Untruths Unlimited

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In his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness (2007), Robert Novak, a “Washington journalist” who could actually write, describes his weird encounters with former President Jimmy Carter. Early in Carter’s campaign for the presidency (1976), Novak caught him in several lies about his experiences and associates, and published a short column describing Carter’s “fibs.” Carter’s organization produced a refutation, and his press secretary told Novak that according to Carter, he was the liar.

The next time Novak talked with Carter, the sanctimonious politician — “who at every campaign stop said, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’” — told him, “Bob, you have done me a grave injustice and you may well have damaged my candidacy. But that’s not what bothers me. I’m just sorry that you have such a low opinion of me. That really hurts me.” Novak replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way” — only to be told that by the end of the day, Carter had been telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“After the Iowa incident,” Novak writes, “I became convinced I was too soft in my column by talking about ‘fibbing.’ Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes” (pp. 285–87).

By the end of the day, Carter was telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“So what?” you may say. “Politics is full of untruth.” But it’s fascinating to see how many forms untruth can take — and do it with perfect innocence. I don’t mean that the people who create the lies — remember, truth just exists; untruth has to be created — aren’t aware of what they’re saying. They often spend hours and days and polls and counselors and, as the song says, “pretty maids all in a row,” laboriously concocting their nonsense. Yet they may still retain a Jimmy Carter air of naiveté. No one could have lied more, or more ridiculously, than Hillary Clinton in the matter of her illicit emails. Who can forget her riposte to the question about whether she had wiped her server? “What?” she laughed. “Like with a cloth or something?” She uttered this idiocy in the childlike enjoyment of saying something smart. Perhaps with her, as with Carter, the best thing about lying is the feeling of liberation that comes from knowing that, no matter what nonsense one foists on one’s friends and fellow countrymen, one is still pure and right and innocent and wise and clever, after all, and all at the same time. Ain’t I cute?

An old saying — a saying conjecturally attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli — holds that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there are more, countless more. In the incident just cited, Jimmy Carter created what can be called a five-dimensional lie: first he lied, then he branded as a liar the person who discovered his lies, then he lied about his attitude toward the discoverer, then he falsely claimed that the discoverer had acknowledged his lie — and he did so in a way that would send this latest lie back to the person he was lying about.

Joseph Robinette (“Joe”) Biden, Jr. is a one-dimensional liar. He just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself. He has never filtered his statements for truth, except, apparently, to keep it out. In 1987 he was run out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination after it was discovered (easily) that he had plagiarized his statements about his personal history from some (odd) remarks of a leader of the British Labour Party about his own history. This disaster did not diminish Biden’s taste for lies. That taste continues, as shown in a report from June 12:

"Know what I was most proud of?" he said, in reference to former president Barack Obama's presidency. "For eight years, there wasn't one single hint of a scandal or a lie," he told a cheering crowd.

It’s not clear whether the crowd consisted entirely of mental defectives or of the kind of people who cheer a magician for falsely claiming to have sawed a lady in half. Maybe it was both kinds — because only a dimwit could mistake Biden for a magician.

Joe Biden just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself.

Still more dramatic evidence of his aversion to truth appeared on June 11, when he told a crowd in Ottumwa, Iowa:

I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.

“The statement,” we are told, “drew applause from the [demented?] audience.”

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document. It’s not the kind of statement that can be interpreted in virtually any way and is therefore too meaningless to qualify as a lie. Donald Trump’s “We’ll make America great again” can mean almost anything except “We’ll make America not-great again.” “We’re gonna cure cancer” has a more restrictive and actionable meaning.

A striking characteristic of today’s Fair Field of Falsehoods is the fact that many of its obvious untruths go unnoticed, because most people assume it is immoral to see them for what they are. These are virtue falsehoods. Public schools, we are told, are failing because they aren’t given enough money. People live on the streets, we learn, because they can’t find affordable housing. Healthcare, we hear, as we receive our routine hip replacements and cataract surgeries, is broken.

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document.

In my town, a supermarket chain runs an ad for food donations, or some such thing, alleging: “One in six San Diego kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” A website provides the mess of “statistics” from which this alarming statement appears to come: it mixes “food insecure” with “at risk of hunger,” and both with “do not know where their next meal comes from,” meanwhile proclaiming rather than admitting that “36% of children at risk of hunger in San Diego County are not eligible for federal nutrition programs (free or reduced-price school lunch or breakfast).” So 64% are eligible, eh? Now, I’m sure there are some hungry children, somewhere in town. There are such things as neglectful parents — and tax-funded agencies to deal with them. But I don’t know what it means to say that “the estimated annual meal gap for Feeding San Diego’s service area is 61,524,500 meals.” I am sure that hungry people do not constitute one-sixth or one-sixtieth of the “kid” population. Where are these hordes of (potentially) starving children? No one sees them. Perhaps no one really, concretely, imagines that they exist. Yet virtuous people are supposed to ignore the evidence of their experience and piously go with the program.

