Want and Need

Because of a very interesting comment on one of my recent posts, my attention was drawn back to a distinction I have noted before but one which we as a culture have lost sight of totally. I refer, of course, to the distinction between “want” and “need.” Now, it might be said that distinctions are of interest only to philosophers — and others of their peculiar type — but in fact they help us to be clear about what it is we are saying. In this case, the distinction goes to the heart of some rather alarming mistakes we are making as a culture. I refer to the mistakes we have made both as parents and teachers.

John Dewey (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

John Dewey
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In education, the movement to “progressive,” child-oriented education under John Dewey and the faculties of  Columbia University Teacher’s College and the University of Chicago Laboratory School that followed after him led directly to the present deterioration of our educational system and also to poor parenting. Dewey thought at the time, in the early thirties, that the schools were too focused on what was being taught and had lost sight of who were being taught — namely, the children. To an extent this was true, but his followers got the bit in their teeth and, contrary to Dewey’s intention, ran with the notion that education should be totally focused on the child and the substance of what was taught really didn’t matter. It took a while and it was not without its critics, but “progressive education” and what we might call “progressive parenting” were born. The most profound comment I have ever read about this mistake was made by the philosopher Hannah Arendt in an article she wrote in 1969. At that time she said:

“. . .progressive education which, by abolishing the authority of adults, implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

The focus here, not only in education but also in parenting since the 1950s at least, is on the fundamental difference between what children want and what they need. In addition, Arendt draws attention to the fact that parents and teachers are, whether they like it or not, authority figures. And we ought to act like it. But we do not. We ask the children what they want to do or learn and take our cue from them. Thus we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of making those choices for them, despite the fact that we must realize that those children really have no idea what they need and in many cases don’t even know what they want. Like it or not, it is the parents and the teachers who must make the decisions for those too young to be expected to make them themselves.

In any event, gradually teachers and parents ceased to play the role of authority figures and turned the raising and teaching of their children over the what Christopher Lasch called “the helping professions,” the behavioral psychologists and social workers who claimed to know what was best for the children and founded that knowledge on the answers the children gave to the question “what do you want to do (learn)?” By asking the children, or students, what they wanted to do or learn we gradually lost sight of the question of what they needed to know and in doing so (as Arendt so astutely pointed out) absolved ourselves of the responsibility of raising or teaching the children what they need to know and do in order to work their way through the maze that is the modern world. In a word, we took the path of least resistance and in doing so abandoned the children to their whims and fancies. Not a good way to do things.

In the end, the focus on what children and students need got lost in the tizzy to give them what they wanted and thus was born the age of entitlement. And this is the world we live in at present while we struggle to figure out what went wrong. Our kids, especially the so-called “millennialists,” are confused and bewildered and ultimately without direction or purpose. And it is their parents’ and teachers’ fault that these young people are now  a part of the confused generation, wondering what went wrong and which direction will lead them to success, properly understood as well-being and happiness. That road begins and ends with the answer to the question: what do these young people need? And while adults may struggle with the answer to this question, we have a better take on it than do those who are too young to have learned where the blind alleys and dead ends are.

The Tail Still Wags

A recent story caught my eye. The headline made me wonder if there was still hope for the education of students at major football colleges:

The University of Alabama-Birmingham will officially shut down its football program at the end of the season, the school announced Tuesday.

UAB becomes the first Football Bowl Subdivision/Division I-A school to drop football since Pacific in 1995.

A release by the university cited the results of a review conducted by CarrSports Consulting that said in order to preserve the greater good of the athletic department, UAB needed to end football, bowling and rifle at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.

But after I read a bit I realized a couple of things. To begin with, this university’s football team is not a “major player” as they  say. It’s among the lesser lights of college football. Further, they shut down the football program to “preserve the greater good of the athletic department,” whatever that means. I did think it funny that they also shut down the bowling and rifle teams — I mean, seriously, what do such activities have to do with education? And that’s the point here: major college sports have allowed the tail to wag the dog, as I noted many years ago. The higher purpose of education, to help young people gain control of their own minds, has been lost in the tizzy to (a) get into the fast lane and make big bucks, and (b) make sure the kids have fun and don’t transfer elsewhere. This is why so many colleges and universities have become summer camps, with recreational facilities that are designed to make sure the students are happy and continue to pay their inflated tuition fees without flinching. (They can pay back the loans later on. For now, let’s just make sure they come to our place and stay.)

