Double Standard

I must confess that despite the fact that I support affirmative action in principle and realize that innumerable past injustices must be remedied, the playing field made level, and the glass ceiling shattered, I do find myself bothered when I read about a young man who appears to lose out on a job opportunity because he isn’t a woman or a member of a minority. I had a number of students and a son who ran into this sort of reverse discrimination and I was never comfortable with it on an emotional level even though I realized that past wrongs needed to be corrected. There is, however, considerable strength in the argument that today’s young people shouldn’t have to pay a price for the sins of their predecessors. I am happy to see the native people buying back much of their native land with the money they take from gullible white gamblers, but that is a bit different from seeing even deserving women and  people of color get the attention and rewards they deserve and have been denied over the years if there is the least suspicion that there was any sort of discrimination involved in the process. In such cases, there  is always the suspicion that this is not really fair to the people who must step aside in order for others to get ahead. I didn’t like it when it was happening to the minorities and I don’t particularly like it when it happens to those in the majority — though (again) I understand why it happens.

Along these lines I read in the current Sports Illustrated an editorial telling about the dismissal of a black woman coach in Texas for having a sexual affair with one of her athletes while at the same time a white male coach at the same university is reprimanded for having sex with a member of his training staff, forced to take a leave of absence, and then rehired later at a higher salary. The details of the story make it clear that there is a double standard at work here since the two cases are practically identical in most of the particulars; yet the punishment in the two cases is as different as can be: one coach lost her job and the other gets a promotion and a raise in salary. One is a black woman, who was not married at the time, and the other is a white man, who was married and who just happens to have been a star quarterback on the football team — which, in Texas, carries a great deal of weight. The university in question is the University of Texas, reputed to be one of the great academic institutions in the Southern part of this country which is not known for its outstanding academic institutions (though we will find the occasional Duke University, The University of North Carolina, and The University of Virginia which tend to stand out). One would expect more of such exemplary institutions of higher education as the University of Texas.

In the end the matter will be decided in court since the woman who was fired has decided to try to make things right after many years. I am pulling for her with both my head and my heart. I hope she wins and draws attention to the injustice that is so easily recognized. Double standards are always just plain wrong wherever and whenever we find them.

Learning From Great Books

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I would argue that great literature is recognizable because it provides us with insights into the human condition in a way that makes us marvel at the power of words.  I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it.

For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. And the current series on ESPN that seeks to single out the “greatest athlete ever,” comparing such athletes as Roger Federer and Bo Jackson,  is bogus. But those who know the sport know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention. But if we don’t know anything about the sport involved, we cannot separate out the great players. Similarly, if we are not well read we cannot recognize the great books, those that exhibit exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.

I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me  make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. I’ve been to Salisbury and have seen precisely what Forster points out. He is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.

Farmers sit in their twelve-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look beneath its surface for spoils that will make them rich; deforestation in tropical regions leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands for creature comforts, and continue to meet the demands of growing human populations.

Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great writing.

Pioneer Parable

In 1823 James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Pioneers, the first of what came to be called his “Leatherstocking Tales.” The story features the aging Natty Bumpo, a white man more at home in the forest with his Mohican friend Chingachgook than in what was loosely called “civilization.” Cooper tends toward the Romantic and glorifies the native people somewhat, but his tales are one of the first serious attempts by an American intellectual to deal with the problems of an expanding white population and its effects on the wilderness and the native people.

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a fairly lengthy episode in The Pioneers Cooper describes an annual fishing assault by the people of the fictional village Templeton, New York located on the very edge of the wilderness. I call it an assault because it is described that way by Cooper who draws a fascinating contrast between the way the white inhabitants of Templeton net the fish by the thousands and the way Bumpo, accompanied by his native friend, catch their fish. After the eager citizens of Templeton have pulled their straining net to land and unloaded an estimated two thousand fish which they plan to pass around to the villagers, Marmaduke Temple, the founder of Templeton and one of the main characters in the novel, confronts his daughter Elizabeth holding “a bass that might have weighed two pounds, and, after viewing it a moment, in a melancholy musing, [says] ‘This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence. These fish, Bess, which thou seest lying in such piles before thee . . . by tomorrow evening, will be rejected food on the meanest table in Templeton.'”

