Memories

As an old fart I spend a good deal of time reflecting on fond moments of the past– and the many regrets I have for not having done more or better than I did. But as a college professor I taught in a college and a couple of universities for 41 years and I am lucky to have had some very fine moments. I want to share a couple of them with my readers because I am at present doing whatever I can to keep my mind off you-know-what and you-know-who.

My first job right out of Northwestern University was at the University of Rhode Island where I taught for two years. My advisor at Northwestern had helped me get the job because in those days mentors sought to find good jobs for their students as it reflected well on them. I made less money teaching as an Instructor for nine months than I did during the remaining three months as a tennis pro at a private club outside of Chicago! More to the point, as a member of a 7 man department (there were no women in those days) I was being forced into a niche that made me feel cramped. So when I saw a chance to take a position in a new small college in Iowa where I could spread my wings, begin a new program and, more importantly, teach the Great Books I had fallen in love with in college, I grabbed it. It also paid well enough that I was able to quit the job as a tennis pro and teach the Summer term instead, which I did with delight. Tennis has always been one of my great loves, but teaching philosophy and what they called “The Humanities” was what I was cut out for.

After a couple of years it was apparent that the small college was not going to survive so I took a job at a brand new state college in Marshall, Minnesota. I was able to establish a philosophy department and lead a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” where, I thought, I could continue to teach the great Books. Not so. The dean thought the books too sophisticated for the Freshmen at that college (not true) and he insisted that the reading list be watered down. I was in no position to do much more than complain. But I started an Honors Program for the brighter students and found my refuge there teaching (wait for it) the Great Books. We had a required Senior Seminar that focused on those books and I was able to have my students read some of them in my Humanities courses and in my course on Philosophy In Literature as well. I had some terrific students. Some of them have remained life-long friends. But what about those moments I mentioned?

In one of the Senior Seminars I came in a bit late and found the students already discussing the day’s reading! In another case I was able to ask a few questions and then simply make an occasional remark as the discussion was lively and involved all or most of the students. Those were some of the best classes I ever taught, and they were always the classes I most looked forward to teaching. I said little and the students really got into it. That’s the way they learn best! My role: provoke thought and guide discussion.

But I complained one day in class that the new college had very few traditions. At Northwestern we applauded the professor at the end of the term and even at the private school where I taught before going to Northwestern the boys led a cheer for the “master” at the end of the term. At this new college on the Prairie students simply left the class after it was over and that was it. The following day in class the entire class showed up dressed to the nines (one student even borrowing a suit for the purpose) with champaign and glasses in hand! I was struck dumb! We drank the champaign and had a good laugh and I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. (It bears mentioning that two of the instigators of that event were campus leaders in an effort to cut down the growing use of liquor on campus!)

One of the greatest moments came after my retirement when one of my former students, who is now a close personal friend and also teaches at the university, convinced the university to name the honors lounge at the university after me. The event was largely ignored by the university community, but the generosity and consideration of that former student is unsurpassed in my experience. How does one say “thanks”?

One last item: I was asked to coach the fledgling women’s tennis team when a new Conference was formed a few years after my arrival. And, given my love of the game I threw myself into it heart and soul. I did that for nearly fifteen years, along with chairing a department, teaching a full load of classes, and writing book reviews, articles, and a few books of my own. Even though the busy schedule took we away from my family — which is at the top of the list of those regrets I mentioned above — I loved it and still have a great many fond memories of the remarkable students and athletes who came to that small college on the Great Plains to play tennis and get a good education.  It is fun to hear from them from time to time and see what remarkable people they have turned out to be.

 

 

 

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!

Serendipity

After graduation from college I decided to take a year to clear my head and decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took a job teaching at a private school for boys in New York and discovered that I loved teaching — but I wanted to teach at a higher level where, it seemed to me, I would be better challenged. And I also decided to teach philosophy because I loved it and  it would keep my mind alive. The problem is that I had no money. I applied to several graduate schools and was accepted, but I simply didn’t have the money to attend. So, flat feet and all,  I decided to join the Army.

At the time I was working at a boys camp in Maine during the Summers and the plan was to join in the Fall, after camp was over. But an older man who also taught at the private school had asked me to join him and his family at Big Wolf Lake in Upper New York before going off to the Army. I spent a few days with him and his wife and children who surprised me one morning by offering to finance my first year of graduate school! I kid you not. After that I was to be on my own, but at least this would allow me to get my foot in the door. How gracious! How generous! I was stunned! I immediately called the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Northwestern where I had been accepted and asked if it was too late to join the Fall class. He assured me it was not and welcomed me aboard. The die was cast.

