Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Tigers and the Strawberries

Last year Dr. John Yanovitch of the Molloy College Department of Philosophy agreed to let me videotape him giving one of his inspiring dharma talks. If you're not into Buddhism, a dharma talk is a bit like a Buddhist homily, imparting wisdom about the right way to live and practice. John has been giving talks like this for as long as I can remember, and those who have experienced them always leave incredibly inspired.

The talk that he chose to give this time was on the famous zen parable of the tigers and the strawberries. This was an excellent choice on his part because this parable gets to the essence of what Buddhist practice is all about. You see, unlike certain theistic forms of religion, the goal of Buddhism is not to flee from this world and all its difficulties and uncertainties, but to remain firmly rooted within it. There can be no life-denying sensibilities at work in Buddhism because the NOW--the very moment we are in at any given time--is all we have, and we ever will have.

So settle in and enjoy John's dharma talk. You won't find any fancy special effects or guest appearances from the cast of Jersey Shore. But if you open up your mind and put aside your critical judgments for just a short while, you may actually learn something quite valuable about how to live your precious human life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dare to Disagree

Hey, my friend,
you're not supposed to come here
and just look around
like some kind of idle tourist
on vacation in Disneyland.
That's not what this scene is all about.

On my turf, I'm THE MAN,
and you are never--
and I mean never--
supposed to agree with THE MAN,
at any time,
about anything,
no matter how insignificant it might be.

THE MAN, after all, expects you
to agree with him
(or at least be afraid to disagree):
that the source of THE MAN's power.
But when you challenge THE MAN,
and tell him that he's
full of [insert expletive here],
and explain exactly why
he's so gosh-darn wrong,
then THE MAN
looses all of his power
and you see that he's just like
the guy behind the curtain
in that old movie about
Dorothy and Toto:
he's all bluster and no substance.

So I really do dare you to
to knock my arguments down
(if you can),
and maybe I'll return the favor sometime.
After all,
that's supposed to be why
we're in this wisdom-seeking business
in the first place,
isn't it?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The University as Corporation

If you took a stroll through the small Catholic college where I have been working for the past 16 years, you probably wouldn’t guess that what is going on here is indicative of a very disturbing trend in higher education—the relentless corporatization of American education. As you walked through our campus, you’d probably think to yourself that surely Catholic colleges like this at least must be immune to the pressures that other colleges face to compete as business entities, pursuing the ever dwindling numbers of students who can afford to pay their bloated tuitions.

But you’d be wrong.

My college, like most other colleges in the United States, has bought into the mistaken notion that the students at our institution are customers whose whims must be catered to at every turn and that the faculty are troublesome laborers who really don’t know what’s best for the students (but who are arrogant enough to presume that they do). The trend towards corporatization has been going on for some time now in our country, but never has it been so intense as it is right now. The economic crisis that has hit the world, and is beginning to impact higher education, has provided college administrators with all the justification they need to run their institutions according to business models that ultimately will do little more than make college education in this country even less effective than it already is.

This corporate approach to higher education plays out in practical terms in the daily life of the academy in a number of key ways:

1) Since the academy needs to ensure ever increasing enrollment numbers, it promotes only those programs that are marketable. Unfortunately, programs like philosophy, art, theology, sociology, history, and most other liberal arts disciplines don’t fit the idea of what a marketable discipline is and so basically these programs are left to die like unwanted step-children. They are drained of funds, marginalized in the academy, and generally treated as burdens, rather than as assets.

Just to give you some idea of just how unimportant the liberal arts are considered these days, a colleague told me recently that at his institution (No names, please…Let’s just say that it’s a very tidy Catholic College in Rockville Centre) the Director of the Library made a decision to cull the philosophy section of books that she deemed uninteresting or irrelevant to make room for more important materials. She didn’t consult the members of that department or ask for their input in any way. She just had one of her employees—a staff member who knows absolutely nothing about the discipline—chuck any boring old philosophy books that he thought should go. Since he apparently thought that all philosophy books were boring, he gleefully tossed boxes of books in the most capricious manner possible (For some reason, he seemed to have it in for poor Emmanuel Kant). On the positive side, at least there was more room for more “relevant” materials for students.

