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 Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand.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.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Case for Latin Education

“The study of Roman culture which typically accompanies Latin study informs the study of any Western literature, art, or culture as well. [. . .] If Latin were dead, every Western culture and language would be also bereft of life.” -- Matthew Potts, Admissions Counselor, University of Notre Dame

     The administrator or instructor who places a high degree of importance on incorporating Latin into their curriculum will at some point almost inevitably be placed in the position of justifying that decision to parents, other administrators and instructors, school boards, et cetera. The concern of these individuals is understandable on the surface: Latin is no longer a spoken language, and as such the utility of studying it seems doubtful, particularly to those who have been educated in the modern secular government school, where utility is paramount. However, when the inquiry progresses beyond the surface, Latin advocates have a quiver full of arguments at their disposal. For organizational purposes, the arguments for Latin can be divided into two basic categories: the theoretical case for Latin, and the practical case for Latin. When considered in toto, the case for including Latin in the curriculum is compelling and powerful.
            The theoretical arguments build the strongest overall case for learning Latin. The most convincing of those arguments is that the study of Latin increases cognitive ability. This argument is predicated on the science that the brain functions more like a muscle that can be developed than a file cabinet with a finite capacity that can be filled.[1] There is a popular physical workout on the market known as P90X, which emphasizes intense and dramatic exercise built upon a concept known as "muscle confusion." Muscle confusion is the idea that muscles eventually get used to routines that they perform regularly, and as a result those routines grow less efficient for building muscle over time. The P90X workout avoids this pitfall by regularly mixing up exercises so that muscles are consistently challenged and workouts do not become routine. Latin is the P90X workout for the mind. Many people tend to view IQ as something that is fixed and hereditary, but the studies of Bunge and Mackey have thrown that view into question. When the human brain is challenged and stretched, particularly with exercises that require skills and processes which are atypical for it—that create P90X-style confusion—human cognitive ability increases. This is particularly true for learning a new language, especially an inflected language like Latin that is demanding and requires precision.[2] The modern educator rarely considers academic training of this kind: they instead tend to focus on training which merely serve to transfer information from one source, a text or a teacher, to another, the student. But if educators incorporate into their curriculum exercises that develop the minds of their students, the students' ability to assimilate, organize, and articulate information become all the more powerful.
            A second theoretical argument for Latin instruction is that it also encourages mental discipline. Latin not only develops the cognitive ability of the brain, but it helps to create a cognitive framework which can be applied by the student to other disciplines. Due to its declensions and conjugations and its technical grammar, Latin requires careful precision, something which English grammar does not do necessarily require. English sentences are determined most often by their word order: "X did Y to Z." Little care is required to translate that sentence. However, the meaning of a Latin sentence is determined by the word endings, so our hypothetical sentence could be organized any number of ways—"X to Z did Y," or "Did Y X to Z," et cetera—and the meaning would not change; however, it would require great care and discipline on the part of the audience to decipher the sentence's meaning. The careful, disciplined, and analytical mental processes required by Latin study translate well to any academic discipline, and almost any profession.[3] The world is growing shorter on erudite people with these qualities—careful, disciplined, and analytic thinkers—and the decreased emphasis on Latin in the curricula of campuses everywhere is partly to blame. This is what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:
We let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.[4]
            The final theoretical justification for learning Latin is that it was the language of the intelligentsia of western civilization for roughly 1,800 years, from Cicero and Virgil to Aquinas and Milton. The vast majority of the western world's literary, historical, and philosophical works written from 300 B.C. to A.D. 1500 were written in Latin.[5] By learning their language we gain a valuable point of contact with our intellectual ancestors. We can better understand their perspective, their thoughts, their feelings, and their wisdom. As Christian Kopff so eloquently put it, "Studying the ancient tongues allows us to hear our ancestors talking and thinking.... These are lines of communication we need to keep open [because] the past is our most important source of creativity."[6] It is almost always better to read a text in its original language; as good as modern translations can be, when reading a translation the reader becomes subservient to the translator's view or interpretation of the writer and the text; when we are able to read the text in its original language, we are slaves to the translator no longer, and are free to interpret and understand the original writer on his or her own ground. With this freedom the student will in turn be free to engage in the great conversations of western civilization with a new perspective, a facet of good education much neglected in modern America. Regarding this importance of this perspective, Kirk wrote:
Being educated [students] will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power, and money, and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look backward to ancestors and forward to posterity. For them education will not terminate on commencement day.[7]
There is one final perspective provided to twenty-first century students of Latin that is in desperate demand: since the modern world has experience such dramatic advances in medicine and technology, modern students tend to have an egocentric view of themselves and their culture. There is a tendency to view the ancients and medievals as superstitious, backward, and ignorant, or at least less savvy and wise than ourselves; however, even the most cursory exposure to Latin quickly shows a student that, while we have experience great leaps in science, medicine, and technology, we perhaps have given up ground elsewhere: grammatical precision, wisdom, and understanding, for example.
            There are also several additional arguments for learning Latin which might be considered more practical than the above arguments. The most convincing of these arguments is that learning any foreign language, Latin in particular, leads to increased mastery over English. As native English language speakers, we can grow lazy in our grammar, syntax, and diction. Learning Latin—or any a foreign language, for that matter—requires that we keep abreast of such grammatical constructions as participles, prepositional phrases, and dependent clauses. But there are reasons to learn Latin over a foreign language du jour. For one, over 50% of the English language has a Latin origin, and as such learning Latin is excellent for developing one's vocabulary.[8] For example, simple knowledge of two Latin adverbs, bene and male—"rightly" or "well," and "badly" or "wickedly," respectively—opens up a long list of English words to the knowledgeable student: benediction and malediction; benevolent and malevolent; benefactor and malefactor, to name only a few. As Charles Williams put it: "Almost imperceptibly [the Latin student] finds his range of expression amplified; his appreciation of delicate shades of thought quickened; his vocabulary expanding; his ability to think more clearly and to give utterance to his thought with propriety and precision vastly augmented."[9] The pragmatic parent or administrator will be interested to know that this training has immediate and tangible results for students on standardized tests: Latin students consistently score 170 points higher on the verbal portion of the SAT over their non-Latin counterparts.[10] On a related note, because Latin is difficult, a student with a Latin background has evidence for prospective academic institutions that he or she can conquer difficult subjects, and therefore has an improved chance of gaining admission. As one college dean put it, "Classical languages on a transcript indicate seriousness of purpose and true devotion to a rigorous program of study.” [11]
            A second practical argument for Latin is that it can be described as the chief cornerstone of language  study, in particular of the languages of the western world. The tendency of the modern parent or educator is to look at Latin as a subject that will fill the file cabinet of the student's mind with useless information; Latin declensions and conjugations, vocabulary and grammar, will only take up valuable space that could be filled with more useful information, like a modern spoken language. There is, however, a terminal flaw in this view: as Sayers said, "Latin is the key to the vocabulary and structure of the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents."[12] Latin is the common ancestor of all the modern Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portugese, et cetera; as such, study of Latin makes these languages more accessible, not less, easier to learn, not harder. As Wilson argued, "A student who learns one language, such as Latin, is not stuck with his shoebox three-quarters full, with no room for Spanish. Rather the students has a mind that has been stretched and exercised in such a way that subsequent learning is much easier, not much harder."[13]
            In summary, advocates of a curriculum that includes Latin have compelling arguments in their favor, arguments that will satisfy even those practical parents and administrators. We must be vigilant and ready to give our defense to everyone who would require it of us, for the benefit of our students and, ultimately, our own civilization.