Evasion of the truth need not be conscious. The unconscious mind works busily at the task. It has plenty of techniques for performing it. No professional writer has to focus very hard on the problem of getting through a story without stating a truth that may result in accusations of thought crime. You don’t have to lie; you just have to say things that will license a lie. Hence those saving clichés of journalism — only time will tell, some observers suggest, opinion is divided. “Some observers suggest that communist governments impoverish their countries, but opinion is divided; only time will tell whether this will happen in Venezuela.” Even when the time comes, it usually stays mum. Why be brutally honest?

How to write about this in a "serious" manner, without offending any unserious people?

Consider the clichés of evasion in a recent report on the Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett case. You will remember Smollett as the actor on the TV show Empire who falsely claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack on the streets of Chicago. You will also remember that the nation dissolved in laughter at the ridiculous nature of his story, the absurd manner in which prosecutors got him off the hook, and the baffled outrage of Chicago’s liberal establishment about this offense to the city’s amour propre.

But the problem arose: how to write about this in a serious manner, without offending any unserious people? Well, you can do it in this way (I quote from The Hollywood Reporter, June 3):

[Newly released court] documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered about the spectacle surrounding the Empire actor. . . . Whereas Smollett had garnered a loud and vocal base of support after the initial charges against him were dropped, those voices had started to dim even before the latest dumps, as the murkiness around his story continued to deepen.

Incidentally, how do you garner a base? Be that as it may; the murkiness didn’t deepen. There wasn’t any murkiness. But if some people want to believe, contrary to the facts narrated by the Reporter itself, that “the documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered,” these phrases may keep them from voicing their outrage with the hapless writer.

The degree to which social anxieties can license untruth is shown by the confession of a social media “influencer.” Cora Smith is a travel journalist on Instagram. She is called an influencer because that is how someone sees her role in society. Yet she is the one who was disastrously influenced to suggest that her stay in the Dominican Republic was a beautiful experience — omitting certain experiences that, she says, left her in constant fear of violence. She says that she was assaulted and nearly kidnaped, but she wanted to make nice with the Dominicans, or at least about them, for fear of her audience. She was “very worried about bashing anyone or anything. In all honesty, influencers are too scared to tell the truth and feel they need to show the beautiful side. Most people only want to hear the positive things. . . . You feel this obligation to be honest, but a fear of rejection if you are.”

Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay.

Worse, much worse, are the unctuous untruths of the licensed, accredited, endowed, and established influencers, especially those of the academic tribe. Examples are legion; some new ones appear in the annals of the Oberlin College case, in which a jury awarded tens of millions of dollars of damages against the college for its role in injuring the reputation and business of a local bakery that was accused, on no evidence at all, of racism. Oberlin officials maintained that they were just trying to help.

Throughout the affair, the 2,800-student college-of-third resort projected as much arrogance as if it were the last redoubt of the Romanovs. Yet the college knew it was in trouble, lots of trouble. Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay. Then the jury awarded $11 million for actual damage done to the bakery — and a second phase of the trial began, the phase to determine if there would be punitive damages as well. At this point, Oberlin tried to jolly the jurors with false suggestions of a change of heart:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken,” Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar told the jury Thursday before the larger award was announced, according to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. “You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, ‘Colleges across the country have heard you.’”

The jury thereupon decided to fine Oberlin $33 million more. Perhaps it regarded the “we” in “we have heard you” as just as likely to be truthful as any other institutional use of the first-person plural. If you tried to make Ms. Zidar herself pay the bill for what Oberlin did, the “we” would immediately change to “they.”

But it was hard to stick “we have heard you” on anybody, because just a few days before, the college’s general counsel had passed out a statement disagreeing with the jury’s guilty verdict. Then, the “message” seemed anything but “profound.” The great academic institution deemed the verdict proof that the jury was paying no attention to “the clear evidence our team presented.” At this writing, Oberlin has yet to communicate the profundity that the jury spake unto its soul. The college has reverted to the idea of vindicating itself — presumably in a higher court. Eventually, it hopes, chin uplifted to the rising dawn, it will find the intelligent audience it deserves.

Here is an element common to many varieties of falsehood — the idea that what counts is not what you say, but whom you say it to. If you can find an audience that’s willing to put up with what you say — because you are a college, or a “statesman,” or an “activist,” or . . . whatever — then go ahead; say anything you want! Never mind that nobody with a brain actually believes you. That just means that opinion is divided.




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Unlawful Admission

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The True Scandal of College Admissions

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Around the Ides of March, the college admissions scandal became America’s most popular news story. Many people were surprised, and very unhappily surprised, to learn that there was widespread cheating on college admissions. As someone who teaches in a college, I was shocked, but not surprised. I’ll tell you why.

A few years ago, I enjoyed one of my few social encounters with the very rich. I was invited, along with several other faculty members, to a country club lunch for graduating seniors from the town’s best prep school. The food was pretty good, and the people — the students and their parents — were very nice. There was no agenda, but the topic of conversation soon became the terror gripping both parents and children — the hideous, enormous, overwhelming fear that the kids wouldn’t get into college. All of them were applying to seven or eight schools, including one or two C-rate schools in case they were rejected by the better ones.

