Monday, December 27, 2010

Like Ike?

The latest issue of The American Conservative has arrived in my mailbox, and I'm honored to have an essay included in a cover symposium observing the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Farewell Address," which he delivered on January 17, 1961. The speech includes Eisenhower's famous warning against the "military-industrial" complex; my own contribution reflects on Eisenhower's warnings against the rise of a "scientistic" mentality (indeed, the famous phrase was winnowed down from its original iteration as "the military-industrial-scientific complex." Also discarded was the phrase "the military-industrial-congressional complex" - either of which would have been accurate fears to warn against). I use the occasion to reflect on America's dual legacy regarding its views on science - with its dominant tradition tending to embrace the Baconian legacy of science providing for "the relief of the human estate," but also recognizing the existence of a "second voice" that has been a critical witness to the costs and abuses of the scientific enterprise and its fetish for "progress" at any price. I'll post it here when it is liberated from its firewall.

The symposium includes really fine essays by Robert Schlesinger (who offers a background about the speech, and from whom I learned of these various iterations); Michael Desch (who takes issue with Eisenhower's warning and instead lays the blame of American militarism on the Left); Lew Rockwell (who indicts Eisenhower's deep complicity in supporting the very complex he criticized - including his support for the interstate highway system); and FPR's own Bill Kauffman, who recalls Eisenhower's anti-war Jayhawk roots.

I can't think of a publication in America that would run such a symposium, all really smart reflections on Eisenhower's underappreciated speech, but all very different in their sentiments and concerns. Credit and praise goes to TAC's superb editor, Daniel McCarthy. If you're not a subscriber, you should be.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Holy Night

Despite conservative disapproval of the greeting "Happy Holidays," as a Christian I take no offense at the phrase. After all, the words effectively invoke the same sentiment - they are a slight abbreviation of the words "Happy Holy Days." Happy Holidays, I say, and all that those words imply - which is much indeed.

Even when contemporaries try to find a non-Christian way of getting around the fact of Christmas, there is really no escaping that the season in one way or another is about the birth of the Christ child. In the ferocious battles over such cultural markers as "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" or whether a crèche ought to be allowed on this or that parcel of public property, the true meaning of Christmas is indeed often lost - and not only by antagonists of Christianity. In point of fact, it's quite likely that we are all Christians to a greater or lesser extent, since most modern humans recognize the inherent dignity of the human person. And - whether secularists like it or not - this is a decisive legacy of Christianity, a legacy that remains as ever-present if unacknowledged as the pious sentiment contained in the supposedly neutral words "happy holiday."

My favorite Christmas carol is "O Holy Night," whose first verse (as translated by John Sullivan Dwight) in part reads:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The words capture the central meaning of Christmas: the Incarnation, the divine assumption of humanity. At that moment, everything changed: no longer merely species fodder or defined by one's birthright, all humans everywhere were now under the umbrella of Christian grace, all equally partaking in the divine participation in our humanness and expectant of redemption. That the Christ-child was born to an ordinary woman in the most abject conditions (and why liberals should love what the crèche portrays) was intended to show that the Incarnation embraced everyone in every circumstance and condition: the high shall be made low and the low shall be raised up.

Early liberals recognized that liberalism was fundamentally premised upon Christianity. The idea of inherent human dignity was unprecedented in the great ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome before the advent of Christianity, and in all likelihood will not withstand the efforts to dismantle Christianity from a place of pride in the Christian nations in which liberalism arose. It was John Locke - the ur-father of liberal theory - who recognized that Christianity was most fundamentally the source of the West's belief in human dignity. He noted in his late book The Reasonableness of Christianity that the Greeks were the most rational of all people, and yet they did not discover a rational argument that prevented them from exposing their newborn children. Locke argued that it was Christianity that introduced the idea of inherent dignity belonging to all humans - whatever their circumstance or condition - and that put an end to the practice of exposure. One sees today in the most ferocious and consistent rationalists the effort to dispel the notion of human dignity, as Peter Singer has attempted to do - in order (in part) to justify new forms of infanticide. Singer's arguments suggest that there is really no (instrumentally) rational basis for the belief in human dignity - it is a unique legacy of Christianity and undergirds liberalism itself. Yet, today liberalism increasingly seeks to dismantle the very grounds that support what it claims to be one of its core beliefs. And, while liberalism insists upon the need for circumspection and questioning, it is often ferociously self-certain that religion in general and Christianity in particular is the source of all human ills, and has nothing to do with (among other things) the idea of human dignity. Many liberals are ardent supporters of "the precautionary principle" in environmental matters (e.g., global warming), but not in the deeper and even more complex waters of moral and civilizational grounding (conservatives ought rightly to embrace "the precautionary principle" on a strongly consistent basis - it is one of the core features of the conservative disposition).

