Saturday, November 08, 2008

Life of the Mind

[Ed. The following is a comment which I will post shortly to Graham's blog over at CHE. I am posting it here with the supporting links which I will leave out for efficiency when I post it at CHE.]

First, I think JAS at 17 has nailed it.

Next, I'd like to address some of the criticism of my first post, but I want to thank Dan at 6 for the editorial assistance on my previous post. On the internet,when time is too short but the topic deserves comment, there is a temptation to post without properly editing one's comments and digging up references. I gave into that temptation. If I'm ever in need of a copy editor I'll be sure to look Dan up.

Let me get the trivial out the way before I deal with the subtance. I intended to use the neologism anonymized, which I did misspell, and not the word anonymous. Sorry about that transgression.

On to the substance...

Dan says that the list that Spanier has presented does not contain anything that could be categorized as anti-intellectual buffoonery. I think this is a fair criticism. My characterization of Spanier's behavior was not based on the list alone, although Spanier's parenthetical mention of baton twirling is a prime example of the behavior that I had in mind. The characterization was base on my years of observation of Spanier's antics; I should have made this clear and provided evidence.

To that end, here's a partial list of his buffoonery. Let's begin with his predilection of dressing up as the Nittany Lion mascot for public events. For example, there is a picture of him in the Collegian, the Penn State student newspaper, speaking at the groundbreaking of a downtown State College building project in the mascot costume. Another example is his thing for the Blue Sapphire, Penn State's lead majorette. Spanier has been known to twirl a baton with her at pep rallies and sporting events. David Jones, a Harrisburg Patriot-News sportswriter, has vividly describe this spectacle in one of his columns, but to truly appreciate the buffoonery one must actually witness it. Unfortunately, a YouTube video which captured Spanier and the Blue Sapphire twirling away has been removed. Another of Spanier's stunts was to ride a tricycle in a local parade. There are also pictures of him riding a bike along with many top Penn State administrators to promote ride your bike to work week. Of course, he selected a bike which looked like it was purchased from a Pee-Wee Herman yard sale. For anyone in need of more visual evidence to be convinced of his buffoonish behavior, I recommend a screening of this year's state-of-the-university video. (It should be noted that the theatrics in this video are not at the invitation of a group of students as Spanier tell us his other performances are.)

This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it provides ample evidence of buffoonery.

These are not the absent-mined eccentricities of an intellectual lost in thought. Neither is this the the ironic or satiric form of buffoonery of an Ali G. No one can believe that Spanier is poking fun at school boosters when he struts his stuff with the Blue Sapphire. What he is clearly doing is signaling to those boosters that he is one of them. These are the calculated actions of a public man. This is his brand.

None of this would be too bothersome if Spanier demonstrated that he had any respect at all for the life of the mind, but he doesn't. Read his official biography. There is little beyond a perfunctory mention of his former research career to supports the idea of Spanier as an intellectual. Today he spends his spare time during Christmas break at a multiplex not a library.

His recent forays into to promoting intellectual pursuits at the University have consisted of nothing more than the shallow marketing ploys of creating faculty trading cards-an idea which ironically originated in a couple of satires of the corporate university- and establishing the position of Penn State Laureate. The role of the Laureate, by the way, appears to be to make rich donors feel cultured.

The message that he and his administration send to students is an anti-intellectual one. A few years ago the reality program Paranormal State filmed on the Penn State campus. Old Main was thrilled by this because they couldn't afford to buy that type of national television exposure. There was no concern at all that the program promoted psuedo-science and associated it with the University. Nope, if it brought in more student applications that was fine with Old Main.

I could go on with how Spanier's focus on economic development and corporate sponsored research diminishes the Liberal Arts and basic science at Penn State, but I think I've had made my point: buffoonish behavior combined with no respect for the life of the mind equals anti-intellectual buffoonery.

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