“Smiles, everybody, smiles”: TLC and the Sanitization of the Duggar Family

If we accepted the Duggar family, stars of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, on the basis of their highly rated and skillfully edited series, they’d seem like modern-day incarnations of the Addams family: a little kooky, altogether ooky, somewhat eccentric, but ultimately harmless. If we accept the Duggar family at their own estimation, they do things just a little bit differently than everyone else.

The Munsters

The Munsters

But, behind that seemingly harmless – even goofy – image, lies a darker reality.

Imagine if the Munsters or the Addams families fueled their antics on a diet of human flesh, or if Laura Ingalls’ family skipped town to avoid paying rent? (Actually, that last one is true.)

Fans of the Duggars – and, as the stars of one of TLC’s more popular shows, the Duggars have lots of fans – extol the family’s happy wholesomeness. The children are so happy, obedient, and polite! Their morals are refreshing! They don’t take any form of government assistance! Sure, they’re old-fashioned, but in a good way!

However, others – from the snarkiness of Free Jinger and Duggars Without Pity to Dan Savage – question the reality behind the happy happy HAPPY facade. Lifting the hem of the below-the-knee skirt, as it were, these critics direct our attention to the bruises and scars that lie beneath.

The Addams

The Addams

Are the Duggars happy? Are they obedient? As happily obedient as one can be, given no other options. From birth, the Duggars and their brethren are taught – through physical and psychological punishment – that happy obedience is their only option.

As infants, the Duggar children learn obedience, through practices such as “blanket training.” As they grow into reason, the Duggar children learn enforced cheerfulness, since any other emotion betrays the presence of Satan.

The Duggar courtship rituals fixate on the ever-present possibility of uncontrolled animal passion. Hand-holding must wait for engagement. A kiss before marriage? You’re asking for trouble. (Indeed, the patriarch, Jim Bob, repeatedly and wistfully refers to his wife’s “baggage” – meaning she had the experience of kissing a boy before God brought them together.)

Hugging? The Duggars give “side hugs,” explaining that full frontal hugging can lead straight to hell – even between family members.

Even privacy is considered unreasonable for a young couple, who must always be chaperoned, usually by a younger Duggar but, in some embarrassing scenes, by the Duggar parents. (In one much-discussed game of miniature golf, Jim Bob’s inability to leave his wife’s body alone was reminiscent of an toddler’s response to his first Hallowe’en.)

But it gets worse.

The Duggars

The Duggars

As Dan Savage has pointed out, Duggar women have no agency – no control – over their own bodies, especially when it comes to matters of sex. They have no right to say “no.” Or, in Michelle Duggar’s words to Us, “Duggar women don’t get headaches.”

Think about that. No “headaches” refers, or course, to the familiar and cliched excuse to refuse sex. Of course, Duggar women get headaches. We all get headaches. However, if a Duggar woman does get a headache, a real one, she still cannot say “no” to sex. She has no right.

No right to say “no.” If I wanted to get really angry, I’d describe the lives of “Duggar women” as one of perpetual rape – except that notions of rape can only exist in situations where a woman’s right to bodily integrity is acknowledged.

Okay, yes, I’m angry: denying a woman’s right to her body is tantamount to suborning rape. There. So, what would generating and receiving revenues from a program that espouses these views be equivalent to?

What to do?

Recently, TLC showed some sensitivity when it cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo after evidence surfaced suggesting the mother of said Honey Boo-Boo had reconnected with a convicted child molester. The network’s actions, it stated, were reflective of its concern for “the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.”

Aren’t the Duggar children – especially the Duggar daughters – entitled to the same protective concern?

TLC, stop rewarding rape with ratings, royalties, and revenues. Cancel 19 Kids and Counting.


Money, meet mouth

As I mentioned in an earlier post, yet another round of reports – see this and that, for example, oh, and this, as well — has been released, in which the business community complains – yet again – that recent university graduates lack the “soft” skills business so desperately needs.

And this year, as in past years, I find myself thinking, “Hey, Business! What are you going to do about it?”

