Monday, August 30, 2004
NUMBER ONE PARTY NATION
All universities dread the Number One Party School ranking. This year’s honoree, SUNY Albany, has been besieged by the media. Last year’s - scandal-heavy University of Colorado - was so upset that it decided to name its new anti-alcohol program “We’re Not Number One.” The American Medical Association has demanded that The Princeton Review abolish the party school category, since it “fuels the false notion that alcohol is central to the college experience.”
Walk with UD a little here as we move away from hysteria and toward a calmer understanding of this significant aspect of the contemporary American university.
Despite the efforts of films like Animal House, most Americans continue in a vague way to picture undergraduate colleges as quiet places set apart for serious reflection about the world. Yes, college students are thinking about their careers; yes, there’s fucking and football about. But the distinctive, expensive, rigorous, and auspicious characteristic of the university, people figure, is its sober intellectuality. The university’s distinction is that it offers extended, rationalized study of important things….
…like… gambling, surfing, scuba, spas, cartoons, and catering. These are a few of the subjects you can major in at respectable four-year colleges in the United States. “It’s disgusting,” a New York politician comments about the new casino degrees being offered by a number of colleges in party-school Albany’s public university system: “I think it’s inappropriate for the state to become a vehicle by which people are in increasing numbers addicted. To have that policy reinforced through a curriculum in a public university is reprehensible.” A SUNY trustee agrees: “It saddens me that SUNY is involved in such a cynical and insidious process, one that fuels anti-social gambling pathologies while subordinating and suborning its basic institutional mission: education, not training.”
These two are defending a model of the undergraduate college much like the one many other Americans vaguely picture, in which vocational training is put off until graduate school in order to establish for each student a foundation of scientific, ethical, and cultural knowledge; in which the curriculum’s subject matter is, uh, you know… real deep, real valuable, real worth knowing, central to, um, our society and what we hold dear, and for sure about understanding the big bad world all around us too… I mean, it’s hard to get precise here, but, well, some shit’s trivial and some shit’s real real important. Like what? Like say what’s in the Constitution, what it means to be a democracy. That should be a requirement, a course like that! And, well, courses in how to cater parties, well, that’s trivial! That shouldn’t be in the undergraduate curriculum!
What UD’s groping toward here is the suggestion that most human beings sense there’s a distinction to be made in life between ideas and actions that are important, and ideas and actions that are trivial. But this sense is inchoate, and having a kid at a university and spending $30,000 a year to keep her there remains insufficient incentive for people to be less inchoate. These are matters for curriculum committees.
Yet some colleges have no curriculum at all - no requirements, no established courses, no course sequences. Others claim they have requirements, courses that touch on those real important things; but in reality they have distribution requirements - essentially a broad range of courses to choose from (many of them trivial) that will satisfy a particular requirement. Very few colleges have serious curricula requiring serious study of serious things.
UD’s next point: Why should they? Why shouldn’t a lot of American colleges be a bit more about drinking than about thinking?
America is an insanely rich and successful country. Thousands of American college students come from affluent homes and will themselves be affluent, college or not. They will go into the family business; they will inherit money; their well-connected parents will connect them up with something; they will marry wealthy people like themselves. All of this will likely happen, UD repeats, whether they go to college or not. Whether they go to a respectable college or not. Whether they fail to graduate from college or not.
Virtually all of these people will of course go to college, but many will go for social, not intellectual, reasons. They will go because everyone else they know is going, and they want to maintain contact with their world. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s parents spent huge sums so that she could graduate from Boston University and become a saleswoman at Calvin Klein. Did they kick themselves for having wasted all that money on a college education for a saleswoman? No, because college, like psychotherapy and weekends abroad, is something they couldn’t imagine their children not doing.
For a glimpse at this pretty wide swath of the American college population, look at an excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s forthcoming novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28; due out in November):
From the moment he founded Dupont University 115 years ago, Charles Dupont, no kin of the du Ponts of Delaware and much more aesthetically inclined, had envisioned an actual grove of academe through which scholars young and old might take contemplative strolls.,,,
Dupont! [thinks a representative student] Science -- Nobel winners - whole stacks of them! . . . although he couldn't exactly remember any names. . . . Athletes -- giants! National basketball champions! Top five in football and lacrosse! . . . although he found it a bit dorky to go to games and cheer a lot. . . . Scholars - legendary! . . . even though they were sort of spectral geeks who floated around the edges of collegiate life. . . . Traditions -- the greatest! -- mischievous oddities passed from generation to generation of . . . the best people! A small cloud formed. . . . the rising number of academic geeks, book humpers, homosexuals, flute prodigies and other diversoids who were now being admitted . . . Nevertheless! There's their Dupont, which is just a diploma with Dupont written on it . . . and there's the real Dupont -- which is ours!…
About ten years ago a flood from a bathroom up above had ruined [his fraternity‘s] library's aged and promiscuous accumulation of books, and the once-elegant walnut shelves, which had the remains of fine Victorian moldings along all the edges, now held dead beer cans and pizza-delivery boxes for the most part. The library's one trove of mankind's accumulated knowledge at this moment in history was the TV set….