I reminded everybody that the kids were attending a high school with a great reputation, and that (as I had been told) they had good grades and high test scores, so of course they’d get into a good college. My words did nothing to dispel the terror, which was irrational and obsessive. It was as if the kids had cancer and were desperately trying to find a doctor — any doctor — who could cure it. The possibility that the cancer didn’t exist meant nothing at all.

In our time, the idea of college inspires unnatural respect and, consequently, unnatural anxiety. The students I met at the country club were well motivated; they would probably do well in college and get some intellectual benefit from it — if they and their parents could ever relax for a moment and indulge a bit of intellectual curiosity. But what shall we say of the millions of other kids who have no purpose in attending college except to receive a credential of purportedly exalted social status? They are wasting their time; the credential is false. It’s a credential awarded for nothing but showing up — as is particularly evident in the millions of instances in which the college itself, whether “noted” or not, is merely a degree mill; the courses passed are such as anyone can, and will, pass, addressed to subjects that are not worth knowing, and taught by professors who spend half their time in political agitation and the other half burnishing their resumes with absurd or empty “publications.”

America is a country that provides commencement ceremonies for kids who graduate from kindergarten — complete with tiny diplomas testifying to the fact that, yes, praise God, they made it! America is a country in which orgies of tearful congratulation are lavished on the “long, hard work” of young men and women who manage to leave high school without knowing how to read or write. America is a country that annually bestows upon higher education approximately two-thirds of a trillion dollars, the majority of which is spent on the production of credentials that are significant only because Americans assume that you are not significant without one.

In this context, the fact that a few (all right, a lot of) parents are willing to spend a fortune bribing colleges to admit their offspring, without any concern for the offspring’s desires or talents, or for the ethics of buying a status that is meaningful only if it results from intellectual achievement — no, that fact should not be surprising. Taken as a sign of the national mentality, however, it is certainly shocking, and still more shocking when one hears politician after politician proposing that the imaginary glory of attending college be passed out free, to all, like the shopping ads that cram your mailbox. America is now a place where everyone demands certification, even if it is the kind of certification that anyone — anyone, that is, with any values — should recognize as utterly and obviously bereft of meaning. Yes, that’s shocking, but at this point it is also quite predictable.




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The Paranoia of the Lambs

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“This is a book about education and wisdom. If we can educate the next generation more wisely, they will be stronger, richer, more virtuous, and even safer.”

This is the goal and the conclusion of The Coddling of the America Mind by Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. The authors present a compelling, honest, apolitical, and well-researched explanation of what is happening on campuses today and how this goal can be achieved for the next generation. It’s probably the most important book published in 2018.

No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general?

We’ve all seen videos of the growing viciousness experienced on some college campuses in the past five years — professors mobbed for making seemingly trivial statements; controversial figures shouted down and physically attacked when they’re invited to speak on campus; trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces featuring cookies, blankets and coloring books cropping up at universities across the land. We’re also seeing an increase in “callout culture,” in which students and social media warriors gain status by identifying small offenses committed by a member of a community and then publicly “calling out” or shaming the perceived offender. This public cruelty has been given the ironic moniker of “virtue signaling.” No one seems willing to listen to the “enemy” or find common ground in order to restore harmony. What has gone wrong on our college campuses, and in America in general? And can it be reversed?

Lukianoff and Haidt say yes. In their book they identify three major “untruths” contributing to the problem: the rising, erroneous belief that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk; the belief that feelings are more powerful than reason and should always be trusted; and the belief that all people are either good or evil, leading to a dichotomous “us vs. them” tribalism. Related to these “untruths” is the idea that words are literally dangerous, which in turn justifies physical violence as a form of self-defense. The bulk of their book addresses these three themes as they describe specific examples of violence, present surprising evidence of possible causes, and offer convincing solutions to reverse the trend.

As the president of FIRE, Lukianoff has been at the forefront of campus unrest as both an observer of the violence and a defender of free speech. In a section called “Bad Ideas in Action,” the authors describe several high-profile cases in which professors have been forced to resign for minor slights, or speakers have been shouted down and physically threatened. But they also include examples of police brutality and the neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville last year. The book is apolitical in that it does not take sides or suggest that one particular party or viewpoint is primarily to blame. In fact, they sympathize with many of the noble concerns of what they call the iGen generation (those born after 1995), who sincerely care about racism, sexism, justice, and environmental issues. And they acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language. The book’s purpose is not to cast blame or fan the fires but to discover genuine causes and promote change.

This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect.

