Review: Educated

Educated

Educated, Tara Westover. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A memoir a young women raised by survivalists in rural Idaho, physically abused by an older brother, self-taught until entering Brigham Young, beginning a journey taking her to Cambridge, Harvard, ultimately at the cost of severing family ties.

She holds a Ph.D from Cambridge, has studied at Harvard, as well as receiving her B.A. from Brigham Young. And before her first classes at Brigham Young she had never set foot in a school classroom. She is Tara Westover. She was one of seven children of Mormon survivalists living in a beautiful mountain setting in rural Idaho. Tara did not have a birth certificate. Her father embraces theories of the Illuminati who had pervaded the Church and all government institutions.  He rejected all traditional medicine other than his wife’s herbal potions, which Tara helped mix as a child. Food, gasoline, and guns were stockpiled and Tara slept with a “head for the hills” bag in anticipation of the End Times. An older brother, “Shawn” (a pseudonym), having suffered multiple head injuries, violently and sadistically abused her, stuffing her face in a toilet, calling her “whore,” and breaking bones. No one intervened.

Westover’s memoir has been on a number of “best book” lists and has been a recommended read by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates. For all that, this is a painful book to read, yet inspiring at the same time. Tara’s exposure to unsafe working conditions in her father’s scrapyard and construction projects, the verbal abuse and emotional manipulation she experiences from her father and the physical violence of her brother are horrendous.

Yet her journey, from performing in local plays, to getting jobs not dependent on her father, to the effort to teach herself enough to pass college entrance exams, and her near-miraculous admission to BYU and subsequent scholarships hint at a voice, an agency within, a sense of self not controlled by her highly controlling family.

She quickly discovers the holes in her efforts at self-education and what little schooling she received from her parents. In one of her first classes she reveals her ignorance of the Holocaust. Yet those gaps become the impetus for curiosity, and not only educational discovery but self-discovery. She discovers symptoms that match her father suggestive that he suffered some form of bi-polar illness.

Another form of inspiration comes in the form of mentors who recognize the intelligence hidden in this uneducated girl–a bishop in her church who provides financial assistance and lets her talk, a professor who encourages her by taking her on a summer at Cambridge, a Cambridge academic who affirms the quality of her scholarship, a counselor who helps her put her life back together when the tension between what her family and upbringing say she ought to be, and what her own inner voice aspires to become so great she experiences a breakdown.

Reading the book helped me understand how abuse victims who have experienced horrid abuse can blame themselves rather than their abusers. Tara internalizes their view of her and the world (including her brother’s epithet of “whore”). It shows us how even deeply dysfunctional families can still have deep bonds to and upon each other. The memoir helps us experience with Tara her struggle to come to terms with the reality that she was not the problem, and with that awakening the necessity to refuse her father’s “blessing,” which signified maintaining a relationship with her parents, indeed her identity, on their terms. It meant severing ties with her parents and some of her siblings in order to affirm her own voice, her own life.

Much like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (review), both extended family and educational mentors play an important role in Tara’s life, providing a safe space for her developing sense of self. We also see the power of education at its best as her academic work helps her understand her own experience. Some will respond critically that her education resulted in both estrangement from family and walking away from her faith. It seems to me that both family and faith as she experienced these were toxic (she is clear to distinguish this from Mormonism in an author’s note). It is also the case that there may be future chapters of this story to be written. If this book is any indication, Westover’s account will be one of strikingly compelling prose.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Cardinal Mooney High School

mooney sealYesterday, the most recent issue of The Mooney Messenger arrived at our home and we learned that Cardinal Mooney High School will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its first graduating class in 2019. So it seems appropriate to tell something of the story of Cardinal Mooney as it has intersected with our lives.

Personally, the only time I ever set foot in Cardinal Mooney was an early Saturday morning in the school cafeteria where I and hundreds of other Youngstown area high school students were taking college entrance exams. The real story of Cardinal Mooney is my wife’s story. She is the Mooney grad, and the reason we receive the magazine.

