Catholic Schools Week p. 4: How Did We Get Here? Continued More

By the 1920s, the efforts of American bishops greatly aided by many teaching orders had built hundreds of parochial schools. Efforts were not consistent, however. In New York, lead by a series of strong and committed bishops, most parishes also had a parish school. (Alas, even then, the Church was never fully able to keep up with demand. Catholic immigrants arrived faster than schools could be built and teachers hired.) In Boston, efforts were less focused. I’d have to look it up (not looking stuff up for these blog posts – wait for the book) but I don’t think Catholic school attendance among Catholics there ever reached 50%.

Part of this has to do with the nationality of the immigrants. German immigrants tended to come from well-ordered towns where individual positive involvement with local government was not uncommon – people would get together in towns and villages an *do* stuff. One of the things they did was run schools. So, when challenged by the bishops to fund and build schools, German Catholic immigrants got right down to business: almost every parish formed to serve German immigrants has a school. Italian immigrants were a much more mixed bag: (speculation follows) while village life was common, the power of local aristocracy (and mafias!) loomed large. People couldn’t just get together and do something like build a school without considering political ramifications. I suspect (more research needed!) this tended to put a damper on local initiative. At any rate, Italian parishes (outside New York, where the whip was cracked and the bishop stood in for the aristocracy) were more spotty about support for schools.

The Irish had a couple chips on their shoulders: they were, along with Sicilians, southern Italians and Jews, the most despised immigrants. They had a harder time getting jobs and fitting in. Plus, they had no experience of benevolent or even merely indifferent government – for centuries, they had been ruled by the English and treated as slaves when they weren’t actively being exterminated. The English weren’t exactly going to encourage the Irish to build and run their own schools. So while many beautiful churches and parish schools were built by and for Irish immigrants, it was not something they seem to have taken to easily. The Irish could be mustered to build a church. Getting them to then sacrifice for a school seems to have often been too much.

(Aside –  a current personal example of what I’m talking about: the parishes around here often have more Spanish-speaking Latin Americans than English speaking parishioners. Several of my friends have ministries to the Spanish speaking, and talk about how hard it is to get the Mexicans in particular to own responsibility for the parish. They don’t really see it as their job to fund and take care of it. Looking at the last century of Mexican history, this makes some sense. The Church was – still is – persecuted in Mexico. For several generations now, open support for church activities was a career-limiting move at best. People from other Latin American countries are free of this problem to greater and lesser extents.)

That’s on the local level. The good news was that millions of Catholic kids were getting some education, mostly by religious sisters. They were winning by subtraction: the real victory was keeping them away from the state schools. The evils inherent in the graded classroom model were mitigated in Catholic schools by the belief that each kid was a child of God with an infinitely valuable immortal soul for whose salvation the adult teachers were somewhat responsible, as opposed to a blank slate on which the state’s will was to be written.

In the 1930s, with local power weakened by the Great Depression, states began to consider taking more drastic steps to curb or destroy Catholic schools. Oregon passed a law that outlawed private schools and required attendance at state schools. The case went to the US Supreme Court.

Now, if the law had been allowed to stand, other states were ready to try it, too. If you’ve been following these blog posts, you should see that the goals of the education establishment as founded in this country by Horace Mann included getting rid of exactly the kind of schools Catholics were setting up: local and outside state control. Catholic schools and one-room schools were the major stumbling blocks on the road to complete state control of all education, and thus were relentlessly attacked.

But the Supreme Court struck the Oregon law down. Before we dance in the streets, we should consider the nature of the victory and arguments. The Church and other private schools did not argue that the state had no place interfering with a parent’s God-given right and duty to educate his own children. Instead, they argued that the state has a critical interest in the education of children, but that as long as the parish schools conformed to the general guidelines and submitted to testing and inspection, they should be left alone. The Supreme Court agreed – that while the state had a duty (and therefore a right) to see to it that children got educated, the actual mechanisms should be left to the parents.

Note that the Church won the battle but lost the war: we could have or own schools, just so long as we complied with state education department rules and tests. Now, the smarter people at the top of the educational establishment were no doubt buoyed by this ruling: if the Catholic schools could be compelled to use the graded classroom model and test kids to make sure they were ‘performing at grade level’, the eventual outcome was assured. For the state is a jealous god.

The funny part is – and more research is needed here – the Catholic schools had already by this time adopted the graded classroom model, advertised as ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’, without the need for state compulsion.  They already structured their curricula around ‘grade level’ rather than on the person interests and skills of the child. They already used graded textbooks. They had already separated the children by age with no regard paid to kinship or friendship. All the state had to do was watch.

And they got their wish. Rare is the parish school where a kid will learn familiar prayers and attend Mass and learn any doctrine. More likely, a huge percentage of the kids are not even Catholic. Their parents just want them out of the public schools, and have no fear their kid will come out Catholic – or, worse, that if they did it would have any meaningful effect. The milk toast Catholics the schools produce are indistinguishable from muddle-headed Gaia worshipers, where recycling is a virtue but following Catholic doctrine is strictly optional – and sort of icky and backwards.

