Escape from nowhere: more reasons for community-centered schools

Higher IQs but lower test scores? What’s going on?

From World War II until now the average American IQ rose by more than 15 points. That’s a startling change. “The average child in 2010 would have been exceptional in 1950,” said Marc Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things in “The troubling trend of cultural IQ.”

Kids are smarter now but they can’t read as well (as they did in 1950).

What’s even more startling is that as those historic gains were occurring, school performance as measured by standardized tests plummeted. Both college professors and employers are struck by how many students and younger workers are “terribly deficient” in basic knowledge and skills. Although test scores have been quite static since 1980 (despite massive commotion due to a series of “reform” initiatives beginning in 1983), from 1962 to 1980 scores on the SAT verbal exam dropped a shocking fifty-four points. That loss has never been made up.

The number of incoming college freshmen who need remediation has kept climbing, and the numbers are now 10% at selective schools, 30% at typical colleges and 60% at two-year schools. The National Assessment of Educational Project (NAEP), our best benchmark for educational improvement or decline, has shown small gains in basic reading skills by young children but these do not result in measurable gains by high schoolers trying to read adult literature. Bauerlein said this is because “the reading tests include passages with diction exceeding the gains made in elementary school.”

So why haven’t large gains in IQ led to any improvement in academic performance? Bauerlein said this is easily understood by drilling down into the IQ data. The IQ tests consist of several subtests that measure different mental functions, such as memory or attention or spatial reasoning. Over the years, changes in various subtests have varied dramatically. What is crucial to understand in relation to academic proficiency is that students’ performance on the subtests for arithmetic and vocabulary have been essentially flat. This is consistent with what the NAEP shows. From 1972 to 2002 general information knowledge scores showed no improvement and vocabulary moved only minimally. Students today are no more capable of comprehending difficult texts than they were before decades “school reform.” Most are not ready for either college or the modern workplace.

What the school reform movement has made clear—after the initiatives and the remedial classes and the revised curriculums and the literacy coaches—is that there are no magic bullets or quick fixes. We should think harder and commit more deeply, maybe, because that verbal reasoning that fell in the 1960s and 1970s is vital for civic engagement in any setting amid the marketplace of ideas, including universities and the professional and managerial workplace. As things stand now, those higher IQ scores are not helping people to evaluate the rhetoric of a Barrack Obama or a Donald Trump or to perceive the veiled bias of a news story or to comprehend the moral distance between the competing claims of pop culture movements. They aren’t helping mothers and fathers find wisdom amid the sea of blarney that washes over citizens in the information age.

Youth culture can isolate adolescents from adult voices.

Another interesting fact that Bauerlein points out is that adults have shown gains in knowledge and vocabulary as measured by the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale(WAIS). This is most likely because many of them have attended college and took classes in such core subjects as literature, history, psychology, economics, and science. This raises the obvious question why then haven’t their children shown gains? We would expect larger vocabularies and more knowledge to affect both the reading and the conversation of adults, which should create a richer intellectual context in the home for their children. So we would expect rising rather than flat test scores for their children.

Why hasn’t this happened? One interesting possibility is that high schools themselves isolate teenagers from the adult intelligence that might otherwise surround them. According to New Zealand social scientist James R. Flynn (whose studies brought widespread attention to the rising IQ scores), since the 1950s a teenage subculture has developed that insulates young people from “adult speak.” Adolescents hang out together, adopting their own idiom, fashions, mores, movies, and music—creating what the great education researcher James Coleman called “the adolescent society.” An uncharitable observation would be that our teenagers are failing to learn very much because they are cooped up in high schools all day.

In 1909, fewer than 9% of Americans graduated from high school, the rest moving quickly into an adult-centered society. But by 1960, about 70% of teenagers stayed in high school all four years. They saw each other all day in classes, in the halls, at the cafeteria, and they made after-school plans. A youth subculture formed and the authority of adult voices waned. This matters because the lingo of youth culture is less sophisticated than adult conversation, less rich in the content knowledge grownups use to make sense of their world. Teens immersed in youth culture tend to have dawdling vocabularies and thin knowledge of art, politics, economics, history, religion, science and philosophy. The language and the facts such young people most need to act intelligently in the world (not to mention to score well on standardized tests) is not often present in the company that dominates in their world.

Some schools mimic the liturgy of rock concerts in their design of assemblies.

Many schools no longer offer much resistance to youth culture. Visiting a school will make it clear to which schools are more shaped and formed by pop culture than they are to whatever academic communities survive in our universities. Many schools are adopting a marketing approach, trying to offer whatever “sells” in the youth market. This makes perfect sense to anyone whose main intellectual context is pop culture. Some administrators have begun to mimic the liturgical form of the rock concert for school assemblies. The lobbies are full of propaganda, somewhat resembling the Capitol in the Hunger Games films.

In response to a widely perceived sorry state of affairs, the goal of the Common Core State Standards, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative, was to prepare low- and middle-income students for the rigors of a college education. Predictably, it crashed upon the reality that a college curriculum is presented in language beyond the reach of many students. Slogans such as “every child can learn” and “no child left behind” have no effect on the fact that the College Board sets college readiness at a score of 1180 on the SAT but we’ve only managed to get 10% of seventeen-year-olds reading at that level.

We push college for everyone, so now more students than ever begin college, but graduation rates have been stuck in the low thirties, suggesting an intellectual barrier we have learned no way to breach. So large numbers of first-year students pay college-level fees for remedial courses but cannot stick it out till graduation, leaving without diplomas but with unconscionable levels of debt.

Is hope justified?

Is there a solution? Bauerlein doesn’t offer one. He observed that “parents and mentors need to spend more time conversing with youths, reading the newspapers together, going on cultural outings. . . and adding grownup affairs to the menu of adolescence.” But he recognizes that saying such things isn’t a solution. “The parents and mentors inclined to heed our exhortations probably already recognize the problem and strive to restrain it—they don’t need our advice—while the others haven’t the space to listen or the disposition to act.”

American society has operated for decades now on flawed understandings of is best for adolescents. “Few things in this world,” he said, “have stronger momentum than cultural mores and values that settle into people’s heads as the way reality operates.”

