Building Character ?

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

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

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

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

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Spring Has Sprung

It appears that Spring has finally come to the Upper Midwest. It has been a long Winter with snow on the ground since last December, snow which is still here and there on the North side of the groves and hedge rows. And while snow is in recent forecasts [!], we know it will be wet and will not stay around for very long. The temperatures are finally on the move upwards and the sounds and smells of another Spring are in the air.

Smells like starter-fuel for charcoal cookers, exhaust from lawnmowers and (speaking of sounds) motorcycles. Ah yes! The sounds of Spring, like the barking dogs tied outside by distracted owners who want to share the delights of dog-ownership with the folks in the block, or the cars the kids drive with their window open wide and the radio turned all the way up, destroying both tranquility and ear drums. I saw one the other day that had a sign in the back window: “If the music’s to loud, your to old.” Aside from the very loose usage of the word “music” this is assuredly an indictment of our education system if there ever was one! I guess I’m to old. In any event, the sights are almost as delightful, with fifth wheels and trailers returned to the lawns  and driveways from wherever they have been hibernating over the Winter, and large people walking around in shorts and tank tops with their all-too abundant flesh threatening to escape with every step, proving once again that some people are oblivious. It’s worthy of note in this regard that Minnesotans of all sizes and descriptions go by the calendar when it comes to choosing appropriate attire: if it’s April they will wear the shorts and tank tops even if the temperatures are around freezing! But Spring is on its way — finally — and while Emerson is supposed to have said that Spring is the saddest time of the year there is a great deal to delight in.

Brown-headed Thrush

Brown-headed Thrush

There are  the sounds of balls striking bats, golf clubs, and tennis rackets and the smells of new-mowed grass and blooming flowers. And for those of us who have been suffering from cabin fever for the past months, these sounds make up for the unpleasantness of loud radios, gassy smells, and excessive flesh mentioned above. And the ponds and rivers that were dry last Summer are full and flowing — at least at present. Add to these sights and sounds the melodies of the returning birds and the stunning colors they bring with them as the males preen and strut in their attempts to attract the most eligible mates. It’s not only the young men and women whose thoughts turn to love in the Spring: all of animal nature seems to be tuned into the Spring vibrations. It’s been a long Winter, but at last Spring has sprung in the Northern Plains.  We can’t all live in the tropics (Ecuador, for example), and not all Minnesotans are “snow birds” who head South for the Winter, so when the good weather returns those of us who have stuck it out over the Winter delight in the return of Spring and take the bad along with the immense good. As one of my favorite Gordon Bok songs says: “the world is always turning toward the morning,” and hope Springs eternal.

Our Perplexing President

Emerson once said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He would love the sitting President who has shown himself to be anything but foolishly consistent in his various political stands. Take the following story for example:

WASHINGTON (AP) — For all of his liberal positions on the environment, taxes and health care, President Barack Obama is a hawk when it comes to the war on terror.

From deadly drones to secret interrogations to withholding evidence in terror lawsuits, Obama’s Democratic White House has followed the path of his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush. The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open, despite Obama’s pledge to close it, and his administration has pursued leaks of classified information to reporters even more aggressively than Bush’s. . .

To be fair, the President did make an effort to move the prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, but the Congress would not hear of it. It remains an unfulfilled election promise, however, and, as a supporter and even an admirer of Barack Obama, this particular inconsistency disturbs me as I have tried from time to time to get my mind around it. I recall Dwight Eisenhower’s wise remark years ago “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.” I keep going back to that comment because I find it provocative and very insightful –especially in light of such things as Obama’s hawkishness. Why would such a liberal thinker be so hawkish when it comes to international affairs? It’s almost as though he is trying to one-up his military advisers. I worry that he is cowed by the impressive uniforms laden with medals clothing the commanding presence of the military leaders who surround him when he sits down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not being “judgmental” about the President, as people love to say. It’s not my place to judge the man since in his shoes I would probably be just as cowed by the presence of those uniforms and medals. But I am reminded of the remarks made by Colonel Andrew Bacevich I quoted last month when he pointed out that “we have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers….” This man knows whereof he speaks as he comes to the problem from the perspective of a military man with combat experience who exhibits the same caution about the military that Eisenhower exhibited after he left the fold. These are words we need to take to heart.

