Goodreads

Writers crave readers. I don’t care what they (or I) say; it is true. When words are written down, and especially when they are collected into a book, the writer wants to know that someone else has read those words and reacts to them in some fashion or other. When David Hume wrote his monumental Treatise, for example, it did not sell. As he said, “it fell stillborn from the presses.” Today it is regarded as one of the most important pieces of writing in the history of philosophy, something that every graduate student (if not undergraduate major) must read. But that is small solace for Hume who is very dead. In his lifetime it was not appreciated fully and he wrote the shorter, and more popular, Enquiry along the same lines and it did sell. Apparently the English audience was just not ready for the longer version. It does require a determined effort.

I have written or edited thirteen books along with numerous articles and book reviews. I love to write because I am interested in many things going on around me and I find that writing about them helps me to organize and clarify my thoughts. If I work my way through a problem and am able to find a way to express my conclusions I want to put them “out there” and see if they resonate with someone else. This is why I write my blog, of course, because I want to engender thought. That is why I went into teaching philosophy in the first place.  Thus, paying homage to Socrates, I called my blog “The Daily Gadfly,” though I found that daily entries were too demanding.

Not all of my blogs are first-rate. Many are not even second-rate. But a few were pretty good and I thought it would be worthwhile to collect them into a book form, into chapters, with an index. I found a willing publisher and dedicated the book to my fellow bloggers, thinking they, of all people, would appreciate it and want to have a look. But, like Hume, this one “fell stillborn from the presses.” The publisher has given more away than he has sold, sad to say. But I remind myself: this is not a reading public, by and large. And many of those who read want to read snippets. This is why USA Today came into being. And, moreover, those very same blog posts that are in my book are also on-line for anyone to read — and for free. But they are not carefully selected, collected and organized in an attractive book with a cover designed by one of my former students!

In any event, I was aimlessly perusing the internet the other day, browsing on Google, and found on the web site goodreads a brief review by Emily of that very book. I was pleased because I had become convinced that not only has no one bought it, but, surely, very few have read it! In any event, I thought I would share her review with you in case you need to buy a graduate a present this Spring. Or something. Remarkably it is still available from Amazon of directly from the publisher Ellis Press in Granite Falls, Minnesota.

I love how this book discusses all important topics of life: love, religion, death, and education. This book presents Hugh’s philosophy in an easy, approachable manner. These entries, from his old blog posts, are organized into several sections so you can simply search for what you want.
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Dumbed Down

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment.  He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of print media and news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products.  And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news and papers such as USA Today have become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies.

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who have been brought up by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused. This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America and it may go a long way toward explaining why Americans could care less about their government’s ongoing violation of the fourth amendment.

U.S.A! U.S.A!

The citizens of this country, and Boston in particular, welcomed the news of the capture of 19 year-old Dzhokar Tsamaev with applause and immense pride. Clearly, there was a sigh of relief that could be heard as far away as California as the young man was found, almost by mistake, and the terrible events surrounding the Boston bombing seemed to be at a close. The relief is warranted as the thing this young man and his brother did defy description and raise more questions than we have answers for. But the chest thumping, obscenities from David Ortiz, and shouts of U.S.A! U.S.A! that could be heard around the country must give us pause. Our extravagant patriotism frequently spills over into ugly, chip-on-the-shoulder jingoism. And often it is not the least bit deserved.

From all reports, the young man was badly wounded and in pain when he was discovered hiding in a boat in a wealthy suburb of Boston beyond the net that had been spread to catch him and just before the search for the man was about to be called off. The capture of the young man, barely alive, was touted as an act of heroism on the part of the police and National Guard, when, in fact, the heroic act was that of the man who owned the boat who had the courage to look under the tarp to see if there was someone hiding inside. (Courage is sometimes difficult to distinguish from stupidity. Tsamaev was known to be “armed and dangerous” and peeking under the tarp was not the smartest thing the man ever did: he is lucky to be alive.)  Those involved in the capture showed courage, since they didn’t know what to expect. Yet the rest of us who had nothing to do with the capture acted as though we were the ones who caught the young man and brought him to the hospital. Americans are not short on pride and even arrogance, taking credit for the things that they have had nothing to do with, such as landing a man on the moon, placing a chimpanzee in orbit, or inventing sliced bread. We are not known as a people who hide our candle under a bushel, sad to say.