2) Since the students are the customers, their interests—however ill-defined these might be—drive the curriculum. In the old days, when getting a college degree actually meant something, faculty determined what general education courses were necessary in order to produce graduates who could read and write at fairly high levels and who had some degree of cultural literacy and critical thinking abilities. In practice, this meant that students at most reputable colleges and universities in the United States were required to take healthy doses of literature, art, philosophy, history, and the like. And the result was that we produced the “greatest generation” of Americans—those men and women who went to college in the 1940s-1960s and who made the United States the economic envy of the entire world.

Today general education requirements are determined by college administrators, many of whom know very little about real pedagogy, because they are so far removed from the classroom, and who are motivated solely by what will get students to attend their institution. Since most students want to (1) graduate as quickly as possible, (2) take courses only in their major area of interest, and (3) have little use for—or at least think they have little use for—classes in the humanities, there is pressure placed upon administrators to prune their general education requirements down as far as possible to try to attract these students.

Even when they are allowed to exist, humanities programs often become service programs for more “marketable” professional programs. So instead of taking a class in Shakespeare or Chaucer, students take more “practical” liberal arts classes like “Writing for Business” or “The Literature of Healing” or “Children’s Literature for the Teaching Profession.” In effect, what this means is that American college students are no longer receiving liberal arts educations at all; rather, they are receiving the shallowest kind of vocational training imaginable. And this kind of training—despite what college students themselves might believe—won’t serve graduates well when they get out into the real world and discover that they are really not all that marketable in their chosen field and ill-prepared to do anything else.

3) Since faculty are basically treated as laborers, they must be controlled by management and prevented as much as possible from “corrupting” the rest of the academy with their foolishly na├»ve ideas about education. Faculty are therefore left out of discussions about the mission and direction of their intuitions, and are paid lip-service when it comes to curriculum issues. What administrators do—and I’ve seen this at work in far too many institutions—is magnanimously ask faculty for their input on vital matters, and then proceed to do exactly what they planned to do anyway. “Well, we did consult with the faculty,” these paragons of democracy will often reply when confronted by angry faculty. “What more could they possibly want from us?”

College and university administrators are also trying to kill off tenure—an important, but misunderstood tool in maintaining the integrity of higher education. I’m sad to say it, but my own college seems determined to lead the rest of Long Island’s colleges in attempting to institute post-tenure review policies that ultimately will destroy real academic freedom. You may not realize this, but tenured faculty members are usually the only employees at a college who can argue with senior administrators about the direction the institution is taking. If tenured faculty, however, have to worry about being put on an administrative hit list—and, believe it or not, these do exist at many colleges and universities—then there will be no one left who will have the courage to argue with senior administrators about policies that might ultimately harm students or diminish the quality of classroom instruction.

So what’s the solution to this problem, you might be wondering? If this really is the inevitable trend in higher education in the United States, what hope do any of us have to save our colleges and universities?

Occupy Wall Street presents one model, and, in fact, college-aged students are playing a leading roll in this movement. You see, what Occupy Wall Street shows us is that corporate institutions really only respond to conflict and tension. You can make all the speeches you want and write all the newspaper editorials your heart desires, but this will not make a corporation change its practices one iota. It’s only when the bottom line of a corporate entity is threatened—or when it receives such bad press that its bottom line might be threatened—that corporations like Exxon or Walmart eventually are forced to do the right thing. The same is true with colleges and universities. The corporate mentality that drives these institutions will only begin to change when the real stakeholders at these institutions—and this basically means students and faculty—apply so much pressure that the administrative bureaucrats who run them are forced to change course.

This natural alliance between students and faculty to reclaim higher education won’t happen any time soon, but it will inevitably happen. Students are becoming more and more disgruntled by the high costs of higher education (see my previous post on this subject) and their inability to find decent-paying work after graduation. At the same time, many college instructors are becoming increasingly embittered by how marginalized they’ve become in recent years in participating in decision-making and shared-governance at their institutions. Eventually, students and faculty will come to see that they need each other to achieve their mutual goals and will be forced to work together in ways that we haven’t seen since the late 1960s.

