State of the Union

A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching

For most casual observers, whether Catholic or not, the main battle lines within American Catholicism today seem self-evident. The cleavage overlaps perfectly the divide between the political parties, leading to the frequently-used labels “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. We have Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo representing the Left, and Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback aligned with the Right. Mainstream opinion has classified Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as honorary Republicans, and Pope Francis as a Democrat (hence, why he is appearing on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines).

This division does indeed capture real battle lines, but more than anything, the divide is merely an extension of our politics, and—while manned by real actors—does not capture where the real action is to be found today in American Catholic circles.

The real action does not involve liberal “Catholics” at all. Liberal Catholicism, while well-represented in elite circles of the Democratic Party, qua Catholicism is finished. Liberal Catholicism has no future—like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation. The children of liberal Catholics will either want their liberalism unvarnished by incense and holy water, or they will rebel and ask if there’s something more challenging, disobeying their parents by “reverting” to Catholicism. While “liberal” Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a “project” and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.

The real battle is taking place beyond the purview of the pages of Time Magazine and the New York Times. The battle pits two camps of “conservative” Catholicism (let’s dispense with that label immediately and permanently—as my argument suggests, and others have said better, our political labels are inadequate to the task).

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley Arkes, and Robert Royal.

Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin—its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism—it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence. Murray went so far as to argue that America is in fact more Catholic than even its Protestant founders realized—that they availed themselves unknowingly of a longer and deeper tradition of natural law that undergirded the thinner liberal commitments of the American founding. The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project. Read More…

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A Culture of Life

The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam /
The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam /

Today marks the 41st anniversary of the national legalization of abortion in the United States. Thousands will march on the Mall and in the streets of Washington D.C. in protest of this decision, braving frigid temperatures and a blanket of snow to express their profound moral objection to Roe v. Wade and lamenting the estimated 55 million young lives that were legally extinguished since January 22, 1973.

The March for Life has become a rallying point for the pro-life movement, an annual pilgrimage of sorts, especially for young people who gather together to affirm a bedrock belief: the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Even amid the overwhelming sense of tragedy and loss that draws them to D.C., in order, it is hoped, to effect a change, there is also a sense of affirmation and even celebration in the company of many others who are also so firmly committed, who gather to defend a belief that is today dismissed and mocked by cultural elites and cognoscenti (including the governor of New York, purportedly a Catholic), who find joy in the fellowship of so many companions who stand for life. As one friend posted on Facebook, “the Tribe is together.”

Amid the widespread sense of shared purpose, there is perhaps little time or inclination to reflect on a question: why gather, as Marchers do, in Washington D.C.? It is perhaps a question whose answer is self-evident: the March ends outside the Supreme Court, which continues to affirm Roe v. Wade as controlling precedent. It is the location of the president and the Senate, which ultimately has the power to make or confirm appointments to the Court. It is the nation’s media center, where such a protest has the best chance of being amplified to the nation. It is physically laid out to accommodate large protests, with its Mall almost seeming to have been designed for that purpose. It is the nation’s capital, where our elites congregate to make policy and steer the nation. Naturally, if people from all parts of the nation gather in protest of a national issue, it is not only the best place, but the only place.

However, the March’s annual presence in D.C. obscures a number of issues, above all, whether abortion is ultimately a political and even legal matter. On one level, inescapably so: it has been a political matter for decades, even a “wedge” issue that has become a defining difference between the two political parties. It is obviously a legal issue, generating countless pages of legal theory and philosophical argument, as well as scores of subsequent High Court and even more lower court decisions that have responded to ongoing challenges and debates over the issue. So perhaps no further thought is necessary—destination D.C.