Needless to say, I considered myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth and I packed up my belongings in my used Volkswagen bug and left for parts unknown. “Go West, young man!” After a successful first year I was granted a University Fellowship that paid my way for the rest of my graduate career. But to add to the remarkable events of those years, in my second year I took a course in Plato’s late dialogues and met my wife. She was an undergraduate whose advisor allowed her to enroll in an upper-level philosophy course to fulfill a university requirement. After meeting her and falling in love with her I knew for certain that I was the luckiest man alive. We married soon thereafter and have been together ever since — through thick and thin.

I have often thought about how tiny things that seem at the time to be insignificant turn out to be the most important things in our lives. I might have gone into the Army (can you imagine??) or I might have decided that a trip to Big Wolf was a bit out of my way. After all, my family was in Richmond, Virginia — which was in the other direction. Or my wife might have selected a different course to fulfill that requirement — she was a Latin major and thought she ought to know a bit about Greek philosophy! Go figure. There were courses available to her other than an upper-level philosophy course about an ancient Greek’s obscure thoughts.

Have you ever had such remarkable things seemingly turn your life around? It does make you wonder sometimes. Call it luck or call it serendipity!

Athletes As Employees

You have probably heard about the recent decision by the Labor Relations Board in Illinois allowing Northwestern University football players to unionize. In case you haven’t, here’s the lead from a recent news article:

Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees of the school and therefore entitled to hold an election to decide whether to unionize, an official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday.

The stunning decision, coming after a push by former quarterback Kain Colter backed by organized labor, has the potential to shake up the world of big-time college sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and universities set the rules and cut the lucrative deals with TV networks and sponsors, exerting near total control over the activities of players known as “student athletes.” But now those football players, at least at Northwestern, are employees too and may seek collective bargaining status, according to the 24-page ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the NLRB.

Northwestern University plans to appeal the ruling and the likelihood is that the case will be in court for years making lawyers rich and everyone else frustrated — not unlike the case involving the Deadlock estate Charles Dickens talks about in Bleak House! By the time the lawyers finished with that one, the money at issue had been all used up in lawyers’ fees. This case will cost some people a great deal of money in the end as well. And, while workers’ rights are certainly part of the equation, it is money that is the primary focus.

The American football industry, housed primarily in NCAA Division I Universities, brings in well over a billion dollars in TV revenue every year and the kids who play the game want their share — or at the very least some protection from abusive coaches and unscrupulous university administrators. They are being exploited, as Karl Marx would point out, and they have finally figured out that this must stop. Whether it will or not remains to be seen. I have my doubts. The universities and the NCAA are both dead set against this and they are the ones who have all the money on their side and they like the idea of making sure they don’t kill the golden goose, and in this case the goose is named student/athlete. In effect, the kids are taking on the establishment. Go, David, kill Goliath!

What I find especially interesting is the inherent contradiction involved in the ruling that these athletes are employees of the universities. Not students, apparently, but employees: they really can’t be both. There goes the fiction of the student/athlete, assuming anyone believed it any more. The graduation rates for Division I football and male basketball players are a joke, as is commonly known. And the examples of kids who are recruited, don’t make the team, and are later discarded are legion. By making these kids employees folks like Kain Coulter, an oft-injured but terribly gifted quarterback who recently finished his collegiate football career, hope to get them the protection a union contract would seem to guarantee. At issue are such things as terms and conditions of employment, spending money, practice times, but especially medical benefits. It sounds good on paper. We shall see,

Those who have read my blogs and checked out the article on my web page about “The Tail That Wags The Dog” will expect me to applaud this effort on the part of the players at Northwestern. And I do. It helps rid us of the hypocrisy that is Division I athletics at American colleges and Universities. As things stand at present, the vast majority of those who play Division I “revenue sports,” aptly called, tend not to spend much time in class or worry overmuch about their grades and their future, in or out of the professional ranks. For years now I have recommended that we do away with the sham and hypocrisy and simply admit that these kids are professional athletes — pay them a decent wage, and let those who want to pay for their classes pursue a degree. It just seems more honest somehow. This step toward unionization appears to be the first step — if it is allowed by the courts and the powers that be. In any event, it is a sure bet that changes will be forthcoming, though no matter what comes about the colleges and universities (and the NCAA) will almost certainly not suffer in the process.