When this happens, the direction of higher education in this country will change, and change, I believe, for the better. Until then, the corporate model of higher education will prevail throughout the United States, and generations of college graduates will be forced to pay the price for our negligence.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Subverting the Facebook Monster

On June 4th, I had finally had enough. I was sick of feeling compelled to log onto Facebook all the time, sick of the inane comments, and sick of the whole business of sharing details about my very boring life with on-line friends. So I decided to write the following:

“The line must be drawn irrevocably. The Facebook monster must be terminated. Tomorrow I will delete my account forever! Maybe I'm just too damned old, but I simply don't get it.

Today I pruned the bushes and went for a run and interacted with real human beings....Things you can't do on Facebook. I choose to live in the world, not escape from it in some godless cyber-soul-sucking realm. That doesn't mean I don't care. It just means I don't care enough to log on to this idiotic account every day.

Join me in my quest to overthrown the machine!!! Goodbye Facebook!”

I was actually quite surprised by the stridency of the comments that I received after leaving the post. It was almost as though I was committing an act of sacrilege by quitting Facebook. When I mentioned this to my students, they reacted as though there was something psychologically wrong with me for thinking that I could even survive without constantly posting the minutia of my daily life.

Was I missing something?

It struck me, as I wrote my Facebook farewell, that we who are living at the dawn of the 21st century, are probably more alienated from our fellow human beings than we ever have been at any other point in our human history. We wake up from a fitful night’s sleep, knock down a stiff jolt of caffeine to jump-start our sluggish minds, and then immediately rush to our computers to check our emails, Facebook and Twitter messages, and see who cares enough to bother to communicate with us electronically.

We spend the rest of our day, whether at home or work, constantly checking on-line or on our ever-smarter cell phones to see what we’re missing out of life. Who’s doing what, who's buying what, who's breaking up with whom. The irony is that all this time we spend trying to connect electronically takes us about as far away as we can get from what human beings really need in life—tangible, intimate, interpersonal interaction with flesh-and-blood human beings.

In the ancient days before Facebook—about 15 years ago—interpersonal communication mainly involved having a conversation with someone. That conversation would ideally take place at some dank old man’s bar over beer, and would probably involve some passionate debate over the issues of the day with lots of foul language and nasty invective being thrown around joyfully by all the parties involved. Or it might take the form of a more intimate conversation over coffee about the kinds of deep personal issues that we really only care to share with our closest friends.

I wonder if the amount of time we are spending emailing, text-messaging, twittering, facebooking, and the like, far from facilitating the kinds of face-to-face interaction that helps people to grow as human beings, is actually subverting that more significant form of interaction. After all, it’s much easier to send short, clever bursts of information across an electronic network than it is to have to deal with actual human beings with all their foibles and emotional baggage. When our friends get annoying on-line, we can always just log off. You can’t just log off, however, when you are sitting opposite someone who is bearing his soul to you about some seriously nasty shit that he is going through. That’s when you have to do what only members of the human species can do: shut your mouth, listen attentively to what he has to say, and try to show just a little bit of empathy.

In short, I think that our fixation with social networking programs like Facebook and the like are turning us into socially retarded, emotional empathy, narcissistic twits, who no longer are able to relate in any kind of meaningful way with our fellow human beings. Some might consider this an awfully big problem. I sure as hell do.

Yes, you might say, but how is that any different than what you are doing right now on this blog? Isn’t blogging exactly the same thing as text-messaging, twittering, or facebooking?

Well, not exactly. When you blog properly you are engaged in a purely intellectual exercise. You develop an idea or position, put it in some kind of coherent written form, and attempt to engage public opinion. It’s exactly the same thing that Seneca, Montesquieu, and Emerson did hundreds of years ago. If everyone wrote essays or blogged, they’d probably be much better off for it—intellectually, at least. On the other hand, even blogging can become addictive and can be used as an excuse to separate oneself from the rest of humanity. In that sense, I’d agree that all electronic forms of communication are inherently problematic from an inter-personal perspective.

