Everybody’s Readin’ for the Weekend: Some General Links

The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)

  • Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here)  it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
  • Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.

  • Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.

BeerStreet - William Hogarth

Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.

GinLane -William Hogarth

  • Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
  • The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.

Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

The One Where I Disagree (Slightly) with Rebecca Schuman

It’s a well-known true fact (see, students, see how bad that sounds?) that we here at TGR are fans of Rebecca Schuman. She’s a big reason why people are talking more about the labor problem in higher education, which for too long was a kind of open secret kept from graduate students until they felt like it was too late to bail out. For her advocacy on this front, we cannot thank her enough.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we never disagree with Dr. Schuman. I understand her arguments in favor of grade inflation, but I’m not persuaded by them. Inflating grades just contributes to our culture of credentialism where merely starting something is seen as practically finishing it. I may be fighting a futile battle, but I think being totally honest with students matters. Grades are one way of doing that. But again, I take Schuman’s point and understand why someone in a more contingent position than me (I exist in a middle space between adjuncts and tenure-track folks) might inflate grades “Because Screw It.”

Earlier this week Schuman wrote another piece that I think is a little wrong-headed. If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of the White House’s new plan to rate colleges like we rate blenders. Schuman does a great job of describing and pointing out some flaws in the plan, but her general defense of it boils down to this: “Colleges are run by corrupt administrators. These corrupt administrators are mad about what President Obama and HIS team of corrupt administrators are doing. The plan is therefore worth supporting in spite of its flaws because it pisses off the people I dislike more.” It’s “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, which again, I get. But in the case of the specific metrics the White House is pushing, this new rating system has the chance to make an already twisted system even worse.

As Schuman rightly notes:

Another important concern I share with the critics of the system is tying aid to attrition rates, which are often higher in schools that serve more first-generation and minority college students—the very students deserving of more aid. The White House should recognize that without some serious caveats, tying aid to retention would not encourage better student support, so much as coerce faculty to pass all students, no matter what. I should know—my first teaching job ever was for a for-profit school in New Jersey. On my first day of work, the dean told me, point blank: “Everybody has to pass. Otherwise we don’t get their government money.”

This is frankly my biggest fear with this rating system, but the problem goes beyond simply fetishizing graduation rates. The front end of this problem is privileging “accessibility.” People define this term differently, but the bottom line is that we do not have a college accessibility problem in this country. We have debt problems, funding problems, labor problems, administrative problems, and many other problems, but what we don’t have is too few colleges (as of 2011, there were over 4,500 colleges in the United States) or, thanks to the predatory loan system run by the federal government, a lack of funds to pay for tuition up front. If we continue to focus on expanding access and credentialing people, it will allow the federal and state governments to avoid doing what actually needs to be done: radically reform K-12 education so that most people don’t need to go to college.

President Obama’s plan makes sense in light of his “winning the future” rhetoric that equates college education for all with a booming American marketplace. But the strength or weakness of the American economy has very little to do with how many people have college degrees. We can give everyone a STEM degree today (which we might as well if we basically destroy college standards) and nothing will change. What would fundamentally change our economy is making a high school degree matter again by implementing the kinds of traditional educational methods (small classes, engaged and autonomous teachers, difficult curricula) of posh private schools at public schools, particularly those in poor areas. This would mean concessions by state governments, federal officials, and teachers’ unions, but given how much we spend on education compared to a place like, I don’t know, Finland, it’s clear we can and must do a lot better for our money. More testing, technology, Common Core, and rejiggering college rankings aren’t the answers. We know what works, but unfortunately there isn’t a huge lobbying group for old-school humanism these days. If we want to actually fix education in this country though, making a college degree easier to get is precisely the wrong way to go about it.

Memorial Prose: The Gettysburg Address

It took Abraham Lincoln a couple of minutes to read the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Because it was a blustery day, most of the assembled couldn’t hear much of what he said, and anyway they had just suffered a two-hour speech by another dignitary. Some newspapers mocked Lincoln the next day, others praised the speech, but mostly the public reaction came to a “Meh.” One wonders what Twitter would have done with it. Probably best not to know.

Of course, since then the Address has been canonized. There are few examples of more perfect political rhetoric, and I mean those last two words in the classical Greek sense: language that seeks to help us live together in reasonable peace and empathy, because the polis pretty much is civilization. Every American should have a copy tacked up in their home or folded in a wallet, tucked inside a boot, taped to the front of a dictionary, saved on the iPhone or laptop. You’re an incomplete citizen if you are not familiar with it.

