sort of focus does really diminish us as human beings, it seems to me. There has to be more to life than simply earning enough money to have more stuff than the Smiths next door while we play in our spare time. For centuries, until quite recently, the earning of money was considered a necessary evil. Usually, it was something that “lower classes” did and it left the “upper classes” time to pursue higher ideals in their leisure time, to reflect and improve themselves through education and travel — not to muddy their hands in the making of money. That was the case for a very long time, and it was reinforced by the Christian view that the poor are blessed and the rich need to give their wealth away. The love of money is, after all, the root of all evil. That idea never caught on, of course, and as more and more people got tangled up in the making of money gaining wealth became acceptable. People like Calvin began to write apologies for wealth-getting, making it not only acceptable, but a sign of God’s favor.

In the confusion that developed during the industrial revolution and the two world wars, people gave less and less credence to strict Christian views and more and more attention to this life, here and now. And money was the way to go. Money could buy happiness. And the notion that we struggle and suffer in this life so we can be rewarded in the next life became a useless fiction. Along with this view went any serious thought about the Good life. It’s simple: the Good life consists in making money, and more is better.

I recently saw a cartoon of a fat man standing at the window looking out at his business empire with his arm around his young son. “One day, son, this will not be enough for you either,” he is saying.  Indeed. We never have enough. That’s the trouble with making wealth the center of one’s whole being. Life as we have come to know it is spent on a treadmill. Perhaps it is time to take a page out of the old philosopher’s notebook and reflect on the deeper meaning of the Good life. It may not be the life of the mind, as Socrates insisted it was. But, surely, it cannot be the shallow life we now prize as the way to live. We confuse “life” with “life-style,” and we adopt a shallow, artificial way of living that takes us away from the things that really matter — like friends, family, beauty, and the preservation of the good earth that sustains us all.