Inflatable Education

I rambled my way through a discussion of grade inflation in my last post. Spurred by an article in the San Antonio Express News that argued our “consumer-based” culture has turned university classrooms into the proverbial easy A, I spent about 1000 words almost making a point. The issue, I argued, wasn’t necessarily economic so much as a pervasive cultural rhetoric where grades are so de-valued in favor of standardized testing that we might as well hand out A’s and avoid the hassle of upset students.

At least, that’s what I think I wanted to say.

As we hurtle toward another school year and I consider what I want my students to learn this semester, I necessarily have to think about how I will measure their success (or failure) by December. Grading, for better or worse, is always on my mind and I want to beat this dead horse one more time.

The data shows that grade inflation exists at the university level, although it is far worse at elite, private schools with high admission standards. Universities with lower admission standards and community colleges tend to show a slower grade creep, although we are seeing some inflation. My guess, and I haven’t delved into the data, is that we see grade inflation at the lower end of the scale at these schools. In other words, even in my own classes, I zealously guard the A, but I’ve probably loosened the reigns on the B and C some.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m an outlier, and my guess is we will start to see grade inflation increase (get bigger? blow up?) at public universities in the coming years with an increasingly high number of students receiving higher and higher GPAs. In many ways, the cultural trends I mentioned before will help fuel this grade inflation, but there are some other driving forces.

1. High school expectations will continue to make life difficult for college professors. Accountability and assessment have forced public school teachers to create rubrics, learning outcomes, and, in many ways, to oversimplify the skills and thinking we expect from students. I maintain that accreditation is the greatest threat to academic freedom we will see at any educational level, but the drive to create transparent grading expectations for students over-simplifies our ability to measure what students learn. My students arrive with a pre-conceived notion that an effective essay (a 3 or 4 on a state test) needs to include items that fit on a table/rubric. We’ve turned learning into a checklist of skills that discounts intangible, difficult to measure thinking and development. Common core goals, competency measures, and standardized learning treat intelligence as if it’s simply a dot on the data sheet. In much the same way that these efficiency measures rob teachers of opportunities to create and develop ideas, they encourage our students to see learning as something devoid of creativity and, in many ways, humanity. We might all have individual talents in this world, but, we seem to tell students, you better make sure your talents align with what everyone else can do.

2. Business and political leaders continue to push for college readiness for all high school students. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of students who, for all intents and purposes, see college as an extension of high school. College, what we once referred to as higher education, is a right, something that they think should be publicly funded and with the academic support that will ensure they both graduate and get a job in four years. Businesses that require a college degree for jobs that really don’t need such a degree or who demand a BA or BS for promotions drive this idea. Our growing cultural disdain for manual labor and skills-based “dirty” jobs doesn’t help. Too many high schools have eliminated Industrial Arts and Trade Programs in favor of Student Leadership and other such nonsense classes such that we not only push kids toward college, we create a culture of shame for those who don’t really want to spend four more years reading history books. Simply put, business leaders should begin creating paid internships and training programs instead of relying on colleges to help raise the next generation of workers.

3. I’ve written before about the trophy culture. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind giving every kid a ribbon if we also give those who perform at a higher level the biggest ribbon. But, there is no denying that our emphasis on rewards has re-defined excellence in American culture. Many of my students see a C as a failing grade. You can scale up from there. Essentially, failure is not an option or, in some respects, even a real concept for many students. They have never not known success in school. If they failed an exam or an essay, they had extra credit, revision, or a make up opportunity. Failure isn’t a challenge to improve; it’s a commentary, for many of them, on failed instruction or expectations.

4. Every time a college student fails, a faculty member gets raked over the coals by a politician. College completion rates have remained steady over the years but we are seeing more and more states tie funding to graduation and retention rates. The net result, of course, is that universities will become so focused on graduation rates and learning outcomes they will begin to deny access and opportunity to larger and larger segments of the population. Worse yet, the political discourse rarely holds students accountable for failure and they create a monetary reason to lower standards and increase pass rates.

Certainly, I’ve oversimplified the issue and I’m guilty of a reductive logic that might earn my students a C, but I do think that when we couple the four things above with a pervasive political hostility toward higher education, we create a generation of students who see college as a right and passing grades as something they deserve.

And, at the end of the semester, I’m not sure they will get what they deserve, but I do think they will start to get what they want more often than not.

