Friday, November 19, 2010

The Man Who Avoided American Public Schools

Barack Obama started school at St. Francis Roman Catholic School in Indonesia. He continued his education at Besuki Public School in Indonesia. Moving to Hawaii, he enrolled in Punahou School, a private academy. After graduating, he enrolled first in Occidental College, a private school in California. He transferred to Columbia University on the east coast, and after obtaining his bachelor's degree, he studied at Harvard Law School. He never attended an American public school, and he also chose to keep his daughters out of public schools.

George W. Bush attended public schools, as did Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman - an interesting mixture of liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.

The only other modern U.S. presidents to entirely avoid public schools were John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Augustine's Diverse Experience

Augustine lived a complex life. As a young man, he explored nearly every religion known, and studied the views of various philosophers. He also committed a wide variety of unethical actions. Yet, despite this complexity, his writings are remarkably clear - he has a talent for helping his reader to understand.

Perhaps what makes Augustine so easy to follow is the passion of his own convictions. He believes that Christianity is absolute truth. He takes Christianity very seriously and expects all others too as well. There was no compromise between paganism and Christianity as he felt one was right and the other wrong. He found Christianity a clear moral guide for life. God gave him everything. And yet, he was not always so saintly. He was a thief. He had a concubine and a child out of wedlock. He admits to thoughts that were not always so clean. Augustine came across as so human. In his book, The Confessions, he revealed his many intimate and sometimes impure thoughts. Romans could relate to what he was saying because they could identify with his experiences. He was not Christian his whole life. For a long while, he followed the ways of the Manichees, a group that borrowed some elements from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. The Manichees believed that there were essentially two worlds, one of light, created by God, and another of evil. The fact that he struggled with inner turmoil about what was the right way, and finding peace when he finds Christianity, was a story that was very persuasive. Phillip Woollcott, a historian, noted, “Augustine had a deep sense of inner unrest to match his times, but in addition, he had the gifts to reify his own inner struggles between good and evil; and in seeking his own creative solution, he gave power and logical cohesion to the youthful church which was largely inspirational at that time.” Romans had turmoil. Would Christianity bring them peace? Augustine certainly felt it could.

Augustine had seen what would finally create peace of mind in a world filled with turmoil. His Roman audience, weary of struggle and meaninglessness, had found all those other religious systems unable to enlighten their minds, and were eager to try Augustine's faith.

The American Way

Given that so much of America's culture comes from Europe (our music, literature, societal values, etc.), and that what little doesn't come from Europe comes from Africa or Asia, is there anything that is truly American? Is there anything here that didn't come from somewhere else?

Professor Allen C. Guelzo, at Gettysburg College, might have an answer:

America has always been the nations of theory, not practice; it would built around ideas (even upon a "proposition") from the moment the first idea-haunted Pilgrim stepped off onto Plymouth Rock.

America, as a nation, started with ideas. In the Old World, in Europe, the events of history were studied, and general principles were gathered by induction. In America, before we got started, we first set down, in thought and in writing, our guiding principles. Our history is a debate about those principles - what they mean and how they ought to be applied - and so we are fundamentally a nation of ideas. This trend goes all the way back to the earliest years of the founding of America. The

Puritans possessed a university-trained leadership and organized themselves found a university-trained clergy, sunk deeply in theology and medieval scholasticism.

These earliest settlers of Massachusetts wove a seamless progression of thought from academic (mathematics, logic, physics, chemistry) to sociopolitical principles organized in their founding documents. Thus Harvard University was founded six years after the Puritans founded the city of Boston; all this activity emerged from a text, the "Mayflower Compact," the central idea of which is:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honor of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Not only had

the Puritans founded Harvard College only six years after settling Boston,

but they shortly afterward founded other colleges and universities, and Puritan leader Jonathan Edwards was the president of Princeton University after it was had already been established by an earlier generation of Puritans.

To be sure, the Puritans were far from perfect, and capable of mistakes, despite their intellectual and academic skills. The first attempt at organizing the Plymouth colony nearly destroyed it, so badly was it designed. On the other hand, the faults of the Puritans are sometimes exaggerated: they did not possess the irrational superstitious fear and loathing of alcohol which some historians attribute to them; on the contrary, they brewed beer, made wine, and consumed both regularly.

In any case, they formed the basis for the ideology of the American Revolutionaries: Locke's political treatises would not have fueled the American Revolution had not the Puritans laid the foundation for their reception. Jonathan Edward's collected works (twenty-six volumes) contain ethical treatises which led to an atmosphere in which the morality of England's imperialism was questioned.