Now back to the Facebook monster.

When I posted the above message on my Facebook page, I was sincerely planning to hit the delete button the next day and be completely done with the damned program. Mark Zuckerberg probably would have been slightly disappointed in me, but everyone else would have gotten on just fine without my monthly sarcastic postings.

But then it hit me that bailing on Facebook might have been emotionally freeing for me, but it wouldn’t be solving the real problem—namely, the alienating and superficial nature of our modern technological forms of communication.

I wondered to myself if Facebook, in fact, could actually be used to shock, provoke or amuse people into real human interaction? Could it be transformed into a tool that might actually stimulate deeper thought about the world in which we live, our role within it, and the ultimate meaning and purpose of a human life?

And I reflected further on this: How would someone like Socrates, I wondered, deal with the Facebook monster if he was around today? He certainly wouldn’t run away from it, any more than he ran away from his fellow reactionary Athenian citizens or the shallow Sophists with whom he was always debating. No, he’d be using this new technology to engage as many people as he could and to promote his own, more moral, vision of the Good.

At the very same time I was struggling with these issues, I became caught up in the whole Occupy Wall Street Movement. From the first moment I landed in Zuccotti Park, I recognized just how important the work was that these young activists were doing. But I also knew that the corporate-owned media had been systematically demeaning or demonizing this movement and its supporters. Even my own students thought that Occupy Wall Street was just an excuse for a bunch of lazy hippy-wannabes to party and have free sex.

Could Facebook be used, I wondered, in conjunction with other popular on-line media, like Youtube, Blogger, Twitter, on-line forums, etc., to actually bring people into a deeper discussion of vitally important issues like wealth inequality, consumerism, and ecological degradation? Or would the level of discussion by the very nature of the media being used be necessarily superficial.

And was there any hope at all that programs like Facebook, when used in this kind of social responsible way, could create an environment that might lead people to more meaningful interpersonal relationships with one another? Or, once again, would the very nature of programs like Facebook conspire to reinforce shallow, self-absorbed, interactions.

I don’t have any answers to the questions just yet. For the present time, I plan to keep my Facebook account active, and limit my activity on it, as I had in the past, to once or twice a month. But, when I go onto Facebook, my agenda now will be clear. There will be no idle chit-chat about how the family is doing, or about how wonderful my recent vacation was, or about how prodigious the latest bowel movement I just had was. No, Facebook and the people who have friended me over the years will have to deal with me on my own terms. These terms will involve dealing with regular tirades that are going to be wantonly provoking, snarky, and frequently pedantic….But that, I’m afraid, is the price you have to pay for being foolish enough for having someone as existentially annoying as I am as a friend.

If you want shallow and glib, next time try friending Snookie!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

They Want My Money...They Just Can't Have It

Recently, Bank of America inspired a consumer revolt when it tried to impose a $5.00 a month debit card fee on its customers. Some people apparently thought the fact that Bank of America (1) initiated the use of debit cards to save money in the first place, (2) was not really losing any revenue from its patron's use of debit cards, and (3) was rolling in more dough than it ever had, made the whole added fee proposal stink like a pair of old lady's orthopedic shoes.

Outrage on the part of its customers forced Bank of America to drop their debit card fee plan. Part of the reason for their about-face could be directly attributed to work on the part of activists in the Occupy Wall Street mold who launched the "Bank Transfer Day" on Facebook. The campaign encouraged Americans to move their funds from multinational banks to credit unions, which work in the direct interests of their customer-shareholders.

Since I was a teen, trying to save funds for a planned trip to Europe, I've always had my savings in small local banks, rather than big multinational ones. I always felt that the customer service was better at local banks and that they were more attentive to my needs. So, I have no problem with local banks; my problem is corporate banks that are really not in the banking business to serve individuals and communities.

Last year, when I had to open up a business account for my publishing company, I immediately thought of Nassau Educator's Federal Credit Union (NEFCU), a credit union originally designed for teachers like me. The rates were great, there were no hidden fees, and, while I was setting up my business account, I was treated like a human being instead of like a number on an accounts received ledger.