The great need, to the extent that Bauerlein is right, is for teens to spend more time talking with adults about grownup matters. I’m at least as skeptical as Bauerlein is that we are going to get to such a society—where high schoolers performance is a match for their IQs—anytime soon. I’m quite sure that yet another argument with reasons and statistics is not going to have much influence on schools. The trouble, if that’s what it is, arises in the culture from which today’s Americans get their notions of what is worth wanting, what is worthy of effort and what the point of all our striving might be. A rock star influences pop culture, and thus school climate, more by intoning “We don’t need no education” than a professor publishing the latest article in Educational Leadership.

My personal experience

Students in St. Ignatius, Montana, interview Hermann Detert in his home as part of an oral history project.

I’ve earned my skepticism through hard work and money spent. Over a dozen years I spent more than $8 million promoting a different vision for schooling. Working with the Library of Congress and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, I directed the Heritage Project, enlisting 34 Montana high schools to reconnect high schoolers with the people in the community who were doing the adult work of building and sustaining communities. The heart of the project was having those adults assist students with collaborative research on real concerns in real places. The way forward was to escape from nowhere—the abstract curriculum and impersonal teaching championed by people from away, sitting at a big table in the convention center.

I wrote a book based on that experience. At that time, I talked about “community-centered” teaching practices (which were a form of pushback at the “student-centered” teaching that dominated professional training at the time). The romantic urge to cater to the fast-moving attention of high schoolers was very strong among teachers and administrators, and in many discussions about how to advance the game I encountered little discussion about including students in the circle of grownups talking about larger and more enduring concerns. We have too many adults trying to join the conversations in youth culture rather than trying to bring teenagers into adult conversations. Eudora Welty wisely observed that “To cater to is not to serve, and it’s not to love very well either.”

I began with a lot of optimism. “Montana’s future is being decided right now in its 176 public high schools,” I said. “They are foundational institutions. If they fail, none of our economic or cultural developments will succeed.” My optimism grew in part from an “integrating vision” that I observed growing in the nation—one that both Democrats and Republicans supported. I thought I saw a grassroots movement spreading through America, going by many names: character education, civic education, service learning, and place-based instruction. I tried to unify these various movements under the phrase “community-centered teaching.” At the heart of these various approaches was a simple and unifying insight: we cannot separate education from the community (a corollary was that community development and school improvement are two sides of the same coin).

It seemed to me that various strands of this insight led to an equally simple conclusion: we can revitalize our high schools by making the study of community their central organizing principle. This would mean offering classes that study our civic institutions as they have developed in time and as they are practiced in the real world of our particular communities. It would mean studying history and ecology by including local illustrations. It would mean providing every student opportunities to study ways the local community interacts with its ecological, geographical, business, and historical contexts. Every subject could inject real life into its curriculum by considering what the community had to teach–either by good example or bad. It’s a truism that the only place the universe can actually be studied is locally. There need be nothing narrow or parochial about local studies (though the danger of failing to link local findings to the larger issues is real).

Such studies could go beyond textbook abstractions into detailed examinations of such topics as the role of forests in local economies and in watersheds or the engineering constraints for local water and sewer systems. Working with state and local agencies, students might conduct feasibility studies for businesses or sociological comparisons of varying cultural practices and their impacts on health. They might study historical effects of immigration or infrastructure  projects on particular people.

It was hardly a secret that such approaches had been called for repeatedly by leading educational researchers. High school students are at the developmental stage when they are beginning to form communities, which is why they tend to be so cliquish. The most important educational need of adolescents is to be guided into intelligent explorations of community in all its aspects. One great risk of youth in today’s America is intellectual and spiritual capture by one of the unintelligent communities, real or virtuous, that surround young people and compete for their allegiance. Gangs are only the worst example. Young people are hard-wired to join, and if intelligent communities are unavailable or unattractive then stupid ones will do.

Furthermore, we know that classroom instruction unrelated to real situations often does not lead to understanding or the ability to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the world. It was my faith, confirmed by the work of many excellent teachers, that when young people use academic skills to analyze real issues in the world they know, they move from dull abstractions to deep learning.

They also create social capital. Through the 1950s, one teacher in Pennsylvania connected his high school seniors with local officials to research aspects of the local community. Thirty years later researchers tracked down these students to see whether the experience had measurable long-term effects. The results were stunning. Students who had been involved in local studies in high school were four times more likely than other students to have joined voluntary associations.
By tackling the real issues in their communities alongside committed adults, those students felt a part of the community. They learned to find meaning in shared work. They developed a commitment to civic engagement that lasted throughout their lives. “Imagine the impact on Montana’s future if every student in every high school had similar opportunities,” I said.

I thought of it as a beginning. As schools became more community-centered, communities would become more education-centered. All our agencies, public and private, could have parts to play. Television stations, artists, newspapers, tribal elders, museums, parks, clubs, businesses, chambers of commerce, grandparents, and cowboys could re-examine their roles, seeing what resources they could contribute to the work of engaging our youth in understanding the world in which we make our place. It didn’t seem too much of a stretch: lots of agencies have already figured out they can’t fulfill their missions without educating the public.

What we needed, I thought, was leadership in building suitable frameworks for collaboration. The phrase “citizen science” wasn’t common now, but today I would point to Cornell’s fabulous eBird project, which is channeling the data provided by an army of nonscientists birders into huge computers that are forming a much more complex and fluid picture of our world that has been available before. We need more such projects, with support for high school teachers. I suggested that university researchers could guide rigorous research projects into local communities and ecosystems, using high school classes in a variety of ways. This would involve training teachers, but also guiding local projects and sending graduate students into the field to help students gather, organize, preserve and interpret their field data.

Scientists with the Long-Term Ecological Research Network had used students to assist with cutting-edge scientific problems. In one project, classes at a high school in Seattle and at one in Tuscaloosa took measurements of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, total dissolved solids, total bacteria counts and net primary production while a group of scientists measured the same variables at a pristine site in Antarctica. This allowed researchers both to follow what was happening at each site and to make cross-site comparisons.

The Library of Congress through my work gained experience using high school students to collect oral histories of veterans throughout the nation. Their experiences with the Heritage Project led them to create the ongoing Veterans History Project, modeled on the work we did in Montana. High schools and other community organizations are invited to conduct historical research and document contemporary aspects of community life for the Library’s permanent collections. At that time, I said that “Our educational leaders should be talking in earnest about what research can be undertaken in collaboration with high schools, and our communities should be talking in earnest about what informational infrastructure they need to build, starting with the schools.”

