Friday, December 24, 2010

Having it both ways in the Golden State

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California officials estimate that the U.S. Census Bureau failed to count 1.5 million of the state's residents, a discrepancy that if true could cost the state billions of dollars in federal aid over the next decade and perhaps an increase in its representation in Congress….A key challenge facing California in any census is that it is home to high numbers of the populations least likely to participate, including minorities, the young and low-income households. Ten of the top 50 "hard-to-count" counties in the nation are in California, and it has a large population of illegal immigrants, who are less likely to participate in the survey for fear that it would put them on the government's radar.

The article was troubling enough with its continued usage of a reductionism of the immigrant to criminal. But it was the commentary that followed the article including quips such as these that was truly disturbing:

It's hard to count people when their (sic) hiding.

Gee, I wonder why they might feel the need to hide….

Then there was this comment:

It is not a matter of hate… It is purely a situation where tax payers don't want to contribute to those who don't pay taxes and work for cash. This is a economic issue ,not a social issue….People will not be silent anymore so they can be PC as we watch our state be turned into a 3rd world playground of freebee's.

Once again, the myth of the tax supported services draining immigrant who contributes nothing to the economy. What a bargain – we get to bash the immigrants who provide us cheap produce, landscaping, child services and building construction while denying their contributions to our lives of privilege as well as the fact that prejudice (and thus hatred) might actually animate our comments about them.

Such a deal!

Finally, there’s this comment:

[E]verywhere you go and the news and TV are reporting yet another murder or protest of illegals waving flags from other countries.

A rather unoriginal, classic construction of the other as a dangerous, murderous threat to decent people. This is the stuff of moral panics.

In Sam Keen’s Faces of the Enemy, he lays out the images of the other from WWII era propaganda. From the German perspective, the allies were less than fully human, animalistic in their mindless, destructive tendencies. They were painted in terms of symbolic and mythical terms representing evil incarnate, enemies of G-d himself. Next to the German propaganda lay the Allies’ depictions of their enemy. The imagery is essentially identical. If one didn’t know which was which it would be hard to tell who had produced them and who they described.

Keen’s book and the provocative film that comes from it contains this poem, To Create an Enemy:

Start with an empty canvas
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.

Dip into the unconsciousness well of your own
disowned darkness
with a wide brush and
strain the strangers with the sinister hue
of the shadow.

Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,
hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as
your own.

Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of
every infinite heart.

Twist the smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.

Strip flesh from bone until only the
abstract skeleton of death remains.

Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphasized into beast, vermin, insect.

Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares – devils,
demons, myrmidons of evil.

When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.

The thing you destroy will have become
merely an enemy of God, an impediment
to the sacred dialectic of history.

Apparently some of the writers to the LA Times have this process down.

So let’s see now. Immigrants must be counted in the census because Californians want more funding and power. But they can’t be counted because Californians have created such a climate of fear in their scapegoating and demonization of them that the immigrants don’t want to be found, particularly not by agents of our government. Gee, that’s a hard one to figure out.

This all reminds me a bit of the Southern objections to the 3/5 Compromise in the original Constitution. Llike Californians, the South wanted to have it both ways - the slaves should count in the Census but Southerners would never agree to seeing the slaves as human beings with the rights of any other American citizens. The Southern aristocracy was more than happy to live off the free labor of the slave with all of its economic rewards, eating the food they grew, exporting the surplus goods they produced, while constructing their slaves as less than human and their slave labor force an ominous threat in constant need of control lest they engage on murderous insurrectionist rampages.

Sound familiar?

The Northern delegates to the convention at Philadelphia, seeking to limit Southern power, insisted that if we're going to count the slaves, they have to be freed and treated like any other citizen. With few exceptions, this strategy was motivated less by a noble concern for the slave than for the developing industries of the north whose corporate descendants dominate our world today. They simply wanted to exercise dominance over their Southern planter aristocracy kin. In the end, three of five slaves were to be counted in the census, legal importation of slaves was ended and the slave question was postponed for another day. In the process, the seeds for the American Civil War had been sown.

So California wants to count undocumented residents in the Census to gain electoral power but G-d forbid we should even see them as fully human beings (as noted by the reductionist reference in the story itself to "illegal immigrants") much less treat them as citizens. Sounds like a page right of the Southern book on dissembling and hypocrisy. And I say that as a Southerner who once lived in California. But I also say that as the descendant of Southerners whose intransigence in coming to grips with the slavery question ultimately proved self-destructive and plunged our nation into its deadliest war in its history.

Apparently we have not learned this lesson of history, to paraphrase Santayana’s famous quote.

Immanuel Kant insisted that human beings should always be seen as ends in themselves, never as means to any other end. Anything less was unjust and thus immoral. In 21st CE America, that means seeing immigrants as means of cheap labor, cheap produce and the means of attaining funding and power in the Census while demonizing them as less than fully human. Of course, that advice was a lot older than Kant when he recast it. The original version read "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And it is found at the heart of every world religion and culture.

Perhaps the good people of California might consider that as they bash immigrants with their mouths full of the food they grow.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Losing My Religion?

Part 2 – Of Serpents, Satans and Sirens

For many Americans, this is the point that college enters the picture. Many students arriving at a college or university have been largely sheltered from any views about religions other than their own by their parents and pastors. A number come to us today from Catholic parochial schools or their often more dogmatic cousins, white flight evangelical academies (Our Lady of the Corrugated Steel Building). Increasing numbers come to us from homeschooling where captive audiences often learn parental prejudices as gospel truth.

But that truth doesn’t hold up well under the pressure of college life for most students. Being confronted with ideas at odds with their parents’ and pastors’ religions, many students realize for the first time in their lives that there are human beings who in good faith hold plausible views of religion and spirituality different from their own. Fairly quickly most come to recognize that lumping all those folks into the former self-serving categories of the great unwashed, the secular humanists or the eternally damned (a category always required as a means of cordoning off the elect) simply is not very intellectually honest. Worse yet, in most cases, such dismissive assessment of the other is soon recognized through critical thinking as irreconcilable with the Golden Rule, a variant of which lies at the heart of every religious tradition.

The result for many students is cognitive dissonance, a painful reality where one’s deeply held beliefs are recognized to be at odds with the reality one is encountering. Some respond to this crisis disingenuously, surrounding themselves with only those who will affirm their challenged beliefs in any number of “campus ministries” and self-described “Christian fraternities and sororities.” While organized religious institutions in the past provided chaplains to universities and colleges, increasingly, with the exception of Roman Catholics, most mainstream chaplaincies have gone the way of all flesh in a society whose true religion is fundamentalist free market economics and have been discontinued due to cost. In their place have come the many variants of non-denominational evangelical and Pentecostal groups with alluring names such as Shift. These often tend in the direction of the anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism which have long marked American conservative religion and their members regularly construct themselves as long-suffering martyrs in a hostile, godless lions’ den.

Others embrace the religion of cynicism, another intellectually dishonest path which would seek to avoid dissonance rather than face it head on. “All religions are a bunch of crap” is somewhat charming in middle school students. It’s a lot less charming in honors students capable of actually engaging in critical reasoning but unwilling to be bothered.

Then there are the few brave souls who courageously face the dissonance. They relinquish their desire – which they inevitably perceive to be a need – for certainty and final answers and make peace with ambiguity. They recognize that coming to grips with the questions they face make take years, perhaps even a lifetime. They read. They listen. They discuss. And they reflect a lot.

These students have embraced, in the words of R.E.M., the process of losing their religions. But what many come to realize fairly quickly is that it was never their religion they were losing. It is the religion that all of us have essentially inherited if not absorbed by osmosis from our families, our significant others and our culture. The vast majority of us never chose our religions, they were chosen for us. Choice involves an informed and thoughtful process. For most of us, that process comes long after our religions were chosen. Hence the resistance we all feel in engaging that process from the point of the finish line.

Another reason for resistance is obvious: cognitive dissonance is painful. As M. Scott Peck observed in The Road Less Travelled, most of us avoid growth and development as human beings because it requires ongoing effort, the willingness to endure pain and the ability to delay gratification. Thus for many people it seems much more appealing if not compelling to simply continue buying into constructs to which we’ve never really given much thought than going back to the beginning and considering religions on their own merits.

But for those students who have left behind the affirming others of their hometowns who helped maintain the seeming self-evidence of the truths of their belief system - only to encounter the disaffirming others in college who gleeefully reveal the emperor has no clothes - burying one’s head in the sand is never easy. It is also implicitly intellectually dishonest. Much like waking up the morning after one’s first blackout on alcohol, there is no longer the luxury of naivete that one’s approach doesn’t have problem. Thus, maintaining inherited religion in the face of the disconfirming others of the classroom and the dorm bull sessions often comes at the cost of one’s integrity.

The alternative, however, also comes at a price. Many college freshmen come to campus with the admonition still ringing in their ears from parents and pastors to avoid those college classes, professors and students who might endeavor to tempt them to “lose your religion.” Oddly enough, it’s the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent – the bearer of wisdom and human consciousness in the Genesis story – which is instructive here.

“God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’ Genesis 3:3-5 NRSV.

It’s not difficult to see who’s who in this story when applied to the college setting. The primordial human beings of Jewish scripture are innocent, naïve and largely unconscious before their encounter with the serpent, much like many incoming students. But their naivete does not survive the encounter with the serpent who offers the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent has historically been associated in Christian thought with the figure of the Satan, the tempter, the tester, the challenger. Another of his names is Lucifer, the one who casts light on the subject.

The serpent is revealing two important truths: One, G-d has lied to these prototypical representatives of the human race, adam (Heb., humanity and hawwah (Heb., mother of all living). They won’t die if they eat from the tree. But they will lose their innocence and know right from wrong – becoming responsible moral agents - as a result. As Gloria Steinem observed, “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.”

The truth is that the folks back home who warned these students about the serpents at the university actually do have much to fear: college students often reject literalist-mythic religious constructs when they are required to think critically about them. The knowledge of good and evil is a powerful tool. But in the process of critical consideration of inherited religions, something terrible often happens: students disobey – and thus betray - the gods who would gladly have kept them from “knowing good from evil,” - their parents, their pastors, their significant others from whom they have inherited their religions.

Of course, the reality is that it never was their religion in the first place. It was someone else’s. And that is why the cognitive dissonance proves so severe when they are challenged in classes and in dorm room bull sessions to explain, much less defend, their beliefs – they’ve never really thought about what they believe and why.

So it’s not surprising that professors become antichrists and academia becomes the center of secular humanism in the eyes of the families, parishes and communities they left behind. From their perspective, not only is one of their own mutual affirmers – required to make their ongoing belief in patently incredible faith constructs possible - lost to them forever (because G-d has placed an angel with a flaming sword at the Gate to the Garden of Innocence). Worse yet, in the process they have become the dreaded disaffirming other standing in the presence of their former tribe drawing the tribal gods into question. In short, they have become blasphemers.

Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I've said too much

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream
That was just a dream

 By some twist of fate, R.E.M.’s song was playing on my radio as I pulled out of my driveway in Orlando, my Mazda loaded to the ceiling with my clothes, books, aquariums and computers, headed to Berkeley for seminary in 1991. I squirmed as I realized the irony of a then young man headed to seminary being serenaded about losing one’s religion. Little did I know how prophetic it would prove to be.

I had just come through an extended period of disillusionment with the Episcopal Church in the face of the takeover of my local diocese by fundamentalist evangelicals. I had joined the church while an undergraduate at the University of Florida for its intellect, its aesthetics, its consciousness of issues of social justice, its rich catholic heritage and its reformation value of conscience. All of this had disappeared in an instant with the election of a Billy Graham wannabe as the new bishop. To this day, I grieve the loss of that religion. But, in truth, I had already begun losing that religion before I even got into my car that day.

Study in an interfaith seminary consortium next to a world class university in Berkeley allowed me to stop focusing on the door which was closing behind me and to refocus on the doors which would open for me at this new stage of life: ordination to the priesthood, connection to a Buddhist sangha, experiential learning of liberation theology in Latin America, the discovery of social psychology and religion, the insistence that one’s religion and study be intellectually rigorous. The parochial aspects of my former religion would be peeled off in successive phases of cognitive dissonance and discovery. Ultimately, I would come to see all institutional religions as possible means to the end of a spiritual life including my own even as I came to value my own Episcopal tradition as the place which grounded me.

Today, I find myself grateful to my religious traditions of the Methodist and Episcopal Churches for all they provided me as my starting place to a spiritual life. I am grateful for the many teachers I have had along the way, the agent provocateurs of cognitive dissonance calling me to an ongoing life of self-examination and openness to wisdom that I increasingly find comes from unexpected places. And I have come to take my own role as teacher and mentor very seriously, including the awareness of how what I teach impacts my students.

Like many of my students, I did lose someone else’s religion. That loss was underway by the time I arrived in college and only accelerated at that point. Like them, I had to live through the pain of realizing my disloyalty and treason to those authorities that my relinquishing of their vision produced. But, like Robert Frost’s poem, I found that on my life journey “[t]wo roads diverged in a wood, and I-- I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”

And so I embrace with great caution my role as the serpent, the agent provocateur, the siren calling them to think critically about their religion, asserting that “if the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.” I recognize the invitation to treason my classes represent and the pain of cognitive dissonance that betrayal of one’s significant others it brings along with it, the necessary first step in answering the vocation to grow and develop more nuanced understandings of religions once cast in black and white.

I also know that I have no new answers to replace those black and white easy answers a critically considered understanding of religion destabilizes. I can only offer the assurance from my own life experience that it is possible to survive the loss of someone else’s religion, the destructive step in Shiva’s dance required to make way for the birth of something new. For that journey, I offer all that I have to give - my compassion for the painfulness of the journey and my willingness to listen.

Now I've said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try….
 Lyrics from R.E.M., “Losing My Religion,” Out of Time (1991)


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Losing My Religion? -
Part 1 – Polls, politics and the power of education

Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up


That's me in the cornerThat's me in the spotlight, I'm
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

An interesting poll appeared on the Gallup site last week. Entitled “Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism,” the poll queried respondents on three possible alternatives to the common but false dichotomy of “the theory of evolution” v. the dogma of creationism. The pollster asked subjects the following questions:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your view on the origin and development of human beings?

1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God guided this process;

2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God had not part in this process, or

3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

Gallup described option three as “strict creationism” while describing an understanding of a divinely guided evolutionary process as “theistic evolution” and the non-theistic evolutionary view as “secular evolution.” One hears a hint of the culture wars in these descriptions (Godliness v. secular humanism) which is not terribly surprising given Gallup’s long running career as a spokesperson for evangelical Protestantism. But to his credit, these questions admit to a bit more nuance than his usual.

Gallup breaks down the numbers by a number of covariates. Not surprisingly, church attendance is a fairly strong predictor of one’s willingness to buy into an unnuanced creationist vision. Only one out of three weekly church attendees held theistic or non-theistic evolutionary views.  If one is hearing such ideas regularly, it’s predictable that they would be reflected in responses to surveys on the subject. Conversely, slightly less than one out of four of those who seldom or never attend church held the unnuanced creationist view.

A second covariate which is also hardly surprising is the breakdown of political affiliation on these views. More than half of all Republicans surveyed held an unnuanced creationist view while 60% of both Democrats and Independents held one of the two evolutionary understandings. This is a rather graphic demonstration of the hegemony that evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants along with their magisterial fundamentalist Catholic siblings exert over what was once a Grand Old Party - at least in its own self-description. That hegemony is easily seen in the vote on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell this week with every single Republican vote and four of the five absent/not voting Senators affiliated with the GOP. Sadly, there is very little grand or old about confusing social prejudices with religion but just as sadly, this is often the face of institutional religion in America today.

Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

The covariate which caught my eye, however, was that which compared answers to these questions by level of educational attainment. Gallup’s findings are consistent with just about every other polling data I’ve ever seen here. This survey found that those with a high school diploma or less and those with some college but no degree were most likely to buy into the unnuanced creationist vision. Nearly half, 47%, of those with no college experience found this vision compelling while 44% of those with some college but no degree held to that vision.

This number drops to just over a third, 37%, of those who attain a four year college degree with 59% of that cohort accepting one of the two evolutionary understandings. Among postgraduate degreed professionals, nearly half, 49%, accept a divinely guided evolutionary process, one in four see evolution as unguided by God, while a mere 22% continue to assert that a completed divine creation occurred within the last 10,000 years.

[found at]

It is important to note at this point in my discussion that correlation is not the same thing as causation. Establishing the latter requires a lot more research than what Gallup provides us here. Even so, the implications of this covariate seem fairly apparent: the more education a given individual attains, the less s/he tends to hold unnuanced religious views. This finding is consistent with a plethora of studies of the educational attainment/religious beliefs relationship. 

 In the 1970s Emory professor James Fowler articulated a six stage model of faith development patterned roughly on Kohlberg’s six stage moral reasoning model. Fowler describes Stage 2 Literal/Mythic Faith as follows:

Stage 2 Mythic-Literal faith is the stage in which the person begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community. Beliefs are appropriated with literal interpretations, as are moral rules and attitudes. Symbols are taken as one-dimensional and literal in meaning. In this stage the rise of concrete operations leads to the curbing and ordering of the previous stage's imaginative composing of the world… Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience. This is the faith stage of the school child (though we sometimes find the structures dominant in adolescents and in adults).

Unnuanced creationist views are well described here: literal interpretations, one-dimensional, concrete, conditional for belonging to community. Like Kohlberg’s stages, Fowler notes that changes in life circumstances which cause disequilibrium give rise to movement along this developmental continuum:

A factor initiating transition to Stage 3 is the implicit clash or contradictions in stories that leads to reflection on meanings. The transition to formal operational thought makes such reflection possible and necessary. Previous literalism breaks down; new "cognitive conceit" (Elkind) leads to disillusionment with previous teachers and teachings. Conflicts between authoritative stories (Genesis on creation versus evolutionary theory) must be faced.

From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. Found at

[continued in Part 2]
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA) Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Every whisper

Monday, December 20, 2010

8 Astonishing Stats on Academic Cheating | OEDb

From a reader:

Hi Harry,

We recently published an article that you may be interested in entitled, "8 Astonishing Stats on Academic Cheating".

I thought perhaps you'd be interested in sharing this article with your readers? After having followed your blog for a while, I feel that this one article would align well with your blog's subject matter.

If interested, here's the link for your convenience: ( ).

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Julia Watson

8 Astonishing Stats on Academic Cheating OEDb

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In Praise of

The term is ending and the usual comments appear at the site. I have come to look forward to the sour grapes kvetching and the occasional perceived need of students who appreciated my classes to defend my honor.

In all honesty, my ego is secure enough these days to read these comments without too much apoplexy. I was recognized by the university last year with their naming me to one of only 18 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Awards given out university wide and I am awaiting notice on my application for a Fulbright-Hays scholarship this summer. Ultimately, I don’t really need my ego stroked by a consumerist online survey site to feel like I’m doing a pretty decent job.

While my ratings at remain Average, the comments are always telling, inevitably more about the student than the instructor. The most recent entry comes from a student in my World Religions course. The student’s ratings in the categories of easiness, helpfulness and clarity resulted in an Average rating consistent with my longitudinal rating there. One would not know that, however from the shrill comments that follow:

Avoid at all costs! Worst professor ever. Crazy amount of work and unrealistic expectations. Impossible to get an A.

It’s probably helpful to address these comments in reverse order. First, in terms of grading, 5 of the 13 students got an A. That’s 38% of the total class. What the student is revealing here is that s/he did not get one of those As. And given their comments here, it’s not surprising.

As for the work load, the World Religions course has one of the lower work loads of all the classes I teach. I do assign a critical précis exercise to insure students read and critically consider the texts, such exercises designed to insure students show up to class prepared to discuss the material. The reading generally takes up to an hour and a half per chapter and the précis will not take the average student more than a half hour, assuming they have actually read the material and not merely skimmed it (which becomes apparent immediately upon reading the précis).

Now, that’s two hours total. And, for the average college class, that’s the average reasonably expectable prep time instructors should be able to expect students to spend without complaint, much less the histrionics evidenced here. And, given that the readings generally are discussed over two class sessions, that makes the average time required even less.

What’s troubling is hearing an honors student claim that an average to less than average prep time is somehow a “crazy amount of work.” What might constitute reasonable here?

As for whether I’m the “worst professor ever,” I’d say this student has probably not had many professors. Indeed, the student rated this class as “average.” That’s hardly “the worst professor ever” unless the professors the student has taken outside this class have all been well above average. Somehow I have to doubt that.

Having been a student in higher education for some 17 years total, I am aware that there are good professors and there certainly are some bad professors. I’ve survived a few myself. But a professor who pushes honors students to put in an average amount of prep time and then holds their final products to a slightly higher standard of grading than a non-honors student’s work product is hardly evidencing “unrealistic expectations.” Indeed, such a professor is merely doing their job.

Ratings like this could give an instructor a complex. Of course, I realize that anonymous online sites like this are worth what you pay for them. Anyone can put in their .02 worth including people who’ve never even been in the course. And, as noted above, the only folks who come to such sites in the first places are those with axes to grind (including the student who made, at worst, a C+ in this class) or those who feel the need to let their classmates know that they can get an easy A in a given course. And then there are the occasional self-appointed defenders of the honor of the instructors students feel have been unfairly depicted. Virtually every instructor has their cheering section as well as those who see them as the antichrist. I understand my supporters call themselves the Cuv-Luv Clan. Cute.

So why “In Praise of” Simple. The truth is, that if a student is lazy, has an enormous sense of entitlement and is prone to register their discontent when that entitlement is not rewarded in my classes, I’d prefer them to not come through the door of my classroom in the first place. If this rating service helps prevent that mismatch of serious college instructor with inordinately self-focused slacker, all parties are well served by such ratings.

In all honesty, I’m sorry the student who wrote this review had such a bad experience. I am enough of a Myers-Brigg Feeler to want everyone to be happy with my classes, as unrealistic as that may be. I suspect that had the student come to talk with me during office hours (and only one of the students in this class ever did so), perhaps they could have gained a little better sense of why I demand what I do from honors students and why, in the long run, it is in their best interest that I do so.

Even with this response, I suspect that somewhere down the road, this student will realize that having been forced to take seriously the project of learning about world religions in an increasingly globalized world culture was ultimately a major favor to them. While I don’t suspect they’ll drop me a line to tell me as much or add a corrective entry at this mindless consumerist website, I do have a hunch that one day they may regret this very self-revealing entry if ever so slightly.

In the meantime, I’m just thankful that their warning may prevent any of their fellow slackers from inflicting themselves upon my courses and the generally fine students they draw. I’m sure their slacker soulmates can find the classes which won’t demand much of them and will reward their mediocrity in the meantime. But more importantly, we will both be spared the irritation of dealing with honors students who resent being called to work up to their potential as well as their mindless, angst-driven ratings at at the end of the term.

Isn’t that just like the entitlement culture – everyone is a winner!


