Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Tolerable Malfeasance

with 4 comments

At least, that’s how I think you spell it.  I tried to look it up this morning, and either I’m a genius, or spell check hates me.

At any rate, Barack Obama has been elected president, and I spent yesterday walking into walls from lack of sleep, because I still had to get up at three thirty in the morning if I was going to get any work done.  Which  I did, sort of.  After I did, I spent a lot of time going from one place to another looking for a copy of the New York Times.  I wanted one with The Headline on it, but so did everybody else, and everyplace I looked the copies were all gone.

I was feeling very unhappy about this, and determined to try at least two more places, when  I picked up my younger son at school and started to drive him homw.  That’s when it hit me.

One of the places I teach orders dozens of copies of the Times every single day and leaves them out and available in bins for anybody who wants to take them, for free.  On the two days a week I go up to this place, I don’t bother buying a paper–well, okay, usually I read the thing on line these days, but I don’t do that either on these days–I just pick one up on the way  into my classes.  And I never worry that there aren’t going to be enough left, because nobody ever seems to touch them.  My students come to class completely clueless about any current event-what’s affirmative action? one of them wanted to know the other day–and yet they could probably get half my references just by glancing over the front page of a newspaper they can have for free any time they wanted to pick it up.

So I took Greg and we went out to this place, and sure enough, there was a stack of brand-new, untouched copies of the Times still sitting in their bin inside the front door of the main classroom building.  It was a big stack, too.  It probably came up to my waste.  There had to be fifty of the things.  I took three:  one to read; one each for my sons to have to keep.   My father once went out and got me a special copy of the Times whose headline reported the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  I still have it.

All of this is leading up–or back–to the discussion about history a bit before, and that article I posted the link to a while back.   You remember the article.  It was the one about the term paper mill and the “dumb clients.”  I’ve been sending my kids to read it, and their responses to it have been interesting.

Almost without exception, my students think there is nothing ethically wrong with buying a term paper in a subject outside their major that they’re taking because of distribution requirements.  Why do they think that?  Because they think distribution requirements are nothing but a way for the university to make money off student tuition fees.  It’s not just that they don’t care if they learn the things they are supposed to be learning in English or history.   It’s that they think the university itself doesn’t care if they learn those things.   All that matters here, they’re sure, is that the university gets to rake in a little extra cash.

I asked them if they could think of any other reason why the university might want a marketing major to take English literature and a little science and math.   The only thing anybody could come up with was the suggestion that the college wanted to make sure students were “well rounded.”

I asked her what she meant by “well rounded.”  She thought it had something to do with knowing a little about everything, but she wasn’t sure.  She was sure that the whole exercise was pointless, which was why she couldn’t see anything wrong with buying a term paper for a course for a distribution requirement.

I don’t want to force anybody to take courses in the liberal arts–hard science, social science, humanities–because I don’t think that I have to.  Back in the time when professors of literature, history and philosophy knew why their subjects were important–and knew their subjects–there was no shortage of majors in the humanities.  In fact, right up until the early  1980s, English was the single most popular major on any university campus except the few (MIT, Caltech, RPI) that were primarily oriented to the hard sciences. 

What’s more, there’s apparently a healthy market for courses in literature, art history, philosophy, and the rest in the for-profit sector.  Companies like The Learning Company and The Great Courses sell DVD and audiotape lecture series by the boxful.  Somebody out there wants a systematic approach to understanding the development of the novel or the evolution of ethical thought in Western Civilization.

And the solution to the lack of people willing to major in literature, philosophy, history and classics is academic departments filled with people who once again know why their subject is important and why anybody would be better off knowing the basics of it.

At the moment, of course, we don’t know that.  The problem with what most students are asked to study in university humanities courses these days is that it isn’t the humanities.  Instead, it’s some weird hybrid exercise in self-agrandizement, and like most such exercises it results in a lot of idiots preening themselves about the loveliness of their plastic beads while leaving all the good gold jewelry untouched.

Okay, that was somsthing of a disaster of a sentence, but it is only five in the morning.

Somebody, I forget who–I think it was T.S. Eliot, but I’m not sure–said that most of the real trouble in the world was caused by people trying to be important, and that’s such a wonderful description of what has happened to university humanities departments that it ought to be carved into the stone over every college’s mock-Gothic gateway.

A student arriving at even our best college English departments will not get Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Pope–or, at least, he won’t get them in a way that might help him to understand them.  Instead, he’ll get one of two things, and possibly both:  a relentless and somewhat hysterical drive to ferret out depredations of gender, race and class in anything ever written; and a complicated set of “technical” terms meant to “unpack” the “meanings” of the “text” in such a way that nobody has the faintest idea what anybody has said, ever.

Once a year, they give a prize on the Internet for the worst writing by an academic, and that prize goes often to an academic named Judith Butler.  If you want to know why, you might go here:


It’s easy to piss and moan about writing like this, and to speculate that the writer hasn’t got the faintest idea what she’s saying, but the real problem here is more fundamental:  this is a woman who knows little or nothing about literature.  Reading Judith Butler on literature is like listening to a tone deaf person sing.  It’s not just that it’s bad, it’s that it misses the point so completely that it isn’t even music.