There is a deep similarity between liberalism's preferred use of the phrase "happy holidays" and its claim to believe in human dignity. Both are residues of its older Christian faith, holdovers that remain in force even as the basis for their existence is explicitly attacked and dismantled. Both are thoughtlessly invoked without reflection upon their source or meaning. Yet, both are assuredly on the way to vapid meaninglessness without the reinforcing beliefs which gave them original force and meaning, whether the joyous observance of the Holy Days or the great and mysterious gift of human dignity that arose on that December morning when the soul felt its worth.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Last Minute Gift Idea

For parents, parents-to-be, children, children-that-were, and anyone else:

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
(I.S.I. Books, 2010; $26.95)

I'm devouring this book since receiving it a few days ago (a guilty pleasure amid a pile of papers to grade); it's a marvelous, delicious exercise in irony in which Esolen (one of our greatest literary scholars) purports to recommend a series of exercises by which parents can destroy their children's native and capacious capacity for wonder, imagination and faith. For my money it's the best faux self-help book since The Screwtape Letters.

Among the ten ways you can destroy your child's imagination are:

--Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible
--Never Leave Children to Themselves
--Replace the Fairy Tale with the Political Cliche
--Cut All Heroes Down to Size
--Level Distinctions Between Man and Woman
--Deny the Transcendent

If that's not enough to entice you to give this book to a loved one (or better yet, ask for it from anyone who will give you a copy), here's an excerpt:

"Consider the problems of the poor fellow who has to manage the Human Warehouse, the faraway, sprawling school, stocked with hundreds or thousands of pupils. In the old days, let's say in a one-room schoolhouse, you could easily pick out which young lad or lass was blessed with a mischievous eye and a lively mind. They were the ones hanging upside down from a couple of planks nailed up on a tree in the schoolyard, or sticking bubble gum on the radiator, or reading Ivanhoe. So you got them a few more planks and a bucket of nails,or a paddle to the rear end, or Waverly. They could be dealt with. But the bigger the school, the more dangerous and upsetting a single act of imagination can be. The necessity to impose something like order rules it out. A vast enterprise like McDonald's can only function by ensuring that no employee, anywhere, will do anything sprightly and childlike in the ways of cooking. I sometimes think that if a single boy at the grill tossed paprika into the french fries, the whole colossal pasteboard empire would come crashing down. Barbarians everywhere would be grilling the onions, or leaving the ketchup out, or commandeering the Swiss to take place of the American. The great virtue of McDonald's, that of the solid, dependable, inert routine, would vanish. As in what was once called 'life,' you'd never know what you were getting."

Buy it and let imagination roam free, as God intended, and as Christmas beseeches.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Against Vocational Education, For Vocation

I have a piece up at "Minding the Campus" responding to a piece there (and in the Chronicle of Higher Education) that attacks the idea that all citizens need a university education, and - following the arguments of Charles Murray - suggests instead that most people should instead receive a form of "vocational" training. My abbreviated response is here, but I'll post my longer response here, below. I'm responding to Richard Vedder's arguments here and here.


I don’t disagree with the Richard Vedder’s basic argument that universities have become too expensive and too mediocre and too often the default for too many young people who might do well to pursue appropriate schooling through the secondary level. I wholly agree that too many university administrators, faculty, and politicians are seeking to preserve a bloated system that should be downsized and made more affordable. I agree that government funding has distorted the entire university system, from exhorbitant tuition rates to government-driven research agendas and increasingly in the form of micromanagement of university class time, textbooks and “assessments.” I agree that a reckoning is at hand.

