State of the Union

What Is Conservatism?

cover (extra light)

Though often mistaken for a partisan ideology, true conservatism represents a much richer intellectual tradition.

We’ve just published a new Kindle ebook, The Essence of ConservatismIt contains a series of classic essays written by thinkers like Andrew J. Bacevich, Roger Scruton, and Daniel McCarthy. The collection addresses the legacies of Irving Babbitt, Wilhelm Roepke, and Evelyn Waugh, examines forces of rising inequality and militarism, and points to local stewardship and “high church” conservatism.

These works help clarify and retrieve conservatism’s deepest insights, demonstrating their essential relevance to the present moment. Buy the Kindle e-book on Amazon for just $2.99!

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McArdle’s Guide to Failing Well

In The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle, a columnist with Bloomberg View, makes a compelling case that America has failed to find a way to cope with setbacks and upheavals. McArdle draws on business case studies, academic research, and, for perspective, anecdotes from her own life to identify the individual and institutional barriers to bouncing back.

She looks at high school students terrified of taking challenging classes, for fear that a B will scupper their chances at college, the inertia and fear that lead GM to delay their inevitable restructuring, and her own tumultuous attempts to restart a relationship with an old flame rather than admit defeat. In each of these cases, a bad relationship with failure has enormous costs, even before the failure has occurred. If failure is always catastrophic, we’ll try to protect ourselves by taking minimal risk and innovating as little as possible.

But, in Hawaii, she finds a failure success story in the Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program. HOPE is a parole program that deals out small punishments reliably for every violation of parole. Most parole systems let minor infractions slide—due to negligence or overwork—until there’s a truly egregious problem, and the parolee is sent back to jail, sometimes for years.

The HOPE program gave former prisoners consequences to learn from, but made sure that a parolee could still recover from the initial penalties meted out. The reliability of the system helped parolees confidently anticipate the consequences of their choices. Prisoners randomly assigned to the HOPE program were three times less likely to have their probation revoked as those in the regular program. Jail time and drug use plunged as well; and, although increased oversight was more expensive, the state made the money back by not having to pay the costs of incarcerating these parolees.

But these reforms haven’t caught on in other states. McArdle hypothesizes that these parole reforms remain counterintuitive because of two cognitive biases: an overactive Agent Detection system and the the Just World hypothesis. Agent Detection refers to humans capacity to recognize other agents—creatures that are capable of having goals and pursuing them. It helps us distinguish the results of blind chance or impassive processes like the weather from actions that are the results of other humans’ choices. Pair that with the Just World theory, where most things happen according to some kind of fair plan, and it’s easy to see every instance of failure as the exposure of a secret fault in a rational actor, rather than the result of chance. Read More…

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What Austen Taught Me

Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873

Many view Jane Austen as a decidedly “feminine” writer. And it’s true: every woman must read Jane Austen. But there’s a lot to be found in Austen’s work, apart from romance, interesting characters, and good plot development. Austen explored the depths of human nature, its foibles and fancies, and wrote novels that promoted virtue to great effect.

This is what Br. Aquinas Beale argues for in his blog series, “Austen the Aristotelian.” His posts are remarkably insightful and interesting. He goes through Austen’s primary works, and reveals their parallels with Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. Not only are Austen’s works fun to read—Beale shows that they are philosophically profound.

Beale offers a deep look into the virtuosity inherent in Austen’s plot lines. But I want to return to that earlier statement—“every woman must read Jane Austen”—and demonstrate why it has nothing to do with the novels’ romantic storylines (though they are good, too). I would reinforce the fact that Austen’s works contain lessons and delights for any reader, regardless of gender. But a woman who reads Austen will find truths sadly lacking in most other modern novels created for women. When it comes to the “romance” novel, Austen stands apart.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is through her heroines. Their virtues are decidedly counter to the “cultural norm” we would expect from a 19th century woman novelist. There is freedom, independence, strength, and valor within these women. They displayed a courage and virtue that, while enveloped in the docile scenery of English countryside, are decidedly robust in caliber.

Jane Austen wrote three novels that perhaps best exemplify the virtues of bravery and resilience better than most others: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Mansfield Park is a close runner-up to these three (I highly recommend Beale’s insights into Fanny Price and Mansfield Park).

