Tag Archives: children

Teachers Know: Pay Isn’t the Problem

My wife wants to quit her job. She told me as much on a walk this afternoon. I wasn’t overly concerned. This has become an annual ritual in the early months of every spring term. Like so many teachers, she reaches a point in her year where the demands on her time and emotional energy exceed her capacity to give. She won’t actually quit–though the desire is real–but I was reminded by a recent Quillette article just how many teachers do leave and just how facile the usual impulse to scapegoat pay really is.

This isn’t to say that teacher salaries aren’t paltry compared to the training and task we require of them (although my wife does make more at her snooty exurban school than I do at my backwoods college). It’s just that raising pay doesn’t address the real problems. The Quillette article references four areas of concern for current teachers that drive high attrition rates (citing statistics between 8% and 40% nationally): poor administration, oversized classrooms, paperwork, and discipline. Low pay is not among them–after all, teachers know what they’re getting into in that regard before they choose the career.

Administration is an easy target if only because it is so glaringly appropriate. Advocates of higher pay often note the salaries of administrators relative to teachers (a common refrain in higher education as well) to suggest where budgets might be trimmed. The problem isn’t just with pay though; it is with divergent priorities. Administrators are responsible to parents and to school boards. The former cares only about education in the very narrowest sense of ensuring a positive experience for their child. The latter cares about education only in the bureaucratic sense: test scores, attendance rates, funding. Teachers have the luxury neither of committing fully to a single student nor of abstracting all their students into numbers. They must grapple with the lived reality of the classroom. It’s unsurprising then that, as the article notes, there is so much anecdotal evidence of endemic conflict between teachers and administrators.

Overcrowding in classrooms is another familiar target and one that cannot be addressed through pay raises. In fact, as I have already suggested, one radical solution might be to pay teachers less. Alternatively, districts could work to put more non-teaching adults into a classroom. This was the approach at the school where I did my own clinical teaching, and it proved effective as long as the auxiliary staff and teachers worked deliberately together. However it is achieved, it is critical that the ratio of adults to children in a room be improved. A better paid, better educated, better qualified teacher still cannot effectively instruct 25 six-year-olds at once.

The complaint about paperwork is one I have heard floating out in the ether but not one that I have encountered from actual teachers or experienced in my own brief contact with secondary education. Professional development, peer learning communities, and staff meetings are never greeted with much enthusiasm, but neither do they consume much time or intellectual energy. I was once, during clinical teaching, made to dance around the room as part of a professional development, an approach I found demeaning (as many education professional developments often are) but not burdensome. It was enough to make me want to leave the room but not education. My wife, meanwhile, looks forward to her monthly professional development days, has never heard of a fad speaker brought in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and usually has something she has learned to share when she gets home.

The final point, however, on discipline has been a topic of regular discussion in our household over the last year. A new policy in my wife’s district that requires all students to be in the general classroom regardless of behavior (unless they have an IEP that excuses them from the room) has been among the greatest sources of frustration this year. A new policy of negotiating with students (I prefer to think of them as tiny little terrorists whenever I hear the policy explained) ensures that teachers who bring discipline issues to administrators get met with a refresher on how to love their little ones into submission.

I had my own Twlight Zone-esque experiences as a clinical teacher that, in large part, drove me away from secondary education as a career option. In one instance, a boy wore a pornographic sweatshirt to school–it was a mosaic of cartoon girls’ faces contorted in orgasm and covered in semen. (Cartoon semen, not real semen…although adolescent boys being what they are…) How the boy made it to my fourth period class is a mystery, but I reported it to the vice principal. Not unlike the anecdote in the article, my administrator asked me “But how do you know…” (the poor man had apparently never witnessed the female orgasm) and “Maybe he just doesn’t realize…” Fortunately, the student was all to proud to confess when confronted. He had apparently been trying to bate teachers all morning into reporting him, but a surplus of apathy or dearth of courage had gotten him all the way to lunch unscathed.

A less savory incident occurred with a licensure candidate teaching at my school. Some students took a dislike to him and decided to start a rumor that he was a sexual predator who had come to the middle school to look for a new wife. The situation that unfolded was tragic, though not as tragic as it could be. The rumor was reported to the administration, but, because it had not been discovered until close to the end of the day on a Friday, administrators decided to postpone confronting the students until the weekend. The teaching candidate in question twisted in the wind over the weekend, while the students carried on their little joke now attaching an accusatory hashtag to it on social media.

