Category Archives: human nature

illusion

They Will Never Take Our Freedom

Although I read incessantly, I don’t read a lot of magazines. The only magazine I currently subscribe to is The Atlantic—I appreciate the excellent writing and quirky features, but don’t exactly wait by the mailbox for each monthly edition to show up. Instead, they tend to pile up on the little table next to my side of the bed, waiting to be perused when I am between authors in my novel reading. I’m currently in one of those spaces, having just finished my fourth consecutive Arturo Pérez-Reverte mystery a few days ago and not ready to start a new, large reading project just a week before the semester starts. 394-They'll Never Take Our FreedomAccordingly, I started plowing through the three summer editions of The Atlantic that have accumulated on my nightstand since June. Inside the June edition, whose cover includes two-thirds of Donald Trump’s head peeking in from the right side announcing a lead article entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump” (an oxymoron if I ever saw one), I found this: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—Here’s why we all may be better off believing in it anyway.”

Stephen Cave: There’s No Such Thing As Free Will

CaveThe article is by Stephen Cave, a philosopher who runs a “Center for the Future of Intelligence” at the University of Cambridge. His article is well-written and engaging—so much so that I suspect he may have had help with it. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. I have spent over twenty-five years learning to write in ways that make core philosophical issues accessible and interesting to non-philosophers—it ain’t easy. First, it’s important to clarify what philosophers usually are referring to when they use terms like “free will” or “freedom.”  Just before the final battle in his 1995 epic “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson’s William Wallace screams to the Scottish army that They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!

That sort of freedom, the kind enshrined in this country’s founding documents as “rights” that each citizen possesses and that must not be violated or taken away, is not what philosophers mean by freedom.

Instead, “free will” refers to the human ability to choose, for a person to deliberate between options and eventually choose, then act on one of the options, all the time knowing that she or he did not have to choose that option—decisionin other words, she or he could have chosen otherwise. This vaunted human ability to freely choose is, for many (including me), the fundamental and defining feature of what it means to be human. Stephen Cave points out that our legal systems, as well as our general beliefs concerning praise, blame, reward, punishment, and all things moral depend on our basic belief in human free will. And it is under attack—scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and just about everyone “in the know” have been trying to take it away for decades.

The “free will issue” is a go-to problem in all philosophy courses, the philosophical version of the divine foreknowledge/free will problem in theology. Just it is impossible to make room for free choice in a world governed by an omniscient deity, so in a world where everything that occurs is governed in a cause-and-effect manner by the physical laws of matter, there is no room for true human free will. Cave points out that at least since Darwin argued in The of Species that everything about human beings—including our vaunted reasoning abilities where the ability to choose is located—is a result of natural evolutionary processes rather than a mystical, magical, or divine “spark” that lies outside the physical laws of matter, illusionscience has reinforced the conclusion that whatever human consciousness and deliberate choice are, they are to be placed squarely in the material world. Making it impossible, of course, to squeeze out the special place we desire for choice. Our choices may “feel” free, “as if” they are up to us, but Cave pulls no punches in describing the truth about us:

The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

Experiments by psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that the brain’s neurons fire in new patterns causing a specific action before a person consciously “chooses” to act—indicating that my conscious “choice” is an illusion that actually doesn’t cause anything. nature nurtureDebates rage concerning how much a human’s actions are caused by “nature”—one’s hardwiring—and how much is caused by “nurture”—one’s environment—but there is general agreement that none of them are caused by conscious choice. We are determined through and through.

The ensuing discussion is often amusingly similar to conversations that couples considering a divorce might have: Should we tell the children, and if so, when? In the service of all truth all the time, some argue that non-philosophers and non-scientists should be made aware that free choice is an illusion and they should stop believing in it. Others insist that such a revelation would be damaging to the basic human’s commitment to morality, law, reward, punishment, and all of the other cool things that rely on our apparently mistaken belief that our choices make a difference and that we are responsible for them. My own classroom experiences indicate that it doesn’t matter. I regularly use a very simple thought experiment with my students at the beginning of the “free will” unit on the syllabus:

Suppose that in the near future a super-duper computer can read your brain and physiology sufficiently to predict the rest of your life, from large events to the minutest second-to-second thoughts and feelings, from now until you die. For a nominal fee you can purchase a printout of every event, thought, and feeling that you will experience for the rest of your life. Some printouts will be yards in length, while others will be very short. Do you want to see yours?

