Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Department of Bad Ideas: The university as a really big homeschool

Commenters have been observing for some time that the campus activism of the past few years (arguably the past 25 years) has differed from its 1960s predecessor in requiring more adult oversight and intervention rather than trying to overthrow adult authority on campus in the name of student liberation. Student demands always include hiring more professors and administrators - that is, more adults - to provide them with desired goods and services, which include everything from identity representation to counseling to punishing their on-campus enemies. This pro-paternalist tendency is easily seen from the outside, but not something students themselves have usually admitted or perhaps even recognized, and for obvious reasons given the negative connotations of the term.

But now suddenly everyone has decided that open paternalism is exactly what the university should aspire to! Ok, well, maybe not "paternalism," but some nicer-sounding synonyms like "family" and "home." Seizing on a now-removed student op-ed lamenting the failure of the writer's Yale dorm to be a good family to her, the commenters have decided that the goal of modeling the university on the nuclear family is a reasonable and even noble one, and it's what schools are promising anyway, so they may as well live up to it:
Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students’ social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they’re deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them...The students’ preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security—from violence to financial insolvency—that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures.
This is a rapid change in rhetoric. Did UChicago advertise its housing system in these familial terms when we attended? I recall a lot of boasting of the relative amenities of different dorms, but no promises of surrogate parents to lure us in. However, I just discovered that the U of C was planning to close and sell all of its so-called "satellite dorms" - the smaller buildings that are more than two feet from the main quad - and herd all the students to within hugging distance of one another. So I decided to look at the housing website, and lo and behold, it is now brimming with familial rhetoric about "caring for one another" and resident heads who "share their family lives with you." Times have changed, and become extremely creepy.

So we might wonder whether a university can be made to resemble a home and family. There is homeschooling, after all, so education at home is possible. And maybe if college students were typically orphans, the university would be an appropriate sort of institutional homeschool and surrogate parent. But since they're not and they come from already-existing families, how will the university home-family relate to the original home-family? What if its family values are at odds with those of a birth family - which "family" takes precedence?

Suk and Lind seem to assume that modeling a university on the family will bring about fundamental ideological harmony among its members so that adversarial dispute can be replaced by "support" and "nurture." But the more siblings there are in a family, the greater the potential for fraternal conflict, and the less parental support and nurture there is to go around to soothe it. So what can we expect from a family of 25,000 siblings? Perhaps we can expect 25,000 parents, in the form of additional administrators hired to provide additional nurture and support. But then we'd really have 25,000 different families, each student with his own nurturing administrator-father empathizing with him against each of the others, rather than one big one.

And what about the disciplinary and punitive aspects of family life that are completely overlooked by all this focus on support and nurture? Suk writes that "a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent," but parents don't just dish out unconditional empathy; they also dish out punishment, rebuke, shame, guilt. Insofar as families are places of any sort of unconditional acceptance, this tends to mean that they continually forgive their own black sheep no matter how terribly they behave, which on this analogy means giving a free pass to the very students whom the activists accuse of racism and exclusion, etc. and ask Dean Mom and Resident Head Dad to restrain or punish. And isn't there something disingenuous about claiming to want university authorities to be like your parents, and then calling for their removal when they don't respond to you the way you'd prefer? Parents are probably the only authorities whom you can't fire or replace at will, and by seeking it, don't students behave more like consumers or voters than sons and daughters?

This all suggests, as Phoebe has also noted (somewhere?), that the residential college is either overtaxed (if you want to see it as a passive victim), or it that it has overreached. It's one thing to provide decent room and board for students while they're studying far from their real home, assuming that such communal living arrangements will come with their share of conflicts as well as camaraderie. Under these circumstances, dorm residents remain primarily students, and are only incidentally boarders. But it's quite another thing to elevate dormitory living to the university's guiding purpose, and to promise a constantly fulfilling social life free of strife and slight in them. Characterizing the whole operation as a kind of therapeutic family dedicated to student mental health, as Lind hopes, transforms students into sickly orphans. And what does that make the rest of the university? Can it remain an institution devoted to research and study when its students are primarily to be viewed as fragile or damaged children in need of care instead of education? Or will it have to become an orphans' sanitarium?

As I've said before, these sorts of arguments and policies which infantilize adults and discourage adulthood are almost always bad news. When politics starts to get all intimate with you and tells you that the state is your daddy and its citizens are all your brothers, that is usually a good cue to channel your inner libertarian individualist and run away. To be someone's child is to be dependent on, ruled by, and obligated to obey this person. This is fine when you actually are a child, but perhaps you can imagine how quickly things can degenerate when you're an adult encountering other adults who just want to take care of you, and all you have to do in return is surrender some, or maybe all, of your liberty. Maybe that's a reasonable trade-off so long as you're sure your new caregivers have only your best interest at heart. Just like it's no problem to "weaken free speech protections in the name of sensitivity" when you're "sure that [your] version of sensitivity will prevail."

