Category Archives: Culture

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

Obama: The Joke is on Us

Here is a joke, entitled “Looking for Work,” that has worked its way around the Internet:

An Israeli doctor says: “In Israel, medicine is so advanced that we cut off a man’s testicles, put them on another man and in 6 weeks, he is looking for work”.

The German doctor says: “that’s nothing, in Germany we take part of a brain, put it in another man, and in 4 weeks he is looking for work”.

The Russian doctor says: “gentlemen, we take half a heart from a man, put it in another’s chest and in 2 weeks he is looking for work”

The United States doctor laughs: “You all are behind us. Five years ago, we took a man with no brains, no heart and no balls and made him President. Now, the whole country is looking for work!”

How could the people of the United States perform such a reckless act: install the most manifestly unqualified presidential candidate as CEO of the US and leader of the free world? I will offer a brief and well-worn answer to that question and then attempt to answer two important follow up questions:

  1. What does the fact that we did elect – and re-elect – Obama say about America?
  2. Do the results of Obama’s presidency and the events of the last five years support the conclusions drawn in the answer to the first question?

Many theories have been advanced purporting to account for Obama’s election: he was exceedingly charming and intelligent; he represented a clear alternative to the style and policies of his unpopular predecessor; his competition was exceptionally weak; his organization ran an unusually innovative and technologically savvy campaign far beyond those of his opponent. But the most common explanation served up, and the one that I believe is the most accurate is the following. The country viewed his elevation to the presidency as an act of expiation that: was merited by the USA’s wicked history of slavery and segregation; would heal the deep wounds inflicted on our society by that bitter legacy; and would unify our country and cement our status as the most successful multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multicultural society in the history of the world. And it would grant us renewed moral authority to continue to pursue our American experiment to create the freest, most prosperous and most exceptional nation on the face of the earth.

It was impossible not to see that, in a formal sense, Obama was totally unqualified to stand for the job. He had no executive experience, no managerial experience, and he knew virtually nothing about business, economics, foreign policy or national defense. He had no military record, a meager congressional record, and what few positions he had were handed to him without his demonstrating any qualifications to justify them. It is truly correct to assert that by any objective measure, he was completely unqualified to be considered as a candidate for president. Moreover, that was totally obvious to anyone who paid the slightest attention.

Nevertheless, the people chose him to be their president. And the only explanation that makes any sense is the expiation one offered. Well, there is a second – namely, that the American people are overwhelmingly stupid, ignorant, myopic and self-destructive. I don’t buy that – although, sometimes I wonder.

Now let us deal with the two follow up questions. First, what does Obama’s election – and perhaps even more seriously, his re-election – say about America? Well, the expiation explanation certainly says that the stain of slavery and racial bigotry weighs heavily on our souls. We desperately wished to wash out the stain and the election of a black man to the presidency would go a very long way toward accomplishing that goal. But given that he was unqualified and that the likelihood of alternate possibilities arising in the near future were good (in fact, Colin Powell might very well have preceded Obama if he had had the courage to run), surely it occurred to many that the price of electing Obama might easily outweigh the benefit. If one allowed oneself to go beyond the atonement issue, it was also impossible not to see the radically left proclivities of the man, the sordid background of some of his closest associates and the intolerance and arrogance that characterized many of his attitudes. Yet America ignored these dreadful warning signs and installed him anyway. And then they re-installed him!

What that says about America is much more than that we were desperate to expunge our racial sins. It says that we were equally interested in expelling far more of our culture and character than just our racial biases. In short, it announced that the US is now infected with the same disease that has laid low our European cousins: the loss of faith in our own culture.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Europeans surveyed the wreckage of their twentieth century achievements: two world wars that killed tens of millions of people; a Holocaust that exceeded any genocide in history in its cold-blooded, meticulous planning and execution; and a legacy of corrupt and rapacious colonial regimes that they viewed as the cause of vast misery in Africa and Asia. The Europeans decided that their culture – more commonly known as Western Civilization – was to blame and resolved to cast it off. Finding little to replace it, the peoples of Western Europe have sunk into a motley group of centrally-governed, irreligious, amoral, meek, increasingly poor, social welfare states that bear little resemblance to the powerful and confident societies of the past (e.g., Spain and Holland in the 1600s, France in the 1700s, Germany in the late 1800s and England for roughly 300 years ending in the mid-1900s).