I don't believe for a minute that Bank of America has learned its lesson from its latest outrage. As soon as the attention of the American public has turned to some other issues, you can bet your bottom dollar that BoA will be back with some other nefarious way to bilk Americans out of their hard-earned dollars. And this, unfortunately, is also true of every other corporate bank as well. Their only concern is to increase share-holder revenue, and the share-holders are definitely not you and me.

So if you haven't checked out what your local credit union has to offer you, why not do it now?

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Original Occupy Wall Street Protester

I was sent this image by a friend, and initially it gave me quite a good chuckle. The more I thought about it, however, the more I began to realize how true the sentiments expressed in this poster actually are.

Can anyone doubt that our own Wall Street tycoons most certainly are the contemporary manifestation of Jesus' money changers? Profit at all costs; profit above all else; profit from the death, misery, and misfortunes of their fellow human beings....This is what moves and inspires our modern money changers. Profit is their supreme deity.

At least the money changers in Jesus' own time had some limits placed above their avarice. They were content to cheat their fellow Jews out of a few sheckels, not drive them to the brink of utter and complete destitution. When 15 million children in the United States (21% of all American children) live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level in a country where the richest citizens quibble about having to pay a percentage or two more in taxes, can there really be any doubt who Jesus would be driving out of his sight if he was around today?

I won't try to make the analogy between the God-man and the good men and women who are doing battle against forces of greed on Wall Street. That, after all, might strike some as being a tad sacrilegious.

You can draw your own analogies, if you so choose.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Forum

On Wednesday, November 16, 2011, the Molloy College Center for Social and Ethical Concerns, along with the Departments of Business and Philosophy, hosted a forum on Occupy Wall Street. The event was attended by several hundred students, faculty, and members of the larger community. I'm happy to say that the debate that occurred that night was spirited and engaging, while at the same time extremely civil. To me, this proves that you we can discuss the issues that drive the Occupy Wall Street movement without resorting to simplistic platitudes or nasty name-calling.

As part of the forum, I showed the film, "Why We Protest: Voices from Occupy Wall Street." The film was shot over several weeks in Zuccotti Park and profiles college-aged protesters in an attempt to discern what drove them to become part of this movement. The film captures a snapshot in time that no longer exists now that Zuccotti park has been "sanitized" by the City of New York. Still, I think that what the film shows, more than anything else, is the commitment and tenacity of the young protesters who are at the forefront of this moment.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Update on Zuccotti Park

A New York judge ruled yesterday that the City of New York has the right to clear Zuccotti Park of encampment equipment. In his ruling, New York State Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman said protesters "have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right" to remain in the park, with their sleeping gear "to the exclusion of the owner's reasonable rights ... or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely."

The protesters are now able to return to the park, but no tents or sleeping gear will be permitted.

The park now has become a symbol of national anger against multinational corporations and banks and the small financial elite that runs them. A good part of that symbol is intrinsically connected with the “occupation” of the park by protesters. Take away the tents, as the Bloomberg administration is fully aware, and you dilute that symbol. As I mentioned in an earlier post, that probably wouldn’t stop the protests from continuing in other forms or in other locations, but it might disperse the locus of attention.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I’m confident, however, that there are still people in this country who value the First Amendment and understand that citizens have a right—in fact, a duty—to protest against injustice. Such protests may be inconvenient for some, but it’s the very right we have to express our outrage that separates the United States from completely autocratic regimes where this right does not exist.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November 15, 2011: The Real Occupation Begins

In the dark hours of the early morning today, hundreds of New York police dressed in riot gear entered Zuccotti Park and began forcibly evicting Occupy Wall Street protesters who had been encamped there for the past two months. The police warned that the park would be “cleared and restored” and that any protesters who resisted would be arrested. Apparently, 200 people have already been dragged off to jail, most of whom were engaged in civil disobedience in the spirit of Gandhi and King.