She remembers as a child when representatives of the Diocese visited her parents soliciting contributions for the construction of Cardinal Mooney. Growing up in Brownlee Woods, they told her parents that this was the high school she would attend. It was.

Cardinal Mooney High School is named after Edward Aloysius Mooney, who was named Archbishop of the Diocese of Detroit in 1937 and Cardinal in 1946 by Pope Pius XII. Cardinal Mooney and his family moved to the south side of Youngstown when he was five years old where his father worked in a tube mill. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1909, taught at St. Mary’s Seminary in 1916, served as pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Youngstown from 1922-23 before going on to Rome, serving as an apostolic delegate abroad, and Bishop of Rochester, before going to Detroit. He died on October 25, 1958 in Rome.

Previously, Ursuline High School had served the whole diocese but could not accommodate the growing population of Catholic students and the decision was made to build a second high school on the south side of Youngstown. Construction on Cardinal Mooney High School began in 1954 and the school was dedicated by Bishop Emmet M. Walsh in 1956, at the culmination of a successful three year funding drive. Six hundred and ten students enrolled as freshmen or sophomores (a freshman class had been formed in 1955 meeting at the old Glenmary Convent). Enrollments grew rapidly in the 1960’s, and in 1961, an addition was opened. In 2000 the school acquired two military annex buildings and in 2001 completed an athletic training complex.

In recent years there were discussions about moving the school to the suburbs of Youngstown. A study was done, and recommendations made that a move would enhance enrollments. A funding drive fell short and Bishop Murry made the controversial decision that the school would remain in its current location and renovations, presently underway, would be made to the current facility.

Cardinal Mooney’s website makes this statement about the school:

“Cardinal Mooney has maintained a tradition of academic, extra-curricular and spiritual excellence since its inception in 1956.”

My wife speaks of attending daily masses at the school. Today, 46 percent of the enrollment are not Catholics, but the school continues to offer:

  • Required religious education courses rooted in Catholic teachings and tradition.
  • Daily prayer.
  • All-school celebration of the Eucharist, Reconciliation and Liturgy of the Hours.
    Programs for community and school service.
  • Values-based education integrated into every aspect of the school.
  • A school atmosphere emphasizing individual responsibility and respect for all.

Mooney always has been known for academic excellence with 98 percent of students attending college in 2015, 77 percent of whom received scholarships totaling $15 million. The school offers 27 AP and honors courses and boasts a 12:1 student-teacher ratio. Over half the faculty have either Masters or Doctorates.

The school has been an athletic powerhouse. My wife remembers Coach Stoops and the great Mooney teams of the ’70’s. In addition to his sons Bob, Mark and Mike, Bo and Carl Pelini, and Tim Beck are Mooney graduates. Mooney grads in sports include Ray “Boom, Boom” Mancini, NFL players Jerry Diorio, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Ed Muransky, John Simon, soccer player Kiki Willis and Mark Malaska, a former major league baseball reliever. In addition to that former San Francisco ’49ers owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr. and current owner Denise DeBartolo York are Mooney alumni.

I suspect there are many Mooney alumni who can add to this brief sketch of the history of the school. All I want to add are my congratulations to the board, alumni, leadership, faculty, staff, and students on 60 years of excellence in Catholic education in the Mahoning Valley.

 

Review: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

Beauty for Truths Sake

Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott, (foreword Ken Myers). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017 (my review is of the 2009 edition).

Summary: An argument for the unity of faith and reason, beauty and truth, the sciences and the humanities, and for the recovery of education as a lifelong pursuit of wisdom, both rooted in and eventuating in liturgical worship.

As one who has long worked around universities, the fragmentation of knowledge among the disparate disciplines is an established fact. Those who teach in the humanities, and in the sciences often hold each other in mutual suspicion if not contempt, and speak in languages often unintelligible to each other. One of the few things that unites a number of these people is a shared suspicion toward religious faith (sometimes, but not always, warranted by stupid or wicked things done in God’s name).

