JFK & the “Enviable Distinction” of a Harvard Liberal Arts Education

The John F. Kennedy presidential library has a digitized copy of JFK’s 1935 Harvard University application form. It’s easy to read JFK’s application essay as a quickly done, fill in the space, drill. JFK’s chances of getting accepted were pretty good regardless, I’m sure. This twitter worthy essay would be laughed at by just about any admissions committee today, but, to be fair, there wasn’t much space provided on the application for for JFK to elaborate. Here is what JFK wrote:

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

April 23, 1935
John F. Kennedy

The only sentence, of the 5 total, that addresses the benefits of a Harvard academic education is the 2nd. JFK thinks Harvard can provide him “a better background” and “a better liberal education” than any other institution. It’s a sentence that provides a pleasant reminder of how important a Liberals Arts education once was (and to some degree still is) regarded by America’s wealthy elite families. I would argue that a Liberal Arts education is still the highest and best form of education personally, socially, and politically speaking, we can promote for the maintenance of a free society. (Watch this interesting TED talk on this subject.)

The rest of JFK’s paragraph is really about the importance of being a “Harvard man.” The “something definite” that Harvard had to offer JFK was that “enviable distinction” of being a graduate of an elite school. An education is, of course, more than just something you get in a classroom, it’s also a process of acquiring social skills and making important and influential connections.

For the most part, the world has come to expect from the liberally educated class a certain set of elevated behaviors and leadership qualities. Someone has to model both excellence and pathetic failure in the social realm, and like it or not the elites are typically those cast in those roles. The sneer of “Elitism” may be thrown, sure, but the truth is most of us long to be part of some type of elite, even if we act like it doesn’t matter to us. The whole point of being educated, really, is about quality. The quality of your own mind and soul and about recognizing quality in the things you see, hear, and taste. This type of quality education was the “something definite to offer” JFK was looking for from being a “Harvard man.”

The “Bourgeois Culture” Controversy

Recently Professor’s Amy Wax and Larry Alexander wrote an op-ed about Bourgeois culture and how, in their view, the measure of American social decline mirrors our societies falling away from Bourgeois cultural norms. Their piece has generated a small controversy that has highlighted some the problems within some of our universities.

Now if you’re asking what is “Bourgeois” (pronouced: boo r-zhwah), it’s a French word, which means, being French, it has no validity, is weak, and will flee at the first sign of a fight—which is your belief if you’re an American right winger. If you’re a left winger you pronounce the word correctly with your best French ascent and then apt your best attitude of distain for everything it stands for.

But putting humor aside, Bourgeois is the French word for middle-class culture, its norms and its values. Whatever you may feel about it, the striving to join the ranks of the Bourgeois has been in a large part of what the American dream has been all about. So along with French toast, French fries, and dear God thank you, French wine, most Americans have enjoyed tasting it!

Here’s how Wax and Alexander describe Bourgeois cultural norms in their op-ed:

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

On it’s face, I find it very hard to disagree with them. This seems valid in a straightforward and obvious way and I think it’s confirmed by the experience of most adults. Now there is more to Bourgeois culture than this, but the above is the basic social script as Wax and Alexander see it. As academics, Wax and Alexander did some research, made some observations, developed some ideas, and then presented their opinion. The main point of Wax’s and Alexander’s piece is that not all cultural orientations (unlike Bourgeois) are as good at building the solidarity and the economic dynamism that viable democracies need to thrive.

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

The above quote was quoted by critics as insensitive and somehow proof of Wax’s and Alexander’s violation of saying and thinking something you’re not allowed (by their standard) of saying or thinking. I am perplexed at their reasoning, but so be it. Whether you agree or disagree with everything they said (above) or the way they said it, Wax and Alexander diagnosed the problem and concluded that a re-embrace of Bourgeois norms would significantly reduce our societies pathologies. That’s their opinion! And so they conclude:

But restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.

As I said, Wax and Alexander are academics. So doing research and presenting their findings, analysis, and opinions are part of what they do and it’s exactly what college professors should do. This generates debate and discussion; the forge of free societies. It challenges ways of thinking, and sometimes challenges our belief that new ways of thinking and acting are somehow better than old. Simply put, sometimes they’re not.