When Monday came around and the students were confronted, they all demurred that it had just been a harmless prank (and one of the central figures, a low performing students, swore he didn’t even know what a pedophile was). Because one of the students was the daughter of a teacher and the granddaughter of another teacher, the administration decided that rather than any disciplinary action they would just ensure no more contact between the students in question and the teaching candidate. When they were in his assigned class, he was banished to the teachers lounge and the cooperating teacher took over. In the end, concerns liability dictated everyone’s behavior and that prospective teacher became a casualty of attrition before he ever got his first full posting.

As with everything on that site, the sounds points in the Quillette article are mixed in with a little casual racism, a lot of self pity, and a fair helping of naïve academic idealism. The last of these is why I really gave up on teaching in public schools. I need to be able to demand more from students and assess on performance, and those are not (for better or worse) the prevailing aims of public education. In the end though, the broader point rings very true and needs to be repeated as often and as loudly as possible: the public education system is broken and more money will not fix it. It isn’t even that it is an incomplete fix. It is the wrong fix. Like giving a Band-Aid to a child with a fever, pay raises may make teachers feel better but they won’t solve the real attrition crisis.

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Homework, 1874: The Plays of Children

William Elliot Griffis graduated from Rutgers in 1869 and taught at a local grammar school. An otherwise unremarkable individual, Griffis had met and tutored one of the many ryūgakusei* then studying in the United States. Intrigued, Griffis secured an invitation to travel to Japan in 1870 on the payroll of the Japanese government as a science teacher. He was quickly promoted from his relatively remote post in Echizen to a prestigious position at Kaisei Gakkō (the future Tokyo Imperial University), where he taught until 1874.

Griffis is a fascinating figure in his own right, one who wrote extensively about history, current events, culture, and Japan and one about whom much was written during and shortly after his life. What reignited my interest, however, was rifling through some old folders of research material from my days as a graduate student and discovering pages and pages of student essays that he preserved from his time as an instructor at Kaisei Gakkō. This treasure trove of documents is a powerful source of information about the early Meiji period, particularly the cross-cultural contacts between foreigners and the Japanese. The subjects that Griffis assigned for his students to write on are almost as revealing as what they say. So, I have culled some of the more interesting selections to be shared here with minimal commentary.

*The ryūgakusei, exchange students, were a group of young Japanese men sent to Europe and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century to learn about the West and prepare for diplomatic or political careers.

On to more benign subjects than the murderous rituals profiled last week, Griffis had his students write about what they called “the plays of children.” Most respondents gave descriptions of and rules for the kind of games children around Japan played, and many of these essays include some of the most wonderful illustrations in the collection. One unnamed student, however, prefaced his discussion of games and rules with a little philosophy of play:

The instruction of people depends entirely upon their parent’s minds, by this I mean that they must be properly educated from their youth. When a tree is young it can be bent with ease; a pin for a post, and a thread for a rope are enough to be twisted into any shape. A small rivulet can be stopped or led in any direction without difficulty, even by a simple hoe in the hand of a child. But after the tree has grown up with a towering trunk, with its boughs mingling with clouds; or after the rivulet has become a mighty river with waves on its surface, and carrying down millions of tons of soil every year, nothing in the world can bend the one or stop the other. But if a man works very hard from his young age, without any recess, he will entirely weaken his brain and will die in an early age. So I think it is the best way to let the children play until they become about ten years old, and then go to study.

The premise, that it is easier to mold a person the younger you start, is abruptly left behind midway in favor of what would now be considered a very late start for an education–perhaps reflecting the likely privileged upbringing of the author. It certainly flies in the face of the wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, himself born in 1874, who once wrote that “a boy is only sent to be taught at school when it is too late to teach him anything.”

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The Many Layers of Brightburn

I went to see Brightburn this week, and let me preface what follows by saying that as a movie, judged purely by entertainment value, the film is good but not great. I probably won’t buy it; I may never even watch it again. Even so, as I was driving home from the cinema, I couldn’t help but wonder at the many different levels that the story worked on. It occurred to me that, had this been directed by Jordan Peele instead of by the juvenile minds behind PG Porn, it might have been the subject of the same kind of glowing and relentlessly analytical think pieces that appeared everywhere about Get Out and Us.*

Whether the Gunn brothers meant it to or not, Brightburn operates at a number of relatively sophisticated levels that let the film linger on longer in the mind than its low budget effects and jump scares might otherwise imply. [Warning, I make no promises about spoilers beyond this point.]

