Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

To teach, or not to teach….to the test

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

In the last few weeks, I’ve spent considerable time updating my course websites for the 2020 summer session and academic year. This has been more complicated than usual, since I’ve decided, after considerable thought and inward turmoil, not to seek Advanced Placement recertification for the biology, chemistry, and physics courses I’ve taught for the last decade as formal “AP” courses.

A little background….

The College Board owns the “Advanced Placement” name and designation. Beginning in 2012, it required that anyone teaching a course designated for AP credit submit a syllabus for review by university faculty to ensure students were being prepared adequately for second year college work. Over the last eight years, the College Board has revised their syllabus requirements several times, remaining fairly flexible about how the course was offered and giving teachers latitude to emphasize areas or approaches as they saw fit. Curriculum suggestions and standards were minimal, and the AP examination remained largely a validation of adequate student preparation for advanced college work.

So what changed?

In 2018, the College Board announced that its program was radically changing in response to teacher and student feedback. The resulting syllabi revisions for biology, chemistry, and physics are quite specific in dictating course content and performance expectations. Teachers have fewer options to organize materials according to their own priorities. In particular, the syllabus for biology eliminates requirements for any instruction on human anatomy and plant physiology in order to focus on microbiology, evolution, and ecology, apparently assuming that students will cover physiology and anatomy in other courses. The chemistry syllabus increasingly focuses on professional level instrument use and the algebra-based physics syllabus has been broken into a two-year sequence that pushes modern physics topics to a seldom-taken second year. All three syllabi restructure the course schedules to eliminate any topics not covered on the examinations.

For biology in particular, I think this is a disastrous move for the students, however much lighter it makes the burden of instruction for the teacher. I believe that human anatomy and physiology should be taught in the context of cellular biology so that students understand how all levels of living systems work together. Many students, especially home-schooled students, attempt AP Biology without a previous course in high school biology. The new curriculum leaves them without a detailed appreciation of how their own bodies work at a time when this information is vital to help them make responsible choices for their own health.

There are implications for chemistry and physics as well. Most students won’t be going on to technical careers in chemistry; it is often a prerequisite for medical training at many levels. Performing basic chemistry investigations with limited equipment to experience fundamental principles of chemical reactions provides a better learning experience than when students perform cookbook experiments with equipment they don’t understand. Since most high school physics students are unable to take a second year due to time constraints, the current AP syllabus deprives them of exposure to the unity of field theory applications and the ramifications of modern physics: relativity, quantum mechanics, and nuclear energy.

When the exam is the focus, where’s the joy?

The College Board now requires that students register by early September for the AP test given the following May. This shifts the emphasis of the entire course from learning the subject to “teaching to the test”. Since Scholars Online courses are intended to provide our students with mastery of a subject, this runs counter to our teaching philosophy. I want my students to focus on exploring concepts and playing with ideas at the risk of making mistakes. It is difficult to experiment with possibilities when you are panicking about achieving a high score on an exam or to engage with the material joyfully instead of apprehensively.

The new AP program also heavily encourages the use of the College Board’s own website materials for unit testing throughout the year. While teachers no longer need to devise quizzes for their own students (a sometimes painstaking and onerous task), the feedback promised from the AP program will allow them to see how their students are doing (and collaterally, how they are doing as teachers) in preparing for the exam. The emphasis again is on exam performance, not on the subject matter.

There is another, more subtle issue with AP-provided online course support materials. It has been my practice to contain performance data for my students on the Scholars Online servers, rather than allow others to gather detailed information about my students’ ideas. I have not used publishers’ homework websites or quizzes that would identify individual students, and I refuse to change that practice when I do not know how personally-identifiable student data will be used in the future. The AP program has made no real assurances about the data they will be collecting this way.

I am very uncomfortable with the expanded level of content control by a major testing organization, many of whose directors are textbook publishers, and I’m not the only one. A number of prestigious private schools have dropped their AP courses to allow their teachers to teach creatively, rather than surrendering control of their courses to the College Board. Reluctantly, because it reduces an option for our students to gain formal AP course credit for their work, I have come to realize it is best to join them.

Participation in a formally certified AP course is not required for students to register and take the exam. I will continue to monitor AP course requirements so that the courses I am offering will prepare students to perform well on the AP exam if they choose to take it, and provide an equivalent lab experience. Students taking the non-AP versions of these courses have routinely achieved scores of 3 and 4 on the chemistry and physics AP exams, and 4 or 5 on the biology exams, so I do not believe this decision will put my students at a disadvantage, but that a unique approach to content and experiments will help them stand out instead.

If you have any questions or concerns about this decision, please let me know.

Causes

Saturday, February 1st, 2020

The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought widely and deeply on many subjects. Some of his ideas have proven to be unworkable or simply wrong — his description of a trajectory of a thrown object, for example, works only in Roadrunner cartoons: in Newtonian physics, a thrown ball does not turn at a right angle and fall after it’s run out of forward-moving energy. The force vectors vary continuously, and its trajectory describes an arc. We can forgive Aristotle, I think, for not having calculus at his disposal. That he didn’t apparently observe the curvature of a trajectory is a little bit harder to explain.

Others of his ideas are rather narrowly culturally bound. His views on slavery are rightly repudiated almost everywhere, and many others are not very useful to us today. I personally find his description of Athenian tragedy in the Poetics far too limiting: the model of the hero who falls from greatness due to a tragic flaw is one model (though not really the only one) for describing the Oedipus Rex, but it doesn’t apply even loosely to most of the rest of surviving Athenian tragedy. This curiously Procrustean interpretive template is championed mostly by teachers who have read only one or two carefully-chosen plays.

