Category Archives: Misc.

Creation vs. Evolution vs. Catholicism

The Barna Group, commissioned by BioLogos, has just released an intriguing new study about sharp divides among “today’s pastors” about science, faith, and the origin of species. The study shows an almost even split between those who believe in Young Earth Creation and those who do not, with the do not group being divided between proponents of theistic evolution and progressive creationism. Young Earth Creationists have their stronghold in the South, while theistic evolution is most common in the Midwest. Most clergy think that questions of faith and science are important, but, at the same time, a majority fear that disagreements are distracting from the greater Christian witness.

There is little there to shock, unless you realize one glaring omission: Catholics. While the survey of Protestant ministers actually excludes both Orthodox and Catholic leaders, the Orthodox have only about one million members in the United States, making their omission excusable (at least from a statistician’s point of view). Catholics, on the other hand, are no minority to be trifled at. As the largest single Christian denomination in the United States–one in four Americans belongs to the Roman Catholic Church–their absence from a survey about the origins of life suggests an array of possible biases, all of them disturbing. It is likely that, in lockstep with history, that Catholics are still being treated as second class Christians or (perhaps implicitly) not real Christians at all. It would not be the first time the self-proclaimed Protestant establishment drew a sharp line between Christianity and papism–even if it can no longer express the dichotomy in those terms in our politically correct age. Equally possible, Catholics may have been excluded because their presumed answers would have tipped the scale away from a picture of conflict between conservative and progressive thought on origins. The Roman Catholic Church never engaged in the kind of systematic anti-evolution campaigns that so many Protestants did at the turn of the twentieth century in response to Darwin. In fact, for more than sixty years the official Catholics position has been that there is no conflict between evolution and Christianity, leading to a de facto triumph of theistic evolution among leading Catholic divines. Admitting Catholics into the dialogue would throw off both the slim majority of Young Earth Creationists and the geography of creationism (with the South and Southwest being an area of significant Catholic presence).

Or maybe the Barna Group just never thought to include Catholics. But would that really be better?

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The Necessity of Redefining Marriage

Ben Witherington has recently commented on a CNN article which lays out, in my opinion, perhaps the strongest case against gay marriage from a strictly secular standpoint. I mention Witherington rather than going directly to the article because he includes many theological considerations which readers here are likely to find interesting. My main concern, however, is the argument of Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis.

Marriage is far more than your emotional bond with “your Number One person,” to quote same-sex marriage proponent John Corvino. Just as the act that makes marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is a multilevel — bodily as well as emotional — union that would be fulfilled by procreation and family life. That is what justifies its distinctive norms — monogamy, exclusivity, permanence — and the concept of marital consummation by conjugal intercourse.

…All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Seated Girl in Icelandic Bridal GownThe authors make a compelling observation that, legally, marriage does much more than standardize a primary relationship (e.g. defaulting who ought to be your medical proxy or to whom your possession belong in the event of your death). If this was its sole function, there would be no need for the legal structure which has been built up around marriage, one which institutionalizes matters of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence. If it were about formalizing a person’s primary affective attachment, it should be as easy to change as a will and open to the possibility of multiple equal levels of attachment. Which it isn’t; at least not legally.

In fact, American culture has largely done away with these pillars of marital theory, particularly permanence. It is not quite as easy to change a spouse as it is to change a beneficiary in your will, but it is done with strikingly more regularity nonetheless. Sexual exclusivity is eroding with a startlingly rapidity, so that primary relationships which have not yet been formalized are rarely assumed to be sexually exclusive and even married persons have a wealth of ways to violate the bounds of sexual exclusivity with impunity. (Someone care to look up statistics about the use of pornography by married men?) Only monogamy remains largely uncontested both legally and culturally, although the authors do point out the swelling phenomenon of polyamory.

The solution seems to me to require a redefinition of marriage rather than a feigned conservative defense of the grand old institution. The heterosexual marriage characterized by monogamy, fidelity, and permanence exists more as a convenient fiction than a staid bulwark against social decay. If we care about a definition of marriage that includes these principles than a cultural redefinition of marriage is in order, one that would accord with and allow for the revitalization of marriage laws. If, however, we recognize the cultural shift behind which the law has lagged, then the legal redefinition of marriage seems to be in order, not only to exclude the heterosexual requirement, but also all laws which are artifacts of a time when marriage was permanent, monogamous, and exclusive.

My preference has, traditionally, been for the latter, but only because it divorces what is legal from what is ethical in a way that neatly accords with my view of the world. More to the point, short of a spontaneous, universal, and enduring cultural revolution that recaptures the historic conception of marriage, changing the law to reflect culture seems to be the prudent course.

(None of which, of course, comments at all on the permissibility of homosexuality in Christian ethics.)

