Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reboot Culture

The following article first appeared in the October issue of the Highlands Latin School newspaper Nova Roma Vol 2 Issue 2. Reprinted with permission of the editor.

Why do we keep seeing the same characters rehashed and rebooted? Television has featured six versions of Spider-Man and five versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the last three decades. Since 1989, five men have played Batman in live-action--more if you count animation. It seems that some franchises will not end until they are box-office bombs. I complained to a friend from high school about this recently. Can’t we see something new? Can’t we let a great fictional universe end on a high note? Can’t the 80s and 90s just be over?
“No,” my friend replied, “because we have no common culture anymore. It’s the easiest way for parents to connect to their kids.”
It is true that students are less likely than ever to read the same books as their parents did in school. Americans as a whole is moving this way religiously too; “spiritual but not religious” people practice a DIY spirituality as they walk away from organized religion. Our entertainment is fragmenting us too. Fewer people than ever watch the same shows as their fellow citizens, a far cry from the 80s and 90s when millions of people watched the same three networks every night. New York Times reporter Josh Katz noted that Americans’ preference for Modern Family or Duck Dynasty was an accurate predictor of their geographic location, political persuasion, and even the car they drive! In a time when the only thing Americans seem to hold in common is lamenting how little we hold in common, yet another version of the Smurfs binds us across time and space in the epic struggle of blue munchkins against a balding, middle-aged wizard. So much for our common culture!
According to Tracy Lee Simmons, the ancient Greeks believed education (paideia) had at least as much to do with “enculturation” into humanity as it did with learning a set of skills. Students needed to have common culture inculcated into them, often at the expense of their individual preferences. This process had a strange effect. Instead of making the students all the same, making them adopt a common culture freed their thinking. School freed them from the whims of their fickle appetites or whatever their friends or political leaders told to them think. The mature student would be liberally-educated, having taken many classes in the “humanities” (those classes in which students seek the answers to the hardest questions of life). The Romans believed that this humanitas was an excellence that came only through the exercise of the reason, contemplation, and self-denial.
Put simply, you have to learn to be human so that you can be your truest self.
Education used to tie students across the Western world together. From Athens and London to New Albany and Paducah, anyone who received an education would have started it reading Homer or Aesop. These stories became cultural touchstones, ways that people across the Western world could relate to one another. They were books we’d all read. Even the poorest and least-educated people were familiar with some of these works. When Alexis de Tocqueville trekked across America in 1831, he noted that every log cabin in America had a copy of Shakespeare and the King James Version. Is it any surprise then that most English book titles or stories reference the Bard or the Bible?
Your studies in physics, Latin, and geography humanize you. They are intended to broaden, enlighten, and deepen your souls. You are being brought into the common culture of the West by the books you read in your classes, the uniform you share with your classmates, and the relationships you form with your teachers. It all might seem pointless, stifling, or boring. Our prayer is that you will one day look back and see that reading a set list of books, dressing a certain way, and taking particular classes granted you a gift too often withheld in our fragmented times--the gift of culture. 
And with any luck, you won’t be another rehash of the Smurfs.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Death and Life of Mr. Thomas

A few weeks ago I was afraid that I would be drafted into sharing my insights into teaching for a training session. I have only done this for seven years, so I was guaranteed to have someone in that seminar who had taught for longer than me. Powers far above me spared me this perilous fate. I went back to my “summer funemployment”, the mysterious way time unaccountably passes between school years. (Even I forget what I’m up to, no doubt to the totally-justified suspicion of honest inquirers.) Nevertheless, I started thinking about what I would tell new teachers, mentors, or leaders. What have I learned in seven years of teaching?

I probably should have made a systematic, organized list or outline. You know, the way I teach writing. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there’s really only one big thing and it only makes sense to tell it as a story. Like dramatic revelations and bowel movements, it’s more satisfying with a lot of buildup. 

I started my career by lying so that I wouldn’t have any friends. 

I was 22 years old working at an “alternative to the alternative” middle-and-high school in Georgia. I was worried about being laughed off by students less than five years younger than I was. I was teaching the same school that had given me a diploma. I rode to work with my mother who also taught there. I had been in youth group with one of my students. Two of the juniors had been in eighth grade when I’d graduated. These facts all compounded the imposter syndrome I felt every time I put on my loose-fitting slacks and over-sized sport coat. I was playing dress-up and pretending to be an authoritative figure. Add to this the one thing I remembered from two days (two days!) of new teacher training: “Don’t be your students’ friend.” I loved making friends and had used charisma to melt otherwise icy supervisors, professors, and authorities into liking me for years. It felt integral to who I was.

