Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Prayer for America

If lately you have been tempted to pray, "Lord, please make my 401k grow," or "Lord, please make sure those rascals in the other party lose in November," or "Lord, please keep America the greatest nation on earth," let me suggest a more excellent prayer, taken from the ninth chapter of Daniel.  If such a prayer was good enough for Daniel, a man "beloved" by God (9:23), and for God's chosen people, surely it ought to be good enough for us.

O Lord, great and awesome God,
you who keep your covenant and show mercy
toward those who love you and keep your commandments and your precepts!
We have sinned, been wicked and done evil;
we have rebelled and turned from your commandments and your laws.
We have not obeyed your servants the prophets,
who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, our ancestors, and all the people of the land.
Justice, O Lord, is on your side;
we are shamefaced even to this day:
the men of Judah, the residents of Jerusalem, and all Israel,
near and far, in all the lands to which you have scattered them
because of their treachery toward you.
O LORD, we are ashamed, like our kings, our princes, and our ancestors,
for having sinned against you.
But to the Lord, our God, belong compassion and forgiveness,
though we rebelled against him
and did not hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
by walking in his laws given through his servants the prophets.
The curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God,
were poured out over us for our sins,
because all Israel transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to hear your voice.
He fulfilled the words he spoke against us and against those who ruled us,
by bringing upon us an evil;
no evil so great has happened under heaven as happened in Jerusalem.
As it is written in the law of Moses, this evil has come upon us.
We did not appease the LORD, our God,
by turning back from our wickedness and acting according to your truth,
so the LORD kept watch over the evil and brought it upon us.
The LORD, our God, is just in all that he has done:
we did not listen to his voice.

Now, Lord, our God,
who led your people out of the land of Egypt with a strong hand,
and made a name for yourself even to this day,
we have sinned, we are guilty.
Lord, in keeping with all your just deeds,
let your anger and your wrath be turned away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain.
On account of our sins and the crimes of our ancestors,
Jerusalem and your people have become the reproach of all our neighbors.
Now, our God, hear the prayer and petition of your servant;
and for your own sake, Lord, let your face shine upon your desolate sanctuary.
Give ear, my God, and listen;
open your eyes and look upon our desolate city upon which your name is invoked.
When we present our petition before you,
we rely not on our just deeds, but on your great mercy.
Lord, hear! Lord, pardon! Lord, be attentive and act without delay,
for your own sake, my God,
because your name is invoked upon your city and your people!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Public Research University Is Broken

Shortly before my graduation and departure from Texas A&M, I had coffee with President R. Bowen Loftin and a few professors.  Money is, of course, tight, so he gave a run-down of the budget and the university's operations.

Day to day spending on things like professors' salaries and the electric bills comes in roughly equal measure from tuition, the endowment, and the state legislature.  Annual tuition is currently $8,419.  If every student paid full tuition, the university would spend about $25,000 per student per year on its dual mission of teaching and research.

Since, however, 71% of students receive some form of financial aid, we have to adjust that number down.  For argument's sake, let's assume that one third of students receiving aid get it from non-university sources (meaning those monies still flow into the university's coffers like regular tuition), while the other two thirds of aid recipients pay half tuition.  This would pull down the tuition revenue figure to $6,427, and thus the total figure to something in the neighborhood of $19,000 per student per year.

Let us now turn our attention to another school I once attended, the University of Dallas.  Current tuition is $29,140 for a full year.  Since UD is a private school, it does not receive money from the state legislature.  Thus, it must rely on its meager endowment and tuition.  Still, assuming 20% from the endowment and 80% from tuition, that would come to $4,905 and $19,629 (adjusted down for the 98% of students receiving aid), respectively, or $24,500 per student per year.

These numbers are extremely rough - I know I have seen better ones for both schools, but I cannot find them now - but they suggest that UD spends 25-30% more per student than does A&M.  This is notable, but not staggering, and probably within the margin of error for this very crude study.

But if the two schools appear to be in the same ballpark, let me add one more piece of information.  UD has a single primary mission: to educate students.

UD's talented faculty do, in fact, publish in a variety of fields, but no one would claim UD is a research university.  Yet A&M, spending as much money or less, professes to have both excellent teaching and world-class research.  I submit to you that this is an impossibility.

