Beyond good and evil: complying with the Montana Behavioral Initiative

surveillance camera at school

Monitoring and surveillance is becoming the dominant interest of today’s “evidence-based” school reformers.

Yesterday was spent listening to school reformers against the backdrop of breaking news about the murdered children in Newtown. This was enervating. School reformers do not, by and large, talk about any actual world. They are most comfortable at an abstract level of discourse, where all their dreams seem possible. They had me thinking about how Orwell’s depiction of society governed from the center via propaganda and surveillance was apt.

Montana schools have adopted Montana Behavioral Initiative as the basis of school culture and student discipline. It’s driven by low-level psychology–behaviorism–and it assumes “success” as the main goal driving the choices we make about how to act. We will have lots of little rules (stated “positively” of course) all linked to little rewards and little punishments (now called “consequences”).

The functionaries see their system as the world–they create propaganda, implement programs, collect data, refine their programs. They create a total reality in which the goals of their programs are not questioned, in which data measures the depth and breadth of their program’s penetration into the consciousness of the subjects (us). Interventions are designed to extend the effectiveness of what they are doing. It’s a little circular and self-referential system, which functions as a world. They are somewhat dull-witted when confronted with statements or events that do not fit their ideology.

Schools are “free” to identify their own “core values” around which to organize their “data-driven” systems (monitoring and surveillance). Of course, when such “values” are chosen through the usual consensual models (small groups contribute little tidbits on big sheets of paper which then get “reported out” to the white board at the front of the room to be lopped off to make a list compliant with expectations from on high), one can be sure that the values that survive will be accurate summaries of the conventional wisdom. So since teachers are low- to mid-level bureaucrats, we predictably end up with catalogs of the bureaucratic virtues.

Our new program will be built around the acronym POWER, with P for pride, O for ownership, W for work and R for respect. I can’t at the moment recall what E is for.  Being “positive” and “authentic” are “pluses.” I have not yet heard mention of double pluses, but they can’t be far away.  Such is the nature of our tribe.

If the room had been filled with Spartans, our list might have included ferocity, strength, and loyalty. If we had been in the Catacombs of Rome, faith, hope and charity might have made the list. A gathering of Confucian scholars in ancient China hoping to counter the mad influence of King Zhou would likely have listed benevolence, honesty, loyalty, integrity and propriety.

But we are a tribe of bureaucrats, so our virtues tend to be those which support success in bureaucracies. Aristotle was the great teacher who in Nicomachean Ethics  first helped us understand that every community is formed mainly by which virtues are taught and practiced. Not very long ago, it would have seemed possible to base an education program on Aristotle, with teacher talking about the way such virtues as honesty, courage, generosity and justice link individual happiness and community well-being.

A discussion among educators familiar with Aristotle–or the cultural heritage of western Civ in general–does not any longer seem possible, but it does still seem odd to have education captured by a tribe of little bureaucrats, who imagine they can control everyone with an ever-expanding system of surveillance linked to consistent rewards and punishments, aiming at “success,” as though we need more “successful” people. The focus of the talk was on how to get nearer to 100 percent–all students passing all classes, all students getting a diploma. What was not discussed was what grades or diplomas might mean–or what they should mean.

The very concept of freedom seems outside the thought world of professional educators. In place of freedom as the long-standing goal of liberal education, we have substituted “success” and “compliance.” I take it as the totalizing imagination of little functionaries who imagine their little system is the world, and that when their system is fully implemented, all will be well.

Our central planners have, to a great extent, reduced the economic possibilities in our communities. Not very long ago, a kid who did not love school and the kingdom of abstraction enshrined there could graduate from high school, get a job at one of the local saw mills, and make enough money to provide for a family–a house, two cars and a boat if he so desired.

The saw mills are gone, by design. Our central planners and reformers have for decades been urging us to believe that we only need a “knowledge” economy and that actual production and manufacturing can be left to poor nations. Now, they are “reforming” schools to serve their new economy, where everyone will be fluent enough in literacy and numeracy to collaborate on abstract tasks assigned from above. Schools are being perfected, in the sense of becoming nothing more than adjuncts to a centrally planned economy.