In this work, Stratford Caldecott contends for an ancient, and yet contemporary vision of a restored unity of knowledge that brings together arts and humanities, math and the sciences, the beautiful and the true, reason and faith in a “re-enchantment” of education that leads to wisdom, and worship. He writes in his Introduction:

“I believe it is possible to remain an active learner throughout life, and yet to maintain a moral compass in good working order. But vital though they are, adaptability and ethics are not enough by themselves. There is a structural flaw in our education that we need to overcome. It is related to a profound malaise in our civilization, which by progressive stages has slipped into a way of thinking and living that is dualistic in character. The divisions between arts and sciences, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, have a common root. In particular, our struggle to reconcile religious faith with modern science is symptomatic of a failure to understand the full scope of human reason and its true grandeur” (p. 12).

Caldecott would argue that our modern fragmented education divorces meaning from fact, dooming the humanities to solipsism and the sciences to sterility. He would argue, along with Dorothy Sayers (in The Lost Tools of Learning) for a restoration of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and an adaptation of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, expanded for additional disciplines). He believes that the key to the unity of these disciplines is beauty, which serves as a pointer to truth, as well as goodness. He connects the recovery of the poetic imagination with its focus on symbol to the recognition of the symbolic in the scientific study of the natural world, opening us to the wonder of what is beyond. He explores the beauty and symbolism in math and geometry, the structure and beauty of music, and concludes with how this “re-enchanted” cosmology finds its consummation in liturgy.

What I most appreciated in this work is the sense of the recovery of wonder in our inquiry. In the modern academy, it seems that one of the prices paid for advancing in proficiency, whether in “getting good data” in science, or in applying critical theory to historical events or literary works is the loss of wonder–the joy of a good story, admiration for a historical figure, appreciation of the structure of the cosmos. Certainly this is not always so, but to see the wide-eyed wonder of young scholars replaced by cynicism is grievous whenever it happens, and I cannot help but think that the educational flaws Caldecott critiques contribute to this loss.

Where Caldecott may be critiqued is in his “Christian Platonism” that views our language, our numbers, our physical world pointing to a world beyond–the world of forms, ideas, perhaps all found in the mind or person of God. I have to confess that I don’t have the philosophical wherewithal to critique or defend this idea, and I haven’t thought of things in quite these terms. I do believe that all human artistry, and the artistry of the physical world is a reflection of the Great Artist in a general sense. But I’m not as sure about the effort to “symbolize” all physical reality as a signifier of transcendent reality. There is something that feels as if it could be forced to me, akin to those who try to find some spiritual lesson in everything and sometimes reach some pretty wacky conclusions. I think I’d rather be open to beauty where I find it, to be attentive to what it points toward, and aware that we sing God’s songs, and think his thoughts after Him.

I’m not sure if that makes me a Christian Platonist or not. And perhaps that points to the goodness of this book, that it is making me think and re-examine my own understanding. It makes me think about how I relate goodness, truth, and beauty, how it is that I can claim reason and faith are not at odds and that there is an underlying unity to all knowledge. It poses the question to me in my work of how I can claim to suggest that the integration of faith, learning, and practice are a possibility in the modern university, and not just a slogan. Most of all, it inspires me afresh to think of how wonder might lead to doxology.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

A War on Public Education?

Yesterday, I came across an article in our local paper that I found alarming. It seems that our State (of Ohio) Board of Education is seeking to relax a rule that requires all of our state schools to provide 5 of 8 of the following services in our schools: elementary art, music or physical education teachers, school counselors, library media specialists, school nurses, social workers and “visiting teachers.”

What was deeply concerning to me is that this represents both a narrowing of our idea of “education” to what is tested on proficiency tests, and seems to eliminate some of the activities that make an education experience rich for our children. It also strikes me that some of the services like counselors and librarians play an important part in helping kids, especially from low income backgrounds stay in school and get into college.