Despite the fact that the US had little to do with initiating any of the twentieth century misery created by the Europeans – indeed, we spent a good bit of blood and treasure cleaning it up, our country has, as of late, decided to join our European cousins in their march to oblivion. We too have seemingly lost faith in our own culture. That is the central meaning in the election and re-election of Barack Obama. Our dear president never manifests any love for or pride in the country that entrusted the oval office to him. He has made clear in his books and his utterances – and in the friends he keeps – not only that America has not been a force for good in the world, but rather its legacy of: slavery, discrimination against women and minorities, internment of Japanese-American citizens, military aggression in the Middle East, income inequality, and myriad other social evils are indelible stains that must be atoned for by redistributing American wealth, diluting America’s power and subjugating its will to that of the “international community.” He clearly holds in disdain: the Christian religion, middle American morality, success in business, the concept of American Exceptionalism, American military might and the Constitutional system upon which our society was founded. Therefore, by choosing him – and then re-anointing him, the American people have proclaimed a loss of faith in America’s traditional ideals and principles. The people are ready to cast them aside, or if not that, then not to resist as they are torn from our hands.

Now for the second question: Do the events of the last five years reinforce or subvert the allegations made above? The answer is unequivocally the former. For what are the signal events of the last five years? Let’s identify only those that can be tied in a significant way to the fact that Barack Obama has been president during that period:

  • Obamacare became the law of the land. One sixth of the US economy has been nationalized; tens of millions of people have had the cost and quality of their health care adversely affected; all to insure less than one-quarter of the 10% of the population that was previously uninsured.
  • The federal debt has exploded and has been set on a catastrophically unsustainable path that poses an existential threat to our nation.
  • America’s defenses have been eviscerated. At the same time, the nation has been repeatedly embarrassed and derided by its enemies; while our allies have lost faith in our ability to protect them.
  • The economy has as yet to recover in anything approaching a normal fashion from the economic tumult of 2007-2009.
  • Family structure is crumbling, religion is on the wane, smut and pornography saturate the entertainment media, but abortion and gay marriage are thriving.
  • We are witnessing the arrogant behavior of the most lawless administration, certainly since Nixon and perhaps ever.
  • Despite the discovery of new domestic energy resources, the administration is doing everything it can to cripple the domestic energy industry. In its stead, it seeks to put a green roof over every head and an efficient flush handle in every hand.

Moreover, with the exception of the first and fourth bullets above (Obamacare and the economy), the American public doesn’t seem to care very much. Obama and his henchmen are working as hard as they can to fundamentally transform America from a constitutional republic into a centrally-managed unexceptional, militarily weak, egalitarian, poor, social welfare state. The American people should be up in arms. Obama’s impeachment should be under serious consideration. But, as I said, with some exception, the public does not seem terribly disturbed about the coming fate to which Obama is leading us. Again, the only possible explanation is that a major percentage of the American people has lost faith in the classical American ideal and is content to see the country transformed.

The joke that opened this piece is very funny. But the real joke is on us.

This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative

Uninventing Freedom

Daniel Hannan, the famous Euro-skeptic, recently published a magnificent book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. In it he traces the history of the Anglosphere – the English-speaking countries of the world – from its origin in the British Isles to its greatest flowering on the soil of the USA. It is not my purpose here to formally review the book – two excellent reviews have already appeared. (See Mark Tooley’s essay in The American Spectator [Jan/Feb 2014] and Barton Swain’s piece in the Wall Street Journal [11/29/13], the latter of which is also featured on the Reviews page of this web site.) Instead, I will supply several trenchant  quotes from the book and then use them as a stepping stone to draw some conclusions pertinent to the political mess in which America finds itself. By the latter I mean the predicament emanating from the fact that the people of the US have recklessly elected – and re-elected – a president whose basic political beliefs run totally contrary to the fundamental axioms, which have formed the foundation upon which this nation was established and has been governed.

Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin… [Indeed] the three precepts that define Western civilization—the rule of law, democratic government, and individual liberty— are not equally valued across Europe. When they act collectively, the member states of the EU are quite ready to subordinate all three to political imperatives. The rule of law is regularly set aside when it stands in the way of what Brussels elites want.

Barack Obama’s view of America matches the EU premise. He sees the US as just another country among the nations of the world; its culture, political philosophy and economic system are of no more intrinsic merit than those of any other country. His goal is to meld us into world society as one among equals. He completely rejects the messianic idea, common to our Founders and all of our leaders from Washington to Lincoln and even to FDR, of American Exceptionalism – which posits that the American experiment is unique in the annals of history and that America is to be a beacon of freedom to the world.

What distinguishes the common law from the Roman law that predominates in Continental Europe and its colonial offshoots? Chiefly this. The Continental legal model is deductive. A law is written down from first principles, and then those principles are applied to a particular case. Common law, to the astonishment of those raised in the Roman or Napoleonic systems, does the reverse. It builds up, case by case, with each decision serving as the starting point for the next dispute. It applies a doctrine known to lawyers as stare decisis: previous judgments should stand unaltered, serving as precedent. Common law is thus empirical rather than conceptual: it concerns itself with actual judgments that have been handed down in real cases, and then asks whether they need to be modified in the light of different circumstances in a new case.

Our president cum law professor has little use for common law or stare decisis. This is evident in his increasingly lawless behavior. As his actions regarding Obamacare, the Dream Act, gay marriage, recess appointments and many, many other areas indicate, he is content to ignore the constraints imposed upon him by the Constitution and create law by fiat – that is, by executive order. He sees himself and his minions as wise beings who know what is best for America. The law is merely a vehicle to implement his vision. The opinions of the people on any particular matter are of little import.

Tenth-century England had undeniably started down the track to constitutional liberty. What might have happened had it continued on that path we’ll never know, because, in 1066, it was brutally wrenched out of the Nordic world and subjected to European feudalism. Harold Godwinson, an English nobleman with scant claim to the throne, but with the unequivocal backing of the Witan, was deposed by William of Normandy, who had his own ideas about the duties owed to a king. It was a calamitous defeat for England, for the Witan, and for the development of liberty. Indeed, the next six centuries can be seen in one sense—and were seen by many of the key protagonists—as an attempt to reverse the disaster of 1066.

This quote is included to highlight the effectiveness of the liberal brainwashing that is administered in America’s public schools. Long ago, I identified for myself the falsehoods that were drummed into my head in school: from the nonsense that FDR saved the nation from the Great Depression to the obscenity that Communism was an alternate – and in some ways more effective – economic system as opposed to capitalism. Well, it never dawned on me that the Norman conquest of Britain was a disaster that set back the cause of liberty for 600 years. In school and college, I learned that the conquest was a result of a more or less legitimate dispute over who should possess the British crown, and that its effect on English life was relatively minimal with the exception of hastening the end of slavery on the island. Hannan presents a compelling case that the Normans attempted – with some success – to replace the decentralized, rudimentarily free legal system in England a millennium ago with a centralized authoritarianism. Such a viewpoint is never presented in school. Well, this is perhaps a minor example, but it is representative of the distorted history that was taught, and is taught even more egregiously in today’s public schools.

In most of Europe, landownership was settled, with farms being treated as an inalienable patrimony. In England, by contrast, there was a lively land market from at least the thirteenth century (earlier records are harder to come by). In most of Europe, children would work on their parents’ farms, receiving board and lodging rather than wages. In England—to the surprise and occasional disgust of overseas visitors—children would generally have left the family home by their teens, either for apprenticeships or to work elsewhere. The farmwork would instead be done by hired hands for competitive pay. In most of Europe, the family was recognized as the primary unit, not just in custom but in law: parents generally could not disinherit their children, and the family plot was treated as a communal resource. In England, there was almost no notion of shared ownership. A boy who had reached legal maturity was, in the eyes of the law, a wholly free agent: his father had neither claims over him nor duties to him.

