Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tolstoy's War and Peace: A short review

This is the second in a series of book reviews of books I read this past year. The first was my review of Will Durant's Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is the quintessential long book. When I was growing up and heard the book referred to as a "great book," I thought of its magnitude rather than its quality. Whenever I heard the book's title, what always came to mind was the 1971 movie "Cold Turkey," in which Rev. Clayton Brooks (played by Dick Van Dyke) leads a campaign in his town to give up smoking. Looking for something to divert his interest, he locks himself in his room for a week--to read War and Peace.

This is how we culturally illiterate Americans come to know great things--secondarily, and through some unremarkable artifact of popular culture. We'll never get it where we should get it--through our public schools, since they have largely given up on passing on the great things of the past.

But as I dug more deeply into Russian literature and the secondary literature about Russian writers, I realized that this is not the way people have always thought of it. This was a book that was considered great not just in the sense of being big.

War and Peace is a book that should be read by every literate Western person.

There are several things that strike me about Tolstoy after now having now read all his major works. The first is the sheer vitality of his stories. They are simply bursting with life. Seemingly without effort, he creates a world and peoples it with real people, people who, if they were any more real, would actually be real.

Only God creates characters more real than Tolstoy's.

Despite the vast canvas on which he paints, Tolstoy is able to draw you intimately into the life and thought of each character. Someone told me that when his wife had finished reading the book, she told him she would miss the characters. This was exactly my feeling.

Here I had just finished reading this thousand-page book and I just wanted it to go on. A part of my life ended when I had to leave Pierre and Natasha in the midst of theirs. I would have been only too happy to continue reading War and Peace for the rest of my life, if it only wouldn't end.

The second thing that strikes me about Tolstoy is his very explicit Christianity. It confirms once again something I have said before: An encounter with great Western literature is an encounter with Christianity. You wonder why our schools are engaged in the greatest cultural memory dump since the fall of Rome and rise of the Dark Ages? This may be one reason: The culture of the West is inextricably intertwined with religion—and one religion in particular.

Read Tolstoy. Read Dostoevsky. Read Flannery O'Connor--or, for that matter, Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare. In fact, even the authors who are not themselves Christian are reacting to Christianity and are incomprehensible if you don't understand it.

Teach Western culture and you teach Christianity. There is no way out of it.

The third striking thing about Tolstoy is his ability to create a real world. Sometimes I fall asleep while listening to a book on my mp3 player. But there are some books I can't do this with. I can't do it with a book that doesn't create a real world--one I would want to live in.

And the world I want to live in is this world.

I said this when I introduced Wendell Berry at a conference a couple of years ago: The authors who create a real world are the ones who don't create a different one from our own. They are authors who bring you, not into their own world, but into this one more deeply. Tolstoy is one of only a handful of authors who seem to be able to do this.

And of course one of the essential features of this world--the one Tolstoy recreates--is that it has a metaphysical and moral order: There is an moral "up" and an immoral "down." It is Homer's world; Vergil's world; and, in particular, Dante's world. It is everybody's world up until about the 18th century, when secularism hits high gear and begins to displace Christianity among the literary elite.

But this is the thing about Western secularism: It never can completely rid itself of its Christian origins. It would be like trying to create pure gold: It cannot exist unalloyed from religion--without, that is, turning to dust. It is--to vary the metaphor--like a branch cut off from a tree: it lives for a while and then withers and dies.

In all of Tolstoy's works there is space to morally breathe. And somehow he is able to do this (for the most part) without being preachy.

This is not the case with his his novel Resurrection, which I also read this year. This is Tolstoy's third and last major novel--after Anna Karenina and War and Peace--which he wrote after repudiating narrative fiction for several years while indulging his political and social enthusiasms. Tolstoy was a very heterodox Christian and had basically whittled his Christianity down to a sort of utopian freemasonry. He was perhaps the greatest purveyor of the social gospel in literature. It is certainly present in his other books, but doesn't seem to detrimentally affect them.

