Archive for October, 2012
What it is is a very soggy morning even before the rain comes, with a little wind.
But Sandy hasn’t made landfall yet, so although I’ve got my fingers crossed, I’m also charging everything chargable in the house.
All the schools are closed, and most of them have declared themselves closed both today and tomorrow. Up where I am, this is a little difficult to understand.
The storm is not supposed to hit Connecticut until late this afternoon or early this evening.
It makes sense to me that most of the towns on the shore issued mandatory evacuations for about midnight last night. If we get the worst case scenario, there’s going to be coastal flooding across four high tide cycles, and having an entire twenty four hours to make sure the town is cleared out is probably the prudent thing.
Up here, though, the major damage is supposed to be from wind–which can be really bad, admittedly–and the wind hasn’t started yet.
If I was the one in charge of cancelling things up here, I would have gone for Tuesday and Wednesday rather than Monday and Tuesday.
But Governor Malloy has declared a state of emergency in advance of the storm, and he keeps holding press conferences along with the new President of Connecticut Light and Power, the people who didn’t respond all that well to the last mess we were in.
The guy who was President then was forced out after last year’s storm. They had to put armed guards on his house just in case somebody got it into his head to kill him. In the end, the armed guards weren’t necessary, and the man slunk out of town under his own steam.
The new guy looks absolutely petrified, and I don’t blame him. Every time he said exactly the same kind of thing the last guy said last year–“we can’t prevent widespread outages,” “when it’s safe we’ll start assessing the damage”–Malloy looked daggers at him.
In the end, I suppose the only real answer is to put all the wires underground. I think the reason that we haven’t done that is that it’s too expensive both to install and to maintain.
That argument assumes, of course, that storms like this, with power outages like last year, will be few and far between. But this is the third one we’ve had in eighteen months, so I’m not sure if that rationale remains convincing.
My feeling about that kind of thing is that I rather like storms as long as we don’t lose power.
Being without power for eight days last year was miserable beyond belief, but some of the happiest times I’ve had in this house have involved full power without outages, fully stocked larder and freezers, and a two foot fall.
When I was younger, I used to prefer fall afternoons, with that weird half-light you get as you’re going to dark, to any other kind of weather or season.
When I imagined myself grown up and out in the world, it was always walking through weather like that.
That’s where the fantasy of the purple cashmere sweater and the tweed skirt came in.
These days I tend to prefer spring.
The question now, of course, becomes what to read.
I finished a book last night–What Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullan–and haven’t really gotten started on another one.
That can always be a difficult problem, but at the moment there are considerations other than the usual.
For one thing, I’ve had to reject a Perry Miller intellectual history because the type is so small, I won’t be able to see it without artificial light.
A friend of mine recently gave me my first e-reader, which is now filled with absolutely wonderful stuff you can get for free–I don’t know who thought that up, but bless him. Or her. Or it, if it was a bot–but e-readers have batteries that need to be charged.
Granted, those batteries seem to have really long lives, but still.
I’m looking for something I can read in the daytime if the electricity goes out, and that won’t run out of batteries when I can’t get the batteries recharged.
I am definitely one of those people who wants better safe when I’ve got a situation.
The wind is picking up, so I think I’m going to publish this and go back to watching the weather news obsessively.
The current projections have this thing hitting the coast at just around Atlantic City, which ought to provide fodder for a few sermons in New Jersey come Sunday morning.
So here it is, late October.
Tomorrow evening will mark one year to the day since the freak snow storm since the freak snow storm that knocked out the power to most of Connecticut for the following seven to nine days.
This was, to put it simply, Not Fun.
It was, in fact, barely bearable. The people next to us one down on this road had a generator. It burned out and became inoperable on Day 5.
A friend e mailed to tell me that people in his area are stripping the local Target bare, and that when this is all over and turns out to be nothing, they’ll bring everything back. Most of it will be tossed and wasted.
The bring it all back thing isn’t usual where I am, at least not that I’ve ever seen, but of course everybody is indeed buying out all the grocery stores.
Most of the people who live around me are rural New England working class, and the people who live around my friend are mostly educated upper middle class, but I don’t think it has anything to do with class.
The strip the grocery stores bare thing is traditional in New England with just about everybody. All we need is the news that a nor’easter is coming, and there we are, hitting the grocery stores and buying them out of…
I am not making this up.
What New Englanders buy when a storm is coming is potato chips. Some people buy standard Lays and Wise and Utz. Some people buy fancy organic wholly natural artisan whatever.
One way or the other, we all buy potato chips.
I have no idea why this is so. New England is the region of the US that buys the most potato chips overall, even without a storm. It’s also the region of the US that buys the most chocolate.
It’s an interesting menu choice, if you think about it.
I’ve got bottled water, but of the kind I usually like to take to class, so if this is a bust–and, please, let this be a bust–I’ll just use it over time.
