A Good Question?
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- Iannone, C. Acad. Quest. (2012) 25: 439. doi:10.1007/s12129-012-9327-2
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Are you optimistic or pessimistic? One hears the question often these days—about the state of the country, the culture, the arts, the family, the healthcare system, the public schools, and of course the academy. I’m not sure it’s a good question. Regarding the academy, for example, are you optimistic or pessimistic that traditional scholarly values will be reinstated, substantive and challenging curricula restored, fair grading and evaluation reinstituted, free speech and intellectual debate reinvigorated? Is that a good question?
Some say the attitude itself will bear its own brand of fruit. The optimist helps bring about better outcomes by virtue of his positive outlook, whereas the pessimist will see his unhappy thoughts materialized more and more. On the other hand, optimism can lead to bland complacency or even serve to cover willful blindness, while pessimism might better supply the grit needed in a long struggle with few immediate rewards.
And optimism can support the baneful as well as the beneficial. Lenin might well have been optimistic on his way to the Finland Station. Chamberlain was no doubt optimistic that he had secured peace in our time. And pessimism may not harm a noble cause. Washington was evidently rather gloomy throughout the Revolutionary War and look how that turned out.
So being optimistic or pessimistic may not be particularly helpful in our current circumstances. They are built too much on moods, feelings, dispositions, not enough on foundations. Did anyone ask Charles Martel at Tours in 732 if he was optimistic or pessimistic? Or Jan Sobieski at the gates of Vienna in 1683? Or Dwight D. Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day in 1944? If anyone did ask, would it have made a difference? Their battles had to go forward regardless. And so must ours, whatever we think the future may hold. We must forge ahead, meeting the challenges of our times with courage and good cheer.
Better than optimism in my view is persistence and faith—faith in the right, in the just, in the true, in the good—transcending what any particular individual can perceive or conceive at any particular time. So a better question might be: Have you kept the faith? And in these things Academic Questions has indeed kept the faith for twenty-five years and here proudly presents its hundredth issue, like the previous ninety-nine, fruit of faith in the principles we uphold, and coinciding with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the National Association of Scholars.
Our signature feature for this hundredth issue is “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education” (actually our cup runneth a bit over one hundred, as you will see). The multiple contributors include the famous and the not so famous, while contributions range from the earnest to the whimsical and from the macro to the micro, but we think readers will find it absorbing and inspiring to see how much is possible to do right where we are situated today, and will marvel at the creativity, ingenuity, and variety that result when a hundred flowers bloom.
Before plunging into the “Ideas,” however, you might first ruminate a bit with Stephen H. Balch, NAS’s principal founder and its president for most of its first twenty-five years, in “Looking Backward: Parting Reflections on Higher Education Reform,” and then with current president Peter Wood in “The Future of the National Association of Scholars.”
Our articles in this issue also look backward and forward. The Obama administration has sought to loosen work requirements for welfare recipients and Lawrence M. Mead gives us the background to understand why in “The Poverty of Poverty Research.” The Left has never accepted the resounding success of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and liberal scholars, researchers, and academics continue to cling to their perennial excuses for poverty as stemming from discrimination, social conditions, and the like, rather than seeing how the very requirement to work galvanizes the poor to improve their lives.
A hopeful sign of change for the better is that scholars generally identified with the Left are also recognizing the effects of the deterioration in academic standards over the past few decades. Eminent critic and Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton notes in “The Death of Rhetoric” the sharp decline he has witnessed in students’ ability to comprehend literature, a perception no doubt shared by many AQ readers, although his analysis of the causes of the decline may differ from theirs.
Have you heard tell of Mario? No, I don’t mean Mario Lanza, or even Mario Batali, the portly celebrity chef who owns the trendy Manhattan restaurants Pó and Babbo. I mean Mario, the energetic little video game character, who, though clad unprepossessingly in cap and overalls, has amazing adventures that include rescuing princesses from dire straits. Welcome to the fascinating and surprisingly rich, complex, and, yes, aesthetic world of video games, to which Robert VerBruggen gives us a grand introduction in “Games People Play.” And our poem for this issue, “The Shield of Toby,” by managing and poetry editor Felicia Chernesky, highlights in Spenserian stanzas a small boy’s enthusiasm for yet another iconic video game hero, Link of The Legend of Zelda series.
In our review section, Daniel Asia finds insight and direction in a lively and irreverent new book by David Gelernter, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats). If you have seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you might have wondered if you had mistakenly detoured into a porn parlor specializing in sado-masochism. The grotesque violence of that film derives from the novel of the same name, the first of three wildly successful international bestsellers by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, recently deceased. The feminist inflected trilogy has garnered the attention of feminist critics, of course, and Mike Adams dissects a collection of essays by feminist scholars, Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Kick Their Asses: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in Feminist Perspective, edited by Donna King and Carrie Lee Smith. Charles Landesman reviews Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, by Daniel J. Flynn, and relates some of his youthful experience in tackling the great works on his own.
Speaking of great work, Seven Lean Years: Macalester College from 1968 to 1975 has just been published for the Minnesota Association of Scholars by Xlibris. Our congratulations to Jeremiah Reedy, the author, and the MAS; this is the first book published by an NAS state affiliate. Look for a review of Seven Lean Years in an upcoming issue.
Because of the special length of this issue, we have no Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest, but starting with our next number, Robert Jackson will write the feature on a regular basis.