Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Poets, Professors, and Their Students

Ruth Padel, recently named as the Oxford professor of Poetry and the first woman to hold that post, resigned after admitting that she had sent emails to news outlets and Oxfordites reminding them of Derek Walcott’s reported sexual harassment of female students. Walcott was one of Padel’s competitors for the Oxford poetry honor.

Walcott’s harassment of students consisted, as far as is known, of two instances. In the first, he propositioned a Harvard student and gave her a ‘C’ for the course after she refused him. After a university review, the student’s grade was changed and Walcott was reprimanded. In the second, a Boston University student sued him for asking her to trade sex for his assistance in producing a play she had written. The suit was settled out of court.

The professor in me thinks the universities involved might have dealt more severely with Mr. Walcott, although he seems to have had only visiting positions in both cases. So, their options would have been limited to not having him return.

The feminist professor in me is more appalled by the response of some commentators on Padel’s resignation and Walcott’s voluntary withdrawal from the competition for the Oxford position. Thus, in the NYT Books section, we have John Burns writing:

When Mr. Walcott quit the race, commentators in British newspapers noted the irony of hounding a distinguished literary figure on the basis of long-ago sexual transgressions when many of Britain’s greatest poets were social or political reprobates by the standards of modern-day Britain.

Michael Deacon in The Telegraph cited Lord Byron (“womanizer”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“drug fiend”), John Keats (“smackhead”), Rudyard Kipling (“imperialist”), T. S. Eliot (“lines that could be construed as racist”) and Dylan Thomas (“drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends”), among others, and concluded, “Not one of them, were they alive today, could hope to land the Oxford post — they just don’t meet the exacting moral standards set by people who conduct smear campaigns.”

And from Mr. Deacon, himself, we have this:

What do you need, these days, to be a successful poet? A gift for articulating the dreams and dreads of your age? The power to express universal emotions in unique language? A working knowledge of such mysteries as rhyme and metre, even if you would never stoop so low as to employ them yourself?

No. Those qualities are all very well, in their way, but there’s something more important. You need to be nice. You need to be blameless. You need to be as charming and innocent as Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Now, I do not know if Burns was merely reporting the views of Deacon and others or affirming them. That he closed his report on Padel’s resignation with those comments suggests the latter. Deacon, clearly, believes that Walcott’s harassment of female students is on a par with ‘womanizing,’ being a drunk, etc. And, of course, it was all in the past, which means that any who criticize Walcott for that conduct are simply moral prigs and/or PC activists bent on hounding a great man for a few past lapses of taste.

I don’t agree. A professor has a particular role in relation to his or her students. Perhaps back in the good old days men such as Walcott were given fairly free rein to use their positions of power over students to coerce sexual relations. Happily, we no longer believe that students, of either sex, are fair game for those who determine their grades and their futures.

Let’s be clear about what Walcott did. He tried to bribe and threaten students into providing sex. He tried, in one case, to use his authority as a professor to punish a student who rebuffed him. This is not being a womanizer. A womanizer, presumably, is adept at seduction, and whatever we make of seduction it is not equivalent to coercing or extorting sex through the abuse of power.

The other forms of colorful naughtiness that Deacon references – “[Dylan] Thomas drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends, fought with his wife in public, had affairs, and on at least one delightful occasion is said to have defecated on a host’s floor” – are of neither a moral nor a legal order with attempts to bully or bribe one’s students into sex. Nor is the fact that “Philip Larkin, who in private letters to friends and his mother wrote all manner of racist and sexist things,” relevant in comparison with Walcott’s abuse of his students. That Coleridge and others used or were addicted to various drugs is a red herring.

Mr. Deacon simply does not understand that there is a very great moral and legal difference between personal failings, illicit drug use, or illicit but consensual sexual relationships, and the use of a position of considerable power to get sex from an unwilling person a person to whom the power-abuser stands in a relation of educator/mentor to student. It is this which Mr. Deacon describes as “flirting with students.”

We have several distinctions, here: (i) between coercion and seduction, (ii) between abuse of power and manipulative relations among equals, (iii) between private conduct and professional conduct, and (iv) between privately ‘immoral’ conduct and conduct that harms others. All of these are lost in Mr. Deacon’s analysis.