Give Everyone an “A” and No One Gets Hurt

My second year of teaching as a graduate student, I had a student march to the front of the room after I returned their first essay of the semester. “You can’t,” he said with a barely masked measure of contempt in his voice, “give me this grade.” He held the essay toward my chest and lightly shook the paper. “I’ve never made a C in my life. My high school English teacher read this before I turned it in and she thought it was as good as anything I’ve written before.”

At the time, I was still full of idealistic good will. I offered to reconsider the grade. Perhaps, I told him, I read your essay late at night and missed some of the finer nuances of your style. I imagined that I was defusing the situation and also reinforcing the idea that the class was a place to share ideas, reconsider our initial thoughts, and recognize rhetoric was, in fact, a potential area of confusion and mis-communication.

Thank god I outgrew such naivete. Twenty-something years later, my first comment when a student accuses me of giving him a grade is to talk about the difference between earning grades and receiving them.

I did not, all those years ago, change the student’s grade. After re-reading the paper, I quickly realized that any areas of confusion and mis-communication were a direct result of the mish-mash of words and ideas he typed on the page. I also had strong doubts about either his high school English teacher’s competence or his honesty regarding her response to his essay.

The student complained to my supervisor, his mother called my office and the department chair, and, all in all, I spent more time on that one paper than I spent grading every other essay that semester. Combined.

The student, by the way, dropped my class.

Either way, I was, in many ways, fortunate when I started teaching. Our supervising professor and the director of first year writing classes was a man who steadfastly refused to let us inflate grades. Certainly, he would tell us, it’s possible 50% of your students are writing A essays, but it’s also possible 50% of you will all get rich as English professors. Learn the difference between possible and probable quickly, he said.

He held us to a fair standard and insisted that we do the same for our students. We must, he would tell us, maintain expectations of excellence and insist those earning a college degree meet those expectations. If not, we should sell diplomas in the back of magazines or on the street corner like counterfeit watches.

Despite his best efforts, though, grade inflation is “rampant” in America’s educational system according to Catherine Rampell (“Grade Inflation Rampant”). Rampell echoes data and information from Stuart Rojstaczer over at Grade Inflation.com, a scholar who notes that grade inflation is pervasive at private schools with high admission standards but not public universities with lower admissions standards.

As usual, such a distinction is important and begs us to ask Rampell if grade inflation is rampant at all universities or just the Ivy League schools, schools that only make up .4% of the undergraduate population in America but, it seems, 90% of the news related to higher education.

But enough about the chip on my shoulder when critics of higher education assume what goes on at Harvard goes on at Angelo State.

Either way, Rampell concludes, agreeing with Rojstaczer, that our “consumer-based culture” has helped fuel these rising grades. Essentially, as tuition has risen, students expect more bang for their buck and, in their minds, they are paying for high grades. Learning is secondary to the endeavor, and grades, Rampell says, have become currency in higher ed.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t dispute the data, and fully recognize that grades are inflated even at public universities with lower admission standards. I feel certain that average GPAs, especially in certain disciplines, are higher today than 25 (or 50) years ago, but I’m not necessarily buying the conclusion that our consumer-based culture is driving this increase. For the most part, student’s relative, real-time costs are stable because financial aid and student loans are also increasing. In other words, while the gross cost of tuition is up, the net cost remains the same.

To be fair to Rojstaczer and Rampart, both do recognize that the issue is complex, but like most criticisms of higher ed, neither includes the political and business climates that also impact students’ relationships with higher education.

In particular, we have seen a consistent barrage of criticism and a belittling of educators and teachers over the last 25 years. Our politicians decry the state of public education, throw money at charter schools, meddle in teacher training programs, and under-fund public schools. More important, the partisan disaster that is Washington has leaked onto our school boards and State Education Agencies such that we elect members to the State Board of Education based on their political affiliation and stance on abortion not their understanding of pedagogy or learning.

Students spend twelve years in schools where teachers feel increasingly excluded from the decision making process. Worse yet, accreditation and accountability requirements have created common course and discipline-wide teaching requirements that turn teachers into automatons parroting common-core goals and lessons. Teachers have simply become middle managers who exist to help students move from one standardized test to the next. Grades, those tools teachers use to measure student performance, matter less and less at the pre-college level because they have become meaningless.

In other words, our desire for efficiency and accountability has robbed teachers of spontaneity, creativity, and power.