We are far enough into this process to see clearly that this will leave many people unemployable, but that’s not a problem, from the point of view of those who believe we were made for the system. The unemployed will be fully organized into the administrative state, living on the dole and thus submitting to constant surveillance as fully employed bureaucrats monitor their housing, their income, their diets, their health care. In that system, it makes perfect sense for central bureaucrats to monitor the blood glucose levels of citizens–probably more properly described as “subjects” or “patients.” In that system, it might soon seem normal that morning calisthenics mandated from the center and monitored through new technologies makes perfect sense. The potential for tutelary programs to more fully manage the lives of the poor gives a certain sort of heart a flutter.

At our staff meeting, we did not talk about good people and a good society and how the two relate. We have, as our cultural heritage, a vast and profound literature on those topics. But instead of reading some of it, we are referred to the OPI website, which has a lot of information on how to do “it”, but nothing at all on what is worth doing.

Einstein observed quite early in the twentieth century that “perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age.”  The ends–the big goals toward which we strive–are left to the central planners and functionaries. We are taught to collaborate and brainstorm about means. The message to teachers yesterday was “You will use behaviorist psychology and more complete monitoring to improve compliance of students with school rules in the classroom, in the halls, in the parking lot, and even in the restrooms. With that goal unquestioned, get in small groups to collaborate and brainstorm suggestions (that the facilitators will revise for compliance with central objectives into documents by which you will be held accountable.)”

Are we really content to teach kids that our main desire is for success, defined as a free cup of coffee for complying with the rules (positively stated, of course)?

I’m probably a little out of step, since my culture continues to teach that pride is not a virtue but a sin, and I think on days when kindergarten children are murdered in school, our discussion would be more truthful and thus more useful if it included those old words: good and evil.

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.

Comparing V for Vendetta to 1984

Several students have told me that the film V for Vendetta is “just like” 1984. Since I’m always interested in resources that might make Orwell’s important warning clear to younger people, growing up as they are in a world that is so shaped by Newspeak and Doublethink–now referred to as “political correctness”–that his message is hard for them to hear, I watched the film.

It was similar, in the sense that in both stories humanity is being oppressed by a totalitarian regime. Still, it was the differences that mattered most.

For one thing, Orwell understood the political threats that would most matter in this age. He accurately identified the main source of modern totalitarianism as socialism, characterized by an ontology of materialism and an ethical philosophy of utilitarianism. This film, I thought, could have been produced by the Party in 1984. There is no God, and humanity’s fate is determined by economics; there is no moral law–the “rational” guide to ethics is to focus on the collective–doing the most good for the most people. Inevitably, “good” will be defined by the leader. We’ve been down that road several times. What is good is what is good for the Revolution. Who opposes the party opposes humanity.

So it’s quite ironic–though very politically correct at this moment early in the twenty-first century–for director James McTeigue to cater to socialist fears that the totalitarian threat comes from Christians. His film portrays a Christian fascist party at the helm of a negative utopia. Like Orwell, he uses an authentic verse memorized by British school children to evoke a distant, ominous memory from a Christian past. Orwell used lines from “Oranges and Lemons”:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

McTeigue reaches back to the Gunpowder Plot–one of the seventeenth century religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, immortalized in a rhyme popular among British school children:

Remember, remember the fifth of November.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

This linkage of terrorism and violence to Christianity flatters the sensibility of moderns, still believing they are achieving some sort of liberation from religion, while they continue pressing forward in a world where individual liberty erodes in a morass of political correctness, and the dominant power in Europe is a European Union intent on eroding national sovereignty through all the accouterments of a propaganda state and rationalized regulation, while churches all over Europe remain empty and quiet each Sunday.

The main danger to freedom in Europe now is the same as it was when Orwell wrote: the progressive fulfillment of socialism’s managerial fantasy, the depth and breadth of its control increasing. The main obstacle to this dream has always been the churches–think of Catholicism in Poland–which provide both a rival center of power and an incommensurable reality forever beyond the reach of the state, for those who believe. McTeigue’s vision of a state-run Christian fascism will distract many in the audience from a more credible danger.

In some ways, V for Vendetta resembles the French Revolution more than it resembles Oceania in 1984.  In Enlightenment France, a utopian naivete fed the passionate belief that if the horrible French aristocracy (and the Christian clergy) could be destroyed, that then. . .then. . .then, somehow, liberty and fraternity and equality would, um, burst forth–or something.