But the thing that keeps being ignored as this story unfolds is the question why two young men, seemingly perfectly “normal” and even bright and able — the young one even looking somewhat angelic in the photos that have been made public — would resort to this sort of suicidal act. And we hear little, if anything, about the possibility that this act of terrorism may well be a “pay-back” for the acts of terrorism this country is committing even as I write this blog. I speak, of course, of our drone strikes that are taking hundreds of innocent lives while we thump our chests in pride because a 19 year-old boy has been taken alive by an army of law-enforcers after an admittedly horrendous act of cruelty. The only mention of the possible quid-pro-quo is a cartoon I saw in USA Today that showed two monsters holding time bombs, identical in appearance except for the fact that one was wearing a tee-shirt labelled “Made In USA.” The cartoon directed our attention to the fact that the act of terrorism our law-enforcers brought to a close is merely one side of a two-sided coin. When we pause for breath after shouting out how proud we are of this nation and its brave men and women (who do deserve the praise they receive) we might want to ask again why these two very young men did this terrible thing and whether or not, perhaps, recent actions on the part of this country have bred hatred in other regions of the world, actions that are very likely to come back to haunt us repeatedly as a result of our swagger and presumption of moral superiority that leads us to ignore our acts of terrorism against others while we condemn similar acts when they are directed toward ourselves.

Orchestrated Confession

Following the release of a 100 page document by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lance Armstrong is an inveterate liar and a cheat, the man confessed his sins in a two-part interview with Oprah that has caused no end of ripples in the media pool. In a word, after getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar he has shed some crocodile tears and “confessed” that he was indeed stealing cookies. Among the other sources that have found Armstrong’s confession of interest is USA Today which led its January 19th edition with a story that asks the question whether or not Americans will forgive the man for his many sins.

The article contends that forgiveness is in the American character — “especially if you can throw a ball, sing a song, make a speech, coach a team, or hold a camera.” I would add that it helps if you can manage a tear or two.  A number of examples are mentioned, including such infamous types as Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Martha Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Bernard Madoff. But Armstrong may be a horse of a different color: he lied so convincingly and for so long the author concludes that he may have a difficult time.

What Armstrong must do, apparently, is work his way through a proven procedure that includes public confession, contrition, conversion, and atonement. It’s not at all clear, however, that Armstrong has made it over even the first hurdle, given the staged format of his “confession” on the Oprah show. But in the end, the article concludes he may be forgiven because he has done so much good with his fight against cancer, his involvement with the culture of professional cycling which makes him only one of many rule-breakers, and the fact that “he didn’t hurt anyone.”

This is where I part company with the author and begin to wonder about the thoroughness of his research. He seems to ignore the people that Armstrong hurt in so many ways, including other cyclists whose careers he destroyed and whose lives he almost certainly destroyed as well — not to mention the people he took to court and collected money from because they supposedly slandered him. He was nothing if not a bully and a master at intimidation and it took years for people around him to have courage enough to speak up. So when the author says he “hasn’t hurt anyone,” he is clearly wrong, and this makes me wonder if we can believe anything we read — even if it is written in what is generally regarded as a reliable source. It’s enough to make one a bit cynical — even if Armstrong’s behavior hadn’t already accomplished that.

What About Lizzy?

I’m sure you have heard more than you want to about Manti Te’o and his make-believe girl friend. The story has been told again and again about the fictional girl the Notre Dame linebacker fell in love with online whose “tragic” death inspired the man to play at the highest levels — and thereby (coincidentally) improve his chances of winning the Heisman trophy and going higher in the NFL draft. In any event, the story has been beaten to death — which is not to say we have heard the last of it. But one very interesting feature of that story was brought out by Christine Brennan in USA Today on January 20th when she noted the amount of ink that has been spilled telling Manti’s story while at the same time the story about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former (real-life) Freshman at St. Mary’s College, is widely ignored.

