Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Creating Colleges

At Texas A&M, the Aggie Ring is a big deal for undergraduates. On the ring there are five stars, symbolizing development of mind and body, spiritual attainment, emotional poise and integrity of character. That sounds a great deal more like formation than simple technical education. But I am afraid that well-rounded sense of formation has largely been lost at our massive technical university.

We have our share of sharp students, but one would be flabbergasted to overhear in the dining hall, "After four years of study, I'm only now beginning to really grasp the meaning of the medieval synthesis." Love of learning rarely goes that deep. In spite of all the talk about "honor, the guiding star" around here, any TA or professor can tell you that cheating is no less common here than at most state universities. And while tens of thousands of Aggies go to church each Sunday morning, as many or more stay home and nurse their hangovers. Something is lacking.

While chewing on this problem, it occurred to me that formation is very difficult in a school this big, in part because it is no longer really residential. A number of students live on campus; a good many live in officially sanctioned private off-campus dorms, while others still live in various apartments, duplexes and houses throughout the area. The result is that there is no single shared life among Aggies. So far as I can tell, there is very little guarantee that two Aggies took the same courses (much less with the same professors), lived in the same building, engaged in the same extra curricular activities or knew the same people. (This explains, by the way, much of the appeal to the Corps of Cadets. In a sea of 48,000 students, these 1,700 or so students lead a tightly disciplined life which forms a shared experience.) This is not unique to A&M; it is a fact of life at any university with this many students.

But what, I thought, if we had residential colleges? This is the arrangement found at the ancient universities, which are federations of various autonomous colleges, each having their own students and faculty members. Departments, which focus on a single field, cut across the various colleges and include people from all of them (though certain colleges are known for strengths in certain areas). Why not create a collection of colleges here?

(To avoid confusion of terms, we could simply force the "colleges" as they now exist, such as the College of Liberal Arts, to become "faculties," thus the "Faculty of Liberal Arts.")

Within the broader context of the university, its history and its rules, imagine twenty autonomous colleges, each of about 2,400 students. The Corps of Cadets could have their own Military College. But an invitation could be made for proposals for the other 19 colleges, each with a unique character and certain strengths. All would be non-profits, and each could require 2 years of physical residency, as well as whatever other requirements the particular college thought necessary. They could be funded through a mixture of university fees and particular college fees (encouraging, by the way, competition, since who wants to join the most expensive college?). I can easily imagine the Diocese of Austin sponsoring a St. Mary's College. Indeed, there are so many Catholics here perhaps SOLT or the IVE would found one too. Other religious communities would be welcome to do likewise. Philanthropic donors could as well; I see no problem with a Gates College and its neighbor, Buffett College.

Of course, at a school as tradition-conscious as Texas A&M, such a scheme would probably be eschewed as too innovative and an attack on the Aggie spirit. And then there is the practical problem of all the land swaps that would be needed, selling or renting existing dormitories (along with many of the affiliated facilities for dining and recreation) to the new colleges, constructing more buildings near campus, etc. Still, it seems to me an idea with real value. This is, after all, the basic concept behind many schools trying to create an "honors dorm," though that strikes me as a half measure. Go all the way, I say, and return some focused character to American mass education.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gottfried Benn: Poetry and Nihilism

The other evening it was in the upper 30’s: cold, but not cold enough to snow. Instead, it drizzled as I walked home from the train—without an umbrella, of course.

An Anglophile would have found the cold rain bracing and a welcome reminder of London. I just felt miserable, and given my Germanophilia and general pessimism, what came to mind was not of a thick mist lying low over the Thames like in a Sherlock Holmes story, but rather a poem by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956).

Benn first rose to prominence as an expressionist before World War I with a morbid series of poems based on scenes from the morgue where he worked as a young doctor. Benn wrote many of his early poems in free verse and, even more unfortunately, wrote some of them to shock his readers for shock’s sake. Later in life he dropped this adolescent pose, though not his grim outlook on life, and concentrated on well-crafted verse. Benn’s later poetry is often marked by a stark contrast between his beautiful language and his frightening, nearly nihilistic Weltanschauung. I say "nearly nihilistic" because for Benn there were perhaps two things of value in life: beautiful language and flowers, which figure in many of his poems.

