Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Monthly Archives: July 2015

Cecil the Lion and human suffering

I was 100% certain, when I heard the news about that awful dentist killing a protected lion, that some person who doesn’t care about other people would say something about how we care about the lion and not other people. And lo, “Sometimes It’s Just Easier to Care About Dead Lions Than Dead People,” says noted humanitarian Matt Walsh.

I thought maybe the lion had cured cancer, or sprouted wings and flown into space, or stood on its hind legs and recited the Gettysburg Address. Surely, these developments would vindicate the disproportionate amount of attention it was receiving. But I quickly found out that the lion, from Zimbabwe, had done no such thing. Apparently, all it did was die.

Of course, lots of people died yesterday too, especially in Zimbabwe. Across the planet, human travesties continued to unfold – Christians were slaughtered in the Middle East, political prisoners were tortured and executed in North Korea and Iran, Americans fell prey to crime and violence spilling over our southern border, and about 3,000 human children were butchered in abortion clinics, some of which were then dissected and sold on the black market – but this one unfortunate beast in a forest 9,000 miles away trumped all of these. Human victims would have to wait yet another day to be noticed by our culture. Their plight just couldn’t compete with a cute, fuzzy mammal.

Just this little bit tells you everything you need to know about Walsh – among the biggest concerns that America faces today? Mexicans, naturally. In a quick further glance through Walsh’s horrible archive at the terrible website The Blaze, we see Walsh: claim that gay marriage is impossible and say that gay marriage hurts him personally, blame teenage girls for getting beat up by the police, call Caitlyn Jenner “a mentally ill crossdresser,” blame Muslims for Islamophobia, and downplay the significance and prevalence of rape. (In a similar sort of move, a person who has published numerous pieces opposing abortion also rejects any legal efforts to make work easier for pregnant women.)

Admittedly, I’m getting into “obnoxious hypocrite is obnoxiously hypocritical – news at 11” territory here. But if you’re going to complain about empathy for dead lions replacing empathy for human beings, you have to demonstrate you had some concern for other people in the first place. Pseudo-Christian hateful racist misogynists do not get to take that rhetorical approach.

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College as a Commodity

Via Jonathan Rees’ twitter, I find this article by Hunter Rawlings, AAU president: “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.” Relevant bit:

Even on purely economic grounds, such questions, while not useless, begin with a false assumption. If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. And I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes which my students made average or worse through their lack of effort. Though I would like to think I made a real contribution to student learning, my role was not the sole or even determining factor in the value of those courses to my students.

There’s a problem under here. First, a college degree is obviously (in at least some ways) a commodity, although it’s probably more accurate to think of collections of commodities. That’s an “is” statement, not a “should be” statement, but education is not valued the way that educators necessarily think it should be. The Ivy League degree matters, and the market doesn’t really care about how much effort you put into your major. A person who works hard at Harvard probably gets more out of their degree than someone who skates by, but they’re both much more likely to be better off economically speaking than someone with a degree from Declining Regional State University.

That said, I don’t want to sound like I disagree too much with this article because, generally speaking, I don’t. Students shouldn’t think of colleges as just a series of pointless obstacles to get a piece of paper that lets you get a better job. But the author lets some important actors off the hook. Rawlings mentions how “Governors and legislators, as well as the media, treat colleges as purveyors of goods, students as consumers and degrees as products. Students get the message,” which is true, but incomplete. Colleges treat students as customers. They cut costs on teaching by hiring adjuncts and term teachers, expand administration, and spend vast sums on infrastructure. There’s this vicious cycle that I don’t know how to break: Schools feel the need to spend their declining money on movie theaters and rockclimbing walls and magnificent gymnasiums because that’s what many students want when they pick a school. That (and lots of those other things, including administrative bloat and most importantly decreased state funding) makes colleges more expensive, encouraging students to be more discriminating in choosing schools, to get more bang for their buck – partly in terms of financial returns, partly in terms of experiential things like movie theaters and swimming pools. Add in deteriorating opportunities for the less educated and increasing credentialism, and you’ve got the “college as a commodity” mindset.

