False Cause

An informal fallacy that is committed so often it has become part of our daily discourse is called the “post hoc” fallacy, or the “false cause.” The full name is “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” and I used to tell my students to remember that so they could parade the phrase before their parents to convince them that their money was well spent on their kids’ education! (Echoes of Stendhal!) The reasoning goes as follows: since B follows A the latter must be the cause of the former. The natives in Bobka throw virgins in the volcano to appease the volcano gods and the volcano remains calm. Therefore, since we all want the volcano to remain calm, we need to make sure we have a plentiful supply of virgins on hand. Absurd? You bet. But common, especially in politics these days. Consider the following story:

WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Mitt Romney on Friday encouraged young Americans facing bleak job prospects to “take risks” — and even borrow money from their parents — to help improve their economic fortunes.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee noted that the nation’s economy is recovering but blamed President Barack Obama for presiding over the “most anemic and tepid” comeback since the Great Depression. Continuing his recent focus on younger voters, Romney said Obama’s policies are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.

There are so may things wrong with this story one hardly knows where to begin. But let’s take the “false cause” first. Romney has always taken the line that since the economy is weak and Obama is President, therefore Obama is the cause of the weak economy. Now, surely, even he knows this is absurd. The weak economy is the result of multiple factors and the sitting President cannot be singled out, given the fact that he has little to say about the course this country takes with the majority in Congress in the opposing party. Obama hasn’t been able to do much of anything, in fact, much less make the economy worse — or better. The economy is improving, though slowly. But while he is willing to blame Obama for the weak economy in the first place, Mitt is reluctant to credit Obama with the recovery, calling it “anemic.” Sometimes you can’t win for losing. And you’ve got to love the claim that Obama’s policies “are making it harder for college graduates to be successful.” There’s that post hoc fallacy again!

But then Mitt goes on to urge students in college to borrow $20,000.00 from their parents to start a business — like Jimmy John. He forgets that not all American kids have fathers who can cash in a few stocks to send their kid to college, as Mitt’s father did for him. More typical is the American family that has to go into debt to send their children to college in the first place; they cannot afford to cough up $20,000.00 for a 21 year-old kid who may (or may not) be the next millionaire.  Surely, it would be better to address the issues of (a) the growing debt facing college students and (b) the exploding cost of tuition and fees. The two issues are not unrelated. A bill was introduced in the House recently by Rep. Hansen Clarke (HR 4170) that would forgive the student loans. But as Clarke is a Democrat it stands to reason that Mitt would not speak in favor of such a bill even though it might win over some young voters and give the economy a much-needed boost.

Romney mentions “divisiveness” in this speech and he is certainly correct about that. And he is part of  it, as suggested above. The divisiveness in politics these days has positively crippled government, making it impossible to get anything done. There has always been party strife, going back to the founding of this country. But the idea was that the two sides could come together and work out a compromise. As things stand today, the two sides cannot come together because they are loyal to their own party and their corporate sponsors rather than to the nation they are sworn to support. This is a real problem, and it can hardly be laid at the feet of Barack Obama. Or even Mitt Romney. But it is a problem that all politicians should address — though they almost certainly will not.


Return His Ticket?

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he too returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Can Reason Rule?

Pascal tells us that the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing about. David Hume added that reason is a “slave of the passions.” I used to think these men were simply wrong and I resisted their claims because as a philosophy professor I was determined to try to help young men and women think more clearly about complex issues. After all, what’s the point of thinking clearly if, in the end, a person is just going to be ruled by emotion (the “passions.”)?

But as I grow older I have come to the conclusion that these men were right. Ultimately, our decisions — the important ones — are determined not by what we think, but what we feel. We accept or reject claims not based on their reasonableness, but on whether or not they fit into our belief system. (Strictly speaking, our beliefs do not form a “system,” as George Elliot reminded us. They are a rat’s nest of conflicting feelings and hunches mixed together in chaotic fashion to protect us against a fearsome world.)

This is why even though it is certain that there will be an earthquake of mammoth proportions in California along the San Andreas fault, thousands of people insist upon living there. It is why thousands also continue to live in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, even though it is certain that there will be another eruption that will kill thousands. We believe what we want to believe, and while in extreme forms this amounts to denial, for most  of us it amounts to little more than ignoring the facts or looking the other way, keeping reason in neutral while being ruled by their emotions. Don’t hassle me with the facts, I want to live here!

