Category Archives: teaching

Awesome

Random Thoughts as the Semester Ends

Assignments: You would think after twenty-five years of teaching that I would have learned not to have sixty-four final papers/projects spread over my three classes, ranging from eight to fifteen pages long, due within ten days of each other.

Vocabulary:

  • How I know I’m more than ready for the semester to end—irregardlessI used the word “like” incorrectly more than once last week and am using the word “awesome” way too much. I’m beginning to sound like my students.
  • I just found out that “irregardless” is either not a word or, if it is, it means the same as “regardless.” Who knew?
  • A Facebook acquaintance recently shared a link shouting The Top Ten Reasons Why You Will Never Want To Eat McDonalds Again! I commented that “I never have wanted to eat McDonalds. I also have never wanted to eat at McDonalds.”

Leadership: Everything I know about leadership from four years of chairing department followed by four years of running a program I learned from Tom. Tom is my hero.Tom

Good idea/bad idea:

  • The Providence College Hockey Friars winning the NCAA national championship with a remarkable display of tenacity, talent, camaraderie and grace from the hockey gods—Good Idea.end of gajme Celebrants flooding neighborhood streets and honoring the spectacular victory by setting furniture on fire and injuring a policeman—Bad Idea.students celebrate The best of times and the worst of times—just a few minutes apart.
  • Valet parking at the hospital when the visitor parking lot is full to capacity—Good Idea. Waiting for twenty minutes while the valet parking guy tries to remember where he parking your car—Bad Idea.

Best laugh of the semester: In my Philosophy of the Human Person class I quoted HobbesHobbes’ famous description of life in the state of nature: Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. I commented that this sort of sounds like my ex-wife.

Sometimes it works: A colleague let me know in an email about a discussion with a group of sophomores about the value of the interdisciplinary program I direct that they had been taking for the past four semesters. In the midst of a conversation about whether or not this program had any success in moving students in the direction of a morally aware humanity (they were studying Dorothy Day), a student of mine from last year said the following: All the history and stuff from first year is a blur, but I really remember how Dr. Morgan challenged me to think in new ways and how and what to question in life. It made a huge impact on me. This student, along with Tom, is my hero.

Dante MarathonRunning a marathon: Observations from the DWC-sponsored “Dante Marathon,” a twelve-hour reading by students and faculty of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in its entirety last week:

  • Hell is more interesting than purgatory or heaven—but then I knew that.
  • Our students are slobs—my colleague who ran the event reports his biggest job was picking up after them all day.
  • The high point of the day was not Dante finally meeting Beatrice or the Empyrean Rose. It was the delivery of five massive pizzas in the middle of the afternoon. Gone in fifteen minutes.

Sartorial splendor:

  • The visiting outside evaluator for the philosophy department, upon seeing me last week dressed in my typical manner (corduroy jacket, dress shirt without a tie, jeans) commented that “for a philosopher, that’s about as good as it gets.” I haven’t decided whether that was a compliment or a criticism.
  • no umbrellasWhen did umbrellas go out of style? Earlier this week as walking from one building to another in the middle of a steady rain while classes were changing, I noticed that of the hundred or so people within immediate view I was the only one using an umbrella. Either umbrellas are entirely out of style (and they used to be so chic!), or the younger generation is a bunch of ducks for whom a mere hoodie is sufficient.

Sometimes it works 2: This semester I am teaching a colloquium with a colleague from the history department called ‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” as one of the offerings in the Development of Western Civilization Program (“Civ”) that I direct. We piloted “Nazi Civ”—as the students have nicknamed it—a year ago. My colleague and I received this email a few days ago from one of last spring’s students:

Hello! I hope that you both are doing well! I wanted to email you and thank you for teaching the Love in the Nazi Era Colloquium last year. This semester I am studying abroad in Rome, and I had the opportunity to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau last week. It was such a powerful experience that allowed me to reflect on what I learned last spring, and truly brought Civ to life. I kept thinking back to Simone Weil, Le Chambon, and St. Maximillian Kolbe who contrasted such evil forces back then. Thank you for teaching me so much about that time period with the strong reminder that good always conquers evil!Awesome

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Pleasure and Joy in the Work

As the end of the semester draws near and my upcoming sabbatical looms, I’m wondering what it will be like to be out of the classroom for fifteen months. This post from a year ago makes me think that it’s not going to be easy.

