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The Politics of Perplexity in Twenty-First Century America

Friday, July 17th, 2020

In the context of twenty-first century America, “politics” is perhaps one of the most curiously irritating words in the English language. I know from personal experience – whether from observing others, or from paying attention to myself – that there is a visceral reflex to feel something between annoyance and disgust upon hearing the word. If politics rears its ugly head, you may think something along the lines of “I’ve had enough of that, thank you!” before rapidly extricating yourself from an unwanted intrusion into an otherwise perfect day. Alternatively, I suspect many of us know people who hear the word “politics” or some related term and can immediately launch into an ambitious lecture on what is wrong and what should be done that somehow promises (implausibly) to solve all our social, political, and economic problems in one fell legislative swoop. We’re surrounded by bitter disputes – online and on television, in print and in person – over political issues, to the extent that it can be hard to stomach contemplating (much less discussing) politics without feeling a little irritated, even disgusted, with both our neighbors and ourselves.

These powerful emotional reactions should give us some pause for reflection. In theory, if not always in practice, the United States of America is a democratic republic, ruled by representative officials in the name of its citizenry. Even without considering the matter deeply, it should be clear to us that such a government cannot function if its citizens are entirely disengaged, as radical factions across the political spectrum will be left to do the politicking on our behalf. Whether we like it or not, our nation’s political life will likely remain interested in us even if we are uninterested in return. We might as well make the best of it, and get down to the business of figuring out where, exactly, we went wrong, and what might be done to repair the damage.

Since the early twentieth century, the predominant approach to teaching American students about their form of government has been in the form of what is known as political science. This perspective is primarily (though not exclusively) concerned with educating students about the practical mechanics of their government and the political dynamics of the American electorate – in short, the branches of the United States government, their differing roles and jurisdictions, group behavioral dynamics, and so forth. All of these political institutions and phenomena are generally treated as abstractions that can be measured and predicted with some degree of accuracy using scientific methodology and data analysis.

The meaning of political science must be carefully qualified and defined. Science is derived from the Latin scientia, or knowledge. The majority of ancient, medieval, and early modern political thinkers used the term political science to refer to the study of politics as a domain of the humanities. They studied politics in light of inquiries in philosophy and history: they did not, as a general rule, conceive of the art of government as something that could be understood as an institutional abstraction that operated independently of the deepest human needs and desires (such as for law and virtue), or the eternal problems that confront every human individual and society (what is justice and truth, and how de we find them?). Above all else, classical political science aimed at cultivating self-governing (moderate) individuals that would be capable of wielding political power responsibly while refraining from tyrannical injustice. Hence, in the conclusion of Plato’s Republic, Socrates teaches Glaucon that the highest end of political science is to teach the soul to bear “all evils and all goods… and practice justice with prudence in every way.” (Republic, Book X, 621c).

Modern political science operates on an entirely different basis and different assumptions about human beings and political life. It begins with the premise that human beings, like all natural things, are subject to mechanical laws that render them predictable. Once these laws are understood, the political life of human beings can be mastered and directed towards progress (understood as material comforts and technological innovation) to a degree that was never remotely possible in prior eras of human history. This view of political science emerged first among certain thinkers of the Enlightenment, and became a close companion to the development of the entire field of social science in the late nineteenth century. Both modern political and social science emerged from a common intellectual project that aimed to apply modern scientific methods and insights to the study of very nearly every aspect of human communal life – economics, social dynamics (sociology), religion, sexuality, psychology, and politics, among others.

This application of human technical knowledge to endemic social problems, economic systems, and political institutions (among other domains of human life) was expected to deliver unprecedented advances that would mirror and eventually surpass the tremendous technological and intellectual achievements of the Scientific Revolution. Max Weber, a social scientist of incredible imtelligence and one of the most brilliant minds of the early twentieth century, fully expected that the complimentary discoveries of both natural and social science would ensure that human “progress goes on ad infinitum.” For many intellectuals in Europe and the United States in Weber’s day, human social and political life had become like a machine that could be kept in a perpetual state of inexorable forward motion. This view remains a powerful one within certain spheres of the social sciences and general public, and has been articulated perhaps most eloquently in the public sphere by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, among others, even if it is gradually declining in popularity among the greater mass of the American citizenry.