The first and most obvious level, the one nearest to what the filmmakers evidently intended, is as a critique of transhumanism, not unlike others I have profiled here in the past. The film was marketed as a subversion of the Superman origin story, a grimly realistic assessment of what it might look like for a god-man to suddenly appear on earth. The naïve assumption at the basis of superhero logic is that such a being would be benevolent toward us lesser mortals, as though there were an inviolable connection between higher-order physical abilities and higher-order morality (defined as humanistic altruism). Not all super-people are heroes, but the unspoken but foundational rule of the superhero world is that there are at least as many superhuman heroes as there are superhuman villains–or, perhaps more precisely, that the balance of superhuman power in the final estimation tilts slightly but significantly toward the good. (More on this in a moment.)

Brightburn turns this on its head, observing as does philosopher John Gray, that power may not yield a benign paternalism. In fact, there is no reason to assume it should. Since the power of Brighburn over humans mortality is almost total and their power over his mortality is almost nonexistent, the closest analogue in the real world is the relationship between humans and animals. That suggests a range of possible behaviors for superhumans, all of which find expression in the film. People domesticate and feel affection for certain animals, as Brightburn does (intermittently) for his family and–in an even more perfect parallel–for the little girl that he has a crush on. People kill animals out of fear for harm (mortal or merely inconvenient) they might do, as Brightburn does when his life or his domestic peace are threatened. People kill animals for sport or out of disgust, as does Brighburn to a waitress at a diner that he considered a pest. Brightburn behaves toward people the way that people behave toward animals, and that (more than the Superman narrative) has the savor of reality. Contrary to the Billie Eilish lyrics that sound over the end credits, Brightburn is not the “bad guy.” Not really. He is just something else. When he tells the school counselor that he is “superior” to other students who he had hurt, he sounds like a sociopath to the people in the film. All the audience hears is clarity. He is superior.

The basic arc of the film operates on other levels as well, though these may not have been intended or fully realized by the filmmakers. It is, second, a rather telling critique of the frailty of contemporary social dynamics. The film shines a particularly harsh light on the impunity with which people do evil to one another, and to the extent to which Brightburn is evil, he is evil because people made him that way. The myth that there will always be a little more evil in the world than good is not confined to heroes vs. villains. It is a reflection of the more general belief that people are, on the balance, good–if not any particular individual than at least humanity in the aggregate. The film, however, shows the fragility of this myth

When the carnage of the film starts, it is not the result of any great malice on the part of Brightburn. He merely parrots the behaviors and attitudes of the people around him, with the sole difference that his behaviors are exaggerated to match his abilities. When a student allows Brighburn to smack his head on the concrete during gym class, Brightburn responds by crushing her hand. This inspires fear in everyone around them for reasons that are clear on the surface and then murky when you consider them. After all, the blow to the head–equally deliberate–was the potentially more deadly act; the hard hand squeeze, in contrast, seems like overzealous but not disproportionate revenge. The real fear comes from the shattered illusion that there is an outer limit to the consequences of our actions. Born of a false sense of power and reliance on the very social rules that we expect to protect us, people (like the malicious little girl) treat others viciously with impunity. Brightburn–like any sociopathic character (think Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America)–indicates how precarious our way of life is when someone is not bound by our rules and limitations.

The mother of the girl with the injured hand didn’t learn this lesson at first. She stood in the principal’s office, demanding that the boy be arrested, calling him the same kinds of names that got her daughter’s hand broken, and attacking his parents. Brightburn’s mother doesn’t hit her, the way we might expect her to, because the situation unfolds under the dutiful and watchful eye of the principal and the sheriff. Brightburn is not bound by any of this. He calmly takes an eye for an eye, responding to the mother with all the anger and visciousness that she treated him. When the school counselor threatens him, he responds in kind. When the sheriff tries to exert his authority, Brightburn dispatches him without theatrics.