Again, while I may take issue with some minor points Wax and Alexander made, I find it hard to disagree with much of what they said. I’m open, however, to counter arguments and fair criticisms and would enjoy hearing them respectfully argued. Wax and Alexander have taken a lot of heat from some quarters on the left over their piece. Some of the criticisms have been downright hostile, and plenty from fellow academics and university student groups. If you believe Wax and Alexander are wrong, that’s fine. Make a reasoned and respectful argument as to why you think their wrong. But don’t assume bad faith or resort to character assassination and make demands from institutions.

Sadly what we’re seeing is a culture or university subculture where it’s not just about parrying the argument and having a rational debate, but about destroying the writer(s) or professors personally. Some of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the promotion of identity politics within the universities. This has aided in the rise of a grievance centered culture on campus. We have many on both sides of the political spectrum, to be sure, who have no problem engaging in some form of intimidation when confronted with ideas they find offensive. But right now we have a real problem with this at some of our universities in this country, the very places we shouldn’t be having a problem with debating ideas…even one’s we strongly disagree with.

For the sake of academic freedom and the flourishing of our democratic culture, I hope universities will strongly push back against this strain of intellectual and social intolerance and affirm their place as institutions of free thinking, debate, learning, and tolerance.

The Crisis of Western Civ?

The Course of Western Civilization
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

Even Plato, and before him ancient poets like Hesiod, complained that society was going to hell. And think about that, western civilization was just getting started! Throughout the Platonic Dialogues (399 to 347 BC) there’s this undertone of a longing for the past, the sense that something is being lost, that the youth (of Athens) were being corrupted by “the new ways.” The source of this corruption was in the spread of immoral art (too much Homer Simpson), scientific style explanations of nature (which angered the deniers), irreligiousness or heresy, and a disrespect for the old ways, i.e. traditions. So…not much has changed really.

And it’s interesting because Plato isn’t really viewed as a conservative, thanks in part to Karl Marx, and yet Plato’s overall philosophy is, well, about conserving the inherited forms of the moral and political order. Plato (through Socrates) is ultimately saying, in some form or another, that whatever you believe it shouldn’t usurp the established moral and political order—because God knows what you’ll end up with! And for Zeus’s sake, Plato irritatingly prodded, at least, if you’re going to challenge the mos maiorum (or whatever the term would have been in Greek) try to understand what you really believe and be able to explain it. Define your terms! Ask questions damn it! Relativism—the bane of social cohesion—isn’t very solid footing!

Okay, so this brings me to David Brooks’s lament about the Crisis of Western Civ in a recent column. Brooks starts out—I have to note this—his column by plugging one of the best set of books (I’ve had two sets over my life so far) you can read if you have, and this is the big issue, the time. The Story of Civilization is an 11 volume set running almost 10,000 pages. Definitely not a “I’ll knock this out in a weekend” read. This is a reading project you plan for over, say, a year or more. Even though Will and Ariel Durant finished the series in 1975, the Story of Civilization is still one of the best liberal arts educations you can get on your own. The education is broad, the writing is excellent, and you’ll gather a whole stock of great quotes.

So back to Brook’s column. There is a Western set of values, a grand narrative, though you’d be hard pressed to find many people who could explain it to you, that has animated the rise of Western Civilization. (Note to some Americans reading this: You’re actually part of Western Civilization—just incase you missed that class. 😉) If ideas rule the world, as Lord Keynes assured us they do, then this set of ideas, known collectively as Western Civilization, have guided the rise of the most prosperous and free, most powerful, civilization in history. So probably not a bad idea to hold on to these values. But then who’s judging, that’s just so Western. Anyway, Brooks provides a brief explanation of what these Western values entail:

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.

Now there’s a lot more to what makes up Western Civ or culture, but you get the gist. But regardless of how we define it, Brooks wants to remind us the whole project is in trouble, and has been for a while.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.

