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Easter – Drama Is Reborn

Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus

Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus

Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays  as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of  pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.

Quem Quaeritis

Quem Quaeritis – Bodleian Library

Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.

Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:

 Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.  He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and   announce that he has risen from the grave.

No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.

College Students & Hunger

Oliver Twist asking for more.You knew that college students in the United States were being crushed under a mountain of debt. In fact, in this country the total amount of college debt now surpasses the total of all credit card debt. But you probably didn’t know that student finances have reach the point where some students are going hungry – they can’t buy food and pay college costs at the same time.

Sara Golrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,is also the director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab which researches, among other things, the financial hurdles that financially strapped college students face nowadays. The lab has uncovered some worrisome statistics. It turns out that poorer students are simply going hungry. Or as the HOPE people put it, “food insecurity is a growing problem on college campuses.”

Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a “…social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Surveys by the HOPE lab reveal that some students can’t afford to buy enough food to stay in college. They have to choose between food and, say, rent, family needs, or the courses required to graduate.

A survey at ten community colleges across the nation discovered that half the students said they were struggling with food and/ or housing insecurity. A whopping 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless. Professor Golrick-Rab’s team began to interview low income students at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges back in 2008. At that time 27 percent didn’t have enough money to buy enough food, and 5 to 7 percent had gone an entire day without eating.

The problem of hungry students isn’t insoluble. One suggestion by the people at HOPE is for our government to make students eligible for food stamps by treating going to college as similar to going to work. That would certainly help.

(You’re right about the image at the top. The kid with the bowl isn’t a community college student. He’s Oliver Twist asking for more.)

Conflict Kitchen

Conflict Kitchen Serving Iranian Takeout

Conflict Kitchen Serving Iranian Takeout

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” That quote is ascribed to Mark Twain, and maybe he did say it. And maybe we can re-write it to say that God created war so that we could learn about other societies and what they eat. Or maybe we should just talk about Conflict Kitchen.

The people who run Conflict Kitchen have announced this about their restaurant. “Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that only serves cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Each Conflict Kitchen iteration is augmented by events, performances, and discussions that seek to expand the engagement the public has with the culture, politics, and issues at stake within the focus country. The restaurant rotates identities every few months in relation to current geopolitical events.”

We think it’s a very interesting idea. And if we were close enough to Pittsburgh to have lunch there, we’d definitely stop in the Kitchen and sample whatever they were serving. Past versions have had menus from Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela, and currently the Cochina del Conflcto is focused on the food, culture and politics of Cuba. Their next iteration will focus on North and South Korea.

As you might expect, their Job Opportunities paragraph is unusual, too. Among other things: “We expect our employees to be expert conversationalists, deeply versed in the culture and politics within our focus county. We also expect our employees to learn how to produce our cuisine in an efficient, consistent, and professional manner.”

Conflict Kitchen has a stylish website that can give provide you with what you need to know about their project. If you get to the new post-industrial Pittsburgh drop in, and tell us about the food, the politics, the culture.

College Costs Rise Faster Than Anything

On the PRS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff, talking with Mark Shields and Rich Lowry, asked Shields about the cost of college tuition nowadays.  Shields responded with his usual vigor, plus some interesting economic statistics.  Is there a problem with college costs today? His reply:

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

“I think it’s a real problem. To be very frank, since 2001 in this country,the cost of a four-year college, a public university, room and board, tuition, has gone up 73 percent, 73 percent in 10 years, between 2001 and 2011.  At the same time, the median household income in this country has dropped by $3,400. So, I mean, is it a problem? Is the cost of college a problem?”

Mark Shields’ figures are probably based on a recent report by  the National Center for Education Statistics.  The big picture is even more dramatic. (We would say worse, but we don’t want to discourage you.)  FinAid, an objective site devoted to information about college costs  and college financial aid, notes that “On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years.” In other words, if you have a nine-year-old child that you hope to send off to college, you — or you and your child — will be paying twice as much as you’d pay today.  Here’s a graph displayed by FinAid showing that for thirty years the cost of going to college has always risen faster than the general rate of inflation.Tuition IinflationBy the way, keep in mind that the graph displays the rate of inflation, so when the line turns down that doesn’t mean that the cost of college tuition declines; it’s still going up, but the rate at which it’s going up has slowed.

And, as if you needed any more bad news on this subject, here’s a chart showing that workers have been getting more and more productive, but their wages have remained essentially flat. In other words, workers have been getting better at turning out goods and providing service, but their income hasn’t risen and the cost of sending their kids to college has gone through the roof. Wages have been essentially flat for decades.Productivity vs Wages for last  13 years ECI is the abbreviation for Employment Cost Index, and ECEC is the abbreviation for Employer Cost for Employee Compensation. The chart comes from the Economic Policy Institute.


 Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau is an original and penetrating look at class in this country. We’re pleased to present this review which not only examines this book, but also places it in the context of other works in the field. Our reviewer, Robert Greene, known in the academic world for his studies of French literature, has long been interested in the subject of class in America. Line horizontal halfpoint 460 X 10

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Second Edition, with an Update a Decade Later. By Annette Lareau. 461 pp. Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2011.

Unequal Childhoods book coverAnnette Lareau’s ground-breaking Unequal Childhoods shows us what social stratification consists of in the United States and how it perpetuates itself. In effect, the process of sorting ourselves by social/cultural/economic class begins in childhood and never really ends.  We may be unaware that we are nudging the process along, but in fact we are doing precisely that.

As parents, we practice, basically, one of two types of child rearing, “concerted cultivation” or “the accomplishment of natural growth.” (More about these terms and concepts in a moment.) Lareau draws her thickest line of socio-economic demarcation between the middle class, on the one hand, and the working class and poor, on the other.  For Lareau, only two classes count in American society, shape how most of us actually live our lives. She proposes the two different styles of child rearing she has identified as distinguishing the first mode of living from the second, as dividing us into two distinct socio-cultural groups. She concedes that family income and assets play a large role in directing our lives, but the determining factor for her is how parents view and carry out their responsibilities as parents. This, in turn, reflects the parents’ own education and occupation, as well as their aspirations for their children. Here is where “concerted cultivation” and “the accomplishment of natural growth” enter the picture:

Middle-class parents who comply with current professional standards and engage in a pattern of concerted cultivation deliberately try to stimulate their children’s development and foster their cognitive and social skills. … For working-class and poor families, sustaining children’s natural growth is viewed as an accomplishment. (5)

Lareau maintains that “these different philosophies and approaches to child rearing … appear to lead to the transmission of differential advantages to children (5).” She then spells out these differences:

The white and Black middle-class children in this study … exhibited an emergent version of the sense of entitlement characteristic of the middle class. They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings…. The working class and poor children, by contrast, showed an emerging sense of constraint in their interactions in institutional settings. They were less likely to try to customize interactions to suit their own preferences. (6)

Lareau’s method is ethnographic. She has studied 12 families in depth, focusing each time on the fourth-grader in the family, a child of about 10 years of age (boy or girl, black or white, middle class or working class/poor). She and her team members (graduate students in social sciences under her supervision) spent a month closely following the daily life of their subjects, at home, in school and participating in activities outside home and school. A team member, Lareau or one of her trained assistants, would visit each child’s family for several hours at a time, and once for an overnight, engaging the child and his or her parents in conversation, or silently observing the child interacting with his or her family. (Team members found that, when observing their subjects, their own presence soon went unnoticed.) Team members also talked with the children’s teachers and accompanied the children to their extracurricular activities and medical appointments.  The schools the children attended were located either in a city or a nearby suburb, reflecting the family’s socio-economic circumstances.

The most salient difference that Lareau and her team noted between their middle-class and their working class or poor subjects involved how language was used in the children’s respective worlds.  The team observed, for example, that for middle-class children conversations with parents (and other adults) were usually give-and-take dialogues, often speculative or playful in nature. In contrast, for working-class or poor children, the speech of parents (or other adults) almost invariably took the form of directives that anticipated no response from the child other than compliance. It became clear to Lareau and her team that middle-class children, while still in childhood, acquire linguistic confidence and sophistication via their conversations with adults. The skills thus learned would serve them well in adult life and would give them a distinct advantage over individuals from working-class or poor backgrounds. (more…)

Student Loans – the Cost of Borrowing

Belushi & college jerseyThe House of Representatives recently passed legislation which gives college students a hand up and also slaps them in the face. On one hand, the legislation stops student loan interest rates from doubling, but on the other hand it ties the interest rate to the rate on 10-year Treasury notes – a rate which is already rising. This is a Republican bill, and it passed largely along party lines.

Currently, 7.4 million students with federal Stafford loans pay 3.4 percent interest, but the rate will double to 6.8 percent if Congress doesn’t do something about it. Democrats nailed the rate to 3.4 percent when they controlled the House. Republicans tried to raise the rate last June, but the public outcry was so loud that they backed down and extended the old rate for one year.

Well, here we are a year later and Republicans have decided it would be dandy to allow the interest rate to be reset annually. Interest would be the same as on a 10-year Treasury note, plus an additional 2.5 percent for the Stafford loans. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects rates on Stafford loans will rise to 5 percent in 2014 and 7.7 percent in 2023. Stafford loans for college kids would be capped at 8.5 percent, and loans for graduate students and parents would have a top of 10.5 percent.

TransUnion, the credit information company, estimates that on average students graduating this year will leave college with a $24,000 debt along with their new diplomas. Fidelity, the financial services corporation, estimates the average student loan debt is closer to $35,000 per graduate.

The economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate,  writing in the New York Times, pointed out a couple of  dismal distinctions between the United States and other countries: “America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities.”

Middle Class & College Class

Diploma from Messina, class of 1672

Diploma from the University of Messina, Class of 1672

College students are now more than a trillion dollars in debt. That comes as news to anyone who isn’t a college student or the parent of a college student. The young and old who graduate this year are quite aware of it. Last year’s college grad started working life — if he or she could find a job — with an average debt of $27,000.

That average of $27,000 is the debt owed only by the student. Mark Kantrowitz, a knowledgeable expert in the field of student loans and student debt, estimates that if you add in the loans taken by parents to pay for their kid’s education, you get an average total bill of $34,000. That was last year. The numbers have been getting worse, year after year. (Kantrowitz was quoted in the New York Times last year, saying that student debt goes up and it doesn’t ever go down.)  If student debt goes up 5 percent this year, as it did last year, then the burden — well, you can do the depressing math.

The economics of borrowing and debt often inspires comfortable  moralists to criticize the profligate borrowers. But there’s been no criticism of students’ or parents’ borrowing. Over the past 30 years the purchasing power of the middle class has remained flat or has declined.   Our average worker hasn’t been able to make the necessary strides ahead of the cost of living which permits increased savings or increased purchasing. But in that same period, the price of a college diploma has steadily gone further and further ahead, rising between 4 and 6 percent a year.

As has happened repeatedly over the past three decades, parents  —  and now their college-bound children —  have to borrow. The gradual erosion of the middle class has increased so that now we are witnessing something rather like a collapse. The rich float further and further up, the poor drift further and further down.

But that’s a terrible note to post during the month of college graduations, so we’ve illustrated this with a diploma from the Italian University of Messina in 1672.  We think it’s a great diploma with great but serious colors, a truly intricate initial letter and fancy writing. That’s something worth hanging on the wall! Even if it does put us a bit in debt.

College Salaries: The Income Gap

Medieval illustration of a university

A Medieval University

In our free-wheeling capitalistic country with its ambivalent attitude toward intellectual activity and it’s slogan that “The business of America is business,” college administrators have come to think of colleges as business enterprises.  In this debased view,  administrators are the managers, professors  are the subordinate workers, and graduates are the product.  Thus, efficiency is the use of fewer professors working at lower pay to turn out more graduates.

The trustees of these enterprises often have the same attitudes and values as the trustees  of  large business organizations.  They endorse the salaries and bonuses paid to their college presidents as necessary to retain such wonderful talent,  though the talent isn’t obvious.  But if a college or university is really just another money making corporation,  then we shouldn’t be surprised by the avarice of the people at the top.

In the past ten years the salary of private-college professors has increased 14 percent while the pay for their presidents has shot up 75 percent.  The distinguished Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that there’s a widening income gap between professors and the presidents of the colleges where they teach. The most recent figures are from 2009. Presumably things have gotten even more out of whack, but here are a few outstanding examples from two years ago.

Charles H. Polk, president of Mountain State University, took home a glorious $1,843,746. Haven’t heard of Mountain State? Mr. Polk’s salary used up 3.5 percent of the college’s entire budget. His college’s intellectual standing is such that it may soon lose its accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

The President of Rensselaer  Polytechnic Institute, Shirley Ann Jackson, was paid more than eleven times as much as her professors, a nifty $1,771,877.   And according to the Times Union of Albany, her college is in the hole for $806 million and has fallen to 50th in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of colleges.

Then there’s Kevin J. Manning, president of Stevenson University, with a handsome $1,493,655 compensation package. That’s over sixteen times what his professors were making.

Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty,  recently pointed out  that “between 1997 and 2007, the number of administrative and support personnel per hundred students increased dramatically at most schools—103 percent at Williams College; 111 percent at Johns Hopkins; 325 percent at Wake Forest University; and 351 percent at Yeshiva University, to cite some noteworthy examples.”

So forget about collegiality and the life of the intellect.  These college leaders have entered the big corporation candy store and they’re greedy, greedy, greedy.  We’ve wandered a long way from the day when a graduate of Williams College said of it’s president, Mark Hopkins, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other.”

A University Classroom in the 14th Century

The scene above is a Medieval depiction of a classroom in the 14th century.  Scan the young scholars sitting on the benches and you’ll see that student behaviour hasn’t changed much in six  or seven hundred years. That fellow at the far end of the second row is about to nod off and the poor guy in blue at this end of the third row has fallen asleep or has a wretched hangover. Further along the same bench you’ll find a couple of students chatting amiably and at the far end of the back row another couple are conferring quite oblivious to the Magister at the lectern.  Maybe the lecture is really dull. That’s possible. On the other hand, some of those students are paying rapt attention.  Our bet is that the guy in blue stayed up much to late last night,  drinking and singing Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.