Last Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. PerlmanHe was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for twenty-five years now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever last year when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.

The Vision Thing

BushIn 1987, as Vice President George H. W. Bush prepared to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow and run for the Presidency, he was occasionally urged to step back and take a large view of the America he wanted his possible Presidency to help create. This, as it turned out, was not particularly easy for the Vice President to do. Colleagues reported then and later that while Bush understood thoroughly the complexities of issues, he did not easily or naturally fit them into larger themes or frameworks. This led to the reputation, deserved or not, that Bush lacked vision. It rankled him. At one point, the story goes, he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for the upcoming Presidential campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country, urging the VP to think about a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda. vision“Oh,” said Bush in clear exasperation, “the vision thing.”

The vision thing has been front and center for me over the past few weeks. Last month I spent a day on the campus of a state university in Connecticut as one of two outside reviewers of their liberal arts core curriculum. As one of several state universities, this one’s “brand,” established more than a decade earlier, was claiming to be Connecticut’s state liberal arts university. The core curriculum, created with that vision in mind, was a rather complicated three-tiered system that all students are required to navigate through steps from familiarity to expertise in a diverse range of skills and classroom experiences. Six years after its inception, it was time for both self-study and external review.

The good will and commitment of everyone my colleague and I met on our visit, from students through faculty to administrators, was clear. It was also evident that the core was the result of a few years’ worth of debate and compromise in the early 2000s, a process of negotiation and give-and-take that I am very familiar with from my own campus. ecsuWhat was not clear in the self-study, nor in our campus visit, was the original vision behind the core program. Clearly someone, more likely several persons, originally provided the reasoning behind the core, the evidence that this new system of required courses, undoubtedly risky on a public university campus, would over time in practice embody the university’s public commitment to the liberal arts.

But no procedure for “keeping the vision alive” was established at the outset, and now several years later many of the original visionaries have retired. My colleague and I met with one of them, a professor emeritus who confided that the core curriculum as it exists not “isn’t what we had in mind.” coreProfessors hired in the last decade told us that they had received no orientation to the core curriculum upon being hired—they had just picked up what they knew about it on the fly. The students had nothing to say when asked about the value of the liberal arts education they were in the process of receiving—as far as they knew, the core so carefully planned several years ago was just a bunch of courses to “get out of the way” so they could get to the real purpose of their being at the university—their major courses which they perceived as being their direct vehicle to a good job upon graduation. There was no system for assessment in place, because no one really knew what the core was supposed to be accomplishing. And now it is just something everyone does—and no one can really explain why. The report that is due from my colleague and me in couple of days is writing itself.

As I live out the final weeks of my four-year stint directing my college’s large interdisciplinary, team-taught humanities program required of all students during their first four semesters, regardless of their major, my outside evaluator experience has been a reminder and warning. Don’t let the vision die. a classic makeoverAfter a number of years of debate, starts and stops, and hard work we are in the third year of a new core curriculum, a new core of which the program I direct—in a re-energized and exciting form—is the centerpiece. I was an active participant in the creating of the new core, but my real task has been to steer the program I direct from the old to the new, to urge, force, and seduce the faculty to “buy in” to this new thing that is replacing what we had been doing for more than thirty years. And this requires, first, knowing what the vision behind the new program is (I do) and, second and most importantly, creating systems and methods to keep that vision alive as we original establishers and keepers of the vision fade away like thecheshire cat Cheshire Cat (I’ve been working on it). I imposed the vision largely by force of my own enthusiasm for it, assisted by faculty who shared the vision and enthusiasm, in the first couple of years as director, but realized eventually that a transition had to begin that would move the program from personality to vision-driven.

If this program and the core curriculum on my campus is to avoid becoming the program I evaluated two weeks ago across the state border, succeeding waves and generations of faculty and administrators must keep the vision alive. The other day a good friend and colleague told me at lunch that the most hated colleagues on campus from the perspective of the faculty in his department are the members of the committee whose charge is to approve (or deny) courses proposed as satisfying various elements of our complicated new core curriculum.no I agreed with my friend that these committee members, all of whom are our faculty colleagues, do indeed draw the ire of many faculty on campus. Why? Because they often say “no.” They are responsible for making sure that the objectives of our new core are adhered to. They are, in other words, the committee charged with “keeping the vision alive.” And that makes them very unpopular. “Why can’t we just keep doing what we’ve always done, perhaps with a minor nod toward the new core objectives?” many faculty want to know. The answer is that there’s a new vision in town. This committee’s job is to make sure that the energy and creativity infusing the new core at its inception is not lost in the daily grind of getting shit done. It’s not an enviable task, but someone’s got to do it. Really. The alternative is to find ourselves not many years down the line just cranking out bunch of courses, organized somewhat differently than they used to be, having lost any awareness of why we made the change.