I’m not surprised that this has happened. Wall Street elites and their representatives in government and the media have become increasingly frustrated by the growing popularity of this movement. As I’ve previously pointed out, the vast majority of Americans now identify with the aims of Occupy Wall Street and are supporting the movement in ever increasing numbers. Every day that the protesters were encamped in Zuccotti Park, speaking to the media and engaging the public, more and more people were becoming influenced by their message.

And what is that message? Simply that our country has been taken over by the top 1% of monied elites, who control most of the economic resources of this country, our government, and our media, and these elites have been prospering even as they have driven this country to the brink of moral and economic ruin. That’s the basic message of Occupy Wall Street, and that’s the message that the top 1% were determined to stop from spreading any further.

So they convinced the befuddled Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, to throw the protesters out of the park and end the occupation, once and for all. Apparently, those who made this decision believed that, once they got the protesters out of the park, the movement that they are part of would simply fall apart and everything in New York would magically return to the way it was before the protest began. They probably also thought that if they could crush the protests at their epicenter in Zuccotti Park, the assorted protests that have sprung up in other parts of the country might magically disappear too.

This is wishful thinking in the extreme.

I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with the occupants of Zuccotti Park since the protests began in New York. I’ve found the vast majority of these individuals to be intelligent, articulate, socially aware, and, above all else, committed. The Mayor of New York might foolishly believe that he can smother this movement in its infancy, but it’s too late for that at this point. Maybe if the City had tried this tactic when the occupation first began it might have been successful, but far too many young people have been swept up by it for such crass totalitarian tactics to work at this point.

And, had the Mayor simply waited a month or two, he would have achieved his goals much more easily: the frigid climate of New York in January would have probably thinned the ranks of protesters down considerably. It’s one thing to hang out in a New York City park when the weather is a relatively balmy 50 degrees; it’s quite another to have to sleep there in weather that’s 10 degrees below zero. Had it waited just a bit longer, the City probably could have “cleaned up” the park and there might not have been any real resistance at all.

But that’s not going to happen now.

No, the occupation will continue, and it will probably gain even more strength from what transpired this morning in Zuccotti Park. The only question is what new form the protests in New York will take. The heavy-handed tactics of the police today will further increase the likelihood that the protesters will resort to violent resistance out of sheer frustration. And the blame for this will lie squarely on the head of the man who made the decision to clear out the park—the Mayor of New York. I certainly hope that violence isn’t the direct consequence of this decision, but, seeing the intensity of this movement up close over the past few weeks, I fear that this very well might be the case.

If past history is any indication, using force to try to quell a popular uprising will simply strengthen that uprising. That’s what happened during the pro-union strikes of the 20s; that’s what happened during the Civil Rights Movement; that’s what happened during the anti-Vietnam student protests; and that’s precisely what’s going to happen today as well.

Consider November 15, 2011 the day when the Occupation of New York by the 99% truly begins!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Christianity and Pacifism

In a previous post, I took issue with those conservative Christians who would turn Jesus into a free-market capitalist. I stand by my conviction that there is no way that you can read the Gospels and conclude that Jesus could possibly approve of the insatiable greed that drives our American capitalist system. If you can show me a single passage from scripture, for example, where Jesus says to his apostles anything like, "Go ye forth and rape and plunder the earth for your profit and mine," I'll stand corrected. But until then, please stop trying to turn Jesus into a first century Donald Trump. It just doesn't work.

And I also have a bit of advice for those Christians who think that they can combine their Christian faith with support for the military industrial complex, expansionist wars in the Middle East, and the torture and assassination of our political and military enemies: this doesn't work either.

You see, it is damn hard to reconcile your devotion for the guy who said things like "do not resist the evil-doer" and "if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well" with the lust that you have to "nuke the whole f#$%ing Middle East" or bomb our enemies "back into the Stone Age."

I'm almost embarrassed to say this, because it should be self-evident to anyone who has ever picked up the Bible, but that fellow, Jesus of Nazareth, who you claim to worship, was even more of a bleeding-heart pacifist than he was a socialist. If you really took his teachings to heart, instead of being a cheerleader for more military spending, you'd be on the front lines of every anti-war protest; instead of squealing with delight whenever we assassinate a suspected terrorist, you'd be shouting from every street corner for justice, not revenge. People would hate you for the position you'd take on these issues, but they hated your savior too. That's part of what it means to be his disciple.