I taught ethics for nearly forty years, including business ethics.  I realized even as I taught those courses that what I was teaching wasn’t really making a huge difference in the lives of my students. In the end I could teach them a few rules and we could discuss ethical principles and methods of approach to ethical issues, deontology or utilitarianism, for example. But in the final analysis, whether or not they did the right thing in a certain situation depended on the kinds of people they were. Hannah Arendt thought it was a matter of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. If a 20-year-old student was dishonest by inclination and character, taking a four-credit course was not going to turn him into an honest man.

In the end, I sided with Aristotle and determined that ethical choices are a matter of character and character is formed early in a person’s life and doesn’t change much as we grow older. But what a course in ethics could do, even business ethics, is to help us sort things out, work through our inclinations and sift through the mud of hunch and prejudice, and determine what ethical principles were at stake and what the best course of action might be in a specific situation. Whether or not in the end the person chooses to do the right thing, again, is a matter of character — or what Hume called “passion — but the path to that decision could be made smoother by careful thought. Reason may be the slave of passion, but without it we grope in the dark and stumble around from notion to hunch and frequently regret later that we didn’t think things through.

There are any number of key issues facing humans today and while it is certainly true that reason cannot dictate what choices we make, it can make clear which paths have been tried before and which are the most likely to prove fruitful in the future. Reason will tell us, for example, that whether or not we accept the fact that the human population is exploding out of control and heading us toward calamity, the continued growth of human populations, taken together with the finite amount of food it is possible for us to produce, will inevitably result in a clash at the intersection of these two trends. The earth has only so much carrying capacity. So even if at present we could solve the problem of starving people in Third World countries by figuring a way to get surplus food to them, at some point it will no longer be a matter of logistics. It will be a human tragedy. Which means, that reason would lead us to the conclusion that if we are to avoid a human calamity on a scale hitherto unseen on this earth, we should plan now and take steps to not only maximize food production and improve delivery systems, but also do what we can to reduce the number of mouths that will have to be fed.

Whether or not we choose to do that will not be determined by logic and reasoning. It will be determined by “passion,” or  “character,” the kind of people we are. But reason certainly demands that we start thinking about it now.

Justifying Torture

A recent Senate study revealed that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the C.I.A. on al Qaeda did not produce measurable benefits in the war on terror. As a story explains, at the start, (Reuters) – A nearly three-year-long investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats is expected to find there is little evidence the harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used on high-value prisoners produced counter-terrorism breakthroughs.

Official sources insist upon using the euphemism for “torture,” which means they don’t want to call a spade a spade. It sounds better if we refer to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, not to mention making people crouch or stretch in stressful positions and slamming detainees against a flexible wall, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some people call this “torture.” Our country chooses elaborate euphemisms. Welcome to “Newspeak.” In any event, whatever we call them, this committee has determined that they didn’t produce any benefits in the war on terror.

There are a number of interesting implications here. To begin with, that argument implies that  if there had been benefits, that is American lives had been saved or bin Laden had been captured or killed as a result of these measures (as Dick Cheney insisted at the time), it would have been justified. The end justifies the means., Machiavelli would be proud.

A second implication is that American lives are more valuable than non-American lives. All persons do not have equal moral value. This is a very serious implication, since it flies in the face of one of the very few sound moral precepts that underlies the fabric of this nation and allows us, from time to time, to claim the “moral high ground.” We can no longer do that if we insist that the lives of Americans are superior to the lives of other people. If all persons are not morally equal, then many, if not all, of the moral “advances” that have been made in recent years — equal rights of all persons regardless of race, color, gender, or creed; laws against discrimination; extension of suffrage, etc. — fall by the wayside.

I honestly do not see how we can morally justify torture, even if we call it something else. It most assuredly defies the Geneva Convention which was supposed to inject some semblance of morality in wartime — if such a thing is possible. Articles 13 to 16, for example, state that prisoners of war must be treated humanely without any adverse discrimination and that their medical needs must be met. But it also lowers us to the level of the people we fight against who also refuse to acknowledge that all persons are morally equal and none can be claimed to have moral privileges. That is the axiom that has been tested in the fires of the war on terrorism and has failed. That is a serious matter indeed.

The one bright note in this dark story is the comment by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who noted that the lack of evidence that torture benefitted this country in its war on terror is not really the issue.  Only days after the commando raid in which bin Laden was killed, Feinstein told journalists: “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and, in my view, nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.” She was right. Nothing justifies them.

