True Conservatism

In the spirit of reposting, a spirit that has moved me of late, I repost  here what I wrote seven years ago. A reminder that words have meanings.

It has always struck me as strange that those who call themselves “conservative” are so often violently opposed to environmentalism, especially in these times when the survival of the planet is in question. They love to throw stones at the “tree huggers,” even though the tree huggers are also conservatives, which is to say those who want to conserve what is important and beautiful. The stone-throwers are simply what my thesis adviser at Northwestern called “dollar conservatives.” These people just want to hang on to their money and watch it grow. Dante placed them in Hell with a bag of gold hanging around their necks forcing their heads down and their attention directed to the bag — waiting, presumably, for it to grow even larger.

This all goes back to the loose ways we use words, a theme I have visited before in my blogs. And one of the loosest words is certainly “conservative.” There are a great many types of conservatives among whom I number myself on occasion. Like George Eliot I enjoy it when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

I am indeed eager to conserve tradition and the great works of the human spirit; I am no devotee of progress for its own sake. Such people, I am given to understand, are called “intellectual conservatives,” as distinct from “dollar conservatives.” The latter want to lower taxes by cutting social programs, such as education, social security, environment, energy, and science, and even veterans’ benefits while at the same time increasing “defense” spending which already comprises 58% of this nation’s “Discretionary Spending” and is a misnomer if there ever was one (speaking of words and their meanings). I hesitate to suggest that it is possible that dollar conservatives are more interested in conserving the contents of their own pocketbooks than they are this nation and the world around them.

That is, those who seem preoccupied about lowering the taxes don’t seem to realize that lowering taxes might just destroy what is essential — not just social programs, which they would as soon see dry up, but the fiscal well-being of a solid middle class which many would regard as the backbone of a healthy society. In fact, lowering the taxes — without, say, reducing such things as defense spending, which is currently 15 times larger than the amount we spend on education — would put is in even deeper debt to nations like China and India to whom we now owe billions of dollars. The notion that we can save the country by reducing taxes is not only short-sighted, it is incredibly stupid. Like it or not, taxes are a necessary evil and we actually benefit by paying more, not less — as we know from the years after World War II when the dollar conservatives paid their fair share and the economy was booming.

Thus, dollar conservatives are not true conservatives at all. The true conservatives are the tree huggers and those who want to save life on this planet together with those who refuse to let go of the beautiful and magnificent works of the human mind that have defined Western civilization for hundreds of years. In a word, conservatives are preservationists who are focused on things they regard as more important than their pocketbook.

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Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

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 small 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 return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, 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. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or 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. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. 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 completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Goodreads

Writers crave readers. I don’t care what they (or I) say; it is true. When words are written down, and especially when they are collected into a book, the writer wants to know that someone else has read those words and reacts to them in some fashion or other. When David Hume wrote his monumental Treatise, for example, it did not sell. As he said, “it fell stillborn from the presses.” Today it is regarded as one of the most important pieces of writing in the history of philosophy, something that every graduate student (if not undergraduate major) must read. But that is small solace for Hume who is very dead. In his lifetime it was not appreciated fully and he wrote the shorter, and more popular, Enquiry along the same lines and it did sell. Apparently the English audience was just not ready for the longer version. It does require a determined effort.

I have written or edited thirteen books along with numerous articles and book reviews. I love to write because I am interested in many things going on around me and I find that writing about them helps me to organize and clarify my thoughts. If I work my way through a problem and am able to find a way to express my conclusions I want to put them “out there” and see if they resonate with someone else. This is why I write my blog, of course, because I want to engender thought. That is why I went into teaching philosophy in the first place.  Thus, paying homage to Socrates, I called my blog “The Daily Gadfly,” though I found that daily entries were too demanding.

Not all of my blogs are first-rate. Many are not even second-rate. But a few were pretty good and I thought it would be worthwhile to collect them into a book form, into chapters, with an index. I found a willing publisher and dedicated the book to my fellow bloggers, thinking they, of all people, would appreciate it and want to have a look. But, like Hume, this one “fell stillborn from the presses.” The publisher has given more away than he has sold, sad to say. But I remind myself: this is not a reading public, by and large. And many of those who read want to read snippets. This is why USA Today came into being. And, moreover, those very same blog posts that are in my book are also on-line for anyone to read — and for free. But they are not carefully selected, collected and organized in an attractive book with a cover designed by one of my former students!

