Truth and its envious imitators

Judgement of Solomon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On “reading” the great books

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

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

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

The culture of public schools

I used to argue that the curriculum of a school should form a unity with its policies and its administrative and board decisions–that what we knew of reason and evidence from science and philosophy, and of truth and judgment from history and literature should inform our student handbooks, our discipline code and our deliberations at faculty and board meetings.

Increasingly I see that we have achieved something of unity, but rather than our schools acting in the light of the best of our cultural and intellectual heritage, the schools themselves have been transformed into purveyers of pop culture. Pop psychology, cable news journalism, politically correct posturing, junk science and low-grade social activism provide much of the basis of discourse in the hallways, the classrooms, and the board room.

In significant ways, public education has become part of pop culture. For years I imagined something of a hierarchy based on the scale of information various institutions were charged with handling. Small-scale and fast-moving information could be handled by markets–as people moved from VHS tape rental to Netflix DVDs, the business community would monitor and respond to changing opportunities and tastes.

More intermediate information could be handled by government agencies, which were (supposedly) more slow-moving and deliberative, paying more attention to the rules of the game than the game itself, concerned with keeping the game reasonable honest and reasonably fair, while making compensations for market failures. The government should not try to replace the market but it must consider solutions to problems such as the inability of poor people to create demand no matter how great their need, since need without money does constitute a market demand.

The foundation, though, was education–dealing with the most slow-moving and large-scale information–judging fads and emergent possibilities against the great standards of the past and evaluating adjustments and changes in terms of the long-range effects on community and character. Of course, the largest-scale and slowest-moving information was eternity–a reality that educators should be nearest to understanding.

It would be nice to work in a school whose culture grew out of the best understandings drawn from history, science and literature–that is, a place led by the liberally educated. We never fully realized such an educational culture except at a few private schools led by humanely educated masters, but we did once aspire to it more than we do now.

Among the reasons for the shift, from looking to the great intellectual accomplishments of the past to looking at what’s “hot” in pop culture for inspiration and guidance, is, I believe, a shift in the basis of education from philosophy and literature to the social sciences. Teacher training programs have followed Dewey and his ilk, away from the idea of enduring things and stewardship of the best that has been thought and said into a “scientific” emphasis on endless innovation and change. We cannot simply teach what has been known for centuries using methods that have worked for a thousand years. Every teaching movement must be an experiment.

The incoherence of advocating “change” without a clear standard against which to measure it would be comic if the resulting mess were not so dispiriting. With little sense of a goal or purpose–beyond more “democracy”–and with a bias toward innovation rather than knowledge or standards, the scholar’s authority is replaced by the bureaucrat’s power, which derives from catering to the lowest common denominator. So our schools are dominated by test scores even when it is not clear what the scores are actually measuring or what they mean, and the purpose of schooling is widely, almost universally, held to be to serve “the economy” with “serve” defined by the lords of that economy–the corporate interests behind the push for 21st Century Skills, for example.

Test scores, dollars–everyone has to give some heed to credentials and income, so these lowest-common denominator concerns dominate in a culture in rebellion against cultural authority. And without cultural authority, who’s to say Hamlet has greater value than the last episode of Glee? The latter is easier to peddle to a distracted and self-absorbed audience, and the most attention from the most people is the standard that trumps all others.

The star intellectuals in the humanities have abdicated any claim that one text might be more important than another. The linguistic manifestation of nihilism–deconstruction–has denied that texts can actually contain truth or can actually be said to say anything definite at all. Having dissolved faith in the connection between word and world, truth is no longer interesting. Instead, we are left with desire–with the “choice” of radical individualism, with the understanding that values are simply preferences.

This leaves us somewhat where we are–that we cannot really distinguish between the latest YA novel cashing in on an interest in the latest perversion and the Aeneid.

And so our “evidence-based” schooling–a positivist bias in favor of materialism, judging as real only those things that can be measured– is dominated by social science research–which in practice means little more than that policies need to be blessed and sanctified with footnotes to this or that article written by an “expert” with an Ed. D. in something, but who likely knows little or nothing about the enduring things.  What we read and discuss in class drifts toward what is most popular–which usually means easiest and most novel or shocking.

Those who have control of the apparatus of cultural change are not going to turn any of this around. They have deconstructed the shared culture and shared domain of discourse we would need to talk together about what might be better.

Could we restore a liberal education?

James Madison

We would do better if modern educators were as familiar with the educational ideas of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as they are with those of John Dewey.

Peter Lawler is a writer I’ve been following for the past couple of years. He labels himself a “postmodern conservative” which caught my attention, because I’d decided that although I’d learned quite a lot from the postmodernists, it seemed to me that they were inside a bubble and though inside that bubble their views held, they thought the bubble was reality and I thought it was only a bubble.

He’s writing a series looking at contemporary American education through the “lens” of Tocqueville’s thought. His focus is on higher ed, but the main issues are completely applicable to what has happened in secondary ed. In Part 3, “Is it all about the soul?” he notes signs of America’s educational decline: “We can see that, in fact, most of the best theoretical programs can be found in our country today, but a strikingly disproportionate percentage of the students and professors didn’t grow up here.  We know enough to spend the money, but we’re not so good in raising and educating kids to become the most top-flight of scientists.”

He suggests that this is because we are losing a framework for thinking about the soul, without which even our technological thinking atrophies. As we neglect the importance of the soul, our language becomes “more abstract and technical, using words like input when what is really meant is opinion. Language becomes less attuned to the personal longings of the being who loves, dies, and is open to truth about all things.”

Without steady replenishment from the ancient writers, who were “all about the soul,” we become a people among whom “poetry, and philosophy will lose ground.”

When he taught at Amherst in the 1930s, Robert Frost observed that changes advocated by apostles of endless innovation and experimentation would lead to the replacement of philosophy and literature with psychology and social sciences. This has happened to such an extent that it would be a rare occurrence, these days, to find an educator who understood what loss that change entailed.

What it has entailed, unfortunately, is that we are no longer in conversation with the great thinkers of the past–with the best that has been thought and said about the enduring questions. We can marvel, somewhat, at the depth and breadth of the understanding of such as Madison and Jefferson, but we have radically curtailed the sort of education that produced such leaders. They had a profound understanding of the intimate connection between the quality of our education and the fate of our republic.

Two things seem clear to me about today’s schools: first, our well-being and perhaps our survival as a free and self-governing people depend on some of us or many of us engaging in a deep conversation with America’s Founders, and with the sources of their insight, about the meaning of the American republic, and second, any such conversation is not going to emerge among those who have power and authority in the schools we’ve built. They speak of change incessantly, but they are nearly the last people with either the education or the motivation to question the status quo.

Contemplating Failure (poetry)

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


Contemplating Failure

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

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

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

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

I am where I want to be.