Hmmm, grim. To some degree I agree with Brooks. There does appear to be some cracking in the Western Civ narrative, and generally speaking that can be a bad thing for the health and long term viability of Western society…If, and this is important, these cracks in the narrative end up leading to a break. Cracks are typical with wear and tear and require constant repairing, but breaks are very hard to fix and mean things are definitely going to hell.

Brooks contends that the Western Civ decline started “decades ago” (almost sure Brooks means the 1960s), but the evidence seems to suggest, like Plato and Hesiod, that cultural decline is an observation going further back. Take T.S. Eliot, an astute observer of society, he wrote these words in 1948, during the rise, please note, of the Greatest Generation, “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline. The standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” So Eliot sees decline all around him. It’s all going to hell! A Google search will reveal quotes from across Western history about the decline of society. So we can at least say that the Idea of Decline is something built right into the Western narrative itself.

So Western Civilization is falling apart, but it seems to be taking so damn long and somehow it keeps recovering and then continues falling apart, recovering again, and then back to falling apart again. Might the current fracturing simply be symptoms of Western society going through a stage of development within Western Civilization? I might be wrong (yes, I’m hedging), but this seems very probable. Stages in the growth of a society or civilization (as in the individual) are typically disruptive events; they’re times of change, reflection, discovery, a sense of falling away from old ways, and the altering of perspective. Think of the Enlightenment. The old order, typically, isn’t going to be happy with the change. Now, of course, like Rome ultimately, the whole project could, and likely will, eventually fall into ruin. The course of empire will assert itself. Let’s not forget, for those who paid attention in Sunday school growing up, this is a “fallen world.” One just doesn’t know if we’re experiencing a fall or a stumble…or a stumble leading to the fall; a crack or the beginnings of a break.

I think the real question, since the idea of decline has always been with us, is whether we’re actually facing a Germanic invasion (the cause of Rome’s immediate collapse—the beginnings of a break) or are some people simply reacting negatively to change (as many older generations do): to the defeat of old politics and old ways, to a new generation not like them in many ways, with different ideas, and on the verge of taking power in the society. With new perspectives will come changes, to some degree, always has, in the moral and political order. It’s unavoidable. But does that mean the new generation is giving up on Western values? Does this mean we’re seeing the end of Western Civilization? Or, is the new generation simply reinterpreting these Western values in light of their experience? Hasn’t every generation in Western history, to some degree, done this?

These are my thoughts as I sit here drinking coffee this morning. I’m trying to remain positive as you can see. But hey, tomorrow, after scanning my Facebook feed, I might think it’s all definitely going to hell.

Focus on Attitude First

If you don’t follow Robert Twigger’s blog you probably should. Anyone curious about stretching their mind and body and learning more about how to excel should read his blog.

In an interesting post recently he wrote:

We worry a bit about our mental capacity, our IQs, memory, grades, skills, talents and so on but less, it seems, about our attitude. Whereas attitude is by far the biggest element in determining the success of any outing, project, work, journey.

This is a fine point we need reminding of regularly.

On the professional end, I’ve been managing in a large organization for over 20 years. I can say definitively that attitude is far more important, and far more predictive of success, than skill (most of the time) when selecting or hiring someone for a position. Sure, there are positions where being highly skilled from the get-go is more important, but in a lot of cases that’s not the case. We need a base level of skill and talent and then we can work from there.

Someone can be highly skilled and talented, but their bad attitude is toxic, combative, and creates a lot of problems for the mangers and the team. It’s not worth the trouble, believe me. Someone with a good attitude that is teachable and open to learning can be trained, improved, and coached to the level of competency you need. And because of they have a good attitude they work well with others and add value to the team. Another major side benefit is good attitudes are contagious.

On the personal end, I know, as many of you do, that I can only do the best I can with the skills, talents, and other mental capacities I currently have. I can try to improve them, as many of us work at all of our lives, and certainly we should. In fact, I find this process of learning and self development the greatest joy of life. But most of us realize, if we’re self aware, that attitude is everything ultimately. Try as we may, if our attitude sours we’re done. We can only go so far with what our mental capacities are. And the truth is some of our mental capacities may never improve.

