Category Archives: Culture

The Nature of Freedom

The title suggests that there might be something ambiguous about the definition of freedom. Well according to our old friends Merriam and Webster, it is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” Sounds about right to me. The freedoms enjoyed by all Americans are – according to our Declaration of Independence – natural rights, inherent to us as human beings, granted to us by Nature or God, and not by the Government, but secured for us by the Government. I’ve emphasized the word to for a reason that will be clear momentarily.

OK what are those rights that I have, my possession of which is characterized by the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint? These are spelled out generally in the Declaration, more specifically in the Constitution – including the Bill of Rights – and in the constitutionally permissible laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. There is no secret here; they include:

  • the right to reside where I choose
  • the right to pursue the vocation I choose
  • the right to marry, and more generally associate with, whomever I choose
  • the right to worship as I wish
  • the right to petition the Government
  • the right to peacefully assemble
  • the right to state my opinion
  • the right to a trial by a jury of my peers if accused of a crime.

There are more of course, but note the common word to. That is not surprising since Webster specifies that a freedom entails a choice or an action – that is, things I choose to do or act uponwhich choice or action is free from necessity, coercion or constraint. And so it has been understood – from the time of the American Revolution.

But beginning in the late 1890s, catching fire in the 1910s, and reigniting strongly in the 1930s, 1960s and 2010s, a substantial minority – and increasingly, looking like a majority – of the American people have settled on an alternate definition of the word freedom. If I may be permitted the liberty, I would state the new definition as follows: “the presence of security, comfort or guarantees in state or being.”

Now let us follow on this new definition with an exact parallel to the discussion above following the classic definition. First, the folks who propound the new definition rarely, explicitly discuss the origin or fount for these rights which are to be accorded to all residents of the USA. They – like Mr. Jefferson – hold them to be self-evident; but they scarcely specify their author, originator, source or justification. Self-evidence seems to be enough – although, alas, what is evident to you may be opaque to me.

Well, what are these rights that I should have that will guarantee my well-being by rendering my state more comfortable and secure? They have been spelled out by the presidential founders of progressivism: Wilson, Roosevelt, Johnson and Obama. They include:

  • freedom from want (i.e., poverty)
  • freedom from fear (i.e., anything that makes me afraid); e.g.
  • freedom from expression of opinions that make me uncomfortable
  • freedom from prejudice
  • freedom from unfair competition (esp. from those more skilled or experienced than me)
  • freedom from violence (e.g., presence of guns)
  • freedom from superstition (i.e., religion)
  • freedom from incarceration
  • freedom from armed government agents (the police, ICE, etc.)
  • freedom from xenophobia (e.g., about undocumented immigrants).

Note now that the common word is from rather than to. That is because these freedoms do not pertain to an action or choice, but to a feeling or emotion or an external force on one’s person. As with ‘freedom to,’ there are more than those delineated above, e.g., freedom from illness or freedom from ignorance. And as with the first set of freedoms, these new freedoms are to be secured or guaranteed by the Government. But unlike the first set of freedoms, these are not granted or accorded to us by Nature or God; they are not natural rights in that sense. They are simply rights that just ought to be accorded to all individuals – or more precisely – to all groups living in an advanced society.

By whose authority? By the people themselves since the rights are self-evidently manifest to any enlightened member of society. Moreover, unlike the natural rights in the Founders’ society, the rights in the modern, enlightened society may evolve and change over time. New rights may be discovered; old rights may be discarded. Finally, the people, via their primary vehicle, the Government, determine what the current set of rights are, and then enforce them also via the Government. Thus, a “Living Constitution!” Which of course implies: Obsolescence of the Declaration and Abrogation of the Constitution.

It’s not my purpose here to compare the relative merits of the two systems. Rather it is to ensure that we understand the fundamental difference between the two definitions of freedom, and to allow the reader to ponder the drastic and overwhelming changes that would ensue if we the people discard the first definition and adopt the second. I will examine some of those changes in a future piece.

