Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snobs vs. the Ivy League (or, The Question of Bill Deresiewicz'sCharacter)

There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It's an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers -- all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through -- while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn't get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn't get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously. It's a time-honored game for the insider's insiders, and William Deresiewicz plays it like an old hand in the latest New Republic, with an article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."

Even the title of that article is disingenuous. William Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like.

Is going to an Ivy League school worth it? Unless you are already a person of enormous inherited privilege, the question is disingenuous. Of course it is. This question is like the popular media question, "Is going to college worth it?" No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty. The writer is at the very least deceiving him- or herself.

Deresiewicz argues that one should turn down admission to an Ivy League school and go to a public university, where you will build superior character. So, if you get into Harvard you should go to the University of Massachusetts instead. Let me say, as a proud alumnus of both Harvard and U. Mass.: don't be ridiculous.

And yes, I learned to think at Harvard. Of course. Were some of my classmates careerists who resisted genuine introspection? Yes, surely a few. But no institution teaches students to love thinking. Only another person can teach you that. The Harvard I went to abounded with such people.

I should certainly not turned down Harvard when I was 17 and gone to U.Mass instead. That would have been crazy. And anyone telling a young person in my position to do that isn't striking a blow against elitism. They're just trying to keep less-privileged people out of the elite.

I said yes to Harvard for a simple reason: I could not afford not to. I grew up comfortably middle-class. But we certainly weren't the upper middle class. (One of my parents was a high school teacher, the other  police lieutenant.) I could not turn down a break like getting into Harvard. I could not count on getting another break like that again. Anyone who tells a kid like me to turn down Harvard is doing that kid wrong.

Any 18-year-old who gets a chance to go to school with people smarter than she or he is should take that opportunity. Knowing that nearly all of your classmates know interesting things that you don't is a gift that only a fool would refuse. I am grateful that I was given that opportunity; there is no stronger expression of entitlement than ingratitude.

I have three university degrees: two from world-famous universities and one from a state school. I have spent the last ten years teaching in a public university. I think it's fair to say that I have seen both sides of this question. And I am absolutely committed to public education. In fact, what makes me angriest about Deresiewicz is the way his phony, patronizing praise for public universities helps paper over the crisis that public schools are in.  Public universities have been bleeding support for years, with our resources falling further and further behind those of the wealthy private colleges, and Deresiewicz knows it. The endless budget problems interfere, inevitably, with the education we can provide our students. Disguising that basic and terrible fact is a bad thing.

Let me confess here that this is personal. In an earlier article on this theme, Deresiewicz claimed that students were better off going to the university where I teach than they are going to Yale. He named us specifically and repeatedly. We have wonderful students and I am proud of them, but telling people to turn down Yale for us is insane. But still more insane was Deresiewicz's reason: you see, when Yale students struggle, they have enormous resources to help them: a small but well-trained army tutors and counselors. My students don't have that. We have some tutors and some counselors but when our students hit trouble (and my students as a group have far, far more troubles than Yale students), they are mostly on their own. Deresiewicz feels that this is a great thing. You see, it builds character. Isn't it better to be at a poor school, struggling?

I don't feel great about that. I long for the resources I used to be able to call in to help Stanford undergrads when they were in trouble. When my students get in trouble, I don't have those people to call, and that is a terrible, terrible feeling.

My students need that help and they don't get it. Deresiewicz applauds that. In fact, Deresiewicz, avowed anti-elitist, applauds struggling poor kids not getting help. That itself is outrageous. But Deresiewicz's cheap rhetorical ploy had real-world effects at my school, because it served as an excuse for not providing any of that help that our students need. When Bill Deresiewicz says it's great that my students don't get help, he does my students wrong. It will take me a long time to forgive him.

But what about character? What about elitism and snobbery? It is true that elite schools are full of students who are already from various elites. That is the nature of the beast. But, whether Deresiewicz realizes it or not, the class system is alive and well among the students at public universities. Rich students and poor students have very different experiences at those places, to the ultimate detriment of both. Skim the annual lists of famous party schools: it's not the kids who need to work for their tuition money who are throwing those parties. Drinking your way through school while studying the absolute minimum is one of the oldest ways for students to express their wealth and privilege, and it is now perversely easier to get away with that game at Flagship State than at one of the Ivies.

