Would I Have Done This? Would You?

Y’know, sometimes I look at what my students do, often out of simple self-defense in a world fraught with absurd bureaucratic demands, and wonder if I would have done the same thing as a freshman.

Would I refuse to buy the textbook for a college course I was paying to take? If I did buy it, would I refuse to read it? Would I turn in a paper that was copied whole cloth from the Internet (or, in my day, from a magazine or book)? Would I beg for an exception from the no-late-papers rule because I had a full-time job and was taking 18 credits? Would I need to be taught how to acknowledge a source in-text?

Well, off-hand the answers would be No, Probably not, No, Not a chance, and No.

BUT…on reflection…

The truth is, there’s really no comparison between today’s student’s experience and my college experience a half-century ago.

In the first place, I did not take English 101 and 102, the two-semester iteration of the high-school English that apparently does not “take” for most Arizona kids. I didn’t go to school in Arizona, thank all the Gods and Goddesses that be: California schools, even the lesser schools of southern California where my parents moved after three years in San Francisco, went so far as to teach basic literacy and basic expository writing. My SAT scores got me into a one-semester substitute for the advanced dumbbell English most students had to take, and that was a course in modern literature — it wasn’t a composition course at all. So it should be noted that there really was no comparison. With that in mind, let us consider:

Would I refuse to buy the textbook for a college course I was paying to take?

No, certainly not. In the first place textbook publishers did not gouge students upwards of $80 for what really are nothing more than $20 trade paperbacks. So buying a semester’s textbooks did not mean I’d have to skip paying the rent that month.

And in the second place, it never even occurred to me not to buy a required textbook — or even one of the optional texts. Of course you bought the text. What would be the point of taking the course at all if you didn’t buy the books?

I remember being absolutely shocked when a third-year student bragged, in the moments before a particularly boring history class convened, that he  hadn’t bought the course textbook and that in fact he had never purchased a textbook for any class in his major, and he had a B+/A– average.

Tellingly, he was an education major.

Speaking of that history course…

Would I refuse to read a textbook that I’d bought?

That history course was taught by a dry, monotone professor who required a heavy, thick, equally dry and monotone textbook. It’s hard to make history boring, but this guy did it. That book was the most tedious piece of published anything I’ve ever read this side of a journal article in higher mathematics.  It was almost unreadable.

I didn’t refuse to read it — I tried to read it. But if he’d sat me down and asked me what I’d read, he’d probably have concluded the answer was “nothing.”

These comp textbooks are similarly boring and tendentious. They’re excruciating to read, and I know the subject matter. No. I live the subject matter. And I find them perfectly awful.

I would not have read it because, at the age of 17, when I entered college, I knew all this stuff. I had been writing sourced (i.e., cited and documented) expository papers since the seventh grade. By the time I left high school, a textbook like the ones we require for today’s freshman comp courses would have nothing to offer me. I certainly could have passed a 2015 freshman comp course without ever looking at the text.

Being the little doobie that I was, I probably would have looked at assigned readings. But I wouldn’t have studied them carefully, because I would have considered it a waste of time.

However…it must be remembered that for today’s students, the material is not a waste of time. Many, many high-school graduates entering your comp courses will tell you that they have never written any researched paper in all the 13 years they spent in Arizona’s K-12 schools! Some will tell you they’ve never written a piece of exposition at all. Any piece of exposition, like “what I did on my summer vacation.” They do not know how to find research sources. They do not know how to distinguish, in terms of credibility, between something they read on Faux News and something on the same subject that emanated from the New England Journal of Medicine. They cannot recognize when they’re indulging in a fallacy. Some of them don’t know what the word “fallacy” means. As many as a quarter of them do not write in coherent paragraphs — they can’t organize their thinking in rational blocks of copy.  About a third to a half habitually write in fragments and fused sentences.

Although the average American high-school kid did not score in the 99th percentile on the SAT’s verbal section, nevertheless a good 80 percent of them were capable of writing a coherent paper without a lot of basic grammar and logical thinking errors.

