Happy Thanksgiving!

I’m grateful I have a job which allows me to take care of my family in a style pretty easy to get accustomed to. However, still looking at one more week (at least) of stupid-busy (heavy on the stupid – when you consult, the customer can be unconsciously rude and demanding, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. I took this week off – not that you could tell from the billable hours. And for anyone of a technical bent who imagines that if only companies could be run by engineers rather than by pushy sales types, life would be good – I have some counter-examples.)

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It’s not as bad as all that. Someday, I get to die! As the Little Flower might say: Woo Hoo!

I could whine, but, hey, I’ve got a job, that would be extremely disrespectful of those who don’t. So, here’s the plan as soon as I get some time:

1. Post thoughts on Orestes Brownson’s “The American Republic” written at the conclusion of the Civil War. To whet your interest: Brownson’s thoughts are almost eerie  in the way they straddle a transition between two epochs – he’s a man totally engaged in the intellectual life of America who came of age before the Civil War, and saw the great working out of the ideas in the Declaration and the Constitution, and asks the quasi-metaphysical question: what has to be true for the positions taken in these documents to be true? Yet, after the Civil War, things have changed, paths have been chosen, and other forever closed off. The result is that Brownson sounds one moment like a throwback and the next like a prophet, discussing today’s problems 150 years ago.

When he wrote this, he’d already converted to Catholicism, after having been a minister or preacher in various flavors of Protestantism. He does not hesitate to pull from Church teachings to clarify political issues. It’s bracing, really.

2. Then will plow through the 3 books on American education history and politics that I recently acquired. Collectively, they’re not too long. And hey, they’re not Hegel or Pestalozzi – should be almost fun!

3. Then, I’ve got a pile of books that I’m part way through reading or rereading: Tacitus, education in the ancient world, Aristotle’s Prior Analytics and I’d have to clean up the mess  by my bed to see what else.

So, the plan is get back to posting about Important Things here, which, apart from the poor lost souls who fall into this here abyss by Googling iconography, John Donne, Vittoria or Styrofoam ball molecules, seems to be what attracts both my regular readers.

And I’m really grateful for the regular readers – thanks, guys! It’s frankly a quirk in the Cosmos that there are good souls willing to read anything I write – I really appreciate it.

Tomas Luis de Victoria

Ever since I first sang some Victoria as an 18 year old, I’ve loved his music beyond reason. His spirituality felt immediate and real and powerful. He seemed to have seen all the troubles of the world, and seen past them to sublime glory – and put that vision into music. Totally and richly human, while evoking the transcendent Divine.

Very Incarnational.

Anyway, stumbled across this. Here is someone who shares my high opinion of Victoria.


Why Enthusiasm for the Upcoming Athiest Utopia is Somewhat Lacking

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Almost everybody in this painting seems to be having a good time. What could possibly go wrong?

History can be so darn inconvenient. Take the gag-reflex-inducing ‘thoughts’ expressed by John Lennon in the insipid yet popular ballad, Imagine Why, if people would just abandon all the beliefs they hold to be worth fighting for, then, you know, there would be nothing worth fighting over. So, like, nobody would fight. Mellows would go unharshed. And if anyone disagrees, we’ll just kill them.

Lennon doesn’t actually say that last part. History does, however.

When people think The Enlightenment, they prefer to think of, oh, Thomas Jefferson, whose personal Bible had all the miracles cut out and who put social contract theory into a more rhetorically forceful form in the Declaration of Independence (which, in hindsight, made the Civil War pretty much inevitable, but we’ll skip over that for now – this is a happy time!). But the true and final expression of the Enlightenment, both philosophically and historically, was the somewhat less happy French Revolution. The deep-revolving Mike Flynn, in the course of recounting his most recent adventures, mentions in passing:

A similar, if briefer, such incident was the establishment of Temples of Reason by the French Revolution. When Catholicism was banned in 1792, many church buildings were converted into Temples of Reason and services were held in worship of Reason. This was naturally followed by the Terror, when the devotees of Reason began rationally to chop off the heads first of those who opposed them, then of those they thought might one day oppose them, and finally of one another. Think of these as the human sacrifices of the new paganism of Reason. The Cult of Reason was later banned by Robespierre who replaced it with his Cult of the Supreme Being and lopped off the heads of the leaders of the Cult of Reason, proving (one supposes) that even atheists can have schisms. In a shorter period of time, the Rationalists had executed more people per annum than the Spanish Inquisition had for most of its history.