When Robert Hutchins dropped intercollegiate sports at The University of Chicago back in the dark ages, it was done for the right reasons — to guarantee the integrity of the educational program at the university which Hutchins recognized as the only real purpose of the university. Despite the hue and cry that followed his outrageous move, the university not only survived, but it thrived and is among the best academic institutions in the world today, recognized everywhere for its commitment to the students’ “greater good” and not the “greater good of the athletic department.” The former is what is important here, and while UAB did the right thing, it did so for the wrong reasons. Thus, while I had hoped it might be a sign of good things to come, I returned to earth after a moment of euphoria and realized that it means little given the relative size of the program and the fact that it was all about costs and not in the least about educating young people.

Fresh Air

Let’s face it, the air around NCAA Division I football stinks. There have been so many examples of corruption and uncontrolled avarice in that arena of late with weak administrators flailing around trying to make excuses for the “scholar athletes” and “great men” who play and coach college football that we have simply stopped listening. The latest scandal involving Bobby Petrino at Arkansas would seem to be nothing more than the latest chapter in a book that gives off such a strong odor. But not so it would appear. As reported with approval recently, the A.D. in this case, Jeff Long, actually took the high ground and sounded like a man who has his priorities in the right order.

Yes, winning is important. Yes, money is on the line. And let’s not fail to mention that Long took a risk in hiring Petrino in the first place. It’s not like the guy came with an unblemished reputation. But by squashing Petrino’s career at Arkansas on Tuesday night, Long reminded us the university is there to raise standards, not ignore them. The university is there for teenagers who are living away from home for the first time and placing their trust in a virtual stranger to make them better.

Indeed. It’s not popular to play the in loco parentis card these days as kids like to think they know what’s what and are clearly deluded about their own maturity and good sense. The notion that the university has a paternal relationship with the students is anathema to today’s millennial generation. But it sounds right in this news article. The university is a place where young people grow up and where, above all else, they learn how to use their minds, thereby becoming “better.” Semi-professional sports really have no place in the academy as Robert Hutchins insisted long ago when he cut sports altogether at the University of Chicago. I would argue that this was a bit extreme, but then I coached intercollegiate tennis for sixteen years and am somewhat biased. So far as I know Hutchins never coached a sport. But I do think that Division I football and basketball have become the tail that wags the dog, as I have said in print, and stands like Jeff Long’s are far too rare — indeed unheard of.

Given that Arkansas is not only a Division I football program, but also a pre-season pick to be one of the top five teams in the country next year, there is a helluva lot of money on the table. It took great courage for Long to stand up for principles, and he will no doubt be pilloried by the boosters and alumni who see this move as one guaranteed to bring the team down in the ratings. But this is precisely a major part of the problem: the boosters and alumni have far too much influence on athletics programs around the country and by extension on the academic programs that suffer as a consequence. It is sad commentary on contemporary “higher” education that so few administrators have the courage to stand up against these bozos.

I saw this first hand in the small, public university where I taught for thirty-seven years. An interim president suggested shifting the athletics program at the school from NCAA II status to NCAA III status and taking the “scholarship” money and actually using it for academic scholarships, rather than for wannabe athletes in a struggling athletics program. Word got out, and the president was forced by angry boosters and alumni to leave things as they were (and are) for fear of damaging the “quality” of the athletics program in the university. With the exception of women’s volleyball, the program continues to struggle — including a losing record in football against Division III teams in Wisconsin. You gotta love the irony!

In any event, Long’s stand is a breath of fresh air in the world of semi-professional football (let’s call a spade a spade. The players are even talking about forming a union). It is remarkable, however, that we make a fuss over a man doing the right thing for a change. It should be a matter of course, especially at an institution of higher education. But it’s not, so here’s a tip of the hat to Jeff Long. Let’s hope it’s the start of a new trend.