Everywhere you looked at this university there were people knocking "the frats" and the frat boys. . . . the Administration, which blamed them for the evils of alcohol, pot, Ecstasy . . . the dorks, GPA geeks, lesbos, homobos, bi-bos, S&Mbos, blackbos, Latinos, Indians, from India and the Reservation, and other whining diversoids, who blamed them for racism, sexism, classism, whatever the fuck that was, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, fringe-rightism, homophobia . . . The only value ingrained at this institution was a weepy tolerance for losers. . . .
For this mindless legacy student and many others, a great American university is like a fully loaded Jaguar driven twelve times a year to the post office by an elderly woman. There it sits purring away in the garage, its awesome intellectual power idle… See why so many serious American professors prefer to teach graduate students?… And the vast number of American colleges which are vocational schools in all but name don’t bother with the intellectual machinery at all.
Why shouldn’t a lot of American colleges be a bit more about piffle than about profundity? Many Americans spend hours of leisure every day entertaining themselves with iPods (distributed free to students at Duke), tv, film, video games, sports, long baths, social gatherings, and vacations; many foreigners spend hours and hours watching American-made entertainments. These pursuits represent billions of dollars in business, and many college graduates will devote their professional lives to them, writing scripts for tv shows, publicizing movies, developing golf courses. The Cartoon Network has established a “trendy corps of college students enlisted to market the network‘s ‘Adult Swim’ cartoons on campuses nationwide,” reports The Miami Herald:
They come from 30 campuses to the network’s Atlanta headquarters each August for some cartoon-marketing training before the start of their fall-semester classes. These students are culled for being business-savvy …Their job: Making cartoons cool for peers…
Now, three years after they started, “Adult Swim” cartoons are often ranked No. 1 in their basic cable time period - Saturdays through Thursdays, 11 p.m. - 5 a.m. EDT - among both adults aged 18-34 and men aged 18-24. Shows such as “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” - about a talking meatball, milkshake, and box of fries - regularly beat network late-night comedy shows in the ratings among young people.
Alcohol awareness? Hysteria over party school rankings? The Herald continues:
Cartoon Network executives say the college marketing program, mostly made up of sponsored drinking parties at hot college bars ... is creating buzz for the quirky…cartoons. … “It is soooo much fun,” said Barrett Darnell, a 20-year-old Washington State University student who’s starting his second year as an ‘Adult Swim’ marketer. Last year he threw viewing parties and got some cartoon T-shirts thrown from the stage at a campus Cypress Hill concert. This year’s plans include a pub crawl and poster giveaways. ‘We give out so much free stuff. Everyone loves it.’”
Stop thinking about campus drinking as it was in the innocent Animal House days - this is about serious marketing.
You can get all moralistic about this (Neil Postman wrote a book a few years ago called Amusing Ourselves to Death), or you can accept that America is the entertainment capital of the world and that people are going to act accordingly.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
A New Academic Year:
[Being a Series of Evocations of the University]
GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT
In October 1919, I went to Oxford at last… Oxford was overcrowded; the lodging-house keepers, some of whom nearly starved during the War, now had their rooms booked up terms ahead, and charged accordingly. … I solved the difficulty by pleading ill-health and getting permission from St John’s College to live five miles out, on Boar’s Hill - where John Masefield, who thought well of my poetry, had offered to rent us a cottage at the bottom of his garden.
We found the University remarkably quiet. The returned soldiers did not feel tempted to rag about, break windows, get drunk, or have tussles with the police and races with the Proctors’ ‘bulldogs’, as in the old days. The boys straight from the public schools kept quiet too, having had war preached at them continually for four years, with orders to carry on loyally at home while their brothers served in the trenches, and make themselves worthy of such sacrifices. … G.N. Clarke, a history don at Oriel, who had got his degree at Oxford just before the War and meanwhile been an infantryman in France and a prisoner in Germany, told me: ‘I can’t make out my pupils at all. They are all “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir”. They seem positively to thirst for knowledge and scribble away in their note-books like lunatics. I can’t remember a single instance of such stern endeavour in pre-War days.’
The elder dons, whom I had often seen during the War trembling in fear of an invasion, with the sacking and firing of the Oxford colleges and the rape of their families in the Woodstock and Banbury Roads, and who then regarded all soldiers, myself included, as their noble saviours, now recovered their pre-War self-possession and haughtiness.
Friday, August 27, 2004
University of Utah Concealed Guns Update [see UD, 5/21/04 and 6/1/04]
Michael Young, the incoming president of the University of Utah (his last job was dean of the law school at UD’s hot university) comments on the controversy:
"Kids at 18, 19 and 20 are emotionally charged in a way that encouraging them to pack pistols is really not a great idea. I've been in academics a long time, and have enough personal experience to recite on that score just to suggest this isn't the world's best idea."
Young’s interviewer comments: “That stance will likely take him to a showdown with the Legislature, which has long championed a law allowing people with permits to carry guns on the state-funded campus. The case is now in the courts.”
Thursday, August 26, 2004
WE ON FIRE
Even as SUNY Albany endures the derision of the world (see below), UD’s own campus, George Washington University, basks in the radiance of having being named one of the 25 hottest colleges in the country (Category: Best for Political Junkies) by Kaplan/Newsweek.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
College Saint-Aubin des Soirees
Everyone’s talking about SUNY Albany, a perennial top-tenner among the nation’s party schools, and, this year, Number One. Number One not only in “partying,” but also in the category “students (almost) never study.”