Academically, this modern scientific approach to understanding American government had many apparent advantages that explain both its widespread acceptance and its continued influence within the academy. For one, it enabled teachers to focus on explaining the structure of U.S. government with a focus on the technical mechanics of government that can be mastered intuitively by most students, regardless of their particular political views and prejudices. Similarly, it relieves teachers and students of having to focus on tiresome historical minutia or obscure philosophical debates that bear no obvious relevance to contemporary issues: students can study their government based on recent experiences that are more easily comprehensible for them than those of, say, two hundred years ago. Above all else, contemporary political science treats the study of American government in utilitarian and mechanistic terms, thereby minimizing occasions for awkwardly passionate or unsolvable confrontations over thorny issues that touch on moral as well as historical and philosophical complexities. What many students will learn from this education is that the American form of government is perfectly reasonable, orderly, and balanced, with predictable mechanics that ensure its stability and perpetuity; in short, it makes sense. And not only does the American government operate like a well-oiled machine, but it also leaves individuals tremendous room to define themselves and act within an ever-expanding horizon of freedoms. Government exists mainly to resolve practical matters of policy and administration, leaving moral questions largely to the domain of the private sphere.

Many may rightly ask: if this model is true, then why does the American government function so poorly in practice? And why are Americans so remarkably inept at finding common ground for resolving pressing political issues? Indeed, there are alarming trends that should inspire us to doubt the viability of this interpretation. Polling conducted over the past decade consistently shows that Americans of all political persuasions are increasingly distrustful of both their governments and of their fellow citizens who hold opposing views. Rigid ideological voices have emerged among both liberal and conservative parties that insist that dialogue is impossible and compromise on any issue is a sign of political weakness, and that a candidate’s quality should be determined by ideological considerations rather than by competence and experience. As electoral politics have devolved into brutal slugging matches between increasingly extreme views, the actual levers of political power have gradually shifted into the hands of a theoretically subordinate but frequently unaccountable and inefficient bureaucracy.

The fruits of this widespread culture of distrust has been the breakdown of civic life and political order amidst frustration and mutual recrimination throughout American society. Many are understandably frustrated with a system of government that seems incapable or unwilling to fulfill its most basic functions. For that matter, generations of young Americans have now grown up in the shadow of a dysfunctional government that leaves them with little incentive for acting as responsible and engaged citizens. It should be no wonder that there are now voices who now ask questions such as the following: if our current Constitution is a product of eighteenth century political circumstances and ideals, should we not perhaps craft a new political system that is better adapted our contemporary needs and values?

Perhaps these are all passing fads, and some bearable equilibrium will return in short order. I am doubtful that such an event is likely in the near future. Recent events have shown that contemporary Americans of all political stripes are divided not merely by petty partisan differences over policy decisions and electoral contests, but even more importantly by fierce disagreements over fundamental questions about the nature of political life and American civic identity that transcend mere partisan disagreement, and we are not remotely close to resolving these disputes. What is it to be a human? What is freedom? What is justice? We do not have common answers for any of these fundamental questions, nor do we seem (at least, as of this writing) to have a clear direction for amicably resolving these disputes in the public sphere.

Yet these disputes, however unpleasant and acrimonious, provide us with a hint of where, exactly, we may have gone wrong. Far from liberating us from antiquated concerns, our modern political education (and the novel mode of thought that created it) may lie at the heart of our perplexity. Modern political science has worked tremendous wonders in allowing us to track the chimerical shifting of public whims in opinion polls or understand the psychology of group dynamics, but it has also obfuscated our ability to grapple with and comprehend problems that are part of the permanent condition of our species. Political institutions and policy alone cannot solve America’s most vexing problems. And we should remember that representative government depends ultimately on the qualities of both officeholders and voters to function properly; institutions abstracted from the body politic cannot rule themselves. Our government, as John Adams observed in 1798, “was designed for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Adams thought that republican government could not exist without some degree of self-government among the citizenry, or else it must devolve into a mass of petty tyrants; we are, perhaps, in the process of proving his point for him.

I suspect that the root of modern American political dissatisfaction is not so much in our continued subjection to an apparently antiquated form of government, nor merely in our frustration with the peculiar idiocies of our political parties, but rather in our own failure to accurately comprehend and utilize our form of government. In an era of change and tumult, we would do well, as the American novelist and essayist John Dos Passos put it in 1941, to “look backwards as well as forwards” as we attempt to extricate ourselves from our current political predicament. While we may face many distinctly twenty-first century problems in certain respects, our most pressing problems – justice, love, truth, goodness, and so forth – are as old as the human species. We live in troubled times: but so, too, did prior generations of Americans. I hope that, if we can find it in ourselves to turn back and reconsider the first principles of American government, its deep roots in English political life and philosophy, we may yet discover a firm foundation that will give us a lifeline from our current perplexity, and enable us to engage more fully in a life of dutiful, informed, and responsible citizenship that can be passed on to future generations.

To Zoom or not to Zoom

Friday, May 29th, 2020

I seem to be making a lot of decisions lately: to teach AP courses or not (not), to seek accreditation or not (seek; successfully we may add), and to use video or not for my class sessions (jury still out).

Our latest home page notes that Scholars Online education is grounded, rigorous, and thorough, and that by “grounded”, we mean that we welcome constructive innovation, but do not seek novelty for its own sake. We teach traditional subjects using time-tested methods.

