Corporate Persons

In 1905 in his annual message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt declared:

“All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

As retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens points out in his discussion of an amendment he has proposed to the U.S. Constitution that would curb excessive spending on political campaigns, the courts consistently maintained for years that corporations are not persons and therefore not entitled to the same rights as citizens of this nation. For one thing, corporations cannot vote, whereas citizens can. Conservative Justice William Rehnquist in 1982 wrote for the unanimous court in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, “there is no reason why Congress’ interest in preventing both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption of elected representatives may not be accomplished by treating. . . corporations differently from individuals.”

The change in the Court’s position came about indirectly, beginning in 1990 in a dissenting opinion written by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in which they contended that corporate speech, like other expressive activities by groups of persons, was entitled to the same First Amendment protection as speech by an individual. This opened the can of worms that has become the ugly Citizens United Supreme Court case that recently maintained, drawing on Scalia and Kennedy’s opinion above, that since corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals, they have the right to support political candidates without restrictions. As Stevens notes in this regard, “[Scalia’s arguments in 1990] provided the basis for the court’s five to four decision in Citizens United overruling  the Michigan case and apparently affording the same constitutional protection to election-related expenditures by corporations as to speech by individuals.” Sheer magic: political donations are a form of free speech and corporations are people even though they cannot vote and (so far as we know) they cannot copulate.

Needless to say, the Citizens United case stands in glaring opposition to the concerns raised in 1905 by President Roosevelt and upheld by the courts for 105 years thereafter. Roosevelt was expressing the obvious concern about the undue influence of wealth on elections that would tilt the playing field and render ineffective the attempts by the less wealthy to have any voice in politics whatever. As Stevens says, one of the many consequences of this imbalance is the “public’s perception of the role of money in influencing the outcome of elections. Voters who would believe that the power of the purse will determine the outcome of elections are more likely to become bystanders rather than participants in the political process.” Indeed. One need look no further for an explanation as to why citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with the political process and why several analysts have determined that America has become a de facto oligarchy and can be regarded as a democracy in name only.

Stevens does not suggest an amendment to deal directly with the issue of whether corporations are or are not persons — as is currently under discussion nation-wide — but rather an amendment that simply allows states and the Congress to set “reasonable limits” to campaign contributions without insisting that these limitations are in any way in conflict with the First Amendment: limits on campaign spending should not be considered limits on free speech. But whether this Court or this Congress could manage to work with a nebulous concept such as “reasonable limits” is questionable, so the issue remains how to put restraints on those with great wealth who would make the government dance to the tunes they play on their diamond-studded harmonicas. — especially since those who might place those restraints on the wealthy are busy dancing to their tunes.  As things now stand, the recent Supreme Court decisions have given the corporations and the 1% of this country who control the vast majority of the wealth virtual control of the political process. Corporations and the very wealthy can determine who runs and who gets elected — and what those people will do once elected.

In a masterpiece of understatement, Stevens concludes that “The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.” Teddy Roosevelt would agree.

 

Brilliant Idea!

An acquaintance of mine recently urged one of my best friends in the very small rural town in which I live to get a permit and buy himself a weapon. “Everyone is doing it,” he said, including himself and his daughter. I suppose he feels it necessary to be armed to protect himself against would-be terrorists invading rural Minnesota — or, perhaps marauding Vikings. Whatever. Poor, frightened little man. I feel sorry for him. But his kind is becoming increasingly common in this country, as we all know. And these folks feel they have a “right” to carry a weapon because the Constitution tells them so. As I have noted in previous blogs, this “right” is predicated on the necessity of an armed militia to protect home and hearth against attacks from England — or wherever. But only those who actually read the Second Amendment would know that. The framers worried more about a standing army that would threaten states’ rights then they did an armed citizenry.

