Saturday, January 28, 2006

Academic Freedom

Here is a passage from a statement by Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., president of Providence College, regarding his reasons for prohibiting a production of The Vagina Monologues on his campus:
This policy will inevitably raise questions regarding academic freedom. The true meaning of academic freedom is often misunderstood; it is not the license to hold any view that one chooses. Academic freedom is instead always governed by truth. It is the freedom to pursue the truth in a discipline in accord with the accepted canons of inquiry without any impediment by extraneous considerations. Prohibiting a theatrical production of The Vagina Monologues does not prohibit free inquiry about the play. All members of the campus are free to read, study, and discuss the play in various settings, especially the classroom. It is perfectly appropriate that we study texts that have diverse views in order both to broaden our understanding of others and to bring our own views into sharper focus. I fully expect that one result of this communication will be some controversy. As a long-time student of St. Thomas Aquinas, I think disputes are an important part of education, so long as they are conducted with charity. While arguments about intellectual positions help us to learn from each other, attacks on persons do not.
That seems right to me.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Libertarian or Conservative?

When I was in high school I was something of a libertarian. Looking back on things now, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many adolescent boys are libertarians. Although I am still very attracted to the principles of liberty and personal autonomy that are the hallmarks of libertarianism, there are elements of it, or varieties of it, perhaps, that do not quite satisfy me now. To the extent that there are such things as intellectual heroes, Hadley Arkes is one of mine, and he has a fine contribution in today's installment of On the Square at the First Things blog site that deals with one element of the libertarian view that seems to me open to criticism: it is overly congenial to the hypothetical imperatives of a relativistic utilitarianism. It is worth quoting Arkes at length:
Still, what has not been fully appreciated by the votaries of federalism is the way in which this decision by the Court cannot be cabined in Oregon. The scheme offered to us in the name of federalism asks us to incorporate the view that assisted suicide is just another, tenable view about the proper ends of doctors and medicine. Justice Kennedy plants the premise when he remarks that the Attorney General had sought to bar a policy in Oregon merely “because it may be inconsistent with one reasonable understanding of medical practice.”

The aversion to self-killing or self-murder, the enduring concern about doctors using their powers to end life—all of that is simply diminished now as “one reasonable understanding of medical practice,” no more right or wrong than anything else. To incorporate that understanding at the top of the State, in the national government, is to do nothing less than to erode the conviction that has firmed up the laws for the protection of life at the center and the periphery in this country. If the assistance of suicide is regarded as just another “reasonable understanding of medical practice,” why should that view of things not begin to seep into parts of the federal establishment? Why should it not come to affect the understandings that prevail in military hospitals or in divisions of the National Institutes of Health?

To recall an older example, we might have lived for a while with a federalism that allowed slavery in some of the States. But the question posed by Lincoln is just what would happen to our understanding, as a people, as we had come to incorporate a certain indifference on this point—if we came to think that there was nothing exactly wrong in principle with some men ruling others, as property, without their consent. I am not putting assisted suicide on the same plane as slavery; I am simply trying to remind us of the way in which we may talk ourselves out of moral understandings central to the laws as we talk ourselves into the view that one version of the uses of medicine is quite as reasonable as another. In this way, moral understandings, once firmly settled, become unsettled. And we should not deceive ourselves about the reach of that small change the Court brought forth last week.
One of my best friends, who happens to be a colleague in my department, is also a libertarian, and he assures me that there are many varieties of libertarianism, so it is, of course, something of a generalization to worry too much about the compatibility of this sort of libertarianism with Catholicism. Clearly libertarians can be faithful Catholics, since whatever one happens to think about the morality of assisted suicide, or of anything else, one is not committed to empowering the state to enforce morality unless the common good happens to be at stake as well.

The worry, of course, is the problem of determining when the common good really is at stake, a problem inextricably bound up with the question of what the common good actually is. These are very thorny issues, obviously, and there is no consensus on them even among conservatives, let alone among conservative and libertarians. There is something of a consensus that, when it comes to protecting innocent human life, the common good is involved, and so we have laws against murder. But the consensus even here is tenuous, since not everyone regards the unborn as instantiations of innocent human life, and even some who so regard them do not necessarily think them deserving of the protection of the law. So it should come as no surprise to find that the consensus is even thinner when it comes to issues such as assisted suicide.

Another of my intellectual heroes, Roger Scruton, has written that conservatism, as a political orientation, can be characterized by a committment to certain institutional structures. Scruton does not specify any set of necessary and sufficient structures, but certainly institutional religion would rank high on most lists drawn up by conservatives on the street, even those who are not religious. The reason, I suspect, is that institutional religion provides the clearest framework for understanding fully what is meant by the common good. Political frameworks, such as a democratic constitutional arrangement, can define a common good, but institutional religions are, by their very nature, institutions that reflect the common human experience of generation upon generation of persons who have formed a part of the evolution of a culture, and no political institution can hope to match that for humanistic appeal.

Finally Some Meaningful Evaluations!

Dilexitprior comments that she's surprised to find that professors actually look at Ratemyprofessor.com. Well, of course we do! How else are you going to find out whether you've earned any chili peppers?

Besides, it's hilarious reading. My wife was just perusing it herself, and she's a prof, too. She likes looking up all the people we know to see what students are saying about them, and believe me, students can be very funny sometimes. One student wrote that he would rather castrate himself with a plastic knife than sit through another class with a certain person I happen to know--not me, I assure you, though I'm certain many of my own students feel the same way.

But my wife did draw my attention to my latest evaluation:
A real loser who needs to get his head out of his butt. Rates himself way too highly.
Meow!! You can't beat that for catty precision, Mister! The class he is "rating" here: "loser101". At least he was enrolled in the right course. [Cue: rimshot.]

Oh well. Everybody's a critic. My wife once got an evaluation that described her Latin class as "a rollercoaster ride through hell". I've always been very jealous of that one: my evaluations have been very boring for nearly 10 years. Until this one kid came along to trash me by submitting multiple negative reviews to Ratemyprofessor.com I never had much to laugh at in my evaluations. I'm assuming he got the grade he deserved, since the folks who pass my classes usually don't think I'm all that bad, and their high opinion of me shows in their kind but prosaic evaluations.

On a more general note, it can be very interesting to see what strikes a student about a particular class. I once had a student describe me as a homophobe because in my class on ancient Greek philosophy I discussed the way Aristophanes portrayed homosexuals in his plays. Aristophanes was not a master of subtle humor, and I suppose the kid must have confused what Aristophanes said with what I thought. In a class of 10 weeks of intensive study of the Presocratics, Plato, and Aristotle on matters of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology, this is what he took away from the experience: the professor's a homophobe. Well, I'll have that guy know that I scored as a "high-grade non-homophobe" on the online Homophobia Quiz. So there.

On the other hand, according to the Tomorrowland Sportscar Quiz I'm a



Corvette!

At least some people appreciate my fine detailing.