However, I am deeply worried by the way that the reckoning in education is likely to pan out, in considerable part because of arguments like those advanced by Richard Vetter, Charles Murray and a host of other conservatives. In too many of these arguments, there is a strong equation of education (broadly) and job preparation, with the presumption that unless one is equipped with the native intelligence or disposable wealth and leisure to pursue a university education, then one’s education should consist dominantly if not exclusively of acquiring useful skills that can be employed in relatively menial labors. I am put to mind of the world envisioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 novel Player Piano in which America is divided between a workforce consisting of an “intellectual” workforce, all of whom hold Ph.D.s, and a workforce of menial laborers whose education leaves them stunted and ultimately politically restive.

In drawing a nearly exclusive connection between education and its economic benefits, such arguments reinforce a dominant view of education that has been implicitly advanced by universities for the past several decades and which is now embraced by most contemporary Americans – and, which arguably lies behind the need for a reckoning in education and more broadly our economic and social crisis. It is the tendency that Alexis de Tocqueville observed among Americans to reduce all matters – education included – to terms of raw materialistic calculus. We do well to recall another ideal of education, one that justified universal education for a very different set of reasons than those that now give rise to the critique of universalistic education. And, in recalling these reasons, we might also raise questions about the idea that there are differences in aptitude that condemn some set of students to an education almost entirely lacking in the liberal arts. It’s the very emphasis on careerism that is leading some educational theorists (ranging from conservatives like Charles Murray to liberals like President Obama) to seek the near-elimination of the liberal arts from a central place in the curriculum, whereas a differently conceived understanding of education’s end would insist on their centrality at every level, for every student, and for every vocational pursuit.

It is worth recalling that universal education was an American ideal born during the colonial period for reasons having nothing to do with job preparation. The first real move toward universal education was a 1647 law passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, popularly entitled “The Old Deluder Satan Act.” This act required any town consisting of one-hundred or more families to establish a grammar school where typically emphasis was placed upon the learning of Latin and Greek. It was believed by the New England Puritans that every American should have the ability to read (and write) in order to attain a knowledge of the Bible and thus be able to fend off the temptations of the Old Deluder, Satan. The early forms of “textbooks,” such as The New England Primer (or, later, McGuffey’s Reader) had as their explicit aim the teaching of grammar, but more deeply sought to reinforce the moral lessons of Christianity and the classical tradition. Thus, very young students would be introduced to the alphabet with such lines as “A: After Adam’s Fall, We Sinn’d All.” Universal education was instituted with the aim of fostering the moral character of students, including an emphasis upon human fallenness and our propensity toward sinfulness, an insistence upon moral purity and a call to act in imitation of Christlike selflessness in the service of the good of the community. Among the admonitions of these lessons was an avoidance of seeking narrowly private ends, whether personal or pecuniary. Rather, emphasis was on moral formation, rigorous intellectual training, codes of conduct, and the ideal of service to the common weal.

If one looks at the entrance requirements for a typical New England college during the colonial period, one is stunned by the incredible attainment of learning expected by colleges of grammar school graduates who at that point would typically be about 13 years of age. What students of grammar school were expected to master – not merely the elite who would go on to college, but every student educated in accordance with expectations of a liberally educated citizenry - far exceeded what is largely expected or attained by today’s college graduates. It turns out young people in most cases are capable of profound learning – if the goal sought is sufficiently demanding and integrated early enough into one’s schooling. One need only read the letters of ordinary citizens during this period (or, one can look at the letters written by ordinary soldiers during the Civil War) – the sorts of people who did not attend college but who belie the claims made by the likes of Charles Murray that such people are incapable of attaining the refinements of an advanced liberal arts education.

The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. We can rightly point to the massive failure of universal education at the primary and secondary levels, but this has far more to do with a failure to understand the purpose of education (and its necessary reinforcement of the moral codes of families and communities) than the fact of universality itself. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers. Indeed, in the effort to avoid the unpleasantness that accompanies debates over the requirements of a moral education, the only agreement that can be reached about the goal of education is that it should prepare students for gainful employment.

Education today is shaped by its end, and a society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body. The agreement between many on today’s Left and Right – that schools of every sort need to be doing a better job training students for their careers – will only reinforce, rather than challenge, this dominant worldview.

