Tony Cunningham on “All Will & No Reason”

prof-photoAs a boy growing up in New York City, I loved baseball debates.  I was a Red Sox fan, and all my friends liked the Yankees.  There were some unspoken rules to our debates.  We had our vested interests.  I certainly wanted Jim Rice to top Reggie Jackson, just as my friends wanted Thurman Munson to prevail over Carlton Fisk.  We were anything but disinterested.  However, we understood that there was no sense debating unless we considered reasonable arguments.  I loved Carl Yastrzemski, but by the 70s, I couldn’t depict him as the baseball god he was in 1967.  If you were going to engage in baseball debates, you had to consider evidence seriously.  You couldn’t just make silly stuff up.

Every so often, somebody would break the rules.  Usually, it was some boy beyond my circle of friends, someone new to the debate routine.  Sometimes an adversary so loved a player that it was psychologically impossible for him to give an inch in a debate.  No matter what statistics you brought to bear, he was not going to admit that his favorite player was the lesser.  In such a case, the debate was really a test of loyalty, akin to arguing about whose mother was better.  You could say whatever you pleased, but this boy wasn’t going to throw his favorite player (or his mother) under the bus.  End of story.  Such love could be understood, tiresome as it surely was for debate purposes.

On rare occasions, I’d run across a different adversary, a far more exasperating one, someone who made a complete mockery of debate.  This opponent was determined to concede nothing about anything.  The point wasn’t just to stand up for a beloved player, but rather, to “win” at all costs.  Such a boy could take two and two to make five without blinking an eye.  His player might hit four homers to my player’s forty, but in his eyes, this fact wouldn’t make any difference whatsoever.  Such boys transformed the exercise into a test of pure will, one where reason had no place.  The real point—the only point—was victory.  It didn’t matter how it was won.  Good evidence and sound arguments?  Any willful boy determined to win at all costs had to be careful not to let appeals to evidence and reason find a way inside the walls of his indomitable will.  After all, give an inch, and you might find yourself giving a foot.  And then you might lose, nightmare of nightmares.

Effectively, Donald Trump is this willful boy, so I feel like I’ve known him all my life.  His stubborn refusal to accept the revised death toll from Hurricane Maria and his claim that Democrats cooked up false numbers to make him “look as bad as possible” are nothing other than childish attempts to shout the loudest and bang his fist boldly on the table.  The man is all will, and no reason.  Concessions, retractions, apologies, and admissions of mistakes are all indisputable signs of constitutional weakness in Donald Trump’s book.  Why would a winner ever admit to being wrong?  When people ask you to put two and two together, give them five if it suits your interests, and once given, never take it back.  If tomorrow you feel like six instead of five, just change your answer.  An iron will rules.

In my childhood, I never knew what to do with such boys.  But having learned my “lesson,” one of the first things I impress upon my students these days is that any good inquiry aims at figuring out what is the case, not at corroborating what you’d like to be so.  As I tell them, if you are to be a serious inquirer—the only kind worth being—you must be willing to accept bad news.  The world, for all your fervent desires, may not turn out as you’d like, and if not, you must beware of fudging things to produce the answer you desire.  For instance, anyone familiar with the empirical evidence of climate change knows that humanity’s prospects look bleak, especially if we continue with our current path.  Responsible scientists and citizens hate this answer, but their preferences are beside the point.  After all, I didn’t like it when I finally came around as a child to the judgment that I would never fly under my own power, but my disappointment didn’t make the conclusion any less true.

Another thing I impress upon my students is that I no longer care much for debates.  Of course, the adversarial system can serve a useful purpose in collecting support for conflicting points of view.  In the ideal, the best evidence and arguments rise to the top, just like cream.  However, debates suffer for the truth when willful people want to win more than they wish to see the truth rise.  There are many ways of “winning” a debate.  You can lie.  You can entertain.  You can appeal to prejudices.  You can intimidate.  You can confuse people.  You can change the subject.  Basically, you can alter the enterprise from an honest attempt to figure out what is the case by making it into a winner-take-all contest of sheer will.  This is the embodiment of Trump, and his triumph of will over reason is a terminal cancer for any democracy worth its salt.