I cannot deny that elite universities have more than their healthy share of the arrogant, the entitled, and the egotistical. No one who has spent time at one of those places could deny that. There are a lot of big egos at Harvard and at Stanford both. But my experience of the world is that there are some arrogant and entitled people everywhere. Those people don't always base their sense of superiority on going to a fancy school, or on any educational achievement or talent. In fact, many people who feel superior to others don't base their conviction of superiority on anything that anyone else can detect. Arrogance and entitlement are their own reasons. And if you want to prevent a bright teenager from becoming an arrogant jerk, sending her to a school where there are always three smarter people in the room is not a bad idea. Most of what I know about humility I learned at Harvard.

Deresiewicz wants to discuss character, and I don't want to impugn his. My spouse knows him from her own Yale days, and speaks well of him as a teacher. I am certainly willing to hope that his character is better than his essay makes it appear. 

So let's make it personal, Bill. You speak of character. Why not apply for a teaching job outside the Ivy League? If you believe in the mission public education, why not be part of that mission? Romanticizing my students' poverty is not good for them, and not healthy for you either. But you have the tools to help fight their disadvantage. It is not an easy job. It is much harder, in most ways, than teaching at Yale. And it will sorely test your spirit, because teaching a full range of college students means that at least a few of your students will not succeed, no matter what you do, because things outside school prevent them. Knowing that you cannot get them all through is a bitter thing. Knowing that another budget cut is coming, sooner or later, is hard on the spirit. But you wanted to build character, didn't you? You can use the privileges that you have been given to help those who have been shut out. Ranting about how awful Yale is helps no one, and it is a waste of your talents. Our country is full of less privileged schools, with less privileged students. Get a job at one. It is a chance to do something good, and something useful, in the real world.

Cross-posted from Dagblog 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Jaws and Climate Denial

There is no better Fourth of July movie for my money than Jaws. I would watch it at least twice every Independence Day weekend if that wouldn't bore and annoy my spouse. It was designed and filmed so carefully that time has transformed it into a beautifully accurate period piece, capturing the New England beaches of my 1970s childhood in loving detail. Time has also turned it into something else it was not originally meant to be: a parable about the dangers of denying climate change.

Jaws is the story of a community whose economy depends on its natural resources. That's true of every community and every economy, but in this story it's simple and obvious. The town has a beach. Its entire economy depends upon tourists coming to that beach during the summer. If the summer people don't come, everyone will go hungry. Clear enough.

Then the natural world throws up a problem; there's a shark in the water, and that shark kills a swimmer. The local police chief wants to close the beaches, but doing that at the height of the tourist season means financial ruin for the townsfolk, the danger that they will, as one character puts it "be on welfare all winter."

Watching the movie, the right thing to do is obvious. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Closing the beaches would cause real pain for many people. It isn't a cheap or easy solution.

The town authorities cave and do the wrong thing, trying to wish the shark away. They change the first victim's cause of death to "boating accident." When a second person is killed, they balk at the price of commissioning a serious shark hunt by a professional and instead countenance an amateurish bounty hunt that brings in "a shark, but not the shark." That gives them just enough apparent evidence to dismiss scientific advice and open the beach for Fourth of July weekend.

Then, as one of my friends likes to say during the shark sequences: nom nom nom nom nom.

The last act of the movie leaves the island behind to focus on the daring shark-hunters' interpersonal struggles and their fight with the monstrous fish. But the ending of the town's story is clear: they have destroyed their economy, not simply for a few crucial weeks but for the entire summer and probably for years to come. No summer people are coming to an island where three people have been killed. And tourists aren't going to magically forget the shark attacks next summer either. Trying to deny the problem in order to protect the beach economy leaves the beach economy in ruins.

So it is with us. Our economy depends on exploiting fossil fuels. And burning those fuels has begun to create major problems. Reducing emissions will not be cheap or easy. It will have painful costs, and there is no point in underestimating those costs. Nor is it helpful to expect that people who will bear heavier losses than the rest of us should simply take those losses. It's dysfunctional to let individual create massive social expenses, but it's also dysfunctional to make individuals shoulder massive social expenses themselves.