State board of education members by district

State board of education members by district

What was also unsettling to me was how unrepresentative our State Board of Education is of the population they are serving. From what I can tell, only one of the nineteen members is a person of color. At most, only three come from the large urban school districts in our state, yet I suspect these rule changes could have the greatest effect on these districts and the economically disadvantaged students in these districts. Richer districts that can support these programs with property taxes would seem more likely to continue them.

A couple of my posts this week have dealt with the continuing challenge of overcoming the class and racial divides in our society. I am deeply concerned that these rule changes reflect at best a lack of grasp of how these changes will deepen the divides of race and class in our state.

I am also saddened that art, music, and physical education are considered “dispensable”.  In an era where obesity and diabetes are childhood diseases, physical education seems more important than ever. Fit minds without fit bodies just doesn’t make sense. Also, it seems that artistic intelligence is key to many technological innovations as well as enriching our lives. One of the things Steve Jobs taught us is that the aesthetics of our technology matter as much as their function.

At large members

At-large members of State Board of Education

Do I think public education is the best it can be? Hardly! Do I think people should have the right to home school or send children to private schools? Yes. But both I and my son were publicly educated and the services that could be cut played important parts in our lives and success. I’m concerned that changes in rules like this will gut the the existing quality of our public schools. I don’t want to see public schools gutted and education farmed out to for-profit schools. This has been highly ineffective at the university level and of questionable effectiveness at primary and secondary levels. All of us try to get our kids into the best schools possible. That won’t stop. The question is whether we will continue to support quality public education for those who can’t afford private options or don’t have the time to home school because of needing to work.

I sincerely hope the representatives of our State Board of Education will remember that they serve ALL the citizens of Ohio. I sincerely hope they will pursue policies that bridge the real divides between classes and races that still exist in our state rather than accentuate them. This, too, I think, would have been part of Dr. King’s dream.

Review: Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9

Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9
Hear, My Son: Teaching & Learning in Proverbs 1-9 by Daniel J. Estes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Proverbs 1 to 9 is an extended address on the value of wisdom from a father or elder teacher to a son or student that introduces the wisdom sayings of the remainder of Proverbs. Daniel J. Estes has taken a novel approach to this literature and written a monograph exploring the philosophy and practice of teaching and learning reflected in this instruction given in these chapters. It is part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series of monographs.

That may sound like dry, stodgy stuff but what Estes does is outline in a very straightforward fashion what we might learn from these texts about teaching and learning. The book is not an exposition of Proverbs 1 to 9 but rather a study of this discourse through the lens of what it teaches about education.

Here is the outline of the book. After an introduction describing and giving a rationale for this study, Estes looks first at the worldview underlying Proverbs as one seeing the universe as God’s creation, one with a moral order and rationality that reflect the character of God, and thus implying a proper reverence for God by humans and other creatures. He then turns to values for education, of which the top one is wisdom which is understanding how to live well and in accord with God’s order in the world, teachability, righteousness and life. Then follows a consideration of education’s goals: commitment on the part of the learner, growth in character, competence in living, protection from folly and its consequences, prosperity and the knowledge of God.

The next sections turn to the nuts and bolts of education. Proverbs 1-9 describes a threefold curriculum of learning through observation of the world, through instruction in traditional wisdom passed along, and through revealed truth from God. He then turns to the educational process evident in this discourse which includes an address (“hear, my son”), description of the wise and foolish, various forms of commands, incentives, and an invitation to embrace the teaching. This then leads to a consideration of the role of teacher and learner in this process. Because the teacher alternates between expert authority and the role of facilitating wisdom’s embrace, he sees the teacher as functioning as a knowledgeable guide in the learning process. Conversely the learner must receive, respond to, value and assimilate wisdom. Estes then concludes the book by summarizing these chapters and outlining avenues for further exploration as well as by offering few comments on contemporary education.

What I most appreciate about this book is that it articulates an approach to education that integrates faith and rigorous study of the world rather than bracketing these off into separate ventures. In fact, the earliest scientists studied the world as well as theology to understand God’s order. Similarly, tradition, history, literature, and philosophy need not be opposed to either theology or science but all function together as a comprehensive curriculum to teach the fear of God, the order of creation, the cultivation of moral character, competence and common sense in the conduct of life. Competence and character, reason and faith walk together.