 

The Role of Religion in Liberty

It seems self-evident that in order for a free society to succeed, the people of that society must be virtuous. How so? Well, if all the citizens of a country are free to choose where to live, what vocation to pursue, with whom to associate and how/whether to worship, then with everyone free to make all those choices, it is inevitable that conflicts, inconsistencies and disputes will naturally arise. Members of the same family may disagree on where to live. Members of the same organization may – nay, will – fail to see eye-to-eye on how to run the organization. Business partners cannot agree on strategy to grow the company. Parents and children often fail to have a meeting of the minds on career path, social entanglements and how to pass leisure time. Co-religionists have different views on methods of worship or acceptable modes of behavior. Johnny and Sally – although married for years – may come to contrary opinions on parenting methods.

It is inescapable that free choice leads to conflicting choices. Thus the success of a free society requires that its people exhibit a tremendous amount of tolerance, patience, empathy, understanding, sympathy, reserve, deference, respect, generosity and a willingness to compromise. These are the qualities that mark a virtuous person. That is, a person of high moral character, who manifests exemplary behavior, is kind and considerate to others, a true “good person,” a paragon of virtue. But note that these are exactly the qualities taught to and urged upon us by the religions to which we ascribe.

Now this observation that for a free society to succeed, its populace must be virtuous, is hardly novel. It was made at the time that the “modern world” began to conclude that a society whose inhabitants are free is a much better way to organize said society than methods heretofore tried. With rare exception, all pre-modern societies were authoritarian, totalitarian, oligarchic, monarchal or otherwise classified, in which the average person was not free to make the choices we treasure (although often take for granted). Where to live, with whom to associate, how to earn a living, even whom (and how) to worship were prescribed for almost all individuals by others. During the Enlightenment, especially in the British Isles, but then spreading to North America and gradually to much of the globe, the notion that human beings ought to be free to organize their lives themselves became widespread. The implementation of the idea has been fitful depending on time and place over the last three centuries. Moreover, in certain places where it has been implemented (even if only partly), the requirement of a virtuous citizenry has been overlooked – with awful consequences. See for example, Russia in the 1990s, or Germany in the 1920s, or perhaps Iran in the 1970s.

I take the following two precepts as given and indisputable. First, human beings have the right to be free. Whether the right is conferred by God, Nature, some cosmic force, or even a group of men who put a few lines on a piece of paper (i.e., Founders writing a Constitution), the right is absolute and indisputable. Second, in order to successfully exercise that right, the free people must be a virtuous people. The success of free societies is directly correlated to the degree of virtuosity exhibited by its people.

Now it is not my purpose here to examine – currently or historically – how virtuous are/were the American people and how well/poorly has our free society succeeded. Perhaps in a future essay. Rather I would like to consider the question: whence the virtuosity? The title of the essay suggests an answer. Certainly the Founders (most, but not all of them) believed the answer was to be found in religion. Every major religion suggests that in practicing its tenets, its adherents will manifest virtuous behavior. Which will then play a fundamental role in the exercise of their rights as free human beings – and which, consequently, will engender a harmonious society.

Thus, according to George Washington, in his famous and oft-quoted farewell address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion, and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.“ [Emphasis mine]

And Benjamin Franklin in a letter written just before the Constitutional Convention:

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

But there are countervailing opinions. Many have believed – and many still believe – that it is eminently possible to be virtuous without being at all religious. (Thomas Jefferson was a subscriber to this idea.)  Theories and movements have grown up around the idea (Secular Humanism, e.g.). The evidence for its truth is mixed. Certainly history is full of exemplary characters who did not subscribe to any particular religion. Jefferson himself might be cited as an example – although recent research calls into question his virtuosity.  But without naming names, I suggest that Western Civilization has witnessed a multitude of individuals who aligned with no specific religion, but who led exemplary lives.

So here are two quotes to serve as a counterbalance to Washington’s opinion. The first is due to the late Christopher Hitchens, a well-known author, described in a NY Times obituary as “a slashing polemicist in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell…” and the latter is by Matt Dillahunty, described by Wikipedia as an American atheist activist:

Hitchens: “We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”

Dillahunty: “I get my limits from a rational consideration of the consequences of my actions, that’s how I determine what’s moral. I get it from a foundation that says my actions have an effect on those people around me, and theirs have an effect on me, and if we’re going to live cooperatively and share space, we have to recognize that impact. And my freedom to swing my arm ends at their nose, and that I have no right to impose my will over somebody else’s will in that type of scenario. That’s where I get them from. I get them from an understanding of reality, not an assertion of authority.”

