I believe as fervently as anyone in the value of a four-year college degree not just as a path to professional opportunity but also as preparation for informed, thoughtful citizenship. I’ve written extensively about that, and I wouldn’t take back a word.
But I also believe that this particular credential has become too divisive an emblem in our culture wars, too bold a fault line. For that reason among others, I’m impressed and excited by what Josh Shapiro, the newly installed Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, just did.
On Jan. 18, his first full day in office, Shapiro signed an executive order that dispensed with the requirement of a four-year college degree for 92 percent of positions in state government, meaning roughly 65,000 jobs. His action rightly recognized that such a degree is no guarantee of competence, no exclusive proof of intelligence and often less relevant than work and life experiences that have nothing to do with lecture halls.
But it recognized, too, ways in which the Democratic Party is vulnerable, and it sent an important message to voters who feel that the party doesn’t see or have much regard for them.
Utah and Maryland made similar changes to their employment practices last year. But those states had Republican governors. That a Democrat followed suit in Pennsylvania — a much bigger political stage, with a much larger population — matters. Democrats have been wounded by charges of elitism over recent years, and Shapiro’s executive order is a forceful rebuttal of the Republican caricature of his party as the protector of a corrupt meritocracy that demands an expensive, radicalizing adventure in the woke precincts of higher education.
You have perhaps noticed that higher education is a current favorite bugaboo of Republicans on the rise. An excellent article in The Times this week by Stephanie Saul, Patricia Mazzei and Trip Gabriel examined how Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has built his national brand by attacking the education establishment, including administrators at his state’s colleges.
DeSantis is hardly alone. Although she gets less attention, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who just became the governor of Arkansas, is using a playbook much like his, with an eye on the same sorts of voters. Democrats shouldn’t underestimate her, her ambitions or the way they fit into an increasingly coordinated Republican effort.
Democrats can’t just shrug all of this off. Shapiro obviously gets that. Rather than dismissing the voters his party has lost over the past decade, he’s trying to understand them. During his campaign, for example, he convened focus groups of Pennsylvanians who’d supported Donald Trump to figure out how Democrats might win them back. His executive order is a step in that direction.
I’m liking Shapiro. I’m liking him a lot. I like his perceptiveness and his acumen. I like that when he was Pennsylvania’s attorney general, he went after child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the state, although he had to know that, as a Jewish public official who’s forthright about his devotion to his religion, he’d get a special kind of antisemitic pushback.
I like that in response to a rise in antisemitism in this country, he has been extra clear about his faith. That’s authenticity.
The editorial board of The Times recently praised his executive order, writing:
That’s an accurate assessment and excellent argument for Shapiro’s decision, which not only makes practical and political sense. It makes moral sense as well.
For the Love of Sentences
For just this week, as a gift to ourselves, let’s have a politics-free edition of this feature. And let’s begin on a musical note. In The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., Josh Shaffer pondered the peculiarity of the bagpipe, “shaped like an octopus in plaid pants, sounding to some like a goose with its foot caught in an escalator and played during history’s most lopsided battles — by the losing side.” (Thanks to Mardy Grothe of Southern Pines, N.C., and Pam James of Durham, N.C., among others, for nominating this.)
On to matters demographic. In The Washington Post, Andrew Van Dam examined Michigan’s boom-and-bust cycles, noting: “In 1950 and 1960, it still ranked in the top 15 for growth, as its factories vacuumed up workers from around the country and spat out cornflakes and Chryslers.” Later, though, “fan-belt production gave way to rust-belt destruction.” (Ellen Herman, Berkeley Heights, N.J.)
Also in The Washington Post, Ron Charles looked back at Norman Mailer, who “belonged to a time when writers could be jerks — and worse. He was virile, vile and viral.” Charles added: “Perhaps it’s a mercy that Mailer died just a few months after Twitter captured the public’s attention. Were the Great American Novelist alive today, the Furies would peck his bones bare.” (Marc Gunther, Bethesda, Md.)
In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane reviewed the documentary “Turn Every Page,” about the writer Robert Caro’s relationship with the editor Robert Gottlieb: “The movie is directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, who was forbidden, by her two subjects, to film them in scribente delicto, as they toil over a manuscript. ‘They said the work between a writer and an editor is too private,’ she tells us. (I sniff an opportunity here for an underground trade: basement peep shows, where you feed a nickel into a slot and watch one guy remove another guy’s dangling participles.)” (Trena Cleland, Eugene, Ore.)