It is just possible that Barack Obama, like anyone else who has never worn a uniform or fought in a battle would be awed by those who wear the uniform proudly and is told relentlessly (as we all are) that these men and women are all heroes to whom we owe our freedoms. As the article cited above goes on to point out, many of the Democrats in Congress share Obama’s hawkishness:

This past week’s confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA showed just how much Washington — Democrats especially — has come to accept the same counterterrorism policies that drew such furor in the first years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Is it possible, I ask, that we are giving up our freedoms to the very people who are pledged to defend those freedoms with their lives? Is this the way we really want to go? I don’t think we should see President Obama’s hawkishness as a sign of weakness on the part of a man adept at the political game and otherwise liberal in his thinking. Rather, I see him as a microcosm of the rest of this society which seems ready to hand over the reins of power to those who wear uniforms — especially since those same men and women have the backing of the wealthy in this country who are also doubtless in awe of the uniform and transfixed by the military mystique.

Embrace the ‘Morrow!

Has it struck you that it is a bit curious to see people buying weapons and stockpiling foodstuff to prepare for an angry tomorrow when many of them don’t think tomorrow will come? The English call these people the “nutters.” I refer, of course, to the brew-ha-ha out there about the end of the world that was to have come on the winter solstice. Apparently just in case the world doesn’t end as the Mayans predicted, some people want to be prepared for the worst. Moreover, the “worst” in their minds seems to be earthquakes, flood, and other maniacs carrying guns.

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown there has been a flurry of activity in the nutter-world (not to mention the world of the NRA — or is THAT the “nutter-world”?): a frenzy of blogging activity, mountains of rhetoric, much tearing-out of hair, beating of the chest, and crazy proposals aplenty. The HuffPost just notified me by email that some Minnesota legislators have proposed a law requiring that all school teachers in Minnesota carry weapons. The idea is apparently that if shooting someone is a bad idea, the more who can do it the merrier. That makes about as much sense as the law in Minnesota increasing speed limits on country roads in order to slow down the traffic. I kid you not: that’s what the legislature did in this state. But Minnesota politicians aren’t the only ones vying for the Darwin Award for stupidity: the Congress of the United States refuses to pass tough gun restrictions while at the same time they require metal detectors to protect themselves from gun-carrying maniacs. Emerson once said that consistency is the hob-goblin of tiny minds. I would say that inconsistency is the hob-goblins of mindless idiots.

There are times when one wants to crawl into a hole and hide. I remember the day when I was proud to say I live in Minnesota where the people, for the most part, are smart enough to do the right thing most of the time and where they tend to vote for remarkable politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Now they vote for people like Michelle Bachman and talk about arming the teachers. And not long ago the legislature passed a law permitting all and sundry to carry concealed weapons. Sigh.

All of the evidence supports the view that more people carrying weapons will result in more deaths, though the NRA would have us ignore the data and just listen to Charlton Heston. Surely, what we are seeing is simply the way some people express their fear and even, perhaps, their grief over the deaths of very young children. Cooler heads will prevail in the end, will they not? Eh?

In any event, I write this on the eve of the coming of the end of the world confident that tomorrow will come and I will greet it with open arms ( though I will not be carrying any — tomorrow or even the day after). I hasten to add in closing, as a fellow-blogger from Australia reminds me, it was tomorrow yesterday in that part of the world. Were the Mayan’s aware of that, I wonder?

For Better, For Worse

Living as I do in Minnesota where a referendum item regarding “same-sex marriage” on this year’s ballot has drawn considerable discussion and a great deal of wasted money on TV ads pro and con, I was interested that a New York appeals court declared a similar law in that state unconstitutional. As a Yahoo News story tells us:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An appeals court in New York ruled on Thursday that a law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional. It was the second federal appeals court to reject the law, which could go before the Supreme Court soon.

New York is the third state to rule the law unconstitutional and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon, since these cases involve the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 and the federal government at present does not recognize same-sex marriages. That should be interesting, though the verdict is predictable. But as a philosopher the entire issue strikes me as puzzling in the extreme. Same-sex marriages are “victimless crimes,” though I would not call them crimes at all. Why do we need laws prohibiting acts that do not involve harm to others? It reeks of paternalism. No one is getting hurt: on the contrary. These marriages are merely found to be offensive by the homophobes among us and those people should simply be told to shut up and find something to keep them busy.