However, by other considerations, treating it exclusively as a political and legal matter obscures the extent to which it is most fully a question of culture. And, if conservatives would generally tend to agree on one thing—aside from the immorality of abortion—it is that culture does not originate in Washington, D.C., or at least that it shouldn’t. Read More…

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Why Mediocre Stories Matter

When considering the future of fiction, many speak somewhat disdainfully of “fan fiction” and other less original or artistic works. But Slate contributor Hugh Howey believes fan fiction is actually a classically respected literary genre:

Lovers of the new and immutable novel may fear the end times, but ironically the end times themselves were a work of fan fiction. The four Gospels were written well after the times they describe, and each has its own take on similar events. (It used to bother me that the Gospels disagreed on so much. But then I discovered Batman comics and saw how often the Caped Crusader’s origins and backstory also changed over time.) Shakespeare made a career out of fan fiction. Wealthy patrons would request a new stab at a familiar story, and the Bard would comply. Or he would draw upon historical facts and people to make fiction from the real.

Thus, those who believe fan fiction is discreditable to the arts must accept the fact that it’s a historical form. Howey argues that fan fiction books are not easy stories—though the ideas used to shape the books may be “used,” he writes, “Ideas are cheap. Stories are dear … We are all telling the same story with slight variations.”

There’s another intersecting perspective one might bring to bear on the increasing popularity of fan fiction. Although we all aspire to literary greatness, it is not easy to write brilliant material. Few of us will ever write something of considerable originality. For most of us, our best work will be written “on the shoulders of giants,” to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. Some of us must content ourselves with mediocrity, if that mediocrity will enable true genius to shine through our weak yet willing hands.

Front Porch Republic author James Matthew Wilson excellently explains this idea of aspirational mediocrity in a Sunday post:

To keep alive a tradition, to continue to produce mildly good poems, and reasonably memorable concertos, capable of rousing the ear and the mind to attention, thought, and pleasure — these things are good in themselves.  To perpetuate a traditional practice enriches the storehouse of being while also stitching together the eternal society of the dead, living, and those still unborn in such a way that past, present, and future remain habitable places, where human voice can still hear and answer human voice.  It keeps words, habits, and techniques in common, it cultivates, tempers, and preserves a climate of opinion, whatever the other storms of history.

Few authors, writers, and journalists will admit their work is mediocre (whether fan fiction or otherwise). At root, we want to write classics. But perhaps our mediocrity will help transmit a tradition, as Wilson writes: “To live within and participate in a tradition is, again, to keep something alive and to draw things and persons together, across time, in a community of knowledge and love.” Does fan fiction accomplish this? Not always; but within its diverse and sundry works, nuggets of a valuable literary tradition can flourish and grow.

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Beauty: Siren or Savior?

Félix Ziem - The Call of the Sirens / Wikimedia Commons
Félix Ziem - The Call of the Sirens / Wikimedia Commons

Was Dostoyevsky right when he said, “Beauty will save the world”? One of my favorite pieces on the subject came from Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic this fall. Bilbro referenced Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on the subject, as stated in a Nobel Lecture:

…Perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?

There is a problem—partly addressed by Bilbro, and holistically addressed by Robert Royal in a post at The Catholic Thing last Monday, that must be noted: namely, beauty often serves more as an illusory temptress than as a guide to the divine. How do we distinguish between illuminating beauty and a false, hollow sort? Royal explains with a passage from Dante’s Purgatorio, when Dante dreams of a beautiful woman:

She ‘gan to sing so, that with difficulty
Could I have turned my thoughts away from her.

“I am,” she sang, “I am the Siren sweet
Who mariners amid the main unman,
So full am I of pleasantness to hear.

I drew Ulysses from his wandering way
Unto my song, and he who dwells with me
Seldom departs so wholly I content him.”

Her mouth was not yet closed again, before
Appeared a Lady saintly and alert
Close at my side to put her to confusion.

“Virgilius, O Virgilius! who is this?”
Sternly she said; and he was drawing near
With eyes still fixed upon that modest one.

She seized the other and in front laid open,
Rending her garments, and her belly showed me;
This waked me with the stench that issued from it.

It’s a poignant passage, and leads us to Royal’s vital question: “When is what appears beautiful a reflection of the divine—and when is it a Siren’s song?”