So I decided to become someone else. I already felt like I was faking adulthood, so I might as well go whole-hog.

Hence was born “Mr. Thomas”, a chilly, stern, and demanding taskmaster. I drew upon my stage and improv experience to craft a persona to petrify my indolent, teenaged wards into compliance. Mr. Thomas was of indeterminate age in order to mask my youth (one kid thought I was 35). This character had few interests outside of the subjects he taught, though one of them certainly included people shutting up and following his orders. I couldn’t hide my true self entirely of course, so I twisted my sense of humor quickly into cold sarcasm. I wasn’t a total jerk all the time. Obedience could bring warmth and even laughter. Still, my model for classroom management was Cesare Borgia.

According to Machiavelli’s The Prince, Borgia hired the brutal Ramiro d’Orca in 1502 to govern Cesena, a city Borgia had recently conquered. The mercenary eliminated Borgia’s rivals, but also proved harsh toward commoners as well. They complained to Borgia about his lieutenant. Borgia said nothing. But soon after, one morning the citizens awoke to find d’Orca’s bloody, quartered corpse strewn about the piazza. The citizens were at once “stupefied and satisfied.” They knew their ruler was just and would listen. They also learned that he was not to be crossed. So the first time I heard a student made a cruel remark about another in the middle of class, I stopped everything and lambasted the bully for a full two minutes with all the fury I could muster. “Don’t cross Mr. Thomas, capisce?

In the years since, I moved to a new school and started over. The environment was much more strict, academic, and serious. This meant Mr. Thomas relaxed. Through some impressive detective work, my first 7th graders at this new school figured out I was 24. It cost me no respect. In my second year, I started going to the morning carpool so I could catch up with the previous year’s pupils. These casual conversations leaked stories from my real life. While I never disclosed anything compromising, what did get around never diminished my authority. If anything, discerning sharing built respect even amongst students I never taught. Colorful illustrations from the outside crept into Mr. Thomas’s lessons. Test answers were improving because of the entertaining tangents, not in spite of them. I shared fossilized personal problems when students shared their fresh ones (though I kept my new ones to a minimum). Soon, students solicited me for advice outside of academics. I knew the gap between the projection and the reality was narrowing as was the gap between my students and me. It worried me at first. But test scores kept going up even as trust kept building and Mr. Thomas kept becoming more like me. By the time my first 7th grade class was graduating high school six years later, they wanted to hang out with the “real me.” The funny thing was that I wasn’t sure there was a difference between the projection and the man anymore. They had become my friends.

A funny thing happen on the way to graduation. Somewhere along the way, I transitioned from managing through intimidation to managing through respect. Students knew I wasn’t going to put up with (too much) nonsense or time-wasting. They obeyed from deference instead of fear of punishment. (I know this because the one time I blew up at one of them for disrespect, his classmates were angrier than I was.) And with all due respect to Machiavelli, maybe you don’t have to choose between fear and love.

The dirty little secret in Christian education--ideally focused on character and virtue formation--is that you have to give your students what they do not know they need. That includes the obvious stuff like discipline, homework, structure, information, etc. They don’t need another peer. Just as in parenting, young people must learn about choices and consequences. They must know that there are authorities. God is not our buddy. He is our Lord, Master, Sovereign, Judge; in every way a superior to be obeyed with dread terror.

Scripture teaches us that in Christ’s Incarnation we see the “image of the invisible God”, “the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person.” Yet apart from the Transfiguration and Resurrection, Jesus’s recorded time on Earth is remarkably human. He attends a wedding with his mom. He eats with the Apostles. He goes fishing with them. He celebrates Hanukkah with them. They see firsthand conflict with his family. They see his anguish over the death of Lazarus. He asks them to pray with him and be near him the night before his crucifixion  He asks one to care for his mother after he is gone. These are only a few examples. The text never explicitly says so, and I was trained not to go beyond the text. Still, it’d be hard to imagine thirteen guys on a three-year road trip without someone cracking a fart joke to raucous laughter.

Could it even be that the people in Nazareth rejected Jesus’s teaching about himself because they had watched him live a heretofore mundane life? Who could imagine that “God-With-Us” is a guy you knew in high school?

This same Christ never compromises his authority. He curses a fig tree. He casts out demons. He denounces Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for rejecting him. He demonstrates the authority as Messiah to set aside the law. He chases money-changers form the Temple using a whip of his own design. He calls the most prominent Apostle “Satan” for contradicting him. He is not their peer or their buddy. He is their rabbi--their teacher--an authority at all times. Yet despite all this, at his final supper with them after Judas Iscariot departs, he says:

“Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (Jn 15:16)

Catch that? “I have called you friends.”