Elizabeth worries about the waste, since she knows it is not possible for the villagers to eat all of the fish. Most will rot or be eaten by the wild animals. Marmaduke sympathizes with his daughter briefly and then joins the other villagers in their attempt to make a second haul!  As the scene is drawn before us we see in the dwindling light Natty Bumpo appear in a canoe with his friend Chingachgook as they cruise the lake quietly and Natty calmly spears several fish which he plans to take back with him. Marmaduke and the others upon seeing him offer him some of their fish: “Approach, Mohican. . . approach leatherstocking, and load your canoe with the bass. It would be a shame to assail the animals with the spear when such multitudes of victims lie here that will be lost as food for the want of mouths to consume them.” Natty turns him down, “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout when I crave the creatures, but I wouldn’t be helping myself to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries…”

As is so often the case with Cooper’s tales — which were widely read in England and Europe and had a powerful effect on people like Thackeray and even George Eliot — the author has crafted a parable for our times. We can work past the romantically exaggerated picture of the “noble savage” and we will find in the end a tale that tells us a great deal about ourselves, things we may not want to recognize or admit are true. Cooper was one of the first to see clearly the damage we could do to the environment and the wilderness in our voracious attempt to get as much from the earth as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Core Curriculum

In a post I called “A Modest Proposal”  in May of 2012 I suggested that it might be possible to devise a core curriculum that college students could take online prior to enrolling in college to pursue their degree. It is not the best of all possible worlds, because online college courses are known for their high drop-out rates and there is simply no substitute for one-on-one teacher/student engagement in the classroom. But given the fact that the vast majority of our colleges are simply not requiring their students to do much more than wander aimlessly through a maze of elective courses — with no rhyme or reason — coupled with the rising costs of higher education, my proposal seemed the lesser of evils, as it were.

Lo and behold, the group I have referred to in a number of previous blogs, including the blog referred to above, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has proposed precisely the sort of thing I dreamed up nearly a year ago. No, I will not sue for plagiarism! I am not the litigious type. I prefer to think that great minds eventually come to the similar conclusions. Clearly, the condition of higher education — which I have alluded to more times than I care to recall — demands some sort of remedy. And the popularity and lower expense of the internet suggests the wisdom of allowing students to get the basic grounding in substantive courses they require in order to become engaged citizens in an ever-changing world. Major requirements and some elective courses can come later in a two-year program on campus.

The ACTA’s proposal is called “StraighterLine” and it allows students to take six of the seven core courses online they have determined are the sine qua non of an educated person — courses in composition, literature, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science. This curriculum will be available later this year and will soon be followed by a second intermediate-level course in foreign language, thus fulfilling the seven course requirement the ACTA has determined will best serve the students of tomorrow. All courses will be available online at a greatly reduced cost to the student.

Indeed, the seven proposed courses will cost the students less than $2,000.00 and will therefore be very attractive in an era in which costs have skyrocketed and students are graduating with narrow vision  and huge debt. As the ACTA Newsletter said in announcing the program, “The times are changing in higher education. While ACTA’s focus remains on traditional institutions, our message of access, affordability, and quality of education extends to new platforms of learning.” I do not endorse the program without a few qualifications (as one can imagine), but I think it is a huge step in the right direction. I applaud the ACTA for making what I think will turn out to be a vast improvement in American higher education. The faculties of our colleges have fumbled the ball and the ACTA has picked it up and are heading for the goal line. (No, I am not being paid for this endorsement!)

Free From Fear

Stories abound about long-time prisoners who are finally set free and who then commit an illegal act in order to be arrested and sent back to jail. The freedom they have finally achieved scares them and they prefer the security of three meals a day, a place to sleep, and a routine they are familiar with. When the Wall fell separating East and West Berlin there were also reports of people from East Germany who went into a panic because they were suddenly free to make of their lives what they wished. Freedom can be a fearsome thing because it involves both risk and responsibilities and it requires courage and self-confidence to “go it alone.” Freedom varies inversely with fear: the exercise of that freedom demands that we conquer our fear.

