Tag Archives: general

Three Cheers for Ira Stoll

On “Future of Capitalism,” Ira Stoll has excoriated two anonymous Harvard Kennedy School professors for their allegedly candid assessments of Paula Broadwell, who is at the center of one of those recurring sex and government scandals. Stoll’s account takes the anonymous professors to task for violating a trust, he insists, that is supposed to be implicit in the student-teacher relationship. He calls these professors hypocritical for condemning in Broadwell what they and others routinely do to promote themselves to the larger public. What Stoll does not observe is that by remaining anonymous, they do the sociological dirty work of institutional distancing, which can only be accomplished by holding the individual responsible for everything, despite the institution’s relentless efforts to take credit for anything that the individual did that positively accrued to the institution.

As simple as this may sound or appear, another layer beneath the surface of institutional embarrassment is also operating, and in full force. President Obama decided to define the consequences of adultery as a family matter, which it certainly is. The press has mostly focused on these consequences as a matter of concern for national security. Neither perspective captures the full force of the consequences of what is at stake in the kind of trust abrogated in what is still mostly recognized as adultery. Within the family, or more precisely, within a marriage, any manner of arrangements pertaining to judgments about sex may exist by consent, and this is why the President could conveniently avoid being “judgmental” except to infer without any concrete knowledge that pain had been caused in this “private” matter. Let’s assume that is true: why would inquiring minds want to know about the pain? On the other hand, the issue of national security is obviously about an entirely different scale of trust, but also about how when one is at the top, one is the institution, not simply its representative. General Petraeus’s position was the merging of individual and institution, what sociologists used to call “role models,” a term that had invested in it a moral meaning about obligations, responsibilities and integrity. All these terms have been effaced in the intense lights that shine on “roles” these days.

What does any of this have to do with higher education? Ira Stoll was incredulous about professors hiding behind their anonymity to trash a former student. But the real sin is the silence about what now is quaintly referred to as sex out of wedlock. To be opposed to sex out of wedlock means coming to terms with what also used to be called “premarital sex” and is now reduced to “hooking up”. The new so-called freedoms are heralded every day, even as real life and its personal and professional disasters play out for a public uncertain about what to make of its own incomprehension of what, if anything, is wrong with this picture.

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Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of Society.

The University of Chicago Chooses Decline

The University of Chicago hit two mile-markers in its
decade-long transformation this week. The first, generally celebrated by
students, alumni, and their parents, is a new high-water mark in the school’s US News & World Report ranking. The
University now shares the fourth spot with Columbia, rising from 12 a few years
ago and leapfrogging Stanford, Penn, and MIT, among others.

The second is a reduction in the graduation requirements.
Starting next quarter, graduates will not have to pass a swimming test and either
pass a fitness test or take three PE classes to graduate. In an email to
students, the Dean of the College cited a rationale steeped in the lingo of a
marketing consultant:

The change in the College
physical education requirement occurs in the context of a larger decision by
the University to reimagine and expand our fitness and athletics programs to
meet growing demand and the diverse needs of our community.

These may seem like unrelated incidents, but they reflect
a massive paradigm shift in the way the University sees itself. Since it wants donations
from trustees who prize vacuous but still prestigious measures of schooling
excellence like the US News rankings,
the University has goaded itself into playing the rankings game.

US News‘s calculations
consider prospective students’ view of the institution as measured by the
admissions rate. But should  we determine a university’s quality based on
the preferences of seventeen year olds?
 The university is ultimately supposed
to shape its young and not be shaped by its young. It is supposed to tell the
naïve what is worth studying and what it takes to be a human being and a
citizen of good character.

The aim of increasing its ranking and pleasing high-schoolers
also inspired the University to pare down its Common Core in the mid-Nineties.  Though the Core still is large enough so that
the empiricist studies ethics and the ethicist empirics, the University threw
out the very notion behind the Core: a university only completes its duty if it
teaches its students several things.

The Core now consists of distribution requirements that
flatter young people’s instinct to set their own course. The humanities
requirement can be fulfilled by what is essentially an introductory linguistics
class, the social science requirement by an introduction to psychology class.
No one needs to read the classics of either field. Indeed, students must
consciously choose the courses which are watered-down relics of the traditional
path

Swimming and fitness requirements are, like a set Core
curriculum, decidedly uncool and anachronistic. The real argument for the
requirements–that human excellence is excellence in mind and body–doesn’t stand a chance when pitted against teenagers who
feel that such requirements are onerous or just plain weird.

This week the University got its best evidence yet that
its strategy is working. Seventeen year olds like what the University offers
and increasingly want to spend a few years in Hyde Park. What they do there,
though, is increasingly anyone’s guess. Ten years after the University of
Chicago made it possible  to hold its
bachelors degree without ever examining a page of either Plato or Shakespeare,
it now makes it possible to hold its bachelors degree without ever exerting a
muscle. Decline is a choice, and the University of Chicago has made its choice.