In every case, the “evil” of Brightburn is a mere repayment with interest of the evil that has been doled out on him. This is especially true of his parents, both of whom he loves and respects up until the very moment they betray him. When his father becomes rough with him, Brightburn gets rough back. Even so, he is willing to mend the relationship until the moment his father (knowing full well it will be ineffective) tries to shoot Brighburn in the head with a rifle. The patricide that follows is a quid pro quo. The same is true of his mother, who Brightburn embraces only to find that she intends to stab him in the back. Then she too must die.

In this reading, Brightburn is still not the bad guy, although the concern is less with transhumanism than with the nature/nurture debate. Though the filmmakers include a epiphanic moment of evil awakening, the rest of the film leans heavily on the idea that Brightburn has been taught to be evil by observing how others interact. The issue here is not that the superhuman is powerful and for that reason disinclined to do good; the issue is that he has learned from us to be evil, but that his power prevents that evil from being checked conventional social rules or policing authorities. Brightburn is how we would all act if we too were bulletproof.

The film provides ample space to consider nature and roots of evil in individuals and society, but there is a third level at which the film operates that is only tangentially related to these themes. In some sense, the film operates as a hyperbolic consideration of adoption anxiety–for both children and parents. Coming from a composite family, the most common objection I hear to the idea of adoption is “but what if you end up with a bad kid.” (It’s rarely phrased quite so bluntly, but the sentiment is the same. No one ever asks about the numerous defective kids that people bring into their families naturally and entirely by accident.) Brightburn takes that question to its most fantastically dark place: what if the kid you “adopted” was an extraterrestrial, immortal psycho-murderer? How strong are the affective bonds between parent and child when not fortified by biology? How long and under what circumstances does your love endure?

The answers Brightburn gives are actually quite touching, as both parents retain their familial orientation and their strong affection for Brightburn even up to and through the moment that each attempts to murder him. Brightburn, for his part, takes the knowledge that he has been “found in the woods” comparatively in stride, continuing to love his parents up to (and possibly through) the moment he actually does kill each of them. Families with adopted children may not find the ultimate message of the film all that endearing, insofar as it superficially seems to confirm fears about adopted kids, but they will certainly see in it the clear struggles that composite families face.

“Do you even know who his real mother is?” “I’m his real mother.” This exchange between a nasty individual and Brightburn’s mother has perhaps more emotional resonance than any other in the film. “You know what I meant.” “I know exactly what you meant.” The candid struggle between the need to suppress the otherness of the adopted child and to affirm the uniqueness of the situation. The anxiety and crisis of identity the child feels as his “true” origins are gradually revealed. All of these play a part in making this sub-plot of the film feel very real in the midst of a lot of fantastic unrealism.

For all this, Brightburn is also a film where the camera lingers for a full thirty seconds on a woman trying to pull a shard of glass out of her open eye. So I’m trying to be careful not to over-intellectualize it. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have hit on a truly polyvalent tool for considering our anxieties about social decorum and cohesion, as well as our struggle with the fabric of good and evil beyond the narrow limits of our experience. It’s a film worth seeing–certainly if you like horror movies or superhero movies, but also if your looking for an interesting vehicle for considering some deeper (perhaps unintended) meanings as well.

*Frankly, I loved both of those movies and, based on the subject matter alone, I think that Brighburn probably would have appealed to Peele as a project. He may even have made a more entertaining film out of it. The critical response would have been different, though. That’s my only point.
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Some Standard Wisdom for Converting Blacks

Less than a month into this series, I already feel the need to sound the reminder that in quoting some of these articles, my intent is not to endorse or make light of or even to stand in judgment of some of the darker sides of late nineteenth century thought. This warrants particular restatement with the following article by J. W. Crenshaw. It would be easy to read the below and assume either that my intent is racist or callous or anarchonistically judgmental. It is none of these. Instead, the following article sounds, among other things, a pair of themes that I have tried to reiterate here in various ways. The first is the need to complicate the narrative of the Civil War that we all learned in school: the North invaded the South to free the slaves and give blacks their rights. Historians have almost entirely abandoned this carefully constructed fiction, but the public still casts the Civil War in these terms, failing to see the stark racism and paternalism that dominated in the North no less than the South. The other is the sinister overtones that education often takes on in the hands of progressives. It’s a message that has ongoing merit.

