Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.

Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

Tennis Lessons

I was a tennis teaching professional for 35 years giving private lessons — first at a private club just outside of Chicago and then in the Summers while I was teaching full-time in philosophy at the university — running tennis camps, and coaching for 15 years, both men and women. My approach to private lessons was pretty much the same: hit with the pupil for a few minutes to see what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. I didn’t have a formula which I tried to force on every player. I took what they had and tried to work with it, bending the lesson to fit the pupil. I usually saw fairly quickly what they needed to do to improve their game and I would make a few suggestions to them — avoiding criticism and making sure I didn’t say something that might undermine their confidence or make them self-conscious. If what I said failed to work, I tried to say the same thing using different words: everyone is different. Eventually something I said would seem to work and I piled on the praise and relied on repetition to help groove the stroke and make it work better for the pupil.

The year after college I taught arithmetic, history, geography, and science to boys in grades 3 through 7 at a private school. I also coached football and basketball. I learned during that year to apply the same techniques I had used on the tennis court: listen carefully and observe; be patient and full of praise when the students got the message. And I tried to keep my sense of humor throughout — giving private lessons, in the classroom, or while coaching intercollegiate tennis players.

What I learned over the years is that teaching is not a science; it is an art. There are no “methods” that can be taught to every aspiring teacher that will work with all the students — or even the majority of them. This is why I have become so critical of the methods courses taught in education programs across the nation. They rest on the faulty assumption that teaching is a science. The best thing that could be done for our teachers is to encourage them to take an academic major in college — history, English, biology, chemistry, sociology, mathematics, whatever — and then take a year as an apprentice to a veteran teacher. The veteran can give the aspiring teacher tips on what has worked over the years for them — how to reach the quiet or subdued pupils in the class, for example, instead of teaching to the ones that always raise their hands. There are things that can be learned, but not sitting in a classroom in college working through a manual on “methods.”

I have come to believe that this is the best plan. I would note in passing that the teachers at the private school where I taught for that year all had legitimate college degrees and none of them (that’s right, none of them) was “certified” to teach. They were not driven away from teaching like so many bright, young people by having to take tedious and pointless “methods” courses. They learned on the go and, for the most part, were very good at what they did. Granted, the students were bright but the principle is the same. The best way to learn how to teach is to be patient, be aware of what is going on around you, and have adequate communication skills to make your point in a variety of ways in order to reach the largest number of pupils. These are not things that can be learned in a department of education. They must be natural or acquired on the job in a classroom teaching others what you yourself have learned, what excites you.

I realize that I am drawing on my own personal experience to make a general point, and I hasten to note that I do not regard myself as an outstanding teacher. I always taught to the brightest and loved most working with the best athletes. But I have observed over the years countless others who are either good or bad teachers and have tried to understand what made the difference.  And as Director of an Honors Program I saw many a bright, aspiring teacher turn away from teaching because of the boring methods courses they were required to take. To repeat, teaching is an art, not a science. And if we want to start attracting the best and brightest students to the teaching profession we need to admit that we cannot teach others how to teach.

The Blind Leading

I strongly opposed the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She is obviously unqualified since she has no experience whatever with American public education.  (And I hasten to note in passing that I attended public schools for the requisite 12 years.) In any event, my blogging buddy Jill was spot on when she noted in a recent post that the DeVos appointment appears to be a determined effort on the part of this Administration to dumb down America even further.

But, then, I reflected on one basic question: is the American public education system already beyond repair? Can it be saved? And that question took me to some very sad truths (not alternative facts, but actual facts). To begin with is the “Blob.” This is the name one theorist has given to the huge bureaucracy that controls public education in this country. I have first-hand experience with such a bureaucracy on a smaller scale in my years in public higher education in Minnesota. When I started teaching in this state in 1968 there were six state universities and one Chancellor who, with his secretary, oversaw the system from his office in St. Paul. By the time I retired 37 years later his office took an entire city block in St. Paul and was peopled by hundreds of drones who scurried back and forth issuing directives that necessitated more and more administrative positions at the (now seven) universities simply to keep up and issue their countless reports.

