Tuesday, May 03, 2016

We need more philosophers. Not politicians!

Remember the presidential wannabe who seemed to want to only utter sound-bites like “we need more welders, less philosophers"?  Yes, I am referring to Marco Polo Rubio, who is now apparently "warming up to Donald Trump" after all the insults that he hurled at the Donald!  If only he had listened to the philosophers, because he would have understood that Plato had something to say about the dangers of democracy; Plato thought that:
 rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, in the wrong hands was dangerous and likely to be abused to appeal to people’s base motives. He foresaw the unethical, dishonest uses that a skilled but immoral speaker could put his persuasive powers to, with credulous people eager to believe or buy whatever he was selling.
Rubio will perhaps be shocked to learn that people who are familiar with the works of Plato and Socrates have quite a bit to say about Trump.   Kathleen Parker continues with this:
We at least owe Trump thanks for bringing these two ancient philosophers out of history’s woodwork and back into the conversation. Trump also has inspired reconsideration of rhetoric’s rightful place in the classroom, where it was once considered an essential component of “a gentleman’s” education. 
Andrew Sullivan, who suddenly abandoned blogging that he pioneered, has returned after a long hiatus at a new place, and in a lengthy piece on Trump, suggests that America has never been so ripe for tyranny.  Sullivan also brings in Plato and Socrates:
As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”
Too bad that Rubio, Trump, and their ardent followers do not care about philosophy!  Sullivan and Parker are not some crazy hippies either.  More Sullivan:
Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.
I particularly like the way Sullivan phrases the weight of the moment:
In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.
I don't for a moment consider that as hyperbole.  In the American presidential politics, we often worry about a "October surprise" that can tremendously affect the election outcomes.  A terror attack committed by non-White foreign terrorists either on American soil, or on American interests abroad in early October, and Trump would seize that as his ultimate gift: "Fear is always the would-be tyrant’s greatest ally."

It is going to be a long and scary wait until November 8, 2016.  Meanwhile, brush up on your Socrates, folks!

Monday, May 02, 2016

Stinking history!

(I have sent this across to the editor)

Higher education has been afire with discussions—substantive and rhetorical—about the dark histories of the people after whom buildings and colleges have been named. Locally, at the University of Oregon, two buildings, Deady and Dunn Halls, have made us rethink the biographies of the namesakes. The older the university, the more the possibility of controversial history. For instance, recently, Georgetown University has been in the news for how it sold its 227 slaves in 1838 in order to pay off the debts and sustain the financially struggling college.

We humans have been struggling forever, it seems, to figure out how to respond and react to the origins of wealth that is then used for honorable causes, like education. By and large, we seem to have operated along the lines of a Latin phrase that is almost two thousand years old—“Pecunia non olet” which translates to “money does not stink.”

The “stink” of the money is, thus, not new by any means. It is just that we conveniently opted not to talk about it. The recent discussions about Georgetown and Deady and Dunn have, thankfully, brought to the forefront those difficult and inconvenient issues.

Many of us from India have often pointed to Yale University as an example of “Pecunia non olet.” In order to understand this, we need to know more about the namesake. Elihu Yale was a Bostonian by birth, but was mostly raised in London because his father found the New England Puritanism too stifling. Growing up in England, Yale signed up for the promising and pioneering multinational corporation of the seventeenth century—the East India Company.

In 1670, Yale was assigned to work in one of the most profitable operations—in Madras, which is in southern India. (This city, where my parents and sister live, was renamed Chennai in 1996.) It was in Madras that Yale even got married—to his friend’s widow—and it was in the same city that his three-year old son was buried after an untimely death.

Yale’s personal, professional, and political lives were all made in India after his relatively humble economic beginnings. As one author put it, “Yale had come to India with the entry-level title of a company "writer" and an annual salary of £10—about half a shilling a day at a time when an English cloth suit cost around 15 shillings.” Yale proved that he knew a thing or two about the art of making a deal and he quickly made himself rich and powerful, while helping make the East India Company rich and powerful. Thus, from a lowly “writer” Yale quickly rose to become the governor of Madras. His aggressive methods also led to his downfall—he was fired from the post in 1692 after which he returned to England.

The two decades-plus in Madras had made Elihu Yale a wealthy man. As he got older, and because he did not have children to whom he could have willed the inheritance, Yale’s fortunes were sought by many. One of the beneficiaries of his largesse was the Collegiate School in Connecticut that was later renamed to Yale College in 1718, as a way of honoring Yale’s contributions.

Because of the connections to Madras that provided Yale University with its name, some of us from that part of the world joke that we deserve legacy admissions with free tuition. After all, the East India Company was more than a mere trading corporation, and a monopoly at that. In a matter of years, the company became a mighty political force with its own military forces with which it ruled a vast territory in the Subcontinent.

The land became the British Raj after the monarch assumed direct control. India, which accounted for more than a quarter of the entire world’s economy when these mercantile operations began more than three hundred years ago, was reduced to a poster-child for poverty, starvation, and beggars by the time the British government reluctantly granted independence in August 1947 to the newly created countries of India and Pakistan.

