Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Long, Long Layoff

As is abundantly clear, I have not posted in some time. I took some time to start a local online newspaper, which turned out to be far more time consuming than i could have ever imagined. This column will be started again shortly.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Origins of Modern Christianity (or, Why We Celebrate Easter).

The impact of many historical figures often grows substantially in hindsight, and the example of Constantine is ample evidence of this. Very few figures have had as great an impact on Christianity, and to be more specific, Catholicism. In fact, with regards to the Catholic religion specifically, it can be argued that the many impacts he had on ancient, and by extention modern, beliefs, have actually been more than those originating with Jesus himself.

The word “Catholic” literally means “universal”, and this was Constantine’s goal as Roman emperor; to unite his vast empire. At the time of his becoming emperor, the empire was divided among numerous sects; followers of the Egyptian god Isis; Christians who, despite decrees to the contrary, were often persecuted; and Jews. There is sufficient evidence that, although he would become known for his tolerance, Constantine had, from a young age, a hatred of all thing Jewish, and this contributed to some of the decisions he would make. For example, despite common belief he was a lifelong Christian, he was a devout follower of the sun god, and late in life, he ordered coins minted with his face on one side, and the on the other a depiction of his “companion, the unconquered Sol (sun)." In honor of the sun god, and arguably to anguish the Jewish population, he selected Sunday as the day of worship for this god, severely impacting the Jewish Sabbath.

Although some changes had already been made, the steps Constantine took to unify both pagan and Christian factions furthered the alienation of the Jews, and moved Christianity a good distance from the actual teachings of Jesus. Since there were factions forming in the Christian realm, he called to order the Council of Nicaea, which openly included bishops and monks from all ends of the empire. It was here that the trinity doctrine, despite vehement protests by a select few of the attendees, was adopted. Nowhere in the Gospels or in any account of Jesus teachings is this found, and there is no indication his close followers believed in the concept of three gods being one; it was however, very common in pagan beliefs. Additionally, the Passover celebration, which was lingering in Christianity, but a steadfast tenet of Judaism, became Easter. Endorsing this change, Constantine announced: "It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast [Easter] we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul . . . Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525). Considering that Easter has nothing to do with Christianity, one can only wonder if the parents of the small children running around a yard have any clue that the practice they are enjoying was developed specifically to torment the Jewish people.

The sheer number of holidays and beliefs that were combined under Constantine are astounding. The very common depiction of the virgin mother Mary holding the baby Jesus originated with numerous earlier depictions of the pagan god Osiris holding Horus; initially the Christians did not even use original artwork, it being easier to worship borrowed Egyptian art while changing the names of the characters. And despite no biblical indications that Jesus even celebrated his birthday, and it not being a common practice by his followers immediately following his death, it became convenient to do so on December 25, since national celebrations were already happening to commemorate the birth of the sun for the winter solstice, a staple holiday for the pagans.

As is often the case with historical figures, the respect given Constantine for his tolerance and unification efforts is a byproduct of revisionist history. He deeply hated the Jewish people, and many of his religious and political decisions were based on this hatred. Despite claims that he was Christian, he actively participated in pagan beliefs and holidays, and did not actually become baptized as a Christian until his deathbed conversion. The modern day Christianity the world recognizes is far more a product of the religion Constantine implemented than any structure set up by Jesus, a combination of pagan and semi-Christian beliefs born out of political necessity and strong anti-Semitism.

Friday, July 17, 2009

To Hell and Healthcare

Once, as a boy, I was told a story about a man that walked on water. This man walked on water in a storm, and was so powerful, that when a member of a nearby boat tried to meet him on the water and began to sink, this man was able to rescue him. He simply reached out his hand, grabbed him, and saved him. The next day, my grandmother told me the story again, only this time added that this amazing man was able to heal a sick little girl at her own funeral, so easily that he even stated to mourners that she “was just sleeping.” That evening, my mother again repeated the story, adding that this amazing man could even raise the dead, including one that had passed away three whole days earlier. And every day after that, this story was repeated, so much so, and by so many trusted members of my family, that I began to believe it as true, and chose a few years later to live the rest of my life following this man.

This amazing man motivated me to go day after day, door to door telling others about his amazing powers, trying to show them that following this man was the only true way to happiness. Over and over, the door was slammed in my face, yet I still happily went to the next door, telling others how any life spent not serving this man was useless, a complete waste. In fact, I even told them of another person, an evil one that controlled all they did, even if they did not realize it, if they did not immediately listen to me, and begin following this amazing man that I so admired.

