Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

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.

STEMs and Roots

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Everywhere we see extravagant public handwringing about education. Something is not working. The economy seems to be the symptom that garners the most attention, and there are people across the political spectrum who want to fix it directly; but most seem to agree that education is at least an important piece of the solution. We must produce competitive workers for the twenty-first century, proclaim the banners and headlines; if we do not, the United States will become a third-world nation. We need to get education on the fast track — education that is edgy, aggressive, and technologically savvy. Whatever else it is, it must be up to date, it must be fast, and it must be modern. It must not be what we have been doing.

I’m a Latin teacher. If I were a standup comedian, that would be considered a punch line. In addition to Latin, I teach literature — much of it hundreds of years old. I ask students, improbably, to see it for what it itself is, not just for what they can use it for themselves. What’s the point of that? one might ask. Things need to be made relevant to them, not the other way around, don’t they?

Being a Latin teacher, however (among other things), I have gone for a number of years now to the Summer Institute of the American Classical League, made up largely of Latin teachers across the country. One might expect them to be stubbornly resistant to these concerns — or perhaps blandly oblivious. That’s far from the case. Every year, in between the discussions of Latin and Greek literature and history, there are far more devoted to pedagogy: how to make Latin relevant to the needs of the twenty-first century, how to advance the goals of STEM education using classical languages, and how to utilize the available technology in the latest and greatest ways. What that technology does or does not do is of some interest, but the most important thing for many there is that it be new and catchy and up to date. Only that way can we hope to engage our ever-so-modern students.

The accrediting body that reviewed our curricular offerings at Scholars Online supplies a torrent of exortation about preparing our students for twenty-first century jobs by providing them with the latest skills. It’s obvious enough that the ones they have now aren’t doing the trick, since so many people are out of work, and so many of those who are employed seem to be in dead-end positions. The way out of our social and cultural morass lies, we are told, in a focus on the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Providing students with job skills is the main business of education. They need to be made employable. They need to be able to become wealthy, because that’s how our society understands, recognizes, and rewards worth. We pay lip service, but little else, to other standards of value.

The Sarah D. Barder Fellowship organization to which I also belong is a branch of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. It’s devoted to gifted and highly gifted education. At their annual conference they continue to push for skills, chiefly in the scientific and technical areas, to make our students competitive in the emergent job market. The highly gifted ought to be highly employable and hence earn high incomes. That’s what it means, isn’t it?

The politicians of both parties have contrived to disagree about almost everything, but they seem to agree about this. In January of 2014, President Barack Obama commented, “…I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

From the other side of the aisle, Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

They’re both, of course, right. The problem isn’t that they have come up with the wrong answer. It isn’t even that they’re asking the wrong question. It’s that they’re asking only one of several relevant questions. They have drawn entirely correct conclusions from their premises. A well-trained plumber with a twelfth-grade education (or less) can make more money than I ever will as a Ph.D. That has been obvious for some time now. If I needed any reminding, the last time we required a plumber’s service, the point was amply reinforced: the two of them walked away in a day with about what I make in a month. It’s true, too, that a supply of anthropologists is not, on the face of things, serving the “compelling interests” of the state of Florida (or any other state, probably). In all fairness, President Obama said that he wasn’t talking about the value of art history as such, but merely its value in the job market. All the same, that he was dealing with the job market as the chief index of an education’s value is symptomatic of our culture’s expectations about education and its understanding of what it’s for.

The politicians haven’t created the problem; but they have bought, and are now helping to articulate further, the prevalent assessment of what ends are worth pursuing, and, by sheer repetition and emphasis, crowding the others out. I’m not at all against STEM subjects, nor am I against technologically competent workers. I use and enjoy technology. I am not intimidated by it. I teach online. I’ve been using the Internet for twenty-odd years. I buy a fantastic range of products online. I programmed the chat software I use to teach Latin and Greek, using PHP, JavaScript, and mySQL. I’m a registered Apple Developer. I think every literate person should know not only some Latin and Greek, but also some algebra and geometry. I even think, when going through Thucydides’ description of how the Plataeans determined the height of the wall the Thebans had built around their city, “This would be so much easier if they just applied a little trigonometry.” Everyone should know how to program a computer. Those are all good things, and help us understand the world we’re living in, whether we use them for work or not.