These novels’ protagonists face a series of disappointments and griefs. Lizzy Bennett weathers family trauma and disruption, doggedly protects her older sister, faces down her coldest enemies, and overcomes the fear she’s lost the man she loves. Elinor Dashwood has to uproot herself in the wake of her father’s death, takes charge of her family’s future with prudence, walks her sister through heartbreak, all the while struggling with inner turmoil and disappointed hopes. Anne Elliott braves the callousness of her father and older sister, bears the judgment of becoming an “old maid,” and watches her former love flirt with other women—and she never stops serving and loving the people around her.

Lizzy, Elinor, and Anne are good, strong characters—while being single. There is never any indication on Austen’s part that they are lesser women without a man. It’s true that they have romantic interests, and indeed wish to be married at some point. But their love isn’t tempestuous, nor is it willful or selfish. Austen’s romance, while still emotional, is very rational. Her characters pick good men—men with character, humor, and gentility. These girls aren’t swept away in momentary crushes. In the same way, they don’t let unrequited or rejected love derail them: Elinor is perhaps the best example of this. She holds strong in the midst of inner disappointment. Anne “fades” for a while, but as Beale points out, she learns to seek happiness and hope in the future. She doesn’t lose herself in the past.

There are a few novels by Austen that teach virtue through sillier, more frivolous protagonists. These characters learn and develop their virtues, not through periods of intense circumstantial difficulty, but rather through their own shortcomings and shame. The lessons they offer us, however, are just as important—if not more so.

Marianne Dashwood is an excellent foil to her sister Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. In a sense, she’s the Bella Swan (from Twilight) of the Austen novel: an emotional girl, deeply sentimental, and completely obsessed with Willoughby, her dark and romantic suitor. When Willoughby turns out not to be the knight-in-shining-armor she was hoping for, she sinks into the depths of despair. She becomes fixated on her own pains and broken heart. It’s only through a long and painful process that she finally moves on. Note this: Willoughby doesn’t come back, and explain the whole thing, and redeem himself. He actually tries—but there is imprudence and vice in him that cannot be ignored. Marianne has to give him up, and seek new hope for the future. This is often counter to the way we write romances. But it’s truer to reality.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland is a sweet and innocent girl—but also quite immature. Northanger Abbey is a story of Catherine’s journey into maturity, and reality. Catherine embraces shame and repentance in the wake of her actions.This is perhaps one of my favorite Austen novels, because of its dry irony and humor. Austen deliberately makes fun of the gothic novel, and the romance-besotted girl. She shows the lack of reality portrayed in those sorts of stories. This is a cunning, clear-sighted commentary on the way sentiment and drama twist our perception of truth. It’s a worthy critique for all of us.

My favorite of these “silly” protagonists is Emma—though I always used to dismiss her as the most spoiled rotten, selfish, annoying heroine of the bunch. But the more I “get to know” Emma, the more I see her complexity of character. Emma is definitely spoiled, a youngest child who has trouble growing up. But she’s also full of good intentions and a desire to show charity. She’s independent, willful, and never wants to marry—she just wants to orchestrate the lives and marriages of everyone around her. Her dearest friend, Mr. Knightley, is a kind and wise man, who is always telling Emma to mind her own business—and yet also reminding her to be charitable. What a hard balance that is. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons this novel teaches us, is that our good intentions are so often vested in the wrong places. Imagine: what if all the energy Emma invested in matchmaking had instead gone into extending grace and charity to people like Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax? This is the lesson Austen teaches us: a truly charitable heart knows when to intervene, when to “meddle,” so to speak—and when to let people go.

In all these works, Austen built a portrait of womanhood that is both graceful and strong. She spends considerable time developing these protagonists’ characters apart from romantic ties—thus demonstrating that a woman alone, rejected, or burdened with “unrequited love” should not be idle or pining. Rather, a woman alone is powerful and equipped to make a difference in her world. Her novels end with marriage, but Austen does not paint marriage as the only happiness available to women—even though she lived at a time when marriage was seen as the most respectable path for women.

