Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alma Mater?

So I'm teaching Petronius again and of course in teaching satire one always must broach the question of whether a character is self-aware. Is Trimalchio aware of just how silly he looks when he wants his favorite gladiator painted on his mausoleum? Naturally not, since the fool lacks the self-awareness for necessary dissimulation. It's no small coincidence to this observation that I received the quarterly alumni newsletter from my alma mater, the reading of which spurred thoughts many and terrible.

 +1 Photoshop
First off, this is one polished turn of the press. It has the gloss of a European fashion magazine and such heft that I retain the Spring issue for summer mosquito-bashing, making it perhaps the most costly bug swatter in history. But is it effective! Yet the publication isn't just a defense against desanguination but a feast for the eyes too, and let me tell you I couldn't have cropped out the cover's background and rendered any finer clouds than the Photoshop master who crafted this masterpiece. The back cover is an ingenious display of diversity and it's doubtful any finer piece of fodder could be confectioned a more tasteless sample of politically correctness. The cover is only marred by the presence of the school seal, whose curling crest seems to me an invidious, serpentine presence. Yet I shouldn't complain about the seal which manages to cram several Latin words into a magazine which is otherwise content to cultivate the haute banal style of the moderately educated middle class.

Yet it's the language of Cicero and Vergil which titles the university's age-defining achievement: a massive fundraiser. One wonders why they settled on  Latin but I suspect it's because they thought it might lend an aura of dignity and authority to what is otherwise shameless whooping for money. The more significant gesture than the title Excelsior, though, is that the official slogan includes a translation of the Latin. It's not without humor and irony that they chose the more poetical and aspirational translation of ever higher, but which is the more depressing possibility: that they thought the poetical reading of the comparative adjective a meaningful twist, or that they didn't even realize what they were writing? At any rate, Latinizing their slogan lent more credulity to their cash grab than their English apologies, which ran from describing the fundraiser as "not gratuitous"  and "not unpremeditated," which explains about as much as the old woman dropping the necklace at the end of Titanic.

Speaking of an expensive exercise in a cosmetic facade which hides grotesque and negligent structural flaws that ultimately culminate in tragic immiseration, let's talk about the school's curriculum. Actually, let's not because 56 pages isn't enough space, it seems, in which to mention what one might learn. It certainly can't be the case that you would raise hundreds of millions of dollars and have a curriculum–aka the course of learning–whose only possible analogy is to running naked through an endless thicket of flaming thorns while chased by the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Then we shall mulch in the shade!
Let then the On Campus section clue you to university happenings. The environment is the theme of the hour, and not only did a nun speak about the need for the church to focus on ecological problems, apparently excluding the fauna of their school's flagellating curriculum, alas, but also a team of students planted trees by means of shovels which were made from recycled guns in violence-plagued neighborhoods. Because that's what terrorized people need: plants. Melt your swords into plowshares by all means, but don't plan on fighting off the drug cartel with a fern and your green thumb.

If that hasn't sent you to the enrollment office, do you want to be a part of Nelson Mandela's legacy of change? Do you want to find out whether empathy can help foster racial justice? Come on! Higher education "can lift people out of poverty," "education is the great leveler," and "the Jesuits really are the best." With all of this stifling political correctness–the president's letter even alternates the order in the phrase "men and women" each time it's used–I'm surprised they declined alumni in the masculine. It certainly can't be they don't know Latin, right? Right? Bueller?

Hold on to that gun before someone
makes a shovel out of it.
Alright, you're a hard sell. Time to trot out the superstars. Denzel Washington went there. Washington, known for such movies as Man on Fire, Inside Man, and Training Day, has been hailed as "the greatest role model"by the first recipient of the Denzel Washington Endowed Scholarship, who went on to proclaim her love for Barney the Dinosaur and Frosted Flakes. Next on the celebrity parade is Mary Higgins Clark, author of 42 best-selling suspense novels, the first of which dates from her famous pre-natal years and tells the story of a zygote which realizes it's carrying the child of a murderer. Alright fine, don't attend, but you'll regret it if you ever stumble upon a murder in a runaway freight train. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now I'm not saying that I can't take seriously a school who boasts "190% growth" in world-class faculty, cloaks itself in the cheap slogans of the day, softly peddles cheap liberalism, and demonstrates no serious, concrete academic program. Likewise I ignore its foolhardy abstract "devotion to humanity" and the hubris of wanting to leave students "able to shape the world." Instead I merely suggest that such doesn't recommend one as a nourishing mother.

She does have, though, the fool's penchant for self-revelation, if not awareness. Describing the results of a recent renovation, the magazine writes that, "the walls are the only thing remaining of the original structure." Most assuredly.

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