Now, don't tell Kathy Hutchins over at Gathering Goat Eggs, but I was able to make an honest score of

Elvish

at Quizilla. I'm not really sure how that happened, as I'm really more the Hobbitish type, especially when it comes to beer and single malts. None of that fancy-pants cordial stuff for me, man. Unless it's Drambuie, now there's a cordial for a man, laddie!

Can you tell that it's the end of the fourth week of classes and I'm gearing up for some midterm grading? I hope you can. I especially hope that if you're one of my students and you're reading this instead of getting ready for those midterms. You don't want to wind up like some loser who posts sour-grape reviews at Ratemyprofessor.com, do you? You'd much rather put me in for a chili pepper, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you? Come on, man, I'm desperate here!! I'll give you a ride in my Corvette....

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

God is Love

The Pope issued his first encyclical today, "Deus caritas est." See the stories at CNT, NPR, and the BBC. The Latin text is available at the Vatican website; Zenit has an English translation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Forgive, but Don't Forget

Speaking of books I like, I'm a huge fan of the writing of Frank McCourt. In particular, I like the editions of his books on audio tape, read by the author himself. It's a joy just to listen to his warm voice with its gentle cadences, and it also enables you to listen to the stories while you're running or driving a car or sitting quietly with your eyes closed on a winter's evening. In a big comfy chair. With a glass of Ardbeg or Laphroaig. You'll have to do a fair amount of rewinding.

Angela's Ashes was, in some ways, a difficult book for me. The wit and charm is more than compensated for by the misery and squalor, and in some places it can be rather tough going. In the end, of course, you come away admiring a person who could survive all of that to become a successful teacher and writer without killing a half dozen people along the way, but your admiration for McCourt's virtues is balanced by a certain hatred for those who harmed him so deeply. It is no fun to hate people whom you don't know, but it is even less fun to hate people whom you know to be people who, if they were doing their jobs properly, you would be respecting rather than hating. The people who treated McCourt most despicably were his teachers. If you're a teacher yourself, it is almost impossible to read Angela's Ashes without seriously wanting to throttle someone. But it's too late--those teachers are all dead, and you can't dig them up just to have the pleasure of killing them again. But the worst of it is not the frustration that there's nothing you can do about what happened in the past, it's knowing that you've been seduced into hating people.

What's wrong with hating really evil people? Besides being sinful, it commits a category mistake: the proper object of hatred is not persons but vices. Persons are inherently good, created in the likeness of God; although they often fall far short of what God intends for them, they nevertheless remain imagines Dei, and it is sinful to hate them precisely because hating them rather than their vices, is a misuse of our own faculties, a falling short on our part to live in the way that God intends for us to live.

Easier to say than to do, as Frank McCourt himself ably demonstrates. His first two books, Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, are filled with lyrical passages about the evils of the teachers and priests who stood in the way of his happiness, but there is no escaping the habitual conflation of these evils with the persons who perpetrated them. It would be rash, I think, for me to say that we all make this mistake; but I'm tempted to say it anyway, since whether or not we all make it it is common enough for most people to know instinctively what I'm talking about. Indeed, most people know what I'm talking about so well that they will disagree with me that it is a conflation in the first place--they will say "Of course there's nothing wrong with hating the people who perpetrate evil--if they weren't evil themselves the evils that they do wouldn't get perpetrated in the first place, and for that these people deserve punishment."

Romans 5.8 tells a different story.
But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Contrition and repentance are necessary conditions on forgiveness, but it is worth noting that St Paul emphasizes that Christ died for us prior to anything like contrition and repentance on our part. This tension between God's willingness to die/forgive in anticipation of our contrition and repentance and our own unwillingness to forgive the sins of others when we are very angry at them is interesting to me. On 14 January there was an interesting interview with Frank McCourt on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. If you decide to listen to it for yourself, be sure to read the excerpt from McCourt's new book, a memoir called Teacherman printed on that web page. As usual, the prose is purple and the tale compelling. But one passage really jumped out at me:
I could lay blame. The miserable childhood doesn't simply happen. It is brought about. There are dark forces. If I am to lay blame it is in a spirit of forgiveness. Therefore, I forgive the following: Pope Pius XII; the English in general and King George VI in particular; Cardinal MacRory, who ruled Ireland when I was a child; the bishop of Limerick, who seemed to think everything was sinful; Eamonn De Valera, former prime minister (Taoiseach) and president of Ireland. Mr. De Valera was a half-Spanish Gaelic fanatic (Spanish onion in an Irish stew) who directed teachers all over Ireland to beat the native tongue into us and natural curiosity out of us. He caused us hours of misery. He was aloof and indifferent to the black and blue welts raised by schoolmaster sticks on various parts of our young bodies. I forgive, also, the priest who drove me from the confessional when I admitted to sins of self-abuse and self-pollution and penny thieveries from my mother's purse. He said I did not show a proper spirit of repentance, especially in the matter of the flesh. And even though he had hit that nail right on the head, his refusal to grant me absolution put my soul in such peril that if I had been flattened by a truck outside the church he would have been responsible for my eternal damnation. I forgive various bullying schoolmasters for pulling me out of my seat by the sideburns, for walloping me regularly with stick, strap and cane when I stumbled over answers in the catechism or when in my head I couldn't divide 937 by 739. I was told by my parents and other adults it was all for my own good. I forgive them for those whopping hypocrisies and wonder where they are at this moment. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory (if it still exists)?
I don't have time for people who blame Pius XII for everything, but I doubt he's all that serious about that; the story that really intrigues me is the one about the priest in the confessional. I remember that passage from Angela's Ashes pretty well, because it stood out for me at the time. Think about the implications of this incident as it is described here. It's hard for me to tell what is meant literally and what ironically in this passage, but we can have a go at it simply on the basis of what we know about confession and absolution.

Suppose two people go to confession; one of them is genuinely contrite for having sinned against God, the other is not. The former understands that a crucial bond of love has been broken by something that he did, the latter either does not believe or does not understand this. The former goes to confession for one reason: to restore the bond of love that used to exist between him and God; the latter goes to confession for a different reason: he is afraid of going to hell.

Of these two attitudes, which does Frank McCourt show to the world in this passage? Clearly the latter, in spite of the fact that he couches these stories in the form of a blanket forgiveness. His forgiveness rings a little hollower with each passing clause. He seems to think (whether this passage is intended ironically or not) that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is itself a necessary condition on going to heaven, and that getting into heaven is the primary reason that one goes to Confession in the first place. He may even think, though I believe this probably is just irony, that the Church really would have been responsible for him going to hell, even though he was the one who separated himself from God to the extent that he needed to do something to mend the broken relationship. Notice that he complains that the priest says that he did not "show a proper spirit of repentence." Possibly he did not--we are not given any evidence one way or the other. If he was not repenting of what he had done, why should he receive absolution? If he was truly penitent, then his getting into heaven was not contingent on a misguided priest saying words over his head. His not knowing this may be due to the terrible catechesis that he received at the hands of other misguided priests, of course, but that was a long time ago, and this passage was written recently. Any decent person would find out the facts before going around casting aspersions--perhaps he ought to have had a look at the Catechism. One suspects, however, that his anger runs too deep for that: he no longer wants to know anything about Catholicism. Indeed, he probably thinks he already knows all that he needs to know, because the knowledge of what happened to him in the past is the only relevant knowledge to an angry person. This is the great tragedy of misdirected anger--it becomes directed at righting perceived wrongs using methods that are subjectively perceived to be the best recourse. It has little to do with understanding and compassion, even while it bemoans the lack of those things in one's own case.