Thus, whether it is Yale or Georgetown or the United Kingdom of today, the question is the same one from the Roman days: Does money have a smell?

Perhaps the best approaches in these troubling issues will begin with an honest recognition of the patron’s past, especially regarding the wealth they accumulated. History cannot be undone, of course. We can constructively move forward by learning from history, and by establishing procedures whereby philanthropy will be appropriately vetted for the money’s olfactory backstories.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Incompatibles: Football and the mission of higher education

The Sunday edition of the local newspaper had plenty of pages dedicated not to the Syrian crisis, nor to climate change, and not even to the latest antics of the Donald.  The pages, with color photographs galore, were about football at the local university!  Thankfully, I did not throw up all over the paper ;)

It is simply bizarre that everybody, from the president--who was his usual masterful self at the comedy improv last night--down to the high school student complains about the cost of higher education and, yet, there are only a few of us who have been railing against the wasteful allocation of precious dollars towards college football (and basketball too.)  About five years ago, in this post, I quoted Katha Politt who phrased it well:
In no other country’s university system, after all, does sports play anything like the central role it does in American academic life. Men do not go to Oxford to play cricket; the Sorbonne does not field a nationally celebrated soccer team. Even in the most sports-mad countries, sports is sports and education is education. That’s a better system.
Which is why it was refreshing to read about a public university in a neighboring state deciding that it did not want to participate in the athletic arms race.  The president of the University of Idaho, which is the state’s land-grant university, writes that some of the alumni and supporters do not agree with his decision because of the impact on the "institution’s “prestige” and “relevance.”  The university president responds to them:
Success on the football field should complement the prestige and relevance of our academic institution. But football affiliation or performance should not define prestige and relevance. The impact of our institution should define us, as measured by the entire experience for our student body, including our athletes; by academic excellence across the university; by sustained research, scholarly activity and creative success; and by deep engagement with communities and partnerships with industry.
Oh my!  Finally, a university president develops a spine to stand up against the brainwashed who believe that colleges and universities exist in order to entertain them!
Why should my university's decision about what conference to play in matter to anybody outside our institution? Because I think our situation has potential implications for dozens of universities that play big-time college football and says a lot about the state of college athletics.
Exactly!  This is 'yuge', as the guy with short fingers and a huge ego says.
We can and will create an outstanding student-athlete and communitywide experience around our program, a vibrant football culture that is a great front porch for Idaho’s leading, national research university, a draw for future students and a continued source of pride for current students. And we can do it in a way that does not constrain the university and does not distract from our core mission.
"Core mission."  What a quaint idea for a university president to make a decision based on the mission's and higher education's mission!  How do we get other universities and their presidents to understand this simple concept?  More importantly, how do we get the American public to understand what education is about?


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Money stinks? Look who is talking!

There is no free lunch.  Which means, something offered for "free" has some hidden cost that perhaps we do not think about.

Think about the old days of television.  No, not in the old country, where in the old days there was only one channel--the government channel.  I am referring to the old days in the new country, before my time here.  The old days before cable.  As long as people had television sets at home, they could watch the shows for "free."  Except, well, they had to put up with the advertisements.

So, let us see how that business model worked.  A bunch of people got paid to air the programs and they made money from the advertisements that were targeted at the viewers who were paying for it with the time that they wasted watching the shows that ranged from the inane to the profound. Time is money, folks!

Now, consider a different business model that is contemporary.  There is only one thing that people need to do--sit around and waste their time.  It does not matter how they waste their time as long as they waste it.  They can talk about the food they ate, the music they listened to, the politician they hate, or watch cats playing pianos.  Or, heck, even complain about their constipation!  All they have to do is waste their time talking.  Of course, they don't have to pay anything other than with their time.  This is Facebook's business model:
Your addiction is making Facebook astonishingly profitable. Put a little more kindly, your emotional and intellectual interactions on the social network are creating a great place for companies to advertise.
Facebook does not judge you for the high-calorie food that you ate, or the expensive shoes you bought, or whatever it is that you did;  all the creators of that medium want is you wasting your time and other people's time talking about it in Facebook.  What a simple business model, right?  Highly profitable too because we humans love wasting time talking shit!
Pundits made a big deal this week about how Facebook excelled as Apple stumbled. But there was a warning for Facebook in Apple’s results. Apple has relied heavily on one product — the iPhone — for much of its revenue, so when sales of the device slowed, there was little Apple could do to keep growing. Facebook is even more reliant on a single element: advertising revenue. If people spend markedly less time on Facebook — because an enticing new network comes along, for example — the company’s revenue growth could slow.
"If people spend markedly less time on Facebook" is where everything hangs.  It does not look like the trend curve will shift anytime soon.  Which means, yep, people talking shit makes Mark Zuckerberg stinking rich.  Ah, yes, there's a sucker born every minute ;)

Full Disclosure:
While I have vastly cut down my Facebook time, my account is alive
Yesterday, I posted there this photo of the dinner that I cooked ;)