I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, are not without considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs. The simple classrooms of yore did a better job educating students than the technologically advanced country club campuses are doing today, without producing the attendant pressures to get a high-paying job to pay off one’s college debts.

What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and philosophers of Moral Philosophy who believe in morality. Rather, assuming a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.

Friday, December 10, 2010

End of the Culture War?

Ross Douthat is the best thing going in our punditocracy today, so it's with hesitation that I take issue with his most recent column in which he explores the changing nature of the "culture wars." My misgivings are further deepened by the impression of ingratitude that I must present, given that Ross, as an addendum to the column in question, kindly commended a short essay I'd written some time ago about particularly Catholic aspects of the culture wars.  This is a friendly gauntlet, but I throw it nonetheless .

In last Monday's column, Ross argues that the longstanding narrative of the culture wars - liberal elite who defends lifestyle libertinism vs. the stalwart heartland yeomanry who stand for traditional family values - if once true, has been outstripped by reality in the form of findings in a just-published survey directed by my friend, the sociologist Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia.

In essence, as described by Ross, the survey finds that there are rising levels of "traditionalism" among the college educated, particularly an increase in support for making divorce more difficult (perhaps this is the generation who have felt the effects of divorce most profoundly), as well as increased levels of stated religious belief.  By contrast, the survey finds that among the "moderately educated middle" group of Americans (high school and some college, but no four-year degree), there is overwhelming evidence of rising divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.  As Ross nicely summarizes the findings, "This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them."

I think we should be more wary of concluding that the "culture wars" are now being outstripped by reality; rather, I think there's considerable reason to believe that underlying aspects of the "gap" between America's "two cultures" can go some way to explaining this seeming reversal.   In particular, we should be suspicious particularly of the gap between how the highly educated are living and what they are saying, and the particularly pernicious effect of the latter on the deteriorating status of the "moderately middle educated."

First, I think there is good reason to think that the "highly educated" have come to support marriage because of growing evidence that marriage is a net benefit for one's economic bottom line.  Driven by success-at-all-costs mentality, the highly educated have proven to be highly flexible in their beliefs, so long as those beliefs contribute to their earning potential.  Yet, it goes a step too far to suggest that they live like "Ozzie and Harriet," given that their marriages take place usually after a relatively long period of enjoying a succession of multiple partners (famously described by Tom Wolfe in his essay "Hooking Up" and his novel I am Charlotte Simmons.  I just finished teaching the novel to a group of Georgetown freshmen, and their general consensus was that the novel was pretty accurate, and that it was no big deal).   What might be a growing commitment to marriage among a segment of the college-educated class is generally not accompanied by a commitment to the idea of sexual self-control and the felt-need for a broader culture that would support such a commitment; rather, it could be argued that marriage is the conclusion of a long period of serial partnerships and sexual experimentation that colors more broadly the view of the highly-educated.  If marriage is good for one's bottom line, better to put it off until one has tasted the hedonistic pleasures of Babylon before settling down in Greenwich.  Yet, both decisions are born of a hedonistic calculus - first the benefits of guilt-free sexual experimentation, and then the pleasures of guilt-free Wall Street bonus checks.

These two aspects of the lives of the highly educated - sexual libertinism and picket-fenced greed - bear a direct relationship to the decline of a moral marital culture among the "moderately educated middle."  First, while it may be the case that there is a growing number of "highly educated" that express the belief that access to divorce ought to be in some ways constrained, in absolute terms (according to the survey) that number is still split 50-50, and I think it's fair to say that it is our less traditional half of the highly-educated segment of the population that tends to gravitate toward and guide the output of the cultural and educational centers of the nation.   If Ross is right that it's likely due more to the growing influx of conservative students at the likes of Baylor and Wheaton that is tilting this number than a substantially growing population at the Harvards and Princetons who support more restrictive marriage bonds, then it's safe to surmise that more of the latter will end up making films, television shows, as well as writing for the likes of Ross's paper and teaching in schools and colleges.  The culture remains dominated by pervasive sexual saturation, by portrayals of family as generally disfunctional or re-makable at will, by the presentation of youth culture as dominated by irony and sarcasm (Disney!), and a general ethic that we should all be as non-judgmental as possible.  This is the broader cultural mileu that pervades the lives of the "moderately educated middle," addicted as they often are to any and all forms of popular culture (a highly profitable industry for the "highly educated").  It may be that the "highly educated" live like "Ozzie and Harriet," but you can be sure that Ozzie and Harriet aren't appearing on a television program near you.  Their temporal neighbors - the Drapers - are more likely to be in the TV listings than the Cleavers, the Nelsons, or the Waltons.