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The Many Faces of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day is a fringe figure. She lived on the fringes of society, she is a hero of people still living there, and she continues to exist in the margins of popular consciousness. A noble if enigmatic figure, most people recognize her name only enough to know they should know it or perhaps to tap into a few superficial bits of trivia appropriate for coffee house discourse. For my part, I only knew Dorothy Day insofar as I needed to evaluate whether or not she fit, so far as I was the judge, the intellectual category of “Christian anarchist” often applied to her. I admit my judgments were largely negative and largely misinformed.

Yet Day was thrust into the national spotlight late last year when the Catholic Church took a strong step forward in her canonization process and, in response, the New York Times saw the startling unanimity of the bishops as an opportunity to convert Day into the staging ground for an ideological battle between progressives and conservatives who both want to lay claim to contradictory visions of Day. Thankfully, the vision of the Times and the tumult it created has largely died down as devotees of Day apparently want to focus less on her partisan alignment and more on the example set by her life:

The thing to know about Dorothy Day is not where she fell on the ideological spectrum, it is that she chose to follow Jesus radically, right down to the core of her life, the rhythms of her day, the habits of her heart, the fervency of her prayers. She was intensely loyal to the Church, but not above criticizing some of its potentates. She was suspicious of power in any form, except the power of Jesus’ love. She understood, and lived, the call to both love and serve the poor in ways that shame the rest of us. She is undoubtedly a saint. She is also undoubtedly not fit fodder for anyone’s ideological cannon.

Curiously, and mostly in ignorance of the debates about her in the popular press, around the same time I picked up Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, with much the same intent I always approached her writings with, as part of a broader potential historical study of anarchism in America. What I found therein, however, thwarted my one-dimensional, narrow-minded attempts to distill Day into her philosophy of power and response to the problem of evil. Instead I found a multifaceted person, like so many of us more often unsure of herself than our constructed icons of ideological juggernauts typically allow. She was, in short, a human being, and the authenticity of her self disclosure in The Long Loneliness instilled in me a profound respect and admiration for her (even if I also walked away still uneasy about where she fits on the spectrum of anarchist thought) and created in me an intense interest in her canonization effort, still decades away from fruition, I suspect.

In the following weeks I would like to share some of the new sides of Dorothy Day, new to me at least, that I encountered in her writings. The act of compartmentalizing her personalty is perhaps not much better than flattening her into a suspect Christian anarchist, but, short of meeting her in flesh and blood (an opportunity sadly not available), I can think of no better way to encounter her than this.

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Remembering Ken Neller

I was forty hours without sleep on the last leg of a cross country Greyhound trip last night when the news, vague and uncertain, that Dr. Ken Neller of Harding University had died. Unfortunately, I awoke this morning to find that news confirmed:

We are grieving tonight the sudden passing of our friend and colleague, Ken Neller. Ken collapsed this afternoon while playing racquetball. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. Ken would’ve been 59 next month.

We have mourned here the deaths of several great figures, those I have known and those who have influenced me indirectly, but Ken Neller stands apart both as a man who leaves us without warning and before his time and as a mentor of mine during my formative years at Harding. As a mark of the greatness of his character, word of this tragedy has spread quickly through the diverse networks that demonstrate the far-reaching, perhaps unknown reaches of Ken Neller’s spiritual and intellectual influence.

I had the privilege of taking roughly half a dozen courses with Dr. Neller as an undergraduate, from larger required courses to small, intimate independent studies, and we came in further contact through my close relationship with Downtown. The memories which I might share about him have flooded back to me in the last twelve hours, and I suspect I will be trading stories with those who knew him in the coming days. For now, let one anecdote serve as a memorial to his character.

Toward the end of my time at Harding, having developed an easy rapport with Dr. Neller, I found myself in a small seminar he was teaching on the prison epistles. It wasn’t a class I was required to take or even supposed to be allowed to take, but scheduling conflict has allowed me a special curriculum dispensation. I had taken an independent study with Dr. Neller focusing on the Greek of Ephesians and Colossians the previous semester, so I was more than amply prepared for the kind of vivid discussion that only happen in those last fleeting moments of college when every bit of knowledge seems so urgent.

The seminar was like nothing I had ever experienced, not because of the content or even because of any special insight from Dr. Neller. Instead, what set that experience apart was the respect Dr. Neller paid to his students. So rare in a world in which professors jealously guard the teacher-student power dynamic, Ken Neller treated me more nearly as an equal than a pupil which was all the more humbling. In a debate about the existence of demons, Dr. Neller sacrificed precious class time (and the patience of my peers, no doubt) to make sure he understood the theory I was espousing about the meaning of Ephesians 6 about which I was writing a paper. Only when he was sure he grasped my point and acknowledged that he hadn’t thought of it that way before did class proceed. One day, when I had skipped class for no other reason than I didn’t want to go, he found me in the student center to express his regret that I hadn’t been there. Not disappointment, mind you, that I had shirked my academic duties but genuine regret that we hadn’t been able to enjoy our customary interchanges. And when the time came, as it inevitably does, for him to assign readings which he had written and published, he singled me out and solicited my public criticism of his argument, which I offered and which he accepted as valid.

