Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Rise of the Bully: Ethics and Education in America

A series of tragic suicides by young people have occurred in our nation over the past several months. The year began with the tragic story of Phoebe Prince, and recently experienced the very public suicide of Tyler Clementi; in between, at least 6 or more similar cases have occurred, many attributed to harassment over a young person’s sexual identity.[1] Bullying is on the rise as teens use the increased access to each others' personal lives afforded by social media as a tool to torment one another. It has gotten so bad that President Obama recently released a public service announcement addressing the problem.

While the teenage suicides are tragic – is there anything sadder than a young person, with a full life yet to live, ending it all? – no one should be surprised by what we are seeing. Am I the only one who finds it hauntingly coincidental that, at the same time legislators are pledging increased commitment to science and mathematics education in America, our schools are experiencing an epidemic of cruelty that borders on barbaric? Science is useful in as much as it assists in diagnosing and finding a cure for a certain disease; mathematics is useful for building a fine bridge or a rocket; unfortunately, neither is of much use when it comes to teaching students to value another human being, or how to respond when being mistreated by one. Those issues, and many like them, are the province of the humanities: history, literature, philosophy, et al. At an hour when our experiences should tell us that we need the humanities the most, it is precisely these subjects which get increasingly short shrift in the government schools.

It is time for some introspection. The liberty and prosperity that Americans enjoy did not grow out of a vacuum: Western Civilization stands of the shoulders of giants. Those giants almost without exception understood the indelible nature of education and moral virtue. For the Greco-Romans, the end goal of education was to create a virtuous person; as the famous French historian, H.-I. Marrou, wrote, “Classical teaching was chiefly interested in the man himself, not in equipping technicians for specialized jobs; and it is this, perhaps, that most sharply distinguishes it from the education of our own time….” [2] That was written in 1956; imagine how much more acute the difference has become. The American founders understood this principle as well: Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that the key to happiness in this life was to be virtuous, and that he sought “to convince young Persons” that the most important of those virtues for success in life were “Probity and Integrity.” Modern scholars, too numerous to count, have agreed. C.S. Lewis wrote that education without values simply makes man a more clever devil; similarly, Theodore Roosevelt said that to educate a student in mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.

Fast forward to our present straits. We are simply reaping what we have sown over the past four decades. Two landmark Supreme Court decisions in the early 60’s (Engel v. Vitale, and Abington v. Schempp) completed the secularization of the public school system; to avoid the pitched howls of a vast minority, many school administrators are not willing to add classes like Ethics, Comparative Religions, or The Bible as Literature to their available electives. But we should not wonder when we remove “Do unto others as you would have done to you” from the curriculum, and then students treat each other with a feral cruelty. When we encourage students in the belief that there are no moral absolutes, we should not be surprised when they behave like there are no moral absolutes. This is precisely what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote, “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation - we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.” We wish our students would do as they would be done by, but our education is not empowering them to even ask the question; instead, we demand that they increase their math and science scores in hopes that they might be able to build a better widget.

Without a suitable option by the government schools for addressing these problems, parents are seeking alternatives at a staggering rate. There are over 6 million students attending private schools in America, including both daughters of President Obama. According to the NHERI website, there are an estimated 2 million more students who are homeschooled, and that number is growing by 5-10% per year. These numbers are staggering when you consider economics: the government option is paid for by the tax-payers, while parents are paying out of pocket for the alternatives. The bullying crisis will only provide added incentive for parents to consider these other options.

A public service announcement from the leader of our country, however well-intentioned, will not fix the situation. As Einstein opined, it would be insane to do the same thing continually and expect different results. Our ills are systemic, and until the system is fixed nothing will change. Families cannot be expected to send their kids to school to be made clever devils and social menaces any longer; they must be given more and better options. Otherwise, the worst is yet to come.

[1] I am not sure which I find more disconcerting: that a thirteen year-old would be harassed due to their “sexual identity”, or that a thirteen year-old would have a “sexual identity” to begin with. Add innocence to the long list of virtues that secular progressivism has utterly destroyed. But that topic is for another day.
[2] H.-I. Marrou, The History of Education in Antiquity, English tr. by G. Lamb, (New York, 1964), p. 302.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

God, Atheism, and the Politics of Certitude

"I do not think there is a demonstrative proof of Christianity.... As to why God doesn't make it demonstratively clear; are we sure that He is even interested in the kind of Theism which would be a compelled logical assent to a conclusive argument?" -- C.S. Lewis

My wife recently had her first head-on collision with an atheist. While at a social event associated with her work, she met an interesting man whom we will call “Chuck”. While talking to Chuck, the conversation coincidentally turned to religion. Chuck, it turns out, is a former Catholic who is now very proud of his atheism. Recognizing my wife to be a theist, his tone instantly became accusatory: “How do you know that God exists?” he demanded. Only complete certainty would satisfy Chuck.