The text is beautifully written—a three-paragraph prose poem—but more striking is its moral, political, and rhetorical complexity. It is not a speech that should lead Americans to take unadulterated pride in themselves.

Lincoln emphasizes that the United States was founded on “the proposition that all men are created equal” (my italics). Given that he was leading a war against traitor-states who claimed the right to murder and enslave, a right they had long enjoyed (just like most of the men Lincoln calls “our fathers” did), the President was aware that the American project was not founded upon actual democratic liberty or equality. A nation might be “so conceived and dedicated,” but conception and dedication are not the same as historical accomplishment. Lincoln knew that. So did black Americans and American women. 

The enormous melancholy of the Address obviously derives in part from the fact of mass death: of so many dead young men. No Memorial Day is “Happy”; pride and gratitude summoned in the memory of loss, yes and rightly so, but not happiness. However, these deaths and Lincoln’s responsive sadness were part of the larger existential horror the republic was undergoing, and from which it has never recovered, as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s masterful essay “The Case for Reparations” underscores. The Civil War foregrounded the American state’s many un-American habits, policies, and laws. 

Lincoln’s deprecation of his own writing, an unusual rhetorical gesture in a presidential address, seems genuine. And it’s fitting that he does this. The dead men, the wounded and lost men too, and their broken families, and above all “the great task remaining,” were more important than “what we say here.” Nonetheless, we’re fortunate that the world did “note” and “remember” Lincoln’s text, because something like our poet-president’s honesty is badly needed in the present USA.  

Children and young adults are murdered at school, and their families wail, yet our national elite do nothing to reduce the grisly saturation of our society with guns, while many citizens fall back upon the fatuous logic that because knives and cars can also be killing tools, we shouldn’t carefully regulate firearms, which are designed only as killing tools. Our schools remain disturbingly segregated by race, while our neighborhoods are sorted by income (and thus often by race). Our federal government treats veterans like embarrassing waste products. A majority of citizens appears content to let our grandchildren deal with the coming terrors of climate change. Too often we (that means TGR too) react defensively or incredulously or despairingly to these facts, withdrawing into easy pleasures like touchscreens, cynicism, championship sports, shopping, narcotics, protective irony. Many people don’t react at all. The Civil War ended less than two years after Lincoln gave the Address, but many other kinds of his “unfinished work” remain, waiting for us to address them.

The ideal way to read the Gettysburg Address is at the Lincoln Memorial, the greatest building in America, alongside other adults trying not to cry, or just crying. Reading alone, of course, is nearly as fine. Lincoln kept it short to emphasize its weight.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Topical Verse: Memorial Day

I didn’t advertise the last bit of verse I put up because I didn’t want to appear to be capitalizing on events in Isla Vista which, as we gather details about the killer and his plans, become all the more horrific. I invite you to go back and read the Bukowski poem though, as I think it has something important to tell us about how our culture teaches us to think about being alone, loneliness (which is different), and self-worth.

Today’s small bit of verse I will advertise though, as I think its message is one we should spend time thinking about on this particular Memorial Day. Published sixteen years before Eisenhower’s famous and totally prescient warning about the “military-industrial complex,” Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is often one of the shortest poems in anthologies of American verse, but it is surely one of the most accurate descriptions of how the state can instrumentalize people in order to maintain its power (both over the people themselves, and over other states).

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, 
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. 
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, 
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. 
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

That’s the whole poem. Its lines aren’t symmetrical, yet it has balance: the awakening from the dream is preceded by two lines about a person, and is followed by two lines about the hard fact that, in the eyes of the “State,” this person isn’t an individual, but rather canon fodder, a substance to be cleaned up, like the foam leftover from a used up fire extinguisher, when it has served its purpose. We get an entire life-cycle in five lines. The key is Jarrell’s implication that the State sees it as its prerogative to wake us, its weapons of war, from the “dream of life” so that we may fulfill our purpose: dying for the State. If you can read this poem and not think about the current VA scandal, you probably haven’t heard of the current VA scandal.