Barack Obama, July 13, 2012 in Roanoke, VA: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Perhaps George W. Bush’s single greatest foreign policy success was to draw India back into the alliance of English-speaking democracies when he accepted the nation’s nuclear status in 2006. That relationship has been vigorously cultivated by David Cameron but neglected by Barack Obama. Fortunately, Indians seem prepared to wait for a different attitude from Washington. They are a patient and courteous people.

Obama is working hard to separate the US from the Anglosphere. One of his first acts as president was to expel the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. He has denied that there is any special kinship between the US and the UK. He keeps Canada cooling its heels for five years waiting on the Keystone XL Pipeline. And I have never heard him utter a warm word about Australia or New Zealand. But perhaps this is unfair as he has been equally rough on America’s non-Anglo allies. His treatment of Israel has been an abomination. And while he bows to kings, hobnobs with Venezuela’s (now dead) Marxist leader, and is anxious to negotiate with Iran, Assad and the dear leader of North Korea, he gives the back of his hand to Poland, the Czech Republic and Honduras. His sense of American history and Western Civilization is … is … well, he doesn’t have any sense of them.

Americans take pride in being self-reliant, optimistic, ambitious. But these characteristics are not a by-product of Mississippi water or turkey meat, and neither are they some magical quality in the American genome. People respond to incentives; culture is shaped by institutions. If taxation, spending, and borrowing keep rising, if more and more Americans become dependent on the state, it won’t take long before they start behaving like the French, rioting and demonstrating in defense of their acquired entitlements… Margaret Thatcher’s political godfather, Sir Keith Joseph, used to remark that if you give people responsibility, they behave responsibly. What goes for individuals goes for entire nations.
There has been a general loss of confidence in the superiority of the Anglosphere model, which fended off every extremist challenge throughout the twentieth century. Cultural relativism feeds into hard policy. Once you reject the notion of exceptionalism as intrinsically chauvinistic, you quickly reject the institutions on which that exceptionalism rested: absolute property rights, free speech, devolved government, personal autonomy. Bit by bit, your country starts to look like everyone else’s. Its taxes rise; its legislature loses ground to the executive and to an activist judiciary; it accepts foreign law codes and charters as supreme; it drops the notion of free contract; it prescribes whom you may employ and on what terms; it expands its bureaucracy; it forgets its history

For Obama and today’s liberals, America’s decline is its just reward for its checkered history. For them, America has failed to live up to its promise. Moreover, that failure was ordained by America’s flawed founding. Its sins are numerous and great: slavery; segregation; abuse of Native Americans, women, gays and minorities; nuking Japan; corporate greed; international pillage; and the promotion of laissez-faire capitalism, States’ rights and gun rights. The fact that America has confronted its true failings (to be found among the previous list, which contains some bogus elements), and made enormous progress in correcting them is irrelevant. Only a fundamental transformation of America into a pliant, social welfare state can expiate its sins.

Hannan calls attention to these perverse views held by Obama and describes in detail how they violate the history and calling of the Anglosphere. Nevertheless, Hannan remains optimistic that the US can overthrow the tyranny of Obama’s fundamental transformation and restore the nation to its historic calling, to its rightful place as the leader of the Anglosphere and thereby guarantee freedom and prosperity to the American people for ages. His final words evoke an American patriot of whom Ronald Reagan was fond:

For we are not finished. We remain an inventive, quizzical, enterprising people. All we need to do is hold fast to the model that made us that way. Edmund Burke’s words about America in 1775 apply, mutatis mutandis, to the Anglosphere as a whole today. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.”
[And in Burke’s time] at the other end of the Anglosphere, a young doctor in Boston named Joseph Warren—the man who sent Paul Revere on his ride—was seeking to rally his countrymen in defense of the same principles. His words ring down the ages: “You are to decide the question on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
You, reading these words in his language, are the heirs to a sublime tradition. A tradition that gave us liberty, property, and democracy, and that raised our species to a pinnacle of wealth and happiness hitherto unimaginable. Act worthy of yourselves.