Here, it does.

Like all his works, he creates convincing characters and a believable world.  Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, a young Russian noble and former soldier is called to jury duty where a young woman is charged with murder. At first he doesn't recognize her. She is a prostitute accused of poisoning a man. But Nekhludov realizes, in the midst of the trial, that the girl was a servant girl in his house as a young man. He had seduced her and, as he finds out, had born his child, which had died. The pregnancy he had helped to bring about had caused her to be cast out of their house, and she was forced into a life of prostitution.

The woman before him as a juror in her trial, was there because of what he himself had done.

It is a compelling and heart-wrenching story. Nekhlyodov is overcome with remorse and devotes the rest of his life to the girl, who is convicted and sent to Siberia, where he follows her. Unfortunately, Tolstoy creates a character in Nekhlyodov who is so idealistic as to be a bit of a boor. As a character, he ends up shouldering much of the pretentiousness latent in the characters of other novels, where they are always more than balanced by a certain concreteness and earthly vibrancy.

The down-to-earth Kitty in Anna Karenina has been replaced by the abstract and idyllic Nekhlyudov.

Unfortunately, this is Tolstoy at his preachiest and most Platonic. But the thing is, Tolstoy at his worst is better than most everyone else at their best. The ending is dissatisfying because of its pretentious high-mindedness, but it's still an engaging and enjoyable read.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Books I Read This Year: Durant's Our Oriental Heritage

This is the first of a series of reviews of books I completed in 2014 (along with a few I never reviewed from 2013).

The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, by Will Durant. I imagine the professional historians would turn up their noses at a popular work like this, partly because it was written for an intelligent public which they have long ago forsaken, and partly because it is a bit dated, and history, which aspires like every other humanities discipline to be a science, can abide only the newest scholarship. It is a professional irony that historians value everyone else's past but their own. Let them dig up and re-bury their scholarly bones for obscure academic journals: As for me, I'll continue to read Durant for the great overview of history he gives and for the beautiful prose in which he presents it.

Durant was a generalist, writing in the more classical mode of Gibbon and Macauley—scholars of more than history—Durant does not get lost in the arcanae of chronology. He is always looking for (and finding) the significance of events—for their own time and ours. The only contemporary historian I know who writes history this big is Tom Holland.

Our Oriental Heritage is the first in the eleven-volume series Durant began in 1935 and finished (with the help of his wife Ariel) in 1975. A great overview of the history and culture of the East—a civilization we often ignore.

Durant, who received his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, apparently wrote these volumes in intentional defiance of professional historians who long ago gave up on the general reading public. Of course, the general reading public in the mid-20th century was far more sophisticated than it is now, but we have not changed so much that we cannot appreciate the lucidity of his prose.

Filled with colorful anecdotes and compelling insights, this book does much more than give us a chronology of events. Instead, it takes us on a tour of the literature, art, music, and politics of China, India, and Japan, helping us to understand the cultures as a whole.

The only shortcoming in Durant is his tendency to downplay the Christianity of the Christian West. As an admitted secularist, Durant views religion as quaint, mostly irrelevant—but the more Eastern is such spirituality, the more relevant he sees it. In this volume, Christianity is always portrayed as inferior to Eastern thought and religion. This is due, in part no doubt, to the fashionability of things Eastern at the time it was written. It is also a tendency you will find throughout his works.

Durant was like many thinkers even now who cling to the cultural wreckage of the old Christendom more tightly the more they repudiate the whole of which they were once a part. The two largest pieces of Christendom's remnants are materialist rationalism on the one hand and spiritualist mysticism on the other. Durant is a rationalist, but one who (like many), while rejecting the more integrated rationality of Western religion, is attracted to the arational mysticism of the East. There are books that could be written on why it is that materialists tend to become, in the end, so attracted to the misty religion of the East.

