Some forms of modesty are quite natural—a sense of boundaries and of privacy that should be respected. But pride also comes naturally—a sort of competitiveness or desire for attention or power.
“Why should anyone care how someone else dresses?” asked Ebba, an exchange student from Sweden with a broad smile and a guileless charm. She was the first to speak up when my high school journalism students—all girls—began discussing whether to write an editorial on the school’s dress code, which they thought was no longer being enforced. I had invited a mini-debate to get a sense of the group’s views of the issue. In an earlier piece of writing, Ebba had said “Some days the walk from the front door of the school to my locker feels like the longest walk ever, with all the eyes staring at me.” She had the self-consciousness typical of high school girls.
“It doesn’t make any sense that girls should have to cover up their whole bodies just because guys are animals,” added another junior—a girl who gave considerable attention to looking good. Several people talked over each other, and in the mild tumult a Christian girl, wearing jeans and a bulky sweater, with somewhat shaggy hair covering much of her face, offered that each person influences others people and that a girl should be discreet in their dress. “That’s bull!” came a quick rejoinder from long, angular-faced girl who tended to be strident when gender came. “Rape culture—blaming the way girls dress to excuse bad behavior by males.” And so it went.
Before the young feminist moved on to “slut-shaming,” I suggested that one likely reason the dress code was being played down was that the community was divided over the question, and it was hard for politically-governed bureaucracies to take stands on issues that were controversial. What’s a community leader to do when there really is no community?
Contemporary schools are rarely community schools. They are more due-process bureaucracies, semi-organized knots of competing special interests—unions, professional associations, foundations, various levels and institutions of government, parents’ associations. A simple decision might require a principal to review several overlapping decision-making processes: is this a matter of statute, or of board policy, or of a grant requirement, or of collective bargaining? Many school leaders seek their identities in the recognition of peers rather than as members of the town or neighborhood where the school is geographically located. Such managers often have larger fish to fry than contemplating Erin’s spandex. One makes a name for oneself by being a skillful manager, which includes minimizing waves. The path to success is not straight but it’s quite narrow in places. There’s no need to be a moral leader, which historically has been a path to getting stoned. And doesn’t “moral leader” sound quaint and judgmental?
I wasn’t surprised these teenagers held the usual positions on modesty. Social media’s not great about facts or evidence, but it’s rife with opinions. I noted that the loudest opinions were those taken by those students who thought social norms in general were pig-headed. Such is the world that we now live in. In the end, the kids decided not to write about the dress code.
Dress codes have always been a touchy issue. My wife’s father disagreed with the local principal who banned girls wearing pants—even girls who walked to school in subzero temperatures. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new going on. The extent to which we have lost a common culture may be new. Some people are bothered by tarted up teenagers, while others agree with the advice given by one of my students: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” To enforce a dress code, authorities need to be able to explain the basis of their rules, but fewer and fewer know how to do this in a society where people do not share fundamental assumptions. They are more in their comfort zone urging young people to have pride—which has become uncontroversial—than they are discussing modesty.
On issues where we don’t share fundamental assumptions, nobody on one side of the chasm is likely to persuade anyone on the other side. Why, then, argue? I don’t imagine that I have anything to say about modesty that will settle the argument, but there are other reasons for speaking. Sometimes, the purpose of discussion is to remind oneself of neglected aspects of life. Sometimes, it is to encourage kindred spirits who might feel they are the only ones who feel as they do. We make communities by gathering in a shared vision, and this requires talk–making the vision clear and finding each other. Sometimes, we find those whose vision of the good life neighbors our own, giving it depth and stability. In such moments, persuading opponents hardly enters our minds. They aren’t here to be straightened out by us, and we have other things to do, such as reminding ourselves of insights and feelings that, in heightened moments, we have realized but that in the clatter of the passing tumult we have let go dark, like books we forgot we were reading.
It’s not always at the front of my mind, but I’ve known for a long time that modesty has more to do with our consciousness of where we are, who we are and what is happening than with the fashions of the moment. My tribe’s cultural roots are deep in Judaism, and partly for that reason (and partly because I’ve never been a pretty girl) when I think of modesty, my thoughts turn to those Hebrew prophets of old. Their modesty was high sanity, standing as they did before God. This isn’t the meaning of modesty that comes to mind, usually, in arguments about dress code, but it’s important to realize that modesty isn’t only—or even mainly—about revealing too much of our bodies. It has more to do with how we understand being a person.
The great prophet Isaiah realized that he was nothing on his own. He saw the panorama of human drama across centuries, the rise and fall of empires. The more one sees of reality, the more meek and modest one becomes. In Rabbinic literature, modesty is a “way of walking.” Just glimpsing the scale and breathtaking beauty of the cosmos should be enough undermine our haughtiness and sense of self-importance.
But it’s easy to create our own world, with ourselves at the center. We do this mainly by comparing ourselves to other people. Aristotle said that young men and the rich were especially susceptible to excessive pride “because they think they are better than other people.” We like to feel important. It’s “better to reign in Hell,” said Milton’s Lucifer, “than serve in Heav’n.” The great literature of the world is full of warnings about the destiny of the proud and rebellious. Lucifer failed to take over Heaven and was thrown out. Doctor Faustus sold his soul in order to be superior to all other men and the cost was eternal misery. Victor created Frankenstein in his lust to become the preeminent scientist of his age, and his creation destroyed him. Tragedy is the literary form devoted to the study of pride.
Though we can play important parts in big, important stories, on our own we amount to little. Modesty is rooted in truth. It is true that the world is vast, including billions of people, and that these people are ordered in various tribes, gangs, clubs, nations, and international organizations, and it is true that the whole wide world is only a tiny speck in a unimaginable expanse of space and time. And in all this, each of us is kept quite busy enough wiping up spilled milk, calming down an upset colleague, smoothing out wrinkles in a child’s day, getting the “check engine” light turned off or photographing the cedar waxwings that have flown into the yard. Our limited energy and attention don’t permit us to have much of an impact on the world, though we may be crucial to some little part of it. A modest person is simply an honest person.
We are immodest when we are thinking about ourselves and how we might be or should be the center of attention. This is the sort of thought that gets kids into trouble with dress codes. One teaching response could be to talk about humility. We are humble not by thinking we are without merit but by not thinking about ourselves much at all. We forget about the self by turning our attention to larger matters, such as the situation before us and what is needed and how we can help. The philosopher Eric Voegelin said Moses is the most consequential human who ever lived, because he did more than anyone to elevate human consciousness, giving symbolic form to higher levels of order. And yet Moses is referred to in the Bible (Numbers 12:3) as “exceedingly humble, more than any man in the world.” His mind was filled with matters of eternal importance.
He saw clearly that the world did not revolve around him. This can be tremendously liberating. Modesty frees us from the need to impress or get ahead. We find patience and compassion easier; making and keeping relationships becomes less complicated.
Will this persuade people like Lindy West? On her Jezebel website she rants against modesty crusaders: “the idea that society can tell you how much of your body to reveal or hide implies that your body does not belong to you” [emphasis in original]. This is true, though Lindy thinks the point is that men believe a woman’s body belongs to them. “I’m very sorry, ‘Guys,'” she says, “but my only ‘womanly duty’ is to myself.” This is an eminently understandable response to modesty patrols and clothing police. Extremism provokes counter-extremism.
And having had her say, she also speaks more modestly. “I am a person. I’ll dress the way I want and act the way I want.” I, for one, don’t want a world where such feelings are not respected. I wouldn’t contest her right to dress as she pleases.
I would, though, invite further reflection about just what it is that she wants. She hears the debate differently than I do. Most often, I hear defenders of modesty saying that none of us are islands unto ourselves. We really don’t own ourselves or belong only to ourselves. We are social beings, and others are the environment of our consciousness itself. Others sometimes become aspects of our consciousness. Who wants to be left alone, really? Most of us want to be linked in bonds of need and reliability and understanding that are sometimes bonds of love, sometimes including intimacy. Most of us want to live amid others, not surrendering our selves or our privacy but still surrounded by attentive and caring friends. Learning how to build and sustain warm communities lies at the heart of learning to be fully human. How we handle our sexuality can be thought about as part of a larger vision of marriage and community. There are real reasons why girls in high school might want to dress modestly, that have to do with their deepest desires, which, if they are fortunate, will be given form by adults in their world who understand.
Many have learned that lives of commitment and duty are a way to happiness. We can deepen the ways that we belong to each other, and in doing this we learn modesty. We needn’t demand or seek to be the center of attention. Baring some skin can be a form of immodesty, but it’s not the only one. There are innumerable modes of immodesty.
Ostentation is a popular one. Judaism frowns on ostentation, because it drives us apart. It can arouse the envy of others, it can make the less prosperous feel ashamed and it can induce arrogance in oneself. To talk persuasively about modesty, we need know ways of living amid commitments to realities larger than the self. We need to reflect on the ways we ourselves sometimes take ourselves and our desires too seriously. Do we ourselves dress in ways that display our money or our status, or that scream for attention to our chosen identity? Do our clothes sometimes become costumes? In terms of modesty, what can we make of the “successful” man who puts that success on display? Maybe the administrator with the flashiest car in the parking lot lacks the moral authority to teach a fifteen-year-old girl wearing a low-cut top that she is putting forward the wrong image. Hugh Nibley, a scholar of the ancient world and one of the elders of my tribe, insisted that “the worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols.” When it comes to sins against modesty, I don’t often find young women to be the most offensive offenders.
If we are going to talk about dress codes, we might start by talking about modesty as though we meant it. Schools usually do the opposite. As they have come to resemble communities less in their transformation into sorting and credentialing centers dedicated to empowering and enabling selves, talk of pride has come to seem more intuitive than talk of modesty. In the school where I worked, the “values” that were officially endorsed were chosen to make up the acronym POWER and so, inevitably, the first value was “Pride.” For a while, the student handbook endorsed “pride” in the behavior section and “modesty” in the dress code section. Heh.
What would Socrates say? Much of his method was to call attention to contradictions in the things people said. Contradictions signal error, and most of our bad actions are preceded by wrong ideas.