Students, however, enter colleges empowered, pushed to become active learners, and, quite frankly, comfortable in their own intellectual superiority. They live in a world where we feel compelled to test them every year and trust the scantron instead of the teacher’s grade book. You don’t have to a valedictorian to realize where society places its values and upon whom our trust rests. If, a student might ask, I’m passing my standardized test, who are you to give me a low grade?

After all, my student from 20 years ago might say, “You can’t give me a C on this paper. I’ve never made below a 4 on my state mandated writing sample and my Facebook friends read the paper. They thought it was the best thing I had ever written.”

This time, though, I might just give him the “A” and grade the other essays.

Participation Isn’t the Same As Performance

When I first started my Phd program, I took an American poetry class with a professor whose impatience with inane comments was legendary. Or so I thought. Evidently, the student sitting on the front row didn’t get the memo. Each day, he felt compelled to throw out comments in much the same way a politician hurls accusations at his opponent hoping something sticks. About half way through class the third week, the professor stood up, pointed to the little chatterbox, and said, “Please join me in the hall. Bring your backpack.”

We never saw, or heard, from our colleague again. I know in the back of my mind that he’s alive and well someplace, but if they someday find human bones in the building I think we’ll all know from whence they came. This professor was, as we like to say when someone is blunt and gruff, old school.

Removing the student didn’t stifle conversation, though. The class simply moved on, recognizing that most of the commentary we had been listening to was not something we would miss.  “Participation,” our professor told us on day one, “is not the same as performance,” and we all learned exactly what the distinction was in that class. “You are,” he also told us, “earning a degree that 98% of the population doesn’t have. Act like it.”

In some deep recess of my heart, I had some sympathy for the student. Don’t get me wrong–I was more than happy to see him go. He was the kind of student who never met an obvious comment he wasn’t afraid to share (often more than once), but it was also pretty clear he had been told somewhere along the line that participation mattered and, more importantly, would be rewarded. I’m sure he has a shelf full of trophies from little league, soccer, and 8th grade graduation.

While it’s easy to bash our trophy-giving culture, I suspect such attacks (like the one I just made) are too easy and simplistic. Molly Kefel in her essay “Trophy Season” over at The New Inquiry, in fact, offers a defense of giving trophies to everyone, writing that kids who don’t get end of year awards “get the message: If you didn’t score a lot of points, no one gives a shit about you. And if that makes you sad, or if you feel that it’s not fair, get used to it. The world is a sad and unfair place. Score more goals next time.” She reminds us that we shouldn’t transfer our adult cynicism to young children and maybe we don’t have to be so gung-ho as we prepare them for the harsh world.

I’m not sure I completely buy her argument, but I do think it’s worth noting that any harm we create by giving kids participation trophies probably isn’t because every one got the award. Our problem, instead, is that in treating everyone equally we aren’t necessarily treating them fairly. Feel free, I say, to give every kid in little league a trophy for putting on the uniform and showing up, but let’s also give a little bit bigger trophy to the kids who also performed.

Giving out trophies willy-nilly without regard to performance doesn’t just create a generation that feels entitled to rewards for participating. Instead, we offer a false sense of fairness that has no basis in reality. Certainly, all animals are created equally, but, as Orwell reminds us, some animals are more equal than others. If we insist on giving trophies to everyone without rewarding those people who also perform at a higher level, then we create sense of entitlement that insists rewards are independent of expertise or effort. Worse yet, we tell the student who scored 4 goals that no one gives a “shit about you” and your hard work. The only difference between you and Billy over there picking his nose is you are sweatier.

If the kid who throws the ball fastest and hits the ball farthest or the student who writes the best essay and makes the smartest comment all get the same reward as the kid who picks daisies in the outfield or has a serious case of diarrhea of the mouth, we’ve devalued performance in favor of participation. Certainly, showing up is half the battle, but the bigger trophy should go to the people who do something once they get there.

Let’s Put the Sage Back on the Stage

When I first started teaching first year writing classes, I scheduled in 2-3 days before every essay due date so students could engage in “peer review.” I developed check lists, rubrics, and hints that helped them read their colleagues’ papers with an eye toward offering constructive, global feedback. The concept sounds good and, in many ways, should prepare students for their post-college working world where they will engage in team-work, collaborate, and develop ideas with other people. One of our goals, I would tell them, is to learn how to give (and take) constructive criticism with an eye toward improving our writing.