We certainly enjoy a great many freedoms in this country. But there are so many people on all sides who are only too happy to tell us how to live — our parents, friends, society at large and, of course, those who would sell us the things we don’t need, including politicians! But in the midst of all these many factors operating on us we still pretty much can come and go as we wish; we can visit the grocery store and marvel at the bounty from which to choose the items we take home to eat — if we have the money with which to make our purchases. That is always the hooker, of course, and there is an increasing number of people in this country who do not have the money to buy what they need to eat and who have no place to live. But the majority of us live relatively comfortable lives, free to come and go as we like and make of our lives what we wish.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, however,  much of this changed. We suddenly felt vulnerable and fear began to enter the hearts of  those who really had no reason to be fearful. And there were those among us in positions of power who nurtured that sense of fear because they came quickly to realize that it was a way to get what they wanted. There followed the  monster known as “Homeland Security” that took away many of our civil liberties without our even knowing it. Our communications were open to prying eyes, guilt was presumed, and our right to privacy was rapidly becoming an empty phrase, dismissed in the name of greater national security. Security cameras started going up everywhere, especially in crowded cities, and access to public transportation is now carefully watched and monitored. Recently there has been serious talk about domestic drone flights in the name of surveillance in order to assure our government that another terrorist attack will not occur — even though the likelihood of anyone in this country being killed in such an attack is on a par with winning the lottery.

All indications are that the vast majority of American citizens are perfectly content to have it this way. We seem to be entering a phase in which we are willing to trade what freedoms we do have for greater security because of an exaggerated sense of fear of terrorists who may or may not ever attack us again. We begin to resemble the prisoner who seeks the safety and comfort of the jail cell rather than face the world on his own. We have crossed the threshold into an era in which we trade what is left of our freedom for the feeling of security — even though our safety is almost certainly not at risk. Fear trumps freedom.

Money Talks Loudest

Those of us who have been beating the drum relentlessly about alternative energy wonder if there’s any likelihood that Americans will finally wake up and realize that we simply must tear ourselves away from fossil fuels — which are, after all, finite. We can, however, take some hope from a recent article about the rising costs of oil that makes the following point almost in passing:

With oil potentially getting that [expensive], we need to seriously consider the potential of seeing another energy source replace oil demand. In the past 23 years, gasoline prices and the price for a barrel of West Texas intermediate [oil] in the U.S. have traded at a multiple of roughly 33.1. Based on the OECD’s projections, this could mean that gasoline in the U.S. would cost somewhere in the range of $6.05 to $10.85. With current prices already causing a consideration of alternative fuels, $10 a gallon certainly would tip the scales in the favor of alternative sources.

What this means is that the factor which might finally wake people up to the folly of depending so much on oil at the risk of catastrophic damage to the environment is not the damage to the environment, per se. It’s the damage to the pocketbook. Americans are apparently willing to have their children breathe dirty air and choke on toxic water resulting from techniques such as fracking to get at the oil and gas and burning such make-believe substances as “clean coal.”  But they won’t stand for increasing prices at the gas pump. The major impetus for the development of alternative fuels in the end will almost assuredly be anger at rising oil and gas prices. These rising prices will lead Americans finally to electric or hybrid cars that burn less fuel and might even propel these folks to solar and wind energy in their homes when the price of heating and cooling fuels goes through the roof.

While one would like to think that people will do the right thing for the right reasons, in the end what matters is that they do the right thing — even for the wrong reasons. But given a self-absorbed population that refuses to modify its “life-style” in order to conserve precious resources and protect the earth one can find solace in the fact that at some point, before much longer, people will demand alternative fuels simply because they can’t afford to put gasoline in their cars or pay their heating bills. And I predict that at that point Big Oil and Coal companies will invest heavily in clean energy and claim it was what they wanted all along!

Oops! My Mistake!

The following brief Yahoo News  story is worthy of extended comment, it seems to me:

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City man whose murder conviction was overturned after 23 years in prison has suffered a heart attack on his second day of freedom.