The most useful and important part of the book is the section called “How Did We Get Here?” It notes a significant change on campuses beginning in 2013, when students began reporting high levels of anxiety and demanding trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable experiences and safe spaces to recover from them. Lukianoff and Haidt connect this rise in anxiety not to the college experience but to the childhood experiences leading up to their entrance to college. These catalysts include anxiety and depression, “paranoid parenting,” a decline in unsupervised free play, increased political polarization, a hyper quest for social justice inspired by news reports and videos of violence or bullying against minorities, and college consumerism that gives students what they want instead of what they need in order to attract more students. In fact, they observe, college administrators did not cause the rise in “safetyism” on campus through some nefarious desire to end free speech; they simply responded to the alarming and genuine fearfulness and fragility expressed by the entering class of iGen students.

However well-intentioned the institutional protections might be, the continuation of coddling is exactly the opposite of what students need. Colleges should be teaching them to cope, not to hide. I’m reminded of a student who used to spend every afternoon in the tutoring center where I worked, seeking help for every assignment. He was a likeable young man with a learning disability, and we were instructed to make sure he graduated, even if it meant feeding him every answer. After earning his bachelors degree, he entered the MBA program. Again his instructors and tutors coddled him. Instead of requiring him, for example, to do legitimate research to learn how businesses operate, they allowed him to make up his case studies and imagine businesses that simply would not exist or survive in the real world. Nor would he himself survive, in a real job.

Frustrated, I told him one day that he needed to research a real business for his case study, and not just make up a company and its product, sales, marketing, etc. I offered to help him find the research and analyze the data, so that he could learn how a real business operates. I was concerned that he was racking up thousands of dollars in student debt with no real skills or understanding and no hope of landing a job. The result? I was reprimanded. I had hurt his feelings, and that was considered more harmful than the reprimanders’ giving him years of false hope and poor education.

Lukianoff and Haidt acknowledge that “right-wing provocateurs” often deliberately fuel the flames with their own vicious protests and threatening language.

It is simply not true that humans are fragile and need to be protected from all risk. Actually, humans are “antifragile,” as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2007 bestseller The Black Swan. We need resistance to grow strong. Bones and muscles atrophy when they aren’t used, and so do emotional muscles. Students need to be taught how to cope with difficulties and traumas in order to grow mentally and emotionally strong. Lukianoff uses his own experience with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) as an example of how confronting one’s fears and anxieties can make one stronger and able to cope. Sadly, many parents and college administrators are taking the opposite approach.

Can the trend on campus be reversed? Lukianoff and Haidt believe it can: “The more serious a problem gets, the more inducements there are for people, companies, and governments to find innovative solutions, whether driven by personal commitment, market forces, or political pressures” (265). Parents are becoming smarter about teaching children to become confident, independent problem-solvers. Many schools are restoring recess and reducing homework to encourage free play, where they learn to socialize, calculate risk, negotiate differences, and adjudicate fairness. This year Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” bill, making it less likely that parents who allow their children to play outside will be charged with neglect. Many universities, recognizing that “safetyism” leads to fragility, are beginning to introduce coping skills instead of overprotection. The University of Chicago has created a new Statement on Principles of Free Expression that reaffirms its commitment to free and open inquiry, and other colleges are following its example, reducing the rising tendency of professors to watch what they say and not challenge students intellectually for fear of retaliation.

FIRE has produced a modified version of the statement to serve as a template for other schools. The book provides a list of questions that parents and prospective students should ask while selecting a college (261–62). In sum, this is not the end of civility on campus, nor is it the end of civility in the United States.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a reasoned, logical, unbiased, and well-researched assessment of the rise in verbal and physical violence on campuses across America. It offers sound advice that begins in the home and moves beyond the campus to embrace self-governance. I’ve already sent it to several friends. You probably will too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure," by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Penguin Press, 2018, 338 pages.



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Generation Graft

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Regressive Education

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Amid the current idolization of teenagers’ political activity, it may be interesting to consider the latest report on American students’ intellectual proficiency. It’s the results of tests conducted on the reading and math skills of eighth graders for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the US Department of Education.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention since they were announced on April 10 is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing. Another reason is that the data are presented in on the NAEP website in a bafflingly complicated way. One useful summary appears in an item on the conservative news site CNS. There’s no conservative spin in the story; there doesn’t need to be. The fact is as simple as CNS puts it: “Sixty-five percent of the eighth graders in American public schools in 2017 were not proficient in reading and 67 percent were not proficient in mathematics.”

There follow graphs of the performance of students in various states and public school districts — reading proficiency in Los Angeles, 23%; in Detroit, 7%; and so on.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing.

But what does reading proficiency mean? In terms used by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, “Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes. They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.”

I should note that this standard is far too high for the Washington Post. But it does seem appropriate for students who are about to enter high schools where they are encouraged to become political activists; i.e., encouraged to think that because of their ability to read and reason, they can start telling other people how to live.

Well, but maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No. Even the Voice of America’s bland presentation brings disturbing news on this front. It indicates that proficiency tends to decline with schooling:

About 40 percent of 4th graders were found to be proficient in reading and math. The report found just 25 percent of 12th grade students had math proficiency, while 37 percent reached that level in reading.