This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative

The US is Weaker, Poorer, Less Free and Less Confident

Numerous articles have been written to justify (one or all of) the claims in the title of this piece. Such articles often cite key cultural and economic statistics measured against corresponding numbers from one or more decades ago. For example:

 • The size and capabilities of our military are shrinking precipitously and our ability to project power and respond to world crises has diminished significantly.
• Average family income has been stagnating for more than a decade, and arguably has actually declined.
• The population is increasingly constrained by government: in the products it can buy, the investments it can make, the jobs it is eligible for, even the words it can utter.
• Finally, we have a President who does not believe in American exceptionalism, who leads from behind and who – by virtue of his election and re-election –is emblematic of a nation, which increasingly believes that the warts in its history outweigh the good that it has brought to the world.

The points in the first three bullets have been bolstered by many authors with corroborating statistical data. Therefore, that is not my purpose here. Rather, my objective is to supply anecdotal evidence – some of which has gone unnoted – that lends credence to the claims of the title.

Weaker. How is the US a weaker nation than it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago? Let me count the ways! The Middle East is spiraling out of control and we have lost any ability to influence, much less control events there. Obama promised to play nice with every Middle Eastern despot (except those named Mubarak, who actually was playing nice with us). Today Obama is held in contempt by all of them. Iran thumbs its nose at his entreaties to suspend their nuclear weapons program. His precipitous withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan prevent us from solidifying the precious few gains that we achieved in those arenas, and probably consigns the people there to subjugation by anti-Western thugs. Russia and China build up their arms and increasingly treat the US like a former superpower. Tin pot dictators in Latin America do likewise. I could go on, but here are two little, if at all, noted aspects of our weakened state. Whereas during and after Reagan, virtually all of Latin America had adopted democratic, free market regimes and liberty was on the march, today one country after another is reverting back to statist, socialist, anti-Western dictatorships. They no longer see the US as a role model for their societies. The light from America’s lamp grows dim. The other little noted manifestation of a weakened America is that the US now imports a dramatically higher percentage of its food. Just check out the local supermarket: all the “fresh” fish is from Southeast Asia; the fruits and vegetables are from South America and even Europe; and an amazing amount of the canned and bottled foods are from all over the globe. We used to fret about OPEC cutting off our oil or China calling in our loans. How about some nasty third world thug cutting off our food supply!

And that’s just foreign affairs. The internal structure of our country is also less firm than it used to be. The culture is disintegrating: the out of wedlock birth rate has skyrocketed; the birth rate itself is falling; cohabitation supplants marriage – which institution itself is crumbling; millions of abortions are performed; assisted suicide is increasingly tolerated; religion is under attack; as is the traditional family. And we are all “bowling alone.” But again, here are two less noted manifestations. First, the nation is seriously contemplating granting amnesty to 10 – and perhaps as many as 30 – million illegal aliens. This is not a sign of internal strength. It reflects a failure to enforce our laws and an inability to protect the sanctity of the nation. The second manifestation, while often articulated, is commonly referred to as a problem or crisis, but not as a sign of the inherent weakness of our society. Namely, our thoroughly dysfunctional federal government with its attendant inability to address our most serious domestic problems is indeed a symbol of our country’s weakened state. Our debt, deficits and entitlement programs are out of control and threaten to bankrupt the nation. But our government spends its time on climate change, diversity and obesity – reflecting a serious weakness in the fabric of our nation.

Poorer. This development is painfully self-evident. Yes, there is still a startling amount of wealth in the US and our standard of living remains high. But the signs of diminished financial stature abound. The national debt is a monster that is threatening our economy and portends fiscal calamity before long. All of our governments, from municipal up through State and Federal, have spent and continue to spend vastly beyond the revenue that they take in. Municipalities and counties have gone bankrupt. States will follow soon – and the federal government will not be far behind. Then there are the untold, and often uncounted, unfunded liabilities these entities bear such as employee and retiree pensions and health benefits. These represent trillions of dollars in obligations that have no collateral backing. The “economic recovery” that we are experiencing is the weakest the nation has ever endured. College graduates have diminished prospects; young and even middle aged children are forced to take up residence in their parents’ domiciles. In fact, in general young people today almost never live as a well as their parents do or did at the corresponding age.

