Punishment

Of late we have been told that Jerry Sandusky’s son has apparently decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. The following story that provides some background:

Jerry Sandusky’s adult son is in a Pennsylvania jail, awaiting a hearing next week on charges he pressured one teenage girl to send him naked photos and asked her teen sister to give him oral sex.

Jeffrey Sandusky, 41, faces 14 counts, including solicitation of statutory sexual assault and solicitation of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. His lawyer isn’t commenting on the allegations.

A child abuse expert says the allegations raise the possibility that he may not have been raised in a healthy sexual environment, whether or not he was himself victimized.

Note the understatement: “may not have been raised in a healthy sexual environment.” Don’t you love the experts?? In any event, the story, which sends chills down one’s back, raises at least two important questions about the way we treat criminals and those who have been charged with criminal offenses. To begin with, it appears, once again, that the notion of punishment as a deterrent is brought into question, since this man had a front-row seat at the trial of his father who is now serving time for abusing children. His father’s punishment apparently didn’t affect the behavior of his adopted son. But then punishment, even capital punishment, doesn’t seem to deter crime. The criminal apparently thinks he or she will not get caught — much like those who refuse to wear seat belts because they are not the ones who will die in a car crash. Not me, oh no!

But the other issue raised by this allegation is the question of punishment itself. What it the reason we punish criminals and why do we choose to punish them as well do? Why, for example, do we lock up the criminal who robs a bank as though time spent in jail will erase the psychological and physical damage to the employees and customers of the bank that is robbed? What is the correlation here? What is the rationale? Can we defend the notion that X amounts of dollars taken equals Y amount of time behind bars? I gather we are content with the notion that the criminal is now behind bars and will no longer hold up banks and terrorize the customers and employees of any other bank. But we know that those who are locked up learn more about being effective in their “craft” and frequently revert to form after being released. And criminals like Jerry Sandusky who are charged with pedophilia are sent to prison where, allegedly, they themselves become the victims of the very crime they have committed, though he is not himself a child.

Sir Thomas Moore worried about these questions and in his seminal book Utopia he dealt with what he regarded as the appropriate treatment of criminals. Instead of retribution he thought the central goal of punishment should be remediation, helping the criminal deal with the factors that led to the crime in the first place. The behavior of the Sandusky’s, father and son, suggest that there are serious psychological problems here that need to be addressed. Locking such people up is not a solution — it is much like putting a band-aid on a cancer. If we are to treat criminals, then we need to try to understand what led them to crime in the first place and then see if there are ways they can be rehabilitated. Punishment should not mearly be a way of protecting the public from the criminal; it ought to be a way of helping the criminal  move beyond the abberant bahavior that led him to crime in the first place. This would seem to be especially appropriate in cases such as these where the mental health of the criminal is the central issue

 

Choosing Blindly

It’s time to take a break from the depressing news about the upcoming election in which the Trumpet keeps bringing more and more idiots onto his bandwagon. Here’s a post about something I have always regarded as very important and which I am realistic enough to acknowledge will not change.I speak about my opposition to electives in college. And while I am aware that most of my readers who have graduated from college have taken a host of electives I must mention that I am not talking about them. I am talking about the norm. Most students going to college these days are subjected to a system that has undermined the real strength of American higher education and rendered it a crapshoot.

The elective system was first introduced in Harvard by President Charles William Eliot in the 1920s. It was designed to provide young men [sic] who came to Harvard well prepared a number of choices at the upper levels of their education.The idea was to supplement the basic core education with a few courses in the student’s area of special interest to provide him with both a broad and a specialized knowledge. It made sense at the time. But it has become the bane of American higher education in my mind because — aside from the major courses which faculty members defend with their very lives — students now often have more electives than they do requirements. And this at a time when they come to college unprepared and in need of careful guidance. The elective system has even now filtered down to the level of high school where a growing number of schools allow the students to pick courses of varying merit from long lists of options.

The problem here is that the system rests on the assumption that the students are in position to make choices that will benefit them in the long run. It presupposes that they know something about each of the options they face before they make their choice — they know that physics is more important than badminton. This was a reasonable assumption in Eliot’s day. It most assuredly is not any more.

Imagine, if you will, a hungry young person in France who speaks no French facing a table filled with food labelled in the native language they do not speak. They are allowed to choose any food they want from the table with the proviso that what they choose will be both healthy and beneficial to future growth. It won’t happen. Obviously. They will hesitate, ask friends, and in the end take what look best in the off-chance that it will fulfill the requirements demanded of them. In the end, I predict, they will eat the sweet foods and leave the vegetables and become sick and emaciated. The parallel here is almost exact, except that in higher education we are concerned about mental health rather than physical well-being.

The problem has arisen because since the 1960s college faculty members have grown increasingly uncertain about just what it is that students need in order to become intelligent, thoughtful adults. They understand their own area of specialization and because territory has become increasingly important to insecure faculty members who worry about their continued employment, they seek to increase major requirements at their college and reduce the number of “core” courses that are the residue of what was left after students attacked requirements as “irrelevant” in the 1960s. In many colleges and universities, those core requirements have been totally replaced with electives, either free electives of selected electives in groups that give the student the illusion of real choice.

The problem is the students are not in a position to choose sensibly, unless it were possible to have them choose in close association with a faculty member of demonstrated objectivity who is clearly concerned primarily with what is best for the student and not what is best for his or her department or career. Such a person is rare indeed, and most faculty sluff-off advising because there are too many students and they prefer to spend their time doing things they regard as more important. Furthermore, they are primarily concerned with filling their own classrooms.  I know this from personal experience and from the talks I have had with colleagues from around the country whose experience mirrors my own.

The point is that students are given choices before they are in position to choose wisely. They are like the hungry young person facing a table filled with food that is entirely foreign to them: they choose blindly and stupidly, at times for the worst of reasons — “I have that hour open,” “Fred told me the professor was easy,” “I needed another elective.” What’s important is that the course they choose benefit them in the long run, helps them gain control of their own minds. That will not, cannot, happen unless they choose wisely and that presupposes they know what they cannot possibly know until after they have made the choice. It’s a classic “Catch 22.” But the fault lies not with the students, who do not know any better; it lies with the faculty who should know better.