Getting back to the garden

White clematis, red roses

White clematis, red roses

I believe the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we began. Once we didn’t need to care for the garden–it was a gift. But we couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

I’ve learned the way back to the garden. We merely have to create it around us. Then we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

What did God mean when he said it was good, after finishing Creation? I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what “goodness” means, who are not even sure it is something they should want. They confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is the vision beyond the rules. A vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so we teach children little rules that preserve the good order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When Valerie’s and my children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouths, Valerie kept a philodendron on the coffee table. Often that poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of reach.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking.

What we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our living, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

Sometimes we encountered a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of the forlorn philodendron. Such moments rightly understood are teaching opportunities. When I lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” I only wanted her to learn.

I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed a possibility. But in fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then comprehend. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will but hinted at a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

We wanted our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness, which is complex and requires us to live amid ordered loves.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So we start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we also knew that as her questioning spirit became more powerful, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward what we really hoped to teach.

It wasn’t long before we let her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules without making the rules absolute. Life is complicated in precisely the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness before they can see the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep young people safe while they are still learning how life works.

As Wendell Berry observed, the rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is almost a synonym for wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for that harmony.

A happy life is a garden–a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, an embodiment of joy. It adheres to principles of selection which allow careful editing of what the world offers. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

And always, it is here. It is now.

Needed: sound teaching about the rules of life and the secrets of happiness


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

Saving a remnant: most children left behind?

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority--grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts--should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

If the larger system will not make something similar to the classic trivium its priority–the grammar, logic and rhetoric as exemplified in great texts–should parents and students seek other paths of learning? Courtesy Grace College

The idea of a “saving remnant” recurs throughout the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Such remnants are presented as small groups that understand, apply and carry forward the truths and practices of a higher order of community. John in the New Testament quotes Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore, only a remnant will be saved.” The idea suggests that, at times, the most important knowledge will be lost to the world, and most children will be left behind….In our pop culture, the current “big” story that might treat this theme is the Hollywood retelling of the Noah story. It will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The Athens that Socrates and Plato knew was similar to the society Noah left behind. Athens in their lifetimes was on the brink of a destruction that did in fact occur. It was a time and place of political turmoil, corrupt politicians, and a virulent desire for individual gain, an unbridled lust for wealth and power. In that dark time, Plato also turned to the idea of a saving remnant, trying to imagine how correct principles might survive in such an ignorant and nihilistic society:

[Socrates:] . . . the worthy disciples of philosophy will be but a small remnant: perchance some noble and well-educated person, detained by exile in her service, who in the absence of corrupting influences remains devoted to her; or some lofty soul born in a mean city, the politics of which he contemns and neglects; and there may be a gifted few who leave the arts, which they justly despise, and come to her. . . .Those who belong to this small class have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen enough of the madness of the multitude; and they know that no politician is honest, nor is there any champion of justice at whose side they may fight and be saved. Such an one may be compared to a man who has fallen among wild beasts –he will not join in the wickedness of his fellows, but neither is he able singly to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore seeing that he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and reflecting that he would have to throw away his life without doing any good either to himself or others, he holds his peace, and goes his own way. He is like one who, in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along, retires under the shelter of a wall; and seeing the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content, if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good-will, with bright hopes. –-The Republic

In our own time, Alasdair MacIntyre concluded After Virtue, one of the most influential works of moral philosophy in recent decades, with a suggestion that, at this point, the good life might be preserved by small communities that withdraw from the larger society in order to keep alive among themselves the ideals of civility and morality:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.

Needless to say, such visions are anathema to today’s heirs of the revolutionary ideologies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who envision an egalitarian society formed by subjecting everyone to universal principles, as discerned and articulated by a governing elite. One hallmark of their thinking is the idea that everyone needs to ordered into one large and centrally-administered system. Their recurrent attempts to ban and suppress dissent grows out of their sense that their plans won’t work if those outside the inner party are allowed to leave the plantation.

The obvious products of this vision include such laws as “No Child Left Behind,” which moves toward a nationalized and centralized education system and leads to the Common Core State Standards, which begin to put teeth in the vision by instituting a national testing regime, and by “The Affordable Health Care” law which in a similar way brings much of the health care industry under the control of a governing elite. The original founding vision of America, which George Washington and others communicated by citing Micah, is quite distant: “. . .they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

The standards movement as it has played out in the state where I work, Montana, has communicated a fundamental incoherence: while the law has promoted the belief that literacy and numeracy come first–since they are the subjects that are actually tested and reported–this has been unaccompanied by any clarity about how schools might accomplish significant improvements in these subjects.