Death has a way of chiseling our memories into marble, smoothing out the rough-hewn edges of humanity. It would be all too easy to forget times when I fumed against his comments on my papers (sometimes to his less than patient person) or his intransigence about breaking from the traditional Greek curriculum. Still, the essence of his character was gentle and compassionate. He smiled easily and perhaps a little goofily. He spoke of his wife often and only with the greatest respect, an important influence for a newly married nineteen year old me. He calmly advised temperance when my lust for academic conflict prompted less than diplomatic word choice. He will be deeply mourned, but the loss to his family and those of us who knew him is arguably inestimably less than the loss to the hundreds of future students we all assumed he had left to teach.

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An Apology for Louisville

It has been well over a week now since I read Dan Wetzel’s analysis of the new marriage between Notre Dame and the ACC. So much of what Wetzel offers strikes me as true, though I find myself stopping short of declaring this move the great stabilizing moment for all of college football that Wetzel wants it to be. More definitively, I object to his analysis of how this effects the prospect of expansion for the Big 12:

The Big 12 could still come after the Big East’s Louisville, Cincinnati or someone else, but that league is adamant, both on and off the record, that it is excited about having just 10 members right now. Everyone from commissioner Bob Bowlsby to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has spoken of the advantage of playing a true round robin in football and basketball and avoiding the additional challenge of a conference title football game, which can knock a team out of national title contention.

Besides, the league just signed a huge new television deal. With Notre Dame and any ACC powers now no longer a possibility, there isn’t any program out there that would make economic sense to add. Everyone else just waters the league down.

For someone who just expended a great deal of energy arguing that the Big East had just been saved as a major league, Wetzel sure doesn’t seem all that impressed with its top teams. His most basic claim that adding Louisville would water down the talent pool of the conference is easily debunked. Since joining the Big East, Louisville has posted a 72-42 record, one that becomes more impressive if you exclude the deeply unfortunate years under Steve Kragthorpe. Sure, that was a record achieved in the Big East, but it is nevertheless better than Iowa State’s record during the same period. Better than a resurgent Kansas State as well. Without even doing the research, I’d be willing to wager it is notably better than Baylor and Kansas’s records as well (maybe combined). Not all of that success is attributable to being in a weak conference either. Just before joining the Big East, Louisville would finish its season ranked sixth in the AP poll, a feat it would achieve again two years later after beating the ACC champion Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. Undefeated and well ranked again already this season, I think it is indefensible to suggest that their addition to the Big 12 would just be a watering down of the conference.

But I had a problem with Wetzel’s analysis even before I sat down this past weekend and giddily watched the Cardinals handle the Tar Heels, and I will still have a problem with it even if by some miracle Louisville is upset by Florida International (1-2) this weekend. There are at least two reasons beyond football prowess why the Big 12 should continue to keep Louisville in its sites. The most obvious is basketball. While college basketball certainly isn’t the money machine that college football is, it is hardly something to scoff at either. Louisville’s basketball credentials are familiar and impressive. Even just a quick perusal of some reputable sources would have taught Wetzel that Louisville has the 9th best winning percentage in college basketball all time, two national championships, nine final four appearances, and 38 tournament appearances with 64 tournament wins. All in all, they are variously ranked either the seventh or sixth best men’s collegiate basketball program in the modern history of the sport. With the obvious exception of the Kansas Jayhawks, no one in the Big 12 even comes close. In fact, the rest of the teams don’t have a national title between them, unless, of course, you want to count the two noteworthy championships of Oklahoma A&M in the forties. Adding Louisville would dramatically improve the basketball profile of the conference.

There is an even greater contribution the Cardinals could make, though we may be loath to admit it. Adding the University of Louisville to the conference would substantially improve its academic profile. The Big 12 is constantly fighting with the SEC for the title of the toughest conference in football. The two are equally determined to squabble over which can have the poorest academic standing. With the departure of Texas A&M for the SEC, the Big 12 is pulling ahead (maybe in both categories). While adding Louisville is not likely to replace A&M and it certainly won’t be like adding another Texas, it will represent a substantial improvement over the present academic state of the conference. (And the same would be true of adding Cincinnati, but I am less taken with that idea.) Louisville has a much better track record of producing substantial research, particularly in the field of medicine, than most of the Big 12 schools and a much larger endowment to student ratio. With schools like Texas Tech and Baylor on the cusp of pulling their universities into the Tier 1 category, adding a school like Louisville can only aid the academic standing of the conference.

