Talking To A Wall

In light of the recent Senate vote on climate change, I had an imaginary dialogue with Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska, who is the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee — a very important position indeed. The dialogue, such as it was, went something like this:

Me: So, Senator, it appears your colleagues in the Senate have finally arrived at the position scientists have held for many years about the radical changes in our climate that are already impacting on our weather and food production in disturbing ways. Is that so?

L: Yes they have and I was one of the 98% who agreed that climate change is a scientific fact.

Me: I also noted that 59 Senators agreed that humans are somewhat responsible for that fact but that only 50 agreed that humans have had a “significant” impact on global warming. You were one of those who voted “no” on this latter question, were you not?

L: Yes I was.

Me: Why was that?

L: Because I think the jury is still out on weather humans have had a significant impact on climate change. After all, there have always been ebbs and flows, oceans rising and falling, radical changes in weather patterns and temperatures, and even though humans may have contributed somewhat, it is a stretch to say that we have made that much difference.

Me: Really? Even though human populations are exploding all over the earth and industrial gasses are expanding at a very rapid pace in order to feed and clothe those folks? You don’t think that the carbon monoxide that our homes, cars, planes, and factories spew into the atmosphere has a significant effect on the rising temperatures around the globe?

L: No, I do not. Moreover, I resent the implication that because I don’t recycle and I want to keep my house warm and drive a car that can get me down the road quickly I am part of the cause of a global problem, that I should alter my lifestyle in order to please some crazies who seem determined to exaggerate the problem. Besides, any serious attempt to curb global warming, I am told, would require stringent controls on industry which would be bad for business and, as we all know, business is the engine that runs this great country of ours.

Me: Indeed it does. But there are companies harnessing alternative energies and building mass transit systems that could create work for anyone who might be displaced by currently existing industries that might be forced to cut back in order to reduce our carbon footprint — especially if they received a fraction of the $8 billion in subsidies that, as an example, the oil industry receives at present.  But let’s go back to the original question. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that those “crazies” are correct and that you and I, along with the industries that support our present standard of living, are all making an impact that could be reduced if we altered our lifestyles. Shouldn’t we attempt to do something that will reverse the trend?

L: Not in the least. Until you can show me that humans, all humans, are making a huge difference I prefer to continue to live the way I am right now.

Me: OK. So if the “crazies” are exaggerating the problem then you are home safe. But if they are correct in their estimations, by the time you and the others who think like you realize this it may be too late. It seems to me you are taking a huge risk. On the other hand, if you were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt it would doubtless alter our lifestyles somewhat, but it would also pay dividends in the long term by preserving a healthy planet for future generations. We would still maintain one of the world’s highest standards of living. Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution?

L: I don’t see why I should have to make any sacrifices at all on the basis of assumptions and speculation.

Me: Because these “assumptions and speculation” are supported by 98% of the scientific community that has studied the problem in depth. It is not simply an assumption or idle speculation, but a fact based on solid evidence and it behooves us all to take steps — again, if it’s not too late. As a nation we seem to be hellbent on conducting a risky experiment that places a premium on profits and creature comforts in the hope that the serious problems we are facing will simply go away by themselves. It’s virtually certain that humans are playing a significant role in climate change and we are making a terrible mistake to simply ignore that possibility — especially since the price of attacking the problem is so small in the grand scheme of things.

L: Who are you anyway? And why are you in my face?

Me: I am sorry. But just one quick question. I noted that two of your biggest contributors this past election were utilities and oil and gas companies — to the tune of well over $1 million, and that four of your five largest individual contributors were electric utilities and oil companies as well. Doesn’t that skew your thought process somewhat on this issue and, at the very least, shouldn’t you step down as chair of the Energy Committee because of a conflict of interest?

L: I don’t have time for this. I have a committee meeting.

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Progress?

We tend to be a bit smug here in America. We are convinced that we have made huge strides over the rest of the world that has been left behind in our tracks. Our technical wizardry is at or near the top of the pile, we have licked most communicable diseases and have the most powerful pickup trucks. In a word, we are more intelligent and just plain superior to the rest of the world — especially the so-called “third world” which we disdain, confident that they will assuredly never catch up with us. Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But I doubt that there are many out there that doubt that those with the highest IQs in the world are the product of the industrial revolution that arose in Europe and soon was capped off by American “know-how.” Is it possible that this is all bollocks?