I spent my days thrilled that I was following this great man, and felt deep sorry for the lost that did not recognize his power. This man gave us all hope, a chance at a better life. This man had all the answers to life’s problems; life without him was a life of despair. I would put all of my trust in him, every second of my life devoted to convincing others to follow him. After all, who else could walk on water, and heal my every sickness, and even raise me from the dead. I would never need another, as this man was all I would ever need in my life.

Then I got the flu.

I didn’t go door to door that day.

My faith waned.

I went to the doctor.

Throughout the country, religious zealots tell us exactly the best way to live our lives. Be born again. Get baptized. Accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Get saved. Give your money to a church, and wear magic underwear. All these amazingly faithful minions, totally dependent on their religion, on Jesus, to solve all the worlds’ ills.

And yet as these same people complain about stem-cell research, about God’s creatures used for medical testing, about the horrific sins done in the name of science, they all line up like seniors at an early bird special for healthcare should they become sick. At the funeral of the faithful, one would hear wondrous things on how God needed another angel, how, for one individual, this was God’s time for him. And now, this amazing, faithful person was in heaven, singing with harps and eating chocolate, resting comfortably on a Sealy Posturpedic cloud.

Then why go to a doctor at all? Why put off such wonderment? Who turns down free, unlimited chocolate?

It is interesting that the evangelicals seen so intent on telling us of the wonders of heaven, yet, like the rest of us, so desperately want to put it off. How can they march outside the White House in protest of stem cell research, and then line up to receive the fruits of such an abomination? If they truly wanted to live the life of Christ, should not living past 33½ years of age be a real problem for them?

Medicine, a product of science, should be the enemy of the evangelical. The same people that believe in evolution, that we were once apes, treating the health of one of God’s chosen ones? Say it ain’t so. Just driving by a clinic should motivate these godlike ones to raise their hands and form the cross in protest, desperate to stave off any of the devils impurities. And if they truly believe they are on the road to a much better place; that only Jesus can ever save them from the darkness of this world, then maybe it’s time to but your life where your faith is.

So drop your healthcare insurance. It only makes sense. The average life expectancy in the time of Jesus was under 40, in what was one of the more advanced civilizations. Science has certainly extended that, but Gods true worshipers have no need of science. Drop your healthcare, and maybe then we can take your protests seriously. After all, why put off going to heaven, and all that chocolate?

As for me, I will keep my insurance. I would rather put off, as long as possible, my trip to hell.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Good Money After Bad - The Plight of the Community College System II

The role of a solid education is to show its student his true ignorance; that beyond the common truths of adolescence lays a world which, no matter how much one tries, can never be fully realized or understood. The hope is maintained that this will instill a new curiosity, an ability to look at both sides of an issue and still realize that there remain countless more. Less important are the details; the facts one memorizes, the midterms, cramming, and GPA’s. These take a far distant second to the value one truly receives from a solid secondary education.

This is precisely the reason college professors need to be held to a higher standard. College cannot be a mere extension of high school, it must go much further. One’s own brilliance alone cannot qualify one as a professor, as a mere recitation of facts is a gross inadequacy. Sure there are exceptions, brilliant minds lecture at many universities, yet the professors that remain with the student throughout their lifetime are not the headliners, but the unknown geniuses, those that have developed and finely honed the skill of connecting with their pupils, viewing those before them as more than a simple number and SAT score, but as a wandering mind looking for, and expecting, direction. To those ascribed this responsibility, we need to expect more.

Community college is quite different than a privately funded one. Not only is it state supported, but a large percentage of the student depend on federal and state financial aid as well. Therefore, these are almost entirely taxpayer funded, which presents another lurking danger; the potential to become the mindless cash pit that is the DMV or other service oriented state run agencies. These agencies face one significant issue – how to adequately measure output. You may not like the service you receive at the DMV, but you have little alternative. Similarly, no matter the quality of a state or community college one may attend, more than likely the cost of a private institution is prohibitive, thus leaving few options.

Therefore, all opportunity to look at the output must be taken advantage of. One way to do this is to look at grades distributed by the professors as compared to others that have taught the same or similar classes. In an attempt to do this, I recently requested the grades given out over the past 3 semesters from Gateway Community College in New Haven, CT. The class selected was Composition 200, for two reasons – 1. I had taken it, and knew what it involved, and 2. That it is a crucial class for students looking to transfer their college credits to a 4 year school. Initially, this request was denied by every level of the administration, but thanks to a phone call from the Freedom of Information Bureau in Connecticut, it was finally released.