Now here are two items, little noted, that signal the declining wealth of the US. Income disparity has increased. The rich may be getting richer and although the poor may not be getting poorer, they are certainly not getting any richer. A declining middle class is not a sign of a country enjoying increased prosperity. The marriage rate continues to decline and the average age of first marriage goes up. The fertility rate, which held steady for a long time at roughly replacement, has now declined markedly in the last decade. Fewer young people paying for overly generous entitlements to more old people is not a recipe for national prosperity – just ask Japan.

Less Free. In principle the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution and historical traditions remain ours to enjoy. But it is absolutely without question that these freedoms are under assault from a perhaps benignly intentioned but increasingly powerful, ever expansive, unresponsive – and in places corrupt –federal government. Liberals may choose either to ignore this or actually believe that we are better off for it, but they cannot deny that the average citizen today is constrained in infinitely more ways by the federal government than his ancestors were a few generations ago. Books have been written describing the ways. (For example, the recent and ongoing IRS scandal is emblematic.) But here are a few that have not played a prominent role in that litany:
• A classic feature of American freedom has been the boundless capacity to form organizations and associations to address civic needs. This characteristic – unique to American society – was already evident to de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago and remained strong for generations. No more. Here is some poignantly relevant data from a recent Wall Street Journal article by James Piereson.
For much of U.S. history, nonprofits have operated as a check on government by providing private avenues to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, American charities—and more broadly, the entire nonprofit sector—have become a creature of big government. For decades, the U.S. government has administered research, welfare, housing and educational programs through a system of grants to state and local governments, colleges and universities, hospitals, research organizations, consulting firms and not-for-profit advocacy groups. In the past 50 years, federal spending has exploded 36-fold, to about $3.6 trillion in 2012 from $100 billion in 1962. Meantime, the number of federal civilian employees has expanded modestly in comparison—to 2.8 million in 2011 from 2.5 million in 1962. The reason the federal government can increase its spending without adding many employees is because it subcontracts so many of its functions to ostensibly private institutions. This system has gradually turned much of the not-for-profit sector into a junior partner in administering the welfare state. 
The government has swallowed the civic organizations of America. We are no longer running our own affairs; the government is.
• The phenomenal growth of surveillance and monitoring has been noted, but this constraint on our freedom is not just limited to the NSA monitoring our phone calls. The streets are full of surveillance and speed cameras, our internet trails are tracked and our financial transactions monitored. Privacy is a thing of the past; our freedom is curtailed because so many of our private actions are observed and recorded.
• Mind control. The left has taken control of all the opinion-forming organs of American society: the media, universities, foundations, libraries, seminaries, the educational system, the legal profession and so on. The population, especially the kids, are literally brainwashed with a statist point of view. But the vast majority doesn’t even realize it. They are programmed like robots and make no attempt to formulate their own ideas. Not exactly the hallmark of a free people.
• The quaint notion of a free press is gone. The press is in the tank for the left. Therefore it does not perform its most basic function envisioned for it under the Constitution – to act as a watchdog and check on government malfeasance. For example, it not only permitted, it abetted the election of Barack Obama – the most manifestly unqualified candidate ever to ascend to the presidency. When the press does not perform its assigned function, our freedom is jeopardized. The Founders understood well that the people’s freedom is critically dependent on a free press. That is why they put it in the First Amendment.

Less Confident. Polls show decreasing optimism in the populace about the future of our country. People are pessimistic and fatalistic about the prospects for their children, the economy and their nation. In the past Americans were an upbeat people, always confident – perhaps unreasonably so – about the country’s ability to solve its problems, move forward toward more liberty and prosperity, and to fulfill its destiny as a light unto the nations. Increasingly we don’t know what our destiny is nor do we care. We are no longer that beacon of freedom, that shining city on the hill; we’re just another country – like France or Argentina. Ugh! One of the unnoted signs of declining confidence is the increasing prevalence of a nihilistic outlook among the nation’s youth.