Much of McCourt's writing about the Church shows evidence of having come from a mind that is guided, spiritually, primarily by the emotion of fear, rather than the spirit of love and forgiveness. Angela's Ashes, and to a lesser extent 'Tis, are filled with descriptions of the terror of hell and the superstitions that drive many poor and uneducated people to do strange and bizarre things. One of my favorite passages has to do with McCourt's first Communion, when he is badgered by his grandmother into going to Confession three times on the same day for various little pecadilloes he commits, including throwing up after receiving Communion, thus puking God himself into grandmother's back yard. It's a marvelous story, even though it does make one rather sad about the generations upon generations of ignorant folk who perverted a beautiful religion that concerns only God's infinite and unconditional love for us into a religion of creepily empty rituals and superstitious fears. Sad for them, mind you, sad for what they missed out on.

It was not their fault, obviously, that they missed out on the beauty of their own religion. It was the fault of the terrible teachers who filled them with lies rather than the Truth. Why not hate those teachers, then? Because the lies are the proper objects of our hatred, not the people who told them. They were acting out of ignorance, for the most part, and one does not hate an ignorant person, one educates him--it is a condition calling for a corporal work of mercy, not punishment. We do not punish a sick person, we give him medicine, and ignorance is a form of spiritual sickness.

I am eagerly looking forward to reading Teacherman, but for me it will be an occasion for sadness in ways that it may not be for other readers, because I have long lamented McCourt's bitter history with the Church. He, too, needs education rather than punishment, and one has to believe that it's never too late for an education--especially if one is a teacher.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Lo me gusta

Irony of ironies, after blogging yesterday about McDonald's food as crowd pleasing banality in the food department where did I end up eating myself but McDonald's. My wife was returning from Paris (no, you're not seeing double, she did in fact just get back from Paris about two months ago--she goes there twice a year on business. It's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it) and I was picking her up at the Columbus Airport, Olivia in tow.

Now among the things I mentioned in yesterday's blog, or at least tried to mention in the sense that it was somewhere in my thoughts even though I probably never got around to putting it in writing in the actual blog, is the way that some people are too proud to admit that they enjoy things like reading a good Mitford novel now and then, or eating at McDonald's. I myself characterized these activities as "guilty pleasures." So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to find that McDonald's itself is starting to act as though eating at McDonald's is too low-brow. When I went into the Columbus McDonald's--which, believe me, I have frequented about as much as any other McDonald's on the planet--I was surprised to find that they had completely remodelled the inside of the joint. Guess what it looks like now? Starbuck's. You know: lots of blonde wood, track lighting, fancy prints on the walls, which are now done in wood and tile rather than, well, whatever that stuff is they use to plaster the walls at other McDonald's. There were big, comfy, modern looking chairs, and even the tables were like the tables at a Starbuck's--the same blonde wood, with pleasing shapes and textures. The only thing missing was a fireplace.

Oh, and coffee that doesn't taste like bacon grease. There was a "cappuccino" machine, but it was one that makes "cappuccino" from a powder, so I didn't try it. I'm willing to admit that I read the Mitford novels, but I'm not willing to drink anything like that. I did, however, enjoy a Quarter Pounder with Cheese Value Meal (not supersized, as I'm not ready yet for the half marathon; I think I'm already in pretty good shape, having been left alone with the kids for six days). Try as they might, however, McDonald's will never be a really classy joint until they start giving you free refills on the triple thick shakes. I ordered a shake with my value meal before noticing that there was a bank of soft drink machines available for those who ordered soft drinks, but I was too much of a wimp to change my order once the lady disappeared into the belly of the McDonald's Machine.

So Olivia and I found a little table together and drank our shakes (she always orders a shake, even when there are free refills on soft drinks available, but usually I get her milk instead; I caved in this time because she hadn't seen her mother in six days, and that's a long time to be trapped in hell with psycho-dad). As we ate I noticed that my cup was covered with slogans in foreign langauges, perhaps another attempt to show how hip, multicultural, and classy McDonald's is. The English version of the slogan was "I'm lovin' it," which probably doesn't do much to promote the project just described, and for some reason I doubt that "Ich liebe es" is a very idiomatic rendering of that phrase into German. I was reminded of the year that Lisa and I hosted a young French high school student for a few weeks. He was in love with American culture generally, but the Harley Davidson in particular. There was a HD store in Durham (we were living in Chapel Hill at the time) so we drove him over there to "shop". He was obviously in seventh heaven--he wandered around the store gaping at all the stuff, especially stuff that had the mystical totem (HD logo) proudly emblazoned. On the drive over, he and I were discussing American colloquialisms. I got it into my head that he might enjoy saying things like "how's it goin'" and "I'm chillin'"--don't ask me why. At any rate, he seemed to like knowing some slang. As he was walking around the HD store, a biker chic happened to say to him "How's it goin'" and you should have seen the look of satisfaction on his face as he said in his most anally-retentive English accent "I am chilling". Just like that--not "I'm chillin'", but "I am chilling." The lady smiled and went back to filing her teeth.

Olivia was oblivious to just about all of this (yes, yes, I know--but I just really wanted to write "olivia" and "oblivious" in a sentence, OK? I've got to work on that sort of thing if I want to write my own Mitfordian novel some day). She was mostly excited about the fact that there were two, count 'em, two toys in her Happy Meal. I've noticed, in fact, that there have been two toys in just about every Happy Meal I've bought in the last year--maybe they're trying to get rid of some junk from their warehouses or something, but we now have an entire kitchen drawer dedicated the cornucopia of crap that we've built up. (OK, OK, no more alliteration, I promise.)

To make a long, boring story shorter but no less boring, it was good to have Lisa home and to hear that Paris still can delight even when you go there twice a year. We got home in record time thanks to a new bypass around Lancaster, but of course the trade-off was that we couldn't stop for junk food in the town that was the birthplace of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Ordinary Time

Have you ever been driving along in your car listening to the radio, when a country-western song comes on and you start to listen to it and then, after a few minutes, you find yourself thinking "Hey, back up the truck--this isn't half bad!"? Well, OK, neither have I. But I suspect that most folks have at least one guilty little pleasure in which they like to indulge from time to time, like, say, watching a hockey game, or eating at McDonald's. (I've got two kids, so I "get to" indulge that latter one more often than is good for me.) One of my many guilty, low-brow pleasures, for the past few years, at any rate, has been reading the Mitford Books series by Jan Karon. If you've never read any of these books, I think the best description of them that I have ever seen was from a reviewer at Amazon.com: "It's like being trapped in a Thomas Kinkade painting"; another titled her review "It's Not Mitford, It's Stepford"; and my all time favorite: "Mitford makes Bedford Falls and Mayberry look like Sodom and Gomorrah."

