Witch hunt! “It’s dangerous to believe” –Part 2

Review: Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies

Eberhardt’s understanding of our culture war is that it’s a moral panic—the same pattern as the Salem Witch Trials, the McCarthy hearings, and other purity crusades where people aflame with self-righteousness destroyed others without good evidence.

Proof of transgression resides not in actual evidence but whether the accusations issue from a socially-approved class of inquisitors.

Proof of transgression resides not in actual evidence but whether the accusations issue from a socially-approved class of inquisitors.

In chapter 2, she lays out that care, that attacks on Christians in contemporary America are similar to the day-care panic in 1983, or the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, or the witch trials of Salem in 1692. People believe things that are not true and act on the basis of imagined evidence. She cites Stacy Schiff, author of a recent book on the Salem trials: “We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous.”

She has in mind “ubiquitous shouts of ‘bigot’ and ‘hater’ aimed at people who harbor newly impermissible opinions about marriage.” She cites many examples of “the targeting of believers in workplaces, on campuses, and elsewhere,” noting that “today’s secularist campaign abounds with one element essential to all witch hunts: inquisitorial zeal.” Activists indulge in “moral irrationalism” to accuse people who hold unpopular beliefs in the name of making society a “safer” place. “Under this new dispensation, ‘bigot’ and ‘hater’ are the new ‘wizard’ and ‘witch.’”

Since the 1960s there has been a sea change of belief about the moral structure of the universe and a fundamental belief of the new morality is “self-will.” The master ethic is “doing what you want.” So it follows that “traditional moral codes represent systems of unjust repression.” Yesterday’s sinners “have become the new secular saints,” and yesterday’s sins are now virtues, “positive expressions of freedom.”

She sees that the primary battleground in the larger conflict between cultures is in attitudes about sex. Of the many movements swirling together in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it is the sexual revolution that has become the absolutist core of the new faith. Most of the saints of secular modernity have been warriors in the sexual revolution:

. . .proselytizers for abortion and contraception, like Margaret Sanger and Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem; crypto-scholastics whose work is revered by generation after generation of the faithful and off-limits for intellectual revisionism, such as Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead; quasi-monastic ascetics, like the grim public priestesses of the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, fighting to end the pregnancies of other women; and even foreign “missionaries,” in the form of representatives within progressive charities and international bureaucracies—those who carry word of the revolution, and the sacraments of contraception and abortion, to women in poorer countries around the world.

The logic of the revolution is not exactly Aristotlean, Eberhardt says. “Syllogisms include ‘if you are against abortion, therefore you are anti-woman’; ‘if you believe in Christian teaching, therefore you hate people who endorse same-sex marriage.’” But fallacious reasoning has never been fatal to revolutionary passion.

Actors in the era of political correctness have become timid about doing anything that might inflame the anti-Christian forces that monitor them. Alastair Bruce, whose job it was to ensure the historical accuracy of the popular television series Downton Abbey, admitted that a paramount concern was hiding the religious practice that was so much a part of daily life in the early twentieth century. For example, the show never depicts the beginning of a because it would have been unthinkable for such characters to have begun eating without saying grace. But Bruce worried that showing such details would have induced a “panic.”

Religion is perceived “as menacing laissez-faire sexual morality.” Christianity’s historical morality has celebrated sex within marriage and condemned all sex outside of marriage, but “the sexual revolution. . .is the centerpiece of a new orthodoxy and a new morality that elevates pleasure and self-will to first principles. This has become, in effect, a rival religion.”

It is the religious zeal of the new faith that leads to Eberhardt to see parallels with old Salem. She observes that Facebook offers 58 gender options for American users but “priests cannot use the title ‘Fr.’ on their personal pages, and are shut down if they attempt to—even though Facebook’s official policy is that people should use the names they are known by, and even though most Catholic priests are known as ‘Father.’”

Such forms of banishment make sense to people under the influence of what psychologists and economists call “herd behavior,” where “large numbers of people act the same way at the same time.” Many universities have become zones of herd-like conformity: “99 percent of the faculty and staff at Princeton University who donated to presidential candidates gave to Barack Obama. In 2016, 91 percent of Harvard’s faculty donations went to Hillary Clinton.” Such plays are unified by their common mythology. Hugh Trevor-Roper said of the Eurpean witch craze that “the mythology created its own evidence, and effective disproof became ever more difficult.” People are believed to be “bigots” or “phobic” simply by virtue of being religious believers.

Once someone is accused by a Puritan minister or a crusading congressman, the accused faces the difficult logical task of proving a negative. It’s not simple to prove such claims as “I am not a witch.” “I am not committing ritual blood libel.” “I am not controlling the media/Pentagon/banks.” “I am not a hater.” And for true believers, such proof would not be persuasive. “In Western societies today, as in Salem, ‘proof’ of transgression—in this case, against newly built orthodoxy concerning the sexual revolution—resides not in actual evidence of wrongdoing; but rather in whether the accusations issue from a socially-approved, priestly class of inquisitors.”

