Monday, September 28, 2009

Yup. Got me.

While researching my doctoral thesis on conspiracy and paranoia, I visited an awful lot of conspiracist websites. The problem with this particular survey was that a significant number of the sites were spoofs or parody of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. And honestly, it was difficult to tell the difference because so many of the genuine sites were actually crazier than the parodies.

So the so-called "Flamer" movement I mentioned in my last post? A spoof. It is one of a number of groups on the left replying to militant anti-health care rhetoric with parodies of its worst excesses. My favourite so far was the "Billionaires for Wealthcare" who attended Glenn Beck's 9/12 rally in Washington, carrying signs saying things like "If we ain't broke, don't fix it" and "Our death panels turn a profit!" They also sang a song to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic, whose refrain went:

If our healthcare corporation
Never faces regulation,
We'll be brimming with elation!
Let's save the status quo!

So, the "Flamers" (really, the name should have tipped me off, but then again the people they're parodying initially embraced the moniker "teabaggers" before someone told them what that actually meant) are of a piece with these guys, responding to the Glenn Becks of the world in what is probably the only rational way.

Of course, when you have people at town halls holding signs like this:

... or white supremacists marching for "white civil rights," that line between satire and reality gets disturbingly blurry.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This week in batshit: a wingnut roundup

Four items to tease you with on this good Saturday. To start, we have what is perhaps the biggest “WTF?” moment I have had in a long time—and after this summer’s batshit insanity masquerading as grassroots protest and Glenn Beck caroming madly between conspiracy theories, that’s saying a lot. Then we have further evidence that Sarah Palin should seriously consider a voicebox-ectomy, a bizarre almost-visitor here on the Rock, and lastly a former Growing Pains star “fixes Darwin.”

Good times.

1. “I’m sorry, you haven’t paid your fees. I’m afraid we have no choice but to let your house burn.”

First there were the Birthers, those people who claim Obama wasn’t born in America. Then the Deathers, who maintain government-run health care will result in “death panels” deciding whether you get treatment or get to die. And then the Tenthers, a group that interprets the Tenth Amendment as meaning that individual states have the right to reject any law issuing from the federal government.

Now, apparently, we have the Flamers. No, they’re not gay Republicans or Calgary fans; they are a group dedicated to, and I quote, “The privatization of everything in America.” That’s right—EVERYTHING. And their nickname? It derives from their favourite project, which is the privatization of firefighting in the United States. Troy Conrad, president, says “I shouldn’t have to pay for your fire.” Firefighting, he maintains—like everything else—should be a for-profit business. “All we know,” he says, “is that the free market always works as long as it’s unregulated. Even if that means a lot of people have got to die, it’s still worth it, because unregulated free market is the way to go.”

Watch him explain his point:

I watched this twice through, trying to figure out if this was just an elaborate hoax. I’m still not entirely sure it’s not, but there seems to be evidence that it’s genuine. They even have their own website, called Angry Town Hall.

I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.

What is perhaps weirdest about this for me is that one of the best arguments for U.S. government-run health care I read this summer, and one of the best debunking of the “socialist” accusation, was an op-ed piece pointing to government takeover of fire prevention in the mid-nineteenth century. Fire-fighting was, once upon a time, run on a private for-profit basis. The government finally stepped in because, besides the catastrophic damage that predictably occurred when fires raged in poor and hence unprofitable parts of cities, there were increasing numbers of suspicious fires occurring, as well as firemen standing idle until the property owners agreed to pay a much steeper fee.

2. Sarah Barracuda hits the lecture circuit

For an undisclosed fee probably in the hundreds of thousands, Sarah Palin delivered a talk to a group of investors in Hong Kong. Apparently, she spoke for about ninety minutes, the very thought of which makes my head hurt. I would pay a lot of money to not have to listen to her.

The lecture was closed to the media, but a few enterprising souls discreetly recorded it. I haven’t read the full transcript, but here’s a small sample of Palinese to make you nostalgic for the 2008 campaign trail:

"Personally, I’ve always been really interested in the ideas too about the land bridge. Ideas that maybe so long ago, had allowed Alaska to be physically connected to this part of our world so many years ago. My husband and my children, they’re part [unintelligible] Eskimo, Alaskan natives. They’re our first people, and the connection that may have brought ancestors from here to there is fascinating to me. Making our world seem a little bit smaller, more united, to consider that connection that allowed sharing of peoples and bloodlines and wildlife and flora and fauna, that connection to me is quite fascinating."