[1] For a summary of the Bunge and Mackey studies related to the brain as a muscle that can be built or developed, see Po Bronson, "Is the Brain Like a Muscle, Really?" Newsweek, (Dec. 11 2009), (accessed August 27, 2011). Douglas Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 140, calls the brain "a muscle, not a shoebox."
[2] For the advantages of learning and speaking a second language, see Melinda Wenner, "The Neural Advantage of Speaking Two Languages, " Scientific American (January 2010), (accessed on August 27, 2010).
[3] Wilson, p. 140, says it this way: "A good education encourages such attention to detail in all things, but especially in language.... When we learn the importance of intellectual discipline, we can soon relate the value of that discipline to other tasks...."
[4] Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning," (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[5] There are of course several notable exceptions: the New Testament Canon and the Greek ecclesiastical historians, in particular.
[6] E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999). 
[7] Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1978), p. xviii.
[8] The percentage of "over 50%" is found in Wilson, p. 142.
[9] Wilson, pp. 142-43.
[10] Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, "The Latin Advantage," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., (accessed on August 8, 2011).
[11] For a range of college admissions personnel commenting on this subject, see Texas Classical Association, "Why Take Latin?" (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[12] Sayers, (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[13] Wilson, p. 140.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Where Science Went Wrong: God, Truth, and Ricky Gervais

"Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge."  - Ricky Gervais, "Why I'm an Atheist"

Atheism is in vogue. Celebrity comedian Ricky Gervais has taken up the mantle of atheist apologist and advances his worldview every time his face is in front of a camera. He has had at least two articles published in the Wall Street Journal in the past seven months - one at Christmas and one at Easter, interestingly enough - which both present his "reasoned" (his word, not mine) explanation for not believing in God. As a host of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this year, Mr. Gervais ended his closing monologue with the memorable if unspectacular line "Thank you to God for making me an atheist." Mr. Gervais has had a nice tour hitting all the talk shows to deride theists and posture himself as a logical and enlightened atheist.