The trouble is, you see, that these negative reviews (and believe me, there are dozens more--the first volume of the series alone has garnered 344 reviews, many of them very negative) all decry the very things that I like most about these books: they are incredibly mundane. It's escapist fiction at its best. Karon herself describes her project as "celebrating the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives", and who wants to read that kind of stuff these days? We want action: sex, violence, intrigue--something dangerous, anyway, with detailed psychologies behind every character and some bizarre twist around every plot corner. We want Cryptonomicon and Baudolino, we don't want homey stories about a devout minister and his June Cleaver wife.

I'm not going to try to claim that these books are better than the negative reviews say they are. They aren't. In fact, as fiction, they're terrible. None of these books would count as a good example of the modern novel, with the possible exception of the last volume in the series, Light From Heaven, which actually employs one or two plot devices and some interesting character development to make an interesting point about human experience. But don't let that fool you--in general these books stink from a literary point of view. What I like about them has nothing to do with their value as works of high art.

What does any of us like about our "guilty pleasures"? Are we going to try to claim that McDonald's is really better food than people say it is, or that hockey games are better places for young men to exhibit virtue than the beer-swilling crowds who go to watch them realize? Are we going to compare a country-western song to one of Schubert's Lieder? Don't go there, girlfriend. We like them because we like them--there's no Platonic Form of Beauty or Goodness to which any of them conform. They provoke pleasurable feelings in us for whatever reason, and pleasure is not in and of itself a bad thing. Some pleasures are not good for us, it's true: you don't want to eat every meal at McDonald's, even if you just can't get enough of those fries. But a small helping of McDonald's fries every now and then is not going to hurt you as long as you take steps to keep things balanced, like running in a half-marathon after every McDonald's meal. I'm not kidding, you really should do that. Come on, it's only about 13 miles--some people run that far every day.

But not many people. We live in a culture where many people tend to prefer eating the McDonald's meals without balancing it out later on with a good healthy cardiovascular cleaning. I would not recommend that people who never read anything worthwhile add the Mitford books to their list--that would be like supersizing that Big Mac Value Meal without doing any crunches afterwards. But I read plenty of good stuff most of the time, and when I want to kick back, this is how I do it; so sue me.

One reviewer wrote:
Don't get me wrong. The virtues exhibited by the characters are admirable. Would that we all acted with the kind of integrity that they display - and not just the overtly "Christian" characters. Even those characters who have undergone decades-long crises of faith are instantly reconizable, in a tradition going back to Dante, as "Virtuous Heathen." True evildoers are nameless and faceless. (The only "personal information" you get about the drug runners who steal the hero's dog is their license plate number.) No, the characters, good and bad, are just not convincing. Admittedly, the good ones do have to cope with adversity - but since somehow, they ALWAYS get what they're seeking, it's difficult for working stiffs like myself - who DON'T always get the promotion or the girl - to relate to them.
This is only partly correct as a characterization of the, ummm, characterizations...whatever. It's easy to laugh at a book where the characters "always get what they're seeking", because we live in a culture where "getting what I'm seeking" is usually translated into "getting what I want", meaning "getting, right here and now, the very thing that I desire." But that isn't what Karon is writing about. Her characters don't always get what they want, even though they do get what they're seeking. What her characters seek is God's will, and when God's will is done we get what we need, whether or not we get what we want. And, as Plato believed, what we really "want", if we're living the right way, is what we need, whether or not getting what we need includes bringing us some pleasure along the way.

For me it's refreshing to read about a place where there are one or two people for whom abandonment of self to God is what life is all about. Obviously, for the outsider, such a "character" is entirely "unbelievable", because nobody is like that in real life--we're too busy trying to "get the promotion or the girl" and we just can't identify with folks who want something else, something that doesn't seem obviously connected to getting what we want when we want it. The same reviewer who so humorously dismissed the characters and motivations of Mitford also glibly described the South this way:
Speaking of places, the real locus of this book isn't western North Carolina - it's Neverland. It is legal for a town down there NOT to have a Hardee's? I don't think so! (Maybe one shows up later in the series.) "The Local" is NOT what I think of when I think of Southern Small Town Shopping. Can you see a couple of Good Ol' Boys picking up a wheel of brie and a bottle of chardonnay before they head out possum huntin'? ("Dang, Bubba! Yew done fergot th' Stoned Wheat Thins!") No, buying Velveeta and a six-pack at the Piggly-Wiggly or Winn Dixie is more like it. The picket-fence-perfection of the place defies belief. And where, pray tell, are the black people in this Southern Eden? There's only one - and she's a former domestic servant! It smacks of tokenism at it's worst - and this in a book written in 1994! Kind of makes you wonder if the Klan didn't get to Mitford before Father Tim did.
This is both glib and a slander against the south, and I suppose it should come as no surprise, though it is still somewhat disappointing, to find that the same person who made what I thought of as rather funny remarks about the books ("Was it H.L Mencken who said, 'No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public?' No matter. Here's the proof") should turn out to be such an ignorant bigot. If this person has ever been to the south, it was a south that exists only as portrayed in the vicious Hollywood stereotypes that are rightly ridiculed in the review when they are about the treacly picure of domestic life from the 1950s. It's too bad the reviewer wasn't a little less credulous when it came to the more recent Hollywood shibboleths.

The real south is no more like this offensive caricature than it is like, well, Mitford, of course. If there are racists in the south there are plenty in the north, too--more than many northerners would care to admit--and there are Timothy Kavanaughs in the south, just as there are in many other places, if you're willing to look for them--and have the eyes to see them when you find them.

They're getting a little harder to find these days, and maybe that's why it can be satisfying to read the Mitford books. You won't get what you want, if what you want is action, sex, or whatever is on offer from the latest Philip Roth bathroom masterpiece--but you might get what you need.

Friday, January 13, 2006

When It's Good to be Number Two

Here's an interesting little news item: Ohio University ranks Number Two in the Princeton Review among schools where students claim that they "almost never study", coming in behind the University of Mississippi at Oxford. No, not that Oxford, the one in Mississippi; you obviously never studied either, at least not geography. You probably think that Ohio University is in Athens, Georgia, too.

In defense of my own students I have to say that most of them study their @$$es (<---Dr.D.S.Carson, PhD) off--they have to if they want to pass my classes. But philosophy is one of those self-selecting disciplines where, because it is not absolutely required for anybody the only ones who wind up taking it are the folks who actually want to be there and who are willing to do the work. That's not to say, however, that I haven't had my share of students who don't really want to study, but that's nothing peculiar about Ohio University. I've taught at academically rigorous institutions like Duke University and Rutgers University, and there were plenty of students at both places who didn't want to study and it showed. Here at Ohio University I've had some students who were every bit as good as the best students I had at either Duke or Rutgers, and my worst students were no worse than the worst ones at those other places. In general, good students know how to succeed in just about any academic environment, and bad ones don't. It's not a mysterious phenomenon.

