Monday, July 21, 2014

Box-checking vs. Reading Plato

Diane Ravitch is on the liberal-agnostic end of the spectrum regarding the place and function of education, but recently she has begun to criticize standard left-agnostic statist solutions (primarily Common Core) for fixing education. In this interview (YouTube video below), she identifies poverty as the single most compelling reason for failure in American education, though it is probably parental involvement, which is linked to poverty.  

Aside from the accuracy of her diagnosis about the etiology of failing American education, Ravitch is right on target in her criticism of testing in America. Standardized testing has become a kind of idolatrous goal for many bureaucrats, and standardized testing is now driving American education. 

The Center, in contrast to the narrow, surface-level, informational conception of education, values exploration of the big, beautiful ideas that shaped the Western tradition and values confrontation with a wide variety of perspectives on the meaning of life. This is real education, not box checking or learning to spit back the progressivist-flattering bromides that infest modern media and government. 

Ravitch knows something is wrong with American education, and she rightly says that more and more testing is not the answer. Creativity and exploration have been key features of American learning in the past, even when test scores were low. The Center wants to keep this part of the American, and Western, attitude toward learning alive.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kierkegaard at the Opera

C. Stephen Evans, the Christian philosopher, summarizes one of the ways to "despair" according to Kierkegaard.( Despair in the way Kierkegaard uses the term basically means to sin by avoiding your identity as a sinner before God---by avoiding what you really are.) In his book on Soren Kierkegaard's Christian psychology. Evans writes of a certain kind of intellectual or artistic type: 

"The 'fantastic' knower is the person who somehow thinks that knowing a lot about astronomy, the Greek philosophers, or world history is sufficient to make him or her a genuine self. It is possible, though to know an encyclopedia's worth of facts and never have an inkling of what life is all about." 

In other words, one of the many ways of being a false self is to develop a knowledge of things for the purpose of being known as one who knows about those things. Got that? This is like the person who knows about art or history or theology in order to be known as someone who knows a lot about art or history or theology, not as someone who really loves those things and wants to know them deeply and personally. Lots of university professors are like that. Lots of people who get into "culture" are like that. (And lots of people who are into religion or "spirituality" are like that.)  

This is one of the things that puts off others from developing a love for things like novels or painting or opera. If you've met one of those insufferable prigs who blathers on about this or that mainly to demonstrate how much he or she knows about this or that, then you've encountered the "fantastic knower." Fantastic in this sense has more to do with fantasy--that is, I've built up a fantasy image of myself as a knower, rather than a true image of myself as a sinner before God, someone who loves the things of creation because of God the Maker. 

In the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, a scene takes place at the opera. Some of Europe's ultra elite, ultra wealthy, are watching Puccini's  Tosca while the bad guys nefariously  plot their nefarious plots. Bond, of course, isn't there to watch a ridiculously overpriced production; he's there to stymie the wealthy crooks who want to get wealthier. But it is the opera goers, those who are unaware of the plotting around them, that I want to look at. They are portrayed, without the director realizing it, of course, as "fantastic knowers," as people who have bought their identities and support them by attending the right sort of thing in the right sort of way, not because they genuinely love Puccini.

Hey, isn't that the Princess of Monaco in seat 12B?

Rich people who love opera are o.k. I'm not criticizing them. The scene deliciously if briefly shows another kind of person, one whose very real existence is part of the reason lots of people don't want to do "culture"--the hyper-stuck ups for whom certain versions of art certify that they are the right kind of people. 

Why does one delight in music, whether Johnny Cash or Mozart? Why does one crave good story-telling, whether Stephen King or William Faulkner? Why does one enjoy good theater, whether Romanian marionettes or English Shakespearean blokes? These things matter, and they can be conduits for a rightly ordered love of the manifold aspects of God's good creation. Or they can be merely opportunities for constructing a self in defiance of God, a self that rests all too easily in a smug satisfaction of knowing the right kind of things so that the right kind of people will rub shoulders with them. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shakespeare and the Rubes

One of the interesting--and highly problematic--aspects of art during  the past century and a half, or so, is the multiple fragmentations among "high" art, "low" art, "popular" art, "folk" art, and so on. Art forms like opera or theater, for instance, are now taken to be the purview only of the elites of society. Who goes to see a Shakespeare play willingly? If it isn't for a high school assignment, then who in his right mind would pay money for such boring stuff? Only geeky college educated, progressive, urban elites, right?   

Unfortunately, this has become all too real; the stereotype has arisen from growing aesthetic bifurcations between social groups, bifurcations that either didn't exist at one time or that were not nearly as  difficult to bridge then as they are now.  

Take Shakespeare, for example. On the American frontier (keeping in mind that this meant different things at different times--e.g., Illinois was once the Wild West), scenes from Shakespeare's plays were one of the most popular forms of entertainment--right up there with juggling, magic tricks, and stand-up comedy (as it was practiced then). 

