Several months before 9-11, though we didn’t know it then, Virginia Postrel linked to an education blogger named Joanne Jacobs. “Why, I toil in the vineyards of education myself!” I thought, and clicked through. This was when her site was “readjacobs.com.” Joanne has—excuse the vulgarity—a bullshit detector that’s always switched on. She’s immune to fads and advertising-speak. She’s content to write a five-word sentence when five words alone will convey her meaning (a talent I admire but have never been capable of emulating), which is a real asset when discussing the latest education hoo-hah. Living abroad, I loved visiting her blog and reading whatever she’d posted in her straightforward, no-nonsense voice. This is an American talking to me, I’d think with pleasure. This is someone I can do business with. At that point, Virginia, Joanne, Instapundit, and Andrew Sullivan were the only blogs I read. (I could never get into Kausfiles.)
I mention 9-11 because I associate two posts of Joanne’s very much with the days that followed. Neither of them, assuming my ability to use Google hasn’t atrophied, is available online anymore. The first was about some miscreant in California who’d, maybe, committed a murder-suicide (?) on 9 September or something. His parting comment was, again IIRC, that he would be the big news story of the week. Joanne’s response several days later: “Tough luck, mister.”
About 9-11 itself, she had a post that I read many times over. Again, this is from memory—I’ve tried a bunch of phrases from it to see whether there’s a citation to it somewhere, but I can’t locate it, and yet, I’m pretty sure my unassisted memory is mostly accurate. It said, essentially, the following:
Our culture is global, dynamic, and confident. Their culture is provincial, parochial, and weak. We’re winners. They’re losers, and they resent it.
US support for Israel is a detail. The United States could align its entire foreign policy with the whims of Yasir Arafat, and we’d still be a target.
That’s a paraphrase from memory, but as I say, it’s the gist of it. I thought about it many, many times in the years that followed.
[Added on 24 January: And as it happens, my blog friend Marc at Amritas had the actual citation:
They hate us because we’re big, powerful and rich, while they’re small, weak and poor. Our culture is dynamic, confident, global and free. Their culture…is rigid, defensive, parochial and tyrannical. We’re winners. They’re losers, and they resent it.
U.S. support for Israel is a detail. We could let our foreign policy be dictated by Yasir Arafat, and they’d still hate us.
Thanks to Marc for letting me know.]
One of the most precious things about America is our belief that thinking and behavior make you one of us, no matter where you started out. I mean, the Japanese certainly believe that there’s a Japanese way of thinking, but according to their conception, being genetically Japanese and living in Japan make you think that way, not the other way around. But the idea that signing on to a country’s belief system makes you part of that country all the way down is really rare in the world. America has it. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have it. (England, the homeland of my beloved late grandfather and the source, of course, of so much of our heritage in the Anglosphere, does not, at least not to the same extent.) Perhaps there are other places I’m not thinking of. But I can say after spending eleven years of my adult life abroad that the idea that what you’re born to determines your lot in life—all of it, unalterably—is the most common single belief I’ve ever encountered among people of all nationalities.
Joanne plays her political cards pretty close to the chest. But from what I’ve been able to observe on her blog for the last decade, her view of education is one that should resonate with a lot of Americans: Don’t waste money and resources on quixotic projects with little proven value, but show students at all levels of achievement, income, and social class what they need to do to achieve as much as they can. Then let those who want to do it do it. Present information in orderly units, logically broken down, so that students who apply themselves have the highest probability of mastering it even if their education sucked to that point. Offer extra help where needed. Give reasonable support to parents who want to help their children succeed but don’t understand the system. Maintain high standards. Don’t be afraid of testing just because it’s testing. Value teachers but don’t coddle them.
All of this is to say, Joanne Jacobs celebrated her tenth blog-iversary today, and it’s worth celebrating. Congratulations, and I hope JoanneJacobs.com is around for several decades more.
If you read Instapundit, surely you saw this post, with Glenn Reynolds’s comment, “Communists are as bad as Nazis, and their defenders and apologists are as bad as Nazis’ defenders, but far more common. When you meet them, show them no respect. They’re evil, stupid, and dishonest. They should not enjoy the consequences of their behavior.”
This is not a popular position, and he quickly received a response that went, in part, like this:
As someone who works in academia, I run into my fair share of Marxists. While I disagree with their politics, many of them are decent non-evil people most certainly deserving of respect. There is, to my mind, a big difference between communism and Nazism: it is possible to be a communist with the “good will,” i.e. to sincerely wish the best most prosperous future for everyone. I think it’s pretty obvious that communism is not the way towards that goal, but intelligent people can disagree. Nazism, on the other hand, is fundamentally impossible to commit one’s self to with a good will. It is inherently racist, hateful, and concerned with elevating particular groups of people on the basis of the subjugation and dehumanization of others.
These people’s whole job as scholars is the unflinching pursuit of truth no matter where it may lead, and we’re supposed to credit them for their “good will” when they trumpet an abstract ideology while discreetly skating over what happens every time it’s implemented? I find myself unwilling to concede that. It’s like crediting the walrus with more compassion than the carpenter because he made a histrionic show of concern for the oysters before yum-yumming them down.
Of course, it might be said that Reynolds’s correspondent’s colleagues are, assuming they’ve been presented accurately, at least willing to argue Marxism on the merits. The people I find most appalling, and who in my experience are equally numerous, are those who counter any discussion of communist regimes with the statement that first-world Westerners have no grounds for criticizing them at all.