One last thing I like to tell my students is that we are all wrong, most of the time.  Try as we may, we’re destined to get all sorts of things wrong, even if just a little bit wrong.  So long as we pursue complex questions, our reach will always exceed our grasp.  But if we come to the task with the requisite humility, duly cognizant that we might just be wrong, we are far likelier to get things right in the end.  On the other hand, if we substitute sheer will for reason, like Donald Trump, then we’re just making silly stuff up.

Tony Cunningham on “College & Success”

The cost of college in America has risen significantly for many years.  Pinpointing the sticker price of an education at any given college is easy, but getting a fix on the actual costs for any given student isn’t.  Lots of colleges heavily discount their tuition to enroll students who can’t enroll without financial help.  A big sticker price maximizes tuition revenue from those who can afford it.  The strategy here should be familiar to anyone who has stayed in a hotel lately.  The Marriott may collect $300 a night for Room 213 from someone who books directly, but the people in Room 214 may only pay $100 on Expedia or $80 on Hotwire.  The Marriott has no interest in letting rooms go empty just because it can’t get $300 for each one—better $100 than nothing.  Whether you pay the rack rate or a discounted one for an American four-year college, it’s not likely to be inexpensive.  Here are the average published prices for tuition, fees, and room and board for 2017-18, along with the average net price for four-year colleges.

Private Colleges

Average published price: $46,950

Average net price: $26,740 

Public Colleges

Average published price for in-state students: $20,770

Average net price for in-state students: $14,940

Keep in mind that these are average prices, so some schools exceed them by a wide margin.  The published prices for tuition and fees (not including room and board) at the ten most expensive colleges for 2017-18 ranged from the high of $57,208 (Columbia University) to the low of $54,010 (Sarah Lawrence College).  Someone paying the full price for tuition, fees, and room and board at these most expensive colleges would easily eclipse $70,000 for the year with books and incidentals.

Some students pay relatively little for college, even at schools with big sticker prices (just like the guests in Room 214 or 215).  They may enjoy academic or athletic scholarships.  They may be poor enough to warrant large amounts of financial aid.  When it comes to aid, it helps if a college has a large endowment, and some do.  Harvard tops the list with an endowment of over $35 billion dollars.  Three other schools (Yale, Stanford, Princeton) have endowments north of $20 billion.  With such endowments, schools can afford to lend a big helping hand.  Arguably, Harvard could stop charging tuition and depend entirely on its endowment.

Most private colleges have modest endowments compared to the wealthiest schools.  My own college, St. John’s University, reported a $159 million endowment for 2018.  Thus, Harvard’s endowment is roughly 220 times larger than my school’s endowment.  St. John’s is a “tuition-driven” school, meaning that it depends on filling its seats to keep the doors open.  Like all colleges, it offers financial aid to students.  The published price for tuition, fees, room and board for 2017-18 was $53,472, and the average need-based scholarship or grant award was $28,255, a difference of $25,000.  Thus, even for students getting a helping hand, the price tag is still likely to be significant.  A few years ago, two student workers in my Philosophy Department told me that they would both be graduating with a debt of $60,000 to $70,000.  The average student loan debt for the class of 2017 in the United States was $39,400.

Given these numbers, one can understand some degree of anxiety when it comes to what a college education can do for you or your child.  For many parents, the idea that their child might take a philosophy class with someone like me and (egads!) like it is enough to strike fear and trembling in their hearts.  The last thing they want is a son or daughter with a philosophy degree and a job after college working part-time as a barista at the local Starbucks for minimum wage.  Yes, indeed.  Try chipping away at those big-time college loans when you’re making minimum wage.  No offense, Professor Cunningham, but might you please point us toward the departments that offer a safe and secure path to a decent job, and preferably, a lucrative one?  But hey, keep up the good work, my man.  To give parents their due, even a philosophy professor must admit that David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche aren’t likely to put bread directly on a graduate’s table immediately after college.  Of course, philosophy puts bread on my table and a roof over my head.  But there are only about 10,000 people like me in the United States, people who went on for a Ph.D. in philosophy and found a job.  We tend to hang onto our positions for a long time—35 years or so in most cases.  In other words, there isn’t a whole lot of turnover in the philosophy business from year to year.  You probably don’t want your son or daughter waiting on that line.