A university is not the state of course, but the same opportunity for despotism appears in other associations that model themselves on the family. Only churches seem to be capable of sustaining the paternal model of authority, but I'm not sure that American universities are quite ready to become religions and elevate their paternal figures into gods. Fraternal relationships can work as models for small and exclusive associations since sibling relations are more flexible and less hierarchical than parental ones. But even fraternal associations get less effective and more scary the bigger the "brotherhood" in question becomes. The family is the first and most basic unit of civic life, and so a perennially tempting model for the rest of civil society, but it's unlike all other associations. You only get one set of parents, and once you leave them, you need to figure out how to have other kinds of relationships with people that aren't paternal or parental. Adulthood opens other ways to find support and nurture - marriage, friendship - that allow us to move beyond the parental relationship and avoid collapsing everything into it. Even "in a world that is genuinely frightening and unjust," as Suk puts it (and when was the world otherwise?), you will probably be better off living off-campus than in a creepy dorm that wants to adopt you as its child and envelop you in a long, suffocating group hug.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A long consideration of an old show, or why you should watch Gilmore Girls when you are pregnant

Just in time for Netflix to revive it, I finished watching the entire Gilmore Girls run on Netflix last month. I don't understand how I managed to miss this show when it was originally airing, since my college roommates watched it then, and its main character was exactly our age and the plot was probably the closest thing to a depiction of our adolescent and college lives that will ever make it to TV. All that would've prevented me from watching then was the epic annoyingness of Lorelai, or that I was living in the library, a study cave to which TV shows could not yet be streamed.

Watching it now though, I was surprised that the show's strong strain of mid-century New England WASP nostalgia was such a hit so recently, and I'm not sure if discovering that it was created by a Jew from the Valley made that more or less surprising. It revives two different mid-century New England worlds - that of middling small town farmers and shopkeepers, and that of urban old money society. (There is also the world of Yale in the last four seasons, but that just looks like modern college to me and not a revival of an idyllic Yale Past.)

The show's sympathy towards the old money WASPs is the more surprising of these revivals. Of course, as far as it's a comedy, it's as much a caricature of mid-century New England WASP nostalgia as a celebration of it, so characters like the Gilmore grandparents must be at least as ridiculous as they are lovable. But the show's overall attitude towards this world and its ethic is pretty forgiving - not quite Whit Stilman levels of adoration, but some real affection. The grandparents, for example, make Rory's clearly deserved but otherwise out of reach education possible, and through genuine generosity rather than standoffish obligation. The show acknowledges that coming from a "good" family and having lots of money can be seriously morally deforming, but also that there really are "finer things" worth the price, that high culture exists, and it's not all some discreditable undemocratic illusion. It actually takes seriously the idea that the grandparents possess taste and discernment (Richard in books, Emily in aesthetics) that the small-town bumpkins lack. Moreover, Lorelai's intransigent opposition to them is clearly as excessive as their own over-the-top schemes. It's usually Rory's "if it makes you happy" acquiescences (to sit for a portrait dressed in a royal robe, to transform her dorm into a den of luxury, to donate a building to Yale in her name) that are played as the best response to their excesses. I doubt that this depiction of old money WASPs could survive social media's privilege call-outs today. 

Less problematic than the opulent Hartford Gilmores is the Tocquevillian Stars Hollow. Here is clearly the best place in the world to live - no one seems to have a college education or a white collar job, but everyone is comfortable and there is zero income inequality. Nearly everyone owns a beautiful old house, and everyone has enough money to eat at the diner or get take-out every day. All goods and services, including highly specialized ones like a cat store, are available in town (despite its population being no more than 40, judging by the number of chairs available at town meetings), and at apparently competitive prices, since no one ever drives out to Walmart to cut costs. In Stars Hollow, there are no economic downturns, no foreign or even local competition, no gloomy futures where a high school diploma (or less, in Jess's case) won't suffice to make ends meet. No one will ever have to leave, neighbors will help neighbors in between absurd spats, and there will always be lively seasonal festivals. Idyllic small-town New England! And I can see why we would eat this stuff up, because as much as we might resent overbearing Emily Gilmore and her DAR ladies with their heaps of unchecked privilege, we may never get over our longing for the democratic and communitarian vision of the original New England township, and that's just fine with me.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The cuddly epidermis

During the blog silence, we procreated this goomba:
And discovered that this, from James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, is pretty accurate:
"One of the cues (in evolutionary jargon, "releasers") that stimulates this affectional response in adults is 'cuteness' - by which I mean that set of traits by which we judge an organism to be delightfully attractive. We respond to certain features of people and animals in ways that suggest that we share a roughly common definition of cuteness: eyes large relative to the skull, chubby cheeks and a rounded chin, awkward movements, a cuddly epidermis, small size, and a distinctive smell. Nonparents, as well as parents, respond to those cues; and the response extends beyond the human infant to other creatures with those infantile traits. I suggest that social scientists and moral philosophers have paid too little attention to the concept of 'cute.'"
I'm not sure what this means for the future of the blog. Probably the same vegetative state occasionally revived by posts on politically irrelevant topics as always.

