Freedom or Equality

Last week I had dinner with old friends. My friends, who send their teenager to a private Catholic school at great cost even though they are not religious, tell me that they would support a law forcing all parents to send their kids to public schools. That way, they reason, there would be more support for public schools, so the schools would improve, so deprived kids would get a better start in life, so the country would become "more equal." It did not phase them when I suggested that the only way to get equality was for God to enforce it or to have a Tyrant do it. So what? As one of them put it, "We liberals are for equality of opportunity; it's the Republicans who are for freedom."

BTW, I do not accuse these folks of hypocrisy. Their position is collectivist, so until all are forced out of private schools and homeschooling they are free to do what they think best for their son. They argue for a new system while navigating the one they find themselves in.

I oppose their position on practical and principled grounds. I do not believe that creating a monolithic monopoly is the way to get creativity, innovation, and excellence.

But even if this scheme could work, and granting the importance of finding a solution to the dropout, failure, and illiteracy problem of so many of our young people, I would oppose the plan on principle. For the State to tell parents that the raising and educating of the young is no longer their responsibility but rather that of the State itself, seems far more totalitarian than liberal to me. A liberalism that goes this far has lost a claim to its own name!

Aristotle did think that the family cannot do the complete job of educating the young and that the polis must help. After all, "Man is a social animal" so experience outside the family is necessary for the good life. We need public schools. But we also need alternative schools, too, if the right to the pursuit of happiness is to have any meaning.

Strange bedfellows

After nominating Sonia Sotomayer to the Supreme Court last year, President Obama has followed up by nominating Elena Kagan, former Dean of the Harvard Law School and a former Soliciter General of the United States. Unlike Sotomayer, who was a career jurist, Kagan has worked mostly in academia and as an administrative lawyer. The press is pointing out that she has a limited judicial "paper trail" of published decisions by which to judge her political views. But it is a safe bet that she is a woman of the Left and not of the Center or Right.

A personal irony is that she served as counsel for Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Anita Hill's explosive testimony nearly derailed his nomination many years ago. If Kagan goes to the High Court, Justice Thomas will be welcoming as a colleague a former adversary. He has written eloquently about the collegiality of the Supreme Court, so he will no doubt strive mightily to rise to the occasion.

It may not be difficult. Carol Platt Liebeau, a conservative talk show host, reports that Elena Kagan is highly regarded by conservatives as well as by the liberals who dominate in her milieu. In fact, Dean Kagan is credited with making sure that the Harvard Law Faculty included some distinguished conservative scholars, to the dismay of some of the more partisan liberal faculty there. And she is credited with approaching problems in an open-minded and non-ideological way.

President Obama was no doubt looking for a reliably liberal vote on the Court. He has probably gotten that, but he has also given us a person of apparent decency and integrity whose friends and admirers include those who do not necessarily agree with her on all issues.



Does Aristotle's concept of magnanimity apply to nations as well as to persons? How can you tell when someone displays this virtue? Can you think of any cases where you saw this virtue? What would happen at either extreme of this virtue? That is, can you think of someone with too little? Or too much?

To a foreign policy hawk, President Obama might appear pusillanimous in bowing to foreign heads of state (American presidents do not bow to other humans.) Or in refusing to condemn Iran's brutal suppression of protests over rigged elections. To such a hawk, the President is magnanimous to a fault.

Thoughts on Rauhut, Chapter One

Thoughts on Chapter One if Nils Ch. Rauhut's Ultimate Questions.

This is a chapter about human faculties (reason, observation, imagination) and human institutions (mythologies, religions, science, and philosophy). So it is pretty abstract and conceptual.

Professor Rauhut, in order to explain what philosophy is, must make a clear definition, or boundary marker, around mythology, religion, science, and philosophy. His schema seems to be:

Myths are just fantasy.
Religion is myths with revelation claims.
Science is reasoning about empirical data.
Philosophy is reasoning about non empirical matters.

But I am not sure it can be done precisely. For example, both mythology and religion must involve the use of reason. I think what Rauhut means by reason is reason as applied to data from the senses, not that mythology and religion are devoid of reason.

The boundary between philosophy and religion is easy to state: philosophy eschews revelation. Philosophy is skeptical and demands reasons based on empirical data. In this way it is like science and not like religion. So how to separate science and philosophy?

Philosophy, in his telling, deals with fundamental questions that cannot be resolved by empirical means. Philosophy turns out to be high level conceptual analysis. Philosophers help us think about things by making us answer questions about the terms or concepts we are using in our thinking.

Philosophy in this sense is a far cray from a settled "philosophy of life." It is a questioning, approach that goes back to Socrates, as we know. He was executed for it. Philosophy can be dangerous, too, in unsettling our unexamined assumptions about life and truth.

Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) (he of our pastoral bliss poem) in An Essay on Criticism, 1709: gave excellent advice to those who would climb Mt. Parnassus to drink the inspiring waters:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Some views of a West Point tradition

Recently, some Massasoit students encountered a West Point tradition and tried to make sense of it. Here is what they had to go on:

An interesting feature of the folk version of Wisdom is that it is often surprising and even paradoxical. I think this is an example.

Last year I was invited to attend the graduation of a friend's son from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was an impressive experience.

During the ceremony, the names are called and the cadets go up to get their diplomas. At one point, a name was called and the rest of the graduating officers broke into loud cheering and applauding. A great fuss was made over this person. Who was it? The "Class Goat," the student graduating with the poorest academic record.

I was assured by all who are familiar with The Point that the cheering is in no way ironic or sarcastic. This is not a "nya, nya..." but a heartfelt cheer for an esteemed fellow officer.

The cadets are expressing some of their tribal wisdom. Why do they cheer the student with the lowest grades?

Here are some responses. As you will see, they all show intelligence and tolerance.

1. I think they cheer for the student with the lowest GPA because they want to show support. Even though the student didnt do as well as the others that doesnt mean he or she didnt try. Its better to build up than to tear down cause you never know when you will be the one with the loweest GPA.

2. I think that they cheer for the classmate with the lowest GPA because you are only as strong as your weakest link. As a unit they cheer for "the goat" to show their support and encouragement for this person to continue what they are doing and to become better and more successful. A school like this is more about success as a group not really success for each individual.

3. I agree with Melissa about only being as strong as your weakest link. I also feel that it simply comes down to hazing, which is sometimes a serious problems in certain military institutes (my brother mentioned this when he was in military school). It was probably just a gentle way of poking fun of their weakest link.

4. This is just a guess but maybe they aren't cheering for the class goat but for everyone else. It may be a sarcastic celebration of not being last in the class.

These responses seem fully consonant with the values of our new "inclusive" institutional world-view. It is interesting to compare them with the "official" reason, the one given by the cadets themselves, who after all should know their own motives. The West Pointers claim that they cheer this student for his or her achievements and accomplishments. They cheer not for the trendy "who they are" but for the eternal "what they did." According to their classmates, getting through West Point (basically, an engineering college) is hard enough when you are good at academics. When you have to struggle, it requires perseverance, a virtue much valued by the military as "character" or "guts." It is this heroic quality shown by the class goat that they cheer. (I sometimes wonder if slower learners and students who struggle realize how much the faculty and other students may admire them precisely for their perseverance.)

Of course, since Freud et. al. we instinctively assume baser motives lurking in the unconscious. Maybe projection or reaction-formation is at work and what seems like a cheer is deep down a jeer. We cannot dismiss such possibilities as mere cynicism, but an application of Occam's Razor suggests that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should take the cadets at their word.