I don’t think the solution here, as I’ve often seen put forward, is for fewer people to go to college. More people should go to college, because college is great. But even if college were free, there are associated costs and demands of college attendance and things like declining income mobility that are beyond the power of only college administrators to fix.

Unconservative attacks on higher education

Higher education, especially a humanistic higher education rooted in the liberal arts, is under attack to an extent we haven’t seen in the United States in decades. This is to a large degree a Republican effort – in North Carolina, Louisiana, Wisconsin, among other states, Republicans have overseen drastic cuts in funding and attacked some of the very foundations of the modern university. Probably the two leading candidates right now for the Republican presidential nomination are Scott Walker and Jeb Bush; Walker’s blows to higher education in Wisconsin are well-known, while Bush seems to want to turn colleges into privatized, STEM-oriented trade schools.

This might indeed be a Republican effort, but it’s not a conservative one.

Conservatism in the United States is supposed to be about liberty, respecting tradition, supporting the rule of law and republicanism, small government and free enterprise, moral and religious values, and a defense of Western civilization and American exceptionalism. I don’t necessarily agree with all that, but there’s really no room for the hostility to higher education specifically and the humanities in general in American conservatism that we see today among many Republicans.

Conservatives used to care about and support a liberal arts education. Remember the canon wars? In the 1980s and 1990s, conservatives recognized the humanities as the foundation of a free, democratic society. Many believe that Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind represents the beginning of the canon wars; what did Bloom argue? That “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students”. Souls! It’s tough to imagine even the most publicly-religious Republican candidate today talking about how a liberal arts education could be responsible for the well-being of the nation’s souls.

The liberal side of the canon wars argued that introducing new works and figures, especially from underrepresented groups like women and racial minorities, would both improve and broaden the appeal of a humanities education. Conservatives, in contrast, wanted to continue to teach the traditional Western Civilization canon. The idea wasn’t just that putting women and African studies and deconstruction into the traditional western canon was wasting money that should be going toward more science courses. Reducing or eliminating the western canon, conservatives argued, threatened the very skills and knowledge necessary for a free society.

It’s clear why conservatives thought this way – the idea that an educated person must have certain skills and know certain texts to meaningfully participate in public life is a very old one. The study of the humanities goes back at least to the Italian Renaissance, and the liberal arts the Middle Ages before that. Modern day pseudo-conservatives pretend to revere the Founding Fathers, but those guys all had a classical education that stressed the liberal arts. They used classical allusions constantly, because it was widely accepted that such a background was vital to usefully contribute to civic life. Conservatives up until fairly recently asserted that these ideas and texts, things that had stood the test of time, had an obvious and inherent value that went beyond the merely measurable.

You can disagree with the conservative side of the canon wars, but it’s difficult to imagine leading Republicans today asserting the importance of a rounded education in which a canon of great books is crucial to knowing and understanding the world. The positions have exactly reversed – the contempt that conservatives claimed their opponents had for the humanities has been adopted wholesale by Republicans claiming to represent conservatism.

Some conservatives still care about a liberal arts education, and the problems with higher education aren’t all from the outside – college administrators have done their best, it seems, to make higher education simultaneously useless (by degrading the very things that make a college education meaningful) and expensively necessary (by doing their part to send college costs skyrocketing and thereby encouraging students and parents to focus on the measurable impact on income). I would be the first to agree that there’s a lengthy list of the things that we do wrong in higher education today – American colleges and universities need reform, drastic reform.

But modern day conservatives don’t care about philosophy or literature or capital-t Truth. Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and the rest of their vulgar pretend-populist ilk would close every single college and department focusing on history, literature, and philosophy. In what sense can that be considered conservative?