Alas, a rather bleak picture. One might argue that America has faced equivalent crises in the past. It was arguably poorer during the Great Depression; probably weaker during the early 1800s; perhaps less free during the Civil War; and likely less self-confident in the mid 1800s leading up to the Civil War. But we never experienced all four phenomena at once as we do now. Has America passed its zenith? Are we in an irreversible path to decline? Has the time for the American experiment expired well before the 500-year expiration date that we traditionally anticipated?

Well to those of us who believe in American exceptionalsim, in the uniqueness of the American experiment in limited government, and that America has been a force for good in the world, the above developments are very dismaying. Our country was founded upon an idea – unlike all the other nations of the Earth whose existences stem from: geography, language, ethnicity, colonialism, religion, tribal identity, etc. The American idea is that free men and women can govern themselves and in so doing be: free, prosperous, strong and at peace. Moreover, our freedom is a natural right, bestowed by Nature or God and not by any government or ruler. Indeed, the government’s main job – in a real sense, its only job – is to secure the rights enumerated in our Constitution by enforcing the laws that express the consent of the governed.
The federal and most state and local governments, with the tacit approval of the people, have been increasingly violating the precepts of the preceding paragraph for several generations. As our Founders envisioned, the result is a country that is poorer, weaker, less free and less confident. The only way to reverse the tide and extend the life span of the American experiment is to reign in the government.
This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at:

Bargaining for Grades: College as a Middle Eastern Bazaar

Student Behavior as a Poor Reflection on Societal Trends

“I … worry about the moral health of our undergraduates.” Thus began an email message that I sent recently to several senior administrators and faculty colleagues on my campus. My email message contained replicas of a slew of messages that poured into my inbox from students in a sophomore-level math class that I taught in the just-concluded spring semester. The incoming messages commenced within hours of my posting the course grades and did not stop for ten days. Just to give the reader a flavor, here are snippets from a few of the offending missives:

I worked really hard in this class and still couldn’t get the grade I was hoping for. Is there any way where my grade can be C-. … Please is there any way. [sic] I studied hard for the final, but the last minute I had a death in the family, and my mom still told me to take the exam the day it was. I thought I was prepared enough to take it, but I had too much going through my head. Please can u do something since I am at a D+. 

I just noticed my final grade for your class, is there any possible way for me to change it? Please let me know.

I was wondering is there any possible way I could receive a C- (passing) for this semester. I know I failed the final but is there anything I can do to show you my knowledge exceeds the 48 [[out of 200]] I received. [sic] Retaking this course will set me a year back in graduating due to the strict scheduling blocks … for engineering. 

In my message, I asserted that “Some students seem to think that the awarding of grades takes place in an arena that is either tantamount to a middle eastern bazaar in which everything is open to negotiation, or a setting in which they are free to make demands purely because it serves their interest to do so.”. Thereby ensued an interesting dialogue – some of whose speculations and conclusions I would like to present here. But first a little context.

Three years ago I retired as Professor of Mathematics at a major state university. However, during my final 11 years, I served as Senior Associate Dean in the so-called College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and as such, I did no teaching during that time. Since my retirement, I have returned to teaching (part-time). Perhaps not surprisingly, I noted that quite a few changes in the instructional environment had occurred over the decade in which I was out of the classroom. Most had to do with the pervasive effects of technological innovation. Numerous aspects of the enterprise – including registration, student-teacher communication, presentation of syllabi and assignments, administration of exams and issuance of grades – had been altered due to the advent of advanced technological capabilities. But the change that most surprised me, and about which we are concerned here, is the unwillingness of too many of today’s students’ to unquestioningly accept the instructor as the ultimate arbiter of their grades. Here is another representative example from the email onslaught:

I thought I had done well, but my final grade in the class is less than I thought it would be. Also, if I did do well on the final, will you please consider raising my grade any bit? I am going to take summer classes to keep a certain GPA, but they are very expensive for out of state students so I want to take as little as possible.

The afore-mentioned dialogue raised two questions: What accounts for this change in student behavior and – presuming it is unwelcome – what can be done about it? Few answers were offered for the second question, but many were suggested for the first. These included: a reflection of how children are raised; emulation of parental behavior; spillover from how people see deals are cut when making major purchases; pressure to always “go for it” and to “maximize options”; being overly task-focused at the expense of seeing the big picture.