This sort of truth, so baldly stated, hurts a university. SUNY’s angry administration has fired off a letter to students, parents, and alumni denying the whole thing, but UD has no doubt it‘s true. UD is sure that serious intellectual activity takes place at the margins of SUNY Albany; smack in the middle, though, people are fucking off.
The SUNY administrators’ total denial, therefore, is the wrong response. No one believes them. Here are some better options:
1. Go with it brazenly. “Yes, we are a party school. Judging by our graduation rates and job placements, our students still do very well in the world, but we can’t deny that they’re drugging and drinking while they’re here.”
2. Keep going; you’re on a roll. “This combination of hardy partying and worldly success is rather impressive in itself, isn’t it? Our students are the sort of people who can hold their liquor; they are the sort of people who can stay up all night dancing and pass tests the next morning. This shows stamina and a kind of genius.”
3. Go yet further. “And since when is joie de vivre a crime? Is it our fault that our students have a capacity for happiness?”
SUNY could go another way. It could say:
4. “Yes, it’s true, and it’s horrible and humiliating. Our university has evolved over the years from a pretty serious place to a travesty, a sham, a sodden joke. In consultation with our board of trustees, we have therefore determined, starting next year, to impose the Rule of Saint Benedict on every member of the SUNY Albany community. The daily university schedule throughout the academic year follows:
FALL AND SPRING:
2:30 AM: Preparation for night office; oratorio and gradual psalms.
3:00 AM: Nocturns, including prayers for the dead.
5:00 AM: Silent reading.
6:00 AM: Matins (Lauds) at daybreak.
7:30 AM: Silent reading.
8:00 AM: Wash and change. Morrow mass.
9:45 AM: Work.
12:00 PM: Sung Mass (Sext).
2:45 PM: Work.
4:15 PM: Vespers.
5:30 PM: Change into night shoes.
6:00 PM: Collatio. [Note: This means “light meal.” Do not confuse this, or any other term (“sext”) on this schedule with words that may sound similar.]
A NEW ACADEMIC YEAR:
[Being A Series of Evocations of the University]
"The 1954 Fall Term had begun. Again the marble neck of a homely Venus in the vestibule of Humanities Hall received the vermillion imprint, in applied lipstick, of a mimicked kiss. Again the Waindell Recorder discussed the Parking Problem. Again in the margins of library books earnest freshmen inscribed such helpful glosses as "Description of nature," or "Irony"; and in a pretty edition of Mallarme's poems an especially able scholiast had already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it "birds." Again autumn gales plastered dead leaves against one side of the latticed gallery leading from Humanities to Frieze Hall. Again, on serene afternoons, huge, amber-brown Monarch butterflies flapped over asphalt and lawn as they lazily drifted south, their incompletely retracted black legs hanging rather low beneath their polka-dotted bodies."
UD does not stay up nights worrying about anti-Americanism abroad. Polly Toynbee, in The Guardian, wants me to grind my teeth about the "monster" the country has become in "a world that thinks America arrogant, less cultured, a worse place to live than their own countries." She notes that American Studies programs are shutting down in English universities, and suggests that this is because students there don't want to be associated with us.
For her part, UD is happy to see American Studies departments shut down, since she can think of many richer academic fields.
UD's concern in any case is not so much with international anti-Americanism as with encouraging a certain healthy anti-Americanism at home. UD's love of country is intense (this makes her bizarre among academics), but she thinks Americans should cultivate a contempt for what's contemptible here rather than get defensive about what foreign people think.
And along those lines -- UD finds Homeland Security's recent denial of a visa to Professor Tariq Ramadan pretty contemptible. A respected scholar of Islam and the West, whose latest book the conservative historian Daniel Pipes calls "a thoughtful and moderate analysis," Ramadan was about to come to Notre Dame for a three-year appointment when the government decided he was a terror risk.
Ramadan is no democrat - French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, debating Ramadan on tv last year, couldn't get him to condemn "lapidation" -- the stoning of adulterous women (though, somewhat confusingly, he did call for a "moratorium" on the practice). Ramadan thinks veiling women is a great idea. In 1993 he tried to censor a play that criticized certain features of Islam. He has written darkly about "French Jewish intellectuals" and their defense of Israel. But he is also (as his debate with Sarkozy suggests) eager to think about ways in which Islam may be assimilated into the modern West, and his scholarship appears respectable.
UD thinks it's much more important for American students to be exposed to people like Ramadan, with all of his anti-democratic tendencies, than for them to study their own popular culture. They need to know more about the serious rejection of Western-style modernity than about the often mindless embrace of it.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
AS SOME GLACIERS SHRINK, OTHERS ENDURE
As you may recall (UD, 4/9/04), UD likes to monitor writing of all kinds - scholarly, journalistic, etc. She has taken for this entry's title a headline from today's CNN that she thinks in need of an editor.
"It's like announcing," UD's husband remarked when she asked him what he thought of the headline, "that SOME PEOPLE DIE, OTHERS LIVE."
If someone suddenly told you that all this time, all around you, while you lived your little life, some glaciers were shrinking while others endured, would you perk up and say Newsworthy...? What are the chances you'll read the article that accompanies this headline? A headline that competes for your attention with thousands of other headlines you'll see today, on television, online, in the newspaper, on billboards...
