Friday, December 31, 2010

Grade Expectations

How long have we been wringing our hands about the problem of grade inflation? I remember attending, as an eager college student, an eye-opening faculty meeting on the topic. It sometimes seems to me that, as with the pastime of bemoaning the state of our national grammar and usage, the battle is pitched between the Prescriptivists and the Descriptivists.

Prescriptivists think that grades should reflect how far short a student's efforts have fallen from the Platonic ideal of perfection (I'm referring here to the humanities and humanistic social sciences). This approach dominates in Europe, and tends to be accompanied by a hierarchical pedagogical philosophy. It is not unusual for the professor to lecture, uninterrupted, for hours, while the students busily take notes. Similarly, when I was a student at Oxford and at Cambridge, the cutoff for a First (on essays and examinations) was a 70.

Descriptivists think that grades should reflect a student's effort, or that grades are fairly arbitrary or meaningless ciphers required by an increasing tendency to quantification, or a necessary evil required by administrators, and professional graduate schools. Plenty of colleges don't give grades; some, like UC-Santa Cruz, provide narratives of a student's achievements and progress.

The Prescriptivist approach strikes me as more medieval: more invested in discipline, authority, and hierarchy. It is, I'm sure, no accident that my own encounters with Prescriptivist professors have been at European universities or with professors visiting from European universities. The Descriptivist method can seem more modern, as it valorizes the process and the individual over the ideal and the final result. But, just as concerns over currency inflation are rising these days, it seems that concerns about grade inflation are also rising at American universities, especially as more and more people are apparently wondering if it's "worth it" to go to an elite school. But these questions miss the point: the real issue is how do we, as educators, set educational goals for our students and communicate them effectively, give our students the tools they need to learn, and evaluate their efforts?

Criminous Clerics and the Unending Vatican Sex Abuse Scandal

A recent article in the NYT quoted Pope Benedict XVI as saying that the clerical sex abuse scandal has now reached "a degree we could not have imagined." Yet, as someone who's been following this story for a decade, I find myself surprised only that the scope of the scandal hasn't been even greater. I lived in Boston during the uproar over Father Geoghan and Father Shanley and the resignation of Cardinal Law and was completely gobsmacked that the Boston Archdiocese was not required to report priests accused of raping children to law enforcement. Why is the Church exempt from civil authority (in this case)? After the recent spate of scandals erupted this past spring and summer, and some time spent teaching my students about the Investiture Controversy, I wrote an Op-Ed piece on the medieval history of the current child rape scandal that is now further eroding the Church:

The Vatican’s Medieval Attitude

The Catholic Church’s attitude toward clerical child abuse is over a thousand years old. The most recent cosmetic changes to the Vatican’s legal code—priests and bishops are still not required to report abuse to civil authorities—indicate that the Church recognizes the need to appear responsive to recent allegations, but remains fundamentally committed to ideas about religious authority that have been in place for the past millennium. This is only the most recent clash between Church and lay authority over the past nine centuries.

The Vatican’s practice of handling clerical crime from within the Church has been scrutinized and questioned before. This struggle between secular and religious power came to a spectacular head between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the second half of the twelfth century. After inheriting a kingdom ruptured by decades of civil war, Henry worked to solidify his power, in part by implementing a strong royal judicial system, the basis of our own legal system. To consolidate his power and strengthen his reforms, Henry sought to impose one set of laws for all of his subjects, whether clergy or laity.

One of the central issues, much like today, was the prosecution priests who committed violent crimes but escaped royal justice to be tried by the more lenient church courts. Anyone in holy orders accused of a crime, even one as serious as murder or arson, could claim the benefit of the clergy—the right to be tried by a bishop—and this right extended to those who entered holy orders after committing a crime. In one instance, a cleric, Philip de Brois, was accused (justly, it seems) of murdering a knight and harming the king’s justice, was tried by his bishop, and was acquitted of homicide and fined. In other cases, just as in recent decades, guilty priests were moved to different parishes or dioceses.

Henry was displeased with these evasions of royal justice and, by extension, royal authority. In 1164, he set out sixteen constitutions—legislative articles—aimed at limiting ecclesiastical jurisdiction and, ultimately, the power of the Catholic Church within his realm. Becket, previously Henry’s chancellor and ally, strenuously objected to the constitutions and, as the senior primate in England, refused to ratify them. Becket rejected the idea that the Crown should have civil jurisdiction over priests, since spiritual power outranks secular power, and priests have a sacred role. As such, all in holy orders had clerical privilege to be tried in ecclesiastical courts and according to canon law. Becket further asserted the primacy of religious justice, arguing that the Crown could not prosecute priest who had been defrocked, as it would force him to be tried twice for the same offense.

Becket’s stance enraged Henry, who forced Becket to flee to France. In 1170, under threat of excommunication, Henry agreed to allow Becket back into England, though the constitutions remained unresolved. Just a few months after his return, four knights murdered Becket in Christ Church Cathedral. The monks at Canterbury and local pilgrims began to venerate Becket as a martyr almost immediately, and accounts of miracles at his shrine spread rapidly. Because the murderers claimed to have been acting to satisfy Henry’s frustration with his stubborn archbishop, Henry was tainted with indirect responsibility for Becket’s murder, weakening his authority in parts of his kingdom and his position with the Church. Becket was canonized in 1173. Henry was forced to do public penance at his tomb in 1174.

Becket’s martyrdom shadowed Henry’s reign for the next twenty years. Henry was compelled to revoke the two most contentious constitutions, and the parallel ecclesiastical judicial system continued largely as before. Beginning with the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, states with strong civil authority have been able to mandate that certain clerical crimes—such as murder—be tried in civil, rather than religious, court. But sexual abuse, including child rape, remains a crime that is most often handled by the Church, instead of secular authority.

How medieval.

2011--A Number Five Year

According to my last birthday horoscope, 2011 is a Number Five year for me. Ruled by Mercury, it's a time for breaking out of routines, for reaching out to other people, and for exploration. So it's really the most auspicious time to embark on this new venture: my blog.

I'm working on a book about medieval robots (sometimes called automata), and I reckoned that this blog would be a new forum and a new way to talk about and share my research findings, as well as start conversations about topics related to my research: medievalism, medievalia, and popular culture.

So, under the influence of Mercury, the inquisitive, imaginative, and inspirational messenger, I begin...