But here's the thing: avoiding the necessary economic sacrifice in the short term only makes the price of the eventual economic sacrifice higher. If we don't take the emissions-reduction hit now, we will incur all the costs of a changed climate AND eventually have to reduce our emissions even further. We will hold on to Fourth of July weekend and lose all of our summers. The character talking about "being on welfare all winter" isn't talking about closing the beaches for two weeks. He's talking about the cost of cheaping out and not killing the shark.

The Jaws parable is playing out in North Carolina right now, where the State Legislature has ordered experts to change a report on how rising sea levels will affect the Outer Banks. (At the same time, Virginia is taking steps to protect its endangered coastline.) North Carolina is afraid that the news of rising sea levels will be bad for the Outer Banks's beach-tourist industry, so (like the Mayor and medical examiner in Jaws), they have had the alarming report amended. The problem for the Outer Banks is that, as they say, This was no boating accident. And waiting until the sea level has already risen too high to ignore means waiting until it may be too late for the Outer Banks to be saved.

Denying climate risk is like ignoring a debt; it simply gets harder to pay off. I understand why people on the Outer Banks are afraid that their property will lose value if the state projects a thirty-nine-inch rise in the sea level by 2100. But if no steps are taken to deal with the rising sea, property on the Outer Banks will someday lose all its value. You can't sell a hotel to the fish.

And sooner or later, every climate denialist will have to hear the hardest news of all: "Summer is over. You're the Mayor of Shark City."

P.S. It has come to my attention since I started this post that the admired Historiann has also recently posted about Jaws, and that she has only recently seen the movie for the first time. Welcome to Amity Island, Historiann. Amity, as you know, means friendship.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Religious Freedom vs. Religious Privilege (or, Franklin vs. Penn)

The version of "religious liberty" currently promoted by the American right, best exemplified by the Hobby Lobby decision and the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," is not only a recipe for future religious disputes and persecution. It represents an approach to religious freedom that has already created trouble. It was tried and abandoned so early in the American Experiment that most of us don't learn it in school. That's because the policy of providing religious groups extensive privileges or exemptions, rather than maintaining a neutral public square for all, failed before the Revolution.

Many of today's religious conservatives object to a religiously-neutral public square (where, for example, everyone has to follow the same laws). This, they say, restricts their free exercise of religion. They feel entitled to exercise their "sincerely held" religious beliefs in full. The problem with this is that when everyone enjoys maximal rights of free exercise, parties inevitably infringe on other parties' rights to free exercise. People of other faiths are not allowed to practice, or people are forced to abide by some religious precept which they do not believe. (For example, non-Catholics might not be denied certain health coverage benefits because of a Papal encyclical from 1968, forcing those non-Catholics to abide by the tenets of someone else's faith.) The approach that Justice Kennedy et al. have so improvidently revived grants certain parties (especially powerful parties) particular carve-outs or concessions, allowing them spheres of influence where they are exempted from the ordinary rules.

Some of the original Thirteen Colonies, of course, began as religious concessions on a grand scale, with particular religious minorities (in the 17th-century English context) granted their own domains to settle and govern. The most obvious of these are Puritan New England (settled by radical Congregationalists and Presbyterians), Maryland (granted to the Roman Catholic Lord Baltimore as a personal fiefdom), and Pennsylvania (granted to the Quaker William Penn as his personal property). This idea of colony-as-denominational-ghetto is, of course, an outgrowth of 17th- and 18th-century England's own sorry resistance to religious toleration, and its bias toward its own official Church; better to give the Quakers huge swaths of territory in the New World than to accept an England where all faiths were welcome.

But in all of these colonies, albeit in different ways, there was serious conflict between the locally privileged religion and people of other faiths. Maryland never quite got off the ground as planned, because so many of the colonists were resistant to the idea that Catholicism would be specially privileged; the colonists had to struggle with a superior civil authority in order to achieve a more level and neutral public square, with the same rules for all.