To recap: the evil evil bad bad Catholic Inquisition had handed over a couple thousand people to get burned at the stake over the course of a couple centuries, where each one was individually charged and given, by the standards of the time, a fair trial. The Reason-worshiping atheists of the French Revolution, proud children of the Enlightenment, over the course of less than a decade and a half, executed up to 40,000 people, mostly by just rounding them up and marching them off to the guillotine or a prison where they would be left to rot, often for the crime of being insufficiently convincing in their enthusiasm for the Revolution.

We call this the triumph of Reason. Some of us, anyway.

No way this could *ever* happen again. Right? Right?

On Controlling Children and Setting Boundaries

Over on the Culture Monk’s blog, there is a post in which he discusses a conversation he had over coffee with a young woman who’s older sister was thrown out of the house by her parents, and was now using crack, pregnant with twins and living in a homeless shelter. The punchline, as it were, is that Dad is a deacon and Mom is the secretary at a Christian church.

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One the one hand, this is all too believable. I have friends whose situation with their oldest daughter is similar, and I’ve seen plenty of drugs and pregnancy and family lines being drawn, so I am familiar with  this sort of stuff. On the other hand, imagining my wife and me ever reaching such a state with our own children is just impossible. Even if one of my kids were to totally reject our beliefs, fall into drug use and become so violent or damaging around the house that we would have to kick them out for the safety of the rest of the family, all I can see myself doing is 1) penance and 2) following that child around in tears, attempting to get through to them.

May Our Good and Loving Lord preserve my family and all families from such sorrow!

That said, and that prayer offered, here’s what I’ve seen. NOTE – BIG DISCLAIMER HERE – I am in no position to judge people. Who really knows what’s going on in their souls? (Certainly not me!) But there are some common threads that that it would be less than honest to ignore:

1. Love doesn’t comes first. The child doesn’t comes first. In the cases I’ve seen, while there is love, often a lot of love and willingness to sacrifice, the love is entirely conditional  – there are other things that come first, and the kid knows it. The list of things that can come first is infinite, with the example from the Culture Monk’s conversation – maintaining good standing in a Christian congregation –  merely a particularly tragic and ironic one. Most insidious, perhaps, is the parent’s self-image: I think of myself a certain way, and the child cannot do anything to upset my image of myself. The Member in Good Standing in a church is perhaps a subset of this. Succumbing to the temptation to play armchair psychologist, perhaps sometimes our own childhoods required that we exert heroic efforts at keeping things together, efforts totally inappropriate for a child to have to make. We ended up, in various ways and degrees, taking care of our parents’s needs in order to have anything resembling a peaceful home. Then, when we become parents, our own model of what a parent is, formed by whatever stories we told ourselves to get through our own childhoods, kicks in – and woe to the child that challenges or disturbs it! We KNOW, experientially, that it is the CHILD’S job to make it work. Our inability to sympathize or understand our child is a feature, not a bug, of this system. If we tried to really understand them, we’d be reopening old wounds of a most painful kind.

Yet, since the second great commandment is like the first – loving our neighbor is like loving God with our whole mind, strength and soul – our love of our own child must be like our love of God. Our love of our own child must involve surrender. Imagine having goals or limits or expectations for God. Sound a little sacrilegious? A lot sacrilegious? Rather, are we not to have a relationship with God, in which, by surrendering our desires to God, we are reformed in His Image?

Couple this with: Unless we become as little children, we shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So, our love of our children must come first, right along with our love of God, because surrendering who we think we are – dying to ourselves – which we must do to be saved, is to become more like God and more like our children.

2. No limits, or many arbitrary limits. Sometimes, our idea of parenting is CONTROL. So, when we see our child do anything good, bad or indifferent, we think it’s our duty to control it – you know, for the child’s own good. Or, conversely, we reject the idea of limits at all – which only means we reject them until the kid crosses some line that costs us something we don’t want to pay. See this a lot out here in California.

As a father, I sometimes think of gardening as an image of raising children. Whatever it is that makes a tomato a tomato, or a bean vine a bean vine, is nothing I have any control over. My job is to put that plant in good soil, get rid of the weeds, water, hope for sun and get out of the way.* In the same way, our children grow into who they are by the will of God, not our will. We clear the weeds, pray that, through our example, God may be the sun to nourish and draw them, and get out of the way.

Of course, every family has limits and rules (whether they are conscious of them or not). The question becomes: are the rules natural, meaning do they fall out of the need for everyone to share in the task of being a family? If so, we raise children who will understand that, to get something good, sometimes you have to do or not do something else. By the time they are 5 or 6, kids can get this. (Doesn’t mean they won’t whine about it until they’re 15, but that’s not the point.) Being part of a good family is the natural goal of all the members. The limits on behavior that flow out of this are different in character from simple arbitrary ‘because I said so!’ controls – and the child knows it.