There are, of course, more if less compelling reasons. For example, it might be nice if poor West Virginia was floating off on a veritable island east of the Mississippi. It would also be great to start to develop a fan and recruiting base in the South, particularly now that the SEC has its claws into Texas. It is also almost too delicious to bear to imagine the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry being an annual weekend for the Big 12 to gloat over the SEC.

So no, Mr. Wetzel, I will not be content with ten teams, or at least not the ten teams presently in the Big 12. I don’t think the powers-that-be in the conference should be either. While Wetzel’s vision of the future is more probable than my own, I would like to continue to naively believe that the Big 12 is run by people who are capable of seeing beyond mere football in the decisions that they make. It is not too much to hope that the Big 12 can be the SEC in football, the ACC in the classroom, and still entertain bored fans in the spring while we wait for colleges to start playing a real sport again in September.

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Nigeria: Problems and Solutions

Government officials are also servants of God aren’t they? Well, they should be. Because in this modern world, they hold the key to making life a bit more enjoyable for God’s people. They share budgets, they are the ones who have seized the public space.

So begins Tope Fasau’s plea for state solutions to the ongoing religious strife in Nigeria. As the title of his article, not to mention his opening salvo, suggests, Fasau’s solutions revolve around the need for the government to more fully regulate the religious experience in Nigeria. He calls for all religious groups to be forcibly registered with the state. He suggests that they should be understood, for political purposes, as charities and evaluated on the basis of how charitable their distribution of funds is. He wants all ministers to be on set salaries, subject to audit by the national government. He believes the government should outlaw the use of incendiary rhetoric in the public sphere, removing posters that show ministers in camo or using “crusade” language. He even wants to eliminate certain forms of public preaching in an effort to reduce “the angst in people.”

For Americans, most if not all of this suggestions will seem repugnant. As we continue to be embroiled by our own apparently critical religious “conflicts,” the possibility that the state might force all religious societies to register, might abridge their ability to express their beliefs when, how, and where they want, and might take a very direct and invasive interest in how their money is spent is unthinkable. It would be shocking if Fasau’s suggestions carried much more currency with the native populations he is hoping to sway. Certainly, one cannot expect Boko Haram or its substantial constituency to submit to these kinds of measures, not in the midst of their own very violent, very public crusade. Nigerian Christians, in all likelihood, will be equally unwilling to throw open their doors for a government to “regulate” them who has thus far proved incapable even of protecting them. To all of these objections, I add my own negative evaluation of Fasau’s logic.

Most people see their government officials – president, governors, local government chairmens, councilors – more than they see their pastors or Imams. So, we ought to redefine the linkage between God and man, and that linkage should necessarily include our government officials. Perhaps that will scare them into doing the right thing. For as it is, many of them profess God, but act as if they think God is dead.

It is hard to be too dismissive of this reasoning if only because it has dominated Christian thinking in the post-Constantinian West and Islam throughout it history. At the same time, it is impossible not to highlight the total and incontrovertible failure of this kind of thinking. In both Islam and Christianity, the more definitively the government has functioned as a “linkage” between God and humanity, the more we all have cause to make apologies for the excesses of our faithful leaders. A beloved history professor from my undergraduate days imparted to me this wisdom, shared here before, “When the church and the state get into bed together, it is the church who plays the whore.” The force of this aphorism lies in its simplicity and obvious truth, a truth which has played out at every level of history to the great detriment of human society everywhere.

For Fasau’s argument, the same logic might be expressed differently: when the church and state are merged, it is the church who has cause to fear. Fasau wants religious believers to apply pressure on their leaders to “do the right thing” by appeals to their place as a link between God and man. Yet, this very linkage has been the means through which the state has oppressed people throughout history. The analogy between “pastors or imams” and “presidents and governors” ought to frighten more than it inspires, as it extends the reach of the state beyond merely the body into the very soul of the believer.

What’s more, far from being a perversion of what he wants, such an extension and potential oppression accord exactly with what Fasau is proposing. The pressure to “do the right thing” has as its ideal result a crackdown on the uninhibited expression of religion. “Extreme” manifestations of religion, to be sure, but a crackdown nonetheless. It is precisely so that religious groups will begin to fear the state that Fasau wants Christians and Muslims to join together to invest sacred significance in the work of government officials. I believe that Christians everywhere and faithful Muslims with them want to see an end to Boko Haram. It is equally clear, and forcefully stated, that faithful Christians and Muslims everywhere want no more retaliatory violence from Christians. But even Fasau cannot leave the implications of his argument implicit, looking forward to a time when the government will “curb the noise pollution caused by Mosques and Churches” by doing away with the public morning call to prayer and Christian midnight vigils.