But this post is about the possibility that there will indeed be a storm, and a storm whose effects are just as bad as last time.
That was the storm that derailed my long series on education when it was only about half done, and it isn’t done yet.
For all I know, this one will derail something else.
I hope not–but I can’t tell.
In the meantime, I’m trying to get as much done on this computer as I can.
If I suddenly disappear for a while, you’ll know why.
So–I got my midterm grades in, and all my correcting done, and even a few things done around the house, in the middle of a crisis where a pipe that goes from my house to the water main exploded and it was apparently all my fault.
It was one of those things where, if I didn’t have very good friends, I would have been sunk completely.
It also gave rise to the speculation that there are some people for whom “cut off your nose to spite your face” is a philosophy of life.
But to explain that, I’d have to go into local government out here, and I’m not ready to do that at this hour of the morning.
Let me get back, instead, to Jane Austen. To recap something I probably said last time: a friend sent me a book, from an English publisher, called What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan.
And the book opened by referencing Mansfield Park, which was a novel I’d never read.
It turned out that Persuasion was also a novel I’d never read, because I’d confused it with Sandition, which is the novel Austen left unfinished at her death, and that other people keep trying to complete.
I’d been avoiding that one for years, except I’d gotten the titles mixed up. So now I will, when I’m finished with the What Matters book, read that one.
But in the meantime, I have finished Mansfield Park, and I have a few notes.
SPOILER ALERT–there are LOTS of spoilers here.
1) First is the simple fact that this is the only novel I’ve ever read by Jane Austen that is bad as a novel.
It’s not bad in the way, say, The Da Vinci Code is bad. This is Jane Austen. She writes well.
But structurally, this novel is a mess.
Not only is there far too much tell rather than show, but there are long stretches when she just narrates what’s supposed to have happened without dramatizing it at all.
And in the last chapter, she just lays out everything else that’s supposed to happen over the course of years in one long expository sweep.
There’s nothing wrong with that if the writer is just giving you the postscript to the action of the novel. In fact, that kind of thing can be fun.
What happens here, however, is a sort of rapid-fire tell-and-get-it-over-with of what should be main actions in the novel as it has been set up to that point.
It’s almost as if she just lost interest in what she was writing.
Except not, exactly, because–
2) This is a book by a woman who has absolutely lost all patience.
Austen never did have a rosy view of human nature, but in Mansfield Park, she seems to have consigned the vast majority of the human race to a writhing mass of selfishness and malevolence.
And I do mean malevolence.
This book contains a character who is by far the single most evil human being in any Jane Austen novel I’ve read so far, and one of the top five evil characters in all of fiction in English.
The extent of Mrs. Norris’s envy, spite and corruption is truly breathtaking, and it’s all the more effective because what’s actually going on creeps up on you only gradually.
I’ve always said that real evil is always expressed in the small things–that what we have to watch out for is not Hitler, but the Nurse Ratcheds and Delores Umbrages on the domestic front, and here you’ve got her in spades.
Before this, I would have said that Austen wasn’t capable of writing a character this spiritually ugly, but here she is.
3) And, to go along with that, there are the sharpest of all of Austen’s commentary on social class.
And she’s not a sentimentalist. Harriet, Emma’s protege and improvement project in Emma, is a decent and wholesome person on her own terms. The Prices are not that at all, and the life they lead and the feelings they express are pretty much just dumped on the table and declared unacceptable for any human being.
This is not the usual thing in Austen. She critiques the well-off and objectionable, but she usually accepts the impoverished on their own terms.
This is something else, and it’s difficult to see where it’s coming from if you know anything about Austen’s usually take on this kind of thing.
4) But Austen’s usual take isn’t much visible anywhere.
Take our erstwhile heroine, Fanny Price.
Austen’s heroines tend to be young and spirited–wrongheaded, a lot of the time, and foolish, but with good strong backbones.
Fanny Price is a doormat.
She is, in fact, a Patient Griselda–when she’s abused, ignored, neglected and oppressed, she doesn’t rail back, even internally.
She just tells herself that this is what she deserves.
The only sign we have that there may be more to her than a whimpering little ball of nerves, depression, and pathologically low self esteem comes when she refuses to marry a man her relations try to push on her and whom she does not love.
This would be a larger consideration if it wasn’t for the fact that, by the end, she is almost persuaded anyway, and only escapes because the man is just as much of a moral cesspool as she thinks he is, and in the middle of wooing Fanny runs off with her married cousin.
It is very difficult to sympathize with a character who cannot stand up for herself, and who spends her time telling herself that she is not only m iserable, but that she deserves to be miserable.
It is even more annoying to get the impression from the narrative that it is this very dishrag quality that we are supposed to admire her for, that constitutes her greatest virtue.
Austen usually knew better than that.