This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel’s protagonist is a handsome young man who makes “beauty” his goal and end in life—and ultimately destroys his life through this search. The novel is full of rich pictorial imagery, but Wilde’s descriptions of nature and people seem purposefully transient. The beauty depicted is of a temporal sort, never referencing a higher, deeper, or truer meaning. Beauty is more “pleasing” than “good.” One notable exception would be the young, tragic Sibyl Vane, whose goodness and beauty are inextricably linked (and in the end, constitute her downfall). Gray could not tell the difference between a pleasurable beauty and “good” beauty. How can we differentiate between the two?

Both Bilbro and Royal believe our society has a picture of beauty that’s either reductive or deceptive. Bilbro writes, “Currently, our cultural aesthetic is, in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, sickly and pale: we too often confuse the pretty, the mere appearance, for true beauty, hence our acceptance of lush green lawns that cause water pollution … We have to be able to see the whole to perceive beauty (again, note the connection between beauty and health).  Analysis of the beautiful, if it does not begin with a vision of the whole and keep this vision constantly in mind, quickly devolves into an abstract rummaging through dead parts.” This idea of reduced beauty gives us the sense that something has been lost in our searching—that whatever beauty constitutes, it is something richer and deeper than most modern definitions. Read More…

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Is Common Core Really Dangerous?

Conservatives are out to lampoon and destroy Common Core. Their reasons for this are legion, but their main objections boil down to one giant fear: the centralization of education. As George Will stated in a Thursday Washington Post column, “What begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials.” But “must” this centralization truly happen? Are these founded predictions, or phantasmagoric fancies?

Homeschoolers are getting worried, too: Dr. Susan Berry wrote at Breitbart, “When SAT, ACT, and GED exams are “aligned” with Common Core, homeschooled students—as well as students educated in private schools—may not be able to ‘opt out’ of the federally incentivized standards if they want to apply for college. These students could be pressured into adopting Common Core for curriculum at home so that they are familiar with the presentation of material on the newly aligned college entrance exams.”

First: all proponents and opponents of Common Core should take a good look at the standards themselves. When one actually looks at the material, it becomes clear that they focus on skills, not content. To use one analogy: the Common Core does not say how you should teach your child to ride a bike. That is up to your discretion. But Common Core will test your child on their ability to ride the bike proficiently. Thus, one cannot really “adopt Common Core for curriculum”—it doesn’t really provide curricular content. One could use it to measure the difficulty and proficiency of one’s curriculum, but that’s slightly different.

For some (myself included) this focus on skills is somewhat concerning. Questions of centralization and impending educational doom are somewhat questionable. But Common Core does prioritize grading and test scores over the actual content of learning. For those who believe quality content should be the end of education, and not merely means to a good GPA, this is rather disconcerting. In application, this emphasis could be harmless—or it could push teachers and students to work merely for the grade (especially since teacher evaluations will now be tied to student performance on the new achievement tests). This would devalue the truest, fullest definition of education—a view that constitutes learning for its own sake. As Patrick Deneen put it in a past TAC article, “A basic utilitarian mindset now dominates the definition and understanding of education and how it thereby constrains, limits, and narrows the scope of education’s purposes solely to the debased end of work.”

One hopes the new tests may function similarly to the SAT—measuring a students’ ability to read well, rather than dictating what students should read.  This would hopefully give teachers the flexibility required to administer proper materials to their students, in alignment with their learning levels and context. But fear of grade repercussions could prevent teachers from studying materials with the desired scope and depth. Rather than ruminating over important, interesting problems, they may rush to study for the next exam.

Standards are important. And Common Core isn’t necessarily the boogey man painted by some in the conservative press. But in considering the standards’ adoption, we must ask ourselves important questions about education’s true meaning and telos. If we know what education is for, we can determine the best means to procure that end.