In a typical class of twenty-five students, no more than one or two students will say that she or he wants to see it. Why? Because even with direct proof available that the rest of my history is determined down to the minutest level—including my “free” choices—illusionI prefer to believe that my choices make a difference in my life and in the world around me. I prefer to embrace the illusion. It appears, in other words, that human beings are determined to believe that they are not fully determined.

On this particular issue I find myself swimming against the tide. I not only believe that human beings have the ability, at least on occasion, to make choices that are not entirely determined by their biology, history, and environment—I also believe that this ability is not an illusion. It’s real. The free will/determinism issue as contemporary philosophy defines it has its current shape because virtually everyone accepts a starting assumption—everything that exists is material stuff subject to inflexible physical laws. Given that assumption, the claim that human beings have the capacity to jump outside the limitations of matter and make choices that avoid the determinism of cause and effect makes no sense. But as I often tell my students, if the answers one is getting are unacceptable, change the question. If the ability to freely choose is fundamental to what a human being is, and if our current assumptions about how reality is constructed make no room for that ability, then perhaps instead of accepting that choice is an illusion we should challenge the assumptions that forced us to this acceptance. Be watching for “What Freedom Amounts To” next week, where I’ll describe a very different way to think about human choice!Horatio

They’re Baaack . . . .

We are in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don’t yet exist. Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

RI summerAfter the most beautiful June in my Rhode Island memory, July was warm and August has been abnormally hot. I hate heat—I will take zero over ninety-five degrees any day of the week. But August is one of my favorite months because I am a college professor. August is very quiet on campus—no classes, few hosted events, few visitors other than prospective students and their parents taking tours. I can work out at the gym without competing for equipment and enjoy observing the various construction sites on campus without dealing with tons of people.  It’s all a wonderful period of solitude; but just as Louis XV reportedly commented in anticipation of the Revolution that would cost his grandson Louis XVI his head, August says to the academic Apres moiaprès moi le deluge.” Before long, the floodgates will open. They’re baaack . . .!

Actually, this is great news. I can’t wait until next Monday when classes start–after a year-long sabbatical, I’m more than ready to be back in the classroom. I’m not one of those professors who regularly moans and complains about their students; they are the reason I am in the profession to begin with, they keep me young (at heart if not in outward appearance), and let’s be practical: for an academic, a world sans students would be a world sans paycheck. I got a fictional look at the dark side of academic attitudes about students, fellow faculty, administrators, and reality in general when reading DCMJulie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members not long ago. Billed by Amazon as “A novel that puts the pissed back in epistolary,” it follows Jason Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing at Payne University, from the beginning to the end of an academic year through the exclusive lens of letters and emails of reference and support written for current and former students, colleagues, and acquaintances from graduate school days. Billed by reviewers as “funny as hell,” “hilarious,” “fun-as-heck,” and “funny and lacerating,” I must confess that although I smiled occasionally, I found the novel more sad than anything else. Sad because I know that the never-ending bureaucratic and pedagogical challenges of the academic life can turn someone into a jaded, sarcastic, and cynical curmudgeon like Jake Fitger (he’s four years younger than I am), and even sadder because it doesn’t have to be that way.

owaFitger is the graduate product of what he calls the “Seminar,” a graduate writing program that sounds a great deal like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which produced a few of my friends and colleagues—and none of them are like Fitger). After a reasonably successful first novel, followed by a couple more that fell still-born from the press, he finds himself in the final decade or so of a mediocre career at a mediocre public university in an English department whose infrastructure, both psychological and physical, is falling apart. As lines are closed down and the plumbing in the men’s bathroom fails, the Economics Department on the floor directly above is being treated to a complete upgrade of facilities. Fitger is the embodiment of what is actually happening across the country in more universities and colleges than I care to consider—the neglect and downsizing of the humanities while departments and programs perceived as job-producers and money-makers receive the lion’s share of funding and attention.

I am extraordinarily fortunate and privileged to have spent the last twenty-two years (and hopefully the next fifteen or twenty) at an institution that consciously attempts to swim against that tide. pcAccordingly, Fitger is for me the fictional embodiment of what could have happened had I not been as fortunate. I have few cynical and dedicated negative bones in my body, but some might have been created had I lived the professional life of Jason Fitger. Of course, many of the most problematic aspects of Fitger’s life are self-created. He is hated across campus for various justifiable reasons, his marriage to a fellow professor on campus fell apart when she became aware of his continuing infidelities with an administrative assistant, and his affair with the administrative assistant ends when he accidentally hits the “Send All” button on an email intended for one individual in which he expresses his continuing sexual attraction for his ex-wife that remains strong even after five years of divorce.