This is now the second time I have seen an atheist make this demand: that for the theist to be justified in their belief in God, absolute certitude is required; or, to borrow a phrase from American jurisprudence, the theist must be convinced in their belief beyond a shadow of a doubt. The atheist will accept nothing short of this absolute certitude. This demand might seem reasonable at first – after all, should not a person experience some degree of certitude before committing to such an important, life-altering belief system? However, if we consider further their demand becomes less reasonable.

First, we should consider what it means to know something. There is an entire branch of philosophy built around the theory of knowledge called epistemology (from Greek επιστημη “knowledge” + λογος). The net sum of epistemology is that it is not quite so easy to know something as you would initially believe. The seventeenth century philosopher Descartes pulled the pin out of everyone’s theory of knowledge when he set the Evil Genius loose on the world. Descartes argued that it is at least possible that each one of us is actually being actively deceived by the Evil Genius into accepting everything that we presume to know about the world, our lives, etc. How do you know with absolute certainty that you are not being deceived by Descartes’ Evil Genius right now, as you sit and read this blog? Or, to use a modern equivalent, how do you know that you are not actually the captive of nefarious machines, plugged into a Matrix to be kept alive so they can harvest your body heat for energy?  The truth is you cannot know, if knowing means absolute certitude as the atheist demands it. Beyond being certain of our present existence, the waters become very murky.

But I do not want to take us there today. I simply said all that to say the atheist is not quite on the solid ground that he presumes to stand on. Instead, he is merely playing a political game. His game is to make the Christian appear inferior to himself because the Christian presumably does not have knowledge on his side. But if absolute certitude is our standard for knowledge, enter Descartes’ Evil Genius and we all - even the atheist - become uncertain of a great many things. This should not be problematic for the Christian. Faith and belief in God are key cogs of the Christian faith; knowledge of God - in the absolute certitude sense, at least - is not. Jesus said that He is “the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” Paul wrote that the Christian has been saved “by grace through faith.” Once a person passes into absolute certitude regarding any given issue, belief and faith cease to exist. For example, if I am possess absolute certitude that upon buying a lottery ticket I will win $1 million – that is, that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will win – in no meaningful way can I be said to need faith that I will win.

All this talk of faith and belief will undoubtedly make people like Chuck scour. Atheists almost invariably disdain such talk. But it is hypocritical for them to do so. The atheist uses faith and belief to make life-altering decisions every day. For example, no atheist can know with absolute certitude that at any traffic light the speeding intersecting traffic will yield to their green light – cars run red lights all the time; and yet, upon seeing their green, the atheist proceeds into the intersection with faith that the other cars will yield. Upon learning that his heart is failing, no atheist can know with absolute certitude that a transplant will save them; and yet they proceed with the operation anyway, believing (or hoping?) that it will. The decision on the part of the informed Christian to believe and have faith in God does not seem significantly different.

Having said all that, it would seem as well that we turn the tables on the atheist and ask, “How do you know that God does not exist?” If to know requires absolute certitude – the kind that they are demanding of the theist - any honest atheist would have to admit that he cannot know; unfortunately, many will not give that answer. Most would likely provide some shoddy philosophical argument constructed around evolutionary theory; however, this argument is a house of cards that easily crumbles. With regards to evolution, if all the atheist hopes for could be proven true, the only accomplishment is to eliminate a literal interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis; it remains to be seen why a figurative interpretation would not remain tenable. Evolution in the Darwinian sense could simply be God’s generative process for creating life on Earth.

The more informed atheist might provide a philosophical argument with more merit constructed around different premises; the existence of evil, for example. But even these arguments cannot come anywhere near establishing the kind of absolute certitude that the atheist has required. Furthermore, similar arguments exist on the side of the theist. In reality both sides are on a level playing field. The guise of absolute certitude must be cast off, and we are left to evaluate the arguments and evidence for and against God on equal footing. And that, I believe, is how God intended it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Love's Lost Meaning

 It was a Saturday morning and I had just grabbed my morning cup of coffee. I sat down at the computer to browse through new Facebook posts and I came across one from a high school friend that caught my eye. She apparently was the victim of a bad romance, and in her sorrow she quoted Paul’s famous treatise on love found in his first letter to the church at Corinth, part of which reads: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Paul’s description of love appears clear enough prima facie: when you love someone, you will be kind to them, practice long-suffering towards them, don’t be proud or envious or selfish, etc. But things become much less clear in practice: as my Facebook friend can attest, most people’s experiences with love do not look anything like Paul’s description. Why? Because a complex problem exists in understanding Paul’s description of love that the modern world has left us unprepared to solve. The fact of the matter is the English language is woefully inadequate to describe the full range of human emotions as it pertains to love. Think about all the different ways we use the word “love”: I love my wife, I love my daughters, I love my friends, I love my car, I love my favorite football team. But clearly I love my wife differently than I love my daughters, and my car differently than either, and my friends in yet another different way. All this equivocating between the different forms of love often leaves us horribly confused, and - like my Facebook friend – hurt and frustrated.