The following poem is a perfect illustration of the contrast between beauty and emptiness in Benn’s poetry. Perhaps because German is not my first language I am able to dissociate the sound of words from their meaning more easily than I can with English, which would explain why the contrast between the language and the content of this poem has always made such a deep impression on me. The very literal and very rough translation below the original German should give some idea of why this poem came to mind the other night as I trudged home through the rain, as well as give an impression of Benn’s nihilism:

In einer Nacht

In einer Nacht, die keiner kennt,
Substanz aus Nebel, Feuchtigkeit und Regen,
in einem Ort, der kaum sich nennt
so unbekannt, so klein, so abgelegen,

sah ich den Wahnsinn alles Liebs und Leids,
das Tiefdurchkreuzte von Begehr und Enden,
das Theatralische von allerseits,
das niemals Gottgestützte von den Händen,

die dich bestreicheln, heiß und ungewaschen,

die dich wohl halten wollen, doch nicht wissen,
wie man den anderen hält, an welchen Maschen
man Netze flicken muß, daß sie nicht rissen –

ach, diese Nebel, diese Kältlichkeit,

dies Abgefallensein von jeder Dauer,
von Bindung, Glauben, Halten, Innigkeit,
ach Gott – die Götter! Feuchtigkeit und Schauer!

—Gottfried Benn, Sämtliche Gedichte (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1998), p. 299

One Night

One night, that no one knows
Made out of mist, dampness and rain,
In a place with no name,
So unknown, so small, so out of the way,

I saw the madness of all love and sorrow,
The futility of desires and purposes,
The theatrical on all sides,
[I saw] how the hands had never been supported by God,

[Those hands], hot and unwashed, which want to caress you,
Want to hold you, yet do not know
How one should hold the other, on which stitches
One must sew nets so they don’t tear—

Ah, this mist, this coldness,
This falling away from all endurance,
From all bonds, faith, support, intimacy,
Ah, God—the gods! Dampness and shivering!

The final line expresses Benn's despondence over the failure of love, but the language provides a faint glimmer of hope. The soft sounds of ch, g, and sch in Feuchtigkeit und Schauer is a wonderful contrast to the hard guttural sound of ach Gott: it initially softens the exclamation of disgust, but gives way in the end to a silent, morose despair. Yet, the fact that Benn thought it worth the trouble to express his sorrow with such care and so much attention to the richness of the sounds in this poem and so many others, as if in an attempt to transfigure his sorrow, would indicate that he thought there was ultimately some meaning worth giving voice to.

One can only hope so, for Benn's sake.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Money, Creepy Criminals, and Respectability

Why do we equate money with respectability?

Maybe money has not always equaled respectability, but it certainly does now. I myself unconsciously assume that a man wearing a nice suit must be more trustworthy than a man wearing a blue-collar work uniform with his name tag sewn onto his shirt. Maybe some people are less prejudiced in favor of wealth than I am, but I know I am certainly not unique in this respect. There is a reason, after all, why professionals dress well—most of us would not place our confidence in, or give our money to, a man who dressed like a bum, or like a used car salesman.

This equation of wealth with respectability is so deeply entrenched in our society that we don’t notice it until something makes us examine this prejudice. When I was growing up, I was surrounded by government employees, university professors, businessmen who could afford to be country club members, etc. I didn't know any criminals. Criminals were people who did horrible things, like rob and murder people, in poor neighborhoods. I only knew about them because their crimes were reported in the local newspaper. That changed, though, once I started working for lawyers. But, before I started working for lawyers, I also didn't know anyone who embezzled tens of thousands of dollars. Over the last few years, I’ve realized that we underestimate the injury caused by the breach of trust that is at the heart of white-collar crime.