Students are not professors’ toys, grading is not a tool for getting sex from them, and we professors have obligations to restrain our personal needs and desires in the interests of their education. Their families entrust them to us, and they entrust themselves to us, for their education. Period.

I do not care how great a poet Derek Walcott may be. A great university ought not to consider anyone who has behaved as he has for a distinguished professorship. Mr. Deacon may snidely suggest that “The young scholars of Oxford must be relieved that they no longer face the prospect of attending occasional lectures given by a man who may or may not have said something insalubrious a long time ago.” I think they should be relieved that they need not choose between not attending lectures on poetry by a named professor and attending those given by a man who sees them as fish in a barrel, ready for the shooting.

Pennhurst, Again

If you go to any place like Pennhurst, please do not vandalize. And, be aware that many of these sites and their buildings are genuinely dangerous: fallen in floors, asbestos, mold, broken glass, etc. If you are allergic to poison ivy, you should probably avoid Pennhurst altogether.

Second Pennhurst Trip

We went again this Memorial Day. Much more of the junk trees and weeds have been cleared away, and there appears to be some effort to prevent further vandalism.

Although more buildings are boarded, we found our way into others without doing any damage) into others and eventually into the tunnels that run underground between the main buildings. Sadly, the evidence of prior vandalism and misuse was all too clear in the buildings we visited this time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More from Pennhurst

More photos from Pennhurst.

Lost Places

My children and I like 'lost places.' I've used photos from one such place, the Belchertown School [asylum], on previous posts. Recently, my son, some of his friends, and I investigated another 'school' for children with various kinds of disabilities, the Pennhurst State School and Hospital - orignally named the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic.

Pennhurst, as it is known among explorers of abandoned sites, has a history much like that of Belchertown and other such institutions. It was founded by people with good intentions, people who hoped to make the lives of the mentally ill, retarded, or severely disabled better than they were when those people were left to the vicissitudes of life among the 'normal.' But time, limited resources, and expansion beyond the reach of any good will turned the place into a failure and a nightmare for many of its inhabitants.

In the late 1970's, a woman sued Pennhurst on behalf of her daughter and others insitutionalized there. The case was Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital (446 F. Supp. 1295, 1327 (E.D. PA. 1978). The Philadelphia NBC station produced a series of reports on Pennhurst, entilted Suffer the Children (viewable here ). Eventually, the legal process led to a Supreme Court case, Pennhurst State School v. Halderman. There were several other legal battles, up through the late 1990's, but it was the earlier decisions that sealed the fate of Pennhurst. As happened with so many other large insitutuions, Pennhurst was closed down and its patients were sent to smaller community care arrangements or to other places, based on individual assessments.

There are the usual horror stories of abuse and neglect at Pennhurst - of children molested and beaten, of people who spent their entire lives there, of people insitutionalized for no more reason than their being inconvenient to their familes. What moves me about Pennhurst and other such places is not the stories of mistreatment, but the poignancy of attempts to do good ending up badly. Pennhurst, in particular, was originally a beautiful place, modestly intended to provide schooling and vocational training for no more than 500-600 men and boys. All too soon, it became a site for 'custodial' care of children and adults who were not expected to ever return to 'normal' life. At one point, Pennhurst housed up to 3,000 'patients.' Skimpy state support, insufficient and untrained staff, and public indifference brought it to its inevitable demise. Abandoned to vandals and scrappers, as well as to the press of nature, much of it is now in ruins. And, yet, one can still see the beauty that was there and feel not only the sorrows the inhabitants experienced but also the hopes that inspired the founders.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Non-Theism and Other Minority Views