In the case of English, this has remained one class among six or seven in each student’s schedule–which amounts to less than an hour a day for most students. Within that hour, teachers are expected to teach the full range of writing, from basic conventions such as pronoun antecedent errors and parallel structure, to proficient writing in several modes–persuasive, narrative, and expository–demonstrating their ability to write essays comparing various works, exhibiting insight into how point of view affect structure and meaning, and so on. That would be quite a lot, but the standards don’t stop there. Students are also expected to gain considerable background in English and American literature from the seventeenth through the twenty-first centuries in all the major genres, including poetry, fiction, and the varieties of nonfiction.

Where are the serious conversations about how such ideals might be realized? They do not seem to be occurring within the one, big system.

Getting family right: we learn by our mistakes (if all else fails)

We can change what the word "marriage" means, but  some men and women will still form lifelong partnerships with each other, with a central purpose of having and raising children. We will always have a name for those relationships.

We can change what the word “marriage” means, but some men and women will still form lifelong partnerships with each other, with a central purpose of having and raising children. We will always have a name for those relationships.

The sexual revolution continues providing a large data base of social science research establishing the wrong-headedness of progressive simplicities regarding marriage and families. We now just how wrong the advocates for easy divorce thirty years ago really were. The consequences have not been at all what they predicted. Divorce is hard on everyone involved, and it often has lasting effects on children. The path toward personal and societal improvement is difficult, depending as it does on changing our character.

There will always be conscience-easing arguments available on such venues as Huffington Post and Salon, and we will continue to find and hold rationalizations that soothe our failures. Arguments in favor of what is easy and simple abound. It’s been noted that modernity dissolves everything. That dissolution often begins with arguments that are relatively simple, relying on logic rather than history.

It’s a familiar pattern. I just finished Levin’s new book on the debate between Burke and Payne about the French Revolution. What struck me most vividly was the relative simplicity of Payne’s arguments–abstract reasoning from initial assumptions. By contrast, Burke was establishing complex balances, arguing for prudence and modesty, given the complexity of human societies. Payne was much easier to understand. He was popular with young people and people who were unhappy and wanted to blame society for their problems.

But it was Burke, of course, whose conclusions proved prophetic–while Payne’s proved to be dramatically wrong. What we got was not a liberal utopia, but a reign of terror. The trouble was that Payne’s simple assumptions about human nature were simply inadequate to the reality, so his logical conclusions drawn from those assumptions differed dramatically from what happened in actual history.

The revolution against traditional marriage will follow a similar course, I expect. The arguments for “marriage equality” are easy to peddle, especially when they are backed by a huge propaganda effort using popular media. The social science–particularly on the effects on children–is already failing to confirm the rosy predictions.

Modernity has dissolved a great many traditional orders, and because of that we are accumulating a vast scientific basis for seeing more clearly the wisdom of many of those orders. Eventually, we will get back on track, with a better understanding. Science and revelation do arrive at the same point, in time.

Unfortunately, the cost of learning by making mistakes is very high.

The third reality: a brief introduction

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

Peace is a complex order that can be experienced even in the midst of trouble.

The way of the teacher

No one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them, and having been taught, we have to freely choose them.

The third reality is peace–not as a sort of slumber but as an all-consuming engagement possible only through love. The third reality is living in and through love. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, which it both includes and transcends.

Societies of peace necessarily are created and sustained through the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. The economy for those living in the third reality is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants–promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What may be given is as important as what will be received as, for those in love, giving and receiving merge into being.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. We all have something to fear from justice. Who has not done that he ought not to have done? We by trespassing and being trespassed. We live here in history, where being wronged is the human condition.

Those who walk the road to peace find at fork after fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find themselves getting more alone as they go. It’s an easy road and many have grown accustomed to it.

Returning becomes the daily work of those who would know peace. Again and again they find it is necessary to turn back and start over. They study mercy, wanting first to receive it as they learn to offer it.

A separate peace

Having recognized that they have made mistakes, they tend to be forgiving. A Separate Peace was popular in high school classrooms for many years, in a past that now seems almost a foreign country. Teenagers are in a stage of life where friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence. The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–-other people in general–-exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. We read other people with the same cognitive tools we use to read fiction. We hear scraps of dialogue, note expressions and gestures, overhear gossip–and we make inferences and interpretations.

Sometimes our inferences are wrong. In the course of A Separate Peace, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas.