It turns out that Lizzy was assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in 2010. She filed a formal complaint with authorities against the advice of a friend who warned her that she shouldn’t “mess with Notre Dame football.” Her complaint was ignored and the football player was never even contacted by campus police; a week later Lizzy committed suicide. Her written complaint was later regarded as inadmissible: since she was no longer alive to testify it was mere hearsay. The player has never been charged. Further, the story was completely ignored for 2 1/2 months until it came to light as a result of a Chicago Tribune story. And yet we still hear nothing from the University about Lizzy’s death and the events that might have brought it about, while we hear endlessly about the death of a fictional girl who may well be part of a hoax designed by Te’o and even condoned by the University — which has been very public in defending the football player while it kept mum about Lizzy’s death.

What we have here is a combination of two things: (1) a new double standard which demands that college athletes be treated differently from other students, and (2) the culture of secrecy that surrounds and protects major college football and which came to a head recently in the Penn State scandal. It is clear that football players and even the coaches themselves, are held to different standards of conduct from the rest of the student-body at the major colleges. Football and basketball programs prefer it if the administration doesn’t get involved in their business, and they pretty much get their way.  After all, they bring in huge amounts of money and that is rapidly becoming the name of the game — if it hasn’t been right along.

The double standard we are all too familiar with encouraged many to brag about men like Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain who had illicit love affairs with hundreds of women — or so they claimed — and those same people would tar a young woman and cover her with feathers if it was said that she had slept with half that many men. Martina Navratilova pointed that out at the time and she was spot on. But while we still seem to expect women to behave better than men, the old double standard has been largely replaced by the new one that is seen mostly on college campuses, but is also evident in the culture at large. It reflects the hero-worship talented athletes enjoy as the law seems always to allow them more leeway than the rest of us. In our colleges and universities it translates into the high comfort-level enjoyed by the athletes as they are assured the protection of their coaches and administrators no matter how outrageous their behavior.

So in the end Lizzy’s death goes unnoticed while the airwaves are filled with the gossip about Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend. It’s enough to make a person take up strong drink — if he hadn’t already done so long ago.

In Abe’s Footsteps

A fascinating article in USA Today (11/29/12) suggests that some members of our Congress have seen the film Lincoln and have learned from it how to do their job. Right! Believe that and I have some farm land in the Everglades that I want to sell you. These people clearly do not know how to do their job and watching a Hollywood film isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s called “grid lock,” and our government has a bad case of it. The framers had one eye on the English system of government when they were writing our Constitution; they should have kept both eyes on their model. Unlike the English, we are unable to call time-out and hold new elections when the government reaches an impasse such as the one they are stuck on at present. Lincoln to the rescue!

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) is convinced he learned valuable lessons from the film — which depicts Lincoln’s struggles to get the Congress to agree to the Emancipation Proclamation. “We want to prove that democracy is not chaos,” he said on MSNBC recently. “That’s what we have to prove to this generation.” Hot Damn!!  This is exciting stuff, though it is not clear who the “we” refers to. The film needs to be required of all members of Congress. It’s not sufficient that Dick and a couple of his friends saw the movie.

As we all know the Congress is facing a crisis, which has been called the “fiscal cliff,” to scare the crap out of the rest of us. The Republicans have pledged themselves not to raise taxes — especially on the wealthy who helped them get elected. On the other hand, the Democrats are unwilling to cut social programs that many see as unnecessary and expensive ways to encourage leeches who know only how to put their hands out and take from the rest of us.  But with their eye on Lincoln and their hearts true as steel, they will soldier on in the knowledge that progress (which “is never made by pure means”) is just around the corner and we will avoid the cliff altogether.

There are any number of problems with all this of course. To begin with, there are those who think the drastic cuts in programs — including “defense” — are essential and would not be a bad thing. And the tax increases are long overdue, especially on the wealthy who may in fact be the ones with their hands out. In any event, there is considerable disagreement among experts as to whether or not we will break our collective neck if we fall over the cliff. It is a gamble, to be sure. But it is not the big hairy monster that has been held up before our eyes to scare us to death. More importantly, Congress shouldn’t have to see a movie about Abraham Lincoln to learn how to do its job. This is ludicrous. But when we reflect that these people for the most part know only how to get themselves elected it stands to reason they might draw a blank when it came to the question: what do I do now?