His teaching was deeply concerned with eros and with the connections between careful language and love. He taught that we use language precisely so that we can understand more, and in this way we make progress toward the truth. As we do, the astonishing diversity of our ignorances yields, and we find ourselves moving toward unity, escaping prisons of self, finding each other by finding a common world through words. Falsehoods are legion but truth is one. His opponents argued that the telos of rhetoric was career success, but he said that it was the light of understanding, which is the substance of love.
We are modest to avoid putting stumbling blocks in the paths of our fellows. We come to see better that the true purpose of wealth is, as the sages said, to help others. Ostentatious displays don’t do that. They produce envy, arrogance, dishonesty, and a shaming of the poor. The arrogance of giving oneself credit for good fortune is a form of immodesty which tears at the fabric of community. It communicates to the poor that they are guilty of their own misfortune. Shame drives them to borrow money they can’t afford to repay or to take ethical shortcuts for money. We moderns have no shortage of politicians whose primary route to power is inciting hatred of the rich, and we may be so accustomed to the uses of envy that we underestimate its terrible power.
Envy has been one of the most destructive forces in history—maybe the most destructive—and no good comes from provoking it. The most astonishing modern texts on envy may be the several books exploring mimetic desire written by literary critic René Girard. “Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it,” he observes, and “we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant.” Girard claims that we are profoundly social creatures who acquire our desires from those around us, though we are seldom aware this is their source. This creates endless situations in which multiple people desire the same goods, so envy and rivalry become daily realities. He views the tenth and last of the Ten Commandments to be the “supreme commandment” because it gets to the root of problems addressed by the preceding four. It bans desire for anything that belongs to another: “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, no his ox or ass, nor anything that belongs to him.” The Hebrew term translated as “covet” simply means “desire.”
Desiring what belongs to another is the source of most conflict among people. We glorify our own desires, which then leads to idolization of ourselves. The more we worship individualism and pursue our own status the more we are turned against others. “If we ceased to desire the goods of our neighbor, we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness,” Girard points out. Much of what he says is confirmed by anthropological research. Helmut Schoeck has found that the core taboos and rituals of many cultures are most important as techniques for controlling envy, which might be triggered by prestige, personal attractiveness, distribution of possessions or anything else which one may have that another might desire. The practices of habitual understatement found among the English, the Chinese, and many other peoples are a mild form of such ubiquitous rituals; they testify to the depth and universality of envy as well as the need to guard against it. “Man is an envious being,” says Schoeck, “who were it not for the social inhibitions aroused within the object of his envy, would have been incapable of developing the social systems to which we all belong today.”
Of course, moderns have repeatedly “addressed” the problem of envy by killing the rich. We—or somebody—created massive regimes to decree standards of equality that could only be approached through totalitarian methods. The results of these widespread experiments would, in a better world, make discussion of creating an egalitarian society through government coercion unworthy of serious discussion. But of course, such “solutions” are being seriously discussed, and by elites, no less, who somehow remain perpetually confident that the revolution will not devour them. But if history is a guide—and it is—it will.
So there are two good reasons for practicing modesty. There is the practical concern that if we provoke envy, there may be hell to pay. Beyond that, there is the possibility that we might practice modesty because we are in truth humble, and that we are humble because we do not see ourselves as the center of the world. We are happier and more loved when we serve the big picture than when we fret over whether we are getting enough attention. The more we try to help, the less we are distracted by things that do not matter very much. Aristotle found that people are happy when they are practicing the virtues, and modern psychology has gone to great lengths to gather data that points to the same conclusion.
This does not mean, of course, that schools are likely to stop proclaiming pride and start teaching humility. Neither the curriculum director who is proud of his elegant new watch or or the pretty cheerleader who has discovered a strange kind of power has anything to fear from the authorities. Modesty has largely gone the way of the Sabbath. The dominant culture gives little thought to it.
Fortunately, none of us is required to participate in the degradation of the times. Indeed, it is wisdom to resist. People still observe the Sabbath, though not out of fear that plowing on Sunday will land them in trouble with authorities. They do it because the restraint on productivity and busyness and greed changes their relationship to work and to time and to the world in ways that encourage joy. They balance six days of creating with one day of reflecting and sharing. Similarly, many people will continue to learn humility in all the ways events and experiences conspire to teach it, and being humble they will walk modestly through the world, not because of little rules made by little committees, but in wonderful unconcern with such minutiae.
Crusader Nation: The moral absolutism of American sexual politics has trumped other considerations, and U.S. embassies, including the one in Tel Aviv, now fly a flag of militant sexual identities. Overcoming the supposed bigotry of all who disagree with such action has become a national priority, and reluctance is decried by prominent voices as hate speech, which must be suppressed. Those who disagree do not merely disagree–they are guilty.
Each year, I have students write an essay reflecting on the changing meanings of success they discern in the American literature they’ve read in class. The reading list stretches from the Puritans through the Transcendentalists. After their overview, I invite them to attempt a personal definition of success, as things seem to them at that moment. I ban the use of the phrase, “live life to the fullest.” It’s a good phrase, I guess, but it’s a cliche, and having said it they tend to thing they have said something, when they’ve only repeated an incantation. The education question is till Socrates’ “What is the good life?” and the answer may well be “to live life to the fullest,” but for that to be an actual thought requires some attention to the meaning of “good” and “fullness.” I suspect they are thinking of a house on a beach with a Mercedes parked out front, but they don’t actually say. They tend to stay in automatic words running on automatic tracks. They find thinking hard.
Indeed, humanity has always been a discordant mess, intellectually speaking. Half-thoughts, images, slogans swirl over some bottomless abyss of individual and collective consciousness, passing through transient form in mobs or elections as people see posters, hear slogans, stumble across cable news rants, catch twists of horrific events narrated in scraps through the honk and cough of ceaseless traffic.
The Land of Marriage is like the secret garden that the girl in the story discovered and tended with care, and “gave” to the local boy who understood plants and growing things, and they then both share it with the crippled heir, and the father who had abandoned that garden when he lost his wife returned to the world of the living. In the Land of Marriage, even a child knows that happiness can only be found by giving oneself away. In other lands, people live in abandoned houses, even rich people; and all around such places, hard, sterile, blank, old but not wise, there is hardly a sign of any such brave surrender. In other lands, flowers must serve a purpose. In the Land of Marriage, purposes must serve the flowers.
And yet, some things abide. Young men and women find each other, slipping past the uncertainties and anxieties they reveal themselves bit by bit and find they are not so alone. Babies are born, and new households established The most fundamental realities of human life are not like the testosterone-crazed skull-bashing contests posited by the Darwinists of old so much as an infant suckling at his mother’s breast. The deepest experience of countless persons is of awakening to life in warm arms surrounded by beings with soft voice inviting playful engagement. Young fathers and mothers imitate the forms they’ve found around them. In times not far past, those forms include barn raisings, quilting bees, PTA meetings, communal brandings, and dozens of other supports for social capital. We are at our best when we realize that we are members of each other.
All that used to be easier. In thousands of little ways—and some not so little ways—social capital has been dwindling. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contains graph after graph that show social capital measured in all sorts of ingenious ways declining since the mid-1960s. In much of the world today vast governments and transnational financial creatures see those primary human societies as blurred abstractions. Decisions are not made with an eye to the health of communities. More often, they are made to enhance the ability of those at the Center to monitor and control our lives. Meanwhile, more and more people report that they are lonely. More of us live alone than ever. Marriage seems risky—many kids are afraid to even say that it’s what they want.
This is the world governed, increasingly, by a network of spiritual directors, issuing fiats from Brussels, Paris or New York. We live in an age of extreme individualism, in which individuals have less and less to say about so many things that are important to a fulfilling life. How did the world come to be governed from afar, by corporate and government elites? The best telling of the scholarly version of the story may be James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. In the mid 18th Century, the philosophes gathered in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris to re-imagine the world–liberated from God and the ancien régime and led by libertines such as Rousseau. Billington traced the spread of revolutionary ideas through labyrinthine networks of Europe and beyond as the revolutionary motto–Liberty, Equality, Fraternity–spawned a thousand variants in France, Germany, Russia and, well, everywhere.
The story is too complex to know or tell precisely. The philosopher Eric Voegelin abandoned his magisterial 4,000 page manuscript for his History of Political Ideas when he realized that tracing influences through texts was “an ideological deformation of reality.” As the sacred texts of my own spiritual tribe explain, persons can receive insights through direct participation in consciousness, in the metaxis where we encounter both deity and adversaries of deity. A true history of ideas would include the phenomenological experiences of countless individuals. Ideas are not spread only by media and conversation. Revelation, both good and bad, has always occurred.
Still, this much is accurate: we have entered an age of ideology, of competing isms: communism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, progressivism, environmentalism, anarchism, fundamentalism, egalitarianism, fallibilism, gnosticism, utilitarianism, materialism, nativism, and nihilism. We are no longer ruled by warrior chiefs, priests, monarchs, or elected representatives–though many figureheads remain ceremonially in place. Now, a class of elite intellectuals, armed with PhDs, has gotten (imperfect) control of the governments, the media, the corporations and the schools. They see themselves as spiritual directors of the world, using technology and social sciences to govern by managing a complex ecosystem of propaganda, puppet leaders, regulations, bribes and threats. The optimism of such controllers was chastened a little by the embarrassment of the 20th Century, when instead of regenerating humanity into new forms invented by human reason, and instead of leaving behind the irrational and the superstitious, the rise of ideological empires delivered us to horrific tyrannies. Leaders came to power mouthing the beloved rhetoric of equality, and then they terrorized and decimated their own people. In a few decades, ideologues killed more people than millennia of religious militants had done.
Nevertheless, our resilient controllers have worked through the embarrassment. After all, where else can the world turn if not to its experts? So it turned out that politics was dirty and unpredictable, and a retreat to higher ground was needed. Fortunately, morality transcended it all. The rhetoric of universal rights took place on a loftier plane than the ancient arguments based in economic, geographical or ethnic interests. The endless discussions at the great conference tables in Vienna, The Hague, Cancun or Munich were animated by an often abstract quest for the justice of equal freedom for all. It was easy to feel that those who opposed such ideals were not mere opponents–they were guilty. Old moralities were barriers to progress, so the project was to debunk religious and provincial limits. Morality is dead. Long live morality.
