Harmonizing knowledge

R.C. Jebb supplies a counter-argument in his same 1899 address to yesterday’s somewhat pessimistic riffing:

“The ideal of humanism has thus been reinforced in a manner which brings back to us something of the spirit which animated the Renaissance when it was largest and most vigorous. For the enthusiasm of the Renaissance was nourished by the monuments of classical art scarcely less than by the masterpieces of literature. Each statue that was disinterred from Italian soil, every stone or coin or gem that could help to illustrate the past, became a source of delight to men whose strenuous aim was to apprehend classical antiquity as a whole.

But the very progress made in recent times has brought us to a point at which the larger educational benefits of humanism become more difficult to harmonise with the new standards of special knowledge. A full comprehension of the Greek and Latin literatures demands at least some study of ancient thought, ancient history, archaeology, art. But each of the latter subjects is now, in itself, an organized and complex discipline; to become an expert in any one of them is a work of years. Hence much can be said in favour of a plan by which the University student, who is to devote a course of three or four years to the humane letters, confines himself, during the earlier stage of it, to the languages and literatures ; then turns away from these, viewed in their wider range, and concentrates himself, for the rest of his time, on one or two important aspects of classical antiquity, such as philosophy and history, to the exclusion of the rest.”

As we acquire greater breadth and depth of knowledge, specialization is necessary and becoming a generalist is less about extensive knowledge in the major fields than about an ability to recognize the connecting threads between many discrete branches of knowledge.

Humanism in education

R.C. Jebb writes on the problem that advocates of the classics created for themselves in exaggerating the value of classical study:

“Thus one eminent scholar said, ‘If the old classical literature were swept away, the moderns would in many cases become unintelligible, and in all cases lose most of their characteristic charms.’ Others averred that no one could write English well who did not know Latin. One distinguished head-master even said, ‘It is scarcely possible to speak the English language with accuracy or precision, without a knowledge of Latin or Greek.’ Now claims of this kind, all containing some elements of truth, but needing to be carefully limited and defined, struck people in general as preposterous, when stated with crude exaggeration; and did all the more mischief, because, in the sixties, an apprehension of the true claims of humanism was much less widely diffused, among educated people outside of the academic world, than it is to-day. And when such people, who had no personal knowledge of humanistic study, heard claims made for it which seemed repugnant to experience and common-sense, they not unnaturally suspected that the whole case for the humanities was unsound.”

Now, here’s the thing. R.C. Jebb delivered these words as part of an address not in the past few years; rather he spoke these words in 1899 in a university address. So the “sixties” he’s referring to are not those of the 1960s and the cultural/sexual revolution that so many who are still living remember. But Jebb’s sixties were a time of similar change as the nation’s identity was centralized and Americans lived through a reduction in what I think of as the expansiveness of the nation at least in mental/intellectual scope. The federalism of the post-war 1870s was different in character than the federalism that was born roughly a century before. A sharper sort of federalism that prioritized national purpose in the wake of division.

And in the growth of this America the claims of the humanities must have felt preposterous. After all, what did all the beauty and wisdom of Greaco-Roman memory do to soften the hearts of the secessionists? What did Achilles teach the dead son of a farmer buried at Gettysburg? What did Euclid do for a slain president?

There are many good and honest answers to these sorts of questions, but in the face of some so in love with their tradition that they suggested it “scarcely possible to speak the English language,” who could blame the new generation that prioritized the scientific and mechanic arts over the liberal arts as the embodiment of a “useful” education? An education that no longer segregated those learning the humanities from those learning the principles of scientific agriculture, for instance?

The marriage of what were called the “liberal” and “servile” arts worked for much of the past century. It seems to me that just as the dominance of the humanities once invited an intellectual revolution, the present dominance of the scientific and practical fields invites some sort of classroom reformation; perhaps towards remembering not only what we can do to on a daily, practical basis, but also what human beings are for in the first place and what our ancestors made of this life as a guide and support to our own lives.

Then again, we might have plenty farther to go on the present road of practicality.

Actualizing ourselves

David L. Schindler is professor of fundamental theology at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family in Washington. I’m excerpting some of his thoughts on God and the American spirit:

Do you have one particular source of apprehension and one special source of hope as the century closes — from a Catholic theological perspective?

