Biden Gets It Right

September 9, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Oxford American:

Welcome and congratulations: Getting to the first day of college is a major achievement. You’re to be commended, and not just you, but the parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts who helped get you here.

It’s been said that raising a child effectively takes a village: Well, as you may have noticed, our American village is not in very good shape. We’ve got guns, drugs, two wars, fanatical religions, a slime-based popular culture, and some politicians who—a little restraint here—aren’t what they might be. To merely survive in this American village and to win a place in the entering class has taken a lot of grit on your part. So, yes, congratulations to all.

You now may think that you’ve about got it made. Amidst the impressive college buildings, in company with a high-powered faculty, surrounded by the best of your generation, all you need is to keep doing what you’ve done before: Work hard, get good grades, listen to your teachers, get along with the people around you, and you’ll emerge in four years as an educated young man or woman. Ready for life.

Do not believe it. It is not true. If you want to get a real education in America you’re going to have to fight—and I don’t mean just fight against the drugs and the violence and against the slime-based culture that is still going to surround you. I mean something a little more disturbing. To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be. (In fact, the more prestigious the school, the more you’ll probably have to push.) You can get a terrific education in America now—there are astonishing opportunities at almost every college—but the education will not be presented to you wrapped and bowed. To get it, you’ll need to struggle and strive, to be strong, and occasionally even to piss off some admirable people.

I came to college with few resources, but one of them was an understanding, however crude, of how I might use my opportunities there. This I began to develop because of my father, who had never been to college—in fact, he’d barely gotten out of high school. One night after dinner, he and I were sitting in our kitchen at 58 Clewley Road in Medford, Massachusetts, hatching plans about the rest of my life. I was about to go off to college, a feat no one in my family had accomplished in living memory. “I think I might want to be pre-law,” I told my father. I had no idea what being pre-law was. My father compressed his brow and blew twin streams of smoke, dragon-like, from his magnificent nose. “Do you want to be a lawyer?” he asked. My father had some experience with lawyers, and with policemen, too; he was not well-disposed toward either. “I’m not really sure,” I told him, “but lawyers make pretty good money, right?”

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, pre-law would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog. “How about the science requirements?”

“Take ’em later,” he said, “you never know.”

My father, Wright Aukenhead Edmundson, Malden High School Class of 1948 (by a hair), knew the score. What he told me that evening at the Clewley Road kitchen table was true in itself, and it also contains the germ of an idea about what a university education should be. But apparently almost everyone else—students, teachers, and trustees and parents—sees the matter much differently. They have it wrong.

Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular. To almost everyone, university education is a means to an end. For students, that end is a good job. Students want the credentials that will help them get ahead. They want the certificate that will give them access to Wall Street, or entrance into law or medical or business school. And how can we blame them? America values power and money, big players with big bucks. When we raise our children, we tell them in multiple ways that what we want most for them is success—material success. To be poor in America is to be a failure—it’s to be without decent health care, without basic necessities, often without dignity. Then there are those back-breaking student loans—people leave school as servants, indentured to pay massive bills, so that first job better be a good one. Students come to college with the goal of a diploma in mind—what happens in between, especially in classrooms, is often of no deep and determining interest to them.

In college, life is elsewhere. Life is at parties, at clubs, in music, with friends, in sports. Life is what celebrities have. The idea that the courses you take should be the primary objective of going to college is tacitly considered absurd. In terms of their work, students live in the future and not the present; they live with their prospects for success. If universities stopped issuing credentials, half of the clients would be gone by tomorrow morning, with the remainder following fast behind.

The faculty, too, is often absent: Their real lives are also elsewhere. Like most of their students, they aim to get on. The work they are compelled to do to advance—get tenure, promotion, raises, outside offers—is, broadly speaking, scholarly work. No matter what anyone says this work has precious little to do with the fundamentals of teaching. The proof is that virtually no undergraduate students can read and understand their professors’ scholarly publications. The public senses this disparity and so thinks of the professors’ work as being silly or beside the point. Some of it is. But the public also senses that because professors don’t pay full-bore attention to teaching they don’t have to work very hard—they’ve created a massive feather bed for themselves and called it a university.