The vision entertained the possibility that when most high schools in Montana were involved in linked, statewide research projects through the universities, our libraries and museums and other cultural institutions as well as our land management agencies, our students’ educations would get a powerful boost at the same time we would all get useful information in an accessible form. Most information in the information age is local because we need detailed local knowledge for our own purposes. Foresters prepare prescriptions for specific sites, based on careful study and historical data. Entrepreneurs conduct original research that closely examines possibilities at particular locations. I know what roses grow well in that spot just north of the two blue spruce trees.

“Montana, and every community in Montana, needs to study itself extensively if it is to thrive,” I said. “No one else will do it for us.”

It’s how we survive and thrive

To a great degree, the issue is bigger than what we usually mean by “education.” The global economy doesn’t—can’t—care what happens here, though it’s become a habit to associate education with the global economy—mainly because the people who benefit most from globalization also tend to be manipulating our laws and institutions for their own benefit. We need to remember that the global economy is never going to have a place for all of us. This will become more and more the case as the robotics revolution proceeds. The global economy needs to be augmented by robust local economies, and it is in the interactions of local economies that we develop our social connections, find the dignified and important roles that make our lives matter, decrease our vulnerability to the restructurings that are routine in global markets, and make it more likely that we will be able to find fresh vegetables and plumbers.

“Most of Montana’s economy will always be local,” I said. “More than anything, Montana needs a generation of educated young people who understand the places they live and want to stay, and who have an entrepreneurial spirit, confidence, and commitment to finding new ways to live well. To develop a thriving local economy, we need to develop a thriving local culture of people who are self-aware, committed to mutual support, and prepared to inquire and learn.

“By organizing our high schools around local studies, we can create what we need.” I still think that’s true. And more than ever, I think saying so is unlikely to make much difference. But then, some things take time.

Lessons Learned

My experiences have suggested several insights: none of them earth-shaking:

A student visits with philanthropist Art Ortenberg at a Youth Heritage Festival in the state capitol. The active participation of Art, and his wife Liz Claiborne, was helpful for getting the state’s major cultural institutions on board, including the Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, and the Montana Arts Council.

1. The imprimatur of prestigious institutions such as the Library of Congress affects school administrators in ways that tightly reasoned professional publications with footnotes and everything do not. School-level leaders adopt programs more readily when doing so involves meeting famous people or hearing that they may find opportunities for professional advancement. Schools are more often led by careerists than by scholars (though the two categories are rarely mutually exclusive).

2. Prestigious institutions are hard to enlist in education initiatives but are not so hard to bribe with promises of foundation money and “public/private partnerships.” Art Ortenberg suggested approaching recalcitrant officials by using “the force of money.”

3. Students believe things are important more readily when prestigious leaders say they are important. They will work harder for recognition (and the chance to travel) than they will to raise their SAT scores. Great things happen when they are invited to do something that matters, supported as they work at it, and then recognized far and wide for what they accomplish.

4. It’s best to work with only with teachers who have voluntarily joined. Teachers who are only pretending to be on board (a routine schoolish tactic) are like sludge in the machinery. They use up scarce resources (mostly time) to no real purpose.

5. Teachers respond to leadership from beyond the school best when they are led to form enduring teams with considerable control over ways to incorporate the principles espoused by the outside agency. Regular face-to-face meetings with the other team members is a necessary part of the work.

6. Developing the vision and learning how to collaborate are the “secrets” to accomplishing enduring change. They remain secrets in spite of being broadcast from rooftops because both are hard to do well. Everything worth doing is difficult, at first and for a while.

7. High schools aren’t actually necessary for the real work. It’s just that right now that’s where the young people are. This is helpful to keep in mind now that there are signs that they are dissolving.


Do school dress codes still make any sense?

Modest girl

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 an angular-faced girl who tended to become strident in any conversation that touched on gender. “Rape culture,” she said dismissively. “You’re blaming  the way girls dress to excuse bad behavior by males.” And so it went.

Before the young feminist could continue,” 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.

A few thoughts on planning an oral history project in China

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

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

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

Yuelu Academy

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.

Big questions
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--one of Dr. Faith Chao's staff.  We were accompanied by Ruth Olson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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.

Philodendron Rules (teaching the vision of goodness)

Revised (original post)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 (Duchess of Edenburgh clematis)

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. Proverbs 29:18 (Duchess of Edenburgh clematis)

Years ago I spent time trying to understand what “goodness” meant. I knew Aristotle’s notion that “goods” where what people pursued–peace, wealth, more comfortable sandals–but I wanted something more vital and clear than that. What I eventually came to, after dozens of detours and cul-de-sacs, was that goodness was essentially a vision of life as we want it. Most importantly, it was the vision of life one can glimpse as through a glass darkly in sacred literature–the vision that deity has revealed and is revealing. We gather the light here a little and there a little, if we seek it with honest hearts and real intent.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? Teachers may confront that question, along with the question of how to talk intelligibly about it, because we sometimes meet young people who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often 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 larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is 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. (Evil, of course, also has an ecology–it is a complex web of oppositions to the vision of goodness.)

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to a garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was gift. That meant that it wasn’t really ours, in a fundamental way. We were completely dependent on much that we could not see and did not understand. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of remaining forever children.

The way back to the garden, we have learned, is to re-create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it. We grow from creature to creator.

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

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the 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.

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

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, 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 to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to 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.”

What we really wanted was for 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.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed 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, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

As Wendell Berry has noted, 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 closely related to 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 such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is 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, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.

What does “The Butler” teach about America’s racial experience?

The Butler

If there’s nothing higher than the White House, there’s little hope.

The Butler doesn’t extend beyond the “progressive narrative” of American history. In this narrative, racism is pervasive−the major theme of our national experience.

In our actual past, racism has always had to contend with the better angels of our nature. Martin Luther King, Jr.was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and the power of his rhetoric is inseparable from the depth of his faith that racism is contrary to God’s will and thus doomed. When he said “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” he was not merely fashioning a trope. He was speaking truth, and he knew it was the white majority that he had to persuade and that most of them favored neither cruelty nor oppression.

Martin Luther King is present in The Butler, but the Christian tenor of his rhetoric is faint. He does defend the butler’s role to his son, who believes that angry political activism is the way to make progress. The King character points out that the domestic servant’s exemplification of service, effort, and restraint powerfully undermines racial stereotypes. He does not look down on the butler, as his son is wont to do.

It was Martin Luther King’s modeling of nonviolent and peaceful reconciliation that prepared the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he said. Such teaching was of a piece with his faith and hope:  “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

This was not Malcolm X’s message. which had more to do with anger and with victory than with love or transcendence: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor.” This derives from Marx. It’s the language of revolutionary ideology, dividing humanity into the classes of oppressor and oppressed. It’s the song  of hatred and bitterness that King warned against.

In the actual past, it was King’s message of peace and brotherhood that prepared America to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which were motivated by a vision of national unity. The political activism of Malcolm X was more useful for building a revolutionary army than for bringing a nation together. People had to choose between the two paths then just as they must now. The film, unfortunately, does not make the choice clear.

In Genesis, Joseph serves as a type of Christ. Sold into slavery, he served Pharaoh meticulously, in spite of his status as a despised minority. His patience and obedience in spite of brutal treatment positioned him to save the tribes of Israel and to ameliorate the harsh realities of this world. He foreshadowed what the Savior had to teach about oppression and brotherhood. He modeled the Christian way, which King profoundly understood.

The film generally leans a different way. In the end, the butler leaves his job at the White House and joins an angry protest movement−against Reagan, of all things. Reagan is presented, absurdly, as opposed to racial equality. This is done through cursory references to Apartheid in South Africa. The film uses the strained expedient of twisting Reagan’s opposition to communism into antagonism towards racial justice, ignoring the actual past, in which South Africa was infected with the same revolutionary ideology that moved Malcolm X.

In the film, enlightenment leads to street politics, serving up a vision of political activism as much of the meaning of goodness. The election of Barack Obama is presented as the apotheosis of our yearning for justice. Such is the progressive vision.

Constructing the choice regime

Choice, Part 2

tattered truth

The end is for choice to replace truth as the cultural standard.

To speak of “wise” choices is subversive of the choice regime. Talk of wisdom implies nature in the Aristotelian sense of an enduring reality that we discover rather than construct. The choice regime prefers to consider the ways that humans create themselves. The theory is most fully explicated in Lacan-influenced feminism. Sex is biological and must be replaced with gender, which is constructed.

The choice regime is a land of illusion, but well-funded illusion with lots of support from the authorities. The governing committees can proclaim that there is no biological basis for maintaining distinctions between the sexes, marriage can be redefined, and appeals to any authority beyond the experts who set the policies is derided as extreme. We desire no durable standard for choice other than what we want, and talk of what we ought to want is tasteless and deranged. If a little boy wants to be a little girl, those who would stand against him using the girls restroom and locker room are opposed to diversity and democracy.

The choice regime will weigh in on the side of the individual’s right to self-creation, and if this is a problem for others–say the little girls who do not want a boy in the restroom–they need to overcome their bigotry and evolve. Those who favor dissolving traditional morality with a regime founded on authenticity and choice may waver as each new frontier comes into view–and there will always be a frontier–but they will evolve just as they did on same-sex marriage, unwed mothers, no-fault divorce and the rest.

Guilt and shame must be dissolved. One can see the process readily in the Anthony Weiner drama. Ordinary common-sense–not to mention principle-based reason–suggests Weiner is something of a fool. His adolescent eagerness to will a contradiction–he wants to indulge his horniness whenever the impulse moves him and he wants to be taken seriously and be given grownup responsibilities. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon offers us help in thinking about this correctly. “Why does it matter?” she asks. “Of course, it probably matters to Huma Abedin, the mother of his child (that is, assuming that they have an agreement of monogamy, and that their definition of monogamy includes refraining from sexting with others)”–that is, if he and his wife have chosen to think that fidelity is important to a marriage. “But why should we care?”

The key to correct thinking is to get the focus off character:

We might tell ourselves that this reveals something relevant about Weiner’s character — his absurd ego or penchant for risk-taking, perhaps. But are these not also qualities that might make him a good politician? Have we not seen similar characteristics in Bill Clinton, John Edwards and so many other talented-but-philandering politicos? I can’t help but think that we are disturbed by his lack of sexual control not because it is relevant to his job but because it reminds us of the ways that we sometimes feel overpowered by sex.

Turn the attention away from Weiner and focus it back on whoever presumes to judge. Weiner did nothing wrong. Mention that John Edwards was “talented” but ignore the thought that he was dishonest, greedy, manipulative and cruel–somehow wasn’t his talent comprised of all his qualities? What are the motives of those who come to judgment, anyway? It’s okay to focus on talent and intelligence–the elite is elite for reasons–but not on character. People who bring up character are probably hypocrites: “We could act indignant about the fact that he hasn’t been forthcoming about aspects of his intimate life. But why not instead be angry that we live in a country that requires him to be dishonest about his struggles with monogamy in order to maintain his career?”

See? It’s not so much that he’s a fool as that he’s a victim–a victim of hypocrisy. And the real point is that if we don’t dissolve the old structures of guilt and shame, none us will escape suffering. Nonjudgmentalism (at least about sex) is a pact–it lets us all off the hook:

Well, let ye who is without embarrassing sexts cast the first stone. (Side-note: I read some of Weiner’s messages out loud to my partner, guffawing after each — until he jogged my memory about a few that I had sent to him in the early days of our relationship and I proceeded to shut the hell up forever on that topic.)

The old way to resolve guilt was through repentance and change. In the choice regime, it is the standard that is seen as the problem. It is forbidden to forbid. It’s a short step from this–dismissing old notions of goodness–to hating goodness itself. A good person restores the standard of judgment–and thus our guilt. People who attack people like Weiner, or Bill Clinton, are the problem. It is they who must be attacked.

To understand character as ordered desire–as the sort of wisdom that will, for example, abstain from a donut in order to preserve health–was not long ago the basis of our culture. The natural man is a tangled flux of disordered desires, living amid the perpetual crisis that surrounds the impulsive and improvident.

Those attracted to realms of truth–ordered desires amid enduring realities–are likely to repair the barn door before the storm, to plant the corn in season, to withdraw savings to handle emergencies, and to sit at peace under his fig tree watching the grandchildren play. It’s not possible for such people to reason with advocates for the choice regime. Their reason works by seeking truth–insights into enduring realities–but in the choice regime, desire is the main truth.

Language is taken as a self-referential performance circling the reality of desire. The discourse of cable talk shows is emblematic of the age. Guests rationalize and justify, frame and reframe, construct and reconstruct–but the goal is creation of a version that might justify a position. It is rarely communion.

Wendell Berry observed that the best way to judge intelligence might be the degree of order that surrounds one. Let’s turn to that insight next.

Irony and multiculturalists and a sense of place

I’m sometimes prone to a quixotic hope that knowing and loving a particular place might be an adequate antidote to modernity. Theories are always simpler than reality, and thus wrong. I’ve played with these thoughts before:

powwow-file0001606276919“Yai Ya!” my grandson called, as he opened the kitchen door and walked in. It’s the Salish name for one’s mother’s mother. This happened nearly daily or several times a day once he was old enough to walk the few blocks from his parents’ house to ours. He didn’t knock, of course. And he was partly calling his grandmother and partly just announcing he had arrived. It was partly greeting and partly invitation. He was here! Where we were! It was good.

How many generations of young Salish boys showed up at their grandparents’ homes with just those words? How long had those syllables been echoing, more or less unchanged, through the abodes of people living in this valley? This place?

Place is a tricky concept to nail down, but I tend to enjoy all the various ways people have tried. They end up talking about the central realities of human life–-story, memory, kin, tradition, culture and land. My grandson traces his heritage in this place we share back, on his father’s side, into the “time immemorial” that the Salish like to talk about. I trace my own heritage back to Kansas, and then to Maryland and then to the Irish highlands on one side, and back to Utah, and then Ohio, then Massachusetts and then to the London slums on the other. Those connections, of course, are also part of my grandson’s history.

One of the ironies of the multiculturalists is that whether one talks to someone advocating a Salish language class on a reservation Montana or activists resisting cultural domination of Islam by the Dutch in the Netherlands, one will encounter similar conceptual machinery leading to parallel categorizations of thought. Multiculturalists around the world share what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls a “clandestine ideology.” This unifying ideology, she says, is “ultimately the mandatory litmus test” that people of any culture must pass to avoid being marginalized.

To be acceptable among the right sort of people,

one must join the call for equal representation for both sexes in all spheres of power. One must consider delinquency to be a result of poverty caused by social injustice. Contemporary man must hate all moral order; he must equate the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, but never equate communism with its gulags. He must a priori be suspicious of profit and financial institutions; he must be suspicious of the virtuous, who invariably must be disguising hypocritical vices even more dangerous than the vices of the depraved. He must hate colonizers, unless they are former victims themselves. On the other hand, our contemporary must legitimize all behaviors and all ways of life. He must call for equality everywhere, and fight for ever greater freedom for ever younger individuals.

She predicts that most people who read the excerpt above “will immediately suspect the author of wanting to defend colonial powers or a strict moral order.” This, Delsol says, is precisely what

shows so clearly that a mandatory way of thinking really does exist, and that contemporary man is unable to distance himself from it. Whoever dares to question it, or to even express a doubt about the validity of this sacred discourse, doubtlessly belongs to the camp of the opponent.

There’s a moral certainty in the ideology of late modernity–an absolutism–that disguises itself in talk of openness and inclusion and tolerance. At bottom it flows from a metaphysical dream that first took its characteristic modern form in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris before the Revolution, amid an intoxicating mixture of philosophy, drugs, food and sex. Amid the feasts of foreign delicacies and the prostitutes, distinctions of rank were obliterated, and hedonistic liberty created an atmosphere of social equality that combined illusion with gratification, making total secular happiness seem within reach. Reality would be reconstructed by intellectuals. The old morality would be dissolved.

Living as we do on this side of the cascading sequence of horrors orchestrated by secular ideology, from the Reign of Terror to Auschwitz to the gulags, we tend to wince and retreat a little when people begin speaking too confidently about their truths.

So we now often encounter moral certainty without truth. Our institutions are staffed with many who know what is right but who are also averse to real argument. Their moral certainty is ofen expressed as derision for those who have the wrong thoughts, and the aversion to discussion of fundamental assumptions appears as a smug distaste for the contentions caused by those who persist in old certainties. Better to maintain the peace–a bland equality without strong positions. Except, of course, for the modernist orthodoxy on which that world is premised.

Most years, I read D’Arcy McNickle’s novel Wind from an Enemy Sky with high schoolers on the Flathead Reservation, where I have always lived. McNickle’s father was Scottish and his mother was Métis, and they arrived on the Reservation in time to be included in the tribal rolls, so McNickle was an enrolled member of a tribe in which he had no actual blood. He did share the cultural experiences of many Salish children, even attended a boarding school for natives. He spent his working life as a Ph.D.-bearing bureaucrat in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. He had a rich experience of cultural pluralism.

He crafted a novel about cultural misunderstandings, one that has no real villain, in the sense of someone intentionally causing harm–but that is nonetheless a tragedy. Those of us who grew up in the same place he grew up might find in its broad cast of characters the sort of dislocations and patterns of misunderstanding that are familiar.

My students and I encounter McNickle in the social context of public schools–in fact, the teaching of native literature is required by the state–that have taken much of their character from modern ideology, including texts such as this:

. . .if allegory is the attempt to move beyond beginnings, creating an abstracted colonial narrative, McNickle shows how this narrative continually fails, as the voice of the colonized continually erupts through it. Turning the colonizer into a corpse, McNickle ironically feeds off his displaced body. Through the ironic portrayal of the colonizers’ naivete, McNickle recontexualizes allegory, making a homeland for it, as well as turning it back as a weapon upon the enemy. It is in this sense that the figure of Washington is perpetually parodied for its ineffective allegories, turning its authority into yet another corpse–the emptied figurehead of colonial control.