I don’t know anyone on campus like Jason Fitger (although he might be lurking somewhere). But hidden like buried treasure underneath page upon page of sarcasm and nastiness are occasional and brief homages to the academic life that I was surprised and pleased to find. faculty on quadIn an email to a former colleague from the Seminar, an epistle drenched in anger, regret and bitterness, Fitger steps back for a moment.

The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending.

Amen to that. I only get to wear black robes a couple of times a year—although it would be sort of cool to wear them all of the time—and I agree that the eccentricities of the academic process and of academics themselves can be a pain in the ass. But what a wonderful profession. It’s the best thing going, not because of money, fame, or notoriety (which come to only a miniscule percentage), but because of the privilege of making a living in the midst of the most exciting environment imaginable—the life of continual learning. VM Ruane 1As I noted in my remarks at the dedication of our new humanities building almost three years ago, the Apostle Paul’s words ring true at this time of year for every academic: Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And Jason Fitger knows it, in spite of himself:

There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one has learned—or failed to learn—during the previous year.

They’re baaack . . . and I can’t wait. Bring it on.

hey-relax-buddy-im-working-on-it

I’m Working On It

Any caring human being asks the question What is the right thing to do? on a regular basis. As a philosophy professor who teaches ethics regularly, IrisI am aware that in the minds of many, the whole purpose of thinking systematically and rigorously about the moral life is to provide reliable and confident answers to that very question. Moral philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Iris Murdoch, from Aristotle to MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre, have provided frameworks within which to answer the question. But each framework is different, they are often incompatible with each other, and philosophers do not agree on which aspects of the moral life are most important in a moral analysis. Some focus on the consequences of an action, others stress the reasons behind one’s actions, still others argue that the character of the person making the choices and doing the actions is most important of all. In short, philosophy’s answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is, at least partially, “Which philosopher are you currently studying?”

Such disagreement among those who are supposed to be the experts often leads to the conclusion that moral certainty must be sought elsewhere—in religion, for instance. If one is convinced that God not only exists but has bothered to let human beings know the divine preferences for human behavior, then faith promises to provide a far more reliable foundation for knowing the right thing to do than anything pointy-headed philosophers might come up with.is god real But scratch the surface of the religious option and a whole bunch of additional questions pop up. Which God? Which sacred text? What about conflicting claims within the same tradition or the same text? Those from outside the camp of religious faith consider these awkward and essentially unanswerable questions to provide strong evidence that atheism, or at least agnosticism, is the way to go, while those who cling to their faith tend to get defensive and judgmental toward those who disagree.

I have spent the past several weeks preparing my syllabus, assignments, and lesson plans for the two sections of introductory ethics that I’ll be teaching this fall. In my twenty-five years of professorhood, I have taught at least fifty sections of introductory or upper division ethics courses, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than throwing students headfirst into the deep end of the “What is the right thing to do?” pool. By the time they are eighteen years old, just about every human being has been exposed just enough to a possible set or two of answers to this question to assume that they’re all set and have the moral life generally figured out. disturbing the peaceMy job as a philosophy professor is to disturb the peace starting on the first day of the semester. There is nothing more gratifying than to hear at the end of the semester, as I did from a student at her final oral exam two or three years ago, that “this course really messed me up—but that’s a good thing!” Mission accomplished.

But I’m not just a philosophy professor—I’m a regular human being as well. My professional training and natural disposition makes me generally skeptical of any claims to moral certainty—I frequently tell anyone who will listen, from the classroom to the blogosphere, that certainty is vastly overrated. (A quick search just revealed that I have used that very phrase eight times in blog essays). But I am also a person of faith, raised in a religious tradition that supposedly equipped me with the tools (scripture, prayer, authority, guilty conscience, and more) to provide definitive guidance when wondering about what the right thing to do is. working on itHow do I make being a philosopher and a person of faith work together, or at least not be in perpetual tension? As my youngest son Justin likes to say when challenged concerning important things: I’m working on it. This very issue is the central theme of this blog—after four years of hanging my struggles out for public display, I’m working on it. My sabbatical book that is under contract and will be out early next year is all about this. I’m working on it. When pressed for a summary of where my working on it stands in real time, two passages come to mind.

The first is from Simone Weil, the strange and beautiful woman who, for the past two decades has been a model for me of intellectual rigor as well as integrity to one’s faith commitments. In one of her dozens of notebooks, she writes:

The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think “Thy will be done,”Simone the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.