This is radically false. Ambitious professors, the ones who, like their students, want to get ahead in America, work furiously. Scholarship, even if pretentious and almost unreadable, is nonetheless labor-intense. One can slave for a year or two on a single article for publication in this or that refereed journal. These essays are honest: Their footnotes reflect real reading, real assimilation, and real dedication. Shoddy work—in which the author cheats, cuts corners, copies from others—is quickly detected. The people who do this work have highly developed intellectual powers, and they push themselves hard to reach a certain standard: That the results have almost no practical relevance to the students, the public, or even, frequently, to other scholars is a central element in the tragicomedy that is often academia.

The students and the professors have made a deal: Neither of them has to throw himself heart and soul into what happens in the classroom. The students write their abstract, over-intellectualized essays; the professors grade the students for their capacity to be abstract and over-intellectual—and often genuinely smart. For their essays can be brilliant, in a chilly way; they can also be clipped off the Internet, and often are. Whatever the case, no one wants to invest too much in them—for life is elsewhere. The professor saves his energies for the profession, while the student saves his for friends, social life, volunteer work, making connections, and getting in position to clasp hands on the true grail, the first job.

No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast.

As for the administrators, their relation to the students often seems based not on love but fear. Administrators fear bad publicity, scandal, and dissatisfaction on the part of their customers. More than anything else, though, they fear lawsuits. Throwing a student out of college, for this or that piece of bad behavior, is very difficult, almost impossible. The student will sue your eyes out. One kid I knew (and rather liked) threatened on his blog to mince his dear and esteemed professor (me) with a samurai sword for the crime of having taught a boring class. (The class was a little boring—I had a damned cold—but the punishment seemed a bit severe.) The dean of students laughed lightly when I suggested that this behavior might be grounds for sending the student on a brief vacation. I was, you might say, discomfited, and showed up to class for a while with my cellphone jiggered to dial 911 with one touch.

Still, this was small potatoes. Colleges are even leery of disciplining guys who have committed sexual assault, or assault plain and simple. Instead of being punished, these guys frequently stay around, strolling the quad and swilling the libations, an affront (and sometimes a terror) to their victims.

You’ll find that cheating is common as well. As far as I can discern, the student ethos goes like this: If the professor is so lazy that he gives the same test every year, it’s okay to go ahead and take advantage—you’ve both got better things to do. The Internet is amok with services selling term papers and those services exist, capitalism being what it is, because people purchase the papers—lots of them. Fraternity files bulge with old tests from a variety of courses.

Periodically the public gets exercised about this situation, and there are articles in the national news. But then interest dwindles and matters go back to normal.

One of the reasons professors sometimes look the other way when they sense cheating is that it sends them into a world of sorrow. A friend of mine had the temerity to detect cheating on the part of a kid who was the nephew of a well-placed official in an Arab government complexly aligned with the U.S. Black limousines pulled up in front of his office and disgorged decorously suited negotiators. Did my pal fold? Nope, he’s not the type. But he did not enjoy the process…

Read it all.

Foreign Policy:

Europe is a landscape; East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. The most contested areas of the globe in the last century lay on dry land in Europe, particularly in the flat expanse that rendered the eastern and western borders of Germany artificial and exposed to the inexorable march of armies. But over the span of the decades, the demographic and economic axis of the Earth has shifted measurably to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between major population centers are overwhelmingly maritime.

Because of the way geography illuminates and sets priorities, these physical contours of East Asia augur a naval century — naval being defined here in the broad sense to include both sea and air battle formations now that they have become increasingly inextricable. Why? China, which, especially now that its land borders are more secure than at any time since the height of the Qing dynasty at the end of the 18th century, is engaged in an undeniable naval expansion. It is through sea power that China will psychologically erase two centuries of foreign transgressions on its territory — forcing every country around it to react.