Some of Aristotle’s ideas, though, remain quite robust. His metaphysical thought is still challenging, and, even if one disagrees, it’s very useful to know how and why one disagrees. His logical writings, too, remain powerful and compelling, and are among the best tools ever devised to help us think about how we think.

Among his most enduringly useful ideas, I think, is his fourfold categorization of cause. This is basic to almost everything we think about, since most of our understanding of the universe is couched, sooner or later, in terms of story. Story is fundamentally distinguished from isolated lists of events because of its reliance on cause and effect. 

There are, according to Aristotle, four different kinds of cause: material cause, efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause. This may all sound rather fussy and technical, but the underlying ideas are fairly simple, and we rely on them, whether we know it or not, every day. For an example, we can take a common dining room table.

The material cause of something is merely what it’s made of. That can be physical matter or not, but it’s the source stuff, in either case. The material cause of our table is wood, glue, perhaps some nails or screws, varnish, and whatever else goes into its makeup (metal, glass, plastic, or whatever else might be part of your dining room table). 

The formal cause is its form itself. It’s what allows us to say that any individual thing is what it is — effectively its definition. The table’s formal cause is largely bound up in its functional shape. It may have a variable number of legs, for example, but it will virtually always present some kind of horizontal surface that you can put things on. 

The efficient cause is the agency that brings something about — it’s the maker (personal or impersonal) or the causative process. That’s most like our simplest sense of “cause” in a narrative. The efficient cause of the table is the carpenter or the factory or workers that produced it. 

The final cause is the purpose for which something has come into being (if it is purposed) — in the case of the table, to hold food and dishes for us while we’re eating.

Not everything must have all four of these causes, at least in any obvious sense, but most have some; everything will have at least one. They are easy to recall, and remarkably useful when confronting “why?” questions. Still, people often fail to distinguish them in discourse — and so wind up talking right past one another.

Though I cannot now find a record of it, I recall that when a political reporter asked S. I. Hayakawa (himself an academic semanticist before turning to politics) in 1976 why he thought he’d been elected to the Senate, he answered by saying that he supposed it was because he got the most votes. This was, of course, a perfectly correct answer to the material-cause notion of “why”, but was entirely irrelevant to what the reporter was seeking, which probably had more to do with an efficient cause. Hayakawa surely knew it, too, but apparently didn’t want to be dragged into the discussion the reporter was looking for. Had the reporter been quicker off the mark with Aristotelian causes, he might have been able to pin the senator-elect down for a more satisfactory answer.

Aristotle wrote in the fourth century B.C., but his ideas are still immediately relevant. While one can use them to evade engagement (as Hayakawa did in this incident), we can also use them to clarify our communication. True communication is a rare and valuable commodity in the world, in just about every arena. Bearing these distinctions in mind can help you achieve it.

Time to Think

Saturday, January 18th, 2020

On average, my students today are considerably less patient than those of twenty years ago. They get twitchy if they are asked merely to think about something. They don’t know how. My sense is not that they are lazy: in fact, it’s perhaps just the opposite. Just thinking about something feels to them like idling, and after they have given it a good thirty seconds, they sense that it’s time to move on to something more productive — or at least more objectively measurable. They don’t seem to believe that they are accomplishing anything unless they are moving stepwise through some defined process that they can quantify and log, and that can be managed and validated by their parents or teachers. It doesn’t matter how banal or downright irrelevant that process might be: they are steps that can be completed. A secondary consequence is that if they start to do something and don’t see results in a week or two, they write it off as a bad deal and go chasing the next thing. It is no longer sufficient for a return on investment to be annual or even quarterly: if it’s not tangible, it’s bogus, and if it’s not more or less instantaneous, it’s time wasted.

On average, my students today also have their time booked to a degree that would have been unthinkable in my youth. When I was in junior high and high school, I did my homework, I had music lessons, and I was involved in a handful of other things. I had household chores as well. But I also had free time. I rode my bicycle around our part of town. I went out and climbed trees. I pursued reading that interested me just because I wanted to. I drew pictures — not very good ones, but they engaged me at the time. Most importantly, I was able (often in the midst of these various undirected activities) simply to think about those open-ended questions that underlie one’s view of life. Today I have students involved in multiple kinds of sports, multiple music lessons, debate, and half a dozen other things. There are no blank spaces in their schedules.

I can’t help thinking that these two trends are non-coincidentally related. There are at least two reasons for this, one of them internal, and one external. Both of them need to be resisted.

First of all, in the spiritually vacant materialistic culture surrounding us, free and unstructured time is deprecated because it produces no tangible product — not even a reliable quantum of education. One can’t sell it. Much of the public has been bullied by pundits and advertisers into believing that if you can’t buy or sell something, it must not be worth anything. We may pay lip service to the notion that the most important things in life are free, but we do our best to ignore it in practice. 

As a correlative, we have also become so invested in procedure that we mistake it for achievement. I’ve talked about this recently in relation to “best practices”. The phenomenon is similar in a student’s time management. If something can’t be measured as progress, it’s seen as being less than real. To engage in unstructured activity when one could be pursuing a structured one is seen as a waste.

This is disastrous for a number of reasons. 

I’ve already discussed here the problem of confusing substance and process. The eager adoption of “best practices” in almost every field attests the colossally egotistical notion that we now know the best way to do just about anything, and that by adhering to those implicitly perfected processes, we guarantee outcomes that are, if not perfect, at least optimal. But it doesn’t work that way. It merely guarantees that there will be no growth or experimentation. Such a tyrannical restriction of process almost definitionally kills progress. The rut has defined the route.

Another problem is that this is a fundamentally mercantile and materialist perspective, in which material advantage is presumptively the only good. For a Christian, that this is false should be a no-brainer: you cannot serve both God and mammon. 

