Freedom and the laws of life, Part 1

By understanding the law of gravity and working with it, we can make real progress toward accomplishing our purposes.

The modern world has confused the relationship between law and freedom because moderns have turned freedom into a fantasy of infinite choice. Anything that inhibits our free choice is felt as a limit on our freedom. To realize such a daydream, they have found it necessary that all facts give way their commands, that language has the power to dissolve everything that interferes with absolute choice.

This is why so many political and social conflicts today turn on the meanings of words. What is “marriage,” really? What does being “male” or “female” mean? Those who favor change often claim that what is true is what they say is true. Our power of choice, when we are fully empowered, is godlike in the way it recreates the world according to our desires, they believe.

Laws, in this understanding, have to limit freedom. Therefore, there are no laws but those we invent. Reality is personally- or socially-constructed.

The god of the philosophers is sometimes presented as an abstract and impersonal vastness, beyond human powers of comprehension, an unmoved mover. The God of the Bible is more familiar. He acts in the world with passion and purpose, seeking always to serve and redeem the people. He speaks of his love, of his wrath, and he creates and he judges what he has created. He responds constantly to the actions of free people. He always takes a next step. He is never passive or dispassionate. He is the Most High but he also in deep ways recognizably like us. We are those he made in his own image. We, too, are to act and to judge, constantly serving and seeking to redeem those we encounter.The Biblical God lives and works amid laws and principles that are as eternal as he is. Neither matter nor the laws of matter can be created or destroyed. Creation is a matter of organizing what has always existed

This understanding of Creation helps us see law as a force that guarantees freedom. This isn’t hard to see. Consider the way a water wheel harnesses gravity to our purposes. As we have come to better understand nature’s laws and sought to accomplish our work by using those laws, our freedom has increased in wondrous ways. In obedience to the laws of nature, we are now free to visit other continents with only a few hours of travel, to prevent or cure many once-dread diseases, to provide sufficient food for our needs with an ease and reliability that would be miraculous to hundreds of generations that went before us. We are rich beyond comprehension.

Laws also operate in the realm of human nature. These have been called the laws of life—or simply “morality.” Wendell Berry defined morality as “long-term practicality” because following traditional morality–don’t lie, don’t steal, be faithful–leads most reliably to enduring happiness and peace. It is the wicked who flee where no one pursues.

It is more practical to understand gravity and to work with it than it is to rebel against and try to fantasize it away. We can willfully leap off a cliff while holding the fantasy that we can fly, but as we recuperate from a broken leg we may conclude that it’s more useful and wise to understand laws honestly than to rebel against them.

While it was still on the bestseller lists, I read David Brooks’ The Road to Character with a class of senior AP students. Some of them couldn’t quite get their mind around the distinction between “moral realism” and “moral relativism” which lay at the heart of that book. Brooks argues in favor of moral realism and against moral relativism (both individual moral relativism, where each person creates his or her own morality and cultural moral relativism, where what is right and wrong is thought to depend on whatever culture one is in). In various ways, he makes the point that living well requires us to respond to what’s out there–that some ways of life work better than others because they are better fitted to reality–to things as they are.

Moral relativism claims that what’s most important is that a person “be true to the self,” that we find the right way to act by consulting our passions and feelings.  Being “authentic” replaces being “good.” Brooks claims that it’s important that we restrain and control our passions and feelings. In this he follows ancient traditions–most notably Aristotle.

Aristotle, a student of Plato’s, may be the most intelligent of all philosophers. Certainly, he’s the most respectful of common sense. He noted that it’s possible to judge some societies as better than others because it’s possible to grasp the principles by which societies can be judged. Aristotle posed such questions as: Does the government serve the common good or does it serve the interests of the powerful? Does power rest on the ruler’s whims and desires or does it rest on laws agreed to by those who are ruled? Does the government do the work of justice?

Such judgments make no sense if whatever a culture deems to be right is right, so that if Southerners thought slavery was moral, then it was okay “for them.” A preference for nonjudgmentalism is central to the modern world’s ongoing collapse into chaos. I think most sophisticated advocates of moral relativism know that it’s not true. It’s incoherence is too obvious and too near to the surface for a thoughtful person to take it seriously. But I think they find it a convenient fiction, hoping that if we agree there are no absolute truths then we needn’t fight about them. I think the “nonjudgementalism” is not intended as anything very true; it’s just a social convention meant to keep the peace.