Two weeks ago, there was an Asia Society screening of a UN documentary about the trial of Comrade Duch, who ran one of the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous political prisons. Two women became upset during the Q&A session (about 37:00 into the linked video) that all this talk about torture and killing fields and retribution and memories of the dead had not been presented “in context.” You can guess what they meant, can’t you? That’s right: Big, Bad America had been an enabler for Pol Pot and his fellow-travelers, and apparently that was what we should have been getting worked up about. After all, Indochinese peoples are peaceable, guileless, grudge-free aspiring-Buddha types, so all that unpleasant torturing and executing isn’t the real story, and even if it were, we’d be in no moral position to criticize the Khmer Rouge. Yes, I’m caricaturing the view presented, but not by much. The response from the panel—pointing out that, among other things, the United States and Canada were among only five countries to condemn Cambodia’s human-rights abuses while they were happening—follows.
I wasn’t present at the Asia Society event for this discussion of Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, but I looked it up after my beau left his book-club copy lying around. It follows the lives of six people who defected from an industrial city in the northeastern DPRK and ended up in Seoul. They were all teenagers or adults in the late ’90s and thus lived through and vividly remember the famine.
Demick is not a conspicuously talented prose writer, but she has a great ear for an involving story; and yet, after finishing the book, I was most struck by how depressingly familiar it all was. Demick’s informants spoke of tight controls on travel and information. They spoke of indoctrination sessions. They spoke of a shrewd blending of communist ideology with national traditions to tighten the grip of the power elite—Kim Il-sung was presented as the nation’s patriarch, to which it owed absolute filial obedience according to Korean Confucianism. They spoke of the persecution or denigration of out-of-favor ethnic or clan groups, in this case Chinese and South Korean. They spoke of a rigid system of class privilege determined by membership in (or closeness to) the ruling party, from which flowed access to better housing, food, education, jobs, and purchasing power. They spoke of patent lies about industrial and agricultural productivity, with the black and grey markets flourishing as the government ceased to be able to provide for citizens’ basic needs.
All of which is to say that, if you hadn’t been paying attention to the names and dates, you could have found yourself forgetting exactly which communist hellhole you were reading about. North Korea’s an extreme example, certainly, but somehow they all seem to end up with shortages for the masses and relative plenty for the shrinking elite.
But of course, we must not characterize such regimes as evil. About 47:00 into the Asia Society video, a questioner complains that everything she’s heard this evening adheres to the “dominant narrative” about the famine and has not taken into account yucky weather, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the sanctions of baddies such as the United States. All this finger-pointing is a threat to national sovereignty, you see.
Naturally, Demick couldn’t say, “Listen, sugarpie—that narrative’s dominant because it’s true!” Instead, she gently reminded her interlocutor of the US’s offers of food aid, before falling all over herself to assure everyone that she’d been at pains to make her book “apolitical.” Would a journalist who’d written about Chileans who suffered under Pinochet have been so fastidiously non-polemical? I couldn’t help wondering.
Glenn Reynolds was talking about avowed Marxists, and it’s important to note here that none of the three questioners at these events defended the Khmer Rouge or the KWP. But then, they didn’t have to. The effect of arguing that communist regimes wouldn’t get into the trouble they do without the machinations of the West (especially America), and that therefore we have no grounds for condemning them, is to place them above reproach.
But they’re not above reproach. No one denies that all human systems are flawed, and that no one has yet devised a political system under which innocents never suffer. The question is which systems do best for the largest proportion of the population in a way that is self-correcting and (to appropriate a term) sustainable. The empirical answer is those with the rule of law and capitalism, and everyone knows it. You don’t hear about anyone’s, including Terry Eagleton’s, desperately floating on an innertube to Cuba or wading through the icy Tumen River to escape to North Korea. As Eric says, academic Marxists often play the “McCarthyism!” card to make themselves sound like brave dissenters, when they’re actually just peddling a fantasy whose real-world repercussions they’ll never have to live through. What’s respect-worthy about that?
Added on 22 December: Good morning, everyone! Sometimes, apparently, you wake up to find that Instapundit has linked you, a bajillion people have left comments in good faith, and your comment filter is waiting for you to approve all of them. Sorry! They should all be visible now. Thanks to Instapundit for the link, and thanks to everyone for commenting.
My father’s side of the family has its Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before the designated Thursday every year, and my parents are hosting; therefore, it was this weekend that I helped them and my brother (and the aunts, uncles, cousins, and once-removeds who rounded out the party of thirty-odd people) get a full turkey dinner on the table.
That tradition over with, my parents and I are going to a restaurant today, where my mother doesn’t have to clean up and my father doesn’t have to stow folding chairs and table leaves back in the basement.
We’re thankful that we’re American and free, healthy, happy, comfortable, and fond of each other.
But of course it doesn’t do to get complacent, even on Thanksgiving, and Lisa Miller of Newsweek has considerately provided us with this week’s ration of food guilt (via Instapundit, who treats the enterprise with the casual contempt it deserves). From her exquisitely calibrated tone of patronizing, deep-think concern about the lower orders and her look-what-a-progressive-nabe-I-live-in social-marker dropping, you will have little trouble guessing that she lives in Brooklyn (Park Slope, in her case). This is the opening:
For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed by my husband. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano, the label says, “the hippest cheese in New York” (no joke)—on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. My nutritionist neighbor drinks a protein shake while her 5-year-old son eats quinoa porridge sweetened with applesauce and laced with kale flakes. She is what you might call a health nut. On a recent morning, my neighbor’s friend Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her comfy kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens Ferguson and her husband, Dave, keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. The Fergusons are known as locavores.
Alexandra says she spends hours each day thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food. She is a disciple of Michael Pollan, whose 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made the locavore movement a national phenomenon, and believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to the existential happiness of farm animals and farmers—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet. “Michael Pollan is my new hero, next to Jimmy Carter,” she told me. [*speechless*–SRK] In some neighborhoods, a lawyer who raises chickens in her backyard might be considered eccentric, but we live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a community that accommodates and celebrates every kind of foodie. Whether you believe in eating for pleasure, for health, for justice, or for some idealized vision of family life, you will find neighbors who reflect your food values. In Park Slope, the contents of a child’s lunchbox can be fodder for a 20-minute conversation.