Legal Abuse?

The U.S. Supreme Court is in the news again with the decision in the latest case expected to be ideologically based, as usual. In this case. the Court is listening to arguments regarding Arizona’s immigration law that the U.S. Government insists violates federal immigration laws. It would appear the main issue is over states’ rights. Does Arizona have a right to deal with immigrants or is that the purview of the U.S. government?  There are other issues with the law as well, however: its implications are most interesting. On the face of it, the law seems fairly straight-forward.

The law makes it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work or fail to carry proper immigration papers, and also requires police officers to check immigration status and make warrantless arrests for immigration crimes in some cases.

The government’s argument insists that a state (any state) dealing with immigration can interfere with international discussions and possible dealings between this country and its neighbors. What this means, I take it, is that Arizona could foul up relations with Mexico (in this case) and create tensions between the countries. In fact, it could create an international incident. This would appear to be a legitimate concern, but, from what I have read, the U.S. government isn’t making a very strong case — even with the justices who would tend to agree with the government’s position. Perhaps it is time for the federal government to hire some competent attorneys. In any event, the issue of racial profiling and the possible abuses that might arise from it are equally compelling.

On the face of it, the procedure of stopping “suspicious” looking people and asking them for their papers would seem to be fairly straight-forward and makes the rest of us feel safe and cozy in our split-level house in the suburbs.  But it most assuredly is not. Not only does it involve racial profiling, as mentioned. It also raises the specter of a police state with power given to local authorities to stop anyone who seems “suspicious” and detain them for as long as they deem it necessary, even incarcerate them should they “seek work.” Needless to say, there were a number of protesters outside the courthouse worried about the implications of this decision as it bears on all immigrants. What is it again that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty?

At the risk of committing the “slippery slope fallacy,” I do worry that excessive power granted to any police force is a dangerous thing. I would prefer to err on the side of the rights of individuals not to be stopped because they are regarded as “suspicious” by a group of high school graduates wearing police uniforms and carrying guns. The attorneys for Arizona insist that this would not happen, but the law allows it and we know from history that what is possible often becomes the case. This law leaves the door wide open for abuse, a failing humans seem to have in abundance.

 The article alludes to this concern: Justice Anthony Kennedy, generally the court’s swing vote, asked repeatedly about how long someone would be detained while a police officer checked his or her status. “What if it takes two weeks,” to determine someone’s status, he asked. Paul Clement, representing Arizona, said it would take an average of only 11 minutes. Verrilli [for the U.S. government] countered that it takes 70 minutes, when you take into account the hour wait to get through to the federal government’s databases. Surely, Verrilli could have done better than this!  Was he going for laughs? Indeed, the question of how long officials in Arizona could detain “suspicious” people is the key here. And Verrilli could have made a stronger case though, given its recent history, the Court is inclined to rule in favor of Arizona no matter how strong a case the government makes. And it is a good bet that’s what the Court will do.

Frozen Planet

The Discovery Channel is running a series on the effects of climate change on the poles and it has generated some interesting controversy. A recent story includes this most intriguing comment: The vast majority of scientists agree that human activities are influencing changes to the climate — especially at the poles — and believe that the situation requires serious attention. That scientific consensus is absent from “Frozen Planet,” for reasons that shed light on the dilemma of commercial television, where the pursuit of ratings can sometimes clash with the quest for environmental and scientific education, particularly in issues, like global warming, that involve vociferous debate.

In a word, because the Discovery Channel was worried that covering the scientific debate about global warming might damage the ratings, they chose not to mention it, lest it drive potential viewers away. Worse yet, it might drive sponsors away.  People really don’t want to know about such things, which says something about us as a society. And it says something about our commodified culture. Profit drives the machine. If there is information we need to know in order to survive, it will be withheld because we might find it upsetting. Worse yet, we may not watch it at all. As the story quoted above goes on to say, “In private, some people involved in the production said that Discovery and its production partners, including the BBC, were wary of alienating any of the potential audience for “Frozen Planet.” Think about it.