If you want to raise a rebel, then either impose arbitrary controls, and dig in your heels and double down whenever the child calls you on it, or pretend to impose no rules, so that the child is constantly hunting around for something stable to push against.  They will find something.

In my experience, many parents cannot see this difference. At. All. They cannot separate their need to control (see point 1 above) from the objective need for family rules.**

Few of us are immune to these temptations and sufferings. We must be eternally diligent – and pray unceasingly.

Finally, speaking of prayer, let us pray for all families, especially for the family of the young women mentioned in the Culture Monk’s blog, especially for the unborn children and their father, and their young mother. Let us all find someone to be kind to today, perhaps one of our own children.

*I’ve always done minimal training of tomato vines, disliking the severe trim and train school beloved of the English. So my plants tend to look messy – but they often have plenty of tomatoes.

** Not everything is about school, but the arbitrary and coercive nature of the current model of schooling has been been picked up on – and denounced in song – by generations of school kids. How many controlling families reach the boiling point over school?

Thought on Two World Views:

The Daily Caller's favorite great books bastion, St. John’s College, boasts campuses in Santa Fe, NM and Annapolis, MD. For four years, students immerse themselves in the greatest texts of Western Civilization, starting with Homer and hitting the Bible, Shakespeare and much else along the way. The curriculum is unique and wholly unskirtable. St. John's doesn't offer advanced placement credit, nor are you likely to get credit for any work done at other colleges.
Unlike the piles by my bed, I’ve actually read most of these…

While the beautiful stack of new books lies forlornly in boxes near my bed, and half a dozen partially read books that I mean to finish soon, darn it, are piled nearby, next to the cool maps I bought and have yet to assemble a frame for, and I’m showing up early and leaving work late to try to keep a couple of our dear customers happy, and I’m leading a reading group down at church, and helping out with 2 other groups, and teaching history to teenagers, the draft blog post heap ain’t a gettin’ any less heapy.  So I’ll try to capture a stray thought:

Fr. Michael Ossorgin, may he rest in peace, was a chain-smoking Russian orthodox priest and a beautiful man, who taught at St. John’s where I had the honor of attending one of his seminar classes. He used to say, as the punchline to many of his comments:  “I am not the most important thing that has ever happened to me!”  Then he would lean back, as sort of impish smile on his face, take a drag and look at you with red-rimmed eyes. He was a great man, a fact I only appreciated much too late.

I think maybe he was on to something.

Catholic*:  I am not the most important thing that has happened to me:

Post Modern: I am the most important thing that has happened to me. I may be the only thing that has happened to me.

Catholic: Getting my own way isn’t very important. Finding my calling and doing good is important.

Post Modern: What else is there beside getting my own way? Besides, my own way is good by definition.

Catholic: The things that happen to me, from birth to death, are adventures to be embraced. I am but one rather unimportant player in those adventures.

Post Modern: The things that happen to me are either well-deserved blessings I had every right to expect, or manifest injustices the world owes it to me to fix.  It’s all about me.

Catholic: I don’t get to choose the people I need to love any more than I get to choose my parents or city and century of birth. The important thing is that I must love them.

Post Modern: Nobody is telling me who I must love, or like, or even respect. Insofar as I was born in a place and among people I don’t like, I have been treated unjustly.

Catholic: More often than not, I don’t get to have what I want, which is OK, because I need to learn to want the good.

Post Modern: Getting to have what I want is what life is all about. My wanting it makes it a good thing to want.

Catholic: I will die someday. I hope to embrace my death. My life is not for me. My death is not for me.

Post Modern: Death is a horrible injustice, acceptable only when it seems to me alone to be a better alternative than going on living. In any event, death is to be kept as far away from me as possible for as long as possible.

Catholic: If I get to have friends, a spouse, children and loving relatives, as well as a job, a home, and any luxuries such as free time, those things are unmerited, and I am blessed to have them.

Post Modern: My life is my life. I don’t owe anything to my friends, spouse, children, and relatives that I don’t want to give them. I deserve every good thing I get.

And so on. Of course, nobody is this good nor this misguided – but I think this captures the essence of the differences.  If not, hey, it’s just a stray thought that wandered into my brain when I was supposed to be doing something else.

*In this case, there in no differences between the views of Catholics and our Orthodox brothers, so forgive me if I just use ‘Catholic’ to describe this particular world view.

Freaky Science!

Image of Eunectes murinus.
A green anaconda. They can get 20+ feet long and weigh a couple hundred pounds. But I’m more afraid of the fire ants.