Here in California, remarkably one of the less controlling states as far as education goes, Catholic parents have set up K-12 schools and colleges to get away from the horror and failure of the established Catholic schools. O, the irony! The founders of these schools probably never considered doing anything other than the graded classroom model! They don’t understand what Chesterton and Lewis point out many times: what you tell a kid may or may not take, but what you *assume* without discussion they absorb forever! So, these lovely schools – at the moment, they are lovely, in the bloom and vigor of their youths – have embraced the seeds of their own destruction.

For the kids will learn more deeply and profoundly that anything they are actively taught that 1) the most important inviolate thing is to stick to your assigned group; 2) people in charge will assign you to a group; 3) it doesn’t matter (much) what you already know or are interested in, you will study what we tell you to study; 4) experts will tell you how you’re doing  & define competence and success for you; and 5) it doesn’t matter who your friends and family are, those relationships are not as important to sticking to your assigned group and doing what you’re told.

(That last item may need a little expansion: to pick a familiar example, in American one-room schools, families and neighbors made up the entire student population. Kids were not segregated by age. Instead, family and neighbor relationships were taken as a given and reinforced by the school. It would be you brother or neighbor who taught you how to read cypher, and your cousin or sister you in turn taught. Compare and contrast to modern schools. Imagine how different schooling would be if the one-room model was adopted and adapted for modern city use, rather than being exterminated by the fans of the Prussian model.)

Of course, these messages are contradicted by the very real love and care of the faculty of these newer parent-run Catholic schools. The message of Christ – of love and sacrifice and most particularly the infinite value of each human soul – is a far stronger and more powerful message than that people must conform to the will of the state (which is why the state tries to bury it!). And the little saints and good people behind these schools can keep them on track for some time with the grace of God. BUT: those messages – Fichte’s and Mann’s and the NEA’s and Freire’s and Marx’s – that the child is blank slate, family is less important than school, and we all ar tools to be used to achieve the state’s ends – will, in the end, win by attrition so long as they lurk unrecognized in the graded classroom model itself.

This victory of the state is not a theory. It’s what has happened to all the beautiful and well-intentioned parochial schools already. Which is why parents form new Catholic schools. And why those schools, too, will eventually fail unless they reject the graded classroom model.

Science! Nyet on Nye: And Hilarity Ensued

Which should not be surprising, since he’s a stand up comic impersonating a scientist.

So, SciAm, which, along with Nye and Sagan are favorite whipping boy here on this blog as egregius examples of overreach and propaganda masquerading as science, actually distanced itself from The Science Guy ™:

I shot back a nod, but then took a dig at SciAm itself.

Well, 4 hours and 40,000+ ‘engagements’ later, I can say I struck a nerve or two. On the one hand, there are those Science! worshippers incapable of or unwilling to see Nye and Sagan as the frauds they most certainly are. You’d need a little dollop of real science, a firm grasp on what it means to say ‘science has shown’ in order to come to grips with the fundamental dishonesty of those two clowns.

It is a testimony to the success of the Sagan/Nye/Tyson project that the number of people who can’t see this is Legion.

On the other hand, my first and subsequent tweets have ‘earned’ hundreds of ‘like’ and ‘retweets’ so far. I’ve gotten an ‘amen’ reply from a number of people. No mention of Nye (if you into real science, why bother?) but who share my sense of betrayal and frustration with SciAm.

Anyway, an interesting phenomenon. These exchanges will not have to have a very long tail to add up to several months worth of Twitter traffic – for whatever that’s worth.

Catholic Schools Week p. 3: How Did We Get Here? Continued

We left our brief and unannotated summary of the history of Catholic schooling in America around the turn of the last century. At that time, the bishops for the most part remained firm in their support of Catholic schools in opposition to the public schools. It was clear public school – compulsory, Prussian model built upon ‘blank slate’ theory – were set up specifically to destroy the Catholic faith – as well as family and local community.

A little context: Back in 1811 in Berlin, Fichte had proposed schooling as the solution to the problem of German national unity – if only progressive, right thinking people could break the local, family and religious bonds that compete with loyalty to the state, and replace them with unthinking obedience to the will of the state (as embodied by the likes of Fichte), all problems would be solved! The German people could assume their rightful place as leaders and teachers of mankind!

All we need to do to achieve this earthly paradise, Fichte taught through a series of very popular public lectures, is physically remove all children from their parents and start right in training kids to do exactly what their teachers tell them to do. Kids must learn to reject home, village and their village’s God. They must learn to mistrust their own inclinations and instead realize that only the approval of their teachers matters. Their freedom lies in becoming completely subservient to the will of the State as expressed by their teachers. Once properly trained, they will become a new people, fit for the new  enlightened and progressive paradise.

(If you hear in Fichte foreshadowing of Hegel, Marx and Nazis, you are not wrong.)

This went over so well in Prussia that von Humboldt put Fichte in charge of the newly-established University of Berlin, where the details of how to deliver such an education were worked out. (For example: nothing says ‘control’ like bells, arbitrary social arrangements like age-grouping, and needing permission to go to the bathroom – let’s do that!) Mann, and just about every American education reformer for the next 50 years, went to Prussia to learn how to do it. After Mann returned from his tour of Prussia in 1841, he became an even greater cheerleader for Prussian schooling in America – he had seen the future (well, at least up until maybe Great War) and it worked!

