Thursday, November 07, 2002 :::
I SYMPATHIZE with the concern about grade inflation. I am not clear, however, as to the main grievance of our man in Cambridge. Professors could be unwilling to maintain standards either because they believe that there is something wrong with the maintenance of these standards (they could be concerned that it might hurt pupils' self-esteem, for example), or because they do not believe that one answer is really different from the next. Both possibilities are problematic. Criticism of grade inflation seems to focus on the first possibility. Yet I think that certainly in the humanities the second possible explanation for grade inflation should also be considered seriously. If professors teach that one answer is not really better than another, that one way of looking at a problem is just a different 'perspective' from another, then students will get confused about the purpose of their being in class. To put this differently, if teachers are no longer maintaining standards because they do not really believe that there are such standards, then their students are no longer given any guidelines. What, then, are students to do when they are given the task of writing an essay or answering a question? If this is going on, it is not unreasonable for students to think that everything they write has merit, allowing them to behave aggressively when they do not receive the grade they desire.
Tuesday, November 05, 2002 :::
REMEMBER THAT 1940s ACTOR TURNED 1980s PRESIDENT who had seen too many movies? He came up with the idea of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense project that opponents dubbed Star Wars for its serious research into using lasers as defensive weapons. When Reagan introduced SDI, he backed it so unflinchingly that it scared the Soviets to the negotiating table. Those poor, dumb communists. Didn't they know that only a simple actor would believe nonsense about lasers shooting missiles from the sky? Maybe, though, the actor and his communist friends weren't so dumb after all...
IN A STUNNINGLY OBLIVIOUS piece for The Chronice of Higher Education, education guru Alfie Kohn informs the academic public the grade inflation does not exist. The reason? Well, not so much that grades aren't higher, but that grades are an impediment to learning -- so nobody should care. Mr. Kohn is so indignant that he accuses instructors concerned about high grades for poor work of contempt for their students. But one is tempted to believe that he hasn't spent much time in the classroom recently. Perhaps he should ask a few of the graduate assistants, who teach most classes in large universities, what happens to instructors whose students don't get what they demand . . .
Here we were on our way to a fine discussion about the Court, especially after that interesting contribution from Cambridge. Suddenly, however, we find ourselves back into the world of Presidential races... I see with interest that for Mr Oxford, "former Sen. Gary Hart", an "acqaintance" of this blog, has suddenly turned into "friend Senator Dr. Gary Hart". I hope that this unexpected cuddle has nothing to do with Hart's apparently renewed Presidential ambitions? Let us set the record straight: "friend" goes far too far. Acquaintance is really the proper word. Anyway, I wish to distance myself from the NRO piece (linked to below by Oxford) that attacks the Hart-Rudman commission (incidentally, my earlier reference to Hart-Gingrich instead of to Hart-Rudman seems to be the result of my memory playing tricks with this Congressional testimony) I have no particular view on the committee or its report, which I have not read. In my previous post I merely wished to say that during the second half of the nineties many sane, non-alarmist, responsible people -inside and outside the government- have warned against increased terrorist activity, at home and abroad, directed at US interests. Whatever his undoubted qualities, Gary Hart's warning about terrorism was not akin to Churchill's lone warnings against Hitler in the 1930s, for example. (Then again, it might be said that Churchill warned against many things in the 1930s, perhaps reducing his credibility. Then again again, a case could be made that these other cries were not without substance either. But then again again again, I do not want to be dragged down into an argument about British imperialism, mainly about the position of India within the Empire, which is what Churchill worried about. I can already see that discussion heading towards its possible implications for our thinking about US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq...)
Monday, November 04, 2002 :::
THE TROUBLE WITH judicial activism, as Judge Bork is no doubt aware, is that it reflects a fundamental deformation of our mixed constitution. Once the people -- and more importantly their elected representatives -- accept the claim that judges have the final word on the meaning of the Constitution, "activism" of one kind or another is unavoidable. For we can all agree that these are questions that require answers, and the abdication of the legislative branch leaves us no alternative to judicial activism more or less to our tastes.