Several thoughts, along with my gorge, come up as I read this. One is that I’m happy I live in Manhattan, where we at least frankly acknowledge, without tarting it up as spirituality, that we like the increased number of choices you have when you make good money. Another is that Miller’s neighbors are just doing, with more hauteur, a version of what my parents did when my brother and I were growing up. We were members of a church that believed that industrial farming and food processing were harmful, and that treating your body as the Temple of the Lord meant eating as much natural food as possible. My parents were never affluent, and when my father was laid off from Bethlehem Steel, money was often extremely tight. Yet we went to the farm to get fertilized eggs; we went to a sympathetic dairy for raw milk; we drove miles and miles and miles to some beekeeper who played Isaac Watts hymns and other improving music at his apiary, or something, to get our honey. We got peanut butter, which looked (and felt in the mouth) like mortar, fresh-ground at the health-food store. Coke was a special treat we had when people came over for dinner after church. I didn’t taste a Pop Tart until I was in college. My mother baked all our bread.
And because we were a family of straitened means, there was a good deal of clever thrift and making do. When fresh vegetables were out of season or budget, we ate frozen. My parents rented a little garden plot from Rodale Press to grow vegetables during the summer. We got a lot of protein from chicken parts and chuck roast and pollack filets on sale. None of this was what you’d find on the menu at Gramercy Tavern or 11 Madison Park, but my mother knew how to cook and season homely ingredients judiciously. There was never a sense of deprivation. I mean, I had a bratty streak like any little boy and bleated about not having Lucky Charms in the house and stuff, but it would never have occurred to me to complain that what we did eat was poor-quality food, though I’m sure it would have given Miller and the rest of her kaffee klatsch a heart attack.
See, her central complaint is that we’re Not Doing Enough to ensure low-income families get better nutrition:
Mine seems on some level like a naive complaint. There have always been rich people and poor people in America and, in a capitalist economy, the well-to-do have always had the freedom to indulge themselves as they please. In hard times, food has always marked a bright border between the haves and the have-nots. In the earliest days of the Depression, as the poor waited on bread lines, the middle and upper classes in America became devoted to fad diets. Followers of the Hollywood 18-Day Diet, writes Harvey Levenstein in his 1993 book Paradox of Plenty, “could live on fewer than six hundred calories a day by limiting each meal to half a grapefruit, melba toast, coffee without cream or sugar, and, at lunch and dinner, some raw vegetables.”
That “in a capitalist economy” is a meaningless qualifier, though I realize many people in Park Slope find it politically satisfying. It’s not as if the party elites in communist, socialist, or social-democratic societies didn’t have the freedom to indulge themselves, though they may not be able to do so publicly. What matters is mobility: in America, you don’t have to end where you started out if you make the effort to move up. That doesn’t make the Depression less tragic, or the pseudo-mortifications of the elites less silly, but it does mean that Miller isn’t necessarily making the political point she thinks she’s making here.
How could we be doing better? Three guesses which societies Miller suggests we should be emulating.
According to studies led by British epidemiologist Kate Pickett, obesity rates are highest in developed countries with the greatest income disparities. America is among the most obese of nations; Japan, with its relatively low income inequality, is the thinnest.
When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.
Japan’s relatively low income inequality—for the millionth time—cannot be blithely split out from its overall collectivism and enforced conformity. That’s the trade-off: if you want everyone to live in the mostly-comfortable middle, you have to squelch the ambitions of the top of the bell curve as well as trying to lift the circumstances of the bottom. It’s all very well to admire the community spirit of the Japanese, but I’d be willing to bet that most members of the stratum of Park Slope society Miller speaks for wouldn’t be able to take it for five months together–especially once they saw how many of their child-rearing decisions were supposed to be outsourced to the school system.
As for our inferiority to France, plenty of Americans place a high value on having the family together for dinner, even if they don’t spend the whole meal nattering about how various tastes are “unfolding” in real time. Ads for restaurants almost always present people laughing and talking together while they eat, presumably because picturing mealtime as a “convivial” experience resonates with their target audience. That Americans think of “eating well” as being related to nutrition may have less to do with any alleged I’ve-got-mine mentality than with the fact that many of us have ancestors, often in living memory, who came here with nothing and worked their way to increased prosperity.
Miller consistently talks as if the freshest produce and the most chemical-laden processed stuff were the only two choices, which makes me wonder how many supermarkets she’s actually been in. She’s not the only one, though:
Time is just part of the problem, [low-income single mother Tiffiney] Davis explains, as she prepares Sunday dinner in her cheerful kitchen. Tonight she’s making fried chicken wings with bottled barbecue sauce; yellow rice from a box; black beans from a can; broccoli; and carrots, cooked in olive oil and honey. A home-cooked dinner doesn’t happen every night. On weeknights, everyone gets home, exhausted—and then there’s homework. Several nights a week, they get takeout: Chinese, or Domino’s, or McDonald’s. Davis doesn’t buy fruits and vegetables mostly because they’re too expensive, and in the markets where she usually shops, they’re not fresh. “I buy bananas and bring them home and 10 minutes later they’re no good…Whole Foods sells fresh, beautiful tomatoes,” she says. “Here, they’re packaged and full of chemicals anyway. So I mostly buy canned foods.”
Interesting. Every grocery store I’ve seen has this thing called the “freezer section.” Inside every package is stuff covered with a mysterious white hoar; when you heat it, the hoar dissolves—like the snow joyously melting when Aslan frees Narnia from the White Witch—and then you have vegetables and fruits. No, they’re not as quite as good or nutritious as those you pick yourself (or buy at an outdoor market from the stall run by Distressed Clapboards Farm), but they’re cheap and nourishing, and they’re tasty if you prepare them properly. Also, plenty of foods can be made in big batches on the weekend and stored so you can reheat them on busy work nights. The idea that there’s no real estate between cherimoya from Whole Foods and generic canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup is just wrong.
