The Eggshell Student.

August 13, 2015

The Atlantic recently ran a thoughtful, very well-written piece by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in which they describe and trace the causes of a disease epidemic in American higher education: the development of thin-skinned students who expect coddling and protection from any perceived offense, no matter how slight (or imaginary) and who have become expert in escalating situations from misunderstanding to hate crime. The condition is unfortunately well-known to anybody graduating college in the last few decades: everybody seems eager to be offended by anything, and instead of honest self-analysis or even meaningful conversation they call for politically correct retribution, sometimes with frighteningly real consequences. Take the authors’ example:

“[I]n 2013, a student group at UCLA staged a sit-in during a class taught by Val Rust, an education professor… In the course of correcting his students’ grammar and spelling, Rust had noted that a student had wrongly capitalized the first letter of the word indigenous. Lowercasing the capital I was an insult to the student and her ideology, the group claimed.”

Careers have been ruined with this kind of nonsense.

The authors note the danger of accepting claims of offense at face value, absent any ability to objectively quantify (or even confirm the existence of) offense. “I’m offended” has become the trump card in any campus debate, immediately foreclosing debate (for fear of giving further offense) and requiring appeasement to the offended party – regardless of the intent behind (or even existence of) the offending act. Further, they point out nothing good can come of coddling hypersensitive, entitled students – they learn that brittle feelings are precious snowflakes to which sacrifice will be made by administrators fearful of litigation, and are thus unprepared upon graduation for anything resembling the real world or an adult relationship of any kind.

Were it not for the fact the rest of us have to put up with these people, that might be poetic justice. But as things stand, these student crusaders against offense are as dangerous as child monarchs – they have immense power and use it unreasonably upon the slightest provocation, recreating scenes better left in The Crucible. To their credit, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have both stopped performing on college campuses, citing the inability of students to take a joke.


Inequitable Distribution.

November 26, 2014

Back when news cycles revolved around Wall Street’s “occupation,” there rumbled some discontent over the inequality in pay between the employees of large companies and their management. MSN News rehashes this sometimes still. One perennial whipping boy is Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Doug McMillon, its President and Chief Executive Officer, earned $25.6 million in 2013; $23 million was paid in the form of stock options, such that Mr. McMillon’s actual take-home pay was $2.6 million. In contrast, the average Wal-Mart employee earns roughly $10.00 an hour.

Mr. McMillon began his career as an hourly associate in a Wal-Mart distribution center. He rejoined the company as assistant manager of a Tulsa, Oklahoma store while pursuing an MBA. He became a buyer trainee, then served in various leadership roles. He serves on the boards of directors of the Consumer Goods Forum, Enactus, and the Crystal Bridge Museum of American Art. He also serves on the advisory board of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China; the executive committee of Business Roundtable; and the Dean’s Advisory Board for the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He previously served on the boards of directors of the U.S. China Business Council and Walmart Mexico. He has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

It is true there is a great inequality in pay between corporate workers and management.

There is also a great inequality of ability.


U.com

October 2, 2014

The new thing in higher education (though antithetical to the term) is the online university. In short, lectures available online – no campus required. These things are educationally worthless, but economically promising. Here is why.

Most people learn almost nothing academically in college which is transferable to post-grad life. (This is untrue of those entering technical professions, for whom the basic foundations of a technical education – engineering, medicine, chemistry, etc. – are necessary.) For most, there is no connection between art history, Elizabethan drama, French grammar, or literary criticism and earning a living. To be sure, some pursue their dreams: an art history degree is useful to a museum curator. But how many art history majors work as museum curators? Probably fewer than become life insurance salesmen.

But academic education is not the only – or even most important – aim of college. The most important work is in social learning and life skills development. College students become relatively independent from the ages of 18 to 22, a developmentally important period during which they learn to manage time, complete projects without guidance, budget money, and generally learn to show up when and where required. They must navigate a campus far from home and live with strangers. They join clubs and teams and learn administrative skills. These things cannot be duplicated online. Nor can classroom discussion (Skype and chat rooms are incapable of reproducing the fervor and pace of in-person debate). Nor can the experience of belonging to a physical collegiate community – football games, dining halls, etc. The “cloud” is no substitute for the campus.

That said, entirely too many people attend college. This is likely the result of the GI bill, which provided veterans a path to universities, places previously reserved (in the days before widespread financial aid) for the wealthy. As a result of that World War II generation’s having earned diplomas in record numbers, citizens and businesses alike responded by requiring college educations of themselves and their employees. The result was a nation of employers requiring diplomas for jobs which do not require college education. Does the art history major, expert in the Old Masters, need that degree to sell life insurance? Clearly not.

