Jefferson’s Democracy

Plato had a very low opinion of democracy — perhaps because the demoi, the people, put his teacher, Socrates, to death. In any event, in the Republic where he formulates his ideal state he takes time to describe the various types of polity and the worst of the lot, in his view, is democracy. He describes at some length the types of men he is convinced such a polity, with its confusion of true liberty with license, would produce:

“When a youth, bred in the illiberal fashion that we were describing . . . and associates with fierce and cunning creatures who know how to purvey pleasures of beefy kind and variety and condition, there you must doubtless conceive is the beginning of the transformation . . .in his soul . . . .

“[The lower desires take over] and they seize the citadel of the young man’s soul, finding it empty and unoccupied by studies and honorable pursuits and true discourses, which are the best watchmen and guardians . . .

“. . .  false and braggart words and opinions charge up to the heights and take their place and occupy [the soul] of such a youth. . . they prevail, and naming reverence and awe “folly” thrust it forth, a dishonored fugitive. And temperance they call “want of manhood” and banish it with contempt, and they teach that moderation and orderly expenditure are “rusticity” and “illiberality,” and then combine with a gang of unprofitable and harmful appetites to drive them over the border.”

It should be noted that Thomas Jefferson was a Platonist. He worried that the demoi would assume too much power in the republic he helped designed. Thus, the notion was incorporated into the original Constitution, which he helped Madison design, that the direct election of such high offices as Senator and President were to be left to better qualified persons. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in order to promote the best minds to positions of preeminence in his republic. They would rule and the rest would follow out of regard for the common good. Such was the dream.

What we are seeing today, of course, is the reductio ad absurdum of Jefferson’s dream. The demoi who have been hiding under rocks for years are now crawling forth and voicing their mindless opinions, led by the worst of the worst, the Trumpet. The latest fool to issue forth is the well-known former basketball coach of Indiana University, Bobby Knight, who recently praised Donald Trump as another Harry Truman, saying with a smile, “he is not afraid to drop the bomb.” Can anyone be that stupid? Trump stood by his side also with a grin from ear to ear. Jefferson must be spinning in his grave, as are Adams and Madison and the rest of those remarkable men.

The notion that such a man as Donald Trump can be a serious contender for the highest office in the land must give us pause. He is an embarrassment and totally unqualified to be “leader of the free world.” Initially, the pundits all agreed that his run would be brief and perhaps a bit comical. It has gone on much longer than anyone thought possible and it now appears as though he might actually be the Republican candidate for president. The Horror! This tells us less about Trump and more about those who blindly follow him. The very type of person Plato abhorred appears, like scum, to be rising to the top. And it appears that Bernie Sanders, who is by far our best hope to restore some semblance of Jefferson’s dream, might lose the nomination to Hillary Clinton who, in turn, appears to have a lesser chance to beat Donald Trump in the general election (if the pundits can be believed).

Something has gone terribly wrong.





Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 🙂

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂

Lydia Ko

 Lydia Ko (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Lydia Ko
(Thanks to Wikipedia)

You have probably never heard of her even though she’s the best golfer in the world, male or female; yet we never hear about her exploits.  In fact, as we are told,

On 2 February 2015, [Lydia] became the youngest player of either gender to ever be ranked No. 1 in professional golf by both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Rolex World Golf Ranking at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, eclipsing Tiger Woods who was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days when he became men’s world number one in 1997 and Jiyai Shin who was 22 years and 5 days when she became women’s world number one in 2010.