What do they mean by “soft” skills? In a nutshell, “soft” skills refer to those abilities related to communications (written and oral), critical and analytical thought, research abilities, and so forth.

In other words, business leaders think university graduates can’t read, write, or think well enough to serve the interests of business.

I don’t necessarily disagree. A cursory survey of degree requirements over the past few decades (which I actually did this summer) shows a gradual reduction in terms of what university students are expected to study over their four years.

Where once students were expected to take specific courses beyond their fields of interest (languages, for example, required of English students, or history and philosophy for business students), increasingly, students are left to their own devices in choosing electives, with only minimal restrictions (i.e. don’t devote all your electives to Economics).

And, not surprisingly, many students tend to prefer electives that produce maximum grades for minimum effort. Think multiple-choice exams instead of research essays.

Further, for students in those colleges associated with applied – or hard – skills, little attention is paid to matters like grammar, spelling, logic, analysis, critical thought, and, yes, even academic integrity, which might encourage them to develop soft skills. So, for example, a student completing a degree of 120 credits might very possibly have only six credits (two half-term classes) in which soft skills were the focus of development and evaluation.

And don’t get me started on their music.

But, on a more serious note, are students wholly to blame? What messages have they received about the skills valued by the business community? Does the business community give any indication to students that they should be developing those vital soft skills?

If we look for signs of where business perceives value in the university, in this case, in the form of corporate endowments, donations, and the like, we see little indication of any value attached to those scholarly areas associated with the development of soft skills.

Do we have an ACME Industry Chair in Philosophy? A Big Global Mining Company scholarship in English? Does International Corporate Concern set up recruitment booths in History? (Answer: no.)

In fact, for all that the business community talks about the importance of soft skills, one is hard pressed to find any sign of business investment in the departments associated with soft skills. Instead, we see a wealth (literally and figuratively) of industry investment in applied and social sciences, those areas that focus on the development of hard skills.

The implication – and often, the explicit message – of such reports is that universities are not doing their job in preparing students for the workplace. Yet, as has been observed elsewhere, business has largely shirked its own responsibilities for training and skills development.

So, not only is the business community not doing its job, but having interfered in the university’s pursuit of what it has traditionally done best, the business community is bemoaning the result.

If it is sincere in what it has repeatedly said about soft skills, it’s time for the business community to put its literal money where its figurative mouth is.


A faint glimmer of hope.

I caught a faint glimmer of hope for the humanities this week. Likely, you didn’t see it. This week, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce released its annual report on the state of employment training, with the anxiety-inducting title A Battle We Can’t Afford to Lose.

These reports often rehearse the same line: business needs employees with transferable, “soft” skills. And, every year, I roll my eyes and wonder when business is going to address this skills gap in a serious manner – with money and action. (More about that in a later post.)

How badly does business need “soft” skills? Really badly.

In addition to presenting the troubling fact that approximately 40% of the Canadian workers lack the literacy skills needed to perform their work (including a sizeable number of those who have degrees and diplomas), the report also notes that, with the retirement of the baby boom, this skills gap will only increase. (This particular emerging skills gap – the loss of the knowledge regarding conventional written communications – spelling, grammar, that kind of thing – was identified in 2012 by a study undertaken in the US by American Association of Retired People and the Society of Human Resource Managers.)

But this year’s Chamber of Commerce report included a couple of remarkable – even encouraging — observations.

First, the report acknowledged the damage done by the current tendency in business to hire for credentials – particular degrees, majors, and certificates – rather than for skills. Another way to understand the distinction is between what one knows (content learned) and what one can do (skills developed through completion of various tasks). Thus, a business degree, with its focus on knowledge and hands-on applications, will almost always trump a humanities degree, even though the latter demands the development of critical thought, research, and communications abilities – those very skills that employers say they desperately need.

And the faint glimmer? On page 30, in its recommendations, the report acknowledges the inability of business to “easily recognize skill mastery among recent [humanities] graduates.”

That’s as far as it goes, however.