The Princeton Review is something of an institutional joke, of course, but because it gets a lot of press people wind up talking about it far more than it deserves, lending a certain cachet to its alleged "findings". But institutions like Ohio University are not really very well served by students who take a kind of perverse pleasure in advertising to the world what lazy morons they are. For every student who comes here to party on the weekend there are several others who came here because they believed that they could get a good education here; but we tend to hear from the former more often because they are buffoons, and news sells better when it's funny than when it's serious.

Here at Ohio University we aren't helped much by the unfortunate perversion of priorities to be found among some administrators and the Board of Trustees. Academics take a de facto backseat to athletics here, and enrollments are seen as a revenue-generating device. Just when Ohio's reputation was sinking to its worst, falling in the academic and rising in the party rankings, the Board of Trustees gave president Roderick McDavis a bonus amounting to over $40,000--the price of a new faculty position--for increasing enrollments. How did he manage to increase enrollments enough to merit that kind of a bonus? By lowering the academic admission standards. How much did he lower them? Well, it's not a good sample, of course, but I teach a freshman introduction to philosophy course for 200 students each fall. I've taught it much the same way every year for 10 years. The average grade in that class, until this year, was about what it should be: 75, with a "normal" distribution of grades around that average. This year, with the lower entrance requirements and many more students reading below grade than ever before, the average grade in that class--with no change in content or methodology--was 62, and the distribution was not the least bit "normal"--almost everyone in the class did very poorly.

It should come as no surprise that students like this "almost never study". What is a little surprising is the sense of entitlement that some of them appear to have. I had some students complain to me about that introductory philosophy course precisely because the class average was so low. Some students took that to be evidence that the material was too difficult for freshman, even though plenty of freshman before them--and some freshmen in their own class--performed perfectly well with the same material. In short, they seemed to think that I ought to lower my academic standards too, so as to be more in line with the lower academic standards university-wide. Nein, danke. You don't have to take my class, so if you want worthless grades go to some other department.

Needless to say, I suffered a little in the rankings this year, too. Students don't like it when you make them work for their grades, and they like it even less when the work that they do doesn't measure up. At Ratemyprofessor.com I went from getting ratings like
This was truly one of the most enjoyable classes I've taken at OU. He gives great notes and his lectures are very interesting. He cracks a lot of jokes and makes the class fun. The discussions were very thought provoking. Definitely reccommend taking this class even if it doesn't fulfill anything for you.
just a year or two ago to
Carson is by far my least favorite teacher I've had down at OU. He lied to our class directly about the content of the midterm, and there are quizes every week that are fairly hard. He doesnt return emails, and left out of town, the day of the final, so no students could even talk to him.
for last fall's class. Imagine having fairly hard quizzes every week in a college class. The lie that I told about the midterm was when I mentioned that the quizzes could be used to study for the midterm but then the questions on the midterm were not verbatim identical to the ones on the quizzes. You can see what a sleazeball I am. The final was on 18 November. I left town for New York on 27 December--there's no way any reasonably diligent student could have contacted me during that time.

As I said above, though, I really can't complain about my students, because spoiled morons like the one quoted above are quite few and far between, in my experience. Mostly I work with bright, motivated, and sincere individuals who understand that a college education is a wonderful privilege, not something to be squandered or taken lightly. Some of them actually ask me to give them more work to do. I had a student a couple of years ago who enrolled in my survey of ancient Greek philosophy class. Although it is an introductory survey, it is still very difficult material, especially for folks who are not familiar with antiquity or who are relatively new to philosophy. This student was a sophomore, so he did know a little bit about philosophy, but he wanted to know more about antiquity, and he came to me after class to ask about other resources he could look into. It was a difficult question, because most of the more detailed literature is intended for advanced readers. I recommended that he have a look at William Guthrie's History of Greek Philosophy. It is a multi-volume work, and it is very scholarly, but I think it is accessible to a serious reader. I thought perhaps he could go to the library and just browse through it. Imagine my surprise when he showed up in my office about two weeks later carrying two volumes of the thing in his backpack that he had purchased with his own money and that he had been studying quite carefully. He had many intelligent and philosophically acute questions about things he had read in those volumes.

He went on to graduate with honors, and is presently a graduate student in philosophy at Notre Dame. I may not have been his favorite profesor, but I don't think he ever held it against me that I made him take "fairly hard quizzes" from time to time. I don't think he partied much. As long as Ohio University continues to attract young men and women with his drive and intellectual curiousity, we'll do all right.

Knowing the Truth

Tom Kreitzberg has been posting a number of interesting meditations on the teaching of Vatican I that God can be known through the light of reason, here, here, and here. I had intended to jump into the fray right away, when the first one went up on Tuesday, but what with my son's birthday coming up, three classes to teach, and some fine Ardbeg to sample, well, I guess I got a little behind in things.

At issue is the teaching of the Second Canon:
2. On revelation

1. If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.

2. If anyone says that it is impossible, or not expedient, that human beings should be taught by means of divine revelation about God and the worship that should be shown him : let him be anathema.

3. If anyone says that a human being cannot be divinely elevated to a knowledge and perfection which exceeds the natural, but of himself can and must reach finally the possession of all truth and goodness by continual development: let him be anathema.

4. If anyone does not receive as sacred and canonical the complete books of Sacred Scripture with all their parts, as the holy Council of Trent listed them, or denies that they were divinely inspired : let him be anathema.
To help clarify things, Tom adds the following quotation from the Second Chapter of the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith:
The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
For Tom and, I suspect for many, the Council's teaching appears to be clear. Tom paraphrases it as telling us that we know the God of Christianity with certainty by means of reason, and that we know the truth of the teaching (that is, the truth of "We know God with certainty by reason") by faith.

Of course, my favorite parts of Tom's posts are the parts where he goads the philosophers:
If human beings are able to know things with certainty, we can toss out a bunch of modern philosophical positions.
Or again:
It also makes the assertion that Who can be known by the natural light of reason is none other than "the one, true God, our creator and lord." This, I think, is a stronger assertion than the old "God of the philosophers" wheeze -- or perhaps the old God of the philosophers is not the remote, featureless Cause He's sometimes taken to be.
There's lots of good stuff in the other posts, as well--this it Tom Kreitzberg we're talking about, after all. A couple of things have me worried, though.

It's one thing to say that philosophers are being too fussy when they worry about proofs of God's existence or about the contents of our concepts having to do with God. Some of them are professional fussbudgets, after all, and it would be silly to deny that they are ever being too fussy. But the fussiness of philosophers aside, what exactly does it mean to say that "God can be known with certainty"? The Council does not make it at all clear what it would mean to "know God" in any sense, let alone "with certainty". Does the Council mean only that we can know the truth of the proposition
God exists.
Or does the Council mean something more profound, something along the lines of what Tom suggests (that is, that we can know some of the attributes of God)?