But they are not all that we need to know. So before you quietly determine that what I’m offering is just irrelevant, allow me to bring some news from the past. If that sounds contradictory, bear in mind that it’s really the only kind of news there is. All we know about anything at all, we know from the past, whether recent or distant. Everything in the paper or on the radio news is already in the past. Every idea we have has been formulated based on already-accumulated evidence and already-completed ratiocination. We may think we are looking at the future, but we aren’t: we’re at most observing the trends of the recent past and hypothesizing about what the future will be like. What I have to say is news, not because it’s about late-breaking happenings, but because it seems not to be widely known. The unsettling truth is that if we understood the past better and more deeply, we might be less sanguine about trusting the apparent trends of a year or even a decade as predictors of the future. They do not define our course into the infinite future, or even necessarily the short term — be they about job creation, technical developments, or weather patterns. We are no more able to envision the global culture and economy of 2050 than the independent bookseller in 1980 could have predicted that a company named Amazon would put him out of business by 2015.

So here’s my news: if the United States becomes a third-world nation (a distinct possibility), it will not be because of a failure in our technology, or even in our technological education. It will be because, in our headlong pursuit of what glitters, we have forgotten how to differentiate value from price: we have forgotten how to be a free people. Citizenship — not merely in terms of law and government, but the whole spectrum of activities involved in evaluating and making decisions about what kind of people to be, collectively and individually — is not a STEM subject. Our ability to articulate and grasp values, and to make reasoned and well-informed decisions at the polls, in the workplace, and in our families, cannot be transmitted by a simple, repeatable process. Nor can achievement in citizenship be assessed simply, or, in the short term, accurately at all. The successes and failures of the polity as a whole, and of the citizens individually, will remain for the next generation to identify and evaluate — if we have left them tools equal to the task. Our human achievement cannot be measured by lines of code, by units of product off the assembly line, or by GNP. Our competence in the business of being human cannot be certified like competence in Java or Oracle (or, for that matter, plumbing). Even a success does not necessarily hold out much prospect of employment or material advantage, because that was never what it was about in the first place. It offers only the elusive hope that we will have spent our stock of days with meaning — measured not by our net worth when we die, but by what we have contributed when we’re alive. The questions we encounter in this arena are not new ones, but rather old ones. If we lose sight of them, however, we will have left every child behind, for technocracy can offer nothing to redirect our attention to what matters.

Is learning this material of compelling interest to the state? That depends on what you think the state is. The state as a bureaucratic organism is capable of getting along just fine with drones that don’t ask any inconvenient questions. We’re already well on the way to achieving that kind of state. Noam Chomsky, ever a firebrand and not a man with whom I invariably agree, trenchantly pointed out, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” He’s right. If we are to become unfree people, it will be because we gave our freedom away in exchange for material security or some other ephemeral reward — an illusion of safety and welfare, and those same jobs that President Obama and Governor Scott have tacitly accepted as the chief — or perhaps the only — real objects of our educational system. Whatever lies outside that narrow band of approved material is an object of ridicule.

If the state is the people who make it up, the question is subtly but massively different. Real education may not be in the compelling interest of the state qua state, but it is in the compelling interest of the people. It’s the unique and unfathomably complex amalgam that each person forges out of personal reflection, of coming to understand one’s place in the family, in the nation, and in the world. It is not primarily practical, and we should eschew it altogether, if our highest goal were merely to get along materially. The only reason to value it is the belief that there is some meaning to life beyond one’s bank balance and material comfort. I cannot prove that there is, and the vocabulary of the market has done its best to be rid of the idea. But I will cling to it while I live, because I think it’s what makes that life worthwhile.