Some people played along with the trials in Salem hoping to avoid being accused themselves. Something similar is likely true in America today. And those who are not immediately in the dock have reason to be afraid. An interesting fact about revolutionary purges or witch hunts, is that formerly “safe” inquisitors do end up facing the accusers. Revolutions do devour their children, as a journalist watching the end stages of the French Revolution observed. The revolutionary fervor either advances or it dies, and the way it advances is by expanding the list of sins and the list of enemies. In Salem at the end, Minister Samuel Parris found himself the object of the fury he helped unleash.

At the present moment, we see the transgender activists turning their ire toward formerly esteemed feminists, such as Germaine Greer, for her brazen insistence that surgery cannot make a man into a woman, thus violating the new orthodoxy. Andrew Sullivan, one of the first leaders of the same-sex marriage movement has recently argued that “religious freedom is fundamental to this country,” for which a Twitter mob named him “offensive, misogynist, and transphobic.”

Eberhardt uses history to better grasp what is happening, and her knowledge of history also gives her faith that the current moral panic will pass. “Within just a few years of hanging the last witch, a new social consensus formed according to which the entire episode had been a massive injustice,” she said. “Less than a hundred years later, John Adams would write that the trials were a “foul stain” on the country, and almost everyone else would henceforth agree. Cotton Mather, for all his other accomplishments—he was the first to introduce inoculation to the New World, among other innovations—would nonetheless go down through the centuries as one of history’s villains.”

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.

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 ALERT processes: student research beyond copy and paste

My last book is built on the framework of the ALERT processes.

Teachers should big and enduring questions during the initial phase of immersion in a topic. Later, students should be invited to reflect on new information and experiences in the light of those questions. In this way, local studies can be linked to the enduring issues around which good curricula are organized.

By upholding high standards for the writing that undergirds all final reports and presentations, student work is kept accountable to district, state and national standards.

Good writing projects are most often good research projects appropriate to a digital age that calls on students to add original research to the published record, rather than copying and pasting from previous research.

Context: trying to tell the larger story

Hellgate Treaty of 1855

S.E. Paxson’s (1852–1919) rendition of 1855 negotiations between Isaac Stevens and chiefs of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes at Council Grove.

What was important about America was the experiment with rule of law linked to democratic processes. I’m ambivalent about using the past tense, but rule of law as a reality seems to me to be waning in America. It has powerful opponents, though they work not by attacking the phrase but by subverting how the words are understood.

Rule of law is, in essence, rule by principle. To make a law that will be applied equally to all members of a society, it’s necessary for them to abstract from the rather messy circumstances we always face to some more universal principle that most will consent to be governed by. When we encounter outcomes we don’t like, the work is to think more deeply and more clearly–to get beyond thinking merely “I don’t like this” to articulate a principle that would rectify the trouble while serving as a barrier to similar troubles in the future. That’s asking an awful lot of people, both intellectually and ethically.

Allotment on the Flathead Reservation and the consequent opening of the reservation to settlers who were not tribal members was, I think, an abusive use of law, orchestrated by powerful men for their own gain. Law is always susceptible to such abuse and it’s never hard to find examples of it.

I think it’s necessary to study and understand such abuses. We need to know what we are up against if we are committed to continuing the experiment. For me, the essential question is whether it is possible to subordinate power to principle. Can we encode our best understandings of justice into laws, and can we then use those laws to constrain the powerful and the greedy, who are always with us? Can we continue moving toward a world in which, ultimately, philosophy and ethics trump money and force?

I think the answer we get from the history of the nation’s dealings with natives is mixed.

We can find enough examples of low behavior and bad faith stratagems to satisfy a hundred Howard Zinns, who want to see the American experiment become something quite different. Such tawdry dealings are, to a great extent, the same old same old of human history. People with the power to do so gratifying their own appetites and lusts at the expense of weaker people is not uniquely American. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing we need to study American history to learn or understand. It was ancient before Columbus ever raised a sail.

What was somewhat new and somewhat different was that in America, middle ranking bureaucrats were dispatched to the wilderness to negotiate terms with small bands of hunter-gatherers, and that a hundred and fifty years later those sometimes vague and sketchy agreements are still taken seriously by the highest courts in the land, and that sometimes millions of dollars change hands based on some judge’s ruling about what those old words must mean.

There’s something noble in that, something hopeful. I think it would be a shame–and bad history–to teach what Joseph Dixon did without also attempting to make clear that he wasn’t the whole story.

Part of my teaching commitment is to increase young people’s ability to think at the level of principle. It’s something–but not enough–to feel bad when we see bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. That’s something–where we start. It’s not, I hope, where we stop.

Learning how stories matter

Both social disintegration and moral relativism lead to the same sorry conclusion: the liberal novel is a novel in which not much is at stake. And if you don’t have much at stake, you can’t have a good story. Santiago Ramos

My interest in the argument on Public Discourse about the decline of literature due to liberalism had more to do with the plight of students than with that of writers–that is to say, my interest has more to do with the narrative environment of young people than with the writer’s prospects for literary success. It no doubt remains true that life is a challenge in which both success and failure are really possible, and therefore it remains the case that our stories matter. But how true is it today that young people believe that novels contain the real stuff of life–the insights that lead to wisdom?