In science, 38 percent of 4th graders were rated proficient, while about 34 percent of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency.

It costs something to promote this ignorance. The NCES data show that California (to cite one example) spends $70.5 billion on its public schools, or about $11,300 for each student. The result is that only 32% of its eighth graders are proficient in reading, and only 29% are proficient in math.

But maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No.

So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the students are smarter than their elders, after all. The elders pay their useless taxes without demur, but I doubt that even the student leaders would be willing to plunk down 11 grand a year for the education that fits them for their public roles.




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Capitalism Claims Another Victim

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A few years ago I invented something called the Atlas Shrugged Scale. It’s a way of estimating how close reality comes to the satire in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Some may recall the time when the novel’s portrayal of bureaucrats, social activists, government enforcers, and crony capitalists was denounced as impossibly far-fetched, as just downright pigheadedly mean. We don’t hear much talk like that anymore.

The reason is that every day brings us real-life stories that seem to be written by Ayn Rand, still satirizing from the Next World.

The moral that friends of the college take home with them is that the college was a victim of the capitalist system.

Here’s one. A college is started by a dissident professor who thinks it’s a good thing for faculty to be scared by their students. He puts his college in an economically depressed town where lots of people have time and government benefits on their hands. It apparently admits everyone who wants to enroll, and to have no required courses. There are no grades. Yet in 40 years it manages to enroll at most 200 people at a time. When the college wants to establish a “cultural exchange” with another institution, it chooses the University of Havana. Vaunted college accreditors vouch for the place.

The annual budget of this college is around $20,000 per student, a hefty sum for a place that barely exists. But its president, who seems to owe her appointment to the fact that she is married to a congressman who is a former mayor of the town (and a future US senator), borrows millions of dollars to expand the campus, assuring lenders that there is plenty of money coming in. The money doesn’t come in, although the president has no problem collecting her large salary. Finally she is prevailed upon to resign. Her successor is persuaded to resign by a student mob. Two years after that, the college collapses and ceases to exist. The moral that friends of the college take home with them is that the college was a victim of . . . the capitalist system.

The story is well summarized here. The institution is Burlington College. Its former president is Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie Sanders. The story’s score on the Atlas Shrugged Scale is 9.

Don’t ask me what events would justify a 10. I’m not sure we can take that much satire.




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The Smartest Girl I Know

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When I first met Deja and Zhane, they were living with their mother in a Section 8 housing unit in Yonkers, New York. Their mother was what most people would describe as a “typical welfare mom” — she got a job once in a while, although the risk of losing her benefits if the job didn’t work out made it difficult to get off welfare. But she was proud of those girls! They didn’t go out on school nights, studied hard, stayed away from boys and drugs, and won numerous school awards. When Zhane was offered the opportunity to attend a scholastic camp during the summer, her mother hustled to contact everyone she knew who might be willing to sponsor the girl with a donation of $20, $10, even $5 if they could spare it. I was one of the hustled. More than once. And I was happy to help.

I lost track of the girls when they stopped attending our church, but I ran into Deja recently at the grocery store in my middle-class neighborhood north of Yonkers, where she is working as a clerk and saving money for college. She also works at a Burger King in the evenings, but she enjoys her grocery job better. “I like the customers, and I feel like ‘somebody’ here,” she said. I asked about her sister, and we caught up.

An estimated 40 million Americans are saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars.

Zhane is also working two jobs, trying to earn enough money to pay off the debts she accrued after one year of college. “She didn’t want to owe all that money,” Deja told me, “so she’s working to pay it off before she goes back to college.”

Smart girl.

According to statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank and the Chronicle of Higher Education, an estimated 40 million Americans are saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars. Many of them are well into middle age now, with little hope of ever paying off their debt. In fact, student loans are the only debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and if the loans aren’t paid off by age 65, when Social Security kicks in, payments to Sallie Mae will be deducted off the top. So add student loans to the inevitability of death and taxes — and don’t plan to leave that fancy engagement ring to your heirs, because Sallie Mae will be first in line when your will is probated.

The average student debt is $30,000, but many students owe well over $100,000 when they graduate, and it isn’t unusual today for grad students from Ivy League schools to amass debts totaling over a quarter million dollars. Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

Deja and Zhane might not be in college yet, but they know the difference between “aid” and “debt.” Other college students aren’t so wise. One of my own students, repeating a required English course for thethird time, was rather flippant when I cautioned her that she was amassing a huge debt without making any progress toward graduation. “I don’t have to pay for it,” she said proudly. Thinking she meant that her parents or grandparents were footing her tuition bills, I reminded her that she should be more respectful of their money. “Oh no,” she crowed, “they don’t have to pay either. The school gave me financial aid!” This poor, foolish girl thought “aid” meant “help.” She had no idea that it really meant, “Let me hold the door for you as you step into a lifetime of debtors’ prison.”

Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

At the university where I teach, I encourage my students to purchase their textbook, an anthology of classic literature, on Amazon. Cheap, used editions are seldom available at the college bookstore because the book is updated every three years, making the older editions conveniently obsolete. Half the time the new edition is the only option, and they can’t sell it back at the end of the semester because a new edition is usually about to come out. But I don’t care which edition they use. It’s classic literature, after all! Most of my students find the book online for $5 or so (one found it for a penny!), instead of paying $120 for the new edition at the bookstore. However, last semester I received an email from the dean: “Please encourage students to purchase their books at the college bookstore. Remind them that this is to their advantage, as they cannot use their financial aid if they purchase books online.” So let me get this straight: my students are better off borrowing $120 from Sallie Mae and paying 4–8% interest for the next 20 years than they would be if they simply skipped Starbucks for one day and bought the book online with cash? What kind of new math is that?

“Learn now, pay later” is one of the main reasons tuition has skyrocketed in the past two decades. When students can enroll without putting a penny down, they don’t give enough thought to how much it’s going to cost them later, and colleges can raise tuition almost indiscriminately. When our daughter began college at a private southern California university 15 years ago, she was awarded a scholarship that covered 50% of her tuition. We were delighted, and budgeted accordingly as we allowed her to select this expensive school. By the time she graduated four years later, however, the scholarship was only covering 25 % of her tuition, because tuition had doubled in those four years. How can anyone plan for college, when tuition is changing that drastically?

Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans.

I fear for this generation whose future is being sold for a mess of pottage. Fully 60% of students accept some kind of loan for college, without ever considering the consequences. Most of them are mere teenagers when the university’s suave, educated, comforting grownups tell them to sign their lives away on the dotted line because “that’s the way everybody does it.” After all, it’s financial aid. The government is helping you get ahead. Aren’t you lucky.

I’m not suggesting that these loans should be forgiven. I don’t really have a solution for the 40 million Americans who are already hopelessly strapped with debts they knowingly contracted. I certainly don’t think free college is the answer. But something has to be done. Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans by making them undischargeable through bankruptcy, and college tuitions wouldn’t be rising beyond the ability to pay if these loans weren’t creating artificial demand.

As I left the grocery store that day I congratulated Deja again on her wisdom in avoiding debt. By saving her own money for college, she is more likely to spend it carefully on a degree that truly interests her, and she’ll study more effectively because she won’t want to waste the money she has worked so hard to earn. She’ll live at home with her mother and sister instead of paying $1,000 a month for dorm life, and she plans to attend community college before transferring to a university, which will also help keep her costs down. She expects to have enough saved to pay for her first year of tuition by September. And she sleeps well, knowing that her savings account, not her loan balance, is growing.

Smart girl.




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The Grand Itch

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One gray afternoon in the 1990s, while on a motor trip home from Philadelphia, I stopped by my old high school, the Henry C. Conrad High School in Woodcrest, Delaware, a near suburb of Wilmington. Standing on Boxwood Road, outside the chain-link fence, I noticed something odd about the building — broken windows, patched with wood or cardboard. I had never seen such damage before, not during my school days. But I simply assumed the damage was a reflection of the destructive tendencies unique to contemporary times.

It was later that I discovered that the building I had gazed at was no longer a high school. Conrad High was, by then, Conrad Middle School. The old high school had closed long ago — caught up in a huge forced busing plan to achieve “racial balance” throughout the northern New Castle County schools. The plan was referred to, mellifluously, as “metropolitan dispersion.” It did achieve dispersion, but not the kind intended by its authors and advocates.

I had never seen such damage before, not during my school days.

All such plans began with the so-called landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The court decided that racial segregation in public schools, in and of itself, denied minority students equal educational opportunities. “Today,” the court declared, “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” And they went on to say, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” And then came that crucial paragraph: “We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in the public schools, solely on the basis of race, even though physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.”

Education is the most important function of state and local governments? The mind reels — more important than maintaining the police? the firemen? the courts? Is education at taxpayers’ expense a right, or is it a privilege? — or is it, by now, a dubious activity forced on the public by its government? And what about those tangible factors? One might argue that, in the Brown case, tangible factors were the only proper concern of the court.

The court went on to say that “to separate [children in grade and high school] from others of similar age solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The court quoted an earlier decision by a lower court: “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.” That was plausible, although hardly requiring the justification that the Court found in “modern authority” — in particular, a magisterial tome by Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal entitled The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The well-known footnote eleven in the complete Brown text documented the Myrdal influence. Concluding a list of several authorities was this notation: “And see generally, An American Dilemma (1944).”

Education is the most important function of state and local governments? The mind reels.

Having moved away from equality of tangible things and into the realm of psychology and sociology, the Supreme Court effected a change in the judicial climate. Separation of the races by neighborhood — which, of course, led to a different racial makeup in each school — became the equivalent of separation by law. And the federal courts, whether to eliminate the “achievement gap” between black and white students, or to compensate for the sins of past discrimination, mandated forced busing to achieve “racial balance.” In New Castle County, Delaware, in 1978, Federal District Court Judge Murray Schwartz ordered a busing plan into effect that Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist described as “draconian.”

