Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 25, 2007

We’re (Allegedly) Number One!

Do I really teach at America’s best liberal arts college? Absolutely, according to the annual college ranking system published by the U.S. News and World Report, which assesses academic quality by looking at such factors as class size, graduation rate, and student SAT scores. For those of us on whom the list smiles, it seems to have the finely calibrated authority of an astronomical instrument. For those further down the list, it seems on the order of goat entrails, or something even less innocent. To be sure, a slight change of position on the list—especially one into or out of the top ten—can have dire consequences for student applications, institutional morale, and even the job security of administrators.

Now a revolt against the ranking system is in full swing. Last week, a meeting of college presidents and administrators in Annapolis discussed a boycott of the questionnaire the magazine uses to compile its annual ranking. Although a total boycott was rejected, most colleges represented at the meeting pledged that they will cease cooperating with the most controversial aspect of the magazine’s ranking, its “peer assessment score.” Whether this will make the ranking a better or worse proxy of academic quality remains to be seen.

Read More

Do I really teach at America’s best liberal arts college? Absolutely, according to the annual college ranking system published by the U.S. News and World Report, which assesses academic quality by looking at such factors as class size, graduation rate, and student SAT scores. For those of us on whom the list smiles, it seems to have the finely calibrated authority of an astronomical instrument. For those further down the list, it seems on the order of goat entrails, or something even less innocent. To be sure, a slight change of position on the list—especially one into or out of the top ten—can have dire consequences for student applications, institutional morale, and even the job security of administrators.

Now a revolt against the ranking system is in full swing. Last week, a meeting of college presidents and administrators in Annapolis discussed a boycott of the questionnaire the magazine uses to compile its annual ranking. Although a total boycott was rejected, most colleges represented at the meeting pledged that they will cease cooperating with the most controversial aspect of the magazine’s ranking, its “peer assessment score.” Whether this will make the ranking a better or worse proxy of academic quality remains to be seen.

The revolt was set in motion earlier this year when Sarah Lawrence (currently ranked 45) decided it would no longer use the SAT as a basis for admission. Many schools do not require SAT scores but Sarah Lawrence was the first to refuse to even look at them. Since the collective SAT is a major component of the U.S. News ranking, the magazine decided to find another way of measuring it. According to the indignant president of the college, she

was recently informed by the director of data research at U.S. News, the person at the magazine who has a lot to say about how the rankings are computed, that absent students’ SAT scores, the magazine will calculate the college’s ranking by assuming an arbitrary average SAT score of one standard deviation (roughly 200 points) below the average score of our peer group.

“In other words,” as she put it, “in the absence of real data, they will make up a number.” It was precisely this sort of high-handedness that has led colleges to consider pulling out of the U.S. News survey entirely, as Reed College has. Now at Annapolis, they have chosen to boycott the “beauty contest” aspect of evaluation, the peer-assessment of reputation that tends to be a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered news magazine has responded, arguing that peer assessment is “by nature subjective, but the technique of asking industry leaders to rate their competitors is a commonly accepted practice,” which measures the “‘intangibles’ of a college that we can’t measure through statistical data.”

The stakes are high here, and it is not easy to separate self-interest from principle—on either side. Expect this story to play out over the coming academic year.

Read Less

Bad Character Assassination

Is torture ever permissible? The U.S. is in the midst of a great debate on this subject as the exigencies of counterterrorism collide with peacetime norms and traditions. But if inflicting pain during an interrogation is highly controversial, what about inflicting death before an interrogation?

We do this all the time on the battlefield, where killing enemy combatants before they kill us is accepted as the ordinary course of war. But now we are engaged in a shadow war off the battlefield, against terrorists who do not wear uniforms and operate in stealth. Is it permissible to strike them before they strike us?

Read More

Is torture ever permissible? The U.S. is in the midst of a great debate on this subject as the exigencies of counterterrorism collide with peacetime norms and traditions. But if inflicting pain during an interrogation is highly controversial, what about inflicting death before an interrogation?

We do this all the time on the battlefield, where killing enemy combatants before they kill us is accepted as the ordinary course of war. But now we are engaged in a shadow war off the battlefield, against terrorists who do not wear uniforms and operate in stealth. Is it permissible to strike them before they strike us?

Let me be more specific. In 1981, Ronald Reagan promulgated Executive Order 12333, which, among other provisions, declared that “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” This had been preceded by similar such restrictions issued by Presidents Ford and Carter.

