Tag Archives: cultural literacy

Sunday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 5/13/2018: A Strange Philanthropist, A Redeeming Cadet, A Good Idea, And An Obvious Observation

Good Morning!

(This was definitely the oddest LP in my Dad’s Jimmy Durante collection….And good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…)

1. Ethics Hero, I guess. A sad one…The Henry Street Settlement , a community charity, was shocked to receive $6.24 million donation, the largest single gift from an individual in its 125-year history, from the estate of the late Sylvia Bloom, a legal secretary from Brooklyn worked for the same law firm for 67 years until she retired at age 96 and died  in 2016. When one of the wealthy lawyers she worked for bought a stock as she made the transaction for him (or her; I don’t know), she bought the same stock for herself, in a smaller amount. The woman amassed all this money, which she could have used while she was still breathing to assert some beneficial influence over society, help others, or just to expand her own experiences and life opportunities, but instead delegated the responsibility to a non-profit organization to handle after her death. She spent a lifetime in thrall to a law firm, and never could take the initiative to be free.

I view this story as a strong argument for feminism.

2.  Progress: For the first time in The Citadel’s 175-year history,  the Corps of Cadets command was awarded to a female cadet, Class of 2019 Regimental Commander Sarah Zorn. This was no affirmative action or gratuitous diversity moment, but an honor well-earned. In addition to her academic record and demonstrated leadership abilities, Zorn can do 70 pushups in two minutes (I’ve done 7 push-ups in two decades) and has three martial arts black belts. This triumph finally eradicates the humiliating beginnings of the South Carolina military academy’s gender integration, when Shannon Faulkner won a lawsuit against the school’s strict male-only admissions policy, became the first female cadet admitted, then showed up out of shape and irresolute, washing out after five days, four of which were spent in the infirmary. I have always regarded Faulkner as the anti-Jackie Robinson, the perfect example of how a trailblazer without sufficient character can make the trail worse than it was before.

3. An ethics inspiration from Europe. 15,000 European 18-year-olds will be able to travel free of charge in Europe this summer, using special free travel passes valid for 30 days. The European Parliament initiative was passed “to enhance a sense of European identity and European values.” . The cost will be about $14.2 million dollars in American currency.

Great idea, and better, in fact, for the United States to try than Europe, since the United States actually has a national culture and one that a majority of young people are neither learning about nor understand. The U.S. version should include tickets to a baseball game, of course.

4. Duh. Imagine my surprise when, after opening the Sunday New York Times Sunday Review section, I found leading off the insert that has been dominated by anti-Trump hate and hysteria since last November an essay that dovetails nicely with this Ethics Alarms post from yesterday.  Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think” by Gerard Alexander, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, was given the front page of the section to make a point, a full year and a half into President Trump’s administration, that has been a theme on Ethics Alarms for all of that time, and should have been screamingly obvious to anyone whose own ethics alarms still had functioning clappers. Alexander writes in part, Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, April 11, 2018: Caesar’s Wife At The EPA, Idiots On The Air, And Dreamers Demanding Discounts [UPDATED]

Good Morning!

1. Forgetting to heed the “Caesar’s wife” Principle. Whatever one may think about EPA head Scott Pruitt’s controversial policy directions as head of the environmental agency, all ought to be able to agree on this: he’s an idiot.

Here is a cultural literacy test: How many Americans under the age of—what, 45? 60? 104?—know what the term “like Caesar’s wife” means? When you have a target painted on your back because you are taking positions that are guaranteed to be anathema to powerful critics, like the news media, you are “like Caesar’s wife.” This should communicate something to you. In 63 BC, Julius Caesar, a man on the rise, was elected to the position of the Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion. The next year, his wife Pompeia hosted the festival of the Bona Dea (“Good Goddess”) in which no man was allowed to participate, at Caesar’s official residence. Publius Clodius Pulcher, a  rash young patrician, snuck into the celebration disguised as a woman, allegedly to seduce Pompeia. He was caught, prosecuted ( not for trying to shag Caesar’s wife but for the crime of sacrilege), and ultimately  acquitted. Nevertheless, Caesar divorced Pompeia, saying, “My wife ought not even to be under suspicion.”  Thus was born the saying, once well-known to educated individuals, that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”

Either Pruitt doesn’t know the reference, or doesn’t understand it. He has made himself vulnerable and a political liability to the Trump administration by the kind of grubby ethics violations so many of the administration’s recruits from the corporate world have engaged in. (And what does this tell us about that culture?)