There is enough in this passage to justify many essays—what currently strikes me most strongly is Weil’s conviction that the knowledge each of us seeks is within us. Philosophers and theologians err when they tell us, implicitly or explicitly, that seeking the answer to “What is the right thing to do?” is like a treasure hunt, a search that, if successful, will once and for all provide us with proper guidance in all circumstances. Rather, as both the Pentateuch and the Apostle Paul tell us, the word is within you. It is within me. Believing this requires an act of faith that, at least at first look, is astoundingly optimistic. What reasons are there to believe that the universe, God, reality, or anything, is so attuned to what Catherine of Genoa called “my deepest me” that I can trust that this deepest me holds the answers to my most pressing questions? No reasons that can fully stand up to logical scrutiny, but in matters this important perhaps logic is as overrated as certainty. I choose not to believe that my desire for bread will inevitably produce rocks, that my deepest cries will go unheard. So sue me.tutu

Then there is a similar sentiment from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When asked for his own insights concerning the will of God and how to know one is doing the right thing, he replied that

There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you “Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.” You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.

Morality by the skin of your teeth. Tenacity and hope, along with faith, love, goodness, and as many other desirables that you care to list, are essential for even rudimentary answers to “What is the right thing to do?” This is a lot more challenging, but also a lot more fulfilling, than looking it up in a book or memorizing answers. I’m working on it.

I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

My first foray into the world of podcasts a couple of weeks ago included an extended discussion of Stoicism. Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cupS. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. coffee cupThen there is my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup–a much appreciated Father’s Day gift from my youngest son–that sits proudly on a top shelf in myoffice. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over seven years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces not that long ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archaeological dig many millennia in the future.

Some time later I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says NO KIDDING–YOU REALLY ARE A BIG FUCKING DEAL! when I have emptied the liquid (not really).

I choose to consider my replacement monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past several years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The retreat I attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want007

So Late So Soon–Memories of Olympics Past

It often is a surprise to those who know that I am a college professor to learn that I am also a sports fanatic. In truth, the most rabid sports fans I know are some of my academic colleagues—we talk trash about our favorite teams and athletes with the same energy you might find at any sports bar; indeed, we often have such arguments while drinking adult beverages. My own sports addictions have become selective as I get older, rionow largely focused on baseball (especially the Red Sox) and college basketball (all Providence Friars all the time). And the Olympics. I love the Olympics.

This month’s Rio Summer Olympics have arrived at the perfect time for me, a welcome respite from politics and an enjoyable bridge from sabbatical to getting back to the classroom for the first time in sixteen months the last Monday of August. Although I do enjoy track and field (although not the endless preliminary races that lead up to the finals), the first week of the Summer Olympics is always my favorite, phelpsmaybe because the focus is on two sports so far out of my wheelhouse that excellence in these sports strikes me as something otherworldly. I can swim just well enough to keep from drowning, so the towering achievements ofLedecki Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecki last week blew me away, as did the overall excellence of the entire US swimming team. The limit of my gymnastic abilities is performing a somersault (I’m not sure I can even do that anymore, and I’m not going to try it out), so watching Simone Biles, Ali Raisman, and the rest of the Final Five women’s gymnastics team blow away their competition in record fashion caused me to marvel at what a human being is capable of achieving.ReismanSimone

 

 

 

 

 

As I look back over my personal timeline, I realize that the Olympics are one of several recurring events that I use to organize my memories and locate myself in the increasingly misty atmosphere of the past. Certain events and athletes became part of my history—here are a few from my early years:

1968—The Grenoble Winter Games are the first that I remember clearly. I had just started learning to ski and France’s Jean-Claude Killy, winner of all three major skiing gold medals, was my hero. I knew, of course, that I was supposed to cheer for American athletes, but my patriotism could not withstand my strong attraction to winners. 1968 summer1968, of course, was a year of assassinations, unrest, and turmoil; the Summer Olympics, held in the high altitude and air pollution of Mexico City, were the stage for an iconic protest. During the medals ceremony for the 200-meter race, gold-medalist Tommie Smith and bronze-medalist John Carlos raised black-gloved fists throughout the playing of the National Anthem. Many, including my parents, were outraged, but I recall only thinking of what courage it must have taken for them to make this human rights statement at what was supposed to be an apolitical event. Smith later said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

1972: American swimmer Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals in the Munich Summer Olympics—an achievement that stood until Michael Phelps won eight golds at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But Spitz’s remarkable achievement was overshadowed by the Munich Massacre, the first time that terrorism burst into my consciousness. munich massacreEleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage by a Palestinian terrorist group; twenty-four hours later all eleven were dead. I’ll never forget my mother bursting into tears when Jim McKay, the multiple-award winning host of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” wept as he broke the terrible news.