In other words, we use technological solutions where they are appropriate, and we recognize that not all technology is useful in a given situation for discovering the truth.

Scholars Online will be experimenting with Zoom for some of its courses in 2020-2021, but retain our own chat for others. Math and language courses already use Skype or WizIQ and will be moving to Zoom where the teachers choose to use it. But we have some serious and perhaps not obvious concerns about moving all our courses to video format. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and here are some of my current observations, some based on my own experience, some relying on reports from others.

We’ve been using Zoom for our church services since lockdown began here in Washington in mid-March, and inevitably, we have also been taking this opportunity to evaluate its use for our Scholars Online courses. We’ve had a chance to identify both some interesting advantages and some worrying disadvantages. (I also used Webex and Skype business platforms for over a decade at work, so some of my observations are platform independent and apply to any video conferencing method).

But we’ll start with the most recent experiences with Zoom:

Last Sunday, the entire Zoom platform went down across the country. We all had to wait while Zoom tried to recover its servers not just for us, but for the rest of the USA. Most of our church members were unable to log into the church service until the last minute.

Zoom focuses on a single speaker, so two people cannot talk at once without it becoming confused. For our church services, we have a designated individual each Sunday presenting the congregational responses for our liturgy. Our Zoom-hosted coffee hour adult education discussions descend to audio beeps and video jerks when two people try to talk at the same time in response to a question.

Members using different platforms have different display options, which makes it hard for a person on a computer to help a person on a tablet find a particular option and set it so that everyone can hear properly.

Even in our reasonably well-wired urban region, our vicar and responder regularly slow down, glitch, and become unintelligible when they exceed their band width or internet traffic clogs up. It’s distracting to watch people talk and move as though they were under water, and again, hard to understand what they say, and they often don’t realize their presentation has been garbled until it is too late to go back and recover the lost moment.

So here are the issues I have in considering a move from the SO Chat software to Zoom in particular and video in general:

1. Zoom was designed to support business meetings and webinars, not group discussion sessions. Zoom would be fine if we were doing lecture demonstrations and calling on students one at a time, and for some courses (math, French), it may work well if the instructor has structured a class session that way. But for history, literature, and even science, where we depend on seminar-type discussions that allow students to participate freely, Zoom can be more of an impediment than an aid. In some critical ways, our text chat allows for more interactive discussion than Zoom does. It allows every member to present information on an equal footing, and when students are involved in the material, that dynamic can be pretty exciting. In chat, if five students talk “at the same time”, their remarks all make it into the chat window without confusion, and we can sort and address them individually. Everyone gets heard, and no one gets stepped on — there is no way to interrupt another student, and no need for the teacher to force students to be silent unless called on, except in extreme disciplinary situations. I may be particularly sensitive to this, since I have experienced being talked over in a video conference session so that my voice was never heard (and the meeting host never noticed that my silence was not voluntary). That can’t happen in our chat.

2. We have a number of families who have more than one student in class at the same time, where the noise from competing audio sessions can create chaos for students in the same room. This is an issue which has even been in the news lately as public schools moved online and parents had to deal with siblings using computers in the same room. But quiet is a necessary condition for reflection and the formulation of coherent expression. Our experience over the last two decades and especially feedback from our alumni who were at college or graduate school have made us realize that the silence of chat helps students engage with the material in ways audio input disrupts, and that constantly writing contributes to developing precise self-expression in ways off-the-cuff impulsive spoken responses cannot. If my own environment isn’t quiet during class, it won’t disrupt others in the class. In our chat, I can participate even if someone is running the washing machine in the same room, or there are booming announcements from the airport speaker while I wait to board a plane, or I am in a car on the road with five other voluble family members (and yes, those are all real examples). I may have to block the noise out, but my classmates do not, and I can still enter the discussion at will, without subjecting them to my own distracting environment.

3. Written text allows students to review what was just said, read it closely, and “listen” to it more carefully. In a video presentation, if a student comes in late,  or misses a minute, the material covered in that period is lost for the rest of the session. It may be captured in a movie uploaded to YouTube or another platform for later review, but it is no longer available during the discussion. This creates a huge temptation for the late student to simply skip the session altogether and catch the upload: that is, to become a passive viewer of a pre-recorded session instead of an active participant in the discussion. In our chat, if a student comes in late, the entire chat is available from its start up to the moment the student enters, and if one misses a point, he or she can scroll back and find exactly what was said. The student can come up to speed, and jump into the discussion, without requiring the teacher to interrupt the discussion and recap for that student.