Cruising about the Google news feed for Science!,  came across this article on green anacondas in the Everglades. Invasive species, giant scary snake, the usual – but then, comes this little gem:

He pointed out that the Burmese pythons, as bad as their invasion seems, face a constraint on their numbers that the green anaconda doesn’t. The Everglades are riddled with another invasive species that has conquered most of the Gulf Coast: fire ants. Fire ants were brought to Gulf of Mexico ports accidentally by cargo ships from South America. They are notorious for attacking in swarms with extremely painful stings. Most ants have a bit of formic acid in their bite, but the fire ant also has a stinger equipped with a necrotizing venom.

Normally an animal stung by a fire ant will flee and survive. But creatures that can’t or won’t move away are at risk of being swarmed, killed, and eaten. Newborn calves are sometimes killed by fire ants before they can get to their feet. Burmese pythons are sometimes at a similar disadvantage. The females spend several months each year guarding their eggs by wrapping their bodies around them and defending against any would-be egg thieves. This places the python—and her leathery eggs—at risk of attack by marauding ants.

One Burmese python at Trail Lakes, captured in the wild and kept in a large outdoor enclosure, was swarmed by fire ants that tunneled up from beneath her while she guarded her eggs. By the end of the day she and her brood had been reduced to little more than scales and bones. Given the ubiquity of fire ants in the Everglades, it’s imaginable that the ants are limiting the population growth of the pythons.

Got that? A snake that outweighs a brace of supermodels is reduced to scales and bones in a less than a day – by ants. But wait! There’s more: fire ants must have some predators, right? All that 6-legged protein can’t expect to wander around without getting eaten. Turns out that certain small flies have figured out how to feast on them in a way that would make horror movie directors wince:

Members of Pseudacteon reproduce by laying eggs in the thorax of the ant. The first instar larvae migrates to the head, then develops by feeding on the hemolymph, muscle tissue, and nervous tissue. After about two weeks, they cause the ant’s head to fall off by releasing an enzyme that dissolves the membrane attaching the ant’s head to its body. The fly pupates in the detached head capsule, emerging two weeks later.

Is Nature GREAT, or what? I’m betting those flies end up in webs where spiders slowly suck their still-living bodies dry. Then, wasps grab the spiders, paralyze them, lay an egg on them, and stick ’em in a hole, where they can be eaten alive by the newly-hatched baby wasps, who, no doubt, complete the great Circle of Life by dying slowly at the mandibles of some other creeping horror. Ya know? Makes having a pack of dingoes disembowel you alive sound not so bad.

Update/Grab Bag Thing

1. Super busy. It’s one of those occasional times when I am called on to earn the money they pay me. While an annoyance, it does beat the alternatives. November is going to be a low number of posts month.

2. Rational Argument. Let’s review:  a respectful and intelligent person answers another’s argument by acknowledging the argument and responding to the points made. One does not need to be as formal as St Thomas (although that’s always nice to see), but it’s really simple humanity, not to mention basic logic (to attack positions your opponent hasn’t taken is irrational if the intention is to answer your opponent).

The nasty, inhuman and rude thing to do, the Hegelian, Marxist and Freudian thing to do, is to launch a personal attack against any and all critics: you are just the kind of evil person who would, for example, call the President a liar! You must be a corporate stooge or something! The question of fact: did the President lie? is never addressed except by way of excusing the lie in such a way as to, again, casts the person who raised the question as somehow beneath contempt. Today, we have Arne Duncan saying that criticism of Common Core is coming from white suburban moms worried that their kids aren’t a brilliant as they thought they were – or something, coherence is not necessary, as long as the  character assassination bullet finds its mark. Now, anyone who criticizes Common Core will be expected to explain how it is that they are not white suburban moms.

P.S. wonder if it has occurred to Arne or, especially, his boss, if perhaps they are the ones not as smart as they think they are. Nah, never happen – college has immunized them against such thoughts. But then, I’m the sort of bad person who would have such thoughts.

3. This beautiful graphic illustrates, perhaps, that quote from Einstein: “It is the theory that decides what can be observed”. In various reports on this map, some authors saw it as evidence that things were getting better – annual Brazilian rain forest losses are falling to a level where, even if they don’t continue to fall, the forests would last thousands of years; other see nothing but gloom and doom. (Don’t have timeto track down the links, sorry!)

What Would Schooling Directed Toward the Good of the Child Look Like? 2

Part 1 here.