But moral crusades unconstrained by ancient interdicts flirt with real dangers. The main patterns of the Age of Ideology were present from the beginning in the French Revolution. Reason was put forth as a self-flattering decoy, but events were driven by passion both for violence and for sex. Those who disapproved were devoured. The motto in practice was “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death,” as Dickens repeats with unsmiling sarcasm throughout The Tale of Two Cities. There is no real ambiguity about the nature of the revolution. The violence wasn’t confined to the Reign of Terror but defined the movement from beginning to end. In the September massacres of 1792, 1,200 prisoners were murdered in public orgies of rape and murder. One of the Queen’s friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was stripped naked and raped. Her breasts were cut off and the rest of her body mutilated and put on display. Parts of her body were discharged from a cannon and other parts were eaten. Her head was stuck on a pike and taken into a tavern where customers were asked to drink to her death. Yes, stripping the corrupt aristocracy of wealth and power felt good. Getting free of old laws and social constraints to indulge wherever in whatever also felt good. For modern ideologues, “transgressive” is often a term of praise.
Mobs have always been exciting, at least for those on the side feeling righteous. Both violence and religion partake of eros. The French Revolution isn’t quite intelligible without knowing the extent to which it was, in Austrian scholar Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddihen’s phrase, “a sanguinary sex orgy.” The Marquis de Sade was in tune with the spirit of the age, understanding “Nature” as the sole source of authority as to what may be praised or condemned. “The philosopher sates his appetites,” Sade argued, “without inquiring to know what his enjoyments may cost others, and without remorse.” He defended even sexual murder, if that was what a practitioner wanted. Feminist historian Camille Paglia saw that as the old morality lost prestige, “all the nasty daemonism of sexual instinct” popped up. “Individualism, the self unconstrained by society,” was a liberation from low into a “coarser servitude of constraint by nature.” Revolutionary ideology took its bearings from lofty talk of freedom, but in practice, this often meant arranging one’s life around violent urges. “Every road from Rousseau leads to Sade,” said Paglia. It isn’t really so far.
So began the Age of Ideology–of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of “enemies of the People.” Writing on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian naturalist Prince Petr Kropotkin noted that “what we learn from the study of the Great Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions.”
In America, the civil war of the sixties was fought on a succession of fronts, beginning with civil rights but morphing into the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. Religion continued to irk the ideologically-driven champions of liberation from old moralities. “Racist, sexist, antigay! Christian fascists, go away!” has been a popular chant among today’s street activists. They embrace the role of antichrists deliberately and proudly. They seem intent on proving that rejection of the Word leaves them with a language in which nothing can be known, in which all meaning is socially constructed and thus susceptible to deconstruction. Identity, racism, patriarchy, privilege, and gender—it’s all a matter of language and power, continuously updated. Those who run the institutions and control the language have no masters.
Those who do not have university sinecures may find life more daunting. Beings shorn of faith and without the support of divine love retain only the will to power, without the will to resist what Allan Bloom referred to as the “reanimalization of man.” Valentine’s Day is celebrated by Planned Parenthood as the kickoff of Condom Week. An accumulating mountain of social science evidence reveals the damage to families and children by those who have made selfish sexuality their priority. Reality is not on the side of the sexual revolution. “Children come into the world based on sexual choices of adults,” said Robert Oscar Lopez, and an ideology that tells adults to follow their urges without regard to the impact on children cannot be good. Good, like evil, exists as a complex ecosystem, and to consider the truth about children’s well-being would be to allow a very large and inconvenient camel to get its nose under the tent.
The majority of the Supreme Court who struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act claimed that there could be no reason for denying equivalence to same-sex couples except some irrational and immoral desire to harm those couples. “The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” said the Court. Their language was morally certain and morally absolute. James Kalb discussed such developments in “Sex and the Religion of Me” at First Things. “The new orthodoxy on homosexuality,” he said, “is about more than sex. It is an outcome of a profound change in traditional understandings of the world, the abolition of natural meanings and essences in favor of will and technique.” Neither nature nor society should hinder the individual’s autonomy to choose his or her own values. The external world is “raw material” for the liberated self to pursue its authentic purposes. What is authentic is understood as that which has its source in the self and its desires.
What is established is what Phillip Rieff has called an anti-culture–the view that is is forbidden to forbid, and that nothing should regulate the individual. What is suppressed is that humans do not “find themselves” in indeterminate space, but become human slowly, surrounded by family and community which educate them into structures of meaning which are needed if a person is to act and engage. We become autonomous by living with law, which we then internalize, accepting limits on desire and possibility. Without law we are not free, because the flip side of culture isn’t nature but barbarity. We are at the moment in a transitory period. The governing elite have restructured society to relieve parents of duties toward their children, many of whom cannot progress beyond adolescence, living in a moral chaos of disorganized desires, contradictory opinions, ceaseless demands for goods they could not earn but feel entitled to possess, and unyielding moral obtuseness. Because the state has yet to finalize its tutelary authority, such beings have liberty to cause most of our social troubles. Our future is likely to be brutal and violent.
Of course, most ordinary liberals are nice people who are dismayed by the crass and violent drift of contemporary culture. They don’t see it as good that increasing numbers of young men do not grow up, but seem lost in a simulacrum of digital games and pornography, imagining themselves masters of seven universes while unable to get a grown-up job and unwilling to commit, while increasing numbers of young women, often better educated and better paid than their potential mates, weary of a succession of boy friends who refuse to become manly feel unfulfilled as the biological clock ticks. They do not sense that they are choosing the materialistic decadence which advances on every front, closing in. They just want a nonjudgmental culture, often for quite personal reasons. They want the finger-pointing moralists to stay away. So they enact a society in which young people receive no very ennobling education. What they need to know of sex is taught by twenty-something clinicians, and the posters in the hall are about condoms and the self’s choices but not about courage or sacrifice or love. Some learn old truths from intelligent families or churches, but many find their deepest desires shaped by the stories and music of a commercial culture, biased toward that which titillates or excites. So we find ourselves surrounded more and more by people who are oblivious to the sort of order that is peace.
Mobs and gangs have been forming for some time, and yet the thinking of our masters has the quality of incantation. They cannot question whether it’s true that neutrality is wisdom, or even possible, or that the old laws were mere bigotry. Statements of traditional morality trigger a visceral revulsion within the minds of those indoctrinated in the morality of late modern or postmodern modernity. To have another impose the rules of his own or his tribe about something as personal as sexual desire feels sickening. “This reaction,” Kalb says, is best understood as “a taboo response.” It “springs from a sense that those who reject ‘marriage equality’—the view that same-sex and opposite-sex relations are interchangeable—are attacking what is most precious and sacred.” Earlier, the Court had ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that the uncultured self has the right to define the nature “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It’s true that anyone can define for himself what is right only if there is nothing in Cosmos or Creation that says otherwise; thus the siren song of nihilism became the law of the land. That the imperial self’s demands so often have to do with sex and sexual identity is nothing new. Religion and sex are intimately intertwined in human consciousness, as even the champions of sexual freedom sometimes admit. The inventors of a new world order have largely given up attacking capitalism and have organized their forces in an epic struggle about sex. The religious question at the heart of the matter is to what extent a person can escape historical and natural patterns in a quest for self-creation amid unbounded personal choice. We are sexual beings, and our sexuality goes to the core of our existence. And though we share a carnal nature with other animals we are also endowed with a capacity for discourse that allows us through the word to engage in such sublime realities as justice. For such beings, sex becomes somewhat more than beasts rutting in the stable. For moderns, sex and discourse are joined in debates about gender–the demotion of nature to self-created identity.
The West’s classic view of humanity was expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
For such a being, sex can meld with love in a sublime quest for happily ever after that has been the theme of countless stories, which emerge from the universal sense that something more is at stake in matters of the heart than meaningless iterations of cycles of reproduction and survival.
It is in our “godlike” reason that we are most typically and fundamentally human. Our telos is to reach outward, our reason functioning as openness to experience of and conscious participation in the divine mystery which surrounds us. The philosopher Eric Voegelin linked the Greek understanding of reason, nous, to the Israelite understanding of spirit, pneuma, in their kindred recognitions that to be human is precisely to exist by reaching out in loving encounter with divine presence. Our sexual natures reinforce and deepen our fundamental experience of incompleteness, unable to fulfill ourselves alone. Biology and spirit are unified in a quest for love that completes and perfects our lives as biological, intellectual and spiritual creatures. The culture of marriage and family was, at its best, developed through such realizations. It represented humanity’s best hope against alienation and isolation. Anthony Esolen reprised that argument in Defending Marriage:
We are all interested in marriage, that is, we all have a stake in it, because through marriage, or through actions that should have been performed within the haven of marriage, we have all come into being. It isn’t simply a reflex of the emotions of the man and woman. It is the act of renewal. It brings together this family of blood relations with that family of blood relations, natural relations, the kinfolk that lay just claims upon us because we and they share some of the same history, the same cousins, even the same eyes and ears and noses. A marriage marries families, and it is the family, and not the abstracted autonomous individual, that is the foundation for the community.
In other words, were it not for children, there would be no reason for weddings at all, since there is no reason for the community to take note of whether John and Mike or any two marriageable people have been arguing lately or have patched up their differences, regardless of any behavior they may be indulging in when the doors are closed. But the community does have a powerful interest in what used to be called “public morals,” since these impinge upon the welfare of the family, and thus upon the community’s health and survival. It is precisely because the marital act is a child-making act that the community not only may protect it by the fencing of law and custom; it has a duty to do so, to protect itself and the most vulnerable of its members.