While thinking about this behavior and in light of some of the other remarks from colleagues, I compiled a list of eight possible causes of said behavior. I have been contemplating all of them as I focus on methods, which I might employ in the future to encourage students to modify their behavior. But more on that below. First, the causes:

1.      Helicopter Parents. One consequence of parents who advocate incessantly for their children are students who recognize no bounds to self-advocacy.

2.      Family Breakdown. The decay in the structure of the American family is well-documented. A concomitant withering of moral instruction is an obvious consequence.

3.      In Loco Parentis. The university long ago shed its role as a moral instructor of the nation’s youth who are between their parents’ home and their own.

4.      College Cost. The cost of an education is so severely high that every bad grade, which is an impediment to obtaining a degree, is seen as a major obstacle to securing the ticket to increased success and wealth, which, statistics prove, a college degree represents. Thus any failing grade is not only a reflection of poor effort, but also a serious blow to one’s chance at material success.

5.      Teaching to the Test. Official policies that result in instruction and examination based solely on a tool that will purportedly measure the acquired knowledge lead to the following, according to one faculty colleague: “a generation viewing life as a ‘sequence of necessary tasks.’  They are generally willing to do the tasks, but they are a little indifferent as to whether the tasks have meaning. In the case of grades … the students … do not understand what it means to have their work ‘objectively judged’.”

6.      Entitled. We are less a society devoted to personal responsibility than to individual entitlement. Young people are imbued with the idea that they are entitled to a higher education. A failing grade interferes with that entitlement.

7.      Liberty. We are also a society no longer focused in individual liberty, but instead on universal equality. Well if we are all equal and are all to stay equal, then we all ought to receive equally fine grades.

8.      Cultural Heritage. Finally, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, with the change from a relatively uniform Western European heritage into a multicultural society, it may be that the British stiff upper lip is unheard of in vast segments of current American society.

So what might be done about these causes and the unpleasant student behavior that results from them? What can the university do? What can I do? With the possible exception of #3 and #4, these are truly societal or cultural shifts, which the university reflects more than instigates. Regarding #4, there is no question that the cost of a higher education in the US has skyrocketed in recent decades. The university might do something about that, e.g. by: cutting back on bloated administrative staffs; ceasing to build outrageously expensive buildings to house sports or recreational facilities; or by being more selective in supporting the overly extensive academic fields of study that reflect the excessive reach of today’s mega universities.

As for #3, there is again no question that universities have retreated from their historical role – alongside parents and family, church and civic associations, and of course elementary through high school teachers – as molders of the morals of the youth who pass through the portals. Personally, I don’t view this as a healthy trend, but I doubt that it will change anytime soon.

So I am essentially amalgamating #3 in with the remaining six causes, against which I doubt that the university, much less I, will have any influence in the near future. So what shall I do with next year’s students? Well, in the future, on my course web page (which students must consult at the beginning of and throughout the semester), I will explain – as I always have – how the final course grade is determined by a tally that is computed via an explicit formula which comprises scores on in-class exams and quizzes, homework(both written and computer-generated) and the final exam. But I will now also explain in detail that the only way that the grade so formulaically determined can be changed is if either the numerical tally is borderline – meaning specifically within 10% of the cutoff between two grades – or if the final exam score is at least two grades off from the tally. In either event, the deciding factor in determining whether to alter the grade – either up or down – will be completely determined by the quality of the final exam paper that the student writes.

That’s it! No “buts”; no “ifs”; no “special considerations.” Sounds simple and definitive. But alas, as the afore-mentioned colleague pointed out: “Including the narrative may or may not help with the immediate issue; the problem is that the students emailing you believe that the statements in the syllabus are general and do not apply to their ‘unique circumstances’.

The major changes in US society that unleashed the forces, which result in the self-centered and irresponsible student behavior that I have identified, may prove more durable than my feeble attempt to quantify it away. If so, the development does not represent a step forward for the university or for society.


This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative