Thursday, October 23, 2014

''I think the existence of fake classes and automatic grades - you might say an athlete track, where essentially you might as well not have the university at all - I think that's pretty extreme. I hope it's pretty extreme,'' said Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education who studies cheating.  He was referring to the UNC Chapel Hill scandal, in which it was discovered that some 1500 student athletes were allowed to take fake courses for which they were assigned high grades based only on an essay that was briefly skimmed by a non-faculty administrator.  An investigation has been completed, resulting in several firings, and the NCAA is still considering its next steps.

Of course, this sort of skirting of academic standards to accommodate student athletes is hardly unheard-of, and one could even call this a dog-bites-man story, unworthy of much attention--except for one widely ignored detail:  nearly half the 3100 students given credit for the bogus courses were athletes. In other words, more than half the students given credit for the bogus courses weren't athletes at all.

Some obvious questions that will probably never receive an answer:

1) How did non-athletes hear about and register for these courses?

2) Was every student who asked to register for these courses accepted, and if not, what criteria were used to accept some and reject others?

3)  If benefiting the UNC athletic program and its athletes was the internal rationale for offering these bogus courses to athletes, then what other internal rationale justified offering them to non-athletes?

4) Why does the press insist on treating this scandal as a matter of excessive indulgence of student athletes, when over half the beneficiaries were non-athletes?

5) If UNC could show this sort of rampant disregard for academic standards irrespective of campus athletics, then why shouldn't we expect it to be endemic in the American university system as a whole, also irrespective of campus athletics?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A while back, I noted the strikingly different cinematic treatment accorded two types of illicit romance:  the gay extramarital affair in Brokeback Mountain and the dalliance between a tennis pro and his best friend's fiancee in Match Point.  Now, a real-life episode raises a similar issue:  the rabbi at a major Washington D.C. synagogue has apparently discovered himself to be gay, and has taken the rather unusual step of publicly declaring the end of his marriage on those grounds, to a generally celebratory reception from the press.

Now, let us put aside the halachic question--we will assume that the rabbi in question has determined his "coming out" to be in accord with Jewish law as he understands it.  (And as a Conservative rabbi, he would most likely have plenty of company within his denomination.)  More interesting to me is his public declaration that his recent self-discovery has made it necessary to end his marriage of twenty years.  Although he never explicitly gives a reason for this decision, we are left to assume that, having realized that he can no longer pretend to be romantically attracted to his wife, he has no choice but to end the charade and live life as a (presumably non-celibate) gay man. 

Which leads me to wonder:  what if, instead of discovering that he is attracted exclusively to men, he had in fact discovered himself to be attracted to some other group that does not include his wife--say, younger, prettier women?  Would an announcement that he has chosen to be honest with himself and the world, and live life as a straight man attracted to twenty-something hotties, have been greeted with such warmth and understanding?  And if not, why not?

The issue of social acceptance of gay and lesbian pairings is often treated as a matter of simple equality:  people who happen to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex shouldn't be treated differently from people who happen to be attracted to members of the opposite sex.  At other times, it's treated as a matter of personal freedom--everyone should be allowed the freedom to follow his or her sexual desires wherever they may lead, as long as all participants are consenting adults.  But if a middle-aged rabbi's attraction to men is different from his hypothetical attraction to younger (adult) women--if one is publicly celebrated, while the other never would be--then neither freedom nor equality quite captures the principle being demonstrated here.

A more consistent interpretation would be that we are in the process of establishing an entirely new set of sexual mores, quite different from traditional ones, but not necessarily any less prescriptive.  (In another early blog post, I referred to it as the "college consensus"--that is, the set of beliefs and standards of behavior that the college-age cohort estimates will maximize their social attractiveness and desirability among their peers.)  Like the more traditional set, this new set of standards will have winners and losers--the already-fortunate being disproportionately winners, as always, and the relatively unfortunate disproportionately losers--and will evolve as times and circumstances change.  (In yet another earlier post, I suggested that economic and technological progress were the trigger for the widespread abandonment of "traditional values" in the sexual arena.)

And, just as with the pre-1960s set of conventions, adherents of the new conventions will act as though their conformist moral judgments are a matter of basic common sense and decency, and never think to consider the contradictions and contingencies embedded in their worldview.      

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Next:  "football".  (Followed by, "Republican"...)