Behind The Curtain

I made a suggestion in a reply to a comment on a recent post that might be offensive to some readers. But since I have very few readers, I doubt that this is much of a problem. I refer to the comment I made that many faculty members in our colleges and universities have agendas they regard as more important than the central agenda of the college itself, which is to educate young minds. I want to expand on that comment since it might be of interest to some who wonder just what goes on behind the curtain that surrounds our ivory towers. If it doesn’t interest anyone, that’s OK, because I simply want to indulge myself.

There are two aspects to this comment. To begin with there is the plain fact that a great many faculty members have political agendas and they defend these agendas openly by insisting that there have always been political agendas in higher education and they think it’s about time theirs was attended to. This, of course is bollocks because the reading of “dead, white males” (as many of these people characterize the tradition they pillory) does not comprise a political agenda, since none of these dead men agreed with one another about much of anything. Further, those who defend women’s studies on these grounds ignore the fact that Plato, for one, insisted that women could be philosopher kings in his Republic; Thomas Moore, taking a page from Plato, insisted that his daughter be fully educated, knowing she was the equal of any man he knew; and John Stuart Mill wrote the definitive treatise on women’s rights in the nineteenth century and had a wife who collaborated with him in writing his major works on ethics and logic. Further, the classical tradition includes a number of important and brilliant women. It can hardly be said that these men or women had any agenda at all, political or otherwise.

But there is the second aspect of my claim and that centers around the fact — based on my own experience, my talks with others in teaching, and my reading of works by thinkers who have found the subject noteworthy — that very few faculty members in our colleges and universities ever stop to think about what it is they are doing. This is not odd, of course, since very few of us stop to think why we are doing the things we are doing, but it is of special concern in higher education because in the 1960s when the students themselves started to ask why they were required to take “irrelevant” courses such as history their professors had no answer:  they had never given the question a thought. As a result, “irrelevant” courses such as history, philosophy, mathematics, and foreign language and what used to be the core of required courses at the center of our colleges and universities were seriously weakened or  scrapped altogether.

What remained of the core requirement, if anything did remain, became the battleground for college professors who worried about their jobs. Indeed, to my knowledge, this was the only reason in the minds of a great many college professors for keeping a core requirement at all. After all, if there were core requirements, then all students would have to take them and this would build up enrollments in their own subject areas that otherwise might be so thin the administration might start to ask “why? and folks would be out of jobs. So what remained was a giant pizza pie that the faculty all approached in curriculum committees and faculty meetings with knives keenly sharpened and a determination to get as large a piece as possible. This resulted in a plethora of disjointed core requirements consisting of scads of courses (sometimes dozens) in certain broad areas, such as “critical thinking,” and “language arts,” the “social sciences,” and even “science.” I recall a faculty member of my institution insisting that computer science be allowed as an option in the science requirement because it is a science. This showed how ignorant that man was about the nature of science and once again proved the maxim that it is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. In this case, the faculty voted him down. But in countless other instances I witnessed the faculty pass on courses that simply didn’t belong because they wanted to guarantee that when it was their turn the faculty would support them — no matter how weak their argument. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!

In any event, the core requirement has taken a beating over the years and it is what remains, in most colleges and universities, of the liberal arts which are designed to liberate young, poorly trained minds and help them gain freedom from narrow vision, ignorance, and prejudice. Add to this the business of the hidden agendas and things started to go down hill rapidly. Since most faculty members haven’t thought about what higher education ought to be doing, and since they are well-trained in their own academic discipline, they began to increase the major requirements in their own areas of interest and push for courses in areas they regarded as politically important (such as women’s studies and black studies), keeping a sharp eye on the piece of pizza they had carefully carved out for themselves. They saw their jobs as dependent on an increased number of major students; they desperately wanted students to take courses in their pet areas to push their own political agendas; and they knew how vital it was to hang on to the piece of pizza they fought so hard for in the faculty meetings. The fact that none of this has anything whatever to do with education never entered their minds. What mattered is the preservation of their jobs, pushing hard for those subjects they themselves found most interesting or politically important, and hanging on to that precious piece of pizza. All of this at increasing cost to students.