When I was a kid my father used to say “Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.” Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms this morn– yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

1976: I married (the first time) less than two months before the beginning of the Montreal Summer Olympics, but they are locked in my memory for a couple of reasons. FComaniciirst, Montreal is only a couple of hours north of where I grew up. Second, they were the Olympics of Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast ever to receive a perfect score of “10” in the Olympics. She was everyone’s darling—she was cute, spectacularly talented, and in the middle of the Cold War, it was a big plus that she wasn’t Russian (although I doubt many of my friends and family could have located Romania on a map). The rise of the United States as a world force to be reckoned with in gymnastics began over the next decade, largely fueled by young gymnasts who wanted to “be like Nadia.”

1980: Every American above a certain agemiracle can tell you exactly where she or he was when a bunch of US college kids beat the greatest hockey team in the world in the Miracle on Ice at the Winter Games in Lake Placid. I was standing with my mother and father in the middle of their Florida condominium living room, screaming at the television and reveling in Al Michaels’ famous call: Do you believe in miracles? YES!!! Thirty-five years later memories of that evening came flooding back as I screamed at the television watching the final seconds count down on a wildly improbable victory by the Providence Friars men’s hockey team in the 2015 national college championship game. Miracles do happen—sometimes thirty-five years apart.

torvill dean1984: The opening of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” used to include a montage of clips illustrating “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The Winter Olympics in Sarajevo featured Torvill and Dean, the ice dancing pair from Great Britain who earned twelve perfect scores from the judges for their program choreographed to one of my favorite pieces of music, Ravel’s “Bolero.” SarajevoLess than a decade later, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sarajevo was the epicenter of the vicious and bloody Bosnian War; thousands died during the four-year siege of Sarajevo. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat indeed.

boitano orserAnd so many more—The US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games followed by the Soviet boycott of the 1984 games in Los Angeles, where Mary Lou Retton struck gold for the US in gymnastics; The Battle of the Brians at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary;ali 1996 Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Atlanta games; Michael Phelps’ dominance of five straight summer games.

A week ago yesterday my Episcopal priest friend used the following poem from the immortal Dr. Seuss in his sermon:

How did it get so late so soon?

It’s night before it’s afternoon.

December is here before it’s June.

My goodness how the time has flewn

How did it get so late so soon?

The thrust of his sermon was “don’t waste time,” using Seuss’ poem and several of the day’s readings to emphasize the importance of not letting opportunities to be Christ in the world escape our daily notice. The poem comes back to me now as a reminder of how each of our lives are marked by memorable events, the hooks, so to speak, on which we hang the various garments of our lives. The Olympics have served that purpose for me for over fifty years—a regular touchstone populated by people forever young in my memory as I grow older. Olympic memories cause me to both recognize the passage of time and the eternal youth of the human spirit. No wonder I’m a sports fanatic.

A Modest Proposal Part Two–or why my time should not be for sale

A week ago I wrote about the most effective and illuminating hoax I ever pulled on my students. Here’s what we learned from it . . .

In a recent post I described a proposal concerning access to my services that I proposed to my students during a recent course.

A Modest Proposal

SandelWe were studying Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, an exploration of how in our contemporary world market economies are generating market societies, societies in which ideas and values that have traditionally been considered as outside or above being reduced to numbers and dollar signs are gradually being sucked into the vortex of market activity. Everything, even the most revered and sacred activities, is up for sale. For general class discussion, I created a hypothetical scenario that I hoped would resonate with the group—student access to faculty time.

To set my proposal up, I described for my students how at various times during the semester student demand on my expertise and time often becomes very heavy. Specifically, my long-standing offer to read a couple of pages of students’ rough draft material up to a week before a major paper is due, drafts that I read on a first-come, first-served basis, creates a log-jam rivaled only by the queue outside my door during office hours in the days before a major assignment is due or an exam takes place. In the interest of streamlining the process and making my time most directly available to those who want it the most, I made the following proposal:

Preferred accessAt the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

After walking the students through the details of my proposal, I put them in small groups to discuss the ideas involved, reminding them to apply two tools Sandel identified as useful when testing such proposals with market creep in mind. Is there a problem of fairness involved? Is there a problem of corruption involved?

When we reconvened after ten minutes or so of group activity, it was clear that the students had taken my proposal very seriously, and they were not pleased with it. At all. It was a matter of figuring out what was at the core of their intuition that something was seriously wrong with this proposal. market meSoon various challenges were raised.

What about students who can’t afford the $250?

