Nothing Beyond the Current Moment

From Harvard:

Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

Reading the above, the first thing that struck me was that a university dean, especially one who is an English professor, should not view the 19th century as ‘a very long time ago’…most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time,  rather, she’s probably describing what she observes as the perspective of her students (though it’s hard to tell from the quote).  It does seem very likely that the K-12 experiences of the students have been high on presentism, resulting in students arriving at college  “with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach,” as a junior professor who joined the faulty in 2021 put it.  One would hope, though, that to the extent Harvard admits a large number of such students, it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview.  I do not get the impression that it actually does so.

In a discussion of the above passage at Twitter, Paul Graham @PaulG said:

One of the reasons they have such a strong “orientation toward the present” is that the past has been rewritten for a lot of them.

to which someone responded: 

that’s always been true! it’s not like the us didn’t rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years. what’s different is that high schools are no longer providing the technical skills necessary for students to read literature!

 …a fair point that there’s always been some rewriting of history going on, or at least adjusting the emphasis & deemphasis of certain points, but seems to me that what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past, at least in the US.  Changing the narratives on heroes and villains,  selecting particular facts to emphasize (or even to make up out of whole cloth) is not the same thing as inculcating a belief that “the unenlightened past has nothing left to teach.”

I don’t think most people inherently view the past as uninteresting; many stores, after all, have traditionally begun with the phrase “Once upon a time.”

I get the impression that a lot of ‘educators’, at all levels, have not much interest in knowledge, but are rather driven by some mix of (a) careerism, and (b) ideology.  For more on this,  see my post Classics and the Public Sphere.

And it’s also true that many schools are not providing students with the skills necessary to read literature–although there are certainly some schools that are much better than others in this area, and one would have hoped that graduates of such schools would be highly represented among those selected to become Harvard students.  Maybe not.   And technologies that encourage a short attention span–social media, in particular–surely also play a part in the decline of interest and ability to read and understand even somewhat-complex literature.

Although I suspect some of these students are perfectly capable of concentrating their attention when they really want to.  Some of them are probably computer science majors–hard to write or even understand a program without really concentrating on it. Some may be drama majors–I imagine that learning one’s lines and acting them requires a pretty significant level of focused attention.  And there are surely many other examples.  But the intrinsic motivation which is there in those cases doesn’t seem to be there in the case of reading literature.
Or am I kidding myself, and has the  short attention span phenomenon now become so pervasive that a lot of these students–and and even higher proportion of the people who didn’t go to Harvard…are going to come into adulthood lacking in sufficient attention span to be able to write code, do engineering design, analyze financial statements, fly airplanes or conduct air traffic control, perform surgical operations, etc?
Your thoughts?

It’s A Little Late to Develop A Conscience.

Matt “Dean Dad” Reed offers an instructive look at what Jascha Mounck felicitiously describes as the “cage of norms.”  That book is among those stacked to be reviewed.  Maybe this year?
Some of my earliest lessons in ethical behavior, as a child, came in the form of a question: “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” It was reasonably effective because it was simple. I could guess how I would feel, and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. Although I couldn’t have spelled the word at the time, the theory underlying that lesson was reciprocity.

Reciprocity relies on an underlying sense of relevant equality. You and I may be different people in any number of ways, but we’re both fully human, and that entails some basic respect. There’s an implicit politics within the ethical norm of reciprocity, too. I’m no better than anyone else, but I’m no worse, either. Taken seriously, that ethical position tends to lead to a rough egalitarianism. There may be hierarchical roles for various reasons, but the people occupying those roles are just people. They have the same human flaws as everybody else. And the power they’re granted is both a grant—that is, removable—and for a limited purpose. It is not license. Nobody is entitled to abuse anyone else, and nobody deserves abuse.
There’s a lot going on in those two paragraphs.  In that “How would you feel” is the basis for the first rule of interaction in the three Faiths of the Book.  There’s an important corollary, as well: the precocious child might ask Mom or Dad “How would you like being put in time-out?”  Kids don’t like being put in time-out, and the wise parent will note something to the effect that the grown-up version of time-out lasts for days, not minutes, in a place called “jail”.  The concept of reciprocity, though, is a straightforward elaboration of the things that matter that are learned in kindergarten.