The uniquely Christian truth of the Incarnation is that God became a man. The Word became flesh. The Truth became relational. Divinity took on humanity without sacrificing any divine attributes.

So the dirtiest, littlest secret of Christian education and the thing students don’t know they need more than anything--be they six or sixteen or sixty--is you. They need you to model a particular kind of life. They should see your enthusiasm for the truths you teach. They must receive your unique and irreplaceable story and person. They yearn for a relationship with the real you on your good days and on your bad ones. They ought to know why you care so much about what you have to tell them. More than that, they need to know that you care about them. And most of all they need to see you live and model the ultimate Truth you proclaim.

It means being appropriately vulnerable and honest (something you learn the first time you have to apologize to a twelve-year-old because you lost his grades). It means means your life is a mess just like theirs, even though you don’t burden them with your problems. It means you aren’t too good to talk about the pain of their braces or their anxiety about the upcoming dance. Such events may be remote to you now, but the emotions they are feeling are not. Our Savior did not consider divinity something to be clung unto but condescended to us without being condescending toward us. Therefore, draw near to your students where they are. Show them the way to live by being yourself. Only wisdom can guide us between the excesses of aloofness and over-disclosure. Fortunately, God gives grace to the teacher to learn even this.

You will only get there if you learn to be yourself. A Great Teacher once said that every student becomes like his teacher when he is fully trained. Christian educator, be like him. Don’t be a buddy, be an authority. Don’t be a projection, be a person. Don’t be a friend, be a teacher. With any luck and the good grace of God, maybe one day your people will realize you were their friend all along.

Monday, June 20, 2016

You Have The Right to Remain Silent

In 1966, Ernesto Miranda, an Arizona day laborer, signed a confession stating that he had raped Lois Ann Jameson.  The public defender assigned to Miranda learned at trial that Miranda had confessed.  The confession came without a lawyer present; the defendant had not been informed that his statements were admissible in court.  The defense appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.  In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that Miranda's conviction was unconstitutional, violating the 5th and 6th Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination and his right to legal counsel.  Henceforth, the "Miranda Rights" became a memorized scripted used by real and TV cops across the land.  "You have the right to remain silent..."

A far more demanding court presides in America, however.  The Court of Public Opinion reigns over all in America as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835.  The mass of popular consensus rules as judge, jury, and executioner.  It directs all things in our country, a necessary implication of the American devotion to equality above all.  Do you really presume to know more than at least 51% of people?  In the digital age, this more supreme Court issues rulings on everything from dress colors to cat videos.  Often, these rulings are not unanimous.  Rather, they break neatly into concurring and dissenting opinions, rather like the (less-)Supreme Court.  Unlike that court, with the advent of social media, the number of cases presented are increasing daily as hashtags trend.  The polemics are ever-more fiery.  Judges all at once bemoan the polarization of rhetoric even as they write seething denunciations indicting dissenters.  Behind it all lay the pressure in each new case for the judge to issue a ruling.  No justice may be absent form the bench.  Social media have created an environment where all voices may be heard... and now those who have ruled expect to hear them.  The judges tell the others that there is no time to stand idly by.  "You have a voice, now use it!"  No more.  I refuse to speak up and speak out.  I have the right to remain silent, and so do you.

We're told by one recently-viral facebook post, "What my black friends taught me is that the ancillary offense, where grief is compounded and loneliness sets in, is when their friends and colleagues outside of their tribe say NOTHING... Don't say nothing."  Somehow, I sincerely doubt that my personal friends--the only people I know on social media--are in any way put at ease by my stating the obvious.  If they are, then I shall say what is so evident.  The slaughter of 50 people, regardless of race, gender, or national origin is abhorrent.  If we're close enough to talk, you know how to make far more intimate contact than a hashtag justice article.  I also assume we know one another well enough that you didn't need me to broadcast my deepest lamentations to several hundred family, friends, and acquaintances for digital validation.

There are several reasons I exercise this right.  And before we get into those, I must acknowledge the irony of speaking out for silence and against speaking out... okay, acknowledged.  The most fundamental reason I exercise this right is humility.  Plato's Republic is a long book relating a thirteen hour conversation about justice.  By the end and after 2,300 years of discussion, no one is quite sure what Plato thinks justice is.  St Thomas Aquinas wrote the landmark of medieval theology the Summa Theologica--such a landmark that it is the official theology of the Roman Catholic church.  Thomas had a divine vision and dropped his pen forever, claiming all he had written was straw.  Edmund Burke made this political, saying that the world in its infinite complexity could not be remade anew by the radical vision of the French philosophes no matter how thoroughgoing their legislation.  G.K. Chesterton even suggested that the competing systems claiming an all-seeing lens to explain the paradoxical minutiae of reality drove men to madness.  It ought to drive even the haughtiest Marxist or Freudian to more thought than action.