So: not a fair comparison. Quite.

Would I turn in a paper that was copied whole cloth from the Internet (or, in my day, from a magazine or book)?

No. I was too scared to pull a stunt like that. Nor did I need to: I knew how to find information and how to synthesize it from several sources into a single coherent argument. I left high school knowing how to do that — it was as natural as breathing.

Over the decades, a sea change in attitudes toward honesty has taken place. People in general — including young people — have discovered that it’s very easy to get away with things. Keep a straight face and no one is likely to question you, first because most people are too busy to be bothered and second because few instructors want to go through the hassle of flunking you out of their course for plagiarizing.

That’s a function, I think, of the number of bureaucratic rules that now afflict us all. We have restraints and demands coming at us from all directions. And one of the things people have figured out is that nothing much happens if you quietly neglect to obey. Or that the chances that you’ll be caught out and hassled are relatively low.

I knew a young woman who indulged in a fair amount of insurance fraud. She’d become expert in navigating insurance claims and would even offer to help her friends maximize collections. A couple of times, her scams were pretty damned transparent. But you know what happened? Nothing. She collected. She got not one but two houses completely rebuilt (questionable whether the fire that burned down the second house was actually a fraud or a genuine attempt on the part of her psychotic husband to murder her — probably the latter, IMHO, but that was never proven). Neither of these people — the crooked wife or the equally unethical demented husband — have ever had to account for their scams in any meaningful way.

Young people aren’t fools. Students can see this stuff going on. And when they attempt their own small frauds, they learn the same thing: getting caught is a very, very long shot.

If I’d been functioning in this environment, who knows what I would have done? It’s a different social ethic altogether.

Would I beg for an exception from the no-late-papers rule because I had a full-time job and was taking 18 credits?

Never would’ve entered my mind. You did not challenge your teachers. Or your parents. Or a cop. Or a principal. Or the IRS dude. Or anyone else.

The kid who asked to turn in a major paper three days late did so not once but twice — she actually came back after I said “no” and tried to change my mind.

But once again one has to ask: is there really a comparison here?

Except for reading texts to a blind student once or twice a week, I didn’t hold a job during the entire four years of my undergraduate training. People didn’t. No one expected kids to go to school full-time and also go to work. For a student, your job was to study. That’s what you did. You didn’t go out and sell furniture or wait tables. The very idea would have been frowned upon.

And sign up for 18 credits? Are you kidding? Sixteen units was considered a heavy load. I doubt if the university would have allowed me to take 18 credit hours in a single semester. I would have had to get some kind of special permission to pull it off, and you can bet that if an adviser had a clue that I was working on the side, no such permission would have been forthcoming.

Tuition at public universities was almost free. Families did not have to damn near bankrupt themselves to send a kid to college, and students were not saddled with a lifetime of debt to get a degree that is now considered indispensable for white-collar employment.

Blue-collar jobs that would support a family existed in those days, so a college degree wasn’t regarded as non-negotiable for entrée to the middle class. For that matter, the middle class still existed, too…

So again, there’s really no comparison. College kids were not subjected to unreasonable demands or exploited mercilessly. They didn’t have to work as wage slaves while they were trying to take classes, and so they didn’t have to beg dispensation to turn in assignments late. And instructors were full-time faculty on the tenure track, not wretched part-timers juggling two, three, or four mini-gigs to put food on the table. So they could afford to fit an occasional late paper into their workload.

Would I need to be taught how to acknowledge a source in-text?

Sure. We used footnotes back in the Dark Ages.

But the principle driving the practice was the same. And I’d been using footnotes since the seventh grade. No one needed to take my little hand and sit me down and explain to me what sources to cite, when, where, or why. Today’s  poor little things haven’t a clue.

How’z about you? Would you refuse to buy the textbook for a college course you were paying to take? If you did buy it, would you refuse to read it? Would you turn in a paper that was copied whole cloth from the Internet (or from a magazine or book)? Would you beg for an exception from the no-late-papers rule because you had a full-time job and were taking 18 credits? Would you need to be taught how to acknowledge a source in-text?