While acknowledging failure of employers to recognize the skills possessed by humanities graduates, the report stops short of calling on these employers to adjust their perspectives. Instead, the report recommends that PSE institutions adjust transcripts to include skills development. Because, you know, employers always ask to see your transcripts.

It was a faint glimmer, like I said.


Caveat Emptor

It’s not often that a Gallup poll result makes me feel pity, but this one did. Briefly, this study asked college graduates about their interest in and satisfaction with their careers. Do you like your job? Do you find your job interesting and rewarding?

This study suggests business graduates as a group are bored and unfulfilled. (For those keeping score, social science and education graduates reported highest feelings of satisfaction and reward.)

And it’s not a slim majority, either. Fewer than 40% of those surveyed agreed with the statement “I am deeply interested in the work that I do.” And, of those who graduated with business degrees between 2000 and 2014, fewer than 40% liked their work. In other words, more than half the graduates of business schools do not enjoy the very activity their very focused education prepared them for.

Even if we factor in post-graduate studies, which appear to boost both happiness and interest levels, business students still lag behind, with an interest level of only 43%. And, the news got worse.

Business graduates can’t claim to be top money earners, either.

Not surprisingly, the Gallup study shows that business graduates typically out-earn social science, education, and humanities grads (The debate regarding earning potential for humanities continues: see this and that). However, business graduates are not the top earners. That distinction went to those with degrees in the sciences who, you’ll remember, are also happier and more interested in their work.

So, where does the pity come into play?

When I saw the poll results, I thought of an student I taught a few years ago.

I was trying to provoke a discussion about competing values systems. I used the example of public attitudes towards teachers. For example, whenever teachers ask for some improvement in their working conditions, public voices demand to know why teachers don’t care about children.

I asked a student – an Accounting major — why we don’t demand that accountants forego compensation. Why, in short, don’t accountants do their work out of sheer love of numbers?

“I don’t really like numbers,” she said.

This was an upper-year student whose focussed course of study was designed to set her up for a lifetime of working with numbers. She had just admitted she had no interest in either her major or her presumed career.

I knew from my exposure to Accounting majors that they tended to be very bright, highly competitive, and they were generally seen as star performers by both faculty and the student body. But here was one who, despite succeeding in the competition, didn’t find the prize appealing. Why was she there?

Every year, increasing numbers of students apply to and enter business colleges straight out of high school. (Indeed, business degrees are the hottest ticket in undergraduate studies these days.) We can safely assume these numbers reflect the widespread perception that business degrees offer a stable future, including assured employment. Indeed, with promises of a “rewarding career,” business schools echo these assumptions. So, where are the “rewards”?

Some would argue that this student, as an adult, chose her academic path and, as an adult, she must accept the consequences: a degree in a subject she doesn’t find interesting that will lead to a career that will likely make her neither rich nor happy.

But, did she really have a choice?

When this student made her choice, her reasoning was likely swayed by a marketing campaign that extended into common discourse. If she made a choice, it was because she trusted and believed those around her — teachers, parents, other students — who told her that a business degree was the sure path to lifelong employment. But what if those statements were based on a perception that, if the Gallup poll is accepted, seems to be at odds with the lived experiences of business graduates?

At the end of four years, there’s a very good chance this student – and others like her – will have employment, but at what cost?

Is there a case here for false advertising?


Of Business and Basketweaving

Scrooge, before liberal arts

Scrooge, before liberal arts education.

How’s this for an attention grabber? I think many of today’s business students are woefully, and perhaps willfully, undereducated.

When you study and teach the liberal arts, you never lack for those willing to offer their estimation of your work: “Arts and Crafts.” “Basketweaving.” “You can always join a book club.” “You people, sitting around talking about how wonderful Shakespeare is.” “What are you going to do with THAT?” “It’s just fluff.”

Gallingly, these comments often come from those with little or no experience of a liberal arts education. More gallingly, at least two of the statements above were made to me by academics — in business schools.