In sum, this book is a concise work that gives fresh insight into an aspect of Proverbs–teaching and learning–that has relevance for anyone engaged in the educational enterprise and particularly those who want to think Christianly about how education is done.

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Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is funny how someone speaking softly but with conviction can change a conversation. Susan Cain has done just that with her bestselling Quiet. The book is about the unique gift, the “quiet power”, introverts bring to the world, particularly American culture, which places a premium on extroverted behavior–group work, public charisma, being the life of the party. And this is important as she argues because one-third to one-half of all people are introverts. Cain is not arguing that we suddenly coddle introverts or that being extroverted is bad. Rather, she paints a compelling picture of what happens when introverts and extroverts can appreciate each other’s temperament and gifts. Her examples of this include Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

She introduces the book with a compelling narrative of her work with a young Wall Street lawyer and the negotiation she faced in terror that turned out with her being offered a job by opposing counsel. During the negotiation “Laura” turned to her “quiet power” and through persistent questions and proposal carried the day against her extroverted, brazen opposite. “Laura”, it turns out is our author.

The first part of the book focuses on the American extrovert ideal. Cain traces the history of this ideal and what she calls “the new Groupthink” and its manifestations in education, business, and even the church (she visits Saddleback Church at one point observing that it was “all communication” with no chance for reflection).

In the second part of the book, she turns to the research on temperament and argues that introverts are actually different in their sensitivity to stimuli, in how their brains process dopamine, and more. This is the most technical part of the book but Cain livens this up through first person interviews and illustrative stories including that of Franklin and Eleanor, and the contrast between the “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street and Warren Buffett. At the same time, she avoids a “biology is destiny” argument. Introverts can push the boundaries of their temperament in things like public speaking when it is for causes and purposes they care for deeply.

Part three is the shortest section, just one chapter, in which she proposes that all cultures do not share our extrovert ideals. Working in a university context with many Asian-Americans, I found this of interest because she suggests that the Asian ideal is different and that all the group discussions in our classrooms and the extroverted character of much of campus life poses real strains for many Asian-Americans. Part of the strain is the pull to deny one’s own cultural heritage and temperament, thinking the American is “better”.

Part four focuses on how introverts may constructively engage an extrovert world–when to act more extroverted than you are, how to talk to the opposite type and how to raise children who are introverted. Most enlightening to me was the idea of not “throwing them in the deep” when they fear something, but gradually and safely introducing them to new things. I’ve know introverts who received the former treatment in childhood who still carry painful memories of these experiences.

Perhaps it is part of her lawyerly training, but Cain writes with clarity, building a compelling argument in a quiet voice, with nothing extra. What I most appreciate, in contrast to some I’ve read on this topic, is that Cain does not come off “whiny” or with an entitlement mentality. She makes her case for cherishing the gift introverts bring to the world without downplaying the gifts of others. Her plea is one that plays not on guilt manipulation but the recognition of a tremendous opportunity to recognize what introverts add to our families, our organizations, and our world.

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Review: The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University

The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University
The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University by Ellen Schrecker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ellen Schrecker is a historian and what she writes is a history of academic freedom issues at universities through the twentieth century. The surprising thing to me is that by and large, there are very few instances, and most in the McCarthy era of breaches of academic freedom. Even here it seems that Schrecker is working with a far more expansive idea of academic freedom that simply the freedom of a professor to address curriculum objectives in the matter he or she deems best and to choose freely one’s lines of research inquiry. What is less clear in the whole area of academic freedom what protection should be given to speech and associations that have nothing to do with one’s discipline but affect the reputation of the institution you work with. The truth is, except for rare instances, even here tenured faculty are generally protected. Primarily, Schrecker’s finding is that the exception almost always involves the squeeky wheel who doesn’t get along with colleagues or who insists upon saying outrageous things outside the classroom context, such as the Ward Churchill incident.