Indeed, it is the fact that the supposed “right” to bear arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution is predicated on the necessity to have a well-armed militia that is ignored in the frenzy to simply own and be prepared to use the latest assault weapon to protect ourselves against whatever ghosts and goblins might be out there wanting to get us. Americans, more and more of them each day, simply want to own and carry weapons because they are fearful. But in a brilliant chapter in his latest book, Six Amendments: How And Why We Should Change The Constitution, retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens has suggested a re-write of the Second Amendment that would restore it to its original meaning and undermine the terribly weak argument we hear almost daily about the right to bear arms. His re-wording would place the emphasis of the Amendment where it belongs: on the need to have an armed militia, not the supposed right of every Tom, Dick, and Sally to pack heat. In making his case, Stevens notes that “For over two hundred years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text. . . applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes.”  That lengthy period was followed by an extensive campaign by the NRA to help the gun manufacturers sell weapons, and this altered the game radically.

The Amendment, as the framers wrote it, states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Stevens suggests a five word insert that would clarify the meaning:” A well-regulated Militia, being  necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.” Positively brilliant.

What this means is that those who have been designated as protectors of the nation, say the National Guard, have a Constitutional right to keep and bear arms — others do not. This is clearly what the founders intended and the way it was understood for 200 years, and if it were written in this fashion it would undermine the arguments of the nutters today who are responsible for approximately eighty-eight firearms deaths every day in this country (30,000 each year) and might possibly open the door to a debate at the highest levels about whether or not there ought to be some sort of restrictions on the sale and use of such things as automatic weapons that are clearly designed to kill people, not wild game. As Judge Stevens points out:

“Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly  would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.”

Organizations like the National Rifle Association would continue to argue for the “right” of everyone and his dog to own guns of every possible variety, but on this re-write of the Second Amendment they would have to base that supposed “right” on something other than the Second Amendment which, as Stevens argues, never did support such license. What the grounds for that supposed “right” might be in the absence of a misreading of the U.S. Constitution one can only imagine; but one can bet guns would continue to be sold to frightened people who really don’t need to pretend they have any sound reasons for simply wanting to own a gun.

Levelling Down

I have blogged before about the so-called “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the thinking (?) of those who run our schools. The idea is to tell everyone that they are wonderful and this is supposed to inspire them to excellence. The problem is that all the data show this is false, that kids know it’s a lie and they simply do as little as possible and wait to be told how wonderful they are. Everyone gets the trophy, not just those who actually have earned it. The woman who has studied this movement in detail and written the definitive book on the subject is Maureen Stout who has taught at all levels from kindergarten through college and while initially a supporter of the movement, came to realize the damage it was doing in the schools.

Professor Stout holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem.  One of the key chapters begins as follows:

“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore 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 individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”

I recall the comment of one of the legislators in California — a state where the self-esteem movement received state-wide impetus from the legislature and has become the accepted thinking of those who determine education policy in that state — who  was confronted by the hard evidence that the self-esteem movement actually thwarts development in children and said “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In a word, don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.

In any event, the latest sad chapter in this ongoing saga comes not from California, but from a Minneapolis suburb where the annual honors banquet applauding the efforts of the brightest and best students in the Senior class was cancelled because it (presumably) hurt the feelings of those kids who did not and, in some cases, simply could not, achieve those honors themselves. The plan is to give all the kids some sort of recognition for the efforts they expend in school — presumably for breathing in and breathing out, certainly not for merit. Indeed, merit has pretty much gone out the window.

This is the result of a trend that goes far back beyond the self-esteem movement, namely, the egalitarianism that has resulted from the recognition that human rights must be acknowledged in all men and women regardless of their circumstances. The notion of human rights is a vital moral precept and one of the prizes of the Enlightenment; it is precious indeed. But it has sired some peculiar off-spring — such as the notion that any attempt to point out differences among people amounts to “discrimination,” and this is a bad thing. It has also fostered the self-esteem movement in the schools, which has, in turn, given rise to the absurd notion that we dare not call attention to the achievements of the best and the brightest because someone’s feelings might be hurt.  To which I say, “tough noogies, that’s life!” Some people are deserving of praise because they excel and if we want our kids to achieve anything resembling excellence we need to point out those who stand above the rest.

In the 1960s Gabriel Marcel noted the danger of the egalitarian movement, its tendency to “level down” the population, to make mediocre the norm, to lower expectations and demands and give everyone credit whether it was deserved or not. In the schools, as Maureen Stout pointed out, it is “dangerous,” because it destroys the urge on the part of bright kids to show their stuff and it fosters the lie that everyone is excellent when, in fact, only a few are. If everyone is excellent, then no one is. The word loses meaning. We need to recognize and reward merit and excellence or they will disappear forever. That’s the danger Professor Stout is pointing to. And she’s right.

The Speechless President

Like so many others, I had high hopes for our current President. After his predecessor, he seemed like such a breath of fresh air. But it is beginning to appear as though that’s all he is: “a breath of air.” Except for his annual appearance on ESPN picking the winners in the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament (seriously?) one hardly knows he’s around. However, he does have considerable speech-making abilities and is able to hold the attention of an audience and make his points in a most persuasive way, so this gives rise to a question I have had for some time.

Given the unwillingness of this Congress — especially the House of Representatives — to cooperate in any way with the sitting President (for whatever reasons), why doesn’t the President use his powers of persuasion and the ready availability of the TV networks to make his case to the American people to put pressure on a recalcitrant Congress? Recall the ability of Ronald Reagan in this regard (old “Teflon Ron”): he was forever going on TV and pleading with the American public to have them write or call their representatives to get things done. And it worked: it boosted his popularity and got the people involved. In fact, we can go back to FDR’s use of the radio to get the public behind him as Churchill was able to do in England. These men knew the power of their position combined with the power of the airwaves and they used them to their advantage.

There was one time, especially, when Obama could have made use of his considerable speech-making abilities and the magic of television to get the American public involved in one of his pet causes. I refer of course to gun control and wonder why, after Sandy Hook when the American public was outraged, the President didn’t go on TV and urge folks to get behind his efforts to push some sort of gun-control legislation through a refractory Congress backed by the considerable power of the NRA. Public polls showed that the American public was overwhelmingly behind some sort of gun controls — at the very least some sort of waiting period, including checks on those who would purchase guns. But it didn’t happen, and despite a good deal of public posturing and a smattering of small, ineffective, steps on the President’s part, nothing happened at the federal level. The issue is not whether or not gun controls could help prevent the madness that seems to have this country in its grips. The issue is why the President didn’t take advantage of the support he obviously had in the American public and “take on” the Congress and the NRA. After all, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In any event, the President complains about the lack of cooperation from this Congress and is out beating the campaign trails to raise money to get more sympathetic members of Congress during the mid-term elections to help him push through some of his favorite programs during his final years in office. But it’s not all about sympathetic members of Congress. It’s also about getting the apathetic American public more involved in the political process and the sitting President could play a vital role if (s)he chose to do so. There is considerable power out there sitting glued to television sets, and that power could have been tapped into a number of times during this man’s presidency. But it has not. One wonders if that power might even have been enough to thwart the growing influence of the monied interests who seem determined to buy this government and who silently line the pockets of politicians they know will surely answer the call when the time comes to push their narrow, all-for-profit agendas.

In the game that is power politics, Barack Obama has shown himself to be inept. Given his status and his opportunities together with the precedent for “going public” he has ignored one rather obvious avenue for courting political success: the sleeping giant that is the American public that might have been aroused by Obama’s considerable powers of persuasion, but who now sleeps on undisturbed and unconcerned.

Go Get ‘Em, Harry!

A recent story tells about the attempts by at least one member of the political Establishment to restore this country to the democracy it once was. I am talking about Harry Reid who is nothing if not outspoken and certainly not everyone’s cup of political tea. But he is decidedly a man of courage in a political climate where the very wealthy are on the verge of taking total control of the strings of power. A recent Yahoo news story begins as follows:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid amped up his crusade against the Republican megadonor Koch brothers Thursday,  backing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undo recent Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance.

In a speech from the Senate floor, Reid said a vote on the amendment would be held sometime in the summer, after the Senate Judiciary Committee marks up the amendment in the coming weeks. Reid also said there would be hearings on the amendment, giving Democrats a chance to elevate the campaign-finance issue to a higher profile in the thick of campaign season.

“Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system,” Reid said Thursday. “One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees.  The Constitution does not give corporations a vote, and the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote.”

The Republicans and others who are in the pockets of the wealthy will fight the attempt to amend the Constitution in the name of “free speech,” and from where I sit an amendment is unlikely, especially if mid-term elections go the way the monied interests want them to go. But it is necessary if the political game is to be changed back to some semblance of what the Founders had in view when they struggled so hard to establish a Republic in the wilds of America. As things now stand, the country has become an oligarchy — as a recent study has attested — and the ability of wealthy folks like the Koch brothers to have things their political way simply proves the point. In a word, they, and others of their ilk, are in the process of spending billions of dollars buying a government that will dance to their tune.

They have received considerable support to this point by a Supreme Court that seems determined to read the constitution with glasses provided by the wealthy and recent decisions have extended the power of corporations and the few very wealthy who can now determine the direction the political winds blow, as the story goes on to point out:

. . . the amendment would reverse some major recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance, including  2010’s Citizens United  case and the  recent McCutcheon v. FEC  ruling. Those decisions have eliminated limits on millions of dollars’ worth of donations to political campaigns from corporations, labor unions, and generally wealthy individuals.

A brief look at history will show that people like Madison and Jefferson worried about the effects of wealth on a free government. While they tended to focus attention on the Aristocracy they thoroughly distrusted, they were dimly aware of  rich men who could simply bribe their way to power. If anyone knew about power and its abuses, it was those men who gathered in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, though the document they eventually came up with is flawed in many ways — the most serious omission being any reference to the power of unlimited wealth. It is an oversight that can easily be forgiven in light of the fact that in spite of their awareness of possible abuses of wealth in the future, they couldn’t have been expected to foresee a country in which both wealth and income are super-concentrated in the top 0.1% of the population, which is just one in a thousand.  But it is a flaw that an amendment could eradicate if it is possible to get this Congress to act as it should and not as it almost certainly will.

It is interesting to note in passing that former Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has written a book in which he argues for six amendments to the Constitution. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention an amendment to specifically limit the power of corporations, but he does mention the need to limit campaign spending, the need to prohibit gerrymandering, the need to articulate the principle of sovereign immunity which guarantees each state the right to sue without federal interference, the need to specifically include a prohibition against the death penalty, the need to modify the second amendment allowing for gun control, and what he calls “a supremacy clause,” which determines whether the federal government can compel state officials to enforce federal laws. Whether one agrees with Stevens or not, it is clear that our sacred Constitution is dated and in need of revision.

It remains to be seen if there are enough politicians of conscience to join with Harry Reid to push this particular amendment through. In the meantime we can only hope, though I honestly can’t see this group biting the hand that feeds them.

Shocking!?

You have almost certainly heard about the brew-ha-ha surrounding Michael Sam, the large football player from the University of Missouri who “came out of the closet” last Spring to the delight of talking heads around the country. He was recently drafted by the St. Louis Rams and gave his partner a large kiss on the mouth moments after breaking down in tears upon receiving word that he had been drafted. The moment was doubly shocking to many because Sam is black and his partner is white: not only homosexuality, but inter-racial homosexuality! The emotions of the two men were very real and the ensuing discussion by the talking heads rather intense. . . . and certainly ongoing.

To their credit both the NFL and ESPN, which have supported Sam in their coverage of the events surrounding his announcement and subsequent draft status, aired the film of the kiss repeatedly ( I say again, repeatedly) as if to say: we fully support homosexuality in sports and if you don’t like it that’s your problem. The networks love to show raw emotion as a rule, but the kiss between a man and his male partner broke new ground and it was praised on one side and condemned on the other. Some have likened this event to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955. This was a historical event, to be sure, and the emotions of many people have been stirred: reverberations will be heard for many months to come, I dare say. I suspect that many folks in TV land sprained their thumbs tweeting hate mail regarding Sam to their friends. The man has made a bed that I suspect he will find very hard to lie in. But I sincerely wish him well. He showed great courage given the temper of the times; homosexuality is simply a fact of life and it is time we grew up, recognized it and came to accept it.

After all, the Greeks, especially the Thebans and Spartans who were reputed to be some of the most fearless warriors the world has known, were unashamedly homosexual. They admired the male body, wrestled in the nude (as did their Athenian neighbors) and simply accepted the fact that men could love one another and even have sex with no social stigma attached. Socrates was supposed to have had a sexual relationship with Alcibiades while, at the same time, he was married and had several children. Homosexual practices in Greece, usually involving an older man and a younger one, go back at least to Homer who suggested the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. There were, as well, homosexual relationships between women as depicted by the poet Sappho. These relationships were not regarded as the least bit unusual, which leads me to surmise that 2000 years ago they were more sophisticated and mature than we are! What happened in the meantime, of course, was organized Christianity in all its myriad forms (especially Puritanism) and the attendant taboos against all sorts of sexual conduct, not the least of which were homosexual activities, and even simple nudity.

Anthony Burgess wrote a novel years ago titled The Wanting Seed in which he envisioned a time when the earth had started to dry up and stop producing food to feed its burgeoning human populations. The expanding numbers of hungry humans led the leaders of his world to embrace homosexuality and hold it up as a paradigm for human conduct. It was one way to reduce the exploding populations of humans: after all, there cannot be any progeny as a result of sexual intercourse between consenting, same-sex, partners! He may have been on to something. It might be that after the dust has settled from Michael Sam’s passionate embrace and kiss on national television — and that will take some time — we will come to not only accept homosexuality as a fact of life, but regard it as exemplary behavior to be emulated. In a word, we may eventually grow up, which is a good thing. And as a bonus, as Burgess suggested, it may be a way of reducing the growing number of humans who seem determined to destroy the planet while they express their mindless outrage at what they regard as bizarre sexual behavior.

Bifurcation

There is a host of informal fallacies, so-called, that most of us commit unknowingly every day. The most common of them is the ad hominem fallacy in which a person’s claim is dismissed because of the type of person putting forth the claim. Thus, we might reject the claim made by Jones because Jones is a narrow-minded cretin. The fallacy arises because even though Jones may, in fact, be a narrow-minded cretin, his claim int this case might be well founded. Attention is drawn away from the claim to the person making the claim, Hence it is fallacious reasoning.

But there is another fallacy that is also quite common and perhaps even more insidious in its way. It’s called the fallacy of bifurcation. It rests on the fact that an argument relies on a false dichotomy to draw its conclusion. Most disjunctions are loose, non-exclusive disjunctions, as in “I will have either soup or a sandwich for lunch. ” (I might have both.) Lose disjunctions allow for the middle ground. Some disjunctions do not allow of any middle ground, as in “either you live in New York or you don’t.” You can’t have it both ways. These are called “exclusive disjunctions” and they are very rare (even in this case one could both live in New York and not live in New York if he or she had homes in both New York and Minnesota). There is seldom a situation that does not allow of a middle ground: most disjunctions are non-exclusive, as in the case with the soup or the sandwich.

What all this is leading to is the observation that we have all (or most of us) fallen for the notion put forward by the dirty energy companies that we must either have dirty energy or we must have a weak economy. It’s usually in the form “either jobs or the economy.” This is a classic example of the fallacy of bifurcation. Experience has shown — as though common sense would not — that we can have it both ways. We can have clean energy and boost the economy at the same time. This has been proven in the solar industry where thousands of jobs have been created and, as I recently argued, it has been shown in places like Chicago where 139,800 jobs have been created in the clean energy industry. And yet we will continue to hear from Big Oil, for example, that we simply must continue to destroy the earth by constructing monstrosities like the Keystone Pipeline because it creates jobs — the implication, again, is that the only industry that can provide jobs is the dirty energy industry. The argument is clearly self-serving. But it is also persuasive because, like all fallacies, it rests on an emotional appeal. People fear the loss of jobs and it is that fear (coupled with a weak critical faculty) that results in their acceptance of what is at heart a weak argument.

In addition to the appeal to emotion that rests at the heart of what amount to dozens of common fallacies which results in their being so persuasive there is the fact that we don’t teach logic to many people any more. We don’t teach many things that would help them gain control of their minds so that smiling, glad-handed thugs would not take possession of them. We don’t teach Latin much any more, despite the fact that knowing  Latin helps us gain a better grasp of our own language and since language is essential to thought, it is thought that suffers in the end. If one wonders why old-timers like myself keep going on about the demise of contemporary education it might be worth a moment to consider the fact that by focusing on what the children in the classrooms want and tossing out essential subjects like logic and Latin (and history, mathematics, economics, literature, and even English) we deprive the young today of the ability tomorrow to see the fallacies that lie at the heart of so many appeals by unconscionable agents whose only desire is to gain a profit or otherwise make life easy for themselves at our expense.

The Business of Education

Jeffrey Selingo, the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a book titled College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means To Students. In his book he says, flatly, that “American higher education is broken” and lays to rest any faint hopes people like me have that the creature will somehow take on new life and make possible the education of generations to come. The creature has turned into big business and, like all businesses, it will adapt to changing circumstances and the demands of its clientele or perish. As one of the people Selingo interviews remarks, “In other industries, those who don’t innovate go out of business. . . Higher education shouldn’t be any different.” In a word, education is business and, like so many institutions in this country, including the Church, it has adopted the business model and is all about making a profit — not educating young minds. And in order to do that higher education will have to become whatever its prospective buyers want it to be, like Walmart. Selingo is not in the least sanguine about the current state of things; he recognizes the importance of the liberal arts to the students themselves who must acquire the skills of communication and thought to succeed in any enterprise whatever.  In a particularly telling passage he expresses his dismay:

“More than ever, American colleges and universities seem to be in every business but education. They are in the entertainment business, the housing business, the restaurant business, the recreation business, and, on some campuses, they operate what are essentially professional sports franchises. As colleges have grown more corporate in the past decade, they have started acting like Fortune 500 companies. Administrative salaries have ballooned, and members of boards of trustees are chosen for their corporate ties, not for their knowledge of higher education. Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.”

As things now stand, it’s a booming business. There has been “an almost insatiable demand for college credentials.” And that is what education is now all about: credentials. Students approach colleges and universities in order to get a tailor-made program that will prepare them for the careers they hope to pursue for the rest of their lives. They refuse to buy off the rack: they want their suits made-to-fit. This is, after all, the age of entitlement. And the colleges are adept at meeting those demands, instituting 300 new majors in 2010 alone — added to the 1,400 already extant — to make sure they can attract and hold the growing demand and give the kiddies what they want. Gone are the days when folks like Robert Hutchins dreamed that colleges should be beacons rather than mirrors. They are mirrors, pure and simple. If they have not completely jettisoned the basic core requirement in the liberal arts — which used to be what higher education was all about — they have pared it down to a series of electives in a smattering of academic disciplines that guarantees the student very little knowledge about a range of unrelated subjects. This hardly passes muster as education in which the young are liberated from narrowness of vision and the short-sighted view of the world we associate with business where it is all about short-term profits. Despite the fact that these students have no idea what they  ought to know in order to propel them into a changing world and that they are practically guaranteed to change their career objectives several times before they are forty, they plunge ahead into a college that feels comfortable and take the courses that the brochures and marketing professionals hired by the colleges have assured them will guarantee them success and happiness here and now, and forever more.  Please note, the message is all about “information,” and, as Selingo points out, there is very little talk about how to process that information — i.e., how to think. This oversight is reflected in the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment test given to currently enrolled upperclassmen in which over the years, especially, students who major in the more popular fields, such as, education, social work, and business tend to score low and follow-up research indicates that they are among the least successful college graduates — “three times more likely to be living at home with their parents, more likely to have run up credit card bills, and less likely to read the newspapers or discuss politics.” But, hey, caveat emptor.

The effects of the changes are widespread. For one thing, students “have come to regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant. . . . who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact.” This has resulted in a “major power-shift” in the classroom in which the students call the shots and evaluate their professors in the social media — hard graders scoring low. Selingo recounts a case in which an elderly biology professor who was giving low grades to his students was summarily removed from his classroom, in mid-semester, and replaced by another, younger professor who immediately boosted the grades of all students remaining in the class by 25% (many had already dropped out). After all, we don’t want to displease our customers: they might take their business elsewhere. And we wonder how grade inflation became rampant in the colleges and universities!

I have always felt as though I was on the bow of a huge ocean liner pissing into the wind as the ship heads blindly and very erratically into the unknown. I have this fear that the captain learned his trade online and hasn’t the slightest idea how to captain an actual ship — how to manoeuver in the fog or avoid icebergs. I have grown hoarse over the years trying to fight the inevitable — and I have known all along it was inevitable. And despite the groups like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who have joined me on the bow of the ship trying to insist that colleges hang onto at least a semblance of a core, liberal education in the midst of handing out easy credits for whatever happens to be the day’s most popular fad, it seems clear that the future of education has been determined. From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the students are customers, they are not young people who need to be put in possession of their minds. In fact, their minds pretty much belong to the corporations that have molded them and who now own the colleges and universities and influence what students will learn in order to become obedient followers of the corporate piper in years to come.

 

The Spirit of Compromise

The son of my blog buddy BTG recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina. The commencement address was delivered by Colin Powell. (This beats the recent commencement speaker at my alma mater who was Michael Wilbon — one of the talking heads on ESPN.)  In any event, Powell had some wise words to share with the graduates and he stressed, among other things, the need for the young people sitting before him to get involved and learn the art of compromise. He reminded the students that the founding of this country was made possible only because of the willingness of those remarkable men to compromise. Somehow, that spirit of compromise has died.

Reflection leads us to a number of possibilities as to why this has happened. To begin with the obvious, the country is considerably larger and the political process much more complex than it was in the eighteenth century. When the founders were trying to figure how to escape from the stifling embrace of England, they had a common purpose. To be sure, there were divided loyalties, since many feared the wrath of the most powerful nation on earth — and wanted its continued protection. Bear in mind that the Spanish and French had been on the continent for years before the Pilgrims landed and the New England colonies got organized. Together with the native people, they were viewed as a constant threat. So a number of the founders simply were willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences, such as taxation without representation, in order to have the assurance that the English army and navy was there to protect them. But thanks to the foolishness of the British in Boston, the wisdom of Washington and Jefferson, and the persuasive powers of people like John Adams, the representatives gathered in Philadelphia were willing to compromise and declare independence from England. Without a willingness to compromise, there could have been no Declaration of Independence.

But the notion of compromise today is equated in the minds of a great many people with “capitulation,” the willingness to sell out, a form of cowardice. Loyalty in the political arena is not to an idea, as it was in 1776, it is to the political party (which did not exist in 1776) and to the corporate interests that support the party and determines reelection or failure in political office. Things have changed considerably, and it it’s not only about the increased size of the country, it’s more about what really matters. To the colonial founders, what mattered was their independence and ability to determine their own future without the outside influence of a power across the sea that really took little interest in their future, other than to be sure of a steady supply of tobacco and cotton and continued income from taxes paid. Today, there is no idea, except the idea of continuing in a cushy office (hey, it beats real work!) with the assurance of great wealth after retirement, either as a lobbyist for one of the corporations, or simply from the wise investment of funds made available during the term in office.

Clearly, Colin Powell was addressing the current inability of the sitting congress to compromise and see the larger canvas — the national interest that was once referred to as “The Common Good.” He knows whereof he speaks. If the reasons for this inability are not clear, then it is because the person who fails to see them simply doesn’t want to look. It is self-interest, pure and simple, the very thing the Greeks knew would eventually destroy any political body no matter how strong and well conceived it might happen to be. I suspect Colin Powell knows that. He has something that so many others in the public eye seem to lack: clear vision and the ability to make sacrifices that are necessary in order to guarantee that the nation he loves and has dedicated his life to does not take the wrong turn. His were words of wisdom, and one can only hope that they are heard not only by those graduates sitting in North Carolina, but by all who have ears, and especially those in power who determine the future of this country.

Greening America

I was aware that California and Hawaii were on the cutting edge of the inevitable conversion to clean energy in this country. I say “inevitable” because, in spite of Big Oil and a recalcitrant Congress, growing numbers of people are aware of the problem and demanding clean energy — and, more to the point, there is money to be made in clean energy. Eventually even the dirty energy companies will realize that. But what I was not aware of, though pleasantly surprised to find out, is that three of America’s dirtiest cities are committed to cleaning up their act and have taken major steps to convert to clean energy.

In the Summer issue of World Wildlife the cities of Chicago, Cincinnati, and Cleveland are featured. The steps they have taken are impressive. Let’s hope other cities will soon follow.

In CHICAGO, for example, the number of hybrid vehicles in the municipal fleet has grown to 240, including 200 hybrid utility vehicles and 40 hybrid cars. The city has committed 100 miles of separated bike lanes over the next four years to encourage increased bike travel, which will increase the number of miles of bike trails in the city to 645. The city has also committed to 280 electric vehicle charging stations to encourage the use of electric cars.  Further, the city has committed $1.3 billion to create a smart electricity grid between 2011 and 2021. They are in third place in the country in green jobs — its clean economy employed an estimated 139,800 people in 2012. By the year 2050 Chicago is committed to reducing emissions by 80% from 1990 levels.

In CINCINNATI in the meantime,  more than 50 traditional trash receptacles throughout the city have been replaced by solar-powered compactors — at a cost of $4500 each. The cans require less frequent pickups, thereby saving fuel otherwise expended by trucks.The Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance has helped retrofit over 1700 homes in greater Cincinnati. The average amount of waste recycled by Cincinnati households has grown to 241 pounds, for a total of 17,815 tons in 2012 alone. Cincinnati is the largest city in the nation to buy 100% green electricity for its citizens. The city, like Chicago, has committed itself to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 84% within four years.

And finally, in CLEVELAND, 50% of the citizens have received 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, solar and wind. For two years beginning in May 2013 city-owned Cleveland Public Power will test four varieties of LED street lights on both sides of the city and downtown to gauge efficiency. The street lights have a lifespan of 25 years and use roughly 50 percent less energy than traditional counterparts.The city has partnered with “Energy Efficiency Retrofit” to implement the program. These programs will mainly be focused on building and lighting retrofits and new green buildings. The city has committed itself to reducing emissions by 80%  below 2010 levels by the year 2050.

What is most interesting about these incentives is that business leaders and citizens alike support them and the cities are finding ways to combine economic growth and sustainability — which undermines the false claims of Big Oil that so many in this country have bought into, to wit, that clean energy will cripple the economy. It just isn’t so!