In a recent book written by the biologist Jared Diamond titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, these pretensions are called into serious question. Diamond will have none of it. In fact, he suggests that our technical wizardry, for example, has placed us behind undeveloped countries we like to think of as “primitive” or “backward” precisely because it is leaving us passive and without a thought in our heads.  Speaking of the folks in New Guinea whom he has come to know well, he rejects the notion of genetic superiority in the West on the grounds that our medical advances have resulted in a shallower gene pool than those “backward” countries that have developed natural immunities, noting that

“Today, most live-born Western infants survive fatal infections. . . and reproduce themselves, regardless of their intelligence and the genes they bear. In contrast, New Guineans have been living in societies where human numbers were too low for epidemic diseases of dense populations to evolve. Instead, traditional New Guineans suffered high mortality from murder, chronic tribal warfare, accidents, and problems procuring food.”

In a word, intelligence is likely to be greater in those societies where the struggle to survive weeds out those who cannot “think on their feet,”  than it is in those medically advanced societies where those with low intelligence survive and  reproduce. He goes on to argue that

“. . .there is a second reason why the New Guineans may have come to be smarter than Westerners. Modern European and American children spend much of their time being passively entertained by television, radio, and movies. In the average American household the TV set is on for seven hours per day. In contrast, traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing with other children or adults. Almost all studies of child development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation. This effect surely contributes a non-genetic component to the superior average mental function displayed by New Guineans.”

Now, bear in mind that this was written in 1997 before iPhones and iPads became attached to virtually every child in this culture. The development of these electronic toys, many of which are now required in the schools — even, in some cases, provided by the taxpayers — has surely added grist to Diamond’s mill. These toys increase the inactivity and passiveness which he rightly associates with reduced mental development — of the left-hemisphere of the human brain, at least. I say “rightly” because all the data we have, including brain scans and MRIs of the human brain, reveal a lower level of activity while watching essentially passive media such as television than they do when being told stories, for example.

We like to think we are somehow an “advanced” civilization and it will not readily be accepted in this culture that we are not — and that those in a “backward” culture such as New Guinea could actually be smarter than we are. But, then, most of us don’t like to accept the evidence about the role humans are playing in climate change, either.  Indeed, we tend to turn away from unpleasant truths, especially since we have become convinced that progress is an inherently good thing, that if something can be done quickly and easily it is ipso facto better or more advanced than another way of doing things that is slower and takes more effort. This is a conviction that goes deep into our collective psyches and all the research in the world will almost certainly not convince the majority of us that what we call progress is in fact taking us backwards.

 

Deflate-gate

Unless perhaps you live in Ecuador, where such trivial incidents are rightly ignored, you have probably been aware of the controversy surrounding the footballs used in the AFC Championship by the New England Patriots. Eleven of the twelve footballs used in the game were found to be under-inflated by about two pounds, making them easier for the quarterback, who selects the balls before each game, to grip and throw, especially in wet and cold conditions. Each team uses its own footballs, so this apparently gave New England an edge — though they clearly didn’t need one, stomping the Indianapolis Colts in the game by some forty points.

In any event, there has been endless discussion about the incident, making the Super Bowl itself a bit of a sideshow while pundits discuss endlessly the pros-and cons of what they like to call “deflate-gate.” In itself, it’s a tempest in a teapot, but  it became interesting when both the coach and the quarterback denied any knowledge of the fact that the balls used were below the pressure specified by NFL rules. Most experts, including a number of former professional quarterbacks, admit that the coach might not know about the balls, but they all agree that the quarterback must have known, because he handles each ball before the game to make sure it is as he likes it. In a word, the issue has now shifted to the more interesting moral question: who’s lying? It appears to be Tom Brady, the New England quarterback. Indeed, according to many, it must be.

I recall an experiment conducted by a writer for Sports Illustrated years ago with Rod Laver, possibly the best tennis player to have ever lifted a racket. Laver told the reporter that he could detect any changes to his rackets and the reporter challenged him to a test. The reporter placed a small piece of lead tape weighing less than half an ounce on the frame of one of Laver’s rackets and, blindfolded, Laver picked it out of a group of a half-dozen. His rackets were his livelihood. He knew exactly how heavy each one had to be and how tight the strings were as well. Similarly, Brady knew full well that the balls he was using were to his exact specifications. And those specifications were under the limits set by the NFL. But things don’t stop there.

