What Is the Purpose of a College Education?

March 3, 2015

An arresting sentence in David Brooks’s column this in the NYT this morning on Leaving and Cleaving:

…to be around college students these days is to observe how many parents have failed to successfully start their their child’s transition into adulthood.

Strong words, but accurate, I think. It brought to mind something I found myself saying from time to time in conversations with professors. The occasion was usually their complaining that such-and-such was not their job. Their role was to teach their subject matter and to do their research. Mayhem in the dorms or crises in students’ relationships were none of their business, they’d say.

And I’d ask, why do you suppose parents are willing to pay us $30,000 (or $40,000 or $10,000) a year for their child’s education? Do you suppose it is to learn Shakespeare or organic chemistry or even critical thinking?  Perhaps, a few have such motivations, I’d say, but deep down I think most parents have a deeper motivation. They want us to perform a stupendous trick.

They want us to remove their child from their household, keep the child for four (or so) years, and then insert that child into adult roles: a paying job and a relationship that will lead to marriage and grandchildren. Deep down, those parents aren’t too interested in how we perform this trick so long as we do it. They are a bit frightened that their child hasn’t grown up yet, and frightened that they are significantly to blame for that failure to raise their child toward adulthood. Now they are willing to pay us significant money to do it for them.

I’d want the professor I was speaking with to see her/his role more broadly than s/he was inclined.

By and large residential liberal arts colleges do perform that trick and fairly reliably. We invite students to live in community, to bear an increasing share of responsibility for their learning and their living, and we provide a watchful eye and coaching to see that the transition to adulthood goes well.

I see the promise of on-line education for some narrow purposes of education, but I have my doubts that MOOCs can perform this trick.

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Our Far-Flung Alumni: Kathleen Mulloy

March 2, 2015

Grew up in Indiana (Peru, Indiana, no less), works in Kampala, Uganda for UNICEF, and was recently married at Copenhagen City Hall in Denmark. Sounds like an Earlhamite to me. And she is: Kathleen Mulloy.

Kathleen MalloyWe don’t often see Earlham graduates in the marriages section of the Sunday New York Times Style section, but there she was yesterday with new husband Evan Wheeler. He didn’t go to Earlham, but at least he went to college in Maine and also works for UNICEF in Uganda.

Best wishes!

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Meanings: Dessert”

March 2, 2015

The mnemonic I learned in school–and perhaps you, too–was that “dessert” had two s’s because it was sweet stuff, but “desert” had only one because it was just sand. Today there’s probably as much desert as ever (they cover about a fifth of the earth’s surface), but desserts are in decline.

Dessert decline“Only 12 percent of dinners eaten at home in the United States ended with something sweet last year,” significant decline over the past few decades, according to data from market research firm NPD group, and many restaurants don’t really want you to order dessert because their margins are smaller on desserts.

I’m happy to say dessert is alive and well at our house, though some of us eat fruit and some of us eat cookies. But where did that word come from? Here’s what etymology.com says:

dessert (n.)Look up dessert at Dictionary.comc.1600, from Middle French dessert (mid-16c.) “last course,” literally “removal of what has been served,” from desservir “clear the table,” literally “un-serve,” from des- “remove, undo” (see dis-) + Old French servir “to serve” (see serve (v.)).

But now it looks like it’s the main course that’s clearing the table, not the dessert.

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How to Know What to Do

February 12, 2015

You don't know what to do?Our son, Robbie, is now a sixth grader at Mount Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine. He has the great good fortune to have Mrs. Latti as his principal teacher. She teaches the class science and math while Ms. Hopkins teaches them language arts and social studies. They are a team (the Magalloway 6th Grade Team), but when we have parent-teacher conferences we meet with Mrs. Latti.

We had such a conference on Tuesday, and I couldn’t help but notice this poster on the classroom wall. It’s Mrs. Latti’s standing directions to her class about what they should do when they aren’t sure what they should be doing. 6th graders are prone to such moments of uncertainty, but then aren’t all of us?  I’m glad Mrs. Latti is teaching them how to work through such moments.  (I don’t think that was any part of my 6th grade experience.)

