THE EVISCERATION OF THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY

Admiral William McRaven, head of the US Special Operations Command, has been chosen as chancellor of the University of Texas system upon his retirement in the fall from the military. And he is not the first military officer, or national security official, to be chosen to head an American university or college, either. Is he the right man for the job? Here’s a sample of the kind of wisdom he will bring to the job: “If you want to change the world, start by making your bed.” Now, the premise here is that by making your bed “to perfection” (his personal goal for those serving under him), you transfer that energy and diligence of effort to everything else. In McRaven’s words, “Making the bed will also reinforce the fact that little things matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.” Let us scrutinize more closely this proffered path of wisdom.

First, we must reflect upon the source. McRaven is an admiral in charge of a secretive military command, which includes the Navy Seals. The Seals have a training regimen wherein every tiny detail does indeed matter. When a military mission is established, the training for it rests upon countless small details executed to perfection. A failure in the small things here will almost certainly mean grave difficulties somewhere down the line. So for McRaven’s troops, his wisdom isn’t “decorative,” but may well prove to be the difference between a mission’s  success or failure, and a Navy Seal’s life or death.  The difficulty here, of course, is that he will now become the chancellor of a prestigious university system. Are the two—the military and the university—similar enough so that his vision, wisdom, and expertise in the one area can be transferred successfully to the other? Or are the two fields sufficiently different in nature that success in one does not automatically imply success in the other?

Let us examine the nature of education. Education is, or ought to be, chiefly about inquiry and self-growth: the gaining of knowledge and insight, and especially, in a good liberal arts program, the gaining of a general, but deep knowledge, of reality itself.

But making one’s bed—where does this fit in? In my opinion, it doesn’t! And that is what is so worrisome to me about having an admiral become head of a university. Making one’s bed, like the mandatory daily polishing of one’s military-issue shoes, is merely an act of obedience; it signifies nothing more. Inquiry, on the other hand, drives, or ought to drive education; but that is the opposite of what McRaven has spent a life-time doing, viz., ordering people to carry out his commands. Men under him don’t question his orders; they blindly execute them. That’s what makes the military the efficient force that it is. An admiral commands: a soldier obeys, period.

But nothing could be further from the Academy than obedience for obedience  sake; where inquiry, or dissent,  thereby is stifled.  Academics need encouragement and freedom in order to strike out in new or different directions. Can McRaven reverse sails so late in life, encourage  freedom of thought, and tolerate dissent when up to now conformity and obedience were his twin gods?

What is troubling to me is his use of the metaphor of making one’s bed in an academic context. Ideas are not obedient soldiers. And academicians do not blindly follow others but think for themselves, choose their own goals as well as the means to achieve them. Courage, not obedience, is the chief virtue in the Academy, as can be seen clearly through the lens of history, where new ideas all too often have encountered intractable resistance and even violence. The history of astronomy painfully attests to this resistance to truth and the pressures to conform to the prevailing opinions—or the current national shame of creationism, which confuses belief with fact, and is summarily dismissive of the scientific method, which is one of the indispensable pillars of the Academy. Can one used to ordering others suddenly encourage, even promote, independent thinking and acting?

There are other issues as well—for example, the small numbers of blacks in the UT system. How does “making your bed” address the problem of racial under-representation? Or address the sinister shift in the goals of education, through the money and influence of Corporate America, which wants to train students merely to be good and productive employees for their business, rather than train their mind for life’s challenges that lay ahead.

Education is further endangered by its dependence upon, and glorification of, college athletics. Education today often seems to be less important to a university than having a championship team. And with athletics so closely tied to multi-million dollar media contracts, the importance of education is diminished amid the media-hype of sports and the deification of athletes—even to the point of institutional grade-fixing. Adding to the problem created by the media is a professional athlete’s multi-million dollar salary. When student-athletes leave school early in order to sign a big contract, the message they convey to our young—a message supported by the university—is “Sports are more important than education, and for a good athlete, more lucrative.”

With all media today owned by only a handful of individuals or corporations (this by itself constitutes a grave threat to our democracy), and being right-wing to boot, society rarely gets treated to the presentation of an issue which is (more or less) free of ideological bias. Education ought to be the one place where independent inquiry is pursued for its own sake, with the results informing society. If instead of inquiry for its own sake we have corporate money, ideology, sports, and the media influencing education, then are we on the fast track to educational irrelevance. Given these circumstances, I worry whether a chancellor who believes in the perfect execution of small (unimportant) details, can, in a non-military setting, provide the kind of leadership our universities need if they are to be the agent of both change and stability that has historically defined them. Can one used to unflinching obedience change course mid-stream and welcome debate and disagreement? Can one not just tolerate but honor the “arrogance of dissent?”