I believe that Solzhenitsyn, to follow up Ramos’ example, does tell a story that matters in, for example, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. If one lives in a regime which tries to suppress life’s chosen meanings, then one way to live well is to refuse to grant moral authority to that regime .  One can live amid meanings and trajectories to which society is indifferent or blind. Society may even set your daily tasks before you, compelling you to assist in the construction of its towers, but it may not dictate any meaning whatsoever.

But I share many assumptions with Solzhenitsyn. For one thing, I see modernism as a moral and intellectual dead end, and the his theme resonates in me–the challenge of living in opposition to a regime which is blind to the most important realities. I came to consciousness in a literary culture, and much of the experience that formed me came in the form of novels.

Bad stories: my tribe is better than your tribe

salishOne story that is a powerful presence in today’s schools might be called “my tribe is better than your tribe.” Like the story of the market economy, the ethnic pride story is larger than public schools and larger than America. Around the world people cluster around visions of themselves as ethnic warriors: skinheads, I.R.A. soldiers, Serbian militiamen, Palestinian terrorists, Zionist militarists, Hutu or Tutsi warriors and on and on.

These stories are strengthened by the spread of an unconstrained global economy that dislocates and dissolves traditional communities. Frightened people seek shelter in all manner of religious, ethnic and racial identities. People who are making lots of money tend to develop a loyalty to the machinery of wealth, but most people are not making lots of money. Instead, they see that the new economy does not need them, and they know what happens to people who are not needed. They are susceptible to the story of tribal zealotry, which is just as simple as that of market zealotry.

Of course, the tendency to rally together with others like ourselves and to distrust outsiders doesn’t really need to be taught. It comes to us easily, and there are always historical evidences to bolster it. One day I was walking down the hall in the school where I was principal and two scuffling boys didn’t notice me until they bumped into me. I put my hand on one of the boy’s shoulders as I passed and said, “Calm down.” It was a nonevent of the sort that people who work with young people handle without much thought every day.

But this day one of the boys whirled around and glared at me. “You’re just picking on me because you’re a racist,” he said.

I knew the boy’s family, so I knew that his family included Indians, but like many of the families on the Flathead Reservation, including my own, his had intermarried extensively and few people would identify him as Indian based on his physical characteristics. He had sandy hair, green eyes, and fair skin. His family was not poor, and I doubted he had experienced much prejudice because of his race.

Clearly though he had been taught to see white authorities through the lense of racial distrust, if not outright hostility. I think he had also been taught that it’s fun to challenge authority with power words.

I related this story to a school administrator, an African American, from Milwaukee and he shook his head and grinned. “Whooee!” he said, “I’m glad I’m not a white man!”

He was making a joke, of course, the humor of which lay in the role reversal. Role reversals are so common in history that they are one of the basic patterns of the human condition. They are part of how we learn. A good education would help people see the world through the eyes of both kings and beggars, victors and victims, oppressors and the oppressed, and all these experiences exist in the stories of most families, somewhere in their history. It is often the case that we learn the harm we do by the harm we suffer. If we are wise, we can learn this vicariously by reading history and literature, experiencing what our fellows, of all races and nationalities, have experienced. Stories easily cross racial and national boundaries, affirming the essential kinship of all of humanity.

Cultural pluralists believe that the heritage of all peoples can be accessible to all other peoples. One needn’t be Nez Perce to claim Chief Joseph as a cultural ancestor, or Jewish to include Isaiah among one’s spiritual fathers. Cultural pluralists believe that various cultures can work together in some ways to build a larger culture, of which all are a part. Pluralists work toward a future in which many cultures find ways to balance the preservation of what is unique and cherished in each with finding common ground with others on public issues. Cultural pluralists recognize that American culture is a tapestry of many cultures, and they understand that we are free to seek insight, nobility, clarity, wisdom, wit and beauty wherever it may be found, among all religious and ethnic traditions. One might think that America’s wide-ranging success at building a pluralistic society would be a source of tremendous encouragement.

This sort of cultural pluralism is poorly served by ethnic pride that sees history only as a contest between fixed categories of people: Catholic and Protestant, black and white, Muslim and Christian. What are we to make of American history? Many of us want America’s failures to be the important story. They want stories of slavery, of religious persecution and of forceful exclusions of Native Americans to be the main truth about our history.

Of course, such stories are not new. They come close to being business-as-usual in world history. It seems to me that the important story of America is that through all these troubles Americans have built cities where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists go about their business without pogroms or identification badges or papers, though we need to remain forever vigilant. The hopeful story is that America abolished slavery, and that America extended full citizenship to Native Americans, and enforced at great cost treaty rights negotiated with their ancestors. Though cultural warriors like to focus on the failures of the government to honor treaties, that is far from the entire story. It would have been easy for the powerful to deconstruct the treaties, which were often poorly wrought agreements negotiated under tents in the wilderness between mid-level bureaucrats and small bands of powerless nomads. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld many treaty provisions. The only reason for doing so is a sense of honor and justice.