Nasty words from Hitchens, but Dillahunty presents a measured and cogent argument for a rational morality devoid of religion. Nevertheless, I believe that a religious free society has a very good chance of producing a virtuous citizenry. That is, virtue shall follow as a consequence of religious belief, thereby enhancing the chances for a successful free society. Well Hitchens, certainly, and Dillahunty, probably, would not agree. So the question remains: Can an irreligious, but free society generate the requisite virtuosity to succeed?

Perhaps not! Consider the following. Over the last seventy years, most of the countries of Western Europe have been exorcising religion from the lives of their inhabitants. The monumentally beautiful churches of France, Britain and Germany are nearly empty on any given Sunday. Has this resulted in a paucity of virtue? And is liberty in retreat in Western Europe? I cannot answer the first question, but it seems to me that the answer to the second is ‘yes.’ The peoples of Western Europe have been gradually surrendering their freedom to an authoritarian structure in Brussels known as the European Union. By the usual measures: ability to pursue a vocation of one’s choice, etc.; Western Europeans have slowly been losing their freedoms. Thus far the people of America have not made a similar choice. But in their attempt to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic that threatens us, we have moved in that direction recently. Perhaps it is temporary. We’ll see.

To summarize, a virtuous citizenry is required to maintain a successful free society. Virtue can come as a consequence of religion. Can an irreligious society generate the requisite virtuosity? The jury is deliberating. What do you think?

An Egghead’s Advice to Conservative Political Activists

The following is a transcript of a talk given at the Maryland Center-Right Coalition on January 8, 2015.

Many of the people in this room are long-time political activists. I admire your dedication to the task. The countless hours that you spend: in planning sessions, cultivating candidates, monitoring elections, raising funds, refuting opposition arguments, promoting policies and programs, and pursuing tedious grunt work is truly admirable. The conservative cause is deeply in your debt.

However, I fear that it may be that in the unending hours, which you devote to your activities, the underlying reasons why you labor so mightily is sometimes lost sight of. Or more seriously, you are so focused on the details of your latest task that you have forgotten – even if only temporarily – the fundamental rationale for your efforts. Consequently, you do not explain it to yourself, or to the people you are working so feverishly to convert to the cause.

I, on the other hand, am an egghead. I don’t run around to meetings, rallies and press conferences. Instead, I just sit around and think. Then I write and talk about my thoughts. The point is that while the foot soldiers of the movement are absolutely essential to the success of the cause, ultimately they cannot succeed without the conceptual thinkers who provide the rationale and motivation for their actions.

History is replete with corroborating evidence for this assertion. The American Revolution does not occur without the contributions of the eggheads named: Montesquieu, Locke, Donne, Smith and Paine. I’m sure you could add a few more names to the list. The modern computer revolution does not happen if Babbage, Turing and von Neumann had not recorded their ideas. The civil rights revolution in America is stillborn if words and thoughts do not emanate from Gandhi, Lewis and of course King. By the way, Martin Luther King is a good example of an instance in which an a priori thinker also played a major role as an activist.

Alas, the concept works for evil as well as good. The leftist revolution that has swept America in the last century was modeled after the ideas of Debs, Gramsci, Dewey and La Follette. And of course the twin totalitarian evils that plagued the twentieth century, Nazism and Communism, were inspired by Marx, Engels, Nietzsche and Darwin (in certain respects) and that guy who wrote Mein Kampf. Tragically, the twenty-first century is witnessing its own totalitarian plague, that is, radical Islam or Islamism or Islamofascism. We may be having a hard time naming it, and, amazingly enough, some of us are even having difficulty acknowledging that it exists. But its malevolent activities are evident to anyone with half an eye open and half a brain unclenched – and it too has its theoretical instigators, for example al-Banna and Qutb of Egypt and Khomeini of Iran.