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Choosing Between Life and Death

(Image source: WFAA-TV)
(Image source: WFAA-TV)

After collapsing on her kitchen floor from an apparent blood clot, Marlise Munoz was declared brain dead by a Fort Worth hospital. Her parents and husband told the doctors that Munoz would not want to be kept on life support. But as the family prepared to say goodbye to wife and daughter, the doctor gave them sudden and shocking news: the hospital would not terminate Munoz’s life, because she was 14 weeks pregnant. In a Tuesday New York Times article, authors Mary Fernandez and Erik Eckholm write,

More than a month later, Mrs. Munoz remains connected to life-support machines on the third floor of the I.C.U., where a medical team monitors the heartbeat of the fetus, now in its 20th week of development. Her case has become a strange collision of law, medicine, the ethics of end-of-life care and the issues swirling around abortion—when life begins and how it should be valued.

Munoz’s parents and husband do not want the baby. They want the doctors to pull the plug, per their original instructions. Munoz’s father, Ernest Machado, told the Times, “All she is is a host for a fetus. I get angry with the state. What business did they have delving into these areas? Why are they practicing medicine up in Austin?”

Munoz and her husband have a 14-month-old son, Mateo. The Times story includes a picture of the three of them: parents’ arms curled close around their infant son, smiling softly at him.

The hospital, in refusing to terminate Munoz’s life, is following Texas state law: it is one of two dozen states, according to the International Business Times, that prohibits doctors from cutting off life support to pregnant patients. The Texas law was passed in 1989, and amended in 1999.

Now NARAL Pro-Choice America has launched a petition to take Munoz off life support. ABC news quoted their petition in a Wednesday story: “The Munoz family deserves better than this—and it’s up to Texas attorney general Greg Abbott to show them that the state of Texas respects their wishes and their privacy.”

“If your goal is to legally enshrine the notion that pregnant women are incubators first and humans second, keeping their bodies alive to grow babies long after their minds are gone is a perfect way to do it,” wrote Slate author Amanda Marcotte. She said the family has expressed some fear that “the loss of oxygen that was enough to destroy Marlise Munoz’s brain probably did serious damage to her fetus.”

This story throws the difference between pro-life and pro-choice advocates into sharp relief. Views on life’s meaning, origin, and purpose weigh heavy in such debate—and few would deem this an easy decision for the family (or hospital) to make.

But at the same time, after viewing the picture of Erick and Marlise Munoz with their infant son, one can’t escape a feeling of bitter and painful irony. How could a father, so obviously loving and cherishing one child, want to terminate the life of another? Would it be wrong to extend Munoz’s life 19 (or fewer) weeks, to perhaps save her last child? Read More…

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Values vs. Groupthink in Higher Academia

Students and faculty are not required to think anymore, laments spiked Education Editor Joanna Williams:

Too often it seems that universities today actually seek to prevent criticality and instead try to coerce groupthink among academics and students alike. One way this happens is through the enculturation of particular collective values. In the strange world of academia, an individual’s values and principles are no longer a private affair. Rather, they’re to be ‘given’ to you, which means you can be explicitly told which opinions to hold.

Williams has a good point. One wonders how Plato or Nietzsche would fare as professors in a modern university. Students who read the Republic are told not to mind Plato’s strange ideas about “sharing” women and children. But if Plato stood in a modern lecture hall, dressed in tweed suit and tie, would he be allowed to speak such revolutionary words? Or what of Nietzsche’s controversial “Ubermensch”: in today’s world, still shocked and frightened in the aftermath of WWII, should such ideas even be voiced to the young 18 to 22-year-olds who fill America’s classrooms? These two philosophers had brilliant and revolutionary ideas. Would modern audiences be willing to hear them for their brilliance, without rejecting them for their strangeness?

Williams critiqued professional standards laid out by the Higher Education Academy in her piece, mainly because they “[prescribe] values for lecturers to hold at all.”  She writes, “That the HEA expects lecturers to demonstrate collective values … suggests criticality is no longer considered a fundamental part of the academic enterprise.” The real end of education, she reminds us, should not be inculcation of collective values. It should be the ongoing pursuit of truth and knowledge. But this criticism of “collective values” raises some questions: First, is it ever proper for a higher institution to promote “collective values”? If so, in what context?