The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

Anyone who spends much time with adolescents–or other people–will recognize how close friendship and rivalry often are. The fictive Phineas that exists only in Gene’s mind isn’t his first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he knew the truth. When he learns that, however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior, it was still only a theory, and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene told himself a lie about another person, then believed it, and then acted on it. His accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence leads to the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. Generally, we learn to recognize this common pattern most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Peace in a world with enemies

Sometimes we lose awareness of the third reality because it’s so easy and somehow gratifying to reading conscious evil intent into the actions of others–especially rivals. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace as regards how others treat us, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it often is, then we easily find ourselves imagining strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy ever known. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a thinner and paler reality–a stark place without enough air. The true realist, seeing a reality as deep as the night sky, knows that nothing else will work.

People who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well find temporal suffering as he lives by such a policy.

All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations, taking our turns at being both a teacher and a learner. When people act badly, the teacher assumes the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we choose to think that a person acting badly doesn’t understand. A person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed so much he needs to be rescued. If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so he teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the only way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by righteous judgement and just punishment. But as every good parent understands, punishment can be delivered in a spirit of love.

Two ways, one road

The peacemaker learns that there really are only two ways: one leads toward greater life–which is greater connection and greater order–and the other leads toward greater disorder–which involves separation and death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can become one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate and easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down the continuum but will tend to do so without steady work to avoid it. This is the work of peace: willing and keeping complex human orders.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity. Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. Peace is hard work, and a peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption. Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.

Which stories?

As we find the stories, both in books and in living, that we will pass on, we need to remember that stories that only evoke fear are not as good as those that also teach an understanding of principles, and those that only clarify principles are not as good as those that in addition encourage peace. More specifically, a story that leads me to take delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself, and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family, and one that shows me how to feel compassion for all of humanity is better than one that leads me to think of outsiders as enemies. One that instills a reverence for all of creation is about as good as stories get.

The best stories allow us to glimpse the largest reality, and they give us courage to work at joining. The right stories help us understand ways of living that respect the meaning and integrity of each part.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within, a harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we have to surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of the order that existed before them. To teach them about peace we surround them to the extent we can with a peace we’ve made, showing them how it works and what the rules are and why they should love it.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. But no matter how urgent things appear around us, our first responsibility is to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the contention and conflict we had hoped to resolve. We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have made.

Teachers should be accountable–but to whom?

This video is an MSNBC promo–anchor Melissa Harris-Perry takes the next logical step, arguing that parents need to give their children over to the collective.

The accountability movement has persuaded many people that teachers are mainly accountable to the federal government or its surrogates–and increasingly state governments have accepted their role in education as vassals of the fed. School reformers normally discuss accountability in terms of mechanisms that allow people at the center to dictate to people in the classroom.

Where do parents fit into this scheme? Increasingly, they are simply ignored. As a teacher I’ve recognized that I have various obligations–certainly to my employer, and to some degree to the various agencies that provide funds with strings attached to schools.

But I’ve always felt that the heart of my job is to be a partner with parents–that my primary accountability is to them. They bear the main responsibility for the education of their children, and my work is to assist them in their work. Such a partnership is easy and mostly delightful when teacher and parent are on the same page regarding what is good for young people. For the most part, I haven’t encountered serious conflicts with parents as to what is reasonable and desirable for their children in an English classroom.

Lately, I’m being told that I am accountable to the collective. I would feel better about that if I could detect the slightest trace of irony in those who say such things. But they seem serious. Zealous, even. My disquiet is fed by awareness that, historically, people who fantasize about collectives don’t rest until they include everyone. Collectives work by creating total worlds–or antiworlds, in James Kalb’s view. They aren’t self-correcting. They keep expanding until they collapse.

At bottom, collectives distrust all outsiders, because they are not based on truth and thus need to constantly repress all voices except the orthodox. The collective desires to replace all other agents as the focus of attention, and this is complicated by competing visions. For the school collectivists, a natural question is “Why should accountability to the collective stop at the school house doors?” If education is a socializing process orchestrated by experts to meet goals set by the Managers, how can parents be left out of the scheme? For those who accept utilitarian principles–which includes most collectivists–arguments about the rights of parents sound nonsensical, remnants of an old order that is rapidly fading into a new order.

It’s only a matter of time before the accountability movement expands to hold parents accountable. It’s the sort of reversal that lies at the heart of ideology. Old schoolers believe the government, including its schools, is accountable to citizens. Many parents still think there is more to education than a global competition to eat each other’s lunches. Such a view springs from a poorly imagined economy, based on a simplistic Darwinian psychology, that imagines the economy as a competition one either wins or loses.