The results supported my initial hunch; that there would be a drastic disparity in grades, despite their being for the same class and the supposed similarity of the requirements for the class. One professor, Kerin Kelsey, distributed an average grade of 92, while another, Martha Hayes, over multiple classes gave an average of 73.3; despite that both were teaching the same class, Composition 200. Kelsey distributed no grades lower than a B-, while Hayes gave out no A’s, and 8 F’s, out of 37 students. Thus, in classes taught by Martha Hayes, over 20% of the students failed. It is important to remember that students, when selecting a class, base it almost solely on the schedule, and not who may be teaching the class. Most don't know the professors beforehand, and therefore have little if any idea that, despite the class having the same title, they can be drastically different in both difficulty and quality.

This discrepancy, however, cannot be blamed on the teachers; rather, one must take a closer look at those that allowed this to happen. In any business, this disparity would be a loud and very clear warning that something is off. Academic freedom may allow the methods used to differ, but not the overall information taught. So, in this case, either one of the professors’ methods are ineffective, or they are teaching something completely different from each other. So how does this go unnoticed?

When I was finally given this information, I was informed by the director of research that this was the first time anyone had even requested it. That those responsible for reviewing the performance of these professors had never asked for the grades distributed was a shock, however, this was soon tempered when the review process for tenured professors was explained.

Tenured professors are reviewed by department heads every 5 years. Quick, name another industry where this is the case. Drive-through workers at McDonalds are reviewed every 6 months, but those entrusted the education of the next generation have 60 months between assessments. More surprising is the review method, divided into 4 parts: self assessment, class observation by superior, the professors “professional plan”, and the supervisor’s assessment. Each of these can be discussed in more detail, but the fact is that the evaluation comes down to the opinion of the professor being reviewed and their immediate superior, who is often a personal friend and coworker, teaching the same or similar classes. That this is a joke needs not be said.

However, the greatest issue with this evaluation method is that it is completely devoid of any impartial parties, and even more significantly, the end user. In any service oriented situation, customer reviews are crucial, and greatly impactful, with good reason. An employee that contributes to unsatisfied customers will cost the business profit, and those that contribute well to client satisfaction will provide a boost to the bottom line. That a state school does not exist for profit does not mean the standard should be lower; that it is supported by tax dollars should make the demands even more stringent. That any university can offer a class where the grade received is based, not on ability and effort, but the professor teaching it, needs to take a closer look at its’ methods. But lacking any program that does look at these statistics, and lacks the desire to do so, it is difficult to see how this will ever change.

I am not suggesting that any of the professors mentioned here lose their position, but rather that the evidence available be analyzed as it would in any business, and that the tax dollars of the public be regarded as more valuable than they are currently being viewed, thus resulting in a better and more consistent education. I am in the unique position of having taken both of these professors, and know firsthand of their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom, or at least in the ones I happened to be in. Additionally, for a living, I am a management consultant, and spend my days analyzing the effectiveness of the message of the companies I consult with. I know that Professor Kelsey runs a class that is extremely enjoyed and looked forward to, and that she works especially well with the weaker students. However, one could hand in their math homework as a research paper and still get a B. Professor Hayes, on the other hand, desires greatly to push her student to higher levels, but lacks the ability to connect with her classroom and stay on a consistent message. Can both of these be improved? Absolutely. But if those entrusted with the responsibility to review the performance of these professors fail to do so adequately and willfully ignore the information and statistics so readily available to them, expecting positive results is a reach. Accountability in public academia is non-existent, and the dine-and-dash continues, the rather hefty price left to be paid for by the next generation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Good Money After Bad - The Plight of the Community College System

Today, the White house released a statement regarding President Obama’s new plan to provide an additional $12 billion into the Community College System, with a large part of it going toward financial aid programs. In the current economic climate, this is welcome news, as college enrollment, especially among the more cost effective Community Colleges, often increases exponentially. Additionally, students are not considered unemployed, therefore the all important unemployment rate can be effected positively, and as the economy betters, a larger group of qualified workers will be available.

But here we have another situation, similar to the healthcare issue, where throwing more cash at the problem is the presumed solution for what is nothing short of a broken system. For some, the community college is a welcome opportunity to achieve more than would have otherwise be available, and for the government to help this group is more than welcome. To be able to obtain an associate’s degree at a far reduced cost (almost half of a standard state school) and be able to transfer to complete a bachelors is a dream for those graduating from high school in difficult circumstances or for the adult returning to school. And for those, Mr. Obama, thank you.

However, the halls of the community colleges are filled with far more than those willing to work hard to achieve a dream. First, most insurance companies have provisions that state that children enrolled as a full time student can remain on their parents insurance throughout college, prompting large amount of applicants that are enrolled for this very reason alone. In what has become a classic “you can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink” scenario, classrooms, especially day classes, are often made up of individuals that have since proven their full time status to insurance companies, received financial aid, and now attend few, if any, lectures to say nothing of fulfilling assignments. In this respect, the community college is reduced to nothing more than an extension of high school, professors reduced to babysitters of a group of tremendously uninitiated 18 year-olds.