I encounter no argument about whether colonial categories provide an adequate approach to this story–just an assumption that “colonilism” is the overarching structure within which we are to make our meanings. I do seem to encounter moral certainty, linked to clear categories. The categories support an enduring guilt–the presence that hovers over us all. The question the author angles up to is how should white people, such as myself, read native literature:

Let me then address the question outright: (how) should whites read indigenous texts? The “how” in this case is parenthetical because the sentence without it has never been adequately addressed. And yet the doubling of the discourse, along with the use of the English language, suggests that Euro-Americans are at least intended to be a partial audience. There is also the fact that native texts are being not only read, but taught, analyzed, and incorporated into an expanding English canon. So the question of “how” Euro-American culture should read these texts seems essential at this point, regardless of the intended audience.

She notes that when whites attempt to read texts written by indigenous writers, they often try to avoid their complicity by looking for native authenticity:

Possibly as a means of assuaging colonial guilt, indigenous literature is often treated with kid gloves–the “it’s not our place to say” mentality of colonial cultures who, while attempting to preserve some kind of native authenticity, simultaneously squat on their territory.

The author argues the Native American novel

serves to “interrogate” Euro-American discourse, rewriting European history in America through the “counter-discursive” practice of allegory. Through D’Arcy McNickle’s text, I have also attempted to reveal how Euro-Americans can read indigenous fiction for these counter-discursive practices. My hope has been that taking a seemingly postmodern trope (allegory) and reinvesting it with post-colonial interrogations might serve to define the genre of the Native American novel, which should be read differently than both the Euro-American novel and native oral tradition.

She cites revisionist historian Patricia Limerick, who said “the frontier only closed when the Indian was turned into an artifact.” In other words,

the representational system used to annex the receding frontier only became closed or complete when Indians were adequately accounted for as artifacts–unable to change or affect the new discourse. In a sense, this closing of the frontier is what has made natives appear safe, though inaccessible, for the first time. The closed nature of colonial discourse, which would turn natives into allegorical figures in a master discourse, or frame native literature in a precolonial moment, has had its day. It is time that the frontier was opened again.

That’s one way to think about what happened here and what McNickle is doing. It does seem, to me, to be a somewhat deadening discourse, hankering after fixed categories of oppressed and oppressor, white and indigenous–the categories with which intellectuals are wont to construe our world.

I’m not sure that those of us who live in such places as McNickle has in mind ever stopped experiencing race as a frontier–fluid and undergoing continuous redefinition and renegotiation. Time–as experienced and thought about for decades at particular places–is a dance within a constant flux of biology and culture–life. The ideological categories of oppressed and oppressor, Indian and white, fail to do justice.

The historian Elliott West once observed that in terms of what actually happened in the American West, the metaphor of marriage seems more useful than that of war and conquest. The rigid categories of war and enemy did arise, but they were less frequent and less sustainable than other modes of intercourse as groups of actual, living people found each other in the American West. The fur traders often took native wives and got on with the business of human commerce. Marriage has been a primary means of cultural survival and continuity.

James Hunter made a fascinating study of all that in Scottish Highlanders, Indian Peoples: Thirty Generations of a Montana Family. He tells the story of a different Scottish family than McNickle’s–that of the MacDonald family–which today is one of the largest tribal families on the reservation. Members of that family are descended both from medieval warriors who battled for independence from England in the Scottish Highlands and from Nez Perce and Salish warriors who contested with the formidable Blackfeet of the northern plains over access to buffalo country. At the center of that story is the 1842 marriage between Hudson Bay fur trader Angus McDonald and his wife Catherine, a Nez Perce/Iroquois woman.

A friend of mine whose father who was fullblood Kootenai–a man of the twentieth century who made his living as a gypo logger–calls people who think about such things as emptied figureheads of colonial control “college Indians.” What they espouse they found at universities and not in traditional folkways.

A happier way of thinking about what happened here was offered to me by my friend Clarence Woodcock years ago. He was one of the local leaders in preserving and restoring Salish culture on the Flathead Reservation–including the creation of a Salish Culture Committee, to record, publish, teach and sustain traditional culture. Clarence was also a devout Catholic. The singing of Catholic hymns in Salish was a weekly feature of worship at the church in St. Ignatius, when he was alive. I asked him about that once–if he sometimes felt a conflict between his love and teaching of Salish culture and his Catholicism. He said he didn’t. “The cultures are much alike,” he said. “We didn’t know about Jesus, but the rest of it–knowing how to live in good ways–that was here.”

I’m neither Salish nor Catholic, but I think I understood.

The long, slow crisis of the humanities

. . . When God
answers it is not as God would answer if men could
make Him. He stands in the circle around the fire, takes
His turn, tells a story. It isn’t loud. No one
has to believe It.

(“Letter to Reeve from the lobby of the Grand Hyatt”)

lgreatbooksibraryBoth the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and now Harvard have issued reports finding decreases in the number of students choosing majors in the humanities. So now we have the sober discussions. The humanities professors suggest the problem isn’t really that people aren’t taking their classes–it’s that they get less pay, less status and less palatial digs than their colleagues in the sciences.

David Brooks, who makes his living by attracting an audience rather than by claiming a sinecure, speaks more to the point. He says people have turned away from the humanities because humanities professors are no longer very interesting. “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus,” he said. The focus is no longer on “truth, beauty, and goodness;” the emphasis is now on “race, class, and gender.” It takes a special sort of person to sign up for classes in political ideology taught by an English professor, and there don’t appear to be many such people.

I know that he’s right, in a general way, though I don’t know with much specificity what goes on in the hundreds of literature classes that are out there. I have hung around the profession of English teachers enough to know that there’s a ferocious sort of intellectualizing about literature, proof texting to support this or that theory, which is often quite political. Scholarly types are fond of the classifying and naming that lead to extensive jargon. They seem less comfortable with the language of communion, which I take to be the heartland of the greatest literature–Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare.

Lee Siegel thinks it will be a good thing when literature is no longer taught at the universities. Literature, he points out, is a relatively new discipline at the college level:

Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

It would be different if the study of literature really was used to cultivate “empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement,” he says, but the reality is quite otherwise. The real work of modernist literature and the professors who teach it is moral subversion. Even worse, he suggests, is the widespread poor teaching that turns the sublime into toil and drudgery.

Great literature remains vital, but it does not need to be taught in a classroom. “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read,” he says. I think he’s moving in the right direction when he turns to the sacred:

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.