But with a good attitude we have the emotional capacity that allows us to work and succeed within the mental capacities we have. More importantly, with a good attitude we’re resilient. We approach life and its challenges with an acceptance for who we are and a willingness to believe all will be well if we keep trying.

So I think whether it’s at work or in your personal life focus on attitude first. Once you have the right attitude you’re more likely to be able to harness the skills and talents more effectively.

Philosophy’s Reflective Equilibrium

philosophy32frontIs the study of philosophy about truth seeking or therapy for the soul? This is the gist of a discussion between Nigel Warburton and Jules Evans on Aeon.

My thoughts are that philosophy is really about both. I was originally drawn to reading philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard because his writings were both about truth seeking and therapy for the soul. Not that what I read in Kierkegaard’s books always calmed my soul! To the contrary. In this case, the potential therapeutic cure was often on the other side of a journey through Fear and Trembling or Either/Or or The Concept of Dread or The Sickness unto Death. Yes, very inspiring titles I know. But philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche used a sort of philosophical shock treatment on the patient.

And then there are the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Many of the ancient writers were moralists and philosophical self-improvement specialists. Like Plato, they were in an active dialogue with the reader about the nature of man, his society and how to live the good life. For this reason, these ancient writers were my favorite over all philosophers. The writings of philosophers like Cicero, Plutarch and the Seneca, at least in translation, were easy to understand and aesthetically pleasing. Their insights still strike at the core of the human predicament. The basic human struggles have not changed over the centuries. Man is still the same pitiful clay.

I’ve always felt that reading Plutarch or Seneca or Marcus Aurelius improved me and helped me get a better perspective on life and its struggles. I still return to them periodically, especially the stoic musings of Marcus Aurelius, probably the closest thing we have in history to the Platonic ideal of the Philosopher King:

How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings . . . Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a solider and patiently waiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness. Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others. To stand up straight–no straightened.   

In fact, the argument that Jules Evans makes is that stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus developed successful psychological techniques for coping with emotional suffering. Some of these philosophical techniques have turned out to have scientific validity. Jules Evans actually wrote a book about what you can learn and internalize from these ancient teachings.

I remember giving my mom a copy of the Art of Living. She carried this gem of a book around with her for years and referred to the teachings of Epictetus regularly in conversation.

True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.

There’s little doubt stoicism helped my mother cope with some of the deeply saddening things in her life at that time. I’m positive millions of readers over the centuries have found solace in the writings of these ancient philosophical psychologists.

On the other side of the Aeon discussion is Nigel Warburton, who sees philosophy as mostly just an exercise in critical thinking. This is demonstrably true in some sense. Philosophy is mental activity in clarification and elucidation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said with an air of humor, “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense,” it’s to find out “where the shoe pinches.” But even Wittgenstein the great logician, in his letters and unpublished writings, was always offering philosophical advice about life and how to live it.

Philosophy began with Socrates and his attempts to educate the youth of Athens. But he wasn’t just attempting to educate them in how to think, he was also trying to teach them how to live. While Socrates used math and geometry–the linear and analytical side of philosophy–in many of his arguments, the larger point was always about improving the soul of the individual. In the Socratic view the city is like the man, the improving of the individual is also about improving the polis, the state, the collective body. Philosophy’s roots have always been about improving the individual through improving his soul. And so philosophy will always be about both the science of understanding and the art of living.

One of the best parts of the discussion between Warburton and Evans is an exchange over how Evans “sees philosophy.”:

I approach philosophy as a sort of pragmatism – I have a set of values and an idea of how the world is, and I try it out and see if I can live by it, if it fits reality, if it leads to an expanded sense of flourishing. And reality (including other people) feeds back to me, lets me know if I’m living wisely or foolishly. That two-way process is always changing, you’re always adapting and revisiting assumptions.

That nicely sums up how I’d like to think I approach philosophy: pragmatically. Philosophy is about putting ideas to the test and learning and adapting from the results. The ultimate goal is about flourishing. If we have the right mindset, and are open to learning, we can find that “reflective equilibrium between ideas and lived experience.”