It is my contention that the conservative counter-revolution in America, which we are fitfully experiencing, follows the same model. The idea people who kicked it off in mid twentieth century were Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss and William Buckley. These politically seminal thinkers actually had economic/social counterparts: Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Now here is a self-evident fact. Clearly, in every case that I have cited, the work of the seminal thinkers preceded the concrete implementation of the ideas they addressed. But it is also absolutely clear that in every case, it was decades before success was achieved. It takes time for the brilliant and influential ideas of the originators to disseminate, and of course time for the development of an army of activists to bring about the implementation of the ideas.

Now here is a perhaps less self-evident fact. Even decades after the original ideas are born and while people are implementing them, there is always a second generation group of thinkers, putting out amplifications and refinements of the thoughts of the seminal folks. For example, as the American Revolution proceeded, it continued to receive inspiration from the words of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. In the last decade, the computer/techno revolution continues to benefit and be influenced by the ideas of Jobs, Zuckerberg and Dorsey.  And I would contend that the Civil Rights movement in America continues to be shaped by the ideas of people like Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson  – although I suspect that our friends on the left would dispute my choice of second generation influential thinkers.

I do not believe that there are any meaningful continuing modern influences for either of the Nazi or Communist movements, reflecting the fact that those movements are dead. Glory be! But Islamofascism is certainly not dead and I warrant that there are folks out there continuing to put out ideas, which inspire the lunatics who are chopping off heads in the Levant, kidnapping and raping young girls in Africa and even murdering innocent people in the name of Jihad in France, Bulgaria, Australia and also in the US. I am not sure who they are and what they are writing, but I have no doubt that they exist.

If I am correct about a movement’s ongoing need for intellectual succor and stimulation, then the conservative, counter-cultural revolution, which was launched a half century ago, but which by any objective measure has achieved only limited success; that movement, our movement is in need of continuing intellectual and conceptual input. Fortunately, it has been forthcoming. In that regard, I would cite: Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Greenfield, Rush Limbaugh – and once again, I will stop, perhaps prematurely, and let you fil in more names.

Now I do not presume to place myself in the same company as the distinguished gentlemen whose names I just dropped. But, borrowing from them and from other enlightened conservatives, I would like to put before you four ideas or recommendations that I think any current conservative thinker would urge upon a modern conservative political activist. Hopefully, as you work to restore America to its moorings as a constitutional republic, these ideas can provide some energy and guidance for your activities.

Culture trumps politics. This idea was grasped by turn of the century progressives – especially Antonio Gramsci. They understood that in order to radically alter the politics of the United States, they had to first undermine bourgeois culture and replace it with a more libertine version. They understood that the flow of influence runs downhill from culture to politics. And so they set about changing America’s culture. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Today, the left controls virtually all of the opinion-molding organs of American society: the media and the arts, public schools, foundations, seminaries, museums, libraries, higher education, the federal bureaucracy, the legal profession and so on. Classic American culture celebrated individual liberty, limited government, free market capitalism, strong morals grounded in religion, intact traditional families and vibrant cohesive communities, individual responsibility and the meritocracy, and American Exceptionalism – in particular, the idea that America is a model and force for good in the world. That culture has been supplanted by one that values: group rights, big government and crony capitalism, loose morals and banishment of religion from the public square, global American weakness and disengagement, and an obscene focus on the warts in American history. It is little wonder that in such a culture, the least experienced, most anti-American, anti-Constitutional, radically left, lawless president in American history could be elected and re-elected.

We must recapture the culture. It took the left a century to overthrow America’s classic culture. It may take us a century to win it back. We’d better get started. Here are a few suggestions. Instead of Sheldon Adelson dumping tens of millions of dollars into a futile attempt to nominate Newt Gingrich, we would have been better served if he bought CBS. Thank God for Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and Talk Radio. But conservatives will have to take control of a lot more organs of the American media for us to make significant progress in the long quest to reassert traditional American culture. Thus I am suggesting that instead of trying to elicit money from donors for, for example, futile runs against Chris Van Hollen, you should try to get those donors to buy the Washington Post or start a conservative organization of school teachers to rival the NEA or create more Hillsdale and Grove City Colleges or start a foundation like Heritage or CATO or the Manhattan Institute, or fund tens of conservative law professors at Ivy League institutions.

In short, we need to replace – or at least supplement – our laser focus on politics by a new and sustained effort to reorient America’s culture back to its historical roots.