What first made me examine my prejudices about wealth was that I realized that money is not necessarily a predictive factor for "creepiness" among criminals. One of the occupational hazards of working for criminal defense lawyers is that you meet some real creeps. Some of the creepiest defendants I’ve met have been quite wealthy, or at least middle-class, not the poor street criminals I thought of as a child. The creepiness that emanates from all criminals comes from two sources. First, the initial meeting between a client and a criminal defense lawyer is always uneasy because (in my experience with criminal defense) there is generally not much doubt that the client at the very least did something bad, if not always criminal. Both client and lawyer do their best to dance around the question of guilt, and that dance produces a strange sensation in the onlooker.

Second, each individual criminal gives off his own weird vibe. Different sorts of criminals, though, are different sorts of creeps. And white-collar criminals have been among the creepiest, in my experience. What makes some white-collar criminals so creepy? The answer comes back to society’s equation of wealth and respectability. The fact that a man can maintain a façade of respectability for years, all the while defrauding those who trust him because of his respectable wealth, means that at a very fundamental level of his personality he must be extremely devious. This deviousness I find just as frightening as the lack of remorse in a cold-blooded murderer; in both cases it is a sign of a complete lack of conscience. It is this lack of conscience, which leads to a willingness to violate any confidence, or any ethical boundary, that is truly creepy and even more disturbing than a street criminal who can’t restrain his anger over a failed drug deal or his frustration in his personal life. These street criminals possess a certain simplicity. It’s obviously not a good type of simplicity, but at least these men are not devious and manipulative like most white-collar criminals.

(On a side note, pedophiles are especially creepy because they combine the worst aspects of both kinds of criminals. Their actions are violent and repulsive, like those of street criminals, but like white-collar criminals they usually first build up a great amount of trust between themselves and their victims before committing their crimes.)

* * * * *

The special creepiness of white-collar defendants prompted me to examine my prejudices, and led me to conclude that their violation of trust is in some ways worse than what common street criminals do. But we are rarely outraged over white-collar crime, usually because the criminal has money, even though we should be more outraged because the criminal has betrayed a trust.

The result is that somehow it's more "respectable" for an investment banker to steal money through fraud, e.g., through the use of complex financial instruments he doesn’t understand (see “master of the universe” Fabrice Tourre of Goldman Sachs), than it is to mug a pedestrian. It's even more respectable for a bank to commit usury, or for a lawyer to overcharge his clients. These are all forms of theft, and they often involve a breach of trust when one person relies on the professional for help. The 7th commandment makes quite clear that all theft is wrong, yet too often we make nice distinctions based on the criminal’s wealth where the 7th commandment doesn't.

Unfortunately, most of the time we view these behaviors in abstract economic terms; this makes us afraid to call a thief a thief. It takes some up-close experience to see that theft is theft, no matter who the thief is.

Lawyers for a prominent trust company can get away with depleting half the assets of a sizable trust in questionable fees—they were paying themselves directly from the trust until the primary beneficiary asked to see some invoices. Jarndyce and Jarndyce may be not a completely fictional case, after all.

A man can write checks to himself and embezzle from a charity for mentally disabled children. He may not get away with it forever—the IRS might want to ask him about his new personal airplane—yet, because such a man can pay for his defense, he is more respectable in most people's eyes than the simple street criminal who has to rely on the public defender.

On the other hand, there are men who rob jewelry stores who are not very clever—as well as oblivious to the fact that the entire robbery has been caught on videotape—and the police generally have little difficulty in recovering the jewelry within a couple days. They certainly deserve to spend some time behind bars, but I have a hard time seeing that what these armed robbers do is necessarily any worse than what white-collar criminals do. What these armed robbers do is obviously more traumatic for the victim in the short term but they generally steal less money than white-collar criminals; people like Bernie Madoff have easy access to lots of money. Finally, will those trust beneficiaries or charity beneficiaries ever be able to recover the money stolen by their trustees? It’s highly unlikely.

You can call me a soft-on-crime bleeding-heart liberal, if you want, but I am simply asking why we do not stigmatize white-collar crime as much as street crime. Is the physical injury the street criminal inflicts on his victim always worse than the breach of trust committed by a white-collar criminal? True criminality does not depend on a person’s violence. Rather, it depends on a person’s willingness to transgress basic ethical commands without compunction. And that lack of conscience is often more evident in a wealthy white-collar criminal than it is in a poor street criminal.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Looking for the King

I'm naturally skeptical of novels that have their own trailer, but I'm intrigued by Looking for the King, by David Downing.