The unholy rage for central control of everything was in full bloom all around, and the example of the bloodbath and ruin of Russian Revolution and Nazi Germany had not yet presented the case studies of how such efforts to perfect Man in this world play out. I imagine that, then as now, if you had too strong and too public doubts about all this, you were unlikely to get invited to the cool kid’s parties. Once it’s been established that external approval by the proper authorities IS the measure of all things – the central goal of our system of schooling – how could it be otherwise?

(As an aside: in Lord of the World, written just before WWI, Benson could plausibly speculate that centralized control worked just great under its own term. Seemed to be working at the time. He contemplated the horrors that would result from a tidy, efficient world at ‘peace’ bought roughly under Fichte’s terms. Those with eyes to see had not yet been disabused by small h history.)

So we have a Catholic hierarchy in America consisting mostly of German and especially Irish bishops, many of whom were themselves immigrants or children of immigrants, trying to provide for the spiritual needs of millions of often uneducated and desperately poor Catholics. The need for Catholic schooling was just one of many things they had to worry about.

The Catholic University of America was founded in 1887. Catholics had been founding universities since the 12th century – Catholics invented the university – so CUA is hardly surprising. I need to do much more research here, but from the admittedly incomplete reading I’ve done so far, it seems that at least in part, CUA was a manifestation of the outsider’s desire to fit in. It wasn’t enough to reject the grim Calvinism (in its myriad mutated forms) of Harvard – we had to have a big university, too! And it will be *just like* those Ivy schools, only Catholic.

The trouble is, where do you draw the line? How much of what goes on at Harvard can a Catholic university baptize, and how much needs to be utterly rejected?

Somehow, somewhere in this timeframe, the graded classroom model became the American Catholic school model. Again, I must remind the reader that this idea that kids should be segregated by age, spoon-fed certain subjects in the same way, governed by bells and always under the teacher’s unquestioned authority  is NOT normal, nor historical, nor, especially, Catholic. It is an innovation by viritent anti-Catholics instituted to control people like us. Yet, somehow, it became the unquestioned norm of Catholic schools in America.

At this time, parallel to the need for teachers was a ‘need’ for teaching materials that could be used in a graded classroom Catholic school.  A couple priests on the faculty of CUA took it upon themselves to produce such materials, structured to reinforce the graded classroom style (you know, a 1st grade this, a third grade that). There seems to have been some friction with the bishops at this time over who exactly was in charge. The bishops had not granted any formal or exclusive right to publish Catholic textbooks, yet de facto, that’s what happened. The publishers seem to have been far more sympathetic to modernism than the bishops. This foreshadows the conflicts we see today, where the local bishop, who is legally and morally in charge of any schools that call themselves Catholic in his diocese, is opposed at every step by faculty and even parents if he tries to impose anything too overtly Catholic on them.

By the 1930s, when states such as Oregon made efforts to simply ban Catholic schools outright, they had already come to be kinder, gentler versions of Prussian schools where you could pack a rosary without getting into trouble. But the structure – and therefore inescapably the goals – of Prussian schooling were ubiquitous

To be fair, up until the 1960s (I caught the tail end of this) it was customary to start the day at a Catholic school with Mass, and to stop and pray the Angelus, and to pray before classes and to otherwise be demonstratively Catholic. I was present in schools when these traditions died, and the Catholicism of Catholic schools became little more than the marketing gimmick it almost always is today.

To be continued.

Catholic Schools Week p. 2: How Did We Get Here?

This will be a quick skim no references version. The deep dive heavily referenced version is the book or two I hope to write in a few years when I’ve retired.

A key point you’ll need to keep in mind to understand the following: the form we consider normal for schooling is an historically recent invention. The idea that a nation should separate its young into ‘classes’ by age and teach every child in that class the same materials in the same way regardless of their existing knowledge, intelligence, interests and natural family relationships would have struck sane people as at least bizarre until about 150 years ago. If it weren’t for pervasive Stockholm Syndrome, it would strike us as bizarre as well.

When such schooling, known as the Prussian model, was first proposed in America by Horace Mann, Massachusetts’ and the nation’s first state secretary of education, around 1838, it was widely opposed. Literacy was about 99% in the North at the time – somehow, people were getting educated without the involvement of the state government and taxes! The hard-headed farmers and shopkeepers of New England were not about to tax themselves to get something – educated children – they already had.

Then starting in 1845, Mann got his lucky break: the Great Famine in Ireland resulted in many thousands of Irish immigrating to Massachusetts. Having suffered under the murderous fist of the English for centuries, having the culture and religion crushed, and being treated as slaves, the Irish understandably did not fit in. They weren’t good little Protestants.

These same hard headed New England farmers and shopkeepers were now sold the idea that compulsory public schools on the Prussian model were needed – to make good little Protestants out of the filthy Papist Irish via removing their children from their care and indoctrinating them in good solid Protestant teaching.

And the voters bought it. It became illegal to not send your kid to school – your kids could be taken away from you if found at home during school hours. Of course, those same kids could be working in a factory owned by Mann’s friends and peers – that was fine, so long as they were removed from the evil influence of family. That’s a key feature of Prussian schooling, which in its pure form (rarely advertised) advocates for the complete removal of the child from the family as soon as practical – say, once weened – for the kid’s entire childhood. No, really – you’ll need to read the book, all this is laid out at the founding of the public school movement. Complete removal of children from families has not proven economical or practical – yet. Instead, the school day and school year just keep growing, to reduce as much as possible the baleful influence of family.

