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Monthly Archives: December 2012

An Anatomy of a Most Peculiar Institution

December 28th, 2012 - 12:13 am

A Campus-full of Contradictions

Almost everything about the modern university is a paradox. It has become a sort of industry gone rogue that embraces practices that a Wal-Mart or Halliburton would never get away with. It is exempt from scrutiny in the fashion that the Left ceased talking about renditions or Guantanamo Bay once Barack Obama was elected, or a Code Pink goes after a NRA official in the way it would never disrupt a hearing on Fast and Furious. In other words, the university is one of the great foundations of the Left, and so is immune from the sort of criticism that otherwise is daily leveled against other institutions.

So let’s take a 10-minute stroll through the campus and learn why costs soar even as students are ever more poorly educated.

The Curriculum

A student’s life on campus is a zero-sum game. For each elective like “The modern comic book,” or “Chicana feminisms” or “Queering the text,” students have no time (or desire to) take more difficult and instructive classes on the British Enlightenment or A History of World War I or Classical English Grammar. (Yes, despite the relativist, anti-hierarchical university, concepts really do exist  like “more instructive.”) The former are mostly therapeutic classes, entirely deductive, in which the point is not to explore an intellectual topic by presenting the relevant facts and outlining the major controversies, while sharpening students’ inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity, as well as improving their English prose style and mastering grammar and syntax in their written work.

The result is perhaps a fourth of the liberal arts courses — many would judge more like 50% — would never have been allowed in the curriculum just 40 years ago. They tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

Why are these courses, then, taught?

For a variety of practical reasons: 1) often the professors are rehashing their doctoral theses or narrow journal articles and are not capable of mastering a wider subject (e.g., teaching a class in “The Other in Advertising”  is a lot easier than a systematic history of California); 2) the quality of today’s students is so questionable that the social sciences have stepped up to service the under-qualified, in the sense of providing courses, grades, and graduation possibilities; 3) the university does not see itself as a disinterested nexus of ideas, where for a brief four years students are trained how to think, given a corpus of fact-based knowledge about their nation and world, and expected to develop an aesthetic sense of art, music, and literature. Instead college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

So the new curriculum in the social sciences and humanities fills a need of sorts, and the result is that today’s graduating English major probably cannot name six Shakespearean plays; the history major cannot distinguish Verdun from Shiloh; the philosophy major has not read Aristotle’s Poetics or Plato’s Laws; and the political science major knows very little of Machiavelli or Tocqueville — but all of the above do know that the planet is heating up due to capitalist greed, the history of the United States is largely a story of oppression, the UN and the EU offer a superior paradigm to the U.S. Constitution, and there are some scary gun-owning, carbon-fuel burning, heterosexual-marrying nuts outside the campus.

If we ask why vocational and tech schools sprout up around the traditional university campus, it is because they are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education: no need to worry about “liberal arts” or “the humanities” — especially given that the universities’ General Education core is not very general and not very educational any more. Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

Note here the illiberal nature of allowing highly paid faculty to indulge their curricular fantasies at the expense of indebted students who pay a great deal for a great deal of nothing. Is there a provost or a dean in America that can say to faculty, “That is not a real course, and so won’t be taught at our real university”? Does the shop foreman let the welder choose his own project?

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Modern Wisdom from Ancient Minds

December 17th, 2012 - 11:58 pm

The Tragic View

Of course we can acquire a sense of man’s predictable fragilities from religion, the Judeo-Christian view in particular, or from the school of hard knocks. Losing a grape crop to rain a day before harvest, or seeing a warehouse full of goods go up in smoke the week before their sale, or being diagnosed with leukemia on the day of a long-awaited promotion convinces even the most naïve optimist that the world sort of works in tragic ways that we must accept, but do not fully understand.

Yet classical literature is the one of the oldest and most abstract guides to us that there are certain parameters that we may seek to overcome, but must also accept that we ultimately cannot.