I wonder whether Austen was trying to sow seeds of her own confident singleness within her romances. One of the greatest mysteries of Austen’s work is that she wrote happily-ever-after-romances, while remaining single herself. She recognized the beauty and power of these happy endings, but wasn’t afraid to add shades and shadows of “What if?” along the way. What if Captain Wentworth hadn’t pursued Anne, after all? What if Mr. Darcy hadn’t felt he could marry Lizzy after her family was tainted by disgrace? What if Edward Ferrars had married Lucy instead of Elinore?

I believe the heroines would have continued living gracefully and valorously. They would have sought out meaning and purpose in their friendships and their families. Unlike the weak, sentimental heroines often portrayed in modern literature, Austen’s heroines had spirit and kindness. She has taught me the beauties of friendship, courage, and constancy. But most of all, she has taught me how to seek happiness—and how to suffer—with virtue.

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Bard College Declares War on Admissions Rigmarole

I once tutored a student who could write an A+ essay, and then get a D on her multiple-choice tests. In working with that student, I learned that these two different exercises required entirely different skills. I learned that not all students test well—an unfortunate trait in this age of testing frenzy. The SAT and ACT rule supreme over the futures of prospective college students across the U.S. Want to attend an Ivy League? The tests will determine your fate.

Thanks to a new experiment being conducted this year, liberal arts school Bard College is breaking this mold. While students can still submit a standard application, with the traditional list of SAT scores, GPA, extracurriculars, etc., the New York Times reports that students can also opt for a different (and in many ways, more difficult) project:

… Bard for the first time invited prospective freshmen to dispense with all the preamble, and just write four long essays chosen from a menu of 21 scholarly topics. Very scholarly topics, like Immanuel Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant, absurdist Russian literature and prion disorders. The questions, along with the relevant source materials, were all available on the Bard website. As for the four essays, totaling 10,000 words, they were read and graded by Bard professors. An overall score of B+ or better, and the student got in.

So you can send in your reading lists, club activity, academic references, and transcripts. Or you can write 2,500 words on the topic, “What is the Relationship Between Truth and Beauty?” Which exercise, do you think, is more beneficial to the student? Which measures their creativity—and which demonstrates their ability to jump through hoops?

Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, said the experiment is an act of “declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.” The typical admissions process picks students based on their best set of quantifiable skills. But this essay method requires and reveals students’ resilience, creativity, and erudition.

Not surprisingly, it’s a rigorous exercise, and many students did not complete the process. The Times reports that only 50 people ended up submitting essays—applicants aged 14 through 23, hailing from seven countries and 17 states. Nine submissions were not complete. All three homeschooled applicants were accepted.

However, as awareness of the program grows, it seems likely they’ll receive more applicants—from students who delight in thinking and writing, or perhaps from students who struggled with tests and classes, and want a second chance. Of course, this process defies the quantifiable designations of a normal application process, and one must applaud Bard for defying the automatous ease of the modern era. This application process, if it grows, will mean more work for all parties.

But it also offers greater goods to those involved: it stretches the application process from a mere filling out of forms, into a learning process itself. As one student essayist told the Times, “I thought about other colleges, but when I started working on the essays, I became sort of obsessed.” Bard’s experiment takes learning out of the classroom, and challenges students at the very outset of their academic career.

While the traditional college application process isn’t wrong, it does leave important knowledge—and important people—out in the cold. Perhaps this experiment will encourage other institutions to look with greater depth at students’ ideas, not just their GPA.


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The Flash Boys vs. the Market Machines

Imagine if, every time you tried to place an order on the stock market, someone snooped on your transaction, and bought up the share before you could. Then, when you noticed that the stock was sold out at its original price, that sneaky trader turned up, all smiles, to sell you the shares he happened to have on hand, at a price just pennies above what you would have originally paid.

In his new book, Flash Boys, Michael Lewis builds a case that high frequency traders have been pulling a slightly more complicated version of this trick with no consequences. He’s hawking a solution, too, IEX, a new stock exchange designed by his protagonists and opened in late October of 2013. Lewis’s book introduces the lay reader to a complex topic with all his usual flair and clarity, but the book leaves the reader in suspense; the publication date means the fate of IEX and HFTs aren’t resolved by the end of the book.

By skimming tiny margins off of trades, Lewis argues, high frequency traders (HFTs) have reaped profits in the billions of dollars without providing a real service to investors. What is more, he claims, HFTs have shaped the infrastructure of our markets, so that stock exchanges are now designed to serve the interests of HFTs rather than other traders.