As more and more Catholics came into the country, the bishops, with varying degrees of fervor, began pushing for the construction of Catholic schools. They were so desperate to prevent the Protestantization of the faithful via the schools that, at one point, they sought to get Vatican permission to excommunicate any Catholic parent who could send his kids to a Catholic school but refused. The pope, very probably not really understanding the situation, would not allow it. The bishops – this will shock you – went along with the pope’s decision without a fuss.

At no point did more than 50% of Catholic kids attend Catholic schools. The results we see today are exactly what those bishops feared. They would weep to see the secularization of almost all Catholic schools today.

Recall that not too many years later, in 1907, Pope St. Pius X issued his condemnation of modernism. Now, a pope will not bother condemning something in such dramatic fashion unless he sees it as a real and present danger. The example of what happened in American Catholic schools is just the sort of thing that PASCENDI DOMINICI GREGIS was written to address.

It is common and understandable that immigrants would desire to become accepted and acculturated. Many Catholic immigrants and their children wanted to be more American than the Americans. I remember reading somewhere that enlistment rate, for example, were and are higher for naturalized Americans and their children than for native-born Americans. There is a strong urge among Catholics to make their schools better examples of the public schools, so much so that today, you find Catholic schooling touted as a better version of public schools, higher test scores, better college admission rates, better future financial success, and so on. What’s not emphasized or explained in other than very broad and do-gooder terms is what makes Catholic schools Catholic. Mass attendance, prayer life, adherence to the teachings of the Church – these are not much discussed.

Not only did those largely German and Irish 19th century bishops fail  to get most Catholics into their schools, by the 1960s, it made hardly a lick of difference if they did.

Back to the timeline. Unfortunately,  by the late 1800s higher education in America had completely fallen under the spell of Hegelians and Marxists – and thus, we created a class of educated Catholics who, sharing with their less educated brethren the desire to fit in,  kept looking for ways to adapt the Catholic schools to the newest and best thinking at  (Calvinist=>Unitarian=>Hegelian/Marxist) Harvard. And boy, are those Ivy League schools down with compulsory Prussian education!

So, while the bishops obeyed Rome and stopped threatening the real risk of damnation on those who refused to send their kids to Catholic schools, other Catholics were doing their best to make those Catholic schools conform in spirit to the public schools.

A note on teachers, then we’ll put this aside for now and take it up again later. One of the biggest challenges the bishops faced was finding teachers. This was exacerbated by money – except in a few places, immigrants were both being taxed to pay for the public schools and then asked to contribute to the Catholic schools. There was very little money to pay teachers. So the bishops looked to religious orders to supply them. Demand was so high that young women – it was almost always women – would find themselves in the classroom teaching with only a year or two of preparation.

The religious orders both newly formed and old emphasized community life for the nuns, based on centuries of experience: they knew that if these young women lived in community with more experienced sisters, they could be taught how to teach while having their vocation strengthened and supported. The option – sending the young sisters away to some education school or other – was too risky to their callings even apart from the expense. Some orders and diocese tried to form their own education schools, but that proved expensive.

When the National Catholic Education Association formed in 1904, one of its chief missions was to professionalize Catholic grade school teachers. What this meant was sending them to education schools and getting them paid. This often put them at odds with the bishops and religious orders.

The NCEA eventually succeeded to a large extent. What this means is that for the last century, the best educated Catholic school teachers are taught in education departments founded and run by people completely on board with the methods and goals of Prussian education. Starting with Mann, every state and university education department in America has been established by devotees of the Prussian model. They are the gatekeepers.

Once we can start imagining education without the insane graded classroom model, we can start imagining true Catholic education.

Catholic Schools Week, p. 1

There are comments and criticisms to be offered. First, some background:

orange grove
Orange Grove Elementary, via Google Maps. Wow, hasn’t changed much in half a century.

I am a product of Catholic schools. After going to kindergarten at Orange Grove, the public school a few blocks away from home in Whittier, California, I started 1st grade at St. Mary’s of the Assumption about 2 miles away. From there, attended high school at St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs. So I have 12 years of Catholic schooling under my belt.

There’s much I’m grateful for. In grades 1-3, had very nice ladies as teachers. In 1964, when I started, maybe half the teachers were sisters from a Dominican house in Dallas; the rest were laywomen. In 4th grade, had one of the sisters who helped, despite her best efforts, to form the way I got through school from there on out: she assigned homework and insisted that we hand it in on time or spend a 1/2 hour in detention after school.

St. Mary's
St. Mary’s School, OTOH, they’ve gussied up a lot. Hardly recognize it.

Well. Did that exactly once. Then I just started doing the little homework assignments during class. I’d noticed that, with very few exceptions, we were just going over the same stuff we’d gone over in 3rd grade. Reading & checkbook math I had down. Some of the manipulations with fractions were new, and learning manipulations by rote has never been a strong suit and the good sister wasn’t much for explaining WHY which is what I wanted to know, so there were a few hiccups. But, since I handed in the homework and didn’t cause trouble, I was mostly left alone. I also started in being a library rat – we had a small but not terrible library at school.