Friday, August 28, 2015


I review Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, and explain why Hobbes wants you to hate your parents so that you will love your sovereign instead.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The perfect pop song

I've concluded that, unlike most other catchy songs that soon wear out their radio welcome, I can never get tired of hearing "Shut Up and Dance" on the radio, not even if it's played 20 times a day and often simultaneously on three of San Diego's Top 40 stations. Which must mean it's the perfect pop song.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Looking for casserole recipes

That you have actually made, and preferably that can be frozen and reheated with decent results.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The greatest alumni note of all time

I've mentioned in the past that I am a very diligent reader of the U of C alumni magazine's notes and obituaries. I read them all, and learn about how each stage of life is accompanied by very specific modes of bragging - those under 35 brag about birthing children and their first career accomplishments, those between 36 and 65 brag about their children's accomplishments, and those over 65 brag about how active and vigorous they remain (with the effect, I think, of cowing the non-active into alumni magazine silence). This last group is probably the most comical, but only because the others are so predictable. Still, I enjoy all of them. However, the most recent issue of the alumni magazine featured what I can say with almost a decade (!) of experience in the field of alumni-note reading is the best alumni note I have ever seen, composed by someone who appears not to have even graduated from Chicago:

A contemporary Tellus the Athenian, altered by modernity but not beyond recognition.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Regional differences in breaking records

"San Diego has broken just about every record it has for July," said Roger Pierce, a National Weather Service forecaster. "It was a pretty amazing weekend."
And what exactly is meant by "pretty amazing" in San Diego? This:
Sunday's downpour pushed San Diego's July rainfall to 1.50 inches, breaking the previous July record of 0.92 inches, set in 1902. Lindbergh Field recorded a high temperature of 88 degrees, one degree higher than the previous record for July 19, set in 1951.
There you have it, the apocalypse: 1.5 inches of rain and 88-degree temperatures. Essentially, San Diego experienced two average Midwest/East Coast summer storms this weekend and the city nearly collapsed.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eliot, Daniela Deronda

The Toast once summarized all English novels with the phrase "fraught seating arrangements," which is a very accurate description of large parts of this book (as also of every book by Henry James, and a lot of Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park, which is may be the epitome of her virtue revealed through extremely subtle gestures that only someone of extraordinary sensitivity could notice). 

I appreciate the value of manners and rules of conduct, but can't quite understand how the Victorians concluded that good manners simply are virtue, and the highest virtue is the best manners, such that the slightest deviation - a sideways glance, an insufficiently light smile, a too-long pause or alternately a too-brief one - could be taken to reveal the profound corruption (or even just an incomplete virtue, which amounts to the same thing) within. Sure, the actions reveal the man, but does that really extend to the actions of his eyebrows? 

For example, here is a line from the novel: "And Mrs. Meyrick's face showed something like an undercurrent of expression, not allowed to get to the surface." Notice that what this sentence actually means is that Mrs. Meyrick's face showed nothing and no one noticed it. But the precise nothingness that it showed revealed everything about her state of mind and loftiness of soul. Mrs. Meyrick is so virtuous that she communicates telepathically, and is perfectly understood by others like herself. Not to say that this level of exquisite sensitivity to both other people and to what is right in every circumstance is not admirable, just that it is...a very high standard, perhaps unattainable by those who have the misfortune of not being born into Victorian novels?

But even if we do take this standard as a worthy one, it still seems kind of cramped, like heroism is just the exercise of very good manners with great sincerity behind them towards all the people in your country neighborhood. The characters all have their heads stuffed with earlier modes of heroism - Dante and the art of the Italian Renaissance make many appearances, as do the novels of Walter Scott - but their own lives are so small that all they can channel these aspirations into is maintaining pleasant social concord. 

Well, that's not quite accurate, because the title character, who spends all 800 pages of the book looking for a great purpose to which to dedicate himself finally does find one that supersedes the boundaries of Wanchester. Which brings us to the non-Victorian society half of the novel, which is about how the Jews are a mystical race of prophetic unicorns in need of a national homeland. Back in high school, when I used to read about the 19th C. history of Zionism, I could've probably had a better idea about whether Eliot's mysticism-induced Zionism was plausible if not exactly mainstream, but unfortunately, because I was reading about the history of Zionism and other exclusively non-literary things in high school, I was not reading George Eliot.

Monday, June 01, 2015

James, The Bostonians

It turns out that the novelization of Democracy in America is a story about misguided 19th C. Boston feminists that plays out Tocqueville's remarks about both the tenuous place of women and general ideas in America. This is so far my favorite of the James novels I've read, though I'm beginning to be concerned about the paucity of male characters.