Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Universities in Trouble"

Andrew Delbanco is an astute observer of the contemporary scene. Here, describing a talk he gave recently at an urban community college, he nails the present crisis in higher education:

Those who asked questions—ranging from a West Indian immigrant to a native New Englander—were astute and attuned to Lincoln's struggle to reconcile his personal animus against slavery with his constraining sense of executive responsibility, to his changing views on the question of racial equality, and, above all, to his effort to defend and extend the idea of equal opportunity as the essential American promise. When I read aloud Lincoln's words that "the leading object of government is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life," there was much nodding—not of the type that signifies the onset of sleep, but the type that expresses assent.

I came away that day—the college is facing severe budget cuts—with a painful sense of disjunction between rising hope and declining opportunity. I was reminded that we have in this country a highly stratified system of education in which "merit" is the ubiquitous slogan but disparity of opportunity is often the reality. Even with our best efforts, this fact is not likely to change fundamentally anytime soon. Indeed, the financial crisis has made it harder to change. But as we consider the future of the nation, which surely depends more than ever on an educated citizenry, it will be of great importance to keep in mind a point too little acted on during the boom years but now undeniable and urgent. John Adams put it succinctly some 225 years ago: "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it."

"So far away"

(13 billion years away, in fact) posted to "Up@dawn"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Clock of the Long Now"

I noted in a recent post the unfortunate trend among youngsters to say they expect a bleak future (at best) for humans on this planet.

The Long Now Foundation's Millennium Clock project is designed to rescue us all from the blinders of short-term thinking, and to encourage its hopeful opposite. Novelist Michael Chabon:

When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations.But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children.

And, having them, how you can indulge the attitude of despair. Let's wind that clock.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I don't think of myself (or my siblings) as orphans, but I suppose it's technically accurate. Just over a year ago in April, my mother died. Less than five months later my father passed away. They had both declined rapidly near the end, but Dad's terminal diagnosis came at about the time of Mom's passing and he remained relatively stable through the summer - which thus became a time of sober, sorrowful reflection, but also mutually conscious, affectionate parting. It was with special interest and sympathy, then, that I read the NY Times Magazine cover story yesterday:

Chris Buckley: My mother and father died within 11 months of each other in 2007 and 2008. I do realize that “orphan” sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age 55, but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the 800 or more condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn’t, until about the seventh or eighth reference, thought of myself as an “orphan.”
Now you’re an orphan. . . . I know the pain myself of being an orphan. . . . You must feel so lonely, being an orphan. . . . When I became an orphan it felt like the earth dropping out from under me. . . . A certain chill began to encroach, until I was jolted out of my thousand-yard stare by an e-mail message from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I’d written that I was headed off to Arizona for some R and R: “May your orphanhood be tanned.”

One realization does dawn upon the death of the second parent, namely that you’ve now moved into the green room to the River Styx. You’re next. Another thing about parental mortality: No matter how much you’ve prepared for the moment, when it comes, it comes at you hot, hard and unrehearsed.

He's right. It's a different universe, the parentless one. I'm not sure I can yet say all that it means to me, to have lost both parents last year. But I think I'm ready to begin trying. Stay tuned.

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Posted to Up@dawn

Friday, April 24, 2009


NPR's reprised series is too earnest and self-important for some people, but not for me. I just caught up this morning with this stirring segment that aired originally last year:

An Optimistic View of the World

As heard on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, February 17, 2008.

Watch Dan Tani recording his essay in space

Like many people, I have a job that requires me to take a business trip every now and then. I'm on one right now. As I write this, I'm flying over New Zealand; it looks so beautiful out the window. Unlike most people, however, I'm traveling over 200 miles above the Earth, and I'm going 17,500 miles an hour.

When I look down, I am stunned by the intense colors of the Earth, the intricate patterns and textures, and sheer beauty of our home planet. When I watch the Earth roll by, I realize I believe in optimism.

It would be hard to believe that there is no hope for Earth from up here. The International Space Station is a collaboration of 16 nations—and one of our primary partners was our sworn enemy only a few decades ago. The space station itself is the embodiment of where we can go as a global society.

My own optimism is rooted in two very different ideas: statistical probability and trust.

First, I accept the statistical probability that I am not likely to be killed by a terrorist or contract some horrible disease. It's not that I think that everything will work out okay; it's that I think that everything will probably work out okay.

And second, trust. I learned trust from my mother, and in a way this essay is for her. Two months ago, while I was up here, she died in an accident and of course I have been unable to return to honor her. I have been thinking about her life, which was not an easy one. She was born into poverty, forcibly relocated during World War II, survived the premature deaths of her husband and a son—and yet, her outlook was so life-affirming. She felt that people were good and well-meaning. Sometimes I felt that she trusted too easily, and I was afraid that that stranger she talked to on the street or the airplane might not be as nice as she thought. But I was almost always proven wrong, and I'm so grateful for her example.

I came to believe, like her, that most people want to live their lives without conflict. They care about the other people in their house, their neighborhood, their country, and their planet.