And yet, again, despite the fact that she has won more times than Tiger Woods did at her age you have probably never heard of her. She seldom gets attention on the large stage of ESPN while every time Tiger Woods stubs his toe it gets headlines. When Charlie Rymer — a former PGA golfer and now a commentator on the Golf Channel — was asked why Lydia wasn’t better known, he hemmed and hawed (as is his habit) and totally failed to answer the question — which is simple: she is a woman. Moreover, she is not American. No matter how gifted she is, and she is regarded by those in the know as the most gifted golfer currently playing the game, she will be widely ignored, not only for the reasons given, but also because she isn’t brash enough. She doesn’t howl  like a wolf and pump her fist when she sinks a putt — as Tiger used to do — or pout when she has a bad day. She lifts her chin and walks to the next tee box and prepares to play. She is a delight, but she doesn’t “sell” to an American audience that wants its athletes to emote loudly and graphically and, if possible, show their vulnerability.

There are a number of factors involved in what might be called the “Ko phenomenon.” I have mentioned the obvious, but there is also the distinct possibility that race plays a part. After all, Ko is a New Zealander of Korean extraction who doesn’t look like the girl next door. And she plays a woman’s game. Even the Golf Channel, which is devoted solely to golf, broadcasts very few hours of women’s golf in a day. It is usually after the main PGA event of the day and is usually cut off for (wait for it) REPLAYS of the men’s event during the prime viewing hours. The major networks seldom bother with any but the major events, which are few in number.  As I said, ESPN seldom even mentions her name and even Sports Illustrated tends to bury her achievements deep in its pages, usually as an afterthought — if they bother to mention her at all.

As one who coached both men’s and women’s tennis for years, I can attest to the bias that exists in this country against women’s sports. In some cases, such as basketball for example, there is a marked difference in ability between the men who play for pay and the women who imitate them as much as possible both in apparel and type of play. Perhaps because of the different skill levels the audience for women’s basketball is meager at best and the women’s professional league struggles to keep its financial head above water. But in tennis and golf, the athletic gap is not that great. Though they don’t hit the ball as hard or as far, women play an exciting brand of both tennis and golf and while women’s tennis at the highest levels gets some semblance of the respect it deserves — and even gets equal pay in the main events —  women’s golf, where the players are exciting to watch and every bit as good as the men, is largely ignored. And, like the women’s soccer team, their remuneration is something of a joke when compared with that of the men.

When one seeks for causes of this phenomenon one comes up with the types of reasons I have given above. But, in the end, the habit of the media to ignore athletes like Lydia Ko may be the reason so few have heard of her. That is to say, the entertainment industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market young women who play a game at the highest level but who seem happy and well-adjusted (they smile, can you imagine?) and not given to histrionics. The entertainment industry wants sensational, viewer-grabbing moments, preferably with tears and perhaps even violence, if possible. Golf generally fails, though the men have found a way to make it more interesting by looking more intense (they seldom smile) and waiving their fists at every opportunity. Not the women. And that seems to be the heart of the problem.

Peer Pressure

One of my favorite comics is “For Better or For Worse,” which I read daily. It involves a dentist, his working wife, and their two kids. In a recent series Elizabeth, one of the children, wants her ears pierced. She is quite young and her mother does not approve, admonishing her to wait until she’s a bit older. But the child goes to school each day where her friends brag about their own pierced ears and tease her about her lack of piercings. The pressure on the child is immense and, like most children in her situation, she feels like an outsider and is hurt by her classmates and their taunting.

But what is also involved, and which the creator of this comic strip is aware of, is the pressure on the mother. She feels strongly that it is not appropriate for her young daughter to pierce her ears, but she hurts when she sees her daughter crying and knows how important it is to her to be accepted by her peers. This is a situation so many mothers are put into daily in our society where acceptance by peers determines in so many cases a child’s sense of self-worth.

There are a couple of problems here, of course. To begin with, a child’s sense of self-worth should not be determined by what a group of her peers thinks or says. In addition, a mother’s sense of what is appropriate should be the last word. After all, she is older and has the perspective of years of experience; she knows what is best for her daughter — presumably. But this is the “real” world where children tease and bully one another and now, with social media, broadcast around the fact that one of their peers is not “with the program.” In a recent post I mentioned how a young girl felt that she was lost if her friends didn’t “like” her every post on social media. She knew this was wrong somehow, but there it was: her sense of self-worth was wrapped up in what a group of her friends thought and said about her on twitter or Facebook. It’s an absurd situation on its face. But it is a fact of life.