How to rewrite? Well, if you really just want to get the article read, no holds barred, you scare people:
GLOBAL GLACIERS A DRIPPING TIME BOMB.
Something like that. (Note also UD's elegant alliteration.) But if you're a serious journalist with an actually interesting or disturbing trend to report, then --
SCIENTISTS PONDER PUZZLING LIFE AND DEATH OF GLACIERS.
Something like that.
Monday, August 23, 2004
UD has an opinion piece coming out soon in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She doesn't yet know when it will appear (she's doing some last-minute editing of it at the moment), but will pass along the date as soon as the editors tell her.
Sunday, August 22, 2004
SNAPSHOTS FROM HOME
A ***New*** University Diaries Feature
UD has forgotten on which site she found it, but she recently printed out for herself someone's list of the elements characteristic of good blogs. Here's one of them:
"Personal. I tend to enjoy a blog with a bit of a personality. I want to 'get to know' to a certain degree the person behind the site."
UD has already blogged a bit about her setting - a small, hundred year old, self-governing town which is a Nuclear Free Zone and an arboretum, and which sits next door to Bethesda, Maryland, in Montgomery County. Snapshots From Home will try to make this sort of information a regular feature of University Diaries. Criteria for inclusion will be amusement and irrelevance.
So, for instance, here's a close-to-home couple of sentences UD read from the review of a book titled The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity in today's New York Times:
A numbing arsenal of facts and figures serves to show that it is social rank - and not suspiciously similar-sounding factors like income or education - that makes the crucial difference. There's the study of Oscar winners that found they live four years longer than their co-stars and fellow nominees, and the fact that with each mile along the subway line from downtown Washington to suburban Montgomery County, Md., life expectancy increases by a year and a half.
Saturday, August 21, 2004
REDNECK WOMAN DIARIES [see UD, 6/18/04; 6/22/04; 7/8/04]
Via Ralph Luker at History News Network, UD comes back from vacation to face her first test.
Is UD White Trash?
Are vous kidding?
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
UD has a little house in upstate New York, and she'll be there for the next week. She'll see Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" at the Glimmerglass Opera House, she'll lie outside at night to look at shooting stars, and she'll celebrate her birthday at the Bear Cafe in Woodstock.
Back to blogging soon.
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
A DECENT RESPECT FOR EMPIRICISM…
…would certainly be the beginning of any university education, yes? In fact, UD, with help from Timothy Burke’s [see Easily Distracted on UD's links] well-designed ideas about a new college, would argue that a real university or college needs to educate students toward two broad accomplishments:
1. A knowledge of the major documents and events of Western culture.
2. A decent respect for empiricism.
To know your world, and to know how to evaluate truth claims, would be an excellent foundation for any education that calls itself “higher,” for any institution that calls itself a college or a university.
Yet how do we work our way back to these essentials from the quackery of the contemporary college curriculum? Burke’s ideas are great, but he doesn’t discuss how he’d go about tossing established trash -- he sidesteps the problem by imagining a brand new college.
UD, for her part, thinks we should pound the crap out of what’s already there and make it go away. She proposes we begin, not with Creative Writing (see UD, 12/30/03), but with the far fouler Psychology.
Lately, a few sensible psychologists and psychoanalysts have tentatively suggested restricting therapy, and psychology curricula, to empirically tested theories and treatments. The head of the American Psychological Association -- whose degree is in education, whose 35-page cv appears on his Oprah-style website, who has a faculty appointment at an undistinguished university, and who looks forward to the day when we will all have to make “appointments for annual psychological checkups“ -- has called this idea “insane.”
The idea is certainly insane from the point of view of business (this man’s other degree is an MBA).
But from the point of view of (as the article in today’s New York Times Science Times section puts it) “credibility,” of “re-establishing the field’s respectability and repairing its image among insurers as a money-sink,” a drop of respect for empirical method might be a mark of lucidity among psychologists, rather than a sign of dementia.
Tens of millions of people in this country are in therapy, and we know that “therapy” means jackshit. Therapy is anything. All things. As the piece in the NYT makes clear, therapists are people who receive payment for being, in a wild variety of ways, compassionate and intuitive and long-suffering with you, just like the friend or relative or religious advisor who does this stuff for free and who you’re supposed to have in your life but for some reason don’t.
Or maybe you do have such people in your life, but you don’t listen to them because they don’t hold certain degrees and you think holding those degrees means something. Or you think you have to pay money to get anywhere with yourself. Or you enjoy having someone pay a lot of attention to you on a regular basis.
“Psychology,” as talking treatment, as practice and subject matter, has made little effort to make itself anything other than a welter of empathetic activities. Indeed it tends to be proudly anti-empirical. Psychologists don’t mind admitting that, as one of them says in the Times piece, “we have very little knowledge.“ Most psychologists don’t give a shit about reproducibility or results or anything like that. Yet we have given them, for fifty years or so, the run of the place. It’s only recently that insurance companies and scientists and others have said You are empirically ungrounded and you are costing us a lot of money. If people want to keep hanging out with you, they can do it on their own dime. If universities want to teach psychology, they can come up with an actual recognizable field of study.
