About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
June 22, 2007 [feather]
Duke post-mortem

The Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz lays out the take-home lesson taught by the Duke lacrosse scandal:

This week the Duke-Nifong drama oozed to its finale, with a payout to the victims, a confidentiality agreement, the usual salutes to the healing process, and plans on the part of the principals to begin putting the case behind them. Missing from these declamations was the core reality that had brought this day to pass. No one expected participants in this peace-and-resolution ceremony to find a moment to recall the rightful fury and amazement this case engendered across the nation and outside of it--but such a moment would not have been out of place.

The story about the Duke athletes and District Attorney Nifong was not simply a riveting drama. It was in its searing way an educational event, not just about prosecutorial ambition run amok, but about a university world--reflective of many others--where faculty ideologues pursued their agendas unchecked and unabashed. Here was a nearly successful legal lynching, applauded by a significant chunk of the Duke faculty, proud to display their indifference to questions of guilt or innocence.

Duke President Richard Brodhead was doubtless disturbed by the charges and the plight of the accused athletes. But that didn't prevent him from firing the lacrosse coach, in deference to the reigning hysteria--or treating the team members as though they merited shunning. For the most part, he kept his head down while the fires raged around him. His was, it should be said, not unusual behavior.

The great consuming career goal of our college and university presidents--with the exception of oddities like Harvard's Larry Summers--has for more than two decades been the same: to avoid any word or deed that might incur the wrath of their gender- and race-obsessed faculties and allied campus activists. University presidents once had higher ambitions.

It's going to be up to alumni and prospective students to hold Duke accountable for its failure to hold either its faculty vigilantes or its president accountable for their role in fanning the flames of he trumped-up case against the lacrosse players. Having bought the silence of the athletes, Duke has sought also to buy a free pass for the 88 faculty members who brought a decidely unethical, anti-intellectual mob mentality to the case. I doubt that "academic freedom" really covers the kind of libelous attack these folks levelled at the falsely accused students. But, as KC Johnson has pointed out, the academy has a vested interest in protecting faculty from the consequences of even the most unethical, ideologically suspect utterances--however far from the spirit of academic freedom those utterances may stray.

Erin O'Connor, 12:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

June 9, 2007 [feather]
Bribing the minds of babes

A new theory suggests that all those kids failing in school are really just driving a hard bargain:

Roland G. Fryer, a 30-year-old Harvard economist known for his study of racial inequality in schools, is back in New York to again promote a big idea: Pay students cash for high scores on standardized tests and their performance might improve. And he has captured the attention of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Across the country, educators have been experimenting with cash incentives. A program in Chelsea, Mass., gave children $25 for perfect attendance. Some Dallas schools pay children $2 for each book they read.

But the idea is controversial. Many educators maintain, among other objections, that children have to learn for the love of it, not for cash.

Until now, Professor Fryer's idea of cash for performance has had no serious takers. Three years ago, he tried to implement a pilot program in New York City charter schools that would have given students cash in exchange for good test scores.

"They kicked us out," Professor Fryer said of the schools that first considered the program. And some Department of Education officials were not enthusiastic, either, he said. "They laughed in my face."

But Mr. Bloomberg has recently shown interest in using payments, raised from the private sector, as a way to change behavior and reduce poverty.

In September, he proposed giving cash to poor adults to encourage them to do everything from keeping their children in school to seeking preventive medical care. And so, he said yesterday at a news conference, he was receptive to Professor Fryer's idea. "If we aren't looking at everything," he said, "shame on us."

I don't buy it. If all kids need is a cash incentive to get them to do better in school, then--it follows--what they need is not a cash incentive but character education. I agree that there are a lot of unmotivated kids out there. But offering to pay them to try is a lesson in itself--and a really wrong-headed one.

When I was growing up, I knew kids whose parents gave them money for good grades. It tended to work to get those kids to keep their grades up--but it also taught them to use people when they should have been learning to rely on themselves. The cash-for-grades scheme had the appearance of working: kids whose parents paid them well for A's got lots of A's. But it really just created a new problem: kids whose sense of entitlement far outweighed their capacities for independent thought and meaningful choice.

Erin O'Connor, 7:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack (0)

June 1, 2007 [feather]
The business of poetry

Knowledge@ Wharton has a very interesting interview with NEA chairman Dana Gioia, who describes himself as "the only person in history who went to business school to be a poet." Gioia, who was once vice president of General Foods, sings the praises of the business world--which requires a great deal of artistry--as well as the joys of being far removed from academia.

Knowledge@Wharton: As you have correctly pointed out, many poets have worked in business and there are also business people who write poetry. What does that tell us about the relationship between business and poetry?

Gioia: Well there is the old quote that "The business of America is business." In America, overwhelmingly the most talented people in our society go into business. Now, I know people in our English departments don't like to believe that, but it's true. You meet people who are just fantastic, sharp and talented people in the business world. And they could have chosen any number of fields and succeeded in them. A lot of them come into business with another passion; it might be for music, it might be for literature -- it might even be for sports. And sometimes, very talented people can maintain those interests throughout their lives.

One of the interesting things about publishing Business and Poetry was that after I published it, no one had ever even noticed before this essay that there was a tradition of American businessmen who were poets. They always treated Wallace Stevens as this singular example and as I've just shown there were dozens of people like this.

The funny thing though was after I published this, I kept getting letters from dozens and dozens more. I think I had put a footnote, in one of the later editions with about 30 names; I could now give you another 50 or 60 beyond that. I think what a lot of business people enjoyed about reading that essay was that they were not alone - they were not "total weirdo's". And so, I think it really is a function that a lot of talented people go into business and they continue to do something else as well, whether it's playing the piano, collecting art, or writing poetry.

Knowledge@Wharton: You referred a couple of times to the fact that as you rise in business, imagination and creativity become assets. Extending that point further, what do you think poets and entrepreneurs have in common? Aren't entrepreneurs poets, but just working within a different medium?

Gioia: Well, if you take the word poet in the old Greek sense of "a maker", what entrepreneurs and artists have in common is that they imagine something that they then bring into reality. And, as any poet or any composer or any entrepreneur knows, you imagine something, but to bring it to reality you revise and recalibrate it a million times to get it just right. So, I think the ability of envisioning something and then bringing it into being goes back to the ancient meaning of the word poetry -- Poesis which means the made thing.

Academics tend to draw a sharp, polarizing line between their world and the world of business. One place where this is most blatant -- and most blatantly anti-intellectual -- is in discussions about why there aren't more conservatives in academia. The academic conventional wisdom tends to be that conservatives are greedy and selfish--and hence go into business over the lower-paying, implicitly more virtuous academic professions. They also like to argue that conservatives are not as intelligent as academics--as SUNY-Albany's Ron McClamrock once famously commented, "Lefties are overrepresented in academia because on average, we're just f-ing smarter." Implicit in these impoverished lines of thought, of course, are the assumptions that people in business are not creative, and that art is very far removed from the corporate world. People like Gioia throw a wrench in those tired arguments, and it's refreshing to see.

Erin O'Connor, 11:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Friday night fun

I hope you all are watching the women's softball college world series on ESPN.

Like baseball, fastpitch softball is primarily a pitcher's game (and the one to see this year is Tennessee's Monica Abbott, who stands 6' 3", throws a seventy MPH fastball, counts Peyton Manning among her fans, and holds the all-time strikeout record for college softball). Unlike baseball, it's also a bunter's game. The slap has come a long way since the days when I used to play. And it's so fun to watch. Last year Arizona won the championship with an amazing bunting game. They might do it again this year, but my money is on Tennessee.

Erin O'Connor, 10:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)