Take, for instance, the small private college: especially at religious institutions, many lecturers hold certain “values” in common. Often, such values are a required component for teaching at or attending such an institution. Is this wrong, according to Williams’ thesis? Should the small Catholic college hire an atheist, to fight “groupthink” amongst its faculty and students? Surely, if a student received an F for writing an excellent paper on atheism, just because her school and professor are Catholic, we would consider it unjust. If the school threw out a professor who wanted to teach a literature class on the Koran, we should also see that as unfair.

Much depends on the way knowledge and values are taught and judged. Williams writes, “Although knowledge and values undoubtedly influence each other, losing the distinction between the two should be considered a major problem facing academics today … Expecting people to demonstrate they hold values that have been determined for them, irrespective of whether they individually agree with those values or not, creates a climate of uncriticality which is the exact opposite of what a university should be about.”

This topic can easily become “sticky,” especially when one considers the wide and disparate swath of ideas perpetuated in our culture. Questions of tolerance riddle today’s higher education world, especially at the private level. Determining where to draw boundaries takes wisdom and specificity. Nietzsche would not have “fit in” as a professor at just any university. But his work is important to all of us, and should not be denigrated merely because of his personality. True criticality, one might suggest, enables us to determine which “collective values” are important for the furthering of knowledge, and which are personal or opaque enough to deserve flexibility and analysis.

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The Art of Reading, Fast and Slow

Many modern readers push themselves through speed-reading courses. If they haven’t time for a full course, there are Youtube videos and websites on the subject. Now, in the age of digital reading, there are additional speed-reading gadgets: tools like Feedly and Twitter enable users to absorb small bits of text in a speedy fashion. A bunch of speed-reading apps have come into vogue, enabling users to read on the clock with greater efficiency.

Efficiency. It’s the word of the age, according to Alasdair MacIntyre: in After Virtue, he said “efficiency” is our most prized virtue. While the Greeks of Homer’s time valued virtues like duty and honor, our age preferred more “managerial” virtues, efficiency being the most valued of all.

But have we lost something in our endeavors for efficiency? Curator contributor Brett Beasley says yes. In a Monday post, he mused on our changing reading patterns, as our culture passes from speed-reading to half-reading, to complete negligence:

“Sharing” is the buzzword of our age, in which nearly all of what we read can be linked to, tweeted, emailed, attached, and downloaded within seconds. Mass digitization projects like Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America place more words within our grasp each hour, yet meanwhile we continue to hear reports that nearly a third of Americans did not read as much as one book in the past year. It’s strange, isn’t it? Reading often feels as easy as breathing. When I go on a road trip, I don’t have to make myself read the words written on the road signs and billboards. It just happens. But when it comes to anything longer than a few hundred words, the text seems to thicken and we have to push back against a surprising amount of resistance.

Why is it that we can spend significant time browsing menus and reading Buzzfeed articles, but roll our eyes when we scroll to the bottom of a new story and see the words “Page 1 of 12”? What is it about length that intimidates and frustrates us so?

At least in part, this annoyance is rooted in that modern striving for “efficiency.” We want our laughs, lunches, and letters as quickly as possible. We are increasingly aware of time’s incessant ticking: from the days in centuries past when church bells heralded the hours, minutes now flick by on our phone and computer screens. We own it, in a way that our ancestors did not. Countdown apps show us every millisecond whizzing past, set to our own schedules and deadlines.

Thus we, along with Beasley, remember “many thinkers and artists throughout history who have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on.”

This is our second problem: in the age of information, reading is literally everywhere. News stands, Google news, even the nearest coffee shop—one needn’t go far to become bombarded with words. What shall you read first? What’s worth reading? What if you waste time reading something awful, when you could have been reading something else? “Stream, cloud, dust; now more than ever our text and our reading times are in need of a shape and an architecture,” writes Beasley. “Intentionally or unintentionally, each of us has a reading practice that shapes the way we live, think, and interact.”