 

Unions

Back in the day when I was a young, fresh PhD out of Northwestern University employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was talk of the faculty unionizing. As I say, I was young (and naive) and I thought that such a thing would destroy “collegiality” and set the faculty and administration at odds — establish an adversarial relationship that would run counter to what we were trying to do at that University, which I naively thought at the time was to educate young people. In any event, despite my opposition unionization happened at that University though in the meantime I went elsewhere; a few years later I ended up in a state college in Minnesota that did not have any unions. But, again, there was talk of forming a state-wide union. Acrimonious talk. While this talk was going on the administration where I taught decided to hack up the faculty and fired seven faculty members from the liberal arts faculty, two of whom had tenure, in order to shift emphasis at the college to the “useful arts,” i.e., education and business (where they thought the dollars were hiding, and legislators would be made happy). I still fought the notion of unions, even though I realized that they might give the faculty some punch which they clearly lacked when dealing with unscrupulous administrators and legislators worried only about saving some of the taxpayer’s money (presumably so they could get more of it themselves).

We eventually became unionized and I have benefitted financially from it. As a retired fart I am comfortable and I need not worry over much about putting food on the table or paying for the medical bills that have begun to come rolling in. I hesitate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I am still anti-union — in principle. I still think it destroys collegiality and puts the administration at odds with the faculty. I have seen it first-hand. I have also seen the union save the job of an incompetent  member of my faculty who threatened to throw a student through the window! In that case, the administrator involved failed to follow proper protocol, as the union was quick to point out. Indeed, I am aware that there is a significant number of people in harness at my old university (as it is now called) whose job is protected by the unions and who otherwise would be on the streets begging for a handout. I dare say there are a great many incompetent teaching faculty around the country whose jobs are protected by the unions.

As I say this, however, I realize that there are also a great many decent, bright and able people whose jobs would be lost if it were not for the clout that the unions have and which small clusters of faculty members simply do not have. There are two sides to this issue when it comes to unions and I go back and forth, because I do not think they belong in a university setting, but I realize that without them the universities would be run by incompetent administrators (whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and who are paid vastly more than they are worth.)

Now we hear, on another front entirely, that the football team at my alma mater wants to unionize. But, again, in principle, I think they are wrong to wish for such a thing: the grounds on which they stand on this issue are very thin indeed. They are not workers who require a strong voice. They are students (presumably) who have voluntarily chosen to play football for Northwestern University and who are given a huge amount of money (approximately $60,000.00 a year, I am told, plus free health-care for four years, which they apparently regard as inadequate) to attend classes and work for a degree that will stand them in good stead in the world of business when they graduate. The NCAA opposes the players (which is almost alone sufficient reason to support them). But the talk persists: there are huge amounts of money involved in collegiate football and the players want their share. They also fear concussions and other physical impairment that are almost certain to follow from four years of smashing heads with others of their ilk in the “Big Ten” [which now has about fourteen teams. Please explain, if you can]. They are right. But they are also wrong.

Unions protect those who desperately need protection. But they also protect the incompetent. And they tend to become over-large and frequently riddled with corruption. There’s the rub. In this case, they would protect those who are being clearly exploited by the universities whose main interest is with profits from TV revenue. But unions also imply that the players are not students at all, they are employees of the universities. In this regard, the attempt on the part of the football players to unionize is more honest because most college athletes at this level are not students (simply look at the courses they take and the disproportionate numbers that fail to graduate). And there are huge amounts of money involved and there are also, in fact, debilitating injuries and health problems that show up later. As I say, it would be more honest to allow the football teams to unionize. But if these players want to do so they should drop all pretense of being students and acknowledge that they are semi-professional athletes and play for pay. If they then want an education, they could pay part of their salaries to the colleges and universities and attend classes, working toward a degree like the other students. Then, as semi-professional athletes they can attempt to deal with the problems that seem invariably to accompany unionization.

Useless Studies

In reading “Cross Currents,” the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences magazine from Northwestern University, I came across a story written by Phyllis Billington who graduated from that university in 1949 with a major in philosophy. Asked why on earth she majored in philosophy, she responded “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.” Mrs. Billington also studied piano on a Fulbright and was a cover-girl for McCall’s magazine. She studied harpsichord in Belgium with a concert performer trained by the  world-famous Wanda Landowska. A most impressive resumé, indeed!