It's rather unfortunate that the person who seems to really understand what Jesus was all about is one of this country's most outspoken atheists--the comedian Bill Maher. You see, despite Maher's antipathy for any form of organized religion, at least he gets the fact that, if you really want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, you might want to actually try following his teachings on occasion. The big guy had nothing at all to say about abortion, gay marriage, or birth control, but he was very clear that, if you wanted to be his disciple, you had to "love your enemies" and "bless those who persecute you. "

It's for this very reason that I hesitate to call myself a Christian: because unlike those who have actually tried to live out the teachings of the Gospels (Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Bishop Romero, Daniel Berrigan, etc), I have neither the courage nor the conviction to put aside all thoughts of revenge against my own enemies. This lust for revenge may make me perfectly human, but it seems to me that Jesus came precisely to teach us how to transcend our brute humanity and live a more divine life.

So, I really don't blame you at all if you hate the fact that your savior has commanded you to become a pacifist and redistribute your wealth (to be perfectly honest, I'm not ready yet to embrace these positions either). In fact, you may just want to consider finding a religion whose basic moral precepts are not quite as difficult to follow as those of Christianity.

Druidism, anyone?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: A Business Perspective

Read Christopher Salute's Post

It wouldn't take long for anyone reading my faculty blog to realize that my views tend to be somewhat liberal when it comes to economic issues (to say the least!). But I don't ever want it to be thought that I don't appreciate the intelligent opinions of people whose perspectives are markedly different from my own.

I also think that what the American public needs now more than ever is an honest exchange of ideas about the future of our country. So all thoughtful positions should be explored, discussed, and debated--and this is particularly true, I think, of positions that one doesn't necessarily agree with or may even find personally offensive.

Christopher Salute of the Molloy College Division of Business has written a blog post about Occupy Wall Street that deserves to be read precisely because it presents an intelligent perspective on the movement that offers some legitimate criticism. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says in his post, but I know that, if we sat down together to discuss the issues he raises, we could have a civil discussion that might actually lead to greater understanding of these issues on both our parts.

So read his post; comment on it, critique it, praise it...whatever you like. Just take the time to educate yourself on the important issues of the day.

And that, after all, is what being an informed citizen is really all about.


Join us at Molloy College on Wednesday, November 16th for "Occupy Wall Street: The Meaning, The Movement, The Controversy."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Higher Education: Worth the Cost?

My niece is a high school senior and has been in the process of applying for college. Not long ago she asked me to take her to an open house at my alma mater, Fordham University.

When we got to Fordham, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how much the university had blossomed in the quarter century since I graduated. Fordham was always a great place to study as an undergraduate, if you wanted a strong liberal arts education grounded in the Jesuit tradition. Now, however, it has become a magnet university for some of the brightest and most talented students, not only in the United States, but from around the world.

So far, so good. It was when we started to add up the costs involved for attending a university like Fordham that red flags began to show themselves. Including room and board and various fees, a year at Fordham would set a student like my niece back almost $60,000. Over four years, that comes out to $240,000, which in many parts of the country could pay for a fairly substantial home.

If you think that sounds excessive, think again. Fordham’s tuition is quite in line with most comparable institutions. Tuition, even at a college like my own—which, it must be acknowledged, is somewhat less prestigious than Fordham—would cost $32,000 a year with room and board ($22,000 for tuition alone).

Other options, like public universities, do exist, and the cost at these universities are a bit less expensive than at private institutions like Molloy or Fordham. But tuition, room, and board at any of the schools associated with the State University of New York (SUNY) still comes out to about $21,000, even for residents of the state. Not exactly chump change by any means.

Of course, most colleges and universities offer financial aid and scholarships to make the price of their institutions more affordable to students. The fact remains, however, that even after the scholarships and grants, the cost of going to college in the United States will be one of the greatest financial burdens that most Americans will have to face in their lifetimes.

Given these costs, the real question is: Is going to college still worth it?