Color me skeptical, then, whenever another trending hashtag pretends it can fix everything.  When it comes to social justice, I get the adjective, but I find myself stuck back there on the noun with Plato.  To say nothing of this simple truth: despite your most devoted friends' or social media's demands, you really don't have to have an opinion about everything.  Some things are beyond my intellect or free time to understand.  I'm just not conversant on everything, and I protest any and all attempts to "educate me" (read: "Show up to my rally/protest because I did all the thinking for you").

Second, I have the right to remain silent because of the performance component social media.  "All the world's a stage," said Shakespeare.  Shakespeare would have learned a new and horrifying connotation to this phrase had he lived to see Twitter.  With our digital avatars we become our own public relations firm, not unlike the actual PR professionals that run corporate social media pages.  Likes and re-tweets equal affirmation.  I admit to this candidly.  My social media page become an avenue for funny bits or sentimental tributes.  I don't think this is necessarily bad, particularly if you're self-aware of what it is and the monster inside all of us that craves approval.  But the sick twist comes when we take up some mantle as a source of validation.  We buy the notion that we're somehow being courageous.  We think we're "spurring a dialogue."  And lots of people will click a button that notifies us of their affirmation of what we've said.  But how much courage does it really take to share an click-bait-titled op-ed with a comment like, "This.  So much this."?  I spent several years running in seminary circles with misguided men who proudly proclaimed a good and true message with such abrasiveness that they regarded rejection of tone and method as persecution.  Never once did the awful reflection occur to them that perhaps they'd mistaken courage for rashness.  They got reactions that fit right in with the deluded self-portrait they had painted.  Some theology dorks would praise them for their courage to preach, others would denounce them as hatemongers.  Exchange the word "sinner" for "bigot" or "wacko hippie" and I'm not sure I could tell the lay slacktivist from the soapbox preacher.  Same tactic, different gospel.

Thirdly, I have the right to be silent because I'm considering my end goal.  Cicero said that all rhetoric aims at something, either to inform, to persuade, or to entertain (ideally all three).  Cat videos, one-liners, and pictures of your baby are entertaining.  The irony here is that the most entertaining performances are somehow the least synthetic.  The honesty of sadness or devotion to deceased loved ones, even the lamentations over public tragedies, belong to moving.  Trouble is, outrage culture feeds more on anger than fact.  Rather than inform, it hardens our opponents and inflames our allies.  And that's assuming they even read the article.  In my experience, most don't.  Did you before you shared it?

Is it any wonder then that subsequent discussion become so incendiary?  How many digital "friends" or "followers" have told you how much you completely changed their entire political orientation because you found just the right HuffPo article?  How many more were driven to a blind tirade?  And did you follow them down the hole?  Did you forget the person behind that opinionated Breitbart link?  Wasn't that the guy who jumped your car off in the rain eight years ago?  Did she cover your tab when you forgot your billfold?  Is all that warm camaraderie gone when you see those stubborn words on the screen?  How could someone be so stupid and ignorant?  The descent feels so natural.  you forgot the whole point was to persuade.  Considering your end goal, your failure is complete.

Fourth, I have the right to remain silent because my outrage belongs to me.  As comedian Chris Hardwick pointed out, sites thrive on clicks.  Traffic.  Views.  The media companies that produce this content engineer it to go viral.  That means they can sell advertisers spots on their sites, generating ad revenue with punchy titles.  It's the very same technique tabloids have used for years.  The new advertising strategies change the ballgame though.  Imagine the National Enquirer got paid every time you glance at its headlines in the supermarket checkout line.  When the rage boils over and you share that story that confirms all your biases, the looking and the clicking spread.  If a service is free, you are the product.  Feed the digital media beast in your indignation and you'll miss how big it can grow.  (Don't worry about sharing this post though.  At Artery Bloggage, the content quality is as low as the ad revenue--zero!)