But Mrs Billington’s response to the question of why on earth she majored in philosophy (especially in the 1940’s) was what intrigued me about the article. Of course, it was easier to study “useless” subjects in the 40s of the last century as the pressure to study something practical, something with immediate cash value, hadn’t yet begun to mount. But it was still quire remarkable, especially for a woman at that time. (That’s not a sexist remark: there simply weren’t that many women in college in the 1940s, much less majoring in philosophy! In fact, there weren’t that many men studying philosophy then or now.)

Philosophy is one of those “useless” subjects, along with English and History, that have come into disrepute these days as the colleges and universities shift their emphasis to vocational studies. Since the 50s, especially, the stress has been on the useful subjects — for the reasons already mentioned. But it is precisely the useless subjects that are the most valuable. After all, utility is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Useful, practical courses in college, courses designed to get the student the first job, teach students know-how. Seldom do they concern themselves with know-why. It is the liberal studies, the useless courses, that help us to understand the why of things. These are the courses that push us to a deeper understanding of the world around us and have permanent value — as reflected in Mrs. Billington’s remarks.

I also studied philosophy and my wife majored in Latin in college. We both had to answer those embarrassing questions: what will you do with THAT? And neither of us had the insightful answer Mrs. Billington had in response to the same question. Usually when I tell people I studied and taught philosophy I am met with embarrassed silence, or, perhaps, a smile and a “Oh yes, that’s where people lie on a couch and you ask them questions!” Not really. But we do ask questions, questions that don’t even have answers as a rule. Those are the only questions worth asking, but many people find that sort of thing frustrating as they want simple answers to complex questions (which explains the popularity of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh). But asking questions is the way we start out in life and it is what allows the mind to gain nourishment and grow. It’s all about keeping the mind alive. Thanks for reminding me, Mrs. Billington!

Liberals and Conservatives

I have come to the point where I try to remember to put “liberal” and “conservative” in scare quotes. I do so because the words have scarcely any meaning. “Liberal” actually comes from the same root as “libertarian,” which is the school of thought initiated by the very liberal John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century even though today libertarians are for the most part conservatives. Originally the term stressed minimal government and maximum freedom — as though you needed one in order to guarantee the other. There is some truth in this. But one finds the same concern in diverse thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, both of whom insisted that human freedom could only be fully realized when governments were kept at a minimum. Otherwise, with large governments, we would get comfortable knowing that we would be taken care of if we are in need and our freedom would be lost. But one would hardly call either Dostoevsky or Nietzsche “liberal” as both were intellectually conservative and shared a deep distrust of what came to be called “socialism.”  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is precisely the concern of modern-day “dollar conservatives” who may or may not be libertarians, but who distrust government and hate socialism, or what they understand socialism to be.

As you can see, the words swim before our eyes. Today, “liberals” tend to be in favor of large government as a buffer to protect individuals against the abuses of great powers in the state that would take their freedom away, such as large corporations. Thus, they see large governments with numerous agencies as necessary for human freedom. The word “liberal” when used derisively tends to be equated with “socialist,” another abused term. Socialists believe that the state should own the means of production, because they don’t trust greedy capitalists to do the right thing. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, tend to be in favor of lower taxes and increased license for business which they tend to identify with the greatest good: what is good for business is good for society — all of us. This, of course, is at best a half-truth. Also, in recent years “conservatives” have gotten mixed up with religious enthusiasts who want minimum interference with individual conscience (theirs anyway) and approve only those laws that prohibit acts they regard as evil, such as abortion and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In extreme forms, these people would just as soon see the end of government altogether. Neither of these main groups of “conservatives” seems to give a tinker’s dam for conserving the environment, so the term seems to have no application beyond promoting their own religious or financial interests.

My adviser at Northwestern wrote an essay in which he claimed that the main difference between conservatives and liberals is that the former believe that the world exhibits ineluctable evil, echoing Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity,” whereas the latter believe that the world can be improved through social engineering. There may be some truth in this, and it certainly attempts to take us to the heart of a real ideological difference. For my part, I think those we loosely call “conservatives” are fundamentally fearful and want a government strong enough to protect them and their interests, but not large enough to take anything away from them; those we call “liberal” are naively optimistic about the ways human life can be improved and seem convinced that most of our problems can be solved by throwing money at them. In any case, the terms are muddy at best and deserve to be placed in scare quotes, or trashed altogether.