In the best of all possible worlds, the mother in the comic strip would hold the line and simply wait until her daughter got over the crisis of the moment. After all, a child’s entire life seems to be made up of a series of such crises. We fail to consider whether or not that is a bad thing: we simply assume it is. In that world, the mother would try to help her daughter learn that her self-worth was in no way dependent on what her peers think about her, but on the kind of person she is and will become. But children cannot be expected to follow such complex thinking – even if it is correct.  And that’s the core of the problem. As long as we are convinced that children must be able to comprehend the reasons why they are being led to do the right thing — and that the right thing cannot simply be forced upon them — we will continue to give in to their whims.

On a larger scale, this is what is going on in our schools as well. Curriculum is determined in so many cases by what they kids enjoy on the grounds that if they are not having fun they are not learning. This is absurd, of course, since we have all learned a great many things we didn’t enjoy learning and at times the most valuable lessons are the ones we learn reluctantly. But we live in the Sesame Street era of progressive education where we have become convinced that children should be entertained and their feelings are paramount; that they should never fail or be subjected to painful experiences. These are powerful sentiments — as are the tugs of peer pressure.So, in the end, we have to give in to the Elizabeths of the world and let them have their ears pierced, even if we know it is inappropriate.

Hannah Arendt said many years ago that this is an avoidance of responsibility on the part of parents who should do what they know is best for their children — whether they like it or not. She applied the same rule to teachers in the schools. As she notes in her extraordinary book Responsibility and Judgment,

“. . . [among other things] progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it. Have we come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change and improve the world?”

With age comes experience and, even at times, wisdom. Children cannot be expected to have this and they must be force-fed at times. It’s what is sometimes called “tough love.” But we have become so afraid of standing firm and trusting our own instincts that we are led by our own kind of peer pressure and out of sympathy with the children let them get their ears pierced even though we know it is not the right thing to do.

The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

Dostoevsky Redux

I am reposting a previous piece of mine that received little or no response — not because of the lack of response but because (a) it’s one of my favorites  (b) Dostoevsky has always seemed to me to be one of the deepest minds I have ever sought to fathom, and (c) I have nothing new to say at this point!

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

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

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

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

Ivan Karamazov would understand — though, in the end, he went mad.

Corporate Power

One of the major issues facing this nation, and one which I have addressed several times on this blog, is that of the immense power of the corporations and their determination to take control of this government. It goes without saying that we are becoming an oligarchy, if that ship hasn’t already sailed. The wealthy hold the reins of power. The real strength of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is his determination to take control away from the corporations and return it to the people — where it should reside. Our democracy is under attack and most of the citizens of this country are totally unaware of this fact. If they pay any attention to politics they simply want do move away from “politics as usual,” a sentiment I strongly share. But the real problem, the elephant in the room, is the unfettered power of major corporations.  The following comments from a site called macintosh show that this is not a new problem:

If the populace ever had true control of the US government, they lost it shortly after the nation’s founding. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people, we have the finest government money can buy.

In 1816 Thomas Jefferson said:
I hope we shall … crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln said:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country … corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

In 1947 George Seldes said in One Thousand Americans:
The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling power. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.

In 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower said:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Since the founding of this nation, prominent thinkers such as those above have warned about the unrestricted power of the corporations. Lincoln’s comment is particularly prescient. The Supreme Court decision Citizens United determined that corporations are legal persons and entitled to the same rights and privileges as you and I. This decision opened the coffers of the corporations who have untold treasure and are throwing it at political candidates right and left in an obvious attempt to buy the government. Sanders is perfectly correct, but the real question is whether he can get enough popular support to stem the tide and return this country to some semblance of what the Founders envisioned.