The impulse behind ethnic pride is to define one’s identity by one’s enemies. As Neil Postman points out, “To promote the understanding of diversity is, in fact, the opposite of promoting ethnic pride. Whereas ethnic pride wants one to turn inward, toward the talents and accomplishments of one’s own group, diversity wants one to turn outward, toward the talents and accomplishments of all groups.” Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism and Native Pride. The impulse to circle the wagons is the same.

One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. Extremists of the left and the right inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ nightmares. Their enemies are their reality.

Powerlessness and hardship and fear are not the exclusive possessions of any ethnic group. Poorly educated and financially strapped whites who are not powerful people, and there are many of them, are deeply threatened by the political success of groups organized around hostility to whites. In turn, people of color are threatened by skinheads and white militias. As either group advances, it frightens its opposition, leading them to gain recruits and to strengthen their commitments. This is one of the oldest patterns in human affairs, and the stories the different sides tell themselves guarantee the conflict between them will intensify. This plot has no ending except for one group to destroy the other.

We can learn to see a world teeming with varied cultural ways of taking advantage of nature’s offerings and of exploring possibilities for agriculture, government, cuisine, music, dance and worship. But when we focus on a narrow tale of raw power, we are easily intoxicated by self-righteousness and rage. We can believe that weak people are always oppressed by powerful people, which leaves us no choice between being oppressed or being the oppressor. We can study the many forms of oppression and begin to understand all narratives–indeed all discourse–as disguised power stratagems. We can think that everything is political. We can even believe that the collapse of existing power structures will empower the weak.

But this isn’t what happens. The collapse of governments empowers criminals. The plight of the weak gets even worse. Nonetheless, to militants rage is intoxicating, forgiveness is weak and forgetting is an act of disloyalty.

We can become quite emotionally attached to our anger, our most meaningful relationships with others premised on a shared sense of embattlement. We may say we want peace, and even believe it, without quite seeing how we have thought ourselves into a reality in which to lose our enemy or our hatred would be to lose the meaning of our lives along with membership in our community. People who meet for intense sessions to plot strategies against their enemies don’t doubt that their lives have meaning and purpose. To the ideologue, ordinary people are small-minded pawns who don’t see the grand scheme of things. In our desire for a better world, it’s easy to transform our resentment into a moral program, our self-hatred into nobility, our extremism into heroism, our quest for power into a zeal for utopian justice, and our emptiness into a new morality. True believers, Eric Hoffer called such victims of bad stories.

The best that can be hoped for is separatism, often described as “self-determination.”

The desire for separatism, however, is not sated by its victories. It isn’t a principle that leads to any sustainable state of affairs. Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld makes the point by focusing on Canada. “If Quebec leaves Canada, why should not the Cree leave Quebec? And why then should not anglophone villages leave Quebec or opt out of a self-determining Cree nation if it is such that they find themselves inhabiting? And if a few francophones reside in the predominantly Cree region of a predominantly French Quebec, what about their status?” The separatist desire leads to Balkanization and strife.

There are several reasons the story of ethnic pride doesn’t motivate students to do well in school.

The main one is that this story teaches that the route to feeling good about oneself is a matter of being part of the “good” group. No authority outside the group, which will likely include not only teachers but most of the voices in a good library, is granted much authority. Militants on the left and on the right are both hostile to school authorities who, they feel, are hostile to their essential identity. Both are indifferent or hostile to what outsiders (such as scientists and historians) have to say. When these attitudes become habit, teaching authority is likely to be felt as dictatorial, as an act of dominance. But without authority there is no teaching.

All this undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At the extremes of Afrocentrism, the claim is made that good and evil have biological roots, and that the more skin pigmentation a person has, the more goodness she has. Perhaps this illustrates a common historical pattern: oppressed people imitating their oppressors.

The ethnic pride story retreats from the historical difficulty we now face, abandoning the work of forming common ideals and principles from which we might yet build a world-wide civilization–a true family of all humanity.

Intelligent Desire


We are created by what we desire.

Eros as the ancients understood it initiates our every act. Both our heroic sacrifices as well as our selfish degradations are undertaken out of desire, and the wisdom and quality of such responses become the main determinants of both our joy and our misery.

Eros is not a physical object, known with the five senses; it is more like gravity–a presence that can be detected by the effects it causes. We can detect it in our consciousness as a movement in the soul, some attraction in the mortal to something beyond. Though Socrates’ teaching dealt mainly with reason, at key moments he augmented reason with consultations with his daimon–his channel of communication with the divine.