I happily admit that there are some situations where it’s great to have reliable processes that really will produce reliable outcomes. It’s useful to have a way to solve a quadratic equation, or hiring practices that, if followed, will keep one out of the courts. But they mustn’t eclipse our ability to look at things for what they are. If someone can come up with better ways of solving quadratic equations or navigating the minefields of human resources, all the better. When restrictive patterns dominate our instructional models to the point of exclusivity, they are deadening.

Parents or teachers who need to scrutinize and validate all their children’s experiences are not helping them: they’re infantilizing them. When they should be growing into a mature judgment, and need to be allowed to make real mistakes with real consequences, they are being told instead not to risk using their own judgment and understanding, but to follow someone else’s judgment unquestioningly. Presumably thereby they will be spared the humiliation of making mistakes, and they will also not be found wanting when the great judgment comes. That judgment takes many forms, but it’s always implicitly there. For some it seems to have a theological component. 

In the worldly arena, it can be college admission, or getting a good job, or any of a thousand other extrinsic hurdles that motivate all good little drones from cradle to grave. College is of the biggie at this stage of the game. There is abroad in today’s panicky world the notion that a student has to be engaged in non-stop curricular and extracurricular activities even to be considered for college. That’s false, but it’s scary, and fear almost always trumps the truth. Fear can be fostered and nurtured with remarkable dexterity, and nothing sells like fear: this has been one of the great (if diabolical) discoveries of advertisers since the middle of the last century. Fear is now the prime motivator of both our markets and our politics. It’s small wonder that people are anxious about both: they’ve been bred and acculturated for a life of anxiety. They’re carefully taught to fear, so that they will buy compulsively and continually. The non-stop consumer is a credulous victim of the merchants of fear. We need, we are told, to circle the wagons, repel boarders, and show a unified face to the world. Above all, we should not question anything. 

Though we seem more often to ignore it or dismiss it with a “Yes, but…”, our faith tells us  that perfect love casts out fear. The simple truth is one that we’ve always known. Fear diminishes us. Love enlarges us. What you’re really good at will be what you love; what you love is what you’ll be good at. Which is the cause and which the effect is harder to determine: they reinforce one another. You can only find out what you love, though, if, without being coerced, you take the time and effort to do something for its own sake, not for any perceived extrinsic reward that’s the next link in Madison Avenue’s cradle-to-grave chain of anxious bliss.

There’s nothing wrong with structured activities. If you love debate, by all means, do debate. If you love music, do music. If you love soccer, play soccer. If you don’t love them, though, find something else that you do love to occupy your time, stretch your mind, and feed your soul. Moreover, even those activities need to be measured out in a way that leaves some actual time that hasn’t been spoken for. There really is such a thing as spreading oneself too thin. Nothing turns out really well; excellence takes a back seat to heaping up more and more of a desperate adequacy. In my experience, the outstanding student is not the one who has every moment of his or her day booked, but the one who has time to think, and to acquire the unique fruits of undirected reflection. They can’t be gathered from any other source. You can’t enroll in a program of undirected contemplation. You can only leave room for it to happen. It will happen on its own time, and it cannot be compelled to appear on demand.

The over-programmed student is joyless in both study and play, and isn’t typically very good at either one. Drudges who do everything they do in pursuit of such a phantom success will never achieve it. The students who have done the best work for me over the years have without exception been the ones who bring their own personal thoughts to the table. For them, education is not just a set of tasks to be mastered or grades to be achieved, but the inner formation of character — a view of life and the world that shapes what their own success will look like. Our secular culture is not going to help you find or define your own success: it’s interested only in keeping you off balance, and on retainer as a consumer. Take charge of your own mind, and determine what winning looks like to you. Otherwise, you will just be playing — and most likely losing — a game you never wanted to play in the first place.

CHAT and POLICY ORIENTATION SESSIONS

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Orientation sessions on using the Scholars Online chat are scheduled for

  • Monday, 25 August, 8pm Eastern / 5pm Pacific
  • Wednesday, 27 August, 3pm Eastern / noon Pacific
  • Friday, 29 August, 11am Eastern / 8am Pacific

Policy orientation sessions have also been scheduled to allow parents and students to meet with Scholars Online administrators and teachers to discuss our policies and ask questions in live chat. Long-time parents and students are also welcome to come and share their SO stories!

  • Wednesday August 27, 8PM Eastern / 5pm Pacific
  • Thursday August 28, 8PM Eastern / 5pm Pacific

To attend orientation sessions, log into the Moodle with your Scholars Online userid and password, click on the “Sign up for orientation” link in the upper left-hand corner of your personal home page, then select the Chat link you wish to review or attend. Chats are only open during the times specified. Note that the Moodle may be down during the period between August 20 and August 24!

If you are unable to attend a session, you may still review logs from earlier sessions.

We also encourage you to check out our website pages for information on our policies, teacher contact information, and especially our “Frequently Asked Questions” link. If you have a question you think should be answered on the FAQs page for the benefit of others, please let us know.

Creative Writing Course Changes

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Mrs. Krista Alsop has been forced by changed circumstances to drop the Creative Writing course, but Dr. Bruce McMenomy is planning to take it over if there is sufficient interest. His plan is to draw on Mrs. Alsop’s materials, but he will be rethinking the course and adapting it to his own styles and approaches to writing. We’ll work with creative writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. A possibility will be participation in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, but that certainly is not required. So far enrollment is right on the edge, but if your student is interested in this opportunity, don’t hesitate to enroll. If you have questions about it, please write to Dr. McM at mcmenomy@dorthonion.com.

Moodle Upgrade

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

The Scholars Online Moodle environment is being upgraded during the period between August 19-August 24 and may be unavailable for several hours at a time during this period. The Scholars Online home page, account management centers may also be offline briefly during system reboots to install security patches. We plan to be online and stable as of Monday morning, August 25. There will be a period of transition while we work out the new theme, so the appearance may change. We thank you for your patience during this period!