Fifth, I have a right to remain silent when a man is on the digital pillory.  A year or so ago, a student of mine was in a fury before school.  A Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera cast a convicted sex offender to play the Phantom.  Her anger flared hotter when I suggested she should calm down.  "Calm down?!!  Why?" she demanded.  "Because you live hundreds of miles away and have seven hours of school ahead in which you have no access to technology and an algebra test to ace."  I can only assume this actor was convicted and sentenced, maybe released on good behavior.  But this sentence was insufficient, you say, the system is broken!  Maybe, yes, a particular court far away misdealt justice (there's that word again).  But as St. Augustine reminded us, no court in the City of Man is or can ever be perfect.

This is no problem for our increasingly-empowered Court of Public Opinion.  If you find any judge or jury anywhere has not ruled to your liking, you can declare guilt or innocence, sentence the defendant, and execute the punishment all through your social medium of choice.  Shame that mom who left a dog in the car and only got community service!  Make sure no one ever forgets that rapist's face!  And to be frank, there's a good chance your target deserves it.  But as for me, I can't help but think that but for the grace of God go I.  In my trips to Colonial Williamsburg as a kid, I was always struck by the pillories and stocks.  Groups of horrified tourists shook their heads that such a punishment could be considered just.  My classmates in American Lit thought the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne was impossible to understand.  I get it now though.  What offends us and how we express it have changed, but the impulse is the same.  Two weeks ago some guy I've never met or will probably ever meet got his mug slapped all over my newsfeed when the Court of Public Opinion decreed his rape sentence was too light.  "This is the face of a rapist!" sprawled across his smiling face in capitalized Impact font.  Maybe he deserved more time than he got.  Maybe sexists who perpetuate Rape Culture will think twice before spreading it explicitly through demeaning women or implicitly through microaggressions they can never be adequately conscious of.  I kind of doubt it though.

Sixth, I maintain my right to silence because of James 3.  There the apostle writes, "For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body... So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so."  Are Christians supposed to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:5)?  Yes, but “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 6:5).  I strongly suspect that Christ did not have "weepy emoji" in mind when he said one should weep with those who weep.

We used to believe in a sort of Stoical, dignified silence.  we called it the Culture of Dignity.  It essentially adopted the attitude of the old Stoics.  You were born into a particular set of circumstances.  Some can be changed, others cannot.  This includes the perception of others.  Some people were sexist.  By accomplishing great things in spite of disapproval, women could change some opinions.  Others would remain entrenched in misogyny until they died.  In this culture, people were encouraged to put the minds of small, miserable people to shame by their ability to live well in spite of bigoted opposition.  The understanding was that such bullies were beneath even your contempt.  Best to ignore them.  Our culture may well have shifted to a culture of victimhood.  Now, you must bear the mantle of ending prejudice by turning the tables and shaming oppressors!  Odd choice.  As Socrates asked in The Republic, "Do you make bad men good by exacting revenge?  Or do you just make them worse?"  As a very humble woman (who also has a lot to be proud of) recently said to me, "Sexists aren't worth my time.  People used to think there was dignity in ignoring them, but now they think that's not good enough.  They won't get rid of it thought.  I just wish my friends would stop pressuring me into dissing them.  Woman-haters aren't worth it."  Maybe silence doesn't aid and abet.  Maybe a defiant silence does the should better than a digital diatribe.

Or as my Uncle Frank once told me, "Never argue with an idiot.  They'll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience."

This is to say nothing of the most magnificent of all silences, Reverence.  Some tragedies are so atrocious in the scope and scale they leave good people dumbstruck.  This is how it should be.  Maybe a moment of silence should be longer than a moment, and social media harping does in fact count as noise.  It's noise just like the guy smacking gum at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Do you remember that dignified and reverent silence we all treasured so dearly?  It is much harder to come by these days.  Beyond the ears, even the body now twitches with phantom buzzes.  Have you ever been alone in a moment of pregnant thought, the thrones of soulful birth pains perhaps on the verge of some meaningful thought, only to feel an electric tingle.   Did someone just text me?  No... how odd.  Well, might as well check facebook...

I close with our Digital Miranda rights.  If retaining these rights causes me to somehow further a cause destined to bring ruination on the globe, then I will chisel my recantation into the walls of my prison cell as I await execution for not sharing that article on Monstanto.
  • You have the right to remain silent and refuse to trend hashtag justice.
  • Anything you say will probably be used against you in the Court of Public Opinion.
  • You have the right to consult a digital attorney before engaging that troll.  Unfortunately, you can't keep an attorney on retainer pro bono.
  • If you decide to engage without a social media attorney, you waive the right to delete your bone-headed comment before someone screenshots it and puts you in a digital pillory.
  • Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them, are you really willing to post that without an attorney present?