Boko Haram is extreme. Christian retaliation is extreme. Inconveniently timed prayers are extreme? Christians and Muslims should be careful to remember that, in the ideal world of theory, states exist for their citizens. In the gritty world of reality, they exist for self-propagation. In either case, their quest is for stability not truth, their defense is of borders not of “rights,” and they are guardians of wealth not of faith. Fasau may be right, and they may “hold the key to making life a bit more enjoyable for God’s people.” But I suspect even Nigerian Muslims and Christians can come together and agree that, for God’s people, there are higher priorities at stake.

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Sexy Amendments to the Constitution

We have all heard the ultimately impotent advocacy for an amendment to the Constitution that would restrict marriage to heterosexual monogamy. We have also all heard the formulaic justification: protect the family, protect marriage. The main problem here is that if I am really interested in protecting the family and traditional marriage, if I toast my Pop Tart every morning in the warm glow of my righteous cause, then a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is not where I’m going to start.

You won’t hear Mitt Romney or Sean Hannity say it (though you might keep an eye on Newt Gingrich), but what this country really needs to protect families is an Amendment that criminalizes premarital sex. Out of wedlock births are the problem. That is what’s destroying the family. The Brookings Institution reports:

In 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers. By 1990 the rates had risen to 64 percent for black infants, 18 percent for whites. Every year about one million more children are born into fatherless families.

As of 1990, more than one in four children are born out of wedlock. Meanwhile, The National Gay and Lesbian Task force estimates that only 3-8% of the population are homosexuals, a number significantly higher than equally partisan Christian groups’ estimates and higher even than Kinsey’s statistic of 4% exclusively homosexual males. Even if we accept that high number thought, children born out of wedlock are a significantly higher percentage of children than homosexuals are of the general population. Even if suddenly same sex marriage were legal and immediately the entire homosexual population of America were to marry at the same rate the heterosexual population does, roughly half, the 12.5 million newly married homosexuals would still not match the roughly 20 million children under eighteen who were born out of wedlock. If we want to promote healthy families centered on heterosexual parents, the first step is to criminalize sex outside of marriage with an amendment to the Constitution.

Even if, oh were that it so, we could get that magical clause tacked on to the Constitution, gay marriage wouldn’t be my next stop. After criminalizing pre-marital sex, the next greatest threat to traditional marriage is divorce. The oft quoted statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce, probably more scientifically stated as 40-50% of marriage will be disrupted by permanent separation or divorce, ought to be enough to prove that conclusively. In addition to destroying half of all traditional, heterosexual marriages, divorce leaves an estimated 1.1 million new children in broken homes every year. That is only slightly lower than the 1.2 million children born out of wedlock every year. The family is suffering.

If we follow our statistical path from the tentatively titled “No Milk Until You Buy the Cow Amendment,” allowing same sex marriage would only see about a 2-4% increase in marriages, or roughly 100,000. Meanwhile, the legality of divorce allows for the destruction every year of well over one million marriages. The disparity is clear. Divorce poses roughly ten times the danger to marriage and the family that same sex marriage does. It must be criminalized, and it must be done at the Constitutional level.

It is a tragedy, really, that the “consistent conservatives” in this country have had so much trouble appropriately identifying and combating the real threats to traditional marriage. Perhaps if we made it an issues of America’s standing in the world. Maybe if we point out that socialist Sweden has managed a significantly lower divorce rate than America. Or that in the sensuous Mediterranean climes of Spain, the out of wedlock birthrate is about 75% of what it is in the States. Canada is beating us in every category, which ought to be enough to infuriate every conservative. For single-parent households as a percentage of total households with children, America ranks below Canada, Japan, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK. We’re dead last.

So let’s get with it, defenders of traditional marriage. If you genuinely care about the state of marriage in this country, then it is time to stand up and make the hard decisions necessary to protect it. That, or maybe it is time to be honest with yourself and the public about what motivates your politics. Honesty in politics: God help us if we ever get it.

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Pay Teachers Less

The American education system is broken. There are few if any who would argue otherwise. The problems are by no means simple, and the possible solutions are numerous. The administrative overhead of schools is one of the most obvious and easily resolved issues. Superintendents, principals, assistant principals, computer technicians, evaluators, social workers, security guards, secretaries, and countless other occupations which are not directly involved in the education of children, as well as the facilities needed to house this massive bureaucracy, eat up a disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars. Consolidate the administrations, cut those positions, and slash those salaries. Bureaucrats should not be making four and five times the teachers in the trenches.