And do we know these things propositionally (that is, can we put the content of our knowledge into propositions, assertions), or in some other way? For the uninitiated, it seems that there are a variety of ways "to know" things: I can know that Columbus is the capital of Ohio; I can know how to ride a bicycle; I can know of Benedict XVI (that is, I can recognize him when I see him, or recognize that some text was written by him), and these various modalities do not seem to be clearly interchangeable. I can tell somebody else that Columbus is the capital of Ohio, and they then know the same thing that I know. But I cannot tell somebody else, just in words, how to ride a bicycle and thereby communicate to them the same expertise or ability that I have in bike riding. So clearly knowledge is not reducible to propositional content. If the claim is that what we know with certainty is only the proposition "God exits", that seems like a rather tepid sort of knowledge to have about God. If, rather, what is intended is some kind of acquaintance knowledge, we're told remarkably little about what our knowledge consists in or what it is like to have it--or where it comes from.

Here's one of Tom's remarks that seems apropos of this line of thought:
In any case, the Church asserts that from philosophy we can learn that God is one, that He is true God, that He is our creator, that He is our lord, that He is the source and the end of all things, and perhaps most importantly, that His nature is perceivable in creation.

You might run that last bit by a philosopher, but to me talk of perceiving an invisible nature goes beyond uncaused causes and unmoved movers and starts getting at the kind of God Who created this particular universe. That anything exists tells us some things about the Creator, but the things that actually have been made tell us even more.
Well, OK, I'm a philosopher, so let's see what happens when I run this stuff by myself. The way Tom has put it ("the Church asserts THAT...,THAT...,THAT...") the "knowledge", such as it is, is all propositional. So it is like my knowledge that Columbus is the capital of Ohio. So I can pass on this knowledge just by telling it to someone else.

So if I say to Richard Dawkins, "God exists, He is One, He created the universe", Richard Dawkins now know all of that.

One of the well-worn definitions of propositional knowledge that philosophers like to bandy about has these three necessary and sufficient conditions:
1. Knowledge is a form of belief.

2. Knowledge is always true.

3. Knowledge requires an understanding of the reason why one's belief is true.
Arguably Richard Dawkins, whatever it is that he might know, certainly does not believe that God exists. How is it possible for somebody to know something with certainty when they don't even believe it? Tom's answer:
It has also been pointed out that the Richard Dawkinses of the world don't necessarily want to be convinced.
This seems to turn the question of knowing into a psychological, rather than an epistemological, problem, and that doesn't seem right to me. I don't know the things that I know because of the sort of personality that I have--after all, plenty of other folks with very different psychologies know precisely the same things that I know. Even people with very deviant psychologies know that Columbus is the capital of Ohio, for example.

I am happy to assent to the teaching of Vatican I in spite of the fact--or perhaps because of the fact--that it is hopelessly vague. It's vagueness, I think, is at least partly to blame for the misbegotten debate between adherents of Intelligent Design and those who see it for what it is, but it is not a fatal vagueness, since doctrine develops over time and this doctrine, like all others, will be clearer for future generations than it is for us. I think it is a mistake to worry too much about our "flawed intellect", as Tom does in some of his later posts. It is true that some people have flawed intellects, but it is not because humans lack perfect reasoning that there will never be a logical proof of God's existence. Some human beings, somewhere, at some time, may very well have perfect powers of reasoning. There may even be someone somewhere right now who has such a faculty. But there will still be no logical proof of God's existence, and since no empirical proof is possible even in principle, we really do have to coordinate our reason with our faith. I'm not sure I'm a lot closer to knowing what my knowledge is really like just by saying I have it by faith rather than by reason, or by some admixture of the two, and it may be that there is no way to state, propositionally, what my knowledge is like anyway. My own suspicion is that the most important aspects of our knowledge of God are entirely non-propositional, being more like the knowledge-by-acquaintance that Plato maintained is the foundation of the most secure, most certain kind of knowldge. Like Plato, however, I understand that there can only ever be approximations to this kind of knowledge when it comes to putting things into words, and so I don't concern myself too much with the sorts of philosophical fussiness that many philosophers fill their time with.

To quote Professor Kirke: "It's all in Plato. What dothey teach in those schools?"

Thursday, January 12, 2006

o{]|:¬)?

Can you copyright a string of punctuation marks? There is at least one person on the planet who thinks that you can: John T. Zuhlsdorf of Catholic Online's "Catholic Forum" uses o{]|:¬) as a "sig" at the end of his posts thinking, I suppose, that it looks a little like a guy wearing a biretta, or perhaps a curmudgeon wearing a tam--he seems to play both roles online--and recently he has begun putting "<--- ©Fr. J.T. Zuhlsdorf" in a white font (difficult, but not impossible, to make out on the screen) next to the little sêmeion. I'm not a lawyer, so I really haven't any idea whether something like that can be copyrighted. I do remember that about a year ago Donald Trump tried to copyright the phrase "You're fired" and he wasn't allowed to do it, but of course anybody can put the little © symbol next to just about anything they want to, and maybe sometimes it takes and sometimes it doesn't.

The more pressing question in this case, however, is not can it be done, but why would anybody want to do it? Does Zuhlsdorf really think that there are hoards of tam-o-shanter fanatics out there looking for emoticonic ways of expressing their identity over the net? Does he think that he's the only priest on the planet who wears a biretta? Maybe when other priests get assigned to his parish he checks to see if they have a little fuzzy ball on their hat, and if they do he says to them "You're fired, but don't try to quote me on that or I'll sue your @$$." <--- Dr. D.S. Carson, PhD

It's clear that we're dealing with a rather special sort of personality here. A perusal of his comments on the Catholic Forum will suffice to show what it might be like to have a conversation with this guy after dinner, and readers of his Wanderer articles already know how anal he is. And this is the same guy who has this for his "home page" on the net. While he may not be the only priest with a thing for fuzzy balls, I think he simply must be the only priest who has posted a copy of his ordination papers on the web along with "several other documents of interest indicating my training". Anybody who reads The Wanderer, of course, already knows who this guy is, and that he is a priest. But of course The Wanderer doesn't include in its bylines photographs of you being ordained by John Paul II, so what good is that?

Don't get me wrong: I often agree with the things that Zuhlsdorf has to say about matters of politics and religion, and I am, obviously, quite pleased to discover that mine is not the hugest ego on the net after all. But it is irritating in the extreme to know that I probably can't use o{]|:¬) any more to seal my pontifications with the stamp of excellence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Growing Pains

In 1970, when I was twelve years old, I bought my very first record album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band, by the Beatles. I actually remember what I paid for it, too: $2.95. New. Those were the days. I didn't have a record player, though, so I had to listen to it on my mom's Magnavox console stereo. You can imagine one of those staid, ornate mahagony cabinets blaring out the words to songs like Lucy In the Sky, but what you imagine would not even come close to preparing you for the look on my mom's face when she heard it. She was not a fan of the Beatles, or any popular music, really, unless it was sung by the likes of Engelbert Humperdink or Wayne Newton. Later that same year I got my second record album: Abbey Road, also by the Beatles. By the end of the year I was paying $3.95 for a record. The Carter Years, obviously, were not far away.