Friday, February 21, 2014

STEMing the Tide

Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Try Again at Math

Let me tell you the story of two classrooms.  One was about ten years ago in a nontraditional high school with startling purple walls.  The class was Algebra II, although this particular curriculum integrated algebra and geometry.  I was a sophomore in high school, and a little advanced beyond my peers in the material.  It had been some time since math had been intuitive to me while English, history, and civics continued to be quite second-nature.  I didn't exactly struggle in math.  I could follow the procedures laid out for me, but I had less and less idea of what I was actually doing.  And I can still remember the concept that shut the door and turned me into a math-hater.

Sine, cosine, and tangent.

I remember my math teacher Ms. Gordon* going over the concept.  Neither I nor the other students really got it.  Her explanation of the process was straightforward enough (SOHCAHTOA and all that).  We kept asking questions of what sine, cosine, and tangent even were.  What are they used for?  What's this number even mean?  Why do we need this?  Ms. Gordon got impatient.  "Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.  Divide opposite over hypotenuse and punch the 'sine' button," she said.  Maybe she thought we were being difficult.

Math is just a thing you have to do.  It's useful for everything.  That was what I'd heard for years.  I'd heard it that time in second grade that we visited the firehouse on a field trip; here it was again in this classroom in 2004.  Math was a thing you just had to do.  And here, as I really and truly tried to figure out what on earth these bizarre trigonometric terms were telling me, I heard it again.  Just punch the numbers in.  It's just a thing you have to do.

"What does this even mean?  It's just nonsense.," I pressed.  I got some laughs from some equally-confused classmates.  This emboldened me to push in more.  I loaded a silver bullet I'd been sitting on for a few months.  "For that matter, why are there 360 degrees in a circle?  Why not 400?  Why not 12 like a clock?  And why does every triangle have to be 180?"

"Because it's half a rectangle."

"But why?  Why can't a triangle exist by itself?  Isn't that like saying that no triangle is happy until it's married to another triangle?"  The chuckles continued as the teacher got a little more flustered.  Now I was a burgeoning comedian on a roll.  "Triangles can find fulfillment by themselves!  They don't need no man to make 'em happy!"

It was immature.  It was simplistic.  It was a distraction from finishing the lesson.  Most teenagers probably aren't asking for the Euclidean proofs underlying the calculations.  And yet behind the thin layers of teenage insecurity masked as comedy lay a very real struggle: What is this thing?  What does it mean?  And before I even started playing amateur hour at the Laugh Factory I had already checked out when I heard that deadly phrase: "Just mash the button."  Sine, cosine, tangent; even the degrees in a figure were just steps to memorize to get an answer.  Just like formulas in geometry.  Just schlock you have to vomit out on the SAT.  Just another thing you have to do so you can get into the college you want.

Years of pragmatism and lowest-common-denominator thinking wrought a dichotomy in my thinking.  Literature, history, and civics were classes where you got to do the fun stuff, wrestling through a dilemma or uncovering the mysteries of what it means to be human.  Math was a chore by contrast.  The humanities became like taking flight for the first time, each rush of discovery like the rush of a loop or a dive.  Math became the canvas bag I relieved my airsickness into when I came down.  Mind you, this was the same year I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo in World Literature and Korematsu v. United States in Civics.  In literature I kept wondering, How can Dantes see himself as a hero while he makes these people miserable?  And even worse, why am I rooting for him?  As I read Korematsu, I shuddered when I realized that the presidential power of imperium has only revolution to check it.  As I learned the formula for the surface area of a sphere, I wondered when I'd ever have to tile the outside of a sphere or why anyone made such a reckless purchase to begin with.

So I did what everyone told me.  I learned enough math to get into a liberal arts college, majored in a humanity, and graduated with Elementary Statistics and Personal Finance as my only math courses.

In another classroom ten years later, I find myself a somewhat reluctant science teacher.  I was always pretty decent at chemistry, but I never touched physics since I'd heard it was math-heavy.  I took the class primarily so I could work with the same students I did last year.  It's a physical science class, which ends up being an introduction to chemistry and physics.  The material is more challenging than anything I faced in the eighth grade.  I also find that middle school curiosity goes far beyond what one can prepare (even if you know the material very, very well).

Yet I had an enlightening experience last month.  We were going over chemical reactions for the third time, specifically combustion reactions.  A hydrocarbon plus O2 gas yields CO2 and H2O (and heat).  A student asked an off-handed question about light.  "What elements is light made out of?  How do we account for it in a chemical equation?"  I was sorta surprised because this wasn't a question I expected.  I answered, "Light isn't a compound.  It's a form of energy."

"Huh?" James asked.

"It's a wave and/or a particle that is produced by exothermic reactions like combustion."