To take sensory impressions as the most important news about reality is like being trapped in a cave. Aristotle called the faculty we use to detect such invisible realities as gravity or eros the “intellect.” It was the intellect that, Socrates taught, the philosopher must cultivate to escape the cave of sensory impressions, where people relied on shadows to orient themselves not to reality but to their perception of objects. Beyond the cave we can learn to perceive with the intellect the invisible world. It is comprised of increasingly large and important ideas. Socrates told Glaucon, his young follower, that “the idea of the good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort.”

Odysseus may linger in his own cave, but he does not forget transcendent reality. He remembers from his youth the vision that stirs his eros. Neither the spiritual wasteland nor the natural wilderness is his true home. He was made for a place where the promise of his youth might be commpleted, where he might live in marriage to his beloved, enjoying good food and drink amid friends and kin, and where none could make him afraid. It was the vision of his youth that evoked his soul’s full assent, and now, lost and far from home, his spiritual longing will not be satisfied with lesser things. Near the end of his Allegory of the Cave, Plato quotes Homer on the ignoble life of those who live amid a false reality: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than to think as they do and live after their manner.” His desire defines him.

It impels him toward action. He’s eager at every moment to back it up with effort and courage, and it moves the cosmos, eliciting support from the slow and mysterious workings of justice. Odysseus chose the hero’s way, drawn forward by inextinguishable desire for home. He was, as Robert Frost put it, undergoing a “trial by existence.”

Frost held on to something vital in the intellectual heritage of the New England Puritans. For them, making sense of daily life was inseparable from regular reflection on the stories in the Old Testament. They saw the Bible as not merely or even mainly a collection of rules. Rather, it was a web of stories which reveals the transcendent patterns through which we can know things as they really are.

When Frost held that “a poem is metaphor or it is nothing,” he put understanding metaphor at the heart of literature. He also put literature at the heart of education. We could not understand what thinking was, he asserted, without understanding metaphor–all the ways we see one thing in terms of another. Such thinking was fundamental to the Puritans. They read the Bible typologically, seeing in the Old Testament a collection of types, or patterns, that prefigured the New Testament. Moses led the Hebrews out of bondage, through the Red Sea, and toward the Promised Land, which was a type for Christ leading sinners out of the bondage of sin, through the waters of baptism, toward the Kingdom of Heaven. This typological mode of thought was extended so that Christians could read all the Biblical stories as types for understanding their own lives and what was expected of them. The Puritans understood their own experience by finding in it a familiar pattern: they understood themselves as being led out of slavery in England, on a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and into the wilderness, on their way to a Promised Land. Mary Rowlandson found the meaning of her afflictions with the Wampanoags in the stories of Daniel in the lions’ den and in the Psalms of the Babylonian Captivity. They recognized the divine order amid the multiplicity of variations they experienced in the lived Creation.

As Puritanism waned their long and highly sophisticated habit of seeing in events patterns of meaning that were portable, and that could be used to understand other events, lost some of its relationship to Creation as Divinely Authored and thus ordered with meanings, but powerfully metaphorical thought persisted in the symbolism of New England literature of such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville–the sense that images and events signified greater and more universal meanings.

They weren’t the only thinkers who understood that events in the physical universe can be understood by human consciousness when they are given form in stories or theories. When Robert Frost encountered Einstein’s theory, he was struck by how similar Einstein’s thought was to his own. Frost incorporated Einstein’s thinking into his conception  ways the natural order is related to the mind of man. Harvard physicist Harvey Brooks said that the poet understood Einstein better than many of his colleagues in physics–specifically because they lacked the poet’s grasp of natural dualism led him to understand that  metaphorical thinking was the way to make nature intelligible. Frost referred to Einstein as a philosopher among scientists who trusted intuited perceptions which transcended the rational-empirical assumptions passed on by Galileo and Newton. Einstein was able to leap from sight to insight, using intuition in the way that an artist uses imagination. He was a convinced theist whose “cosmic religious feeling” was his “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”

After spending much time with Madame Curie, Einstein explained her inability to rise above the mechanistic determinism that followed seeing reality as pure matter by noting “Madame Curie never heard the birds sing.” For Einstein, the pursuit of a simplified view of the world as simply matter which could be understood by science was a catastrophic illusion.

Both Einstein and Frost were dualists who believed that human knowledge of nature was indirect, conveyed through metaphors and symbols, rather than direct, conveyed through empirical experience brought into focus by logic. For Einstein,  metaphors in science reveal “the unknown in terms of the known.” Frost saw that Einstein did for matter the same thing poetry did for spirit. Frost used Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory to deepen his thought about metaphor.  He noted the metaphor involved in describing a thing as being an event. Frost quoted him, saying, “in the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved.” This delighted him. “ Isn’t that a good one!”

Einstein’s theory rejects the monism of matter alone that has become widespread among contemporary scientists. By arguing that moving bodies are perceived “relative to the standpoint of observers,” he made the observer essential to the perception of all reality.