The contrast between this character and Austen’s usual heroines is made all the stronger by the appearance at the end of the book of Fanny’s younger sister Susan, who looks as if she could hold her own with Eleanor Dashwood or Elizabeth Bennet or Emma.
Fanny most certainly cannot.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t “like” this book, because I did.
It may not be what I’d call an actual novel is structure or form, but it was interesting as hell, precisely because in it Austen seemed to have lost all patience (see above).
It’s possible to see, in that, something of Austen’s wider moral understanding that is present in all the other novels, but not nearly so clear.
It also leaves me wondering what was going on in Austen’s life, and mind, that could bring her to this.
So here’s the thing.
Right now, I’m supposed to be in the other room, correcting papers.
It’s midterms, and that means I have literally hordes of panicked students convinced that their midterm grade is going to be an F because they haven’t handed in–well, a lot of stuff, actually.
Because they’re always late with stuff.
But just as I was about to get up from the computer after getting some work done and answering the more important of my e-mail, I found that I just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t face going out there and wading through yet more examples of –well, I’d say you’d really have to see this stuff, except I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
So, just a couple of notes here, until I can write something coherent.
One of the things I have read over the last week has been the newest P.D. James, Death Comes To Pemberley.
It is supposed to be a sequel of sorts to Pride and Prejudice, in which Lydia Bennet’s husband is accused of the murder of his friend.
I won’t put in a lot of spoilers here, because other people also like P.D. James, and I don’t think the paperback is even out yet.
But I will say this:
1) It’s a good book, as a book. It’s P.D. James. Of course it’s a good book as a book. I wish I could write this well. I hope I’ll be able to write at all when I get to her age. I hope I get to her age with my mind that thoroughly intact.
2) It is not a particularly good mystery. The ending is too abrupt and too mechanistic, and the solution is not arrived at by detection. Which is odd, because if there is anything beside great prose that James is good at, it’s the detection.
3) It is not Jane Austen.
I’m not saying, by that, that the book is bad. And James is very good at not inserting anachromisms into the story, like liberated women or characters with twenty first century ideas about things like gay rights or the oppression of subject peoples.
But although I’m thoroughly convinced that James is as much a lover of Austen as I am, the sensibility is just wrong.
Part of the problem–which isn’t a problem, if you’re not trying to read this as Austen reborn–is that the book is written with the emphasis overwhelmingly on the male characters.
I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before, but Austen herself puts the weight of action, point of view and ideas on her female characters almost always.
And that is especially true of Pride and Prejudice, where the focus is on the Bennet girls and especially on Elizabeth.
Perhaps that was deliberate, but for me it felt as if the book wasn’t a sequel at all, but something entirely separate–and, I don’t know, not quite nineteenth century.
I enjoyed reading it, and you will probably enjoy reading it too, but it’s not really the sequel it was designed to be.
And now, if I don’t go and do those papers, I’m going to still be doing them when we get to dinnertime.
And I’m going to be a very unhappy person.
It’s a teaching day, so I’m not really writing this.
But–please note, there were TWO PARTS to my fundamental option statement.
Every human being is infinitely valuable, AND THEREFORE no human being can be treated as a means and not as an end in himself.
That second part will eliminate most of the things JD and Robert are worried about.
It has been quite a week around here–mostly because of my own stupidity, but there it is.
The first thing that happened was that bruised and tore the hell out of my right index finger.
This was entirely unnecessary. There is, on the second floor of my house, a door whose doorknob mechanism went to pieces. We therefore removed the doornob mechanism and put it into a plastic freezer bag so that we could take it out to a hardware store somewhere and buy a replacement.
In the meantime, there was a little metal hole where the knob was supposed to be. It was fairly easy to open and close the door by putting your right index finger into the tip of the metal hole and pulling it gently.
What I did was put the entire finger up to the first joint and pulled it hard.
My finger therefore caught in the hole as the door swung violently back and forth, and by the time I got it out, it was torn, bleeding and very bruised.
This was not fun.
The next thing that happened was not so violent.
The only jewelry I wear is a chain around my neck that contains, among other things, a star charm and a heart charm.
Bill and Matt picked out the star for me as a Christmas present when Matt was not quite three.
Bill and Greg picked out the heart for me the Christmas before the October Bill died.
One day a few days ago I was fiddling with it and suddenly realized the heart was gone.
I then went tearing all over hell and gone, trying to find the thing. It was late in the afternoon, and I had been in to teach, and I knew it could have dropped off anywhere.
So I took off the chain and the star and put them in a safe place.
And then, when I went up to bed, I was walking into my room when I suddenly saw a glint, and there it was, sitting right on top of the quilt.
And that was good, of course, but it left me wondering just how far out of it I was when I woke up in the morning and before I had any caffeine.
Because it was right there, right in the middle of everything.
It’s not a large charm, but it’s gold and very shiny. And the lamp lit it up in the dark like you wouldn’t believe.