Soon after Brady’s press conference where he denied any knowledge of the fact that rules were broken (no matter how trivial they seem to us) ESPN took a nation-wide poll and it revealed that the vast majority of fans in every state, except Nebraska(!), believe that Brady is telling the truth. Seriously? Is it possible that the majority of people in this country are that blind? It appears so — assuming that the poll was a reliable indicator. Despite the testimony of a number of people of unquestioned credibility, including John Madden, whom fans have always loved and trusted, the majority of people believe that the only man who could be responsible is, in their minds, not responsible. Which now takes us to the next stage of the issue, namely, the stupidity of the average American football fan.

This is therefore no longer about footballs and whether or not they meet NFL specifications. It’s about the willingness of vast numbers of people in this country to believe what they want to believe and ignore the facts that have been clearly set before them. Brady is the only one who could have under-inflated those balls — or had someone do it for him. But this fact does not penetrate the minds of those who cannot open them. Please consider that these are the same people who vote on our next president and the members of Congress. In my mind, that is what makes this issue especially disturbing. It’s not about football. It’s about the inability or unwillingness of so many people to see beyond what they want to see.

 

‘Nuff Said

I have remarked ad nauseam about the absurdity of Division I athletics which have nothing whatever to do with what colleges and universities are supposed to be all  about. Indeed, I have even gone so far as to say that they detract from what the colleges and universities are supposed to be all about. For those who still have any lingering doubts, there is this little tidbit that was published in this week’s Sports Illustrated under the heading of “Go Figure.”

“$792,845.68. Total cost of an eight-day exhibition trip to the Bahamas last August for Kentucky basketball players, coaches, staff, and 57 boosters. Among the individual costs was a $23,855.50 reception dinner.”

Meanwhile there are people out there living in cardboard boxes and scrounging around for food in garbage cans. One would like to think that a college education would sensitize young men and women to the plight of the disadvantaged, but it is doubtful as long as they are treated like royalty. Such treatment cannot help but turn their heads — which are already half-way up their butts.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

What’s Wrong Here?

If you watch television at all you have probably seen this Dish commercial: a teenage boy stands on the porch of his house complaining to his father who waits for him at the car. The boy complains “Oh, come on Dad, I don’t want to visit Aunt Judy. The game’s on and she doesn’t even have a TV!” Or words to that effect. The problem is solved when a small kangaroo-like critter standing at his side takes his iPad and installs an app supplied by Dish that allows him to take the game with him. He walks off the porch toward the car staring at the iPad with a big grin on his face.

What’s wrong with this picture? So many things.

To begin with, his father is presumably trying to teach his son good manners,  the rudiments of social obligations, and his son, in typical teenage fashion, rebels. The rebellion is ages old, as old as teenagers themselves. But the fact that this boy is clearly not going to see Aunt Judy until he is shown how to do so without inconveniencing himself is pretty new. And ugly.

Next, he doesn’t want to visit Aunt Judy because she doesn’t have a television set. This implies, of course, that if he did visit her he would spend the entire time glued to the television set watching “the game” instead of visiting with his Aunt, which pretty much negates the lesson his father is trying in vain to teach him.

And finally, he is now going to see his Aunt, but he will remain glued to the game anyway — this time as seen on the toy he clutches in his hand to the delight of the folks at Dish.,

Now I have no problem with Dish — after all, they are the ones who refuse to broadcast “Fox News” [sic] so they can’t be all bad. And we all know the point of the godawful commercials that fill the airwaves is to sell us things we simply do not need when they are not instilling deep into our collective psyches a love of mayhem and violence. If aliens landed on this planet and determined to judge America’s culture from the TV commercials we view, they would conclude we are a greedy, drunken, self-involved people in love with violence whose male population is in need of a shave and has a serious case of erectile dysfunction and whose women are large-breasted, overly made-up, and can’t stop smiling. Seriously.

In any event, the rebellion of the kid in this particular commercial I can understand, even though my instincts tell me the father should cuff him upside the head and drag him to the car while telling him to shut up and do as he’s told (speaking of violence). In the end I simply ask:  Isn’t it time for the parents to resume leadership of their families, to take the toys away from the kids and teach them that there is a world out there that demands  (and rewards) their attention? That they should grow up and recognize that there are times when we must do things we don’t like to do and simply bite the bullet because it is the right thing to do? That we can’t remain children all our lives, immersed in ourselves and ignoring the things and people around us? Eh? Or are these all dead horses that I should simply stop kicking?