The NASDAQ and other trading floors have abandoned, well, their trading floors in favor of warehouses that look more like a Google server farm, full of HFT machines plugged into the exchanges from just feet away, to minimize waiting times and get the jump on ordinary consumers. IEX tries to restore the old balance, by introducing deliberate delays and simplifying the kinds of orders that can be placed, thus eliminating many of the advantages that HFTs enjoy at other exchanges.

But, as Lewis goes on a media tour that feels as much like an infomercial for IEX as for his book, some critics are raising questions. Felix Salmon thinks Lewis overstates the relevance of HFT to ordinary investors while Mark Levine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, thinks that, in a different Michael Lewis book, these high frequency traders, and the coders who support them would be perfect Lewisian heroes.

In my alternative Michael Lewis story, the smart young whippersnappers build high-frequency trading firms that undercut big banks’ gut-instinct-driven market making with tighter spreads and cheaper trading costs.

The numbers-driven, confusing-the-old-guard HFT teams do bear a certain resemblance to Billy Beane’s team of sabermetricians, who upended baseball in Moneyball. By building models and trusting statistics, the Oakland A’s stole a march on the other major league baseball teams. However, once the A’s tricks caught on, they lost their advantage. They had found a market inefficiency, but others applying their data-driven approach patched it, and left them once again out in the cold.

Lewis thinks that HFT are creating inefficiencies, not fixing them; they’ve been able to hang onto their advantage because no one else in the market understands how they’re being bilked. Lewis finds no shortage of bankers and traders at reputable firms who have been wrong-footed to the tune of hundreds of millions, and, this time, his sympathies are with the old guard. Read More…

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Meeting Past Selves by Reading Where You’re From

nature notebook

After perusing some old bookshelves and boxes, I discovered an old nature diary. These excerpts were written by my 11-year old self:

On Monday, July 23, my family and I went huckleberry picking in the forest. As we were looking for a good place to start picking, Mom cried, “Look at the baby deer!” Dad stopped the car, and we saw a doe dash behind a bush. The baby deer stayed for about five minutes, and then disappeared.

After picking at least a gallon of huckleberrys  [sic], we went back to where we had had a picnic, and washed our hands in the creek. Then we looked for rocks, and I found a piece of petrified wood.

On the way home, Katie looked for more deer, and soon called out, “A buck! A buck!” Dad turned around the car, and we saw the buck run away! After continuing our drive Katie called, “A doe! A doe!” I barely saw her, and I didn’t have enough room to draw her, and so I didn’t include her.

 

This bed is all a-bloom. I investigated it thouroughly [sic] and not a flower does not have intricate purples, blues, whites, pinks, and vivid strawberry. This bed also, is filled with frilly purple, triumphant yellow, soft strawberry pink, luscious green, and a few hints of snowy white.

I must say spring has come swiftly and sufficiently. When I enter the house, it looks so dark and gloomy compared to the fresh, yellow-white sunlight that streams through branches outside.

It is terrible writing. But it’s also interesting. I see a little girl who loved the outdoors, and loved beauty—and she was trying, desperately, to capture these moments before they faded away. I didn’t want to forget the first time I saw a piece of petrified wood or baby deer. I wanted to capture the beauty of a garden rose. The words are an interesting juxtaposition of almost terse journalistic chronicling, and an exaggerated romantic style.

I didn’t know it then, but I was writing to an audience of selves. Years pass, and a new self visits the journal—someone with greater experience, skepticism, knowledge. This new person reads with fresh eyes and perhaps amusement—but aloof as they may seem, they still feel kinship with the writer of the past.

This is the horror and wonder of writing: we know we will return to ourselves, five or 10 years down the road, and see a face we’ve forgotten. We will look closely at a soul whose face we know, but whose expression and turn of phrase is now old-fashioned (and sometimes cringe-worthy) to our eyes.