And even if people want, laudably, to insist on getting fresh produce if possible, is there really nothing low-income people can do? Maybe their church can pool money and buy things in bulk. Maybe they can form a coop. (Some of the more ostentatiously civic-minded Park Slope residents could volunteer to help with the organizing and accounting?) Or, most simply, maybe someone could rent a van to go once a week or so to a larger, better-stocked supermarket than there may be in the neighborhood and take the food around. The poor still wouldn’t be eating imported cheese and free-range chicken, but part of being a household of straitened means is doing more with less, and that’s been true since civilization began. As someone who made many a meal of ground-turkey meatloaf with frozen string beans growing up, I have a hard time getting all weepy over the inability of people on food stamps to afford heirloom tomatoes.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
Added later: If you don’t get the allusion in the title but do care, here it is:
A few weeks ago, the NYT asked a bunch of academics to comment on the closing of the French department, among others, at SUNY–Albany. Its respondents obliged, vouchsafing that the humanities ennoble the soul, make workers more savvy about operating in culturally diverse environments, and teach critical thinking. Oh, and they’re interesting and stuff. John McWhorter argues that losing humanities programs at universities doesn’t mean humanist studies will be killed off; otherwise, though they come at it from different angles, all the other contributors think closing humanities departments is a very bad thing.
Assuming that the NYT asked its contributors to respond to the question as framed here, their answers aren’t all that bad, but it’s interesting that most of them didn’t raise the issue of quality. Harvard professor Louis Menand—try not to hold it against him that he also, blech, writes for The New Yorker—argues as follows, for example:
First, no department is an island. Universities are places where scholars in one field have opportunities to debate, collaborate with, and learn from scholars in very different fields. The loss of any department is a loss to every department at that institution.
Second, what parent does not want his or her child to have access to literature, philosophy and the arts? Who thinks those are dispensable luxuries for educated professionals in an advanced society? You would have to have a very primitive view of the purpose of education to believe that the cultural heritage of humanity has no place in it.
Finally, of course the humanities teach something. Their subject matter is culture, and since everything human beings do is mediated by culture — by language, by representations, by systems of values and beliefs — knowing how to understand other languages, interpret cultural expressions, and evaluate belief systems is as indispensable to functioning effectively in the professional world as knowing how to use a computer. This knowledge may or may not make you a better person; it can certainly make you more productive and successful in the workplace.
All that sounds nice, but it leaves out one important practical consideration: a lot of the humanities programs that exist at real American universities suck. They make it too easy to skate through to a degree. They assess “critical thinking” through lots of paper-writing—to the near-exclusion of, not as a companion to, testing whether students have systematically absorbed hard facts. And for all the blather about broad education, they have watered-down math and science requirements.
The Albany program closures are still a topic, and when I clicked through to this NPR story about them from Ann Althouse this morning, these paragraphs caught my eye:
Upon learning about the suspension of the foreign language programs, David Wills, a professor of French, was shocked at first, but then he was angry.
“None of us accepted that it was something that a university could do and still call itself a university,” Wills said. “This is not a university if you only have one non-English European language program left standing.”
That’s also not an unreasonable argument, but I couldn’t help looking up Professor Wills to see what kind of contributions he’s been making to the life of the mind. He’s in the French department, so you can probably guess what’s coming:
His original research was in Surrealist poetry but his published work has concentrated on literary theory, especially the work of Derrida, film theory and comparative literature. He teaches classes in 20th century literature, literary theory, and film.
Wills’s major work, developed first in Prosthesis (Stanford, 1995), concerns on the one hand the originary technology or “non-naturalness” of the human, and on the other, the ways in which writing functions as a technological in/outgrowth of the body. Those ideas are extended via what he calls “dorsality,” a thinking of the back and what is behind – the other of the facial – where the emphasis is on certain ethical, political and sexual implications of a technological rewriting of identity. In recent work he also investigates the question of conceptual invention against the background of musical improvisation, for example in jazz, and the instrumentality or technology of the voice.
Dorsality: Thinking Back Through Technology and Politics (Minnesota, 2008)
Matchbook: essays in deconstruction (Stanford, 2005).
Self (De)construct: Writing and the Surrealist Text (James Cook University Press, 1985).
In short, if this joker hadn’t existed, Roger Kimball would have had to make him up. Let me take a wild guess and say that it’s unlikely that Professor Wills’s course students and advisees do not emerge from his tutelage with a comprehensive grounding in the historical facts and artifacts of French culture. Maybe the rest of the French faculty at Albany takes a more traditionally rigorous approach; I don’t know. I do know that every college student in America knows that if you want to minimize effort and maximize GPA, you choose a humanities major. And within your humanities major, you target courses taught by professors who incorporate lots of “relevant” material from pop-culture and personal experience into the syllabus, because watching movies is easier than reading Choderlos de Laclos in the original. Nowadays, there are at least a few like that in any language and literature department; there were even back in my day.
I suspect that employers have learned from experience that people whose studies were heavy on post-structuralism (or whichever of its heirs is hot now) deal just fine with “texts” but are not so hot with reality. Critical thinking that only allows you to poke holes in someone else’s hermetically sealed argument isn’t all that useful when you leave the academy and need enough facts at your command to assess and fill your own gaps of knowledge in order to do your job. The more shrewd students have probably figured that out, too, even if they might not be able to articulate why they avoid certain departments. Derrida et al. gave us some fun word games, but when you didn’t finish the deliverable on time, you can’t exactly send an email stating that, human knowledge being inevitably contingent and human subject-hood being inevitably decentered, the client is not in any position to make a firm claim that the widget didn’t arrive. (If you decide to try it, though, please let me know how it went. I could use some amusement. My computer came down with a serious infection over the last few weeks, and I finally got Blue-Screen-of-Deathed and had to reinstall everything. Fortunately, I’m obsessive about backing things up, so I didn’t lose anything but time.)