Like many people, my late grandfather served during World War II. He was captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, and was sent to a prison camp. He stayed alive until the camp was liberated, but even then he had to make his way back across hostile territory largely on his own. He rarely talked about the war, but often had nightmares that I can’t even begin to imagine. In the last weeks of his life, when he was dying of cancer, the VA treated him with dignity and great care. As it should have. Jarrell’s poem isn’t a condemnation of those who fight in wars, nor is it even a blanket condemnation of war itself. Sometimes it is necessary. But if the state is going to send people off to die, sometimes in the name of folly and hubris, the least it can do is treat those who come home, battered inside and out, as something more than inconveniences. It should treat them all the way it treated my grandfather. If it can’t do that, then something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Isla Vista

I’m sure both Ryan and I will have more to say about the act of cowardly terrorism committed in Isla Vista last night. UCSB is where both of us got our PhDs, learned how to teach, got to work with many wonderful students, and established our (nascent) professional careers after finishing our dissertations. It’s also where I met many inspiring mentors and colleagues, Ryan foremost among them. And it’s why I’m engaged to a woman from a little town in the south of England. UCSB was my twenties. So instead of just spewing all the anger and sadness I have right now, I’ll sit on it for a little while, at least until I have something (if anything) more rational to say. Instead, I’d like to offer up a poem that’s been on my mind all day. Charles Bukowski’s “Oh Yes” is the last footnote in my dissertation about American bachelors, and it’s one all young people need to read, but probably don’t have the experience to understand. And I guess that’s the point, but damn…

“Oh Yes”

there are worse things than
being alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it’s too late
and there’s nothing worse
than
too late.

-Charles Bukowski

Weekend Links: Stocks, Bonds, America on Loan

The weekend just pulled into your driveway. Let’s eeease the seat back, as the man says. Here are some links to help you be as intelligent and dynamic as you can be, however chill things might get between now and Sunday. Call us whenever you want.

  • When he wasn’t curating his open-necked-shirt game, economist Thomas Piketty was writing what sounds like a mind-bending study of wealth stratification in the West since the late 1700s. You should buy Capital in the Twenty-First Century book right now, dear reader, as these two reviews (John Cassidy in the New Yorker and Paul Krugman for the NY Review of Books) advise; but don’t try to use Amazon, because it is sold out there. Harvard UP’s Belknap label is scrambling to print more. Let’s hope their scrappy operation can pull through! In the meantime, ruminate on the fact that a work of academic scholarship that is still in hardcover sold this much this fast (it was released only five weeks ago). You can also download the homie’s Technical Appendix for free if you want to wade into some Excel spreadsheets, wizard-math modeling, deep-cover historical footnotes, and other academic flora.
  • America, meet yourself. Sarah Kendzior has written a cool-eyed but harrowing narrative (“The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”) on the efforts of Midwestern fast-food employees to organize for a living wage. Built almost lyrically around the accounts of individual witnesses, this ethnography of labor will remind you that economic collapses are usually also moral catastrophes. Millionaire stockholders and billionaire capital managers exist thanks to workers who, thanks to millionaires and billionaires, don’t make enough to buy a bus pass. If the United States really were an Enlightenment democracy, if the twenty-first century hadn’t become a grim rewind of the late 1800s, Kendzior wouldn’t have needed to write anything. Her work here is so bracing, I don’t mind that the title’s phrasal adjective is missing a hyphen. (Should be “Minimum-Wage,” unless it’s a very subtle pun. I know, I’m a pedant.) Read SK’s work wherever you can—Al Jazeera America publishes a lot of it—because she’s fantastic. Her Twitter feed is also lively. Oh, and she has a PhD in anthropology. Amazing how those useless degrees turn out to be useful.
  • Welfare for humans, bad! Welfare for corporations, very good! (But keep it quiet.) WalMart is on food stamps, y’all, and the company is just about the only food-stamp recipient who deserves your scorn. Add this to your purple-rage-inducing knowledge that ExxonMobil gets federal subsidies and Apple stashes money in Irish shell companies and et fucking cetera.
  • Science is finally catching up with literature: Research published last October in Science indicates that “literary” reading (basically, immersion in fictional narratives that compel aesthetic and philosophical attention while also entertaining the reader) makes you better at recognizing that other people are autonomous subjects, not merely actors in your personal movie. Humanists have been making this argument for centuries. In a recent essay titled “Why Fiction Does It Better,” Lisa Zunshine (whose scholarship draws on narrative art as well as neuroscience) updates the case. No doubt President Obama will mention this in his UC Irvine commencement address.
  • Working within the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC, Dowell Myers and Joel Pitkin have assembled a fascinating report with a deeply academic title, “The Generational Future of Los Angeles: Projections to 2030 and Comparisons to Recent Decades.” Partial preview: The city’s population is not growing quickly, far fewer immigrants are arriving anymore (contra paleocons like Pat “CULTURE WAR MEXIFORNIA” Buchanan), and we need to spend smarter on our educational infrastructure immediately. Angelenos, I promise the report is quite readable, so read it.
  • More on John Keats, language wonder, in the coming weeks; for now, here is a poom by Emily Dickinson—for my money, the purest practitioner of lyric in English not named Shakespeare. The odd punctuation, syntax, and capitalization is all hers. Snakes in a backyard!

