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.


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.

The Prints of England.

September 17, 2013

The English political magazine Vanity Fair published over 2,000 lithographic caricatures between 1868 and 1914, the bulk of which documented the Empire’s social, sporting and governmental notables. The subjects were as often the fodder of snide editorial asides, though a sympathetic establishmentarian stance pervaded. As the magazine’s title indicated, the caricatures tore into the assorted vanities of their targets – though in the good-natured way of an inside joke. They appeared weekly and became the journal’s distinguishing feature.

Originally assailants of royalty and politicos only, the caricaturists soon enlarged their focus to include actors, artists, sporting types, judges, men about town, and the assorted ornaments and oddments of the imperial military. Victims learned to appreciate that lampooning came as recognition for some accomplishment (laudable or less so) and took it in stride, like the subjects of friars’ roasts. Few protested. Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder, explained his magazine’s purpose in response to a critical Daily News article: “There are grim faces made more grim, grotesque features made more grotesque, and dull people made duller… but there is nothing that has been treated with a set purpose to make it something that was not already originally in a lesser degree.” Bowles himself provided biographical accompaniment to the art under the pen name Jehu Junior.

Two of the more popular caricaturists proved to be Carlo Pellegrini and Leslie Ward, each also thankfully prolific. Their work was published under the pseudonyms Ape and Spy – Ape considered the wittier and more insightful of the two, Spy drier and more aloof, often studying subjects clandestinely for hours. Judges presiding over court were especially vulnerable.

Each man sketched in public, then returned to the magazine’s studios to create final drafts in water color. Lithographers printed the product by way of the innovative transfer paper, the invention of which was critical to the enterprise. Lithography eliminated the necessity of drawing backwards to account for the reversal of printing presses. Their prints remain highly collectible today, as both bits of anecdotal history and political art.

Danish Cartoon Redux.

September 13, 2012

A mob of Libyans recently stormed the United States embassy there and killed American ambassador Chris Stevens. This, after America led the international coalition which assisted in their liberation from dictatorship.

The mob had formed in protest of an American-made video mocking Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. The ambassador was killed in its wake. Since then, media outlets have, among other things, investigated the inflammatory video. Who acted in it, who produced it, who financed it, who distributed it?

Who cares?

The newsworthy event is not that an offensive and bigotted video was made, but that a group of people were so intolerant, small-minded and hateful as to take an innocent life over it. The barbarous idiocy of the Libyans behind the ambassador’s death boggles the mind (and upends any normal sense of proportionality). The way these people protest something offensive is to become offended to the point of murder?


The College Years

April 2, 2012

Your editorial staff was (Were? What if the staff numbers exactly one member? Anyway:) recently enmeshed in a discussion regarding the practical job skills with which students graduate colleges and universities. The distinction is made between the two types of institutions because they are worlds apart and unto themselves, a point which became quickly apparent during the above-mentioned enmeshing: colleges are smaller (sometimes miniscule) and keen on well-rounded intellectuals, akin to cultural finishing schools, whereas universities tend toward the large (sometimes gargantuan), and are more interested in productive graduates: those who can do a job.

There are benefits and dangers to each school of thought (specifically, that liberal arts colleges turn out yuppie free-thinkers who can’t actually accomplish much but think, while universities manufacture bland worker bees who don’t know art from an aardvark). Whichever type of education is better depends entirely on the student seeking it, what he wants to do and how he best learns.

The educational component aside, there remains a different, equally important part of a college (or university) education. Academics can be come by at most decent schools. One need not attend M.I.T. to get a good handle on math. What cannot be come by is the cultural finishing referenced previously. The college years are the most formative of any graduate’s life, and the people, places and things with which they are surrounded outside the classroom will have a much greater impact on their mature identities than will whatever coursework in Renaissance masters was available.

And so the two types of education must again be compared: regardless of the type or style of education a student might be best off pursuing, in which type of place will he best grow up? Surrounded by which type of people?

As before, the answer varies by case. What’s good for the goose can poison the gander. Still, it behoves every student, when making applications, to do his best to settle on a place filled with the type of person he wants to be, who is going the places he wants to go. As John Locke wrote: “Education begins the gentleman, but reading and good company and reflection must finish him.” Matt Damon puts it more cynically, but no less accurately, in School Ties:

“The right schools, the right grades, the right friends… these are the keys to the kingdom.”

J.S. Bach & The Lesson of Pipes

March 29, 2012

Whene’re I take my pipe and stuff it, and smoke to pass the time away, my thoughts, as I sit there and puff it, dwell on a picture, sad and grey:

It teaches me that very like am I myself unto my pipe. Like me, this pipe so fragrant burning, is made of naught but earth and clay; to earth I too shall be returning. It falls and, ere I’d think to say –

It breaks in two before my eyes; in store for me a like fate lies.

No stain the pipe’s hue yet doth darken; it remains white. Thus do I know that when to death’s call I must harken, my body too, all pale will grow, to black beneath the sod ’twill turn.

Or when the pipe is fairly glowing, behold then, instantaneously, the smoke off into thin air going, till naught but ash is left to see. Man’s frame likewise away will burn, and unto dust his body turn.

How oft it happens when one’s smoking: the stopper’s missing from the shelf, and one goes with one’s finger poking into the bowl and burns oneself.

If in the pipe such pain doth dwell, how hot must be the pains of Hell. Thus o’er my pipe, in contemplation of such things, I can constantly indulge in fruitful meditation, and so, puffing contentedly, on land, on sea, at home, abroad, I smoke my pipe and worship God.

– Johann Sebastian Bach

"Fruitful meditation."

Toga! Toga! Toga!

March 8, 2012

The Boston Globe recently dropped anchor in the controversy swirling in Hanover, New Hampshire around Andrew Lohse, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College who opined in that school’s paper that fraternal hazing runs rampant in the great north woods, and that he was its victim.

He neglects to mention that ritualized initiation of new members by fraternities is hardly news, or that he went into the process open-eyed and informed, or that he’s given his concerns voice only after he was expelled from his own fraternity because he was arrested for possessing cocaine and attempting to intimidate a police witness.

Still, Mr. Lohse has scribbled up a stormcloud, and given people like Dartmouth theater professor Peter Hackett an opportunity to, in reference to the collegiate Greek sytem, ask the Globe things like, “Why do we still have a social system that is from the 19th century?”

Though it’s unclear what exactly – or even inexactly – Professor Hackett is talking about (social clubs? fraternal organizations? collegiate hazing? the prevalence of vomit in the 19th century?), the answer is obvious: because those social systems have produced folks a lot more accomplished than Professor Hacket.

Nelson Rockefeller, for one. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, another. Dr. Seuss. Former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. Intellectual Jeffrey Hart. Former IBM boss Lou Gerstner. Buck Henry, Chris Miller, Budd Schulberg and Fred “Mr.” Rogers. Chief Justice Salmon Chase, Robert Reich, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Nate Fick, Norman Maclean, Robert Frost, and Daniel Webster… not to mention Michael Corleone. Good Dartmouth frat boys, all of them.

Dramatist Hackett might do worse than read the words of Jim Yong Kim, President of Dartmouth College, right below his own in that Globe piece:

“The minute you think as an administrator that by fiat you can institute culture change, the only thing you’ll get is mocking and ridicule. And at that point it will be well deserved.’’