One might expect a nation of sexual individualists to educate children to go their own bold ways; but that cannot be, because there is no fully realized human individual apart from a family. So, paradoxically, such a nation leans towards banishing the family from rightful authority over the schools, which then become standardized, like factories. “Sparta,” [a totalitarian regime which seized boys from their homes to live in barracks] “presents to us no illustration of an educational philosophy for a Christian people.” Real education is of persons made in the image of God, and cannot be effected “by contract or in the aggregate. In the family alone, and by or on the immediate responsibility of those parents by whom were imposed upon each child from before its birth the physical, mental, and spiritual conditions on which all true after education must be based, can an ideal early education be conducted.” Schools and schoolteachers there may be, but they must “be regarded only as the representative deputy or the substitute for the family.”
Those of us alive at this historical moment have been born into a vast argument that we did not make and very likely will not resolve. It’s a religious war waged in its deepest terms at the source of what it means to be human. The main thing each of us may decide is what side we are on. It’s a crucial choice. Jame Kalb suggests that we not near the end of the conflicts:
Cultural debates are always conflicts between orthodoxies. Our own debates about sex, marriage, and family must be understood and judged as exactly that rather than misconceived as a conflict between irrational dogma on one side and tolerance and freedom on the other. This is becoming easier to do, now that a whole generation has been raised under the regime of political correctness. A backlash against that regime is already visible among young people. What is needed is to convert dissatisfaction from cynical abandonment of concern with public affairs into reasoned and constructive engagement. It appears, then, that the culture war is not over. Understood for what it is, it has hardly begun.
In the past, all sides have waged their moral crusades by getting control of law–which is to say, by using force and coercion. The hard won wisdom of Westphalia, we might remember, was a way of moving on from decades of sectarian battle through a kind of federalism, in which each jurisdiction would be left to make its own laws about religious matters. It was amid competing visions, none of which could achieve hegemony, that Europe’s institutions of political freedom took form. We tend to do our best thinking when we are stymied by opposition we cannot overcome.
The work of the world now is, I believe, what it has always been–for humanity to continue what Adam and Eve began, to know good from evil and to choose between them. It’s a complex knowing.
As with the Jacobins, when morality becomes an instrument of power it destroys the world and itself. At the moment, the controllers are ascendant, fancying themselves spiritual directors of the world, establishing a monopoly on moral judgment. Chantal Delsol suggests that they “have begun to instrumentalize morality in order to make it a political weapon.” That process will undoubtedly continue, and to the extent that it does, its success will be partial and temporary. The political, unlike the moral, cannot be universal.
My spiritual tribe teaches that the only tools available to morality are ‘persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned.’ Delsol notes that “universal values are freely expressed norms whose realization would allow humanity to freely advance toward the summits–in a manner of speaking, to become more human.” It is useless and destructive for morality to use the tools of politics, betraying its own norms through the use of force. Camus understood that now the struggle must be “between violence and preaching.” Morality does not impose itself; it persuades. There will be blood, to be sure, but the right will prevail with words and spirit.
It’s slow work, and it involves living as an example as well as uttering words. Patience and long-suffering are real necessities for those who choose to act in the realm of morality rather than in that of politics. We cannot will the good immediately, because for each of us, understanding the vision of the good, and disentangling it from evil and all its deceptions, has required the mediation of time. Each of us has, through much living, reflected on human experience, what has been done and how it has turned out. We have struggled to understand some of what we now see clearly. The time was not incident. We learn slowly–here a little and there a little. So those who would lead must teach and those who would teach must wait, knowing that such a life–trying to learn how to live life to the fullest–is what time is for. And there is still time.
The art of living well can be taught. It’s more fundamental and more interesting than the art of bureaucratic survival, which has become the de facto curriculum of many schools. Cohesive Pieces
Growing up in a strong and stable family may be the best preparation for living a happy life. Kids so blessed learn many of the little secrets that encourage happiness–most having to do with caring for relationships–by experience within intelligent and loving families.
For young people who aren’t so lucky, can formal education provide some of the missing knowledge about how to form enduring relationships, including marriages? Can the secrets of effective living be identified and taught?
I’ve always thought that the answer was rather obvious. Of course. So I was interested in reading Facilitating Forever, the report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. It supports “relationship literacy education for youth and young adults to help them avoid the dangerous detours that make it difficult to form healthy marriages.”
In a good society, the vision of marriage and community would be passed on to young people throughout the culture, as was the case in America not long ago. Our literary heritage, before the twentieth century, is a rich source of knowledge about such things. Unfortunately, contemporary literature teachers are much more in their comfort zone when discoursing on race, gender, privilege, imperialism and colonialism than when exploring character or contemplating happily ever after.
Besides, schools are now understood as adjuncts to the global economy, charged with the mission of fitting young people to the bureaucratized distribution of social niches. The big problem now facing educators is not how to teach young people what they need to know and understand to handle the challenges of life. Rather, it is to keep everyone on track and on schedule to receive the credentials which, in a world of appearances and deceptions, increasingly determine their fate.
Those in the business of perfecting our collectivist conversion are fond of suggesting that dropping out of school causes poverty and crime. No doubt the careers of education officials and marketers will work better when society is organized as a cradle to gave school or hospital. They cite stats, such as those from a 2009 Northeastern University study, that correlated dropping out of high school with higher rates of poverty and crime. Indeed, the numbers are stark. Among dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, incarceration rates were 63 times higher than among college graduates, and according to USDE stats the poverty rate for dropouts is 30.8 percent, while for those with at least it a bachelor’s degree it is 13.5 percent.
While the statisticians who author such reports are sometimes scrupulous enough not to assert causation, those who want to make their name as champions of public education are not always so careful. Telling kids that if they drop out of school they are doomed to lives of crime and poverty is precisely the sort of fear tactic used in authoritarian systems everywhere. China’s students excel at getting high test scores–though what else they excel at remains in question–mainly because the Chinese system offers little hope beyond official exams. Chinese students study hard because the alternative terrifies them.
One can still hope that America will not lose all of what it once understood of freedom.
Many honest readers, on both the left and the right, of the research on at risk youth have concluded that increasing graduation rates through the usual strategies–dumbing down the curriculum and increasing coercion–won’t have much effect, because the problem is much larger than compliance with school assignments. It is not simply the case that academic failure causes poverty and crime; it is, rather, that children raised by unstable and dysfunctional families are at great risk of faring poorly in many areas, including schools and the economy.
If education marketers were genuinely concerned about the destiny of at risk students, they would do more than preach the value of staying in school. They would focus on the substance of what is taught, encouraging more attention to what was once called character–the secrets of happiness and strong families and intelligent communities.
We know that the more than 40% of children now born to unmarried parents face significantly higher risks than children from two-parent homes academically, economically, socially, and emotionally. Family stability and partners who marry before having children associate strongly with higher incomes and social mobility. In a recent Atlantic article on liberals and family values, Emma Green notes that “It’s like stable marriage and community are the secret sauce of economic well-being that nobody on the left wants to admit to using.” Middle and upper class people know how important stable marriages are to children’s well-being, but they avoid mentioning it or teaching it to young poor kids. That would be judgmental.
The inculcation of wisdom was once an explicit purpose of humanities education. In the schools we’ve built, such an idea now seems quaint, and we are unlikely to make much progress toward such teaching in the public schools. There, any discussion of morality by government workers, including teachers, feels like religious coercion and is thus attacked as a violation of the separation of church and state. There’s quite a bit wrong with that understanding, both legally and historically. But political correctness is a more potent force in today’s school than either law or reason. Most schools avoid controversy by abdicating moral discourse, and moral discourse itself remains completely unfamiliar to a good many of today’s youth. This state of affairs has gone on long enough that the same could be said of many teachers and administrators. In some schools, simple moves, such as pointing out that if moral relativism is correct, then it’s not reasonable to claim that abolishing slavery was moral progress–it was simply change, neither better nor worse–are met with blank stares.
At this point, it probably makes more sense to try to build new institutions than to reform old ones. The National Marriage Project is trying to build support for education programs that are voluntary and noncoercive. Perhaps a defense of freedom can best be made by looking beyond compulsory public education for means of teaching the truths so many youths desperately need to hear. Early reports are, at least, encouraging:
Making relationship literacy education more accessible to the less educated, in a sense, levels the playing field by offering clearer rules and research-based guidelines for creating healthy and stable families. And it needs to start early. For youth and young adults, discussions on “What does a healthy relationship look like?” include dating danger signs, such as violence or coercion, as well as instruction on basic interpersonal and communication skills. On his Greyhound Archipelago sojourn, Potemra listens to someone describe a fight between a mother’s bat-wielding ex-husband and her knife-wielding current boyfriend within the confines of her oldest son’s bedroom. Potemra, with reason, comments: “Now, I have heard, very many times, the phrase, ‘Every kid deserves a dad.’ But I have a follow-up question: Which dad—the one with the baseball bat or the one with the knife?”
Adolescents exposed to “youth relationship literacy education,” according to early research, come to understand better that neither knife- nor bat-wielding constitutes acceptable behavior—from a father, mother, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Violence might erupt, and erupt with frequency in
some families and relationships, but relationship literacy education teaches that it isn’t healthy, shouldn’t be tolerated, and signals danger. Perhaps in decades past, teenagers and children from dysfunctional homes might regularly catch a glimpse of Mike and Carol Brady or Steve and
Elyse Keaton—however dated the hair and social norms—dealing with conflict in measured, communicative terms. Maybe they also got exposed to healthy family interaction in friends’ and relatives’ homes. For too many youth now, this exposure is non-existent, and youth relationship
literacy education offers a better way to learn higher, though attainable, standards.
Nothing is more important right now to the survival of freedom in America and to the thriving of the next generation than sound teaching about the rules of life and the art of living wisely. We have a huge divide between well-educated people, whose family lives are surprisingly traditional, and the poor, who are struggling amid the chaos of an underclass where the culture of marriage has collapsed and moral anarchy is thriving. Though the problem is mainly educational, the public schools are not likely to be part of the solution. They have suffered an ideological capture, and when it comes to moral discourse the people there, for the most part, have nothing to say.
We need social entrepreneurs and we need new institutional forms and philanthropists to support them.
Photo from Cohesive Pieces
A review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 1
Katniss discovers a white rose, which, unlike the other flowers, has not wilted. It’s a message from President Snow, who cultivates the flower to mask the smell of blood. Flowers are ephemeral, symbolizing the hope of beauty. Now they have become ominous, unnaturally enduring.