According to the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And so, I would add, do programs, curricula, plans, hopes and dreams. vision 2One of the most important continuing lessons I have been learning over the past few years is “Be where you are and do what you are doing.” Make a point of paying attention to the trees instead of obsessing about the forest, in other words. The vision thing is the flip side of that. I could spend so much energy and time with the trees that I might forget that there is a bigger picture. As Thoreau wrote, it would suck at the end of my life to find out that I hadn’t lived. The rather boring but absolutely true thing is that it’s a matter of balance. The vision thing helps me to remember the difference between living and living well, as Socrates described shortly before his execution. But the vision thing has to be lived out incrementally and daily. After all, this forest is made up of trees.

Clean Hands

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. Psalm 24

magdaAs she waited for the ceremony to begin in Jerusalem, Magda Trocmé might have remembered the above lines from Psalm 24. This is a psalm of “ascent,” sung by ancient pilgrims as they climbed to Solomon’s great temple at the top of Mount Zion. Magda was there in 1972 to participate in the ceremony awarding her husband André—posthumously—the Medal of Righteousness. Those recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” are non-Jews who risked their lives or liberty to save Jews during the Holocaust. There is a tree in Israel for each of the “Righteous Among the Nations”; part of this ceremony was the planting of a tree in André’s memory. During the ceremony, one of the speakers said something that Magda would never forget: “The righteous are not exempt from evil. The righteous must often pay a price for their righteousness: their own ethical purity.” Magda knew all about this.

Andre and MagdaMagda and André Trocmé were the heart and soul of Le Chambon, a tiny, unremarkable town in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Between 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. I wrote in this blog a couple of weeks ago about this seemingly insignificant town that shone like a beacon in the midst of some of the darkest days in human history.

Come In, and Come In

When I shared this story with a church group that I lead on a monthly basis, several members of the group were astounded by the moral excellence of these simple French peasants, wanting to know where they could get their hands on the full story. The Trocmés, indeed all of the Chambonnais interviewed in the subsequent decades concerning their remarkable story, insisted that their actions were nothing special, clean handsthat they were not moral giants or saints, and that anyone would have done the same. Humility aside, Magda learned something during those years when she helped save the lives of strangers in the face of imminent danger—in this world, no one has clean hands or a pure heart. Even apparent moral heroes find themselves sinning no matter what their intentions are. The best we can do is acknowledge the price that has to be paid in order to be good and lessen the collateral internal damage as much as possible.

One of the most important features of the network of protection in Le Chambon was the constant need to make false identity and ration cards for the Jewish strangers who showed up in the village at all times of the day and night. Identity cards were needed to protect against roundups, when identity cards were usually checked; ration cards protected against hunger, since the basic foods were rationed and the Chambonnais were so poor that they could not share their own food with refugees and hope to ration cardssurvive themselves. Magda remembers that “Jews were running all over the place after a while, and we had to help them quickly. We had no time to engage in deep debates. We had to help them—or let them die, perhaps—and in order to help them, unfortunately we had to lie.”

During the first winter of the Nazi occupation, Magda recalls Edouard TheisEduard_Theis, André Trocmé’s assistant pastor, coming into the presbytery and telling her about the making of the first counterfeit card. “I have just made a false card for Monsieur Lévy. It is the only way to save his life.” Magda remembers her horror at that moment: duplicity, for any reason, was simply wrong. Neither she nor any of the other leaders in Le Chambon doubted for a moment the need for counterfeit identity and ration cards, but none of them ever became reconciled to making the cards, though they made hundreds of them during the occupation. Until her death many decades later, she found her integrity diminished when she thought about those cards. She remained sad over what she called “our lost candor.” André was even more troubled by the necessity to lie, fearing that he was “sliding toward those compromises that God has not called upon me to make.”