Fortunately, there are other ways to live. I love my garden, but I assume others in other places can also create wonderful gardens, and I hope they do. It doesn’t detract from mine at all, and the reality that they share my love for many things makes me happy. There are no real limits to the number of jobs we can have, or the amount of wealth we can create. We do not need to eat at others’ expense, and the highest and best use of schooling is not to engage in dog eat dog competition with the rest of the world.

I want each of my students to learn as much as he or she is willing to learn, without trammeling the freedom of each person–a freedom that has deep roots in the soul. I can entice and persuade, but I cannot coerce.

I want my students to contemplate what we know of love and of justice and of fear by considering many stories, both in fiction and in history. I want to them to think of that simple progression and what it means in the many, many places we have seen it: from fear to justice and from justice to love. I want to help them deepen and broaden their understanding of human flourishing, quite beyond the skills they need for the workplace–although I also believe that work will always be foundational to the good life, and that some knowledge and skill that are useful is central to life.

I want my students to love the places they live and the people they live with, and to come to better and better understanding of how those places work and who those people are. I want their sense of community to keep expanding, to include not just those who are here now but those who were once here, and those who are yet to come. I want them to think about how to live in ways that do not depend on the destruction of other places or the impoverishment of other people.

I’m having trouble seeing how the collectivists are much help with any of this. I prefer a world in which collectivists and teachers are both accountable to parents.

Loyalty to family and place?–or to career and calling?

Choice, Part 1

choiceDSCN8976What is most important–to eat food or to fulfill one’s duties? It’s easy to imagine a situation where one is hungry but also obligated to some task that interferes with grabbing a bite to eat, but to pose the dilemma as a simple choice doesn’t help much. The attempt to make a choice more clear by reducing it to simple terms fails. Of course, to live we must eat. But will we die before we get the job done?

A similar sort of confusion through failed simplification often haunts the dilemma of localism versus careerism. Should one remain loyal to one’s family and community or should one pursue one’s personal development and calling? I’m delighted that more people–such as the Porchers–are seeing that such a choice is a real dilemma. Public schools can be quite obtuse in their assumption that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of higher test scores, attendance at better colleges, and success in higher-paying jobs with better benefits. Those who choose to make local loyalties a priority in their lives would do well not to make their case by arguing that education and career success have little value.

We have to judge. It’s our primary work as human beings. The structure of the human mind immersed in time compels us to it. We can only do one thing at a time. So if we decide, for example, to build a canoe, we cannot use the same time to weed a garden. Even more fundamental, we can only think one thought at a time, so while we are struggling to compose a sonnet we cannot use the same time to research a business plan. Since we can’t stop thinking and are free to think whatever we want, what occupies our minds moment by moment represents the most significant judgments we have made.

The progress of modern societies have brought more and more of life into the realm of choice. A person born into a traditional Crow culture in eighteenth century Montana no doubt faced hard choices. The council fires to decide when and where to hunt, how to respond to Blackfeet war parties, and what remedies to try for sickness were no less demanding or complex than today’s cabinet meetings. And then, as now, courage was valued but temptations toward cowardice were plentiful.

But for most Crows, there was only one world—the world of the tribe embedded in Creation. Although they made hard judgments within the story of who they were, they encountered few suggestions that that story was only a choice. It was given, and, for the most part, accepted without question. A Crow born today, like anyone else, will hear the story of Christianity, the story of traditional Crow religion, the story of Bhuddism, but also the story of rock and roll hedonism, the story of economic determinism, the story of humanistic psychology and dozens of others. I met a Crow teenager in Pryor, Montana, who had hung a cross from a chain around his neck under a t-shirt with a picture of the heavy metal band Metallica. Over this he wore a jacket beaded with the emblem of his clan. Quite postmodern–cultures from all times and places jostling together on a shrinking planet. The best definition of modernism might simply be “competing narratives.”

Because we have different versions of reality available, we are not only free to choose, we are forced to choose. Some people face this daunting task by pretending that it doesn’t matter. They reduce fundamental judgments to “lifestyles” as though they are only deciding among the season’s fashion in shoes. We can adopt the libertarian view that all choices are equal, in that they equally represent an individual’s choice. But we know it’s not true. There is something fundamentally better about a wealthy movie star who spends a fortune starting a school for third world children and one who buys and yacht and blows a fortune on cocaine. Drawing lines with precision is difficult, but seeing that there are significant differences is easy. Some cultures build hospitals but some build only cannons. Some create places dominated by terror, some are held in order by law, and a few manage to organize themselves according to the principles of love.

