Tag Archives: students

Continuing Important Conversations

There is a Yiddish word that describes how I feel when former students take discussions started in class and extend and elaborate on them: “kvelling.” The closest English translation is probably “taking extreme pride in something.”

I found myself “kvelling” when Matt Greenwood, a former student, contacted me about a blog he was launching; he calls it “Politicology” (which is, I admit, a mouthful). Why the name?

I named this blog Politicology because it will focus on political theories. Living in a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, and when the very language of political discourse has become barriers to civil and fruitful conversations, I feel political theorists have much to contribute.

Matt proposes to address issues of media literacy and the various attempts underway to explain American polarization–as he puts it, to “get to the core ideological differences underlying the controversies of our day.”

As stated in the Politicology mission statement the approach taken in this blog is that of being evidence-driven, non-partisan, and objective. However, it does not make one partisan to comment on how one party breaks democratic norms with greater intent and regularity than another. In fact, it would be irresponsible to disregard truth in the pursuit of balance and false equivalency.

Unlike this blog, which peppers your email in-boxes with daily rants, Matt proposes to post a thoughtful disputation once a month. I encourage you to visit.

Matt was certainly one of my better students, but I have been surprised and gratified by the recent enthusiasm of undergraduate students for political philosophy–and by their engagement with the political system. Our Student Services counselors tell me that the number of graduate students focusing on public policy has also increased substantially.

The apparent reason for these extremely positive changes in student behavior is concern over the democratic institutions of our country–and a recognition of the dangers posed by ignorance and racial and religious animosities.

A few years ago, I developed a class in political philosophy titled “Individual Rights and The Common Good.” It was an exploration of the roots of American constitutionalism, and the inevitable conflict between individual liberty and what the Founders called “popular passions.” It was originally offered every other year, and until last year,  I think the largest enrollment was 15 or so. (It isn’t a required class.)

I’m teaching it again this year, and I have 25 students. Not only that, they are engaged–class discussions are lively, and–importantly–civil; and students “get into” the readings, which begin with Aristotle, and go through Locke, Mill and other Enlightenment figures, and include some pretty dense contemporary writers, including Rawls and his critics, before we consider how that philosophy applies to current constitutional debates.

If we can just keep the ship of state afloat until this generation takes over, I think we’ll be fine.

Go take a look at my former student’s blog!


The Kids Are All Right

I routinely apologize to my graduate students for my generation, and the mess we’ve made of the world we’re leaving them. I tell them that it will be up to their generation to clean that mess up, and generally speaking, I find most of them up to the task. Unlike people who wring their hands and bemoan the state of “today’s youth”–a practice that began with Socrates’ Athens, if I’m not mistaken–I find the students who populate my classes to be, on balance, thoughtful, fair-minded, evidence-based and public-spirited. They give me hope that they really will improve our common institutions.

Of course, these are graduate students I’m talking about, and self-selected ones at that. So it was interesting to get an email from my sister, who created and runs the art program at Sycamore School here in Indianapolis, about one of her eighth graders.

In my eighth grade class, my students are to keep a notebook.  Each week, I hand out a quote or comment or question about art, and they must respond.  One week, the question was, “Is there any time when art, no matter how well done, should not be displayed?”

Today as I was grading the notebooks, I came across this answer, which I thought might interest you.  (I could show you notebooks that would blow your mind!)
“No, I think blasphemy and profanity are only ever taken down by less enlightened people.  Enlightenment comes from not having a perfect society.  By not allowing both the good and the bad of living, true intellect is unobtainable..”
John Stuart Mill would be proud of this kid. He has figured out what the nation’s founders knew, but so many of our would-be contemporary censors still can’t seem to grasp–the proper response to bad speech is more and better speech–not suppression. Only when all ideas are available for examination can we ever hope to distinguish between truth and falsity.

Why Cynicism is Growing

I’ve been distressed by the growing cynicism of the students I teach–a cynicism about the motives of those in business and public life that has seemed to grow over the past few years. There have always been a few who sneered that “public service” was an oxymoron, who believed that given the chance, everyone would demonstrate greed and disregard for others, but most students were more charitable in their judgments.

Still, as I detailed in my book “Distrust, American Style,” we’ve seen a lot of corrupt institutional behavior over the past couple of decades. Enron, WorldCon, the various scandals in major-league sports, the Catholic Church’s cover-up to protect pedophile priests, the Bush Administration’s assaults on civil liberties and its dishonest case for war in Iraq–there has been plenty of reason for cynicism and distrust. While I’m sure similar examples have existed throughout our history,  the growth of Facebook and Twitter and blogs has brought news of the misbehavior to many more people than might previously have known what was going on.

Student cynicism began to grow more pronounced around the time we headed into the Great Recession, as the public learned much more about the behaviors and compensation levels of the “banksters.” (Rhymes with gangsters….). The widely publicized emergence of SuperPacs funded by corporations intent upon protecting  favorable tax rates and corporate welfare hasn’t helped.

This morning’s news provides two examples, noteworthy only because they’ve become utterly commonplace.

The first example–Brian Bosma’s appointment of a lobbyist with his law firm as parliamentarian–prompted this editorial language from the Indianapolis Star:

Whetstone is coming back to work for Speaker Brian Bosma as the House parliamentarian, even though he will continue to work with the lobbying firm of Krieg DeVault LLP. Whetstone has pledged not to lobby the legislature during his employment as parliamentarian, a job that pays $12,000 a month through the legislative sesion.

Whetstone says Krieg DeVault holds itself to the highest ethical standards. Even so, there’s a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one. As parliamentarian, Whetstone will advise the House Speaker on rules challenges and other procedural questions that arise. What happens if he’s asked to weigh in on a challenge that would affect legislation supported by one of his former clients, or by clients of other lobbyists working for Krieg DeVault?

The second was a report that the executives who took Hostess into bankruptcy and blamed that decision on “greedy unions” unwilling to take yet another round of pay cuts even while those executives tripled their own compensation have petitioned the bankruptcy court to approve the payment of their bonuses as part of the court-supervised demise of the business. (There’s a yiddish word for this: chutzpah.)

When the daily news consists of little but reports of self-dealing and ethical obtuseness, of evidence that politicians continue to put special interests above the national interest, how can I fault the students who assume that the whole world works that way?