The recent report of the American Religious Identification Survey and its mention in various outlets, including the NYT, has generated some heated discussion about ‘atheism,’ religion in the U.S., and related hot potatoes (for example: here, here, here, and here).
Given that the very term ‘atheism’ is controversial and variously defined, I prefer ‘non-theism.’ I’m a non-theist. Some non-theists apparently now feel the need to announce their pride in being such; at first, this struck me as odd. Why ought one to be proud of not believing that a purported supernatural entity exists? It is not quite like being proud to not believe in the existence of cats or molecules - things for which there is incontrovertible evidence such that not believing they exist would be a rather bold stance to take.
But, of course, it can be bold to say one does not believe in a named purported supernatural entity if one feels that many others do believe in that entity and look askance at anyone who does not. In other words, there really is a social difference between saying, “I do not believe in unicorns” and “I do not believe in God/gods.” At least, in our nation, there is a difference. Hence the news that the number of U.S. citizens who report no religious affiliation has doubled in recent years might well be heartening to those who have felt their status as non-believers to be a source of social isolation or condemnation. (Although, really, the survey results do not mean that the number of non-theists has doubled.)
I admit this comes as something of a surprise to me, because most of the people with whom I work and spend time are either non-theists or theists who do not think non-theists are subnormal, deviant, or unclean. As far as I can tell, they think we are like them, except that we do not believe in the supernatural entity/entities in which they believe. But, in reading some of the blogging on the emergence of organized and defiant non-theists, I have discovered that there are apparently sane and decent folks who have some very unattractive notions about non-theists. I think these are worth exploring.

1) Many theists appear to be convinced that objective morality is possible only if premised on a belief in [some] god[s]. Typically, what I have read assumes that the god in question is the Christian one, but it is not clear to me that this is a necessary element of the thesis.
2) Consequent on the first notion is the belief that non-theists cannot inculcate moral perspectives in their children. Predictably, our children will end up as drug-addicts, homosexuals, etc. (One comment I read predicted multiple tattooing.)
3) Many theists also seem to assume that one is either a theist or a materialist and determinist [what philosophers might term a ‘mechanist,’ a la Hobbes or La Mettrie]. In other words, they see no metaphysical positions other than one which requires the existence of a supernatural creator and one which is reductivist about mind [etc.] and denies human freedom.
4) At least some of the theists whose comments I have encountered labor under the misapprehension that non-theists necessarily come from broken homes or are former theists who had a bad experience with a particular denomination (Catholicism seems to be the special bogeyman, here).

Now, this is a complex collection of claims, and I do not say that every theist who abhors or dislikes non-theists accepts all of them. In fact, such theists may not accept any of these claims; they may simply think non-theists are abominable and let it go at that. But each is interesting, in its own way, and merits some serious response – as contrasted with mocking the theists’ belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Don’t mistake me: the FSM is funny and rather cute, but ridicule is not a good way to start a conversation. So, let’s look at the Four Theses in turn.

1) Atheists cannot believe in or defend objective moral standards.
I have to say that most of the ‘arguments’ in support of this claim are question begging ones of the type: “Only God can provide an objective ground for morality; therefore, without belief in God, one cannot assert objective standards.” What puzzles me, however, is the inability of those who espouse this view to hear any alternatives. So, for example, one might point out the many, many non-theistic [especially, non-Christian] objective moral views with which the history of thought has favored us, but the denier simply denies that these have any merit. Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill – no matter how illustrious the name, the response is simple denial. Not Reason, not Nature, not the Human Condition or Human Flourishing – nothing but a god will do the trick.
If one goes on the attack, so to speak, the results are much the same. One can point out that either (a) god[s] accepts the Good and Right because they are the Good and Right – in which case no god is needed, or that (b) god[s] simply selects the Good and Right – in which case the Good and the Right are not objectively grounded at all; they are just the choices of some entity we hope will not make a mess of it. The response will be simple denial [at best].
2) Atheists cannot pass on moral views to their children.
Let’s face it, this is just peculiar on many levels. Is the underlying idea that the children of non-theists are more resistant to parental instruction than the children of theists? If so, it is not clear that this is a bad thing; on the other hand, it seems fairly unlikely in light of the number of young people who reject the religious views of their parents. Perhaps it is that the children of non-theists, once they discover the shortcomings of their merely-mortal parents, will not have the back-up authority of a third party as is available to the children of theists. At best, this would suggest that the children of theists are less likely to fall away from the moral teachings of their parents than are the children of non-theists. Hardly equivalent to the original claim that non-theists just cannot pass on their moral views. Besides which, if the kids decide Mom and Dad are full of it about morality, why should they follow the old folks on religious doctrine? Youthful rejection of the flawed ‘rents is rarely measured or selective.
And, of course, we have not touched on the assumption that the religiously-based morality that Mom and Dad want to pass on is the correct or best one. We need not even challenge the objective moral wisdom of the divinity in question,here.