In any event, I was aimlessly perusing the internet the other day, browsing on Google, and found on the web site goodreads a brief review by Emily of that very book. I was pleased because I had become convinced that not only has no one bought it, but, surely, very few have read it! In any event, I thought I would share her review with you in case you need to buy a graduate a present this Spring. Or something. Remarkably it is still available from Amazon of directly from the publisher Ellis Press in Granite Falls, Minnesota.

I love how this book discusses all important topics of life: love, religion, death, and education. This book presents Hugh’s philosophy in an easy, approachable manner. These entries, from his old blog posts, are organized into several sections so you can simply search for what you want.

If, I say

If, as they say, wisdom — or at least practical wisdom or prudence — demands that we seek to control those things within our province and ignore those things we cannot possibly change, if, I say, that is what wisdom demands, then we need to ask a few questions. To begin with, we need to be able to recognize those things within our province. What things are within reach, as it were? What things CAN we control? Please note that this demands not only self-awareness, but knowledge of the world around us.

We are faced with many very large problems, nationally and globally. There is not much we can do about many of those problems except to elect leaders who seem to mean what they say and hope they are not simply lying in order to be elected. They may have the power and position to do something about, say, nuclear disarmament. We do not. Based on the historical record, however, we should not be too optimistic on that account.

Let’s stay a bit closer to home. Take global warming. Again, this is a huge problem and we can only hope that those we elect to public office realize the problem and are willing to risk their careers to take on the corporations that are determined to deny the problem in the name of larger and larger profits. Radical change requires a major commitment on the part of governments and those who support governments. But there are things we can do as well.

We can recycle; avoid plastics whenever possible; turn the heat down in the winter and put on a sweater; turn the air conditioning up in the Summer; drive economical cars or, better yet, walk or ride a bicycle; replace inefficient heating and lighting systems with more efficient and economical ones. You know, small things that matter. We can become engaged in movements to save the planet if we determine that those movements show promise. We can support them financially and, better still, become involved personally. And there are other things of this sort that we can determine are “within our province” — if we are serious about addressing the problem.

But closer than that to home are the folks around us who are homeless and without food. Those of us who can help with donations to worthy causes can do that; those who are in position to do so can help out at food kitchens and participate in drives to raise money for food and clothing for those around us who suffer. It appears that there are many in this country who do genuinely care and who grab their checkbooks when they read or hear that there are those in need. There are some who belittle this effort, saying that it is the easy way out. But for many this is the only option if they are to help at all. And it is something that helps those who need help.

And we can love those around us, family and friends, who need our support and who support us in our hour of need. There are many things we can do to “be there” for those close to us. This sounds trite, but it is a step toward the wisdom we seek, the wisdom that eventually leads to happiness.

 

Our Revolution

I am reading a book that is a collection of letters, papers, journal and diary entries written by people who lived and fought during the American Revolution. It is intriguing, since it provides conflicting points of view — both pro-American and pro-English. It is fascinating, for example, to read an account of the battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 first from the American point of view and then from the British. They read like there were two such battles! So much for objective reporting.  Several other things have already struck me about those articles.

To begin with, it is quite clear that the British simply do not understand why the colonists have rebelled. They remain bewildered throughout. They held the colonists in low regard to begin with and thought they would never be foolish enough to take on the British army; when it happened in Lexington and Concord they were dumbstruck. But through it all they simply couldn’t grasp why these “rebels” as they called them did not want the protection of the mighty British army and navy. After all, they had recently fought together to toss out the French from the colonies and why on earth would they not want to remain as loyal citizens of Great Britain?

During the war Britain made several attempts to settle the conflict peaceably, even to the point of promising no taxes whatever! But they never would accept the idea that America was an independent nation. Indeed, they scoffed at the notion. But it was American independence that was the sticking point — together with skepticism about the reliability of the word of the British parliament.

There were innumerable instances of utter brutality on both sides. The Hessians, who fought as allies with the British, along with various Indian tribes, were particularly brutal, raping, pillaging, and burning homes seemingly at will — despite orders form the British to cease and desist. But, on the other hand, there is an entry in a journal written by a colonial soldier who describes the killing of two Indians, who were scalped, and who were then stripped of their flesh from the waist down in order to provide the soldier with a pair of trousers! The entry is written in a casual matter-of-fact style that makes the reader shudder.