And I had apparently managed to make my bed, step back to look it over as always, and just not notice it.
After that, things sort of went from bad to worse, including tax stuff and a royal case of food poisoning.
And that ended me up here, with the first decent night’s sleep I’ve had in days.
Of course, I have had the first decent night’s sleep in days, so I can actually talk about stuff.
Let me get to Michael’s comment that if I’m watching people justify, say, genocide by using critical thinking, then I must be observing people doing critical thinking wrong.
Is that true? Can people use critical thinking to justify genocide only do it if they are “doing critical thinking wrong”?
Critical thinking does require you to test your assumptions and presumptions but it can only do that by asking you to test them against some standard or another.
It can also ask you to test the standard, but there’s where you hit a brick wall.
Critical thinking can legitimate or delegitimate any standard.
I can test and accept “the greatest good for the greatest number” as a standard by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of moral action, but I can test and reject it as well.
And that is true for any standard anybody might name.
In the end, critical thinking is a hammer. I can use it to build a dog house. I can also use it to bash somebody’s skull in.
Which of these I choose to do will be justified–or not–by critical thinking depending on my underlying moral and existential commitments, and those have to be chosen.
I can use critical thinking to show that genocide will hurt many people, ruin the local economy, restrict and even regress culture, and turn my country into a police state–
But none of those outcomes proves that genocide is something I shouldn’t do, EXCEPT in a case where I have ALREADY decided that those outcomes are so greatly evil that they could not under any circumstances be the lesser evil to another outcome, or not evil at all.
And I can show you a whole raft of people “doing” critical thinking right, who have justified things I would consider equally as awful, if not worse.
There’s Peter Singer’s thing about “post birth abortion,” which is argued on impeccable utilitarian grounds, and which can only be opposed by rejecting the argument’s underlying assumption: that human beings are things to be disposed of for the use and benefit of other people, if those other people are both significantly numerous and believe that such disposing will (as Singer puts it) significantly improve their quality of life.
And before you tell me that no correctly executed process of critical thinking could get you there, I’d like to point out that somebody once argued to me, on an Internet forum, in favor of China’s one child policy, including its forced abortions, because the evils of overpopulation would hurt many more people and be far worse.
The Catholics have, in this case, a jump on the terminology–they often do.
They call it a “fundamental option.”
What they mean by that is your first and original moral commitment, the rock on which all the rest of your thinking will stand.
All of us have to have one. None of us can do without it.
And critical thinking will not get us there.
My particular fundamental option is that every single human being in the world–old or young, sick or well, of any race, of any creed, of any level of ability and even of any course of behavior–is infinitely valuable in and of him or herself.
And from that I can use critical thinking to get me to the position that human beings always be treated as ends in themselves and never as the means to the ends of others.
But critical thinking cannot tell me that my fundamental option is the one I SHOULD adopt.
It can only tell me what the consequences of my taking that option would be.
So, my regime is going along fine–I really can edit to music, and this morning I had Paganini’s Violin Concerto for Orchestra Number 1 and Number 2.
They’re together on a single CD, and I haven’t listened to it very often. But it’s very nice indeed.
In the meantime, I’ ve been looking over something else. JD sent me an e-mail about it a few days ago, and one of my sisters in law has been posting about it on FB, but I’d actually been watching the issue for a while.
To explain: Congress has now mandated a whole new slew of rules for cafeterias in public schools, including how many calories (850, I think) can be included in a school lunch, what proportion of that lunch must be vegetables and other “healthy” foods (like whole wheat bread over white).
And agency regulations now forbid schools from selling the usual cookies and cupcakes at school bake sales.
Now, granted, these rules only apply to schools that get federal money for their cafeteria programs. But these days, almost all schools get federal money for their cafeteria programs.
So, at the start of the school year, almost every public school in the country was forced to reconfigure its cafeteria offerings to fit the new regulations.
Almost anybody with half a brain in his head–and not brainwashed by Scientific Management–could figure out what happened next, but let’s go over it anyway.
The first of the trouble came from the midwestern farm states. 850 calories may seem like a not–it’s probably more than I eat for lunch–but in the farm states there are farms. And the rise of agribusiness notwithstanding, there are family farms, on which the children of the house work.
What happens in these families is that the kids get up at four in the morning, run around doing manual-labor-intensive chores like feeding animals and milking cows, for two or three hours before they leave for school.
Then they go to school and do a full day’s academic work. Then a lot of them stay late for athletic practices.
And half these kids are adolescent males, so their bodies are already in metabolic overload.
850 calories isn’t going to cut it. A male adolescent doing all this physical work can easily burn up 5000 calories or more a day.
At the beginning of the year, some of the guys tried it. A couple of them passed out at practice. The bureaucracy still refused to budge. So the kids stopped buying lunch at school, significantly decreasing the income the school can count on from the cafeteria and endangering free lunch programs for poor kids because the money is drying up.