Numerous other problems do not lend themselves so easily to correction. The massive effort to centralize and standardize education has removed control from the people who should be served by, and therefore should control, the education process. Curriculum has become a political battleground, with the Right wanting schools to teach intelligent design and nationalistic propaganda and the Left wanting them to teach homosexual history and sexual liberation. The focus on variety—in learning styles, teaching methods, and more—has made education more about entertainment than learning. Teachers unions protect inept teachers, and the tenure system makes it impossible for new, highly qualified teachers to find good jobs.

Even more basic still, and therefore more difficult to change, is a set of cultural assumptions at all levels of society that hamstrings the education process. Parents aren’t interested in engaging with their children’s education. Students have no motivation to apply themselves. Decades of universal, compulsory education through secondary school has made graduation more a right than an accomplishment. The confusion of equal opportunity with equal ability creates an educational environment where teachers must teach to the least capable student, leaving those best able and most interested in learning to fend for themselves. Everyone thinks the system has malfunctioned, and everyone knows whose fault it is: not mine.

My vision for a functional education system would scrap the present manifestation of public education entirely, but if we’re discussing what to do with what we have, I have an unusual suggestion: pay teachers less. That, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom (which is a sanitized way of saying “campaign rhetoric”) and some unconventional experiments. There is a mindset which says that the problem with American schools is that education does not pay enough to attract the best and brightest that universities have to offer. If teachers were paid in a way comparable to other certified professionals, then maybe the kind of people we attract to be nurses, doctors, engineers, and lawyers would want to be teachers instead. My wife is a teacher, and so I understand acutely the attractiveness of raising teacher salaries and even the unfairness of their salaries relative to their workloads.

Baiting university students with the promise of more money, however, misunderstands the basic problem. American colleges are not under-producing qualified teachers. In fact, there are so many new teachers being sent out into the workforce, they can’t all find jobs. The ones that can find jobs, often find them as substitutes, teaching assistants, interim teachers, or as unprepared, ill-equipped new teachers in dangerous inner city schools. It is hard to imagine many people who actually spend time around teachers and hear about their problems directly (and constantly) honestly believe that the problem is that they simply lack the skill or financial motivation to do their jobs right.

Here’s the real problem. If my wife is a third grade teacher—and she isn’t, but bear with me—everyday she is faced with the same enigma. In her class she has little Bobby who is reading at a sixth grade level but still hasn’t mastered his multiplication tables. She also has little Sarah who is functionally illiterate but already has a rudimentary grasp of fourth grade math concepts. Little Mitchell is right on track with his learning if only my wife can convince him to sit in his seat and do his work. Little Rene is always too sleepy to pay attention, while little Marcus still doesn’t have a working grasp of conversational English. In addition to these five, she has twenty to twenty-five more students, equally diverse. Now, it doesn’t matter if you are Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs and Mister Rogers all rolled up into one. There is no way anyone, no matter how qualified and no matter how well-paid, is going to come up with a multi-subject day of learning that is going to meet most or all of the needs of that class. Teaching devolves into learning-themed crowd management. In seven years, my wife is teaching tenth grade: Bobby is in remedial math, Sarah is cheating her way through high school English, Mitchell is on ADHD medication that has retarded his learning, Rene is pregnant, and Marcus is the father. The problem is compounded.

At $35,000 a year, my wife certainly isn’t getting paid enough to deal with that, even if it is only for nine months out of the year. It is hard to imagine, however, that one teacher making $60,000 is going to be able to solve the problem any better. On the other hand, two teachers making $30,000 each and managing two separate classes of only ten students each might just make a dent. Sure, there is still going to be diversity that needs to be overcome. Students will still present unique problems that will distract from an ideal educational environment. Some potential teachers might even be diverted from entering the field because of the reduced pay (though other ways to incentivize, such as broader loan forgiveness, could easily compensate for that). In the end, however, the net result will be a shift from the current reality of crowd management closer to an ideal experience of educational mentorship.

Of course, you could never actually pay teachers less. The unions wouldn’t allow it (and frankly, with the cost of getting a degree reaching meteoric heights, teachers couldn’t afford it). But it was never realistic to raise teacher salaries either, as that would inevitably cut into the lucrative business of multiplying administrative positions and bloating educational bureaucracies. Still, isn’t it nice to imagine a world where teachers could afford to train themselves to become educators and then actually be allowed to educate children? It distracts from the unsettling reality of one twenty-four year old woman in inner-city Atlanta trying desperately to get thirty nine-year-olds to meet state and national proficiency benchmarks on standardized tests so that she can continue to make payments on her six figure student loan debt. It’s almost as if prayer in schools isn’t really the issue after all.