Perhaps Mom/Dad/the minister/priest/priestess/reverend/rabbi/whatever has got the god’s/gods’ message wrong? There’s a dreadful prospect: generation after generation accepting moral falsehood as the truth. Religiously-based beliefs in slavery as natural and good are a useful example of this possibility.
3) Non-theists must be mechanists.
So, a blog is not the place to rehearse centuries of metaphysics. Perhaps it is sufficient to suggest that those who think this is the only alternative to an ontology based on supernatural beings and/or creators do some reading about the history of western and eastern metaphysics? Not that anyone has to become an expert. But, just get a sense of what is and has been out there. Heck, just take a look at Aristotle [not St. Thomas’ ‘Aristotle,’ but Aristotle himself, please]. Or, look at contemporary physics, which is really not the reductionist materialism of Newton or Bacon. (Pace Newton, who said that god is “everywhere and everywhen.”) And, if you want non-theists arguing for the possibility of human autonomy and responsibility – well, just read some contemporary ethics.
Now, I do realize that Richard Dawkins, and others, have provided fuel for this particular ideological fire. But, again, branch out, read, look at the diversity of metaphysical views which do not posit or do not require a supernatural creator for explanatory purposes. J. S. Mill may have been mistaken about many things, but he was surely correct that belief supported by knowledge, reflection, and self-scrutiny is more meaningful – and stronger – than belief clung to unthinkingly.
4) Non-theists are the products of unhappy homes or unhappy experiences with [someone else’s] religion.
This is an empirical claim, and evidence is not offered. It might be interesting to have a respectable polling group do a survey of non-theists and theists to see what their backgrounds are. However [ANECDOTAL WARNING!], none of my non-theist colleagues is the product of a broken home nor of a failed Catholic upbringing, as far as I know. Mostly, they just cannot find any good reason to believe in a god-like entity and, being committed to the Rule of Reason, do not commit themselves to belief in what does not seem to exist. My partner is a ‘recovered’ Catholic, but his non-theism seems to be independent of his hostility to the Catholic church; again, theism just does not make sense to him.
In closing, I want to mention one line of theistic commentary on non-theists that I came across. Here, the claim is made that, yes, we non-theists can ‘be ethical.’ I appreciate that. On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about some of the ‘defense’ of us non-believers:

Atheists are people who, whether they like it or not, have the law of God written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15). They are subject to the same laws of our country (and other countries), and they have a sense of right and wrong. They often work with people who are religious and have ethical standards, as well as non-believers who are don't, so they are exposed to all sorts of moral behavior. In addition, they often form their own moral standards based on what suits them. Besides, things like robbery, lying, stealing, etc., can get you imprisoned, so it is practical and logical for an atheist to be ethical and work within the norms of social behavior. However you want to look at it, atheists, generally, are honest, hardworking people.
Nevertheless, some Christians raise the question, "What is to prevent an atheist from murdering and stealing? After all, they have no fear of God and no absolute moral code." The answer is simple: Atheists are capable of governing their own moral behavior and getting along in society the same as anyone else.

So, it seems that my imagined moral decision-making is simply reading off “god’s” rules as written on my heart. Well, substitute ‘Light of Reason’ for ‘god[s]’ and I might agree.
Reference is made, in defense of my capacity to be ethical, to my need to meet social norms and have a ‘nice’ life. I don’t object to that ‘defense,’ as far as it goes. But, I do object to the implication that I will shift my conduct and character according to what is advantageous to me or according to what my particular society decrees through its laws. The implication is that non-theists cannot act on principle. This is false. With no belief in a supernatural creator or other supernatural beings, I do act contrary to my self-interest, even contrary to the interests of those I love. Principled conduct is not the private domain of the theist. Indeed, we non-theists have to be rather careful about our selection of principles, precisely because to fail to meet them is to fail our own rationally scrutinized aspirations – not simply to annoy a deity.