There are two ways to “read where you’re from,” and I think both are valuable exercises. The first is to revisit old diary entries, scribbles, photographs, and personal collections, such as the above. Not everyone is a writer, but almost every child collects memories from their childhood in one form or another. Revisiting such materials gives us a window into who we were, and the ways we’ve grown—or stayed the same. Revisiting old notebooks and diaries from childhood requires a sense of humor, perspective, and candor—to see oneself clearly, then and now. Read More…

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After I’m Gone: A Commentary on Crisis

“A therapist I know—” Rachel was careful not to say my therapist; only Joshua knew she was seeing someone— “says there’s a theory that traumas leave us arrested at the age of the trauma.”

“Michelle doesn’t even remember Daddy. And that would make you forever fourteen, me sixteen. With all due respect, your therapist friend is kind of a quack.”

What do moments of catastrophe or tragedy inflict on the human psyche? Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I’m Gone, suggests a mind emotionally and cognitively “stuck” at a historical moment of pain.

Her novel tells the story of five women left bereft and embittered by a man’s disappearance, and the story of one man struggling after the death of his wife. Felix Brewer, a charming and cavalier fellow, marries Bernadette “Bambi” Gottschalk after meeting her at a Valentine’s Day dance in 1959. Bambi cares for their three little girls while Felix runs his rather lucrative, illegal business. Facing an impending prison sentence in 1976, Felix disappears—leaving his wife mysteriously impoverished and emotionally shocked.

Bambi has no idea where her husband is, or where his money has gone. She suspects her husband’s mistress, Julie, may know where the funds are—but Julie insists that she has no idea of Felix’s (or his money’s) whereabouts. Ten years later, Julie disappears without a trace. People surmise (and Bambi fears) that she has joined Felix—but in 1986, people discover her remains in a park. What happened to Julie? Was her fate tied to Felix’s disappearance?

Fast forward to 2012: Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective working on cold cases, begins investigating Julie’s murder. He realizes the case is inextricably linked to all five of the women Felix left behind: his wife, his mistress, and his three daughters: Linda, Rachel, and Michelle.

Sandy has his own life trauma: specifically, the loss of his wife Mary some time before. Their romance, marriage, and emotional struggles provide an additional narrative thread throughout the mystery.

Though each of Felix’s daughters have their own story, each is tied both to the fate of their father and their own psychological “age”: Michelle, the baby of the family, acts like one—and is always eager for the attention and approval of males. Rachel, the middle child, finds herself battling grief at every turn. Linda, the oldest, manages to perhaps get the best “grip” on life. But interestingly, she chooses a husband who is perhaps the most manipulable of the group. She chooses, in some senses, the antithesis of her father.

Each of these characters combat their grief in different ways, and slowly begin to emerge from their pain. However, there is only one character who seems to transcend that pain: Bambi. Her final musings, at the conclusion of the book, are quite poignant. I don’t want to give the story away, but it’s a good passage.

Perhaps all of us face “frozen moments” in life. Death, divorce, financial crisis, betrayal, etc.: moments of heartbreak arrest and stall us. We are like records stuck on a single phrase or note of music. We play it, over and over. This “frozenness” derails Sandy, Julie, Michelle, and many others in Lippman’s story.

In her Author’s Note, Lippman says the novel’s inspiration came from her husband, who suggested that she “write a novel inspired by Julius Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore into the 1970s.” Salsbury was convicted of mail fraud, and disappeared—leaving behind his wife, three daughters, and a girlfriend. “I found myself fascinated by the idea of the five women left behind,” Lippman writes. “What is a wife without her husband, daughters without a father, a mistress without her lover?”

Despite elements of mystery and drama, this book’s strongest genre is tragedy—not because of the characters who suffered pain, but because of those characters who refused to move on from pain: the people who chose to plant their feet in the stream of tragedy, rooted in their moment of crisis.


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Pop Culture and the Public Library

“Library lovers,” though they be small in number, are perhaps some of America’s most technologically savvy and socially connected individuals, according to Pew Research Center. They also represent a more liberal and wealthy class of Americans than the average.

The Pew report released Thursday showed that approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population are “high engagement” library users. Of this “high engagement” population, 20 percent are described as “information omnivores,” and 10 percent as “library lovers.” Library lovers, says Pew, are often younger and well-educated. ”They are also heavy internet users,” Pew says, particularly via mobile devices. Information Omnivores had the highest levels of employment, education, and household income (35 percent live in households earning $75,000 or more)—and the highest technology use. Almost half (46 percent) own a tablet and 68 percent have a smartphone. These are the people, says Pew, that value public libraries most, and read most. But love of library is also indicative of some other trends:

Members of these high engagement groups also tend to be active in other parts of their communities. They tend to know their neighbors, they are more likely to visit museums and attend sporting events, and they are more likely to socialize with families and friends.