Common wisdom has it that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And that is precisely my worry.

Len Sive Jr.

VOYEURISM AND THE FAILED AMERICAN EDUCATION SYSTEM

A few days ago at San Diego’s Woodland Middle School, in health class, 8th grade students were asked to stand under signs that indicated how far they would go sexually when they started dating. The signs read variously “Hugging,” “Kissing,” “Above the Waist”, “Below the Waist,” and “All the Way.”

So, here you are in 8th grade, at a notoriously awkward age, not yet dating, and you are to tell the entire class (and via rumor, the entire school!) how you might behave sexually in the future! This artful little game was something the “innovative” principal, Brian Randall, found in a community clinic, which was his defense in using it. (Randall’s logic: It comes from a community clinic; all things from a community clinic are educationally valuable; since this comes from a community clinic, it must be educationally valuable.) This exercise was billed as a way for parent-child communications to be opened up. How exactly that might happen was left unexplained.

And more to the point, how does this school arrogate to itself the right to ask questions proper only within the family (and most decidedly not in front of other students and staff!) or between a licensed therapist and his or her client?

I should like the school to put up signs for principals like Brian Randall to stand under (“I found this one at a community clinic, so it must be good”). Here are the signs: “I have not yet committed adultery, but I’m thinking about it,” “I have committed adultery, but regret it,” “I have committed adultery and enjoyed it,” and “Fidelity in marriage should be optional.”  This little game of mine, by the way, is “to open up communications between husband and wife.”

Just imagine this game: all the teachers are there, their spouses, the janitors even, perhaps a reporter or two (our rumor mill). And you must stand under one of the signs before the curious gaze of everyone present. Now it’s only a guess, mind you, but I think there might be one or two who would balk at playing this game, with privacy being the reason given.

Such “New Age” educational material is one reason why our school system is so poor; why we test almost last in comparison with other nations, developing and developed; why the media now broadcasts on a 5th grade level (news broadcasters, unfortunately, seem hardly better educated than that themselves!); and why we now see the dumbest productions on TV and in the movies.

Woodland’s descent into voyeuristic games in health class must surely be an indicator of the school’s overall intellectual quality. Do they teach Latin or Greek there, or French or German?  I would be very surprised if they did.  Can the students read good books (“Classics”) with both edification and enjoyment? Can they write well? Do they know how to diagram a sentence? How well prepared are they for entering high school? If Brian Randall’s use of logic is itself any indication, the intellectual strength of the school is on the short side of rigor and excellence.

The hard work of learning Latin in middle school or high school is today mostly just a memory, and yet those few students today who do take Latin easily outscore their non-Latin peers on standardized tests. The time taken to learn Latin rather than time spent on embarrassing voyeuristic “games” would aid a student incalculably more.

But one thing you can bet on from Principal Brian Randall, the path that should be taken to improve his school will not be taken. Why not? Because in response to parental criticism, he simply turned defiant and refused to take their criticism seriously.  In his mind there is no other truth than his own.  But as Socrates taught us two and a half millennia ago, real education is the search for Truth (not a defense of one’s opinions), but this presupposes humility and openness, neither of which Randall appears to possess. Since a school’s educational philosophy is largely determined by its principal’s, one may assume from Brian Randall’s defiant close-mindedness  that there is no great love of Truth at Woodland Middle School, and this would inevitably color what, and how,  a school teaches.

Our American education system is broken. One way to judge this is to look at the effects of science on our views of the universe. And what do we find? Science for half the country has had little discernible effect. 46% of American adults believe that the universe is 10,000 years old or younger. This view is called Creationism, which also advocates that God created the universe, as well as the first humans ( Adam and Eve), in just 7 days! It’s as if no progress in science has been made in the last 3000 years! Intellectually, there are many in the United States who are still in the Dark Ages! One often reads a lament about how we are not training scientists today. With Creationism believed so widely, one can see why the sciences have taken a back seat to unreasoning belief. The Bible is not and was never meant to be a scientific handbook. It is a book about God’s sovereignty (Genesis, Exodus)—a “Who the final authority is and our relationship to Him” and not a detailing “How the universe was created,” which is and ever will be a complete mystery, all the present and future scientific advances notwithstanding.

