Homecoming

In the Fall of the year alumni of our many, many colleges and universities across this great land of ours prepare to return to campus for a day or two, party a bit, watch the homecoming parade and, perhaps, take in the homecoming game on Saturday. I remember this, because I was at Northwestern for four years and recall all the hoopla and, I must admit, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, though I never attended Homecoming as an alumnus. But while I was a graduate student I never missed a home football game with the “Wildcats” then under Ara Persigian and surprisingly successful.

But I now receive annual notifications in the Spring of homecoming at the small college of several hundred students I attended before going to Northwestern. That college is located in Annapolis, Maryland — we used to say the Naval Academy was in our shadow, but we all know it was the other way ’round. The college was St. John’s College and it is centered around the reading of “the hundred Great Books,” a marketing ploy that was designed to attract students. Today I suspect  it would turn them away! But we read many of the Great Books, however numerous they were. In any event, I thought I would share with you some of the events of this year’s homecoming at the Annapolis campus and the Santa Fe campus as well — there are now two campuses where the exact same program of studies is pursued. All classes are required; there are no electives to speak of. The assumption is that the faculty know better than the underclassmen what will be of most benefit to them as they go out into the world.

Alumni are requested to arrive on Thursday, September 27th where they are invited to sit in on a regular Thursday night seminar. Undergraduates attend seminars every Monday and Thursday evening for at least two hours each. On Friday the alumni are invited to sit in on a class in session, foreign language or mathematics, as I recall; attend a session on “Admissions and Career Services,” where their input is heartedly invited; attend a “conversation with college leaders (?)”; eat an evening meal with fellow alumni, after which all are invited to attend the Friday night lecture — the weekly lecture is the only lecture the students at St. John’s are required to attend during their four years! All classes and the seminars, of course, are based on discussion, not lectures.

On Saturday the fun begins! There are alumni Seminars at 10:00 AM. Past seminars have involved such topics as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” Shakespeare sonnets, Plato’s Meno, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book IX), Goethe’s “Metamorphosis of Plants,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Books 8 and 9) Plato’s Phaedrus, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Alumni are encouraged to re-read these before attending the seminar. After that there is a lunch break followed by soccer on the back forty (which is participatory. The college does not have a soccer team. Or any other intercollegiate team, for that matter.) The strenuous activities of the soccer match (which resembles to a large degree a caucus face, as described by Lewis Carroll) are followed by a discussion of Ptolemy in the planetarium, followed by a session on career planning, including alumni involved in Finance, Consulting, and Business. St. John’s alumni can be found in all walks of life, including medicine. Such are the advantages of a liberal education! At the end of the day there is an outdoor movie on the back campus. On Sunday there is a brunch and folks take their leave — after an exhausting, but exhilarating, couple of days.

That’s Homecoming St. John’s style. And a good time will be had by all!

Imposter?

One of the more intriguing stories to come out of the race among a truly ridiculous bunch of clowns for the Republican nomination for President arises in connection with Dr. Ben Carson who claims to have risen from dire poverty to become a world-famous surgeon. Are the stories he tells about himself true? Does it matter? A recent article by Matt Bal on-line addresses this issue. As the article tells us, regarding the close scrutiny that faces every political candidate these days:

Perhaps more to the point, though, such scrutiny fails to make a critical distinction when it comes to measuring integrity — namely, the distinction between the stories a politician might contrive to tell you, on one hand, and the stories he has always told himself on the other.  . .

It seems very likely that, at least until this week, Carson had always believed he tried to kill his friend and that he spurned West Point to become a doctor. So what. That doesn’t make him an impostor. It makes him someone who found meaning in some pivotal moments of his boyhood, even if memory sharpened the edges a bit.

And these kinds of moments, real or embellished, have value when we assess our candidates, if we’re not looking at everything through some superficial, true-false lens. Carson’s book, which I devoured in a day, probably doesn’t tell us much about his trustworthiness now. But if you’re reading with any genuine curiosity, it can tell you an awful lot about the way he sees his own journey.

It explains the sense of destiny that propels a man who has never held elective office — and doesn’t know very much about government — to suddenly get up one day and seek the presidency. . . .

The things politicians believe about themselves are often a lot more illuminating than the truth.