Note that I am now talking about principles. To clarify the choices we face, we need to understand the principles that are in conflict. Principles are ideals. They are the rules not of the world as it is but of a world as we want it to be. The rules of life as Machiavelli tried to derive them from history may suggest that lying and theft sometimes work, in the sense that people sometimes do profit from them. People may indeed choose lying and theft when they advance one’s self-interest. There are many places where such principles are widely adopted governing principles, and we can see quite vividly the sort of world that results. The principles we choose to live by become our vote for the sort of world that humanity is making.

Clarifying principles is vital, but it’s not the end of the work. As an educational matter, it’s the beginning. The hard choices are not between good and evil so often as they are between two goods. Good principles are often in conflict, and in the ongoing work of choice our thinking becomes more complex as as understanding increases. Duty or food? Family or career? The question are less either/or and more when, and to what degree.

The choice that God gave Adam and Eve was to remain in the garden forever, in a sort of innocent stasis, or to eat the fruit that led to knowledge of good and evil–making one more like God, the text says. Mortality and a thousand sorrows were part of the choice, but it was knowledge of good and evil that they chose, and we remain their heirs. It’s not a simple choice. In this world, good and evil are entangled and sometimes inseparable, like wheat and quack grass. It’s also true that evil events bring to pass good consequences–as the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship deepened our understanding of what is needed to realize freedom, brotherhood, and equality. Each of us must do for ourselves our part of that work that began long ago–gaining knowledge of good and evil. It’s a necessary knowledge to any who would be good, which is a stronger and more complex thing than to be innocent.

Teaching ignobility

stairs downIt’s harder for teachers now than it once was to get students to consider what Odysseus turns his back upon and what he opens his heart toward. The classics teacher has always faced the intellectual docility of youth, but the work of revealing and naming the ideals that formed this civilization was once backed by the authority of a culture.

However, we now live amid something of an anti-culture–which is what sociologist Philip Rieff called the society that developed through our release of desire from sacred interdictions or prohibitions. Those interdictions once guided human desire–educated it. However, champions of a therapeutic view have argued that human happiness lies in the liberation of desire from precisely such prohibitions.

One of the noisiest popularizers of the therapeutic was Abraham Maslow. With his “hierarchy of needs,” he promised to provide a “scientific” basis for the study of motivation–though his method was closer to cocktail party musings than to scientific research, consisting of hanging out with people in his social milieu and contemplating how much superior they were to the masses. Maslow argued that the old “regime” with its concern for “discipline” should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: “If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness.” He promised liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies.

He suggested a new type of human, which he called “healthy.” People with “unmet needs” were “unhealthy.” He used “needs” to refer to everything from the body’s dependence on oxygen, to the soul’s desire for a mate, to the addict’s desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need. Once a therapeutic regime was in place, he said, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as “sick-man-created” gratuities.

For the superior persons–i.e. Maslow and his liberated friends–were truly superior, i.e., healthy, and doing what they wanted to do made all the sense that needed to be made. “Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about–perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs.”

The tale Maslow told was the dream of self–indeed, it’s a theory of selfishness packaged with a smattering of jargon. For him, the “self-actualizing human” was at the apex of creation, which left love of others as a mid-level appetite. He seemed genuinely puzzled by what other writers said about love. For example, he mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies “responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge.” This annoyed Maslow. It “sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness,” he said. Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, “can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily.” “Healthy” people are “lusty animals” who don’t make commitments.

If Maslow is right, it may be that Odysseus on the enchanted island might need therapy more than he needs to return to Penelope. But if Homer was right, then a good life is not simply one’s own. Humans have responsibilities, duties, obligations, and debts.

When the “New Left” made the “sexual revolution” a mainstream phenomenon in the sixties, they believed that releasing eros from capitalism was key to “the revolution.” Without sexual repression, guilt and the work ethic would melt away, and individual satisfaction of instincts and desires could become the proper goal of the collective. The sixties, to those who defended the cultural revolution, represented a “widespread shared feeling” that a new world was dawning. The pursuit of individual virtue gave way to a euphoric emotion of virtue, fed by mass meetings, marches and street protests. Individual development of character mattered less than social development of policies to support the liberated individual.

The psychological release of the individual from the sacred didn’t destroy capitalism, but it has succeeded at creating a deeply divided nation, with the social cleavage fundamentally organized around ideas of religion and sex–on one side, people who believe the old understanding of the sacred helped form character and encouraged commitments necessary to family and community, and on the other people who see them as superstitious sources of guilt and judgment.