Even if neither of these themes were present, however, the following is important to read both for those in the Stone-Campbell Movement because it is part of our collective history the consequences of which we continue to live with in the de facto racial segregation of our churches and for Americans in general who need to be forced to read chapters of our history which serve neither to glorify US nationalism or to provide the starting point in a narrative of national redemption. What follows in “Difficulties in Christianizing the Colored Race” is precisely the shades of grey that we all need to grapple with in the formation of our historical consciousness.

As to what the future of the colored race of America is to be, socially, politically or religiously, we do not believe any one can conjecture with any degree of accuracy. Naturally superstitious and with their race prejudices to contend with, we approach them more from a sense of Christian duty than from any hope of achieving grand results. To succeed in our mission work among them we must agree upon some decided policy. If properly approached, we do not believe that there is a better missionary field in the world.

Experience has proven that we can not reach them through the preaching of white men. The colored leaders now, excepting a few, are ignorant and superstitious. In what direction, then, does hope lie? Certainly not in this shouting generation. The hope and the only hope, speaking from experience, is in the children. And when we educate a few colored men, as we have been doing for this work, we must not measure their success by converts made. The children, who are just learning to read, are the ones most benefited. Those whom we send out must be impressed with the importance of continuing to sound into the ears of the auditors that Christianity is something more than shouting the clothes off in the first part of the night, and serving Satan the balance of the night. We need to select young men of good character to educate them for this work. There are brethren among us who have the means to help build such a school as we need for this purpose. With the plain gospel plea that we have, if loving liberal hearts, could be interested in this work, in the next generation many of the difficulties that now so hinder our progress could be surmounted, and thousands of this unfortunate race could be Christianized.

Brethren, this is a question worthy of the attention of every Christian.

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A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press

Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Caroline Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The time of the early nineteenth century as the period of change is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman’s work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman’s more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

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Dorothy Day, the Woman

Being myself both anti-abortion and anti-war, both a complementarian and an environmentalist, you might think that I would realize that others, like myself, do not fall neatly into the media constructed left-right continuum of social and political thought. Nevertheless, I still found myself going into The Long Loneliness with the assumption that Dorothy Day, hero of the radical left, must be a rabid feminist of the latest type. Of course, as a historian, I should have realized the anachronism of assuming that a woman who came of age just as so-called first wave feminists were making strides toward legal equality could not be expected to share the concerns of so-called second wave feminists who would begin to blur the distinctions between equality and uniformity in the 1960s. Especially since Day’s book was published in 1952. (For all I know, she went on to mirror the changing landscape of feminist thought, but that is a topic for another study.) Whatever my misconceptions and miscalculations, I was pleasantly surprised to read Day’s own reflections on her womanhood, not because they necessarily paralleled or reinforced my own thoughts on gender but simply because she represented a strong, thoughtful, articulate woman who was, nonetheless, still a woman and saw herself as distinct from–dare I say complementary to–man.

I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. A child is not enough. A husband and children, no matter how busy one may be kept by them, are not enough. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness. Men may go away and become desert Fathers, but there were no desert mothers. Even the anchoresses led rather sociable lives, with bookbinding and spiritual counseling, even if they did have to stay in one place.

That observation was inoffensive enough, but she would make others that might not sit quite so well as she pitted her own womanhood against the work she wanted to do:

I am quite ready to concede now that men are the single-minded, the pure of heart, in these movements. Women by their very nature are more materialistic, thinking of the home, the children, and of all things needful to them, especially love. And in their constant searching after it, they go against their own best interests. So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of works of mercy as we know them, regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I was bent on following journalist’s side of the work. I wanted the privileges of the woman and the work of the man, without following the work of the woman. I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!

In that struggle, she did not always choose what the “woman” in her desired. Perhaps, as I think some feminists would argue, this was her overcoming the gender norms foisted upon her by a misogynistic society. Perhaps, as I would suggest, this is merely the sacrifice of self that makes Day’s life so profound. Reflecting on her conversion, which precipitated her divorce, she wrote:

I saw the film Grapes of Wrath at this time and the picture of that valiant woman, the vigorous mother, the heart of the home, the loved one, appealed to me strongly. Yet men are terrified of momism and women in turn want a shoulder to lean on. That conflict was in me. A woman does not feel whole without a man. And for a woman who had known the joys of marriage, yes, it was hard. It was years before I awakened without that longing for a face pressed against my breast, an arm about my shoulder. The sense of loss was there. It was a price I had paid.

It was not all so dreadfully serious, and one anecdote caught my attention precisely for how typically human it was. It reminded of the kind of casual, unreflective assumptions about gender that you hear every day walking through the mall or rattled off in casual conversation around the office. Here she explains to a friend precisely how she sees a mutual acquaintance from her feminine perspective:

“I tell you, I do like him. I like him very much. But why do I have to go into raptures about him? Do you want me to fall in love with him? But that is just it—the only thing I do not like about him is that he always is raving about women—kissing his hand to them, going down on his knees to them and saying ‘Ah, how I love them, and how they have wrecked my life!’ Women don’t like such a man. He is too easy to get. They prefer a more aloof type so that if he does make love them they can flatter themselves that there is some rare quality in them which made him succumb.”

And yet, sixty years later, guys like that still exist. Go figure.

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Dorothy Day, the Child

Unsurprisingly, Dorothy Day began life as a child. Equally unsurprisingly, when she looked back on her childhood she found both profound truths and glimpses of her future self. This is perhaps a great act of anachronism–one which would be by no means unique to her–in which we project back onto a past of infinite possibilities the notion of fate which comes from hindsight and the wisdom which comes from distance. Even if that is true, even if to the smallest degree, it does not thereby negate the value of this self-reflection, this turning to the past to explain the present and to extract from its eventualities eternal truths. After all, Christ pointed often to children for just such a reason, either to validate this human instinct or because he knew that through it we might more easily grasp that which he taught us. It was to those like “little children” that truth had been revealed, not the wise, whom Jesus must rebuke and remind that out of the mouths of babes came true praise. To the those who would become children, the kingdom of heaven belongs. So when Day looks back on her childhood in search of kernels of truth, she may indulge a human impulse but she also practices a Christian virtue.

What she finds is both the seeds of simple faith and the onset of our most basic sins:

We did not search for God when we were children. We took Him for granted. We were at some time taught to say our evening prayers, “Now I lay me,” and “Bless my father and mother.” This done, we prayed no more unless a thunderstorm made us hide our heads under the covers and propitiate the Deity by promising to be good.

Very early we had a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. My conscience was very active. There were ethical concepts and religious concepts. To steal cucumbers from Miss Lynch’s garden on Cropsey Avenue was wrong. It was also wrong to take money from my mother, without her knowledge, for a soda. What a sense of property rights we had as children! Mine and yours! It begins in us as infants. “This is mine.” When we are very young just taking makes it mine. Possession is nine points of the law. As infants squabbling in the nursery we were strong in that possessive sense. In the nursery might made right. We had not reached the age of reason. But at the age of four I knew it was wrong to steal.

She also remember with what innocence and clarity she first learned about poverty and became disillusioned with the way it is approached in supposedly Christian society. Her words are both a testament to the obviousness of our shortcomings and to the wisdom and impressionability of our youth:

Children look at things very directly and simply. I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor. I didn’t see anyone having a banquet and calling in the lame, the halt and the blind. And those who were doing it, like the Salvation Army, did not appeal to me. I wanted, though I did not know it then, a synthesis. I wanted life and I wanted the abundant life. I wanted it for others too. I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.

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What Good are Laws?

Throughout this political season–in addition to not so subtly pushing my Christian anarchist agenda–I have been trying to refer people as often as possible to different periods in the history of American politics in an effort to broaden the scope with which we look at the political process in the US. Today, I’d like to offer this quote, gleaned in passing from an oral history, that gives the political opinions of an early twentieth century resident of Italian Harlem:

What good are the laws of this country if a child is given liberty to talk back to his parents?

What good indeed? It’s a remarkably different perspective than, say, what good are the laws of this country if they don’t ensure a child’s future right to choose his or her own religion without any bias from childhood religiosity.

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Couple Sues Eleven Year Old Baseball Prodigy

In case you weren’t paying attention, the litigiousness of our society has reached unintentional self-deprecating proportions:

A New Jersey woman who was struck in the face with a baseball at a Little League game is suing the young catcher who threw it. Elizabeth Lloyd is seeking more than $150,000 in damages to cover medical costs stemming from the incident at a Manchester Little League game two years ago. She’s also seeking an undefined amount for pain and suffering. Lloyd was sitting at a picnic table near a fenced-in bullpen when she was hit with the ball. Catcher Matthew Migliaccio was 11 years old at the time and was warming up a pitcher.