Perhaps more “illuminating” but not more important. The truth of the stories politicians tell about themselves matters a great deal. People who tell falsehoods about themselves are in some sense of that word “delusional.”  And Ben Carter’s stories are not only false but also delusional. Take, for example, his claim that he turned down a “full ride” to West Point to enter medicine. West Point doesn’t have “full rides.” They basically enlist the men and women for a free education which then requires that they serve in the Army for a full term to repay the favor. In that sense, all who matriculate at West Point, or the Naval or Air Force Academies, have a “full ride.” Carter seems to be telling us a story he made up about himself to impress us with his determination to become a  man of medicine but also one who might well have taken another turn and become a major-general. Kids do this sort of thing. Perhaps we all do to some extent — as the article above suggests — but we are not all running for president! The main question to ponder is are those stories we all tell “porkies,” as the Brits would say, or are they a sign that we really don’t know what is true anymore?

The fact that Carson makes up this stuff raises the question of the man’s inherent integrity. Are we sure we want a man to lead this country who not only “doesn’t know much about government” but also has a very loose hold on the truth? Do we know what we are getting? Or is it sufficient that he has no track record whatever in the political race and THEREFORE must be OK? Our determination to find someone to replace the clutter that now fills the hallowed halls of politics is understandable, but we must be very careful what comes out when we turn over every non-political rock in sight.

I do love the comment I quoted in a previous post: “Whether or not you like the man, Ben Carson has forced us to ask the really tough questions, such as ‘Have we overestimated the intelligence of our brain surgeons?'” But it’s not all about intelligence. Not in the least. Martin Luther King once dreamed that the day will come when we are not judged by the color of our skin but by “the content of our character.” As near as I can tell, when it comes to character, this particular politician is running on empty.

Money Matters

As you are doubtless aware, the college football season started recently. In fact, it started with a game in Dublin, Ireland between Notre Dame and the United States Naval Academy. That’s right, they flew the Naval Academy’s football team to Ireland to play a game. That would be our tax dollars, folks, part of our “defense” spending. And we might also note the “fly overs” at a number of other major games last weekend that have become a part of the jingoistic spectacle that is now American sports and which probably cost a dollar or two of our “defense” spending as well.

And we could total up the bill with other recreational spending on the military here and all over the globe where we have forces protecting us against whoever it is they are protecting us against. I suspect the cost of softballs alone would feed a family of four for a year. But that is speculation because I doubt very many people are privy to the inside dope on just what our defense spending goes toward. Ron Paul’s son recently had the audacity to suggest that there should be an audit of the Pentagon, but that suggestion fell on deaf ears and closed Republican minds.

But the Republicans are eager to cut federal spending and bring the government down a peg in order to help balance the budget. Yeah, right! So where will the cuts come from? You guessed it, social programs. 60% of the federal budget in the coming year will go to “defense” spending — Department of Defense, war, veterans affairs, and nuclear weapons programs. 6% will go to health and human services, 6% to education, 5% to the individual states, 4% to the Department of Homeland Security, 3% to Housing and Urban Development, and 4.5% to other programs. Oh, and there’s also a projected 1.5% that will go to helping develop and support new energy programs other than nuclear weapons programs. There are a few other piddling items, but you can see from this list where the major cuts will come — given that the “defense” budget will actually be increased in the future if the Republicans have their way. The cuts will come from programs designed to help folks survive and better themselves. Paul Ryan, for example, has suggested that Pell Grants be frozen or reduced in order to force the colleges and universities to reduce tuition costs for the nation’s college students.

Ryan’s suggestion reminds me of one of our local legislators who pushed through the Minnesota legislature a plan to increase the speed limits on two-lane country roads in order to reduce the speed of the vehicles and reduce accidents on country roads. That’s right: increase the speed limits in order to reduce the speed of local traffic. You heard it here, folks, it’s called “newspeak” or “policalese.” Whatever you call it, it’s hogwash and Ryan’s plan to cut Pell Grants in order to reduce tuition costs for students falls in that category.

Thus, if this crew is elected to run our government, we can brace ourselves for cuts to social programs that help people receive an adequate education, feed themselves, and find temporary shelter when they fall on hard times — while, at the same time, the military gets more money for softballs, golf balls, tennis balls, fly overs, and trips to Ireland to play football. I begin to know how Alice felt in Wonderland.