David Ranta’s lawyer tells The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/102uUVo ) the former inmate had a serious heart attack Friday night and is being treated at a New York hospital.

Ranta walked out of jail Thursday after a judge threw out his conviction in the 1990 killing of a Brooklyn rabbi.

Brooklyn prosecutors had recently concluded Ranta’s prosecution in the death of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger was fatally flawed.

Werzberger was killed by a bandit fleeing a botched robbery. One witness said a police lineup that helped convict Ranta had been rigged.

Ranta is 58. He told reporters Thursday that his new freedom was emotionally overwhelming.

It is terribly sad that Ranta had a serious heart attack after his release from prison. But, of course, he never should have been there in the first place. The possibility of human error in murder trials seems to me to make the case against capital punishment. If this man had faced execution for committing the murder he was accused of, his story never would have been told. But the fact that people do make mistakes and that such certainties as “witness” accounts in cases where emotions run high and people are confused cannot be said to be all that certain renders every “guilty” verdict questionable. The only plausible arguments in favor of capital punishment are the costs of long-term incarceration and, of course, the revenge factor. But these arguments simply do not hold up to scrutiny in the face of events like the mistake that was made in the case of David Ranta.

I have a friend who many years ago was working as a bank teller when the bank was held up. She told me about one of the other tellers who had to deal with the thief directly, actually handing him the money at gun point. The woman swore she would never forget the man’s face. Sure enough, a few weeks later she was called in to identify a man the police thought might have held up the bank. He was in a line-up and with little delay the woman identified the man she was certain had held up the bank. Only she didn’t: the man she identified was a policeman who was just filling out the lineup. It was not the bank robber whose face “she would never forget.” People do forget. Our memories play tricks on us, especially when we are under stress. And we know that racial bias often enters into judgments of this sort as well. This has always seemed to me to be an unassailable argument against capital punishment. If humans were infallible there might be strong reasons to take another life, but as long as we are subject to mistakes the case seems to me to fall apart. Just ask David Ranta’s family.

It’s All Relative! Really?

A recent story in HuffPost begins as follows:

A gay Somali teen was allegedly stoned to death on March 15, according to an advocacy group that posted about the incident online.

A Facebook group calling itself Somali Queer Community posted information and photos of the alleged stoning on its social media page Saturday. The post states that Mohamed Ali Baashi, 18, was tried and convicted of sodomy by a rebel judge from the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabab in the Barawa area of southern Somalia. In front of a crowd of villagers, Baashi was reportedly pelted with rocks until he was dead, the group’s post goes on to claim.

During the many years while I was teaching ethics the prevailing prejudice I continued to run into is that all values are relative. I call it a prejudice because it was seldom a conclusion reached after serious thought. The claim was that in ethics if those values are not relative to the individual, they are at least relative to cultures. We have been told that values are “enculturated” in us and we simply adopt the values of those around us as we grow up. If someone in another culture does something we regard as wrong who are we to say it is wrong? It’s just what they do. We hear the bromide “don’t judge another person unless you have walked a mile in his shoes.” In fact, we are constantly admonished not to be “judgmental.” But let’s take the story above as a case in point. It raises serious doubts about the viability of the whole relativism thesis: failure to judge might even be regarded as the height of irresponsibility.  I have never thought that people take relativism seriously, though, they just lean on it because it is easier than thinking.

In my classes I would ask the students if they thought that the Nazis were right to “relocate” the Jews and send millions to their death. Most students would stick by their guns and say, “of course, who’s to say?” Then I would ask them if they would still believe this if they were a Jew living in Germany in the mid-thirties of the last century when the purge began. That would usually give the students pause, though I don’t know if it ever changed a single mind. But the idea was to get them thinking about a complex situation they probably never thought about before. It helps us to see evil more clearly if we imagine ourselves to be the victim.