This university mania made college a requirement of any job worth having, generating more and more applicants to universities every year, and the resulting tuition explosion that is the logical result of increasing demand for a limited commodity (seats in entering freshman classes).

The online course, while a poor substitute for the real thing, will provide a cheap way in which many people can earn a college degree. It will not confer the same education or developmental opportunities, but it will confer the same piece of paper (because, unfortunately, employers will still require that paper). In this way, those who would perform functions unrelated to any college education can cheaply earn the credentials necessary to perform those functions, hopefully reducing the demand for on-campus learning and generating an equivalent reduction in tuition for campus-based educations.


Dear Ferguson Rioter:

August 21, 2014

Dear Ferguson Rioter:

Congratulations on your choice of this time-honored means of expressing discontent while also obtaining expensive new  Nikes (for free!). The arch support will allow for sustained flatland sprints at speeds in excess of those obtainable by armor-encumbered riot cops. Clever. If standing your ground and fighting the man is more your style, loot something with stronger ankle support; New Balance cross-trainers or Asolo mountaineering boots. In any event, you’ve certainly shown outrage by helping yourself to other peoples’ property. The moral highroad, indeed.

You must be tired after a week of nightly looting; help yourself to Gatorade from the burned-down Quik Trip convenience store. The revolution relies on electrolytes. Hydration in the face of tyranny is more important to your community than the security of local businesses (and your neighbors’ houses).

If you find a free minute, maybe clarify the purpose of your riot. To express anger over the shooting death of Michael Brown? If so (and if there is a purpose to looting, other than opportunistic greed), what is the basis of that anger? That an unarmed black man was shot by a white policeman? Unless you know more than the rest of us, those three facts (the race of the decedent, the race of the policeman, and the lack of equal arms) seem sufficient by themselves to have driven you to a murderous rampage – to the extent that one of your number, when asked whether she would be satisfied with a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting and appropriate punishment, said “I will be satisfied when that cop is executed for murder.”

But are a black decedent and a white shooter synonymous with guilt? It seems so, in your mind. Never mind that the circumstances surrounding the shooting are almost entirely unknown – whether Mr. Brown attacked or threatened the officer, reached for the officer’s gun, rushed him, etc. These are things that might be useful to know before calling for an execution, but you seem not to mind not knowing them. Bravo, for your single-minded pursuit of revenge in the face of a complete ignorance of relevant and potentially mitigating information. Apparently, the only evidence you require for conviction is race. In earlier days, this was called racism: a readiness to convict and execute based on race alone. It was an evil then, but apparently you’ve found a loophole: when the shooter is white, a jump to conclusions and call for vengeance based on race isn’t racism, it’s justice. Good work thinking outside the box.

And attacking entirely unrelated policemen, including Missouri State Highway Patrol officers who couldn’t have found your suburb on a map last month and have only arrived now because of your unwillingness to leave your neighbors in peace? Assuredly, you have a clever motive for it – and you have been equally clever in criticizing officers for appearing overly militarized; that is, wearing tactical riot gear and driving Hummers. You would have them remove the gear to appear friendlier toward the community. Perhaps if the community wants friendlier cops, the community should stop throwing bricks at them? A discussion for another day.

Maybe, however, it is time your wish was granted; maybe police officers should withdraw entirely from your town. It seems to be what your placards reading “Cops Kill Kids” demand. In that case, you will be free to continue looting whatever the best looters have not already gotten. And when those folks, turning away from empty storefronts, start walking toward your house, you can call… somebody.


Right Rite, Right or Wrong.

August 18, 2014

Had I not been born a Jew, I would have made a good Roman Catholic. Dwight Eisenhower said of Dartmouth College “this is what a college should look like.” This is true of the Vatican’s rite: it’s what a religion should look like.

Granted, a millennium and more of entrenched dogma that seemed like a good idea when first promulgated but subsequently staggered under its own contradictory weight is heavy baggage – but baggage common to most faiths. The Holy See has an excess of it because it has been more aggressive in recording the strictures of its faith than others: no fewer than 37 universities, including the Pontifical colleges in Vatican City, offer degrees in canon law, that body of doctrine in comparison to which the Internal Revenue Code looks like See Spot Run. The Hindu faith is older than the Roman one, but the Indian swamis never bureaucratized their beliefs and so, thousands of years later, are not caught in their contradictions.

