The Ring of Gyges

In Plato’s monumental work, The Republic, after dispensing with the loudmouth Thracymachus who insisted that “justice is the interest of the stronger,” Socrates is confronted by a stronger opponent. Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers, has been listening to Socrates dismantle Thracymachus’ argument when he confronts Socrates with the possibility that justice really is the interest of the stronger and that Socrates has not fully addressed that possibility.

Glaucon places in front of Socrates the myth of the shepherd boy, Gyges, who while sitting around a fire with his chums playing with a ring he found that day he turns the ring inwards and disappears. While he is “gone” his chums start talking about him and he learned how they truly feel about him; but he also sees the possibilities of such a ring. In brief, he later seduces the queen, kills the king, and finds himself the most powerful man on earth. All because of the ring. Glaucon insists that no one could resist such a temptation: all men and women would do what they want to do rather than what they should do — if they could get away with it.

This is a powerful argument and it takes Socrates nine long chapters to create his Republic in which, he insists, good men and women  would rise to the top and they would, in fact, be able to resist the temptations of the ring of Gyges. Aristotle will later call this “character” and insist that it is instilled in young men and women in their youth and later determines the choices they make when it comes to justice and injustice.

It is difficult for the modern reader to agree to the logic of Socrates’ argument, to allow that ordinary men and women would not succumb to the temptations of such a ring — if it allowed them to get away with anything. Some might say that “conscience” would prohibit unjust actions among many — or at least some — but even this argument is weakened these days when we seem to have lost sight of such a thing as “character” and tend to let people pretty much do what they want. Most, I suspect, would insist that it is naive to suppose that anyone today would resist the ring of Gyges. The only thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the fear of getting caught.

I’m not sure if we can settle the disagreement one way or the other, since we know so little about why people do what they do and even those who seem to do the right thing most of the time may be driven by self-interest and the fear of getting caught. It’s never quite clear in our own cases why we do the things we do! But if we recall that Plato imagines a perfect society (as he sees it) in which from birth children are raised to do the right thing, to place the welfare of others before that of themselves, to form what will later be called “good character,” then perhaps we can allow that such a thing is possible — at least in theory.

The difficulty is, of course, that ours is not a perfect society — supposing that there is such a thing — and we have turned our attention away from character to such things as “self-esteem, “honesty,” and “getting in touch with our feelings.” In a word, we don’t stress the importance of caring about others so much as we stress making sure we take care of #1. I have blogged about this before and I will not go there again. But it is interesting to think that both Plato and Aristotle were convinced that the main thing that brings political bodies down is the turning attention away from what was later called “the common good” toward self-interest. When rulers and those who make the rules care more about themselves than they do about the voters who put them into office it is the beginning of a process that can only result in the dissolution of the political body.

Morality is not simply about Jimmy doing the right thing when he finds a wallet on the sidewalk. It is also about the people in power, who make decisions that effect so many others, caring more about themselves than they do about those who matter most — to wit, their constituents. The Other has been lost in the preoccupation we seem to have with ourselves, rights are all the rage while correlative responsibilities are seldom mentioned. The moral high ground disappears in the mist of looking our for #1.

How many could resist the temptations of therein of Gyges? Very few, I fear. And those who lust after money and power are least likely of all.

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Our Way

I am reblogging a post from several years ago that makes the point I was trying to make in my last post in a slightly different — and more effective — way.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper or manage a spot on a daytime TV show that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Sigmund Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian, and narrator of this story. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.” Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that explosion, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. Repression does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — even caused early-on in history by numerous tribal taboos. Freud knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and “sublimating,” i.e., redirecting, our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his beloved grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she has the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Machiavelli’s Relevance

I always enjoyed teaching a graduate course in business ethics which was required for the M.B.A. our university offered. It was usually filled with people who were “out there” in the “real” world working hard to better themselves; they were hoping the M.B.A. would give them a leg up. These were older, experienced students who drew on multiple experiences and were sure to have important and interesting things to say. One of the things I did each semester was to require that each student pick a book from a list, read and critique it, and present their results to the class as a whole. One of the books was Machiavelli’s The Prince. Strange choice, some would say. But, aside from the obvious parallels with today’s politics, the students were amazed at the relevance of that book to the world they were becoming increasingly familiar with, the world of business.

