Scandal!

When I was a young man fresh out of graduate school, PhD in hand and filled with optimism, I taught at the University of Rhode Island for two years. Rhode Island was a great place to live and the University was a good place to work. As a new player on the team of seven professors I was handed the chore of teaching several sections of logic along with a course in the history of philosophy. Two other members of the department taught logic as well, since it was a university requirement that all students at the university take the course (imagine that!). Thus there were seven or eight sections of the course taught in three different ways.

Strange to say, the university scheduled all of the logic finals to be given in the gymnasium on he same day at the same hour. Strange, because it caused endless conflicts and when I pointed out to the powers-that-be they they could avoid conflicts if they scheduled finals by the class schedule instead of subject matter, they told me “this is the way we have always done things.” So it was in New England. Much like Old England, so I hear.

Anyway, the morning when finals had been scheduled to begin I was called by the chairman of the department to report ASAP because somehow one of the final exams had gotten out and was being copied and spread around to young students eager to learn. It was about 5:00 AM as I recall and I hopped to it! When I arrived I spent a couple of hours with the other instructors putting together a common exam for all students as we had no idea whose final had been pilfered. Imagine that! Several hundred students were now going to take an exam made up by three different instructors who each taught the course a different way. It was bedlam. The students complained — with good reason — and I had to lower the curve to make sure at least half the class passed the course. All because some kid, as it turned out, rummaged through the trash bin outside the philosophy department and found the plastic sheet that in those days covered the mimeograph paper and was later tossed aside: it being possible to determine just what was on the plastic sheet with just a touch of pencil rubbed on the overlay. What we didn’t know was whose exam had been pilfered. So we needed to design a new one we could give to all our students.

After the event we discovered that a fraternity man found the exam and was selling it to long lines of students lined up that morning eager to find out what was on the impending examination — even though they had no idea whose exam it was since the instructor’s name was not on the final exam! Still, it was a mess. And the rationalization that went around was that this was not such a bad thing: it was no different from keeping a wallet found on the street. Really? I was outraged.

Not only because I had to get up at dawn and rush to the university and try to put together an exam with a couple of my fellows, but because the excuse sounded so hollow, I wrote my first ever letter to the student paper. (It was not my last, as my wife will attest. I am a bit compulsive about such things — which is why I blog, I guess.) Anyway my letter pointed out that rummaging around in a dumpster outside the philosophy department was hardly like finding a wallet on the street. The  analogy was not only weak but the ethical conclusion in both cases was bogus: in either case it was wrong to (a) keep the wallet and (b) make money by selling copies of the exam to other students. Some things are just wrong.

Within a week I had a call from the Dean’s office and was told to report as soon as “convenient.” I was told that the university did not want a scandal and I should let the matter drop. Being bold and a bit naive I asked what was going to happen to the fraternity responsible as everyone knew which one it was — as determined by the lines in front of a particular fraternity house the morning of the exam. He said the university would handle it and repeated that I should let the matter drop. What this translated to was sweeping the whole thing under the carpet in hopes of saving face. So much for integrity in the Ivory Tower!

Interestingly enough I had one student, a young woman majoring in mathematics, who earned a legitimate B+ — on an exam that asked questions about things we had never even discussed in class. How remarkable!  But the rest of the students suffered from the entire episode, needless to say. And the fraternity got off scot free in order to avoid a scandal! Was it then that I began to be just a bit cynical?

 

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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.

 

 

 

Reality

One of the first essays I assigned as a brand new Instructor at the University of Rhode Island many years ago was the question: “What Is Real?” The students were allowed to take the question wherever they wanted and provide reasonable answers to the question. It was one of my first thought exercises in the spirit of Robert Hutchins’ admonition: the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers.

Be that as it may, there is a genuine problem out there in our world that has seldom, if ever, been addressed in a direct manner. It surfaced recently in a comic I like to check out each day as a young girl staring at her iPhone told her parents who were captivated by a fireworks display that “Snapshot” had shown a much more thrilling event recently. She was completely bored by the real thing. Think about that: reality is boring because it fails to measure up to make-believe.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that is essential for humans to develop in a healthy manner — the ability to separate reality from illusion. At birth we know only hunger and crave the pleasure that comes from satisfying that hunger and the quick response to our other immediate needs — including love from our parents. We spend the rest of our lives wishing we were back in the womb where it was safe and all our needs were immediately satisfied. But life hits us squarely in the buttocks and we grow painfully into adulthood. In the process we occasionally retreat into our own heads and find it a safe place to retreat to when things in the real world become too threatening. It’s called becoming an adult. But a large part of growing up involves the realization that we cannot remain within our own heads and become healthy, mature adults at the same time.

