The Eighth Circle

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States”

(William DuBois)

As last year started to draw to a close — and what a year it was — my mind turned to self-scrutiny and it occurred to me that a confession of sorts is in order. As one who has spent his entire adult life attempting to put young people in possession of their own minds (and free them from the clutches of others, myself included), it occurred to me that what we are doing in higher education is a bit fraudulent. This put me in mind of Dante whose extraordinary Inferno deals with those of us who are guilty of fraud. I speak of the eighth circle of Hell.

There are ten levels in the eighth circle, the so-called “malebolges.” In the sixth of those ten levels — all worked out as if by magic with Dante’s poetic eye on medieval dogma and the wisdom of Aristotle — we find those who are the hypocrites, those who have been duplicitous, leading others to follow the wrong path. As the excellent translator, Ciardi, says in his introduction to this Canto in the Inferno,

“Here the hypocrites weighed down by the great leaden robes, walk eternally round and round a narrow track. The robes are brilliantly guided on the outside and are shaped like a monk’s habit, for the hypocrite’s outward appearance shines brightly and passes for holiness, but under that show lies the terrible weight of his deceit which his soul must bear through all eternity.”

In Dante’s own words, which we can feel in spite of the fact that they are translated for us:

“All wore great cloaks cut to as ample a size

as those worn by the Benedictines at Cluny.

The enormous hoods were drawn over their eyes.

 

“The outside is all dazzle, golden and fair;

the inside, lead, so heavy that Frederick’s capes,

compared to these, would seem as light as air.

 

“O weary mantle for eternity!

We turned to the left again along their course,

listening to their moans of misery.”

Why all the fuss? And why charge myself and my fellow “professors” with hypocrisy? Because there is hypocrisy in the willingness of those of us in “higher” education to say one thing and do quite another. We promise those who pay their tuition that they will be educated. The evidence suggests that this is simply not happening. The students who attend college go away thousands of dollars in debt but little affected by their four years — except, perhaps, having learned how to binge-drink and party hearty. And, perhaps, one or two have picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. So many slip between the cracks. So many go away unchanged in important ways by what has occurred.

The problem is that education has become a business and like any business the only measure of success is the “bottom line.” And the bottom line reveals that higher education, so-called, is taking the undergraduates for an expensive ride and not getting the job done. Students are charged high tuition fees and are promised an education– and, at best, they get job training or, perhaps, an occasional glimpse into a world not of their liking, a world of ideas and wisdom that demands of them more effort than they are willing to put out — or, indeed, are used to putting out — and little assurance of employment after graduation.

There are notable exceptions, of course. There are a few colleges, mostly small ones, that stress the “liberal arts,” that do attempt and at times succeed in educating their charges. But on the whole the entire education edifice rests on sand. The promises have become mere words on paper, they mean little and they smell of gaseous air. Instead of committing themselves to the education of those that come, hat in hand, to be educated they instead provide them with emotional counseling, a country-club atmosphere, and a smattering of tips designed to help them get a job after graduation — whether it fulfills them as human beings or not.

In a word, the colleges care not a tittle about the students and their real needs. Instead, they deliver what the students want and the faculty are willing to deliver — as long as it doesn’t take them away from their own personal and professional diversions — and they get a decent paycheck.  Surely, this sort of behavior is precisely what Dante was talking about and what those who promise one thing and deliver quite another are deserving of in the end.

(My tongue is only part-way in my cheek. My concern here is serious and the problem deserving of serious thought — as is the failure of education on the whole.)

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The Filthy Rich

A recent story on AOL News is worth pondering:

Many conservatives have accused unemployment insurance of creating a population of slacker, couch-bound stoners (several states have made drug tests a requirement of benefits). But an analysis by Bloomberg has found that the ultimate pinnacle of hard work and success — millionaires — raked in almost $80 million in jobless benefits during the recession.

At its 2010 peak, the country paid out $150 billion in unemployment benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And $29.9 million of that went to millionaires, according to Bloomberg. That year, almost 3,200 households that reported an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million received unemployment benefits, with an average take of $12,600. That’s 56 percent more than the $8,050 received by the average household filing for benefits, unsurprisingly so since jobless insurance is hitched to past salary.

At a time when there are thousands of folks in this country who don’t know where their next meal will come from and worry that they will soon be forced out of their homes and on to the street (if they haven’t been already), there are so many unsettling aspects to this story it is hard to know where to begin. It’s bad enough that the filthy rich continue to exploit their fellow humans as well as the earth in their single-minded determination to accumulate more money than they can spend in a lifetime. It is also disturbing to realize that these are the same people who complain that the lazy and unmotivated poor (as they see them) are the ones milking the governmental cow until it is dry when, in fact, they are filling their pails as fast as they can! These folks also complain about higher taxes at a time when the taxes for the wealthy in America are historically, and comparably, low — thanks to “trickle-down” economics. Further, these are the people who want to dismantle the EPA and other regulatory agencies so they have a clear path to more and more wealth while many of them are hiding their filthy lucre in Swiss bank accounts and planning to leave the country and live elsewhere when the bottom finally falls out.

In a word, many of the very people who complain the loudest and are the most aggressive in pressing Congress and legislators around the country to let them have their way are the ones who are doing everything they can to eliminate the middle class and cripple the economy that has made them wealthy. It’s time for Dante to come back from wherever he is spending eternity and write an updated version of The Inferno. It’s clear that these people will be there, it’s just not clear what their punishment will be. My suggestion is that they be forced to climb a tall mountain of hot lava in bare feet with heavy bags of gold on their backs only to reach the top and be required to go back and climb again. Forever.