Several critics have noted that although Mockingjay–Part 1 was largely exposition, lacking the action of the first two Hunger Games movies, they liked it anyway. It may be a satisfying art form for an age that often understands itself as poised in a pre-apocalyptic moment, dangling between the trouble we have known and a greater trouble that has to be coming. A film about the calm before a storm feels right.
But there’s more, I think. The real struggle we are engaged in will not be settled, this time, by missiles and bombs. Our disagreements are ontological and epistemological, so language is the arena in which this generation’s epic battle is being engaged. The Hunger Games gives that struggle accessible form by casting it as a war between Katniss’s impulse to love and Snow’s compulsion to control. The battle goes beyond physics–bullets and bombs–into the realm of spirit, and all outcomes at lower levels will fail to be decisive.
So some in the audience may want a story that moves beyond fighter jets and lasers. This third film centers on that contest between the President and the Mockingjay, and this penultimate chapter of their epic contest is waged in words and images. We stranded in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the Capitol’s subjects. To be sure, we see that we are fated to move quite beyond words into a bloodier realm of earthquake and thunder–there are constant skirmishes that leave fields strewn with corpses–but compared to earlier episodes the war is now waged in rhetoric. For the moment, antagonists struggle to give form, words and images, to our understanding of what is at stake, the meaning of good and evil.
The moral tone of the story has grown darker. Snow is clearly evil. Snow’s hypocrisy is vivid. The Capitol’s rhetoric about the common good and human flourishing is mere stratagem to perpetuate an oligarchy of masters who control a vast system of subjugation and poverty, where the suffering of individuals means nothing. Snow’s nihilism is total. Just before switching off the telescreen and pivoting to air strikes, he tells Katniss that “it is the things we love most that destroy us.” Love makes us vulnerable.
Yet hope abides, and Katniss bears hope’s burden. Her beauty inspires hope even after great disillusionment. Abernathy claims we need to see her without makeup, we need to go past appearance and manipulation. Her unfeigned moments of emotional candor keep the rebellion going. Her trainer, Haymitch Abernathy, makes explicit that contrived images lack the force of Katniss’s raw responses to horrors perpetrated by Snow’s military. He gets her out of the studio and to the front, where her image can be projected by capturing unstaged moments where her hatred of the Capitol is caught on camera in unscripted emotional outbursts. Authentic passion, not contrived images, are the keys to better propaganda. But, of course, it remains contrived propaganda.
How can we fight evil without imitating it? This story has been wildly popular with today’s youth, who sense that they are entangled in orchestrated contests with each other for advancement in a dark and hollow world void of ultimate meanings. The consequences of the games they must play are real enough, but winning is only a temporary reprieve in a larger game which no one wins.
The Hunger Games story takes place in the godless world of modern imagination–our world–a place in which human power is constrained mainly by the opposition of other human power. The Capitol’s tyranny is enforced by technology and propaganda, and the revolution can imagine no opposition but its own technology and its own propaganda. The film approaches transcendence only in moments when Katniss inspires hope that she represents another way. She resists the flat-souled utilitarianism of the advisers who would turn away from the plight of individuals to focus on the big battles. She demands that Peeta be pardoned and that a cat be tolerated, and she ignores attempts to discuss propaganda strategy in those moments when she is filled with sorrow for what has happened to the particular people she loves. She suggests a larger game, a different world. Eddy asks, “Are you here to fight with us?” “I am,” says Katniss. “I will.” And so we have hope.
Are love and authenticity enough? Or are they too vulnerable? When we learn that Peeta has been conditioned to hate Katniss, it seems that personal love has roots too shallow to survive the manipulations of evil. How can goodness win against a sadistic ruler who seeks ever more cruel modes of action, capable of feeling only the harshest and most primitive passions, a being nearly dead to all that makes life wonderful, committed to destroying whatever does not wither before his numb gaze, breeding deathless roses to mask the stench.
Does Katniss’s love draw on a power sufficient to restore a good order? Is the people’s faith in Katniss enough? Is there more?
A lot is at stake.
I just returned from Changsha, China, where I was invited to a conference at Hunan Library to discuss my experiences with dozens of oral history projects in 33 rural communities in Montana, using high schoolers as the primary researchers. The sponsor of the conference was the Evergreen Education Foundation, which has been doing good work in rural China for many years.
Hunan Library in Changsha, which hosted the conference in partnership with the Evergreen Education Foundation.
I confess I was a bit wary. It had been a while since I attended a conference sponsored by one of the big foundations or socialized with the tribe that gathers there. They tend to be people drawn to the humane slogans of late modernity which have replaced older traditions. It was all so familiar—the endless talk about more precise assessments, improved monitoring, better implementation and dissemination, and, of course, sustainability. Such concerns are expressed in a framework of humane aspirations, having to do with social justice. We are, after all, nice people. Still, to tweak Drucker’s phrase, doing things the right way is much easier than doing the right things.
I understand the need to be cautious when straying from our accountability rituals. The models are adapted from the corporate world where ambitious people have shown, if nothing else, that they can organize lots of people into vast projects focused on measurable outcomes. How else could the world be run from the commanding heights? Still, it seems important to have mixed feelings about how eagerly newcomers to such conferences are attracted to the bright lights and big names, how quickly they adopt the vocabulary and language of the people on stage. It could be tragic to mislead them.
I easily blended in with the veteran attendees as they shared experiences, enjoyed the buffets, greeted old friends and luxuriated in a reliable sense of deja vu. Lots of nice people. And it did feel nice to be there, invited to a conversation about humane values at a costly hotel where insiders gathered amid chandeliers and wine glasses, comfortable with warm dreams backed by resources. The allure of money—of being invited to the table—can be enchanting.
The real work
Weiming Tu, One of the most influential thinkers about China of our time. He is founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Peking University and Senior Fellow of Asia Center at Harvard University.
But will it work? Are we oriented toward the direction where we need to go? One topic that stayed on my mind throughout the conference—a topic that did not get enough attention, I thought–was how to understand governance more powerfully than the business accountability models we’ve all learned. The keynote speaker, Weiming Tu, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Peking University and Senior Fellow of Asia Center at Harvard, spoke to the point, presenting a big picture view of what the real work that we now face may be.
His plea was essentially for better character education—through the classic liberal arts method of aiming at a moral outcome through intellectual means. Right reason will lead to right action. Our current plight, Tu suggested, is that we must regain the wisdom to make choices inspired by desires more intelligent than those inflamed by consumer culture. To so educate desire in China, Confucianism is important. “We need curriculum reform that includes Chinese classical learning in college but also in primary education,” he said. We need to foster a conversation between Enlightenment values and our older spiritual traditions. Though the Enlightenment has been the most powerful ideology in world history—practicing such values as rationality, liberty, equality and the dignity of the individual–and because of it the modern world is better than the pre-modern world, we have now arrived at a point where we see clearly that Enlightenment values alone are not enough. Without powerful spiritual values, a kind of anthropocentricism has emerged wherein reason has become mainly instrumental, aiming not at self-realization but at power. There is something “fundamentally discomforting” about current values, he said, which lead to the dominance of “Economic Man.”
He followed Samuel Huntington in calling for a conversation between Enlightenment values and Confucian values, as well as Christian values and those of other groups, aiming at clarifying principles that can be accepted by members of all religious traditions. The voice of spiritual humanism has become “quite feeble” in China.
If we do not know about invisible worlds–levels of meaning higher than money–and talk about them as though they matter, they will have little force in governing the world we are making. To a great extent, talking about them as though they matter, bringing them up in venues large and small, giving them form that makes them accessible, testifying in favor of them–this in itself may be our salvation. In the West, Socrates taught that we must ask the serious question: “What is the good life?” The good life, as he understood it, is to be forever asking the question again and again, in the light of each new circumstance.
Linking practice to big ideas
Faith Chao, Director of the Evergreen Education Foundation, translated for us during our visit to the ancient Yuela Academy, founded during the Song Dynasty in 976 AD at what is now Hunan University. The Academy remained loyal to Confucian ideals of moral self-cultivation and community solidarity.
Most speakers focused on smaller issues—the practical matters involved in conducting and archiving oral history projects in rural places. Such matters are important and getting more thoughtful and precise about them is fundamentally important. But it would be unfortunate if we let the details distract us from taking Professor Tu seriously, from asking the obvious question: Can our oral history projects provide suitable occasions for the sort of conversations about higher values that, Tu said, we may need if humanity is to survive?
I believe they can.
To make such conversations likely, care may be taken in how the projects begin and how they end. Specifically, the projects should be planned with big questions to be explored–the enduring questions that take us to the heart of our humanity–made clear and explicit at the beginning; they should end with original writing by the researchers in which they grapple with the meaning of their findings with reference to the enduring questions that began their quest. It is not necessary to come to tidy conclusions, like the perfunctory little upbeat platitude that often ends “human interest” stories in small town newspapers, but it is important to ponder the truths of the human condition as they are manifest, sometimes subtly, in the transcripts that are being added to the record of human experience.
To begin, enduring questions can be formed by reading significant texts, classic or contemporary, that relate to the topic to be investigated. Good interviewers have spent time gaining the background knowledge they need to ask real questions, and to demonstrate real interest to the interviewee, and gaining that background knowledge and creating a set of questions—both enduring questions to guide the researcher, and more specific questions to ask during the interview—can be done while reading deep and rich texts.
The focus should be on only few enduring questions–maybe three or four. Their purpose is not to limit the interviewing only to those issues that are clearly or directly linked to the big questions. Their purpose is to orient the researchers toward a general direction, which one might well forget at times while engaging the specificity of actual persons living through actual events. The focus, during interviews, should be on bringing as much love as one can bear in one’s attention to the interviewee, really listening and genuinely following his or her thoughts. Love is not often mentioned in how to guides to doing oral history, but it is love that most readily opens a speaker to a hearer, and it is the “secret” of many who excel at asking and listening.
This is not, of course, inconsistent with a quest for light on such questions as these:
What should we part with?