Lincoln was a genius at working with people he disagreed with. He kept an open mind, had infinite patience, and was willing to listen to opinions that differed from his own. It is not clear that today’s politicians can do any of these things. They seem to spend all their time garnering votes and listening to those who think like themselves; they refuse to open themselves to new ideas. As Martha Moore said in USA Today, “It could be seen as alarming that a movie is needed to remind Washington that legislation requires both leadership and compromise.” Alarming, to be sure. But not surprising when we recall that these people are professional politicians who are loyal to the monied interests that got them elected and are focused almost entirely on the next election. Governing this country is not their primary interest or something they are fully qualified to do — whether or not they watch a film about the greatest president this country ever had.

Those Annoying Regulations

I wouldn’t be a politician for all the tea in China; they can’t win for losing. A case in point is the matter of regulations. Obama is criticized by the conservatives for being “regulation-happy” when according to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs he has been responsible for fewer regulations than any president since 1992 — a fact which brings criticism from the political left which thinks there should be more, not fewer, regulations.

Even more interesting is the fact that in an election year large numbers of regulations that have been passed simply sit somewhere in an office in Washington “wrapped in red tape” “under review” waiting for “experts” to move them along. They are in limbo and aren’t part of the warp and woof of our political world. They have been passed but haven’t yet been passed, if you catch my drift. This year, for example, a number of so-called “expensive” regulations — those that might reduce the profits of the large corporations and further weaken the economy (along with some that are regarded as “controversial”) simply gather dust waiting further review, even though they have been passed and approved. These regulations, according to USA Today (July 27, 2012), include such things as “four rules required under last-year’s updated food-safety law.. .[including] improved controls at food processing facilities and stricter standards on imported foods.” In addition, waiting activation are regulations to reduce exposure to silica dust, regulations to require rear-view cameras in automobiles, and the like. Some regulations would appear to be essential to our health while others seem a bit esoteric and even pointless. But they have not been activated because this is an election year and someone might get upset — someone with a fat check book. This tells us who carries weight in Washington, in case we were in doubt.

Liberals want more and tougher regulations and see the important ones gathering dust and complain loudly. But they carry little political clout so their collective voices are not heard. The corporations do not want the “expensive” regulations passed — such as the regulation to reduce silica dust — because they will cut into profits and therefore hurt the economy. This is the familiar argument that regulations (the result of an overgrown government) cut into profits resulting in cut-backs and “downsizing” (not to mention outsourcing) and the economy is further crippled. Here we have the old bifurcation fallacy: either jobs or the economy. I have discussed this error here and here. Despite the fact that it is a flawed argument, it is heard, of course. This is most interesting: politicians have determined that the economy is more important than health and human welfare. And apparently we agree with them because we keep electing the fools.

Until the regulations have been fully “reviewed” and approved they cannot be put into effect even though passed by the Congress. And since the mid-term elections the current  Administration has been reluctant to pass along many regulations and the best guess is that it will be quite a while — at least until after the elections — before the regulations are put into effect, especially the “expensive” regulations. And this despite the fact that regulations that are pending could help improve our quality of life and reduce health risks, such as heart and respiratory problems that result from poor air quality.

We need to reconsider what we mean by the word “expensive.” Some things may cost money, but even when it is a great deal of money it is cheaper than poor health and early death from causes that could be eliminated or reduced through government regulations — especially those that have been passed but are “pending” until further review — i.e., until it becomes politically expedient to move them along.

What You See…

In addition to the famous statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus, about which there is considerable controversy these days, apparently there is a gigantic mural downtown featuring Joe Paterno’s image. That image was recently retouched in light of the Freeh report placing Joe Paterno at the center of a giant cover-up that went on for fourteen years and involved the agony of numerous young boys whose cries fell on deaf ears.  A recent story on-line tells us that the picture of Paterno on the mural had a halo painted on it which the artist recently erased. In addition

Pilato [the artist] added a large blue ribbon, instead, on Paterno’s lapel symbolizing support for child abuse victims, a cause the artist said Paterno had endorsed.