David Lapp recently made a quite old-fashioned observation about shifts in America’s moral vision. He had been visiting a small Ohio town, which include attending an ice cream social. His comments and the responses on his blog illustrate the rift that characterizes America today:

An elderly married couple sat across from us at the ice cream social, and they described to us how, like many of their neighbors, they moved up from Kentucky when they were young, in search of better jobs (we’ll call them Bob and Kathy). Bob grew up on a small dairy farm—“we milked the cows by hand”—and his family didn’t even have electricity until he was a teenager.

The elderly married couple sitting to our right were self-described “hillbillies” from the coal mines of West Virginia (we’ll call them Ernie and Wanda). Wanda’s family in West Virginia was dirt poor: they didn’t even have a car, and her father, a coal miner, would arrive home caked in coal and take a bath in the kitchen tub (“I don’t know how he ever got clean!”).

Their humble origins notwithstanding, both couples insisted that life today is worse than it was when they were growing up. “I feel sorry for you kids, ‘cuz you don’t get to live in those good ‘ole days,” Wanda remarked.

“What were the ‘good ‘ole days like?’” I asked.

“Families were close,” Wanda remarked without a moment’s hesitation.

Kathy elaborated that “People had more time for each other,” and described how people would leave their doors unlocked and neighbors would come over to visit unannounced. Families had regular meals with each other, she said, and they sat on their front porches and visited with other families.

Lapp mused on the fact that although times had been harder economically, lives had been better. There was more happiness, and this happiness was related to morality. “How do we square that [economic] explanation with Wanda and Kathy’s insistence that family life was better for dirt-poor Kentuckians and West Virginians than it is for today’s relatively better-off working class men and women?” he asked.

This reminded him of an earlier conversation, when he asked an old woman to describe marriage and family life in her childhood compared to now. The woman said life used to be better. “They don’t marry today,” the sixty year old woman answered. “They just live together…. You didn’t live with someone back then—it was disgraceful. They had morals.”

They had morals. If that sounds like old-fashioned morality from a hillbilly in Middle America, well, I say, chalk one up to hillbilly wisdom. It seems to me like a fairly succinct explanation of why, a couple generations ago, families could thrive in poverty-stricken communities of Appalachia and why they’re falling apart in a time of relative abundance. I don’t mean at all to minimize the seriousness of the Great Recession, and how it is no doubt putting a strain on working class marriages. However, at least today even many unemployed working class men have big-screen TVs with a Dish Network attached to their house—the point being, most of us aren’t living in the kind of poverty that Wanda and Kathy’s parents experienced in Appalachia. However, what many working class folks don’t have today are norms against easy divorce and having children outside of marriage. So I think my elderly friends are on to something: marriage and family life is not necessarily always at the mercy of “economic forces”—norms make a difference.

Such an observation of course provoked the usual anger from people who hate the old morality. These are some of the comments the post triggered:

“My experience growing up as a Southern Baptist in Louisiana is that these people have very narrow ideas of morality. . .There is a lot of social pathology that informs ‘hillbilly wisdom.'”

“I rather doubt these norms produced much happiness, at least not for many people. The stultifying effects of small town ‘morality’ is an abiding theme of American literature, as is the need to escape small towns and provincial attitudes in order to discover happiness. You don’t have to be Richard Florida to know that the brightest young people feel stifled and trapped in cultural backwaters.”

“My objection to this kind of nostalgic vision of the past, especially when it is coupled with such a subjective and nebulous concept as ‘morals,’ is that it tends to reify some of the worst aspects of American life and history. In general whenever people start talking about their superior morals, I begin watching my wallet because I suspect that they are either hypocrites or hucksters or both.”

“I don’t think the ‘hillbilly wisdom’ version of morality was actually very moral. I’m pretty sure it involved ostracizing everyone who didn’t conform to unsophisticated people’s notions of sexual morality. . . I suspect this ‘hillbilly wisdom’ contributed to a lot more unhappiness than happiness.”

“One problem is that the ‘norms’ you are celebrating, even the ones I agree with, are so tied up with ignorance, hypocrisy, and hatred, that it is hard to take them seriously. They have been besmirched by being captured by right-wing ideologues who are more interested in manipulating people than improving the lives of even those they manipulate.”