This simple fact, however, is too scary for the average Creationist to believe. Their faith is not strong enough to hold the sacred cup of mystery, their narrow minds too desiccated for the rich luxuriance of metaphor and symbol. Mankind is homo symbolicus; the Creationist on the other hand is homo timidus. But where there is no courage, there can be no true or lasting knowledge. The search for Truth is not for the faint of heart. To be numbered among God’s true followers is an essay in courage—and an adventure not of the spirit only but also of the mind. Only those who courageously  seek Truth truly live, truly embody the spirit of God. The fearful shall never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Woodland Middle School shows graphically how our education system is a failed enterprise. The reasons are many, however, and transcend easy criticism of Brian Randall. But he is surely part of the problem. He sets the school’s tone. In approving of a 14-year-old declaring publically what he or she would do sexually in the future is both pathologically voyeuristic, potentially psychologically harmful, inexpressibly inappropriate, as well as a bellwether of the continuing decline of the American education system.

Len Sive Jr.

THE GREAT HOAX

“You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.”  Abraham Lincoln

A young professional athlete just got his first contract: 144 million dollars for 6 years! I did some calculating. That’s 24 million dollars a year, or 65,000 dollars a day, every day, for 2,109 days. A high school teacher, on the other hand, if well-paid, might make 65,000 per year. In a little over one month this athlete will have earned more than the teacher would have earned in 35 years of teaching. His salary would support 2215 teachers! Our society has gone mad.

This is the great hoax and it is we ourselves who perpetuate it. Nothing could be more absurd to any rational human being than the paying out of such exorbitant sums…to an athlete of all people, whose value to a society at any time in history, realistically speaking,  is only a little more than that of a fevered gambler.

It is one of the ironies of history that those who contribute the least to society earn the most. And those who contribute the most—nurses, teachers, care-givers, foster parents, writers, artists, poets—these all too often have to scrape up odds and ends of a living even though they are our society’s engine, and the source of all that is good.

Ask yourselves this: Your loved one is in the hospital gravely ill. Do you call up a rich athlete for help? The question answers itself. You rely on nurses and other care-givers; into their hands you entrust your loved ones. This single test tells us whose value is greater. Yet who makes more money? Who is more esteemed? And for what? What do athletes contribute to the advancement and welfare of society? Absolutely NOTHING.  They play games—sometimes painful games, but games all the same. And that’s it. That’s their total contribution. Nothing shows more clearly than this just how wrong-headed are the values of our society.

It’s all a big hoax. We have been brainwashed by those who benefit from sports—the owners first and foremost, then the athletes, the advertisers, the media, etc.—into thinking that sports are important, that athletes are special.

More repugnantly, education at the high school and collegiate levels is all too often twisted and defiled just to accommodate an athlete. Recently on the Internet there was a piece about the University of North Carolina, a top university, which had created non-existent classes just for its athletes to take and to receive an “A” from. An entire university twisted and bent into lying and deception solely on behalf of its athletes! Our society’s most important institution abused for the sake of sports. Plagiarism is a capital offence at universities—but lying and cheating on behalf of athletes is OK! Nothing shows more clearly, more emphatically, how off the mark our modern society is. Sports—to coin a phrase—are  just sports, nothing more.

The big hoax is that we’ve been brainwashed into thinking otherwise.

Len Sive Jr

A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS: OR THE DEVALUATION OF WISDOM

In today’s globalized market, where things, or ideas that can eventually produce things, are the only real global currency, the ancient Greek concepts of episteme (systematic knowledge) and sophia (wisdom) hold little value. In the US, both conservatives and liberals alike increasingly view education as merely a means to an end and not as an end in itself, i.e., as the way to deepen, enhance, and “heighten” life  through the passionate and life-long pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—regardless of their market value. In other words, education, as we have known it in the West now for over 2500 years (called “the liberal arts”), has been reduced from wisdom and the joy of discovery (including self-discovery) to mere job-training and job-seeking. Wisdom has been set aside for the single-minded pursuit of profit and (therefore) power. And in the process, humanity has forsaken its true home in the realm of the sublime, which alone makes life worth living, in order to embrace instead the intellectual vacuity of vocational education. And along with this fundamental change in the purpose and conduct of education goes any chance of forging an ordered, well-regulated, rational society and government: For a people without rationality can never govern itself wisely.

Ever since Socrates, education was meant to counter the nihilism of a person wrongly valuing riches, fame, sensuality, and power in order to rightly value the passionate and life-long search for truth, goodness, and beauty, a quest begun here in this life but continued into the next.  From Socrates and the great Greek tragedians (among many others) have come that wisdom which is cathartic in expelling vice and ignorance, and which has been handed down in unbroken succession in the West—until now—for over two and a half millennia.