Take note, moreover, that A&M is no fly-by-night, University of Phoenix-style operation.  A&M is a well-respected flagship university of Texas, well ranked in a variety of fields and broadly representative of public research universities across the country.  All of which embrace the dual mission of research and teaching.  I submit to you that they cannot fulfill both, and that teaching as been the loser in this fight.  One need only take a glance at a lecture hall of two or three hundred undergraduates to realize that this is not education; it is mass production.

One might quibble that the figures given by President Loftin over coffee some months ago were for day to day operations, and did not include the big ticket research equipment required by the sciences, or the far-flung travels required by many of the arts, which are funded out of different pots.  Even so, consider that professors at UD teach three or four courses per semester; professors at A&M typically teach two, with course releases common for many junior faculty.  Research requires time and time is paid out of salaries.

What, then, are we to conclude?

I am a supporter of research and I have conducted several archival research trips myself.  These things should continue and our society would do well to find ways to fund them.  Moreover, I believe research can have a positive impact on one's teaching.  However, the case that good research leads to good teaching has been overstated.  Bundling teaching and research together has simply confused the question of where resources are going, a confusion which has often been to teaching's disadvantage.

If you or your children are looking at undergraduate educational institutions, be very skeptical of any school claiming the dual mission of research and teaching.  Perhaps it has a staggering endowment - a few do - and is able to accomplish that dual mission.  But don't count on it.

Admittedly, private education is out of reach for many Americans.  Let me suggest, however, that community and junior colleges often offer education which is every bit as good as the large public institutions, and at a fraction the cost.  ("But what about the opportunity to study under leading scholars in their fields?" some might ask.  "Who taught more of your research school classes," I answer, "graduate students or Nobel laureates?"  A&M has both, but the former do more of the teaching.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pedagogical Eros

There is something unusual about a pedagogue's love for his pupil. St. John of the Cross, in the Spiritual Canticles states (albeit in a very different context) that "the property of love is to make equal him who loves with the thing he loves." But, toward what or whom is the pedagogue's love directed? The pedagogue is supposed to guide his pupil in a certain subject area--he is supposed to inflame his pupil's intellect with a love for that subject. But, so often the pedagogue turns his attention toward his pupil instead in ways that are not so innocent. Abelard and Heloise are the archetypes of this dynamic, which has been repeated so many times down through the centuries. How many college professors have had affairs with, or secretly lusted after, their students?

That is one typical problem with pedagogues: they re-direct their pupils' eros away from the subject of their studies toward themselves, and seek fulfillment of their relationship in sex. But, there is also another common problem, which though chaster is perhaps even more insidious: pedagogues who wish to make out of their pupils converts to their cause, disciples to follow them. These pedagogues are less inclined to sins of the flesh, but their sin may be worse: they make ideologues out of their pupils in order to satisfy their own egos.

In The Magic Mountain, for example, Thomas Mann gives two good examples of the second type of pedagogue. In the novel Hans Castorp is torn between two pedagogues vying for his attention: Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta. Settembrini represents the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment, while Naphta is a bizarre Jewish, Jesuit proto-fascist. Both men live to debate each other (for hours at a time) and, after both become acquainted with Hans Castorp, they compete for his allegiance, forcing him to listen to their endless dialogues. Each man seeks to save Hans Castorp from the clutches of the other, and the competition is often unseemly, almost like two jealous women fighting over the man they both love. In the end, though, Settembrini turns out to be less selfish than Naphta when he displays a more selfless love for Hans Castorp; he is willing to let go of him, but does not stop loving him, when he finally understands that Hans Castorp will never think exactly like him. It is perfectly fitting, on the other hand, that Naphta shoots himself at his duel with Settembrini, since he has nothing left to live for now that his only pupil has turned away from him and refused to become his disciple. This act of suicide--and a very ostentatious, narcissistic suicide at that--is the act of a man who never really loved his pupil but only saw him as a potential follower or an extension of his ego.

The danger the pedagogue runs is that he will try to turn his pupils into lovers or disciples. Either way, he is not trying to turn his pupil into an equal, into a friend, but is re-directing his pupil's eros towards himself. The challenge the teacher faces is to cultivate common interests and to enjoy a certain intimacy while allowing for other attachments. How well the pedagogue can love without jealousy is one measure of his greatness as a man.