In the public schools the same situation can be found. In spades. There are innumerable functionaries at all levels who are paid large salaries out of money that ought to go to the teachers. Their job is to issue directives and determine policy, including curriculum, for the many schools in the various state systems. This is the Blob. The system as it now stands is top-heavy. There are far too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Moreover, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, teachers are paid slave-wages and this leads to the fact (as shown by several studies) that our teaching force in the public primary and secondary education system is drawn from the lower 1/3rd or lower 1/4th (depending on which study you refer to) of our college students. The lower salaries make teaching unattractive for many students, as do the “methods courses” prospective teachers are required to take. The pupils have been raised to think that successful people make large salaries and since these people make very little they must all be losers. They tend not to respect their teachers. And given that parents are too busy these days to raise their children, the schools are expected to do so — except that the teachers must discipline their charges with hands tied behind their backs by countless regulations laid down by the bureaucrats mentioned above who worry about possible law suits and not about the pupils or the teachers. Teaching and the pupils are lost in the shuffle.

There are good teachers who have taken the required vow of poverty. No doubt about it. But studies all show that American public education is in a shambles and the question how it can be saved is a profound and perplexing one. It must start at the top, but at the top we find people who control the purse strings and who seem to regard their own positions as sacrosanct. Since they are at the top they are first in line to receive funding. In my state the State University Board takes their portion after the legislative allocation comes down and then doles out what is left to the several universities who are all told that since budgets are tight they will have to make draconian cuts — usually in the humanities and arts faculty. (Never in sports. But that’s another topic.)

The international comparisons with schools in other countries strongly suggest that things seem to have gone from bad to worse. And a new start may not be a terrible thing. I realize that DeVos is not the brightest bulb on the tree and has no credentials whatever (which seems to be a trait among Trump’s appointments), but perhaps she will bring some new ideas to the job. If, for example, she were to eradicate, or even seriously injure, the Blob and dispense with certification requirements (including “methods” courses) while making it possible for young people to attend schools with bright, well-paid teachers this may not be a bad thing. She is known to favor charter schools, for example, which are not in all cases a bad thing. Two of my grandchildren attend a charter school in the Twin Cities that teaches latin and Greek along with logic, mathematics, and science. The curriculum is built around the original seven liberal arts and the kids love the challenge and are getting a very good, free education — complete with homework, can you imagine?

In any event, it will be interesting to see what happens. I am much more worried, I confess, about what this president is doing to the E.P.A. and other regulating agencies than I am with this particular appointment, given the current state of public education. It could turn out to be a good thing if it results in a fundamental shake-up of a system that seems to be tottering and about fall under its own weight.

The Fourth Estate

It is appalling that those now in power seek to undermine all confidence in the media in order, we must suppose, to then be able to inform us themselves about those things they think we need to know. This type of control over what we are privy to, coupled with the recent attempt to suggest that there are “alternatives” to the facts which determine the truth, are disquieting to say the least. A free people, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, require adequate information and the education necessary to separate facts from alternative facts.

And as a nation, we are slipping behind other developed countries in our commitment to an educated citizenry — which is essential to a democracy. But, despite this, we must be armed against any attempt to quiet criticism and stifle open debate which are the lifeblood of that type of government. Jefferson was, before all else, the defender of a free people in a free democracy, that freedom being predicated on a free press and a citizenry capable of reading and willing and able to discuss openly the issues of the day.

Accordingly, I thought it timely to return to some of the things that Jefferson said in this regard as we seem to be living in a period in which those in power would disarm us and render us ignorant of what it is they do and propose to do. A leader who brings his own audience with him to press conferences in order to hear their applause and who plans to expand the space in which the press corps meets to discuss the issues of the day in order, presumably, to allow room for his supporters and make it extremely difficult to hear those who object to what is being said, is a leader who would declare war on the exchange of free ideas and opinions and the open debate of decisions that will affect us all. This is not to be endured. It is antithetical to the fundamental principles on which this democracy were founded and they signal the death knell of this democracy if they are allowed to go unnoticed and unopposed.