Well before this, all the Wilmington schools had opened to black students — the elementary schools in 1954, the secondary schools in 1955, and the high schools in 1956. Of course, the schools were neighborhood schools and no more “racially balanced” than the neighborhoods where they stood. But the intellectuals were lurking — they had discovered a social ill and thought they had a cure. In 1966, sociologist James E. Coleman published a report entitled Equality of Educational Opportunity. In it, he maintained that inner-city black children, however undisciplined, when seated among middle-class white children, would accept the disciplined ways of the white kids as their own. And eventually, because of their increased discipline, the achievement levels of the black kids would equal those of the white kids. Coleman, whose undergraduate work was in chemical engineering, had gone on to study sociology at Columbia University. He was a true social engineer. But alas, here he miscalculated the stresses and strains — when busing to achieve “racial balance” was undertaken, the results were often the opposite of what he had predicted. The black kids maintained their rebellious ways, and the racially balanced classrooms assumed the chaotic quality of inner-city schools. Perceiving the threat to their children’s wellbeing, the white middle-class parents did a gallopade beyond the horizon. And perceiving this white flight, Professor Coleman did, as they say, a one-eighty, renouncing his report in 1975.

But by that time, the integrationist choo-choo train had gotten up plenty of steam. Forced integration had become an accepted social remedy — and a compensation for past injustice. And in New Castle County, later government actions were seen as compounding the past injustices. One such action was the state’s Educational Advancement Act of 1968, meant to consolidate its smaller school districts without referendum. It exempted three of the bigger districts, including that of predominantly black Wilmington. Thus, complainants saw the Act as resegregating the public schools. Other actions of similar effect were the construction of new highways and subsidized housing, which supposedly encouraged white flight, while maintaining urban-black isolation. The earlier idea that “discrimination was forbidden, but integration was not compelled” was overwhelmed by the felt need to make amends.

Alas, Coleman miscalculated the stresses and strains when busing to achieve “racial balance” was undertaken.

And making amends meant creating new victims. Eleven school districts in northern New Caste County were compressed into one. The students were hauled hither and yon to create the same ratio of black to white in every school. Some traditional high schools in the county, including Conrad and P. S. duPont, were closed and their mascots and other memorabilia thrown away. Two other high schools, Wilmington and Claymont, eventually closed for lack of students — no one wanted to attend. Students spent as much as three hours a day on buses, and participation in after-school activities became difficult, if not impossible. And the busing went on and on — the city kids rode for as many as nine years to the suburbs, and the suburban kids rode for as many as three years to the city. Thus, the busing plan, known as the “nine-three plan,” made every school day a nail-biter for many parents.

By 1993, the State Board of Education had had enough — it petitioned the Federal Court to declare that unitary status he been achieved — in other words, to kindly throw out the busing mandate. But an organization called “The Coalition to Save Our Children” arose with a consent order. The order listed conditions under which the board would be spared further litigation. These included the mandatory monitoring of the schools’ racial makeup with certain quotas to be maintained, “conflict management” that blamed the teacher for disruptive students, “culturally sensitive” examinations for minority students, programs for teachers in “cultural awareness,” a $1.6 million-dollar appropriation for alternative programs for “seriously disruptive” youths, and — believe it or not — a lower passing score for minority-teacher certification. There were other conditions, of course, all meant to assuage the problems caused by previous efforts at educational salvation.

The Delaware legislature was having none of this sort of nonsense, and in 1996, Federal District Court Judge Sue Robinson ended the busing mandate. In the year 2000, the legislature passed the Neighborhood Schools Law. Once again, the kids could go to school close to home. But of course, neither the court decision nor the new law could restore the missing high schools. The old Wilmington High School building is now occupied by the Charter School of Wilmington and something called the Cab Calloway School of the Arts. This last is a so-called magnet school, which brings me to the fate of Henry C. Conrad High School. Having withstood the strife as Conrad Middle School, the building was closed for renovations in 2005 and reopened in 2007 — transformed into the Henry C. Conrad Schools of Science. This latest Conrad emphasizes biotechnology and health sciences for students from grades six through twelve.

Students spent as much as three hours a day on buses, and participation in after-school activities became difficult, if not impossible.

But wait a minute — schools of the arts? schools of science? What’s going on here? These schools present specialized curricula — aimed at whom? The answer is obvious, of course, and most people are either too polite to laugh, or have little knowledge of recent history. The magnet schools are meant to attract the same middle class that fled the forced busing mandates — and thus restore “racial balance”? Well, no — the term has been replaced by “diversity,” but the absurdity of it all is still manifest. The magnet school turns diversity into an end with the curriculum as the means. It represents yet another theory to undo the mess created by the previous theory — there will always be another theory, and another, and another.