The last third of the book focuses on corporatization, and it seemed to me that the book could have simply focused here. Her account of the cost economies brought on by the recession of 2008, the increases in contingent or adjunct faculty and the almost complete lack of standing these individuals have is probably the most revealing part of the book. This has major implications for the quality of instruction,the governance of the university, as well as the just treatment of the new teaching “underclass”. The real story of the lack of academic freedom is here–adjuncts are employed “at will”, often have no offices or even university emails. Indeed, they hardly exist outside the classes they teach in the university’s eyes.

In sum, I thought this was really two books in one. Each was worthy of treatment. I suspect the historic survey of academic freedom was attractive to the author while the corporatization issues far more pressing. I also would have like a greater consideration of academic responsibility–what are the obligations of faculty that go along with the freedom and protections for which this author advocates. Here, Stanley Fish in Save the World on Your Own Time was actually far more helpful in outlining both the obligations,and in his mind, limits of academic freedom, which doesn’t extend to proselytizing students for one’s own cause or to one’s out of classroom and research activity.

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Review: Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning

Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning
Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning by Jose A. Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of this book actually explains the attention-grabbing title of this book. Bowen contends that the onslaught of technological resources that in the minds of many jeopardize traditional higher education can in fact enhance the basic thing professors and teachers do in the classroom–advance student learning. And the way this occurs is for those who teach to employ all these technologies outside the classroom, including those beloved PowerPoints!

These along with online lectures, podcasts, emails, Facebook posts, tweets and course management systems can be used to promote outside-the-classroom learning so that interactive and action-based learning in the classroom or lab can take the lecture (often described as the transfer of information from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the student without engaging the minds of either!).

All of this is based on the premise that the face to face (naked) interaction between teacher and student is the value added that the brick and mortar institution offers over the virtual classroom. What Bowen tries to do is to maximize the effectiveness of the teacher through sound in class pedagogy through interactive and action-based learning rather than the default lecture. He also argues for teachers as “curators” of technology–guiding students to the best resources and using social media and even gaming outside the classroom to help students with course content, homework and preparation for the in-class experience. He even proposes that courses should be like video games, or even developed AS video games where students only progress to higher levels of knowledge as they master lower levels.

Part 1 of the book explores the new digital landscape. Part 2 gets very practical in the design of courses that are a hybrid of technology and “naked” teaching. Part 3 is perhaps the most thought-provoking as he poses the challenge of what kind of adaptation he thinks needs to take place. He points to the digitization of music and print and how the change in the form and delivery of product radically transformed music and book outlets–for example, the demise of Tower Records and Borders. Yet other brick and mortar outlets like Barnes and Noble have (so far) survived because they shifted to a hybrid model that has both digital and human interaction components–likewise the case with the independent booksellers that have survived. He believes the same will need to happen in higher education in redefining the product, re-thinking the curriculum and how it is delivered and even re-tooling matters of infrastructure and pricing.

The one thing I struggled with in the end is the commoditization of education that I think will inevitably militate against the human values of the naked classroom. While Bowen tries to fuse these, the bottom line at the end of the book seems to be the bottom line. I hope the “hybrid” that Bowen proposes in some form is in fact the direction things take. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle–it is in fact on every student’s smartphone. Yet I wonder if today’s university has an adequate philosophy of education to resist the siren call of the technology and the pragmatism of the bottom line. Without strong, principled, and savvy leadership, I wouldn’t be surprised if technological and market forces decide these questions in the next decade or two. That’s just how fast things are moving.

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Meritocracy and the Modern University

Do you think of your life achievements as something you have deserved because of hard work, or as something that has come through accidents of birth, upbringing, social class and educational opportunity which obligated one to “pay it forward” to society for the benefits one has enjoyed? The former stance defines what is known as “meritocracy”, a term, according to Andrew Delbanco did not exist prior to 1958. The latter stance is known under the term noblesse oblige or the obligation of the nobility to use their standing for the larger good.