Ah, there’s the lyrical nonsense I’ve been missing. If only we could get William Shatner to do a spoken word performance of this one too.

The best part of the speech however was where she, with laserlike precision, identified the site and source of last year’s economic collapse: "I'm going to call it like I see it and I will share with you candidly a view right from Main Street, Main Street U.S.A. ... We got into this mess because of government interference in the first place. We're not interested in government fixes, we're interested in freedom.” Ah, I see. The meltdown happened because of overregulation.

Yes. Yes, this is truly the person Americans want representing them to the biggest creditor. Wise move. She should get together with the flamer guy. They would have a lot to talk about.

3. Put ‘im on Signal Hill, I says!

For a little while there, it looked like Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was going to be stopping over in St. John’s for a night as his plane refuelled. Alas, it is no longer to be—he has cancelled all the reservations for his one-hundred-plus retinue. Why, I couldn’t say. It might have something to do with not wanting to be chastised by our foreign affairs minister, who was going to fly to St. John’s specifically to upbraid him for giving a hero’s welcome to the Lockerbie bomber.

My theory is that there was a problem with the tent. One of the interesting factoids that has surfaced this week while Qaddafi was in New York is that when travelling he brings his own Bedouin tent to sleep in. He had difficulty finding somewhere to pitch it in New York—apparently no one wanted him in their back yard—and there was discussion of where he would set up camp in St. John’s. As a friend of mine observed, “A tent? In Newfoundland in autumn? It’s like a ready-made CODCO skit."

I don’t think the cancellation was because of the planned rebuke. I think he just found out what the Newfoundland climate is.

The worst part of this saga is that I now have a mental image of Qaddafi pitching a tent, and that’s just not something I want in my head.

4. Darwin=Hitler. Who knew?

And lastly, everyone’s favourite child-actor-turned-evangelical Kirk Cameron is, with the assistance of his friend Ray Comfort (known as the Banana Man), publishing Darwin’s Origin of the Species and distributing it to students ... with a new fifty-page introduction, that is. This introduction outlines “the history of evolution, a timeline of Darwin’s life, Adolf Hitler’s undeniable connection with the theory, Darwin’s racism, his disdain for women, and Darwin’s thoughts on the existence of God.” Um, what? Hitler’s what with the what? Obviously, I need to get my hands on a copy of this. I have missed a crucial historical narrative apparently, in which Hitler travels back in time and forces Darwin to write Origin between his athetistic race-baiting and misogyny. So much I have still to learn.

Incidentally, the official Nazi line on evolution was that the Aryan race crashed fully formed on Earth frozen in a comet. But they were down with everyone else coming from apes. Which, when you think about it, totally confirms Kirk’s thesis.

That boy needs to learn about the logical fallacy called the “reduction ad Hitlerum.” But let him make his case himself:

I love the bit where he says, “All we want to do is present the opposing and correct view, without being censored ... which is exactly the case at present.” All I have to say to that is: Um, atheistic censor bureau? Can you please get your shit together? Obviously, you’re not doing a good enough job.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Raise a glass to Arthur

My parents are currently touring Ireland, and are fortunate enough to be there during the celebrations of Guiness' 250th anniversary. They wrote me an email to remind me that today is the day, and that I must raise a glass of the blonde in the black skirt to mark the occasion.

Well, I suppose if I must, I must...

As long as I'm on the subject of all things Irish, I should mention in passing that last week U2 played in Toronto and I WASN'T THERE. Kristen was, as well as a significant number of other friends of mine, but there was no way I was getting away in the first week of classes, alas.

I'm rather happy that U2 is touring while my parents are in Ireland, because my parents are exactly the sort of people who would wander into a small pub in Dublin and befriend the four guys having a quiet pint, and later tell me "They were all very nice, even the guy in the sunglasses. He wouldn't shut up about Africa. They said they were all in a band. Have you heard of them?"

Weekly Wisdom

"Alas, irreverence has been subsumed by mere grossness, at least in the so-called mass media. What we have now--to quote myself at my most pretentious--is a nimiety of scurrility with a concomitant exiguity of taste. For example, the freedom (hooray!) to say almost anything you want on television about society's problems has been co-opted (alas!) by the freedom to talk instead about flatulence, orgasms, genitalia, masturbation, etc., etc., and to replace real comment with pop-culture references and so-called "adult" language. Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."