At the APA’s last convention, when a more diplomatic version of the above was offered, the collective therapists became “raucous.” “The split in the field is bigger than it ever has been,” comments an observer. “The intensity of the acrimony, the distaste, has never been so high.” One of the intuitivists puts their position this way: “The move to worship at the altar of these scientific treatments has been destructive to patients…” Empirical method is religious fanaticism.
Psychologists have begun defending their turf against empiricists and insurance companies with a fanaticism of their own. Here’s the last paragraph of a recent communication to the troops from the head of the APA [UD‘s responses to this remarkable paragraph are in parentheses]:
"Less than 5% of the population have doctoral degrees. Hence, we are the educated elite of our time. [This is the sort of self-puffery you come out with when your profession is shrinking.] Our chosen field, psychology, is applicable to every aspect of human life. [Since psychology is everything, in other words, the business opportunities for the psychologist are vast.] As former APA President Patrick DeLeon has said, if we take care of society’s most pressing needs, society will take care of us. [Venal enough for you?]"
Self-respecting universities who would like to get serious should, UD thinks, start with their psychology curriculum.
Monday, August 09, 2004
WALDEN AT 150
"It is important to preserve the mind's chastity... Think of admitting the details of a single case of the criminal courts into our thoughts, to stalk profanely through their very sanctum sanctorum for an hour, ay, for many hours! to make a very barroom of the mind's inmost apartment, as if for so long the dust of the street had occupied us - the very street itself, with all its travel, its bustle, and filth, had passed through our thoughts' shrine! Would it not be an intellectual and moral suicide? ... I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality."
Sunday, August 08, 2004
THE STORMS OF C# MINOR AND THE CALMS OF C
"One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality," wrote Orwell in "Why I Write." One of the most beautifully and strategically reticent of poets, Donald Justice, has died.
Poetry, he wrote in one of his poems, is "most beautiful in its erasures." Like Thom Gunn [see UD, 4/28/04], who admired him, Justice understood that classical restraint rather than romantic excess, calm rather than hysteria, courage rather than self-pity, precisely controlled language rather than sloppy feeling, made the best sort of art, the best sort of reassurance. "The poet," wrote another of his admirers, "sums up with dignity, with serene and contemplative courage a world which is simply not surging with Romantic connections."
Rather than produce the verbiage of the uneffacing narcissist in search of self-recognitions, Justice produced calm, concise, exactly observed, excitingly beautiful renditions of the truth of the world [UD quoted from his poem about suicide in an earlier post: 3/27/04]. He was particularly good, like Philip Larkin, at evoking a sense of emptiness:
It's snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano - outside the window, palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.
Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down ...
So much has fallen.
And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.
Justice was a serious pianist, a man knowledgeable about music, and his lyrical intelligence informs the impeccable style and content of his poetry, all of which finds in art itself a complex saving balance. Justice recalls himself, a young piano student, attacking the keyboard with confidence,
Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.
Saturday, August 07, 2004
The same anti-elitist typesetting machine seems to have pounded out two recent opinion pieces in two different newspapers. Both respond to the Homeland Security Secretary's reported plan to quit his job because he needs a private sector salary to pay for his childrens' university educations.
The same headline (IF RIDGE CAN'T AFFORD...)leads to very similar screeds in the Bennington Banner and the Grand Forks Herald (the latter picks up the piece from the Philadelphia Daily News); the same mad-as-hell cliches blast "well-paid suit" Ridge for complaining that he (a privileged federal bureaucrat), is hurting, when "Joe Average" (as one of the opinion writers calls him), is "screwed." The country's gone "elitist," requiring college degrees for receptionists, and making college more and more expensive. Joe's credit cards are maxed out, the economy's slowing, and now he's got to pay for college...
Ignore the populist pandering, and these guys have a point. Ridge owns a house worth $873,000 (in Bethesda, UD's home town), and he has a lot of other sources of wealth. He's quite able to pay for college. He's using the college thing as an excuse to get out of his job.
Ridge thinks the college thing is a plausible excuse because he knows that we know that travel, tuition, and room and board are incredibly expensive. NPR recently interviewed two professors, each the author of a book on the matter (again, with remarkably similar titles, come to think of it: Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much; and Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much), and they pointed out that the main reason it's so insanely expensive is that things calling themselves "colleges" and "universities" are actually very little about teaching and overwhelmingly about "dormitories, food, entertainment...intercollegiate athletics," and so forth --"Universities are not about teaching ... students; they're about other, [noninstructional] things." We need to "cut down on [the] vast administrative bureaucracy...administrative staffs have soared at universities."
All of this is one reason why Timothy Burke's proposal for a new sort of college stresses that
...the college would build no athletic facilities, health care facilities, dining facilities or anything similar, and would instead encourage students to buy these services just as they would (or would not) if they were not attending the college...the college would also not offer some of the administrative services available at traditional liberal arts colleges - no extensive counseling to students, or support for student groups, and so on. The college would take no official or administrative interest in the private lives of its students (or for that matter its faculty or administration)...
Burke proposes, in other words, that we think hard about what a college is really about, and focus sharply upon that... and UD has of course been saying much the same thing in University Diaries, though not so well as Burke...
Anyway, this sort of idea has rather a long way to go in the United States. So many colleges and universities here are sports facilities with a few classrooms. UD doesn't know how you go from being a sports facility to being a university.