Military engagements on land and at sea are vastly different, with major implications for the grand strategies needed to win — or avoid — them. Those on land enmesh civilian populations, in effect making human rights a signal element of war studies. Those at sea approach conflict as a clinical and technocratic affair, in effect reducing war to math, in marked contrast with the intellectual battles that helped define previous conflicts.

World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the ideology responsible for the murder of tens of millions of noncombatants. The Cold War was a moral struggle against communism, an equally oppressive ideology by which the vast territories captured by the Red Army were ruled. The immediate post-Cold War period became a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans and Central Africa, two places where ground warfare and crimes against humanity could not be separated. More recently, a moral struggle against radical Islam has drawn the United States deep into the mountainous confines of Afghanistan, where the humane treatment of millions of civilians is critical to the war’s success. In all these efforts, war and foreign policy have become subjects not only for soldiers and diplomats, but for humanists and intellectuals. Indeed, counterinsurgency represents a culmination of sorts of the union between uniformed officers and human rights experts. This is the upshot of ground war evolving into total war in the modern age.

East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception. The Western Pacific will return military affairs to the narrow realm of defense experts. This is not merely because we are dealing with a naval realm, in which civilians are not present. It is also because of the nature of the states themselves in East Asia, which, like China, may be strongly authoritarian but in most cases are not tyrannical or deeply inhumane.

The struggle for primacy in the Western Pacific will not necessarily involve combat; much of what takes place will happen quietly and over the horizon in blank sea space, at a glacial tempo befitting the slow, steady accommodation to superior economic and military power that states have made throughout history. War is far from inevitable even if competition is a given. And if China and the United States manage the coming handoff successfully, Asia, and the world, will be a more secure, prosperous place. What could be more moral than that? Remember: It is realism in the service of the national interest — whose goal is the avoidance of war — that has saved lives over the span of history far more than humanitarian interventionism…

East Asia can be divided into two general areas: Northeast Asia, dominated by the Korean Peninsula, and Southeast Asia, dominated by the South China Sea. Northeast Asia pivots on the destiny of North Korea, an isolated, totalitarian state with dim prospects in a world governed by capitalism and electronic communication. Were North Korea to implode, Chinese, U.S., and South Korean ground forces might meet up on the peninsula’s northern half in the mother of all humanitarian interventions, even as they carve out spheres of influence for themselves. Naval issues would be secondary. But an eventual reunification of Korea would soon bring naval issues to the fore, with a Greater Korea, China, and Japan in delicate equipoise, separated by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow and Bohai seas. Yet because North Korea still exists, the Cold War phase of Northeast Asian history is not entirely over, and land power may well come to dominate the news there before sea power will.

Southeast Asia, by contrast, is already deep into the post-Cold War phase of history. Vietnam, which dominates the western shore of the South China Sea, is a capitalist juggernaut despite its political system, seeking closer military ties to the United States. China, consolidated as a dynastic state by Mao Zedong after decades of chaos and made into the world’s most dynamic economy by the liberalizations of Deng Xiaoping, is pressing outward with its navy to what it calls the “first island chain” in the Western Pacific. The Muslim behemoth of Indonesia, having endured and finally ended decades of military rule, is poised to emerge as a second India: a vibrant and stable democracy with the potential to project power by way of its growing economy. Singapore and Malaysia are also surging forward economically, in devotion to the city-state-cum-trading-state model and through varying blends of democracy and authoritarianism. The composite picture is of a cluster of states, which, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe, for it is in Southeast Asia, with its 615 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographical meeting place of these states, and their militaries, is maritime: the South China Sea…

Read it all.

Armed Forces Journal:

Defense analysts periodically propose a mix of nuclear and conventionally powered submarines to increase U.S. undersea force structure. They argue that conventional submarines (SSKs) are so affordable the U.S. could acquire multiple boats for the price of a single nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN). In an era of declining fleets and looming budget cuts, that sounds appealing. However, despite increasing capability, conventional submarines still lack the payload, endurance, mobility and affordability necessary to meet U.S. needs, even when forward-based and equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP)…

Read it all.

Inevitable?

September 9, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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