Added later: Someone at College Misery links to this withering open letter to the Albany president, which gives all the usual (and valid) defenses of the humanities:
I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.
Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.
Once again, that’s great in the abstract, but I’m not sure it applies to the concrete example of SUNY—Albany as it exists. Professor Wills doesn’t strike me as the type to be offering courses on Voltaire, taught with old-style rigor, that he just can’t find students for. Perhaps even the French studies program director isn’t. Erin O’Connor links to another open letter from Albany’s Brett Bowles, which does a good job of pointing out the legerdemain involved in blaming tight budgets for the proposed cuts:
At a time of severe budget crisis when a business model is being invoked to justify the elimination of academic programs, non-academic units such as athletics should be held to the same standard of cost effectiveness. At a minimum, athletics should be expected to rely on the intercollegiate athletics fee and whatever external revenue they manage to attract.
Following that principle would allow the $4.27 million that athletics is receiving from the state to be redistributed to cover academic-related expenses.
If those savings do not sufficiently address future academic budgetary needs, athletics should be downsized before eliminating academic programs and compromising the educational mission of the university.
True, all of it. But I note that Professor Bowles’s faculty page states that his specializations are “Politics, society, and mass media; contemporary France; European Union; French and European film; documentary film,” so we have another scholar who focuses pretty narrowly on the era of French art and thought that began just before our grandparents were born and extends into the present. There’s nothing wrong with that on a scholar-by-scholar basis, exactly, but when whole departments get tipped too much in that direction, the historical depth the humanities are supposed to provide gets compromised. I have no idea whether it’s been compromised at Albany specifically, but I do note that I haven’t seen anyone address whether it has.
John Ellis wrote on Minding the Campus this month about the dubitable moral logic behind “defending the humanities”:
There was a time when “save the humanities” would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don’t value the humanities, but because they do.
Yet the crisis does need a response–but not the one that is asked for. Now that this day of reckoning has arrived, the appropriate cry should be: “restore the humanities.” That rather different slogan would suggest that we should take hold of these failed departments where enrollment has collapsed following abolition of the humanities, and bring them back to health. There is a traditional way of dealing with failed departments in academe. An external chairman is appointed, with a mandate to remake the department as one that can function properly. In this case that will mean remaking them as genuine humanities departments, rather than departments that have been reshaped to indulge the whims of faculty who never outgrew their adolescent utopian political fantasies. That is what we owe our students, who have been telling us so, loud and clear, as they have voted with their feet. The bill is finally coming due for years of irresponsible behavior by faculty and administrators alike. Bailing them out is not the way to go; holding them accountable for the disaster they have created is. Without reform, proposals to pour new funding into “the humanities” will only perpetrate a fraud. Unless this is part of a conscious effort to restore a genuine humanities, it will only prop up the pseudo-humanities.
Professor Ellis may be exaggerating the extent of the rot; I don’t know. But he’s certainly right that the nobility of the humanities means little if they’re not taught responsibly. Mark Bauerlein was one of the few who made a similar argument in the NYT.
The Asahihas an English version of the mayor of Hiroshima’s peace declaration on the anniversary of the A-bombing of that city:
In the company of hibakusha who, on this day 65 years ago, were hurled, without understanding why, into a “hell” beyond their most terrifying nightmares and yet somehow managed to survive; together with the many souls that fell victim to unwarranted death, we greet this Aug. 6 with re-energized determination that, “No one else should ever have to suffer such horror.”
Through the unwavering will of the hibakusha and other residents, with help from around Japan and the world, Hiroshima is now recognized as a beautiful city. Today, we aspire to be a “model city for the world” and even to host the Olympic Games.
This ceremony is honored today by the presence of government officials representing more than 70 countries as well as the representatives of many international organizations, NGOs, and citizens groups. These guests have come to join the hibakusha, their families, and the people of Hiroshima in sharing grief and prayers for a peaceful world. Nuclear-weapon states Russia, China and others have attended previously, but today, for the first time ever, we have with us the U.S. ambassador and officials from the United Kingdom and France.
Clearly, the urgency of nuclear weapons abolition is permeating our global conscience; the voice of the vast majority is becoming the pre-eminent force for change in the international community.
We’d all love a peaceful world, but as long as we’re human beings sharing it with other human beings, the best hope of approximating it is for the free, peaceful societies to have enough sheer terrible force at our disposal to make it foolhardy to launch an attack against us. The atom bombing of Hiroshima, though I doubt its mayor sees it this way, was justified for exactly that reason. Japan was an implacable enemy. While it had conclusively lost the war, it was delaying its surrender in hopes of getting concessions, and it was not as easy in the moment as it seems in hindsight to figure out just how long the Allies would have had to wait to hear from Hirohito. The hell of Hiroshima put an end to the hell that had been realized in Nanjing, Korea, and Unit 731; one hates to think of human deaths in terms of their transactional value, but sadly that’s the way war works. And it did work: Japan finally accepted that it had been well and truly beaten, and it got down to the business of creating a vibrant peacetime economy. American, Australian, and other Allied armed forces didn’t have to keep sacrificing their men. Mayor Akiba is right that we need wisdom and not luck to avoid annihilation, but in the opposite of the way he means it. The atom bombings were justified then, and free societies need nuclear armaments now.
If you live outside the BOS-WASH population belt, you may retain the quaint idea that Manhattan is where all the most obnoxious people in New York, if not the world, live. But a funny thing happened while I was in Tokyo: all the annoying people apparently moved to Brooklyn.