The next trouble–and the trouble these people should have anticipated–occurred in inner city schools with large populations of poor kids on free lunch programs.
For these kids, the problem wasn’t the number of calories, but the taste of the food, which was generally agreed to be awful.
Awful or not, the kids are not allowed to refuse the “healthy choices.” So they take the whole wheat roll and the vegetables, and then they just throw them out.
And most of these kids cannot bring food from home as a substitute. That’s why they’re in the free lunch/subsidized lunch program.
So when these kids go back to class after lunch, they’re hungry. They’re sometimes very, very hungry.
The theory is that eventually, they’ll get so hungry they’ll eat the stuff anyway–but it’s been almost two months now, and that isn’t happening yet.
In more affluent areas, the kids are voting with their feet–bringing their lunches from home–and launching Facebook and Twitter campaigns to boycott the school cafeterias until they return to providing decent food.
The whole campaign smacks of Scientific Management at its most arrogant. There is the complaint by “experts,” for instance, that the problem with McDonald’s and other fast foot, and also most “unhealthy choices,” is that they’re “highly palatable.”
Do you know what that means.
It means they taste good.
Scientific Management must always translate plain English into something more “expert” sounding, because if it doesn’t, you’ll know what it means.
But the entire “obesity epidemic” is a Scientific Management project.
Yes, people are getting fatter–but people all over the world are getting fatter, and so, oddly enough, are lots of the animals.
Nobody knows why, no matter what they say or how authoritative they sound when they say it.
Nor are we really sure that this is a substantive problem. We have so ingrained in ourselves the idea that obesity is an “epidemic” that is causing numerous health problems that will cost our medical system gazillions of dollars that we don’t stop to question any of the assertions.
A couple of months ago, nearly every news outlet in the US reported on a report by, I think, the OMB that said that obesity would cost us lots of money in the future.
The problem with that?
That wasn’t what the report said. In fact, it said the opposite–that obesity would not have much of an impact at all on health care costs going forward.
There were a few corrections stuck on back pages and in minor media, but I’ve never seen a major media correction and newscasters and journalists continue to sight this study as if they still believed the misreporting was true.
They probably do. One of the main symptoms of the Scientific Management culture is that its acolytes must believe any dogma it proposes with the tenacity of religious fanatics.
After all, they are religious fanatics.
Scientific Management just gives them the opportunity to proclaim religious dogma at the same time they congratulate themselves on how rational they are, and how they accept science instead of falling for all that religious mumbo jumbo the Sheeple indulge in.
In the end, the “obesity epidemic” is two things.
First, it is an occasion when the Scientific Management people can extend the reach of coercive bureaucracy into an extremely intimate and individual part of our lives–after all, it’s going to cost us all this money! we’re all going to die!
Right to privacy? Here’s a fundamental principle of the right to privacy–the government shouldn’t even be able to ASK what I or my children weigh, never mind trying to regulate what we eat.
But the other thing this is is the foundation of the entire Scientific Management movement.
It is the drive to impose “educated upper middle class” everything on the rest of the country, whether they like it or not.
It is an issue of class, not of science, and not of medicine.
And it makes people really angry, as it should.
Let’s try this again.
When people hear Democrats call for more regulation, they don’t think of the banks.
They think of this.
When people vote in favor of candidates who want to reduce regulation, they don’t think of the banks.
They think of this.
So maybe they’re not clinging to God and guns, or voting against their best interests when they vote Republican.
Maybe they’re voting against this.
Maybe, if you understood this, you could find a way to get them to vote for you.
I have to correct papers.
I’m in a very bad mood.
First, I’d like to apologize that the comments function was turned off for most of yesterday on yesterday’s post. If that happens again and you want to comment, e mail me and I’ll fix it. It’s very easy to fix.
And if I ever don’t want to take comments, I’ll say so in my post.
That said, I had one of those epiphanies I get sometimes when I’m not sleeping a lot.
It hit me a couple of hours after I’d published the post, and before Robert’s comments about moral training, but the two things are connected.
So, to start–no, I don’t want colleges and universities to provide “moral training,” at least not directly.
I want them to provide intellectual training in the context of an immersion in the Western tradition.
That does not mean that there should be nothing about other traditions in the curriculum. One constituent part of the Western tradition is a curiosity about and respect for other tradtions.
But the Western tradition is a particular moral universe. An immersion in that universe is in itself a kind of moral training.
But–and this is what struck me–the problem with “scientific management” (which seems to be the actual term for “the bureaucratization of everything”) and with “critical thinking” (which is its most common stated goal in education) is that both things are by their own definitions amoral.
“Scientific management” can be used to manage anything, and the closest it gets to asking whether it should be managing something is its call to consult “the culture” in affirming “values” of the institution or population it is managing.