Reading and Christian Charity

Friday, September 21st, 2012

[This was originally posted as part of the Scholars Online website, and it remains there among the “White Papers”, but I thought that putting it out on the blog would give it a little more exposure.]


Over my years as a teacher, I have had parents and students challenge me on my choice of literature on the grounds that some of it was not morally suitable. Among the works that have fallen under their scrutiny are the Iliad (for violence), the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles (patricide, incest), the Volsunga Saga (murder, incest), the plays of Shakespeare (murder, bawdry, violence, drunkenness, adultery, lying, theft, treason…the list is nearly endless), and Frankenstein and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (their authors’ lifestyles). Teaching the various pagan myths, furthermore, has been variously condemned on the ground that they presume false gods. Even some students who have come looking specifically for classical education have not been able to refrain from ridiculing the Greeks for their beliefs.

Most of these people have good intentions. The behavior to which they are objecting is usually indeed objectionable. We should not practice murder or incest or adultery; we should not steal to become wealthier, or kill others to enhance our personal glory; we should not embrace any of the thousand human vices that are detailed almost any selection of literature one could pick. We should not be moved by admiration for a work to emulate its author’s bad behavior, either. And I would certainly affirm that the gods of Olympus and Valhalla are fictions, and that any inclination to worship them ourselves ought to be suppressed. So why should we concern ourselves with literature that includes them—and if we do, how should we approach them? It’s a good question, requiring a serious answer.

The case that observation elicits emulation has been made for generations, and there is something to be said for it. One is unlikely to be drawn to a sin one has never heard of. An adult charged with the care and education of children must bear this in mind. One oughtn’t expose an unprepared mind to even literary descriptions of some human activity, any more than one hands a six-year-old the keys to the car.

The countervailing argument is that some familiarity with the harsh reality of the world is necessary: children need to recognize evil to reject it. After all, we live inescapably in a sinful world, and are ourselves part of it. Our tendency to sin will not be eliminated by cultivating ignorance. We may not have heard of one sin, but we can almost certainly make up the lack in some other way out of our own flawed natures. In addition to exposing us to bad things, good literature can help teach us to recognize evil and avert it.

So these two excellent arguments stand perpetually at odds. It’s nothing new: the question rages in Plato’s Republic, and it’s still part of our public discourse relating to censorship. Unsurprisingly, Plato, who believes in the moral perfectibility of man, prefers censorship; today’s libertarian tends toward the other extreme, in a fond belief that market forces will achieve something optimized not only for economic equilibrium but moral balance. A Christian cognizant of our fallen nature, though, can accept neither extreme. The trick seems to be in ascertaining exactly where to place the boundary at any given time.

That is of course not obvious, nor is it even really clear that there is a fixed line so much as a murky zone in the middle somewhere, to be navigated with a queasy caution. It is hard to decide what ought to be read and what ought to be suppressed without relying on some kind of calculus—whether simple or elaborate—of a work’s infractions. The problem is that an incident-count is usually going to miss the point. One can promote a thoroughly repugnant ethic without resorting to obscenity or violence. It is also possible to show the light of redemption shining through the nastiest human experiences.

The shallow scoring methodology often used to define movies or books as unsuitable because of their quantities of inappropriate behavior will also erode the Scriptures. The Old Testament objectively recounts almost every known form of sin. The Gospels are not much better on that computation: they’re full of hypocrites and adulterers and sinners of every other sort, and the narrative comes to a wholly unwarranted execution by crucifixion. Can we allow our children to read such things?

And yet—dare we allow our children not to read such things? Are we are saved by the overwhelming niceness of God, or by this horrific and bloody sacrifice once offered? Weren’t the Children of Israel freed in a sequence of increasingly grisly plagues upon their Egyptian oppressors? Don’t we need to take these stories into ourselves and make them ours? We aren’t coaxed into the Kingdom of God as into a four-star hotel, by its elegant appointments and superior service—we’re driven, battered, and corralled, lifted up out of the mire of our own making because that’s finally the only place we can turn where we don’t see our own destruction. So sooner or later we must allow our children to encounter some unpleasant material. It seems to me better that they should encounter at least some of it in literature rather than in person.

Still, as responsible parents trying to raise children in the nurture of the Lord, we have to wrestle with the boundaries of where and when, and even after that we’re going to have to determine how to approach it in substance. It’s never going to be easy, safe, or comfortable. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to give our children some things they’re not ready for. It will hurt them. We’re going to protect them from things they really should have known. That will hurt them too.

We can lament this, but we cannot avoid it. There’s no easy answer. People who rely on simplistic formulae will achieve commensurately simplistic solutions. I know some families, for example, that simply rely on movie ratings for their film standards. PG-13 is okay; R is not. The problem is that it doesn’t work. There are some profoundly moving and powerful movies—important ones—that are rated R. There are also some vile ones that skate by with a PG or even a G rating—perhaps not those promoting ostentatious sexuality, extreme physical violence, or drug abuse, but some that plant corrupting seeds in the soul all the same (and there are sins other than sins of sex, violence, and substance abuse). The complexity of our experience cannot be reduced to a simple tally.

My thinking on this issue has been transformed by a number of things over the last decade, but by nothing as much as C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. I recommend it to everyone concerned with the complex balance of both what and how we read. What I’m going to propose here has to do with drawing what Lewis says to the critical community at large at least partway under the umbrella of specifically Christian thought. (While Lewis was of course a noted Christian apologist, this particular work was written for the scholarly community, and tends not to take an openly theological approach, though I think it is informed at a deeper level by his faith.) For the most part my own thinking is motivated by an awareness that when you read something, you are not just taking words into your eyes and mind: you are actually encountering, at some level, the person who wrote it.