In theory, peer review also helps students recognize effective communication, providing models they can apply to their own writing. “Oh,” we want them to say while reading their neighbor’s essay, “that’s how you construct an argument effectively.” In many ways, peer review is predicated on the concept that students will willingly, intelligently, and capably take an active approach to their writing and education. As a teacher, I’m not the sage on the stage but a classroom manager offering guidance as the eager young minds tackle the difficult task before them.

I’m sure there is an alternative universe where such students exist, and I can put them in groups while they lead themselves into the intellectual promised land.

In practice, when we peer review we spend two days with, in many cases, the blind leading the blind. The best writers are appalled at their classmates’ lack of writing skills, the worst writers are embarrassed (or not as the case may be) at their illiteracy, and the vast majority of average writers in any class are simply confused because they all made an A in their high school English class but have absolutely no idea why. They can read an essay, tell me it makes no sense, but also be at a total loss how to improve the writing. “If I knew how to fix it,” a student once told me, “I wouldn’t be in this class.”

Don’t get me wrong. Any one who has spent time in the classroom has had those dedicated, active, autodidactic students who embrace learning. They read, they prepare, they engage the material beyond just the surface–these are the students we push toward graduate school and praise in front of our colleagues in the hallway. We yearn for a classroom full of such young scholars, and we develop pedagogical theories that reward such students, all the while dreaming everyone else in the classroom will follow in their wake. At our best, we want to teach students how to learn not just lecture them about what to learn.

Unfortunately, as Annie Murphy Paul writes in her Slate article “Bill Gates is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not,”  self-directed learning is an urban legend in education. Murphy Paul’s article focuses on the ed-tech movement, but we should feel pretty comfortable extending her argument to education in general.

Teachers and classrooms, she notes, aren’t simply encumbrances for most of us. We need the guidance of experts to show us both how and what we need to learn if we plan on mastering any subject. In essence, we need that sage on the stage a little more than we need the peer in our ear.

Certainly, I recognize that we can balance the approach and using peer to peer learning might be effective in some classes and with some skills, but I also think we have done ourselves a disservice when we forget that our students, especially at the collegiate level, enter our classrooms as relative novices whose thoughts and intellectual abilities are far less developed than we might think. If we accept that writing is a process of organizing and articulating our ideas and thoughts, then surely we must also recognize that the person most capable of helping a student is not the mass of hormonal and ideological confusion sitting next to him.

After all, if their peers can teach them everything they need to know about writing, what do they need us for?

You Are a Free Agent In This World: Go Forth and Earn the Best Life You Can

As we head into graduation season, I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about what I might say to the graduating class of 2014. Fortunately, for all you upcoming graduates, I’m the only one who has been wondering so none of you need to worry I’ll be at the podium anytime soon.

That’s not to say I’ve never been asked, of course. Way back in the Summer of 2004, I stood on stage at Angelo State’s Commencement and reminded students that Gold is Good.

Truthfully, though, I don’t really need an invitation to pontificate or profess. I’m more than willing to do so unsolicited and last year at this time, I blogged an updated speech, telling Graduates Anywhere to Keep it Simple. I had the speech, but no audience, something that probably worked out well for everyone involved.

Graduation speeches, though, strike me as really interesting events. Clearly, educational institutions hope to take one last chance to address their captive audience and impart some small nugget of wisdom.

Unfortunately, too often they invite people who don’t really have anything worth saying to talk to a group that just wants to get back to their cooler of cold beer or grandma’s tamales and pinto beans.

But first, the almost-graduates have to suffer through one last lecture.

If for some weird reason you skip your graduation this year and miss out on the speech or if you’re someone who just likes reading random graduation speeches on the internet (something you should probably never admit to anyone), here’s the speech I might give to the class of 2014.

Dear Graduating class of 2014,

Congratulations and welcome to the last time most of your lives will be measured in semesters or 50-minute blocks of time. Later today at your graduation party, someone, probably multiple someones, will offer you advice as you begin the next chapter of your life. Listen politely, but remember that those people are probably wrong. If they had anything worth hearing, they would be on stage (or posting to their blog) not standing next to the beer cooler spouting shade tree philosophy.

Any speech, I’m convinced, should be 10 minutes or less, partly because very few of us have anything worth saying that can’t be said in that amount of time, but mostly because after about 8 minutes we’re all ready for the next commercial break. I’m not implying we are a nation with attention deficit issues, but I’m fairly certain about half you are already wondering how long it’s been since I started speaking, wishing you could check your Facebook account, or watching that shiny thing flashing in the upper deck.