Accordingly, I attach herewith some of the comments by Jefferson that speak to our present concerns:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have their propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

“. . . truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate — errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

” . . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

It is true, of course, that once he became President Jefferson was less enamored of the press, but this is to be expected. No one likes to be criticized and as President Jefferson made some terrible blunders — reducing the army and navy at a time when Britain was once again rattling its saber, for example. But he was large enough in the end to realize that his personal objections to what the press had to say about him were less important than the freedom of that press to write what they regarded as pertinent truths. No one in the public eye can expect to have his or her every move applauded unless they stack the decks and silence opposition. But that is not to be tolerated in a free government where the Constitution guarantees the right of the media to tell the truth and deny “alternative facts.” We as citizens have a right to know just as the press has a right to express itself without censorship. Thus, we must hope that these rights are protected in the next four years during which time they will be severely tested and attempts will no doubt be made to deny their legitimacy.

The Eighth Circle

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States”

(William DuBois)

As last year started to draw to a close — and what a year it was — my mind turned to self-scrutiny and it occurred to me that a confession of sorts is in order. As one who has spent his entire adult life attempting to put young people in possession of their own minds (and free them from the clutches of others, myself included), it occurred to me that what we are doing in higher education is a bit fraudulent. This put me in mind of Dante whose extraordinary Inferno deals with those of us who are guilty of fraud. I speak of the eighth circle of Hell.

There are ten levels in the eighth circle, the so-called “malebolges.” In the sixth of those ten levels — all worked out as if by magic with Dante’s poetic eye on medieval dogma and the wisdom of Aristotle — we find those who are the hypocrites, those who have been duplicitous, leading others to follow the wrong path. As the excellent translator, Ciardi, says in his introduction to this Canto in the Inferno,

“Here the hypocrites weighed down by the great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly guided on the outside and are shaped like a monk’s habit, for the hypocrite’s outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which his soul must bear through all eternity.”

In Dante’s own words, which we can feel in spite of the fact that they are translated for us:

“All wore great cloaks cut to as ample a size

as those worn by the Benedictines at Cluny.

The enormous hoods were drawn over their eyes.

 

“The outside is all dazzle, golden and fair;

the inside, lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes,

compared to these, would seem as light as air.

 

“O weary mantle for eternity!

We turned to the left again along their course,

listening to their moans of misery.”

Why all the fuss? And why charge myself and my fellow “professors” with hypocrisy? Because there is hypocrisy in the willingness of those of us in “higher” education to say one thing and do quite another. We promise those who pay their tuition that they will be educated. The evidence suggests that this is simply not happening. The students who attend college go away thousands of dollars in debt but little affected by their four years — except, perhaps, having learned how to binge-drink and party hearty. And, perhaps, one or two have picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. So many slip between the cracks. So many go away unchanged in important ways by what has occurred.

The problem is that education has become a business and like any business the only measure of success is the “bottom line.” And the bottom line reveals that higher education, so-called, is taking the undergraduates for an expensive ride and not getting the job done. Students are charged high tuition fees and are promised an education– and, at best, they get job training or, perhaps, an occasional glimpse into a world not of their liking, a world of ideas and wisdom that demands of them more effort than they are willing to put out — or, indeed, are used to putting out — and little assurance of employment after graduation.

There are notable exceptions, of course. There are a few colleges, mostly small ones, that stress the “liberal arts,” that do attempt and at times succeed in educating their charges. But on the whole the entire education edifice rests on sand. The promises have become mere words on paper, they mean little and they smell of gaseous air. Instead of committing themselves to the education of those that come, hat in hand, to be educated they instead provide them with emotional counseling, a country-club atmosphere, and a smattering of tips designed to help them get a job after graduation — whether it fulfills them as human beings or not.

In a word, the colleges care not a tittle about the students and their real needs. Instead, they deliver what the students want and the faculty are willing to deliver — as long as it doesn’t take them away from their own personal and professional diversions — and they get a decent paycheck.  Surely, this sort of behavior is precisely what Dante was talking about and what those who promise one thing and deliver quite another are deserving of in the end.

(My tongue is only part-way in my cheek. My concern here is serious and the problem deserving of serious thought — as is the failure of education on the whole.)

Widespread Ignorance

One of the major reasons the Trumpet has been so successful in convincing people to follow him wherever he leads is that there are a great many ignorant people in this country. I’m not talking about ignorance of rocket science or nuclear physics. I am talking about ignorance of the most basic truths about this country and its history and political machinery.