Schindler: Grounds for hope? Americans are religiously sincere and morally generous. This country has a tremendous energy and abundance of good will. In the light of God’s infinite mercy, that’s always a good reason to hope. My fear is that we don’t see the subtlety of how — as the pope says in Evangelium Vitae — democracy can invert into totalitarianism. We have the illusion that we’re free because no one tells us what to do. We have political freedom. But at the same time, a theological and philosophical set of assumptions informs our freedom, of which we’re unconscious. A logic or “ontologic” of selfishness undermines our moral intention of generosity. We don’t have the requisite worldview that would help us address abortion or the more general, current threat to the family. Can we unmask the assumptions of our culture and deal with them in a way that will free the latent generosity of the culture? Or will those hidden assumptions overcome our generosity? This is the real battle, both globally and in America. It calls for a new effort of evangelization — which consists, above all, in first getting clear about the ideas in Evangelium Vitae; understanding the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment Liberal culture. Alasdair McIntyre has a great line: that all debates in America are finally among radical Liberals, liberal Liberals and conservative Liberals. That’s how I would sum up. If we don’t come to terms with Liberalism…

But liberalism in what sense? Quite a few people who would describe themselves as conservative or neoconservative are, in fact, Liberal…

Schindler: That’s the point: they’re the conservative wing of Liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn’t even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American Liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That’s what I’m challenging. Their approach doesn’t go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar. [Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels — not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

Can solidarity and the common good take precedence if David L. Schindler is right in suggesting that we live with the “logic of self-centeredness”? If actualizing ourselves has to come at the expense of another, is there any justice in our society?

Is the role of the family to create a space that militates against self-centeredness for the purpose of each individual’s good/flourishing, or to help each member self-actualize at the expense of any outside the family (or within it) as necessary?

Food and water as a basic right

It’s probably true that the most important issue we advocate through the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network is the importance of ensuring that food and water is considered a basic, universal healthcare right for every patient, regardless of their circumstance. It seems this is a practical unknown issue, and for all of the talk on both sides about the status of physician-assisted suicide legislation, the “food and water” issue is an already-legal means of assisted suicide and/or fatal healthcare rationing in every state.

As a primer on the food and water issue, Bobby Schindler writes:

In 2013, Margot Bentley, an Alzheimer’s patient in Canada, was the subject of a lawsuit filed by her family. They petitioned the court to order that her nursing home starve and dehydrate Margot to death by denying her spoon-fed meals. Like so many such cases, Margot was not actively dying and her situation only became an “end of life” case the moment that her family decided to try to end her life.

How did we reach this point?

It began decades ago, when the American Medical Association and prominent bioethicists determined that food and water delivered by means of a feeding tube would be re-classified from “basic and ordinary” care to “medical treatment.”

It’s a little-known fact that in all 50 states it is presently legal to withhold or deny food and water by means of a feeding tube to patients who are not actively dying and not facing any active “end of life” issue.

Delivery of food and water is the most basic form of care for our fellow human beings, and yet our healthcare policies and practices allow for the denial of this sort of care in a way that often brings about the end of a life, rather than being stopped as a part of any natural dying process.

Those who die specifically from a lack of food and water aren’t being “allowed to die,” rather they’re being actively killed—deprived of the most basic form of care by their caregivers, their physician, their hospital or insurer, and perhaps all four working in perverse agreement that the best thing for the patient would be to die, prematurely.

We can do better, and it starts with a frank acknowledgement of what’s actually happening when we deny food and water—whether by tube or spoon or tray—and rectifying our language in law, medicine, and culture.

Mother’s Day and peace

There’s an historical plaque commemorating the founding of Mother’s Day in Center City, Philadelphia right at City Hall, near the old Wanamaker’s building. It credits Anna Jarvis for the founding of the day, and Anna Orso writes on the fascinating history of both Anna Jarvis and the generations-long effort by different women to create a “Mother’s Day” on the national calendar. Julia Ward Howe’s earlier efforts are fascinating:

14168892153_02395031d8_b

While Jarvis is seen as the founder (more on that later…), the Philadelphia Encyclopedia notes Jarvis wasn’t the first person to propose a day honoring moms, and wasn’t even the first person in Philadelphia to do so.

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe — the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic — put a “Mother’s Day Proclamation”in Women’s Journal, a weekly publication in Boston. It was titled “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World,” and it called on women to use a day denoted “Mother’s Day” to promote peace following the Civil War.

Howe wanted Mother’s Day to be celebrated on June 2. Per the Encyclopedia, several cities did hold special services on that day between 1873 and 1913, but the holiday didn’t reach widespread audiences and was considered “too radical” by some. Still, “in Philadelphia, the Universal Peace Union (UPU), a group dedicated to ending war and eradicating the American military, faithfully celebrated Howe’s holiday for four decades.”

