Saturday, September 29, 2012

Following in the Way of a Beloved Saint

A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida on the celebration of the Feast of St. Francis, Sept. 30, 2012.

Both here and in all your churches throughout the world. We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, for by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. AMEN. (Franciscan Prayer Upon Entering A Church)

An Improbable Life

        Today we celebrate the feast day of one of the most beloved saints in the Christian tradition. Francis of Assisi is the second most popular saint in Christendom after the Virgin Mary. Statues of Francis adorn the churchyards of many parishes including this one. And many homes, like my own, feature one or more versions of St. Francis in their gardens. 

        There are a number of reasons that Francis is so beloved. He led a highly improbable life that began in wealth and ended in poverty, a life of partying and hell-raising which earned him the title “the prince of fools” in his youth but which was spent serving the destitute and attending the dying lepers in his adulthood.

        By the end of his life, Francis had drawn to him three orders of Franciscans. The First Order was composed of men like himself who called themselves friars, living together in community and serving the world around them. A Second Order composed of women formed around the leadership of St. Claire. These women lived lives of contemplative prayer and devotion within enclosed communities called convents. Both First and Second Order Franciscans agreed to lives which left behind all worldly possessions, all personal relationships and the right to make one’s own decisions about virtually every aspect of life – poverty, chastity and obedience.

        But such a rule proved difficult for many Christians who found Francis’ way of following Jesus appealing but simply could not leave behind families to go live in community. And so Francis formed a Third Order of Franciscans, people who remained in their own homes and communities but agreed to follow a rule of life which bore the Franciscan marks of simplicity of lifestyle, holiness of relationships and devotion to the Third Order.

Twenty years ago in the city named for Saint Francis, San Francisco, I was professed as a member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St. Francis. And so it is a joy to be able to tell you this day about this saint whose way of following Jesus changed my life forever.

God’s Goodness Everywhere He Looked

        Today’s psalm points to one of the major ways that Franciscan thought has impacted the Christian tradition. It is a litany of praise that includes everything from wild animals, creeping things and flying birds to mountains and hills, the depths of the sea and even the “stormy wind fulfilling his command.” Unlike the medieval church which saw the world as a place of evil and sin lurking in the shadows, everywhere Francis looked he saw the beauty - and thus the goodness - of G-d in all of creation.

        It is not surprising that Francis has long been seen as the patron saint of the woodland animals and of animal lovers generally. Francis was known to preach to the birds and to tame ferocious wolves. As we gather this day to bless the animals whose lives are a blessing to our own lives, living evidence of the generosity of a gracious G-d, we participate in a very Franciscan act. Look around you at the beauty of all these animals! Listen to the beautiful hymn to creation they are singing this morning. What a glorious hymn!

I also invite you to take one second to think back over your lifespan to all the animals who have shared your life and consider the enormous debt we owe to them for all they have given to us. And now think of how much G-d loves the creation to bless us with such beauty, such love and such devotion. The sheer generosity of G-d is humbling indeed.   

        It would be easy to end a sermon on such an idyllic note. But there is more to Francis of Assisi than that. While it is tempting to cement Francis into place in our bird baths and our gardens, this is a saint who calls us to lives of careful consideration of our own relationship to the creation and its Creator.

        Francis was clear that the belief that most human beings have held throughout history - that the human animal is the most important animal in the creation - is ultimately little more than the deadly sin of pride at work.  In the philosophy department where I work at UCF, we give it a fancy name: anthropocentrism, human beings who see themselves at the center of the universe.

Ironically, what we are able to recognize today is that Francis was onto something 900 years ago when he sought to remind us that while we are an important part of G-d’s creation, we are, in the end, only one part. The practice of anthropocentrism has had an enormously harsh impact on G-d’s good creation. The human animal has been responsible for the extinction of many of its fellow animals. Indeed, today the carelessness and self-focus of the human animal threatens to make the good creation itself uninhabitable as the effects of climate change increasingly begin to make themselves known.

Francis of Assisi asks us this day to consider our relationship to this good earth, our island home. Ask yourself: Do I show my gratitude to the animals in my life for their companionship and devotion?  Does my life honor G-d by preserving the good creation? Do my choices respect the goodness of all created life or do they fall into the trap of anthropocentrism?

The Distressing Disguise of Poverty

        A second aspect of the Franciscan way is reflected in today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson. The prophet Jeremiah says the following:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages…. [To take up] the cause of the poor and needy…Is not this to know me?”

        The turning point of Francis’ life occurred when he encountered a leper one day outside the walls of Assisi.  Francis struggled with his own revulsion as he looked at the leper, his skin rotting away, his fingers barely able to hold the beggar’s bowl which was all that stood between him and starvation.

Francis got down from his horse. Summoning up every bit of courage he had, Francis embraced the leper, kissing the dying skin of his face and wiping his sores with his own garment. For Francis, it was a break through. He would later write that in the moment, Francis was able to see the image of G-d hiding behind the distressing disguise of poverty, disease and social rejection. And thereafter, Francis began a life of serving the poor and the lepers, a ministry he saw as nothing more than what G-d expected of any follower of Jesus. This he did at no small expense to himself. The chances are that his eventual blindness as well as the famed stigmata which appeared on his hands and feet may well have been the result of his contact with the lepers he served.

Francis’ life and example present those of us who would follow Jesus with a number of questions. Ask yourself: On whose faces do I have the most difficulty seeing and honoring the image of G-d? When I see homeless people, do I connect with their humanity or do I pass immediately into judgment, blaming them for their own misery? And, with an election approaching, will my vote be cast in a manner that insures that workers are paid a fair wage and that the concerns of the poor and the needy are met?

        Finally, our Gospel reading analogizes the following of Jesus to taking on a yoke, the wooden block that allowed oxen to be steered in order to plow the fields. Jesus tells us his yoke is easy, its burden light. The way of Jesus was not about getting one’s beliefs right, a very modern way of seeing religion. Rather, it was about how one lived, a way of being the people of G-d.

Use Words (Only) When Necessary

        Francis sought to live out the Gospel quite literally. When a talking crucifix at an abandoned chapel in San Damiano told him he should “rebuild my church,” Francis went out and began collecting stones. For Francis, believing was not enough. A faith that centered only on beliefs and ritual, focused on the life hereafter while ignoring the here and now, missed the point. Francis was prone to say “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words (only) when necessary.” For Francis, a faith worth living was always incarnational, it was a lived faith, a faith evidenced in practice.

        In keeping with that vision of incarnational faith, I would remind us that our church is in Francis’ debt for two of its most cherished services. Francis was concerned that the poor - who were inevitably illiterate – would be excluded from the good news of Jesus. And so his friars created the living nativity scene at Christmas and the Stations of the Cross during Lent. As a result, the Gospels literally came alive. And we are all the better for it.

        Francis leaves us with an important question: If our lives are the only gospels other people will ever read, what would they say? Would our lives evidence the good news of G-d’s love for all of creation? Would our gratitude for G-d’s generosity, our ability to see the image of G-d on all human faces and our respect for G-d’s good creation prompt others to ask, “What is it you know that I don’t?”

Let us pray:
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace gladly to renounce the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfect joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Little Spanish Goes a Long Way

An E.F. Hutton moment at the Golden Corral

A couple of years ago, my family converged upon a Golden Corral restaurant in southeastern Orlando along south Semoran Boulevard for dinner. My father was a depression era child and is always concerned about getting enough to eat (and always for a minimal price, mind you). There is inevitably plenty for vegetarians to eat there so it’s in many ways a perfect place for family dinners.

The strip on Semoran south of Colonial Drive (SR 50) where the Golden Corral is located is largely Latino these days. While I was aware of that, it’s not something that I think much about as I drive down the highway alternatively reading storefronts and billboards in English and Spanish. One day my Dad was in the car and I was commenting on a billboard for lawyers when he said, “Where did you see that?” And I suddenly realized that after all the years I’d spent in Latin America, Spanish billboards just seemed pretty routine to me. But not to those who live in small towns outside the urban centers here in Florida, like my Dad, for whom Spanish is not so much a constant as the evidence of foreign cultures.

In the restaurant that evening, my brother’s middle kid, who is known for making wise acre remarks, was telling us about his troubles in his International Baccalaureate program at his high school. Seems his Spanish class was his major downfall. Given my love of Latin America, I was confused: “What is it about the language that you find so difficult?” And to my astonishment, he replied, “It’s the language of the maids and the janitors. Why would I want to learn that?”

Like the old E.F. Hutton commercials where everyone suddenly becomes quiet, listening in hopes of hearing the wisdom of a stock broker, it was as if time suddenly stood still. Everyone at the table with us suddenly grew silent. And I began to look around at the nearby tables, overflowing with loud, joyous Latino families, wondering who had heard that comment.

The Sheer Pragmatism of Becoming Multilingual

In all honesty, it was hard for me to contain my anger at that moment. I love all of my nephews and my one beloved niece dearly. But this comment hit at another major love in my life – Latin America and its culture. It also was made in a context which rendered the comment not only philistine in its stupidity but potentially dangerous.

“Sport, I suggest you look around yourself. Do you notice that we English speakers are the minority in this place tonight? Might you consider that comment is more than a little ill-advised under the circumstances?”

And then I poured it on: “Who are you that you think you are too good to learn this language, anyway? Does it occur to you that your father speaks Spanish, your uncle and your aunt speak Spanish? Even your brother speaks Spanish. What makes you so good that you can’t learn it as well?”

By then I was cooled down enough to add the practical reason that might speak to my periodically bone-headed nephew: “Look, honey, if you’re going to live in Florida, you simply need to learn Spanish, period. You don’t have to necessarily embrace all things Latin. But Spanish is a survival skill in this state, whatever you might think about that. And, to be honest, you probably should learn some French as well since that’s the third most spoken language in this state these days.”

In all honesty, I doubt much of that penetrated the cranium of a 19 year old who knows everything there is to know about everything, having been there myself. But the truth of my own words came back to me this day in a way totally unexpected.

Indispensable Information – en Español

I took my car to Sears Auto this morning to have the tires balanced. As it turns out they all needed replacement. Big surprise, about $630 worth! But given my plans to not buy another car, it’s an investment in a survival strategy I’m willing to make.

As I reeled out of Sears at 8:42 AM, book bag in hand, I hurried up the street running along its western edge, hoping to catch the 8:45 bus to the university. I knew I was running right on the cusp of making that run and that another would not be around for another hour, a result of recent cutbacks in public transportation in a city with the highest pedestrian fatality rate in America.

When I got to the bus stop, a young woman with her two school children were sitting there. They appeared to be Latino but I did not want to assume anything. My experience is that most Latinos want to speak English to you if for no other reason than to reaffirm their commitment to being in America.

I asked the woman in English if Bus 13 had come. She shook her head. İ Claro! I thought. So I repeated the question in Spanish. At first she wasn’t sure what I had asked (whether she was awaiting Bus 13), perhaps taken back by a Gringo speaking Spanish, but eventually she told me she was waiting for either of two other buses which also ran this route, neither numbered 13.  So, I specifically asked “And Bus 13? Has it already come?” “Si, 13 ha passo.” Yes. The 13 bus just came through here. “Gracias, Señora,” I said and picked up my bag to run over to Colonial Drive to catch the 104 which was due at 9 AM.

Had I not been able to speak Spanish, I would not have been able to ask if the bus had already come. And I would have waited, perhaps past the time I could have caught the only remaining route out to the university in time for my first morning class. Knowing enough Spanish to ask a simple question about the bus routes saved my butt this morning.

In No Way Demeans English

Now I can already hear the Know-Nothings screaming “This is America, they should learn English!” And, frankly, there is some truth in that assertion. English is not only America’s primary – though not exclusive – language, it is the primary language of global business today. So, yes, the woman on the bench from Central America probably should learn English. And her two boys will no doubt grow up bilingual.

But, the reality is that Florida – like much of America today – is not monolingual and hasn’t been since its colonization. Spanish is spoken in the homes of about 1 out of every 4 Floridians. And Hatian Creole French is spoken in every 50th home in this state. As I told my nephew, it is to all Floridians’ advantage to learn these languages if nothing else than for survival skills, as my own experience this morning exemplifies.

Perhaps more importantly, it is a gift to any human being who wishes to be fully human to learn other languages. Spanish provides one with entry into a major chunk of this state and this country’s history. French provides another point of entry to yet another major chunk. Learning these languages in no way demeans the English language that virtually all Americans speak. It simply enriches it.

Thank You a Todos mis Maestros

This morning, I was grateful to all my Spanish teachers over all my lifetime who have worked so hard to muster a semi-fluent Spanish that I can speak, at its peak after a couple of days in a Spanish speaking country. I thank my next door neighbor Cuban exiles in the frightening days of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 who introduced me to Spanish vowels and my first Spanish words. I thank my patient and tireless Spanish teacher at Citrus High’s evening program who helped me learn enough words to communicate with my Spanish speaking students at the middle school in the mid 1970s. I thank the teaching assistants who did their best with this law student taking Intro Spanish classes over on the main campus of the University of Florida in the 1980s. And I thank the hundreds of teachers onsite in Latin America in my many sojourns there over the past decade who have done their best to turn a Spanish sow’s ear into a semi-fluent silk purse with a modicum of success.

To all my teachers, I say thank you. Thank you for helping me catch my bus this morning. More importantly, thank you for enriching my life in ways I never knew possible so many years ago when I was learning Spanish vowel sounds at a birthday party where my brother and I were the only children who did not speak the verbal language but were able to communicate in the very human language of celebration of life which crosses all cultural boundaries.

A todos - Muchas gracias, maestros estimados. Es una cosa Buena de vera hablar un poquito de  Español (To all of you - Thank you very much, respected teachers. It is a good thing, indeed, to speak a little bit of Spanish)

No doubt, that’s at best a close approximation.

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Exceptions to an Unenviable Rule

An Unflattering Portrait

The recent release of Levine and Dean’s Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait
of Today’s Student (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2012) well illustrates my own
concerns for higher education and places them in sharp focus. It describes the
Gen Y cohort in alarming terms:

            Immature, needy, protected and tethered to their parents; hard working
            but prone to confuse quantity of work completed with the quality of the
            product; consumer oriented and entitled.

To their credit, they are also recognized as having accomplished the
embrace of the highly diverse society that is America today with which their Boomer
parents continue to struggle. And they are roundly recognized as the first digital
natives with enormous technological potential while largely using that know-how
thus far to create highly tribalized social circles which shut out the vast majority of the world
around them and often using their beloved technologies in ways that demonstrate
a lack of decorum and a decided weakness in social skills.

This is certainly consistent with the students I encounter today. It is a rather unflattering
portrait and one which provides no small amount of alarm for those of us who will
be elderly and dependent in a society run by Gen Y adults a mere two decades away.
But in order to avoid the same kind of mindless awfulizing I see from undergrads at
consumerist online sites (, it is important to note there that there
are always exceptions to the pattern I often lay out here.

Almost always, these exceptions have names and faces that their teachers remember
long after the anomalous true student leaves their classroom the final time. As I slogged
through last spring’s brutal end of semester blitz with its last minute search committees
and news of my latest rejection in the highly arbitrary games we are forced to play
for even a prayer of badly needed earned raises, my tired spirit and broken
heart was salved by good news from four different students. I hold up their examples
because they provide a badly needed counterpoint to the largely critical portrait I often
paint here.

Three Who Made It

The first came from a young woman I had worked with a couple of years. She was dealing with
enormous personal life constraints which made her academic performance erratic even as it
was punctuated with bursts of brilliance. She had moved away to Texas at one point to
take care of an aging relative and had only recently moved back to Orlando. As spring term
ended, I got a Facebook note from her announcing her graduation. And later in the summer,
I got word that she had landed a job in New York working in a social justice organization.

You cannot imagine how much joy these announcements brought me. Despite all the
“snares of the enemy,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer, this woman had persevered
and succeeded when everything in her life indicated otherwise. And while I was only a small
part of that journey, it does my heart good to know that it had finally come to fruition, at
least for this round.


The second was a young man who had managed to work through a young adult life
of coming to grips with a wide array of health issues, both mental and physical. As a
freshman, he had commented on one of his papers that he simply didn’t want to do
all the work I had assigned his class to which I responded, as I do from time to time
in similar situations, “Are you sure you are ready to be in college at this point in your
life?” That afternoon he came to my office to tell me that he had thought about my
question and decided that the answer was no. And so he was leaving college to work
as a pipe-fitter. And he said, “You know, no one else had the courage to tell me that.”

A year and a half later, I looked up to see him standing in my doorway. “I’m back,” he
said, noting that he had figured out that he was not called to be a pipe fitter and that
he was now married, working part-time and ready to be back in school. I’d see this
young man about every two weeks or so. He’d bound into my office with a new idea
he was working on, wanting to “run it by” me, full of unbounded enthusiasm and the
sheer joy of learning.

In May, he graduated. He invited me to his graduation party with his extended
family. His parents both thanked me for my work with their son. And I have to say,
I was pretty proud to see this young man make it through.  Watching him laugh and
embrace relatives at his well-deserved festivities brought tears to my eyes.
For just a moment, I felt a bit of what a parent must feel in such situations.


The third student was a young man I helped steer through the writing and
defense of an honors thesis. Apparently, he had gotten excited about doing this
as a student of my Philosophy of Law course the previous year. This young man
came to the university with serious writing deficits. But he was bright, highly capable
of thinking on his feet, and had gotten into his head that he wanted to go to
law school. “Sorry, you didn’t talk me out of it,” he smiled.

The defense of his thesis was brutal. After having revised it about four times
prior to the defense, there were so many problems raised at defense that it was
not at all certain he’d pass. Two complete rewrites later, he finally got the last
signature the last day to file his completed document. In all honesty, my
conscience began to bother me toward the end as I felt that perhaps the
final product was as much my own writing as his. But, the ideas were certainly
his (what are the chances I’d ever write a Libertarian thesis?) and eventually
so was the thesis. As a bonus, he announced he’d been admitted to a
law school in San Diego and given full funding his first year.

What I’ve not told you is that he is the first member of his family to graduate high
school, much less attend college. Moreover, his family did not encourage him in the
least, cutting him off financially when he refused to stay home to work in the
family catering business. He worked his way through school and now is headed
to law school. This is a true success story.


Yes, There is Life After Undergraduate!

The final ray of sunshine came from a former student who graduated several years
ago but has kept in touch with me over the years. My lectures in his Humanities course
on the rise of Christianity had shaken him as a freshman and he had come to my office
disturbed at the implications of what I’d just said in class. This began a pattern of visits
over his remaining time at the university where he eventually worked through two
changes of major and finally graduated with a major in religious studies.

This spring he graduated from Duke’s MA in Religious Studies program. His faculty
chose him to represent the class in presenting a closing statement at the commencement
not unlike a valedictorian’s. He is headed toward a certificate program in Latin and
classics at nearby UNC this fall and ultimately has his sights set on a Ph.D. in
early Christian history. He is a fine young man. And I am proud to call him friend and
now my colleague.


The Inestimable Value of Moral Rewards

Doris Santaro, an associate professor of education at Bowdoin College, recently published an article in the American Journal of Education. Its subtitle is telling: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work. Santaro begins with the recognition that most teachers know going into their career that monetary rewards are not the reason most people choose to be educators. But in a healthy society, there are important moral rewards in education, chief of which is the privilege of shaping the future.  Without moral rewards, teaching becomes a soul-draining sentence to a life of hard labor in a prison of bureaucratic strangleholds, woefully inadequate pay and a nearly complete lack of public respect with no hope of parole.

The accomplishments of these students, outstanding human beings in whose lives I have invested some of my own time and life energies, are a beautiful return on that investment. They are a credit to themselves, their families and to society in general. And it is important to quickly add that these four students are only the latest in a limited but respectable list of students I recall stretching back over the past 30 years of my teaching career. Their life stories embody the inestimably valuable moral rewards that Santoro speaks of. They are exceptions to the rule that Levine and Dean lay out above, singular individuals who make educators like me believe that our time and effort has been worthwhile, and that maybe, just maybe, our efforts have made a difference in the world, if ever so slight. Most importantly, they provide a ray of hope that perhaps there are yet more exceptions to the rule to whom we can devote our professional lives before we retire.

And so I salute these four who got away, success stories from a system of higher education seemingly intent upon devolving into mediocrity.  Thank you for the gifts you have been in my life and for those you are about to offer a world which badly needs what you bring to it, whether it
recognizes it or not.

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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Foucault and the Front Desk

 A Whole Layer of Depth

Over the past 11 years that I have been a member of the Philosophy Department faculty, the department has repeatedly sought to add a graduate program to its undergraduate offerings. It has offered numerous white papers detailing the need for such programs, the benefits the programs would offer the Florida public, the university as well as the department itself. Each time the requests have been thoroughly researched and written up in highly polished final form. And each time they have been rejected.

For those outside academia, this may not seem like a big deal. So what if you can’t offer graduate courses in philosophy, humanities, religious studies or cognitive science? Students can go elsewhere if they want those degrees, right? It is costly to produce the small numbers of graduate degrees that result from these programs. And, besides, it’s philosophy, forchrissake!  Who really needs a graduate degree in that? Just ask the current occupant of the governor’s mansion in Teapot Tallahassee!

Of course, anyone who’s ever spent any time in academia knows that graduate programs add a whole layer of depth in conversation within any academic department. Research becomes a prominent aspect of department life and students, faculty and the university itself benefits from the academics the programs draw to the department to those who come from outside the university to speak on campus. Graduate students bring to the table their various areas of research interest for consideration and discussion. Academic life is almost always enriched by graduate level studies.

More pragmatically, most departments on campus heavily utilize graduate students to teach and assist in teaching undergraduate classes. Without them, the General Education Program could probably not be offered in most departments. Such an arrangement provides teaching experience for future college instructors, a human face for undergraduates to consult and takes some of the grading and teaching load off of faculty with publish or perish deadlines looming who also must teach large sections of undergraduate courses. 

More Than Our Share of the Load

In the philosophy department many instructors teach up to four sections of General Education Program courses at a time with up to 65 students apiece. (One should note here that the local state colleges cap these same courses at 25). Adjuncts paid a paltry $2000 per cours, and without whom the department could not offer its GEP curriculum likewise teach these huge sections. Given that many of these courses include the Gordon Rule intensive writing requirement, that translates to four pieces of writing to grade times 65 students times 4 sections alone. Providing meaningful feedback on content and writing under such circumstances is simply an impossibility.

Even so, it is also an ongoing reality. The department has long borne the brunt of GEP credit hour production at the Factory even as the other departments, against whom Philosophy is regularly compared in terms of “productivity” (translation: mere numbers of enrolled students who enroll in the course), have readily used graduate students to lighten their burdens. This becomes an even more urgent concern as the department is being told to make its classes more “sexy” to draw higher enrollments or face cutbacks. We must roll those production units through in four years regardless of the cost to departments and their instructional staff.

Various reasons have been offered the department for the rejection of its bids to add graduate programs. Initially the reasons focused on a supposed rule prohibiting the addition of graduate programs at a given state university when such programs existed elsewhere. Of course, that has not stopped the addition of incredibly expensive medical and law schools of questionable need at places like UCF and FIU but when institutional egos with political power drive policy decision making, the rules clearly go out the window. More candid reasons have alluded to the cost of graduate programs though clearly that does not matter if one’s program has political support and sex appeal, whatever that might mean. It also doesn’t hurt to have corporate sponsorship.

Two weeks ago, the banner headline of the UCF Future read “Ph.D. program added to college.” With a photo of a white columned portico bearing a sign reading “PROFESSIONALISM” the reporter documented the addition of a new doctoral program – in hospitality management! The article notes that UCF is among the “less than 10” colleges and universities around the nation who now offer such doctoral programs.

No doubt.

Malthus Comes to Dinner

My main challenge in even reading such an article is to try to avoid the almost immediate condescension that springs to mind unbidden when reading anything about hospitality management programs. Truth be told, I’m not sure such undergraduate programs even belong in institutions of higher learning, much less those offering doctoral programs.

Of course, I have similar feelings about undergraduate programs in a number of other areas as well. Frankly, all trade programs – including the seminary-style indoctrination into free market fundamentalism that passes for undergraduate business programs - belong in trade schools, not universities,  in my opinion. The cachet of middle class respectability – not to mention a modicum of understanding of the liberal arts and sciences - that college degree programs provide simply isn’t a requirement for running a hotel no matter how many stars it touts.

On the other hand, in a state which foolishly, I believe, ties its entire economy to tourism, ensuring that tourist-related businesses from theme parks to hotels to restaurants can run smoothly makes some sense. However, whether one actually needs a bachelor’s degree to do so is questionable. And, frankly, the idea that one would earn a doctorate in this field seems pretty absurd to someone who has actually earned one in a real academic discipline.

The director of graduate studies at the Rosen School of Hospitality crowed in the article that if one is looking for a “top notch faculty to do research and publication…” the new program would be a “very strong magnet for that.” Seriously. One can only imagine the coming journal articles: “The Foucauldian Aspects of Surveillance at Guest Check-In” and “Gazpacho, Portion Size, Carbon Footprint and Climate Change; Malthus Comes to Dinner.”

I can hardly wait.

Them that have the gold make the rules.

Frankly, in a world where there are infinite resources and an unlimited supply of interested students willing to engage in actual academic pursuit, such programs would be simply one more contribution to the production of knowledge in the generative process called academia. Who would really care if hospitality management offered doctoral programs in an academy where lecturers and instructors were paid salaries commensurate with their educational and experiential attainment and students were not herded into auditoriums for factory processing of credit hours or forced into the anonymity of online “classes” just to have a prayer of graduating in six years? In an academic world of plenty, no one’s ox must be gored.

But this is hardly that world. This is a world of artificially scarce resources occasioned by policy decision making driven by corporate interests. It is a world in which the powerless in that process - and thus the losers in its budget wars - are pitted against each other for the scraps. And that is why this program is such a slap in the face to programs like Philosophy which have done so much with so little for so long in the name of being team players only to see that the coach plays favorites with impunity.

There are two aspects that make this decision particularly unpalatable. The first is that this program actually already existed. As the Future story revealed, “Having a Ph.D. program of its own isn’t exactly new to Rosen College; previously it had teamed up with the College of Education to offer a doctorate of education with a specialized track in hospitality.” Not only was there already a program in place, this one actually replicated an existing program in an ostensibly academic department across campus.

In theory, that should never happen in a university system which prohibits the replication of existing programs. In fact, the rules only bind those who are actually subject to them. In a free market fundamentalist culture, the Golden Rule devolves to this: Them that have the gold make the rules.

That quickly brings us to the second aspect. There is a reason that the college in question is named Rosen. Indeed, there is a reason many of the colleges and buildings on campus bear corporate names. Cash starved universities have sold their very souls to egocentric corporations. As I saw on the University of Florida site yesterday, the new trend in the NCAA football, is to provide opportunities to trademark individual athletic contests: The First Annual [your-corporate-logo-here] Game. Never underestimate the powerful combination of corporate egos and disposable cash.

This is a world where public taxpayers have been allowed – if not encouraged - to avoid the responsibility of actually educating the people of their state they expect to serve them. In the wake of such irresponsibility, corporate moneys are increasingly being called upon to make up that gap. But they always come with strings attached, like being able to break the supposed rules for new graduate vocational programs and screwing everyone else in the process.

So, take that, you would-be philosopher kings!

Bottom line: In today's world of higher education, money talks, egos reign, and education is at best an afterthought if a serious consideration at all. Of course, that’s only a problem in a culture where people actually care about education in the first place. Increasingly it is apparent that is simply no longer the case here in Florida -  if it ever really was.  

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.
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