But “values” can be anything. Gertrude Himmelfarb was right when she pointed out that “values” and “morals” are not the same thing.
Values are relative. They can vary from place to place. Morals are objective. To say something is “moral” or “immoral” is to say that there is, somewhere, an objective measure of conduct that is true at all times and for all people.
What that means is that “scientific management” will work in the same way when applied to running the Department of Health and Human Services, or the Bank of America, or the University of Michigan, or Auschwitz.
And nothing in “scientific management” can tell us that we shouldn’t be running Auschwitz.
“Critical thinking” has the same problem.
“Critical thinking” is a process–it has no content of its own.
In spite of the tendency for many people to think that “critical thinking” will automatically drive people to agree with them–after all, what they believe is true, and other points of view are false–the process always follows the logic of the stated and unstated assumptions without which it could not operate at all.
That is why “critical thinking” can be used to support legal abortion and oppose it, to support the death penalty and oppose it–and to support “post birth abortion” as well as to oppose it.
The results of “critical thinking” will differ vastly depending on things like the way the thinker defines the word “human” and the hierarchy of priorities that thinker brings to the discussion.
These are questions that ought to be addressed first, but nothing in “critical thinking” can answer them.
We can “think critically” about exterminating the Jews just as easily as we can “think critically” about providing every child in America enough food to never go hungry.
And “critical thinking” will not help us to know that one of those goals is a good thing and the other is unacceptable everywhere and always.
“Critical thinking” is, I think, the perfect goal for a society run increasingly on the lines of “scientific management,” a bureaucratized world where democracy and the claims of a common humanity have been jetisoned for rule by experts whose only claim to expertise is that they know how to manipulate a process that is all mechanics and no conviction.
I don’t mean to say here that I don’t want my students to be able to think logically and coherently and to approach everything they read and hear with a healthy skepticism.
But those are tools to be applied to content in the context of a moral universe, and the moral universe in which those students live is of more importance, in the long run, than the tools.
If the kid lacks the tool, we can teach it to him. If he lacks the moral universe, he’s a danger to himself and others.
So, yes. I don’t want universities to teach morality. I want universities to teach the Western tradition, which is a moral universe of its own.
And yes, I do know that that tradition has offshoots that go in various directions.
But almost all the offshoots we don’t like–Hitler, Stalin, Peter Singer–require that we first reject parts of that tradition.
It would also help if we studied those rejections, and why they exist and what they mean.
But first–the literature, the art, the music, the history, the hard sciences and the scientific method.
Aside from providing an implicit critique of the offshoots, they will provide a more than implicit critique of “scientific management.”
In a way, this week-end is just like every other week-end for me. I don’t teach on Mondays or Tuesdays, so I always have a four day week end. I write every single day of the week, so I always have no week-end at all.
Even so, it always feels sort of wrong to me when these Mondays come up on which there is no mail, no UPS delivery, and no access to an honest to God person at the bank.
So I’m feeling a little floaty.
But in the downtime I’ve also been reading a book. It’s called Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, by Gaye Tuchman. Cathy F recommended it to me. And it purports to be the study of a public university attempting to make it into the top tier of university rankings both inUS News and World Report and on other measures.
Let me start by saying that, if you decide to read this book, you’re going to find some things that are absolutely annoying.
The chief among these things is the constant, reflexive resort to social science jargon that sometimes has to be consciously unravelled to figure out what the writer is getting at.
It is not, however, overwhelming, and the book is readable if a bit–stiff might be the word for it.
The other is a tic created by the writer’s commitment to preserve the annonymity of Wannabe U. Every once in a while this results in her presenting an incident with all the proper names left out, in a situation in which it would not be difficult for the common reader to know who those proper names belong to.
One of these reports concerned the bad publicity that resulted from the attacks of liberal students on a visiting conservative speaker. Tuchman is careful to say–more than once–that these students had been “provoked” by something the speaker said, and that no word of that provocation had appeared in the news reports of the incident.
Of course, no direct report of that provocation appears in the book, either. If it did, you could probably look it up on the Internet.
The problem is that without a report of what the speaker said to provoke the students, and without a report on exactly what the students did, there is no way to judge whether the bad publicity was deserved or not.
But what’s even worse is that I can almost guarantee that I know who the speaker was, and probably what she said, and probably the general range of things the students did in response–because Ann Coulter is making a career out of this kind of thing.
The entire twisted attempt at anonymity seemed almost precious.
But the big problem with this book is something else, and I’ll get to it.
First, let me give you the good news.
This thing does a beautiful job of describing the operation, in one place, of what I sometimes call here “the bureaucratization of everything” or the “professionalization of everything.”
The huge administrative staffs. The constant attempts to beat everything into conformity with a centralized idea. The falling real skills and knowledge of students accompanied by lots of charts, graphs and procedures showing that the university is actually getting better “student outcomes.”