You Can’t Stop Aging, Nancy

Take the modern obsession with beauty and aging, two human facts that all the Viagra and surgery in the world cannot change. I expect few readers have endured something like the Joe Biden makeover or the Nancy Pelosi facial fix (I thought those on the Left were more inclined to the natural way? Something is not very green and egalitarian about spending gads of money for something so unnatural). Most of you accept wrinkles, creaky joints, and thinning hair. Oh, we exercise and try to keep in shape and youthful, but a Clint Eastwood seems preferable looking to us than a stretched and stitched Sylvester Stallone.

The Greek lyric poets, from Solon to Mimnermus, taught that there is nothing really “golden” about old age. That did not mean that at about age 50-70 one is not both wiser than at 20 and less susceptible to the destructive appetites and passions — only that such mental and emotional maturity come at the terrible price of a decline in energy and physicality. When I now mow the lawn or chain saw, in about 10 minutes a knee is sore, an elbow swollen, a back strained — and from nothing more than a silly wrong pivot. Biking 100 miles a week seems to make the joints more, not less, painful. At 30 going up a 30-foot ladder was fun; at near 60 it is a high-wire act. There is some cruel rule that the more it is necessary at 60 to build muscle mass, the more the joints and tendons seem to rebel at the necessary regimen.

The ancients honored old age, as the revered Gerousia and the Senate attest, but on the concession that with sobriety came far less exuberance and spontaneity. I suppose old Ike would never had mouthed JFK’s “pay any price” to intervene and oppose communism. Yet we must try to stay competitive until the last breath, if not with our bodies, then with our minds — like old blabbermouth Isocrates railing in his 90s, or Sophocles writing the Oedipus at Colonus (admittedly not a great play) well after 90. Cicero’s De Senectute reminds us that knowledge and learning can bridge some of the vast gap between the age cohorts. I remember an 80-year-old woman in one of my Greek classes who palled around with the 20-somethings; apparently when they were all reading Homer, they all forgot trivial things such as looks and age — at least for the ephemeral two hours they were reading The Iliad. (One young man after a class said, “She looks good in jeans.”)

In term of relative power, the Greeks and Romans felt that youth often trumped wisdom, at least in the sense that the firm 21 year old held all the cards with her obsessed 50-year-old admirer.  When I sometimes read of the latest harassment suit that involved consensual adult sex involving an “imbalance in power,” I wonder what a Petronius, who wrote about crafty youth using their beauty to incite and humiliate the foolish aging, would think. Was Paula Broadwell really a victim in a “power imbalance”? Over the decades I have seen a number of adept young graduate students who fooled silly old goats (often the same nerds that they were in high school) into consensual relationships that aided their careers, but then, when the benefits were exhausted, they moved on, only to define themselves as victims as the need arose. A Greek would laugh at that idea of victims and oppressors.

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From time to time, I take a break from opinion writing here at Works and Days and turn to history — on this occasion, I am prompted by the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Here are a few of the most common questions that I have encountered while teaching the wars of the 20th century over the last twenty years.

I. Pearl Harbor — December 7, 1941

Q. Why did the Japanese so foolishly attack Pearl Harbor?

A. The Japanese did not see it as foolish at all. What in retrospect seems suicidal did not necessarily seem so at the time. In hindsight, the wiser Japanese course would have been to absorb the orphaned colonial Far Eastern possessions of France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain that were largely defenseless after June 1941. By carefully avoiding the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, the Japanese might have inherited the European colonial empire in the Pacific without starting a war with the United States. And had the Japanese and Germans coordinated strategy, the two might have attacked Russia simultaneously in June 1941 without prompting a wider war with the United States, or in the case of Japan, an immediate conflict necessarily with Great Britain.

But in the Japanese view, the Soviets had proved stubborn opponents in a series of border wars, and it was felt wiser to achieve a secure rear in Manchuria to divert attention to the west (the Russians, in fact, honored their non-aggression pact with the Japanese until late 1945) — especially given the fact that the Wehrmacht in December 1941 seemed likely to knock the Soviet Union out of the war in a few weeks or by early 1942.

In the Japanese mind, the moment was everything: it was high time to get in on the easy pickings in the Pacific before Germany ended the war altogether.