To which “Market Me” responded “What about them?” This is the way the market works—those who want what’s for sale badly enough will find a way to come up with the asking price. After all, if I tell a car salesperson that I really, really want the $50,000 car on the lot but only have $5,000 to spend, I will be told “too bad!” But someone pointed a possible difference—what I have for sale in my proposal is different from a car. What I have put up for sale is something that arguably should be equally available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. There’s a problem of fairness, in other words.

Aren’t you already getting paid to provide access to students? We’ve already paid for access to you with our tuition money.

This prompted my providing my students with a peek into the world of a faculty member. Yes I am getting paid to provide access to students, to the tune of a required three or four announced office hours per week. gradingAnd that’s what your tuition is paying for. But my practice of reading rough draft material is above and beyond the call of contract and duty. Indeed, many of my faculty colleagues have pointed out the insanity of voluntarily taking on such a time consuming task, given the already enormous time challenges of college teaching. So I’m willing to amend my proposal—office hours will remain first-come, first-served, but preferred rough draft access will be for sale. And by the way, I am still committed to providing access to all of my students, even those who do not purchase the all-access pass. My proposal just adjusts the dynamic of that access.

Making extra money for yourself in this way makes you look sort of like a jerk.

Really? I’m just trying to make a buck here! But to keep the discussion moving, I asked whether they would feel better if I set up a paypalPayPal account and the $250 went directly to the Providence College General Scholarship Fund. Everyone agreed that this would solve this particular problem; I even got the impression that with this adjustment several students would give a thumbs-up to the amended proposal.

But they shouldn’t, because even if the money is shifted away from me toward a “good cause,” access to me has still been commodified. The fact that the $250 is going to the scholarship fund rather than my checking account does not remove the fact that my time is for sale. dont be a jerkAnd if I’m still a “jerk” for even coming up with this idea, we need to figure out why. What exactly is at risk here? What important value would be demeaned and corroded if this policy were put in place?

I’m concerned that even though you say you will still give access to everyone, you will unintentionally stop paying as much attention to those without a pass, even when you aren’t backlogged.

A corruption problem in other words—a value is being damaged by its being placed on the market. This gave me the opportunity to introduce a way of thinking about education that many professed to be unaware of—the business model. What if we think of higher education institutions as putting a product up for sale, a product that students are purchasing with their tuition? What is the product? happinessHow would the buyer be able to tell if their purchase was a good one?

As we talked about the business model of education, many students admitted that they do think of their four years at Providence College as something they have purchased with another end in mind, most likely a good job, a comfortable lifestyle, and the very happiness that we all claim that money can’t buy. “How are you able to tell if your purchase has been worth it?” I asked. With a bit of prodding, some admitted that their parents at least consider a low grade at the end of the semester to be evidence of a bad investment. Not only education but family relationships themselves start being judged with market categories. Finally, someone said what had been lurking beneath the surface throughout the discussion.love of learning

Students are supposed to love learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of what they can get with it.

That such a statement is often immediately dismissed as idealistic and naïve is an indication of just how far down the market road of no return we have already travelled in our culture. But my students, although they admitted that they often ignore this conviction about education when buried under papers, exams, and stress about the future, all agreed that whatever the value is that is at risk of being corrupted in my modest proposal, “the love of learning” captures at least a portion of it.

Almost two years ago, in one of my many reflections on teaching in this blog, I wrote the following:tongue of a teacher

The Tongue of a Teacher

The whole process of teaching and learning, when liberated from my frequent well-meaning but misguided attempts to shape and control it, has transcendent energy behind it. This all sounds idealistic and impractical in a world where the value of higher education is often exclusively identified as and judged according to the standard of focused (and very expensive) job preparation. Maybe so—practicality has never been my strong suit. But identifying the tools of lifetime learning and honing skilled use of these tools through engagement with the greatest texts that human beings have produced is an activity whose importance transcends the size of one’s future paycheck.

Thanks to my students’ discussion of my modest proposal, I am once again reminded that at its heart, education should not be for sale. It’s too valuable for that.

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

office hours

A Modest Proposal

Classes begin at the end of August, and I’ll be back in the classroom for the first time in fifteen months. As I plan my courses, one important question is when I will hold office hours. Which reminds me of one of the most effective and thought-provoking hoaxes I have ever pulled on my students . . . 

a modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame anonymously published a short work entitled A Modest Proposal, one of the great works of satire in the Western literary tradition. The complete title of Swift’s essay is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick; in it, Swift in apparent seriousness proposes that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a matter-of-fact style that can easily convince the reader, for a while at least, that he is perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landlords.