From there on out, with few interruptions, I learned to a) figure out the absolute minimum level of work required to not get in trouble; b) get a seat in the back of the room so I could read without being noticed; c) be ready to pop up once in a while when things got interesting. Example: in 5th and 6th grade, we had weekly spelling tests. Figured if I looked over the 25 words for a couple minutes before school, I could spell them. Then, promptly, brain dump. This created an amusing (in retrospect) situation where I was cajoled into entering the school spelling be (always got A’s on the tests, after all!) Misspelled the first word, sat down. Passing tests<> learning anything. Important lesson.

I am very grateful the good sisters and laywomen let me get away with it. Seriously, don’t know what I would have done had they forced me to pay attention, made me sit up front where I couldn’t pull a book out to read, or made a big fuss over the homework I often didn’t do. I caused no trouble and aced all tests, so they left me alone.

Not sure they would be able to let me slide like that these days.

Image result for shelby cobra

A Shelby Cobra. Built in Santa Fe Springs, CA, near where St. Paul’s High School is located. The car is much more fun to look at than the school.

High school was much of the same, with the difference that I took a few subjects I couldn’t easily bluff my way through: German, physics, calculus. Brother Columba wasn’t happy that I could get the right answers in Algebra without doing any of the steps (it was easy algebra, I’m no math genius) and would mark me down: I never did any homework and always aced the tests, which did not make him happy. Got a D in German in freshman year, not realizing at the time that a single D as a goofball 14 year old would keep me out of the UC system, pretty much (having not gotten satisfactory scores in the language prerequisite. Don’t know it they still do that.) But I did start doing the minimum and got B’s for the next 3 semesters.

Anyway, boring stuff. Starting in around 5th grade, about every other year, some concerned adult would pull me aside and talk to me about my lack of effort. Sister Mary Francis pulled me and another kid into her office and tried to tutor us in math, since it was evident we were bored out of our minds. Lasted a few weeks. The assistant dean at St. Paul’s tried to shame me after the pre-SATs in junior year – how could I have a B average with that kind of a score? (A: basketball, drama and a heapin’ helping of don’t care.)  So, I got A’s 1st semester of Senior year. Got accepted to St. John’s College (most definitely not a Catholic school) and lost interest again.

So my Catholic school experience left me horribly unprepared for college, where what had gotten me through K-12 really, really didn’t work. It’s all on me, and I did eventually right the ship enough to get the degree and go on to a Master’s in business.

Next, we’ll lightly tough on the history of Catholic schools in America, to set up some more general background for Catholic Schools Week.

2018 West Coast Walk for Life

Let’s see: the walk came to a halt for a bit when we were 1.2 miles from the end. I could see solid people all the way to the to the Ferry Building. Did a quick estimate: the cross section, maybe a yard deep, where me and mine walked contained 20 people side to side. 1.2 miles contains about 2,100 such cross sections, so, if our piece was of typical density, looks like over 42,000 people at that moment stood between us and the end of the walk.

Some people at the front had already made it through. There were people behind us. 60,000 is a probably a good conservative estimate. Difficult to get a view of everybody all at once. I got no good crowd shots this year.

Milling around as the walk began to form. 
Lovely day. 

The Mass before hand was lovely. Over 40 priests were in the procession, many more in the crowd, 9 bishops including Archbishop Cordileone. Incense, lots of Latin – they did several of the propers and commons. A fairly high percentage of the people joined in on the commons, even though they were not the simplest or (in my experience, at least) best known. Choir was quite good, did a fancy a cappella Gloria and an antiphonal offertory piece I didn’t recognize. They used that hymn tune from Holst’s Jupiter with appropriate words for a communion song.

(Aside: Holst was some sort of goofball astrological mystic,  so it amuses me to see his very beautiful tune used as a communion hymn. Baptized paganism, indeed.)

Even  St. Mary’s Cathedral with all its architectural weirdness was made holy and solemn.

The archbishop gave a no messing around, call a spade a spade homily. Refreshing.

One funny thing: Cordileone has a hard time in San Francisco, something any archbishop who made an honest effort to support Catholic teaching was bound to have in that hive of scum and villainy. He has aged quite a bit in the last 5 years. At Mass, he was deadly serious, no trace of a smile. Even in the closing procession, he looked grim. As the walk started, he was standing with a small group toward the back, where we happened to be as well (pushing grandma in the wheelchair cramps one’s jockey-for-position style). He still looked very serious.

My beloved spotted him, walked right up, dropped to her (left, of course) knee, kissed his ring and told him we love him and pray for him daily. Finally smiled! He has a good smile.

Anyway, another good walk. Lots of sane, happy people standing up for common sense in the face of insanity, for Truth in the face of the Father of Lies. Speaking of which, only maybe a couple dozen counter-protesters showed, which seemed down a bit from previous years.

I frankly take no joy in these walks (love the Mass, though). Just, I don’t know, a little too close to grandstanding. Objectively, I get it. Subjectively, it would have been better, for me at least, if, instead of an hour of speakers and a somewhat boisterous walk, we went to the Civic Center Plaza, fell to our knees and prayed and wept for an hour, then walked silently to the jeers of our enemies. Penance must be done, especially by me. Even thinking about abortion puts me in this frame of mind.

I’ll be back next year, God willing.