A picture of the library frequenter begins to emerge: a civic-minded, well-educated individual who has strong ties to community, culture, and information. Also, interestingly, both the library lovers and information omnivores tended to lean liberal or Democrat.

Many people are surprised by the level of connectivity—technological and communal—reflected in these numbers. The stereotypical bookish recluse no longer fits America’s average library user persona: rather, we see a group of people who are digitally savvy, connected, and often wealthy.

Nonetheless, it seems that those using libraries are somewhat homogenous: they’re mostly wealthy, well-educated, and well-informed. Yet the library ought to reach a diverse population: it ought to offer resources to those from lower incomes, without many community connections, or to those lacking technological or informational resources. Yet many such individuals are the library’s rarest frequenters—or never use it at all.

Perhaps one problem here is that American pop culture does not usually promote learning for its own sake. Whereas being “smart” or “well-read” used to be a coveted thing in American society, it is now promoted mostly within certain circles or cultural cliques. Otherwise, it’s treated as being “nerdy” or “snobby.” The people American pop culture awards the most attention usually fall within the entertainment genre—be it an athlete, celebrity, pop artist or TV star. While some of these jobs require a good education, not all do—and the pop star’s intellectual life is rarely broadcast to the general public. We fixate on their romantic life, physical appearance, workout regimen, diet, social engagements, favorite movies, etc. What they read, whether they have a favorite author, where they went to college—few ask these questions. Read More…

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Euthanasia, and the False Omniscience of Compassion

Mary Jo Anderson writes about the false compassion of euthanasia in Crisis Magazine:

The truth that lies underneath the “rights” rhetoric is who will decide what constitutes a quality of life and at what cost. Theodore Dalrymple is an English doctor, psychiatrist and author of OurCulture—What’s Left of It. Dalrymple wrote, “Euthanasia has a tendency to slide from the voluntary to the compulsory, as people increasingly make judgments on behalf of others as to what is a human life worth living.”

This is a temptation that many human rights advocates can be susceptible to: in desiring to help others, we often choose to reform them into our own image. America’s compassionate conservatives often fall prey to this tendency: out of a sincere desire to help people, they seek to re-shape another person’s life or will into their own.

Anderson’s post is highlighting a new bill passed in Belgium on February 13, one that permits euthanasia for young children. “We can no longer pin a wig over the bald truth of the culture of death,” she writes. For pro-life advocates, the move smacks of the same imperative judgments that characterize so many pro-choice arguments (i.e. the mother, specifically, is allowed to decide what’s best for the child and her family).

This bill is an example of what Anderson calls “a right to die”: it’s “thought to be a compassionate, advanced policy,” giving people the ability to decide just how much pain and hardship they are willing to suffer. Of course, making such a decision necessitates we assume a sort of omniscient posture: if we decide whether life is still worth living, we must have a very specific and (we hope) accurate understanding of what life is about, what it’s worth, and how much pain we can handle.

This is how much of the right handles non-life matters. Of course, conservatives may gasp in horror at the thought of aborting or euthanizing babies. But conservatives may also look at homeless people on the street, and tell them, “You should go get a job.” Isn’t this also a case of gross assumption—of putting someone else in your shoes, and commanding them to walk according to your path, willpower, and context? When we decide one country “deserves” democracy, or another should be “liberated” from its oppressors—often such words contain grains of truth. But what we really mean is, “Let us (our military, more often than not) come over and fix your problems, so that you can be just like us.

Religious thought contains an important truth on this subject: most believe that humans are not omniscient. We were created by Another, a Being with infinite knowledge and discernment. We did not determine our birth. For many, this truth implies that we should not determine our end: our times are in God’s hands, as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 31.

This means we cannot look at our brothers and assume we know their best life (or death) course. Jesus told the story of a tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14—the Pharisee thanked God that he was not “like this tax collector, this sinner.” But in reality, it was the tax collector, humble and contrite, who went home justified.