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

The Commencement Speech Obama Should Give, But Probably Won’t

In a rearguard action titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum contends that a humanist education helps one learn to “judge political leaders critically, but with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them” (26). This critical radar isn’t the province of history and philosophy alone, either. One can develop the capacity for simultaneous skepticism and empathy by reading literature, and I don’t just mean texts like Julius Caesar or All the King’s Men, whose plots entail overtly political entanglements. Witnessing the psychological, sexual, and then legal bind that Dmitri Karamazov gets himself into will also give you a vivid sense of how “making the Right Choice” is sometimes impossible.

Last week, UC Irvine announced that Barack Obama would give this June’s commencement speech. UCI estimates that the logistical complexity of a presidential visit will add around $1 million to the event’s costs; and if you live in northern Orange County, have fun with your weekend driving! That said, I admit that it is pretty cool to get the President for your graduation ceremony instead of some actor or a retired senator.

But if you have spent much time on the General Reader, you know that the editors do not support Mr. Obama’s education policies, particularly his administration’s daft conception of how higher learning (i.e. College) works in theory or in American historical practice. You can read some of our grumblings here and here and here and here.

To be fair, President Obama inherited an education system that, from the pre-K level up to graduate programs, has been terribly damaged by the same forces that are eating away at our whole democracy. His administration didn’t create the preference of state legislatures for spending more on prisons than schools and food stamps; or the metastasis of a sumptuously compensated managerial class that isn’t very good at managing; or the cynical neoliberal reliance on part-time contract labor; or the strange popular faith that a form of magic called Technology will solve all forms of human suffering and lack; or the indifference of citizens who would rather be babysat by their screens than read anything about how their nation operates, because, hey, Candy Crush; or the shifting of financial risks and burdens onto individuals (like the students who acquire debt that will accrue interest at more than twice the Fed prime rate); or the creepy, spreading belief—nourished by a scum-tide of corporate money—that since radically defunded public institutions have a hard time functioning, then we must privatize them and trust that the market will take care of us.

Further, Mr. Obama has had to confront the hysterical wreckage of the Republican Party, an “opposition” that is little more than a proudly irrational mob with an awesome media team. When your opponents’ reaction to literally everything you say or do is UMMDURRRR NAW NO WAY BADMAN, it is difficult to accomplish much. In many respects all the President can do is talk intelligently and patiently.

Luckily, commencements are all about talking. Most speakers go in for pious abstractions about The Value of an Education/Hard Work/Economic Competitiveness. Is it too much to ask that Obama, a man lauded for his eloquence, reject the standard rhetorical fare? After all, most of the the students he is addressing voted for him.

A President’s capacity to persuade the public is limited; if the bully pulpit were still bully, then the Affordable Care Act would have a 90% approval rating and we’d be taxing carbon. But were Mr. Obama to start speaking honestly and in concrete terms about why American higher ed is such a mess, surely the debate over what to do will grow at least slightly more intelligent. His rhetorical support alone would make more room for education reformers who are actually teachers and students, not standardized-testing corporations, textbook publishers, Silicon Valley tech pimps, cornball privateers, or New York Times columnists.

With that in mind, here are some notes to help the President draft his speech. Mr. Obama, if you need more advice, hit me up on Twitter.