The converse is not true, mind you. I know plenty of non-annoying people who live in Brooklyn. Some of my best friends live in Brooklyn. To paraphrase Tina Fey, I can see Brooklyn from my house. (Actually, it’s Queens, and I can see it across the river from 49th and 1st when I walk down to the bodega, but the idea’s the same.) Anyway, lately when I’ve come across some first-person feature article bleating about modern life and started to think, Hmmm…this character’s really annoying, the next sentence invariably says something about “my neighborhood in Brooklyn” or “down the street from me in Cobble Hill.”
The most recent example is this, in which the author becomes the millionth city-dweller to lament how technology is draining the human interaction from daily life. Yeah, I know—what was I expecting from reading the “Consumerism” section on Salon, anyway? I live in hope.
So, you know, Blockbuster’s about to go out of business, and now we all get our movies from Netflix, and there’s “community” instead of community. It’s the perfect chance to contrast one’s own depth and sincerity with the soullessness of his surroundings!
There used to be four or five Blockbusters within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn. [Ruh-roh! – SRK] Now there’s one, and I keep thinking it’s closed until I peer in for a second and spot that one clerk slouched behind the counter. Odds are he’s either talking on his cell phone or reading Vibe.
The electronic parameters of Internet relationships mean that you get to enjoy the benefits of other peoples’ enthusiasm without the accompanying melodrama. If you were ever part of one of the circles I’ve described, you found yourself wondering, at one point or another, “Why am I friends with this person? We have nothing in common but movies, and if it weren’t for that, I’d cross the street if I saw him.” Internet friendship means you don’t have to follow up an intoxicating geek-fest argument about Stanley Kubrick vs. Martin Scorsese with a two hour discussion of your friend’s latest workplace drama, or her recent breakup with that guy who always wore a hoodie and kept forgetting her birthday.
The rub, of course, is that any friendship that satisfies the first part of that description and not the second isn’t a real friendship. Which brings me to the one part of Blockbuster’s slow fadeout that is worth lamenting: the sense that the human touch, or what’s left of it, is being lost. Mind you, I’m not talking about Blockbuster’s idea of the human touch, because the chain never had one.
I’m talking about the pre-Internet experience of daily life, which was more immediate, more truly interactive: in a word, real.
Sigh. People have been saying crap like this since I was a teenager. First, the Walkman was insulating us from enriching conversations with people we encountered randomly on the street. Then email was making our communications vulgar and superficial. Then cell phones were forcing us to be available to all callers at all hours. Amazon and iTunes killed the mind-broadening experience of stumbling into obscure stuff at hipster-approved independent book and record stores ages ago. Now its Netflix. We get movies by pointing and clicking, whereas Blockbuster used to be where we laughed, cried, argued, and began and ended relationships.
I’m not kidding:
Bland and aloof as it was, Blockbuster was a part of that — and for certain types of people, it was a big part. There was nothing special about Blockbuster as a business, but special moments did happen there, simply by virtue of the fact that the stores were everywhere, and they stocked a lot of movies, and people who wanted to see movies went there regularly, sometimes alone but more often in the company of relatives or friends.
I had some involved, sometimes pivotal conversations while loitering in the aisles at the Blockbuster near my school or apartment or workplace, including one in which my best friend helped me talk myself into breaking up with a girl I was dating who was beautiful and charming but not remotely interested in any film released before the year of her birth. She fell asleep during “Dr. Strangelove.”
“You’ve got to break up with her, Matt,” my friend advised me. “Hey, have you seen the Albert Brooks movie ‘Real Life’? Seriously. It’s one of the funniest films ever made.”
That kind of thing never happens when you’re browsing Netflix.
Of course, some of us like being able to get to a copy of The Eyes of Laura Mars without having to squeeze past some schmo bleating, “She’s got a rockin’ body, dude, but she just doesn’t get how much Bond means to me!” at his buddy, however precious the shared moment may be to the two of them. I find that with Netflix (and Amazon and iTunes and Fresh Direct), I get to spend just as much (if not more) time with my friends while spending less time hearing TMI from people behind me in checkout lines about, like, their bunion surgery. There are fewer places to browse among physical stock, but they’re not hard to find. The Barnes & Noble near my office on Union Square is almost always packed. And that’s not even considering the people who live so far from Brooklyn that the nearest Blockbuster was always far away, even at the height of its success. For them, Netflix must seem little short of a miracle.
Seitz’s complaint is especially odd since, in that first part cited above, he acknowledges that in his pre-Internet life, he didn’t have genuine friendships with all his movie buddies, anyway. Is the idea that palling around in person made that more palatable or (perhaps more likely) disguised it better than just chatting online about subjects of confirmed mutual interest? I’ve never understood why people who find that technology makes their lives impersonal don’t just find ways to avoid using it. I regularly stop reading Facebook or (have you noticed?) posting here when I consider what’s going on offline more important. I try to respond to non-urgent telephone calls and messages in a timely fashion, but if I’m busy, I let them wait. When I feel like reading, I shut off the TV. If I felt like browsing through videos with a friend, I suppose I’d ask a friend to go to the video section of the bookstore with me. I don’t consider any of this all that hard.
I assume Eric doesn’t either. He posts about hating videos contrived to prove a polemical point, but in his view, “I am not obligated in any way to create or watch videos.” No, indeed, although acknowledging that does mean forgoing the opportunity to get all windy about how one is too soulful for this impersonal age.
I made poorly considered remarks about Rush Limbaugh to what I believed was a private email discussion group from my personal email account. As a publicist, I realize more than anyone that is no excuse for irresponsible behavior. I apologize to anyone I may have offended and I regret these comments greatly; they do not reflect the values by which I conduct my life.
“As a publicist”?!
I wasn’t under the impression that publicists were in the business of enforcing responsibility. I was, rather, under the impression that they were in the business of cynical image manipulation and the attendant ass coverage when necessary. It’s clear from the rest of Spitz’s statement that she’s not the slightest bit sorry for wishing Rush Limbaugh a painful death—a real apology would have forsworn the actual content of her remarks—but she might at least not have insulted our intelligence by trying to put it over on us that being a publicist gives her an especially acute sense of responsibility. Then, too, her own intelligence is rather questionable: what kind of communications-savvy person believes a 400-person email list is reliably private?