And that’s just the faculty.

Before we release you to the wild, though, I thought I would offer you a few things to think about as you make the leap into the unknown.

1. You don’t have to find your dream job to be happy. Don’t get me wrong: I hope you find a job that you enjoy and, if you’re really lucky, a job that speaks to some passion deep within your soul. At the end of the day, though, you get paid to do a job but no one has to pay you to be passionate. Your job should allow you to fulfill your passion, but your passion shouldn’t depend on your job. We’ve done you a great disservice these last few years of school by conflating the way you earn money with the manner in which you define your existence. Happiness, simply put, doesn’t come from a job: it comes from a job well-done, regardless of the job. Work hard, show up early, stay late, but never forget that you are a person first and an employee second. Recognize the difference between the two.

2. You’ve got to stand for something, John Mellencamp sings, or you’re going to fall for anything. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. While it might seem questionable to find philosophical truths in rock and roll lyrics,  Mellencamp and Rush remind us that our life is defined by our words and actions. Feel passionate about something, get excited about ideas, find your values and then live them. Be a person of conviction, but don’t be a person who finds it necessary to convict those who don’t share your values. You just spent four years of your life being told to think critically. Do it. The educated don’t get the luxury of apathy or intellectual laziness. Recognize, though, that you can stand for something without pushing everyone else down. The greatest enemy of democracy is the tyranny of ideologies that demonize, attack, and treat disagreement as treasonous. The well of public discourse has been poisoned by a system that rewards volatility and extremism. Help purify that conversation.

3. If the rules of your life, those values and things for which you stand, leave you unhappy or unfulfilled, what good are the rules? Life is about change. I hope you aren’t the same person you were four years ago. Certainly, you might hold the same values and ideas, but if we’ve done anything close to our job (and, most importantly, if you’ve met us at least halfway) your understanding of those values should be more nuanced and different. Those ideas should continue to evolve and change. Be prepared. Call into question the rules daily. Reaffirm them. Revise them. Reject them. Just don’t ignore them. Make the ideas and values earn your loyalty with positive results, but recognize that thinking critically and engaging with ideas doesn’t always provide neat answers. The world, despite what too many of our political leaders seem to imply, is not a dualistic and simple place. We exist in complexity. Embrace it. Value it. Live it. Never expect it to always be easy, though.

Your life, class of 2014, is now. In a few minutes you will walk across the stage, smile pretty, and feel that sense of relief knowing that this part of your academic journey will fade into a pleasant memory.

After this pomp and circumstance, I hope, as you leave these hallowed halls, that you never forget you are a free agent in this world. Please, for all our sakes, go forth and earn the best life you can.

Peace and joy to you and yours.

Time for a Come to Jesus Meeting

About three weeks ago, the Baptists came calling, ringing the doorbell and inviting me and mine to join them at Sunday service. I politely declined. As I started closing the door, one of the men reached out with a pamphlet, asking if I would like some information about Jesus Christ, “your Lord and Savior.” Tempted though I was to point out he was making a pretty bold assumption about the status of my soul, I declined again, telling him that I would just throw the pamphlet away unread.

I’ve made no secret in this blog (or anywhere else) that I’m not a particularly churchly man but I also hope I’ve been pretty clear that, as far as I’m concerned, we are all free-agents in this world. The two Baptists have just as much right to ring my doorbell as the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Islamist, and any other group of folks who feel strongly enough about something they want to traipse around town and meet jerks like me.

Fortunately, I also have every right in the world to turn down both their invitation and their pamphlet without fear of repercussions. They can, of course, curse my soul as they head down the sidewalk, but last time I read my bible those are pretty hollow words coming from mortal men.

The reality is that I’m happy those men have found something that helps sooth their soul on this veil of tears we traverse every day. I tell my students all the time that one of our goals in this world, in fact, should be latching on to something that helps provide solace in times of trouble and humility in times of plenty. Mostly, I tell them, we need to find something that helps us respect our fellow humans. If loving God (and hoping God loves you back) does it for you, more power to you. If hugging a tree lights your fire, far out and rock on.

Like art, I tell them, religion and beliefs need to provide a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. If they don’t offer us such things, what good, we might ask, are the beliefs? I’ll readily admit that I’m always really bothered by angry religious fanatics. The gods of religions aren’t angry and vengeful: we probably shouldn’t be either.