What should we keep?
What should never be for sale?
What should one never do for money?
In recent times, what has been lost or is being lost?
What has been gained or is being gained?
What goods are in conflict?
What has changed?
What has not changed?
Enduring questions serve to focus the interviewer, but they are not questions that usually will be directly asked of the subject, though if the conversation tends that way they may be.
The interviewer should remember that the mental movement from event to meaning can be slow and difficult—and often very personal–and the oral historian or journalist who hopes to avoid the hard work of thought by asking the subject the big question directly will usually be disappointed by the answer, which is most likely to come in the form of either confusion at the impossibility of simple answers to vast queries or vague platitudes and rambling attempts at making sense.
The focus most often should be on the interviewee’s memory and experiences, with an aim of hearing richly detailed narratives or careful descriptions. Few people can address big philosophical questions off the cuff in an articulate way.
Instead, when the interviewer asks open-ended questions that invite the subject to share experiences and think out loud, the interviewer is more likely to be surprised and delighted by the answers. A certain modesty is required. The interviewer should not ask leading questions, even if they are very big leading questions. It may help to keep in mind the observation of the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who in his last essay spoke of how “the shattering of larger coherences … has made relating local realities with overarching ones … extremely difficult.” Indeed. “If the general is to be grasped at all,” Geertz wrote, “and new unities uncovered, it must, it seems, be grasped not directly, all at once, but via instances, differences, variations, particulars – piecemeal, case by case. In a splintered world, we must address the splinters.”
Getting at what it means
A highlight of the trip for Valerie and me was a visit to a local middle school, arranged for us by Jingchao Yan–part of Dr. Faith Chao’s staff. We were accompanied by Ruth Olson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
To grasp the general via the particulars—that is the work of essays or presentations that researchers should do as the culmination of their projects, which may be similar to the last chapter of a dissertation—the conclusions and recommendations. Though reflection should have been occurring throughout the work, frequent returns to the enduring questions to check how one’s understanding has changed or deepened, it is in synthesizing all one’s work into a final intellectual product or cultural artifact that reflection becomes the main work. If a student has read some Confucius on the duties of children, and then conducted an oral interview where a person talked about her particular family during a tumultuous time in the past, the attempt to write an accurate and truthful account of what happened and what it might mean will be time spent pondering what really matters in this life. Perhaps the Great Foundations could do worse than give such documents careful attention when the time comes to evaluate what has been accomplished.
In doing such work, might we be also teaching our young that the art of living is in part the art of ordering one’s life as a series of research projects, with “research” understood as the process of seeking information, knowledge and wisdom in many intellectual and spiritual modes, from various sources. Confucius understood that the way to govern a people well is first to teach them to govern themselves by wise principles. Christians also believe this.
It’s everyone’s story
Another thing that was on my mind was how a project in Montana might collaborate with a project in China. One way that comes to mind is simply to begin with the same, or similar, enduring questions. I suspect that we would find many things in common—and not just in the experiences of minorities. It would be one way of having a conversation across cultures about core values that we share.
It isn’t just indigenous people whose culture is being hollowed out or trammeled by the peddlers and prophets of late modernity. All of us who remain disinclined to live mainly for money or whose souls are not transfixed by Apple’s latest wonder sense that things are being pushed aside to make way for things of less worth. Any Confucian or Christian is likely to experience moments, sometimes important moments, when one’s deepest commitments are taken as nothing by market zealots or crusading ideologues. The displacement of Native Americans due to the faith that powerful men at their big tables had in their own wisdom, in their certainty that everyone’s duty comes down to assimilation to technological innovation and expanding markets is, I think, one of those historical occurrences that resonates for many of us. It’s a timeless metaphor. In typological terms, it is everyone’s story.
The twentieth century happened to us all.
This is an article I published in Teacher Magazine (under the title “Mission Possible”) some years ago. I was reminded of it while reading this piece by Jill Jenkins.
Beyond the Classroom Windows
After the shooting, I asked people about Abel, but nobody knew much. He took his dog with him everywhere he went, a mongrel that looked to be part border collie. He worked at the school for a while, filling in on temporary jobs. His dog followed him through the building, waiting patientlly while Abel scraped paint off the stage floor or put new paint on a door. When I tried to call up an image of him, I drew a blank. He’d been invisible to me.
My classes at school were full of students who came from a world more like Abel’s than like those of their middle-class teachers. The intelligence of orderly families embedded in an orderly tribe had been weakened a century before when proud hunters lost their way and became unimportant in the economic life of folks restricted to a reservation. Many Salish men turned to alcohol. Many children grew up without parents at all, in boarding schools.
Abel lived in a rented room on the top floor of the Mission Hotel. That was its official name. People who lived there were having a hard time of it, and they called it the Heartbreak Hotel.
When it was built early in the century, it had been the largest building in town, except for the brick church at the Jesuit Mission. The hotel was three stories tall, square and vertical. The builders made no attempt to blend it into its surroundings. It had that erect Victorian readiness to impose its grandeur, like a man in white spats refusing to acknowledge muddy streets.
Unfortunately, St. Ignatius never lived up to expectations. People who came seldom had money for lodging. They stayed with relatives or friends. By the time I became director of the valley’s volunteer ambulance, the hotel had become a low rent apartment. It was just up the hill from the bridge across Mission Creek. In his book The Triggering Town the poet Richard Hugo discusses revision using a poem about boys throwing a dog off that bridge. “Can you imagine the intellectual poverty of living in a place like St. Ignatius?” he asked once in a workshop. It made me laugh, but it also made me wonder, “Could I?”
One evening just before Christmas, Abel closed his door and began drinking. A little past midnight, the tenants next door heard a gunshot, then voices, then another gunshot. They called 911. The town cop followed a county deputy as he unholstered his .44 and stepped into the back door of the hotel. He worked his way slowly up the narrow stairs, freezing at each creek, studying each doorway, holding his gun ready.
When the officers reached the third floor, they stepped into the bathroom across the banister from Abel’s room. “Abel, this is the police,” the county deputy called loudly. “What’s going on?”
Silence. Then the door opened. Suddenly the hall exploded with the roar of gunfire. The deputy shot back.
The silence continued roaring for minutes after the shots. The air smelled of powder. A man was dead.
I arrived a few minutes later. I used scissors to bare Abel’s chest, being careful not to cut through the bullet holes, which the crime lab would want intact. I listened through the stethoscope to nothing. Then I closed his fixed, lightless eyes.
I walked back into the hall where a growing crowd of police officers was gathering from all over the county, with cameras, tape measures, and memo pads. The scene needed to be left intact–shell casings where they had fallen, Abel’s empty pistol where he had dropped it.
“He’s dead,” I said to the officers. I walked downstairs, slipped through the crowd that had gathered outside. Many of them were children. I got into the ambulance, which I’d left running with the heater on. It was warm and four other crew members were there. They had waited to see if I needed help because the police wanted to minimize traffic inside. Nobody felt like talking.
Our Habits become our Habitat
When I got home, I couldn’t sleep. I thought about Abel’s apartment. His habitat had been small, cluttered, disorderly–like his life. So it is with us all–our habitat is made of our habits. We develop habits, our second nature, and these habits create an environment. For teachers, the important point is that which habits we get, like which language we speak, depends on those around us. If we are surrounded by intelligent folk who practice all the little habits that encourage happiness, we tend to become more intelligent ourselves. We get up in the morning, put things away, brush our teeth. If we are especially fortunate, we grow up among folk who practice the harder habits of kindness, reliability, cheerfulness, diligence, and honesty.
Most teachers learn quickly the astonishing power family habits have over children. Of course, everyone who grows up surrounded by an order where such habits as patience and compassion are practiced and taught doesn’t automatically learn them. That would be too easy, too destructive of our freedom. But it’s just as true that children who live every day with harshness, fickleness, pessimism, and rage would have to be unusually gifted to see past these to something better.
A few nights before Abel was killed, a man down the street had jerked his former wife’s arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder. While the police cuffed him and put him in their car, we loaded her on our cot to take her to the hospital. He arched his back in the gentle night air, proud and unsubmissive, a warrior, his head thrown back and his long hair free in the red glare of light, his wrists bound but his spirit wild.
His woman sat on the couch crying. Three children–the youngest was about six and the oldest about ten–begged to go with us, excited by all the commotion. The man and the woman yelled at each other about a set of keys, which he said were for his car and she said were for her trailer. It was Tuesday. If the kids were at school in the morning which was only five or six hours away, I doubted they would be with teachers who knew much about their lives.
What those kids need, more than information, is an invitation to join a community, a moral order, enacted and clarified daily by adults who, with full knowledge of how the world goes wrong, stay committed nonetheless to making things right.
Thinking about Folkways
In 1906, William Graham Sumner in his seminal work Folkways said what I was learning through experience eighty some years later: “The education which forms character and produces faith in sound principles of life. . .is borne on the mores. It is taken in from the habits and atmosphere of the school, not from the school text-books.”
He further noted that though “we apply schooling as a remedy for every social phenomenon which we do not like,” the efficacy of information to change behavior is only “the superstition of education.” In fact, “book learning is addressed to the intellect, not to the feelings, but the feelings are the spring of action.”
Though “folkways” is usually used as a benign term to refer to such activities as quilting or fiddle-playing or dancing, Sumner uses it to refer to the traditions by which a society shapes its people, and in addition to celebrations and arts he also examines as examples of folklife such institutions as slavery, infanticide, torture, harlotry, and gladiator sports. He reminds us of the sheer educative power of what we celebrate, tolerate, pursue and repeat.
The ordinary stories that people tell along the way to all else they do exert a tremendous shaping influence on people. The way this happens can be deceptively simple. Here’s Bud Cheff, Sr., a seventy-eight-year-old rancher from the Mission Valley in western Montana, chatting about his early life:
Whenever Adelle and I went somewhere, or when we were returning home, I always put the money I had left into a big jar I kept buried. When I got a chance to buy the land where the ranch now sits, I dug out my money cache, and got out the jug that I had buried. I poured it all out on a tarp and counted it; I had just enough money to pay cash for that piece of land, 160 acres. There were pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollar bills, five, ten and twenty dollar bills.