We read about the chronic inability of Washington to maintain a fighting force. His frustration with the unpredictable and undisciplined militia is palpable in reading his repeated requests for a standing army. And there were repeated requests for clothes and support as well. The militia was weakened by lack of discipline and short terms of enlistment; desertions were commonplace. When deserters were caught they were summarily shot (as were spies on both sides), but they were seldom caught and Washington’s forces were rarely numerous enough or well enough clothed, fed, and armed to successfully defeat the enemy. Three years into the war the army was exhausted and many, in the South especially, were unwilling to fight. Victories were rare. If the French had not decided to join the colonists the war would have been over fairly quickly and with a completely different outcome.

One entry warmed my heart since it was written by a soldier who fought in one of the rare successes Washington experienced early in the war: the battle of Princeton. The author describes the behavior of one of my ancestors — a Brigadier General who fought with Washington and who died from wounds sustained in that battle — as “courageous.” I was pleased to read that, but there were numerous examples of courage along with examples of awful brutality on both sides and the material provides us with a remarkable glimpse into the way people behave during  times of great upheaval. One reflection written by Thomas Brown to his friend David Ramsay about the war in Georgia in 1781 is worth quoting:

“A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity.”

Additionally, we are allowed to glimpse into the lives of those who refused to fight. The Quakers, of course, but also many who remained loyal to England — even to the point of writing letters to local papers satirizing the behavior of the colonists. Many of these Tories, loyal to the King, later joined on the side of the British as the war wore on. But neutrality was itself a battle. We are allowed to see the conflict, even within homes, between those who thought the colonists were warranted in rebelling against Britain and members of the same family who remained loyal to the British throughout. In fact, James Fenimore Cooper write a novel about those very conflicts between two daughters within the home of a wealthy farmer in New York whose house was large and well suited to provide shelter and food for tired and hungry soldiers (usually officers, of course) on both sides of the conflict.

In a word, we rediscover the fact that war brings out the best and the worst in folks, which is not new. But we also come to realize that the issues that brought on that war were never clear to many who participated in it, many did not want to have anything to do with the war, and it may or may not have been worth such widespread death and destruction for so many years.

Pay For Play

Increasingly those who claim to be in the know suggest that athletes at the NCAA Division I level should get paid to play the games they play in college — especially the revenue sports such as basketball and football. The argument runs that paying the athletes to play will circumvent the sorts of scandal that are all-too common in collegiate sports these days.

For example, Zion Williamson, the extraordinary basketball player who recently completed a sensational Freshman year at Duke University finds himself involved in a scandal resulting from the claim that Nike gave his mother a considerable sum of money to make sure he would thereafter wear their product. Allegedly, Nike also made it “convenient” for him to attend Duke University which is a “Nike” University — i.e., a university that  receives (as does its basketball coach) baskets full of money to have their players wear their shoes and clothing. In a word, the players become walking endorsements for the Nike products, which makes it obligatory that young kids spend many, many dollars to wear Nike products worn by their heroes and heroines (and frequently made in sweat shops in the “Third World”).  It’s allegedly been going on for many years, but the F.B.I. has recently become involved because laws may have been broken.

Clearly, there are moral laws broken here and there, but we tend to look the other way as long as our team continues to win. But the question remains: should those athletes simply get paid for the job they do, since there is such a huge amount of money involved? Surely, they are the ones earning the money their colleges and universities pocket after the season and the tournaments are over. Laws or no laws, it simply seems to be the fair way to doing things. And if it reduces the instances of fraud and corruption so much the better.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the Fall of 2001, I published a paper in the Montana Professor in which I argued that athletes at the NCAA Division I level (in the revenue sports) should be paid to play their sports. I gave my reasons and I still think my plan is more honest than anything I have heard recently that is supposed to solve what is clearly a moral problem — if not a legal one. Here’s the heart and soul of my argument:

[A]t the Division I level . . .  I would recommend eliminating all pretense by admitting that major sports at that level are a proving ground for professional athletics–especially football, basketball (both men’s and women’s), and, to a lesser extent, baseball. Young people who choose to participate in athletics at that level should not be required to attend classes and they should be paid a fair salary to play: athletes at the major universities thereby becoming members of minor league teams wearing school colors and sponsored by the universities and their alumni. . . . .

In the event that some of the athletes on these teams actually want to pursue an education, they can pay tuition along with everyone else. Presumably, they will be better able to do this with the money they make from their sport. This step would remove the hypocrisy that exists at present, and the universities would be able to apply the most promising of current business practices to organized sport, without worrying about interference from the NCAA. In the event that the costs of fielding a professional team become prohibitive, the universities can eliminate play-for-pay and move to the Division II level where, even as things now stand, financial losses from athletics are typically considerably less than at the Division I level. Eliminating athletic “scholarships,”  would further reduce costs. In the event that costs are still prohibitive, the universities would have to eliminate some of the sports programs–a reasonable proposal given the large number of sports that involve such a small number of students (and one that is already being adopted by a number of Division I schools). Dropping football at a typical Division II school that currently offers “scholarships” to athletes, for example, can save that school close to $200,000 a year, according to a recent NCAA study. To encourage greater student participation in sports, a larger share of the athletic budget could then be allocated to intramural sports, which involve a great many more students.