But. It was not to be. As Edmund Burke noted at the time, when long-established institutions are suddenly destroyed, what follows is not utopia but a mad scramble after power wildly careening into the streets–a mad scramble for which the most brutal and Machiavellian are best equipped. Terrorism did destroy the aristocracy, establishing itself as a principle of power. The Reign of Terror was enacted to the tune of noble platitudes and motivated by an unscrupulous will to power, in time, of a single man: Maximilian Robespierre.

The hero in V for Vendetta is an intellectual. We never see his face, but we hear his voice and we watch the entire nation brought to attention at his single will. It is clear that this will opposes evil. It is far less clear that this will is not evil itself. Still, isn’t there a pleasure in seeing evil overpowered? One could easily mistake this pleasure for the triumph of goodness.

This film differs from 1984 in that Orwell did not offer even any appearance of a solution to the problem of fully realized socialism. Winston Smith’s defeat is total and thorough. He loves that which has destroyed him. Though Orwell supported the desires and intentions of the do-gooders who became socialists, he could never see how those intentions, after consolidating power to do good things, could keep that centralized power from the brutal and devious thugs who would always be attracted to it. Since he didn’t see a solution, he focused on making the threat clear.

McTeigue’s story, by contrast, ends on a triumphant note, as though destroying totalitarianism were as simple a matter as shooting a bank robber in some Hollywood West. The image of triumph is not without horror, of a sort, as a mass of identically masked terrorists grin their porcelain grins–a not overly appealing nod to equality–amid explosions bringing down the architectural symbolism of Western Civ–the fireworks of emancipation, or something–with rousing music.

McTeigue’s story is self-aware enough to play with the nihilism of his avenging hero’s vision, which cannot get beyond destroying evil. The masked hero falls in love, and this brings home, painfully, the essential joylessness of the quest that has consumed his life. He cannot be deterred from his fate by the attractions of love. He knows enough to blow up a bad world, but he knows far too little of how to create a good one. The story’s grace note is that he does know, at an existential level, that it is love that he has missed. But the point of the story, still, is that he does miss it.

But he continues onward in his story, knowing that it can only end as he and his enemy fulfill their destiny in mutual self-destruction. This aspect of the movie’s vision rings true. We are indeed entangled in a titanic struggle with enemies, the end of which is our mutual death.

This dark tale will be quite ironic to one who believes Christianity’s story with its powerfully articulated vision of how a world might grow to be truly ordered by love. Without knowing that story of faith and hope and love intertwined in a workable vision of human happiness, the modern world increasingly constructs meanings centered in willfulness, pessimism and violence–V fits that pattern; it’s a bloody tale in which, as Isaiah prophesied, the wicked are destroyed, again as during the French Revolution, by the wicked.

Goodness is somewhere else doing other things, unimagined by the film.

The truth about dragons

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Revelation 12:9

Slaying the dragonOne thing I wish we could teach young people is the truth about dragons. It has to be taught indirectly, through metaphor, because the unseen world is–well, unseen. Some people who read this might become a little annoyed because something doesn’t want them to believe it. I think that sort of anger is the dragon’s breath, warning them away.

The primary mission of dragons is simply to keep people from the truth, particularly those truths that lead most directly and surely to joy. This is mainly because dragons are not themselves happy, having chosen to follow the theory that joy could be theirs as an entitlement rather than as what it always has been and always will be–a momentary balance requiring eternal care.

So now they wander the dark regions, trying to vindicate themselves by blocking the way of others to rather simple moments that unaccountably become forever.

I’ve acquired a taste for meeting dragons–often quite suddenly–because I’ve learned, slowly and after long, torturous detours, that, first, dragons are a sure sign of treasure–some truth that’s new to me is close at hand–and, second, dragons are mainly bluff. They have no real power–except the power of illusion and dread. It’s true that they often trick people into doing awful things, which is their only way to make anything happen. The easiest way to defeat a dragon (though not always the people who have been deceived by one) is to ignore it, and boldly to step forward as though endless joy were your right. I admit that it isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s simpler.

The treasure, as I said, is always the truth–though I don’t mean truth in the way that scientists usually use the word. Their brand of truth is okay–very useful and very powerful–but it’s concerned with inventing props and manipulating the setting–it cannot discern the plot.

The kind of truth I mean is the truth of stories, the truth for which we live, the sum and good of our desire.

Truths of this sort have to be created–not out of nothing, but out of the stories we become, out of life itself. Is it true that you live in a happy family? Is it true that you have faithful friends? Is it true that you are kind and generous? If so, then these are truths that you have helped make more than they are truths that you have discovered. The important truths we create, mainly by using now to bind the past and the future into a pattern we choose, by making and remembering promises–some of them to ourselves, some of them to God, many of them to people we want with us sharing the special kingdom we are making of our lives.