Einstein held that there was no such thing as an objective physical universe as recorded through sensory experience; there was only a conceptual mental world perceived through the “free play” of the mind through conceptual ideas working upon the raw materials provided by the senses. (Robert Frost, The Poet as Philosopher, 166)

In other words, an age’s scientific theories provide the metaphors by which that age perceives itself in relation to the universe. This is analogous to some postmodern writers who eschew metaphor. If the universe lacks a transcendent realm and we do not live in Creation but merely in a material universe governed by chance, then typology is not a true way to grasp reality, for reality does not really have any meaning beyond those we construct for ourselves for our own purposes. When postmodernists see the use of symbols and metaphors as a way of being false to reality–imbuing it with meanings and qualities that it does not possess–they are asserting, in essence, that reality has no meaning. The loss of faith or interest in symbols and metaphors is one consequence of a loss of faith generally.

Walker Percy saw an intimate linkage between Christianity and the main metaphor of most novels–that of a human character acting in time. He suggested that it was Christianity, mainly, with its view of reality as a meaningful story within which each person could find a meaningful life that accounted for the reality of narrative and the idea of the novel. “There is a special kinship between the novel as an art form and Christianity as an ethos…. It is no accident, I think, that the novel is a creature of the Christian West and is virtually nonexistent in the Buddhist, Taoist and Brahmin East, to say nothing of Marxist countries.” Further, he says “Though most current novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the fat of that faith, so to speak, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events in the post-modern novel.”

Does the novel itself survive in the disenchanted world without metanarratives that postmodernists are urging on society? Joseph Epstein has observed that “literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.” He points out that “greatness of literature cannot be determined, solely by literary standards.” We also bring our “ethical, theological, and moral standards” to bear on such judgments. “Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards.” Unfortunately, as Eliot said decades ago, “‘there is no common agreement.'” Certainly, one can see the declining importance of literature in schools, along with a declining ability to say what literature is good for–except reading for reading’s sake. This loss of a trandscendant reality so far as education is concerned may be epitomized by the spread of John Dewey’s ideas.

Dewey was a dedicated monist. He hated talk about transcendence–metaphysics and religion. Science and sensory experience and a social process, he believed, would supercede the authority of the past, including religion but also to a great extent books. As Dewey’s pragmatism metastasized through schools–spreading the supposition that the cave from which Plato and others tried to liberate us, the cave of nontranscendant sensory experience and information, was all that we knew and all that we would ever know.

In Deweyan schools, we do not pass on the great insights of the past so much as we collaborate to resolve “felt difficulties”, with the collaboration very near an end in itself. It’s “social” and “democratic.” It “empowers” people by giving them a “voice.” “Constructed knowledge” is all the knowledge there is. A collaborating group is the purpose of the ideology. There is no truth that we can access ourselves, and there is no order to perceive in the transcendent.

We had little need for the noble intellect. What we needed were endless iterations of experiment and innovation. Ideas of good and evil–evil mainly–interfered with constant experimentation aimed at social redemption which could be ours within the cave. There is only now and our groups and our impulses. We can innovate and choose, and democracy empowered by science would replace noble old ideals concocted by philosophers and prophets.

Though being “student centered” was a useful slogan to shift the emphasis away from teaching the knowledge acquired by traditional academic disciplines, there’s precious little interest in individual students in Dewey. They are but abstractions in the social processes that were his real interest. Dewey sought a social process rather than individual virtue, imagining schools as a means of reconstructing society. The old ideals interfered with people accepting the ideology of social redemption. “Intelligence” and “growth”–never defined or explained clearly–should replace reason and tradition. “The point is that the purpose grow and take shape through the process of social intelligence.” Selves moved by impulse toward an ever receding horizon, unbothered by teachers, who had been replaced by guides and facilitators.

So like the denizens of Plato’s Cave we are governed by debating societies wherein members give each other degrees and awards to make it all seem real. We are slaves to laws promulgated by little emperors to make a name for themselves. What has happened in our progressive liberation from transcendental ideals has been a proliferation of moralistic substitutes. For cave dwellers, the coin of the realm is data.

What advice might Dewey give to Odysseus? The question brings to mind a comic picture. They would have little use for each other. Heros didn’t count for much in Dewey’s universe. For him, democracy was an end in itself, and he had nothing to say about the personal quest that, I think, should lie at the center of the educational journey of every student.

Great literature was long understood as the most important secular resource for awakening young people to who they are, where they are, how things work, and what is necessary for them to be and do. The old questions–Odysseus’s questions and Socrates’–are their questions: What is worth believing? What is worth approving? What is worth choosing?

What we mean by truth, beauty, and justice comprise the traditional answers to those questions, as well as we have for far been able thus far to form them. Such questions lay at the center of education for centuries, until the rise of modernity not long ago. Such questions will survive modernity, which will fail, as did Epicureanism and Hedonism and Stoicism because like them it can construct no satisfying solutions to the problem of despair.

What will also survive is the story that dominates the human past–that of the heroic quest. It’s true in ways we can’t exactly say, but we sense at its core that this is the way reality is structured. To be human is to be on a heroic quest. This is why Odysseus cannot linger on any enchanted isle. He needs to turn his life into a story, which means he needs desire and action even at the cost of death.