But one generation’s polite fiction may be taken very seriously by young people who grow up hearing it so often it’s almost impossible to question. It’s also flattering and gives a false sense of power to be told that pursuing personal desire is the only genuine purpose in life, and one’s feelings is all we know of morality. But it isn’t true, and living by lies does not lead to enduring happiness not just for the self but for the community, which includes our loved ones.

Aristotle defined the pursuit of truth as the attempt to align one’s thinking and acting with what’s really “out there.” Morality is real, independent of people’s opinions. If everyone in a culture thinks it’s okay to abuse women and mistreat slaves, they are simply wrong. Their beliefs are not true. The world remains round even when everyone believes it is flat. Opinions can be true or false.

Someone can hold the opinion that lying to get what you want is okay, but reality dictates that if you keep doing that others will figure it out and stop trusting you, which will reduce your power–your ability to get what you want. So “honesty is the best policy” is not just something some societies teach. It’s a moral truth that nobody can change.

Some students kept drifting back to the idea that morality changes as society changes; therefore, there are no universals. So they didn’t really follow the points Brooks was making. It’s okay to disagree with him, of course, but an educated person should be able to understand what they disagree with and then to make reasonable arguments that address that understanding. Otherwise, the conversation takes the form of childhood disputes: “Yes it does.” “No it doesn’t.” “Yes it does.” And so on, ad infinitum.

The wisdom of moral realism can be glimpsed in the traditional insights encoded in proverbs and folk sayings around the world. They are time-tested insights into how things are, perceptions of what John Templeton called the “Laws of Life.” The “law of the harvest” is one example: you reap what you sow. This insight has also been expressed as “what goes around comes around,” and it was summarized by Jesus’s teaching that “as ye judge ye shall be judged.”

Humanity has collected thousands of such rules of living well:

  • It is better to love than to be loved.
  • Success is a journey, not a destination.
  • Enthusiasm is contagious (and nothing important is achieved without enthusiasm).
  • The borrower is a servant to the lender.
  • We find what we look for (good or evil).
  • Every ending is a beginning.
  • The way to fix bad things is to create good things.
  • Love is stronger than everything else.
  • You can’t solve a problem at the same level as the problem. You need to get above it.
  • The truth will make you free.
  • To find gold you need to search where the gold is.
  • Habit is the best servant, the worst master.
  • People are punished by their sins not for them.
  • Make yourself necessary and the world will feed you.
  • Luck favors the prepared.
  • Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it.

Notice that they are simply descriptions of how things are rather than moral laws. This way of seeing things is familiar to people who have contemplated the Bible. That book makes little distinction between wisdom and righteousness.  As Theologican Frederick Buechner said,

…the Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is. [Quoted by Alvin Plantinga]

Moral realism suggests simply that nature, including human nature, is governed by patterns that the perceptive observer can discern. To discern these patterns and to live in accordance with them is wisdom, according to Brooks and Aristotle. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga said, “Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion.”

Such people “accommodate themselves to reality,” said Plantinga. “They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season.” Plantinga suggests we may pick up such truths from Proverbs or from paying attention to the world around us or possibly from a wise grandparent. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter “whether they have derived their wisdom from scripture or from more general revelation.” But, he says, wherever we get them, the wise do what Brooks is suggesting–they adjust to reality, changing their own character to be more effective in the world as it actually is. The trouble we encounter provides most of the curriculum on “the road to character.” The  historical characters whose life stories Brooks tells have learned to live by truths such as these:

  • The more you talk, the less people listen.
  • If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
  • Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
  • If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
  • Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
  • Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
  • If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
  • Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.

If you are fortunate, such wisdom was taught to you by parents and older members of your community. Such homey wisdom seems obvious, a second nature that is your blessing because you grew up in an intelligent culture. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky, and misfortune becomes more common as more people, and even institutions such as schools, turn away from the wisdom of the ages to assert that the self and its feelings make up the only important morality. Lots of schools today rely on manipulation through rewards and punishments to get students to act reasonably well. It would be better if the emphasis were on showing by example and by teaching–direct instruction in the principles of wise living.

Our experiment with the new morality, which often has the same content as the old immorality, is now far enough advanced that we can easily see that it isn’t working very well. We sense this in the rising levels of unhappiness and loneliness, the increasing numbers of suicides, a growing reliance on counselors and pharmaceuticals that change brain chemistry help sad people make it through the week.  Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–at the flick of a high-tech device  speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more.