Reading Great Books

I received an email from a friend and former college classmate recently that highlighted a program initiated by several major universities, including Stanford University, that will involve young people in reading and discussing great books during the Summer. This was encouraging in an age that seems determined to dumb-down the curriculum at our schools until no pupil is left behind — a system that is certain to turn out numbskulls and leave the bright students totally bored and stupefied by their electronic toys. The notion that our kids simply cannot do tough intellectual work is utter nonsense; it sells them short and is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we expect very little from them we will get very little in return. The fault is ours, not theirs.

I taught at several colleges in two of which I required students, including so-called “marginal students,” to read selected great books and was constantly delighted by the results. But unfortunately there are two problems with expanding such programs into our schools and colleges. To begin with, we don’t think that our kids can read challenging books, even though the books were written in the first place for anyone who could read and not just for supposed experts. As John Stuart Mill said, we won’t know what is possible for people until we ask them to do the impossible. Having young people read great books is not impossible, however, as is shown from my own experience and from numerous experiments around the country — including a remarkable program run in a women’s prison in New York a few years back in which a dozen women were encouraged to read and discuss great books; they not only took to the work like ducks to water, they all turned their lives around and several of them went to college and got their degrees after they were released from the prison. A similar program has been introduced in three prisons in Tennessee that is very promising indeed and there are other such programs sponsored by the Great Books Foundation involving prison inmates and former inmates as well. One can, after all, select works carefully with the reader in mind (hint: read Candide, skip Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

The second problem is that there are growing numbers of intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities who deny that “greatness” can be defined and reject the notion that any books are great. Instead they prefer the ones they themselves have read that promote whatever political agenda they happen to have up their sleeves at the moment. But, as my friend “Jots” has noted in a recent blog, “greatness” can be defined. She defines it as “ageless and recognized in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and forms.” Indeed. I would only add that greatness can be recognized by those who have been exposed to it and know whereof they speak. And whether or not you accept Jots’ definition, we have the testimony of Robert Pirsig who noted in his seminal book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that value (and greatness) can easily be recognized when we encounter it — if we know what we are looking for. Many of those who reject the notion of greatness in books and the fine arts have never bothered to look closely at what they reject, if they looked at all. But there are books that are “ageless,” and these books can be read by anyone who is willing to make the effort. And they are great because they enliven the minds of those who read them.

One problem that stubbornly remains, however, is the fact that fewer and fewer of our young people read at all and are rapidly losing the ability to read and comprehend what they do read. Thus the reading of books, great or not, becomes an ongoing challenge. But it can be met. Take it from me. Or take it from the folks at Stanford University and other such places of higher learning who are placing the books before young, inquiring minds and expecting great things. And, I predict, they will be pleased by the results. As I said, we sell our kids short — and we should really take the toys out of their hands and replace them with books.

Behind The Curtain

I made a suggestion in a reply to a comment on a recent post that might be offensive to some readers. But since I have very few readers, I doubt that this is much of a problem. I refer to the comment I made that many faculty members in our colleges and universities have agendas they regard as more important than the central agenda of the college itself, which is to educate young minds. I want to expand on that comment since it might be of interest to some who wonder just what goes on behind the curtain that surrounds our ivory towers. If it doesn’t interest anyone, that’s OK, because I simply want to indulge myself.

There are two aspects to this comment. To begin with there is the plain fact that a great many faculty members have political agendas and they defend these agendas openly by insisting that there have always been political agendas in higher education and they think it’s about time theirs was attended to. This, of course is bollocks because the reading of “dead, white males” (as many of these people characterize the tradition they pillory) does not comprise a political agenda, since none of these dead men agreed with one another about much of anything. Further, those who defend women’s studies on these grounds ignore the fact that Plato, for one, insisted that women could be philosopher kings in his Republic; Thomas Moore, taking a page from Plato, insisted that his daughter be fully educated, knowing she was the equal of any man he knew; and John Stuart Mill wrote the definitive treatise on women’s rights in the nineteenth century and had a wife who collaborated with him in writing his major works on ethics and logic. Further, the classical tradition includes a number of important and brilliant women. It can hardly be said that these men or women had any agenda at all, political or otherwise.

But there is the second aspect of my claim and that centers around the fact — based on my own experience, my talks with others in teaching, and my reading of works by thinkers who have found the subject noteworthy — that very few faculty members in our colleges and universities ever stop to think about what it is they are doing. This is not odd, of course, since very few of us stop to think why we are doing the things we are doing, but it is of special concern in higher education because in the 1960s when the students themselves started to ask why they were required to take “irrelevant” courses such as history their professors had no answer:  they had never given the question a thought. As a result, “irrelevant” courses such as history, philosophy, mathematics, and foreign language and what used to be the core of required courses at the center of our colleges and universities were seriously weakened or  scrapped altogether.