These assassination bans, as the 9/11 Commission report makes clear, came to hamstring our policy against al Qaeda in the late 1990’s. After Osama bin Laden had successfully launched terrorist attacks against American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the CIA was ordered to find ways to put al Qaeda out of business. Elaborate plans were drawn up, but the assassination ban dominated the agency’s thinking; the upshot of all the preparations, states the 9/11 Commission staff report, was that “the only acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation.”

A plan designed to kill bin Laden outright was deemed unacceptable and illegal. Never mind that the U.S. had launched a fusillade of cruise missiles at one of his camps in 1998 to do just that; that was a military action, not a CIA covert operation.

One of the most memorable sentences in the entire 9/11 Commission report concerns the CIA contemplating action against bin Laden on a road leading to the Afghan city of Kandahar. James Pavitt, the assistant head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, “expressed concern that people might get killed; it appears he thought the operation had at least a slight flavor of a plan for an assassination.”

Not long afterward, the operation was called off. As a result, people did get killed—thousands of them—and not on the road to Kandahar but in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania.

Islamist clerics around the world are still calling for suicide bombers to attack the United States. Jane Perlez of the New York Times reports on one such Pakistani cleric in today’s paper. If the CIA could from time to time engage in covert action against such avowed advocates of violence against the U.S., would they be so brazen? Would the madrassas in which they preach their hatred continue to be multiplying homicidal graduates?

President Bush can revoke the assassination ban at will. As the Congressional Research Service explains, he can most obviously do so by issuing a new Executive Order. As the CRS also points out, under certain circumstances, like an attack or an impending attack on the United States, such an Executive Order need not be published. In other words, Bush might already have revoked the ban and we would not know it—at least until homicidal clerics start disappearing.

Read Less

Messiaen’s Dark Past, II

After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

Read More

After the German invasion of France in 1940, a so-called “renewal” began at the Paris Conservatory with the firing of all Jewish teachers. Among the five professors eliminated were the eminent piano teacher Lazare Lévy and the harmony professor André Bloch. Messiaen, returning early and in good health from the prison camp at Görlitz, was handed the job of teaching Bloch’s harmony class.

Odette Gartenlaub (b. 1922), the noted pianist, professor, and composer, was one of the students in Messiaen’s first class in May, 1941. (Despite her historical closeness to the composer, she has generally been ignored in the Messiaen literature.) When Bloch was fired, Gartenlaub knew that her future was imperiled because she too was Jewish. Yet she remained at the Conservatory because she enjoyed Messiaen’s unorthodox and wide-ranging lectures.

Odette’s studies with Messiaen were interrupted in the fall of 1941, when she received a letter from the Conservatory’s director, Claude Delvincourt, who had received his appointment as a reward for his right–wing political beliefs. (Gartenlaub would tell me decades later: “Delvincourt might at least have summoned me to his office to tell me this, instead of just sending a letter.”) Delvincourt cited a decree by the French Ministry of National Education stating that it was forbidden to admit or instruct any Jewish student, and explained that Odette would be removed from the student lists in a week. The prominent musicologist Jacques Chailley, then secretary general of the Conservatory, went so far as to chase after Odette during one of her last days at school, saying, “After September 30, you are no longer allowed to eat in the student cafeteria. Don’t forget!”

Odette managed to survive the German occupation of Paris, and although her Conservatory friends knew where to find her, Messiaen never wrote to her during the War. After the Americans liberated Paris, Messiaen finally sent Odette a letter dated September 1, 1944, declaring that it was now possible for her to take his course and that he’d be happy if she could resume. She felt odd about returning to the harmony class after her wartime difficulties, and did not accept the offer. On December 30, 1944 Messiaen wrote to Odette again, announcing that he was offering a free class in composition, during which Stravinsky’s Petrushka would be analyzed. Gartenlaub still refused to become one of Messiaen’s regular students.

Gartenlaub told me that during the War, “Messiaen had my address; he just didn’t want to compromise himself.” She added: “After the War when I returned, all the Conservatory people were very friendly and pleasant again, but these were the same people who ignored me after I’d been thrown out. I might have wound up in a crematory oven.” Fortunately, unlike Messaien’s previous hagiographers, his new biographers show an interest in examining the composer’s political commitments and motivations during and after the war years.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.