Probably we want something completely different.

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.

 

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.”

Reading “It’s Dangerous to Believe” – Part One

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

We are living through (another) period of intense conflict over religion. The opposite of both love and hate is apathy.

We are living through (another) period of intense conflict over religion. The opposite of both love and hate is apathy.

Mary Eberhardt wrote It’s Dangerous to Believe in response to the “anti-religious fusillade now riddling popular culture via movies, books, videos, cartoon and related popular fare that denigrates people of faith.” She focuses on charges that religious people are “haters” and “bigots.” Religious people sense that they are being attacked in ways that are “like nothing that has happened before.” The question she addresses is where religious people go from here, in a society that has rapidly shifted from admiring religiously-motivated people to disparaging and attacking them. In chapter 1 she makes the claim that the attacks on traditional religious are fundamentally illiberal.

She introduces her topic with numerous examples drawn from current events: the CEO of Mozilla and creator of Javascript lost his job when it is revealed that he donated $1000 to Proposition 8 in California, a Catholic theology teacher in New Jersey was fired for Facebook posts expressing Catholic teachings about same-sex marriage, a visitor was ordered to remove a pro-life pin before entering the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the city of Houston subpoenaed pastors to turn over sermons that mentioned homosexuality or gender identity, a street preacher in Texas was cited for disorderly conduct when students complained that his words about STDs offended them, a fire chief in Atlanta was suspended for self-publishing his book professing Christian beliefs such as that homosexual behavior is wrong, a marine was dishonorably discharged for posting a Biblical passage (“No weapons formed against me shall prosper”) near her office computer.

Headlines provide an endless stream of such events, many from Great Britain, where progressivism is more institutionalized than in the US: a teacher was fired for praying for a sick child, a delivery truck driver was fired for leaving a crucifix on his dashboard, a preacher was sent to jail for speaking “threatening” words from Leviticus.

Eberhardt draws on the widespread sense among Christians that they are facing intolerance that is unprecedented in the West, and she notes the irony that the ideological brigades who despise Christianity have inscribed “tolerance” on their banners. The problem is global. Though in America and Europe the repression is mainly social, at this point, it has descended into bloodshed farther east. She cites historian Robert Royal’s claim that more people died for their Christian faith in the twentieth century than in any other.

In this environment, Christians are openly discussing the “Benedict Option proposed by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre of withdrawing from society, to form smaller communities where they might be safe. In describing how we reached this point, she cites two epochal events that emboldened those who want to drive Christianity out the public sphere. First, the “moral catastrophe” of the Catholic priest sex scandals beginning in 2002 dealt a crippling blow to the Church’s moral authority. Second, the religious fanaticism of the radicals who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 created a receptive audience for the writings of “the new atheism” and a series of tracts that linked the jihadists to Christian believers. Foremost was biologist Richard Dawkins, who characterized Judaism as “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.”

Dawkins was followed by other writers taking a similar tack, such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. It was true that in the 1980s and 1990s traditional Christians still had “a place at the table in Washington, D.C.,” but that is no longer the case.

Andrew Bretbart’s observation that “Politics is downstream from culture” is quoted often by those who are nostalgic for an America which had a shared moral center, and the shift is obvious in Hollywood, where the “big” movies once assumed a shared Judeo-Christian heritage among members of the mass audience, with productions such as Ben Hur, The Robe, and Quo Vadis?

That shared moral consensus was supported big government. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that free speech did not extend to motion pictures, and to ward off censorship legislation the film industry implemented “The Hays Code” which included such “Don’ts” as depicting profanity, licentious nudity or ridicule of the clergy. Caution was urged against showing sympathy for criminals, cruelty to animals or children, men and women in bed together or the seduction of girls.

Serious breaches of the code arose during the 1960s, and in 1960 the code was abandoned, replaced by a film rating system (G, M, R). This was later modified to include PG, and then PG-13 and X). The “X” rating was replaced by NC-17 because it was not copyrighted and producers were assigning their own “X” ratings as a marketing device.

Today, children have access on their phones to whatever porn they want. It can even find them when they are not looking for it.