It is very easy, looking back, to minimize this conflict since everyone “knows” that when the directive “do not lie” and the directive “help those in need” are in conflict, “do not lie” gives way. But this immediate and often facile ranking of moral directives is often an exercise in justifying or excusing moral failings, an exercise André and Magda refused to participate in. They did not excuse themselves from the moral principle of truth-telling by saying that “in circumstances such as these that principle does not apply.” Rather, they did what they could to save lives all the time carrying the heavy heart that always accompanies deliberate and conscious wrongdoing. They learned that they could not dissolve the contradiction by neat, clear logic. In such situations, one must simply bet upon a certain course of action—one must, in an act of faith, throw oneself into action in a certain direction. And in doing so, one’s hands often are made dirty and one’s heart sacrifices its purity.ethics

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s major work Ethics, compiled by his best friend from scattered notes found in Bonhoeffer’s study and in his prison cell after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer writes that

Ethical discourse cannot be conducted in a vacuum, in the abstract, but only in a concrete context. Ethical discourse, therefore, is not a system of propositions which are correct in themselves, a system which is available for anyone to apply at any time and in any place, but it is inseparably linked with particular persons, times and places.

And while systems of propositions can be arranged in a relational hierarchy with close to mathematical precision, human existence cannot. Hence the struggle of the Chambonnais with life-saving tainted with lying. Hence Bonhoeffer, a dedicated pacifist and advocate of nonviolence, becoming involved with various plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler, involvement that led to his arrest and, two years later, his death.Doblmeier

In his powerful documentary Bonhoeffer, director Martin Doblmeier includes a brief vignette from an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose life and thought have been shaped by the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. tutuIn response to the question “how does one know what the will of God is?” Tutu replies 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.

Perhaps on that “other side” clean hands and pure hearts will be available. But not before.

One Heart and Soul

end of semesterIt’s getting close to the end of the semester (about five weeks to go), which means that final papers will be coming in over the next month. As the due date gets closer, I will have any number of conversations of this sort:

Student: The assignment says that I should “take a position” on the issue I am writing about. Does that mean, like, you want me to give you my opinion?

Me: No, that means, like, I want to take a position on the issue supported by argumentation and relevant information. Remember what I have told the class a number of times: a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion.

In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium recently, our text was a co-authored volume in which two economists, who happened to also be persons of Christian faith, alternated essays and responses on a number of important issues. markets and moralsAs their weekly writing assignment in preparation for seminar, I asked students to select a point of disagreement between the authors (the disagreements were legion), describe briefly the position of each author on the selected issue, then take a side supported by argumentation. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, my sophomores should be able to do this—identify issues, fairly and accurately describe various arguments, and take a position that is both fair to other relevant positions and supported by evidence and argument. So I was disappointed when more than one student ended their essay with something like “I prefer X’s position because Y sounds a lot like socialism.”

Sigh. In my comments on such papers, I always include something like “That’s a description, not an argument. It’s related to another sort of description masquerading as an argument: ‘I disagree with Z, therefore Z is wrong.’” Divided linePart of my job as a professor is to convince my students that a liberally educated human being earns the right to have her opinions. Unearned opinions are like body parts—everybody has them. Plato lists “opinion” low on his ladder representing the climb from ignorance to wisdom. Moving up this ladder one or two rungs from “opinion” to something closer to knowledge involves learning that just believing something does not make it true, realizing that disagreement is the beginning of justifying one’s beliefs, not the end. It’s always discouraging to realize that someone can make it to almost half way through their undergraduate college career and not have learned this.

But I digress. What got me to thinking about this most recently was the reading from The Acts of the Apostles that the lector read to the congregation yesterday:Acts 4

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

It’s one of my favorite passages from the New Testament—as I heard it, I thought of my student. “Dude!” I thought, “It’s a good thing you didn’t hear this—because this really sounds like socialism!” In the past I have used this text in class to poke at the unquestioned assumptions carried by students who, often coming from a faith-based upbringing in an upper middle class or wealthy household, believe communismthat somehow their capitalist free-market attachments and their background framework of religious values will fit seamlessly together as if by magic. “They sound like a bunch of communists!” more than student has remarked in shock, and indeed they (anachronistically) do. Welcome to the lifelong task of trying to live a life of coherent belief and commitment!