Blast from the Grocery Past!

cross-creekSo this evening searching for television content, any content ( 🙄 ), I come across some sort of ersatz redneck cooking show. They’re going on about down-home Southern cookin’ and this makes me curious to look up deviled crab and buttermilk pie in an old regional cookbook that came down to me from my mother.

Yea verily, I find the original recipes. And they’re singularly uninteresting — dull compared to the recipes the show’s producers had tracked down, heavy, and pedestrian. But what should fall out of the book but an old, yellowed grocery receipt. A long, LONG old yellowed grocery receipt.

Though it’s faded and hard to make out, it has a hundred entries on it! And all those purchases, marked as meat and produce and “groceries” (whatever that is) came to a grand total of $89.85. No single item in this piled-up shopping basket came to more than a few dollars. And no single item is named: just the price next to a code showing the merchandise classification.

Imagine buying 100 grocery items for $90 today! A beef roast would have cost around $3.50; a pound of bacon, a buck or so.

Oddly, the receipt shows sale after sale after sale of 21-cent items.

What on earth?

The thing was dated September 28, 1978. Issued by Madison Pay ’N’ Take It, once the best grocer in town — back in the day when you couldn’t buy a decent chunk of cheese in a supermarket and most Americans thought table wine was called Blue Nun or Boone’s Farm.

In September 1978, my son was less than 18 months old. Possibly all those 21-cent items were bottles of baby food?

Unlikely. I used to make his food: I’d use the blender to purée whatever we ate, if it wasn’t too spicy, plus frozen vegetables and fresh fruits. Might have bought one or two baby foods, but certainly not two dozen bottles of baby food. The stuff was full of all sorts of adulterants and fake flavors. That was why I went to the trouble of mashing up piles of real food.

Ah yes: Not baby food, but tiny one-serving bottles of baby juice.

Fake baby juice.

In 1978, I had fallen for the “we’re sooo NATURAL” advertising campaign of a company called Beechnut. It still manufactures baby foods. At the time, it boasted that it was selling wonderful, healthful, all-“natural,” 100 percent pure juice.

In fact, what it was selling was 100 percent sugar water with a little dye added to make it look like juice. Eventually the company was fined $2 million for this particularly nasty scam.

Not, however, before their “juice” had rotted out my son’s baby teeth. The dentist, having had to drill half a dozen of his little teeth, yelled at me for feeding him sugar. I had no idea what he was talking about — I had been downright obsessive about keeping sugar away from him. To the point where relatives and babysitters thought I was crazy!

To this day, my son hates dentists. To this day, I hate big corporate food producers.

That probably was the first clue I had of how evil some of these companies are, and how shabby the food-like products that fill our grocery store aisles really are.

But in 1978, there we were, still in the Organic Garden of Eden: yet to discover the snake was harvesting the apple tree.

Halcyon days.

Sarah Gets Her Bull’s-Eye

Sarah Palin has taken down her bull’s-eye map, the one that targeted Gabrielle Gifford, the U.S. Congresswoman just shot outside a Tucson Safeway by some nutcase—or, we’re told on the fly, maybe two or even three nutcases. Lest we forget, let’s take one last look at the disappearing map of Ms. Palin’s target:

Just now MSNBC in Tucson is reporting that Gifford survived brain surgery and is expected to live. But the surgeon said another of the hospital’s patients, a girl estimated to be about nine years old, died.

No doubt Ms. Palin is proud of what she and her supporters have accomplished. Clearly they haven’t the sense to understand the consequences of their irresponsible demagoguery.

A nine-year-old child died because of the hatefulness promulgated by people who subscribe to that kind of thinking. The kind of people who think a map making targets of other human beings is funny.

Got a blog? Post this damnable map.

Don’t let Sarah Palin erase it. Don’t let anyone forget what it was and where it was and who put it in front of a rabid animal with a gun.