The reason I mention all of this is because my own son has just turned twelve today, and for me turning twelve was something of a landmark, so I've been meditating quite a bit on my own passage into adolescence and the differences that I see between mine and my son's. He lives in a very different sort of world than the one I inhabited. By the time I was twelve, my father had been dead for five years, and my sister was married and had moved out of the house. My mother and I were living in a cheap apartment near Kent State University ($180 per month, I kid you not, for two bedrooms, two baths, and easy access to a largish swimming pool). My son lives with his father who is still alive (though just barely), his mother, and an adopted sister half his age in a large, though shabby, house on three beautiful wooded lots near Ohio University. He is getting the full-blown family life that I always longed for but never really had--until now. To be able to give my children the sort of life that I never had has been perhaps the greatest joy in my life, even when they bicker about things like who last touched the remote or who stuck her finger in the dog's eye on purpose. Watching them live and move and have their being in my company really is a foretaste of heaven, but it is tempered by the sad fact that all of this is passing away before my very eyes. It seems only yesterday he was a cute little four year old boy romping through those wooded lots playing his imaginary games--games he wouldn't dream of playing today. Soon the adolescent, too, will vanish, leaving me with a big stinky man just like me. And the little girl will grow up and disappear somewhere, too, leaving me alone again--though one hopes that one's spouse will still be around, but you know what I mean. Change is inevitable, and sometimes it can be painful even when joy-filled.

But some things really do stay the same. My son has a job delivering papers, and he used his own money to buy himself an iPod. The two very first things he loaded onto it: Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road.

Happy dad.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A Book of Minutes

I've just finished reading John Reeves' A Book of Hours (Eerdman's, 2001), and I must say that the title is something of a misnomer since I was able to read all of it in about 30 minutes. The title, obviously, is drawn from the Christian devotional tradition of the late medieval period, not the length of time one is expected to take to read the book, but in that sense the title is still something of a misnomer, since the only real similarity to medieval Hour books lies in the fact that there are sections that correspond, very roughly, to the various parts of the liturgical year. But even there the similarity is somewhat loose, since there is no part of the liturgical year that corresponds to "The Ministry", unless it's supposed to be the tempus per annum.

The poems are written in an informal style--free verse with little or no structure other than the occasional line-break coinciding with a sense break. In fact, the book reads very much like prose that's been typeset with very wide margins and no right-justification. I found some of the poems to be moving. One, called "Epiphany", cleverly juxtaposes articulate and well-crafted descriptions alongside the the image of "the as yet inarticulate Word", and the richness of this language is nicely evocative both of the richness of the gifts of the magi and of the promise of the manger. Another, called "Nunc Dimittis", does a marvelous job of capturing some of the mental anguish that must have accompanied the experiences of Mary and Joseph as they came to understand their son's significance.

For me, though, the book is marred by a rather pedestrian device. Many of the poems use the same imagery--the Holocaust--over and over again to indict the failure of Christians to be better witnesses against injustice in their own time. This is, indeed, a serious problem, but of course it is a problem for everyone, not just Christians, and one grows a little weary of being compared to SS men and Gestapo agents. And then there is this little canard, from a poem called "Prophecy":
He was not the first Jew
in history; nor the last,
led away, like a lamb,
to the Gentile slaughterhouse:
but ever since Golgotha,
such killings have multiplied
exponentially, with no end
in sight, and most of them
either perpetrated or instigated
by the Church: pogrom, holocaust,
genocide, all the labels
fit our smug failure
to intervene; we are, by that
measure, accessory to murder.
How is it then,
we ever had the effrontery
to call our era Christian?
Come now, Johnny, tell us how you really feel. This kind of thing, though I dare say sincerely felt, is nevertheless quite preposterous. At any rate, it's getting to be a little old fashioned. But where would poetry be without hyperbole?

Fortunately many of the poems are not marred by this kind of hack sentimentality. The poem called "Postlude" nicely contrasts the beauty of the liturgical season of Christmas with the crass and ugly "holiday season"; "Emergency Admitting" places the question of the miraculous into the context of a modern day emergency ward and the wounds and diseases one is likely to find there; "Maundy Thursday" is a nice meditative reflection on the purely sensory experience of the liturgy and its effects on the soul.

For a book of only 68 pages there is actually a surprising amount to think about here, and to reflect upon. It is a very personal meditation but, in the end, in spite of my qualms, I'm grateful he decided to share it with the rest of us.

Das Glasperlenspiel

When I made my little sojourn to New York last week I took along Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment (Perennial, 2003) to read on the plane. Some folks may remember Murray as one of the co-authors, with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, a book whose thesis would appear to be one of the most misbegotten ideas of all time. This book is rather different. But not much. It is, in the words of its own subtitle, an examination of "the pursuit of excellence in the arts and sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950." One of its virtues is that it is jammed with all sorts of historical tidbits for the delectation of the amateur historian. Most of it has been cribbed from 40- or 50-year old history textbooks, however, and there is an overpowering sense of positivist triumphalism about the wide-eyed summaries of uncritical inventories of the achievements of various civilizations and cultural centers.

The thesis of the book is going to be controversial--perhaps not as controversial as The Bell Curve, but not designed to put to rest the worries about Murray's Weltanschauung that were raised by that book. On the one hand, the thesis is quite simple: excellence in human accomplishment is something real (indeed, it is quantifiable!), and it is high time we started acknowledging the place of genius in the human endeavor. On the other hand, the assumptions built into Murray's notion of what excellence actually is are so questionable that it is difficult to take much of what he has to say all that seriously.

Add to this some rather disturbing errors of interpretation. For example, he says of Parmenides that he "had suggested that matter can be neither created nor destroyed." There is a sense, of course, in which this is vaguely true. But Murray cites it as an instance in which the Greeks could be cited as having "made some progress" in the natural sciences. Parmenides' postulate about change, of course, was a metaphysical, not a physical, proposal, and it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the principle of equilibrium of matter and energy. Murray also notes that "Leucippus and Democritus had enunciated theories of atomism" as further evidence of "progress" by the Greeks. Again, ancient atomism is only superficially similar to modern atomism, and is ultimately a metaphysical doctrine fully independent of empirical investigation, which surely must count as one of the most fundamental aspects in which contemporary science has "progressed" in any sense. But the real howler is this one: "Anaximander had proposed something resembling an evolutionary hypothesis." It is safe to say that there is absolutely nothing about Anaximander's views that are even remotely similar to any evolutionary hypothesis as we know such hypotheses.