While the United States had belatedly begun rearming in the late 1930s, the Japanese were still convinced that in a naval war, their ships, planes, and personnel were at least as modern and plentiful, if not more numerous and qualitatively better than what was available to the United States. The growing isolationism of the United States that had been championed by the likes of icons like Walt Disney and Charles Lindbergh, the persistent Depression, and the fact that the United States had not intervened in Europe but instead watched Britain get battered for some 26 months from September 1939 to December 1941 suggested to many in the Japanese military command that the United States might either negotiate or respond only halfheartedly after Pearl Harbor. Especially after the envisioned loss of the American carrier fleet.

Japanese intelligence about American productive potential was about as limited as German knowledge of the Soviet Union. In Tokyo’s view, if Japanese naval forces took out the American Pacific carriers at Pearl Harbor, there was simply no way for America, at least in the immediate future, to contradict any of their Pacific agendas. Nor on December 7 could the Japanese even imagine that Germany might lose the war on the eastern front; more likely, Hitler seemed about to take Moscow, ending the continental ground conflict in Eurasia, and allowing him at last to finish off Great Britain. Britain’s fall, then, would mean that everything from India to Burma would soon be orphaned in the Pacific, and Japan would only have to deal with a vastly crippled and solitary United States. In short, for the Japanese, December 1941 seemed a good time to attack the United States — a provocation that would either likely be negotiated or end in a military defeat for the U.S.

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The Confessions of a Confused Misfit

December 4th, 2012 - 12:01 am

The Rich

I confess I never admired John Edwards — and used to argue with the late Christopher Hitchens about the blow-dried lawyer’s suitability for president. I didn’t think much of Al Gore or John Kerry, well before the “he lied!” vein-bulging fits and the wind-surfing spoofs. I was not surprised when Susan Rice just disclosed that she is worth considerably over $30 million — and has money in Keystone no less. Are they all part of the “one percent”? Did they pay “their fair share”? Do they “spread the wealth”? At what point in his life did Al Gore know that he had made enough money (before barreling ahead and making more)?

Why do a Timmy Geithner and John Kerry preach about raising taxes while trying their best to break the law to avoid them? I remember the Clintons seeking write-offs for the donation of their underwear, Tom Daschle not counting limo service as income, and Hilda Solis with a lien on her husband’s property. Why wouldn’t the above pay too much rather than too little? If Barack Obama did not get free government everything, and made several millions on his serial memoirs, with his mansion, prep schools, and Martha’s Vineyard vacations to pay for, would he still preach that guys like him need their taxes raised?

Of course, I accept without much worry that government service can lead to the contacts that lead to big money. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld made millions in the private sector in between D.C. jobs. I grant too that old-boy networking is lucrative. George W. Bush’s Texas Rangers small fortune came from having powerful friends in the right places. No doubt Colin Powell and Bill Clinton are multimillionaires. Bravo to them both.

But what we cannot stomach is all the sermonizing about “fair share” and “play by the rules” and “the one percent” from those who seek to be exempt from their own rhetoric. Can’t Warren Buffett keep quiet and just leave his $50 billion to his heirs — and let the wonderful federal government do what it must with a $30 billion estate tax on his earnings? Can Bill Gates’ people really manage the Buffett $50 billion better than HUD or HHS? And if so, why a HUD or HHS? His estate will dodge more tax liabilities than what millions of his proverbial overtaxed secretaries pay. Why isn’t George Soros one of the despised money speculators of the sort that Occupy Wall Street was enraged about? Isn’t trying to break the Bank of England a bit too much money-grubbing? So weird what constitutes good and bad riches!

I guess the rub is not big or small money, or what you must do to get it and keep it. No, the lesson instead is what you say when you get it. If I were to advise a young rich man, I would promote entering politics or the media and talking up the liberal redistributionist state, the model being a sort of Chris Matthews, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, Jon Corzine, or Jay Rockefeller. You may meet and marry a rich person, while all sorts of doors will open that allow you to keep and compound what you garner — and you will feel wonderful in the bargain.

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