Solving the problem requires a careful consideration of how the current situation came to be. Contrary to arguments of many conservatives polemicists, the Warren Court power-grab was neither unilateral nor unprecedented. In fact, the really crucial event was the Roosevelt Administration's prolonged showdown with Court over New Deal economic legislation. The lesson learnt by Congress during these years was that it is politically expedient to leave questions of Constitutional interpretation to the executive and judicial branches. If judges make the law and presidents make the judges, then legislators cannot be held responsible for their political behavior. An unfavorable judicial consensus excuses them from advancing the putatively unconstitutional proposals favored by their constituents, on the eminently sensible grounds that the courts will rule against them whatever they do. Strong courts are to the advantage of timid legislators. Judicial supremacy means that no one is politically required to take serious stands on controversial issues. That an ideological few out of conviction or utility do so is neither here nor there.
The remedy for judicial activism, then, is a political climate in which legislators won't take no for an answer. Congress makes it possible for the courts to take a hands-off approach by dealing with these matters themselves. Of course, the Court would first have to demonstrate that it's willing to let the political process take its course -- a decision that the Rehnquist Court has been sadly reluctant to make.
SENATOR HART IS certainly an aquaintance of this blog. And he is definitely not an airhead (as is suggested in the Rice link). Nevertheless, our correspondent in Oxford knows very well that throughout the nineties many people, not just Hart, accurately predicted a massive terrorist attack on America's homeland "with thousands of deaths as a result." I was one of those people, our correspondent in Oxford was another, respectable publications left and right should be mentioned too, as well as government agencies. Indeed, Senator Hart and Speaker Gingrich chaired a bipartisan government committee warning against the type of terrorism we have seen 9/11. If there are reasons to be impressed by Hart (and I can think of some), surely his pre-9/11 warning against impending terrorism is not one of them. Anyway, I'm curious what our correspondents from Oxford and Cambridge, MA think of my thoughts about judicial activism, which I posted below in response to the Bork review.
AN AQUAINTANCE of Giants and Dwarfs, former Sen. Gary Hart, is reported to be mulling a Presidential run in 2004. (Scroll all the way down this link). Mr Hart has recently spent some time at the University of Oxford and last year handed in a thick manuscript entitled "Thomas Jefferson's ideal of the republic in 21st century America" to gain a D.Phil in Politics last year -- so that's Dr Hart for you...(A commercial edition was published under a different title in 2002). Hart is an intelligent, knowledgeable man, surprisingly shy for a politician. He impressed me by accurately predicting, in 2000, a massive attack on America's homeland with thousands of deaths as a result. I did notice that he tailored political speeches to the audience's expected political views, so have heard him give speeches ranging from thoughtfully neoconservative to boiler-plate Democrat. Given that tendency, he would probably run on a left-wing platform in the primaries. Even so, Dr Hart's presence back on the prime stage of U.S. politics could inject some much needed substance into the presidential primaries. And after Monica, who cares about Donna Rice?
JUDGE BORK IS an interesting man. His review is worth reading, certainly. It is good that the argument about and against liberal judicial activism is heard over and over again. Nevertheless, I am more interested in the question 'What next?' What are we to do about this? From some conservative quarters we can hear a plea for a conservative judicial activism, to balance the distortion by liberals. My instincts are all against that. It seems to me that conservatives would fatally undermine their own case if they tacitly agreed with liberals that the Constitution is just a piece of paper, useful only as a fig leaf to cover any policy whim one happens to have. A more fruitful approach might be a change of tactics when it comes to appointing conservative judges. Perhaps Republicans could find candidates who are 'closet' conservatives - conservatives without a conservative publication record (but how could the Republicans be certain that these people were actually closet conservatives, and not liberals? How would we ascertain their level of competence?). Perhaps Republicans could instruct candidates to temporarily change their position on crucial issues when they are questioned by the Senate (but that would mean, if not lying, certainly 'lying', which undermines the institutions conservatives stand for; it would also breed distrust amongst the core conservative vote, at least when the tactic would first be introduced). In short, Judge Bork, we know the problem, and the problem requires repeated attention. But what are we to do?
Sunday, November 03, 2002 :::
"A man who had been blind from birth would be most unfortunate if he suddenly gained sight while standing before distorting mirrors in a carnival funhouse" -- thus begins Robert Bork's wonderfully enjoyable review of Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law.