Elevate the right GOP candidates. (Pun intended.) Activists need to discover, recruit and if necessary train GOP candidates who understand the previous point about the culture. Equally important, nurture candidates who not only have a clear understanding of what the progressives have wrought in the last century, but who can in addition explain exactly how the results of the leftist putsch have damaged the Republic. Finally, stand up candidates who can describe how a return to conservative principles will undo the damage and enable our citizens to lead lives of greater prosperity and freedom.

In spite of the assault on its merits by their school teachers, most Americans still revere the Constitution and believe it constitutes the founding document to which American government should adhere and be faithful. Conservative candidates – which, if recent history is any guide, will be almost exclusively GOP candidates – must be able to explain to voters why almost all of the program of the modern Democrat Party is in direct violation of the Constitution. Furthermore, they must be able to explain how a return to Constitutional principles and the traditional American ethos will reverse the economic stagnation, constriction of freedom, loss of control of world affairs and diminution of the American spirit that are the hallmarks of twenty first century America, which has been under the hypnotic sway of progressivism for far too long.

Too many Republican candidates and elected officials fall into one of the following two categories:

  1. RINOs, meaning that they do not really believe that progressivism and big government are bad for America – it’s just that the Democrats are screwing it up and Republicans should be entrusted with the task of implementing the progressive agenda because they will do it more efficiently and cost effectively than liberal Democrats have or could; or
  2. In tune, but inadequate. That is, candidates whose hearts and minds may be in the right place, but they are unable to: (i) articulate their beliefs, (ii) explain the connection between progressivism and the ills that beset the nation; and (iii) deflect the vicious slanders that the Democrats hurl at them. Regarding the latter, Reagan parried the attacks with humor. David Horowitz believes we should fight as dirty as the Dems do. However GOP candidates combat Democrat demonization of their GOP opponents, those candidates must understand that the Dems no longer feel constrained by “Marquis of Queensbury” rules in political contests. We need to recruit candidates who understand that and are prepared to deal with it forthrightly and effectively, but also with optimism and good-nature.

Arguably the greatest good that conservative activists can do is the identification, nurturing, support and promotion of GOP candidates who meet the criteria just stated.

Shorten the Time Frame with a Major Constitutional Initiative. As I said, it took progressives a century to capture the culture and, as a natural consequence, to reorient the politics. As I also said, it might take conservatives another century to recapture the terrain. But perhaps the process can be speeded up.

I believe that there were several fundamental changes effected by the progressives a century ago, which, if they didn’t speed up the putsch schedule, at least they had the effect of signaling that America had changed significantly and was on a new path. I am speaking of the nearly simultaneous passage of the 16th, 17th and 19th amendments to the Constitution [the income tax, direct election of senators and women’s right to vote] and the establishment of the Federal Reserve. (Actually, three of these four occurred in 1913, women’s suffrage in 1920.) Extending suffrage to women was absolutely the right thing to do, although it had the predictable effect of skewing the overall electorate somewhat to the left. But I have no doubt that the other three steps had an overall negative effect on liberty, economic prosperity and constitutional government. Their arrival at nearly the same time signaled a major shift in American society.

Well, let’s kick start the engine in the reverse direction. Once again, the place to start is the Constitution. Conservatives should make a major effort to pass and send to the States one or more amendments that would herald a return of the Republic to its founding constitutional ethos. In his recent book, “The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic” Mark Levin has offered up a number of conservative amendments that would fill the bill. They range from repeal of amendments 16 and 17 to term limits (for both the legislative and judicial branches) to limits on federal spending, taxation  and regulation to one designed to grant the States the right to amend the Constitution. I urge you to read them if you haven’t and join the effort to actually bring some of them before Congress.

Most inspiring of all would be a call for a new Constitutional Convention to consider these amendments. Of course this could only happen if sufficient numbers of Americans joined the conservative cause and became convinced that the century-long and ongoing progressive revolution has done severe damage to the US – damage that needs to be repaired as part of a major effort to reconstitute the nation and the Constitutional Republic that it was for more than a century.