When Giving Goes Awry

Baker at Man vs. Debt hit the gong at several blog carnivals this week with his rumination on the various excuses not to give money to charities. While the article is well written and I respect the passion with which his readers respond, the enthusiasm for giving away hard-earned wages escapes me.

I rarely donate cash to any charities or churches. There’s a reason for that: charitable giving warped my father’s psychology, influencing his entire life for the not-necessarily-better, and it permanently alienated his two older brothers from each other. Effectively, it destroyed his mother and his family. Because of his experiences, he would never allow my mother to teach me religion or to drag me to church, and he would not permit her or himself to donate to anything.

At the turn of the twentieth century, my grandmother inherited a substantial sum from her father, who had accumulated a small fortune in freighting buffalo hides out of Oklahoma to market in Texas. By the time my father came on the scene, rather late in her life, she was pretty well set: she owned two houses and a commercial property in Fort Worth, and she had money in the bank.

My father was a change-of-life baby: the youngest of his two brothers was 18 years older than he. At the time he was born, his father ran off, abandoning the middle-aged wife to care for the new baby herself. Her two other sons were, by this point, out of the house and launched on their own lives. One became a ranch hand, running cattle in west Texas; the other went to work at a Fort Worth dairy. Both men had their own families, with all the concerns that entails.

Over the next decade or so, my grandmother became engaged with an alternative Christian church that since then has evolved into the mainstream. Neither brother paid much attention to what was going on, although my father realized something was awry by the time he was about ten years old. She was quietly giving money to this church: large amounts of money. The church was gratefully accepting it and offering exactly nothing in return.

The two older brothers learned about this only after it was way too late. They found out when the county seized their mother’s home for unpaid taxes. She couldn’t pay her property taxes, because she had no money. She was flat broke, having given every penny of her fortune to the church.

Did this make her a better person? No. Did it contribute to her personal happiness? Obviously not. Did it make her holy in the eyes of God? Maybe. God didn’t do much to keep a roof over her head, though. Nor did He prevent creditors and the government from taking away what little she had left. She lost both houses and the gas station, and everything she had ever had was gone. There was no help for her from any direction. She died in desperate penury, without a word from the worthies of the church that had taken all her money.

My cattleman uncle blamed his brother, my other uncle, for this state of affairs. He felt that his brother should have been keeping an eye on their mother, since he was the one who stayed in Fort Worth. The two men fought, and after that they never spoke to each other again.

My father was a little boy, but he was old enough to understand that his home was gone, his mother was reduced to poverty, and a substantial inheritance that should have supported her and all three of her sons had evaporated into the coffers of a church. He determined that he would earn back the entire amount that she had lost.

And he did. By the time he reached his goal, forty years later, the dollar amount wasn’t very much, and because he wasn’t an educated man, he didn’t understand that to match the buying power of what she lost, he would have had to save over seven times as much. But that didn’t matter: in his mind he’d regained her losses. As soon as he reached his goal, he retired, imagining he would be set for life.

To do it, he

dropped out of school in the 11th grade;
lied about his age to join the navy;
worked like an animal all his life;
spent ten grim years of his life, my mother’s life, and my life in a godforsaken outpost in the Arabian desert;
pinched every penny that came his way;
based his marriage and his entire life on the accumulation of savings;
lived a miser’s life right up until the time he died.

To say he was a frugal man is to understate. Saving money became an obsession, and he focused all of our lives on it. Because he didn’t really understand money well, he made some serious mistakes, topmost among them investing all he had in insurance securities, which during the 1950s were returning at a rate of 30 percent. He didn’t realize a) that investments should be diversified, and b) no investment that was earning that much could possibly last long. When the bottom fell out of the insurance securities market, he lost almost everything—just as he stood at the verge of making his goal.

He did eventually earn the lost savings back, but this fiasco added another ten years of hard labor to his financial plan, and it pinched his personality even more than it was already pinched. Overall, he fared pretty well, considering that he had no education and only the opportunities he managed to wrest from life by main force. He kept us in the middle class, and he left about a hundred thousand dollars to his wife, my son, and me.