I'm thinking of Robert Blatchford and Arthur Conan Doyle here--not to mention the more contemporary Sam Harris.

But the occasional encounter with a bad judgment is a small price to pay for the sheer pleasure of reading Durant's great historic and cultural achievement.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Educational Oblivion and How to Avoid It

About a year ago, Universal Pictures released the movie "Oblivion," starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. I saw it on television last night.

It was about a man and a woman (Cruise and Andrea Riseborough) on a space station orbiting a post-apocalyptic earth who are charged with the maintenance of drones which protect a number of orbiting installations which are mining precious resources from the earth, primarily water, for the human encampment now situated on one of Jupiter's moons.

The Moon has been blown up, desolating the Earth, which is now almost unlivable. Cruise plays "Jack," who, along with Victoria, his companion, tries to keep the defensive drones operational in the face of constant attacks from roving bands of alien invaders called "scavs" (short for "scavengers").

Jack and Victoria have both had a memory wipe as a security precaution.

But one day Jack is captured by the scavs. He is knocked out in the struggle and wakes up tied to a chair under an intense light on what appears to be a stage. A voice comes from the darkness:
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.
We hear a match lit, and we see the face of a man, the light of the match reflected off of his goggles. "We've been watching you, Jack," he says.

Far from being aliens, the scavs are really human beings. Led by Beech (played by Freeman), they have been watching Jack and have decided not to kill him because they think there is something different about him. They tell him the real story of what has happened to the earth and allow him to leave their encampment, to find out for himself, risking the safety of their encampment in doing so.

As the story progresses we, along with Jack, find out that he is just one of many Jack's patrolling various parts of the earth, all seemingly identical clones unaware of the others. More importantly, he finds out he is fighting for the wrong side.

Earth was taken over by aliens who are bleeding the earth dry of its resources. There is no human encampment elsewhere in the solar system. The only humans left are the scavs, who are huddled in caves in the earth, protecting what is left of humanity.

But Beech senses that there is something about this Jack that is different from his copies.

In one of his missions, Jack has discovered an old library. As the scavs watch him from the darkness, they see him salvage several books (in apparent violation of policy). One of them is Horatius at the Bridge, by Lord Macaulay. In one scene we see Jack on the space station, huddled in a corner, secretly reading it and trying to commit it to his formerly empty memory.
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late"
There are other classic books he has found too. And in reading them, he is transformed from a memoryless copy of himself, unquestioningly following the orders of what he now knows to be the very creatures who have destroyed his civilization, to a fully human being. A human being who has, by having recovered his cultural memory, been humanized.

A man who was the servant of machines has become a master of his own soul. In the end, the now fully humanized Jack sacrifices himself in defense of the scavs, uttering Macauley's lines as he does so: "And how can man die better ..."

We are now in the process of producing a whole race of Jacks. We no longer pass on our history and culture to our children. If you doubt the truth of this charge, go look at the recent federal social studies standards which include no historical content whatsoever.

We have been taken over by cultural aliens.

We are well on our way to accomplishing a massive memory wipe. We are quickly accomplishing what the writer George Steiner has called "planned amnesia." We are producing memoryless copies of ourselves.

Lost in the mindless devotion to so-called "critical thinking skills" and "college and career readiness"--not to mention our servitude to machines--are the ancient stories and venerable truths that schools once taught as a matter of course--ideas and and values that made us human, not just just cogs in an economic machine.

Classical education differs from the kind of education that has slowly taken over most of our schools. Its purpose is not to teach job skills or to reform society, although without aiming at these goals it achieves them better than these other methods do.

Classical education is about passing on our culture. If we don't do it, we risk a world as culturally desolate as the physical world Jack sacrifices himself to save.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is the Pope a Sissy? A response to Doug Wilson

I'm not entirely convinced that a chest hair-counting contest is the best use of one's masculinity, but I could be wrong.

In a recent blog post, titled "Gay as a Pope tweet," Douglas Wilson laments the decline of masculinity and uses Pope Francis as his paradigm case for male effeminacy.