Much the same can be said for the humanities in general.  Literature, history, art, music, religion, languages—these disciplines don’t offer any obvious fast track to a job after college, much less a high-paying one.  On the other hand, some practical majors are safe bets—accounting, nursing, computer science, engineering, finance, pre-medicine.  Shouldn’t any responsible parent look at college as an investment, and if so, aren’t the humanities a poor investment when it comes to prospects for success?  Some colleges apparently believe so.  This spring, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point proposed dropping thirteen majors—including English, philosophy, history, sociology, and Spanish—in favor of programs that “have demonstrated value and demand in the region,” such as marketing, management, graphic design, fire science, and computer information systems.

Well now, not so fast, parents (and administrators).  Studies suggest that humanities majors do well with their careers, that they are highly satisfied with them and carry no more debt than graduates with other majors.  The numbers suggest that they usually start their careers earning less than graduates with science and technical degrees, but they tend to close the gap over time.  Moreover, studies suggest that humanities majors tend to have the kind of critical thinking and communication skills that many employers value, the sorts of skills that are hard to teach on the job.  It’s worth noting that philosophy majors often have the highest acceptance rates to medical schools.

With all this said, let me come to my real point here, one about how we think of the notion of success.  There can be no doubt that the problem of massive student debt in the United States is a very serious one.  Parents and students alike worry quite sensibly about it.  However, the proper response to this genuine problem isn’t to conceive (or re-conceive) of college as some form of straightforward vocational training, where time and tuition dollars purchase an income level.  For one thing, as I am suggesting, the connection between a college major and a career isn’t perfectly straightforward.  But even if it were, defining success purely in terms of a career and an income is unwise.  Of course, money matters.  We need food on the table and a place to put our head at night, and we need the same for our loved ones.  I get it.  You can’t eat Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare.  However, aside from the means to care for ourselves and loved ones, we also need meaningful work, the kind that offers something more than a paycheck.  People who pursue their college studies with an eye purely on the bottom line of a potential paycheck are far more likely to wake up someday feeling like that Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is?  People who pursue Dickens or Dante or Darwin because they love what they are studying—not just to punch a meal ticket—are much likelier to cultivate a path in life where they are immersed in what they do for its own sake, not simply as a means to other goods.

Of course, life often has a way of working out where people don’t get to make a living doing what they love most.  Maybe you’d like to roam the outfield for the Boston Red Sox or captivate audiences in Carnegie Hall, and maybe your reach exceeds your grasp.  If so, then a college education that cultivates a capacity to appreciate the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences may be even more important.  In that case, you need to find some joy and meaning in your pursuits beyond your job, and a good college education can be invaluable for coming to the world in a way that identifies and develops complex, interesting pursuits that make for a better life.  That’s true success, as good as it gets.

Tony Cunningham on “Pride and Peril – America in the Polish Mirror”

Nations understandably wish to think well of themselves, just like individual citizens.  Yet the natural emotions of pride and shame are invariably more complicated when it comes to nations because their histories and doings extend beyond any individual’s life.

If I fail to live up to my responsibilities as a son, brother, friend, husband, father, or philosophy professor, the flaws and failures are on me in a fundamental way.  My shame expresses a sense of personal diminishment—I deem myself less than I should be.  Of course, circumstances beyond my control can influence my success in all things, so there can be mitigating factors with respect to feeling proud or ashamed.  Perhaps the deck was stacked against me, or then again, maybe it was stacked in my favor.  If so, then sheer happenstance may temper my personal responsibility to some degree, for good or ill.  If I have done shameful things, perhaps I should be pitied more than reviled in some cases.  Without a doubt, the proper grounds for pride and shame can be complex, but when it comes to nations, the details are even more complicated.  For instance, if I consider the extermination of native peoples in American history, I can’t sensibly say that I bear any personal responsibility, and yet, the idea that I might still feel ashamed as an American makes perfect sense to me.