Two recent articles about two such places - the University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia - point out that the coaching staff and players that dominate these institutions are dragging them down further every day, draining huge amounts of money [UNC Outprices Itself], forcing the administration to sell the place to the highest corporate bidder, and (in the case of Georgia) "embarrassing" the institution by being guilty of so many major NCAA infractions that they've now been given a whole new category: "repeat violator." A lot of sports programs at a lot of universities are well-established semi-criminal operations of this sort. UD doesn't think this is what John Henry Newman had in mind by "the idea of a university."
But see - and I'm just guessing here, based on their style and content - I doubt the two guys I quote at the start of this post want their kids to go to serious actual universities. If you said to them it'll cost one tenth the price but there won't be tvs, a football team, or a campus psychiatrist, they'd say huh? And you call yourself a university???
Friday, August 06, 2004
Hard numbers be damned: UD would like to share with you her anecdotal experience of Ivy League grads and legacies.
UD knows about five graduates per school (we‘re only talking about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton here), and, with one exception, all came from affluent homes, went to expensive prep schools, and had family connections to the college that admitted them.
All of this might have changed in the last twenty years or so - UD’s friends are in their forties and fifties - but UD doubts the Ivy League has become much of a meritocracy.
The loaded non-meritocratic dice at these schools is one reason a number of observers are pissed with Harvard’s recent practice of sending out flattering, please-apply-you’re-so-smart letters to high school juniors all over the country. Almost none of these students has a chance in hell of admission, but the practice increases the number of applications the university receives, which makes it look absolutely terrific when it turns them all down. (The pressure put on elite schools to stop with the Early Admissions business is another effort to overcome the expensive naivete of American kids who go to the trouble of applying to schools without knowing all aspects of a very complex system.)
Americans have a right to ask those universities which are as much about the maintenance of an aristocracy as about intellectuality to be honest about this. If the universities were honest about this function, they wouldn’t have to dance around the question of why dim and ethically challenged people on the order of the young Ted Kennedy continue to be admitted to their schools, taking the place of brilliant virtuous nobodies.
These schools would simply be able to explain that, as members of an established elite, people like Kennedys and Bushes will almost certainly - like it or not - assume positions of importance in the country, and therefore the country should give them the best education possible. That education is as much about important people meeting other important people on the same campus as it is about intellectuality.
And yes of course the legacy system is also - these schools should admit - about maintaining the institution’s financial relationship with a wealthy high-profile family.
Yet to say all of this in populist America is, UD supposes, impossible. Instead, everyone must pretend legacies don’t exist, or are exaggerated, or are really only extended to students who meet the institution’s academic standards, etc., etc.
In a kind of ultimate absurdity, America’s President - a poster boy for legacy admissions - has today come out against them.
Wednesday, August 04, 2004
UD TAMPERS WITH THE OFFICIAL SONG OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI.
SANCTUARY; OR, GO TO MISSISSIPPI
(‘Since 2001, when [Louisiana] cracked down on unaccredited mail-order diploma mills, several distance-learning institutions jumped the border and set up shop with a Mississippi address. …Lacrosse, Columbus and American World universities …, all of which were once based in Louisiana, now have their headquarters between Picayune and Pascagoula. …Also unclear is how serious Mississippi is about overseeing the operations in the shadowy but lucrative niche of the education market…. The sudden eruption of diploma mills in Mississippi reprises Louisiana’s experience, which in turn echoed what California had been through…By 2002, only seven such universities were left in Louisiana, five of which were denied a license by the state. The Mississippi exodus had begun. … “When we saw Lacrosse had relocated there we called [Mississippi officials], and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of concern,” [said one Louisiana official]. … )
States may sing their songs of praise
With waving flags and hip-hoo-rays,
Let others boast of high degree:
They ain’t seen diplomas like Mississippi’s!
Go to Mississippi, land of the bogus,
Go to Mississippi, land of the rogues.
Other states shut down their mills,
But Mississippi’s got land to till!
Go to Mississippi - the exodus has begun;
Go to Mississippi- fuck accreditation.
Call yourself the School of God,
Establish any sort of fraud:
This is the place you wanna be!
The fine old sod of Mississippi.
Tuesday, August 03, 2004
STYLE, AND HOW TO GET IT
Regular readers of UD will recall one of her earliest posts [UD, 11/30/03], on television and her avoidance of it. Television is a boring subject, but UD wants to begin today’s post with it in order - among other things - to make a point about writing style.
Recall UD’s post in praise of Jan Morris’s essay on La Paz [UD, 3/26/04]. Here, the point was that Morris’s precise and exuberant prose conveyed through style as much as content her excitement at the eccentric, life-packed spectacle of high Bolivian cities, her openness to all sorts of experiences, and so forth.
Morris was in spectacular control of her prose; it revealed exactly what she wanted it to reveal of the world and of Morris. A less skilled writer, like the New York Times “Personal Health” columnist, Jane Brody, often reveals aspects of her character she would probably prefer not to have been revealed.