Books I Loved But No Longer Do

Partial list off the top of my head:

The Metaphysical Club, by Menand. The first couple times I read this, missed or glossed over the nihilism and relativism (if those can be said to be substantially different) peeking out from every page. The stories told are so fascinating, the turnings of culture pivoting on the sins and limitations of so few minds while we many sleep – gripping stuff. And this book pointed out trailheads to a number of topics I’ve read more about since, I owe it thanks for that.

But, ultimately, Menand is a nihilist. His heart seems to wish there were meaning, even the sort of meaning that boils down to a raw exercise of personal power. He’s too smart to actually believe it, however, so I’m left only with his slick, beautifully written evasiness whenever he might wander near anything like an ultimate ‘why’.

Other writings reveal him as a Marxist apologist. Like Agent Smith defending himself to the Cookie Girl, old Karl, Menand claims, is not that bad! An avuncular adulterer, maybe! And who isn’t, these days? Not, as one reading Marx himself would conclude, the purveyor of a world view within which slaughtering 100 million or so unarmed children, women and men is not *necessarily* a bad thing, in, fact, could be required, if it moves the ball forward on the right side of History. Nihilism dressed as Relativism lurking behind the will to power masquerading as concern for the Masses.

In a similar way, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is like a drug for a Great Books guy – the stories he tells, the points he makes, are blood-boilingly true – that, ultimately runs aground on the same question of ‘why’. Sure, these idiots are shoving everything that makes America and the West unique, wonderful and loveable down the memory hole – and? That’s a bad thing because? Just as people don’t describe our culture as Christendom anymore, Bloom wants us to love and defend results, it seems, without being making a stand for the cause of those results. It’s ultimately turtles all the way down.

Very fun read many years ago, but deeply unsatisfying today.

A bunch of old SciFi. It’s a little tragic to think how many of the books I just LOVED as a kid/young adult that largely appall me now. A few, such a Slan and Stranger in a Strange Land I read when I was older, and so realized I’d need to ignore a lot of fundamental looniness to enjoy them. Same old same old – some elect will come to save/exterminate all us peons for our own not too well defined good. Innocents dying? Omelette/eggs. Even if you don’t share a belief in a Divine Savior, that plotline is just old. Can we stop with stories that beat the drum for one’s own puffed-up self opinion (of *course* you’re among the elect! Who could doubt it? All that purges and guillotines stuff is in the past!) or for people who imagine they’d be doing you a favor if they just cut to the chase and killed you and yours?

Here are a couple I loved when I read them as a youngster, then later had ‘wait a minute!’ moments on. I still sort of like them with a childish affection, mostly, but, man, are they silly:

The Good Guys! Or, at least, the sympathetic indifferent guys who feel noble regret at humanity’s horrible fate. 

Clarke’s Childhood’s End. See comments above. In this story, Clarke goes with the saviors who, you know, kill us all. Well, stand by with their ever so noble and sympathetic feelings while we all – except for the elect! – die like animals at an evaporated watering hole. It’s all for the best!

Clarke’s 2001. This time, the Chosen One come back to save us puny humans from ourselves by snuffing out our silly nukes. Who hasn’t wished our silly nukes would get snuffed out, so that we could return to the good old days before nukes when everyone treated each other as brothers and treaded lightly upon Mother Gaia? (Not loving MAD, but nukes aren’t really the fundamental problem.)

Wow, picking on Clarke here, but there are others suffering from the same shortcomings, although generally in a less hippy-dippy fashion than Clarke.  A lot of Asimov, including the much-loved (by me, at least) Foundation series kind of loses it at the intersection of story and philosophy. But I’ll stop here for today.  Maybe more later.

Then, will need to do the reverse: books I didn’t like when I first read them, but now love. Preview: really didn’t see what the fuss about Lord of the Rings was when I first read it in high school. My future wife set me straight on that. Probably why she’s my wife.

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Semi-random thoughts on what I enjoy reading. Less coherent, perhaps, than usual around here:

Dante famously ratchets his storytelling up through the course of his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by how he shows things. In Hell (and I’m not going to Google the exact quotes, nope, not going to do it!) he starts his description of the horrors of the damned by saying: O Memory! Here thy shall show thy worth! or something like that. In other words, he is relying on his merely earthy and human mental faculties as the sources of his vision. However fantastic the tortures and dooms of the damned may be, they remain within the grasp – and experiences, poetically understood – of anyone, really. Reason in the person of Virgil is perfectly competent to see and explain the poetic justice that is at the core of Hell.

Once in Purgatory, among the saved who have been judged by a judgement they willingly embrace to be unready to endure the full glory of the Face of God, Dante can’t rely on his merely human faculties to describe and understand what he sees. Virgil seeks guidance and instruction from the souls whose understanding has been expanded by the Light of Christ denied simple human reason by the Fall. There is a lovely medieval symmetry in climbing through various stages of purgation to get back to the state of original human innocence at the Garden of Eden atop a mountain. Yet the penances here, and the Mercy and Justice of God that have degreed them, are not something Virgil can completely grasp unaided.

Dante the poet invokes the aide of the Muses in order to be able to describe what he sees, and points frequently to the substantial mystery of salvation that falls outside their ken. As a reader, in Hell you are having terrifying things pointed out to you, a terrible justice, and told to see. It is in your power, you know, your reason can work it out, that the punishments of the damned are chosen by them, and are just. The tone changes radically in Purgatory, where grace is asked for to aid our understanding. For we are walking on sacred ground.