But with conservatives, foundations, think-tanks,  and CEOs stressing education simply for jobs; universities stressing increasing profits; and liberals stressing education merely for the glorification or indulgence of self; the passionate and life-long search for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, which has given western civilization its Homer and its Sophocles, its Shakespeare and its Dante, its Goethe, Newton and Tolstoy, among others too numerous to mention—these monuments to intellect, goodness and beauty are no longer forming, or informing, our youngest minds. And the result, if finalized, can only be a permanent desiccation of their intellect and soul that cannot but make life even more difficult and more troubling both for them and for society than it already is.

A Liberal Arts education is the one true oasis in the desert of specialization and job-training. It is literally what men live and die for—what makes life worth living. Without it, we become merely obedient and clever dogs—we can (for either government or employer)  run on cue, chase our tails, and bark at shadows…but most assuredly we cannot think—not  as human beings should think, and were created to think. Humans alone share this ability to think, this capability, with God (“man was created in the imago Dei,” in God’s image), and it is this, the thinking of “divine” thoughts, that separates us humans from all other creatures on earth. For only we can aspire to and sacrifice for truth, give of ourselves to others out of goodness, and create works of indescribable and lasting beauty—that can wring tears from our souls, expressive of life’s deepest and most profound meanings.

But so little does this view of education obtain today that one is tempted to say that it is dead—moribund it most certainly is, but in many places, alas, also dead… and buried. And if this is true in the US, with its long and storied history of liberal arts, that once turned our European barbarian ancestors  of earlier ages into more civilized human beings, and along the way gave to humanity (and not just to the West) democracy, the rule of law, justice tempered with mercy, constitutions, the separation of powers, universities, hospitals, the arts, philosophy, the theater, opera, mathematics, literature, science, inter alia—one must expect it to be true a fortiori in Asia where there is no millennia-long history of liberal arts to draw upon, and where technology, and the use of technology, now passes for “culture.” But lap-tops, cell phones, and TV are not, nor can they ever become, the equal of a Shakespeare, a Plato, a Bach, or a Michelangelo.

In Korea, e.g., where I now live and teach, and where the traditions and wisdom of a Confucius or a Buddha seem largely forgotten (or where remembered, so watered down as to be of virtually no help for living), education, as in so many other Asian countries, is merely for the sake of obtaining a well-paying job, period: And test-taking is the sole means to that end. Education in Korea, put in classical Greek terms, is mere, and only, techne (Gk. skill), not a broader search for truth, understanding, or general principles with which to guide one’s life by, let alone a passionate love of and devotion to truth and wisdom in order to bring joy and peace to one’s soul, and to make a contribution to one’s family, community, nation, or the world.  As we know from Socrates, education was to reach through the individual to the larger community in which he lived. It was never intended to be an idiosyncratic (private) pursuit which could not help, directly or indirectly, one’s fellow citizens on the path and pilgrimage of Life.

So strong is the idea in Asia in general, and Korea in particular, that education is simply for jobs; and so willing and eager are Koreans to pay high fees in order to achieve this positive job-result, that offering to teach education for free, as I have done, simply for the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty for their own sakes, is taken to be either a sign of madness or incompetence or else a subterfuge for baser motives. For no one here takes the western liberal arts view of education seriously. The life of the mind here (as our great teacher Socrates instructed us as to how it should be) in Korea is a “dangerous idea”, just as it was in Greece for Socrates himself (who was accused of “corrupting the young” and “introducing new gods” and was executed by Athens as a result—he, Socrates, the wisest and best man of his time according to Plato).

There is indeed nothing so dangerous, so revolutionary, so upsetting, both to families and to governments, than an individual’s life-long, single-minded devotion to the pursuit of truth, and the living out, as best one can, of a life of goodness, supported by deep and passionate attachment to beauty (in its various guises of poetry, piety, art, architecture, empathy, self-giving love, literature, etc). Forget the dangers of revolutionaries like Marx. Nothing in history has proven to be more dangerous to the status quo than a person who can think—truly think—for himself. As tyrants like Kim Jong-Il of North Korea know only too well, you can kill the body but you cannot kill an idea—and so it is with ideas—especially ideas of justice, goodness, and righteousness—that make every tyrant’s soul tremble the most. (This trembling, of course, being but a foretaste of divine judgment.)

The whole revolutionary idea of Western culture, of the liberal arts, may be conveniently summed up in the extraordinary words of Jesus: “The truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) Alas, there are many among us who choose to continue to live in prisons of their own making. And when they do so, they thereby encourage tyrants, like Kim Jong-Il, to make prisons for their bodies as well. For prisons of the mind inevitably and necessarily lead to shackles for the body. Only the Truth can set man free.

Len Sive