This is a brash claim, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a limited sort of encounter. We don’t know what Homer looked like, or whether there were two of him, or whether one or both of him were blind or female or slaves. There are a lot of facts we don’t know—facts we would know if we were sitting down with him (or her, or them) at dinner. We don’t know, either, whether Shakespeare the writer was Shakespeare the actor or someone else entirely. And even where we have a fair amount of reliable biographical data, we still don’t know a good deal about most authors. A lot slips through the cracks.

But how is that different from any other human encounter? There are a lot of things I don’t know about the fellow I meet on the street. And yet (assuming he doesn’t approach me with obvious hostile intent) I try to give such a person a reception in Christian charity—a fair hearing, genuinely trying to understand what he has to say to me. Our Lord tells us, “For as much as you have done to one of the least of these, you have done also to me.”

There are a lot of things, for that matter, that I don’t know or understand even about those people who are closest to me. There are parts of my wife’s personality that I am only now discovering after nearly thirty years of marriage. There are parts I’m still pretty puzzled about. Maybe I’ll get them figured out eventually, but I’m not wagering on it. This is heady stuff, and should keep us humble and aware of the profound gravity (Lewis called it the weight of glory) that inheres in every single human interaction we have.

Is it reasonable to suggest that we approach reading that way too? I think it’s a thought-experiment worth trying. When we pick up a book, we are privileged to make—on some level—the author’s acquaintance. At the most basic level, we encounter persons when we read. And that imposes on us a moral obligation to listen—listen hard, sincerely, and attempt to understand what they’re trying to tell us.

Note that there are a number of things we have no obligation to do. We’re not obliged to believe everything they say—merely to hear it, and to strive to understand them. We have—and should have—own beliefs, and others (whether we meet them on the street or through books) have no presumptive claim upon those beliefs, unless they manage to persuade us by honest argument.

At the same time, I don’t think we need to feel obliged to judge everything they say, or to condemn them for crossing this or that line. This seems to be a favorite academic pastime, and a favorite pastime too among a lot of other groups. We live in a society ruled by the iconic thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Things are apparently either to be embraced or dismissed, with no intermediate gradations of evaluation or analysis. Many watchdog groups pronounce a movie worthy or unworthy of my attention, based on whether they agree with what they think it’s propounding. Few from any part of the political or religious spectrum suggest that I sift the work’s content for myself. It’s either one way or the other.

Do we deal with people that way? Some, I suppose, do—but that’s not what Our Lord has told us to do. We believe—at least those of us who believe that God loves us all, sinners as we all are—that we need to receive not only those with whom we agree, but also those with whom we do not. We don’t receive them for the rightness of their opinions, but because of our shared humanity. We don’t give them a cup of water in Jesus’ name because of their own righteousness (or even because of ours) but because of His. And when we do so, if we have the humility for it, we can see a partial image of God in each of them, too: again, not because they are right but because they are His— even if they don’t know it.

That’s why I can read Homer and receive the raw humanity of his tale, expressed in selfish, generous, sinful, driven, glorious—and contradictory—people. I don’t have to approve of Hamlet and his decisions (many of which are repellent, I think) to find a window on some very serious truths about human nature. We can have a literary sympathy for him without approving his deeds. I don’t have to approve of Mary Shelley’s behavior to recognize that she has some important and serious things to tell me about our capacity to create and to betray. I don’t have to approve of Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle to appreciate some of his scathingly funny (and often correct) pieces of human insight.

I am not eager to found another school of literary criticism, but I cannot find in any of the currently dominant ones the slightest note of the moral burden I think we inherit as readers. I would like at least to advance the notion that there is—less as a school of critical practice, and more as a disposition of the heart—a Christian way of reading. I would like to suggest that as a paradigm for such Christian reading, we take an approach that may seem simplistic to some, daring to others; but I think it will exercise our moral capacity and force us back where we belong, humbled, upon the all-sufficient love of Christ.

If we as Christians were to read with a fundamental charity toward the author, we would achieve something of a revolution in critical thought, at least within the Church. No, the world will not listen, most likely; it seldom does. It will have its own combinations of pettiness and loftiness, and it will come to its own mix of profound and vapid perceptions. And we may not do a lot better, in terms of critical output. But we are under no obligation to be successful: we are obliged to do what is right, irrespective of its success or failure.

Herewith I present a handful of what seem to me to be the chief implications of that principle:

We must make a good-faith effort to learn what the author was trying to say.
The so-called New Criticism of the 1950s laid it down as axiomatic that authorial intention was more or less beyond recovery, and that the text itself should be scrutinized on absolute terms as a work entirely unto itself. There is of course a profound truth behind what they claimed. We can never wholly or perfectly know the mind of another. In fact, the likelihood is high we will from time to time make some rather serious errors.

But it does not make matters better to combine a profound insight with an oversight, even more profound. What the New Critics seem to have missed is the fact that, if there is no authorial intention at stake, there is really no point to reading at all: if there is no context, neither is there, in any meaningful sense, a text. The purpose of writing in the first place is lost, for an author is almost never merely weaving words into an abstract object for his own amusement: he is attempting to communicate with readers, whoever they may be. If we respect that intention and respond in charity, we have to take this seriously.

We will never completely discover that intention.
As I said above, our understanding will be imperfect. This chafes some, especially those who require pure theory. I’ve come to expect it. Reality is messy and confusing. Now we see as through a glass darkly: if we can only see God imperfectly (whose intention, at least, is perfect, and whose capacity for self-expression issued in the Logos of all creation) then surely our understanding of our fellow man will be no better. That’s unfortunate, but for now, it’s what we have, so we’d better make the best of it. We can hope that we will in the next life be united not only with God, but also with the rest of God’s creation, in a more perfect understanding.