It makes sense that Mother’s Day would be a response to war. Incredible that there is no Universal Peace Union today, given that our military presence and active war involvement is in many ways higher than ever in our history. We have Mother’s Day, but we still need peace.

Generous social policy isn’t socialism

Kevin Williamson writes on the crisis of Venezuela’s experiment with socialism, and in the course of that describes economics and what good social policy looks likes:

Many progressives (and many right-wing populists) believe that economics is less of a science and more of an ideology, that all of that talk about scarcity and supply and demand is mostly mumbo-jumbo deployed by people who are getting their way to ensure that they keep getting their way. The alternative view (the view of most economists) is that economics is an effort to describe something real, that while it is important to understand the difference between the map and the territory, all those economic models and demand curves add up to a description of an aspect of reality that is not subject to negotiation and is not a matter of mere opinion.

That was what concerned Hayek and his colleagues in what has become known as the Austrian school of economics, Ludwig von Mises prominent among them. They believed that the central-planning aspirations of the socialists were not simply inefficient or unworkable but impossible to execute, even in principle, owing to the way in which knowledge is dispersed in society. Drawing on more recent work in fields ranging from physics to computer science, modern complexity theorists have expanded enormously on those insights, arguing that markets, like evolution, are complex behind comprehending even in principle, hence unpredictable and unmanageable.

As he famously summarized it: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” From this Hayek, an old-fashioned liberal, concluded that while there might be room in a free and open society for a broad and generous welfare state, the project of providing benefits to poor and vulnerable people must be understood as distinct from the socialist project, which is to put economic production under political discipline. And this has been born out in our own experience: Sweden is simultaneously a free-trading, entrepreneurship-driven capitalist society and a society with a large and expensive (and recently reformed) welfare state. Sweden, sometimes held up as the model of good socialism, has in fact been following a policy of privatization and libertarian-ish reforms for 20 years, with an explicit commitment of moving away from an economy of government planning to an economy of market choice.

But men do not like being told that they cannot do that which they wish to do, and this is particularly true of men who have a keen interest in political power. Hayek believed that efforts to impose central planning on economies were doomed to fail, and that this failure would not be met with humility but with outrage.

We have the means to experiment with a more generous social policy in America, across the spectrum of what we can consider social issues. I think we should be able to achieve universal healthcare, automatic voter registration, and should consider a universal basic income to replace much of the existing patchwork welfare state.

American Health Care Act

Speaker Paul Ryan and the House of Representatives passed their American Health Care Act yesterday. It was immediately lambasted by opponents, and tweaks various things that were a part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. I think Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry gets at the heart of the problem with both the Democratic and Republican attempts to reform healthcare, which is in essence that neither achieves universal healthcare—something that a majority of conservatives, liberals, and independents want Congress to achieve:

Republicans are in denial about a central truth of the post-ObamaCare landscape: A health-care bill that doesn’t cover everyone will be highly unpopular. If Republicans want to pass a bill that won’t cost them at the ballot box, they need to reconcile themselves to the idea of universal coverage.

I unapologetically support universal coverage — and I’m a conservative! I share my fellow conservatives’ concerns about the size of government, but the size of government is out of control thanks to other entitlements. In and of itself, universal coverage wouldn’t be very expensive. The United States is still the most fantastically wealthy nation on Earth.

Conservatives care deeply about dignity, responsibility, and don’t want government to encourage bad behavior. I wholeheartedly agree. But getting cancer or a chronic disease is not bad behavior. Conservatives don’t want the government to help those who can help themselves, but we also agree — or we should agree — that people who can’t help themselves should be helped. National solidarity is an important value, and this should translate into a system that protects people from the worst. I don’t want the government to control or manage health care, but I do want government to protect people from the expenditures of catastrophic health problems.

But never mind the substance, what about the politics? Here, the picture is even starker. We’re talking about health issues — life and death issues. This is something about which people are rightly very emotional, and understandably very risk-averse. You can’t just take away people’s safety net and replace it with fairy dust. The winning message isn’t “ObamaCare is big government and big government is bad.” The winning message is “We’ll make sure everyone is covered for health-care catastrophes, and moreover, we’ll make it happen in a way that uses common sense and puts you, not hospitals and insurers, in control of your health care.”

This is a winning message. And in terms of policy, it can be done. By shifting power away from middlemen and towards consumers, through health savings accounts and regulatory reforms, Republicans can make American health care more streamlined, more innovative, and less expensive. But for that to happen, they need to pass a bill and make sure that bill doesn’t destroy their majority. Before they can do that, they must come to grips with what is politically acceptable in today’s America.