I went into the house and had Adelle and all the kids come out to my shed to see what I had on my tarp, and they all just stared at it. Adelle knew I’d been saving money, but had no idea it amounted to that much and the kids were so excited because they had never seen that much money at one time. I let them each take a handful of small change and then I gathered it up, went to the courthouse in Polson, and paid for my land.
I can testify from personal experience that a person who listens to this man tell his ordinary stories about raising a family and building a ranch will feel tugs of desire to become a better person: to laugh more, work harder, have more friends. Children who grow up immersed in such everyday narratives probably do not notice the effortless way they encode a host of values–in this example, perseverance, postponement of gratification, affection for spouse and children, delight in the chance to struggle for a dream. It is through such stories that young people learn what the rules of life are, what roles are available to them, how to react to crises, what is worth wanting. In a way that comes to them so naturally it’s easy to miss seeing, they learn all the little secrets of being human. It is at this level of daily narrating, which goes on among us without pause, that a people shapes its morality and that of the next generation.
Through the folkways, Sumner points out, a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes. . .the most essential and important education.”
Many schools today, reflecting community mores, are becoming scenes of increasing moral disorder. When I finished a presentation at a recent education conference, a teacher came to me crying. Only a couple of months before, a student had come to her middle school in a small rural community in Washington, and shot and killed a teacher and two other students. Such stories are no longer rare. Though the notion that we respond to depression or anger by getting gun and shooting people is probably taught by movies and song lyrics more often than by families and communities, its is inescapable that our schools now serve thousands of young people who have been left to find their mores in media culture.
The Schools We’ve Built
What do such youth learn when they get to school? Many teachers and administrators have had their own mores shaped within impersonal bureaucracies where the folkways that develop tend to support the success ethic. Even in the absence of corruption (which is rarely absent), our work in large organizations by its very division into small pieces tends to frustrate our hopes and divide us from our fellows, creating an environment where self-interest flourishes. Self-interest is often followed by selfishness, which is always followed by pessimism. As workers become adept at hearing information at the scale of their specialty and at filtering out other information, what makes us powerful, our ability to organize, ironically also deafens us to what we would better hear.
For example, the superintendent of a school district who is doing her job often thinks in time frames of years or decades, trying to hear the slow-moving information of demographic shifts and legislative trends that will change enrollments and budgets and community expectations, monitoring the deterioration of buildings and buses, anticipating shifts in social values. Though the superintendent might be aware that a particular teacher is weak, she’s probably more interested in changing hiring practices or training programs than she is in changing that one teacher’s performance this afternoon.
A good teacher, on the other hand, will tend to be more attentive to faster-moving information, such as what happened with a particular student this morning and what adjustments the staff can make this week.
Though both the superintendent and the teacher may share the same ultimate goals which require each of them to do their part at their level, when they meet to discuss problems, they sometimes don’t quite hear one another. Too often, they even feel pitted against one another. It becomes easy to become cyncial, looking out for one’s own best interests. It becomes easy, without constant refreshing at the springs of shared hope and constant reminders of the virtues we need to practice to realize those hopes, for self-interested careerism to prevail over shared community purpose and the striving for moral clarity. Unconstrained careerism is simply old-fashioned lust dressed up in the fashion of our age.
For the dedicated careerist, there is little to resist sliding into other forms of self-indulgence, and it should a frightening fact that many citizens of the modern age have become, like Romans of the late empire who craved ever bloodier arena sports, addicts of the wares of corporate entertainers who lace their products with lusts more toxic than nicotine. By adopting savage entertainments into their folkways, the Romans transformed themselves into a people who took their greatest pleasure in watching pain and bloodshed. Children amused themselves by torturing animals. The planet was ransacked for beasts that were allowed to tear apart convicts or slaves for Sunday entertainment. Forms of human torture to amuse the masses became ever more ingenious and perverse.
Though for us such entertainments are most often “only” simulated by movie companies rather than happening in actuality, to the human imagination such a distinction matters little. As the Vandals began detroying Carthage, the cries of those being slaughtered in the streets mingled with the cries of victims in the arena. The death throes of a civilization became indistinguishable from its entertainments. In some American cities today, the carnage that awaits theater audiences inside is not much different than what may be witnessed at any instant on the streets outside.
We already have among us thousands of young people who are more entertained than horrified by films of the Holocaust shown to them by teachers who, desperately, still believe that such scenes have to be horrifying. We no longer need to guess where it leads. We can read about it in the paper nearly every week.
Living in Possible Worlds
Despite the problems teachers face today one thing that never changes is that the best teaching remains committed not simply to preparing young people for the world that surrounds them, but to bringing better worlds into being. To do that, the best teachers must be willing to live by the rules of a world that could be and ought to be rather than by the rules of the world as it is. Though contemporary debates about goodness often descend into arguments about jurisdiction—which groups will control the debate—our only hope for unity nonetheless lies in the possibility that each one of us, from whatever cultural or ethnic group, can conclude that some things are good, and that we can refresh and rejuvenate our folkways and build into our ways of living what Sumner called “monuments, festivals, mottoes, oratory, and poetry” that teach that it’s good to help other folks get something they need, that it’s good to be moved by the plight of our neighbors, that it’s good to be gentle, and that it’s good to practice the patience and selflessness necessary to have friends.
The alternative is moral anarchy, in which, Sumner warns us, we can all lose our way. When all stories have equal legitimacy, people’s “notions, desires, purposes, and means become untrue.” Only the willfully blind don’t see that large groups of people today are moving into such a condition. Much of popular culture seems intent on fostering cultural suicide. Without vision, the people perish.
If we don’t like where we are headed, the solution, open to any of us, is to change directions. We can identify and act on “correct notions of virtue” in matters big and small, making them our habits. We can, for example, refuse to attend “R” movies, we can give money to agencies that help the poor, we can be honest in paying our taxes. People who take such actions soon see that it is the “only success policy.” They soon find themselves becoming more prosperous or less anxioius, soon find their towns becoming beautiful and safe, find their farmlands becoming bountiful and sustainable. A few such people can create a community that neglected children can join.
Fortunately for my little town, the Salish culture was never completely destroyed. Though the tribe has its share of politicians who have learned from oppression to imitate the oppressors in ruthless and dishonest pursuit of wealth and power, it also has a large number of quiet folk who have struggled for years to keep alive their belief in a better way. In recent years, some tribal leaders have emerged strong from their long history of hardship. More or less ignoring those leaders who are too bitter and distrustful to move forward, they are rebuilding a living moral order, and they are reaching out to lost children to join a real community, to remember better ways. Though they face enormous problems, their faith is strong. Teachers can learn much from them.
They know that when we’ve strayed from a good path, our lives often take on a momentum that carries us father than we meant to go. It becomes harder and harder to believe we can stop or go back. We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught, and we need to be given courage more often than we need to be given information.
Twenty minutes after I got home from examining Abel, my radio went off again. Mission Ambulance, please return to the Mission Hotel. An officer is down.
When I got there, the deputy who had shot Abel was writhing on the floor, gasping for air. His forehead glistened with sweat. He had trouble hearing or answering questions. His hands and feet were numb. He felt sharp pains in his chest.
Hyperventilation. It begins when a person breathes too quickly, but the feeling is that he can’t get enough air. The faster he breathes, the more he feels air hunger. It’s a common pattern in our lives: we do the wrong thing, and the more we do it the worse things get and the more we feel we need to keep doing it. It was a pattern Abel knew.
A good coach can help, standing outside the problem, staying calm, reminding the person of what he knows but, at the moment, feels wrong. It’s as simple as standing close to the person, speaking into his ear, convincing him that he can breathe normally, reminding him how to do it. It is possible for one person to infect another with calm, with faith, and maybe even with goodness.
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed and lose faith that our small contributions will make enough difference. One spring after being caught up in a particularly nasty and futile political war, I visited a lake in the Mission Mountains. It was a calm day, and I tossed a rock into the water, then watched. I followed the ripples as far as I could. Eventually, at the edge of my eyesight, the ripples merged into riffles caused by wind and other disturbances, becoming part of an endless dance. It was a half-hour before I lost completely the pattern of my stone amid the endlessly changing patterns of the lake’s surface.
I lost sight of it, but I never saw it stop.
The mobs posing with their victims after lynchings do not seem aware that they are engaged in evil. They seem proud of themselves. Most people need to see themselves as acting righteously before they engage in evil. In fact, destroying evil is the most common rationale for engaging in evil. Unfortunately, since evil remains nonetheless real, a bland nonjudgmentalism isn’t a strong enough defense against it.
Years ago I did a small study of lynchings in America, after watching a small town work through some shabby political convulsions. At the time, I still believed it was within our reach for democracies to be governed by reason. One thing that struck me as I looked through old documents was attitudes of mob members in posed photos with their dead victims. The people often seem quite proud of themselves, puffed up with feelings of righteousness. They do not exhibit any sense that they are engaged in evil. Quite the contrary—they seem certain that they are engaged in the destruction of evil. Having heard rumors about the wrong-doing of the victims, getting caught up in the passion of “setting things right,” the mobs were all in with evil.
We will never figure out the mess we are in without understanding such moral inversions. Such an inversion is one of the themes of Huckleberry Finn. Twain said of the novel that it was “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” What Twain calls Huck’s conscience is his conventional sense of right and wrong received from both the formal and informal teaching of the society he grew up in. Growing up in the South before the Civil War, Huck has been taught that slavery is right and proper, and that he has an obligation to return Jim, a runaway slave, to Miss Watson, Jim’s rightful owner. When Huck hears Jim making plans to free the rest of his family once he is out of slavery, Huck is attacked by pangs of guilt:
Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he WAS most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, ME. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so—I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched.
Huck decides to “go to hell” for his friend, and he allows his moral sense to trump his conscience, but he never manages to critique the conventional wisdom of his society, to see that the moral code it has adopted is objectively wrong.