But his character was changed by his mother’s charity: warped and crabbed. And he was effectively left alone as a teenager, his two brothers spun off like asteroids in deep space. What remained of his family fell apart, and he spent his entire life trying to put what he thought was his birthright back together.

And that’s why I don’t give to churches.

To my mind, charity begins at home. If I give any money away, it’s to my son, who has returned the favor by growing into a decent man. By keeping myself off the public dole, I save the taxpayer a great deal of money.  And let us bear in mind that what I do to keep myself off the dole—mostly teaching—is itself a form of charity: I educate young people for a small fraction of what anyone with comparable skills doing a comparable amount of work with comparable management responsibility would earn in business. She who gives away her time, energy, and skill for the public good donates something worth a great deal more than cash.

. . . to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Ethical? Charging what the (charitable) market will bear…

Middle of last week, along came the following announcement in the community college e-mail:

Kewl, eh? For ten bucks you get an artsy-craftsy bowl (potential Christmas present!), a light meal, and some general socializing. And you donate to a good cause.

I asked La Maya and Kathy if they’d like to drop by this thing by way of entertaining ourselves and picking up a lunch. Kathy couldn’t get away from work, and La M had other things to do. But, said she, the local paper reported that this event was happening at AJs’ stores, too. She gathered the one in our part of town was hosting it on Saturday. She was busy, but Kathy thought she could make the endless drive from the hinterlands where she lives to the central part of the city.

So during the week when I was in the vicinity of that AJ’s store I checked, and yea verily: Bowls for Charity on Saturday.

Fortunately, Kathy changed her mind at the last minute. But that notwithstanding, yesterday morning I drove down to the store to check out the bowls.

A cluster of society wives was buzzing around the table where a bunch of young volunteers were peddling the nonprofit’s wares. As one of the women selected an unexceptional bowl, the amateur saleslady said, “That’ll be twelve dollars!”

Oh? And BTW, not a cauldron of soup nor a loaf of bread to be seen…

“So,” said I, “these bowls are $10 at the community colleges but $12 here?”

The young girl behind the table looked puzzled—and young, very young. She was probably a high-school kid. She had no idea.

Annoying. The presumption that just because you happen to shop at AJ’s—or because you would choose to go to that site after you read about the event in the newspaper—you therefore can be charged more for less: that’s annoying.

It’s every bit as annoying as the presumption that just because I wear a pair of Costco jeans into the local Saks, I can’t afford to shop there.

Is it unethical? I don’t know. Vaguely, I feel it could be. Why, I couldn’t say. It just feels like a gentle rip-off.

People on food stamps shop at AJ’s, believe it or not. One afternoon, before the Department of Economic Security started issuing debit cards in place of paper food stamps, I saw a man roll an entire cart full of healthy, nonjunk food up to a cash register and pay for it with food stamps. Should he have to donate an extra two bucks for charity (and not get the soup or the bread) just because he chooses to spend his dole at a store that stocks more real food than junk food?

If all you want is to pick up a handmade bowl or two, for twelve bucks you’d do better to wait for the next street fair. Or visit the excellent artists’ and crafters’ consignment shop directly across the street from that AJ’s.

If you want to donate to a worthy cause? Frankly, I think you’d do better to send money directly.

So, what cause would your purchase or donation support? Paz de Cristo is one of the most venerable soup kitchens in Phoenix’s suburban East Valley. Year in and year out, it has distributed hot meals to the poor, every single evening of the year.

It’s the offspring of St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, which for as many years in and out has supported it generously. Along about last August, in the depths of the worst recession this country has seen since the Great Depression, rel=”nofollow”St. Timothy’s decided to drop that support, abruptly cutting $300,000 in funding and throwing the charity to the mercy of private donors.

No indication of any wrongdoing on the part of Paz de Cristo was offered as an excuse for this moment of Christian charity. Instead, the church said that tithes had dropped off so sharply (could this mean something?) that it would no longer support the soup kitchen.

Hmm. What would Jesus do?