Finally, in Heaven, we leave mere human reason behind. Virgil is left standing in Paradise. The message here is not that reason is wrong and that we should abandon it in favor of some murky idea of God’s direct infusion of divine grace. Instead, we use the grace of reason – the blessing of being made in the image of God – to seek His guidance. With His help, delivered through a hierarchy of secondary causes – other penitents, the prayers of the faithful, the teachings of the Church, the very penances assigned to the particular sins, the whole world around us – we can climb back to a state of innocence.

Which is not enough.

In Heaven, Dante the poet seeks the aid of highest Heaven, and acknowledges his inadequacy. While Hell is described via definite statements – here I saw, there they lay – Heaven’s glories are couched in doubt – I think I saw, it appeared to me. It works. The reader gets the awe and wonder through sharing Dante’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Divine. By not describing anything in Heaven with definite certainty, he manages, paradoxically, to describe Heaven in its awe and wonder and love. The Lover is compelled to praise the Beloved, and words fail, and in that failure succeed.

In this sense, Dante succeeds by neither showing nor telling.

From the sublime to the not as sublime: in The Night Land,  Hodgson gives evocative names to the horrors of the Night Land and consistently resist any temptation to describe them in any detail – you get gigantic, imperceptibly slow-moving, cold, eerily lit – but that’s about it. They’re just Out There, full of malice and inhumanly patient.

Way scarier than any detailed description could ever render them.

As a counterpoint, was thinking of Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth. In this classic story, Vance creates with a few deft strokes an incredibly vivid and alien world, and fills it with amazing cultural detail. One the one hand, he, like Dante and Hodgson in their very different ways, leaves a lot to the imagination. Yet he also dumps a huge amount of information on the reader, which is critical to the satisfactory resolution of the protagonist’s problems.

As a reader, I never even noticed the info dumps at the time. Only in retrospect are the fairly frequent passages of explanation in Vance’s short stories apparent. Part of the trick, I think, is spooning it out over time so the individual chunks aren’t too big, and leaving plenty of mystery. In Moon Moth, it is only in the last couple paragraphs that all the pieces come together, and only after you’ve reached the point where the protagonist is surely doomed – by the same social conventions that end up saving him! In The Dragon Masters, he pulls a related trick, where only at the end are you able to piece together the large number of clues he’s left lying about to reach the shocking conclusion.

Asking how he does this – how he manages on the one hand to be very spare in his descriptions while on the other packing the exposition with what often seem like asides but turn out to be critical information – and yet writes as gripping a story as just about anyone, is, I suppose, where the genius lies.

Now somebody who writes tell me it’s just planning and hard work.

Finally, there’s Cordwainer Smith, who, even more than Vance, drops you in the middle of the action and only gradually throws you a lifeline but never quite gets you feet back on solid ground. It feels like he never explains anything, although a moment’s reflection – thinking of Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (I spelled that wrong in the right way, before looking it up! And I can’t spell ‘amatuer’ right 9 times out of 10.) shows that he, indeed, does. It’s a weird morality play, where Smith breaks the wall to talk to the reader on a number of occasions, yet still maintains an air of mystery, surprise, and inevitable horror.

Most of his stories leave me a bit awed and scratching my head – what was THAT? Where did that come from?

Thus ends the brain dump for today.

Short Book Review: The Secret Kings

The next-to-last book in Brian Niemeier’s Soul Cycle, the Secret Kings is, essentially, the continued adventures of Teg, Navkin, Elena and Astlin – and a whole bunch of other characters – as they face off with and kill, are killed and/or resurrected by an array of evil maniacs. All the Way Cool Powers ™ that the players have been picking up throughout the adventures over thee books now, the connections both mundane and eldritch, and who needs to save or revenge whom from what, are put in play.

The Secret Kings (Soul Cycle Book 3) by [Niemeier, Brian]A fun read. Check it out.

The climactic scenes are drawn in a way that defies mere cinematic imagination – and that’s a compliment, after having read stories over the years that read more like outlines for movies that actual novels. Here, Niemeier uses a device favored by Dante: paint the picture in broad strokes while having the viewpoint character recognize that what he sees is fundamental incomprehensibility. You are imagining the unimaginable. It works – the reader sees something partial, but gets the full emotional import.

For the first time in the series, I found myself caring about the characters. While normally this would sound like a fatal criticism of the earlier books, it’s weirdly not – at least in my case. Two reasons: the action and universe-building is good enough to keep my interest, and I learned the hard way (read the first book 3+ times) that I needed to approach these books as if they are works from an unfamiliar culture.

Because they are. That culture unknown to me includes role-playing games, comic books and anime. And Dune, which I could never get more than 100 pages into. John C. Wright’s books have much of the same issues for me, and he’s a great writer, so it’s not a reflection of writer’s skill by any means.

Here’s an example: role-playing games, based on what I’ve picked up from my sons, who are very much into them, have this idea of assigning roles and powers to characters that come into play and are added to over the course of adventures and quests, and that ultimately only fully reveal themselves in climactic battles. It’s the difference between Raymond Chandler’s description of Philip Marlowe:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

…and a D&D character sheet.