Related to that, as I have noted in previous blogs, is whether a Democratic Congress would have enough courage to support Bernie in some of his more radical innovations (such as taxing the wealthy!).  It seems doubtful given the number of politicians the corporations already own. A Hillary presidency seems a real possibility given the support that she has within her own party and the fact that she is not much of a threat to the corporations.  So, instead of a return to true democratic principles where the people run the government, it appears we will continue to snail along toward a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.


More Of Same

In my numerous (innumerable?) jottings on the sorry state of higher education these days I have tended to focus most of my attention on the undue emphasis on athletics in “higher” education along with the seemingly endless athletic scandals that have been a part of the collegiate climate. To be sure there have been many and they continue to be revealed at an alarming rate. But there is more.

The remarkable group in Washington D.C. that keeps an eye on the level of education in America today, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, shares with us other information that is almost as alarming as the scandals above mentioned. For example,

• Clemson University is spending $55 million on an athletics complex that will feature a mini-golf course, sand volleyball courts, laser tag, a movie theater, bowling  lanes, and a barber shop. This recreation palace is not open to all Clemson students or even to all Clemson athletes. It is reserved for the exclusive use of the Clemson Tiger football team!

• The University of Michigan added 77 new full-time positions to its athletics department between 2004 and 2014 adding $13 million to its payroll. That included the hiring of a longtime NBA marketing executive as “chief marketing officer” for Michigan’s athletics — a position that didn’t exist prior to his hire!

• The University of Mississippi college football program had a payroll that grew from $212,702 to $2,170,676 over the course of a decade.

And these are all public universities and the athletes are the ones who claim they are exploited and insist they should be paid to play. While there’s some truth in their claim, at least at Clemson their case would be a hard sell. But, wait, there’s more!

• Last year rapper “Big Scan” headlined at the University of Minnesota’s homecoming concert. His booking fee was a staggering$75,000. To add insult to injury, the University charged its own students $20.00 each to attend the concert.

• California State University at Fullerton is set to spend almost $400,000 on this year’s “spring concert.” It hasn’t yet even announced who’s performing.

• The University of Michigan built a dorm featuring a luxury dining hall where students can enjoy salmon fillets, lamb, and shark.

• The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has a dining hall with a pub, saunas, and ten racquetball courts.

All of this is occurring at a time when the quality of higher education is on a downward slide. Incoming students, even at “select” colleges and universities, are often required to take remedial courses; grade inflation is rampant — to the point where Columbia University medical school won’t take Harvard graduates because they all have a 4.0 grade — the “A” grade has become meaningless; “entitled” students demand that courses be easy and they be given high grades, just as they will do when they graduate and seek employment with little work and high salaries; core academic requirements have been all but gutted at even the most prestigious universities despite the fact that students are generally less well prepared for college work than they were a decade ago and the average college student has little knowledge of history or political science, reads and writes at a grammar-school level, and cannot calculate the tip in a restaurant.

To make natters worse, colleges are introducing courses and majors that have little or no academic merit and will leave the student unprepared for a changing and complex future. For example:

• Plymouth State University offers a B.S. in “Adventure Education” to “teach you how to use the Great Outdoors to expose children, adults, and at-risk populations to challenging adventures, personal growth, and self-discovery.”

• Bowling Green State University offers a B.A. in Popular Culture. Students can earn a minor in Folklore.

• The University of Connecticut offers a B.F.A. in Puppet Arts.

It would appear that the problems in higher education at a time when costs are skyrocketing do not attach themselves only to athletics scandals. There is something rotten in the state of higher education and there appear to be very few who are either aware there is a problem or willing and/or able to do anything about it. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni continues to work to raise awareness in the hope that alumni, at least, will bring pressure to bear on the colleges and universities that take large amounts of student’s money without offering them much in return. But, as you can imagine it is an uphill battle at a time when competition for bodies in the classroom is ferocious and “entitled” students are led to expect that they will be provided a quality education in a country-club atmosphere where the football game and the party on the weekend are the main concern. Education be damned! Where’s the beer?