Politicians were quick to move into the space created by the culture of opposition to traditional religion. Hillary Clinton in a keynote at the “Women in the World” summit in 2015 made what is by now the cliched claim that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” In other words, religion must bow to politics. In this new world, according to Eberhardt, “There is no mercy in slandering millions of men and women—citizens, colleagues, acquaintances, schoolmates, neighbors, and fellow members of the human family—by saying that people of religious faith ‘hate” certain people where they do not; or that they are ‘phobes’ of one stripe or another when they are not.”

In broad terms, the culture has shifted away from traditional religion and toward the newer faith of the progressives. In recent years it has been a commonplace to hear religious believers slurred as “theocrats,” as “traitors and fifth columnists.” Eberhardt observes that “all these kinds of slander. . .have insinuated themselves into the accepted conversation of our time, with objections from practically no one.”

Eberhardt declares that what we are experiencing at present follows a familiar pattern. It’s a witch hunt, with Christians now playing the part of witches. “Some would have Christians punished because the teachings against sex outside of marriage have offended and continue to offend sexual minorities. Some would say punishment is in order because churches have burned heretics, or built Renaissance palaces off the backs of peasants—or promoted motherhood, or stood against abortion and infanticide. There is no shortage of people who have been wounded, or believe themselves to have been wounded, by sinners or others wearing the Christian label.”

She sees such lines of attack as “today’s version” of a recurrent and malignant dogma: collective guilt. “Punishing believers today for crimes committed by other believers yesterday—like seeking to punish members of any other group for what a small subset of them, if any, have actually done—is logically and morally bankrupt.”

She argues that these attacks are nothing less than attacks on free speech and freedom of association. If the attacks on the pulpit, on Christian schools, and Christian charitable enterprises—if the logic which has already been set in motion continues—then the free societies of the West will fast become unrecognizable.

Her central argument is that “The enemies of religious freedom are the enemies of liberalism.”

The way of the teacher, Part 1

Imposters are all around us. We learn to recognize them by first becoming familiar with things as they really are.

Imposters are all around us. We learn to recognize them by first becoming familiar with things as they really are.

My guiding vision when I was a high school principal was that a school educated most effectively by how it operated. The daily conduct of a school’s business—staff evaluations, student discipline, the creation and implementation of board and administrative policies—was its most authentic teaching about how reasonable adults might live out their understanding of the fire they stole from history and literature.

When we make decisions, especially about how to deal with trouble or bad behavior, we can’t avoid revealing our core values. As with characters in a novel, every action we take reveals something about our character (at the same time it forms that character). To the chagrin of imposters, some kids read us quite well. They see what we do and know who we are.

So it is that a mindful school intentionally aligns the curriculum taught in classrooms with the board policies, the student handbook, and the day-to-day decision-making that gives the institution its character.

Obviously, operating a coherent school devoted to teaching enduring principles of human conduct requires leadership that is wise. It should also be obvious that the alternative is incoherence, unless the authorities suppress the teaching of great literature and true history (which happens albeit most often in subtle ways).

Suppose students study “Hamlet” in the classroom and gain a glimmer of insight into the trouble we find in places infected with seeming and posturing. The prince learns, here a little and there a little, that the people around him (except Horatio) are pretending and dissembling. Because the truth is hidden, he cannot find what he needs to know if he is to see that justice is done. The play suggests that where lying is tolerated bad people thrive and good people are stymied. The linkage between truth and justice has been understood since ancient times, though that linkage is vanishing from popular thought and many young people have never encountered it in imagination, so they cannot see it in their own experience.

Shakespeare crafted an intricate story about a young man experiencing evil, manifest in the wheels within wheels of political plotting and social game playing of a typical human society. What are students to think if they leave the classroom analysis of the play and see, here a little and there a little, adults treating problems as public relations crises that call for techniquing others—dissembling, spinning, and manipulating all while preening as though such corruptions of our fundamental duty to the truth are merely skillful and sophisticated maneuvers? In other words, if they see chronic dishonesty among the humans in charge? If they are smart—and they often are—they may conclude that honesty isn’t truly valued at school. They may suspect that neither the school nor its staff deserves their assent. They will likely be susceptible to the knee-jerk cynicism of pop culture demigods for whom seeing through things is all they know of vision.