What remained of the core requirement, if anything did remain, became the battleground for college professors who worried about their jobs. Indeed, to my knowledge, this was the only reason in the minds of a great many college professors for keeping a core requirement at all. After all, if there were core requirements, then all students would have to take them and this would build up enrollments in their own subject areas that otherwise might be so thin the administration might start to ask “why? and folks would be out of jobs. So what remained was a giant pizza pie that the faculty all approached in curriculum committees and faculty meetings with knives keenly sharpened and a determination to get as large a piece as possible. This resulted in a plethora of disjointed core requirements consisting of scads of courses (sometimes dozens) in certain broad areas, such as “critical thinking,” and “language arts,” the “social sciences,” and even “science.” I recall a faculty member of my institution insisting that computer science be allowed as an option in the science requirement because it is a science. This showed how ignorant that man was about the nature of science and once again proved the maxim that it is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In this case, the faculty voted him down. But in countless other instances I witnessed the faculty pass on courses that simply didn’t belong because they wanted to guarantee that when it was their turn the faculty would support them — no matter how weak their argument. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!

In any event, the core requirement has taken a beating over the years and it is what remains, in most colleges and universities, of the liberal arts which are designed to liberate young, poorly trained minds and help them gain freedom from narrow vision, ignorance, and prejudice. Add to this the business of the hidden agendas and things started to go down hill rapidly. Since most faculty members haven’t thought about what higher education ought to be doing, and since they are well-trained in their own academic discipline, they began to increase the major requirements in their own areas of interest and push for courses in areas they regarded as politically important (such as women’s studies and black studies), keeping a sharp eye on the piece of pizza they had carefully carved out for themselves. They saw their jobs as dependent on an increased number of major students; they desperately wanted students to take courses in their pet areas to push their own political agendas; and they knew how vital it was to hang on to the piece of pizza they fought so hard for in the faculty meetings. The fact that none of this has anything whatever to do with education never entered their minds. What mattered is the preservation of their jobs, pushing hard for those subjects they themselves found most interesting or politically important, and hanging on to that precious piece of pizza. All of this at increasing cost to students.

I realize I have made a number of generalizations and while I also realize that there are exceptions to those generalizations I do think my seemingly outrageous claims will hold up to scrutiny, generally speaking.  Unpleasant though it might be, this is, generally speaking, what is hiding behind the curtain at many, if not most, of our colleges and universities, and it might explain why I go on and on about what should be taking place.

Women’s Studies

I have a bone to pick with such things as “women’s studies” in our colleges and universities which have become all the rage. My bone-picking will extend to such things as “black studies” and other attempts to narrow down the educational enterprise. But let me begin with a disclaimer.

I have no problem whatever with women. On the contrary, I have always felt much more comfortable in the company of women than I do in the company of men. This probably stems from the fact that my father left my mother, sister, and me when I was two years old and I have never fully trusted men since that time. His leaving was compounded by the fact that my father didn’t support our family after the divorce and left his high-school educated ex-wife with two kids to raise and very little money to do it with. As I said, I have no prejudices against women. Indeed, I suspect there are few men who sympathize more than I with the plight of women in a man’s world. That being said, I am convinced that such things as “women’s studies” programs in our colleges and universities are a terrible mistake, not because they study women, but because specialized studies at the undergraduate level are tangential to the real purpose of the academy.

Such programs confuse the goals of higher education, which are less about what to know, than about how to know. Women’s studies programs, together with other specialized courses of studies, come perilously close to indoctrination, which is the furthest thing from true education. As I am fond of saying, education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It’s not about instilling in students shared attitudes with their instructors through biased readings and one-sided lectures. So often one hears about the need for greater “cultural diversity” in these discussions, but we hear very little about intellectual diversity, which is at the heart of education. Indeed, at least one woman in academia spoke out against women’s studies when Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst noted that they place politics over education, arguing that “the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.” This sort of thing is miles away from what education is supposed to be about. To take a young person right out of high school and narrow her focus on books and lectures about the plight of women — which is worthy of study, but something that can be studied by anyone who has learned how to learn — is a mistake of the first order. The same could be said about any narrow course of study.