But what is Mr. Gervais really saying, and is he the enlightened erudite that he pretends to be? Let's first analyze his arguments for his disbelief in God. He uses a lot of space to say very little: "Science seeks the truth.... For better or worse it finds things out.... It bases its conclusions... on hard evidence." What does all this mean? Mr. Gervais is implying that science and theism diverge, but where and why? Mr. Gervais has very little to say here, only some empty platitudes about evolution and "truth, science, and nature." Mr. Gervais would have us accept prima facie - as self-evident and not requiring further argument - that evolution (and science and nature) and theism are mutually exclusive; his view is that the two simply cannot coexist in a coherent and rational system of thought. Mr. Gervais wants us to believe that if one person were to accept both evolution and theism as valid explanations of the world, his eyes would cross, his hair catch on fire, his head would turn 360's on his neck Excorcist-style, and his inner gray matter would burst from his ears.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gervais, this is far from the case. Two of the most prolific thinkers of the twentieth century - both countrymen of Mr. Gervais' - fall into this category: theists who were also evolutionists. It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote:

If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.[1]

C.S. Lewis, another of Mr. Gervais' countrymen and one of the most profound philosophers and writers of the twentieth century, wrote:

I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true.... I can’t help regarding [advice that I refute Evolution in all my Christian apologetics] as a temptation to fight the battle on what is really a false issue: and also on terrain very unsuitable for the only weapon I have.[2]

Lewis, not surprisingly, got it right: evolution with regards to theism is a "false issue," a non-starter. As Lewis and Chesterton show, evolution and theism (particularly Christian theism) are entirely compatible. As this author has argued elsewhere, if all that evolutionists hope for could ever actually be proven true, the net result is only truly  problematic for a literal interpretation of the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis. More specifically, it would be terminal for a literal reading of the duration of the events recorded by the author of Genesis; that is, the "days" recorded by the author would not be literally interpreted as a twenty-four hour period, but instead could be understood to refer to some steps or sequences in the generative process. The rest of the creative narrative remains intact.

Science more broadly is a false issue for additional reasons as well. First, as any junior high school student with a natural science textbook can tell you, science is restricted by that which can be empirically tried and tested. Even the most novice scientist should be intimately familiar with the standard by which scientific knowledge is gathered, tested, and corrected: the scientific method. The steps of that method roughly speaking are:

1. State the problem.
2. Form a testable hypothesis.
3. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
4. Collect and analyze data produced by the experiment.
5. Draw conclusions from the analysis.
6. Communicate the results.[3]

To illustrate how the scientific method is supposed to work to arrive at what Mr. Gervais so recklessly calls "facts," let us consider an example. Our hypothetical scientist—let us call him Smee—gets an awful stomach ache after lunch. It doesn't happen every day, but just often enough to make Smee miserable. Smee needs to figure out the cause of the stomach pains and solve it. We have just stated the problem: Smee gets stomach aches after lunch. Smee must now form a hypothesis, but not just any hypothesis will do: it must be testable. He arrives at a hypothesis via observing the evidence: he gets stomach aches, always after lunch, only on occasion; ergo, Smee hypothesizes that something he is eating on occasion for lunch is upsetting his stomach. His next step is to form an experiment to test his hypothesis: he carefully plans and documents a month-long lunch diet where he isolates certain foods to eat on certain days, and he diligently records which days he gets an upset stomach. After the month is up, he collects his diet and his health reports, analyzes them, and finds that his stomach aches only happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he ate peanut butter for lunch. Smee's conclusion then: peanut butter upsets his stomach. He compiles his results and conclusions in a nice journal entry to himself so he can use them again later if he runs into any problems.

Now, imagine for a minute this process—the process, remember, by which science is supposed to arrive at Mr. Gervais' "facts"—applied to the existence of God. Step One: our problem is that we are unsure about whether or not God really exists. Step Two: our hypothesis is that God does not exist. Step Three: we need to design an experiment around our hypothesis, which if you remember is supposed to be testable. We have run into our first problem, and it is staggering. How would we go about testing our hypothesis that God does not exist? We could give God an ultimatum by saying, "God, I'm going to jump off this cliff. If you exist, you can save me from a certain death. If you don't exist, you wont' save me," and jump and see what happens. The problem with this experiment is that God, if He exists, is a sentient being who possesses free will, and He might think us foolish and simply choose not to save us. By way of cutting him off at the pass, one can assume Mr. Gervais might try to insert evolutionary theory as some kind of experiment, but that falls short as well. Here is why: in the corporate world, there is a process known as "reverse engineering" by which one company obtains the finished product of a second company and dismantles it to see how it works. Even if evolution is true, all we have done is to reverse engineer God's creation; that is, we have merely figured out how creation and biological processes work. To assert anything more would be akin to the Android engineer who, upon dismantling a new generation iPhone, decides that, because he was able to figure out his creation, the Apple engineer does not exist. His conclusion simply does not follow from his evidence.

Though he did not necessarily articulate it as such, Mr. Gervais is presumably assuming the position of naturalism: the position that the only things which can be known are those which are arrived at via the scientific method. If this is the case, fine and well, but he must be prepared to surrender a good deal of ideas that he considers "truth," most notably his own atheism. As discussed above, atheism - and theism, mind you - are not positions that can be arrived at by way of the scientific method. As such, Mr. Gervais' own atheism is a matter of faith, just like the believer's theism. The two are in the same boat. The only difference appears to be that the theist is more honest about his position with all his talk about "faith" and "belief," while Mr. Gervais' game is to parade his own faith as something more - "truth, science, and nature." We should not be fooled.