I am an astronaut, and I cannot imagine doing what I'm doing, seeing what I'm seeing, and not being an optimist. We climb aboard extremely complex machines which hurl us into space, and we have to trust that every engineer, every technician, and every manager has done their job, and that we have a high statistical probability of success.

And once we are here, we get to look back and see the Earth as a thing of stunning beauty. Of course, I know there are awful things going on down there, that people are in pain, wars are raging, poverty and hunger are taking far too many lives—but from here, I can only see the whole.

I wish that everyone could see the world from my perspective; I believe that more people would be optimistic about our future.

Dan Tani served as flight engineer on the International Space Station where he conducted four space walks. He joined NASA as an astronaut candidate in 1996. Tani was raised in Lombard, Ill., by his mother, and now lives with his wife and children in Houston.

See a slide show of Dan Tani's photographs of the Earth from space.

"Rise and shine"

The world will little note nor long remember the creation of yet another blog, especially in the Twitter era (have I exceeded my limit yet?)... but it might do me some good. Or not!

For better or worse, then, and inspired by a colleague whose "UP@NIGHT" blog I admire but whose night-owl predilection I do not share, I'm launching a new blog called Up@dawn. There I'll post only morning thoughts. I'm thinking of it as an experiment - and frankly as another alarm clock. I've prospered in the past, under the discipline of a regular ante-meridian appointment with myself at the keyboard.

So from now on, take it as read that what you find in this space has been drafted in the fullness of daylight, if not always in a state of full wakefulness . My earliest conscious musings will be deposited at the other place.

Not that any of us has time to read all this stuff anyway... but we can still write it. Right?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I have a bumper sticker on my car: "Evolve - every day is Earth Day." It's a message of hope. A better, cleaner, safer world inhabited by evolved, evolving humans who care deeply about the conditions of life for themselves and their progeny is imaginable. But we must not be content merely to dream it. The inestimable Wendell Berry says if we care about creating a livable future we must "give all to the present."

And so, it's very sad to learn that man
y young people say they're presently hopeless. That's what Earth Day can and must address: the need to give children authentic grounds for hope. "Yes we can" etc. Just as Al Gore says political will is a renewable resource, so is a spirit of hopefulness. Expect the worst, hope for the best, Berry says:

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

And consider the fact that our own hopeful disposition, even in the teeth of disappointment and setback, may be one of the conditions of ultimate success.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lachs Lyceum: Critics for Hire

A student who lives a literal stone's throw from the recent tornado's path of destruction brought pictures today. They were stunning and sobering. The world of humanly-engendered upheaval seems to pale by comparison.

But that's where we live most of the time, and so it was heartening to be on the receiving end of a marvelous pep-talk from the incomparable John Lachs, at the first of our department's annual Lyceum lectures. Lachs reminded us:

Teaching the young involves activities that pull in different directions: the culture’s practices and values must be handed on, but they must also be criticized and suitably revised. In doing the former, teachers act as servants of the past, giving a favorable account of the fruits of long experience. In doing the latter, they labor for the future, presenting ideas for how our practices can be improved. The first activity is centered on sketching the geography of what exists and explaining the rules governing it; the second is about the ways the possible can bring improvement to the actual. The first without the second yields stagnation, the second without the first creates chaos. When properly related, the two preserve what is of value from the past even as they encourage active dreaming about a better future.

We are transmitters of what John Dewey called "the inherited resources of the race," but we're also instigators and subversives (or, less provocatively but no less crucially, ameliorators). That's in our job description:

Tenure in universities and colleges was instituted largely to protect faculty members in their vital activity of offering unpopular possibilities to their students, to administrators and to the public at large. Some may think that tenure confers on faculty members a right to speak and on institutions a collateral obligation not to fire them for the views they hold as professionals. This, however, is only a part of the story. The right conferred carries with it a duty: faculty members are not only permitted to speak their minds without retaliation, they must do so. By extending tenure, an institution of higher education hires critics and pledges to pay them for the trouble they give. Those who do not present possibilities constituting at least tacit criticisms of the status quo fail to meet the conditions of their employment.

So we'll continue to rattle the cages of those who would terminate our instigating mission, but we'll do it with a bit less trepidation than last week. Thank you, John. We needed that.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Not-Good Friday

Natural events eclipsed the human tempest (threatened department merger or elimination) my colleagues and I have been preoccupied with lately. A young mother and her 9-week old infant lost their lives and home in an instant, as a tornado gouged an ugly ten-mile swathe through this region yesterday.

Inevitably, obscenely, survivors rushed to thank God for sparing THEM.

A grinning buffoon of a minister, sporting a tee-shirt reading: "Give Blood: Play Hockey," cheerfully announced that he and his congregants couldn't wait - on this Good Friday - to see what exciting thing the Lord would cook up next.

Survivors solemnly insisted: "It's God's work." Great. As George Carlin used to wonder, incredulously: "'God's will'? Who does this guy think He is?"

Bertrand Russell had a saner perspective:

It is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan, the Fascisti, and Mr. Winston Churchill?

Or storms that randomly steal the lives of young mothers and their infants? Accelerating Intelligence News