The problem is of special concern to me as an educator because I feel like I am a part of the problem and even though I sense how to solve the problem I don’t see any serious attempts being made. The solution is not to attack the public school system by increasing the number of charter schools or allowing for “vouchers.” The solution is to eliminate schools of education with their ridiculous “methods courses”; require a solid academic major of our teachers; pay the teachers more; eliminate the bureaucracy that controls public education; keep politicians out of the mix; and truly commit ourselves as a nation to an education system that will be worthy of imitation.

But let me turn to the evidence that steps such as these are absolutely necessary: let us probe the depth of ignorance in this country for a bit. It is not new, of course, since there has always been a strong anti-intellectual strain in this country that leads many to suspect well educated people of being cynical and judgmental — and, worse yet, liberal. This may or may not be the case, but it is irrelevant. The fact is, we are failing our young people and they are easily led.

As far back as the Korean war it was known that the young men who were captured during the “police action” were easily “brain-washed,” that is, led to change their allegiance and believe what they were told. It was discovered that the North Koreans were very good at convincing these young men because they were ignorant of their own history. The captors were able to tell them things about their own country’s history that were either altogether false or only half-true, and the captives were generally helpless to ward off the disinformation and were easily led to believe what their captors wanted them to believe.

More recently an interviewer asked one of Donald Trump’s followers why he was convinced that Barack Obama was a terrible president — one of the cardinal tenets of the Trump dogma. He responded that Obama was responsible for 9/11 because he wasn’t in his office, he was not attending to business. Asked where Obama was at that time the man responded that he didn’t know but would love to know that. Apparently the fact that Obama wasn’t president when the Twin Towers were destroyed had escaped this man. And, I dare say, if it were pointed out to him he would dismiss the fact as a liberal fiction. Again, ignorance creates a blank slate on which demagogues are able to write their own program and have it believed without question.

There are other examples, of course, and anecdotes don’t prove much of anything. But national and international tests reflect the same wide-spread ignorance on the part of those who graduate from America’s schools, which is frequently dismissed (by educators themselves) as simply a reflection of the fact that this country must educate so many of the poor.  This excuse will not stand up to criticism, as evidenced by the recent Program for International Student Assessment results:

According to this line of reasoning, the US doesn’t make it on the list of the top 25 countries in math (or top 15 in reading) because America has higher poverty and racial diversity than other countries do, which drags down the national average. . . .Wrong!

. . . PISA test results, released Dec. 3, 2013, show that the U.S. lags among 65 countries (or sub country entities) even after adjusting for poverty. Top U.S. students are falling behind even average students in Asia. . . . Asian countries (or sub entities) now dominate the top 10 in all subjects: math, reading and science.

And that ignorance makes it relatively easy for a demagogue to present half-truths and blatant falsehoods as the truth and have them believed. Without reservation. If something is repeated often enough and there is no factual frame of reference for questioning what has been said, it will be believed; it will be held to be the TRUTH. And this problem is exploding with the recent revelations that bogus news on the internet is being taken as legitimate by a great many ignorant people who previously relied on such publications as The National Enquirer for their news.

It is fair to say, I do believe, that the root cause of this ignorance is the failure of our schools and that radical steps need to be taken in order to remedy the situation. If this does not happen (and I am not optimistic) then the number of followers of demagogues such as our president-elect will continue to grow.

Opting Out

The latest in a long series of signs that college football is the tail that wags the academic dog is the decision of three star football players not to participate in this year’s Bowl Game Extravaganza.

The NCAA in its wisdom has instituted a playoff for the four teams deemed by a panel of experts to be the best four teams in the country. These four teams play in an elimination format with the winning team declared the National Champion. The attention of the television audience and sports enthusiasts around the world has shifted to these two games and away from the other Bowl Games — of which there are still countless numbers.

Accordingly, this year three of the star players on three of the teams that will play in the Bowl Games (but not in the National Championship playoff) have decided not to participate in the games because, presumably, they don’t want to get hurt and adversely affect their chances to garner a huge contract with an NFL team. Now, keep in mind, that at the “highest” levels of play in the NCAA Division I football players have always tended to regard their football careers as auditions for the NFL, many of them choosing to drop out of college after a year or two to play in the professional ranks. What does this have to do with education, you might ask?