I love satire and frequently use it in class to great effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average college undergraduate can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet. I am currently team-teaching a colloquium called Markets and Morals—our text for lecture and seminar a couple of weeks ago was Michael Sandel’s recent book SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy, a fascinating investigation of how in our contemporary world market economies are inexorably turning into market societies. A market society is one in which values, ideas and practices that have traditionally been outside the realm of the dollar sign and commodification have begun to be treated as just another thing to be bought and sold. From marriage arrangements to human life, everything has become a commodity for sale.

Tucked among tons of real-life case studies, Sandel provides some useful tools for identifying “market creep.” Trust your intuitions, he says—if your gut tells you, for instance, that there is something wrong with employers like Walmart buying life insurance policies on their unsuspecting employees then cashing in big when the employees die, or if you think there’s something morally amiss with high-powered special interest groups such as congressional hearing queuebig oil hiring people to stand for hours in line to secure coveted seats in congressional or Supreme Court hearings (and thus doing an end run on the democratic, “first come, first served” process), chances are that there is either a problem of fairness or a problem of corruption in play. Either something that has traditionally been thought of in egalitarian terms has suddenly become for sale to the highest bidder (fairness problem), or a value that we cherish is being eroded and cheapened as it gets sucked into the market vortex (corruption problem).

Rather than use Sandel’s own examples (the majority of which you can watch him discuss with various audiences on YouTube—the guy’s a rock star phenomenon in the world of academia), I decided to develop my own case study situated directly within the context I share with my students twice per week: classroom and course dynamics. I introduced my “modest proposal” as follows:

It has been my practice for many years when assigning students a paper in a class to offer my time and expertise for reviewing up to two pages worth of double-spaced rough draft material up to five days before the paper is due. I will read and comment on the rough draft material and send it back within 24 hours of receiving it. My experience is that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft commenting services earn on the average a grade that is five points higher than those who do not.

Since in any given semester I have anywhere from 60 to 75 students for whom I am the sole grader and there are times (such as around midterm) when a written assignment is due in all of my classes, it is often difficult to keep up with the rough draft demands, particularly when many students send their rough draft material to me just before the deadline. I always read this material on a “first come, first served” basis; it is undoubtedly the case that I am not able to pay as much attention to each student’s rough draft material as I would like because of the pressure to return the material with comments in time for it to be helpful in writing the final draft. office hoursThose students who are unable or unwilling to start their papers early are at a disadvantage in terms of getting my full attention and expertise when I am swamped close to the deadline.

A similar problem arises during my scheduled office hours during the days leading up to the due date for a major assignment or exam. A line of a dozen or more students is a frequent occurrence outside my door. Often I am not able to see everyone because my office hours end and I have to go to class or a meeting; often students who have waited for a long time have to leave before seeing me because of a class or another appointment (or because they get sick of waiting). So I wish to make a modest proposal for your consideration:

QUEUE THE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

At the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:Preferred access

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

I have said on occasion over the years that teaching is often like acting—a convincing performance is everything. On this particular morning, I was good; the students were unaware that a good deal of the “data” I used in the setup for my proposal was made up on the fly. For instance, I have no evidence that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft-reading services earn five points higher in their final grade than those who don’t. That’s an educated guess, primarily based on my observation over the years that the students who do send me rough draft material are the A-/B+ students who probably are the only ones in class who don’t need my input and suggestions. office hoursFurthermore, I don’t know if I have ever had more than two students waiting outside my door during office hours, even when a paper is due. In my proposal I am channeling people like my colleague across the hall in the philosophy department who often has more than a dozen students sitting on the floor waiting to see him. I would say I’m envious, but I’m not—I’m an introvert.

But I sold my modest proposal to my students with sincerity and a straight face, then asked them to discuss my proposal in small groups for ten minutes, both constructing an argument in favor and imagining what a critic might say. When we got back together, the conversation soon revealed that they had taken me seriously, and they were not amused. My proposal didn’t strike them as being quite as problematic as selling one’s children to rich people as snack food, but close. Stay tuned next week for A Modest Proposal—Part Two; or why my time should not be for sale. Until then, what do you think of my modest proposal?

The Rule of the Best

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Winston Churchill

I had a fascinating conversation on Facebook the other day (imagine that!). You may have noticed that we are in the middle of a very polarized political campaign—a Facebook acquaintance posted some data identifying the demographic that is most favorable to Donald Trump and most problematic for Hillary Clinton—white men with no degree. At the time the article was published, Hillary and white malesHillary was doing 14% worse with this group of voters than President Obama did four years ago.

