Math and Fairness (and cartoons)

Imagine if you will, Plato after the execution of Socrates. Rather than accosting people in the marketplace, he and his students gathered in a local park, named after a hero, Academus. This is where we get the term "academic" - and the origins of secondary education as we know it. This is the background I want you to have in mind.

Colleges charge tuition; some more than others. Tuition is usually charged with at least some reference to the classes a student takes; thus a part-time student would pay by the credit-hour, and the full-time student pays a certain amount in order to take a full load of classes, whatever that may be for the institution. Tuition - the money paid - covers a whole lot more than the classes, of course: the buildings, the heat and electricity, maintenance and the people to do the maintenance, including janitors and grounds keepers; the administration and the administrative support, which includes the admissions office, the registrar, the bursar, and student services; of course the library and the books and staff; and other things a college student might enjoy, including athletics and those facilities - which were an integral part of the Academy - and probably more things I haven't thought of yet.
Tuition pays for all of these things; but if we think of there being a tuition for each class - as the part-time student pays - then we see that these costs are distributed among all the classes: for instance, every class in the philosophy department has a certain amount of tuition revenue associated with it, and one might reasonably assume that the support staff and office supplies comes straight out of that part of the budget (I don't really care if this isn't how things are actually divided up: they might be, but I'm speaking conceptually here). And all of the Liberal Arts classes can be understood as paying for that college's staff. And all the courses offered pay into the common features, such as athletics and the library. These are shared resources, thus the money generated from every class contributes.
Of course there's another wrinkle, which is that few students (or their parents) write a check for the full amount. Most have loans, many have some sort of scholarships and grants. So, the figures are squishy: I know that. I haven't seen the actual figures, and in some respect they don't really matter. The point here is, for every class, you could take the tuition associated with the enrollment and come up with a figure of what that particular class generates. If tuition for the semester is $10,000, and a full load is 4 classes, then each student is paying roughly $2,500 per class. (If you're wondering, I was inspired to do the math by this cartoon.) I think this is a legitimate way of looking at costs, because if the student wasn't taking any courses, then she or he would not be a student: there's no particular reason for that person to be on campus.

To explicitly connect Plato's Academy, the purpose of college is the instruction and learning that goes on; you don't need the admissions office or the library, or the copy machines and overhead projectors. You just need a quiet place to discuss issues, and someone who knows what they're talking about. I'm not suggesting that we get rid of all the non-teaching elements, but I do think it's useful to focus in on the instruction, because if you take away the instructor, nothing else makes any sense. So: what percentage of the revenue generated by each class ought to go to the instructor? This is not a rhetorical question.


What Would Nietzsche Do?

I haven't drawn anything new recently except this series, which I used as part of a class discussion. As usual, the cartoons are unrelated to the text which follows. An explanatory note: I don't have any of the usual notations about the particular passages, or hyperlinks which (sometimes) explain the references, because it was written to be read aloud rather than as a blog post. (Okay, one link - yes, I have this t-shirt)

In 1897, a Congregationalist minister living in Topeka, Kansas, published the novel, In His Steps; Charles Sheldon’s book continues to reverberate in our culture with the question it posed: “What would Jesus do?” While initially seen as a radical, and possibly dangerous, book, it’s been assimilated into the mainstream as a reinforcement of bourgeois ideals. It’s difficult to imagine it as dangerous today.

In contrast, posing the question, “What would Nietzsche do?” seems like a joke. Or a challenge to the blandness that now surrounds “WWJD,” and maybe a mocking the commoditization of that phrase in bracelets and other tchotkes. Or, if you’re somewhat familiar with the self-proclaimed Anti-Christ, asking, What Would Nietzsche Do might actually seem dangerous: after all, he writes about the blond beast, about master morality – and was the inspiration for the murders Leopold and Loeb (although not, as many think, Hitler).

But why would I want to know what either one of them might do if they were in my shoes? Unlike Jesus, I cannot turn water into wine or make the blind to see- although I often do answer straightforward questions with opaque little stories. The comparison between Jesus and Nietzsche on this count is unfair: Jesus asked people to follow him – to take up his yoke - while Nietzsche explicitly rejects the idea of any followers. “You want to multiply yourself… you want disciples? Look for zeroes!” So the question, “What Would Nietzsche Do?”, if taken literally, misses the point of his teachings.