Dragons may be found anywhere, but one predictable abode is near the hearts of young girls. The truth they are guarding has to do with what young girls want. What young women want most is to be loved by an admirable man–who sees and acts with his whole self. This is not a selfish or a petty thing, properly understood, so much as it is one of the attributes of godliness–every good kingdom is held together by love, and so being lovely is part of God’s design for our joy.

Unfortunately, the desire to be lovely makes some young girls vulnerable to insinuations that loveliness must be bought–all the fragrances, and face paints, and costly costumes. Or, it leads them to settle for attracting counterfeit forms of love–attention, lust, and all that–by dressing and speaking immodestly, as though the treasure of their truest being were some sort of joke.

So for them, that’s what it becomes.

Fortunately, the counterfeits are only that. Love is also real. This is what most torments dragons. They come here from a reality before the world where they believed that power alone was enough to create a kingdom worth having. What really enrages them is when an admirable young man enters the story who wants the young woman for more than a game–who sees in her the source of a better life, a true partner in making of the world a kingdom governed by love.

The reason that dragons are so often associated with knights is because nothing upsets them more than an admirable young man. The very existence of such men gives the lie to everything dragons have stood for, because what such young men truly want is not power or money or a high score in Modern Warfare but the admiration of a lovely woman, one who’s not too easily impressed, too soon made glad.

Unfortunately, this desire to be admired leaves young men vulnerable to all sorts of foolish ambitions. Where there is a chance to demonstrate their strength, or skill, or smarts, or daring they are likely to be found snowboarding off cliffs, sticking their heads in the mouths of alligators, or strapping themselves to rockets. Dragons enjoy such spectacles but they don’t get involved.

Dragons do get involved when an admirable young man sets out to demonstrate his worth to a lovely young woman. Trouble comes, often through the usual human weaknesses: doubt, fear, selfishness, pettiness, impatience, deception, jealousy.

Such moments, properly understood, become little or nothing.

Which is not the same as saying the tests are not real, or that they require of us less than courage, nobility, and genuine heroism. Dragons, remember, work through dread, and though dread is an illusion it is an illusion as deep as consciousness itself, and it can only be dissolved by a faith that is equally deep.

There is no avoiding it. A moment will come when wisdom requires us to move past the point of no return, push all our chips to the center of the table, put everything on the line, and risk it all. That’s our fundamental choice: dread or faith.

Dragons are dragons because they choose dread. Knights and princesses live happily ever after because they don’t.

An ecology of war

“Ah,” said the mouse, “the world is growing narrower every day. At first it was so wide that I felt anxious. I kept running and was happy to see finally walls to the right and left of me in the distance, but these walls are speeding so fast toward each other that I am already in the last room and there in the corner stands the trap into which I’m running.”

“You need only change the direction in which you’re running,” said the cat and gobbled it up.

I came home from Vietnam angry, distrustful, and certain that having tasted war I had something to teach younger people about the pathways of peace. I had a lot to learn about what a poor platform anger would be from which to launch a campaign for peace. I spent the next fifteen years trying to transform a contentious little school in a contentious little town into an orderly place. It became my personal little Vietnam–a long, drawn out process of failure.

I was astonished over and over again at the resilience of the system. I left the school twice when experience made staying seem impossible; but, after hard study, I returned each time renewed and certain that, this time, I understood what needed to be done. My last bout, as principal, began when I took a job that five people had held in the previous six years, blithely certain that I knew enough to do better. It ended in a stormy board meeting at which five hundred disgruntled people came to the school gymnasium to participate in the local sport of winter politics.

Each of us contends against systems, vast in their scale and deep in their effects, that organize us into patterns that often operate outside our field of vision. Just as geese fly south in the winter without understanding the urge they feel, so we often act for reasons we cannot name. As with magnetic force or gravity, we cannot see the forces that work on us and through us, though we can see their effects. They are manifest in patterns around us, and if we do not learn to see and evade some attractions, we are organized into contests that may not serve our best purposes.

As we learn better to recognize those patterns, we are better able to see that people who are organized to oppose us by those patterns are not necessarily our enemies. It is the patterns themselves that we need to overcome. There is an ecology of war–an ecology of evil, if you will.