Not everything in a work can be encompassed by the author’s intention.
Sometimes we will perceive something valuable in the text without being sure whether the author intended it or not. There are passages in the Psalms where the Hebrew word is simply unknown to us. There are passages in Shakespeare where the words seem clear, but the thought that knits them together is impenetrable. There are places in poetry and prose alike where words take on a complex of meanings, and we cannot be entirely sure of whether the author really meant all those meanings or just one. This is where the New Criticism got it right. In the overall richness of literary production, connections emerge either from the subconsciousness of the author, where murky things reside beyond the scrutiny of pure intention, or else they emerge from the innate coherence of the material itself: the author has touched a truth perhaps unwittingly, but the truth of the universe resonates with it. This is part of the literary experience, too, and it would be churlish to reject it. Christian readers, I think, can take it as a sign of the grace of God operating in and on our small creative efforts, validating them, fructifying them, and turning them to a higher purpose. I’m not sure how others take it, but that’s not my present concern.

The whole intention of a work will be greater than the sum of its parts.
We cannot evaluate a work solely by regarding the incidents of its narrative. There may be reasons to proscribe certain works because of such things, or to ban them from schools, but this is a pragmatic tactical judgment—not a real evaluation. Put somewhat more pointedly, the mere presence of a sin in a story, no matter how appalling it is, does not make the story immoral. Yes, there are stories that we can call immoral, insofar as they seem to conduce to immoral practices on the part of those who read and believe them, or (at a deeper level) because they present a lie as a truth. But most stories—and all good ones—have to account for the reality of human sin. Dramatically presenting sinful behavior in a story is not ipso facto an endorsement of the sin. A story that presumes a sinless or perfectible humanity is, in the long run, immeasurably more dangerous.

We haven’t entered into the reading process primarily to judge.
I know, the term “judge” is tossed around rather sloppily both inside the Church and at its periphery, and indignant secularists with a somewhat deficient sense of irony routinely condemn Christians for being judgmental. What I’m saying here is merely this: just as we don’t talk to people in order to tally up the conversation’s share of virtue, the goal of the process of reading is not primarily evaluative either. The goal of reading is the meeting of minds itself. That imperfect meeting, across the gaps of time, space, world-view, and personality is not a side benefit of reading; it’s what reading is about. It’s another instance of human interaction—which seems to be a large part of what God put us here for—and it should be conducted with full regard for what Lewis called the weight of glory. I don’t need to pronounce on the ultimate state of Homer’s soul (God surely doesn’t need my help to sort that out); I don’t even need to come up with a value to assign to his work. I could not possibly do so anyway. I do need to love Homer—not because of his artistic virtuosity, or even because of his own intrinsic worth as a person, but because God loved him first and loves him still.

To recognize and embrace a truth is infinitely more rewarding than rejecting something.
When we have moved away from the position of judging, we also allow all those people—imperfect as they are—to mediate God’s love and God’s presence to us, and in that very act we can turn around some of the perceived deficiencies in these works, and make of them powerful lenses. When Achilles, a proud killing machine, and yet also a deeply sensitive representative of his culture—poetic, cruel, brilliant, and vengeful—extends mercy to Priam at last, he offers not only the mercy of Achilles, but an image of the mercy of God. Does Achilles know that? No. Does Homer know it? No. Does it matter that they don’t know it?  No. It’s powerful because it comes unexpectedly, like lightning from a clear sky. What we experience there is not pure alienation and bewilderment: the great shock here at the end of the ordeal of the Iliad is the shock of recognition—like climbing Everest and finding there, waiting for you, an old friend. The part of our souls that responds to the love of Christ, mirrored among our fellow churchmen on Sunday morning, should be able to recognize it, even in glimmers half-understood, in the far reaches of time and space. The incongruity of the context can endow it with a peculiar power: a bright light shines with equal intensity by day or night, but it’s by night that we see it best.

Humility is never out of place.
The words that come most painfully to most academics are, “I don’t know.” Scarcely less shameful than not knowing something is not having an opinion on it. Being willing to admit that we don’t know something, and withholding the formation of an opinion until we do, though, can be hugely liberating. It leaves us open to perceive  without bias. And if it entails an admission that we aren’t infinitely wise, so much the better. We all need to be reminded of that.

It’s easier to miss something that’s there than mistakenly to see something that isn’t.
Accordingly we should remain open to the possibility—indeed, the virtual certainty—that we’ve missed something. This is one of the reasons one can keep coming back to the same literature; it has the happy result that as one grows older, one can find valuable new things in what we might previously have discarded.

It’s akin to the unicorn problem. It’s easy to demonstrate the existence of people or dogs—one need just point one out. It’s nearly impossible to prove that unicorns don’t exist, though, unless they are logically self-contradictory. After conducting a painstaking search, we can say with some assurance that there are no unicorns here—but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t lurking just beyond our sight. In the same way, it’s virtually impossible to show that a work lacks real literary value. I’m not sure why anyone feels called upon to try, and why some seem so eager to dismiss as many things as possible. As ever, the dismissal on this level is tantamount to a dismissal of the person behind the work. Dare we, on peril of our own souls, to do that?

When a work doesn’t speak to me, really the worst thing I can honestly say about it is that it doesn’t speak to me. That’s a statement that’s as much about me as about it. I have too often had the humbling experience, though, of returning to works—sometimes after several readings—and discovering in them something I had missed before. It was many years and a dozen readings or more before Hamlet really started to make sense to me. I don’t think Hamlet really improved or altered in the interim.