David J. Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, sent  a letter this week to Kevin Minoli, the EPA’s  top ethics official,  asking the agency to take “appropriate actions to address any violations.”

Among the issues raised were Pruitt’s $50-a-night rental  of a Capitol Hill condominium from the wife of an energy lobbyist (This may not have been market value, the letter speculates, raising the question of whether it was a gift, aka “bribe.” Ya think? You can’t rent a decent garden tool shed for 50 bucks a night…), Pruitt taking an excessive number government-funded flights home to Oklahoma and back (He’s about the 78th Trump official to be caught doing this kind of thing—do these guys read the newspapers?), and worst of all, reports that agency staff members who raised concerns about these and other actions creating “the appearance of impropriety”  found themselves transferred or demoted.

“The success of our government depends on maintaining the trust of the people we serve,”wrote Apol. “The American public needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and appropriately addressed.”

Why yes! And anyone who holds high government office is supposed to know that. Anyone holding high government office in this administration, which is in the position of the thug sprung from police lock-up on a technicality to which an angry detective says before he strolls out the door, “If you so much as spit on the sidewalk, I’ll be there to pick you up,” should know that especially. When they are gunning for you, you have to be like Caesar’s wife.

The President should fire Pruitt for these flagrant abuses. He won’t, because he literally doesn’t think ethics matter. I wonder if he thinks stupidity and unrestrained arrogance matter… Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2018: “Ruggles Of Red Gap” And “Williamson No Longer Of The Atlantic'”

 

Good Morning…

(Do you remember when Saturday morning was fun? Stupid, but fun…)

1. Your cultural literacy note of the day. The Charles Laughton classic “Ruggles of Red Gap” was on Turner Movie Classics last night. The movie itself is wonderful—I recommended it in an Independence Day post here—but it is also a cultural literacy triumph.  In 1935, when the film was released, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was in the process of falling out of the public’s consciousness. The film’s most famous scene, however, revived it. In a saloon, reference is made to “what Lincoln said at Gettysburg,” and all the cowboys in Red Gap ask each other, “What did Lincoln say at Gettysburg?” Then, quietly, unexpectedly, Ruggles the English butler (Laughton) and the only foreign-born man in the room, recites the speech. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, in his post showing observations, revealed that when the film was first shown, audiences frequently stood and applauded Laughton’s rendition, and the Address itself became more widely known and quoted.

This is how popular culture works when it is in sync with national values, and not attempting to undermine them.

Here is the scene…for some reason YouTube doesn’t have it, but does have the entire film. The saloon scene begins at about the 56:09 mark:

 

 

2. The Atlantic-Kevin Williamson controversy. Unless you routinely plumb the depths of pundit wars and cultural bloodletting, you might well be completely unaware of this skirmish, but it is ultimately an ethics story. Continue reading

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Comment Of The Day: “No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate”

[I’m using this morning to post some important, backlogged Comments of the Day. Today’s Warm-Up will be after noon, if all does according to plan.]

Keith Walker registered a fascinating reflection on his experiences as a teacher in response to the post regarding the decline of cultural literacy. I do take umbrage at his categorization of my commentary about public school’s ongoing failure as “ranting” and his implication that I have designated teachers as “useless.” If I have criticized teachers and administrators, it has always been based on specific conduct. In Alexandria, VA., I had to pull my son out of one public school, a Catholic school and two private ones upon observing exactly the kind of incompetence, bias and abuse I have written about over the past eight years.  Indoctrination, child abuse, incompetence and sexual predation in the schools are real, and teaching is still a “profession” without codified ethics standards. Dedicated, smart, competent teachers are heroic, but their existence does not make my criticism and analysis less valid or less urgent.

Here is Keith’s Comment of the Day on the post, “No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate”

As one of those useless public school teachers so often ranted about in this space, I want to rise to the occasion here and, if not defend our profession, at least offer my take on things over my 31 years in the business.