--Tom Lehrer

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Damn, I spilled my sherry on my research …

Oh, Margaret Wente …

Yup, she’s yet again taking aim at the contemporary Canadian academy, and applying the trademarked Wente rhetorical strategy—namely, cherry-picking one or two anecdotal incidents or observations and expounding from them to a broad generalization of outrage.

In this case, it’s the fact that professors, apparently, don’t teach. She cites the fact that today’s undergraduate experience tends to involve large, if not massive classes, often “taught by itinerant graduate students” rather than professors. “Classes are held in giant amphitheatres,” she continues, “with multiple-choice tests instead of essay questions.” She goes on to observe that the dropout rate of undergraduates it at an “all-time high,” with 30 percent bailing after the first year and only 56 percent finishing after six years.

This much is undeniably, and unfortunately, true. I could go further and point to the fact that the balance of teaching, especially crucial introductory courses, is now done not by full-time professors (or even itinerant graduate students) but by part-time and contractual faculty who have few benefits, no job security, and often don’t know what or how much they’ll be teaching—and hence how they’ll support themselves financially—until mere weeks before classes start. The ratio of courses taught by sessional faculty to full-time is usually around two to one, sometimes three to one. This is a situation that has been worsening for many years now as budgets get cut and departments are increasingly told to do more with less, with predictable ripple effects within among our student populations.

This has, indeed, become one of the Gordian knots of the academy both here and in the U.S., much puzzled and fretted over at all levels of the university. There are a host of reasons why we have arrived at this impasse, none of them reducible to a simple set of causes. However, never one to let complexity or nuance dissuade her from an outraged generalization, Ms. Wente sums up the site and source of the problems as follows:

“The universities say the problem is money. If only they had more of it, they could do a better job of educating undergraduates. There's just one catch. Educating undergraduates is just about the last thing most professors want to do.”

Huh. As it happens, I’m writing this on a break from preparing the three classes I’m teaching tomorrow, which all together total about one hundred and thirty students. Two of them are first year classes, one the standard first-year English that every student at MUN has to take, and the other an advanced composition course. I’m also teaching my usual twentieth-century U.S. fiction class, which this year is necessitating a lot more work because I decided to teach all novels I’ve never taught before, in an effort to keep the material fresh.

And however much I might complain about aspects of teaching, this is to my mind the best part of my job. I love teaching undergraduate courses. Now, of course, that’s just me—but honestly, I have met very few professors, either here at Memorial or at my time at Western, or in the larger peer circle of Canadian academia, who have not taken undergraduate teaching seriously and devoted much time and energy to providing their students with the best instruction they can. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they are just that—exceptions. And I take exception to Ms. Wente’s attempt to invert the ratio of this rule. To hear her speak, we all would rather bury ourselves in our research and ignore the undergraduate populations of our campuses entirely.

In true cherry-picking fashion, she supports her claims with a quotation from a U of Manitoba professor: “‘My colleagues do everything they can to get out of teaching,’ says Rod Clifton, who works in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba. ‘They'd rather not have the students around, because they'd rather do research and stand around and sip sherry.’” Ah, the indolence of research, which apparently occurs during booze-soaked mixers in the faculty lounge. The fact that neither I nor my colleagues drink sherry notwithstanding, I’m not sure whether Dr. Clifton’s comment is meant to be facetious or intellectually dishonest; either way, it doesn’t bode well, in the absence of other evidence, for Ms. Wente’s argument.*

If professors’ reluctance to teach is the principal stumbling-block to a quality undergraduate education, its partner in crime is the research that preoccupies them and takes them away from the classroom: “Professors are rewarded not for turning out high-quality graduates, but for turning out books and papers – even if they are unread. This perverse system stubbornly persists, despite the fact that everyone knows it's absurd.” While generously granting that “some research,” useful, specifically in science and medicine, Ms. Wente effectively dismisses everything produced in the humanities. “Nobody,” she states, is “clamouring for another book on Moby-Dick.” I suppose this is true enough, as far as it goes; and it is hard to deny that the research requirements now leveled on professors are far more onerous than back in the halcyon days when Ms. Wente was an undergrad, when “classes were small and many of our professors were creative and enthusiastic,” to the point where “some of them were happy to hang around with us drinking coffee, smoking dope and arguing about Blake and life.”**

What this dismissal of research in the humanities misses is something crucial to the nature of the university itself. If teaching the Great Books and chewing the fat about Blake and Life, the Universe, and Everything were all that were involved, it hardly seems necessary to demand of professors the accreditation of a PhD. What research is largely about, whether the articles and books produced are read or not, is demonstration of an engaged and enthusiastic mind that didn’t freeze at the moment of the thesis’ defense. Part of the philosophy behind the university as a whole is that individual professors’ research make them better and more relevant teachers to both the undergraduate and graduate students.