Do note that this is different from perceiving a positive literary or moral fault in a work. Of the two, the literary fault is just a failure of workmanship; the moral fault is more problematic and probably more important. I think one can say that a work of literature is to be approached with caution or avoided altogether if its whole program is positively pernicious. But this is properly the domain of moral philosophy, and not in and of itself a literary judgment. Of course a literary scholar is also a moral agent, and this is not a concern that can be ruled out of bounds; nor in many cases are moral and artistic faults completely separable. I think it is always possible, too, that a work that is apparently advocating something we don’t approve of will, upon recognition of its artistic virtues, turn out not to have been saying that all along—but that is a complex and troubling line of inquiry too big for the present context.

Ridicule is not helpful to the enterprise.
Ridicule does not ennoble the one ridiculing; it does not benefit the one ridiculed; it does not helpfully inform the third party. It virtually never promotes real understanding; it seldom makes a significant distinction; it is, accordingly, at best pointless, at worst cruel, and most often (even when the object of ridicule is dead and gone, and beyond apparent harm) it sets a low example of callous disregard and uncharity, a pattern of not hearing and not receiving another genuinely. There is room for satire in the world, but it’s the form of literature most perilous for its practitioner: it needs to be conducted with an eye on the higher goal of lifting someone or something up, not merely tearing people down.

All truth is God’s truth.
If something is not true in and of itself, no amount of pious dressing will make it true. Conversely, if it is true, it needs no further raison d’être. We don’t need to apologize for every and any truth, or make it a platform for apologetics or pious polemics. Apologetics have their place, and I applaud and appreciate them: but truth, insofar as anything is true in itself, needs no further justification. The attempt to frame everything up as a case for Jesus, or to endow every story with a moral, or to force on every historical essay an evaluative pronouncement upon a culture, does not work to the glory of God. It instead tends to give the impression that truth is only worth heeding if we can somehow cash it in for platitudes, and tie it to an overtly theological point. Such a timorous view of the truth confounds the fear of the Lord: it’s fear for the Lord, and argues a fragile faith that cannot endure to look at the beauty of truth for what it is, and know that it is God’s.

And in a sense, I think, such people deprive themselves of a view of God in the very act of trying to keep their perspectives pure. For while I am very far from being a pantheist, I think (as Paul suggests in the first chapter of Romans) that the Lord has in fact hidden himself—or perhaps we might say, metaphorically, that he has left his fingerprints, to be discovered, as a channel of revelation and delight for us—throughout the weird and wonderful diversity of creation, with the divinely ironic result that even those who deny Him can convey to us an image of Him in spite of themselves.

Yet More About the Supreme Court’s PPACA (Obamacare) Opinion (Part 3)

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Last time, we talked about whether the federal Anti-Injuction Act barred challenges to the PPACA. All nine justices were united in the view that it did not, which leads us to the question whether the “shared responsibility payment” (“SRP”) provision of the PPACA was within the power of Congress to enact. Here we do not find unanimity.

Justice Roberts, in the lead opinion, concludes that Congress had no power to enact the SRP under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In this conclusion he is joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito, whose reasoning closely follows that of Justice Roberts.

This issue was expected to be the heart of the case by readers of the briefs and observers of the oral argument. The Commerce Clause (along with the Necessary and Proper Clause) was the Government’s primary justification for the validity of the SRP and the primary point of attack for the challengers.

The Commerce Clause is in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution and reads as follows: “The Congress shall have the power to . . . regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. . . .” At least part of the intent behind this provision was to prevent the various states from erecting tariffs against one another (some states had done this following the Revolutionary War). But talking about the “intent” is already, as noted in an earlier entry, to begin to take sides in a controversy about how the Constitution should be applied.

Justice Roberts acknowledges that “it is now well established the Congress has broad authority under the [Commerce] Clause.” He cites the 1942 case of Wickard v. Filburn, which considered a federal quota on the amount of wheat grown per acre (the intent was to increase the price of wheat for the farmers’ benefit). Filburn argued that Congress had no power to regulate his wheat production because he used all of his wheat himself (e.g. for feeding his chickens) and did not sell it in interstate commerce. The Supreme Court upheld the law, arguing that Filburn’s violation of the quota made him less likely to purchase wheat from others. This activity, if aggregated among many wheat consumers, could have a significant effect on the price of wheat in interstate commerce and therefore triggered Congress’s power.

Justice Roberts evidently thinks that Wickard represents an extreme limit on Congressional power. As he says, even if Congress can regulate many kinds of commercial activity on the theory that affects – perhaps indirectly – interstate commerce, “Congress has never attempted to rely on [the Commerce Clause] power to compel individuals not engaged in commerce to purchase an unwanted product.” The dissent agrees, saying that Wickard has been regarded as the “ne plus ultra of expansive Commerce Clause jurisprudence.” (“Ne plus ultra” is what Gandalf says to the balrog in the Latin version of the Lord of the Rings.)

Justice Roberts and the dissent draw two conclusions here. First, no prior case construing the Commerce Clause has ever permitted Congress to require citizens to purchase a commercial product. Second, if Congress can require the purchase of a commercial product, then there is no principled limit on Congress’s power, contrary to the intent of the framers of the Constitution that the federal government was one of only limited powers. As the dissent notes, the Government was invited, at oral argument, to say what federal control over private conduct could not be justified on the same basis as the PPACA mandate. “It was unable to name any.”

The concurring opinion by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan makes an effort to answer the question “if Congress under the Commerce Clause can require citizens to purchase insurance policies, are there any principled limits on its power?” This has sometimes been expressed in a more colorful way: “Can Congress require everyone to purchase broccoli?” That question will be considered in the next entry.

Calculus classes with a live teacher?

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

There are many on-line resources for math students these days.  There are college/university level courses, such as those offered by MIT and Stanford.  There are  YouTube videos suitable for high school level study, such as Khan Academy and others.   There are also many downloadable textbooks and on-line learning aids.  A conscientious parent might ask, “What is the benefit worth paying for in having a live but on-line instructor?”