This passage from Acts was linked in yesterday’s readings to the familiar story of “doubting Thomas” from John’s gospel. In spite of the bad rap Thomas has gotten over the centuries for being the one disciple loser who refused to believe that Jesus had risen until he had seen him and touched him first person (of course, none of the other disciples believed until they had first-hand contact either, but let’s not go there), he is one of my all-time heroes. By both personality and profession I am naturally skeptical–Imontaigne think that doubt is closer to godliness than cleanliness. Just as I take the great skeptic Michel de Montaigne as a model for how to do philosophy, I consider Thomas as one of my models for how to approach the spiritual life, something I share with many of my spiritual guides ranging from Kathleen Norris, Christopher Wiman and Joan Chittister to Anne Lamott, roawn williamsRowan Williams and Barbara Brown Taylor. Most homilies about this gospel draw the moral of the story from Jesus’ gentle criticism of Thomas’ attitude: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But there is seeing and then there is seeing. Except for a select few, those who have committed themselves to Jesus in any way have never seen him physically. But without a direct encounter—without truly seeing something worth committing to—faith commitment can easily become sterile religion.

Why, I have often wondered (and have often asked my students), did the early Christian communities choose to organize themselves economically in the manner described in Acts? They are close enough in time to Jesus’ physical presence that undoubtedly some of their members actually knew him in the flesh, or at least knew some people who did. But if the vision is not going to fade, such communities cannot rely on first-hand remembrance of the source. Practices and attitudes reflective of the values the community is committed to must be embedded in the very fiber and structure of the common life of the group. the wayAt some point, given that a new community of followers of the Way was seeking both stability and faithfulness to the message, someone must have asked “How would Jesus have organized this community if he were here?” Somebody remembers the parables, another person recalls the Beatitudes, and pretty soon they become a small, primitive laboratory for the Gospel.  How to truly become Jesus in community form? By putting into action what the man supposedly said and lived. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Shelter the homeless. Love each other as God loves us. This wasn’t church for them—this was life. Most likely their very survival depended on it.

Two thousand years later, persons who profess a Christian faith share a lot in common with these early followers of Jesus. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, just as most—and pretty soon all—of the members of these early communities had not. micahWe are bound together by having seen Jesus in ways far deeper and more profound than physical vision. And our challenge is the same as theirs, to figure out what it means to actually live it rather than just say it. As I often do, I fall back here on the prophetic words of Micah who asked, just as these early communities did, just as we do today, “What does the Lord require of us?” Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. And, I might add, doubt is an appropriate seasoning for each of these.

Flesh and Blood

What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience—and that means the time of religion in general. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison

ECSUI spent last Tuesday as an outside reviewer for the Liberal Arts Program at a Connecticut state university an hour or so west of Providence. I shared these duties with an assessment-guru administrator from a state university in Massachusetts; we are tasked with jointly producing a report of five or so pages within three weeks. I offered to get the report started by writing a rough draft over the weekend, since I have a long weekend away from classes from Thursday through Monday. “Why do you have a long weekend?” my envious colleague wanted to know. Easter breakAhh, the joys of working on a Catholic college campus—I often forget that not everyone gets Easter Break.

Although I grew up in a world in which Easter was the biggest event of the year, I have never settled into a tradition concerning how to celebrate it. Church, of course, but a familiar space filled with people who only show up once a year is a bit odd. Everything seems forced and unnatural, as if everyone is thinking “we’re supposed to be doing something special for Jesus’ resurrection, but we aren’t sure what it is. So we’ll just do what we usually do, only bit longer and louder.” After going to the 8:00 service, Jeanne and I celebrated by eating at Not your average joes“Not Your Average Joe’s” (their lettuce wraps and draft beers are outstanding) and went to see “Cinderella” (with Rose from “Downton Abbey” in the title role). Jeanne’s and my spiritual odysseys started at different poles and have evolved in different, perhaps opposite directions over time. Jeanne was raised Catholic and resonates with many aspects of evangelical and charismatic Christianity, while I was raised evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist and find the vibrations of liturgical worship very attractive. It’s a good thing that our paths have a wide point of intersection, expressed very clearly by the passage at the beginning of this post written by Bonhoeffer in prison mere weeks before his execution by the Nazis. Who is Christ for us today? In less religious terms, what direct impact should our faith commitment have on how we live our lives together and individually?