If Mr. Gervais would like to make the point that one cannot use science to prove God's existence, then his point would be well-made; but he must also concede that one cannot use science to disprove God's existence, which by my lights is precisely what he purports to do. The problem for Mr. Gervais and other psuedo-scientists like him is that the question of God's existence does not belong to the province of science. It cannot be tested or observed. It cannot be put in a beaker and heated, nor can it be dissolved in a solution and analyzed. The question of God's existence is not a scientific question, it is a philosophical question, and in that realm Mr. Gervais is out of his league. While he is certainly welcome to his opinion, and he is to be admired for his willingness to step into the ring and taking a few swings, he would be well-advised to stick to what he knows. For all his comic genius, Mr. Gervais is a very poor scientist, and an even worse philosopher.

Oh, and I thank God for making me a believer.

[1] G.K. Chestergon, Orthodoxy (Hollywood, FL 2010), p. 29.
[2] Gary Ferngren, et al. "C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960", In a reference which immediately calls to mind  Gervais' polemics, Lewis would later write to Acworth, "‘What inclines me now to think you may be right in regarding [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders."
[3] These steps were taken from a poster on the wall in a junior high life science classroom.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In Defense of Christian Education

"Education is thus a most powerful ally of humanism, and every American school is a school of humanism. What can a theistic Sunday school's meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?" -- Charles F. Potter, Humanism: A New Religion

As Christian parents, we have erred. It was Paul who charged godly fathers to "bring [their children] up in the training and admonition of the Lord." It is significant to note the particular Greek word used by Paul and translated as "training" in this verse is παιδεία (paideia), which bears with it the weight of "teaching, and education."  It also extends beyond formal education to include "culture, learning, accomplishments"; that is to say, παιδεία is holistic education or training, which includes formal education.[1] This verse might be more accurately translated as "fathers,... bring [your children] up in the education and admonition of the Lord." Notice also that the Apostle connects this holistic training with spiritual connotations: the very context of education in the Apostle's eyes is necessarily spiritual, παιδεία κυρίου, or "the education of the Lord." The Christian student must not only understand the truths necessary for salvation by grace through faith, but they must also be equipped to accurately navigate the ethical principles and theological complexities of their faith.

Let us examine momentarily if the modern government school system meets Paul's mandate to provide "an education of the Lord" for our children (the question as to whether or not it should falls well beyond the scope of this discussion; we consider for now only whether or not it actually does.) Due in no small part to the rise of the so-called "Separation of Church and State" doctrine and the 1963 Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp, modern public education in America has become strictly secular. Religious texts, namely the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament, are no longer part of the core curriculum, even as primary texts. This is despite the fact that, as I have shown elsewhere, the Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp declared that no education would be complete without studying the Bible as a literary and historical text. At best the government schools, under the guise of pure secularism, are negligent and apathetic towards religious thought; at worst, individual educators can be openly hostile to Christians, even declaring a Christian education to be "damn wrong."

We should briefly note that this has not always been the case. Early American education was built upon a biblical foundation. The two greatest texts of American education were the New England Primer and the McGuffey Reader. The Primer was the first American textbook and was used in the colonies in the late 18th century. Its lessons were inspired almost entirely from the Bible; for example, it used Biblical stories in this set of alphabet rhymes. The McGuffey Readers were used by public schools for over 100 years - from 1836 to the late 1950's - as part of the core primary school curriculum. It is estimated to have sold 120 million copies over that 100 year span. A sample of lessons from the Readers include The Goodness of God, Gospel Invitation, Ode from the 19th Psalm, and On Prayer. Corporate prayer and daily Bible devotionals were part of the regular school curriculum until the 1960's. The public system has changed dramatically over the last fifty years, and as Christians we should agree that it has not been for the better. We have played the part of the Trojans and accepted the gift of a free education without suspecting the Greeks who gave it, heedless of the warnings of Laocoön. In the face of a system that is often antithetical and hostile to our worldview, it is time we considered other options.

There are of course additional arguments for a Christian education that serve to supplement Paul's mandate. For one, consider the end goal—the primary objective—of education. Many parents and educators would argue that the end goal of education is to prepare the student for the workforce, to give them the requisite math and science education along with some fundamental reading and communication skills to become good inventors, scientists, engineers, and accountants. This goal as the primary end of education is unsatisfactory in the context of Paul's mandate. Consider Jesus' response when asked which commandments were paramount: the greatest commandment for the believer is not to become good engineers and accountants, but it is to love God and love your neighbor, what we might consider the act of becoming a "good person." Jesus—and all the Law and Prophets— were most concerned with ethical considerations, how to act towards your neighbors, and not professional ones. It would seem appropriate as Christian parents we demand that our educational system should serve this same goal.