Hillary Clinton and white men without a degree

My Facebook acquaintance and I have never met in person, but we share a couple of important characteristics. Both of us are college professors, and both of us earned our bachelor’s degree from the Great Book curriculum at St. John’s College. We have “liked” each other’s posts before—this time, I took the opportunity to throw something out there that I have frequently taught in the classroom and written about—voting should be considered as a privilege that one earns rather than a right that one is entitled to.St. John's

  • Me: The elitist in me thinks that the white men no degree problem could be solved by voting being considered as a privilege rather than a right. Everyone should be required to get at least a 70% on the written civics test given to those seeking citizenship in order to earn the privilege of voting.
  • Facebook Acquaintance (FA): As an educator, I sadly do not have faith that a civics test would be voting.

Where did I get this ridiculous idea that voting should be an earned privilege rather than a right? It is rooted in the thought of perhaps the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, as I explained to FA.

  • Me: As an educator as well, I get your point. My problem is there is a part of me that thinks Plato is on to something in the Republic. His critique of democracy is that it pretends that everyone is equal—but we know this isn’t true. Very un-American, I know. And I wouldn’t say that only the elite would be voting. Rather, those who have bothered to earn the privilege of voting would be voting. I know many “educated” people who would not pass the test.

plato-the-republicPlato was of the opinion that the proper education qualified a person to participate in government, implying that many people are not capable of successfully completing such an education. FA thought that the problem might lie elsewhere.

  • FA: I am not sure that many people would care to earn the privilege. Sadly. It is easier to complain and watch the reality TV Trump show. Have you seen the movie “Idiocracy”?
  • Me: I haven’t, but can guess from the title what it’s about. I agree that not many people would care to earn the privilege. Which might mean that Plato is right again. Aristocracy in its true meaning—the rule of the best—is the best form of government.

FA’s suggestion that many people might lack the drive or interest to take my proposed voting test illustrates—intentionally or not—one of Plato’s most important points in the Republic. Human beings are not created equal. Some are worthy of being educated to be full participating citizens and some are not. Whether because of lack of intelligence, drive, character, or a combination of these, some people are not capable of being full citizens. Plato and aristocracyThis is Plato’s fundamental critique of democracy—it is rooted in the ludicrously false assumption that all human beings are equal in all relevant ways. They aren’t.

So what does Plato advocate as the best form of government? Aristocracy, understood not as the passing on of power through blood lines as we think of when we hear “aristocracy,” but understood in its original and pure form. Aristocracy simply means “the rule of the best (aristos).” One of the major thrusts of the Republic is a meticulous construction of the perfect community, a community in which each person performs the tasks for which she or he is most naturally suited and which is ruled by the best people in the community. The rulers are identified early in their lives as potential leaders and educated with a view to actualizing the excellence that is latent in them. aristosThe potentials of others are similarly identified early in their lives; accordingly, each person is trained to be the person she or he is most naturally fit to be.

FA was not having it.

  • FA: I don’t think Plato is right. I think people don’t care to earn the privilege because they don’t believe the system will work for them, and because they are so poorly educated because they are poor. It is not a matter of individual failings, but of people being shaped by the system.

There’s a lot in this response. Suffice it to say that FA could be completely right without Plato being wrong. Our current system that has clearly produced millions of disaffected and disillusioned voters is a product of the democratic system, a system that Plato rejects. FA’s insight is that the “system” (society, if you will) shapes the individual—Plato would entirely agree. Our problem is that we have the wrong “system.”

Thirty seconds later FA sent an additional comment that changed the whole discussion.medea

  • FA: As a counterargument to Plato’s Republic, I give you Euripides’ Medea. She definitely would have wanted a vote.
  • Me: Good point.

Touché. That’s what I get for getting into this sort of conversation with someone who knows the ancient classics. The title character in Euripides’ Medea is brilliant, powerful, insightful, and effective—exactly what one would want in an informed electorate. She is also vindictive, manipulative, and murders three people (including her two sons) in the play. She’s a bad person, in other words. FA’s point is that what we need is not a test for how informed one is about current events and how government works. In an aristocracy, what is needed is a test to determine who is aristos. And before that, someone to define what aristos even means. Who do we trust to do that and to create the test? I have suggested to my students that I would be willing to do it, but they didn’t seem strongly supportive of my offer.

winstonWinston Churchill famously said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Context is important here. After courageously leading Great Britain as Prime Minister through the dark days of World War II, voters rewarded Winston by voting him out of office in 1947. The famous comment was made in Parliament several months later. Democracy is the messiest imaginable way to run things—it might even facilitate the election of Donald Trump as President in November. But every time I work with students to try and devise a better way of doing things, we always come back to the same conclusion. Democracy is a mess, but it is our mess. What are you going to do?