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The Politics of Gun Control

I read Blake Zeff’s recent article on gun control and found myself unexpectedly impressed. The piece begins with this simple premise:

There’s a reason that nothing’s happening to improve gun safety in America despite the mass shootings that now occur so regularly: No one in power is scared of the gun control movement.

And he proceeds from there to discuss not so much the “why” of gun control, which becomes so immediately repetitive in the wake of so many recent shootings, but the “how.” Taking his cues from the movement to legalize same-sex marriage, he explores how gun control advocates need to be willing to invest financially in the cause and to take control of how the debate is framed. Both are pragmatic suggestions and both have worked very well for the same-sex marriage movement. It is an interesting exploration of the technology of politics.

Zeff also attempts to locate the major obstacle that gun control will face that same-sex marriage will not. For him, this is the established opposition represented symbolically (and fiscally) by the NRA. Now, I am skeptical that opposition movements to same-sex marriage can really be described as “relatively weak and poorly organized,” except in places where it likely would have made no difference to begin with, but the political might of the NRA does make for a substantial hurdle to overcome.

Zeff does not, however, note a more crucial difference between the two movements. The press for same-sex marriage was, fundamentally, an attempt to expand a set of rights (as we conceive of them). Gun control, for whatever its merits may be, is an attempt to narrow a set of rights. It is critical to note that I am not saying that owning an assault weapon ought to be a right. For that matter, I am not saying getting married should be either. In simple pragmatic terms, however, where same-sex marriage has been permitted, people have been allowed to do something legally that they could not previously. Were gun control enacted, something that people could once do legally would no longer be licit.

You can frame the position as a libertarian one, as Zeff does. You can cite statistics about gun violence. You can appeal to examples of European nations with little to no gun crimes. You can reframe the parameters of the debate, restructure the narrative as much as you want. At the end of the day, Americans have a deeply ingrained cultural aversion to abridging rights. One need only look at Prohibition, that most dramatic of all prohibitive laws, and note that it took nearly one hundred years of temperance movements to see Prohibition amended to the Constitution and only thirteen years of spotty or non-existent enforcement to see it repealed. Once Americans have a taste of something or even the knowledge of the potential to taste of something, telling them they can’t have it violates a spirit that permeates our society.

Zeff notes that the statistical data which shows a small majority of Americans in favor of at least some form of gun control is rendered pragmatically meaningless when the question of who will be motivated to translate those positions into votes. it is my suspicion that many people who will never own an assault rifle, even people who will never own a gun, when the time comes to decide whether or not to restrict a activity they have no intention of participating in, they will react viscerally and decisively. The Enlightenment sense of entitlement, of rights, is more essential to American culture even than Christian morality. To overturn it will require a more herculean effort even than the marginal gains that have been made toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

That is not to say it can’t be done. It obviously can be. Americans have, from time to time and with varying degrees of permanence, broached new frontiers of government restriction of behavior. It is not typical, but it is possible. What’s more, it is not even my intention to argue against trying to achieve gun control. While I recognize that pressing gun restrictions, even to the point that we already have, is antithetical to the spirit of those founders who drafted and supported the Bill of Rights, I also don’t owe them any particular loyalty. I’d be happier in an America with fewer guns. Or no guns, since in my experience they exist primarily for sport hunting and violence directed at people–aggressive and defensive, licit and illicit.

All of that is beside the point. The point is that Zeff, while making an interesting and likely constructive argument for the mechanics of achieving gun control, fails to accurately grasp the problem of his parallel to same-sex marriage. This is not like knowing how to grow cucumbers and using that to learn how to grow squash. This is like knowing how to grow cucumbers and trying to use that to learn how to ungrow them. It’s a whole different ball game.

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Love Song for the South

I am not a Southerner by birth. In fact, I was an adult before I ever moved to the South for the first time. In view of those facts, my sudden and temporary exodus from the South should seem like a small affair, hardly worth mentioning (especially in this venue where I try to avoid autobiography as much as possible). Nevertheless, eight years living in the best and worst of Arkansas and Tennessee has thoroughly acculturated me.

I have been in the barren landscape of the American Southwest for only just over a week, and the culture shock, such as it is, has yet to wear off. I am not yet accustomed to the cool dry mornings and the hot dry afternoons. I still get confused momentarily at every sign where Spanish is the primary language, and English the translation. The Spanish Renaissance architecture, the dust storms, the cloudless skies, the brown landscape, the flat horizon. None of it even remotely recalls my adopted home in East Tennessee with the Smoky Mountains rising to greet me every morning.

