Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Saving those left behind by not saving them from the norm that tests and fails

Life is tragic, and doubly so when the humanities professors forget why... Society can't progress without defending norms but norms cannot be upheld without failing some. And we, still living in the fading light of the Christian ethic, fear casting anyone out. And sometimes that is right, and sometimes it is a denial or defense of evil that must be cast out. We must struggle to know which is which. But if there were a possibility of reliable rules we could set in stone, life would not be so tragic.

In any case, it is only when a crisis eventually comes from denying our norms that we see their renewal is actually essential for any and all to enjoy a world of expanding freedom. In other words, we need constantly be engaged in measuring reality with an eye to testing and upholding and rejigging our norms, as a process of encouraging and pressuring our others to join in a shared covenant. We need a therapy of the normal, a continual re-focusing on the good, and not a therapy focused on accepting all and sundry in the spirit of "it's all good". We need to reject much about our decadent therapeutic culture, without forgetting that some forms of therapy, say of mothering or nursing, might be realistic and useful disciplines.

Trying to make sense of our times, Victor Davis Hanson proposes a little catalog: Works and Days » The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—Part One. Starting today with the bad, VDH excoriates the therapeutic fashions of the academy:
The Therapeutic impulse or “Don’t fault but empathize.” We now contextualize, situationalize, explain away almost every possible human pathology. Take the worst: The Oakland police murder was scarcely reported out here before we heard that the miscreant murderer “was looking for a job”, “was wary about returning to prison” and “was not a monster”, as the carnage was a “tragedy” for all involved. (I confess I like the more honest 1930s headline that would have said, “Deadbeat thug conned his way out of the joint and killed good cops.”)

So the tragic voice screams back, “No, he was evil, an enemy of civilization, and, yes, surely monstrous in all that he did and the creed that he embraced.” By global standards of poverty and deprivation (think the slums of Nigeria or Mumbai, or rural Peru or Bolivia), the killer was hardly impoverished...

Somewhere in the Berkeley hills reside the retired grandees who thought up all this utopian mindset, while below in the Oakland flatlands the cops died who had to suffer its consequences.

Lost in the therapeutic view is any notion that we should never lower standards, or disguise reality with euphemism, but rather insist and get involved in preparing the traditionally unprepared for the rather high standards of society. Instead, in matters of education, the law, and public discourse, we too often immediately issue race/class/gender inspired qualifiers when rules, norms, protocols prove too difficult for the non-traditional.

A liberal professor seems to prefer to get on his soapbox about diversity at the faculty senate before driving his Camry back home to the tree-lined faculty ghetto, than drive downtown to tutor the ghetto youngster in Latin to ensure he has the tools to succeed in the university. And he gets to justify not spending that difficult hour with the cheap qualifier, “I would not dare try to impose my cultural norms onto the ‘other.’”

Somewhere some lazy selfish academic dreamed up multiculturalism and is still smiling, “Now I can do whatever I want—drop the hurt in giving F’s, skip out on tutoring the rather difficult to tutor, stop insisting on acrimonious standards at tenure hearings—as long as I mouth these platitudes.” The faculty has become bloated Soviet-era apparatchiks on the May-Day grandstands, saluting the passing missiles, mouthing “comrade” and the “revolution” before lumbering off to the dachas on the Black Sea. Trace the evolution of our therapeutic notions of criminology, of government, of child-raising even, and it inevitably leads you back to the university.

The result in the modern Western world is the end of the old standards: no one any longer thinks that admission to the Ivy League or Stanford is based entirely on merit, or, its corollary, that completion of a blue-chip degree means that the recipient is really educated. I don’t necessarily associate excellence in ethics with a Nobel Peace Prize, journalistic excellence with a Pulitzer Prize, or academic excellence with an endowed professorship at Princeton.

How odd that the World Series or the Super bowl is a far more honest arbiter of excellence than the current academic and intellectual industries.

When the NBA begins to demand diversity—one Asian center per team, 30% so-called “white” guys on the team, 20% Latino coaches—or the Tour de France demands 10% African-American participation—shudder (or is all that already happening?). Why then do pure merit-based considerations seem to count in things like (the more trivial) sports or (vital) brain surgery and aircraft piloting, but not in the manner in which we train our youth, write our news, or conduct our intellectual life?

We could be even more reductionist about the therapeutic mind—and think that our penal system would improve should we build prisons next to universities (easier for professors to rehabilitate prisoners, better to have an informed nearby community to nurture parolees.) Think of the possibilities of matching word with deed: the Obamas’ children go to the DC public schools; the Harvard humanities Dean is put in charge of hiring for all the nuclear power plants of New England; Chris Dodd and Barney Frank submit their expense budgets instantly to thumbs up/down, on-line public approval; Nancy Pelosi flies commercial…

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