Incidentally, this point was made today much more eloquently in the Globe and Mail by Clifford Orwin, a political science professor at U of T. He writes, “my teaching depends on that research. To teach is to communicate enthusiasm for learning, and what sustains that enthusiasm is continuing to learn yourself. It's also to set an example of progress to nourish in your students the hope that they too can contribute to progress. No, not all research done at universities is valuable. The surprise is how much of it is.”

I’ll end this post by observing that I’ve come to the conclusion that every time Margaret Wente is at a loss for something to whinge about, she pens an anti-university column. It seems to happen two or three times a year, and I’d really like her to make up her mind. Are we ivory-tower mandarins locked into cultural irrelevance? Or are we providers of pop-culture dreck who siphon off unwarranted federal research funds in our ongoing quest to bury the Great Books under layers of obfuscatory “theory”? Are we cheating our students of the great lessons of civilization by denying them those Great Books? Or are we cheating our students futures by not steering them into math and science and away from the irrelevant humanities? All these are variations on themes I have read in her columns, and taken together it becomes something of an inchoate but intense dislike that, I think, makes a little more sense if you read the opening paragraph of yesterday’s column. I’ve already quoted part of it, but here it is in its entirety:

“I went to university back in the golden age. Our classes were small and many of our professors were creative and enthusiastic. They even marked our papers themselves. There was lots of scope for what is now known as ‘engagement,’ which means that although we were undergraduates, some of them were happy to hang around with us drinking coffee, smoking dope and arguing about Blake and life.”

Nostalgia is a treacherous thing, for it distorts not only our memory of the past but our perception of the present. It makes me wonder if Ms. Wente so dislikes what she sees in the present academy because she resents that contemporary students don’t get this sort of experience … or because they do, but in her mind it could never rival that “golden age” (itself a deeply problematic concept that I would challenge her on, were she my student). What she describes in this passage is not at all a relic, but still something that many, many undergraduate students experience today (pot-smoking professors and all). Perhaps instead of Blake, they’re talking about Foucault, or Kathy Acker, or Quentin Tarantino. Or maybe even Blake, why not? Whatever she may believe, her idyllic university experience has not yet passed from this earth.

*Incidentally, were she to submit this column as an essay in my advanced composition class, I would grant it a C+ largely on the strength of being reasonably well written and possessing a clearly stated thesis; this recourse to a single piece of anecdotal evidence however fails utterly to make the connection to the statistics cited earlier in the piece or to persuasively account for them. I would call this a fallacy of insufficient inductive reasoning.

**Given the general capriciousness of Margaret Wente’s antipathy to the academy, I would lay bets that if there were a sudden rash of socializing dope-smoking profs hanging out in coffee shops with impressionable students, we’d be seeing a column on (a) inappropriate professorial behaviour, (b) evidence that professors are lazy and not earning their salaries, or (c) “THIS is where students’ tuition dollars are getting them?” Take your pick.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nice one, Sacha. Less believable that Borat, though

There’s a metaphysical question that has been plaguing me for months now, akin to the age-old unanswerable poser dealing with angels, pinheads, and dancing. Every time I think I’ve arrived at an answer, something new happens to throw all reason and rationality into disarray.

My question is this: Is it possible for Glenn Beck to be MORE of a jackass?

Seriously, he has redefined conservative demagoguery ... and by redefined, I mean made it so inchoate, self-contradictory and, well, batshit insane, that it would function as a parody of the whole genre if it weren’t taken seriously by a scary number of people.

But it was the word “parody” that set off the light bulb, and gave me the blinding epiphany that finally answered the haunting question.

I suddenly realized. Glenn Beck isn’t real. He’s a character being played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Wow. I mean, wow ... nicely played, sir. First Ali G, then Borat, then BrĂ¼no. But this one takes the prize, it really does. Kudos.

But, um, don’t you think you’ve taken this one a little bit too far by now?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In praise of minority

Call me a sentimental fool, but I think the wisest observation ever made about democracy was Winston Churchill’s famous declaration that it is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others.