I was a fairly new teacher when Hirsch’s book came out. I thought then that it was a silly tome, written from the perspective of a grumpy old man. I still don’t hold much respect for it, though I have become a grumpy old man myself. Who gets to decide what’s important cultural literacy? (Yes, I am about to say something like “it’s always been old white guys…”) I wonder if someone else had written that book if it would have contained different things?

But since 1988 several things have happened to make teaching these important things virtually impossible, the internet and standardized testing being two major ones. Yes, I know that standardized testing has been around for many decades; I remember taking the MEAP (Michigan’s state test) when I was a small boy in the 70s. But in the 70s test scores were not blasted across the front pages of newspapers everywhere, and politicians were not decrying our “failing public schools” and telling everyone that privatization and profits would be a much better plan for education.

The pressure on schools, teachers, and students to “succeed” on these tests is ridiculous, and it has gotten to the point that if it can’t be measured, we don’t have time to teach it. And everything is measured. As a music teacher I am happy to have a job any more; much of my curriculum isn’t “measurable” to a certain extent, and it certainly isn’t required for success in life. But I digress… Believe me, if Cromwell was going to be on the ACT, SAT, or AP History exams, you can bet he’d be talked about in schools. It’s all about competition, and everyone is fearing for jobs, funding, and students as we move to a market-based system of educating our next generations, and the members of that generation all want to get a 7.0 GPA and get into Harvard (starting as freshmen with 75 credits due to all of their AP test scores), and the way to do it is to excel on those tests. It’s fairly terrifying. Continue reading

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No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate

“Who?”

Ugh.

 I was watching the MLB channel this morning, and the hosts were discussing the Milwaukee Brewers and their general manager’s statement that the team would “keep its powder dry” until the mid-season trading deadline. All three hosts professed to have no idea whatsoever what the phrase about keeping powder dry meant. In his 1988 book “Cultural Literacy,” E.D.Hirsch, Jr., argued that children in the United States are not learning the basic knowledge that they need to function competently in society. the background information about world, Western and U.S. culture that literate writers and speakers assume their audience already has. The three MLB hosts were all schooled since 1988, and clearly, the problem has only gotten worse.

The phrase at issue is a useful and formerly famous one. It comes from a reported quote from Oliver Cromwell—Teddy Roosevelt wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell. I bet fewer than one out of a thousand Americans could tell you who he was—during the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Cromwell supposedly told his Roundhead troops in that opening fight of the English Civil War, ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” The last part of the quote is usually evoked to mean “keep cool,” but the entire quote is more profound. As the late language maven William Safire wrote in the New York Times, it means ”stay calm” but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ”and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.” Prayer is great, but the Lord helps those who help themselves. Or, as a World War II slogan had it, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” This was made into a popular wartime song by Frank Loesser, who wrote “Guys and Dolls.” I know: what’s “Guys and Dolls”? What’s “World War II?”

This morning’s depression reminded me of an essay by Patrick Deneen from 2016, titled “How a Generation Lost Its Common Culture.” He wrote in part, Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/29/17: What’s Really Wrong With Single Payer, Incompletely Remembering Charles Kuralt, And Dana Milbank Boards The Ethics Train Wreck

(This is my favorite Arthur Sullivan hymn, even more than “Onward Christian Soldiers”…)

GOOD MORNING!

1 CBS’s “Sunday Morning” had a feature today on the late Charles Kuralt, the original host of the show, famous for his feature “On the Road” in which Kuralt visited “the real America,” meeting locals and revealing regional lore to the rest of the country. At the end of today’s segment, CBS bemoaned the fact that Kuralt, who died 20 years ago, was virtually forgotten, even among journalists if they had no grey in their hair.

This is an example of a larger crisis, cultural illiteracy, that often occupies my thoughts. The blame lies with our inadequate schools and its under-educated teachers, as well as popular culture. Barely knowing anything about George Washington, the root of the previous post, is an existential problem, but only slightly more dangerous are the multiple generations whose member can’t name ten U.S. Presidents, don’t know the dates of the Civil War or who the US defeated in World War II, and who have never heard of Jackie Robinson, Clarence Darrow, Brown v. Board of Education, Eugene McCarthy, Ingrid Bergman, or Lucille Ball.