The show is one of the more popular shows to be aired recently on the Discovery Channel averaging 1.1 million viewers for each segment. But as this article suggests, one must wonder if it would be nearly as popular if it did engage in the scientific debate about the causes of the melting of the polar ice caps instead of High Definition film of the fact itself, with polar bears and penguins trying to survive on shrinking ice surfaces We will never know, because the decision-makers (including the BBC!) have decided that we are not mature enough to be asked to think about what it is that is causing this calamity. The President of Discovery Channel defended her decision not to engage in the scientific debate by noting that  “First and foremost, Frozen Planet is a natural history documentary. The series seeks to entice viewers with footage of seals, penguins, polar bears and other animals of the polar regions. Here’s the visual evidence, it asserts, of a warming planet; make of it what you will.” Furthermore, to raise the scientific issues, she noted would have “undermined the strength of an objective documentary.”  She may have been right.  But she was most assuredly wrong to avoid entirely the discussion of possible causes.

Years ago Robert Hutchins expressed his regret about the direction TV was taking. Some time later, Walter Cronkite — who was by no means an academic — echoed Hutchins’ concerns. Here was a tool that many thought invaluable as an educational device, able to inform and provoke thought in millions of viewers at once. And we were witnessing its educational value devolve into mere entertainment, and entertainment of the most mundane variety. In the process, the sponsors took over and focused on delivering their message, which is the only one they cared about because it translated into profits. Education be damned.

It would seem that the same message is being delivered today in the trend in the schools toward vocational training in place of education. I am not a conspiracy theorist, though I am at times tempted to become one. But this does suggest a coherent pattern designed to guarantee that we think as little as possible. We will be shown pictures of the disappearing ice at the top and bottom of the earth, and we will be trained in school to do a job. But you can be damned sure no one will be asked to think about why the ice caps are disappearing, or why we are doing the jobs they ask us to do.

And then we hear complaints (but not very loud ones) about the fact the people running our companies cannot use their minds. They cannot give a coherent and persuasive speech, write a clear memo, or read a document and tell us what it was about. In a word, they cannot do the important things. But if we really cared about that, we would have to see to it that they got a real education, and that might be dangerous. And it would certainly involve raising disturbing questions in the minds of TV audiences.

A Rich Country

In one of his travel notes written in 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote “What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.” He was even then concerned about America’s preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself. The reason wealth interferes with freedom is to be found in the captive nature of avarice as Jefferson saw it. In fact, Aristotle had the same thought a thousand years before Jefferson when he attributed the breakdown of aristocracies to the accumulation of wealth; the aristocracy degenerated into an oligarchy, rule by the rich. The problem, as Aristotle saw it was that the rulers lose sight of the common good out of a growing concern with their own self-interest.

There are lessons here for us to learn, of course, as there are when reading the words of any great mind. And Aristotle and Jefferson were two of the greatest minds that ever lived. We like to think we live in a Democracy, even though the founders saw it as a “Republic” governed by representatives, not the people themselves. The people were not thought to be wise enough to govern themselves, though through education they would at least come to recognize those around them who were worthy of elected office. And some would become well enough educated to lead the others. This is why Jefferson established the University of Virginia: he saw education as essential even in a Republic, because those who remained in school long enough would be recognized as able and elected to office. The cream would rise to the top. Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy” governed by the brightest and best minds the country could produce. Madison tended to agree with him — as he did on so many other issues. The idea is originally Platonic.

But it is clear that, as Aristotle foresaw, our “natural aristocracy” has degenerated into an oligarchy. It has been called a corporate oligarchy (“corporatocracy”) given the fact that those with great wealth are the ones, in fact, who choose those who govern and later tell them how to govern. And the wealthy are clearly preoccupied with their own self-interest in the form of maximum profits. So Aristotle was correct in his notion of what factors lead to the degeneration of an aristocracy, even though he saw an aristocracy in a different light than Jefferson did. And Jefferson was also correct in saying that a rich nation could not long remain a free one. Let me explain.

By world standards ours is a rich country, though it is the top 1% who have the bulk of the wealth. But our conviction that we are one of the freest nations on earth is based on the misperception of what freedom is: that it is a function of the number of choices we have rather than our ability to decide for ourselves what is worth choosing. As long as the wealthy continue to control the governing body, not to mention the media, whereby they divert attention with entertainment and games, we will continue to maintain the illusion that we are free when, in fact, we are not. So Jefferson was indeed correct.