In decades and centuries past, those disciplines now seen as the shining examples of university achievement – applied sciences and social sciences – would have been relegated to technical schools or even apprenticeship training. Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, did not attend university to gain his business skills. (And, whatever else you might say about him, Scrooge was a successful businessman.) His career began with an apprenticeship with Mr. Fezziwig. And, as Dickens pointed out, Scrooge suffered from a lack of connection to humanity. His dream-vision (an old narrative form, as English majors know) comprises an education in humanity, a reflection on history, and a study of human social interaction. He must be taught the value of “fluff.”

Scrooge, after liberal arts education.

Scrooge, after liberal arts education.

When the applied sciences, including business, were admitted into the university setting, most universities required students to undertake a study of the liberal arts in addition to studies of applied skills. We still see the remnants of this system: we require doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and teachers, for example, to have some exposure to the liberal arts before proceeding to professional colleges. And, in the past, business students, too, were expected to study history, literature, politics, and philosophy alongside marketing and accounting.

However, these days, business schools admit students straight out of high school. Any expectation of a liberal arts education has been relegated to undefined “elective classes,” mostly left to the student’s discretion. Once in university, many business students seldom stray beyond the perceived walls of their area of study. They are more likely to pursue electives that lie close to home, like economics, or that will guarantee high marks, rather than building knowledge of the world now and in the past.

As a result, few of these students – and even some of the faculty – have any real acquaintance with what we would call a liberal arts education. Indeed, when many faculty discuss the liberal arts, it’s often in terms of service provision. I’ve been told that English, for example, should be about teaching grammar, not a study of literature (“Join a book club.”). Worse, they feel quite comfortable dismissing the value of a liberal arts education, even to the point of suggesting that we need no longer engage with studies that do not directly reflect life as we currently perceive it (“It’s fluff.”).

Having been granted a place in the academy, why do these scholars-come-lately presume to dictate who may now have a place in the academy?

Where, in the “real world,” does the last person invited to the party get to vet the guest list?

To paraphrase Margaret Atwood (for the first and last time), it wouldn’t be such a problem if business students, graduates, professionals, and academics weren’t as powerful as they are. But they are, so it is.


Buckingham Termination Letter: An Initial Analysis of Grammar and Style

The following reproduces the body of the letter terminating Dr. Robert Buckingham’s tenure and deanship of the School of Public Health, University of Saskatchewan, with inserted comments to help in revision.

I have become aware of a document entitled ‘The Silence of the Deans’ and attachments, the contents of which demonstrates [subject/verb agreement] that your relationship with the University of Saskatchewan is [“to be” renders the sentence static, a statement of being, rather than of action] irreparably damaged. I write to advise you [formulaic tautology: the recipient has the letter] that you have breached your employment contract with the university [comma needed] and [needs “that” to maintain parallelism] your employment as Executive Director, School of Public Health and Full Professor in the School of Public Health is terminated [statement of being displaces or cloaks agency] immediately, for just cause for the following reasons:

  • Your statements contained in the above-mentioned document is [subject/verb agreement] a violation [wordy construction: consider revising: “violates the employment contract”] of the employment contract in its entirety, and specifically [comma needed] the confidentiality clause contained in your letter of offer dated April 30, 2009. By accepting the letter of offer [comma needed] you agreed that you would not release or divulge confidential or proprietary information with which you are entrusted. [Coherence: Tie back to point of letter.]
  • In publicly challenging the directions given to you by both the president of the university, [delete comma] and the provost, you have demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination and have destroyed your relationship with the senior leadership team of the University [inconsistent capitalization].
  • By broadly distributing the above-mentioned document, you have damaged the reputation of the university, the president, and the school, and have damaged the university’s relationship with key stakeholders and partners, including the public, the government [comma needed] and your university colleagues.
  • By your conduct [comma needed] you have violated your employment contract, you have breached the trust given to you in your role [comma needed] and you failed [flawed parallelism] to demonstrate integrity and ethical conduct which [either use “that” for restrictive modification, or “, which” for non-restrictive] are required competencies of your position.