The strength of this model is simply that it is more honest, since very few of the athletes in major sports at the Division I level are students in anything but the loosest sense of that term. On a more positive note, since the perks that athletes currently receive at the Division I level–posh living accommodations, scholarships, meals, medical treatment, automobiles, etc.–“do not come close to representing the value of the athletes to the school in publicity, revenues, etc.,” this model would acknowledge that these athletes are professionals and treat them accordingly.*

This may not solve the problem altogether, because where such huge sums of money are involved there will always be corruption. But it does, as I say, seem to be the most honest way to deal with the problem. One thing for sure, it will bury the myth once and for all that these kids are “student-athletes.” They are athletes who may choose, if they pay tuition, to be students.

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*For the complete essay, “The Tail That Wags The Dog,” see my blog main page and check the URL in the comment for a clearer copy.

Change

Presumably liberals are, by definition, progressive in that they push for the new and regard change in and of itself a good thing. So I’ve been told. I must conclude, then, that I am not a liberal, since I do not think change is a good thing, necessarily, and am not “progressive” in my thinking. Rather, I am “old-fashioned.” I am more Tory than Whig on many topics, especially education and child-rearing. Not so much on social and political issues, however. My conservatism, if such it is, does not extend to wealth and power, which I regard as something to be divided rather than hoarded. I have always thought people were more important than profits. I worry that ethics get lost in the frenzy to make more profit.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that progress in medicine has prolonged life and, indeed, made my so-far long life possible. I have had a number of surgeries in my lifetime and am currently dealing with several medical complaints. Years ago I would be dead by now.

But aside from that, I can’t think of any changes in my lifetime that suggest progress, which is to say, movement forward, an improvement in the hurly burly of everyday life. Instead I see around me people in a tizzy, lost in their electronic world pushing buttons and ignoring the real world around them which, if they looked up, they would realize can be quite stunning. The artists among us, and there are still a few, keep reminding us; but increasingly their pleas fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

The steam engine found itself squarely in the middle of the garden during the industrial revolution, and the noise it made drowned out the sound of the birds and the gentle stream at our feet. Our ears can no longer pick up the soft sounds of the real world that surrounds us. Then came “progress,” and now we wallow in noise and confusion, dizzy and disoriented. The steam engine has run amok.

But, one of the most insidious factors in the brave new world in which we live is the entertainment industry. I have come to fault that industry, among others, for many of the ills of present-day society. It creates a make-believe world that invites people to escape from reality which, generally speaking, they have a weak hold upon to begin with. And that hold weakens as time goes by. This has allowed so many people to buy into a flawed presidential candidate who promised them the power they feel when they play video games, folks who feel a deep need to build up their tottering self-esteem as they admire a president they can identify with and attend occasional religious ceremonies that assure them they are really good people.

But, ignoring for the moment the deluded state of such people, think about it. Things happen faster these days and so many us fail to see what’s going on around us. We don’t even look around. Moreover, we are convinced bigger and faster are good things when, in fact, slower and smaller are often to be preferred. I am fond of quoting a passage from one of George Eliot’s novels in which she says she sometimes prefers when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

That pretty much sums it up. We simply assume that the new is better and that progress inevitably follows upon change of any sort. This is surely not the case. At times we need to stop and look around and think about the “crumbling, picturesque inefficiency” we have lost sight of in our hurry to get somewhere else.

I am fully aware that “the good old days” were full of pain and suffering. But, then, so are the good new days. And the really sad truth is that we are now much more aware of the sufferings of others, not to mention the planet itself, and we simply look away because we are too self-involved to care. It is not a formula for happiness.

Our Spoiled Kids

I went back to the very first year I started to post blogs (November 2011) and (with a few additions) found the following one. I wanted to see just how much I am starting to repeat myself — and I am, of course. But this one struck me as worthy of a repost. I was attempting then, as I am now, to provoke thought and this one seems to fit the bill!