Consider also: if our education processes can successfully produce a good person—defined above as a person who loves God and loves his or her neighbor—it will often deliver a good engineer as a product; that is, a good person will necessarily be better at almost whatever profession they pursue. The student whose education has trained him or her to love God will want to be a good ambassador for God, which entails being a good employee, manager, or business owner. The student whose education has trained him to love his neighbor will be civically minded, fair, and honest. He or she will want to be a good physician, engineer, or accountant in order to best serve his or her neighbors. A good person who is trained to love his or her family will be a good spouse and parent, and as such will propagate goodness in others. A student who is trained only to be a good accountant delivers none of these things. It could be the difference between raising Tim Tebow or Bernie Madoff.

Another reason that Christian parents should concern themselves with Christian education is the utility of a solid biblical foundation in the life of the believer. As adults, consider for a moment how often you reference your high school trigonometry or biology textbook. Now, compare that with how often you reference the Bible. In the very least you hear a sermon on Sunday with numerous references to specific verses in the Bible; at most you read the Bible daily. Regardless, the number of times you reference any given high school text book pales in comparison to the number of times you use the Bible as an adult. To put it another way, I recently polled the readers of this blog asking them to weigh in on the literary source they looked to most often for wisdom, comfort, and inspiration: the Bible got 90% of the votes from a list with 9 other options. Yet, we send our children to schools to get an education with no biblical foundation whatsoever, where they spend hours absorbing information that they neither love nor will find useful in their lifetime.

As the Psalmist was wont to say, selah. Pause, and reflect on that. As Christian parents, we have a biblical mandate to ensure that our children our educated in the things of God. For mostly practical purposes, we have neglected this God-given responsibility, instead choosing to give our children over to a largely hostile government system to be educated. Our best hope seems to be that the 45 minutes of Christian influence our children may get in Sunday school and our own best efforts in the home can counter the twelve years of 5 days a week of secular humanism that they get in the government school. Consider the harrowing words of the humanist Charles Potter: "What can a theistic Sunday school's meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?"

Potter seems to have been right. Two generations of Christian students trained almost exclusively in the secular humanism of the government school system have had dire consequences. Biblical literacy within the Christian community is not what it could be. The proud history of Western Civilization is falling into disrepute and darkness while the government schools emphasizes social histories like LGBT history. We as Christians are largely ignorant of our own intellectual heritage. Too few of us can articulate the intellectual contributions of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, et al. The sum total of our failings leaves us as a community largely unequipped to defend our faith against the deluge of attacks leveled at it. There are too few voices with the platform who can speak with authority and erudition against drivel like Gervais' straw man attack. Atheists and secularists claim reason and science as their own, and Christians are portrayed as superstitious and irrational akratics stuck in the illusory "Dark Ages" - itself a construct of secularist polemics. The situation elicits the wise words of Sayers:

"For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects."

The question then becomes, why do we continue to subject our children to a system that not only neglects to serve us in delivering educational opportunities for our children, but is often openly hostile to our worldview? Why blindly hope for the best instead of giving our children the superior chances at growing up to be the godly men and women that we believe they can be, able to answer the challenges of the secularists with authority and erudition? The answers to those questions are many and diverse. It is often merely a question of economics: our children can go across the street to the secular government school for free, while we would have to pay out of pocket to send our kids to a private school of our choosing. For many this is a matter of necessity—they simply cannot afford the private school tuition. But where we can afford it, do not our kids warrant it? Where parents cannot afford it, we as the Christian community must work double time to ensure quality Christian schools exist and scholarship programs are in place to allow students to attend them.

[1] Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, p. 584.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Education Reform Looks Like When Students Come First: A Common Sense Approach to The Luna Plan

I try to steer clear of contemporary politics on this site. As a topic it is just too easy and everyone is doing it. But Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's education reform plan - technically known as "Students Come First" or the "Luna Plan" for short - has become the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. Everyone is talking about it but me. The vitriol and ad hominem attacks and intimidation tactics against Mr. Luna and his plan have spiraled out of control. Both sides are scoring cheap political points with unsubstantiated claims and second-rate rhetoric.  It is a subject I simply cannot avoid any longer.

The Luna Plan is rapidly changing and might be different by the time you read this, but as far as I can tell right now it consists of the following basic elements:

·        Mr. Luna proposes to purchase a portable electronic device - a laptop, iPad, or a different device at the discretion of each district - for all incoming high school freshman.
·        Each student would then be required to take at minimum 2 online courses throughout their high school careers.
·        The state would eliminate 770 teaching jobs over the next 2 years to pay for the portable electronic devices and the web-based educational resources.
·        Fewer teachers would result in an increase in average class size in grades 4 through 12 by roughly 2 students per class.
·        Use savings from position eliminations to institute a system of merit-based pay.
·        Eliminate tenure for new teachers and move teachers to 2 year contracts.