None of the political wisdom and scholarship I have encountered in my life has managed to sum up so neatly the constant frustration with the venality, posturing, graft, waste, and partisan hackery of liberal democracy and the inescapable fact that the vast majority of us wouldn’t trade it for anything. Is democracy messy? Yes. Inefficient? Yes. These two elements alone make frustration with government and contempt for politicians the third and fourth constants in life after death and taxes. Which is why I’m generally willing to cut politicians a little slack for their failings, if for no other reason than those very failings are more or less inevitable on some level, unavoidable by-products of a political system based on horse-trading and compromise. Max Weber wasn’t exaggerating when he observed that one attempts to effect political solutions to social problems at nothing less than the cost of one’s own soul.

All this is apropos of our current shifting political landscape, or what we more commonly call a minority government. Rick Salutin had a column in the Globe last weekend in which he gently chided those complaining about the possibility of a fall election: “In a vital democracy, like ancient Athens or the Iroquois confederacy, people were involved in politics continually. Under our system, politics more or less equals elections, so you could call frequent elections our form of participatory democracy. It keeps citizens engaged and parties on their toes.” He then asks whether we’d have seen even the “minimal action” Harper has made on the economy or Afghanistan if the Tories had a majority.

Would I be happier with the Conservatives out of power? Absolutely. But a Harper minority is in a variety of ways preferable to a Liberal supermajority, for the simple reason that it tends to prevent complacency and the insufferable arrogance and tone-deafness that finally brought down the Liberals and would be worse (I believe) by a magnitude under a Harper majority. To keep his party in power, Harper has been forced to make all sorts of progressive concessions that would be unthinkable with a majority, and in response to Ignatieff’s saber-rattling he is floating concessions on EI spending in an attempt to garner NDP and Bloc support.

I love this for two reasons, one petty and one idealistic. The petty reason is that it puts egg on Harper’s face, who around this time last year was condemning the Liberals’ willingness to work with “socialists and separatists.” My, how the wheel turns.

The other reason is that I believe this is how it’s supposed to work. The whole point of having ideologically opposed political parties is to have them act as checks and balances on the other and mitigate their excesses. Would I prefer to have Prime Minister Ignatieff? Probably. But a Stephen Harper forced to reach to Iggy’s left will do nicely for the time being, thank you very much.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Atlas shrugs; Chris yawns

One of the interesting and irritating things I’ve seen as a northern spectator on American politics since Obama’s election is the re-injection of Ayn Rand into conservative discourse. Rand’s militantly individualist philosophy of objectivism has animated many of the arguments against the stimulus (significantly, the Obama version far more that Bush’s), and when the teabaggers have managed to complete full sentences, there has frequently been a Randian flavour to their protests. And now the prospect of “socialized” health care has resurrected the ghost of John Galt to argue against any legislation that aids the heavier and undeserving segments of society’s pyramids.

Jonathan Chait has an excellent article in The New Republic discussing two new biographies of Rand. He offers some excellent analyses of Rand’s particular brand of philosophy, but also puts his finger on what is the biggest flaw in her celebration of individual accomplishment and excellence: namely, that income is the purest denominator of success, and that “elite” in the Rand vocabulary is invariably synonymous with “business elite.” It is as if, quips Matthew Yglesias, “an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of [the] ubermenschen.”

I had not, I must admit, read much Rand until recently. During my undergrad I read one of her lesser novels (Anthem) and imbibed enough of her philosophy to be entirely turned off; during the writing of my dissertation I had the entertaining experience of reading her Screen Guide for Americans, a guidebook she wrote for the Motion Picture Alliance that offered advice on how to detect, identify, and avoid communist influence in films (truly, a page turner, especially if you don’t quite understand how Frank Capra and Henry Fonda were raging Reds). I have lately been working (slogging) my way through Atlas Shrugged at the behest of a student who, as a Rand enthusiast, quite rightly suggested that if I wanted to mock Rand I should put my money where my mouth is and read what is considered her masterpiece.

So far? Unimpressed. I can see where the narrative is going, and while the celebration of personal accomplishment is always commendable, Rand’s philosophy is relentlessly bloodless and isolating. Putting aside for the moment the fallacy of making an absolute connection between income and excellence, Rand’s particular brand of individualism is so relentlessly militant it is anathema to any form or incarnation of community. Anything that impinges upon individual accomplishment—any obligation that individual has to other people, ethically or otherwise—Rand rejects as the leading edge of collective mediocrity eroding the heroic individual.