CBS, however, was indulging its own special breed of disinformation by lionizing Kuralt. Yes, I remember well his plummy voice and avuncular style. I also remember, as CBS would have us forget, the fact that after his death it was revealed that being “on the road” allowed Kuralt to maintain one family in Montana and another, his official one, in New York City. His innovative proposal to CBS to fund his trek back and forth over the contiinent facilitated his betrayal of his family. Kuralt was a sociopath.

2. The most significant ethics story of recent weeks that I have thus far neglected was the announcement that Great Britain’s National Health Service will ban patients from surgery indefinitely if they are obese or smoke. Non life-or death operations, like joint replacements, will be put on hold  until such patients conform to the governement’s life style requirements

Obese patients “will not get non-urgent surgery until they reduce their weight” unless the circumstances are exceptional. Smokers will only be referred for operations if they have stopped smoking for at least eight weeks, with such patients breathalyzed before referral.

When the newly radicalized and Bernie-ized Democratic Prty going all-in for single-payer next year, this cautionary tale needs thorough debate. When the government controls health care, it has the power to constrict personal liberty. The British were horrified by this latest development, which can only be described as the other shoe dropping. What did they expect?

Of course, a party that controls a government that can withhold surgery until citizens conform to mandated life choices would never use that same power to demand other behavior from citizens. Or  assign priorities for surgical procedures to favored groups and constituencies.

Keep telling yourself that. You’ll feel better. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/17/17: Boy Scouts, “Will and Grace,” An Actress Whines, Wedding Cakes, And (I’m Sorry!) More Hillary

Good Morning!

1 I’m giving an ethics talk to a Boy Scout troop this afternoon. Figuring out how to use example that are appropriate to ages 11-14 while avoiding hot-button issues like race, sexual orientation, police, guns and politics in general is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. What pop culture reference points will work is also a conundrum. What movies are they likely to have seen? In the Sixties, I could have referred to Westerns, many of which routinely embodied ethics lessons. But they also often involved shooting people, and kids don’t see Westerns now. In the Eighties, I might have sent Boy Scouts to episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which was virtually all about ethics. But Patrick Stewart is just an old guy doing commercials now, and there have been four TV incarnations of the franchise since Data packed it in, not counting the movies. Pixar movies are usually ethics-rich, but a lot of kids will bristle at being presumed to be cartoon fans. Superhero movies? The ones that raise ethics issues usually do so badly, or the issues are too complex—or too dark– for a Boy Scout Troop. Here we see the serious cultural problem of declining cultural literacy and deteriorating cross-generational communications as a result of the loss of common experience. and interests.

Well, it’s early. I’ll figure out something.

One approach I considered was to suggest they practice ethical analysis by reading the newspaper, picking out the ethics dilemmas and controversies that appear, thinking about them and arguing about them. Of course, that was foolish: they would probably ask, “What’s a newspaper?” However this morning’s Sunday Times is a perfect example. I could teach a four hour ethics seminar based on the stories in this edition alone. Look…

2. The baker who refused to sell a cake to a gay couple is back on the front page, thanks to the case winding its way to the Supreme Court. This time, the focus isn’t on Freedom of Religion (in this case, freedom to act like a jackass using your religion as an excuse), but Freedom of Speech. The government cannot compel speech, nor will the law compel specific performance of an artistic nature. The baker claims that his cakes are artistic creations, and he doesn’t have to make them for anyone or anything if he doesn’t want to.  The gay couple says that they weren’t asking for him to create an artwork, just to sell them a wedding cake. If the cake is a commodity, then the bake shop should be a public accommodation, and subject to applicable laws. Then the baker has to sell his cakes to anyone. If the cake is an “artistic creation” made specifically for the couple, then the law cannot force the baker to make it, or punish him if he refuses. Art is speech.

I hate these kinds of cases, and I’m sure the SCOTUS justices do too. A cake is sometimes just a cake, and sometimes a work of art. The confrontation should have been handled with ethics rather than law. The baker is a bigoted jerk, that’s all. I think he has a right not to make a cake for a gay couple, but exercising that right is cruel and insulting. Continue reading

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