Bad arguments about the South

Michael Lind’s “How the South Skews America” asserts that the United States as a whole would be more like other English-speaking democracies – less violent, less religious, more socially mobile – without the South. The South, Lind argues, generally makes the United States worse in terms of most social markers. I don’t know if this argument is true, but Lind definitely does not prove it.

On principle, I think we should call out sloppy thinking and poor argumentation, and I think Lind’s article is a good example of something that needs criticism. But I also find the underlying attitude deeply troubling. There’s this lazy approach that too many commentators take – if it weren’t for those dumb rednecks, the United States would be a more enlightened place. This is harmful to progress in all sorts of ways, akin to assuming that it’s the highly visible KKK member who’s the worst manifestation of racism (see this great Ta-Nehisi Coates article). Lind claims he wants to avoid “lurid stereotypes of a monolithic South,” but such an approach characterizes his entire article.

The most eye-rolling example of Lind’s bad logic is about economic inequality: “Apart from California and New York, where statistics reflect the wealth of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the South is the region with the greatest income inequality.” Okay, so the South is most unequal, except for the largest and fourth-largest states, which are the two cultural leaders of the country and hold about a fifth of the nation’s population.

Lind doesn’t provide an exact citation for that claim, but this measure of economic growth between 1979 and 2007 (the first thing I found with a little googling) for a state’s 1% lists the most unequal states as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Wyoming, New Jersey, and Washington before you get to the first southern state, Florida, and then down another five to Virginia at 12. By Gini coefficient, there’s a bit more southern representation, but DC, New York, and Connecticut are your most unequal states. And there’s just the smell test – when you think about problems with economic mobility and economic inequality in the United States, is it the South that comes to mind? I think of the economic and political elite, among whom I would hazard southerners are underrepresented. The country club set in southern small towns is frequently terrible, but those aren’t the guys really running the show in the United States.

Some of his other points seem to be less about the South than about poor and black people. Even if we take for granted (and I don’t) that open religiosity are harmful, it’s African Americans who who are more likely among other racial and ethnic groups to report formal religious affiliation. Black people are more likely to be religiously affiliated and to claim that religion is important in their lives, and they’re more likely to be comfortable with religious expression among political leaders. Similarly, poor people and countries tend to be more religious than rich people and rich country. Perhaps the South is more religious because it’s poorer and blacker than the rest of the country.

We don’t have to use vague concepts like “The pre-modern ‘culture of honor'” that allegedly continues to exist in the South to understand southern violence: poor people and rural people are more violent. You can also do some uncomfortable things with this approach: Linds writes that “the South as a region, containing only a quarter of the population, accounted for 40.9 percent of U.S. violent crime.” Approximately the same percentage of prison inmates in the United States are black, and blacks are about half of homicide offenders, making up an even smaller portion of the population than do southerners; does that mean black people are more violent than white people? Or maybe there are other socioeconomic trends that are more compelling reasons? Also, I don’t know how seriously we should take criticisms of how “Southerners disproportionately support sanctioned violence in all of its forms, from military intervention abroad to capital punishment to corporal punishment of children” from Michael Lind, who wrote a book called Vietnam: The Necessary War, which – you guessed it – justifies America’s involvement in Vietnam as a necessary battle in the larger Cold War.

Nor am I convinced that southern whites are necessarily more racist than whites are in other parts of the country. Southern whites didn’t vote for Obama, but that’s because southern whites are conservative, and in the nation as a whole Obama won white voters about on track with other Democratic presidential candidates. This study suggests that it’s the rural Northeast and South with the most racists, which sounds right to me. Looking by tweets doesn’t suggest a particularly racist South. On this list of the most segregated cities in the United States, the only southern cities are Miami and St Louis, neither of which I would really characterize as “southern.”

I don’t want to deny that the South has problems with race, violence, and so on, or even that these problems are worse in the South than in other parts of the country. But it’s both wrong and counterproductive to assume that the differences between the South and the rest of the country are so significant, that they are differences of kind rather than of degree. The problem isn’t just that the South is racist or unequal, but that the United States is racist and unequal; the South is a part of that.