In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols flashed back to “Match Game,” a television hit from the 1970s, “when people dressed like their home appliances in a riot of autumn rust, harvest gold and avocado green.” (Tina Seibel, Upper Gwynedd, Pa., and Nancy Dolan, Oxnard, Calif., among others)
In The Herald-Mail, Tim Rowland analyzed Bed Bath & Beyond’s closing of scores of stores: “Even in the best of times, no one paid full price for anything at BBB due to its ubiquitous discount mailers. In fact, there are aboriginal tribes in Malaysia whose only contact with the outside world is a 20 percent off coupon for Bed Bath & Beyond.” Also: “On the very rare chance you didn’t have one, the person in front of you in line would invariably try to pass one (or six) off on you, whether you wanted them or not. For years, BBB coupons were the zucchini of retail.” (George Gale, Peru, N.Y.)
In the Connecticut Post, Keith Raffel urged a reappraisal of what law schools teach, so that students “see the practice of law fundamentally as a calling to do justice, not simply as a portal to power and plenty.” (Susan Samuelson, Boston)
In The Globe & Mail of Toronto, Cathal Kelly reflected on Novak Djokovic’s defeat of Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the Australian Open: “On paper, Tsitsipas is the future of the sport. He’s a bigger Federer, a sort of Greek Army Knife of tennis weapons. But every time he faces Djokovic, he looks like a guy with his arm extended in horror while a slow-moving steamroller comes at him.” (Barbara Love, Kingston, Ontario)
And in The Times, Margaret Renkl examined the nature of grief: “For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death.” (David Calfee, Lake Forest, Ill.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please use this link to email me and include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Watching, Correcting and Doing
I wasn’t sure I was up to “EO,” a gorgeously shot live-action movie about a donkey dependent on the kindness of strangers, and sure enough, it flattened me. I came home in tears and wrapped Regan (my dog) in one of the longest hugs I’ve ever given her. “EO,” named for its four-legged protagonist, has been nominated for an Oscar for best international feature film. It won that honor from the National Society of Film Critics. That glosses over its oddities and flaws: There’s a distracting randomness to some of the human dramas around EO, a few disconcertingly surreal passages and certain questionably heavy-handed moments. But the movie has a profoundly haunting beauty, and it powerfully and damningly probes the degree to which animals exist at our mercy. Most of us simply take whatever we want from them, never confronting the limits of our knowledge about how they experience that transaction.
In my item last week on odd neighborhood and street names, I poked fun at Turtle Run, a kind of oxymoron given the pace of the creatures in question. But Dave Addis of Mount Pleasant, S.C., and Putnam Barber of Seattle, among other readers, rightly pointed out that a “run” can be a brook or stream — and thus a perfect fit for a turtle. I also questioned the pretense of a suburban Milwaukee subdivision with all manner of French appellations, quoting a reader who called the Midwest “one of the least French spots in the country.” Other readers — including Barry Bergen of Lisbon, Portugal — countered correctly that there was of course much French exploration and settlement in the middle of the United States, as the names of many towns and cities there make clear.
Mardy Grothe, who runs a website, greatopeninglines.com, devoted to what he deems to be especially auspicious beginnings of literary and journalistic works, recently wrote to me to say that the first paragraph of my memoir “The Beauty of Dusk” had made the cut. Thank you, sir! “The Beauty of Dusk” will be out in paperback on Tuesday. The following Saturday morning, Feb. 11, I’ll be appearing in Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, N.C.; details are here.
On a Personal Note
I’m repeatedly, reflexively and ridiculously sorry.
I was sorry that you bumped into me, even though I was standing still, to the side of most foot traffic, and wasn’t lost in the screen of my smartphone, as you were. But the awkwardness of our collision demanded acknowledgment, and into the void of your silence I lobbed a “sorry.” It’s just what came out. It’s what always comes out.
I was sorry that you misunderstood my email, which was carefully written and, I’m confident, clear. But you did something other than what we’d agreed upon, and in pointing that out I apologized for the confusion between us, even though I didn’t create it.
I was sorry that you brought me a beverage different from the one I ordered. I was sorry that I came to fetch my car before you finished the inspection, which was supposed to be done an hour earlier. I was sorry that our dogs snarled at each other, even though yours started it.
The world splits into two camps: those who cannot bear to apologize and those who cannot stop apologizing, in a mutation of courtesy that looks a lot like pathology. I live among the mutants.
Is this my mother’s fault? She was a stickler for manners. My father’s? He has always loathed confrontation. Or is it just some random, relatively meaningless tic? Whatever the case, I’m stuck with it now, and if you find it grating — as one of my editors recently told me he did — well, I’m sorry about that.
The other day, I was on a cross-country flight, and the jacket in my lap slipped to the floor. I tried to pick it up, but it was stuck, so I pulled harder and harder, and realized only as I liberated it that the passenger beside me had a foot planted on it, because one of his long, thick legs had strayed far into the space for mine.
You can guess what I said. He just harrumphed.
For a few seconds, I thought, “I wish I could be like that — so totally untroubled, so blissfully unconcerned.”
Then again, no. His lot is the much sorrier one.
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