Greek and Latin are both much better at differentiating between the different expressions of love. Both classical languages had several different words that can be translated as “love” in English. For example, the Greek word ερος (eros) and the Latin word amor both mean love in a sexual connotation; this is largely the emotion that causes men and women to get married and promise life-long fidelity to one another. Φιλια (philia) and affectus both mean love in a friendly sense; this is the pleasant feeling experienced between friends meeting over coffee after a long time apart or between men watching football together in their man cave. And finally, αγαπη (agapé) and its Latin equivalent caritas both characterize something totally lost on many Americans today: a charitable love born out of selflessness and respect for other people.

At this point I am sure you have figured out that Paul did not use ερος or φιλια in that famous excerpt from his first letter to the church at Corinth. He used αγαπη. And when St. Jerome translated the text into Latin late in the fourth century, he used caritas, the Latin word from which we derive our English word "charity." As such, when translators in the seventeenth century translated the Bible into English and produced the King James Version, they used the word “charity.” As you can imagine, the passage loses all relevance for my love-sick Facebook friend when you substitute “charity” for “love.” Similarly, most other words in the New Testament translated into English as “love” are also αγαπη (or a form of it); for example, in Colossians 3 when Paul exhorts men to “love [their] wives”, he uses the verbal form of αγαπη. Imagine for a minute the translation of that verse reading, “Husbands, be charitable to your wives…,” and the passage bears a new significance.

In our selfish, hyper-sexed, divorce-on-demand society, we are in danger of forgetting about αγαπη. People are unequipped to build healthy relationships and understand the nuances of "love"; as a result, they are hurt and confused, and relationships fail and families are destroyed. This problem serves as a microcosm for many more like it. Without a quick about-face with regards to our educational approach to classical languages and the humanities in general, the pain and confusion will only increase.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The White Rabbit and Education in America

In the opening chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice sees a fleeting and curious White Rabbit running by. Intrigued, she pursues White Rabbit, spending valuable resources to end up somewhere she never intended, experiencing a long series of dangerous and frustrating adventures along the way.

Education in America has become our White Rabbit. We are chasing a thing that we cannot readily identify, and we have no idea where it is taking us. As Americans, we are committed to the idea of education. We always have been. Many of our founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, understood that an educated citizen body was nothing short of essential for the survival of the republican form of government they created. Since that time, Americans have committed an ever-increasing amount of resources towards the goal of an educated citizenry. The U.S. ranks higher than all but three nations in annual expenditures per K-12 student. The proposed U.S. Department of Education budget for 2011 alone is $77.8 billion. The State of Idaho will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion on public education in 2011, while states the size of California spend more in the range $60 billion a year. None of this includes what private citizens pay out of pocket for expenses like university and private school tuition, books and school supplies, homeschooling curriculum, and more. So what’s the net sum that Americans pay out for education? Trillions. For those of us that have a hard time with numbers, that is thousands of billions.

So there can be no doubt that we are chasing the idea of an educated society, and we are willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money to catch it. But what exactly is this White Rabbit that we are chasing? What is the purpose of an education? What is it that we are trying to accomplish? The original purpose of education to Jefferson, the father of the public education system, was “to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” The republican system cannot survive without an educated electorate. But this does not seem to be the goal anymore. President Obama recently said his goal coming into office was to drive America to the top of the pack in math and science education, and to that end he wants to add 10,000 new science, technology, engineering, and math teachers to the payrolls, all in order to compete in the global economy. While I think that sounds like a fine idea, it is far removed from Jefferson’s original intent. And while I am not exactly sure what kind of teachers could prepare someone to judge for him or herself what might secure or endanger their freedom, I would put math, science, and engineers somewhere at the bottom of the list, behind political scientists, philosophers, historians, and rhetoricians.

But those disciplines that I just mentioned are scarcely treated at all in the public schools. Most high school students get a semester or two of government. History – particularly western civilization, the kind that we might really need to know something about – is often taught by the school’s coaching staff. And philosophy? If there is an elective on the curriculum somewhere you would be lucky. Why? Because these disciplines are not considered as important in order to go out into the world and secure a job, or to “compete in the global economy,” whatever that means. You see, our goal in educating the masses seems to be slowly shifting from its western civilization roots. The Greco-Romans sought to edify the entire being through education, what the poet Juvenal describe as Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano – “We should pray for a sound mind in a sound body.” But today Americans tend to care more about producing a student who can get a good job and less about producing a functional person with a sound mind in a sound body. You can see how the philosophy of materialism would get us to this point.

To prove my point, I recently took an entry-level teacher education class at the local university. During one of our lectures, our professor did a survey of the class and asked how many people thought that the proper goal of education was to produce a quality individual – call it a “good person,” so to speak – and how many people thought it was to prepare the person for a productive career. The “productive career” crowd outnumbered the “good person” crowd by about five to one. And this was a survey of the people that will be teaching our kids in the future. Again, note materialism rearing its ugly head.

At some point along this journey, we need to stop and evaluate – What is this White Rabbit that we are chasing, and where is it taking us? Otherwise, we run the risk of falling down the rabbit hole and ending up in a strange place. Many people wonder if we are not already there.