The point is that as we grow older we are also supposed to also grow more certain about what is real and what is make-believe. And frightening as reality can be at times (especially these times!) we must prefer it to an imaginary world in which we are all-powerful and in complete control — like the world of electronic toys. We already know these toys are addictive: they release quantities of dopamine into the brain, just as does gambling or alcohol. But I speak here of a deeper problem. For many who engage with these toys reality becomes hard, too hard, and they retreat into a make-believe world which seems safer but which can entrap them for the remainder of their lives. Reality shrinks and the world of make-believe becomes larger and it becomes OUR world. It’s called “delusion,” or eventually “psychosis.”

Many of us are aware that our feckless leader lives in such a world. It is disturbing to say the least. But it pales in contrast to the fact that he is joined in that make-believe world by growing numbers of people who find reality simply too hard to deal with in a direct and honest manner. Thus do games, and, indeed, the world of entertainment as a whole, draw us to them and the imaginary world becomes the real world, a world in which we are at the center and a world that bends to our every wish. The problem is that this is not the real world. The real world is one of pain and struggle with a blend of heroism, love, sympathy for others and, we would hope, a sincere wish to belong with others to a world we share but cannot bring utterly under our control.

One must wonder where this will eventually lead us all, given the genuine need to address real problems and suggest real solutions. There is much to do and there are problems waiting to be addressed. We start in the wrong direction if we take in hand an electronic toy that leads us to believe that it is all very simple and problems that arise can be solved by pushing an icon.

In answer to my own question, then, I would say reality is what we experience daily; it is a struggle tempered by occasional beauty, a remarkable number of good people, and those few who are close to us whom we love. It involves frustration at times, but it also rewards heroic efforts — or even the slightest effort — to do the right thing. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, but we can certainly address those closest to us which allow us to make small inroads into solutions that will help make the world a better place. The real world, not an imaginary one.

Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in  world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

Cheating As A Rule

The possibility of a cheating scandal at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities has raised concern in many circles. So a recent story begins:

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — An unusually high number of students at Stanford University are suspected of cheating during the most recent term, putting faculty members and administrators of the prestigious institution on alert.

University Provost John Etchemendy sent a letter to faculty members highlighting what he called “troubling allegations” that stem from “a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses,” the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. Etchemendy said the students are cheating themselves and risk severe consequences.

When I taught at the University of Rhode Island years ago word came down to our department that a copy of someone’s logic final had gotten out. We all had to come in a 5:00 AM and write a common final exam that would be given to all students, even though there were five of us and we all taught the course differently. It was a nightmare and most students badly failed, I’m sorry to say. The innocent were punished along with the guilty. Later, it was learned that a plastic overlay from the mimeograph machine (remember them??) had been pilfered from the trash and was being used to sell copies of one of the finals at one of the fraternities. In any event, students lined up to buy the exam though someone eventually blew the whistle. We had no idea whose exam it was, and that’s why we all had to come up with a common exam. The administration knew which fraternity was involved, but that fraternity was never disciplined because the university “didn’t want a scandal.”

Cheating is not new, of course. Just recall Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song long ago about plagiarism and those who cheat, graduate, and are “forgotten with the rest.”  We have learned what universities will do to “avoid a scandal” — The Paterno scandal comes to mind. It seems that not only in athletics, but in the university climate as a whole the possibility of a scandal leads administrators to do strange things to “cover up.” That, in itself, is a scandal since the universities are supposed to lead by example and this is a very poor example indeed. But it appears to be the norm. The common defense is: hey, I’m just  doing what the others do — which seems to the cornerstone of this culture’s ethics  — so we should not be surprised.

Anyone who has taught at a college or university is familiar with the drill involved to check on the sources of student papers and watch carefully during exams to see that no one is looking where they shouldn’t be. It’s commonplace, though it most assuredly should not be.

So we have a perfect right to ask why and wish that it were otherwise. Stanford University has strict rules about cheating and that’s a good thing. Let’s hope those who are caught with their fingers in the cookie jar are appropriately punished. The notion that an action is perfectly right if others are doing it is the most shallow, even cynical, sort of ethics. Cheating is wrong. It may be widespread, but it is wrong — not only in universities, but anywhere.

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.