Technical skills — job skills of any sort — are means, among others, to the well-lived life. They are even useful means in their place, and everyone should become as competent as possible. But as they are means, they are definitionally not ends in themselves. They can be mistakenly viewed as ends in themselves, and sold to the credulous as such, but the traffic is fraudulent, and it corrupts the good that is being conveyed. Wherever that sale is going on, it’s because the real ends are being quietly bought up by those with the power to keep them out of our view in their own interest.

Approximately 1900 years ago, Tacitus wrote of a sea change in another civilization that had happened not by cataclysm but through inattention to what really mattered. Describing the state of Rome at the end of the reign of Augustus, he wrote: “At home all was calm. The officials carried the old names; the younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most even of the elder generation, during the civil wars; few indeed were left who had seen the Republic. It was thus an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace lingered.” It takes but a single generation to forget the work of ages.

But perhaps that’s an old story, and terribly out of date. I teach Latin, Greek, literature, and history, after all.

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.

Reasoning as an Aid to Charity During an Election Year

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

During an election season, emotions run high. Citizens are rightly concerned about the important issues at stake. They naturally feel upset when those issues are unfairly characterized by their political adversaries. Those who seek to remain in charity with their fellow-citizens can find it a time of stress.

The United States Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has caused many veins to throb. Pundits have been quick to suggest that the justices (majority or dissent, depending on the pundit’s views) decided the case based on impure motives.

In my class on reasoning, the curriculum usually includes review of a controversial legal opinion. Unfortunately, the PPACA case was decided too late this year to be covered. Approaching a legal opinion from the point of view of legal reasoning — rather than an opportunity for political partisanship — can be an exercise both enlightening and conducive to at least temporary charity.

Here are some general comments about how someone, after taking my class, might approach the opinion.

1. It is a general principle that reasoning in all fields must begin somewhere. In logic, certain basic forms of argument (such as: for each proposition A, either A or not-A is true) must simply be accepted as valid; no more fundamental logical premises are available from which to prove them. Practical reasoning also involves premises that are accepted without proof. If we say, “you should brush your teeth,” we assume our interlocutor shares interests with us (avoiding tooth decay and bad breath). In scientific reasoning, we assume that certain sensory observations are reliable and that instrument readings correlate to physical conditions. In moral reasoning, we typically begin with basic moral principles (the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, the classic Greek virtues, advancing the Revolution, etc.). In theological reasoning, we typically begin by assuming that certain experiences and liturgical practices are reliable indicators of the divine nature and purposes. In each case, someone may refuse to accept our starting points. Before reasoning can resume we must find out what that person’s premises are.

2. One of the fun challenges of reasoning is to discern what premises have been assumed. For example, the argument “law X should be passed” typically draws upon unstated premises about human flourishing, the role of government, the intended effects of the law, and defects in current laws. Bringing those premises to light can clarify the issues, advance debate, and increase charity.

3. Unlike logic (where few deny “either A or not-A”), or science, where few deny that sensory data are generally reliable, or even morals, where few deny the distinction between good and evil (though callow bloggers may adopt this pose), the law is an area in which argument over premises is not only possible, it has been (for the past century or two anyway) common. To greatly oversimplify, a continuum can be drawn between two extremes. On the one hand, someone might say that the Constitution and the laws have been written by the framers of the Constitution and the Congress and the job of the Court is simply to apply those pre-written rules, without discretion. On the other hand, someone might say that the Court has great discretion to consider or ignore the Constitution and laws, which are products of particular times and places, in exercising of its own moral (and common) sense. Both of these extremes are caricatured, and the actual business of judging is much more complicated. But for clarity to emerge we must be open to the idea that the different justices may have different ideas of their proper roles in the Constitutional order.

4. Review of the PPACA decision should begin by recognizing that multiple issues were presented and different groups of justices joined in different parts of multiple opinions. Only after sorting out the different questions posed and the different answers given can we begin to discern the reasoning in the various opinions.

If this subject is of interest to the readers of this blog, I could continue with a more detailed review along the lines sketched above.