Sigmund Freud is looked down upon by a great many modern psychologists because he based many of his theories on his analysis of neurotic Victorian women who had sexual hang-ups. He is especially vilified by the angry feminists who see him not as the father of modern psychology but as enemy #1. At the university where I worked for 37 years, I had a colleague in the psychology department, for example, who had a profile of Freud mounted on her bulletin board with a red circle surrounding it with a diagonal line cutting across. She refused to teach anything the man wrote, she hated him so much. But Freud had a number of important things to tell us about the human animal. One thing he insisted upon was that character is pretty much formed by the time a child is five years old. Let’s consider the implications of this for today’s world.

What happens, typically, in those early years? In many cases working parents drop the kids off at day care, which is often little more than glorified baby-sitting, and then pick them up at the end of the day too exhausted to spend any quality time with them. So they set their children down in front of the TV where they watch ill-mannered kids mouthing off to their parents, or violent cartoons that send visceral messages. Mostly they are bombarded by hundreds of chaotic images each minutes until their brains are addled and their attention spans shrink. But what they can make out they imitate. All animals learn from imitation, as we know, and as we too are animals we also learn from what we see. So the kids finally go to grade school with their brains stunted by too much TV and their character weakened by being ignored by their parents, watching weak role models on television, and thinking violence is a matter of course.

In school overworked and underpaid teachers are told to help build learning skills in these ill-prepared students while at the same time helping to mold the character that has been too often ignored at home. When this does not happen, as is often the case, the parents blame the schools for their own failures and the students are left to fend for themselves as uneducated and flawed adults. Meanwhile the parents holler aloud when the teachers want more pay and better working conditions. “Raise my taxes?? Not on your life!”

In sum, we have kids growing up in families where the parent or parents work. They are handed over to day-care and come home to empty houses, eat junk food, and sit down in front of the TV. They watch whatever comes on, and being the animals we all are, they imitate what they see on TV. As they head to school their parents expect the harried teachers to instill good behavior in their kids — kids whose brains have been fried, as  Dr. Jane Healy tells us, before they ever sit down in first grade. The teachers are supposed to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic — while also raising the child to be a good adult. Sometimes it happens because there are dedicated, underpaid and overworked teachers out there; but most often it doesn’t.  The result is then a spoiled brat whose parents cannot deny him anything because they have been told that discipline is a bad thing and they feel guilty about leaving them alone so much. The child often has ADD, craves attention, is prone to violence, and has no idea whatever how he is supposed to behave in the world around him. He may even grow up to be president!

What I have sketched here is based on generalizations, of course. And generalizations always allow of exceptions. There are bright and capable kids who have turned out to be good students and well-adjusted adults in spite of working parents, TV,  violent games, and day care. There have also been adults with weak character who have turned out to be bad eggs in spite of being raised at home with a loving parent or two. But there is usually a core of truth in generalizations that are based on careful observation and the expert testimony of people like Dr. Healy, author of Endangered Minds, who work with kids daily. And the increasing failure of our schools and the growing numbers of out-of-control kids who turn into narcissistic adults raise profound questions about our priorities and the obligations we have to our kids and to one another.

Beacon?

On one of my favorite shows on ESPN recently there was a discussion around the table about the new football coach at the Arizona Cardinals who has announced that he will take a break every so often in team meetings to allow the players to check with their phones. There were about a half-dozen people around the table and all of them, except for the main man (a graduate of Northwestern University I am ashamed to say), pilloried the coach calling the move “childish,” or “foolish,” and simply stupid –an attempt to prove his coaching methods are “cutting edge,” an attempt to draw attention to himself, perhaps.

The main man at the table (whom I generally agree with) disagreed heartily with the entire group saying that the younger generation are wedded to their phones and coaches generally need to tailor their approach to the generation they are dealing with. These young men have shorter attention spans so we should give them time to check their phones and they will return to the meeting with renewed attention. This is a younger generation (one of the group actually used the correct term “millennials” to describe them) and we need to adapt.

In itself this is a trivial discussion, but looking at the larger picture, as a reflection of the attitude among teachers, coaches, and parents generally  it is just a bit alarming. What it suggests is that we need to tailor the material we teach, coach, or hope our children to learn to the children themselves. In a word, we need to teach down to the kids. This translates into “dumbing down the curriculum” in the schools, which, of course, is what has occurred across the nation at all levels.  If we set the bar low enough everyone can get over it and will feel good about themselves. No child left behind. Don’t ask them to try to do too much.