There’s no doubt that being saddled with all that debt when starting off a career certainly limits one’s options in life….And let’s not forget that there are plenty of men and women who still do pretty darn well in fields like plumbing, carpentry, and auto mechanics in which college degrees are not required….And let’s not even mention people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who succeeded quite admirably in life without the benefit of college educations at all.

Despite the admittedly high costs, however, getting a college degree still seems to make considerable economic sense. It has been estimated that someone who graduates from college with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about 66% more over the course of his or her working career than a non-graduate. According to a report entitled, "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings", over the course of their adult work lives, high school graduates can expect to earn, on average, $1.2 million; those with a bachelor's degree, $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree, $2.5 million.

But the economic benefits are not the most persuasive argument in favor of higher education, as far as I’m concerned. The real argument for me is that graduating from a solid university—especially one that empahsizes training in the liberal arts—is going to be more important than ever in the future, as more and more lower level jobs that don’t require higher education are inevitably going to be shipped overseas. I believe that in the 21st century, the ability to think critically and creatively and to communicate effectively will become invaluable commodities in the global marketplace. And these are exactly the kinds of skills that a good liberal arts education from a decent college or university provides.

In the interests of full disclosure, it must be pointed out that my support for higher education is hardly unbiased, since I earn my living as a college professor. Fortunately, however, you don’t have to listen to my arguments. A colleague of mine, Dr. Mike Santaniello, who has been studying the impact of higher education on upward mobility for the past twenty years has just published a new work on the subject called College Bound and Moving Up. This book, which is written primarily for blue collar students and their families, uses hard data to show exactly how important higher education has been in the lives of working class people and how important it will continue to be in the future.

Santaniello’s work is a very good read—light-hearted, inspiring, and illuminating—and I’d highly recommend it for families that are struggling with the question of whether or not higher education is still worth it. After reading College Bound and Moving Up, there’s no doubt in my mind about the answer to that question. The only issue becomes how we can make college more affordable so that more Americans can take greater advantage of it’s benefits.

But that's the subject for a future post.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Your Savior Was a Commie

In recent weeks, since my defense of the Occupy Wall Street movement and my pleas for greater income equality in the United States, I have been attacked by some conservatives as a socialist and a communist.

In response to these charges, I would say that, if by a "socialist" or a "communist" you mean that I believe that government has a positive role to play in assuring some level of basic equality among its citizens, then I stand accused. I've never denied that I think that a very well-regulated economy that protects the most vulnerable members of the society from being preyed upon by the rich and powerful is optimal. And, if you choose to label that particular view as "socialist," then I'm more than willing to embrace that title.

As a matter of fact, I derived my socialist leanings from a very good source: at one time I was inspired by a certain radical fellow by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, who would almost certainly be considered a "socialist" and a "communist" by many conservative Christians today. I would bet that, if Jesus was around right now, you'd be more likely to find him hanging out with the young protesters in Zuccotti Park then you would in the boardrooms of Wall Street. If you think otherwise, then you probably have not spent much time reading the gospels.

For example, try this little passage from Matthew 25:

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”.

...or check out the following passage from James 2:1-7:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If sentiments like these aren't socialist, then, baby, I don't know what is!

Wall Street Christians and conservative evangelicals may have forgotten just how radical the animating spirit of Christianity is, but it hasn't been lost on the Pope. His latest encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" would be slammed by reactionaries as "socialist" and "communist" if it wasn't being promulgated by the same guy who has spoken out so fiercely against abortion, birth control, the ordination of women, and gay rights.

When I reflect upon just how radical the teachings of Jesus, his early followers, and the Pope are on economic issues, it actually makes me feel quite ashamed of my own relative conservatism. I certainly would never think of asking people to give away all their wealth to the poor (Luke 1: 25-35) or claim that it is impossible to love God if you are working on Wall Street (Luke 16:9-13; Mark 10:17-31). Perhaps that's why I hesitate to call myself a Christian: if the passages I've cited above represent the standard for what it means to be a follower of Christ, then I could never in a million years be a real Christian.

I love my Ipod far too much.