The book is not another group biography of the Inklings. In fact, it sounds more like an imitation of That Hideous Strength or one of Charles Williams' novels, in which supernatural events in modern Britain evoke the island's ancient past and speak to the contemporary threat of evil. The background is Nazi-occupied Europe, the protagonists are two young Americans at Oxford, the object of desire an ancient relic and the wise old men who aid our protagonists are the crew you've been waiting for: the Inklings.

A variety of reviews have been positive, praising the novel for its measured action, its historical research and its decision to leave the Inklings in the wings, rather than trying to put them on center stage.

If you'd like to read a passage before buying a copy for yourself or a loved one, you can do so here. I found the excerpt a bit flat at first, but soon I was reading out of genuine interest, and not simply as a test. I ended by deciding not to finish reading the passage, since I'll probably read the book some day and it would make more sense to do it in order.

H/T to Maggie Perry for sharing this post.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nietzsche: Erudition vs. Wisdom

Back in April I wrote a post about the Great Books as a system of education, and argued that education should be about the formation of the individual within a tradition, and not just the amassing of knowledge.

Just the other day, though, I re-read a passage from Nietzsche's Schopenhauer as Educator and was struck by its relevance to the contemporary debate over the value of the Great Books. In section eight of the essay, Nietzsche denounces those philosophers, especially those in the Kantian tradition in Germany, who had let the state buy them off with cushy jobs as tenured university professors and thus became unwilling to question, much less criticize, the existing order. This easy accommodation with the state led to a grave danger:

This is actually the third, and the most dangerous, concession made by philosophy to the state, when it is compelled to appear in the form of erudition, as the knowledge (more specifically) of the history of philosophy. The genius looks purely and lovingly on existence, like a poet, and cannot dive too deep into it;—and nothing is more abhorrent to him than to burrow among the innumerable strange and wrong-headed opinions. The learned history of the past was never a true philosopher's business, in India or Greece; and a professor of philosophy who busies himself with such matters must be, at best, content to hear it said of him, "He is an able scholar, antiquary, philologist, historian,"—but never, "He is a philosopher."

The distinction Nietzsche draws between studying the history of philosophy and doing philosophy, between attaining erudition and wisdom, is what should guide the debate about the Great Books. Knowledge--or, as we say today, information--is of course necessary, but without a tradition to give form to that information, it will only become, as Nietzsche said On the Use and Abuse of History, "indigestible knowledge-stones." Without a coherent philosophy we will not be able to digest all the information and historical knowledge we already have and be nourished with wisdom.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why Are There No Christian Democrats in America?

The other day I happened upon the Wikipedia article about Christian Democrats. I clicked through to the list of parties, and was surprised by the complete absence of American parties from the list, not even some minor third party outfit. (The closest we get might be the more-or-less defunct New York State Right to Life Party, the Jefferson Republican Party and the amorphous Working Families Party.)

Why is this? Why are there no Christian Democrats in the US?

Admittedly, Christian Democracy is not a monolithic concept. Using the Wikipedia article as a rough guide, we see that it can draw on Catholic social teaching or Calvinist ideas. It can be organized around Christian corporatism, subsidiarity, sphere sovereignty, communitarianism, the stewardship of the Christian believer or the dignity of the human person. (Or lots of those!) Its economics can be of the simple market variety, a social market economy or distributist.

Perhaps it is a bit much to ask that such a diverse - if interrelated - group of ideas spawn a single party in the US. Perhaps there are political, cultural or historical reasons why Christian Democracy lacks a following here. But it strikes me as odd that such a body of ideas have little play in the American arena, where Christians are generally assumed to belong to the hawkish semi-libertarian Republican Party, or are seen as hippie lefties opposed to war, industry and any kind of authority. What a pathetically shallow representation of the political implications of Christianity. Yet that is all we seem to find.