Between the day that the Puritans founded Harvard and the day Edwards began preaching stretches an entire century in which New Englanders wrestled mightily with the impact on the intellectual world of Cartesian epistemology and Newtonian science.

The active intellectual life of America was absorbing these latest developments, sometimes faster than the countries in which they took place. But intellectual life in America would encounter a roadblock:

the revolutionary upthrust of Pragmatism at Harvard after the Civil War. Nothing could represent a more dramatic intellectual break with the moral philosophers' pursuit of truth, hard-wired into the natural order of things, than Pragmatism.

The American intellectual tradition will suffer in these decades, as reason and logic are rejected, and random passions are followed. Academic life tormented by

the fundamental premises of Pragmatism - that no truth exists apart from satisfaction, that no nation or principle is worth dying for, and that all human inequities are merely problems awaiting the application of intelligence.

The first premise reduces life to something very like hedonism; the second deny any rational contemplation of values; and the third enslaves human reason in the service of in impossible Romanticist quest for an impossible utopia.

The darkness which Pragmatism cast on the life of the American mind was lifted by two very different, but simultaneous, phenomena: first,

the rise of a neo-orthodox religious critique (especially as championed by Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s) and the persistence of the seriousness with which theology was conducted as an intellectual enterprise in America,


the emergence, in violent fashion, of the New Left in the 1960s.

These two social movements were not only different from each other, but opposed to each other. Yet together, they revealed the intellectual inadequacy of Pragmatism:

both were a puzzle to Pragmatists, because there was no reason they could see for the dogmatic outlook behind both to even exist.

These two survivals, desperately unalike in all respects except the single conviction that there is an unmistakable pattern written into human experience and history, suggest that the moral philosophers' instinct was truer than Pragmatism ever imagined, and that Americans want more from ideas than the Pragmatic assurance that ideas are merely tools for experimentation.

A nation founded on ideas doesn't mean a nation which finds itself in harmonious unity: on the contrary, the more seriously one takes ideas, the more heatedly one will debate about them.

When Jefferson asserted that "we hold these truths to be self-evident," he assumed that not only were there truths, but that everyone was compelled to acknowledge their existence. Lincoln believed that the American order was founded on a "proposition" - not an experience, and certainly not on race, blood, ethnicity, or any of the other Romantic irrationalities.

We may speak of Lincoln's objection to Pragmatism, even though he slightly antedated it. In his opposition to Pragmatism,

he denounced slavery as ethically wrong, as a violation of natural law and natural theology - and would admit to no compromise with, and no scaling back of, his Emancipation Proclamation.

More than anything, to be American is to have an idea and attempt to transform that idea into reality. It is a search to discover the way things ought to be.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Who's to Blame?

The city of Rome has been attacked, besieged, and sacked many times throughout history. Human nature is such that people want to know whom to blame for their misery: around 410 A.D., Rome was sacked by Germanic tribesmen, whose superiority was such that the city was incapable of defending itself in any meaningful way. Recovering and rebuilding from this defeat, the citizens of the empire began to look for scapegoats.

Attention quickly focused on a minority group: the Christians. This new religion had been illegal for almost three hundred years, and the Roman government had invested much energy into the activities of arresting, torturing, and executing Christians. Hundreds of thousands had been killed. Gradually, however, the new religion gained some measure of tolerance in Roman society, and, in a stunning reversal of government policy, Christianity was legalized around 313 A.D. by the emperor Constantine.

Although now legal, and to some extent tolerated, the new religion was still a minority, and the pagan majority looked with suspicion upon the Christians. Less than a century after the legalization of the new faith, Rome was sacked. Were the Christians to blame? Were the old Roman gods angered by the new faith, and did they stop protecting Rome from Germanic attacks? Or did the Christians, with their pacifism, weaken Rome's military ability to defend itself?

Fueled by such prejudices, many began calling for Christianity to again be illegal, and for the government execution of Christians to resume. A dangerous time indeed!

At this point in time, Augustine wrote one of his most famous books, entitled "The City of God."