This letter is also to advise you that the administrative leave scheduled to begin July 1, 2014 is hereby revoked [wordy structure: statement of being, not action] and that all commitments made in the letter of April 15, 2014 are null and void [as before].

You will receive your final pay on May 30, 2014, as per the normal payroll cycle. You are to leave campus immediately and are not to return to your office, the School of Public Health [comma needed] or the university. All benefits and pension cease as of today [ambiguous: “today” for writer or reader?].

Please contact Tracy Thornton, Senior Analyst, Human Resources [comma needed] at 966-2166 to make arrangements for the return of university equipment and your office keys, as well as to arrange a time that is appropriate [wordy structure] to collect any remaining personal effects.


Grammar errors: repeated problems with sub/verb agreement; flawed parallelism.

Punctuation: problems with comma use in sentence and series construction.

Stylistic concerns:

Passive/active voice: Buckingham’s actions represented through active voice (“you have breached”) while university’s actions use wordier statements of existence (“the administrative leave . . . is hereby revoked”).

Repeated use of static “to be”: “X is Y.” Consider using active verbs: “Your actions have irreparably damaged . . . .” vs “Your relationship is irreparably damaged.”

That/Which: Conventional use of “that” for restrictive modifiers not in evidence.


A Doubleplusungood Week

My university – “my” as in the place I grew up as a child of faculty, where I received part of my university education, and where I have taught for the last decade or so –made international headlines again this week, and not in a good way.

My university fired a dean for blowing the whistle on a gag rule. As we learned this week, my university expected its deans not only to keep shtum on the discussions and reasoning behind a hotly debated round of budget cuts-related shenanigans but also to parrot the talking points that insisted these budget cuts were a good thing.

Buckingham's letter of termination.

Buckingham’s letter of termination.

Others can discuss concepts of academic freedom, collegiality, and even whether or not the budget cuts are warranted. I could offer an analysis of the grammatical and stylistic elements of the dean’s walking papers (numerous problems with comma use, flawed parallelism, disingenuous use of passive voice to cloak agency and responsibility). However, right now, I want to reflect on the role of language in the past few days, weeks, and months.

First, the event itself involves language. As the dean – excuse me, the Executive Director of the School of Public Health (the president and provost stressed his title was not “Dean”) – revealed, he and his colleagues were enjoined not only to maintain confidentiality on sensitive discussion but also to offer verbal support of all decisions made, whether or not they agreed with them.

Just to clarify: deans were expected not only to refrain from criticism but also to praise the decisions, regardless of the impact of those decisions on their constituencies. So, here we have not only an order to silence but also an order to potentially false speech. Keep quiet and, if you must speak, lie.

Now, what about the language used when speech was allowed?

In his much-cited “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell connects rigourous language with rigourous thought. In 1984, he presents a dystopian society in which language serves as a means to enslave humanity. Language becomes both tenor and vehicle of propaganda, medium and message. In addition to a constant barrage of contradictory messages (“War is peace”), the inhabitants of Orwell’s London experiment with “efficient” language. Thus, “good, bad, and worse” become “good, ungood, plusungood.” Simplifying language eliminates the effort of thought: “Doubleplusungood,” for example, requires less brow wrinkling than “betrayal of core values of academic practice.” How we describe an event, the words we use or are instructed to use, becomes instrumental in our view of that event. Or, in Orwell’s words, “if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.”

Over past year or so, I’ve noticed a change in the way my university communicates – the words it was using to communicate its values and vision. Language was being used not just to share information, but in an attempt to shape our responses to the information. That use of language is not new; what struck me, however, was the graceless and cynical way with which it was used in an attempt to persuade — or even gull — an academic audience.

To begin, this wasn’t a budget-cutting exercise: this was a metamorphosis! The name given to the process signaled our pleading desire for reconfiguration: TransformUS! At the same time, a new terminology emerged as senior players discussed the process and the tensions arising from it.