Unfortunately, Tuchman is so convinced–and was convinced before she started her study–that this is the result of the “corporatization” of the university that she can’t see what’s actually happening around her.
For one thing, it makes her unaware that the trends she is seeing in Wannabe U occur even in community colleges and liberal arts colleges where faculty members don’t do research that opens up “revenue streams” from things like patents and corporate “public-private partnerships.
For another, she is constantly ascribing to “business” jargon and processes that did not originate with business, but were adopted by business in response to…other things.
I’ll get to the other things in a minute.
But to give you an example: “best practices” is not a concept that originated in corporations. It originated in the social sciences and, more specifically, in the practical arm of the social sciences, like counseling and social work.
And this is, quite frankly, too bad. She has the material here to do a very good overview study of the Bureaucratization of Everything, and instead she spends too much of her time tripping over her own research.
And she knows it, too. Some people, she tells us, think that the real cause of all this bureaucratization lies in other things and not business. Then she draws back and pretends she hasn’t set it.
Then she gets to Chapter 6, and there’s no way to get completely out from under the obvious.
Chapter 6 is entitled “Teaching, Learning and Rating,” and it’s where we find out that almost all the bureaucratization is the result of Wannabe U’s attempts to comply with a cascade of regulations and reporting requirements from federal (and sometimes state) agencies.
And no. In case you’re wondering, Republican administrations are not “deregulating” higher education any more than Democratic administrations are.
This chapter was an absolute gold mine of information for me personally, because it explained the genesis and evolution of some things that had me beating my head against the wall while teaching in an institution that is not a research university and where nobody is even thinking about increasing their ratings in US News and World Report or forming partnerships of any kind with corporations.
Let’s take my particular bete noir–“student outcomes assessment.”
There are two things wrong with “student outcomes assessments” as they exist on college campuses at the present moment.
The first I’ll pass over–and that is that I don’t know how anybody could measure the “outcomes” I think are most important for a student. How do I measure if my students have a more finely honed moral sense and a deeper commitment to living morally and honorably in the world? How do I measure their openness to new ideas, or their commitment to the (Western) culture that gave them birth?
The best I could do about these things is to measure whether the students know a particular set of facts, or if they could produce a coherent short essay.
And that matters because, in a regime in which we demand measurement of everything, we tend to devalue or dismiss what cannot be measured.
So the introduction of what Tuchman calls “an audit and accountability regime” will, in the long run, destroy the core purpose of the university.
But here’s the more immediate problem.
Too many of the bureaucratized systems for auditing faculty and student behavior, the giving of grants and the promotion of faculty, and all the rest of it–do not do what they are claiming to do.
In fact, they so consistently do not do what they are claiming to do, I am beginning to get the impression that not doing is the point.
The government requires not that you do X, but that you be seen to be doing X.
Therefore, instead of doing anything to solve whatever the problem is, you “put in place” “procedures” that talk a lot about how they’re redressing the problem, and give a good appearance of activity, but don’t get anything done.
The reason for this is simple. If you actually fix the problem but do it in a way that does not demonstrate your process to fix the problem, you’re in trouble, because you will be assumed to not have fixed the problem.
If you don’t fix the problem but present all your processes, mission statements, vision states and formalized “outcomes,” you’re golden. The feds will send you more money, and they won’t fine you millions of dollars for being “not in compliance” with federal regulations.
It works the same way on the state level.
So. Student outcomes assessments.
First, it’s important to know that the whole fad for SOA originated not with business, or corporations. It originated in Margaret Spelling’s Department of Education, which insisted on a version of No Child Left Behind for colleges and universities.
Suddenly, every college and university was required–on pain of losing federal money, both direct and indirect through student loans and Pell Grants–to produce a list of “outcomes” students were expected to take away from each course.
I don’t know how many of you have ever seen one of these lists, but they range between not bad to highly jargon-ridden, and “rationalized” to the point of absurdity.
Here’s a good one, from a course at a place I don’t teach anymore:
In order to complete the course with a grade of “C” or better you must:
1) compose a minimum of 6,000 words (24 pages) of typed, revised, and edited prose.
2) produce drafts evidencing a variety of prewriting techniques
3) develop a main idea expressed in a thesis statement
4) support a main idea with specific details
5) use a variety of rhetorical patterns
6) organize ideas with attention to transitions
7) support thesis with logical thinking and sources
8) improve drafts with substantial editing and revision
9) incorporate appropriate diction, sentence variety, grammar and mechanics
10) select, synthesize, and accurately document sources
11) show evidence of library and electronic research techniques
I’m putting up a good one because there is nothing unreasonable about that set of requirements, and there is no reason we couldn’t actually measure them.
And I picked a composition course, because what we expect students to learn from such a course is, in fact, measurable.
So what am I complaining about?
I’m complaining about the fact that even when we have a course whose content and purpose are actually measurable, we don’t measure it.