"The City of God" was written in reaction to an event where Rome was sacked. Romans questioned a God that could not protect them from foreign invaders. In 410, Alaric and the Goths invaded Rome. They raped women, burned down houses and public buildings, looted wealth from individuals and the city, and killed those who opposed them. In truth, the sack was one of several on Rome, and could have been worse. However, many believed that if Christianity was a true religion, the Christian God would have protected his followers from this tragic fate. Many Romans believed that by turning their backs on the traditional Roman Gods, the Gods were angry with them and taking it out on them. Peter Brown wrote, “In an atmosphere of public disaster, men want to know what to do. At least Augustine could tell them. The traditional pagans had accused the Christians of withdrawing from public affairs and of being potential pacifists. Augustine’s life as a bishop had been a continual refutation of this charge.” Many suggested converting back from Christianity to paganism. Augustine wrote the City of God to make an argument for staying with Christianity. In it, he argued that Goths live in the City of Man, a city of sin, death, selfishness, and ruled by a love of power. However, since this is God’s world, man should try to live in his city. This city is full of truth, virtue, selflessness, was eternal and ruled by a love of God. As long as people live in this world, the Goths cannot really hurt the Christians. For example, by living in the City of God, one does not really need wealth. They will find happiness in other ways. So a Goth taking their possessions does nothing to actually hurt them. In order to receive God’s Grace, a Christian must live in the City of God. And Augustine’s argument is very emotional, looked to the future, appealed to reason and was firm in his devotion to God and Christianity, despite these terrible events. He told people that God does not protect them from all human misery, and quoted the Bible to show lots of examples of people who had problems. He told the demoralized Romans exactly what they needed to hear. This argument appealed to many Romans, not just the scholars. It will be a reason why Christianity will continue to grow, despite such tough times, and gain even more popularity.

Ancient Declines and Modern Urban Crises

Dealing with the harsh realities and desperate personal emotional pains of daily life in inner-city neighborhoods (take your pick: Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc.) may seem long-removed from discussions of Babylonian and Roman empires, but there are commonalities. The dynamics which cause once-flourishing cities like New Orleans and St. Louis to crumble are the same dynamics which caused Greece and Persia to lose their political and economic momentum thousands of years ago.

In all of these times and places, ancient and modern, it is to be noted that the misery was not universal. During the decline of the Roman empire, there were families who established a meaningful existence for themselves; when Greece was losing its clout, and becoming a territory of Rome, there were husbands and wives, sons and daughters, who built a happy existence for themselves, and even managed to make contributions to the lives of others in their communities.

The dynamics which cause the fall of a society, then, do not manifest themselves in every individual in that society. On the other hand, every individual in that society will, in some way, be impacted - negatively, harmfully - by those factors which are causing the fall. But those impacts will not always be of a magnitude which causes them to be devastating - hence the happy family in the midst of the decline and fall of the Roman empire. Materially, perhaps, they suffered some losses of land or property; mentally, the indignity of being later ruled by a Germanic king instead of a Roman emperor (the indignity being merely ethnic; the rights of citizenship under both being very similar).

Because many, or perhaps even most, of the factors causing societal decline begin within the family structure, we see how it is possible for those families who are not affected internally by these factors - i.e., those families not afflicted with the problems which cause both personal misery and societal decline - can on the one hand avoid the intramural grief but still be impacted inasmuch as they live within the larger society which is falling because of such problems.

Prentice Tipton, an African-American leader, identifies these ancient woes in the modern context of America's inner-urban culture:

When mothers lead the family because the fathers fail to lead - either by absenting themselves from the home or by taking a passive role - boys are deprived of the most important natural model of manliness. Growing up mainly under the supervision of women, many experience insecurity over their identity as men.

One tendency for boys growing up in such circumstances is to rebel against women who are authorities over them and become socially disruptive - irresponsible in family and work commitments, overly assertive about their manly prowess, especially in sexual areas, or leading lives characterized by violence and crime, alcoholism, and other addictions.

Another tendency for young men is to identify with the adult women who are authorities in their lives and learn to behave or react in ways that are more appropriate to women than to men. To the extent that young males take either option, they do not learn the discipline, the responsibility, and the character involved in being a man. They are left groping for manhood in a variety of socially disruptive ways.

In the later years of the Roman empire, we see the "absent father" - either physically absent, being away at war, or away watching games and sports, or away drinking and committing adultery - or emotionally absent, being preoccupied with material wealth, substance abuse, or sheer lazy indulgence - and having no meaningful interaction with his children.

We see also in falling empire those social problems catalogued as results of such absent fathers.

However, we must be careful not to over-simplify: there were many different factors leading to the fall of the Roman empire, and certainly not all of them had to do with broken family structures. Bad weather, exhausted farmland, the superiority of Germanic tribesmen, imbalance of imports and exports, etc., all belong to the long and hotly disputed list of possible causes for Rome's fall.

We can, however, safely and sadly say that these same problems are inflicting misery on young people today, thousands of years later, wherever and whenever fathers neglect their children.