The second paragraph appeals to the Framing of the Declaration of Independence.  The “endowed by their Creator” passage vesting rights in individuals is a rebuttal to the divine right of kings: it was not the Hand of God that made the Stuart Tudor Hanover Battenberg Windsor family Defenders of the Faith, Emperors of India, and sovereigns over British North America.  People consented to their rule, and people had the right to withdraw their consent.  Note, dear reader, how the Holy Spirit has been more catholic in identifying popes, a position of power that up to 1978 seemed to be reserved to Italian cardinals.  Ideally, a rough egalitarianism ought to hold in education as well. Yale Law do not hold the franchise on staffing the High Bench, nor is the Southeastern Conference endowed with the right to dominate football.

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Rape Culture


The college scene is all agog about rape culture. How do we know if it is a problem ?

It’s a phrase you hear a lot. But, what exactly does it mean? Is there one general definition? Not necessarily. In many ways the phrase evokes the famous Supreme Court comment about obscenity from Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

And, you don’t have to look far to see examples of rape culture these days. Whether it’s advertising, movies, music videos or social media — images, words, concepts — it’s all out there illustrating men dominating women.

So, now we know the problem. It is men.

Popular movies are strewn with plots of men with the sole purpose of having sex. In the movie “American Pie,” the entire plot of the film revolves around teenage boys wanting to throw a party so they can get girls drunk and have sex with them.

That movie was when ? Well, it was 1999. That was 15 years ago, wasn’t it ? How old were these activists then ?

It’s also been stated by writer Adam Herz that the title also refers to the quest of losing your virginity in high school, which is as “American as apple pie.” So, it wasn’t just about girls losing virginity ?

How about porn star/student, Belle Knox ?

Despite the ordeal, Knox said she plans to continue both her porn work and her classes at Duke. In interviews, she frequently mentions working to increase the rights of sex workers.

“I really want to break down barriers,” Knox said. “I want to change peoples views on sex work. … I mean, I was the first porn star to go on ‘The View.’ This is really exciting for me.

She complains about the publicity and the reaction of others but “This is really exciting for me.” Feminism 2014 version. Another porn star success story.

Ph.D. program in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She does cam work, some porn, stripping, and some fetish work. Unlike Knox and L., Parreira is out about her sex work. “The department seems to be a sort of hub for sex workers and sex work research, so it has been a non-issue,” Well, that’s a relief.

Now, back to rape culture. Maybe it’s a tiny bit exaggerated ?

An early sign of an obsession with “rape culture” on campus occurred at Duke during the lacrosse case. In April 2006, in a 2000-plus word statement that declined to mention the presumption of innocence, Duke president Richard Brodhead created a “Campus Culture Initiative,” to explicate and “confirm [emphasis added] the existence of a dominant culture among Duke undergraduates.” There was, of course, no rape, but the CCI proceeded along as if there were, operating under the Orwellian slogan that “diversity makes a more excellent university.”

The Duke LaCrosse team case is a horrible example of leftist agitation in action. The whole story is here. Briefly, a hysteria descended on the Duke University campus after a stripper, later convicted of murder, accused the La Crosse team of a gang rape. The young men of the team were immediate demonized by the usual suspects of campus radicals. Fortunately, the boys came from families that could afford good lawyers.

The immediate frenzy followed the usual script.

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Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on the 27th of May, 2013.

A selection of the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.
Image source.

A “proper education” changes with its times.

In the days of America’s founding a true education was a classical education. An educated man was not simply expected to be familiar with the great works of Greek and Roman civilization; the study of these works was the foundation of education itself. Thomas Jefferson’s advice to an aspiring nephew captures the attitudes of his era:

It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope’s and Swift’s works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca…. 

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Food for thought

Though medical education is not inexpensive, academic leaders often ignore the fact that the funds to support it properly are already available, if they choose to use the funds for this purpose. Student tuition, appropriations from state legislature to public schools, and certain portions of endowment income have always been intended for the education of medical students. Traditionally, deans have appropriated these funds for purposes not directly related to education – an animal care facility here, the establishment of a new research program there. Academic leaders bemoan the lack of funds to support faculty teaching time, even as they spend tens of millions of dollars to build new “teaching and learning centers” or expand the administrative bureaucracy.

N. ENGL J MED 351;12 WWW.NEJM.ORG SEPTEMBER 16, 2004 (link to pdf)

I thought of the above when reading the following at Instapundit:

The real problem is that higher education isn’t providing enough of a benefit to its graduates, not that universities aren’t extracting enough money from the students. But read the whole thing. Including this: “And, of course, while professors are expensive, they’re not the main expense. Administrators outnumber faculty at most universities these days. But I suspect that won’t get the scrutiny it deserves.” Speaking of cost centers. Much more on administrative bloat, here.

None of this is exactly new knowledge. The response, however, has been as slow as, well, bureaucratic molasses.

Update: Thanks for the link, Professor Reynolds!