Now I don't disagree with Wilson on the issue of the decline of masculinity; in fact, I've made the same point quite a number of times. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that I notice the word "sissy" is now commonly spelled in articles with asterisks, as if it were an obscene word: "s***y." Meanwhile, of course, words that really are obscene are used freely and without self-censorship.

I would go so far as to say that men who find it necessary to spell the word "sissy" with asterisks are, well, sissies.

I just remarked to my wife the other day, after having watched John Wayne's performance in True Grit (which I do as an act of masculine hygiene at least once every couple of years), that the kind of character John Wayne portrayed is virtually absent in modern movies in which male roles are made up largely of overgrown adolescent weenies.

Yes, I said "weenies." Without asterisks. And if you're a male who doesn't like it, then you're a sissy.

I officially attribute the modern problem with male effeminacy to the absurd gender ideology that has become so fashionable over the last ten years. The idea of this school of thought is to get beyond gender altogether. Of course there's really no way to do this.

Gender isn't something you can either invent or change. It's a given. It is something settled by nature and you can do little about it.

To think that you can somehow invent new gender categories is like thinking you can invent new primary colors. Problem is, there's blue, yellow, and red. Period. End of story. If you want to come up with another one, good luck. And if you suffer from the delusion that you are actually capable of doing this, then you need to be committed to whatever the colorific equivalent is of a mental hospital.

Similarly, when it comes to gender, there is male and female. And some of us like that just fine (a great benefit in a world in which you can do little about it anyway).

I know there are people who really think that just because Facebook now has 52 "gender identities" that there must really be, in fact, 52 gender identities. But all of these "gender identities" are ideological fictions manufactured by stitching together the pieces of masculinity and femininity they got by cutting up the originals.

There's a whole story to be written about how people ever got the idea that you could really do this in which postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida would play the major roles, what with their rejection of "binaries" and all that.

Of course as soon as you reject binaries, you create a new binary; namely, the binary of a world with binaries and a world without them. There are two kinds of people, Richard John Neuhaus once said: people say there are two kinds of people and people who don't say that.

The people who think you can transcend gender or invent new genders can only play off the two poles of male and female. They never get beyond that. They never really invent anything different that is not some knock off of the originals. There's no way to reboot nature. You've got to live with what it gives you.

So, then, I agree with Wilson on the problem. But his choice of examplars leaves something to be desired.

Pope Francis? A sissy? Really?

I have this underlying urge, being a Catholic (and a male), to throw down the gauntlet and demand satisfaction, but that would imply I wear gloves. And you know how that would go down with certain people.

To prove his point, Wilson cites several papal tweets which he thinks exemplify effeminacy. Here are the examples he uses:
“Advent begins a new journey. May Mary, our Mother, be our guide.”
“Advent increases our hope, a hope which does not disappoint. The Lord never lets us down.”
“There is so much noise in the world! May we learn to be silent in our hearts and before God.”
Now I doubt if they chest bump in the Vatican after every tweet, but I'm trying to figure out what is effeminate about these expressions. Is there something less than masculine about the grammatical subjunctive? Is there something hairless about hope? Wilson does not elaborate. Instead, he pines for "days of the badass popes."

Maybe he could do a tweet: "There is a crisis of effeminate popes. May they be replaced with more masculine ones."

While I don't get a testosterone rush every time I read a Vatican tweet, maybe there is just something that gets lost for certain people when these expressions are translated from the more manly Latin in which, as I understand it, such things are written at the Vatican. And then, of course, there is the matter of the whole Twitter form of media, which doesn't exactly lend itself to any kind of meaningful expression in the first place.

Maybe if there was a way to adequately transcribe grunts and belches and other common masculine bodily sounds into the 140 character format of a tweet, there would be some hope of whipping the Twitter world into more masculine shape.