But the story above tells us about a judicial process in Somalia in which a young gay man is found guilty of sodomy and is summarily stoned to death. The cultural relativist would say, “that’s the way they do things there. Who are we to say it’s wrong?” My response is: anyone with half a brain knows it’s wrong regardless of where or when it happened. The value of human life and the respect all human life is owed transcend cultures and makes it wrong to inflict harm on others; we have duties as moral agents to alleviate human suffering whenever possible. Now, whether or not our culture teaches us this any longer, it is the heart and soul of any viable ethical or religious system known to developed minds. The obvious conclusion in this case is that the process that found the young man guilty was flawed and the “rebel judge” handing down the judgment was blinded by prejudice. We know this happens: we see it happening on a daily basis all around us. In this regard, the Somalis are just like us and they should know better. Certain values transcend cultures.

Many think that this position smacks of “absolutism,” the claim that values are absolute and a few people know them while others do not — those few wearing clerical collars or holding degrees in philosophy no doubt. We are uncomfortable with this view and regard it as the height of intolerance, though we don’t distinguish carefully between tolerance and indifference. But while I make no claim to absolute knowledge about values, since all human knowledge is partial, there are things that are inherently wrong and simply should not be tolerated. Does this mean we should send in drones and invade Somalia with our armed forces to bring the Somali people to their knees and make them accept our way of life? Of course not. What it means is that we should all condemn the action and our hearts should go out to the young man who was stoned to death as the natural expression of sympathy for another human who was wronged apparently by what appear to be extremists — and we should hope that by making the action known through the social media the world community would condemn the action so that this sort of thing does not happen again.

Moral Dilemmas

In an interesting blog forwarded to me by my friend “Z” in Ecuador, I was able to learn a good bit about Argentina’s “Dirty War” — the military dictatorship that took an estimated 30,000 Argentine lives during the years from 1976 to 1983. Need I say that War was largely financed by the United States, with the help of Henry Kissinger, including billions of dollars in military aid and weapons to assist the dictatorship? But also of interest is the fact that the new Pope of the Catholic Church was head of the Jesuits during that period in Argentina and has been charged with doing little or nothing to stop the carnage that was taking place at the time. As an article titled “The Scotsman” tells us:

Pope Francis (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Pope Francis
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Relatives of those who disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War” criticised the new Pope yesterday, saying Francis had failed to confront the military dictatorship in his country.

Some 30,000 people were killed during the war and relatives of victims have claimed the new pontiff had a “very cowardly attitude” towards the regime.

I am reminded of Pope Pius XII’s unwillingness to take a stand against Nazism during the Second World War, a situation that inspired Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, focusing on the Pope’s struggles to determine the right course of action to take in the light of Nazi atrocities. The Pope does not emerge from this examination squeaky clean. As Hannah Arendt said in an essay on Pius’s silence: “No one has denied that the Pope was in possession of all the pertinent information regarding the Nazi deportation and ‘resettlement’ of the Jews. No one has denied that the Pope did not even raise his voice in protest when, during the German occupation of Rome, the Jews, including Catholic Jews (that is, Jews converted to Catholicism), were rounded up, right under the windows of the Vatican, to be included in the Final Solution.” In Hochhuth’s play, the Pope’s dilemma is made clear: speak out against Nazism at the risk of angering Mussolini and Hitler and perhaps rendering it impossible to do any good whatever, or say nothing and do what one can to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi purge. The Pope chose the latter course in a calculation involving a certain amount of self-interest that gives one pause in light of the fact that the Head of the Catholic Church, one would think, ought to take and hold the moral high ground regardless of consequences. As the British representative to the Vatican wrote in 1942, “A policy of silence in regard to such offenses against the conscience of the world must necessarily involve a renunciation of moral leadership and a consequent atrophy of the influence of the Vatican.” Indeed, Hochhuth dwells on the nature of the Pope’s dilemma and hints that even though a  number of Jews were reportedly assisted by the Church to escape to safety it is not clear that this justifies the Pope’s silence in the face of the enormity of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. As has been noted, the fear that things would have been made worse for the Jews had the Pope spoken out ignores the fact that their situation couldn’t possibly have been worse for them.