I talked with a school superintendent a few years ago about the challenges of leadership in a diverse community. Most of the “conversation” revolved around his habitual translation of routine events into familiar little political dramas which gave him a stage to display his skills at manipulating and strategizing. His speech was a string of cliches and platitudes. “I believe in practicing the art of the possible.” “I don’t fight that battle anymore.” “Perception is reality.” “Sacred cows make great hamburger.” “Don’t tug on superman’s cape.” “Don’t build bridges where there is no river.” “School boards are like underwear. They need to be changed once in a while.” “The toes you step on today may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.” “Sometimes a person needs to rise above his principles.” It is a sort of wisdom, in the tradition of Polonius.

When I am around such people for long, Hannah Arendt watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem comes to mind. She was trying to understand his particular brand of evil, and she concluded that it was related to a dangerous form of mindlessness: “He was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. . . .Despite his rather bad memory, [he] repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. . . .The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” On my last day at a school that was going through the usual decline following the arrival as of superintendent pretending, among a mass of other dishonesties, to be an educational leader, the newly acting principal came to me and uttered a string of untrue justifications for his inaction. A nasty phrase came to mind: “You’d make a good Nazi.” Those who did well in the Third Reich were mainly careerists, doing what they convinced themselves they had to do to keep their positions or perks. Such always staff the Regimes of Lies which gained epic proportions during the 20th century. Polonius would have flourished in Hitler’s court, or in Stalin’s or Mao’s.

For such people, the key to advancement is not to try to improve people or situations but to position oneself to maximize gain. The superintendent with his quiver of catch phrases rarely viewed problems as teaching opportunities. He viewed them as problems to be evaded or papered over, but to attempt to teach is to attempt real change at the level of understanding and perception. It’s hard work and it is often rebuffed or attacked rather than praised. Still.

The world’s great tradition views the daily problems of life as teaching opportunities. Call it the way of Socrates, or the way of the teacher. The way of the teacher leads through different terrain than that visible to people on the make. Teachers approach problems by deepening their understanding. They have found a faith that life makes sense, always, and that squabbles can be dissolved if people can see the situation more accurately and more completely. There are lots of reasons why such seeing is hard to realize, but it remains the real work for leaders who are in their hearts teachers rather than controllers.

I don’t believe the little superintendent was pondering such things. Passing his life as a small-town politico filled his mind: inventing strategies, pretending his way to success (which he understood in the usual terms: money, status and survival). His life as an impostor passed through familiar stages: the triumph of being hired and installing his cronies was followed by the struggle to survive against an accumulating cast of enemies, and this was followed by a costly (to the district) buyout of the years remaining on his contract. Schools in Montana all too often pay careerist administrators to leave town. So he left with a pocketful of money, without chagrin at having damaged an institution intended to rescue the young from the prison of ignorance.

Two roads diverge in a wood, and the less traveled one leads to the high country of things as they really are. Words are important to those on that journey. It’s no accident language is a primary battleground in the war against being good and being true. Kierkegaard saw the issue clearly. As Kevin Vanhoozer notes, he asked us to imagine “a country in which a royal ordinance goes out. Instead of complying with the command, however, the king’s subjects begin to interpret. Each new day sees new interpretations of the ordinance; soon the populace can hardly keep track of the various offerings: “Everything is interpretation—but no one reads the royal ordinance in such a way that he acts accordingly.” Kierkegaard imagines God’s response: “My house is a house of prayer, but you have changed it into a den of thieves.” English departments, which could have been keepers of the word have, seeing the main chance, become charnel houses of interpretation.

What has not changed is that people who want to see things as they are will need to guard against corrupted words, which dissolve everything. We cannot sustain right action if we cannot say in clear language what is right. Since ancient times, luminaries of human communications have wrestled with the connection between ethics, politics and speech. It was a constant preoccupation of Plato’s Socrates and later of Rome’s greatest orators. Richard Lanham called it the “Q” question, referring to the ancient Roman orator and rhetorical theorist Quintilian. Quoting Cato the Elder, Quintilian argued that a great speaker must have both outstanding gifts of speech and excellence of character. It’s true there have been louses who could move a crowd with words, but they do not move them to attempt great endeavors. That would require vision of the sort that links individual well-being to the overall health of the community.

Inevitably, such vision is experienced as a distraction from what many leaders today would prefer to imagine, which is their own glory.

The question to ask of a person auditioning for the role of school leader is simple. What does he have to teach? That’s the beginning of the conversation that defines schools worth attending.

Getting back to the garden

White clematis, red roses

White clematis, red roses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Truth” is our name for that harmony.

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

And always, it is here. It is now.

Making choice our god

God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble, or we can be compelled to be humble.
-Ezra Taft Benson

Path to the Secret Garden

Path to the Secret Garden

Nietzsche’s argument in favor of atheism was revelatory: “If there were gods how could I bear not to be a god? Therefore, there are no gods.” It’s not really an argument. It’s a pure assertion of will. I will have no gods above me. It’s a choice to proceed as though he were a god himself.

It’s a common choice today: the decision to treat choice itself as god. It leads to a world of false moralities in which the act of choosing, and not the content of the choice, is given moral status. We are taught that the only moral standard we may apply to sexual practices is that they are the free choices of “consenting adults.”

That’s a low standard. It doesn’t establish the sort of moral reasoning that draws the world forward and upward, toward more light, more relationship, more peace and more love. It makes the entry gate into the garden seem to be the final destination. Yes, we may choose, but that doesn’t end the conversation about which choices are wise and which foolish.

We are not in fact gods. We are fearful and vulnerable creatures at large in a cosmos of unimaginable forces that do not care for us and do not heed us. Every moment we live is a moment we are at risk, and we lack the power to foretell what is coming or to adequately defend ourselves against much that will come. We can choose a path that becomes harder and harder to see, disappearing into thickets and brambles, descending ever farther into dark woods full of trouble.

And yet, God abides. We cannot choose otherwise. We can only choose to believe or to chase illusions.

If we choose, we can spend our time learning what he wants us to do and then doing it. As we do, more and more of what remains beyond the garden gate comes into view. Little by little we make our home in the kingdom of heaven, which is here and now, though visible only to the degree we choose to believe, choose to submit.

No end to work

grandkids in the garden

Bryce, Jenna and Daij experience the joys of earthly life, participating hands-on in the abundance that is ours to make. People need work.

People need to work if they are to feel contentment, argues James Bruce. They are made that way.This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.

This is true, but modern economic ideologies are so engrained in our thinking that we don’t see how to create enough jobs that people in need of work can do. We have trouble thinking about work except by thinking about jobs. Jobs, in fact, have been the way economic benefits get distributed. Corporate enterprises generate wealth from profits, and a portion of that wealth flows to the various workers employed by the enterprise.

That model has done more to increase general wealth and decrease poverty than any other system people have imagined. But it may be inadequate in the stage of history we have now entered, where technology drastically reduces the need for human workers while globalization great increases the wealth flowing into the largest corporate entities. Unimaginable sums of money accumulate in the hands of relatively few players.

Maybe we need to rethink how wealth is distributed. In recent decades we’ve implemented many schemes to make wealth available to people without  jobs. Modern welfare states provide food, housing, health care, education and cash to people on the dole. This has solved one problem–avoiding for most the worst forms of destitution, but the system has done a wretched job of providing the poor with the dignity and contentment that only come from giving to causes beyond the self and helping others. We have created masses of people who remain poorer than workers, in spite of food stamps, but who feel resentment rather than gratitude and envy rather than contentment and anger rather than gratitude.

A wiser welfare policy would not forget that people need work, real work, for reasons that go beyond acquiring purchasing power in the  marketplace. They need the sense of empowerment that comes from setting difficult goals and reaching them, step by step, over weeks and years.  They need to feel the security of self-reliance, of learning that periods of trouble and discomfort can be accepted as opportunities to learn strength and virtue. They need to know the courage one finds in the companionship of great souls of the present and past, who have labored and sacrificed to uplift neighbors and to make their portion of the world into a better place. They need to exult in the sweet peace that one finds only in helping others, in forgetting the self by giving gifts of service. They need work.

Modern states need welfare policies based on enduring principles of human nature. This means that those who can work must be expected to work. It means that personal judgments about both the need and the capacity of those seeking help need to be made, which means that most decisions must be made at a very local level. It means that local leaders need to sought and trained–people who understand the interdependence of good character and happiness, people who are willing to love and minister and teach as well as to disburse dollars.  Of course, platitudes and good intentions aren’t enough. We should be chastened and sobered by past failures, pondering them prayerfully.

Baltimore provides a case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still, within our reach--though not without God's help.

Baltimore provides a good case study of how far we are from a paradise that remains, still,, within our reach.