4. We also know that many of our students have only low-bandwidth access, and (as mentioned) we have a number of families who have more than one student in class at the same time: bandwidth becomes a critical factor. We’ve seen that even Zoom, which is the cutting edge technology available to us, slows down, cuts out, and even shuts down when it is overloaded. With our chat, I don’t have to worry that another family member is also on line, teaching or taking a high-bandwidth course that will slow down my internet access. I can attend class pretty much from anywhere there is a wireless or data connection.

There are some other more subtle things that we’ve noticed both in Scholars Online chats, in using audio-visual meetings in business environments, and in reading recent news reports of teachers moving to online video methods that give us pause.

One is my experience with using an international software product, even as a very large company client. Using Zoom puts us at the mercy of a third party with many other (much bigger) customers who will influence its development. Zoom’s focus will be on meeting the requirements of the majority of its customers, especially the larger ones, at its own pace and on its own schedule. Zoom may chose to drop features that we depend on, or impose features, especially extra security, that prevent students from attending until they have received updated instructions, which puts a greater burden on teachers to stay current with a moving platform. They can choose to revise deployed applications at any moment for their own reasons. My most recent Zoom meeting was delayed for fifteen minutes because one important attendee had to download a required Zoom update before he could log in. With the Scholars Online chat, we control the server and the software, and while our dedicated server is supported by a third party, the NuOZ technicians built it for us to our specifications, and our infrastructure changes only when we understand and have agreed to recommended updates, and can coordinate changes to the MOODLE and our website and test them first. 

Another issue is hosting recordings for course sessions. Our chat logs remain on our dedicated server and are unavailable (short of court order) to anyone outside Scholars Online without our permission. We have built security that meets with both US and European requirements for personally identifiable information. But the capacity and software required to support streaming recorded Zoom sessions is too expensive for us; we will need to look at how to host these on YouTube, which means coming up with security and access controls (and maintaining them on a per-class basis as required by FERPA regulations) as well as putting information on a platform whose ultimate access by its many technicians we do not control. Access control on YouTube is a technical configuration issue with a solution, but it is an additional burden for our teachers and administrative staff, and will require students to have YouTube accounts that will track their access, and not just to Scholars Online resources. Some parents may be comfortable with this, but how will we handle a situation when we have a class where one student cannot have access to his class videos?

Less obvious, perhaps, but an important factor in preferring text to video is simply that text chat levels the playing field. My students don’t have to worry about whether they are dressed well or poorly, or how their house looks to others. This is not a trivial concern for students who feel already at a disadvantage, or that they will be judged by their appearance or their surroundings. We are starting to learn from the public school shift into online teaching that over a third of the students simply stopped coming to class because they lacked the technology or didn’t want others to see their home environment. Using a low-bandwidth text chat helps reduce economic and social distinctions and barriers for our students, and puts the focus where it belongs: on the discussion, in which everyone can participate.

So perhaps the most important factor is that text chat promotes class community in a way that video does not. I know that students sometimes feel uneasy when they cannot see the teacher or each other, because they use visual appearance, speech accent, and intonation to make judgments. But not being able to make certain kinds of distinctions about each other automatically (or at least not being constantly reminded visually of them) makes for a different kind of relationship. I’m not sure that we would have the same participation in chat if students could tell at a glance each other’s racial or ethnic background or age, or whether the teacher is frowning or smiling. Scholars Online collects no ethnic or racial information as part of the enrollment process. Unless our students make it a point in describing themselves in their MOODLE profiles, we don’t know whether they are white, African-American, Asian, Latino, or native American, and we’ve learned that names are not a reliable guide here, even for gender (information we do collect). Most of our classes have students with a two-three year age range; some have adult students. In chat, they are all more or less equal. I don’t think we could achieve anything close to the same level of equality of discussion if our younger students were constantly reminded that some of their fellow classmates are much older, or sometimes, if they could see the expression on my face as they venture a response!  But if I really want my students to learn to think for themselves, they have to be comfortable enough to venture the uncommon or unwelcome observation and speak the truth as they see it.

We realize that some students prefer visual presentation of material. We can and do use images, short movies, animations, and even interactive exercises during chat, since anything a browser supports, we can direct students to use during a chat session, and we can incorporate everything except complex simulations and whiteboard in chat itself. We’ve accepted suggestions from teachers and students to support different modes of mathematical symbol input and implemented these, and we even create our own graphics and videos to support course presentations (Scholars Online does have its own YouTube channel). This is an area where we can improve our chat presentation abilities, and we are working on it.

But we need to weigh the presentation and some personal connection advantages of video against what we will lose by moving to a video platform: a certain kind of focus on the material itself rather than the means of presentation, a level sense of community with others in the course that does not depend on identification with ethnic or economic or racial or age cohorts, and constant writing practice that requires disciplined thought from the students. We will continue to trust our teachers to make this choice for their own courses, and support them as best we can.

We’d love your feedback to help our teachers make this decision.

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.