In the case of Pope Francis and his role in the “Dirty War’ in Argentina, it is not clear how many people, if any, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as he was then called, was able to save. His biographer insists that he took risks to save  a number of the “subversives” tagged by the dictatorship for imprisonment and even death. What we do know is that 30,000 people were killed mainly for political reasons, and a week after Fr. Bergoglio dismissed two priests for being too “progressive” they were kidnapped, held, and tortured. This does not bode well for those who hope this Pope will drag the Catholic Church, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. It was even rumored at the time that Bergoglio was complicitous in the kidnapping, but this was never verified. But what is clear is that Fr. Bergoglio made the same decision as Pope Pious XII and did not take a stand against the evil he saw around him. As the article referred to above goes on to say:

It is generally agreed upon that the church in Argentina did little to oppose or stand up to the dictatorship during the Dirty War. Argentine bishops admitted as much as recently as October 2012. At the very least, they’re being forced to remember.

While none of us might choose to be placed in either man’s shoes, one must ask the question whether an ethical calculation designed to weigh alternatives and select the lesser of evils is an appropriate stand for two of the most influential men of the Church in Catholic countries in a time of crisis. As the medieval theologians whose thinking formed the warp and woof of Catholic dogma would have said, theirs was a “sin of omission.” Their silence resonates in the face of known atrocities on a mammoth scale.

History Lessons

The American philosopher/novelist George Santayana famously said that those who refuse to read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In one of his recent blogs my friend BTG expanded on Santayana’s comment by noting the exemplary behavior of Paul O’Neill, C.E.O. of Alcoa who apparently was one of the few who listened to Santayana: he insisted that his employees at Alcoa own up to and learn from their mistakes so they would not repeat them. In doing so, he improved communication within the company and managed to turn around a struggling company and make of it a success.

My comment in response to BTG was that we seem to be like young kids who prefer to make our own mistakes. I had referred in my blog to the fact that during the turbulent 60s of the last century when the college kids were asking about the “relevance” of such courses as history, those in charge of higher education had no answer and ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water [they didn’t ask me!]. What the kids were asking, in their own inarticulate way, was why they should have to take college courses that didn’t translate into immediate cash value in the marketplace. I used history as an example, but it could apply to most of the courses in the liberal arts which at that time formed the core of most college curricula. In any event, the result of the inability of college professors to respond to their critics at the time was that the colleges and universities started throwing out liberal arts courses that had for generations been regarded as essential to the makeup of an educated person and shifting the focus to the “useful” arts. In other words, we traded job training for education. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened gradually and as a society we are the worse for it.

As I say, we are like kids and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t think the things that happen to other people will happen to us because we are different. Statistics show that seat belts save lives, but we won’t wear ours because we don’t think we could possibly have an accident. We lack that historical, literary, and psychological perspective that deepens and broadens our awareness of what is going on around us. The colleges and universities that have eliminated core requirements have simply exacerbated a cultural situation that breeds widespread ignorance posing as insight and perception. We think because there is an unlimited amount of information out there accessible to anyone with a computer we are wiser than those who went before us. But we are really not all that bright and we habitually refuse to learn from the mistakes our predecessors made.  This is the best possible answer to those militant students who 50 years ago challenged the college faculties to explain why they needed an education: wisdom has been lost in the information glut.

There is a movement which I have alluded to in previous blogs that seeks to right the ship. It is fostered by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is housed in Washington, D.C. In a nationwide project they call “What Will They Learn?” this group has scrutinized the core requirements of every college and university in this country under a microscope and found virtually all of them wanting. Colleges really don’t require much of anything outside the major requirement; they seem perfectly content to have narrow, ignorant adults going forth with degrees they can hang on their walls that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. I don’t blame the students. They don’t know any better. But college professors who do in fact live in ivory towers should realize that their job is not to protect their territory and turn out replicas of themselves. Rather, their job is to help young people come to a deeper, more critical perspective of their world that makes life worth living — learn to use their minds, acquire good communication skills, understand history, have at least a nodding acquaintance with poetry and literature, learn to calculate and become scientifically literate. Such people make better citizens and more valuable employees. In the end the liberal arts are the most useful because they liberate the minds of those who come into contact with them.