It also means that agencies that accumulate wealth in the markets need to look at communities as something more than markets. Every neighborhood in the world faces troubles, since the world around them is constantly changing calling forth new responses, and since the worlds within them are constantly changing as all individual members move constantly into new stages of life, their abilities and insights and desires changing. Much of the work that should be done in such places does not make sense to one looking at short, direct connection to profits. So we have neighborhoods where there are no gardens and gardeners, where buildings are unpainted and dirty, where garbage accumulates and vandalism goes unanswered. We have streets of apartments where few books are owned, far from the reach of libraries and bookmobiles. We have families where for generations nobody has had a job, learning what is learned by getting up each morning, brushing one’s teeth and catching an early bus.

Investing in such places would in the not-so-long term be much better business than allowing the envy and rage of the poor to fester and spread, leading to the sort of mass movements that caused breath-taking disasters in the last century. We have many people who would be willing to help and we have an endless supply of places that need help. We have plenty of work to do, and more awareness than we sometimes admit of how to start on that work. What we don’t have is a lot of time.

The way we were

Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.

Bucking bales was a central summer task for many rural people in that Montana that is already a part of the past.

I grew up in a small town on an Indian reservation in a one of the spectacular mountain valleys of western Montana. We had enough mass media in those post-World War II days for me to think my home was poor and rural, far from important people and significant events that seemed more real because television cameras broadcast them to the whole world. My earliest memory that could be called “political” was of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when, for the first time in history, the media corporations patched together without satellites a haphazard nationwide network, bringing live coverage of the speeches and ceremonies that surrounded the state funeral of one of the early heroes of the television age. A global village had formed, though its presence was weak, in black and white, without much detail.

That media empire wasn’t my primary environment. I could buy balsa wood glider airplanes for a quarter at Gambles and spend entire afternoons wandering valley meadows, finding the best hills to launch. I bought a transistor radio about the size of baloney sandwich, one of the first purchases I made with money from my first job, driving a Massey-Ferguson pulling a harrow, changing sprinkler pipes, bucking bales of hay on a neighbor’s dairy ranch. The speakers were scratchy by current standards and the AM stations were sometimes elusive, but I could keep up with top 40 pop rock songs: “Midnight Confessions,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and such. I tuned in occasionally, in the evenings, when real life slowed. After we got a television, my mother kept it on constantly, an endless drama of soap operas flowing from crisis to crisis as she ironed and cleaned, drinking long-necked bottles of Pepsi. By then I wasn’t spending much time at home. My life, outside school, was spent mostly with friends—riding horses on mountain trails, shooting shotguns at ducks, conspiring in nearly random acts of little vandalism that was more contemptible than criminal.

Always, I had a sense that these things were nearly unreal—not that I doubted they existed in some durable and consequential way—but just that I knew reality was mostly something else. The troubles and triumphs of my little life were the tangible edge of something I couldn’t penetrate, the deeply-spinning, spiraled magic of which the Milky Way was only a glittering garland. My friends cared little about this and mocked such things, so I kept a distance.

As soon as I learned to read, the weekly trips to the small library–started a generation before by the St. Ignatius Women’s Club, a handful of wives and mothers who got together to talk about culture and to serve the town—became the high point of my week. Reading reassured me that I wasn’t alone and wasn’t crazy. The words I heard reverberating in my head, thoughts from beyond that were mine but not just mine, connected me entire to entire kingdoms reaching both into heaven and hell, giving substance to impressions I had that more was at stake than people around me ever talked about.

My mother was insistent about getting me and my siblings to church every Sunday. I wasn’t rebellious, except in a superficial, adolescent way. I’ve always had the gift of belief. The great stories of a shepherd boy defeating a giant, of seas parting at the last moment and of a miraculous birth were all I had found that seemed true enough to make sense of a momentousness that I sensed but could not see in the unfolding daily events around me. I knew that like Frodo I was little and vulnerable but nonetheless at a center of an epic tale happening mostly in the great Beyond I discovered in my mind.

Some of what I found in the Bible didn’t resonate with me. The prophets spoke repeatedly to people who were wicked in ways I couldn’t fathom, urging them to stop doing things that I knew nothing about. I had never known anyone, or even imagined anyone, who delighted in bloodshed, for example. The prohibitions against various forms of sexual lust seemed pro forma. While I knew vaguely that people acted badly, I didn’t see or hear much more than rumor. The people I actually experienced were nice and respectable. They might keep the money if a clerk accidentally gave them too much change, and they routinely made “California” stops at stop signs on empty roads, and they often spoke rudely to others and occasionally got in physical fights, but I had no real idea what the deal was in Sodom. It was true that drunks lying passed out beside buildings or in the weeds along roads were not rare, and bullying was routine at school, but it still seemed that real bad guys existed mostly in Hollywood imaginations.