I had to read the story, and especially that sentence, twice because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. To place a halo over the head of any ordinary person, no matter how highly we regard them, is what the medieval mind would regard as blasphemy and I would regard as presumptive arrogance. But to paint a blue ribbon on the man’s chest  signifying that Joe Paterno “endorsed” support for child abuse victims — after the recent allegations came out in the Freeh report — beggars belief, as the English would say. This is beyond hypocrisy.

I don’t doubt that Paterno did indeed wear the blue ribbon. I simply question how he could have done so knowing what he clearly knew about one of his own assistant coaches and what the man was doing in Paterno’s own back yard. It tells us something about the man that we might not want to know. Joe Paterno had immense power at Penn State and could have simply said “no” at any point during the fourteen years and the attack on young boys would have stopped. But it would have damaged the reputation of the football program and of the university itself. Ironically it would have embellished the image of Paterno himself as the coach who “did things right,” an image his family and former players are so eager to protect after the fact. However, by ignoring those boys and attempting to protect his empire Paterno compounded the problem and guaranteed that his reputation will be forever tarnished, as it should be, and the university and his former football program will take years to recover.

To make matters worse, it appears that as the Sandusky scandal was breaking Paterno managed to arrange a “sweetened retirement contract” between himself and the university worth $5.5 million that would guarantee him a comfortable retirement at the end of the year — had he not been fired.  While Rome was burning Paterno fiddled — and made sure he would be taken care of, regardless of what happened to Sandusky, the football program, or Penn State. His family will enjoy the benefits of that contract following the man’s death from cancer: the university does not plan to contest it.

The man was not what he seemed, clearly. And it is a warning to the rest of us not to “buy into” the public image of the larger-then-life men and women built up by the media. We are all fallible humans and we make mistakes. Some of those mistakes are large indeed. And while it seemed at first as though “Papa-Joe” was taking responsibility for his failure to act when he said “I should have done more,” it now appears he was faking it even as those words were coming out of his mouth. He failed to act for fourteen years.

The halo is gone from Paterno’s portrait and there is a movement afoot to remove the statue of the man from the Penn State campus — though the Trustees recently said this would not happen, at least for now. There has even been the suggestion (In USA Today) that the entire football season should be cancelled for a year so the university can come to terms with what has happened. None of these steps seems to me to be appropriate, however. For one thing, they would involve a distortion of the truth. The destruction of the statue would be much like re-writing history in order to make people feel better about themselves. It is a vengeful act.

But a suggestion I heard recently that I would endorse involves the building of a monument outside the P.E. facility dedicated to the young boys who were attacked and abused in the building coupled with a fund to support groups that will help see to it that this sort of thing does not happen again in the future. What happened in this place is difficult to grasp. It is not only the campus that must come to terms with what has happened, it is all of us.

Parental Choice

In a recent article in USA Today following up Mitt  Romney’s political gaffe in Philadelphia — sitting in a classroom in a charter school that stresses small classes insisting that smaller classes don’t help the kids — the writer makes the broader point that Parental choice is the mantra of politicians who try to deflect attention from the failure of states to provide all schoolchildren with an equal educational opportunity. It’s the alternative many Republicans hawk in response to demands for a stepped up campaign to fix, not abandon, failing public schools. It’s the code words of politicians who offer some children an escape hatch out of troubled schools, while leaving many others behind.

Readers of my blogs know how concerned I am about improving education in this country at all levels. I take a back seat to no one who is throwing stones at a system that is clearly failing our kids while so many of those who try to teach in and administer the schools pretend there is no problem. But my stone-throwing is an attempt to get someone’s attention, not to bring down the house. I have repeatedly listed the steps we should take to remedy the situation, knowing while I do this that my faint, small voice will not be heard — but also knowing that hope springs eternal.