The literal terms of the conflict were set by the university’s upper management or, as they repeatedly referred to themselves, “our leaders” (and, in one publication, “fearless leaders”). We aren’t a community of students, scholars, and supporters. We are leaders, non-leaders, and workers. According to our Provost, we are “leaders” and “non-leaders.”

Who are these leaders? Leaders are those who don’t fear change. Leaders are those who don’t criticize change. Conversely, those who criticize change — because they “fear change” — are “non-leaders.” (It gets worse.)

Our Associate Vice-President, Communications offers his own view. In his words, our university could be divided into leaders — who lead change — and “those who work at the university.” Who are these people who “work at the university”? The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of “worker” chiefly as one involved in manual labour (“a farm worker”) or in the lower echelons of an enterprise (“one who does manual or non-executive work”). Certainly, the university requires people willing to perform manual labour. But, who are the “non-executive” workers?

The AVPC’s taxonomy lumps into the category of “those who work at the university” not just those who don’t lead the university (see above: “non-leaders”) but, more significantly, the faculty: the faculty, whose output – in teaching and research – is the sole purpose of the university’s existence. So, according to the expressed view of our leaders, faculty – as “those who work at the university”– occupy the low position in the university’s great chain of being.

As faculty, we are not leaders. We are non-leaders. We are workers. None of these revelations would be troublesome if the university could exist without faculty, people conducting research, building knowledge, and teaching students. Our “leaders” seem to have lost sight of that fact.

So, if you’re not a “leader,” what are you?  And what, as a “non-leader,” should you do when you’re not “working”? For our convenience, our leaders have delineated the differences between leadership and non-work related non-leadership action. In the words of our Provost, you can either “lead the university” or you can “oppose the university.” No middle ground exists. Working from Dr. Buckingham’s experience, we can understand the significance of these categories:

  • “Lead the university”: don’t criticize, follow orders, and repeat the lines given to you.
  • “Oppose the university”: demand and present evidence, argue your case, and criticize policies and directives that fly in the face of centuries of academic practice.

Or, we could use Orwell’s simpler terms:

  • Good: Leaders and “Transformation.”
  • Ungood: Non-leaders and workers.
  • Doubleplusungood: Protests of the betrayal of the core values of academic practice.

By George, I think I’ve got it!


Googling towards Bethlehem

“What do you think happened to that plane?” a friend asked me. I knew she was talking about the missing Malaysian airliner that has dominated the news.

“It crashed.” I felt I was stating the obvious.

“No, I mean, what do you think really happened to it?”

This friend is otherwise entirely sensible and intelligent. Her question – with its sense that something beyond the obvious must have happened to that plane – made me think. After all, hadn’t all the networks asked the same question repeatedly?

And what answers did they offer? Miniature black holes, Islamo-extremo-terrorism, hijacking, stairways to heaven, alien abduction, all presented with impressive gravitas.

Clearly something out of the ordinary happened: planes don’t fall out of the sky every day. (Well, not quite every day.) Why did the discussion get so crazy so quickly?

We all know the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” How about this update: “A little information is a dangerous thing.”

No, wait. If anything, we’ve got access to more information than ever before. But, what does that mean for us?

In the past few years, I’ve tried to explain to my students the difference between information (data connected by context) and knowledge (information analyzed, criticized, interpreted, internalized, applied, and otherwise subjected to intellectual forces). They don’t get it. In some cases, they explicitly refuse to get it. “Why should I learn that?” more than one has said. “I’ll just Google it if I need to know it.”

What can we learn from Google? I just asked Google some questions and learned some interesting information:

So, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Information, however, is different from knowledge.

Information demands we do something with it – examine it, analyze it, even reject it. Otherwise, we risk being overwhelmed by it.

And these days, we’re drowning in a sea of information. In the absence of knowledge, a lot of unexamined information is even more dangerous than ignorance.


It was a dark and Stormy satire

Recently, our local television news reported on a professor’s office décor. The story, which dubbed David “Stormy” Williams “The Professor of Profanity,” concerned a group of inflatable dolls and a series of posters that Williams displayed in his office.