During the past two weeks the two colloquia I am teaching this semester have raised such questions in stark ways. trocmeIn “Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” we have been studying the story of Le Chambon, an insignificant Protestant village in southeastern France that protected and saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The spiritual leader and soul of the village, Andre Trocme, taught and exemplified an eminently practical and effective reading of the Gospels—they mean what they say. When asked about his motivations after the war, Trocme said

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

invisible handAs if by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” my “Markets and Morals” colloquium unexpectedly raised the question “How does a person of faith bring her or his values into a market that frequently runs contrary to such values?” just in time for Holy Week. Our text was Is the Market Moral?—a series of essays and responses by Rebecca Blank and William McGurn, two highly respected economists who happen to be very serious about their Christian faith but disagree sharply about how it should intersect with a secular market economy. McGurnAt one point McGurn distinguishes between Christian faith as a guide for an individual life and as a model for social reform, a separation that contemporary Christians frequently make.

A frequent mistake in the social arena is to apply personal virtues to social contexts. To put it another way, our social virtues may complement our personal virtues, but they are not the same. Not least of the weaknesses in so-called “Christian” prescriptions for economic life is the idea that the gospels are somehow a policy platform, as though the Golden Rule can be simply legislated.

I brought these two very different spins on how one’s religious values might apply to one’s practical daily life to my two seminars for small group discussion. One seminar thought that McGurn’s dividing “personal” from “social” virtues is essentially a cop-out, a roadmap for excusing oneself from seeking to bring needed change into the market and other social arenas. The other seminar focused their negative energies on Trocme’s Sermon on the Mount commentary, labelling it as “naïve” and “unrealistic.” Jesus and easter bunnyAnd, I suspect, that the range of true possibilities lies somewhere between Trocme and McGurn.

So what’s a person of faith to do? In the immediate wake of yet another Easter, of yet another emergence of Jesus from the tomb, fighting for attention space with jelly beans and bunnies, with tentative agreements with Iran and the upcoming Final Four, it seems appropriate to ask once again, along with Bonhoeffer, who Christ is, really, for us today. The latest news cycle provides glaring examples of what happens when presumably well-intentioned legislators are unable to tell the difference between protecting religious freedom against perceived threats from the government and opening the door to discrimination in the name of religious values. And about those values—it’s not as if professed Christians have much agreement about what they even are. indiana pizzaThe Christian faith that the owners of an Indiana pizzeria cite as the basis of their refusing to cater a same-sex wedding is the very Christian faith that many have relied on as they call attention to the resulting discrimination and less-than-Christ-like virtues being exhibited by the pizzeria owners and the advocates of the bill. Never has the separation of church and state looked so attractive from the perspective of both state and church.

Still, blankRebecca Blank points out in Is the Market Moral? that a sharp separation between private and public is not an option for “Christians who believe that human beings cannot be whole without their most important institutions tethered in some acknowledgement to transcendent truth.” If my Christian faith is to be something more than a very interesting and complicated private hobby, a sharp separation of secular and sacred cannot be the order of the day. At the very least, Jesus’ annual emergence from the tomb back into the real world should remind the Christian that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a promise of a pleasant and problem-free afterlife, but is Jesus’ frequent phrase to describe what the world, infused with the power of the Spirit and the energy of Christ-infused human beings, should be struggling toward now.tegel prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer, waiting for his certain execution, captures it well.

Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal . . . they must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and are they crucified and risen with Christ.

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars last year. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful new Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing a chick who is pretending to be a guy. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

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

Last Friday I wrote about a modest proposal that I offered for my students’ consideration and analysis in my “Markets and Morals” colloquium.

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.

written in stone

Fact or Opinion?

So moral relativism makes us more corrupt, but it also keeps us open-minded; moral objectivism keeps us on the straight and narrow, but it also breeds intolerance. Is one of these outcomes clearly better than the other? Daniel Engber, Slate.com

SignpostsDo moral absolutes exist? Is human engagement with moral principles more like a treasure hunt, where we search for something that is already there but perhaps deeply hidden, or are moral principles something that we creatively construct from various pieces of our experience and the world around us? These questions are the stock and trade of ethics professors and moral philosophers (I ask and use them all the time), so it is not surprising that an essay from a few weeks ago on the opinion pages of The New York Times entitled “Why our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” an essay that has generated a flurry of activity online since its publication, was written by a philosophy professor.

McBrayer: Why Do Our Children Think There Are No Moral Facts?