"Combustion?"

"Yeah, like setting things on fire or explosions."

The boy-heavy classroom erupted into excitement.

"So... what is fire?" asked Jack.

"It's... I guess technically what you're seeing and feeling are the compounds turning into super-hot gas and particles in the smoke.  And lots of energy in the form of heat."

James was taken aback.  "Whoa... that's what all those symbols on the board mean?"

In that moment, I saw something I had never witnessed in this context.  It clicked.  I was used to seeing clicking all the time in my history and government lectures.  I hadn't seen (or experienced) it in a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in years.  For at least half the class, two weeks of puzzling and confusion had given way to a breakthrough.  These weren't just runes tossed up on a board arbitrarily.  It was a meaningful statement of real process we observe all the time.  It was a really real explanation of a common phenomenon--all the way down to the molecular level--that proved that matter was neither created nor destroyed but changing form.

In a piece entitled "Understanding the Current Condition", Andrew Elizalde from the Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia, discusses the ineffective reforms pushed through curricula since the Sputnik launch.  Attempts are consistently made to "teacher-proof" curricula, especially in math and science where America is perceived to be falling behind international competitors (be they China today or the Soviets in 1957).   He notes that these attempts at reform have ironically made math education worse, not better.  Because publishers are trying to market their books as widely as possible, they cover much more material than necessary.  Really, it's more than any teacher really could cover in a year.  This means that math teachers must emphasize certain topics and minimize or ignore others.  This makes the transition between courses rough.  He writes that this minimizes or eliminates "experiences of investigation, adaptation, discovery, contemplation, collaboration, perseverance and creative problem-solving."  If a student doesn't get a concept, he will ask the teacher to do it on the board for him.  Math teachers may be rushed to cover everything demanded them in a given year--or worse, to achieve a certain pass-rate on a standardized test--without devoting time to the struggle students need to learn it.

He continues, "This fast-paced learning experience leaves little time for exploration, experimentation, discovery, and argumentation--the processes that were necessary for the development of mathematics across history and are still at the very core of what real mathematicians do."  So students need to be able to ask questions, make mistakes, try and try again.  They need to fight to understand a problem, learn a plan of attack, and really wrestle with a concept in order to have any hope of understanding any material--be it STEM or humanities.  A truncated pace that deprives students of the struggle is short-sighted; it gives them procedures but not real understanding.

Struggling is easier in the humanities because 1) it's harder to objectively manage and 2) it lends itself to discussion.  Students are encouraged to throw out lots of answers both individually and as a group until they find the explanation or solution that sticks.  They can wrestle with a text both individually and corporately, chew it over, try and fail and eventually succeed in synthesizing and solving a dilemma without easy resignation.  Teachers are less likely to feel a pressure to fast-forward through material because few are anxious about how our poetry compares with Japan's or China's.

I think there's also a necessary component of pragmatism preferred over theory.  Alexis de Tocuqeville said our American addiction is toward practice rather than theoretical science.  Notice, for example, that theoretical physics is not in the STEM acronym.  Giving students formulas might get them the right answer, but it doesn't inspire them.  It can't capture their attention or give them insight.  It tells them how to complete a process, but not why that process works or even necessarily what all the symbols on the page mean.  That comes only through the arduous process of struggle.

In spite of disparaging, contrary remarks I have made in the past, STEM subjects are not boring, rote chores or the refuges of uninspired pragmatists.  They only become that when they are procedures for profit or application rather than for the joy of the discovery.  The best way to learn something is to let it capture you, perhaps even to briefly obsess you.  Now not everything can or will catch you.  It isn't necessary for learning something; I never recall shoe-tying holding me under its thrall.  Nevertheless, leaders and innovators in any field should be (and almost always are) sorta quirky and weirdly obsessed about their subject.  I want my neurosurgeon to have a bedside manner and have memorized the surgical procedure; I want the neuroscientist who taught him to have brains in jars all over his creepy science lair.

I also don't mean to say that practical application of theoretical concepts is bad.  It is only a problem when the practical dominates the theoretical.  Science and math are best studied for their own sake; if you make money using them, fine.  Just don't try to inspire a generation of students with the promise of dollar signs.  Show them instead that there's something intrinsically fascinating about quantifying the amount of energy they burn running a 5k or how to isolate variables in an equation.

So maybe after all these years, it's time for me to reexamine sine, cosine, and tangent.  Maybe the problem-solving skills presented there really do correspond with reality.  Maybe Euclid does have an explanation as to why all rectangles are really triangles who finally decided to settle down.  It could even be that a 361st degree in a circle is tantamount to dividing by zero.  Guess it's time for me to find out.  It should be at least as interesting as Jack Burden's character progression in All the King's Men.  And if not to me, then maybe I'll at least see why someone else gets stoked over it.