Look, for instance, at the first few cliché-choked paragraphs of her piece in today’s paper. Hell, start with her title - she probably didn’t choose it, but nonetheless…
TV’s TOLL ON YOUNG MINDS AND BODIES
Already the cliches are there - the silly melodramatic word (“toll”), and then a phrase that makes me think of old Wonder Bread commercials (“Helps build strong bodies twelve ways.”). And here’s the beginning of the essay, with my bitching about it [literary critics call what I’m about to do “reader response analysis” - that is, I’m sharing with you my actual responses as I read the text] in parentheses:
Television can be a wonderful learning tool. [Gevalt! One title and one sentence and I’m already puking cliches! “…wonderful learning tool”? Actually, no, tv cannot be a wonderful learning tool, and Brody knows this, so why does she feel she has to suck up to her readers by starting off with a lie? Her false and prim language has already got me started on my tendency to reread in a subversive way writing that seems to me, like this writing, intolerably smug and healthy-minded … I begin trying to read it as pornography… And (“…Young bodies…tool…”) it’s working!] Thirty-odd years ago, “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” helped my sons learn to read, count, socialize and cope with feelings. [Well, these are the usual suspects, and you wouldn’t know from Brody’s uncritical endorsement of them that none of these shows is in fact a particularly good way to learn anything beyond, as The Onion put it awhile ago in one of their greatest stories, “viewing skills”. And there’s the clump of clichés again - “socialize,” “cope with feelings” - this is the crap you express when you’ve secretly been watching Oprah even though you want people to think you’re too high-toned to do that. Or, again, is this simply condescension toward a readership you assume does nothing but watch tv and talk like this?] Nature programs on public television taught them an enormous respect for the world at large and the creatures within it. [Yeah, yeah, all you did was watch public tv… and I’m plotzing to beat the band with “respect for the world at large.”] Not until the boys were old enough to understand how commercials tried to promote consumption were they allowed to watch sports programs on commercial television. [Same lame claim that they only watched public tv, plus the newsflash that commercials try to promote consumption.] With little tv, they were two lean, strong, athletic children [porno button flashing] who grew up in a home without junk food [boast, boast. Martha Stewart eats no junk food and watches only public tv, and look what happened to her], did not pester their parents to buy things they saw advertised [uh huh], never smoked or drank alcohol and knew more about wildlife than the leader of a trip to Kenya [twenty-four hour nature show watching will do that to you]. Unfortunately, our experience with television is rarely duplicated these days [We’re special…better than other people…].
You get the idea. The way you write reveals way more than you think it does about you -- unless you’re in control of your style.
There are a couple of things you can do if you want to get serious about writing well. One is to study with great concentration the prose of people who write much better than you do. The other is to practice your writing in a quiet and conducive sort of environment. Which is where the second part of today’s post comes in.
A retired English professor each summer takes a small group of University of Michigan students to “an idiosyncratic - I think it’s even fair to say eccentric - annual [retreat sponsored by] the university English department,” writes a New York Times reporter, who goes on to describe a six-week outing to the New England mountains during which students read Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Frost, and other locals, discuss their work, write in a literary journal, and climb hills together. Sounds hippie dippie, but the curriculum is pure canon and hasn’t changed in thirty years, and the founder and leader of this “artificially circumscribed community” is a serious teacher.
Part of the circumscribed nature of the community involves a lack of electronics - not only are there no televisions, but “students give up their cellphones…they leave their computers at home…they aren’t allowed any recorded music.” Which is indeed idiosyncratic in the context of today’s universities, but is also exactly what colleges and universities were originally supposed to be - circumscribed, artificial environments within which one’s distance from the noisy world allowed a temporary concentration upon complex and important matters. A few colleges - St. John’s in Annapolis comes to mind - are still sort of like this, but most have bought the bullshit about how it’s better to be part of the big nasty world than some airy-fairy ivory tower, etc.
The Michigan students seem happy with this eccentric outing - it seems to have improved their writing and their thinking. And this is not only, UD would like to suggest, because their minds have been calmed and cleared by their setting and their asceticism. They are also beginning to intuit that the greatest writers are often unapologetically eccentric, idiosyncratic people, themselves acquainted with solitude and silence. They do not give a rat’s ass what anybody thinks of their eccentricity. They lack Jane Brody’s anxious concern with what she takes to be the sensibilities of her readers. They are not self-righteous message-mongers; rather, they embody and express better and/or more substantial ways of being in the world, and they do it with such style that they inspire rather than irritate.
The path of indirection and embodiment is as much a model for great teachers as for great writers. But students cannot follow this indirection if they are as distracted as most of them are by the havoc that’s been hauled onto their campus.
Monday, August 02, 2004
KHOURI -- LIKELY STORY
There's always another hoax about, and UD likes to keep you updated. This latest one's a sad and common type, a la Rigoberto Menchu -- an unscrupulous or naive person who has some connection to a culture of injustice fakes (in whole or in part) an account of an outrage. The motives are part narcissism, part greed, and part desire to draw attention to a horrible situation (the oppression of peasants; the enslavement of women).
This is a sad sort of hoax because when the work is revealed to be a cynical lie, the cause, which is all too real and needs all the attention it can get, suffers serious damage.
UD has already written about the hate crime hoax staged by Professor Kerri Dunn (see UD, 3/19/04), and the anti-semitism hoax more recently choreographed in the Paris metro (UD, 7/14/04); now she invites you to consider the best-selling book shown here, which details an honor killing in Jordan (rather than endure the shame of his Muslim daughter marrying a Christian, her father stabs her to death).
