Aug 242011

By Danny Mayer

The term idiot derives from the Greek idiotes (“person lacking professional skill,” “a private citizen,” “individual”) and the emphatic adjective idios (“uniquely one’s own”). Idiots referred to a large segment of a small slice of male residents, wealthy all, granted the right to vote in the Greek city-state Athens. As a class of moneyed men expressing neither interest nor aptitude in public affairs, the idiotai were considered worse than useless, the antithesis of a good citizen.

Though we understand the word today as a simple descriptor for someone who lacks an education (“a dumbass”), idiotes were not stupid. In a society that excluded over 90% of the population from voting, Greek idiots comprised much of the upper crust leisure class of enfranchised citizens. Economically, culturally and politically, they were the chosen ones. Nor were idiots incapable of formulating and advancing coherent positions to an audience of inquiring peers. According to Josiah Ober, scholar of Greek political thought and Athenian democracy, land-owning idiotes rarely participated in public civic debates, but they were common fixtures in “the law court, in the course of defending or prosecuting a private lawsuit (dike).”

The word’s negative connotations seem to be derived from a uniquely strong idiotic fealty to private concerns over public interests. We can see this in the word’s roots. The noun, idiote, emphasizes personhood: private citizens, individual. The adjective, idios, emphasizes ownership and private property: several translations define it as “stronger than the simple possessive pronoun ‘own’.” The idiotai weren’t idiots because they were dumb; they were idiots because their intensely private interests often ran against the public good.

Lee Todd: Kentucky idiot

A whole bunch of capitalist crusader presidents came of age during the cheap-money era ushered in by the Reagan 80s. Larry Summers, Harvard’s former president who parlayed his pro-business academic worldviews into high-level government and private positions, is perhaps the archetype university CEO/president. In the 90s, well before state media outlets declared Todd’s hire a national game-changer, Summers worked at the World Bank, where he authored memos like the one arguing that the U.S. should send more pollution and trash to Africa because cancer deaths there hold less economic value. (Summers has been rewarded for this type of academic-y scholarship with prominent economic positions on “liberal” presidential cabinets, notably for the Clinton and Obama administrations. Meanwhile, his tenure at Harvard was highlighted by a massive failure of his supply-side ideology: his speculative investment decisions cost the the university nearly $500 million in 2008.)

A native of Earlington, Kentucky, Todd was a late-arriving fourth-rate Larry Summers, O-Town to the Harvard academic’s New Kids on the Block.  Away from academia  since the early 80s, Todd’s claim to fame, such as it was, lay in his founding two companies, Data Beam and Projectron, while still an electrical engineering professor at UK in the 1970s. Projectron manufactured cathode tubes for commercial and military flight simulators before selling out to Hughes Aircraft Company in 1993. Data Beam specialized in teleconferencing and distance learning software and was sold to IBM at the height of the nineties speculative dot-com boom.

UK hired Todd because he professed a desire to transform the flagship public state university into an efficiently run private corporation. Modeling good business practices, the former CEO practiced laissez-faire leadership. Success meant generating revenue, no matter what. In one breath he could green light a private coal lodge dorm for basketball players on the basis that it had funding, and in the next point out, wistfully, that the school didn’t have a “Green Lodge” because nobody would pay for one. Decisions got made economically: if you can pay for it, you can do it. Moral decrees—intellectual questions of right and wrong, the kind of things universities used to do—never entered his idiotic worldview. In 10 years of leadership, the head of our flagship university made not one intellectual (public) decision. If the market approved, then Todd would, too.

Toddy’s idiocy made us stupid

It’s incredible how wrong Todd’s ideas have been all along…since Day 1, 10 years ago…and how little this has been reported. The quantitative engineer hasn’t had to address all the quantifiable evidence pointing to the failure of his idiotic ideals. In that he got away with it, Todd’s idiocy made us stupider.

Todd’s story has been that public money put toward a Top 20 university would benefit the state because states with Top 20 universities are smarter, healthier, better educated and more employable.  He repeated the statement so much, the public is apt to find it to be true, which quantifiably it is not. Todd made an incorrect correlation (a lie) that news agencies like the H-L took as fact and disseminated to the public as evidence of success. One result of this, I can say from personal experience, has been that classrooms full of UK college students stupidly accepted this assertion, believing against evidence that their degree would be “worth more” (Todd’s words) when UK achieves Top 20 status.

Meanwhile nobody seems to point out that, for all the Top 20 bluster this past decade, the state hasn’t seen anywhere near the changes Todd promised. And I don’t mean good rankings, abstract metrics that, apparently, the idiots at UK can’t figure out how to rig favorably.  Go beyond rankings. Eastern Kentucky continues to depopulate, instructional spending at the college has dropped, women’s life expectancy in the state has dropped, birth defects around mountaintop removal sites (caused by the same coal backers whose money Todd accepted for basketball players) continue to outpace the rest of the nation. These are not symptoms of a healthy state, nor of a successful combating of “Kentucky uglies,” and they are not reducible to a lack of public funding for higher education, despite what that idiot from UK tells you.


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