I realize I have made a number of generalizations and while I also realize that there are exceptions to those generalizations I do think my seemingly outrageous claims will hold up to scrutiny, generally speaking.  Unpleasant though it might be, this is, generally speaking, what is hiding behind the curtain at many, if not most, of our colleges and universities, and it might explain why I go on and on about what should be taking place.

Punishment

In a recent blog I quoted Tiger Wood’s statement that stroke penalties in golf for slow play were unacceptable because they would cost the players money. I want to pursue this a bit and talk about punishment in general. It does seem to me that the purpose of punishing someone for breaking the rules, or the law, is to make them want never to do that thing again. In golf, if players don’t want point penalties, then that would be an appropriate penalty precisely because they don’t want it: it would deter them from playing slowly. If we levied a penalty the players thought acceptable, it wouldn’t be effective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a penalty at all. I sometimes wonder how Tiger ever got admitted to Stanford!

In any case, it raises the question of what punishment is all about. Thomas More, in his remarkable book Utopia, thought punishment ought to improve people, make them better. In our culture, historically, we have operated on the principle of deterrence: punishment ought to deter future undesirable behavior. But we apply this principle in strange ways. If a man robs a bank at gun point, we “put him away” for a few years. It is supposed to keep him from robbing banks in the future — not only while he is in jail. But we know this doesn’t really work, and the culprit is often robbing again once he is back on the streets — having learned new tricks while in jail, no doubt. The principle itself is strange anyway: years in prison for taking money that doesn’t belong to him. It’s the same punishment we dole out for a man who repeatedly beats his wife: doing time. In neither case does the punishment make much sense.

Don’t we like to say the punishment ought to “fit the crime”? Years in prison for beating one’s wife doesn’t seem to fit somehow. Perhaps we ought to put the man in a locked room with two or three other men and have him beaten up until he feels what his wife felt. This, in brief, is the principle Dante operated on in his Inferno: the punishment fits the crime. For example, usurers who were deeper in Hell than murderers since they commit a violent crime “against art, God’s grandchild” sit around a plain of burning hot sand with bags of coins strung around their necks forcing them to watch the bag through eternity — presumably waiting for it to grow larger. After all, that’s what usurers do: they lend money at interest and make the money grow without actually doing anything to earn the profits. At least that was the Church’s view at the time.

Dante, of course, never questioned the appropriateness of capital punishment. It was generally accepted by the church that one who commits murder forfeits his life and deserves to die at the hands of the state. Aquinas argued this in his Summa Theologica, insisting that those who murder are animals and ought to be treated as such themselves: it’s their choice. In principle I would agree, but as I have argued in a previous blog the flaw in the scheme is human fallibility. Jurors and even eye-witnesses make mistakes. If humans never made mistakes then capital punishment would be entirely appropriate. But we make mistakes more often than not, so it can, and does, lead to terrible blunders. Be that as it may, “doing time” is a strange way to punish a person for taking another person’s life, or for most of the acts we regard as criminal.

We aren’t very creative in thinking of appropriate ways to punish people, though I can think of one interesting counter-example. A judge in a township not far away from me fined a construction company $100,000 for bid-rigging — and insisted that the amount fined go to four regional universities to establish programs in business ethics. My university already had the program, so we used the money to start a lecture series and brought in some very interesting people who spoke to us about business and ethics. Now that was appropriate punishment, and a very constructive way to “make good” on a rotten situation.

But this example is certainly the exception. In general we like to think the punishment  ought to fit the crime; it ought to deter the criminal from further crime and, as Thomas More thought, ideally it ought to reform the criminal and make him a more useful member of society. This last element we seem to ignore for the most part in our desire to “get back” at the criminal. So in the final analysis, we punish people to make ourselves feel better, to relieve our own stress at the thought that the guy is “out there,” or to satisfy our own need for revenge. None of the lofty reasons we give for punishing people seems to hold water. So we settle for what makes us feel good.