It’s not true that humanities departments are filled with nothing but people like this.   It’s an academic journal, run by and for people in humanities departments, that holds the bad writing context to begin with.  What is true is that too many of our “best” humanities departments are top heavy with people like this, so that any student wandeing in to find out what all the fuss is about  Plato or Herman Melville wanders out again with the distinct impression that the entire enterprise is bullshit.

And, what’s worse, such a student has no problem picking up the subtext here:  that the humanities aren’t really important in any way, that they’re useless, that getting a PhD in literature is an exercise in silly self-indulgence and reading Chaucer is on a par with playing videogames or watching sitcoms.  In fact, in a desperate attempt to get more students into the classroom, many English departments now offer courses in sitcoms.  Popular culture is still culture, after all, and who are you to say that sitcoms aren’t just as good a use of a student’s time as reading The Iliad?

There are a million conservative critiques of this sort of thing, of course, and even a few liberal ones, but they largely miss the broader picture.   What has happened to the college humanities departments is that they have absorbed the perennial problem of the high school humanities courses and, not knowing how to handle it, have panicked.

John Dewey believed that there were “rational” subjects (like science, an autoshop) and “emotional” subjects, like English and classics and art.   He thought teaching English and classics and art was important, mind you, but only because it would help the new rational citizen enjoy the leisure time the newly rational and scientific wold would provide him with.

I know, I know.  It’s hardly credible that I’m producing one more diatribe condemning Dewey and all his works, but the result of this particular bit of Deweyan educational philosophy is that our high schools now teach students that the only thing that matters about literature, art or–yes, even this–philosophy is whether they “like” it and whether it “interests” them.   is Paradise Lost good art or bad art?  The question is nonsensical.  The only thing that matters is whether it is good art or bad art for you.  Is abortion the murder of an innocent child or a case of self defense against an person draining your resources against your will?  Let’s sit down and figure out what your values are!

If  you don’t think these things are connected–the way we study literature and the way we make moral decisions–you haven’t been paying attention to the world you live in.  I started this blog by saying that literature creates a moral universe and makes us live in it.  It’s bigger than that, though.  Literature is the moral imagination of a culture.  It’s how we picture what it is we believe, and the content and atmosphere of that picture means more than a million Sunday sermons and sensitivity training sessions in deciding what kind of people we will be.

Right now, we seem to be a small people, a little people, ignorant, barbarous and cruel.

To quote one of my favorite movies, really out of context.

But I’ll get to that tomorrow. 

Right now, I have to go in to school and find out how many of my students who heard Obama’s victory speech got, say, the reference to the Gettysburg address.

What to make book on how many of them even knew it was a reference at all?

Written by janeh

November 6th, 2008 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Tolerable Malfeasance'

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  1. OK, this is really off topic, but it’s bothered me since I first realized how many (or, perhaps, how many more than I suspected, since I still don’t know how many) people don’t see anything wrong with cheating.

    Your students seem to approach the issue of buying papers as one of mere practicality – if there isn’t any real need for the information in the course they are taking, there’s no real need to learn it. I suspect that’s a fairly common view. I always (and still) believed that I was damaging myself, my character, by cheating – first, by the lying necessary in carrying it out and secondly by the deceit I’d carry throughout the rest of my life by having a claim on my transcript that I had studied X when I really only bought a term paper on X.

    Am I the only one who thinks this way? The rest of the world seems to be divided between people like Jane’s students (there’s nothing wrong with cheating, it’s not really even cheating, it’s just solving a problem (that of getting a credit) as efficiently as possible and people who claim that cheating hardly ever occurs, so there’s really no need to watch out for it (some of these people are teachers, or do stuff like invigilate exams)!


    6 Nov 08 at 8:03 am

  2. Hey, the Stewart Unwin who submitted one of the entries in the bad writing thingy is my God-son! What a wonderfully small world it is. :-)


    6 Nov 08 at 8:14 am

  3. A careful survey about 20 years ago revealed that the same person is elected President no matter how late I stay up. I now get a decent night’s sleep on election night.

    I skipped the newspapers. In 30 years, I’d be trying to explain what a “newspaper” was. Then I’d have to explain what the Washington POST was, and I’m not sure I believe that myself.

    The kids may have a point, though. Is it really unethical to give an extortionist counterfeit currency? A school with a core curriculum can legitimately claim that no one gets a degree from the place without learning certain things. “Distribution” requirements do tend to feel like a shakedown, and in the faculty lounge I NEVER heard a professor argue that the kids had to learn something–only that the Department was entitled to a share of the revenue.


    6 Nov 08 at 9:02 pm

  4. I never even thought about newspapers, partly at least because I’m trying to cut down on the sheer amount of stuff in my life and having longing thoughts about living convent-style with nothing but the bare minimum of possesions. This is largely due to having helped with someone else’s downsizing and move recently.

    I didn’t experience distribution requirements as a shakedown, even when I disagreed with them (I’d always heard the ‘well-rounded’ reason and had a lot of curiousity anyway), and my professors ranged from the good to the indifferent but the indifferent ones weren’t necessarily the ones teaching courses outside my main area.

    As a bit of a second thought, we didn’t use the term ‘distribution requirements’, and I’m assuming it simply means rules saying that you have to do so many courses in English Lit if you’re in science, and at least a special general science course if you’re in primary education etc etc.


    7 Nov 08 at 7:18 am

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