Great Art

One of my pet peeves — and I have many — is the rejection of the notion that art and literature can be great. The academic community, especially, has taken the lead in reducing all evaluation to feeling. But, as I have told my aesthetics students for years: art is not spinach! It cannot be reduced to a question of whether or not we like it. Instead of concentrating on the painting, let us say, its imaginative technique, its harmonies and perspective, subtle nuances of balance and imbalance, exceptional style of coloration, we look and say something like “It just doesn’t do it for me.” In a word, we stop talking about the painting and focus instead on our own personal responses. We do the same thing in ethics, of course, where we insist that good and evil are merely words we attach to our acceptance of rejection of certain types of actions — such as rape and murder. “That’s just not the way we do things here in Peoria.” How absurd.

Robert Persig wrote a cult novel years ago titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which he concluded that no one can define “value,” but everyone knows it when he sees it. The same holds true of great art and literature, it seems to me (though experience helps). It also holds true in such mundane things as sports where we all recognize the greatness of a basketball player such as Steph Curry or a tennis player such as Roger Federer. Greatness, like value, cannot be defined, but it is putatively THERE in the world. It cannot be reduced to feelings — though feelings are certainly part of the equation.

There are great writers and great painters, just as there are great composers, dancers, actors, and, yes, basketball players. They stand out from the rest and they invite us to revisit their performances or their works. A great novel — such as Middlemarch by George Eliot — invites repeated readings. It has well defined and interesting characters who remind us of people we know, even ourselves, and thus gives us insight into our our minds and hearts, and of those around us. It is beautifully written, with elegant dialogue and suggestions of irony and humor. And the plot draws us in and takes us on a trip we are sad to see end. A great painting invites us to look at our world again and try to see what the artist saw, adding depth and dimension to the ordinary world. In fact, this is the great crime, if you will, of the reduction of all artistic response to personal reaction: it closes us off to the world around us.

I regard this as part of what I have called in print our “inverted consciousness,” our collective determination to turn away from the world and focus attention on ourselves. It reaches its pinnacle with the aspergers patient who is unaware of the effect he is having on others. But we all seem to be subject to it in differing degrees. However we label it, the phenomenon translates to a shrunken world, lacking in color, sound, and dimension.

I have always thought that this is the real value of great works of art and literature. They open to us a world we would otherwise ignore in our fascination with things personal. Doubtless we should have strong feelings in the presence of great works, but those feelings should not be allowed to close us off to what is going on in the work itself. And it is what is going on in the works that discloses to us added dimensions of our world, makes of it a three or even a four-dimensional world instead of a flat sheet. We need to look, hear, and see the world around us. And this is what great works or art invite us to do.

In A Word

I caught the tail end of a weekly show on ESPN called “Jalen and Jacoby” in which two former athletes exchange what are supposed to be barbs but which come across as a high school sketch gone terribly wrong. In any event, David Jacoby mentioned that Jalen Rose loved “etos” chips — any chips ending in “etos,” especially Cheetos. He was reminded that Cheetos are made with palm oil which comes from the rain forest and that every time he eats a Cheeto he is killing one more branch of a tree in the rain forest (grin). Further, he was asked: knowing that we depend on trees to breathe don’t you care about life on earth or the earth itself?

Jalen responded that he does care about clean air and the planet but “I’m not sure I can give up my Cheetos.”

This was supposed to be funny, I suppose, tongue in cheek. But it tells us a great deal about the man Jalen Rose and about so many other people on this planet who are just like him. We don’t want to give up what we want in order to benefit later. We focus on short-run pleasure and while we may pay lip-service to the long term, we really don’t give it any serious thought.

I am reminded of the story going around about the frog. If he is placed in water and it is brought to a slow boil, he will die. If you try to place the frog in boiling water he will make every effort possible to escape. It’s all about the here and now for me and not at all about the future. Not just for frogs and not just for Jalen Rose. But for so many of us.