But, more to the point, I find it rather ironic that Francis--a man who forswore a car to take the bus to work when he was an Argentine bishop, who has taken on the lethargic bureaucracy of the Vatican, and who has been willing to pick fights where he thought it necessary to get the Church into a more evangelical shape--could be plausibly portrayed as effeminate. But it is probably easy to see it that way from the comfortable confines of a safe little Idaho town.

I'm trying to imagine the results of applying the criteria Wilson wants to apply to Pope Francis to--oh, I don't know--Jesus. Someone who goes around saying things like "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" would make an easy target for ancient Hebrew bloggers on the lookout for the weakly constituted.

I like Doug Wilson. He's one of our few great evangelical wits. Wait, let me check ... He may be the only one.

But he's wrong about the Pope.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Trickle Down Immorality: Why the rich marry and stay that way and the poor don't

Sociologist Charles Murray's analysis continues to be confirmed: The permissivist social morals of the rich don't detrimentally affect the rich, who continue generally just to talk about them but continue to do things like get and staying married; it is the poor who act on the rich's permissivist morality and they are the ones who suffer from following through on them and do things like produce children out of wedlock and get divorced. And this is what helps make and keep the rich rich and the poor poor.

This is a bit of an oversimplification. Murray refers not to the rich, but the "cognitive elite," who lead lives, if not of economic bounty, at least economic comfort. "Belmont," Mitt Romney's hometown is his synecdoche for it. Then there is the "lower class," which he leaves undefined, but refers generally to those who struggle economically. His symbolic stand-in for this group is "Fishtown," a largely White working class neighborhood in Philadelphia.

You can read about it in Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Not surprisingly, this analysis is not a popular with the political left, which wants to pose as being concerned about social polarization and its effects on children while spouting ideas that do exactly the opposite.

Here is Belinda Luscombe in Time magazine, limply trying to soften the hard edges of Murray's analysis, but having to give up in the end:
The gap in the family life of the rich and poor yawns wider that it ever has, and the individuals most hurt by this are, you guessed, it, the children of the poor. The working class have experimented with a new type of family formation that’s not based around the equation of one partner who runs the home front plus one partner who brings in the income both of whom throw in their lot together for the long haul. These new formulations tend not to be as stable, and instability is sub-optimal for kids.
This is what the ideas of those who want to redefine the family really do. Read more here.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Britain All Shook Up: Cultural illiteracy of Biblical proportions

If you see a manger scene and the baby Jesus has antennae, you'll know what happened:
Christianity is being banished from school nativity plays as the annual performance of the Christmas story is replaced with bland “winter celebrations”, research among parents suggests. 
Even in schools which retain religious themes, most now opt for a modernised version of the nativity story, often featuring elaborate twists and children dressed as unlikely additions such as punk fairies, aliens, Elvis, lobsters, spacemen and even recycling bins ...
Read more in the Daily Telegraph here.

Friday, December 05, 2014

The "Gender" Follies

As gender ideology invents more and more sexuality fictions, we are all supposed to nod our heads and uncritically accept the newest "sexual identity." Here's Crisis Magazine, bringing some sense to the nonsense:
The sexual buccaneers inform us that “gender” is assigned at birth, usually by the doctor who delivers the baby, and that the doctor often gets it wrong. Gender is something chosen by the person and the choosing can be amazingly fluid, constantly changing, changing even between lunch and late afternoon tea time. 
... Gender Reality holds that human beings are ‘always or for the most part’ women or men, female or male. Gender Ideology holds that human beings fall along a continuum of 3, 5, or even 15 different loose groups of genders. Gender Reality is rooted philosophically in a descriptive metaphysics (Aristotelian and Thomistic grounded) and Gender Ideology is philosophically rooted in a revisionary metaphysics (Neo Platonist or Cartesian founded). Finally, Gender Reality depends upon a hylomorphic (soul/body composite unity) understanding of a human person, woman or man; Gender Ideology leads to a deconstructionist approach to the human person as a loose collection of qualities, attributes, or parts.
Read more here.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Catch me on the "Mike Allen Show" today at 5:00