Rosanna Warren acknowledges that the humanities are alive and well in places other than universities, but warns nonetheless that if we do not support the humanities in the universities, we face another dark age:

Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why. But if that happens, the humanities will continue to flow elsewhere, into unofficial forums, and people will flow with them to satisfy their needs for song and story, for explanation, for the drama of seeking and making sense. The unofficial academy will become the real academy where the arts and philosophy and history survive. And where we try to remember what it is to be fully human. But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values, and the quest for values. That quest, ever renewed, is the province of the humanities, and it is at risk.

I wish I believed that–that something so important was happening at the academy. But honestly, this strikes me as begging the question. The question, for me, is precisely what it means to be “fully human” and whether the ideas that have come to dominate universities are true enough that that their passing would indeed be a crisis–at least for anyone but the professors. R. V. Young argues that what the various theories that are prevalent in English departments today usually have in common is nihilism. The secular ideologies that have been ascendent throughout my life have no place for modes of being that, by my lights, are central to being fully human. Human beings, I think, in postmodern universities are too often lost in meaninglessness, trying to construct identities out of the flotsam of intellectualized fragmentation. What I’m not sure about is how deep and pervasive those ideas are in actual classrooms.

A couple of months ago, the Bowdoin Report was released by the National Association of Scholars. It tried to compose a picture of what is actually being taught in the humanities.

According to Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield’s assessment of the report, what is actually taught–at least at Bowdoin–is, as Brooks suggested, mostly political correctness:

Topical courses are featured in programs called “Studies,” such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies (separate from the preceding), Environmental Studies, and Africana Studies, that were founded explicitly as political advocacy for their constituents. But also Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, with apparently neutral names, are now concerned mainly with repudiating Western colonialism—long after its demise one would think. The various Studies, but also regular departments, have stimulated other developments in the curriculum—the cross-listing of courses given by one department in another department and the new emphasis on interdisciplinary study. Both have the purpose of making specialty courses seem more general than they are, and both try to endow the idiosyncratic, parochial, even trivial subject-matter of topical courses with the universality of science. The report sums up the Bowdoin curriculum of equal courses as having a certain “flatness” and tending toward “entropy,” where faculty and students share the undemanding practice of self-expression, and the uninterest in teaching of the former joins with the uninterest in learning of the latter.

Political correctness, Mansfield suggests, “with its present-minded exactness, its not quite selfless objectivity, and its esoteric jargon is science for non-scientists.”

I went to the university on the G.I. Bill after Vietnam. I remember well the eros of learning, the hunger for insight that, I was sure, was in those great books. It was there, and what others loved I have loved, and they have taught me how. I would wish for young people today something of the communion that lay at the heart of my university education.

Such communion lies in the direction of the sacred. Northrop Frye characterized literature as “man’s revelation to man”–someone else described it as one person’s inside talking to another person’s inside. It has relatively little to do with the specialized jargon that has grown up around it at the universities–through precise words are useful if they don’t become the point and thus a distraction. To be fully human, as universities seem to understand it, is to be an intellect. Intellectualizing creates a distance that takes us out of the immanent. I hear much talk about critical thinking among English teachers–and while I’m all in favor of critical thinking, literature is about critical thinking in somewhat the way making love is about motor skills.

It’s possible to view and teach Priam’s speech to Achilles in his tent as an illustration of rhetorical technique. That’s quite different from knowing it as a moment of communion–between two souls but also between them both and an order coming into view in the cosmos, a formative power that is prior to and more fundamental than the gods. Priam in his sorrow has learned to see that order, and through the power of the word reveals that order to Achilles, who, thank heaven, is not a deconstructionist. Achilles stands with Priam before a right way to be. It follows that Achilles desires to bring his conduct into harmony with that right way, with things are they really are. Through literature, we can learn what they have learned. Is this what Rosanna Warren has in mind when she talks about learning to be fully human, which for my tribe is to be with others within the immanence of a divine order?

I suspect the university literature experience tends to feel right mainly for people who belong to the same tribe as the professors. How we construe things is something we learn. The Greeks somewhat reconstrued their cosmos in part through centuries of reading Homer, creating a context that made Socrates possible. It wasn’t long ago that many literature teachers viewed their work as part of that construal. Some still do. But for most, Darwin and Freud and Marx have had more influence–and the divine order has been replaced by a universe that has no meaning except what we construct. More recently, thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault have sowed skepticism about any real possibility of communion through the word.

I do think the postmodernists have seen something true about the cosmos, though as through a glass darkly. What we make of the world is shaped by the narrative environment in which our minds took form. The implications of this can lead us to real trouble–we can lose the ability to communicate and to form a world together. Our society can fragment into factions that neither see nor hear one another. James K. A. Smith explores this is some depth, from a Christian point of view, in Imagining the Kingdom.

If we are asked what to do about urban education, for example, a host of emotions drawn from the stories we have experienced will shape our opinion before we even get to thinking about it. We will understand the question, usually, as our tribe ‘s stories have contextualized it.

The situation as perceived already comes loaded (or not) with a call upon me. The call I feel in such a situation, even if it is experienced as “obvious,” can be radically different for someone who has had different affective “training.” So in the case of urban public schools, one person will immediately and “obviously” see the situation as calling for discipline—for policies that are meant to fight the laziness that characterizes the “culture of poverty” while exercising “stewardship” of public resources. Another person will “just see” the dynamics of disenfranchisement and the systemic oppression that generates such an oppression, feeling a call to take up the work of individual empowerment and systemic policy change. Any “facts” will already be seen in light of the affective background each brings to the situation.

Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.

That affective, emotional “background” is also part of the dispositions or tendencies that I bring to such a context. I’m not only primed to see the situation in a certain way, based on this emotional context; I’m also already inclined or disposed to act in a certain way—not as the result of a decision but as a sort of “natural” tendency given the inclinations that I’ve acquired, the habits that already prime me to “lean” in certain directions.

So generating good, just, virtuous action is not merely a matter of disseminating the relevant rules or principles; it is more fundamentally dependent upon training affect—training people to “see situations in the right way.” That, it turns out, requires training their emotions to be primed to take in and evaluate situations well. Our emotional perceptual apparatus (which I’m linking to “the imagination”) is significantly “trained” by narrative.

The crucial issue with teaching literature comes down to what the teachers make of literature. Whether or it matters to us whether literature remains in the schools will be strongly influenced by whether we think professors make of the world and of humans what we make of them. Also, we don’t really know the answer. The reports don’t have that sort of resolution.