Accordingly, I thought it might be worth putting down here a few of the more pithy comments Machiavelli wrote and ask the reader whether or not he or she agrees that Machiavelli, like any great thinker, had things to say that are still pertinent today. First, a comment from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Titus Livius to set the tone:

“I believe it to be most true that it seldom happens that men rise from low condition to high rank without employing either force or fraud., unless that rank should be attained either by gift or inheritance.”

Now, from the more popular Prince:

“. . .there is such a great difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation. Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.”

” . . .to be feared is much safer than to be loved. For it is a good general rule about men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, fearful of danger and greedy for gain.  . . . since men love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others.”

“. . .those princes have accomplished most who paid little heed to keeping their promises, but who knew how to manipulate the minds of men craftily. In the end they won out over those who tried to act honestly.”

“. . .you must be great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

“Nothing is more necessary than to seem to have . . .  virtue. Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few know what you really are . . .  I will venture to say that when you have [the virtues] and exercise them all the time, they are harmful to you; when you seem to have them, they are useful. It is good to appear merciful, truthful, humane, sincere, and religious; it is good to be so in reality. But you must keep your mind so disposed that, in case of need, you can turn to the exact contrary.”

“There are three sorts of brains: one understands on its own, another understands what others tell it, and the third understands neither itself nor other people. The first sort is superb, the second sort is very good, the third sort useless.”

Was Machiavelli serious, or was he being satirical? Scholars still disagree.

Truth To Tell

Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankee baseball player accused of using performance enhancing drugs — and later tampering with the evidence — has lost his appeal of a 211 game suspension handed down by Major League Baseball last year. The suspension was upheld, though it was reduced to 162 games, which will keep Rodriguez out of baseball next year. But not if the man himself has anything to say about it! He recently released a lengthy statement about the suspension on (of all things) his Facebook page. The statement says, in part:

I will take this fight to federal court. I am confident that when a Federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension.

The interesting thing about the case — well, one of the interesting things — is that Rodriguez assuredly is in denial. He may believe this nonsense, but no one else believes him any more and he is making a fool of himself by going public (on Facebook!) and threatening to spend some of the millions of dollars he will earn next year for not playing baseball to take MLB to court. The larger point here is that this is simply another instance of the people our children regard as heroes (in this case, athletes) who tell flat-out lies and when caught continue to dig the hole they are in deeper and deeper. True, one of our “heroes”occasionally tells how sorry he is and swears it won’t happen again. But few believe him, either. None seems to want to take full responsibility for his actions and I cannot recall a single athlete who came out and confessed to taking performance enhancing drugs BEFORE he was caught.

But the large issue, aside from the inability of these people to take responsibility for their actions, is the fact that these “exemplary” individuals tell lies with a straight face and that has become perfectly normal behavior. We have always known used car salesmen and politicians lie, that’s a given. But now our heroes on the athletic fields have turned into unreliable and irresponsible persons — with a few notable exceptions. Moreover, coaches sign long-term contracts and break them before the ink is dry while marriages end up in divorce before the sheets have been laundered. So much for pledges and promises. And the kids see this sort of thing all around them and especially on television day in and day out. And, like our simian cousins, we learn by imitation. Homer Simpson lies, as does his unruly son Bart. (Don’t get me started about Beavis and Butt-head.) The teenagers on the Disney Channel lie a blue streak and treat their elders with disdain. Increasingly the folks on sit-coms lie as the writers have determined that if they have the central character tell a lie the consequences can be hilarious. Or so they think. Much of what passes for humor on the tube these days is downright mean and often suggests that telling lies is perfectly acceptable behavior.

My wife has said for years that the entertainment industry is largely responsible for shaping the character of our children these days — what with their parents either divorced or working and the television increasingly becoming the baby-sitter of choice. I used to think she was exaggerating but, as is so often the case, I have come around to her way of thinking. I do think the entertainment industry, which includes professional athletics (and semi-professional athletics at the NCAA I level) are in large measure responsible for sending repeated messages to all of us that lying and cheating are perfectly normal and if we get caught in that sort of behavior we should keep digging the hole deeper or, if we must, we can just own up and all will be forgiven — or folks will just have a good belly laugh. But it must be OK. After all, everyone does it. No?

Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his player’s box and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, raises his head and points to the skies after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he pumps his fist like he’s trying to start an imaginary lawnmower and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who  threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his record number of Grand Slam wins with a trot to the net and a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then all eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. We are told it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. And it seems to be the thing that “sells” the sport these days. If one dares to suggest that this whole thing is a sham and even a bit sickening one is considered something of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL?? Show that hit again and do a close-up on the celebration afterwards! Play it again!)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest, and a show of raw emotion may have nothing whatever to do with honesty. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron: it’s about telling the truth. It is about character which is formed in the home by parental example, for the most part. And we know that professional (and semi-professional, i.e,, collegiate) sports are just like everything else in this culture: they are a diversion that shows us what we want to see. Nothing more. Sports, at least at the highest levels, are not a breeding ground for honesty and character-building. (Think: Johnny Football.)

Just consider the cover-up culture: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on in order to keep the big stars eligible to play the game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. But despite the cover-ups, the word occasionally leaks out — as it did at Penn State not long ago. But, they say, “everyone else is doing it” (which may indeed be true). In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” It’s quite common. But the felonies that are committed are still wrong, no matter how  many people commit them. And the cover-ups can hardly be considered “honest.”

So let’s not hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car lot, sports are only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — from the big-college cover-ups to where the athlete takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle.  It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells her opponent that her shot was in, even though it costs her the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like so many of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are frequently unpleasant. It is often very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.

Luke Warm Turkey

(I have decided to take a page from Brett Favre’s playbook and come out of retirement. I do miss writing the blogs and the responses of like-minded and not-so-like-minded readers. As my friend Ben Dillow suggested, rather than go “cold-turkey” I might post a blog from time to time. I will just stay away from those really depressing current events for the most part. We shall see how it goes. Call this one “Reflections On  Some Comments By Edmund Burke.”)

For Edmund Burke, morality and law both rest on manners, for manners affect society directly. Specifically, he notes that

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

As we are told in the excellent study of Edmund Burke’s life and thought by Jesse Norman, for Burke “manners are not the product of reason, but of unreflective individual habit and social wisdom.” In making these remarks, Burke sides with Aristotle who long ago taught that what he called “virtue” was a question of habit  and disposition, not reason. Reason can indicate which of several possible actions is the best, but it is character or disposition that will lead us to act  — or not to act, as the case may be. Burke agrees.

But what does this eighteenth century thinker’s ideas have to do with us today? The answer should be obvious to anyone who has stopped for a moment to think about the gradual disintegration of our civilization, the return to a new barbarism, that is evident on every side. The demise of manners is simply an indicator of the deeper problem, as I have noted in previous blogs. While good manners managed to survive the Victorian age, by the time of the Great War, and in particular the attack on Victorian values by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group,  manners began to be regarded as somehow dishonest. Accordingly, manners, which focus on the well-being of others, have been jettisoned in the name of  what we like to call “honesty,” “telling it like it is,” and “letting it all hang out.” Consequently, the self has become all-important and others are left to fend for themselves. In the end we have come to rely more and more on law alone to maintain order in an increasingly narcissistic society. But the legal network that strives to maintain order also shows signs of corruption and decay, and we look in vain for the good manners of the citizens to hold the social body together. The idea that good manners make possible a gain in self-esteem and self-worth by losing ourselves in caring for others, has been lost somewhere between the death of God at the end of the nineteenth century (as announced by Nietzsche) and the rapid rise of a crass materialism in a society that has lost its bearings.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of politics where we can see the same dynamic at work that is evident in society at large: political parties, which were formed to further the common good, have become mere factions (in Burke’s terms) that focus instead on short-run self-interest. As Burke defined them, political parties are supposed to be “bodies of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Indeed. This is what political parties are supposed to be. In fact, in this country — and to some extent in England as well — they have become entrenched bodies of small-minded cretins who willingly trade the national interest for self-advancement and the maintenance of their own positions in government. The eighteenth century notion of the common good, on which this nation was founded, has been buried alongside manners.

All of this was predicted by Aristotle who saw the transmogrification of other-directed interest into self-interest as the worm that eats at the heart of the body politic. Burke was merely echoing Aristotle’s warnings a few thousand years later, though those words are still worth pondering.