Most adults are well aware of the cleavage that now runs through American life, that is quickly visible if the topic of morality comes up. We do not inhabit a shared sacred order, and no one has authority to sustain any rival order. We maintain an illusion of serene harmony by avoiding, in mixed company as it were, the discussion of moral questions. That might work for many social situations, but how does it work as the educational philosophy of a people? The apostles of sexual liberation, such as Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich, were clear that such a liberation would have profound consequences.

Marcuse contended that relaxing sexual morality would lead to a relaxing of social morality generally. Without psychological moral inhibitions, the individual would enjoy a “loss of conscience,” becoming less able to make moral judgments about political and social functioning. “Marcuse refers to this ‘loss of conscience’ as a ‘happy consciousness,’ meaning that since the individual is ostensibly incapable or differentiating between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, good and evil, his ignorance is a passive contentment” (Bernstein, Frankfurt School: critical assessments, Volume 5). The pacified consciousness is content with its material and social situation.

For a teacher still concerned with justice and injustice, this pacified consciousness appears as little more than moral stupefaction. According to the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, moral stupefaction is an accurate description of many of today’s young people. Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America. What they found was that when “asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life, many young people grope “to say anything sensible on these matters.” They lack the mental categories, the vocabulary, and the inclination to engage in moral thought.

Here’s a typical exchange between the interviewer and a young respondent:

I: Do you think people have any moral responsibility or duty to help others or not?

R: Um, if others are your family and you see someone in danger, yeah. But I don’t ever stop when I see somebody on the side of the road, so I guess somewhat sometimes. Maybe if someone is burning in the car, you should try and pull them out, but, no, not really.

I: Are there some other examples of ways we’re obligated to help other people?

R: I mean, I really don’t donate money, and even if I had money I don’t know if I would, so.

I: What about helping people in general? Are we as a society obligated to do something?

R: I really don’t think there’re any good reasons, nope, nothing.

I: What if someone just wasn’t interested in helping others? Would that be a problem or not?

R: No, I don’t see why that would be a problem.

I: And why is that?

R: Because I mean is that really our duty, to help others? Is that what we’re here for? I mean, they can help [themselves], if they’re just getting by, doing what they do by themselves, then do they really need anyone else? So if they don’t need help from anyone else, if somebody’s asking for some other people all the time then they’re not giving in return.

I: So if someone asks for help, we don’t have an obligation to them?

R: Yeah, it’s up to each individual, of course.

According to Smith, to understand these young people it’s necessary to understand that they “do not appeal to a moral philosophy, tradition, or ethic as an external guide by which to think and live in moral terms.” They see the world as consisting of individuals, each of whom comprises his or her own moral universe. This makes it impossible for them “to rationally evaluate or criticize any moral wrong, including the horrific destruction and violence that helped drive them to this tolerant position in the first place.” Even when the topic is murder done by terrorists, they cannot form a moral judgment: “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?” Fully of third of the young people interviewed said that “they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong.”

Even more sobering, many of them could not make sense of the questions–could not understand what a moral question was. They did, however, have a social sense, and they vaguely felt that what others thought of them was the basis of what was right or wrong. “About four out of ten (40 percent) of the emerging adults we interviewed referred to how other people would think of them as (at least partly) defining what for them would be morally right and wrong. To the extent that emerging adults feel morally lost in their own minds, looking to the reaction of others (who they presumably trust) may provide what they consider to be mostly reliable guides to determine right from wrong.” Thinking about right and wrong, for them means “how you want yourself to be known, to be looked at.”

Smith says “we are letting them down, sending many, and probably most, of them out into the world without the basic intellectual tools and basic personal formation needed to think and express even the most elementary of reasonably defensible moral thoughts and claims. And that itself, we think, is morally wrong.” Though the blame for the moral stupefaction of young Americans is widespread, the researchers believe schools in particular should think about what they are doing:

Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. . . . One big theme that stuck out. . .was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.

The sociologists suggest that young Americans “are a people deprived, a generation that has been failed, when it comes to moral formation.” They point out that the young people are pleasant and that their desire to please and to go along probably masks the extent to which they do not think of themselves as moral beings. ” They have had withheld from them something that every person deserves to have a chance to learn: how to think, speak, and act well on matters of good and bad, right and wrong.”

Such is the social context in which many of us teach today. The intentional corruption of eros was at the heart of modern ideology’s assault on capitalism. The stated goal was to undermine capitalist society by dissolving the psychological orientation our which traditional society had flowed. Sexual liberation was always a liberation from tradition, including from family–-from husbands, from children. It was a liberation from shame and guilt, from the expectations of others. Its success was enough that we are now in position to see that in myriad ways, some unintended, it was also a liberation from right and wrong in general, leaving the self to operate alone in a cosmos of desire.