Though I couldn’t notice it then, the authorial voice I encountered in book after book interpreted reality with the same basic decency as the adults who ran my world. I now know that the point of view which I took as a foundation of life was a cultural construct, a human achievement centuries in the making. My decent and ordinary childhood was made possible by the intentional invention of a world where, to play with Auden’s great lines, promises were kept, and one could weep because another wept. We were a neighborly and a compassionate people, dropping off a venison roast and a brick of cheese to a family down on its luck, gathering at the houses of mourning, stopping to help a guy with a flat, feeling the honor of paying our bills and being honest with the people we met.

To a great extent, we are still that way, but it no longer seems a universal way of being and other ways are well established around us. There have been two murders within a block of my house within the past ten years, denizens of that underclass which the important people no longer deign to teach. One night in my work as a volunteer EMT I was dispatched to help a young man, thrashing and screaming unintelligibly on a gravel back road. His face had been stomped and his tongue had been cut out—a witness to the vibrant drug culture that passes mostly unseen by people with nice cars and jobs but which is really only inches or moments away.

The great scholar of antiquity, Hugh Nibley, once remarked, “Woe unto the generation that understands the Book of Mormon.” That book parallels the Bible in telling repeated histories of cultural and spiritual decay with people eventually finding themselves impotent, bound on every side by enemies and trouble. That was then. Now, here, terrorists compete with other terrorists to slaughter people in the most horrific ways they can imagine, capturing their atrocities in high definition video and broadcasting them to the world. Their delight in bloodshed defines them. Bloggers chronicle the daily death toll of murders in the tough neighborhoods of Chicago. Slave traffickers find business is properous, their wealth and power growing. The murder and mayhem of drug cartels on our border makes itself felt far north, in communities large and small.

An awareness has grown gradually that  old scriptures are now resonant and relevant in ways that were hard to see a short time ago. No text is more relevant to right now than the Bible.

Free choice in 200 AD

kermitxrayThe tectonic shift accomplished by Christianity in the culture of Late Antiquity was driven by a profound re-thinking of free choice. To Roman minds governed by astrology and fate, living in a society where the only rules and guidelines ever imagined were those demanded by one’s social standing, the concept that each person stood before deity, accountable for every choice was, literally, a revelation. Finding oneself outside society and its norms, outside a cosmos governed by fate, and asked to choose whom or what to serve, regardless of whether one was high-born or slave, male or female, Hebrew or Greek or Roman, was to find oneself in a new world.

Classics professor Kyle Harper tells us that in the Christian culture emerging in Rome, an essential belief was that “nothing–not the stars, not physical violence, not even the quiet undertow of social expectation–could be held responsible for the individual’s choice of good and evil.” The Second Century Christian apologist Justin Martyr was the first philosopher to unambiguously use the term “free will.” According to Martyr, “The good is a purpose that man may accomplish through the freedom of his will, so that the evil man is justly punished, having become wicked through his own doing, while the just man is worthy of praise for his good deeds, not having transgressed the will of God in the exercise of his autonomy.” Humans, in the image of God, are apart from the rest of Creation. “Not like plants or beasts, without the faculty of choice, did God create man.”

It was an unsettling discovery. The idea that persons were free in a moral context quite apart from state and society, uncontrolled by cosmic fate, was essential to a host of ideas that gave Europe much of its later character. Slavery was abandoned and then abolished, freedom of religion advanced, and the idea of principles separate from and superior to society supported the development of rule of law understood as including the mightiest of earthly ruler under its demands.

The old determinism of the stars has lost most of its legitimacy among moderns, but determinism remains, offering its reassuring escape from freedom. We are not free, some think, because our genes control who we are and what we do, or our horizons are formed by our poverty or our race or our sex. Free will is an illusion, according to as many authorities as you would like to cite. Advocates of economic determinism, cultural determinism, psychological determinism, biological determinism, technological determinism and historical determinism are quite sure we are not free.

Samuel Johnson famously observed that  “you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning.” He did not resolve all the arguments, but he did take a side. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” he said. “All experience for it.”