There was a time when the traditional schools worked reasonably well — even in the inner-cities. They taught and trained young people from all walks of life, according to their individual aptitudes and ambitions. But that was before the theorists took over, before real children became “the child,” before “look-speak” replaced phonetics, before the “new-math” replaced the multiplication table, before sex education became a sine qua non — and, of course, before “diversity” was equated with “racial balance.” All these later wonders sprang from the minds of the theory class, those individuals, mainly academics, whose reputations are built by outdoing one another in imagination, often while reality grows small in the rear-view mirror. Why couldn’t sociologists have predicted the effects of forced busing — if they truly understood human society? Perhaps, in the interest of education, the federal government should stop financing the theory class.

The magnet school turns diversity into an end with the curriculum as the means. It represents yet another theory to undo the mess created by the previous theory.

One cure for the problems of public education — a system of vouchers — has been widely advocated, especially by the late Professor Milton Friedman. These money-substitutes would give all parents a choice of private schools and allow market forces to improve the quality of education. But in such a system, the government could still get one foot in the door of every schoolhouse. Suppose some future Obamacrat decides that the government won’t cash the vouchers unless the schools presenting them have a unionized staff, or a specific ethnic balance, or accreditation by the same old educationist bureaucracy? With such restrictions, the quality of education could easily decline to its pre-voucher level. You say the public wouldn’t stand for it? Well — they’ve recently stood for things equally bad.

As for Supreme Court Justices, their lower-court colleagues, and lawyers in general — they do their best work when they address themselves to matters of law. When they develop that peculiar eczema identified by Mencken — the itch to save mankind — they become dangerous.

* * *

SOURCES

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Berger, Raoul. Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment. 2nd Ed. Fwd. Forrest McDonald. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997. http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=675&itemid=99999999
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 347 U.S. 483. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0347_0483_ZO.html
Delaware State Board of Education v. Evans 446 U.S. 923 (1980). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/446/923/
Friedman, Milton, and Rose Friedman. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York: Avon Books, 1981.
“Gunnar Myrdal, Analyst of Race Crisis, Dies.” The New York Times, 18 May 1987. www.nytimes.com/1987/05/18/obituaries/gunnar-myrdal-analyst-of-race-crisis-dies.html
“Gunnar Myrdal.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunnar_Myrdal
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “Making Sense of Magnet Schools.” The News and Observer (Raleigh): The Durham News. 5 Nov. 2005, p. 3.
“Henry C. Conrad High School.” http://conradhighschool.com/
Hofstadter, Richard. Great Issues in American History: A Documentary Record. Vol. II, 1864–1957. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
Hube. “Desegregation Consternation.” The Colossus of Rhodey. 15 April 2007. http://colossus.mu.nu/archives/221158.php
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
Kakaes, Konstantin. “Why Johnny Can’t Add Without a Calculator.” Slate, 25 June 2012. www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/06/math_learning_software_and_other_technology_are_hurting_education_.html
Lamb, Kevin. “Race and Education: An Interview with Professor Raymond Wolters.” VDare.com. 25 March 2009. www.vdare.com/articles/race-and-education-an-interview-with-professor-raymond-wolters
Lewin, Tamar. “Herbert Wechsler, Legal Giant, Is Dead at 90.” The New York Times, 28 April 2000. www.nytimes.com/2000/04/28/us/herbert-wechsler-legal-giant-is-dead-at-90.html
Miller, Andrea, and Antonio Prado. “Conrad High School, the Jewel of Woodcrest.” Hockessin Community News, 21 Oct. 2008. www.hockessincommunitynews.com/article/20081021/News/310219937
___. “Remembering Claymont High School: First White School in Delaware to Admit Black Students.” Hockessin Community News,21 Oct. 2008. www.hockessincommunitynews.com/article/20081021/News/310219946
 ___. “A Sad Day When P. S. duPont Became an Elementary School.” Hockessin Community News, 27 Oct. 2008. www.hockessincommunitynews.com/article/20081021/News/310219938
Prado, Antonio, and Andrea Miller. “The 40-Year Legacy of Evans vs. Buchanan: A Struggle Over Education, Race, Power.” Hockessin Community News, 21 Oct. 2008. www.hockessincommunitynews.com/article/20081021/News/310219952
___. “Wilmington High School Red Devils Celebrate School and Mourn Its Loss.” Hockessin Community News, 27 Oct. 2008. www.hockessincommunitynews.com/article/20081021/News/310219949
Roberts, Sam. “Marva Collins, Educator Who Aimed High for Poor, Black Students, Dies at 78.” The New York Times, 28 June 2015. www.nytimes.com/2015/06/29/us/marva-collins-78-no-nonsense-educator-and-activist-dies.html
Taylor, Linda Schrock. “Short-Changed by the New-New Math.” LewRockwell.com, 11 March 2003. www.lewrockwell.com/2003/03/linda-schrock-taylor/why-johnny-still-cant-add/
White, Adam. “The Lost Greatness of Alexander Bickel.” Commentary, March 2012.
Wilson, James Q. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books, 1989.
___. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press, 1997.




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Alma Mater

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