In Symposium, Diotima told Socrates that eros is “desire of all good things and of being happy.” It is a divine force that permeates all of being. It is vast–much more than genital sexuality–and it initiates every action we take. Socrates understood that it is eros, James Rhodes tells us, that lies “at the heart of who we become–how we use food and drink; how we love spouses, children, friends, and sexually attractive beauties; how well we perform our jobs; and how much we involve ourselves in the great scramble to gratify the acquisitive instinct.”

The sexual revolution was never mainly about sex. It was about burning an ancient bridge from individual desire to realities beyond the self.

The enchanted cave, part 1

Odysseus with Calypso

Odysseus spent his days staring at the sea toward home.

We see our educational crisis most clearly when we turn our attention to desire. We can’t miss the dispiriting reality that many young people don’t desire what we offer. We talk about disengagement and lack of motivation. We discern even among those who do their assignments what seem to be unintelligent or even ignoble desires. We talk about narcissism, cheating and consumerism.

Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–-at the flick of an Ipod high tech speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more. Probably we want something different.

Listening to contemporary arguments about education, carried on for the most part with no mention of anything very important, I find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s quite compelling distractions. Every morning he left the enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach to gaze out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. It was not what he was made for.

He was born to make worlds. That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him–-his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone to the underworld and posterity not yet born, and, most important, the kingdom that had emerged through his marriage to Penelope.

Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond or even a sacred bond. Wendell Berry notes that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family of both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth” (The Unsettling of America, 127). He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” which is necessary if love is to be enacted and embodied, was the goal of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a home that could only be had by making the world which situated it. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, keeping him from a stronger desire. It was a vacation from the things he felt seriously.

Calypso’s island is a familiar place to most people. Many of us reached some island of relative peace and pleasure, compared to other places we’ve experienced. It isn’t what we set out for, but it’s better than it might have been, and who knows if there can be any more? One could settle.

Last week one of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. She was in a desultory mood, and the novel was tied up with her vision of how she wished the world might be. She was trying to bring into focus career plans for after high school. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.

“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after,” I said teasingly.

“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”

It’s certainly true that they are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remains high.

Increasingly, young people feel trapped in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” cultural relativism had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” which thrives on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.

Reality and art mirror each other, or become each other. In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing 2011, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty; country music’s embrace of the stripper pole and a holiday performance from Lady Gaga in which she did a bump and grind while performing ‘White Christmas.’” At this point, such reports fill volumes.

A typical response to them is to affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of bad youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact lived at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. He was quite aware of a general dissolution–cultural suicide really–of Greek society. In fact, the moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.

But what’s a teacher to do? Our work is difficult enough, amid such distractions as percussion lines marching in the halls to celebrate spirit week, phone logs to document calls home, emails with deadlines for curriculum maps to show compliance, PA announcements about photo retakes, staff meetings to discuss yet again the tardies, the dress code, and PDAs. All this can make it hard to wonder whether what Homer saw is still real, and therefore still relevant to that boy with the sly grin in the second row–to wonder what, precisely, such a kid might need to hear  from a man who rejected hanging out in a place where he could stay forever young, with no hassles, on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”?

Contemplating Failure (poetry)

Some things today had me thinking about a poem from The Lit Window and the choices I began making a long time ago and continue making today. As I said to a friend today, I’ve never regretted choices I made in favor of family and relationships.


Contemplating Failure

I wanted like a cat to measure myself
by whisker deeper into the dark passage.
Instead, I’ve been father and teacher,
proclaiming some prairie noon as if–

I keep thinking. To his daughter’s offered rose
Rodin’s thought was stone. Rilke’s family
passed him unattended like the distraction
of a passing wagon. Faulkner claimed a good fiction
outvalued a mere old woman. Byron burned years
in homage to a season. And Yeats pretended
we must choose perfection of the life or of the work.

And yet I winter the job conversations of men
rapt in the clever implications of each other’s
notions about someone’s accountant’s interpretation
of the latest version of the tax code

and come home to my trailer filled with children
and books and sink in getting something done
while Eldon Tarzan-yells from the perilous edge
of the coffee table and Gwendolyn tells
the wide-eyed truth to a mobile yellow telephone
and Christabel remembers with fragmentary
and long-winded exactitude the rapid magic
of a cartoon feud and for the fifth, I think, time
Thucydides says something about the confusion
of power and will–

I am where I want to be.