*Name changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reflections on Mere Christianity



            Mere Christianity is the best-known apologetic work by Anglo-Irish author Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963).  It was based on a series of radio lectures Lewis did for the British Broadcasting Company during World War II.  Lewis was the ideal choice for the program on religion.  He had spent time as an atheist, he was a layman, and he was an academic.  Seeking to provide a broad defense of the Christian faith, Lewis consulted clergymen from several denominations in preparing his manuscript.[1]  Doing so allowed him to make as broad an appeal as possible.  He was trying to explain what beliefs united all Christians to a hostile or curious world.  He was searching for the basic tenets of the faith—mere Christianity.
            Lewis begins by exploring the moral law of the universe.  The existence of good and evil are proven by ubiquity; there really isn’t anyone in creation who denies right and wrong.  He calls this a natural law.  Natural law is different from the laws of nature in science; those laws are universally followed.  The moral law, however, is simply the law of how men ought to behave, not necessarily how they do behave.  In other words, moral law is the only thing in nature which can’t be established by naked observation.  It’s the only law which can be broken.  “The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave.”[2]
            I believe that this is the strongest basis upon which to start talking about God.  Human indignation about the actions of others makes no sense in any other framework.  We are reviled by evil.  We behold what we perceive to be injustice—especially injustice against ourselves—and we react with outrage.  There is no reason why we should act as if something so metaphysical as justice existed unless there really was something behind it.  “Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”[3]
            I was left with more nuanced thoughts in book two chapter 3, “The Shocking Alternative.”  Here Lewis gives the free will defense of evil.  If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can evil exist?  Lewis replies by saying that man has been given free will.  God created beings with the ability to accept or to reject evil.  By creating beings with the ability to choose freely, he also created the possibility of evil.  Love is not truly love, Lewis says, if it is forced.[4]  This defense is difficult to fit into traditional Reformed thinking.  After all, isn’t the real answer to the problem of evil God’s sovereign rule over the earth?  Isn’t evil a thing he uses, without being guilty of it, to bring about his plan?  A lost friend I have once said that the free will defense didn’t offer much solace to him.  He wasn’t sure that free will was worth the agony and abundance of suffering in the world.  Maybe it would be better if people didn’t have freedom or love at all.  For Lewis, God’s telling us free will is worth it means it must be.[5]  That isn’t true for my friend.
            I think the free will defense is adequate to explain the origins of evil.  I am not sure it explains the persistence of evil.  After all, sin had entered the world.  Evil existed.  God could have send Christ at the moment he sent Adam and Eve out of the garden and accomplished the salvation of humanity at that moment.  Unlike some Reformed thinkers, I am uncomfortable dwelling too frequently or deeply on God’s purposes in evil.  I would rather explain evil—especially to those in the midst of suffering—as something which had to exist because Adam had free will and because God intended to reveal himself as redeemer.  Because of the Fall, we know God as redeemer; this greater knowledge of God is somehow worth it.  Like Elihu in Job, man may never know why God allows evil to persist.  What we do know is that he made sin possible, can’t be held guilty of committing it, and will triumph over it.
            Book three chapter 5, “Sexual Morality”, makes an interesting point in relation to sexual ethics.  Lewis notes that many sexual liberationists believe that the sexual drive is a natural appetite just like hunger, thirst, or fatigue.  Lewis disagrees, claiming that the sexual appetite goes beyond its intended purpose.  He believes that this is good evidence for the continuing effects of the Fall.  He uses another humorous example: “Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”[6]  Why then, Lewis asks, do we not think something quite wrong with our sexuality?  And would not a foreign observer think something was wrong with our view of sexuality?
            Most people in Lewis’s day (and ours) thought that this was a reaction to sexual starvation in the country.  That hypothesis would be bolstered if people really were sexually repressed.  In reality, we see more sexuality than ever in culture, society, and individual lives.  Lewis is right that sexuality is not like our other appetites, just as the Bible distinguishes sexual sin as distinct from others.[7]  Something really is different about sex.  When taken out of its context, it perverts and distorts all things to its consumption.  Like greed it uses people to satisfy a desire.  Unlike greed, lust is internal rather than external and causes one to sin against his own body.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001), xi.
[2] Ibid., 20.
[3] Ibid., 39.
[4] Ibid., 48.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 96.
[7] 1 Cor. 6:18.