Still, the ins and outs of any particular faith are irrelevant for our purposes, assuming they all allow for belief in a higher power and propound the idea of treating others as we would ourselves. With those basics in place, the details are unimportant because it is highly unlikely that any specific religion knows much of anything about God. This strips importance from the details of belief; what harm or benefit is there in preferring one myth to another? A man once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and told him: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just details.”

Absent the details (like whether God really spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or guided the magi via galactic GPS), and assuming the fungibility of a belief in God and a moral commandment to treat others as we would ourselves, the difference in religions boils down to the appearance of ritual. So what value is there in organized religion, Catholic or otherwise (on a personal level – setting aside charitable works)? This: comfort and guidance. It gives voice to faith, and provides for the expression in ancient, beautiful forms of thoughts and hopes which would otherwise be private. In public acts of faith there is comfort: comfort in tradition, comfort in community, comfort in ritual, comfort in a public affirmation of personal belief. This is worthwhile, and the Roman religion excels at these: it has beautiful, elegant trappings. Its rituals are nearly unequalled for splendor and ceremony, which elevate their moral content.

Perhaps the Jews understand this appeal especially well. In 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Israel and asked a rabbi: “What it is that unites Jewish people the world over — what the kernel of the doctrine is that unites all Jews?” The rabbi told him: “When it comes to doctrine, there is hardly any uniformity. What unites all faithful Jews are the rituals. Come Friday, all Jewish homes, from Siberia to Ethiopia, hold Sabbath in the same manner. We have been doing this for thousands of years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”


Look At Me Right Now! .com

June 10, 2014

Social media has ushered in – among other things – an age of staggering egocentricity. Any mook with a mobile phone can, with sickening ease and speed, announce anything to the world. Idealists regard this ability as the freedom of unregulated self-expression. In truth, not every aspect of every self is worth expressing. Too seldom does somebody with an intelligence quotient greater than the number of letters in the English alphabet announce something interesting about something interesting. Too often, social media is little more than an open sewer in which worthwhile self-expression suffocates in dim-witted self indulgence. The ability to tell anybody anything has fooled many into thinking anybody cares. Granted, those many probably did not require much effort to fool.

Why do we visit museums? To see worthwhile art. What if museums let slip standards and filled themselves with every cartoon from a third grader’s penmanship notebook? We would not visit. Or visit once, just for the novelty.

Once, publishing a thought to more than the number of subscribers to a neighborhood newsletter required a threshold level of intellect and  at least a nodding acquaintance with the language in which publication was attempted, and typically applying that aptitude to something worth the effort and cost of publication. This was a golden age in which “selfies” did not exist – or, if they did, were not inflicted upon readers like mustard gas. Discretion existed. It was understood that, just as restraint is the essence of taste, an absence of restraint proves an absence of taste.

When effort and cost ceased to constrain publication, so too did quality.

Worse than a simple absence of taste (which is a personal problem) is an overinflated sense of self-importance (which can present a public problem). Those unrestrained by taste in an age of social media are free to indulge a staggering egocentricity which insists people other than their parents care that they are a) sooo tired of waiting in line at Starbucks ha ha ha!, b) thanking all my peeps for the bestest birthday wishes!!! feel sooo loved, or c) omg so so so excited for Glee season finale!!!!!!!!!!

Cost and effort, the safeguards of publishing which once kept the thoughts of morons safely out of sight, are hence mourned.

This may be an ironic stance for a web log to take. The medium was once rightly derided by Joe Rago of the Wall Street Journal as the provence of “the blog mob” – a territory to be avoided. But drastic times, etc. Public discourse used to be a marketplace of ideas. Entry to the market meant having something worth selling. Nowadays, the cost of admission is a cartload of garbage with which to abuse shoppers.


Different Expectations.

May 16, 2014

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange recently sat for interviews which were to form the basis of his ghostwritten “autobiography,” the final draft of which he objected to publishing on the ground it made too much information public. An “unauthorized autobiography” was thereafter published, over objection. Some cried hypocrisy: the man whose mission was to expose the secrets of governments was taken aback at the prospect of his own secrets made public.

In truth, there was no hypocrisy: individuals (typically) have a greater expectation of – and right to – privacy than governments, because individuals are not given power by the citizenry. Governments, conversely, are empowered by, and accountable to, their citizens – the private investigation of governments (by citizens, journalistic citizen apparati, or other means) is an important check on their power and a shield against over-reaching, as well as an alarm to corruption and waste (necessarily tempered by security concerns). Individuals, on the other hand, are answerable to laws, not to the population at large, and have thus a more pronounced expectation of privacy in their affairs. People elect governments, making governments answerable to people. The same is not true of Mr. Assange, who never stood for election.


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