The long, slow march of secular ideology through the humanities has coincided with my life of teaching and writing. The nation is more divided now than at any time in my life over fundamental questions. What is true, I think, is that how classrooms repeatedly construe literary texts will, for most students, become the meaning of literature. If, in classroom after classroom, literature is construed as expressions of one’s sex or race or social class or ethnic tribe, students might accurately be said to be on a quite different planet than students who learned in classrooms where literature is experienced as moments of communion between kindred souls amid shared creation.

Do I mean “on quite a different planet” literally or figuratively? No. I mean it holistically, the way I think Christ meant “this is my body.”

Differences between science and religion

Adam S. Miller follows Bruno Latour in arguing that the field of religion is immanence while the discipline of science is transcendence. According to Latour:

When the debate between science and religion is staged, adjectives are almost exactly reversed: it is of science that one should say that it reaches the invisible world of the beyond, that she is spiritual, miraculous, soul-lifting, uplifting. And it is religion that should be qualified as local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy.

20130715_-moment_2837edMiller says that “where science reveals transcendent objects by correcting for our myopia, religion reveals immanent objects by correcting for our hyperopia.” That’s often correct, in my experience.

I believe it was also Plato’s experience. As told by Plato, Socrates’ “Allegory of the Cave” has always made sense to me as an illustration of how the philosophic intellect works in science. Gravity is invisible to the senses, though its effects can be seen. One can pose experiments and collect data, reorganizing what is seen until gravity becomes visible not to the eye but to the intellect. One can turn one’s vision to the movement of celestial objects, seeing at last the transcendent force that orders the night sky.

But it is when Socrates speaks of his daimon that he is bringing up religion. Of that, he says little, because he cannot through reason make the intimate and immediate experience of his communion available to a public. He leaves little doubt, though, that his truest knowledge is of divine eros and that this knowledge is arrived at through intimate communion. In the Symposium Socrates tells us that he knows nothing but the things of eros. He expands this claim in the Theages, “I always say, you know, that I happen, so to speak, to know nothing except a certain small subject of learning, the things of eros. As regards this subject of learning, I claim to be more clever than any human beings living previously or now.”

A great mystery of Plato is that he is adamant in his Seventh Letter that he has never been explicit in writing about the things about which he is serious. “There is no writing of mine about these things, nor will there ever be,” he said. “For it is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons.” He adds that trying to write about the serious things wouild not be good for people “except for some few who are able to learn by themselves with a little guidance.”

This strange silence has led to great argument about what to make of the “serious things” and Plato’s claims of silence about them. James Rhodes summarizes the story in Eros, Wisdom, and Silence. Schleiermacher claimed that Plato wanted to lead his readers into the foothills of the truth, where they might glimpse the spiritual reality for themselves. Leo Strauss, most notoriously, revived the esoteric arguments that Plato intentionally deceived his readers and kept his profound secrets away from the many. Voegelin suggested that Socratic language respresented “experiences of transcendence” that language could refer to only symbolically. Paul Friedländer argued that the “ineffability of the highest Platonic vision” is symbolized by “the irony of Socratic ignorance.” He says he knows nothing.

The most vivid knowledge, in my experience, occurs through direct perception during periods of intense communion. We can talk about such experiences, but only people who recognize that they have had such experiences themselves take such conversation seriously. Religious practices try to renew such experiences. This is far removed from theology, which is a sort of philosophy–the sort of thing Plato and Socrates did talk about.

Save the culture? First, we must save ourselves

story-file0002003501002Rod Treher argues that conservatives need to do better at presenting their views through stories.

Argument has its place, but story is what truly moves the hearts and minds of men. The power of myth—which is to say, of storytelling—is the power to form and enlighten the moral imagination, which is how we learn right from wrong, the proper ordering of our souls, and what it means to be human. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind whose own longtime residence in his Michigan hometown earned him the epithet “Sage of Mecosta,” considered tending the moral imagination to be “conservatism at its highest.”

Through the stories we tell, we come to understand who we are and what we are to do. This is true for both individuals and communities.

Stories, as carriers of ideas, have consequences. Lincoln, upon meeting Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, supposedly remarked, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?”

Dreher argues that ordinary people understand policies through stories. This is not a new idea. James Davison Hunter critiques it in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. He points out that Evangelicals “have been distinguished by their massive cultural output in books and book publishing, magazines, radio, music, bible studies, theology, Christian education at all levels, and so on” (29). This cultural production has not ended their cultural marginalization, and Hunter offers eleven propositions that might explain why creating conservative stories probably won’t lead to a conservative renaissance in the larger culture.

One of these is that “cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.” Though sometimes economic revolutions and social movements appear to result from mobilizing ordinary people, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and managment within spheres of social life. Even where impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” (41).

Dreher notes correctly that “Stories work so powerfully on the moral imagination because they are true to human experience in ways that polemical arguments are not. And because the moral imagination often determines which intellectual arguments—political, economic, theological, and so forth—will be admitted into consideration, storytelling is a vital precursor to social change.” It probably is a precursor. But the distance that will remain to be traveled even if conservatives develop powerful stories is daunting. Dreher stops short of arguing that stories are sufficient to cause widespread changes in the culture, and if Hunter is correct, such change usually requires the participation of elites and their institutions:

…cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change—period. They are certainly resistant to the mere exertion of will by ordinary individuals or by a well-organized movement of individuals. The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that “in one generation, you change the whole culture”13 is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in culture typically take place over the course of multiple generations. The most profound changes in culture can be seen first as they penetrate into the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it then penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organize social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.

In this light, we can see that evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts—if effective—all bring about good ends: changed hearts and minds, changed laws, changed social behaviors. But they don’t directly influence the moral fabric that makes these changes sustainable over the long term, sustainable precisely because they are implicit and as implicit, they form the presuppositional base of social life. Only indirectly do evangelism, politics, and social reform effect language, symbol, narrative, myth, and the institutions of formation that change the DNA of a civilization.

Imagine, in this regard, a genuine “third great awakening” occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society—the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church—revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.

Dreher holds out the hope that “if conservatives become better storytellers, they might save the culture.” They might, but I suspect a more useful goal might be to strengthen families and churches, to withstand onslaughts from a dominant culture than knows how to care for neither.