Puritan New England became a site of significant religious persecution, as the Puritans battled non-Puritan groups and one another. That Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are three different states is testimony to the Massachusetts Bay Puritans' gift for squabbling and schism. Connecticut and Rhode Island were founded by Puritan religious dissenters from Massachusetts. The struggle between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians was more peaceful, but bitter and socially divisive. And other religious groups had no rights at all. Baptists and Quakers were not only expelled from Massachusetts, but whipped for good measure; the Massachusetts Puritans insisted on their religious freedom not to intermingle with other faiths. The final extreme was the execution of some Quakers for being Quakers, at which point the royal government had to step in. A superior civic authority had to restrain the majority of the colonists from oppressing and persecuting their neighbors.

(One of the ironies that I've blogged about before is that Mitt Romney has enjoyed far more religious liberty in modern secular Massachusetts than he would have in colonial religion-in-the-public-square version. Secular Massachusetts elected him Governor; theocratic Massachusetts might well have hanged him. When modern religious conservatives complain that the "secular culture" oppresses them and limits their freedom, they have NO idea what they're talking about.)

In Pennsylvania, the case was most complicated, with the colony owned by a family of Quaker proprietors and the colonists divided between a Quaker-led political faction and a non-Quaker faction. But the special privileges accorded to the Quaker faith did, inevitably, burden the rest of the Commonwealth. The most startling example was the reluctance by the pacifist Quakers to countenance a colonial militia despite recurring armed conflicts with the French and the Native Americans. That left their fellow-colonists with the choice of going undefended, and thus dying for beliefs they did not share, or of shouldering the entire risk and expense of colonial defense themselves, without any contribution from the Quakers. In the 1740s Benjamin Franklin (nobody's military man) had to organize an all-volunteer militia without legislative sanction; essentially a self-funded private club to defend the colony. The Pennsylvania legislature wouldn't actually fund a state militia until 1756, two years after the French and Indian War had begun in Pennsylvania, and a year after the colonial commander of the British Army had been killed in action there.

The Quakers' special prerogatives could only be sustained by limiting the political freedoms of others. "Religious liberty" conceived as special privileges or exemptions for believers has repeatedly, inevitably, become an infringement on others' liberty.

Franklin stands as an exemplar of the other, more successful approach to religious freedom. Franklin advocated a public square open to all, with no special advantage or favor to any sect. This often put him at odds with the Quaker party in colonial politics. But, since it is the eve of the Fourth of July, let me be bold on the great Franklin's behalf: he was right, and his political opponents were wrong.

Franklin, who belonged to no organized church and swore to no particular creed, advocated a "secular" public sphere, the true religious equality where all believers (and unbelievers) are accepted by the commonwealth and all accept the same obligations to the commonwealth. Franklin remained on friendly terms, by his own account in the Autobiography, with every religious denomination in Philadelphia by donating money whenever someone was trying to build a church. He believed in a Philadelphia where faith was a choice and every citizen had the same freedoms, where every conscience was free and where no one had to bear the burden of a stranger's beliefs.

The William Penn model has failed, more than once. Now that the RFRA and five short-sighted Supreme Court justices have revived that long-discarded model, it will fail again, but only at the cost of burdening Americans' liberty. Under the Penn model, some people have more religious freedom than others; the rest of us are free to exercise someone else's religion. And that tends, always, to mean extra religious freedom for  the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary citizens' freedom. The rest of us are free to worship as my Lord Baltimore pleases, free to sacrifice to William Penn's lofty principles, free to have the chief shareholder of the corporation that employs us make moral decisions about our wombs. The model of "religious liberty" as special privilege always ends up giving all the liberty to the privileged.

That was not the America Benjamin Franklin wanted. And I say, this Glorious Fourth, that Benjamin Franklin was right in 1776, and right in 1787, and Benjamin Franklin is right today. Freedom of conscience is not about exemptions or concessions. Every conscience is, and can only be, equally free. And only a neutral public square, where all have equal standing, allows religious equality. Franklin was right, and history will continue to prove it.

Happy Independence Day.

cross-posted from Dagblog