It’s still about winning elections. My first three recommendations – culture, candidates and constitution – are, if you will, big picture items. For activists the objective is, of course, still primarily about winning elections. So let me offer a few suggestions for doing so. Here, I may very well not be telling you anything that you don’t already know, but I think it worthwhile to highlight a few important points. Of course, if we succeed in my three big picture items, then electoral success will follow naturally. Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions for winning elections:

  1. Our candidates must be attractive – no more witches, “legitimate rape” apologists or crooks or kooks. It is self-evident, but we should be putting forward people who are knowledgeable, articulate, poised, experienced and optimistic.
  2. I believe the defect that I am about to mention has been corrected, but our efforts must involve the most advanced technology. Technology is a constantly moving target and we need to stay on top of it.
  3. The electoral process has become enormously expensive and it looks like a trend that will only accelerate. We need to devote special attention to conservatives in those sectors of society that can afford to give big time – big corporations of course, but also the entertainment industry, successful entrepreneurs, and even those whose wealth is inherited. At the same time – not that we haven’t been doing it – we should try to broaden the base of donors.
  4. Recognize that the Dems play dirty. Be ready for it and if necessary, fight fire with fire.
  5. The demographic issue. Actually, I believe the situation is not as dire as the pundits are saying. There are encouraging signs of an increased number of conservative women, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. We should be open to these communities, proselytize to them, recruit among them for candidates and we should be tireless in pointing out to them how progressive policies – supposedly designed to help these communities – in fact harm them. Romney’s 47% remark was catastrophic. We need to contest the whole field. If we could in fact convert substantial numbers from these communities, then the electoral map would bleed bright red.

Finally, let me clarify my intent. I do not mean to cast any doubt about the self-awareness of the activists in the room. Certainly many, likely most of you are keenly aware of the underlying rationale for the conservative cause and have clearly in mind what motivates you to wage your worthy fight. Except that I do believe that it is natural – for any of us – to sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees.

My words were meant to reinforce your strength and desire to continue the struggle by highlighting what I see as some of the fundamental reasons why you and I are in this battle, as well as to offer some hopefully novel, but concrete suggestions as to how to wage it. I wish you Godspeed and I hope that we will live long enough to see America’s progressive slide firmly and irrevocably reversed.

Retreating to Rural America

I have spent my life in the belly of the beast. For nearly forty years, I have lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, which borders Washington, DC on its north side. This might not be the most liberal county in the nation, but it is certainly among the top five. During all that time, I worked (as Professor of Mathematics and Senior Associate Dean of the Physical Sciences College) at the University of Maryland. Again, this is not the left most institution of higher education in the country, but the political/cultural/educational orientation of my campus would not be confused with that of Hillsdale College. Finally, I have socialized and recreated extensively throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor since 1969. Like I said, a long sojourn in the heart of liberal America.

However, seven years ago, I had the good fortune to purchase a second home in Garrett County, which is at the western most tip of Maryland in the Allegheny Mountains, about 175 miles from the nation’s capital. Since I retired four years ago, my wife and I spend all summer and significant portions of the other three seasons ensconced in our little paradise on the shores of Deep Creek Lake in McHenry, Maryland. Yes, we’re still in Maryland, but it’s as far (politically and culturally) from the Baltimore-Washington liberal playground as Midland, Texas is from the big Apple.

Of course the environment is a big reason why we love the place. In the summer, the lake is clear, cool and inviting and the mountains are lush with greenery. In the winter, the lake is an ice playground and the snow-filled mountains are dotted with skiers. All year round, the air is fresh, the entertainment and recreational opportunities are abundant, and the scenery is spectacular.

An equally attractive feature of our getaway is the community and its people. Actually, many outlanders (like us) have built and purchased homes, so the landscape has taken on the features of a resort locale. But it has also managed to retain its rural flavor as a home to numerous farms, a few quintessential small mountain towns, several insular religious communities and various small businesses and shops representative of small town America. During my seven years here, I’ve gotten to know quite a few locals. They, their lifestyles and their values present a stark contrast to the folks I’ve known during my four decades in the suburban Washington area. Here’s a set of representative examples of the differences:

• If you go to the local elementary school at the end of the day, you will see parents in their twenties and early thirties fetching their children. In suburban DC, the parents are never in their twenties and often in their forties.
• People go to church on Sunday – even to the mainline Protestant churches that are bleeding membership in urban areas.
• No one is in a rush. Sometimes, to a lifelong (sub)urban dweller like me – e.g., when I am trying to arrange a household repair – this can be frustrating. But generally, it is refreshing and calming.
• When I take a walk along one of the country roads, I exchange a wave with the driver of virtually every vehicle that passes. If I did that in DC, at best the driver would assume I was trying to hitch a ride, and at worst that I was a potential carjacker.
• People listen to country and folk music, not rock and rap.
• Shopkeepers, public servants (like the clerk in the local post office), repairmen and others one encounters in daily life are polite, cheerful and anxious to be helpful. Truth be told, that is often the case in DC as well, but it seems forced in the metropolitan area whereas it seems natural at the lake.
• Republican candidates for public office outpoll Democrats 60—40, and often 2-1.
• Patriotism and love of country is on display on more than just Independence Day. That spirit exists in suburban Maryland too, but it is often drowned out by criticisms of America that emanate from the President down to the local politician.

Perhaps I am idealizing and exaggerating. But when I am in western Maryland, I have the sense that in many ways the country that I inhabit is not so different from the one that I grew up in during the middle of the twentieth century. I never feel that way when I am on Montgomery County. Alas, I fear that the future of America is reflected far more by the latter than by the former.

This short essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative.

The Age of Entitlement Comes to Campus

The spring semester recently concluded at the large state university campus where I still teach part-time (even though I am formally retired). The students in my post-calculus, differential equations course – a sophomore math offering taken mostly by engineering students – performed at a level commensurate with what is normally seen in this course. Thus the grades I issued conformed to the usual bell shaped curve and so one saw roughly 10% A’s, 20% B’s, 40% C’s, 20% D’s and 10% F’s. (Alright, I am not immune from the ubiquitous phenomenon of grade inflation – the actual grade distribution was definitely skewed somewhat higher.)

The students who failed the course largely knew that this was the likely outcome before even sitting for the final exam and – since their performance on the final confirmed their hopeless status – I had virtually no blowback from these students. But from the D students, an avalanche of email cascaded down upon me as soon as the grades were (electronically) available. The avalanche is explained in part by the following: despite the fact that D is considered a passing grade, the Engineering School will not give credit for the course unless the student obtains a C or higher grade. Thus, students who earn a D feel that, in spite of the fact that they did “good enough,” their effort was unrewarded and they are resentful that they have to repeat the course to get credit toward their degree.

Here is a typical example from the slew of emails I received – almost all of which matched this one in tone and content:

I am a second year chemical engineer and I need at least a C to pass the course. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. While studying for the final exam I spilled milk on my laptop, rendering it unusable. My father had to take me to the Apple store for repair. This whole ordeal took up most of my study time. I don’t mean to make excuses, but due to these circumstances I had a very short amount of time to study for the exam, and my performance was impacted. I honestly put a lot of time and effort into your class and I felt like I learned more than my course grade is reflecting. Considering all the good I’ve done throughout the semester, I think I should at least get a C. I will get kicked out of my major if I do not get a C in the class. Please reconsider my grade or even allow me to do any work to boost my grade. Once again Mr. Lipsman, I am asking out of the kindness of your heart please bump my grade up a little more, please! Please, if there is anything that you can do, I would very much appreciate it.

My typical response is a polite email, which points to the course web site (available to the students from the first day of class) that contains the grading scheme for the course; and then I highlight the specific poor points of performance on the student’s part that account for the unfortunate grade. (Conversations with colleagues reveal similar strategies.) That usually settles matters; but in a small number of cases, a student persists in pleading/demanding/scheming for a higher grade ex post facto. In that case, I turn the matter over to department or college administrators. On (fortunately, rare) occasion, matters can become rather unpleasant.

Even when I avoid such unpleasantness, I find these emails quite disturbing. Such an approach to a professor by a student would have been unthinkable two generations ago. But this kind of plea bargaining/begging for succor phenomenon has become increasingly common over the last decade or so. In fact, I believe this university student phenomenon reflects patterns of behavior that are prevalent throughout modern society. In this regard, universities reflect, as well as inaugurate and instigate various unwholesome features of our current culture.