At the same time that the dominant cultural narrative (shaped by the "highly educated") commends exactly the opposite "lifestyle" as that of Ozzie and Harriet - or, the lives increasingly lived by the "highly educated" once they settle into marital bondage - the fact is that the increased separation of the highly educated from the "moderately middle educated" means that these popular cultural portrayals of adult adolescence are the only model of marital and romantic relationships that the "moderately educated middle" are likely to see.   If arguments such as those of Bill Bishop and Richard Florida (as well as earlier iterations such as those of Robert Reich and Christopher Lasch) are to be credited, the country is increasingly geographically segmented by educational attainments and class distinctions, no longer intermingled as they would have been until thirty years ago.   Even as the popular culture is suffused with the ideal of hedonism and irresponsibility, the actual places where the "moderately educated middle" live are all but certain to have been abandoned by the "highly educated," who now congregate as a "creative class" in various coastal centers around the country and the world.  In fairness, Ross has argued that he would like to see "a willingness [on the part of the highly educated] to translate some of the more conservative habits they’ve embraced (or partially embraced) in their personal lives into law and public policy."  But - unlikely as this is to be - this would presumptively be done from a distance; what is lacking in this call is the recognition that even more important than a willingness of "noblesse oblige" to encourage public policy guidance on sexual matters is the moral witness of lives responsibly lived within communities where "highly educated" and the "moderately educated middle" intermingle, even intermarry.  One could say that historically, various laws governing sexual propriety simply reinforced these cultural habits and models; in their absence, they would be rightly perceived as distantly imposed Puritanical codes, particularly in the context of the dominant narrative of sexual liberation that our "highly educated" purvey daily on every available screen in the world.

Secondly, the upwardly-mobile "highly educated" behave as they do in order to secure as best they can a place in the highly unstable economic system whose fruits they enjoy.  To succeed in that system, they create islands of stability in and through their marriages (particularly combining incomes with other members of the highly-educated class), but at the same time engage in expanding a system that renders the lives of the "moderately educated middle" completely unstable, unpredictable, and pervaded by the sense of downward mobility.  As well-documented in Stephen Greenhouse's book The Big Squeeze,  the "moderately educated middle" has not only been geographically abandoned by "the creative classes," but economically sold down the river by their wanton expansion of "globalization" and attendant practices of outsourcing and off-shoring.  The one main lesson being taught today in our universities is how to be flexible and mobile - the very thing that comes most difficult to the "moderately educated middle."

Thus, the "moderately educated middle" are learning some important lessons from the "highly educated": enjoy yourself sexually and abandon hope about your future economic situation.  Can it be any surprise that the "moderately educated middle" is struggling so mightily to hold things together?  And, are the basic features of the "culture war" (if we properly understand what its basic contours are, which Christopher Lasch always better understood than the likes of William Bennett) really behind us, or are the very conditions described by Ross in his recent column really evidence that the war goes on?

One last piece of anecdotal evidence:  the main issues of student debate and interest on the Georgetown campus in recent semesters have been 1. Georgetown's refusal to cover the cost of contraceptives as part of its student health plan; and 2. the crying need for gender-blind housing, a policy just instituted at George Washington University.   There is little if any evidence on my own campus of the "highly educated" that there is concern about the marital plight of the moderately educated middle; rather, there's every indication that the student's main attention is on the sexual opportunities of the highly educated.   While Georgetown administrators, faculty and students talk constantly about "social justice" (which is the only way that the Catholic identity can be acknowledged by the campus mainstream), there's no attention paid to the ways that higher education in general systemically contributes to the plight of the less well-educated. "Social justice" strikes me constantly as a form of "noblesse oblige" purchased on the cheap. Still, having "social justice" as teflon protection against too much introspection, the highly educated can turn their attention to the true injustices of the day, which are the crying needs for free birth control and opportunities for university sponsored co-habitation.