When I started college in 1991, I was a conservative Sabbatarian Christian—very conservative, very Sabbatarian, very Christian. Once during the first few get-to-know-you weeks of freshman year, I mentioned (at a point in the discussion at which it was a most natural thing to do) that I was a creationist. One of the people in the room literally made a face at me. I’m not talking about that slight raising of the eyebrows and tightening of the smile you get when you’re not quite sure he said what you think he did; I’m talking about the full-on, unapologetic Mr. Yuk. From then on, he acted as if I weren’t in the room.
Later that same semester, I went to the head lecturer in the first-year Japanese program and explained that I needed to miss a week of classes for a religious festival. She chuckled at me—I did not imagine this—and said that while my section lecturer could decide to let me make up the quizzes I’d miss, she had no idea what made me think some holy festival in my idiosyncratic little sect was more important than a week of classes. (Yeah, I’m paraphrasing, but not by much. I remember this conversation very well.)
In both cases, I was pretty offended. In the former, I wouldn’t have minded being argued with; in the latter, I wouldn’t have minded being crisply told that absences were to be kept to an absolute minimum, with strict criteria for which absences were acceptable. But this was college. For everyone who was dismissive of ideas he couldn’t sympathize with, there were ten people who wanted to argue over them until three in the morning. If you stuck with classes and people that promoted the unfettered life of the mind, you welcomed good-faith opposition, because it helped you sharpen your thinking, and you didn’t mind bad-faith opposition, because if you just shrugged it off, there was sure to be a real no-holds-barred debate waiting in the next class or at the next table.
Bear in mind, I’m talking about 1991-95 here.
In the comparative literature program.
We thought PC had already reached lunatic and obsessive proportions then, mind you. Little did we know. Perhaps you’ve managed not to see the latest outrage, from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign:
The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.
The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.
Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.
“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”
An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.
“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”
In an e-mail to other school staff, Ann Mester, an associate dean at the College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences, said Howell’s e-mail justified his firing.
“The e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us,” Mester wrote.
Look, I entered college a devout Christian and left a flaming homosexual and atheist (or homosexual and flaming atheist, depending on when you catch me), so I have no problem with ensuring that religious principles are considered fair game for debate on campus. But that’s nothing at all like what we’re talking about here. I mean…sorry, bitch, but if your A game consists of (1) an anonymous, (2) second-hand accusation that (3) doesn’t even attempt to take on the clearly stated substance of Howell’s argument, you don’t deserve Lawrence v. Texas. Men and women risked their reputations and livelihoods forty years ago so you could live an openly gay life, and this is how you repay them?
Of course, gay rights aren’t the major point here. To get back to that, here’s Erin O’Connor, who linked to that article and added her own comments:
When I was teaching at Penn, I learned the hard way how very powerful students are. They hold professors’ careers in their hands–and can destroy them very, very easily, simply by accusing them of offensive classroom conduct. Most students don’t realize this–and if they did, would never dream of abusing their power. But some students see that power very clearly–and they work it.
Where do students get the idea that they had the right not to be offended? University policy. It’s all there–on the books at DePaul and Brandeis and many other schools, in policies on hate speech and verbal harassment and so on. They encourage students to grossly misunderstand the purpose of higher education–which should involve being exposed to a wide range of views, learning how to choose among them, and learning to navigate the marketplace of ideas like an actual adult (as opposed to a spoiled child). When students avail themselves of these policies, administrators must take their complaints seriously, and follow through. Careers are ruined along the way, absolutely asinine judgments are made, and the educational enterprise is reduced to a joke by the very people whose job it is to uphold it. And it all happens over and over again, every year, on campus after campus, like sick clockwork, while nobody learns.
Standards of inclusivity? What the hell does that mean? [I doubt we really want to know.—SRK] It’s not as if he threw gay students out of his class; what he did was merely to state his opinion, and explain why he thinks what he thinks, leaving students free to disagree without penalty of any kind. How does that exclude anyone? Are students considered so delicate that the slightest mention of something with which they feel uncomfortable is now to be considered a form of “exclusion”? Hmmm… Perhaps I can return to school and complain that I am being “excluded” every time a professor says something I disagree with.
Right. We have a professor who put his ideas out there for students to disagree with without punishment, and we have a student who caviled about him in a fashion that got him ejected from campus, but it’s the professor who’s not being inclusive.
Added on 14 July: Erin O’Connor has posted more—apparently, Illinois is reconsidering its decision. O’Connor ends this way:
I think it’s interesting to see the elaboration of a moral system that is established and powerful and has enormous institutional weight behind it — precisely because it bears so little relation to my own baseline moral set points. It’s always empowering, enlightening, and stimulating to understand how people different from oneself think. There’s nothing intimidating or hateful about it.
One might have expected college students to know that.
Years ago, Joanne Jacobs wrote for Reason about the controversy over a charter elementary school in San Francisco. In one particularly memorable paragraph, she tersely described the conflict between entrenched public schools and upstart private companies:
Typically, these schools are underfunded, thin on management, and dependent on donated legal services. However, about 10 percent are run by school management companies that are — in theory, if not in fact — for-profit businesses. They are run by professional managers, staffed by lawyers, and much harder to bully. Their pitch is simple: If we succeed in running good schools, we’ll attract students and make a profit. If we fail, take back the school and try something else. That’s not the way things are usually done in the public school system. Traditionally, nothing succeeds like failure. Failure is rewarded with more money for more programs, more specialists, and, of course, more failure. Success, on the other hand, is a risky business. It destroys excuses. It raises expectations. It’s even worse when a profit-seeking business succeeds with high-risk students. If customer-serving, bottom-line-adding businesses can run schools, that opens the door to a host of market evils: Independently run charter schools staffed by non-unionized teachers. Voucher-empowered parents shopping for their schools of choice. Teachers deprived of political power and turned from selfless public servants to soulless corporate employees.