I wish I had time to dive up to my elbows in research and look at every last study on educational technology, but I cannot; as such, I will try to look at each of these points not with data and research but with an unbiased and common sense approach. It is no small challenge. As a parent with young children, I have a stake in the debate; however, I am also fiscally conservative and I am sensitive to the economic and budgetary challenges facing our public officials today.

I think most reasonable people can agree there are both good and bad elements in Luna's Plan. Let us start with the good. First, one of the Luna Plan's most contentious aspects is the requirement that students at traditional high schools take at least two online classes over the course of their high school careers. I could write a whole article on just this issue, so I will try to keep it succinct. Teachers reasonably argue that an online class can never replace a traditional classroom, and they are right. Learning in an intimate, personal environment with a mentor-teacher who can provide one-on-one instruction and assistance will always be superior; however, our public school classrooms have ceased to be that long ago (more on this below.) As such, the teachers criticisms are lessened. Furthermore, web-based instruction is not coming; it is already here. Sink your teeth into this little morsel of irony: as part of the teacher education program at the local state university, I was required to take an online class - taught by an instructor in Florida that I never met or even spoke to - that taught me to use technology in education. If online education is good enough to train our teachers, then it does not seem problematic that high school students be exposed to it. Two classes over four years does not seem unreasonable. One more thing: the corporation I worked at for several years used web-based classes for training. Without equivocation, students with some exposure to online learning are better prepared for both the workplace and university.

One more positive. Teacher tenure is possibly the worst idea ever. The guy who invented tenure should be locked in a cage with the guy that invented pensions and the two should be made to fight to the death. Tickets and pay-per-view packages could be sold to the public with the proceeds going to fund the absurd plans they cursed the rest of us with. In my thirty years as a student I have sat in enough classes to know there are some teachers who need encouragement to find a different career. They either do not possess the teaching gift or the idea of tenure and almost zero accountability has allowed them to check out of the classroom. These instructors hurt our children in ways that are almost impossible to repair. At best they do not impart their material to the students entrusted to them, leaving the task to some later instructor; at worst their ineffectual teaching forever quashes their students' love of learning. Administrators and parents need to have the power and the motivation to constantly demand high-quality instruction from their teachers, and job security is one of the most powerful means of accomplishing that. Period.

On to the negatives. The plan to buy a portable electronic device for every high school student must not be approved. It is simply unnecessary and wasteful. I say this for several reasons. First, how many students have affluent parents who have already provided a similar device for them? For the state to provide one would be redundant. Or worse yet, parents who can afford it would refrain, knowing the state will provide one when their students reach 9th grade. Second, this element of the plan is ridiculously expensive at a time when budgetary constraints are racking the state. Surely this is money that could be better spent elsewhere. Third, there are logistical concerns to this plan that have not been answered. Are the students allowed to take the devices home at night? If so, what safeguards are in place to protect the students and the devices? If not, where will they be stored at school? Where and when will they be charged? And lastly, there seem to be better alternatives to this part of the plan. For example, could money be saved by purchasing a smaller number of devices for checkout at the school library by students that need them?

One final criticism to the plan and by my lights, this is the big one. A real show killer. This criticism is terminal and the reason I do not support the plan overall. We as parents and educational activists must reject any plan that increases student-to-teacher ratios. Advocates of the plan have argue data does not show that there is a significant difference between 32 students in a class and 34 students in a class, and that may be true. However, if it is true, it is only because we have long passed the ratio at which our students learn best and our teachers are most effective. Here is what I mean: I currently observe 3 classes in a local public junior high school each week; each class is roughly 32 students; of those 32 students, in any given class, roughly 4 of them receive any kid of one-on-one interaction from the instructor; approximately 80% of that one-on-one interaction is negative and a result of bad behavior from the students, i.e. the student is acting out to get attention from the teacher; the remaining 28 students are being babysat by text books and worksheets. Yet we wonder why our system is not cultivating a love of learning in our students. Really? How much would you love your job if your day consisted of reading chapters out of text books and filling out worksheets? All day. Every day.

Am I exaggerating? Only by a little. All teachers administer a quiz or test every now and then, and the good ones do some kind of group learning activity on occasion; otherwise it is almost as bad as I described it above. If your child is well-behaved, unassuming, and an average or good achiever, I can almost guarantee he or she is mostly invisible to his or her teachers. Unless your student is a low achiever, there are few programs in place to encourage them to improve: average achievers are not challenged to become good ones, good ones are not challenged to become great ones, and great ones are not challenged to become exceptional. This is not to be taken as an indictment of individual teachers. Many of them are great people doing the absolute best they can. They have over 30 students per class, and over 160 students in toto. No one person could be expected to do more in those circumstances.Teachers are equal parts overwhelmed and undersupported. We must summarily dismiss any proposal which asks them to do more by increasing the student-to-teacher ratio.