The answer is simple: nothing whatever. But what it does as far as education is concerned is shed a light on the priorities at the “highest” levels of college football that reveals the lie that collegiate sports are all about scholar-athletes. It’s not. They all about high profits and entertainment for the masses that translate into wasted Saturdays and two weeks of non-stop Bowl Games in late December. (As I say this, I confess I do watch some of the games and I do love to watch stellar athletes in any and all sports because I have a sense of how hard it is to play that well in any sport. Still, there’s a rotten smell in the air.)

Any pretense that football is simply another “extra-curricular activity” at the college level — outside of Division III football where there are no athletic “scholarships” — is put to rest. It is clear from the three players who have decided to put themselves first and their teams last that they have received the message loud and clear: play for pay. College football is all about entertainment and huge profits for the various conferences in NCAA Division I football, and the players are all about themselves. There is an “I” in team, apparently. Put yourself first, make sure you don’t get hurt and ruin your chances of getting a large contract to play at “the next level.”

Many have pointed out — apparently as a kind of defense of college football — that such goings-on merely reflect the larger society as a whole. We shouldn’t put our focus on college football because those who play the game are merely products of the broader society in which they have been brought up. This is true, of course, but it is not so much a defense of college football as it is an indictment of our society as a whole. The message we are sending when players opt out of a Bowl Game or the teams cheat and risk scandals or coaches break their contract to sign with another school (for millions of dollars) is that one’s word means nothing. Honor and honesty are merely words. The team doesn’t matter. The individual is all that matters. I have even heard the talking heads who follow the sport closely defend the football players by saying “everybody does it.” In ethics this is a violation of basic principles, it is an expression of the false notion that two wrongs make a right. Just because others do it (and it is impossible to deny that others are indeed doing what they regard as best for themselves, regardless of the others around them) does not make it right.

The absence of those three star players form this year’s Bowl Game Extravaganza will not cause a ripple in the grand scheme of things. In itself it is trivial, but as a symptom of a larger problem, the applauding of unmitigated selfishness, it is certainly something to ponder.

Academic Freedom

Back in the day when I was teaching at the collegiate level we worried about academic freedom. In those days, it amounted to insisting that administrators allow faculty of differing opinions and philosophical convictions to speak their minds without recrimination. It also insisted on equal pay for equal work. It degenerated into unionization which, while it did raise salaries and save the careers of a number of faculty members, it also set a tone that I always felt was inimical to the ideals of collegiality that ought to be found on college campuses. But then I have been spitting into the wind so long my saliva is about used up.

Of late, however, the university faculties themselves are interfering with academic freedom. Increasingly, they are refusing to allow speakers to speak on campuses across the country, “controversial” figures like George W. Bush, Madeleine Albright, George Will, Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bear in mind that the universities that denied these people a voice on their campuses, because of student and faculty protests, are so-called “prestige” academies — places like Brandeis University, Stanford University, Boston College, Rutgers University, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and others of equal standing.

Students, often led by militant faculty with hidden agendas, are becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to ideas they regard as a threat to what they regard as social justice. In a word, they have their minds made up and cannot allow alien information to intrude on their convictions and deeply held beliefs. Increasing numbers of universities, in a word, are becoming closed systems that refuse to allow outside information to penetrate if it is determined by the vocal element on campus that those ideas are somehow harmful. There are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare.

Coupled with this intolerance in places that ought to be open to all ideas no matter how radical or outrageous, is the growing ignorance of the students and a great  number of the faculty. A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni determined that:

• Nearly 10% of recent college graduates think Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court.

• Less than 20% of those college graduates know the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

• More than a quarter of the college graduates did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II.

• One-third did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president who spearheaded the New Deal.

And so it goes. To augment their ignorance, many of those students, while enrolled, were involved in a variety of campus protests, including a group from Brown University that complained of the emotional stress and poor grades that followed from the months they spent protesting! They blamed the university for insisting that they complete coursework and demanded “incompletes” on their course work.

