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.
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?
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.