Our colleges and universities may be a mess in general, but, if the goal is passing on certain technical or vocational knowledge and techniques at least they have historically ‘worked’ in that regard. The problems are less with the model of education used than with the ship of arrogant fools who run the show. But that is a topic for another post – now, let’s just look at one proven method for educating people: The US college model.

The key components of the model are to aggregate a group of experts, people who have demonstrated knowledge and skill in their field (again, this is how is has historically worked, and still mostly does work) and then, for a fee, people can take classes from and converse with these experts, as well as other people interested in learning what the experts know. To master many more advanced levels of expertise require a series of classes from a variety of experts, as well as field work, laboratory and study time outside of class. It is the colleges job to set up the proper course of studies with the proper experts  in order, as well as to determine if the student has reached a level of knowledge and expertise required as prerequisites to taking the desired course of study. Successful completion of a course of studies, as judged by the experts at the college, qualifies the student to be a master or teacher of the subject matter.

Hey, he at least is up front in his expectations…

This is roughly the model of university education followed since the invention of the university in the 13th century.

And it works: millions upon millions of people have mastered a wide variety of subjects this way. Note that the age of the student does not, for the most part, enter into the discussion at all. People routinely start college as young as 15 and as old as 50. While you may travel through your studies with a cohort of roughly the same age, you may not – it’s not an issue. Knowing the prerequisites and passing the classes are what matter, not what age you are.

Now imagine that you wanted to learn something, and there is a school in the neighborhood that promised to teach it to you. You show up, and the first question: how old are you? You get grouped, not with the people who want to learn what you want to learn and have met the prerequisites, but with all the 55 year olds regardless of interests and skills. You show up for class, and are seated in a desk and told to sit still while the instructor starts in on stuff you already know, or is completely unrelated to what you are interested in, or both. Your mind wanders for 40 minutes, when a bell rings and the subject changes to another you couldn’t care less about – but no worries, the bell rings again 40 minutes later, and you’re off to another subject – finally, something you are interested in! But 40 minutes in, the bell rings again – just as things were starting to get good! – and you are given a few minutes to use the restroom, grab some lunch, and get back at it – to another subject of no interest. At the end of the day, you’ve spent 40 minutes on what interested you, 5 and half hours on stuff you didn’t care about, and have a pile of homework you don’t care about.

And you get to do it all again tomorrow, the next day, all week, all month, for years on end.

If you’re really persistent and – this is most important – don’t make any trouble for the teachers, after years of this, you might get to move on. Whether or not you learned whatever it was that interested you is irrelevant. Did you show up? Do the homework? Go along with the program? Congratulation – here’s a diploma.

Now of course no sane adult outside the education departments of your local universities would put up with this for a minute. Only a power-drunk maniac would would attempt to impose such “education” on an adult, and we’d like to think there’s no chance they could get away with it. Such schooling would be instantly recognized as abuse – for adults. No adult would willingly do it – unless the law compelled them with draconian penalties.

Yet, this is the experience of our kids every day. A lot of 6 year olds already know how to read, or pick it up quickly – but they will sit through classes directed at those that don’t for at least a couple years. A lot of 10 year olds already get fractions and long division – yet, they will sit through classes aimed at those who don’t. And so on – I doubt any kid perfectly maps to the instruction given in each grade, being always behind or ahead at least in some classes. But there’s no testing out, no skipping the classes you don’t want to take, no going over the period limit to continue to pursue those rare topics that actually interest you. No acting like a reasonable human being, in other words.

Oh, sure, a combination of Pavlovian rewards and Stockholm Syndrome eventually kick in for most kids, so that they can endure it without going completely insane. And, just to make things even more emotionally confusing, some of the teachers are really nice and really try to teach the kids stuff, and all the adults and especially their parents seem to agree that doing this is a good idea. Few kids are self assured enough or loved unconditionally enough to buck that sort of environment pressure.

But we know at least one example of what real education looks like: college classes. There are several more examples of true learning everybody knows: tutors – one on one or one on few instruction; music lessons (a form of tutoring); apprenticeships (which many jobs are designed to approximate in the early going); and a million forms of self-study, from reading books to working through Khan academy videos.

Why not use those methods? As mentioned in the first post in this series, that’s what people, including some historically brilliant people, did. It’s what every truly well educated person still does. Conversely, a person who has blasted through 13 years of schooling, and then applied what they learned to another 4 -10 years of college without ever seriously pursuing any of those other methods tends strongly to be, in my experience, a total intellectual cripple who wouldn’t know a real thought if it bit them in the hindquarters. But they make useable middle managers in firms that don’t require any real thought.

Why do we do the graded classroom model, again? What, exactly, are we trying to teach kids?