Williams calls the dolls his “executive team.” The posters satirize the all-too-common features of many offices: the faux inspirational mantras and clip images exhorting workers to work harder, faster, stronger to achieve . . . what? The posters in Williams’ office acknowledge a harsh reality of business: “Keep buying shit or we’re all fucked.”keep buying

Discussions of academic freedom aside (exactly where the television reporter left them), I’m a tad puzzled. Where’s the offense?

The language? These words, while vulgar, cross no lines of religious sensibility. They’re not sexist, ageist, or racist. Indeed, they’re amongst the oldest words in the English language, some predating the Norman Conquest.

lunch decoyThe dolls? While they clearly owe a debt to inflatable sex dolls, these figures have no orifices and display no “nudity.” Their mouths do not open, and their clothes mimic traditional office attire, albeit painted on.

Further, Williams did not design or manufacture these items. He bought them from businesses. And now, he’s fucked.

Williams has been accused of creating a hostile workplace, yet what is more hostile than the forcible redesign of one’s workspace according to some ersatz and sanitized notion of corporate culture?

In an earlier post, I discussed people who, while capable of acts of economic and military obscenity, cannot bring themselves to use certain words – a strange and misplaced prudishness in light of the destruction unleashed upon us by men like Mitt Romney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Sadly, Williams has fallen victim to this same misplaced and misinformed sense of delicacy that focuses more on our words than on our actions.

When I taught university-level introductory English literature courses, I insisted my students read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Swift’s satirical attack on the feeble attempts to help impoverished Irish Catholics — with its outrage-inspiring suggestion that these people could raise their children for meat — continues to inspire essayists and activists. Because of that legacy, I felt the essay was important for students to confront, consider, and understand as an example of satirical power. And, as the popularity of Stephen Colbert and Rick Mercer suggests, we still appreciate sharp satire.

One way I approached the essay was to have students evaluate Swift’s project as a business plan, a familiar approach since so many of them embrace the argument that the sole virtue of their education lay in their improved ability to earn an income that would allow for unfettered consumption of market goods. Thus, they focussed on the economic benefits of Swift’s plan: the generation of revenue alongside the reduction of the taxes for publicly funded support services.

Swift’s seeming proposal is obscene, yet his writing does not stray beyond the pale of gentility (and he did have access to some lovely swear words, trust me). In the classroom, I noted Swift’s wielding of the power of numbers, reflected in the ease with which students accepted numbers and projections without question. Some students got it.

In later  years, I developed my own Swiftian approaches in teaching business students, to suggest that while capitalism is a lovely system, it’s not a universally beneficial or even suitable mode of evaluation for all life’s activities.

Want to make a lot of money? Crystal meth crystallizes (pun intended) many of the desirable qualities of an ideal commodity: plentiful demand, flexible supply, competitive market, and generous profit margins. What’s the problem? Social degradation? Collateral damage? The law? Doesn’t business cross those lines — indeed, redraws those lines — on a daily basis? Now who’s being naïve?

Of course, I imagine few business professors engage in such discussions. In other disciplines, and not strictly those in the liberal arts, students are encouraged to reflect upon the history and consequences of the subject matter they study, to think about what is not illuminated or revealed by traditional approaches. By contrast, many of the business students I know study in a vacuum, in which history does not exist (unless in an elective course), and business is a matter of axiomatic good.

Business faculty trot out Enron, of course, and some even discuss the global collapse of 2008. Yet, most treat these as isolated incidents and not as predictable outcomes. Perhaps if business schools offered a critical view of business history, we might never have to fear yet another cycle of boom-and-bust. Of course, if business and business schools had learned anything since the tulip craze of seventeenth-century Holland, we would likely not have undergone either Enron or 2008.

But that, as my students remind me, is history – and they didn’t sign up for a history class.