Additionally, unlike the majority of 4 year schools, including state colleges, community colleges are mandated by state statute to accept anyone with a high school diploma, no matter their transcript or results on a placement test. Thus, classes in existence, and often filled, are English 043 Writing: Paragraph to Essay, English 063 Writing: Intro to the Essay, and English 073: Academic Reading. None of these courses count for any degree, but are prerequisites to taking the higher level classes. Due to the ridiculously low academic standards at local high schools, these students have a high school diploma yet are essentially taking classes teaching the absolute basics that any intelligent eighth grader should already know well. Making matters far worse, in what is a horrifying statistic, recently the Dean of Academics at a Connecticut community college stated that just 25% of those enrolled in English043 received a C or better.

The result is a school that is difficult to take seriously. To call this a College but forcing it to take every student with a high school diploma, therefore unable to place any standard on its applicants, reduces the value of its output. A university should be a forum to interact with those wanting to learn, not with those looking to waste away eligible years of health insurance. High schools, paid for by the local municipalities (the state does some funding, depending on need), have simply been reduced to diploma factories, especially in predominantly urban areas, monitoring students until graduating age when they can be passed on to the community college, funded by the state and federal grants.

So the question begs an answer. Will these additional monies continue to be dispersed the way they are now, lacking any intelligent discretion? Will there be steps in place to change the system, working to find those that not only need a better education, but possess the will to obtain it? There are far more issue with the community college system that need to be addressed, and the standard political ploy of throwing more money at the problem will do little to fix what ails it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amendment 1.5

Earlier this week, HBO aired Shouting Fire: Stories from the edge of free speech, a documentary detailing a few examples of the consequences of people simply speaking their mind. As with all HBO documentaries, it was especially well done, and as someone, like myself, that is a huge first amendment advocate, it was greatly enjoyable. However, in light of a great deal of research I have been doing on the collegiate system, especially in the area of tenure and academic freedom, I can see where what the first amendment really stands for is being greatly misconstrued.

A perfect example of this is the case of Ward Churchhill, fired for comments made in an essay regarding the victims of 9/11, referring to them as “little Eichmanns,” a reference to the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann. The essay was written just days after the attack, but not made well known until Churchhill was scheduled to give a speech in New York in 2005, and a local paper published it. Once widely known, Churchhill faced widespread pressure from advocacy groups and the general public, and his position as professor, which he had held for over 30 years, seemed in danger.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. Despite those comments, and constant calls for Churchhills firing, the school went a different route, presumably to avoid a first amendment issue. They initiated an investigation into his entire body of work, culminating in plagiarism charges, and finally fired him. Churchhill filed suit, and eventually won a one dollar award for damages and no guarantee of his previous position; technically a victory, but a useless one at that.

Despite the questionable strategy used to hide the real motives behind the firing, there is no injustice in its actually happening. Unlike the cries from first amendment advocates, this is not a first amendment issue. Did he have a right to say how he felt? Absolutely. Did he, as a professor, have the academic freedom to say what he did? Possibly, but this was written, not in his professorial capacity, but as an essay for a newspaper. Additionally, while the first amendment allows the freedom of speech, it does not guarantee freedom from consequences of that speech.

Consider Don Imus. Calling the members of the Rutgers women basketball team “knappy headed ho’s” was undoubtedly inappropriate, but also was a right guaranteed to him by the constitution. The first amendment did not protect his job however, and he was fired when his superiors realized that keeping him on their airwaves would cost advertisers, and the pressure exerted by advocate groups was not worth fighting. In an intelligent business decision, he was let go, a consequence of his insensitive statements.

The difference between the two is simple. One took place in the for-profit public sector, and one took place in the surreal world of publicly funded academia, that zero-accountability machine that so many hide behind in the name of academic freedom. The university that employed Mr. Churchhill faced reduced enrollment and tremendous pressure from the past alumni, and therefore donations, as a result of his comments; dismissing him was the intelligent business decision. His right to free speech was not violated, and the universities right to impose consequences was made use of, certainly to his detriment. Free speech advocates use this example as a grave injustice, but this is simply a conclusion of the ignorant.

Constitutionally, Americans have the right to bear arms, but should that right be abused, there are consequences for it. Freedom of speech is guaranteed, and should it be misused, there are consequences for it. Mr. Churchhill was not held to a higher standard; rather, his being used to hiding behind academic freedom and the first amendment, he was surprised to be held to any standard. Freedom of speech is exactly that, and only that. The free speech without consequences amendment, as far as I know, has yet to be codified.