Making Sense and Finding Meaning

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

My intermediate and advanced Greek and Latin classes are largely translation-based. There’s a lot of discussion among Latin teachers about whether that’s a good approach, but much of the dispute is, I think, mired in terminological ambiguity, and at least some of the objections to translation classes don’t entirely apply to what we’re doing. What I’m looking for is emphatically not a mechanical translation according to rigid and externally objective rules (“Render the subjunctive with ‘might’,” “Translate the imperfect with the English progressive,” or the like), but rather the expression of the student’s understanding of each sentence as a whole, in the context of the larger discussion or narrative.

We aren’t there to produce publishable translations: that’s an entirely different game, with different rules. For us, translations are the means to an end: the understanding is the real point of the process, but it’s hard to measure understanding unless it’s expressed somehow. The translations, therefore, are like a scaffold surrounding the real edifice — engagement with the text as a whole: its words, its sounds, and its various levels of meaning. That engagement is hard to pin down, but it allows us to make a genuine human connection with the mind of the author. A detached mechanical “translation”, though, is like a scaffold built around nothing, or the new clothes without the emperor. Even were artificial intelligence able to advance to the point that a computer could produce a flawless rendition of a text into another language, it still would not have achieved what is essential. It will not have understood. It will not have savored the words, grasped the concepts, combined them into larger ideas, applied them to new contexts, or come to a meeting of the minds with the author.
This is not always an easy concept for students to grasp. Some are fretful to get exactly the right wording (as if there were such a thing), but apparently less concerned with understanding the essential meaning. At the beginning of the year, I usually have a few students who make the (to me bizarre) claim, “I translated this sentence, but I don’t understand it.” My response is always some variation on, “If you didn’t make sense of it, you didn’t really translate it.”

We talk about making sense of the passage, but even that turn of phrase may be one of the little arrogances of the modern world. The prevalent modern paradigm suggests that the world is without order or meaning unless we impose it; Christianity, however, presupposes a world informed by its Creator with a consistent meaning that we only occasionally perceive. For us, it would probably be more accurate, and certainly more modest, to talk of finding or discovering the sense in the passage.

Whether we call it “making sense” or “finding sense”, though, it is not just the stuff of language classes. Every discipline is ultimately about finding meaning in and through its subject matter. In language and literature we look for the informing thought behind speech and writing. In history we look to understand the whole complex relationship of individuals and groups through time, with their ideas, movements, and circumstances, and what it all meant for them and what it means for us today. The sciences look to find the rationale in the order of the physical universe, mathematics the meaning of pure number and proportion, and philosophy to find the sense of sense itself. Each discipline has its own methods, its own vocabulary, and its own techniques. Each has its own equivalent of the translation exercise, too — something we do not really for its own sake, but to verify that the student has grasped something larger that cannot be measured directly. But behind those differences of method and process, all of them are about engaging with the underlying meaning. All real learning is. (In that respect it differs from training, which is not really about learning as such, but about acquiring known skills. Both learning and training are essential to a well-rounded human being, but they shouldn’t be confused with one another.)

From a secular point of view, this must seem a rather granular exercise with many dead ends. That each thing should have its own limited kind of meaning, unrelated to every other, seems at least aesthetically unsatisfying; it offers us Eliot’s Waste Land: a “heap of broken images”, pointing nowhere. Language is fractured, and our first great gift of articulate speech clogs and becomes useless.

Our faith offers us something else: we were given the power to name creation — to refer to one thing through or with another — as a way of proclaiming the truth of God, surely, but also, I think, as a kind of hint as to how we should view the whole world. Everything, viewed properly, can be a sign. As Paul says in Romans, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (1:20, NIV); Alanus ab Insulis (1128-1202) wrote, about 1100 years later, “Every creature in the world is like a picture to us, or a mirror.” Signification itself is transformed and transfigured, sub specie aeternitatis, from a set of chaotic references into a kind of tree, in which the signifiers converge, both attesting the unitary truth of the Lord and endowing every created thing in its turn with a holy function.