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.

American binge

I remember watching Ken Burns’s Prohibition when it came out years ago. Like all of Burns’s work, Prohibition paints a portrait in a very detail rich way and through human stories rather than through dry raw information.

The first episode really soars in explaining the rise of temperance as a response to the permeation of hard liquor and drunkenness that hit after the 1830s, and the factors that caused temperance to morph into abstinence societies, the rise of female activism, and ultimately the conflicting, raw, machine-style politics that led to Prohibition as federal amendment and the varying calculus of those responsible. From the series intro:

“Virtually every part of the Constitution is about expanding human freedom. Except prohibition, in which human freedom was being limited. When people cross the line between our essential character as Americans and some other superseding vision of what we should be, then we get in trouble.” —Pete Hamill

A great companion to Ken Burns is W.J. Rorabaugh’s 1979 book The Alcoholic Republic. It focuses not on Prohibition but on the Revolutionary period to 1840, conveying what historians still really haven’t in terms of popular consciousness—which is how, why, and to what ends drinking in America has permeated our sense of ourselves:

The truth was startling: Americans between 1790 and 1830 drank more alcoholic beverages per capita than ever before or since. (pg. IX) … between 1800 and 1830, annual per capita consumption [of distilled spirits] increased until it exceeded 5 gallons — a rate nearly triple that of today’s [1979] consumption. (pg. 8)

Also worth reading is Joseph Mitchell‘s New Yorker essay on McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon, New York City’s oldest bar. McSorely’s was so full of character that when Prohibition hit, it continued to operate and city police continued to drink there.

Some customs are more powerful than law.

An incredible map

Seth Stevenson writes on “the greatest paper map of the United States you’ll ever see.” It’s David Imus’s work of art and it really is beautiful. Here’s Pennsylvania:

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What separates a great map from a terrible one is choosing which data to use and how best to present it. How will you signify elevation and forestation? How will you imply the hierarchy of city sizes? How big must a town (or an airport, or a body of water) be to warrant inclusion? And how will you convey all of this with a visual scheme that’s clean and attractive? …

David Imus worked alone on his map seven days a week for two full years. Nearly 6,000 hours in total. … Your standard wall map will often paint the U.S. states different colors so their shapes are easily grasped. But Imus’ map uses thick lines to indicate state borders and reserves the color for more important purposes—green for denser forestation, yellow for population centers.

“Yellow for population centers” is one of the keys for grasping both the utility and beauty of this map. Looking at the entire nation with this map gives you an immediate sense of just how big the big cities are, and where the population splays itself out across the terrain. It turns raw facts like “325 million Americans” into something as practically useful as it is visually impressive. And seeing how little concentrated yellow there is on the thing reminds us of how much room we have to grow.

A better public square

Tony Judt:

Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically if you like— that’s the Orwellian point about language. They corrode because most people don’t care about them. Notice that the European Union, whose first parliamentary elections were held in 1979 and had an average turnout of over 62 percent, is now looking at turnout of less than 30 percent, even though the European Parliament matters more now and has more power. The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing the people who will rule over you is well attested. And the reason why we need intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors.

Tony’s final point on the role of intellectuals and journalists is particularly worth thinking over. The intellectual and journalistic class are fluid; they’re not castes. The people in these classes come and go. But both classes seem to have forgotten that as much as they serve as role as critics and investigators and skeptics they have an even greater role to serve as boosters for public spirit, for the empowerment of regular people to achieve a good life for themselves, and for the public square to be a space worth entering in the first place.

It’s Memorial Day; a day we commemorate those who’ve served and died to protect the nation. We can honor them and live up to their sacrifice if we figure out how to strength the nation in the public square, from the largest to the smallest towns.

What does a better public square look like in your community? Practically speaking.


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.

Distinctive communities

Conor Dougherty writes on one of Silicon Valley’s secret ingredients:

Workers around the country are increasingly being asked to sign noncompete agreements devised to keep them from leaving their job for a rival company. It’s a trend that has extended down the economic ladder to people like hairdressers and dirt-shovelers who are unlikely to possess trade secrets.

But Californians don’t have to worry about it. California law prohibits noncompetes, and this ban is often cited as key to the development of Silicon Valley. To learn more about how this law helped create the modern technology industry, we talked to AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Information and author of “Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.”

Q. How important was California’s ban to the development of the Valley?

A. If there had been aggressive enforcement of noncompetes, Silicon Valley would probably not be what it is today. But the dynamism goes beyond the legal context. From the very early days there was a sense in the Bay Area that people were in it together and trying to build something different, and they built a culture where it was O.K. to share information more openly and it was O.K. to leave to start something new.

Q. What famous company might we not have?

A. In 1956, eight top engineers left the Shockley Semiconductor Lab in Palo Alto to start the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. While they were labeled at the time as the “traitorous eight,” virtually all left within the subsequent decades to start yet another generation of ventures.

By the time that Fairchild’s Robert Noyce, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore left to start the Intel Corp in 1968 there were more than a dozen other “Fairchildren” in the region. A 1986 genealogy included 126 semiconductor companies that could be traced directly to Fairchild.

In the early days engineers would say, “I work for Silicon Valley.” And the idea was that they were advancing technology for a region, not any single company’s technology. We often think in the U.S. that people or companies create success, but what Silicon Valley shows us is that often it’s communities of people across a region.

Q. There was a recent case in which Google, Apple and others were accused of “an overarching conspiracy” to lower wages for engineers by agreeing not to poach each other’s workers. What does that tell you about how California companies feel about the ban on noncompetes?

A. Essentially they’re becoming the older, more inward-looking companies that early versions of themselves rejected. Maybe it’s natural, but it’s a real departure from the earlier culture of the Valley, which recognized that people will come and go but ultimately we’ll all be better off.

Far more valuable than buzzy ambitions like “becoming a more innovative community” would be investigating specific historical moments that defined your community as it exists today. Then determine whether it makes sense to advance/conserve that historical differentiator for your community, or try something new. And not necessarily on a city council level, but rather on a personal level. If you do something great, others will be attracted to it.