I think the poster says it all — almost. That last direction takes some explaining.

“Reread the directions.” That often helps. “Take a deep breath:” don’t get frustrated; believe in yourself; you can do this.  If those don’t work, “ask a neighbor.” You’ve got friends: ask them for help, and be ready to help your friends when they get confused. “Ask another neighbor.” If the first friend can’t help you, ask someone else.

Mrs. Latti is teaching them confidence and self-reliance, and she is teaching them to work as a group, helping each other, even on projects where each person has to do his own work.

So what about that last instruction, “Get a Latti lamp”?  She wants them to know that she stands ready to help if they need her. They should turn to her only when they’ve tried to work themselves out of confusion themselves and sought the aid of friends if they are still confused. But if none of that works, they can turn to her. Across the classroom, on a shelf, are a dozen or so little electric lanterns she bought at the Dollar Store.  You go get one and turn it on at your desk. The light tells her you need her help, and it does so in a way that doesn’t distract others.

We all need a Latti lamp in our lives. But we shouldn’t use it until we’ve reread the directions, taken a deep breath, asked a friend, and asked another friend. What a great approach to learning.

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Meanings: Cheat

January 24, 2015

“This kind of gamesmanship goes on all the time,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor at Ithaca College who studies sports ethics. He was commenting on the Patriots’ deflated footballs in last week’s AFC title game, sign stealing, corked baseball bats and scuffed baseballs. “It’s certainly accepted as part of the culture that you game the system as much as you can, and if you don’t get caught, it ain’t cheating.”  (Tim Rohan, “Gamesmanship vs. Cheating,” New York Times, January 24, 2015, pB9.)

I dissent from that view however commonplace it may have become.  (I also wince at a professor saying “ain’t.  Mosher, by the way, has a B.A. in English and Journalistic Studies, and a Ph.D. in Sport Studies with Concentrations in Philosophy and Literary Criticism, both from U. Mass, Amherst. Such expertise….)

Games have rules; those rules define the game. Having all contestants adhere to those rules is what makes a game ‘fair.’  In professional football, there is a rule about the permissible pressure in a football. If someone deliberately altered the footballs so they didn’t adhere to that standard, that’s cheating, and there should be consequences.

I remember a faculty meeting many years ago where we were discussing student plagiarism. Some members of the faulty were upset at some recent incidents. Others began to talk about how murky s concept plagiarism is, how difficult it is to know dishonest plagiarism from honest borrowing. (In my view, the cases under discussion were far from murky.)  A member of the music faculty rose, someone who rarely spoke in faculty meetings, and said “in my field, plagiarism consists of three notes.” He sat down; he knew plagiarism when he saw it.

In the discussions of deflate-gate, I’m astonished that there isn’t more outrage and more talk of consequences being visited on the Patriots. No one seems to question that the Patriots should play for the NFL Championship next Sunday. After all, I’ve read many saying, the Patriots would have won even if they hadn’t cheated, so decisively did they defeat the Colts. Here, for example, is an exchange on NPR between Audie Cornish (host) and Tom Goldman, NPR Sports Correspondent:

CORNISH: Now, if a current NFL investigation shows the Patriots did purposely under-inflate the balls, will people be able to say that New England cheated its way into the Super Bowl?

GOLDMAN: I know you may disagree with this, Audie, but no. The Patriots dominated Indianapolis in all facets of the game, as they’ve done the past few games against the Colts.

So it’s OK if you would have won anyway? And it’s also OK if you don’t get caught?

The NFL and Patriots owner Robert Kraft have both issued statements. The NFL statement says that the goal of the investigation is to determine “the explanation for why footballs used in the game were not in compliance with the playing rules” and”specifically whether any noncompliance was the result of deliberate action.” But the statement is utterly silent on what consequence might follow if the footballs were found to be deliberately under-inflated by action of anyone working for the Patriots.  After pledging full cooperation with the investigation, Kraft’s statement makes it clear he expects the Patriots to be playing next weekend in the Superbowl: “Meanwhile, our players, coaches and staff will continue to focus on our preparations for Super Bowl XLIX and the many challenges we face as we prepare for the Seattle Seahawks.” He doesn’t even imagine the possibility of disqualification.  (“Meanwhile” = this investigation is to one side of the question of whether we should be playing.)