On many campuses protest seems to have become an end in itself as self-indulgent students increasingly complain about their course requirements and about the poor grades they receive as a result of their unwillingness to complete those requirements. And in many cases, intimidated or sympathetic faculty take the side of the students rather than take the lead in showing them the way out of their ignorance by opening them up to new intellectual horizons. For many who teach, followers are what it’s all about — especially those who give them praise in on-line evaluations that often determine how full or empty their classroom might be. The pressure to be popular, to give students a “break,” is immense and helps us to understand grade inflation. Pressure was immense when I taught and it has only increased as students’ sense of entitlement has grown by leaps and bounds in our permissive society.

In the end, the trend toward closing doors (and minds) to new ideas, coupled with the increasing tendency to ask little of spoiled students who complain when asked to do what they really would rather not do, will reduce our academies of higher learning to country clubs and mental health clinics where students can feel safe and protected from the realities of the world “out there.” In a word, universities are rapidly becoming more concerned about the “well-being” of the students than about their intellectual growth. This does not absolve members of college faculties of their responsibility to prepare their students for the real world; it merely recounts what seems to be a growing trend in academia.

 

Academic Priorities

On a recent trip to Minnesota’s North Shore I picked up a local paper in Duluth and was struck by the following headline: “UMD plans $2 M in academic program cuts.” Now, UMD is the large branch of the University of Minnesota in Duluth and the fact that it was facing financial hard times is not new. I taught in one of the universities in the same state and same athletic conference for years and all of the institutions in that group are increasingly facing financial struggles. It is a sign of our times when costs are skyrocketing and more and more students are “taking their degrees” online.

What was of greatest interest to me about that story (which I read hastily) was that the cuts will come in the academic programs. Not in the athletic program, of course. That never seems to be an option. Bear in mind that this university is considerably smaller than its fat cousin in the Twin Cities and except for ice hockey which is a NCAA Division I sport it is small potatoes as far as its athletics programs are concerned — NCAA Division II, the same as our small university in Marshall where I taught and coached tennis.  So, one would think, some cuts in the athletics programs when faced with a $2 million deficit would appear to be in order. Like so many other colleges Duluth (as we call it) has a plethora of athletics teams. Cuts in some of those programs would appear to make a certain amount of sense. But not so. The cuts will come by reducing faculty in the academic programs.

And guess which programs are to be cut? . . . . (wait for it). The liberal arts, the fine arts, and education. In each case it is because students are not enrolling in those programs as they did in the past. Education is on the block because there simply aren’t that many teaching jobs these days and public education is a political football. As is common around the country students are taking more practical courses of study where they think there is certainty of finding employment after graduation. The largest major program in our university, for example, is “Sports Science” which brags a successful placement strategy after graduation.

There are several problems with this scenario. To begin with, the successful placement of graduates in jobs after graduation is a bit of a farce. Many of the employment opportunities in Sports Science, for example, are minimum wage jobs handing out towels at the local athletic club: decidedly dead-end. Further, graduates of liberal arts programs with majors in such things as English, history, and philosophy are more successful in the long run than those who follow their practical instincts. That is to say, those graduates are able to change jobs more readily if they discover that they had been mislead as eighteen-tear-old Freshmen into thinking that the “sure thing” would make them rich and happy. Moreover, they make more money in their lifetimes than do those who major in the more practical fields. The figures don’t lie.

What is happening around the country is that parents have become convinced that their kids need to take the practical majors and avoid esoteric majors (as they see it) like art history or English literature, which they regard as a waste of time and money. And while it is true that those students will find it easier to find the initial job it is also true, as noted, that they often find themselves in dead-end jobs with no chance of making meaningful career changes later on. And, typically, they won’t make as much money in the long run. In a word, it is short-term thinking.

This type of thinking is typical in the business world where profit is placed highest in the list of priorities. Best Buy, for example, is making draconian cuts this month in order to convince share holders that they are serious about making huge profits. This reasoning is blind to the fact that those cuts will force remaining employees to work harder and less efficiently thereby providing their customers with poorer service and thus ultimately affecting the bottom line. But, more to the point, the fact that academic programs are being cut at UMD is simply more evidence that the business model is driving education as well as so many other human endeavors. And the business model has no business providing a paradigm in education where the focus ought to be on freeing young minds and putting young people in the best position to be successful and happy adults.

There are serious problems in our education system up and down the grades — just think about the thousands who follow Donnie the Trumpet! I write about those problems I know about first hand and as a result of the research I did in writing my book about education, Recalling Education.