Let It All Hang Out

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can find anyone to listen that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a situation that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

 “I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible — the redirecting of creative energy outward. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also struck by the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

The Kid As King

I have taken a break from reading history and turned to a popular book by two behavioral psychologists, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. Their book is The Narcissism Epidemic and, allowing for hyperbole, the title says it all. Apparently I understated the problem in my blogs about self-esteem and the movement in the schools that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. According to our authors this movement has moved out of the schools and has blossomed into narcissism which is a cultural phenomenon of epidemic proportions. To quote the authors at some length, we are told that:

The cultural focus on self-admiration began with the shift toward focusing on the individual in the 1970s, documented in Tom Wolfe’s article on “The Me Decade” in 1976 and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. In the three decades since, narcissism has grown in ways these authors never could have imagined. The fight for the greater good of the 1960s became looking out for number one by the 1980s. Parenting became more indulgent, celebrity worship grew, and reality TV became a showcase of narcissistic people. The Internet brought useful technology but also the possibility of instant fame and a “look at me!” mentality. Using botulinum toxin to smooth facial wrinkles to perpetuate a youthful face birthed a huge industry. The easy accessibility of credit allowed people to look better off financially than they actually were.

As the authors are at pains to point out, this has all resulted from our preoccupation with ourselves and our mania to promote “self-esteem” not only in our schools, where it may have its roots, but also in our culture at large. And as I have mentioned in previous blogs, the problem is not that people are told that they are great; the problem is that people that are not great are told that they are. In other words, narcissism, as defined by Twenge and Campbell, is built on a lie. Praise when deserved helps build genuine self-esteem and self-confidence. Undeserved praise builds a false sense of self-esteem which quickly translates into preoccupation with self, conceit, over-confidence, and the inability to establish emotional connections with others. It also results in a sense of entitlement and grade inflation in our high schools and colleges. It even leads to violence, according to the authors. As they say, “The long-term consequences are destructive to society.”

The narcissistic personality, which is becoming commonplace, lives in a make-believe world where he or she is the only thing that matters: narcissism is a flight from reality that can become violent when the person is forced to see things as they really are. As the authors point out: “In fact, narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.” Again, the problem is undeserved praise and adulation. It is essentially false, and that’s the core of the problem — for a culture that prides itself on its honesty.

We want our kids to be confident and self-assured. But heaping undeserved praise on them is obviously not the answer. In fact, studies have shown that it is actually counter-productive. As our authors tell us, “Self-esteem boosting [in a number of tests cited] led to failure, not success.”  And if our two authors are correct, the narcissism that stems from unwarranted self-esteem has serious consequences indeed as the kids grow into adulthood. The solution to the problem is better parenting coupled with the elimination of the self-esteem nonsense at home and in the schools. We need to be honest with kids, praise them when they deserve praise and never hesitate to engage in constructive criticism when it is called for. It really isn’t rocket science: it’s just plain common sense. Our grandparents knew all about it long ago.

My take on it is that this movement started in this country in the late 1960s with the “I’m OK, You’re OK” movement and the attendant cultural strictures against being “judgmental.” The notion that we shouldn’t judge one another, that everyone is fine just as they are, rests on the assumption that there is no room for improvement — which is absurd on its face. Studies have shown that self-esteem comes after genuine accomplishments; when it is based on empty lies it is easily deflated, leading to disappointment, frustration, and even (as noted) violence.

There are important differences between negative and positive, constructive criticism. The idea that we should not judge one another rules out the critical observations about our own and others’ behavior that is in need of correction. None of us is perfect and we all have room for improvement. But not for the narcissist: in his or her world things are hunky-dory and everyone is perfect just as they are. Even the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

Inflated Grades and Ethics

In a presentation to an ATHENA Roundtable sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, former Harvard President Larry Summers made a provoking comment, noting that grade inflation in our schools and colleges is a moral issue. “A society that tolerates the grade inflation of its students should not be surprised when it finds the inflation of corporate earnings in those students 20 years later.” Grade inflation is indeed a moral issue, because it is dishonest and disrespectful for teachers and professors to give students grades they don’t deserve. And the teachers and professors are shirking their responsibility.

There is no question that grade inflation is common in our academic communities and has been for some time. The data are compelling and need not be recounted here. But one glaring example is Columbia University Medical School which no longer gives preferential treatment to Harvard graduates because they all have an “A” average. I recall a few years ago when I was chairman of a large department and had access to copies of grade reports I saw that a number of my colleagues, especially in the education department, simply weren’t giving grades lower than A-. This is absurd. Worse, it is dishonest and, and as I say, disrespectful of the students. They deserve better: they deserve to be treated fairly.

When the lowest grade in a course with 30 students in it is an A- the student who has worked hard and has done really well gets what is essentially the same grade as everyone else. And when the poorer students who have been passed along with high grades graduate and go to work they are in for a shock. Employers are not likely to be so generous. In this regard, one could argue that giving a higher grade than the student deserves is not only disrespectful, but also mean, since it fuels the students’ illusion that he or she has a greater mastery of the material than is in fact the case.