The problems with education are systemic. The system needs to be changed. Parents cannot be expected to continue to send their children to a public school where they are largely ignored unless their performance on a standardized test threatens the school's AYP. Text books and worksheets are not adequate modes of instruction. Parents must be given options in education through voucher programs and charter and magnet schools, programs that would actually save the state money. You do the math: if a state spends $10,000 on educating a single student, and through a voucher program gives parents $5,000 to send their child to a private school, the state has netted a savings of $5,000. As parents increasingly utilize these options, student populations in public schools would decline, driving down the student-to-teacher ratios to manageable numbers where all students can actually receive high-quality, one-on-one instruction.

So we must ask ourselves: why have these programs - which at one time lower student-to-teacher ratios, decrease costs, and increase choice - not been tried, or worse yet, canceled when they were tried and were successful? That is the million dollar question. I submit that it is because on several levels for us as a society Students DO NOT Come First. Monopolies die hard. Our government is obsessed with the monopoly it holds on K-12 education and the power that comes with it. Public sector unions - i.e. teachers' unions - understand voucher and charter programs undermine their power and revenue base. Teachers in the public sector are threatened by competition from their private school counterparts. In short, students ceased to come first long ago, sacrificed on the alters of government control and union power. We should support high-quality education no matter where it happens or who administers it, a concept totally foreign to our current system.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Bible, Public Education, and the Separation of Church and State

"It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment." Justice Tom C. Clark in Abington v. Schempp

Organize your arguments. File your briefs. Clean and press your best suits. We are going to court.

The administrators of the former Nampa Classical Academy, in Nampa, Idaho, are taking their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals. You may remember the Idaho Public Charter Schools Commission refused to allow the NCA to use the Bible as a literary and historical text as part of their curriculum. The commission, supported by the state Attorney General's Office, cited Article IX, § 6 of Idaho's own state constitution as justification for their ban on the Bible. That section reads in part, "No books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used or introduced in any schools established under the provisions of this article...." NCA disputed the ruling, the fight turned public and ugly, and ultimately resulted in the revocation of NCA's charter amid accusations of financial improprieties. Advocates of NCA claim the school was singled out for elimination due to the fight over its plan to use the Bible as a literary and historical text.

At first glance, it seems reasonable that the charter schools commission would deny the NCA's plan under Article IX, § 6; however, the waters quickly muddy after even the most cursory analysis of the section. Notice texts of a "sectarian or denominational character" are not the only texts of concern here: the section actually prohibits "books, papers, tracts or documents of a political... character" first (emphasis added.) Let that marinate for a moment: "no books, papers, tracts or documents of a political... character." If interpreted strictly, this constitutional provision would prohibited reading the Declaration of Indepedence, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the Federalist Papers, and yes, even itself. Clearly the authors of the provision had something else in mind.

Moving to the actual part of the provision which the Public Charter Schools Commission claims prohibits the Bible from being read in public school, the first thing we might examine is what the provision does not say. The authors of Article IX § 6 did not prohibit texts of a "religious" character. If their intent was to forbid the Bible from being read in schools, that would have done the trick; instead they chose some specific language: texts of a "sectarian or denominational" nature. To interpret the provision and why its authors did not use the more inclusive terminology of texts of a "religious" nature, we need to know what these words - "sectarian or denominational" - mean.

"Denominational" is the easier of the two, so let us start there. This is a word common to the English vernacular, and used regularly in American culture to describe subgroups within a whole. It is commonly applied to money: $1, $5, and $10 bills are subcategories of the group "money." For example, if I go to the bank and withdraw $100 from my account and ask for it in "denominations" less than $20 bills, they will give it to me in some assortment of $10, $5, and $1 bills. In the context of Article IX § 6, religious denominations are subgroups within a religion that operate under a common organization, distinct set of beliefs, and identity. Some denominations commonly found in the U.S. are the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. So in this regards at least, we can confidently say when the authors of Article IX § 6 prohibited texts of a "denominational character", they were forbidding texts particular to these specific denominations and not the Bible itself.

"Sectarian" is only slightly more difficult to define, and in fact is very similar to "denomination." It too is a word we use often. Conveniently Senator Dianne Feinstein recently provided us with an example: she used the word "sects" to describe different subgroups within the Islamic religion, specifically "fundamentalist" ones. Merriam-Webster defines a sect as "a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or leader," or even "a religious denomination." By my lights, the only difference between the two words is that "denomination" is more formal: it seems to apply to officially established religious groups, whereas "sect" could apply to any group united under some principle or leader. Regardless, what we can confidently decide is that the authors of Article IX § 6 were not prohibiting the reading of the Bible in schools when they used the word "sectarian." They were referring to texts used by subgroups within a larger whole.

As incredible as it may seem, none of the above is even the greatest difficulty with the strict interpretation of the provision being applied by the Charter Schools Commission. Title 33 of the Idaho State Statutes, the title which in fact creates the State Board of Education in Chapter 1, has a fascinating provision in Chapter 16. 33-1604 reads in part, "Selections from the Bible, to be chosen from a list prepared from time to time by the state board of education, shall be read daily to each occupied classroom in each school district." That is right: the Idaho Statutes approve reading of the Bible in schools, while the Idaho Constitution prohibits the very same thing - at least if we are to accept the interpretation of the Public Charter Schools Commission and Attorney General's Office.