The business of government, outside of the military and law enforcement, does not involve accomplishing missions or solving problems. Government agencies don’t view “success” as resolving the issues they were created to address, and shutting their doors after declaring victory. In fact, as you can see from the example of NASA, they would regard a tight focus on their original missions as regrettable stagnancy. Bureaucracies grow through failure. They present failure as a rationale for increased budgets, which they must spend with gusto, in order to submit an even bigger budget the following year.
This system only works if politicians and bureaucrats are not held accountable for their failures. Naturally, they develop the ability to avoid accountability as a survival skill. Nowhere is this more evident than with the Department of Education, which touts the miserable performance of its unionized teachers as clear evidence that it needs more money. If you question any of this, or point to administrators with pensions costing tens of millions, you are said to oppose education.
As Eric writes, it’s easy to turn Americans’ general goodwill against us:
By definition, growing strong through failure is the strongest possible form of strength. While it might seem impossible to combat, its one major weakness is that it relies on camouflage. The failures of bureaucracies are never blamed on or admitted to be in any way the result of the bureaucracies themselves, but are seen as new challenges facing us all. The reason people accept that at face value is because most citizens are people of good faith, who genuinely want to believe that the government is working for us all.
Few things drive me up the wall more than the reflexive assumption that moving an activity from the private sector to the public sector magically ensures that it will thenceforth be tended to by saintly, selfless, civic-minded souls who hold their output to the highest possible quality standards. That the pile of disconfirmatory evidence for that proposition would dwarf Mt. McKinley somehow doesn’t seem to faze people. America is no longer a young, agrarian backwater, in which government service diverted energy away from, say, managing the family lands more profitably. America is now the world’s largest economy and power player, in which government service is a lucrative career path of its own, often (to judge from what they say in front of microphones) for people who wouldn’t know innovation or efficiency if it jumped up and bit ’em in the ass. It’s utterly maddening, for those of us who are accountable to our customers and spend our working days looking for ways to get more done with less input, to be sermonized at by these characters.
And, as Eric points out, just voting out the current crew only does so much, because unelected officials are a big part of the problem. (It’s way worse in Japan, the electorate of which just took away the DPJ’s majority in the upper house of the Diet, BTW, but it’s quite bad enough here.) They and their elected enablers do a lot of talking about how the Government is the People, all while working sedulously to insulate themselves from the competition and feedback that obtain in the working lives of the People outside the Government. Nice work if you can get it.
Just when I think it’s safe to put down my Pimm’s and ginger and return to the blog, I click a link to something that forces me to put both hands around the glass and chug.
You’d think that, at this point, the Edwards family would just want to retreat from the public eye and…I don’t know, spend a few months at the manse playing backgammon. There’s nothing any of them can say without piling further cheapness on cheapness.
Elizabeth Edwards – and, for the first time, daughter Cate – are opening up about John Edwards’s infidelity and the breakup of the marriage.
Daughter Cate? That’s a relief. Clearly, the problem was that not enough of the principals were airing their feelings in public about John Edwards’s philandering. But then, for Elizabeth’s part, it’s understandable that she feels the need to take back the spotlight by force, because that Rielle Hunter is charismatically bonkers enough to steal it and hold it for a good, long time. This is my favorite exchange from her interview with GQ a few months ago:
[GQ: ]Why do you think he loves you?
[Hunter: ]Um… How do I answer that? [long pause] I mean, I could give so many answers. I could give a spiritual answer, that I reflect back to him large parts of himself that were unconscious. Like, he’s a huge, huge humanitarian. He is very kindhearted and sweet. He’s very honest and truthful. And all of that was hidden.
Yes, Rielle, dear: when you live a life of mendacity, opportunism, calculation, and cynical power-chasing, it does tend to obscure your native honesty and purity of heart. That’s a point no one will gainsay. I do wonder, though…when you groove to someone because he or she seems to reflect you back, are we calling that “spiritual” now? We used to call it “narcissistic,” but I was out of the country for eleven years and have missed a lot of cultural developments.
I also liked this part:
What do you think will happen to Andrew Young?
I think like I do with everything: the truth eventually reveals itself. And we’re all here to grow and evolve. And I think Andrew will grow and evolve, even if it’s behind bars.
It’s all part of, like, the process, isn’t it? Poor Elizabeth will never be able to top that interview, even with the wronged-woman right (as it were) on her side.
And women associated with the zipper problems of famous Democrats are already upping the ante. Janis says she’s ready to add “crazed sex poodle” to her lexicon, having encountered it in this statement by the masseuse who’s accusing Al Gore of sexual harassment. Jesting aside, she comes off as pretty credible. I was especially struck by this part:
It seemed to me that the way he came across to me was like a scary, without a conscience, spoiled out of control fraternity boy at a kegger type of person with a perverse sense of entitlement, a rich kid who is used to getting what he wants and whatever, including from hookers, from women fawning over him, and that he was used to money or power bailing him out of trouble. […] He simply would not take no for an answer on anything and I verbally told him no way more than once. My body language said no as well. I even said to him at one point, Al, no means no. To which he just laughed and groped me some more.
Remember, this man once had Naomi Wolf on the payroll. Didn’t she ever look up from her earth-toned fabric swatches and remind Al about the whole “‘no’ means ‘no'” thing? That rich-college-boy-on-the-rampage image is fascinating, too. I wonder whether the same people who, a few years ago, used the same framework to condemn (furiously) the Duke lacrosse team—before most of the facts were known—will be working themselves into a similar lather of high moral dudgeon over Gore now.
Why, yes, I have still been nipping at the Pimm’s and ginger. Why do you ask?