In order to illustrate, I will identify the main themes that emerge from the email cavalcade that I endured:

  • The student claims to have worked hard on the course. In some instances, this may be true; but in many, I know that it is not. Too many students have a warped idea of what hard work actually entails.
  • The student is always a victim of some special circumstance (illness, accident, family crisis, poor advice, exceptionally challenging workload, etc.). The victim card is played often and instinctively. “It’s not my fault!”
  • The student asserts his “right to pass.” Implicit is the belief that if he is properly enrolled, in good standing and pursuing a legitimate degree program, then he is entitled to be passed through this checkpoint in his journey – regardless of performance. He is entitled to a C merely by his legitimate presence in the course.
  • “If you don’t give me a C, my future is in jeopardy.” Not only is he entitled, but the penalty for depriving him of his right will be severe. The resulting consequences for him will far outweigh any moral anguish suffered by me for distorting the legitimate outcome of the course’s process.
  • Finally, “You, professor, can fix this.” No notion of personal responsibility enters the equation. The burden of this unfortunate affair lands on my doorstep to correct the injustice. The student inhabits a cosmos in which he is not in control of his destiny.

I propose that each of the above five manifestations of the student entitlement mentality is reflective of patterns present in society in general.

  • Admittedly, this might be too heavily concentrated among government employees, but who hasn’t encountered an employee that complains of being overworked at the same time that both his inbox and outbox are suspiciously empty.
  • We’re all victims these days; of racism, sexism, ableism, and other isms you haven’t yet recognized. We’re being screwed by big corporations, small businessmen, unscrupulous co-workers, bad neighbors, even members of our family. We are all categorized into boxes according to race, gender, age, geography and so on. And we are certain that those in the other boxes are working feverishly to limit opportunities for the occupants of our box.
  • As a victim, my rights are being violated. I speak not of the rights granted to me by the Constitution, but instead those guaranteed to me by politicians.  These include my right to a great paying job, a fine home, the best medical care, a secure retirement, an exceptional education – not to mention nice clothes, top notch appliances, a month’s annual vacation and a great set of wheels. To all this, I am entitled because … well, because from FDR to Obama, I’ve been told so.
  • And if I don’t have these things, then not only are my rights being violated, but my life is being ruined.
  • Finally, it is the primary responsibility of the government to ensure that my rights are not violated and that all the things promised to me by government are delivered to me by that government.

Well, perhaps I’ve engaged in a bit of hyperbole to make a point. In fact, most students are hard-working, conscientious and respectful. But the fact that the number who are not is increasing is troublesome. That they are increasing in number could be a reflection of unhealthy trends in society in general.

Dealing with these societal issues is a topic for another time and place. But the university is equipped to cope with their manifestations on campus. I have communicated to the Department Chair, College Dean and Dean of Undergraduate Education some recommendations to do exactly that. They include:

  1. It should be explained emphatically to new students at freshman orientation that grades are not a commodity to be bargained for or negotiated over. Grades express faculty evaluation of student performance over an entire course. They are not an opening bid in an auction. They are arrived at carefully by faculty based on specific course performance criteria spelled out in detail at the start of the course. On most campuses, faculty are already obliged to make these criteria known to students at the outset of the semester.
  2. If a student feels very strongly that the grade he was issued violates the terms of the criteria, he may politely ask the faculty member for a clarification. If, after the reason for his grade is outlined to him by the faculty member, he is convinced that the faculty member has violated his own rules, then the student may file a formal grievance above the faculty member’s head at the Department or College level. American campuses have long experience in setting up structures to administer such a procedure. However, also at freshman orientation, it should be stressed to students that grade grievances should only be filed in the extremely rare instance that a faculty member has manifestly behaved unjustly.
  3. Students should also be apprised that anyone who files more than one grievance over the course of an academic career will be called in by the Dean of Undergraduate Education for an interview. At that time it can be pointed out to the student how multiple grievances are telltale signs of one or more of the unhealthy societal behaviors outlined earlier. The student would then have an opportunity to confront, evaluate and perhaps alter his cultural axioms.

The university has traditionally played a societal role in converting callow youth into mature and responsible adults. Let us not subvert that role by giving in to immature and irresponsible behavior.

This essay appeared in a slightly abridged version, under the title “Give Me a Better Grade — I Deserve It” in Minding the Campus