But setting that aside for a moment, taking the question literally: what would Nietzsche do? It depends. During the late morning hours of spring, he liked to sit on the Piazza San Marco in Venice. During the summer he liked to take walks around Swiss lakes. He played the piano, composed a bit, read voraciously, wrote prolifically, and had a fantastically awkward love-life. So, why would we want to do what Nietzsche would do? We are unique individuals in our own interests.

I still think it’s a good question, though, if taken more broadly. In his book, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes of a popular diet at the time, how he tried to follow the diet and how it nearly killed him. Nietzsche is very particular in the telling, though, that the problem wasn’t so much in the diet itself, as it was in the mismatch between his requirements and the prescriptions of this diet: the person who came up with it had found something that worked for him, and shared. What Nietzsche challenges is the very premise, that someone could come up with a way of eating, or a mode of life, that works for everyone. His ironic punctuation to the story is, crede experto, believe one who has tried – even though the story itself suggests we shouldn’t simply take Nietzsche’s word for it.

He doesn’t want followers: his watchword is, “become who you are!” The notion of finding one’s own requirements in life is as old as philosophy itself, even older: an inscription at Delphi read, “Know Thyself.” As with many things, more easily said than done. In another text, Nietzsche talks about this imperative, Know Thyself, and refers to that which is unteachable in us as the “signposts to the problem we are,” our spiritual fate. He is acutely aware of the dangers inherent in self-discovery, and describes it as a pursuit fit only for the strong. Here we see Nietzsche as a seducer, a flatterer who recognizes that most of his readers will automatically think of themselves as strong, or at least strong enough, certainly a person capable of risking such dangers.

Of course, one might think “becoming who you are” is inevitable, and thus requiring no particular effort, not dangerous at all – yet, too many people try to be things they are not, choose inappropriate roles models, fail to recognize their own spiritual fate.

This makes Nietzsche sound like an individualist in the bad sense, the way Ayn Rand is an individualist, caring only for one’s self-development, finding your own path while planting your boot firmly in the face of others who impede you, or have the impertinence to ask for assistance. That’s not true of Nietzsche, though: who I am has been shaped by my environment, my family, my teachers, my friends, even casual acquaintances – and not just the people. Everything, Nietzsche recognizes, is interconnected, bound up with everything else. There are no pieces of our past that we could change and still remain the same, whether the seeming accidents and coincidences, or the missteps and mistakes we have made – all are integral to who we are right now. He writes, “bad or good weather, the loss of a friend, a sickness, slander, the absence of a letter, the spraining of an ankle, a glance into a shop, a counter-argument, the opening of a book, a dream, fraud” - changing any part would result in a different you, and a different world. He asks: “are not all things firmly knotted together in such a way that this moment draws after it all things to come?” We are profoundly interconnected.

Elsewhere he declares, “there is nothing outside the whole!” No place to step back and evaluate, nothing exempt from cause and effect, no way to avoid ourselves. And yet, we drag our feet, we resist the parts of ourselves that we do not like, we want to go back and change our past as if that would somehow help. This is what Nietzsche is thinking about as he asks us to know ourselves, to become who we are. It’s a daunting proposition, inviting despair: in a very real sense there is nothing, after all, to be done. So, What Would Nietzsche Do?

In The Gay Science he writes, “For the New Year: Today everyone allows himself to express his dearest wish and thoughts: so I, too, want to say what I wish from myself today, and what thought first crossed my heart: what thought shall be the reason, warrant, and sweetness of the rest of my life! I want to learn, more and more, how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus will I be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! I do not want to wage war against ugliness, I do not want to accuse, I do not even want to accuse the accusers: let looking away be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!”

Amor fati: love of fate. Not mere acceptance, certainly not dreary resignation, “Not just to tolerate necessity, still less to conceal it… but to love it.” - embracing the past that constitutes oneself and those parts of oneself that are unteachable. But do not be mistaken about what the unteachable means here; he emphatically rejects giving free reign to one’s desires and prejudices, he does not mean toleration of one’s own bad habits and shortcomings.

What Would Nietzsche have us do? “Become who you are!” John Lennon sang, “there’s no where that you can be that wasn’t where you’re meant to be: it’s easy.” I think Nietzsche would reply that it’s simple, but it’s not easy. In fact, it’s hard work. But it’s the only work that’s truly worth doing: we must recognizing the paradox that this is something that we all must do, and do as part of an interconnected whole, and yet we each must do this individually. What Would Nietzsche have us Do? Become who you are, find your place in the cosmos, affirm the past, but resolutely go forward.