Hannah Arendt saw something quite similar but even more ominous while watching the trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Like Huck, Eichmann has no sense of doing wrong. But unlike Huck, Eichmann suffers no cognitive dissonance. He is not tortured by a conflict between society’s abstract laws and the concrete suffering of a particular person. Arendt is struck by the Eichmann’s inability or unwillingness to think about what he is doing. He has allowed the social bureaucracy he works in to settle questions of right and wrong, and he only repeats the slogans and rationales without question—indeed, without discernible intelligence.
She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to evoke the way that stupidity might be enough of an explanation for the engagement in evil of bureaucrats operating in systems that define good as evil and evil as good. It would be comforting to learn that Eichmann was demonic, delighting in darkness. It’s troubling to see him as ordinary, feeling that he was taking the wise and prudent steps to succeed, to make a name for himself, pleasing his peers and superiors. He thinks entirely in cliches and the “official language” through which bureaucrats murdered people without ever mentioning it. He contradicts himself from moment to moment without apparent awareness of the clear import of what he says, caught up in whatever words help him feel okay about himself and with no effort at getting to truth, by looking for coherence, by assessing statements in the light of our experience. He is content to obey the law. He may be operating within a morally inverted universe, but he still uses the language of morality, and he can even quote Kant and discuss, somewhat confusedly, “the categorical imperative.”
Orwell saw the close relationship between the corruption of language and the success of evil in the 1940s. It was an ancient insight even then. “If language is not correct,” Confucius had said, “then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” Such insight have been common among the wise of every generation.
And yet the folly continues and gets worse. Ours is the first civilization in history to attempt to get by without a basis in shared morality. It was, after all, theories of good and evil that undergirded the great atrocities in history. Wouldn’t we be better off to abandon the moral certainties and instead adopt a somewhat passionless lack of anything but toleration? The experiment has been underway for some decades now. We now live in the age of ideology, in which for many good and evil are social constructs we should leave behind.
A team of sociologists from Notre Dame who studied the moral lives young adults in America a few years ago were troubled by much of what they found. What had been abandoned included “epistemological foundations, certainty, reason, universalism” and what had been embraced included “uncertainty, difference, fluidity, ambiguity, multivocality, self-construction, changing identities, particularity, historical finitude, localism, audience reception, perspectivalism” and so forth. They discovered that the culture had become “democratized and vulgarized” with “simplified versions of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida” everywhere evident. “By the time it reached the American hoi polloi, postmodernism had become a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individualistic subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism.”
People who don’t believe in fundamental truths do not become great critical thinkers. If there is no moral truth, what would be the point of unmasking fundamental assumptions? “Who am I to judge?” asked one of the young research subjects.”I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at that time.” He’s unwilling to say that slavery is evil. Such a judgment would be wrong, he feels. He thinks, unclearly, in the cliches he’s been given.
Moral thinking is a conundrum for many of today’s youth. Nothing, it seems, can be known. Another young person discussed terrorism like this: “I don’t know that people, like terrorists, what they do? It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good. I had this discussion with a friend recently and she’s like, ‘But they’re still murdering tons of people, that just has to be wrong.’ And I was like, ‘But do we have any idea if it is actually wrong to murder tons of people?’ Like what does that even mean?”
We are far enough into our civilizational experiment to see something of where it leads. Our better artists have been providing help. Terrence Malick portrayed in his powerful 1973 film Badlands a couple of banal killers. The film follows the career of a young man given to senseless murders, off on an adventure with the girl next door, both of whom are reminiscent of Eichmann in their careless and self-centered way, “going with” whatever cliches or songs or other flotsam drift through their weakly ordered minds:
Like Eichmann, they are less demonic than stupid—though what they do remains evil, for those of us still engaged with what is real.
The cinematography is gorgeous and the music is hauntingly beautiful. Caught up in the aesthetics of moments, the quite postmodern lovers drift through an often pleasant fantasy, neither tortured by conscience nor concerned with the law, somewhere beyond good and evil.
“We have in our time a very peculiar generation of scholars who all are clear about it: ideologies are finished. Each one in his way has taken this or that ideology and criticized it so that nothing is left of it. Nevertheless, he does not quite see what to do afterwards, so we have a peculiar fence-straddling generation. These people are very serious; but their having seen that all is wrong still doesn’t mean they know what is right. . . .” —Eric Voegelin
Much of teaching can be quite routine because both the material and the sorts of difficulties commonly encountered by people new to the material are familiar. But if the classroom is not to become merely another spiritual desert in the institutionalized existence of children born to late modernity, the teacher needs to maintain an openness both to the material and to the students. In the classroom, the language through which curricular knowledge lives combines with the minds of students to constitute a field of experience in which the teacher must act as a participant if he is not to rigidify and die, hardening into a mere enforcer of a system.
Symptoms of such a death include the repetition of linguistic formulas in response to questions, the assertion of bland moralisms by way of escaping uncomfortable facts, and the inability to provide concrete illustrations of whatever he is talking about and talking about and talking about. Dogmatism and refusals of the Question are the hallmarks of ideological systems, which are never true but always opposed to truth.
All our systems are wrong, to the extent that they obscure reality by erecting between us and the real world a second reality of language, routinely protected by interdictions on the asking of questions. Nearly all school reform programs are, of course, such systems. Schooling in the age of reform has made both the life of the mind and the life of the spirit increasingly difficult, and we have few public forums where people can discuss education at the level of reality. A staff that has been sufficiently cowed into unreality will, at the end of enervating hour or two of what is called professional development, have no questions. Institutions governed by ideology do not entertain questions aimed at the premises or the telos. Experienced practitioners recognize this and suffer the scotosis in silence.
The school change industry recruits participants who yearn to be a stars in the professional society which their studies or their position have opened for them. The usual panoply of goods is available to those who are willing to play: travel for conferences and site visits, release from mundane chores to sit at the big table, public praise, professional opportunities. Successful school reform leaders and consultants often have a fascination with conceptual schemes, and they mistake their ability to become fluent in such schemes for a grasp on reality.
As they master a second reality—the linguistic machine that underlies the reform plan—their sense of truth begins to shift and deform. Instead of accurate representations of the situations that practitioners actually face, they begin to judge as true those statements that are coherent with the conceptual scheme they have adopted. It can take considerable cognitive power to master complex conceptual schemes, such as Marxism or positivism, and some consultants find real intellectual pleasure in knowing their complicated things and in putting their knowledge on display.
Still, dogmatism is a formidable obstacle to anyone looking for truth and it is also the eternal enemy of teaching and learning.
Kit and Holly enact a fairy tale made entirely of cliches and self-approval. They are anti-heroes of the American type.
Terrence Malick’s Badlands
works as a period piece for that post-Vietnam time of self-absorption and loss of moral clarity that also gave us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
and Bonnie and Clyde
. But it’s not just a period piece—Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis are somewhat timeless in their possession by unfocused, impulsive desires that attach to people and events in the kaleidoscope moments of a journey from unclear beginning to unknown terminus, and they “think” about what is happening and what they are doing entirely by repeating slogans and catch phrases they’ve picked up from the cultural milieu around them. In other words, they are quite like many people you know.
Most of what they say has a self-forgiving quality; their parallel monologues form a series of incoherent verbal gestures that help them feel good about themselves. As they bounce from murder to murder, they continue believing they are “good” people, though they are not. They are very bad people. They are bundles of appetites, no better (or much different) than snakes swallowing live mice. People are endowed with a moral sense. They should develop it.
Simple people may be saved by a good heart, as with Forrest Gump. But desire is not wise or good, for most of us, without some education and discipline. More and more of us get our moral education from our folkways, and our folkways are becoming increasingly toxic for inarticulate people with inarticulate desires. Holly and Kit never have thoughts, properly speaking.
“It sent a chill down my spine,” said Holly. “Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment?” Her thinking never becomes more precise or more clear. “Kit never let on why he’d shot Cato. He said that just talking about it could bring us bad luck and that right now, we needed all the luck we could get.” That’s her “reflection” after one murder. About the next one, she observes: “He claimed that as long as you’re playing for keeps and the law is coming at ya, it’s considered OK to shoot all witnesses. You had to take the consequences, though, and not whine about it later. He never seemed like a violent person before, except for once, when he said he’d like to rub out a couple of guys whose names he didn’t care to mention. It all goes to show how you can know a person and not really know him at the same time.”
As for Kit, he segues from event to event, narrating his own story entirely in cliches and banalities. “Of course, uh, too bad about your dad. . .I can’t deny we’ve had fun though. . .it takes all kinds.” Nothing important can ever happen to him. He’s incapable of it.
Their moral sense has shrunk to effortless recitals of rationalizations—instead, they view life in aesthetic terms. Holly rejects the outlaw life because the wilderness is void of bright lights and pleasant food. Kit beams with a self-satisfied feeling of success when the officers escorting him to prison observe that he looks like James Dean.
The film endures because Malick is right about important things. He’s right about the woeful state of people whose minds are not enlivened by religion or enlightened by philosophy–in his stories, stupidity and evil are often kindred conditions. Malick’s films are frequently hideous, in precisely the way life among the folk is sometimes hideous.
The film is an unimportant and uninteresting little story–a sort of anti-Jehovah propaganda piece blown up to pretentious scale by its grandiose budget.
One needn’t be particularly sensitive to notice that Aronofsky’s Noah is a dark story involving unlovely people in a desolate world. Russell Crowe plays Noah as a somewhat dull action hero, ready to brawl and knock heads–and for quite a while intent on murdering his own grandchildren. It’s not much of a story–neither interesting or ennobling.
No benevolent deity intent on bringing to pass an orderly world founded on love presides over this mess. Instead, the only deity in the story is a vengeful and sulking “Creator”–somewhat in the image of the hateful and lusty humans–who performs no miracles but offers instead magic tricks–such as encasing fallen angels in grotesque bodies of misshapen volcanic stone.
It’s a tawdry tale made of money and angst, but lacking in spiritual insight–or even much in the way of worldly wisdom. Brian Mattson gives a likely explanation for this unlikely disaster.
This is an age drawn toward apocalyptic stories, but for my money Walking Dead has a more interesting plot, deeper exploration of the human condition, more spiritual longing, and nicer people.