I will be the guest on the "Mike Allen Show" on Real Life Radio 1380-AM in Lexington at 5:00 p.m. today. We will be discussing my debate with Federal Justice John Heyburn on same-sex marriage, Rabbi Sack's speech on marriage in Rome, and why schools require so much paperwork from teachers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The public school train that lays its own track

The boiler-plate public school establishment explanation of why public schools don't do a better job of educating students (this is when they are not denying that they are doing a bad job of it) is that they don't have enough money.

Tom Shelton, former Superintendent of Fayette County Schools, is now the director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. He left the district as it was under a cloud of financial irregularities. He presses the default button once again, saying, "We must advocate at the state level for better funding of our classrooms throughout Kentucky."

Right. I thought of this this morning when I read that the L.A. Unified school district is adopting an online history program from Stanford University. The district is adopting the program, which has an actual curriculum with lesson plans, because most of its students are historically illiterate.

Now I have several thoughts here, the first of which is to wonder why a school district with teachers who are certified as educational professionals can't competently teach history without having to pay a university for outside help.

And the answer, I think, is that education classes that teachers have to take to be certified are generally worthless and should be almost completely eliminated in favor of classes that teach the content and unique principles of whatever discipline the teacher is going to be teaching.

The second thought is something that has occurred to me several times over the last several months as I talk to teachers about Common Core, which is to wonder why teachers don't already have a curriculum they can use to teach history and lesson plans (or at least lesson plans that work). Schools spend billions of dollars every year not only employing curriculum specialists (in some cases whole curriculum departments) and buying expensive, flashy curricula from curriculum companies which you would expect would guide teachers to teach what they need to teach.

Things like history.

What is so bad about the regular educational options available to the L.A. district that they would have to bail out and go straight to a university for help?

If you listen to teachers in the public schools, what they tell you is, first, that in many subjects they don't have a curriculum. There is simply no coherent scope and sequence in many subjects which they are expected to teach. In fact the expression "scope and sequence" is apparently baneful to the certified teacher's ear.

In addition, even when they have a book that covers the subject, they have to write their own lesson plans. Talk to your friendly neighborhood teacher and ask her what she spends most of her time doing outside of actually directing a classroom and she will tell you that she spends most of her time doing lesson plans.

Now I have noticed this before, but Common Core has apparently worsened it because, after all, it is Common Core and it is new so we have to look like we're doing things differently and if we're doing things differently that means we need new lesson plans. But this seemed to be the case even before Common Core came down the road.

Why do teachers in 2014 need to spend so much time doing lesson planning? Why does every teacher have to re-invent the wheel every year in a subject they presumably have taught before--in some cases many times before? What the heck are all those people in the curriculum department doing anyway if they are not finding these teachers a curriculum with lesson plans or writing them themselves so teacher don't have to do them?

Just imagine if our rail system in this country was composed of trains which (like the train at one 19th century world's fair) laid their own tracks. Not only would very few things ever get where they were supposed to go, but the landscape would be one big mess.

I run an association of classical schools. We offer educational resources, teacher training, and accreditation services. If I went on an accreditation visit and a school had its teachers writing their own lesson plans, not only would the first question I asked be why in the world it doesn't have a curriculum with pre-done lesson plans, but I would recommend against accrediting it.

There is no reason, after educating children for over two millennia, that any school should still be playing a constant guessing game about what it teaches to students every year or for any teacher to have be constantly writing new lesson plans.

This just goes to show that not only do children not benefit from history because they don't know it, but that our education system itself has so disconnected itself from the hundreds of years of teaching and learning that have gone before that it has to constantly reinvent itself.

We teach history so that we can learn from the past. But in order to teach history at all we have to have learned from our educational past—something schools clearly have not done.

Until they do, none of them should be asking for more money.