One of the glories of America, I also remind them, is that we are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to seek out and follow those beliefs. The State cannot “prohibit” that free exercise. Feel free, I tell them (looking at a couple in particular) to pray before any exam you want. Kneel down after the game, praise your god after victory, and ask for solace upon defeat.

But, I remind them, don’t fall into the narcissistic trap and assume my god and your’s are the same.

That same State that lets you practice your religion is also barred from establishing one that we all have to follow. Those dudes were pretty smart that way.

While it is true that Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it’s also true that Article VI makes a religious test illegal with regard to public office. In other words, the Constitution forbids a religious litmus test for holding public office, rejects the State’s ability to establish a religion, and makes it illegal for the State to prohibit the expression of religion all the while requiring that public officials support the Constitution, the “separation” Jefferson was so passionate about seems pretty clear.

We should tread carefully, then, when our theology turns into politics. (Go ask the Iraqis how that kind of system works out for ya.)

Certainly, our religious history in America is dominated by a Judeo-Christian past, and we should never deny or reject that part of our history. It is equally, true, though that the very nature of democracy dictates that the basis of that religious history has assumed a clear desire to provide checks and balances that respect the separation of earthly and transcendent powers. “Render unto Cesar” and all that jazz, right?

The power of that separation was, for Jefferson and many of our founding fathers, a desire to reject revealed truths in favor of rational thought. At the risk of offending a wide-swath of people (if I have’t already), the Virgin Birth is anything but rational. So is forcing me to believe what you believe.

Most important, though, that separation was designed to stop the religious majority from merging the power of the pulpit with the strength of the government to limit the free expression of ideas. They recognized that we can’t combine the power to condemn a man to hell with the threat of public incarceration and create a government of the people and for the people.

The only true democratic system is one that stops the public, democratically elected government from restricting the free expression of ideas and prohibits that very same government from endorsing particular religious systems.

We are, simply put, so great because Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Rick Perry can’t tell us what we can and can’t think nor can they create a system where we have to run through a gauntlet of Christian prayer just to enter the town square.

Except maybe they can.

Yesterday the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that Greece, NY can, in fact, offer a de facto endorsement of one religion by offering Christian only prayers before their town meetings. The Supreme Court ruled that prior to a public meeting where citizens appear and petition their local government for progress, redress, or revisions, every person in the room must listen to and be subjected to a state sponsored religious message that focuses on one single belief system.

There goes Jefferson’s wall. And one more civil liberty.

Understand that the issue isn’t offering a prayer in a public forum that is state sponsored. The Court is certainly correct that we have a historical precedence for prayer in public spaces. (A fact, I remind my Christian friends, that shouldn’t make them feel very good. In essence, the Court seems to recognize that prayer has simply become something people are accustomed to and it rises above–or falls below I guess–it’s original meaning. In other words, prayer is okay, they say, because no one is paying attention anyway.)

The real issue is restricting and limiting the prayer to a single, solitary type of prayer and, by implication, endorsing Jesus as our only hope for filling that pot hole over on Magnolia Street. Welcome to our come to Jesus meeting. First they tax my body and now they want to help my soul. All I want to do is complain about my trash pick up times.

Talk about big government.

We are a short step, it seems, from claiming that “the First Amendment only applies to Christians” because “Buddha didn’t create us,” Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court Justice said 3 days ago. “Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures.” 

That, my friends, should scare every one of us regardless of what we believe.

Biting the Hand that Feeds You

Every time I hear rich guys say racist and ignorant things, my first thought is never sympathy for the victims of hateful speech, the social impact, or even the implications regarding free speech.

Mostly, I sit and wonder how someone who is such a dunce can get so stinking rich while I struggle every month to pay my mortgage.

Our latest entrant into the Hall of Shame is Donald Sterling, a man whose comments sound eerily similar to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, another man who used his media fame to wax philosophical about “the Negro.” (Those are Mr. Bundy’s words, not mine.) Bundy, a man who wonders if “they were better off as slaves,” evidently felt confident his anti-government views would keep his supporters firmly behind him.

As often happens when people make idiots of themselves on the public stage, we are confronted with the implications of free speech. In these situations, however, we should be reminded that the beauty of America is, and this is really important, that we all have a Constitutional right to say anything stupid and ignorant we want. Prejudice is not illegal in this country, and, as we all learned in Sociology 101, prejudice and discrimination are two very different things. One is illegal and one is not.