I suppose it’s because my own conception of “great accomplishment” tends to lean more toward the civic or political, or triumphs of the imagination creative or empirical—in general, accomplishment that presupposes the value of community and social contract, and the need to contribute to it—that makes Rand’s John Galts and Howard Roarks compelling but ultimately hollow for me. Shakespeare wasn’t a millionaire and Mozart died a pauper, after all, and as far as "accomplishment" goes, I'd put them ahead of Nelson Rockerfeller any day.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A new year, or An open letter to students stumbling across this blog

Don’t worry, I’m not slipping back into lax blogging habits—Kristen was here for the last ten days, so I was on vacation from everything, blogging included. Of course, today is Labour Day and classes begin for me on Thursday, so I’m looking down the barrel of what I need to get done and starting to sweat a little.

Or, well, I should be starting to sweat a little, but the day is making it difficult. It is bright and sunny and cloudless, but there is a little bite in the air that speaks of autumn. This is, and has been for as long as I can remember, my favourite time of year. I love the sense of renewal and hope the new school year tends to bring, like untouched snow or a blank piece of paper. I’ve always felt like this in September, even during the dark years of teenage angst when school was a trial and a burden. For a few weeks I could imagine it would be otherwise, and then one day—in my last year of high school—it was, and university proved an even better and more rewarding experience.

In the New York Times today there is a collection of advice for new university and college students written by such academic luminaries as Stanley Fish, Harold Bloom and Martha Nussbaum. Should any students happen across this blog looking for info about your English prof this fall, I highly recommend it—as well as anyone else who stumbles into my humble little spot on the InterTubes here. There’s some good advice there, especially that of Gerald Graff, Gary Wills and Nussbaum. Harold Bloom’s advice to discover the Great Books is near to my heart, but try not to be turned off by his high-handedness.

Also, Carol Berkin’s bit about how not to alienate your professor is a bit of wisdom to write down on the first page of all your notebooks. Seriously. Write it down and commit it to memory.

Seeing as how the Times was remiss in not asking me for my own wisdom on starting your university career (obviously, some wires were crossed somewhere), I’ll share here what I used to tell students about to start at the University of Western Ontario, my alma mater. When I was in the final stages of my doctorate and teaching as a sessional professor, I also worked as an advisor to students enrolled in the Media, Information and Technoculture degree. Before talking to them one on one, I addressed them as a group and said (more or less) the following:

One of my favourite professors during my undergraduate degree was fond of saying that university was your last opportunity to fail magnificently. What he meant by this was that these coming years are your time to try out new things—new ideas, new ways of thinking, new modes of yourself—and to put who you are to the test. You should not be afraid of failure, because we learn more from failing magnificently than succeeding blandly. Many go into their degree knowing exactly what they want to do and be, and find themselves suddenly discovering that they were wrong—that that degree in physics, or business, or pre-law, or political science, or yes, even English, was not for them. At all.

This of course doesn’t happen to everyone. Many, if not most, cheerfully soldier on through with little existential angst. To a certain extent, that is unfortunate—a little existential angst in your early twenties is a rite of passage, and good for the soul. When and if it happens, remember the old adage that no crisis should ever be wasted, and strike out in different directions (just as Martha Nussbaum suggests in the Times)

I am somewhat more hesitant to encourage my students to fail magnificently then was my own professor, not least because in the face of ever-rising tuition and a tenuous world economy, such advice is costly at best and frivolous at worst. But its spirit is always sound, for it speaks to that greatest of human virtues: curiosity. If I have any one piece of advice, it is this: be curious.

(It is serendipitous that my last Weekly Wisdom quotation was on this very subject).

Speaking as an educator, there is nothing more soul-destroying than apathetic, indifferent and incurious students. University is a time of discovery and exploration, whatever your degree. It is an inescapable fact that the student who muddles through with a C average, having done the bare minimum and cared nothing for anything more than is necessary to pass, gets the same degree as the student who works hard and finishes with an A. There are those who hold up this fact as evidence of a bachelor degree’s fatuity, but those are the same students who mistake a degree for the piece of paper they get at the end.

University is process, not product. It is transformational: I see this every year when the light bulb goes off for students and some idea or philosophy or author or school of thought changes everything. It is also not for everyone—some people find comparable transformative experiences travelling or working or going to college. Being open to those possibilities however, to any possibilities, is the start of wisdom.

So be curious. Ask questions. And I’ll see you in class on Thursday.