Generally speaking, young people today come out of high school knowing very little and lacking the basic tools required to take possession of their own minds — such tools as a mastery of language, mathematical reasoning, knowledge of the rudiments of science, and, especially, critical thinking. Such things must, then, be the focus of attention in any undergraduate curriculum. In a word, higher education must be built on a broader base than it is at present. That is what the notion of the liberal arts has always been about, and those arts have been swallowed up in the frantic battle at the “higher” levels over politics and intellectual territory. College professors in my experience know little about the purpose of education; they don’t think about it much because they are convinced that their area of study is the only one that really matters. They know a great deal about their own area of expertise and delight in the thought that the young people coming to them want to know more about what they themselves know. Their advice to their charges most often centers around taking more and more courses in their major field of interest — which is also the professor’s own. The result is the placing of blinders on young people who can’t see very well to begin with.  The student becomes the victim because the student cannot possibly know what he or she is missing.

Thus, programs such as “women’s studies” that have a narrow focus and stress information about a tiny region in the domain of what there is to know about our world fool the young into wrongly thinking they are becoming educated persons. Education is about process, about how to learn, because well-educated people will continue to learn throughout their lives and not just during the four years they spend in college. As things now stand, a few bright ones do slip between the cracks and are inspired by their college courses to want to continue to learn. But any notion that such narrow programs as women’s studies, black studies, the examination in detail of the strange rituals of the Hottentot peoples, or one thousand ways to market spaghetti will turn out well-educated people who can think for themselves is absurd on its face. Those who lead  the young should know enough to realize that their own particular interests are not the most important thing; what is most important is the growth of the young minds that come to them empty and sadly inept.

Building Character ?

I admit it: I am a football junkie despite the fact, as many of you are all too aware, that I am a relentless critic of the way football has taken over our colleges and universities and helped turn them away from their true goals. I cannot turn away from the remarkable athleticism and beauty of sports played at the highest levels. This may be inconsistent, but I recall Emerson’s comment that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds” and I find solace in that thought. I will try to keep my mind open to the positives of college sports at the highest levels despite the fact that I know they thwart the true purpose of academia which is to help young minds grow and develop.

One of the arguments used to justify sports is that they help build character, which is true with certain qualifications. Sports are one of the few places left in this culture where young people learn how to learn from failure. They are no longer allowed to fail in school and we hope to protect them from failure in their daily lives as well. In sports, on the other hand, failure is inevitable and people do learn and grow from it. But this is true of sports even at the lowest intra-mural levels: it does not justify the millions of dollars and countless student hours wasted in training and watching sporting events at the highest levels from which very little is learned except by a handful of participants. Any doubts about the inversion of priorities on our NCAA Division I campuses was dispelled in my mind recently when the TV cameras at a major university trolled through a library during “the big game” where we found only three students pouring over their books. Thousands were outside in the stadium with painted faces shouting like escapees from the local insane asylum while three lonely students settled down to their studies.

But I could add the obscene salaries the coaches make which dwarf the salaries of any Nobel prize winners on campus. The most recent example is, of course, Jim Harbaugh at The University of Michigan, which is supposed to be a reputable institution of higher learning. But even his $5 million annual salary does not make him the highest paid college football coach in America. And we can add to those obscene salaries the thousands, and even millions of dollars college coaches make endorsing products from corporations like Nike and Under Armour. It boggles the mind.

But the fiction that football at the highest levels builds character, the one thin thread folks rely on to make the case for athletics at that level, can be doubted because of a brief incident during a recent Bowl game (there are now nearly 40 such games during the holidays) between Baylor University and the University of Michigan. (Yes, I was watching.) It is standard strategy in the closing minutes of close games that the winning team wants to “run the clock” while the losing team wants to stop it any way they can to regroup and come up with the “big play.” In this game Baylor was winning with less than two minutes to play. They had the ball and after a play one of their players remained on the ground in obvious pain. This is a tactic some coaches will use to stop the clock if they are losing, since the clock stops automatically for injured players, but in this case Baylor wanted the clock to keep running. The TV camera went close in on the frantic Baylor coach and his lips were easy to read as he shouted, the veins standing out on his neck, “GET UP GODDAMMIT!” His player was down and in pain, but the delay might cost them the game, and that was clearly the only thing the coach cared about. The coach who sets an example for his players. So much for building character. Remind me not to send my grandchildren to Baylor to play football. Oh yes, they are girls and one seldom, if ever, sees such things in women’s sports. Yet.