Joseph Campbell found versions of this story in human cultures throughout time. It isn’t necessary to understand this pattern, this type, in quite the way Campbell explicated it, as entangled in the Freudian and Jungian concepts that were familiar to him. The pattern doesn’t depend on Freud–it has emerged and been attractive to people throughout human history because of its essential human truth. We needn’t think the caves in which we find ourselves from time to time, even the enchanted ones, are our true home. As long as we are longing our journey is unfulfilled. We may need heroic endurance and courage–often in the form of remembering what we are after and learning better what that means–and we may find ourselves quite hapless without occasional cosmic intervention on our behalf.

What Homer saw was that it was possible to step forward boldly to string one’s own bow, relying on some cosmic justice that might impel the gods to take our side. The pragmatic revolution was premised on giving up that culture–turning from history and philosophy, turning from literature and books–in homage to the quite groundless faith that experience and science would get us, if not to the promised land, then at least to a reasonable adjustment to our plight.

That’s not what Odysseus wants, and it’s not what the best of our students want. His driving desire was to be free to live a fully human life–which meant getting home from the disorders of war and wilderness to a clearing in the light. It was to return to his marriage.

He knew the value of home because he could only have it only by choosing it, and the choice involved the loss of everlasting life with a forever young goddess. To make that choice he needed to desire marriage and home more than pleasure or ease. To speak as those who created this civilization often spoke, he needed to elevate his thoughts from the base to the sublime. The greatness of Homer is glimpsed in those moments when human characters experience, with assistance from the gods, an opening of the soul, a perception that the order in the world has its source in a transcendent order, the order of being.

These decisive realizations in Homer–that we are surrounded by an order that favors some sorts of actions and disfavors others–led to generations of discussion and questioning that formed a culture that, in time, formed the philosophers. Justice was an emotional response echoing the cosmos before it was a philosophical ideal. Existence has an order that extends beyond the senses–that transcends the cave and reaches to the divine.

To desire the higher things, we need to hear something of that. To claim his place and to fulfill the vision of his youth, Odysseus needed to liberate home from those who offended justice. Suitors had moved in, trying to claim his place–trying to steal his world. They abused the claims of hospitality, devouring what was not rightfully theirs. Odysseus purged his home of those who had chosen their doggie little lives–trying to win by deception and threat and flattery the world that Odysseus and Penelope had made.

Odysseus was sustained by memory and vision. Each day he left the cave of Calypso’s delights and stood at shore and gazing beyond the sea toward home. What was he thinking, lost on a somewhat enchanted isle with his back turned on delights that might titillate but could never satisfy him to the depths of his being in ways that he knew were right? Surrounded by a wilderness of wonders and terrors, he knows that the way forward, the direction of hope, is a return, a homecoming. The hero’s journey ends with a return home.

Students have an innate sense of justice, which is an innate sense of universal justice, of cosmic order. “That’s not fair!” is a thought expressed in every language in every culture. What they need, in much the way they need food for their bodies, are the old stories of the births and kings and the coming into the world of justice. What they need are the stories of the virtues we need to move toward our true home–courage, diligence, endurance, patience.

What they need are the compelling visions of who they are, where they, what is worth believing, what is worth admiring, and what is worth choosing. They need an education in desire. Even John Dewey understood that much: “The highest outcome of a sound education is intelligent desire.” It is desire that drives choice, and there a real sense in which every student at every moment exists on the verge of the transcendent moment–the moment of decision when one is “all in”–like a hero. Or not–like a captive.

Moments, though, are not moments until we see them.

Truth and its envious imitators

Judgement of Solomon

Evil often presents itself as a parody of goodness. Though it's tempting to wash our hands of the confusion this causes, we must judge. The truth is the only defense good people have against bad people.

A young woman–a former student–told me recently she does not like to pay attention to politics because she feels helpless to affect what is going to happen. Who doesn’t know that feeling?

Educators once understood that their work was of a piece with the ongoing work of establishing justice in the world, and that the means to do this was to pursue the truth. It’s worth asking why we now live in an age of such moral confusion and who this benefits.

One of the realities of American public education today is that if one attempts to talk among teachers about truth as though it matters one will be quickly assailed by versions of Pilate’s question, “what is truth?”  Whose truth? It’s become something of an intellectual habit to balk at the very mention of truth, and to feel that warmth of being among the right sort of people–the righteous–to talk of nonjudgmentalism and tolerance.

It remains an inconvenient truth, nonetheless, that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Justice is inseparable from truth. We can’t see that the right things are done if we don’t know the truth about what happened. The primary defense good people have against bad people is the truth. One could hope that a profession that has made The Crucible part of its canon would understand and teach such things. Alas, that story seems more often used as a parable about distrust of the wrong sort of people–Puritans and anticommunists. Ironic.

I think an important question for teachers today is why intellectuals from the mid-twentieth century on have labored so hard to mystify and problematize truth. It’s a real question and I think there are true answers that are worth understanding. The answers are not immediately obvious though to those who have been subjected to years of ideological indoctrination.

