In a week when the Wall Street Journal's editorial page lectures the Republican Congress for tactical stupidity; and Israel's prime minister lectures the Obama administration, whose insiders lecture him back; and no one can believe Obama has believable plans for anything; and he can't believe anybody would believe such a thing -- with all this going on, who cares what goes on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?
I really wouldn't care myself but for the appearance of a book about the university's apparent subservience to athletics and the dough that athletics brings in.
I gather from Gregg Easterbrook's review in the aforesaid Wall Street Journal that Jay M. Smith and Mary Willingham, in "Cheated," tell a tale of significant dimensions, concerning the indifference of a putatively great university to the chicanery involved in sponsoring fake classes for athletes who can barely read. But who -- here's the point, don't you know? -- play football and basketball so superbly they earned UNC an average $30 million profit for the two sports last year.
Smith and Willingham base their narrative on a university-commissioned report full of dire tidings about those fake classes wherein athletes (and others) earned an average grade of A. The report says Chapel Hill admitted sports recruits who were barely literate. But, oh, could they play ball! Which is what the university wanted. Universities these days court students and donors -- and, of course, fans -- in part by winning big on the basketball court or the football field. That's "universities," plural, not just UNC. The tale could be expanded nationwide to take in the fates of players dismissed, or tried and convicted, for assault, rape ... that sort of thing.
The UNC story belongs in the Congress-Israel-Iran, etc., etc., line-up for what strikes me as evidence of ground-level decay of at least as alarming a sort as we encounter in Washington, D.C. -- howsoever great a lead our political leaders might appear to enjoy in the degeneration sweepstakes.
OK, look: Where do our leaders come from? From -- among other places -- colleges and universities. What are they learning in these temples of wisdom and knowledge? I suggest that one thing they are learning is the value of power as opposed to the value of virtue, not to mention the advantages of cheating and defrauding and getting around the rules, with official encouragement. Tough.
The whole idea of the university is that cultivation of humane understanding has more than a little to do with any society's ability to cultivate the right instincts, the right convictions, the right responses to challenges. The university should be the last institution (apart from the church) that shows you how to beat the system and make money. The whole tenor of university instruction is supposed to lead the student to admiration and emulation, not of the worst things in this world -- rather, of the best and the highest.
You might not, as a student, go around campus muttering to yourself, "What would Aristotle do?" You might, nevertheless, kick into gear the collection of observations, formulations, deductions, maxims and examples gained from exposure to the knowledge of what people like Aristotle thought about human strengths and vulnerabilities.
You might, in the process of exposure, stop in your tracks, wondering, at the very least, about the propriety of fake classes used to keep athletes on the academic plantation.
It's only fair to say that honest academic inquiry does go on at universities: side by side -- alas --with chicanery of a sort that casts doubt not only on the universities in question but on ourselves for aiding, abetting and cheering on the deceptionists.
I mean, where do schools like UNC get the idea it's fine to pass out fake A's? Don't they acquire it because in some degree the nation, the culture gets more turned on about winning than about learning? The yea-team-rah-rah days are behind us. The modern university means, apparently, job credentials and national football championships.
You get what you pay for, all right. What you don't particularly get at many a modern university is the deep moral satisfaction that was meant -- once upon a time -- to accompany the ages-old quest for wisdom.