What shape and architecture should we give to our reading life? One thing is certain: the way we read will affect the way we absorb information, and thus will shape the very way we live. Should we read Drudge-style—absorbing the most interesting headlines of the moment, discarding length for sensationalism? Or should we read in a more bookish, antiquated style: throwing “efficiency” to the wind, cherry-picking books we think will be the best, ignoring anything that isn’t timeless or classic?

Some would assume the latter is the “conservative” position. But it seems the best path is a narrow trail between the two extremes. There is pertinent everyday information we must absorb to make pertinent decisions. But essential information doesn’t always foster deeper human flourishing and intellectual growth. We should digest the pertinent with efficiency, but not for efficiency’s sake.

Efficiency is a means to a greater end, a greater virtue: that of wisdom. Wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” To have wisdom, therefore, one must have basic knowledge of the pertinent. But “good judgment” doesn’t come from gulping down news in a frenzied fashion. Good judgment requires thoughtful, prolonged, and careful meditation. It requires outside opinions, secondary sources, and at least some research. It requires a depth of reading inspired by thoughtfulness, as well as inquisitiveness. In order to get wisdom, slow reading is necessary: a careful, deliberate inculcation of timeless truths.

The real trick, then, is determining what to read fast, and what to read slowly. Beasley references the reading traditions of the monks, and we can learn something from their style. Their reading during the Middle Ages, he says, “was the centerpiece of daily life. Several hours of reading (or lectio) often fell in the middle of the day, with the rest of the day devoted to periods of meditation, prayer, and contemplation. While lectio ‘puts whole food in the mouth,’ meditation ‘chews it and breaks it up,’ prayer ‘extracts its flavor,’ and finally contemplation ‘is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshens.’”

Perhaps our modern reading challenge lies in learning when lectio is the best course, and when deeper meditation or contemplation is required. We must differentiate between the times when efficiency leads us to wisdom—and when efficiency becomes a distracting end in and of itself.

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Becoming His Brother’s Keeper

In John Steinbeck’s novel Winter of Our Discontent, businessman Ethan Hawley is haunted by the presence of the town drunkard—his childhood friend, Danny Taylor. Once like brothers, the two men’s paths slowly diverged over time. Now, Hawley watches his old friend succumb to squalor and self-abuse. He cannot forget his guilt.

It reminded me of old Scrooge: Dicken’s “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” who lived with squalor and illness on his doorstep, yet didn’t care. He couldn’t see over his insurmountable mountain of greed.

Our current lives are filled with Ethans and Dannys, Scrooges and Tiny Tims. Take Mike Remboulis: he and his half-brother grew up in the same Queens apartment, but their fortunes have changed drastically over the years. New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns shared their story last Sunday:

Even amid lighthearted banter and savory plates, reality almost always comes rushing back: Beyond those restaurant doors, his big brother is teetering on the edge, barely hanging on. Mr. Remboulis, 51, is an aerospace engineer with a graduate degree. His half-brother, Glenn Yuzzi, 59, is a carpenter with a high school diploma. They grew up in the same Queens apartment, but today they live on opposite sides of the economic divide. It is a twist of fortune that haunts Mr. Remboulis. “I don’t want him to scrape by,” he said. “I don’t want my brother to drown.”

It seems these unfair disparities become more prominent in the American mind around Christmastide. After all, it’s freezing cold outside in most of America. Most of us are huddled in coats and scarves, drinking coffee, thinking about presents, food, and parties. In the midst of this happy holiday reverie, we see a man slumped on the street corner, McDonalds cup sitting empty at his side. Even if one isn’t surrounded by the homeless, it’s almost impossible to live in a town or city without knowing at least one family whose fortunes have fallen on bad times. We grow up hearing so much about “Christmas spirit”—the spirit of giving that supposedly animates and transports us during the Christmas season. We read The Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, frown disapprovingly at the money-grubbing fiends.