It is not likely that the wealthy will give up their wealth. Thus, if the nation is to regain any semblance of its freedom the only hope is education whereby citizens come to know what freedom is and realize that it does not come down to the number of loaves of bread on the shelves at the local box store, or the number of cars at the dealership. Freedom is a function of knowing which bread is healthy and which cars are the lemons: it is a function of knowledge and the capacity to think about what we know. Job training won’t get us there, though it is what the corporations want us to buy into: it is only through education properly conceived that we can realize this capacity. That is why a liberal education is vital to our political system as originally conceived: it sets us free and keeps us free.

Imagine If You Will

Let’s imagine a bright, fairly wealthy woman in her 40s named Dorothy who decides to go into politics. She has genuine concerns about rising costs of education, global warming, the environment, and the economy. She is a women of strong principles and is convinced that she can help improve her world. In order to run for office, she must attach herself to a political party, of course, since the costs of running a campaign these days are prohibitive — even for a woman who is fairly well-healed as Dorothy happens to be. So, let’s say, she decides to run as a Democrat since she has always tended toward the left a bit and that party seems to be more in sympathy with her concerns.

At this point, we must speculate, but we can make some pretty good guesses: she will have to adopt the party’s agenda as her own, even though she doesn’t agree with all of the items on that agenda. She’s not overly fond of the health care plan the party has endorsed, for example. And their stand on the environment strikes her as weak. But in order to get into the fray, she must accept the party’s agenda. Thus she starts by making a compromise. Or two. Then she meets with wealthy people who want to support her candidacy and as she needs their financial support she agrees to push for several of the items high on their agendas if she is elected. So she makes a few more compromises in order to bring those people along with her.

You get the picture? As she progresses along the path toward election she makes compromises here and there until the agenda she embraces in the end bears little resemblance to the one she started out with. She reasons that once elected she will be able to pursue those things she holds dear. In the meantime, she is focused on her election. As the days and week pass, she begins to realize that once elected she will need to continue to focus on her reelection as that becomes necessary if she wants to remain active in politics. In a word, the election and the reelection become the main focus of Dorothy’s attention and the compromises she has made along the way necessitate that she become a tool of those who have helped her get where she is. Without their assistance, she never would have gotten to first base And she will never get reelected: she owes them all. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Her personal agenda gets swallowed up in the frenzy of becoming elected and then staying in office.

This is a fictional example, of course, but I am convinced there is truth in fiction, even fiction of my own invention.  I suspect this little fiction isn’t far from the truth and if so it would explain why there is so much disenchantment especially among the young about politics in general and disillusionment about certain candidates who have been a disappointment once elected to public office. We now have a breed of professional politicians who are expert at getting elected (and making the compromises necessary to do that) and whose main goal once in office is to remain there. Socrates said long ago that it is not possible for a person to enter the political arena and retain their integrity. I suspect he was right.

Same Old, Same Old

I have blogged about the lack of term limits in the Senate and House of Representatives. Others have expressed their dismay as well. It was clearly an oversight on the part of the framers and was corrected in the case of the President but not in the case of the other national offices. I have also spoken about the fact that the Senate ties the hands of the President and makes it impossible for him or her to do the job. This situation is simply exacerbated by the length of time many of the Senators remain in office.  I stand by my claims in that earlier blog. Henry Adams thought it a blunder of immense proportions and I would have to agree.

There is an obvious case in point as Orin Hatch, Republican Senator from Utah, recently failed in his attempt to win the endorsement in his home state and will have to run in a  primary to regain his senate seat. He’s a good bet to win for the seventh time. The man is 78 years old (which doesn’t seem so old as I approach that age) but it reflects 36 years in the Senate and tremendous power in the form of committee chairmanships. In fact, Hatch stands to be the chair of the Finance Committee if a Republican majority wins in November, which is likely with the economy in the fix it is in.

In any event, a story about Hatch tells us that The senator on the campaign trail has been promoting his potential ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans win a majority in the Senate this November, something he emphasized in his last pitch to delegates gathered here Saturday.

“I’m not impressed by the title and neither should you be,” Hatch said prior to the first round of voting. “But believe me when I say that a strong and experienced chairman can make all the difference in the world,” he added to cheers from the audience.

The man’s a pro. “I’m not saying that it is important to have me in that chairmanship, but believe me it is vital.” This is what we call innuendo, and it is a powerful and persuasive rhetorical tool. It’s something like intellectual slight-of-hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. Clearly, Hatch thinks (a) that the Republicans will achieve a majority again in November, and (b) an experienced Senator like himself will be assured of the chairmanship of an important committee where he will be in a position to benefit those who vote for him. His opponent for the Republican nomination, being new to the job, will not. You gotta love it!