The book is not without its virtues, however. In spite of its positivistic hubris and vague conceptions of excellence, it is a fascinating collection of statistics. The trouble is not so much the data, the but conclusions that he tries to squeeze from them. Certainly an average reader can learn much from this book in the form of brute facts. It would be a mistake, however, to share his inferences about the importance of the West--and in particular, the importance of Christianity--in underwriting the possiblity for true human excellence. His method--a collation of a number of reference works followed by a thorough counting up of names named--shows only what accomplishments have been most widely discussed in the scholarly literature of the West, not what concepts are genuinely of first importance or reflective of human excellence. Indeed, when it comes to actually articulating what excellence is the book is thoroughly question begging.

It is curious that he draws the chronological boundary for his survey at 1950. Up until the 1950s history and historiography were themselves still largely positivistic disciplines, and it is only from the 1960s onward that one begins to find critical methods being applied in history that would slowly erode the Eurocentrist view that Murray defends. By excluding scholarly works that adopt a very different attitude from his own, Murray poisons his own well. I suppose that it's possible that his numbers would not change a great deal by the inclusion of more recent work, but the selection of reference works listed in the bibliography looks rather hopeless to me--the books listed for philosophy, for example, are almost universally out of date, superceded by much more recent--and much better--work. I'm not an expert in the other areas he covers, but it seems to me that it's unlikely that the history of philosophy is the only place where he drops the scholarly ball in this regard. Who knows who his advisors were or how they chose their samples.

Well, Aristotle comes out all right in the book though. On a scale of 0-100, with 0 being worthless and 100 being, well, bodacious, Aristotle is the only Western philosopher to score 100. Murray is fond of Aristotle, and cites approvingly the Stagirite's conception of excellence from the Nicomachean Ethics. I guess I can't argue with that.

On a similar scale for Western Literature, however, Hesse only scored a 9. Given the nature of Murray's work, that has got the be the feel-good irony of the year.

Of course, the year is yet young.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A Tough Call

In today's Wall Street Journal there's a front-page story about Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of philosophy at Wheaton College whose contract has not been renewed because of his recent converson to Roman Catholicism. The story emphasizes the growing trend towards "mission purity" at some religious campuses: for many years plenty of Protestant and Catholic schools looked for academic excellence as their primary criterion for new hires and tenure decisions, but there have been lots of recent cases in which adherence to some doctrinal or credal affiliation has played a major role both in hiring and in tenure decisions. The case of Baylor's recent president, Robert Sloan, has come in for much discussion over at the Reform Club, where resident Baylor almunus Hunter Baker has had much to say on the topic that is both interesting and important.

Hochschild was hired by Wheaton when he was an Episcopalian, but he was already tempted by Roman Catholicism. Even when he was hired, he discussed the meaning of "Biblical inerrancy" with the president of Wheaton, Duane Liftin. Liftin has a rather impoverished notion of what Roman Catholicism entails, but his understanding of it is not all that different from what is widely beleived among certain Evangelical circles, so it's difficult to fault him for his decision to consider Hochschild a person who could not, in principle, sign the Wheaton statement of faith, and it was on the basis of this that he terminated Hochschild's contract. Academically, apparently, Hochschild was a keeper: the chairman of the philosophy department is quoted as having a favorable opinion of him, and the suggestion appears to be that he was on-track for a positive tenure decision.

Hochschild's case was rather striking to me personally, because so many of the issues involved in his case remind me of my own experience. Since I work at a state school there are no doctrinal constraints that I had to conform to in order to get tenure, and I really wonder what I would have done were I in his positition. On the one hand, his was the only salary in the family, and he knew that he was taking a risk of losing his job by converting. On the other hand, if you really believe in the principles of your faith, you aren't going to compromise them for mere prudential considerations. Hochschild was able to get another job at a Catholic college, but it meant a significant step down, both academically and economically. That's a big sacrifice to make over a principle, and I'm sure it was a very tough call for him to make.

What further complicates the situation, at least for me, is this nagging thought that, all in all, it's better rather than worse for religious schools to start getting tougher about these sorts of things. Forgetting for a moment the Catholic/Protestant divide here, just within the domain of Catholic education I've seen the slow erosion of Catholic principles at certain self-proclaimed "Catholic" schools--to the point where pro-abortion speakers are given platforms to air their views in the name of "academic freedom"--and it gets to the point where one almost wishes there were a few more Duane Liftons of a Roman Catholic flavor floating around inside Catholic Academia. On the other hand, as a Roman Catholic, one can't help but be a little irritated when it's one of us who feels the brunt of this trend. One almost gets the feeling that this is not a good thing for Christianity per se: it's one thing to make sure that your faculty is Christian, but to start emphasizing divisions within Christianity may not be all that salutary, given the hostile secular world that we're up against. Maybe we should stick together a little more. If it were a question of an evangelical keeping his job at a Catholic school, I think that I would be in favor of a certain lenience. John Paul II required that Catholic schools keep a majority of their faculty Catholic, but he did not say anything about excluding non-Catholics altogether. Given that it is the role of the Pope in settling doctrinal issues that many Protestants object to, it is a little ironic that the Pope seems to be a little more, shall we say, forgiving, than the president of Wheaton College in this matter: Lifton is abrogating to himself a more powerful doctrinal role than the one he claims the Pope has by tradition.

Internecine strife is not a pleasant matter, of course. Neither is the abandonment of "mission purity". As Christians, we ought to find a way to work through this problem together.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

At the Name of Jesus

Today is the (optional!?) memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. We live in times that seem to need this day to be something rather more than a mere optional memorial. Too often one hears Our Lord's most holy name being used as an epithet one applies to one's worst enemies or most despised traffic violations.

In part, I suppose, Christians have only themselves to blame, because one rarely sees even Christians showing anything like respect for the most holy name. How many still incline the head at the mere mention of that name at Mass? My wife and I do it, but my son seems embarrassed to be standing next to us, because no one else in the parish does it. (You can imagine his mortification when I was the only one to genuflect--as the rubrics require, I might add--on Christmas Eve at the phrase "by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man" during the Creed.)

Some names don't deserve any respect. Who would name their child "Britni" or "Scott"? But "Jesus" is an anglicized version of a name that means "God saves", and that is something that ought not to be fooled around with, any more than one would use the last remaining copy of the Magna Carta as a handkerchief. Some things are precious in certain ways, and there are proper and improper uses of them. Our Lord's Most Holy Name is one of those things.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Religion and Resentment

One of my colleagues here at Ohio University, David Curp of the History Department, has offered an interesting alternative explanation for Islamist attitudes towards the West. A view that has been circulating rather widely claims that there is great resentment among certain sectors of the Muslim community over Western incursions into traditionally Islamic areas of hegemony, in particular the Crusades are often singled out as creating a smoldering wound waiting for revenge. Curp argues, on the contrary, that it is not resentment of past Christian affronts that motivates Islamists, but rather resentment of the loss, in 1683, of a potential Islamic empire stretching well into Western Europe, followed by centuries of European colonization and weak local governments.