Steinbeck set the advent of his novel on Good Friday. There’s death in the air. Over Friday and Saturday, change stirs in Ethan Hawley. But it isn’t change of a good kind. His money lust is awakening. From Saturday evening to Sunday morning, the morning of resurrection, Hawley begins to see himself as a snake that has just shed its skin. He’s transformed.

It reminded me of old Scrooge: he awakens on Christmas morning after a haunted nighttime vigil with ghosts. He is also transformed—but by losing his old self, completely rebirthed into newness: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.” Scrooge scatters his money like dust to the wind, overflowing with generosity and joy. To Tiny Tim, “he was a second father.”

Who will we be this Christmas? I scurry down cold city streets and see the pleading eyes, listen to stories of families “getting by.” Part of me wants to bark out like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But that’s what the Christmas story is about: the One who had everything became nothing, to save the lost brother. He bore poverty, sorrow, and shame in the winter of our discontent. And He promised us that, like Scrooge, we could be “born again.” He wouldn’t let us drown.

He truly was “better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.”

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How to Fix Grade Inflation at Harvard

Reports that A- is the median grade in Harvard College have reopened the debate about grade inflation. Many of the arguments offered in response to the news are familiar. The venerable grade hawk Harvey “C-” Mansfield, who brought the figures to public attention, describes the situation as an “indefensible” relaxation of standards.

More provocative are defenses of grade inflation as the natural result of increased competition for admission to selective colleges and universities. A new breed of grade doves point out that standards have actually been tightened in recent years. But the change has been made to admissions standards rather than expectations for achievement in class.

According to the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, “high grades could be an indicator of the rising quality of undergraduate work in the last few decades, due in part to the rising quality of the undergraduates themselves and a greater access to the tools and resources of academic work as a result of technological advances, rather than unwarranted grade inflation.” Matt Yglesias, ’03, agrees, arguing that “it is entirely plausible that the median Harvard student today is as smart as an A-minus Harvard student from a generation ago. After all, the C-minus student of a generation ago would have very little chance of being admitted today.”

There’s a certain amount of self-congratulation here. It’s not surprising that Harvard students, previous and current, think they’re smarter than their predecessors—or anyone else. But they also make an important point. The students who earned the proverbial gentleman’s Cs are rarely found at Harvard or its peers. Dimwitted aristocrats are no longer admitted. And even the brighter scions of prominent families can’t take their future success for granted. Even with plenty of money and strong connections, they still need good grades to win places in graduate school, prestigious internships, and so on.

The result is a situation in which the majority of students really are very smart and very ambitious. Coursework is not always their first priority. But they are usually willing to do what’s necessary to meet their professors’ expectations. The decline of core curricula has also made it easier for students to pick courses that play to their strengths while avoiding subjects that are tough for them. It’s less common to find Chemistry students struggling through Shakespeare than it was in the old days.

According to the Harvard College Handbook for Students, an A- reflects ”full mastery of the subject” without “extraordinary distinction”. In several classes I taught as an instructor and teaching fellow at Harvard and Princeton, particularly electives, I found that around half the students produced work on this level. As a result, I gave a lot of A-range grades.

Perhaps my understanding of “mastery” reflects historically lower demands. For example, I don’t expect students writing about Aristotle to understand Greek. Yet it’s not my impression that standards in my own field of political theory have changed a lot in the last fifty years or so. In absence of specific evidence of lowered standards, then, there’s reason to think that grade inflation at first-tier universities has some objective basis.

But that doesn’t mean grade inflation isn’t a problem. It is: just not quite the way some critics think. At least at Harvard and similar institutions, grades are a reasonably accurate reflection of what students know or can do. But they are a poor reflection of how they compare to other students in the same course. In particular, grade inflation makes it difficult to distinguish truly excellent students, who are by definition few, from the potentially much larger number who are merely very good.

Here’s my proposal for resolving that problem. In place of the traditional system, students should receive two grades. One would reflect their mastery of specific content or skills. The other would compare their performance to the rest of the class. Read More…

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