We are fond of saying that the problems we have in the schools merely reflect the larger problems in society as a whole. This may actually be true in this case, though I doubt it as a general rule: some problems in the schools are peculiar to the academic world. But grade inflation is assuredly a symptom of our permissive society. We hate to say “no” to our kids for fear we will stunt their growth and development. That’s what we have been told for years by pop psychologists and we have taken it to heart — even though it is a lot of hogwash. Kids need to be told “no” when they make mistakes; it’s one of the first words they should be taught at home. Further, they can learn important lessons from their failures. That’s one of the most persuasive reasons to keep sports in the schools: sports are one of the few places left where kids are asked to do things they may not want to do and failure is a given. Not everyone can win. And not everyone should be given an A grade when their work is only average.

So what can be done? There’s a simple solution. And that is to record all of the students’ grades with a parenthesis after each grade noting the average grade in that class. Thus if Susan gets an A in biology and her report notes that the average grade in that class was a C- we know Susan did a great job. If Sarah gets a B in sociology where the average grade was B+ we know her performance was below par. The grades will start to mean something and faculty will be more inclined to give honest grades as the reports will reveal how “generous” they were in grading the students in the class. No one wants to be found out!

But in the end, we need to accept the fact that grade inflation is indeed a moral problem, as Larry Summers noted. And in doing so we need to consider what we can do about it instead of simply looking away with a shrug and saying “that’s a common problem; it’s just  the way things are.” It doesn’t have to be.

Life Lessons

I wrote a blog recently about Phil Mickelson and the admirable things he is doing with his money to help those in need. In passing, I made reference to “The First Tee,” a charity it has become fashionable for obscenely wealthy golf pros to support — in their way. To be sure, one should applaud any attempt to help others, but a charity that is designed to teach young people how to play golf seems to be nothing more nor less than an excuse to promote golf, maybe have a photo-op, and take a tax break in the process. To be sure, the “charity” also claims to teach “life lessons” and that’s when things get interesting. Consider the following description of the charity.

The First Tee curriculum focuses on teaching character education and it’s “Nine Core Values” (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment). The First Tee chapters use a teaching curriculum developed by experts in the field of positive youth development, and delivered by coaches. Through this experience, participants learn to transfer the values of golf to everyday life.

I have no idea what an “expert in the field of positive youth development” is, but let that pass. The nine “core values” that are “delivered by coaches” are certainly worthy values. But one must wonder aloud why it falls to coaches to teach “character education” when that would appear to be the job of parents, if “character education” is what I think it is — the phrase is somewhat opaque.

True, during recent years the job of teaching virtue has been shunted onto teachers and coaches because apparently the kids’ parents are too busy “making a living” to spend time raising their own children. They leave that to teachers and TV — and apparently to coaches as well. I will set aside the discussion of whether or not it is even possible for anyone except those in the immediate family to teach virtue (which Socrates insisted could not be taught at all, by the way). But the notion that it is the job of sports coaches to teach “core values” and “character” is absurd. Coaches teach athletes how to perform at a high level of skill in a sport. The “life lessons” are nothing more than affirmations of lessons the kids should have learned at home. If they haven’t been learned at home, they are certainly not going to be learned on a golf course. Let’s look at an example.

One of the core values is honesty. When a player grounds his golf club in a hazard he is supposed to “fess up” and take a stroke penalty. There are cases, even at the highest levels, where golfers actually do precisely this, and it is admirable. But I would argue that any golfer who does this is an honest person and that person learned to be honest by watching the way his or her parents and/or loved ones behaved and copying that behavior. We are talking about character here, and character is molded at home at an early age — not in later years at the local Country Club. The most a sports coach can do is reinforce that behavior and applaud the child when he or she behaves in an honest way. Coaches can teach kids golf; they cannot teach “life lessons.” And this would be true for all the nine “core values.” These values must be learned at home and, at best, reinforced in school and on the golf course. This is a worthy effort, but hardly justifies the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are spent on the effort by wealthy golf professionals that might be better spent on something worthwhile — like the preservation of the earth, for example, or saving the wolves. My guess is that the golf pros like to think they are “giving back” to the game while they take a nice little tax break. That’s what made Mickelson’s charitable works so praiseworthy: they seem to be genuine and not in the least self-serving. In any event, the pros who support “The First Tee” are certainly not teaching “life lessons.”