  • Since you are speaking at a branch of the greatest public-university system ever built, tell us about the people and ideologies threatening to destroy it. Instead of merely scolding colleges and universities for their tuition rates, you could call out the state legislatures that have spent forty years abdicating their commitment to citizens and thereby driving up those rates. The UC’s present woes did not result from geological forces that nobody could resist; they are the result of actual decisions made by actual people under the influence of a privatization fetish that remains ascendant in the United States. As such these decisions and people can be countered by other decisions and other people who aren’t so dim. Treating “fiscal crises” and “budget cuts” like tectonic shift does nothing but disguise existing problems and create new ones. Just be honest.
  • Many of the students you are addressing have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their education. The people in the audience who just finished their PhDs? Oh, they have debt, too. This is a great time to demonstrate that you have the stones to support Elizabeth Warren’s proposition that we cut student-loan interest rates in half. And if you really want to show us some Change we can Believe in, announce that you would like to see all student loans become interest-free. People who earned BAs and graduate degrees want to pay off their debts, but artificially elevated interest rates make it hard to do so, especially for those of us who did what you are always asking young people to do, and went into public service. Just be honest.
  • Explain how a return to robust public funding of state universities would ensure that any student able to handle college-level brain work can get an education as good as the ones you and the First Lady received at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. It is fine that you attended private school, but you should commit to ensuring that the public/private distinction has nothing to do with baseline educational quality. Just be honest.
  • Smaller classes, smaller classes, smaller classes. Also, smaller classes. This is what works. You know that, having been educated in small classes at excellent schools. You will send your daughters to colleges that prize small classes. Schools that do not rely primarily on courses with fewer than 25 students should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal. No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • You are speaking to an audience from a university that, like almost all American universities, relies heavily on teachers who have little job security. This is bad for the teachers (duh) and their students. Even intimate seminars cannot accomplish much if they are not taught by people who have advanced degrees in their subjects and the material security to develop their pedagogical skills. For the millionth damn time: We cannot depend on adjuncts. America cannot educate its children using temps, no matter how good the temps are; and we are very good. Schools that do not primarily employ full-time, tenure-track teachers should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal.  (As with the bullet point above, a model based on this commitment has already been formulated by Robert Samuels, who teaches in the UC and leads its biggest faculty union. You could totally call him up.) No exceptions. Just be honest.
  • Point out that American schools spend too much money on amenities like sports programs (especially basketball and football programs) and elegant dorms. These financial habits are killing them. Yeah, I had fun filling out my NCAA bracket, too. But if colleges are cheating and stupefying their students by offering them new fitness centers so they won’t care too much about taking classes in overcrowded, crumbling rooms, then fuck our brackets. Just be honest.
  • Remind the administrators in attendance that “retention” targets and quantitative enrollment goals can never be more important than maintaining (or re-establishing) academic rigor. If college classes are not demanding, if they do not ask their participants to read, think, and write a great deal, then GPAs swell up while intellects languish. This hobbles a democracy. Just be honest.
  • You should praise UC upper-management for recently (finally) signing a humane labor deal with the union that represents the system’s poorest employees, and emphasize that income inequality, which you have declared “the defining challenge of our time,” will only lessen if we encourage new unionization and support existing labor groups. For fuck’s sake, don’t crow about trade deals, stock markets, or mortgage-based tax breaks that mainly help rich people. Just be honest.
  • Don’t say anything about T/technology. Everyone knows T/technology, whatever it is, is great. Half the audience is texting right now. T/technology can go an hour without being petted. Just be honest.
  • You don’t need to tell the audience about how education helps people get jobs. They know. Since kindergarten most of the graduating seniors have heard about little besides the instrumental value of a degree. In fact, by now too many of them see the past four or five years as job training that involved parties but had damn well better to lead to a healthy bank balance, end of story. Why don’t you take the time to broach other topics, like the Jeffersonian business about education preparing the entire self to be a reflective citizen? Not too much, mind you, because you must avoid windy abstractions, especially when a sizable chunk of your audience is hungover, but if you keep it short, reminding your listeners that college does more than equip a person to earn money couldn’t hurt. History classes, pianos, poetry readings, overheated front-stoop squabbles over politics, and art museums really aren’t that bad. Just be honest.
  • OK, so maybe you leave the granular, street-by-street humanities-defending to people like Martha Nussbaum. (I know you dislike art history, until you don’t dislike it because disliking it makes people dislike you.) Perhaps you could talk about a larger cognitive practice, one that facilitates individual growth as well as aggregate material expansion in a post-industrial economy where organizations must be able to articulate, exchange, and evaluate complex ideas. I don’t mean science and math, which, like most politicians, you frequently commend. (As you should, because science and math are beautiful.) I mean that other support-beam of civilization: writing. Mr. President, your facility with language is the basis of your success. Were it not for that keynote address you gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention, you aren’t President in 2014; if the English language, a glory when handled with love and concentration, did not suffuse your entire being, you wouldn’t have been able to write that speech in the first place. Science, math, and writing (and its twin, reading) are meaningless without one another. But rarely does a public figure speak up for writing. Maybe you could. Tell the people how you got here. Just be honest.

Mr. Obama, you are one of the most articulate, cerebral men who has ever held the White House. Your presidency provides some evidence that mass democracy doesn’t always reward scoundrels and grifters. So come June, walk onto the stage in Anaheim and tell the people some concrete, grown-up truths.

Just be honest. A democratic nation that gives up on its public schools is no longer a democracy, or even a nation.