But we should have learned by now not to put much stock in what politicians say and while it is true that a veteran Senator has a much better chance of getting a key chairmanship than a new person, there is every reason to elect new blood into the Senate. The idea that  a man or a woman could remain in such a powerful office for nearly 40 years was never in the minds of the framers of the Constitution, who envisioned a fluid political organization with what Thomas Jefferson called a “rebellion” every 20 years. Though he may have been referring to Shays’ rebellion in 1787 which almost certainly hastened the ratification of the Constitution, he may also have meant a non-violent rebellion, a radical shake-up of the status-quo. This seems likely since in calling for a rebellion every 20 years Jefferson hopes to avoid “lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” He was convinced, as were the others who were in on the founding of our Republic, that there would be change and that change would be a good thing.

As it turns out, of course, the Senate is filled with ancient relics, immensely wealthy men (mostly) who hang on to power like grim death. These days the job pays very well while in the early days it did not when it actually involved personal sacrifice. Perhaps that is why the framers thought people would not stay in office very long. In any event, today’s longevity is not the way it was supposed to be, and I say again that the Constitution is in need of serious revision to accommodate the oversights and the many violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of the framers’ original intentions.


There can be no doubt that the current stress on job training in the schools and colleges is simply the latest face of the anti-intellectualism that has always plagued this country — as noted in the 1830s by de Tocqueville and studied at great length in 1964 by Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-Intellectualism and the American Life. Tocqueville, for example, noted that in America “the spirit of gain is always eager, and the human mind, constantly diverted from the pleasures of imagination and the labors of the intellect, is there swayed by no impulse but the pursuit of wealth.” But Americans didn’t simply turn their collective backs on things intellectual, they also have tended to belittle those who embraced the life of the mind — as Hofstadter showed in great detail.

One of the more insidious features of our anti-intellectualism is the claim that life in the classroom is “unreal.” The real world, it is said, is the workplace where we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We hear people increasingly urging the schools to take the kids out of the classroom and give them “hands-on” experience. This, of course, is nonsense since the “real” world is the one we live in (unless we are demented) and this even includes the ivory tower. We tend to forget that adults need “down time” to reflect and try to figure out what went wrong. And kids need time to learn how to use their minds before we throw them into the turbid waters of the “real world.” We should admire and respect those few in this society who take that time to think before they act. And we should allow that thought and action when properly engaged in may well be two sides of the same coin. Our notions of the “pragmatic” and the “real” are stunted and lead necessarily to mistakes — like global warming or unburied nuclear waste.

A friend of mine has thought about this trend toward the “pragmatic,” the need to get “hands-on” experience in the “real world,” that seeks to take the students out of the classroom where they are supposed to learn to read, write, and figure  and puts them in the workplace where they learn to apprentice a locksmith or a bank manager. He realizes, as I do, how short-sighted this is and how narrow is the notion of “hands-on” that would exclude such things as reading, writing, and mathematics — which are not only necessary for success in a complex world, but are also necessary to succeed as a locksmith or a bank manager. They are also eminently practical. The tendency to see two things such as thought and action as mutually exclusive when, in fact, they are compatible and even mutually complementary is what logicians call “bifurcation.” It is an example of fallacious thinking. Learning to use one’s mind is decidedly practical, and it should not be regarded as something apart from action — certainly not less important.

As my friend says in a note to me,  People who chant “hands-on learning” really mean physical training. And except for very simple procedures, such training can not be divorced from its written guidelines. Can a mechanic reliably recall all tolerances and specifications for all the engines she repairs? No. Can a nurse remember all dose conversions between different measuring systems? Not likely. Can a professor of literature remember every word of all the literature he teaches?” I don’t think so.

Taking the child out of the classroom to give him or her “hands-on” experience implies that classroom time is wasted and that is patently false: it is essential to learning how to cope and how to succeed. We need to consider what it means to place the young among the trees where they will never see the forest while we also discourage them from reflecting on where they are, why they’re there, and where they need to go. “Hands-on” experience makes sense only when it is coupled with time for reflection and a tolerance for what has no immediate cash value. As I have said before, it is precisely the “useless” subjects that are most valuable in the long run. And the time spent in the classroom learning the rudiments of literature, history and mathematics have rewards that go beyond merely making a living.