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, Ph.D., J.D., M.Div.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Elephant in the Room - Public Universities for a Socially Irresponsible Public

From today’s Inside Higher Education comes this little blurb:

Ideas for U. of California

A special commission studying the future of the University of California released its final report Monday, with numerous recommendations for the university system to thrive in an era of limited state budgets. Most of the ideas have been publicly discussed previously in relation to the commission's work; the proposals include three-year undergraduate degrees, improved transfer paths from community colleges to university campuses, enhanced use of online education and additional enrollment of out-of-state students.

Of course, it’s hardly news that higher education is being defunded across the nation. Most universities have attempted to make up the slack by engaging in cut-throat competition for private and federal grant moneys – always with strings attached. Others have taken the PR route, seeking to sell their campuses with perks for student consumers ranging from overpriced sports programs to four star meal programs and swanky dorms. Tuitions have skyrocketed in most places and schools have learned clever but dishonest means of making up the difference in fees for everything from the technologies needed to run any 21st CE class to athletic fees whether students attend the many sporting events colleges feel increasing compelled to host or not. Such increases inevitably fall hardest upon the children of the working class, many of them the first in their families to attend college.

It’s particularly disheartening to see the University of California system in such dire straits. This was once the jewel of American public higher education with virtually free tuition for those who could be admitted. California universities have led the nation in true academic research (as opposed to the intellectual and ethical prostitution of today’s corporate sponsored research). The two tiered system has been a powerhouse of generative, creative education for a long time, this despite the assault on the system that began under then-governor Ronald Reagan which ended the Prague Spring of free tuition largely because the universities also had become the birthplace of the free speech movement.

It is sad to see this once glorious system so hobbled. I spent four years in Berkeley in seminary and graduate study in the early 90s. While there I took a class at the university in the sociology of deviancy. It occurred during a grad student teaching assistant strike. While students at my own university would probably have celebrated being free of the requirements to attend a break out discussion section once a week led by a grad TA, the students at UC Berkeley were ready to go on strike themselves at being deprived of that opportunity. These were serious students. And Berkeley was a very fertile environment in which to be a student.

What occurred to me as I read this blurb is what seems to me to be the elephant in the room – social irresponsibility. Business demands workers with a modicum of skills and the prestige of a college degree whether they are particularly well educated or not. Middle class parents feel the need for social respectability that only bachelor degrees seem to be able to provide them and the prospect that their children will not fall from the middle class. Legislators who know virtually nothing about education feel free to impose increasing demands upon colleges and their staffs even as they slash their budgets. Yet no one talks about their responsibilities to the very system upon which their own demands are so freely imposed.

But at a very basic level, colleges have become enablers for this socially irresponsible behavior. They have prostituted themselves on grant moneys and the research it buys allowing moneyed interests to legitimate often destructive behaviors. They have admitted more students than they can competently handle using massive auditorium classes, closed circuit television and now online systems to ensure the hordes can gain enough credits to claim their degrees. They seem to be caught in a rather perverse Field of Dreams mentality that holds to a thus far unfounded belief that if the students come, they will be funded. Colleges have cut staffs, programs, salaries and benefits of their instructional and support staffs even as they engage in high profile but incredibly expensive sports programs and building campaigns.

What they have not done seems to be the obvious – the elephant in the room. They have failed to demand that the public - whose children are mostly being trained for jobs as well as the handful who are actually becoming educated - should be responsible for the services they are being provided. They have become enablers of an incredibly dysfunctional pattern of behavior.

What might happen if the universities suddenly said to the public, “I’m sorry, but you have only provided sufficient funding for 60% of the students we now have. Beginning this term, admissions will be brought into line with actual funding.” No more bake sales and car washes for grant procurement. No more prostitution to corporate interests seeking to legitimate destructive practices (including the Lawrence Labs at Berkeley). No more dishonest fees and rising tuitions imposed on students, the poorest of them unable to meet that steadily rising demand. No more ego-driven attempts to draw students with expensive sports programs and building campaigns.

What might happen if public universities simply said to the public “Time to be responsible?” And what might happen if they themselves behaved responsibly?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.