In any event, the people most intimately involved are together because they love one another and that is supposed to be the cornerstone of the religion that harbors the greatest number of critics of same-sex marriage. The inconsistency is glaring. But consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds, as Emerson said. So we can take comfort in the fact that the critics of same-sex marriage are simply much smarter than the rest of us who embrace the laws of contradiction and seek to make sure our thinking is consistent and coherent. Right. (I never did agree with Emerson.) Of course in cases such as this there is very little thought of any kind involved, mostly just feelings — strong, often incoherent, feelings.

Seriously, folks, where’s the moral issue here? There is none. And why are states and the federal government wasting precious time and money on a non-issue when there are serious problems to be solved — or at least addressed? People are walking around with semi-automatic weapons in their pockets; the planet is under siege; and the economy is in the toilet while these overpaid politicians waste time discussing whether men should marry men or women marry women. This waste of time and money is the problem, not the pseudo-issue of whether persons who love one another should marry. It’s time to turn to problems that demand solutions and away from trivial issues that don’t deserve serious attention.

Belief Sets

ABC News interviewed Karilyn Bates, wife of Staff Sargent Robert Bates, the man accused of killing 17 civilians in Afghanistan recently. She provides an intriguing picture of how the mind deals with stress and confusion — not her husband’s but her’s.

To begin with, she refuses to believe her husband would have done such a terrible thing. It’s “unbelievable….he would not do that,” she said. But, then, he served four tours of duty in Iraq before serving three in Afghanistan and Karilyn admits “he shielded from me a lot of what he went through,” including a head wound which caused traumatic brain injury. She does admit that when she spoke with him as he sits in Leavenworth prison awaiting trial he “seemed a bit confused as to where he was and why he was there.” Now clearly there are pieces of this account that simply do not fit together. We have a woman who admits that her husband kept things from her and that he was confused when she spoke with him. Yet she refuses to believe that he could have done such a thing as shoot 17 civilians after seven tours of duty in two different war zones.

This is interesting for two reasons. To begin with, it is a case of crass exploitation of a terrible situation by the media. ABC will pass this interview off as “news,” but there is nothing whatever this woman can tell us that will shed light on what her husband may or may not have done in Afghanistan. It is maudlin entertainment designed to get the ratings. Secondly, it is an example of the way the human mind works under stress, though I would argue that it resembles the way most human minds work most of the time.

My point here is not to make fun of the wife of a soldier who was doing his duty and seems to have suffered from an injury that should have been spotted by those around him long before he took a rifle and a pistol and went out (twice, apparently) and shot innocent civilians in a war-torn country. It is clear that Karilyn Bates is in denial, and it is entirely understandable. But what is interesting is the contradictions that dwell comfortably together in what we like to call the woman’s “belief system.” (George Eliot pointed out that we should not call it a system at all because it is a nest of inconsistencies and contradictions — not just those of a distraught wife, but those of us all.) Let’s call it a “belief set,” simply a set of beliefs that don’t always (seldom?) cohere.

Clearly when we are under stress we are more prone to this sort of thing, but there is good evidence that a great many people are perfectly comfortable every day of their lives embracing the most blatant contradictions — “pro-lifers” who support the death penalty, for example, or Democrats who vote for a wealthy, hawkish presidential candidate. Edith Wharton describes the type (who is all-too-common) in her character Pauline Manford in Twilight Sleep. Pauline is a social busy-body committed to such opposing causes as increasing the world’s population while at the same time practicing birth control — intent on improving the world by making it conform to her curious blend of ideals. She is contemplating several notions simultaneously in one pivotal scene when Wharton tells us that “Pauline felt no more inconsistency in this double train of thought than she did in shuddering at the crimes of the Roman Church and longing to receive one of its dignitaries with all proper ceremonials. She was used to such rapid adjustments, and proud of the fact that whole categories of contradictory opinions lay down [peacefully] together in her mind.” As I say, Pauline Manford is a token of a type that is very much among us and just as worthy of ridicule today as it was in the 20s of the last century.

Emerson famously said that “consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds.” Perhaps he was right. But then consistency is one of the few rules of thinking that allows us to get things right. If we do not obey the laws of thought and the rules of coherence and consistency we are easy prey to unprincipled demagogues who would capture and hold our minds prisoners of their own personal agendas. In a word, we don’t then know what we are doing. It’s time to consider seriously about requiring all pupils in our public schools to take a course in logic! No, check that: it’s past time.