Likewise, though, each of us also has the Constitutional right to suffer the consequences of a culture growing increasingly tired of old prejudices that preach hatred and degradation couched in mis-readings of religion and politics.

Bundy is sliding back into obscurity and losing support because a desire for small government transcends race and ethnicity. (It doesn’t help that we quickly found out he has been breaking the law for many, many years. Nothing like a man feeding his cows for free on government land who complains about people living for cheap in government houses. Some days it’s hard to tell the makers from the takers, isn’t it?)

Which brings us to Mr. Sterling, a man who built his wealth as a divorce and personal injury lawyer. Sterling, described once as one of the worst owners in the NBA, was today fined $2.5 million and banned from the NBA for life. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has vowed to take steps to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Everyone seems to be on board. There is, almost, a collective sigh of relief from the NBA world as we can turn our attention back to the playoffs.

Case closed. Another ugly moment swept under the rug and locked in the closet.

I state emphatically that I find Sterling’s comments reprehensible and disgusting (as well as incredibly stupid since he has gone out of his way to offend the very group of people who line his pockets with ridiculous amounts of wealth).

I ask again–why is he rich and I’m not?

I recognize that the LA Clippers are a part of the National Basketball Association and that Association has a Board of Governors and a set of rules by which they play. Silver and the Board are well within their rights, I’m sure, to ban Sterling from taking part in NBA activities in much the same way that any organization with by-laws has the right to hold members to certain agreed upon standards. I would imagine that the NBA, an organization whose players are 70% African-American, has something in its by-laws that states or implies being a racist is both stupid and costly. At the very least, I would guess they can fine him for behavior detrimental to the league, and I totally support such a thing.

But I’m not sure this case is that simple.

If I voluntarily join a group and I don’t follow the rules, I face the consequences of those acts. Heck, if I don’t like the rules I can go start a blog and share my thoughts independently of the by-laws I don’t like. My free speech is intact and the group gets to maintain its autonomous identity.

Sterling owns the LA Clippers, a business that is part of the NBA but not owned by the NBA. The NBA as an association can distance itself from Sterling, they can fine Sterling, and, in theory, they can kick the Clippers out of the NBA for not following its by-laws.

At the end of the day, though, Sterling’s business ownership is independent of his membership. Understand that I recognize the distinction I’m making here is philosophical and semantic. If the NBA boots the Clippers out of the league, they are effectively ending Sterling’s ownership because his business will likely have no venue with which to earn money. What are they going to do–play pick up games for tips at White Power Rallies?

The distinction, though, between fining, banning, and forcing someone to sell is important. The NBA can’t be in the business of revoking ownership when its members say and do distasteful things. Punishments and fines are one thing. Banning an owner from participating in the governance structure of an organization he has voluntarily joined is fine. He did, after all, know the rules and by-laws.

What the NBA is attempting to do, though, would be akin to the Better Business Bureau banning a local business and then forcing the owner to sell because he doesn’t want to join and play by their rules. Isn’t that a little bit like offering to protect a business and then burning them down if they don’t pay?

Forcing him to sell his privately owned company because we don’t like what he says moves beyond enforcing by-laws and begins to attack the very foundations of the capitalistic enterprise upon which we have, in theory, built our great nation. There is no evidence that Sterling broke the law regarding discriminatory hiring practices and there is no real evidence he has done anything illegal that would disqualify him from owning the business called the LA Clippers.

In much the same way that Sterling has the right to speak out regarding his views on race, and in much the same way that the NBA has a right to punish a member of its Association, Sterling has a right to run his company as he sees fit within the laws of our country.

He can, simply put, choose to run that company outside the NBA. Sponsors can then choose to support or not support him. Workers can choose to play on his team or not work on his team. Fans can choose to attend games or not. His business might fail, but that is his choice and his right. Any other option reeks of monopolistic control not just of a product (basketball) but also stinks of creating a litmus test for business ownership.

Sterling has very right to own his team and disengage from the NBA. He could go form his own association of Extraordinary Idiots Who Believe Stupid Things. Maybe Cliven Bundy can get a team together and join the league.

Of course, no one would be stupid enough to follow that business model. That would be like telling your girlfriend to stop bringing black people to basketball games.

College Guide

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert.com Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Dish

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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