The question is both easy and hard for me to answer, because of my varied experience.  I have taken classes from teachers in person, via live video links, and on-line.  I have also learned material on my own with no teacher to interact with.  In previous blog entries, the Drs. McMenomy have discussed the virtues of finding things out on one’s own (“Freedom to fail” and “Failure is not an option” below).  So, as a student, why not tackle calculus on your own?

In an ideal context, you would have all the time you needed to explore all of the nooks and crannies, all the dead-ends, of a mathematical subject until you reached the same conclusions as previous generations of mathematicians.  Most likely, you’d be a good mathematician then, too – math certainly requires practice to do well, and you would have had a lot of practice.  But independent exploration takes a long while – unless you are an amazing genius, much more time than a year’s worth of classes.

So there’s the first reason to have a math teacher:  to shorten the time it takes to reach mastery, by pointing out unprofitable dead ends in thought.

As you learn a subject, you must make mistakes.  (This is a lesson I personally resisted for a long time – I wanted to be perfect the first time through.)  Because mathematics has a definite sense of “correct and incorrect”, of “perfect and imperfect”, it’s not so bad as with Greek or history, where there are matters of style and personal orientation.  Proofs, which can convince any sceptic, are not only possible, but expected, at least at times.  However, you have to avoid learning the mistakes you make during learning as if they were true.

So there’s the second reason to have a math teacher:  to point out the errors in your reasoning and understanding, so that you don’t have to un-learn and re-learn the material involved.  This is especially true when there’s very careful reasoning required – and calculus certainly has areas where it has taken centuries for some very bright people to reach an adequate level of care in reasoning!

Anyone who has read a textbook (or any other nonfiction book) realizes that not all the material in them is equally important. That seems pretty blatantly obvious, but not everyone sees that.  I’ve been known to grouse about professors’ pet theories which, while true, aren’t useful, using terms like “academic fantasies”.

So there’s the third reason to have a math teacher:  someone to point out the crucially important parts, and differentiate them from the merely interesting parts.  (OK, I’m not perfect there – but I try!)

But perhaps the most critical reason for an outsider’s presence in the learning activity is embodied in the statement, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  It sounds tautological, until you realize that you can know what you don’t know in some contexts (“I don’t know anything about the aorist in Greek, except that there’s something knowable under that label”), and there are so many situations possibly contrary to fact that you can’t even know them all.  (A recent example:  “Lifetime warranty” – I knew that sometimes it refers to the buyer’s lifetime, sometimes to the useful life of the product – but I didn’t know, in the sense that I really believed it in a way that I could act on it, that it might also refer to the lifetime of the company offering the product…)  There can be holes in your knowledge that you’re unaware of:  intellectual blind spots.

So there’s the fourth reason to have a math teacher:  someone to make sure that your knowledge is reliably complete.

All that said, no one can practice doing math for you, just as no one can do physical exercise for you.  Learning is the goal, and teaching one of many means to the goal.

Further Reasoning Re the PPACA (Obamacare) Opinion

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

On the Supreme Court website, you can find the docket for this case (the title is National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius), which lists all the papers filed with the Court (this word is traditionally capitalized for the Supreme Court). It’s a long list. Oral argument is a dramatic high point, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the information provided to the Court.

The opinion begins with a “syllabus” by a Court official, the Reporter of Decisions. The syllabus summarizes the background of the case and the main issues resolved in the opinion. Note that there are multiple opinions and various justices have joined in different parts of those opinions. To figure out whether the Court’s has a “majority opinion” on any particular point, you must count how many justices sign (or concur in) a particular opinion part.

The PPACA is a complex law. Fortunately us, the Court focused chiefly at two provisions. The first is the “individual mandate” that requires everyone (with some exceptions) to purchase health insurance meeting various federal requirements or else pay a “shared responsibility payment” (let’s call it the “SRP”) to the federal government. (Note that in the following discussion I am not concerned with the wisdom of the PPACA, only with whether it is a valid enactment. This is (or should be) the Court’s approach as well.)

Before asking whether the individual mandate is a proper exercise of Congressional power, Chief Justice Roberts considers the federal Anti-Injunction Act, a law that prohibits challenging any tax before the challenger has actually paid it. Should the SRP be considered a tax? If so, then any court challenge is premature because no one has yet paid the SRP.

Chief Justice Roberts discusses this issue in part II of his opinion, concluding that the SRP is not a tax for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act. His reasoning is straightforward: the PPACA contains several provisions that expressly impose taxes but the SRP is called a “penalty” and not a tax. The Chief Justice notes, “[w]here Congress uses certain language in one part of a statute and different language in another, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally” and “the best evidence of Congress’s intent is the statutory text.” (These statements, it seems to me, reflect a judicial approach to acts of Congress that respects the equal status of the two branches.)

To make sure this issue was fully considered, the Court invited a senior lawyer (a “friend of the Court” or in Latin “amicus”) to submit a brief making the best arguments in favor of applying the Anti-Injunction Act. The amicus suggested that since the PPACA calls for the SRP to be “assessed and collected in the same manner” as taxes, this is evidence that the SRP is a tax. Chief Justice Roberts rejects this argument. To the contrary, he says, this provision actually supports the conclusion that the SRP is not a tax. If it were a tax, there would be no need to direct that it be assessed and collected in the same manner as taxes. It is because it is a penalty (and not a tax) that it makes sense to explain that the procedure for collecting it will be through the taxing authority.

Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan agree with the Chief Justice’s conclusion in their separate opinion, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito also agree in their dissent. So this part of the opinion is unanimous in result, if not in reasoning.