The author, who turns out to have many aliases and a criminal history, did not live in Jordan during the events she claims to have taken part in. She is also, it seems, one of those charismatic, borderline psychotic types (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, etc.) so bafflingly attractive to hard-bitten realists like publishers and editors, who are always getting taken in by them and then publishing memoirs about how they were taken in...
Anyway. One of the advantages of being educated is that you've got a bit of preparation for things like literary hoaxes, because you're aware of their long history, their perennial attractiveness to certain sorts of people, and their routine characteristics. You might even get to the point where you can begin to spot hoaxes before other people do, merely through the style of someone's prose and the general presentation of their book. Being educated doesn't mean you're a paranoid cynical sort - a "master of suspicion" - but it should mean having sufficient dispassion, sufficient familiarity with a certain rhetorical tradition (in this case, the hoax), and sufficient sensitivity to prose style to sniff some of this stuff out on your own.
SAME AS EVER
UD has boasted about teaching at an enviable place: a rich private university in one of the world’s great cities. She goes to lunch at bistros next door to the State Department. She’s done some consulting editorial work for the World Bank, which sits a block and a half from her office. Most of the significant sites of Washington are a pleasant stroll away from her desk.
All of that is a good deal less enviable today than it was yesterday. Today a code orange threat level was issued for the World Bank/IMF buildings. Terrorists seem to be preparing truck bombs.
So for the moment the glamour of UD’s location is more about high-profile vulnerability than about halls-of-power excitement.
But, well, the business of vulnerability…. Washington, DC has for a number of years been a high-profile target, and everyone here knows it. A colleague of UD’s knew early about the Pentagon attack, because she saw the building burning from her office window. After UD got back from a semester in France, she found it odd that all of the trash bins had been removed from the DC Metro, until she remembered that they’d been taken away as a security precaution. There are cameras everywhere. When UD donates blood at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, her car is stopped by lots of armed men at the entrance and seriously examined, with dogs and electronics.
In fact, for UD, the once-simple business of giving blood has become emblematic of our new lives. Admission to the NIH campus, and then to the Clinical Center where the blood labs are, and then the interview with the nurse -- it’s all become a much more elaborate and nervous business.
Yet for UD - for most people here - it’s all still background chatter. Undeniably there’s been an atmospheric change, but even after UD understood that the White House (four blocks from her office) had possibly been a September 11 target, and even after she walked past the burn unit housing people who’d been hurt in the Pentagon attack (UD was in the Washington Hospital Center visiting her mother, who’d had surgery), UD remained calm. Denial? Who knows. Having a friend who routinely goes to Kurdistan and Peshawar perhaps helps UD put in perspective the business of vulnerability. In any case, UD will return to her desk at her university in early September, same as ever. Barring a new horror.
Sunday, August 01, 2004
....like America do,
Brits are selling B.A.‘s just like me and you.
Oxford University; Cambridge too,
If you pay tuition, they’ll pass you on through.
Yes, fellow Alliance for A’s members, it’s Janice again [for background, see UD posts beginning with 11/30/03], singing Roger Miller’s great song in a slightly different key…I don’t know about you, but if, like me, you’ve ever had a close encounter with a snooty British professor gassing on about the vulgar Yanks with their lack of academic standards, I think you’ll find this article from The Observer gratifying.
Like us, British professors have figured out that universities need tuition to operate. They’ve also figured out that when you flunk a student or make his/her college life significantly unpleasant in other academic or social ways, you lose that tuition. Hence, a sensible university will both inflate grades and charge the highest tuition possible.
British universities, for instance, really soak foreigners: “At the top end of the range, foreign students can pay 30,000 pounds a year to study for a business degree - six times the income received from a UK undergraduate.” And since, for a variety of reasons, foreign students may have more academic trouble than native-born, these universities must be ready to accept sometimes very bad work from them. At Swansea University, reports one researcher, “a blind eye was turned to practices ranging from direct plagiarism to lecturers doing their students’ work for them, or simply passing work that had not been examined properly.”
Swansea’s recent closure of its chemistry, anthropology, and philosophy departments [Does Janice have her finger on the pulse of academic change, or does she not? Remember my communication of 5/18/04, in which I argued for the elimination of philosophy departments and their replacement by spa studies? Oh - and UD asks me to tell you to take a look back, in the larger context of this post, at the following posts as well: 6/22/04 and 7/6/04...] has some people speculating that “the decision has been made to boost the numbers of foreign students coming to study at the university’s new management school on lucrative masters’ degrees.”
The happiest news for us on this side of the Atlantic who are working for all A's across the board for all American college students is that even at Oxford
staff believed they were expected to give good grades to American students studying in England for credits for their courses back home. This impression has been passed to the students themselves. Gilbert Cervelli, an American theology and history student who spent six months at Oxford this year for a credit towards his American Bachelor of Arts degree said he received all A grades. “For a majority of my time at Oxford, I wondered if I could write an absolute crap essay and still have my tutor tell me it was wonderful just because I was a huge investment.”
Well, wonder no more, Gilbert. With the exception of a few highly technical majors (“Science graduates who cannot do what their certificate implies,” a lecturer at Bournemouth points out, “are potentially dangerous.”), it sounds as though the tuition-greased slide through school is just as smooth over there as it is over here.