To which I say “BOLLOCKS!” The young need to grow and learn and the only way they can do so is by their parents, teachers, and coaches demanding that they reach a little higher. As John Stuart Mill once said, we don’t know what is possible for a person until we ask them to do the impossible. The effort will cause occasional failure, but that in itself can be a valuable lesson. In the end they will realize that what is worth doing may not be altogether pleasant or provide an immediate reward, none the less it may prove to be very rewarding.

In the instance of education, Robert Hutchins said it well many years ago: “education is supposed to be a beacon, not a mirror.” We have turned our schools and homes into mirrors. We don’t ask the students or children — or now young adult professional footballers —  to do what they don’t want to do. Worse yet, we ask them what they want and then attempt to give it to them — hence the mirror analogy. This, of course, is the business model that has impacted our culture at so many levels: find out what the customer wants and then sell it to him.  We enable them and thereby cripple them. Instead of reaching higher and growing in the process, they find things made simple and the rewards instant and universal: everyone succeeds; no one fails.

As I say, this is bollocks.  We rob the young and we cheat them all in the name of making life easier and lowering the bar so everyone can skip over easily with no effort whatever. The footballers want to clutch their phones to see how their social networks are doing so we allow that and in doing so we tell them that what they want is more important than what their coaches know damn well they need. In this case, finding out how many “likes” a man receives is more important than learning the game plan for Sunday’s game.

Make the players turn their phones off and pay attention for a few hours. Man up! A football game doesn’t really matter, of course. But as far as life-lessons are concerned this is a serious problem. This is a formula for failure, pure and simple.

The group was right in this case: the coach’s move is stupid, to say the least. And the Northwestern alum who led the group and who should know better (and who based his weak argument on his own experience with his teen-age children) was wrong. Sorry about that.

What’s Wrong Here?

Perhaps you have seen the commercial. The idea is to sell Corona Beer and we close in on a magnificent, large home on a lake with four friends in their early 30s (all trim and fit) sitting out-of-doors at a table laughing and admiring themselves when suddenly a gust of wind blows out their candle. One of the more enterprising young men takes out his iPhone, turns on the flashlight and sets it under a bottle of “Carona Premier” which is thereby lit up and provides them with the light they need to continue to admire themselves and applaud genius.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Look again, if you will: the house behind them, huge and modern, has EVERY SINGLE LIGHT TURNED ON! So what? you might ask. And that’s the problem. Very few — if any other than nattering nabobs of negativism like yours truly — will see anything whatever wrong with this commercial. But all I can see is the wanton waste reflected in the fact that all the lights in that huge house are turned on. It says to me: this is a culture that is not only self-absorbed, and thirsty, but also terribly wasteful and unconcerned. We are a use and toss-away culture that thinks only about today and what might give us pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I like beer. I particularly like Corona beer. It’s yummy. I also suspect the director was going for mood and visual effect. All of this is irrelevant. The point is that those who decided to present us with this commercial message gave away the game: we simply don’t give a damn. It’s that simple.

Now I would venture to bet that anyone to whom I preach (and I realize that it is not a choir but perhaps only small chorus) would agree with the underlying message. I am aware of this. But we need to save the planet and it will take each of us doing whatever we can to help — though we would prefer to diss the Congress and point the finger at them rather than at ourselves. This is another feature of our culture: we don’t really like to accept criticism or responsibility. It’s easier and more comforting to place the blame elsewhere. But the planet needs our undivided attention: it is in serious jeopardy. And showing four mindless models sitting in front of a house with eighty-five rooms all lit up sends the wrong message — especially since the folks who sit in front of that house are proving to all of us that it’s all about having a beer and having fun. No worries. We’re having a great time — and look how clever Fred is with his iPad lighting up the table! Brilliant!

I fully realize that I see things like this and they bother me. I write about those things that bother me and that are worth thinking about. But this makes many people uncomfortable. I titled my blog the “Daily Gadfly” and initially determined to write a post each day about the goings-on around me. It became too stressful, for many reasons. So I slowed down and post only a couple of times a week — and I try to stay away from political machinations as they are way too depressing. But the job of the gadfly is to disturb and irritate in order to engender thought. It was a label Socrates wore proudly. But it puts people off and they turn away to look for happier news. No kitties or flowers here, folks. Sorry.

Indeed I do tend to see the glass half empty while others are able to see it half full. This makes me a pessimist I suppose, though I regard myself as a realist. In any event, the future of the planet and indeed the human race is a matter of genuine concern — for optimists and pessimists alike. But however we see the glass, we need to be awake and aware and to think about the things that each of us can do in our small way to address a very large problem.

And that starts with turning out the damn lights!