College

Delbanco, in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Beargues that we have witnessed a shift from the latter to the former in the university world. Admissions at many universities no longer favor either wealthy alumni nor minority students but look more at test scores and academic resumes. Delbanco observes that in former days, students from wealthy families like those of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy knew they weren’t at one of the elite Ivies because of their academic talents but because of their family’s wealth. What Delbanco observes is that this privilege often engendered a corresponding sense of responsibility to devote oneself to the public good. I won’t argue here whether the Roosevelts or the Kennedys achieved public goods, but it was clear that these were at least some of what motivated their public service.

In a discussion with some graduate students, I asked a question Delbanco as a Harvard grad was asked–do you deserve to be here? Many, in really being honest said “yes”. And it is true that those who were in the room had worked, and were working hard. They’d studied when others played, took AP courses, were serious undergrads. What they seemed less aware of in some (not all!) cases were the opportunities that they had no choice in–the families into which they were born, the schools they attended, the access from an early age to educational resources, the affluence of parents in many (not all) cases, the help they received from parents and school counselors in choosing good undergrad institutions, the incredible fortune to work on taxpayer funded research projects and receive taxpayer funded stipends, and on and on.

Delbanco says that while there is much to commend meritocracy with its focus on personal excellence, if it loses sight of the fact that all who enjoy such opportunities are also blessed with undeserved favor, it can lead to a dark side of an attitude that says “each one for themselves, and devil take the hindmost”–that forgets those, in our country and others who haven’t had the same opportunities and privileges.

Delbanco self-identifies as a secular Jew but makes a striking observation that should give the religious among us pause:

“The shared point here is that our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit….To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.” (pp. 138-139)

I wonder if this gets to the heart of much of the polarization in our society. How do we hold together the quest for personal excellence and the rewards that accrue thereto, and yet also recognize that our very lives, gifts, and circumstances are “graced” things that are never ours alone?

Why I Will Vote For Our Library Levy

Next Tuesday Worthington Public Library, the library that serves our area, has a levy on the ballot. The levy will add approximately $60 a year or $5 a month to my property taxes. While that doesn’t sound like much, every little bit of taxes eats into my discretionary income. And the truth is, my home is a library of sorts, and so much is available on the internet. I have no school age children at home. So why vote for this?

For one thing, it isn’t all about me. Libraries are one of the things that make communities rich and livable. They serve as a community center. Our nearby library serves as a community meeting space. When a number of us were concerned to save a local wetland from developers, the library was a key meeting center.

I am also deeply impressed with the number of children’s programs and after school programs and academic assistance offered the children and youth of our community by the library. The love of literature and literacy is under fire with so many competing distractions. Libraries are one of the places helping children fall in love with stories and books and the wonderful experience of the imagined story unmediated by video. Our library also offers tutor rooms and serves as a wonderful adjunct to a good school system.

Our library also offers resources to immigrants and those who are economically challenged through unemployment to access the internet, search for jobs, print documents when they may not be able to afford the computers, internet connections and printers at home needed for functions many of us easily accomplish. Many who use these services are working hard to establish themselves and are not looking for a hand out but a hand up that helps them with their own initiative and respects their dignity.

Our library stewards it resources well and has been nationally recognized. It was rated a Five Star Library in November 2012, one of only 30 to receive this award for the past five years. It seeks to be responsive to the community, enjoys continuing increases in patronage, and has vastly increased its resources in the area of digital downloads, recognizing the changing world of libraries.

Lastly, I find they continue to provide excellent service. I don’t borrow books often but when I do, I can obtain books from any Columbus Metro Library within days. They even have drive through pickup on reserves. Recently, I was researching books on changing trends in higher education and was able to obtain a number of books on reserve from my home computer, was able to download one available in digital to my Kindle, and reserve via internet chat a book not in the system via inter-library loan, all in about 15 minutes, without even having to go to the library. What a pleasure!

Actually, come to think of it, the books I reserved would probably have cost me what I will spend in property taxes to support the library.  All in all, not a bad bargain for such an important community resource!