I bike to campus most days. The DE today ran a story on our new bike racks that has gotten me to scratching my head. It nicely summarizes much of what I'm feeling about campus these days.
My take on the new bike racks when I saw them a few weeks ago was, well, (surprise!) negative. This for a rather simple reason. In the area I lock up my bike, near the student center end of Faner, the old bike racks were often pretty full. The new bikes have less than one half of the capacity of the old racks. The old racks were efficient and effective. I'm not talking about the gadgety relics near the Museum end of Faner, which were hardly recognizable as bike racks at all and were almost never used, but the humble effective racks at the other end of Faner, and elsewhere on campus. The new racks are, however, prettier. And they are painted Saluki Maroon, aiding our campus branding. But the story gets more complicated, after the break.
The DE story runs with a lead sentence in which a student is quoted saying he wouldn't bring his bike to campus to last year "because the racks looked so bad". The story repeats several times that the advantage of the new racks is that they look nicer; at one point there's a hint that they may be safer, but later this is translated as "the new racks look safer to use than the old ones and will reassure students it is safe to use their bikes". I take it that "look safer" means "look sturdy enough that your bike won't be ripped off". But looks seem to be the key feature, rather than any functional improvement.
Now I am, in case you are wondering, not an Expert on Bike Racks. Maybe these are not only more secure but safer. And it may well be that the university grounds people are going to be on top of supply an demand issues (though I think they will be in for some trouble in my neighborhood of Faner). And I am all for enticing more students to bike rather than drive: that is good for all sorts of reasons.
But was bike theft really a problem on campus? Are our students really, ahem, superficial enough that many more will be enticed to ride to campus by less efficient but prettier bike racks? Are we better off, in short, if we spend money making the campus less functional but more attractive? Anyone else see the parallel to spending lots of money on pretty new administrative buildings, Saluki Way, perhaps even, dare I say it, University College, Saluki First Year, the whole damn package, while leaving other academic positions empty?
No doubt sometimes it is worth spending more on design and good looks. I am, after all, a Mac person, typing on a rather attractive aluminum laptop. But my Mac is also a pretty functional computer. Where do we draw the line? When have we crossed the line so that we're not just putting a bit of honey on the wormwood cup, but have given up serving anything but junk food? (Sorry for the classical reference: it's Lucretius, for whom poetry is the honey for the wormwood of philosophy.) I traditionally end my Greek Civilization syllabus with an old Greek jingle: chalepa ta kala (though of course I print it in Greek font). It means something like "what's fine ain't easy". I don't translate the bit of Greek, and my Greekless students rarely ask me about it. Maybe I need to wake up and get with the program. Or maybe I need to keep fighting the good fight, against student indifference, administrative superficiality, and the rest, fighting for those "fine/noble/beautiful/admirable things" in the untranslatable Greek phrase.
If you're wondering how I got here from the bike racks, I've been reading Montaigne, the first blogger. Not that I am, ahem, exactly in his league.