In any event, the attempts by Republicans like Romney to, in effect, abandon the public schools in the name of “parental choice” is simply making things worse. The answer is not home-schooling, or vouchers, or private schools, or charter schools. The answer is to address the problem head-on. And this means that those in education must stop pretending there is no problem, dismissing the fact that Finland has superb schools on the grounds that they don’t teach minorities (not true, by the way), or insisting that standardized tests prove nothing because the student populations these days include greater proportions of minority students than fifty years ago (also not true), or whatever. I have heard all the excuses, and they are lame. The fact remains that American public schools are failing the children they are supposed to teach. As was determined in Massachusetts not long ago, many of the teachers themselves cannot pass the eighth-grade-level tests devised to determine whether their students are learning. And that’s the heart of the matter.

We now draw our public school teachers from the bottom of the college populations because we don’t pay them what they are worth and teachers’ colleges that require outside certification insist on methods courses that turn off the brighter students. In saying this, I note quickly that there are exceptions, outstanding teachers who made it through those colleges and who do a masterful job with little pay and no support from their administrators — or the kids’ parents. There are always exceptions to generalizations, but this generalization stands anyway. The current condition of our public education system is a national embarrassment. We must start by reforming teacher-preparation and allow that if we are to entice the brighter young people (who desperately need work) into teaching we need to pay them well and support them in what they try to do. As parents we must pay the piper and we cannot expect teachers to raise our children; their job is to teach them how to use their minds and they should be paid well for a difficult job.

As I say, I have developed these suggestions (and many more) in earlier blogs and anyone who wants to know what I have said can simply search my blog pages for “education” and find much more than they probably want to read! But the point is that we can still rescue the public schools if we make a concerted effort to deal with the situation honestly, realizing that it will cost money and will also require major changes in the way we now do things. But under the guise of “parental choice,” the alternative of abandoning public schools altogether, which is clearly Romney’s alternative, is unacceptable: there are many successful adults who have been schooled in our nation’s public schools — and there can still be more in the future.

Slippery Slopes

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments for and against the mandate in the new health insurance law that was passed in 2010 amid much weeping and gnashing of teeth — and little sanity. Like the camel the law is a creature of compromise. A recent editorial in USA Today about the court’s upcoming decision tells us what the key issue is they will have to decide upon: “Tuesday’s Supreme Court arguments over the ‘individual mandate’ contained in the 2010 health care law came down to one core question: If the government can require you to buy medical insurance, what else could it make you buy?”

This, of course, is the classical “slippery slope” fallacy. One thing invariably leads to another. If the government is allowed to mandate that everyone must have health insurance where will it stop? Cars? Cell phones? Broccoli? I must say, it is a tad disturbing to think that some of the best minds in the country could have made such a mistake in elementary logic, though if we all ate broccoli we would be healthier. The discussion got a bit absurd, apparently, until Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out the rationale behind the individual mandate: “The people who don’t participate in (the health insurance) market are making it much more expensive for the people who do,” she observed about 20 minutes into the two-hour debate. The fact the many do not have health insurance yet still require medical attention drives up the costs for everyone else — about $1,000.00 for a typical family policy. Health insurance is not like broccoli, however. It’s quite simple. One can avoid the slippery slope by simply pointing out key differences. One thing does not necessarily lead to another. As the editorial points out, “Where’s the line? As in a famous court decision on pornography, we know it when we see it. Yes to health insurance. No to cars, cellphones and broccoli.”

It will be interesting to see how the court votes on this case when their decision comes down in June. It is expected that, once again, the court will be divided along ideological lines and this raises provocative questions about the supposed impartiality of this court in issues political. To quote the editorial once again, “Another 5-4 decision along ideological lines would taint the court’s credibility. The court would do itself, and the nation, a service by upholding the mandate while defining reasonable limits on what else the government could require.” Indeed so.

The idea in the Founders’ minds was that a court appointed for life would be above political ideology and would actually act in a wise and judicious manner. It has happened in the past with justices appointed by a Republican president who turned out to be rather liberal, or vice versa. Earl Warren jumps to mind. But not recently. The justices appointed of late have kept their political allegiance pretty much intact. Perhaps it is time to revisit the question of how the court is appointed and how long their terms should last. If they were subject to periodic recall, they might be a bit more above petty politics. But the issue of constitutional reform is one that must be put off until a later blog. For the moment, I would simply point out that accepting the notion of a mandate in this case does not start us down a slippery slope to calamity.