Instead, we introduce all kinds of faux-accountability procedures whose primary purpose is to show accrediting and state/federal auditing agencies that We Are Doing What They Ask.
This does not require actually doing it.
So, for composition, we often have “exit exams” meant to assess whether students have met measurable outcomes, but the exams are designed in a way–holistic grading, for instance–that they cannot determine any such thing.
And it doesn’t matter.
None of the bureaucracies involved–and that includes the ones within the universities themselves–care if students are actually learning anything.
They only care that all the procedures have been followed so that the evidence of that can be presented if there’s ever any trouble.
And this sort of thing holds for all sorts of other “outcomes” demanded by agencies–the federal government demands that colleges and universities receiving federal money “do something” both about “diversity” and about the abysmal retention rates of affirmative action admits.
The universities respond by setting up offices of affirmative action and offices of “student success,” which do lots of publicly active things–a course in the first year experience! tutoring services! outreach and recruitment in schools with large numbers of “underrepresented minorities”–that don’t do much of anything except show the agencies that the university is “in compliance.”
And, as always, bureaucracies beget bureaucracies and bureaucracies get bigger.
At one point, the administration of Wannabe U was forced to hire thirty people–thirty people–to make sure it was “in compliance’ with federal reporting regulations about federal research grants.
What gets most frustrating to me at the end of the day is that there really are ways to measure some of the outcomes we want to measure.
But actally getting anybody to do that would require one of two things:
1) colleges and universities giving up all that federal money
2) an end to privileging schools, colleges and universities by assuming that they’re doing what the say they’re doing, and putting in place outside assessment institutions that allowed everybody and anybody to test, whether they’d been “to school” or not.
In the event of 2, you’d be certified as a “college graduate” if you passed the tests, whether an actual university allowed you to walk in May or not.
I’m tangling up here.
I always get to the end of these things thinking I’m making no sense.
So, I’m sitting here, having done my work for the day to the sound of Handel’s Water Music, and I’m looking at news sites. I’m always looking at news sites. I’m a complete news junkie. It’s why my periodic declamations about giving up cable never go on for very long.
Today is what is known as a “slow news day,” meaning there’s not much of any news to speak of.
Or at least there doesn’t seem to be. I am increasingly suspicious of slow news days in the US, because I keep catching real news I haven’t heard about on CNN. For instance–a while ago, there were riots, vandalism and looting against Japanese companies operating in China, and against their employees, and against Japanese goods.
If the events had occurred in someplace like France, they would be meaningless. But you know and I know that nothing of that kind would go on for weeks in China if it didn’t have implicit government backing.
And that says something, to me, about just how secure China’s rulers are in their ability to hold the country.
And if China’s rulers are not secure in their ability to hold the country, that has some interesting long term implications.
But the news here today is full of the upcoming debate, and nearly hysterical in tone. Obama could ruin his chance of re-election in this one debate alone! Will Mitt Romney save his train wreck of a campaign?
The hysteria is in inverse proportion to the substantive interest of the debates in question.
In reality, nothing actually goes on in American Presidential debates, and less than nothing is going to go on in this one.
In the first place, as always, there will not be debates, but mutually assured advertising sessions, where the candidates will say the same things they have been saying for months, if not years, now. And no one will call them on it.
But there’s something else this year, and that is the fact that not only will the debates not determine the outcome of the election, the outcome of the election was determined so long ago that the whole thing has come to take on a feeling of deja vu. Didn’t we already do this? Wasn’t this already over?
The simple fact of the matter is this: the Republicans lost this election when they nominated Mitt Romney.
The left was wrong. The Tea Party and the Evangelical right were never being hoodwinked by the capitalists to voting against their own (financial) interests.
They were just making compromises until they could put themselves in a position to get what they actually wanted, and after Romney, they will get it.
Mitt Romney is the last gasp of the old Establishment Right. There were never that many of them to begin with, and after Romney they will cease to matter except in the sense that they’ll still have enough money to insure that the regulatory state saves them from real competition.
For what it’s worth, Rick Santorum comes a lot closer to what the Tea Party wants than Romney does, but he couldn’t win this election either. He may very well win another election down the line somewhere–I think it’s going to matter that he is, almost uniquely in the last 50 years, a politician willing to lose elections rather than compromise his principles–but for this election he was just too new and too scary.
I wrote a post a little while ago saying that this felt to me like a fake election, something that wasn’t really happening.
I’ll stick with that. This isn’t really an election. It is virtually contentless, in spite of what should be real substantive issues to be debated and decided.
All this is is a bookmark between Now and Then.
The media is hysterical because it’s desperately trying to get people to watch the debates they’ve spent so much money producing.
The rest of us are hysterical because none of us, on any of the three available sides, is confident that the Then will reflect what we believe.
I’d better go do some serious work.