The trouble is that the confusion–intentionally sewn and cultivated, I think–is quite genuine. Consider Alexander Solzhenitisyn’s passionate naming of ideology in Gulag Archipelago as the source of so much modern evil:

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

We all recognize, at this stage in history, that true believers with their self-righteous finger pointing have done tremendous harm–that Eric Hoffer is correct when he asserts that most of the world’s evil is done by those who feel they are righteously engaged in crusades to destroy evil. The trickiness of recent decades can be glimpsed in the way that this truth has been distorted into ideological slogans that encourage a hatred of those who speak of truth as though it could be known. The cure for true believers, it is widely believed, is to disbelief assertions of truth, to say that there is no truth beyond “your truth” and “my truth” and to feel revulsion–hatred even–toward those who insist on talking about goodness and evil as if they exist out there in ways that demand that we take sides.

Still, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice. Most of our confusion is created by evil’s penchant for parodying goodness. Evil needs to work this way because it is absolutely uncreative. It only destroys.

Evil has no telos–purpose or goal–of its own. It is, at bottom, nothing–except opposition to goodness. Goodness is the only true game in the Cosmos–it is, in fact, our name for that true game. We can see evil’s agenda in the way that those who do evil are virtually required to pretend, even to themselves, that they are doing good. Rotten dictators do not usually say they are seeking power because they enjoy power, and that power is felt most keenly when we are harming or destroying another. When we harm a fellow we provoke the most pure and primal opposition and in overcoming that fully focused will of another we achieve the purest sense of our self’s will.  But the evil rarely admit this. What they say, generally, is that they are seeking some version of equality, fraternity, and liberty–because that is the true game.

In practice, it can be hard to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying. It’s so hard, sometimes, to tell what’s true that we are tempted to feel impotent and helpless, to wash our hands of the question. We note that partisans come to resemble each other, with each side making the same accusations of the other: they are lying, they have a hidden agenda of self-aggrandizement, etc. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum till the end of time.

And yet, it remains an inconvenient truth that the work of judging is fundamental to preserving justice.

One ancient text that focuses on the problem is the story of the judgment of Solomon, from  1 Kings 3:16-28. In this story, two young women who both had an infant son came to Solomon for a judgment. One woman claimed that the other had rolled over on her own son while sleeping, smothering him, and had then switched the two babies to make it appear that the living child was hers. The other woman denied this and so both women claimed to be the mother of the living son and said that the dead boy belonged to the other. Each accused the other of lying. At a glance, they appear indistinguishable.

But who would therefore conclude that there is no difference between them? Who would be content to say that there is no truth or that we cannot learn what it is? Who would that benefit?

King Solomon called for a sword. He declared that the live son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child. The true mother cried, “Please, My Lord, give her the live child—do not kill him!” However, the liar, a bitter and jealous being, agreed with the judgment, “It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!”

Solomon thus brought to light the critical difference between the two women who superficially appeared the same. He gave the live baby to the real mother, who was motivated by love, and he revealed the false desire of the liar. She did not love the baby. She perhaps envied the baby’s mother, and so her desire was a form of imitation rather than something authentic. Her borrowed desire for the baby, which she may at some level have believed, stemmed from envy of someone possessed of a fulfilling desire. No doubt part of her wished she could feel the way she imagined the real mother must feel. So the empty woman acted in ways that inevitably transformed the one she envied into a rival. Her dishonest desire led her inexorably toward hate.

We can see this disturbing pattern at every level in our society, from high school drama between jealous girls or boys fighting over the same girl, to intense political contests,  to international war. It’s a grave mistake to underestimate the power of envy or to remain oblivious to the ways it destroys worlds. Part of the learning we have in store for ourselves in the present age is the wisdom that lies behind the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour’s.

This story of Solomon’s Judgment should resonate strongly in an age when, for many, the dominant political passions are envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. For those wanting a better understanding of where the truth lies, attention to desire remains the key. What do they seek? What will satisfy them? Could anything satisfy them?

For an excellent study of what great literature (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, Proust)  can teach us about good desire and its false parodies, read Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire & the Novel.

On “reading” the great books

One reason I don’t whole-heartedly believe a return to a great books curriculum would “fix” education is that people bring the same ideas and mental filters to literature that they bring to the world. In a Marxist reading of Hamlet, the good prince’s spiritual awakening is invisible, and in a Freudian reading, the urgency of his advice to the queen is lost in psychosexual musings.

Shakespeare wrote within a Christian culture. Strangers to that culture read something quite other than he wrote.

I believe there can be great value in trying to understand old texts as their authors understood them, and since I also believe in an actual reality to which words refer, I also believe in the possibility of genuine understanding. The currently fashionable pedagogy of teaching students to “read” texts through various lenses, such as a “Marxist lens” or a “feminist lens” in practice sometimes amounts to no more than a willful subversion of those texts–an intentional avoidance of drawing near to what the author knew and attempted to communicate.