If the Patriots cheated, why should anyone watch?

The word “cheat,” by the way, comes from the legal term escheat. According to etymology.com:

cheat (v.) Look up cheat at Dictionary.commid-15c., “to escheat,” a shortening of Old French escheat, legal term for revision of property to the state when the owner dies without heirs, literally “that which falls to one,” past participle of escheoir “happen, befall, occur, take place; fall due; lapse (legally),” from Late Latin *excadere “fall away, fall out,” from Latin ex- “out” (see ex-) + cadere “to fall” (see case (n.1)). Also compare escheat. The royal officers evidently had a low reputation. Meaning evolved through “confiscate” (mid-15c.) to “deprive unfairly” (1580s). To cheat on (someone) “be sexually unfaithful” first recorded 1934.

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Our Far-Flung Alumni: Rock Scully

December 23, 2014

I note the passing of Rock Scully, Earlham ’63, whose obituary appeared a few days ago in the New York Times.  He was an alumnus I never met, alas.

Scully was a long-time manager of the Grateful Dead.  The Dead’s website, the obituary tells us, “praised Mr. Scully’s ‘central sweetness.’ It went on to say that if he conned you, ‘it was almost always in the service of a higher ideal and for the best of reasons.'”

In a statement, Bob Weir (core member of the Dead) said of Rock Scully:  “His mischievous sense of adventure made him a perfect candidate for the position of manager for a band with similar sensibilities and and an equally similar disregard for the way things were supposed to be done.”

Sounds like an Earlhamite to me.

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Meanings: “Stuff”

November 12, 2014

“Here’s how I define ‘stuff’,” writes personal productivity coach David Allen: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step” (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, 2001, p 17).  That’s an interesting definition: ‘stuff’ is not everything I own. A book I’ve read and enjoyed is no longer making a diffuse claim on me and so is no longer ‘stuff’. A book I’ve taken out of the library but haven’t yet started to read is ‘stuff’ especially if I think I should read it. A phone call I haven’t returned is ‘stuff.’ My unfinished bathroom is ‘stuff.’ To get properly organized, you have to wade through your stuff in some constructive way, turning stuff into accomplishments.

Allen’s definition isn’t the dictionary’s, which defines “stuff” as “matter, material, articles, or activities of a specified or indeterminate kind that are being referred to, indicated, or implied.” That’s broader, quite broad, actually. Allen’s definition gets at the emotional overlay. When we refer to something as “stuff” we mean to refer to the things that are nagging at us in some way, the things we haven’t dealt with. It gets at what we mean when we say ‘I can’t go have fun with you, I have too much stuff to do.’

Reading Allen (who I’m reading because he was praised by Atul Gawande), I found myself wondering where the word came from. I realized there are both a noun form (whatever we are talking about) and a verb form (putting something inside of something else). But what was the origin? Etymology.com provides this:

stuff (n.)   early 14c., “quilted material worn under chain mail,” from Old French estoffe “quilted material, furniture, provisions” (Modern French étoffe), from estoffer “to equip or stock,” which according to French sources is from Old High German stopfon “to plug, stuff,” or from a related Frankish word (see stop (v.)), but OED has “strong objections” to this.

Sense extended to material for working with in various trades (c.1400), then “matter of an unspecified kind” (1570s). Meaning “narcotic, dope, drug” is attested from 1929. To know (one’s) stuff “have a grasp on a subject” is recorded from 1927.

Quilted material under chain mail: of course! That image links the noun and the verb forms. You put stuff (whatever!) under chain mail, and that act is an act of stuffing. Hence we stuff a turkey or we have too much stuff in our closets.

However we consider “stuff,” there does seem to be more of it these days. The NGram makes the late 1940s and ‘50s look good doesn’t it? Maybe they were a simpler time.

Ngram stuff

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