When Jesus had mercy and compassion on an individual, interestingly enough, He often gave them what they asked for. There were cases in which He told people, instead, of sins they needed to leave or truths they needed to confront. But in each and every case, He loved first.

Compassion: it’s difficult to turn such an emotion into right action. So often, we are separated in thought and soul from truly knowing others. We think we know what is right or good, but this lack of omniscience makes it difficult to rightly run people’s lives. Perhaps we should not try—instead, we should just love first.


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Of Plato and iPads: Should We Use Technology in the Classroom?

Elise Italiano fears that the push to “personalize” education through technology will, in actuality, individualize education and hamper classroom relationships. She wrote a thoughtful piece Thursday at The Public Discourse on the subject:

The very design of these technologies is to multitask, not to concentrate, analyze, contemplate, or wonder. When a teacher is lecturing, students can easily disengage, looking at other apps (some for school and others surely for entertainment), perusing websites, and checking email. Schools that value teachers’ wisdom, expertise, and guidance will wind up undermining their work by asking them not only to deliver meaningful content but to monitor students’ attention constantly. When competing for attention with a device, teachers are implicitly asked to become entertainers.

Her points are valid and well reasoned. Technology’s distractions could very well harm students’ ability to concentrate, reflect, and be still. Additionally, teachers may find themselves scrambling to procure the “next new thing,” for fear of losing their students’ interest: once you decide to use the latest technology to connect with students, you must be prepared to keep up with the trends. Thus there is a cost—monetarily and intellectually—to using technology in the classroom.

Italiano also sees a communal cost in technology’s isolating tendencies. Tablets, phones, and laptops make it easier for students to “tune out.” The focus in a technological classroom changes from student-to-student and/or student-to-teacher to a student-computer relationship, with the teacher occasionally breaking into this primary bond. The human equation in education, including the use of words to bond and instruct, becomes secondary to the visual, interactive, and individual.

Despite her emphasis on communal learning, Italiano also stresses students’ need for silence and solitude—for the “still, quiet, and intentional pursuit of truth.” This is one reason I think school and public libraries are absolutely vital to the education experience, and need to be preserved. They serve as “quiet zones,” where students can step away from the hubbub. School libraries could even enforce a “no cell phones” rule, where mobile devices and other distractions are left at the door.

The above points in Italiano’s story are all very strong. But one of her comments seemed a bit simplistic: she writes, “Though it is becoming clear that technology is changing the way we learn, it is not yet clear that it is improving it.”

This statement seems to denigrate the true good technology can serve in education. The use of technology in classrooms may be concerning in some ways, but it is not completely harmful. We merely need to consider the ways and times in which it is utilized. Some classes can use technology to great effect: there are a host of curricula with excellent interactive online tools. For science, math, and language classes, such auditory and visual materials make difficult concepts easier to absorb. Students can study in the way most suited to their learning style.

But these tools seem most useful outside of class, where students can study and peruse at their own speed. Class time, then, becomes a place where students can ask teachers’ advice and input on study material, whether online or in print. Teachers can help students troubleshoot and explain deeper answers to classes as a whole—thus transforming the online tools into interactive, communal assets. Rather than creating solitary learners, such a method could encourage group learning.

At root, education is a shared exercise. In order to truly foster classroom interactions and relationships, teachers mustn’t neglect the Socratic method. Teachers’ thoughtful questions, joined by rebounding answers and arguments from students, encourage a deeper connection with subject matter. The more students are forced to analyze, answer, and discuss, the more they will learn and remember.

Whenever the discussion of education arises, Plato’s Cave analogy comes to mind. The best, most fulfilling work a teacher can do is to move students from the impressions and façade of the Cave into the pure, clear sunlight of Truth. Education, at its fullest, is only secondarily interested in a student’s career. At root, it sinks into the marrow of their personhood and understanding of reality. Thus, teachers must constantly ask themselves: which tools best advance Truth, and which detract from it? How can I best advance students toward a clearer, deeper understanding of the world? If technology truly serves to advance this endeavor, then it should be used, by all means. But if its pleasantries and toys distract from deeper discussion or knowledge, we must discard it—like chains from about our necks.

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