So how are we to interpret this apparent contradiction? As one might assume, if we advance in our analysis just a bit, the waters settle and become much clearer. The last part of statute 33-1604 reads, "Such reading [from the Bible] shall be without comment or interpretation. Any question by any pupil shall be referred for answer to the pupil’s parent or guardian." The legislators responsible for 33-1604 - and, most likely, the authors of Article IX § 6 - were clearly concerned about interpretations involved in sectarian and denominational differences, and not the Bible in a general sense.

The interpretation of the Public Charter Schools Commission must, therefore, be summarily dismissed as absurd. However, if Idaho constitutional law does not prohibit the Bible being used in public schools, what about federal law? Supporters of the Charter Schools Commission will be sorely disappointed. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution to prohibit compulsory reading the Bible (see Abington v. Schempp.) However, several problems arise from trying to apply the decision in Abington v. Schempp to the NCA case. First, attendance at NCA - or any charter school for that matter - is not compulsory; ergo, reading the Bible cannot be said to be compulsory. Second, NCA could not be said to be "preferr[ing]" one religion over another because their plan was to include many religious texts in their curriculum, including the Christian New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Quran, the writings of Confucious, the Book of Mormon, etc. And finally, the plan of NCA was to use all these religious texts as literary and historical sources and not as weapons to dogmatize and proselytize. The distinction is not subtle. There is a profound difference between teaching "Jesus, a man born in the first century Roman province of Palaestina said x, y, and z," and "you must believe x, y, and z because Jesus, who we know to be God incarnate in the flesh, said a, b, and c." Even the Schempp-Murray decision, as penned by Justice Tom C. Clark, recognized this distinction. Justice Clark wrote:

[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.

Clearly this is a serious topic, and it raises the question: if it is so controversial, why would anyone even want to use the Bible or any other religious texts in public school? Fortunately, that is a question easily answered. As Justice Clark wrote, no education is complete without it. There can be no doubt that the Bible has been the most influential piece of literature in the western world. It remains today the most read book in the world, surpassing the second place book by 3.9 billion copies sold to 820 million, a margin of almost 5 to 1. Its influence on the music, art, literature, political theory, and philosophy of western civilization cannot be overstated. Biblical literacy is essential for interpreting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Dante's Divine Comedy, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Michelangelo, Bernini, Kant, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Hobbes, C.S. Lewis' Narnia, and so on ad infinitum. It is also essential for understanding the history of western civilization, including the fall of Rome in the west, the rise of Byzantium in the east, the Christian synthesis of the 4th century, the rise of medieval Catholicism, the Reformation, the Founding of the New World, the end of the Slave Trade, and the American Emancipation,and the personalities who drove these events like Constantine the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Columbus, Martin Luther, Washington, Jefferson, William Wilberforce, Lincoln, and many more.

The same can be said for other religious texts: their impact on the geopolitical environment cannot be overstated. Without understanding the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Quran, and comparative religions more generally, students cannot even begin to understand the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans, Israelis and Palestinians, Al Qaeda and the West, Sunnis and Shiites, Serbs and Albanians, Burmans and Karen, and so on. To provide an education to students without even some cursory knowledge of the religious texts that motivate groups like these is to not provide an education at all. We do our students a disservice by graduating them without the knowledge requisite to make sense of the world around them.

One point of interest before I end this: I have attended a state university for both undergraduate studies as well as graduate studies, a span covering roughly a decade. During that time, I have been assigned to read the Bible as part of my coursework at least a half dozen times for classes in both the History and English department. My university is a public university, supported by public funds. Yet no one seems to care.

This conflict over whether or not religious texts have any place in public education is not one that will likely go away any time soon. Two occurrences this week serve as great examples of that. First, on a national scale, the Kentucky Senate  passed a law by a 34-1 vote that would standardize an elective course centered on some combination of the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures. Other states may follow suit. Second, on an anecdotal level I recently experienced the vitriol which public educators in general have for religious texts in the public school curriculum. One of the instructors in a college teacher education class I am currently in, who is also a principal at a local middle school, brought up the NCA case during one of his lectures. He mentioned that the NCA wanted to teach the Bible, which he deemed to be "damn wrong." One of his co-instructors, a teacher at his school, made an obscure reference to the First Amendment and he followed  with a similar remark about "the separation of church and state"; I have already shown that the Supreme Court does not take either to prohibit teaching the Bible in public schools. Furthermore, the polemical attack was not related to the subject of the lecture at all - which was on No Child Left Behind - revealing their acerbic sentiment for the larger idea of teaching the Bible in public schools. Sadly, they were misinformed on all points; worse yet, a whole class of future teachers is none the wiser for it.

The debate rages on, and will hopefully be decided by the Supreme Court once again. The responsibility of informed citizens is to keep the discourse honest and civil, something my college instructors failed to do on both accounts. Unfortunately, being a product of the public school system myself, I was not properly informed to correct them. But I am now, and so are you.