The greatest difference is not, however, a matter of climate, scenery, or language. It is one of culture. The stereotype of the South moving at a slower pace, expressing herself in a more polite idiom, embracing notions of honor and classic masculinity, of belles and beaus and agrarian simplicity are, James C. Cobb rightly notes in his history of southern identity, mythic constructions. Cobb does not, however, give quite enough attention to just how closely myth can conform itself to reality. The peculiar culture of the South, her sectional identity—nascent, perhaps, before the Civil War, but consciously constructed after that—can only be dismissed entirely by those academics (especially those educated Northern elites, curse us) who have only studied her but not lived in her.

There are numerous ways to attempt to quantify the cultural solidarity of the South against those who believe it is exaggerated or constructed out of misinformed nostalgia. The political solidarity is an obvious place to start, both as Democrats in the nineteenth century and beyond and then as Republicans in more recent history. Another obvious signifier is the historical predominance of democratic forms of religion in the South: the Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples. In either case, it would be simple to look at distinguishing political or religious features and reverse engineer from these telling facts about the South’s distinctive culture.

But southerners and sojourners alike do not experience those distinctive in this way. Instead, let me relay an anecdote or two that has been characteristic of my experience. After having lived in Arkansas for four years, I took a trip to the Midwest. While passing through Indiana, I stopped for a quick meal with a friend who lived nearby. The lunch was wonderful, but I couldn’t help but notice throughout how brusquely my friend addressed herself to the waitress. The waitress, in kind, seemed to respond to her just as abruptly. There was no overt hostility, but there were also a dearth of “please” and “thank you,” of smiles or friendly chatter. There certainly was nothing conversation about the tone. When lunch was over, I asked my friend if the waitress had done something to upset her, and she was confused. The waitress had been great as far as she was concerned. She left her a big tip. That was, in her Midwestern mind, a perfectly pleasant transaction. A similar lunch would probably have prompted distress for a southerner, as it did for me.

Some time later, after I had moved to Tennessee, I had occasion to attend a seminar in New York. I pride myself on my punctuality, and so I was surprised to find that when I arrived for the orientation precisely at seven o’clock when it was scheduled, I had already missed the first fifteen minutes and was left with nowhere to sit. Analogous seminars in Memphis invariable started fifteen minutes late. From New York, I took my wife into New England to visit my childhood home. We stopped at a snack shop along the way in the relatively early morning. We stood a way back from the menu, surveying it. There was no rush. The place was empty, and we had the whole day to explore the area. Nevertheless, we both got the distinct impression that we were being rushed.

There are countless positive antitheses to these as well. The police officer and the mechanic who replaced a torn belt on the side of the road in rural Arkansas asking nothing more in payment than a post card whenever we got where we were going. Walking into the barber after a bargain cutter performed a hack job on my hair and receiving the undivided care of the entire staff. Standing at the counter of a general store in North Carolina, holding up a line of tourists while I talked to the girl behind the counter about her morning sickness from her last pregnancy. Getting to know intimately the staff of a small town visitor center as we took hours to seek out the perfect place to eat. Sitting down with a stranger outside a store on main street and talking about nothing while our wives shopped.

On my last fateful trip out of the South, if you’ll pardon the melodrama, my wife and I stopped at a diner in Arkansas. A man in the parking lot noticed our Tennessee tags. He asked if the county on the license plate was near Sevier County. When we told him it was, he stopped and talked to us about his love of the Smokies, about his wife who had died some years ago, and about how he had scattered some of her ashes in the mountains. We offered our condolences. When I told him where I was moving, he offered me his condolences. Best wishes, God blesses, and good to me yous were all obligatorily exchanged, and my wife and I, delayed but not bothered, ate our breakfast.

That last incident sums up for me my brief but transformative experience in the South. Taken individually, my experiences elsewhere or my experiences in the South may be written off as so many unrelated incidents, not indicative of anything. Taken together, however, they manifest the character of a culture. Others from other parts of the nation will have had some or all of those experiences in their native regions, but I am convinced that they represent the soul of the South. Changed and changing, she nevertheless retains that distinctive pace, that polite, if only superficially so, idiom, that conservatism which is not limited to politics, that masculinity which is simple but virile, that femininity which is backward and self-contradictory but alluring, and that community where people are not strangers by default who become friends in time but friends automatically who may by circumstance be estranged.

There is, of course, a note of doxology in the above. It certainly isn’t my intention to place the South up as a paragon against which all other sectional American cultures are to be measured. Those peculiar features of southern culture have led to a number of the most shameful abuses in American history, though no more so than the ethos of the North. (Incidentally, as the historiography of the Northeast—which dominates the national conversation—continues to glory in the shame of race slavery in the South, it is curiously unconcerned with the analogous indignities which resulted from its competing system of wage slavery which, in some respects, continues even into the present.) Instead, I intend only to affirm the reality of those sectional differences and to express, on a personal level, my preference for the South, especially as I now find myself estranged from them.

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