Now, a writer certainly can build a compelling character from a Bard with +15 Charisma – whatever the hell that means – but it seems to me that in this series the *character* character, such as understood by Chandler, is build ON the D&D-style definitions rather than the other way around. Marlowe packs a .38, and all you’ll ever find out about it is that it’s a .38. (1) Teg packs, among many other things, a Worked Rodcaster, which is lovingly described in some detail, critical to several plot points and battles, and requires the reader to keep in mind an entire system (or 2. Or 3.) of magic/science to understand. He’ll pull it out in certain exact situations where it, among all the weapons in his kit, is the one and only thing to address the exact challenge he’s facing. Which seems random UNLESS you remember all that other stuff.

Marlowe uses his .38 to put holes in people once in a while. Now the demands and expectations of Science Fantasy are way, way different than Detective Noir, but even: the reader, I think, is expected to share the author’s delight in the level of detail needed for the Rodcaster to work in the story. I am not of that culture, and so it was work.

This all no doubt seems completely normal to role playing gamers, who spend hours going over who has what powers and characteristics and what the rules of the magic system are before they ever start playing. Reading the Soul Cycle, such a one is probably making exactly the sort of mental notes the gamers are habitually taking, about who can do what and how a Nexist differs from a Factor and so on.

Me? All this stuff, with which the Soul Cycle is packed, seems like weird trivia. So I must read these tales like I’m reading Gilgamesh or something, recognizing that there are cultural considerations to be made for it to be enjoyable or even just understood.

Wow, that was waaaay heavier than I intended! Gilgamesh and Dante in a SFF novel review. Need more coffee.

By book 3, however, while I still can’t quite keep all the rules and powers straight, nor remember the exact relationships between the various factions and planets, nor even keep all the myriad players and who is betraying whom straight without considerable effort, at least by now I know and care about a few core characters, and so can sympathize when Astlin is threatened, for example, even if I’m unsure what exact power she now has to address it.

The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book 4) by [Niemeier, Brian]If your standard for complicated storytelling is, say, Vance, this is going to be a challenging read. If Tolstoy, OK, that’s better, at least for keeping vast numbers of characters straight. But ideally, you’re a reader who has played role playing games all your life, and so will take active delight in Neimeier’s  lovingly and well-thought-out details and be undaunted by how many there are.

That reader is not me – and I still enjoyed the book, and plan to start The Ophian Rising soon. So check the Soul Cycle out!

  1. In one Chandler story, a hit man’s gun is described in some detail – a .22 target pistol with the sight filed off – in order to show what a cocky SOB the dude is. But that’s it, as far as I can remember.

The State and Revolution

The State and Revolution (amusingly referred to as TSAR – hilarious, if you’re not a Romanov) is a short book by Vladimir Lenin that I have not read, but intend to read. The indomitable Amanda Green has begun a series of posts discussing it here. 

Which post triggered the comment below, and, sticking to my policy of making sure I’m not read in as many places as possible, I repeat here:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the fundamental Hegelian roots of all this: Hegel teaches that the world is becoming, not being – in the philosophical senses of the terms. This means that simple statements of fact, of being, are always fundamentally nonsensical, as nothing really *is* but rather is *becoming*. Therefore, logic doesn’t apply, because a fundamental claim of logic is that a subject can *be* something and *not be* something else (law of non-contradiction). Things, for Hegel, are always becoming something else, so they’re not really being anything!

So, what’s really going on for Hegel (a practicing Lutheran) is that the Spirit is ‘unfolding’ in History – that some few enlightened people (specifically, people who agree with Hegel) gradually come to see the new state of becoming coming, as it were, into the next stage of transient being (that whole synthesis schtick). The people who more or less consciously get on board are on the right side of History. Everyone else is consigned to the dustbin thereof.

Marx tosses almost all the sophistical subtlety of Hegel, but latches on to the whole History and becoming nonsense. This is why arguing that no real people will go along with money-free socialism (“The reality, ignored by all too many, is that the producers of the world would become the slaves to the takers.”) is pointless – 1st, because argument with Marxists is by their own definitions pointless, but also because ‘human nature’ as a claim of being is irrelevant – “human nature does not exist” – because what those who survive the purges, those on the Right Side of History, will *become* New Soviet Men.

How do we know this? Just asking the question puts you on the Wrong Side of History and marks you for culling.

That’s why there’s no arguing with convinced Marxists.

In the 105 (!) draft posts currently cluttering up the YSOTM backlog is one addressing these issues in more detail. You know, summarizing my amatuer understanding of thousands of pages of philosophy from writings spanning millennia in a blog post of a couple thousand words ripped off between dinner and bedtime.

One classic philosophical mistake, one seen explicitly and implicitly in the arguments of New Atheists all the time, is thinking of eternity as ‘a lot of time’ or ‘all time’. Instead, eternity is the realm of the unchanging, within which, as Paul says, we live and move and have our being. (That the Eternal is God – that the Eternal is the One Whose existence is of His essence, is the compelling result of a long string of arguments in Aristotle’s Physics and is expanded on in his Metaphysics – which is why, I think, those tomes are consistently ignored or misrepresented. That, and they’re really hard.) Who better to tackle such a topic than an armchair intellectual poser such as me!

Clearly, it will be a masterpiece worthy of your exquisite attention. As Chesterton once quipped, like all things I’ve never written, it’s the best thing I ever wrote.

Maybe I should get on it, clawing it from perfect potential into crass, flawed actuality.