In the same building as Stormy’s office, students are taught that their only responsibility is to the bottom line. Faculty can talk at length about a datum from their research, but have no expressed opinion on issues such as predatory marketing and sales practices. The college espouses a vision of itself as a creator of nations, yet continues to express itself through clichés of business as violent and combative.

worst bossAlthough Williams may not have read Swift’s proposal, his office represents an oasis of morality, a voice in the wilderness suggesting that all might not be well with business, a suggestion of a satiric norm. And like the light-seeker in Plato’s cave analogy, he’s suffering for speaking the truth.

In other words, if we don’t keep buying stuff, somebody’s fucked.


Appropriate Hailing of the Annual Solstice Festival to You and Yours

A few years ago, on Mother’s Day, a stranger shouted “Happy Mother’s Day!” at me. It was odd because, while I appreciated the good intention, I am not a mother (NOT THAT I KNOW OF. Thank you, Carol Liefer via my sister). Could one give a conditional “Thank you, but . . . “?

What did it mean that this man assumed that any woman he encountered was a mother? (Shouldn’t a mother on Mother’s Day be surrounded by the evidence of her motherhood, not trudging along Broadway Avenue, power-smoking ahead of brunch with her non-smoking parents?)

I’ve been thinking about that odd encounter as I watch this year’s brouhaha about the perceived war on Christmas greetings.

In the glorious past, so the story goes, we wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and they returned the greeting. We didn’t care if they didn’t celebrate Christmas, much less did we deign to ask them about what they did celebrate, except to emphasize how different they were from us. It was comfy and cosy, in part because we didn’t need to acknowledge anything that challenged our assumptions about our communities. Everybody celebrated Christmas, didn’t they?

But, to this same view, when we are asked to acknowledge that some people celebrate other holidays (and holy days), that some people don’t celebrate any holidays (or holy days), somehow that’s an attack on us! How dare they burst our bubble?! EVERYBODY CELEBRATES CHRISTMAS!

We howl on news channels and social media about “those people” trying to change “our country,” without admitting that what we really want is for “those people” to keep quiet in order to sustain our delusion just a little while longer.

When did “Merry Christmas” become a weapon? Why do some see Christmas greetings as a way to impose their view on everyone in the community and to bludgeon others into either silence or false cheeriness?

I’m not strictly a Christian, but I do enjoy Christmas. I enjoy the sense of history and tradition, the songs we sing only at this time of year that tie us to our past.  I like the challenge of finding presents that reflect my feelings for friends and family, not my ability to pay. I love the calm that descends late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve and the silence of Christmas morning. I appreciate that, as driven by commerce as we are, we stop – for just a day or two – to spend time with each other. I love Christmas as a cultural marker, and I’ll continue to celebrate it as such.

Yet, I  know that for some, it’s just Wednesday. Actually, it’s probably more like “pain-in-the-ass Wednesday,” because they must abide by our traditional need to suspend most civic and commercial services for the day and to crowd the airwaves with Christmas programs. Further, we demand they join in our — not their — celebration. And not complain or even dissent. Hell, if they don’t acknowledge our — not their — holiday, we declare their war on us! Why do they insist on complicating our view of our — not their — world?

Isn’t that like ordering all women without children to disappear on Mother’s Day because they had not blessed the world with offspring? Aren’t we asking them to ballyhoo our terrific party – to which they’re not invited?! Worse, we’ll insist that they tell us how terrific our party is going to be, even if they’re not on the guest list!

So, what to do? I saw a church sign yesterday: “Christmas Blessings.” I like that. A blessing is a nice thing to give and to get. Except for one famous occasion where a blessing was wrestled away from the blesser, there’s usually little violence associated with a blessing. Even if you don’t ask for or want the blessing, it’s nice to think that someone wants to offer you one.

We could do worse than to offer blessings, to acknowledge everyone in our communities, not just those who look and act like us. We can show that Christmas can be about  “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” and even “Fairy Tale of New York,” lovely interpretations of dark and snowy days, not just “OH COME LET US (AND  MAKE YOU) ADORE HIM”!

You know, to be kind of Christ-like about the whole thing.

And so, in the altered words of Tiny Tim, everyone bless us, every one.