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The Life of the Mind in Glitter Gulch

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By:Francis Beckwith | July 27, 2017

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From the October 2000 issue of Chronicles.

For seven years (1989-96), I was a full time faculty member at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). I grew up in Las Vegas, earning a B.A. in philosophy from UNLV in 1983 before going to graduate school. In August 1996, my wife and I left Nevada and moved to Southern California, where I had accepted a tenure-track position at Whittier College. Although leaving our family and friends in Las Vegas was difficult, our departure from Glitter Gulch has provided me with a new perspective on casino gaming and the culture of Las Vegas.

As a social conservative who grew up in Las Vegas, I used to be defensive about my hometown. In 1989, at a professional conference of evangelical Christian scholars, I met a professor from a Southern Bible college who had attended that year's meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Las Vegas. Noting that I taught at UNLV, he said in a deep Southern drawl, "I'll ne'er ferget walkin' through them casinos and feelin' the sin in the air," to which I replied, "Similar to the feeling you had during the days of segregation?" He turned and walked away, and I felt pretty proud of my clever comeback. Yet he was perhaps closer to the truth than I would have cared to admit at the time.

The problem is that the life of the mind is inconsistent with the cultural values of Las Vegas. This is why I believe that academics in communities that are considering the legalization of casino gambling should be in the forefront of opposition to such measures. Moreover, I do not believe that the study and teaching of gaming has a place on a university or college campus, except perhaps to examine the social and economic consequences of gaming and the historical and philosophical justifications for it. A university or college should not give aid and comfort to an industry which promotes values antithetical to the mission of higher education.

That is not to say that higher education in Las Vegas is impossible, or that gambling per se, as a form of personal amusement (e.g., church bingo, playing poker with "the boys," or making a friendly bet on a ballgame), is wrong. But the cultural values that permeate southern Nevada make it extremely difficult for the community to understand why a university education is important and should be supported. That is why this metropolitan area of 1.7 million people has only one university and one community college, and why southern Nevada will never be a center in which academic excellence at the university level is cherished and promoted.

The cultural values of Las Vegas emphasize instant gratification, getting something for nothing, and the belief that a thing is worthwhile only because it has instrumental value. The gaming industry and its culture promotes these notions with a vengeance —for without them, gaming would not have become the multibillion dollar industry it is today.

All three attitudes are antithetical to the life of the mind. Intellectual achievement is challenging and requires a lifelong commitment to excellence. The results can be personally rewarding, but rarely does a scholar hit the jackpot financially, and never instantly or through mere luck. Even if she does succeed financially, that is not why she pursued scholarship in the first place. The idea of instant gratification has a detrimental effect upon the intellectual and academic community. A university that names classrooms and buildings after people who promote these ideas sows the seeds of its own destruction. The students who sit in those classrooms become the citizens who decide how higher education will be funded and whether it is worth the cost.

The life of the mind is valuable because it is intrinsically good in itself by though it certainly may have instrumental value (i.e., it can help you get a good job), that is not the reason why people should attend universities. If you think that the purpose of higher education is merely instrumental, then you should seek out a two-year vocational program at a community college or trade school.

The culture of Vegas tells us that things only have instrumental value. You can see this in the slots, the gaming tables, the $3.95 all-you-can-eat buffets, the call girls, the sports books, and the video-poker machines. Outdated Las Vegas casinos (e.g., Dunes, Sands, Hacienda, Landmark) are demolished and replaced by new and more elaborate facades which can separate the tourists from their money. Casinos, of course, do not give customers anything in exchange for their "investment." The wealth acquired by the casino industry, or by the few gamblers fortunate enough to beat the house, is not produced. "[T]he money flowing into casinos, riverboats, and slot machines is money that is being diverted from goods and services in other local businesses," explains Prof Robert Goodman in his book The Luck Business. "Instead of bringing in new wealth to the community, convenience gambling enterprises cannibalize the local economy." Another authority on the economies of gambling, John Kindt, a professor of commerce and legal policy at the University of Illinois, has demonstrated that the state loses three dollars in increased social welfare, criminal justice, and other costs for every dollar it makes on gambling.

A culture based on instrumental value leads its citizens to make such philistine inquiries as "Why study Plato's Republic or Hobbes' Leviathan if it won't result in a good-paying job?" while never pondering the Socratic comeback, "What good is money if your soul is impoverished?" Of course, instrumentalism is not limited to Las Vegas. But it is exacerbated in a culture that promotes it as an unquestioned moral good and whose most famous resident, Andre Agassi, declares in a Canon commercial, "Image is everything."

Rather than promoting casino gambling, colleges and universities ought to be opposed to it. Instead, UNLV has established an International Gaming Institute (IGI). According to its web page, the institute "was created in 1993 in response to the increasing demand for gaming education, training, and research. The Institute is the premier source of information and training for the gaming industry." Its "mission is to provide educational programs, conduct gaming research, and disseminate gaming knowledge via seminars, classes, and publications to businesses, governments, and students throughout the world. One of the most challenging and crucial tasks of the Institute is to stay current in the ever changing gaming industry." It sponsors seminars such as "Slot Volatility/Slot Revenues/Profit Per Square Foot," "Creating Objective Player Rating Systems," and "Mathematics of Casino Table Games/Rule Modification as a Marketing Tool." Some of the courses offered for college credit include "Introduction to the Casino," "Protection of Casino Table Games," and "Seminar in Casino Management." My favorite is "Gaming Internship," which is described in the catalog as:

a field-based learning experience at a major casino operation designed to increase students' awareness of "how" gaming operations are managed. This course offers a "hands on" approach and offers applied theory value.

If you believe there is any possibility that the IGI would publish papers or pursue research that reflects negatively on the gaming industry, think again. The IGI is the recipient of numerous financial gifts from the gaming industry. In October 1995, according to a UNLV press release, the IGI

received a $100,000 grant from ACE Denken Co. of Japan to compile a training manual for the gaming industry. . . . ACE Denken Co., a manufacturer of gaming equipment for the pachinko industry, has been a strong supporter of UNLV's William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. A $2 million endowment created by the company and its president, Takatoshi Takemoto, in 1992 enabled the college to launch its Ph.D. program in hospitality administration and a research journal.

According to a May 17, 1995, press release, "a $1 million donation from International Gaming Technology to UNLV will establish the International Game Technology Library, featuring the Gary Royer Gaming Collection, in the UNLV International Gaming Institute."

I am not disputing the legal right of such an institute to exist nor the need for the serious academic study of gaming. But an institute or program that promotes casino gambling should not be supported by a college or university which is supposed to be nurturing the life of the mind. If, as Aristotle believed, "statecraft is soulcraft" and "the state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only," then academies should be in the forefront of resistance to the incorporation of casino gambling in our communities and in the curricula of institutions of higher education.

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