In this light, consider a bill recently signed by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda.  The law imposes prison sentences of up to three years for claiming “publicly and contrary to the facts” that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich” in Poland.  The Nazis murdered at least 3 million Jewish Poles during World War II, so there can be no denying that horrific, shameful deeds were perpetrated in Poland.  Though death camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor operated on Polish soil, they were undeniably Nazi camps, not “Polish concentration camps.”

Given these facts, one way to interpret this law, legislation advanced by the Polish nationalist populist party, Law and Justice, is to see it as an honest attempt to discourage and punish slander that paints Poles as complicit perpetrators, rather than victims of Nazi crimes against humanity.  Thus, President Duda insists that the law means to protect the “dignity” of Poland against defamation, and if you take him at his word, why shouldn’t Poles wish to preserve their good name?

Some critics of the law have just one thing to say in response: Jedwabne.  On July 10th, 1941, many (maybe most) of the Jewish residents in the town of Jedwabne were executed.  Historian Jan Gross chronicled the event in his Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland.

The slaughter of Jedwabne Jews lasted an entire day, and it was confined to a space no bigger than a sports stadium.  Sleszytlski’s barn, where the majority of the pogrom victims were burned in the afternoon, was but a stone’s throw from the square in the center of town.  The Jewish cemetery, where many of the victims were knifed, clubbed, and stoned to death, is just across the road.

Though the town was occupied by Nazis, the executions were carried out by
non-Jewish residents of the town, basically a case of one part of the populace killing the other.  Germans were present, but Gross details a situation where these Nazi occupiers were merely observers, not the perpetrators of the pogrom.  As he concludes, “And so everybody who was in town on this day and in possession of a sense of sight, smell, or hearing either participated in or witnessed the tormented deaths of the Jews of Jedwabne.”

Poland suffered horribly in World War II, and the Poles have innumerable stories of profound humanity, heroism, and incredible endurance under Nazi oppression, stories that should rightly inspire national pride.  For instance, Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army officer, voluntarily made his way into Auschwitz to gather intelligence and to organize a resistance movement.  Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and after seeing what was happening, he worked tirelessly to let the Allies know about the evils being visited on Jewish victims.

Yet as Jedwabne poignantly demonstrates, Polish hands were not entirely clean, and quite frankly, no nation could ever likely claim complete innocence in the face of anything like the Nazi occupation.  Under such conditions, some degree of complicity, however begrudging, is likely to be the price of survival.  For some people, a noble death can be preferable to being any part of evil, but especially for those responsible for vulnerable loved ones, the choice is seldom so simple and unequivocal.  Indeed, one has only to heed the poignant words of an Auschwitz survivor like Primo Levi to appreciate the fact that survival in the death camps compelled the moral compromise of dwelling in a “gray zone” where one had to look away and remain silent about the inhumanity foisted on victims.  Poland’s story is a fully human one—a story of loss, heroism, humanity, and inhumanity.

The Polish legislation championed by the party of Law and Justice isn’t truly about a sensible shield against shameless slander.  The law is meant to prop up a mythical image of Polish innocence and glory, where the moral lines between maggots and angels are clear and absolute: Over here are the pure saints, and over there are the abject sinners.  Ironically, this illusion tends to have a special power where national pride and shame are concerned.  It is one thing to confess my own flaws and misdeeds, and quite another to implicate my people by drawing attention to such things, whether they be things of the past or something right here before my eyes.  The powerful yearning to see one’s country as all-good is both childish and completely understandable.

The Polish lie that is this law at heart is a variation on an urge we see all around us in everyday America.  We rush to deem all sorts of things and people sacred in the sense of admitting of no criticism or dissent.  Flags, servicemen, law enforcement officers, clergy, and other souls are revered in ways that mythologize them, effectively denying their humanity in a foolish rush for some version of inhuman purity.  This is folly and worse because by nature, the human condition is imperfection.  At our very best and most beautiful, we have much to be proud about, but we should also keep in mind that Lucifer was undone by pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins.

We do ourselves no favors with make-believe tales that lionize us as nothing but heroes, whether we are Poles or Americans.