The wife is claiming that the errant ball was actually thrown at her intentionally and constitutes assault. She also insists that the whole exercise of warming up was an “inappropriate…sporting activity,” in spite of the fact that it took place in a fenced-in bullpen. The husband, putting the absurd cherry on this cake, complains of the loss of “services, society and consortium” from his wife and is holding the child personally responsible.

There’s a whole litany of crazy here that could be addressed. Like that I was unaware that it is even possible to sue an eleven year old. Or how about the parents of the catcher’s misdirected anger at Little League for not helping with their legal fees. Or that someone would send threatening letters to a child. Or the unnerving reality that a society exists–and persists–on the planet where something like this can happen.

But the question my wife and I just keep coming back to: how hard can an eleven year old really throw? I mean, c’mon folks. Really? Really? If I were standing two feet from an eleven year old and he threw a ball at my face as hard as he could, I don’t think it would cause $150,000 and two years worth of damage. (It certainly wouldn’t prevent me from providing “services, society and consortium” for my wife.) It wasn’t even the pitcher throwing heat–do eleven year olds throw heat? It was a catcher warming up the pitcher at some reasonable distance from a picnic table. If there is even a shred of truth to the allegations from this woman, then the parents should just take out a loan and settle. It won’t matter. This kid has a multimillion dollar Major League deal waiting just around the corner for him. Can you say, “Henry Rowengartner?”

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What’s Wrong With Spanking in Public Schools?

Due to a recent interest in public views about child rearing, and particularly with innovative new disciplinary methods, I recently came across a USA Today editorial opposing corporal punishment in public schools. It ought to go without saying that I have a profound dislike for corporal punishment of any kind applied to anyone. Not being a parent myself, by the grace of God, I stop short of presenting this dislike as a conviction, but–as an ardent opponent of violence properly understood and in all its forms–the prospect of hitting a child in a way which is typically logically unconnected to the offense being corrected is repugnant to me. In addition to being nonsensical and to the multiplicity of more taxing but more benign forms of discipline that could function as alternatives, corporal punishment teaches that violence is an appropriate corrective, an ethical and pragmatic fallacy that has far-reaching personal, political, and global consequences when children inevitably undergo the metamorphosis into citizens.

Yet, with all that being said, something about this article immediately rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t even the pathetic and predictable public declamation of everyone’s favorite ideologically backward whipping boy, the South, in the second sentence. It also wasn’t the specious attempt by the writer to make an entire system culpable in the excessive of a few extreme incidents. It wasn’t even the shameless way the bugaboo of racism was conjured. Okay, so maybe it was all those things–as good points poorly argued are a pet peeve of mine–but not first and not most. This is what really troubled me:

When children are struck by school personnel, they learn a couple of lessons, neither of them good: One is that it’s OK for non-parental authority figures to hit them. Another is that violence is an acceptable response to bad behavior.

Why should that bother me? After all, that sounds very much like my primary objection to the corporal punishment of children. Here’s the problem: both of those “bad” lessons are true lessons which will serve children in our society. After all, I wonder if the writer is aware that the police, the most prominent domestic “non-parental authority figures,” still employ force as a means of social control, even in the thirty one states and over one hundred foreign countries that have disallowed corporal punishment in schools. We may think ourselves civilized in America because we don’t cane vandals or maim thieves, but our civil servants still strike, mace, wrestle, and electrocute suspected criminals for refusing to comply with official directives. As for violence acting as “an acceptable response to bad behavior,” the continuing presence of capital punishment domestically and military action internationally prove that violence is still very prominent in our culture as a means for suppressing unacceptable behavior.

Perhaps the editorial writer and the enlightened residents of the Northeast would like it if all of that weren’t true, if there were no violent action by the police, no armed conflict internationally, and no capital punishment. As a matter of fact, I’d like those things. But saying that for children to learn that the world is controlled by means of violence is a bad lesson is disingenuous. It is perhaps the most basically true lesson they can learn in school. If they’d like, opponents of corporal punishment can change the way the world works so that the life lessons they admit corporal punishment teaches are no longer true. If, however, the idea is to alter education in an attempt to rework the world order into their ideological image…well, wouldn’t that be shocking.

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