McBrayerIn this essay Justin McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, places the blame for the rampant moral relativism he finds in his undergraduate students not on godless post-modern academia, nor does he accuse parents of not doing their jobs. Instead, he blames it on common core standards in primary education, according to which facts and opinions are to be sharply distinguished as follows:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

Noting that his second-grade son is being taught that every claim is either a fact or an opinion with no hybrid outliers (the philosopher in him bristled at these simplistic categories), then finding out that the youngsters are being taught that any claim with a normative term in it such as ought, must, or should is an opinion and not a fact, McBrayer had an AHA! moment. cultural relativismSo this is why my college students are relativists, he thought. “The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, there are no moral truths.”

McBrayer goes on to advocate in the final paragraph of his essay for the more nuanced position that “Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work is thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.” But many of McBrayer’s critical respondents didn’t read that far. What several of the responses to his op-ed picked up on, instead, is his apparent claim that the moral relativism of his college students is not only ubiquitous but is to blame for other obvious problems on campus–“It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”

In an essay on Slate.com,

Engber: The Kids Are All Right

engberDaniel Engber’s response to McBrayer’s argument is rather direct: “It’s total crap. There’s no evidence that college students are any less morally resolute today than they were in years past . . . There’s no evidence that moral relativism . . . causes ‘rampant cheating,’ or indeed any other substantial harm. In fact–in fact–most of the evidence point the other way.” Accusing McBrayer of relying on “the philosopher’s favorite tools, anecdote and intuition” (that one hurt), Engber notes an almost entire lack of empirical evidence in McBrayer’s essay other than evidence that the good professor and his colleagues have been comparing anecdotes and intuitions over a beer or two. But, as Engber is quick to point out, there is empirical evidence about all of this–and most of it is contrary to McBrayer’s thesis.

Various studies have shown that people go through stages of development when it comes to their moral beliefs, and the most likely time in life for people to be skeptical about moral absolutes is during the very years that they are in college. NelsonChristopher Nelson, the president of my undergraduate alma mater St. John’s College–a place where I spent four happy years in the middles 1970s engaged in endless relativistic conversations–noted in Huffington Post last week that “Dire warnings about the corrupting influence of moral relativism among college students were as alarming when I was in college some half a century ago as they are today.”

Nelson: Are We Teaching Millenials to Be Immoral?

But studies also show that most of us get over our relativistic stage—“it seems that college graduates maintain at least some moral convictions.”

Relying on my standard philosopher’s tools of anecdote and intuition, I find this debate in the public square about whether moral facts exist both misdirected and unsatisfying. I do not share McBrayer’s fears about rampant relativism, but neither do I find evidence that most of us naturally move to believing in a few moral principles as we get older to be particularly encouraging. What are those principles? Dont be a jerkDo we simply fall into the comfortable and non-reflective position of adopting a few basic rules about getting along with each other (Be nice, Don’t be a jerk, Work hard), call them moral principles and call it a day? I think human beings are naturally wired to both need and demand more than this.

I suspect that my friends and colleagues, if asked to choose, would describe me as more in the relativist than the absolutist camp when it comes to moral facts. I’m fine with that, since I believe that the dangers of unwarranted certainty far outweigh the pitfalls of relativism. A person can be certain about the truth of anything, including some pretty odious and diabolical beliefs. Using Engber’s term, moral objectivism keeps us on the “straight and narrow”—but to where? The question is not “Are there moral facts?” but rather is “On the assumption that there are moral facts, what are they?” Which tips my hand in this debate—I want to have my cake and eat it too. I believe in the existence of moral absolutes, but also believe that they are far more difficult to identify than most of us imagine. The lifelong search for moral clarity and certainty will often look and feel like relativism. republicThe temptation is very strong to stop along the way and declare one’s current beliefs as moral absolutes—but this temptation must be resisted.

In my “Philosophy of the Human Person” class this semester, we are studying Plato’s Republic—my choice for the greatest single work of philosophy in the Western tradition—from cover to cover. Plato was a dedicated absolutist both in moral philosophy and his conception of knowledge in general, but his focus more often than not is on the process of pursuing truth and clarity, not the conclusion of that process. yeatsYeats famously wrote in “The Second Coming” that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The lifelong journey toward moral truth can become passionate but unwarranted conviction if one believes too early that one knows everything one needs to know, and it settles into the mediocrity of “whatever” if one despairs of the restless search ever having a conclusion. Although I do not share McBrayer’s fear of relativism, the concluding challenge of his essay is one of the best contributions a philosopher can make to this discussion: “Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work is thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.” And, I might add, never assuming that we have finally gotten it right.

office hours

A Modest Proposal

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?