This short article, "Shakespeare in America," gives a good overview of how popular Shakespeare was in various venues--from fully produced stage plays to reconfigured scenes  that were full of puns and comedy for the entertainment of ruffians in small mining towns. 

This longer and more footnoted article goes into much more depth about the way the Bard was played, often with purposefully hilarious results. But the point of both articles is the same--Shakespeare was massively popular at one time in America, regardless of urban or rural locations, or upper or lower class, ruling elites or workers, mayors, trappers, cowboys, ranch owners, factory workers, or factory owners.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

West in the East

One problem with Western culture today is its entrapment in contemporaneity. This is, in other words, chronological snobbery, to cite C. S. Lewis. We think that the past has little to say to us, and sometimes when it comes to pop culture, this seems to be true. Many movies from the 1980's, for instance, are now painful to watch, even if we might have enjoyed them then. Maybe a few stand out, and we regard them as classics of the medium, but this is fairly rare, and most people today--Christian included--certainly don't watch much film from the black and white or silent eras. This is too bad. Just like other forms of art, film has a history to it, a confluence of multiple traditions, styles, nationalities, and power. Take, for example, the films of Akira Kurosawa. 

His film Ikiru is one of the greatest, most powerful, movies ever made, and it ranks right up there with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych or the Medieval play Everyman in its treatment of a man confronting his own death. Why is it so good? Partly because of the magnificent directing, partly because of the incredible acting, and partly because of the beautiful black and white photography. But also because of the theme. Kurosawa deals with life at its rawest--the failure of identity, the failure of love, the possibility of loving service, the hope for redemption from a wasted life that terminates in the death that is the ultimate affront to all our efforts at being human. 

In the history of cinema, Kurosawa is a genius. Many films he made rank among the best--Ran (a reworking of Shakespeare's King Lear in Medieval Japan), Hidden Forest (which George Lucas lovingly plagiarized), Yojimbo (one of the best Samurai movies ever made), and so on. Kurosawa made so many films that some of them ended up as clunkers, but so what? His artistic genius more than makes up for his mediocre efforts by the sheer number of his nearly perfect films (such as Seven Samurai, which influenced nearly every Western made after it). 

One reason why Kurosawa was so good rests in his appropriation of the Western literary tradition. He was deeply influenced by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Maxim Gorky (his love of Russian culture is reflected in one of his last films, Dersu Uzala, which is set in pre-Soviet Russia). But this influence merely sharpens the artistic skill he already possessed and the deep insight into human nature he brought to his best work. 

Kurosawa's films comport with the Christian vision of things, and sometimes they verge on an overt connection to the major themes of Christian faith: the manifold weaknesses of ordinary people, the failure of love in families, and the hunger for a Love that redeems our failures and gives meaning to our suffering.  

Watching older movies--and foreign movies, at that--can turn into merely cultural posturing, such as watching opera not because you really like it but because you want to be liked by the sort of people who watch it. But in this case, don't worry about the cachet that might accrue to you by saying, "I watch classic Japanese cinema. Do  you?" Watch Ikiru. It is one of the best things you will ever see. 

Takashi Shimura , one of the greatest actors of all time.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Sad Waste of Time

C. S. Lewis popularized, among other things, both the term and the concept of "chronological snobbery," which is a pervasive modern prejudice that anything contemporary is better than anything from the past, whether technological, theological, philosophical, artistic, or social. Much of his work is based on the underlying, pervasive assumption that the past has something to tell us and that the modern world is not automatically superior just because it is modern. One does not need to be a Lewis aficionado to appreciate the implications of this attitude. 

Is there anything sadder than having been trapped within a fad that now looks ridiculous? This is easy enough to see in such things as '70's synthetic leisure suits or mullet haircuts, but the same thing applies to ideas. Being embarrassed by photos of oneself (or one's parents) in older photos is one thing. But when ideas, art forms, education practices, or theological hobby horses fall away as historical detritus, these things can leave behind some hurt lives and some damaged culture. 

Think of the 1960's "Death of God" movement for example. This putative updating of theological ideas in a civilization supposed coming of age now looks as ridiculous as the zoot suits of earlier years. 

Cab Calloway looks good in a zoot suit. You don't.

Reading this sort of thing used to make you look good. Now it doesn't.

Psychoanalysis reigned through a good portion of the 20th Century, and millions of people--many of them highly influential--idolized the Freudian mythology that erroneously taught a therapeutic technique that turned out to have as much real scientific basis as astrology. Yet the image of a person on a couch, telling of childhood memories and dreams to an analyst, has sunk so deeply into modern secular life that the scenario still has some cultural purchase. You can still see this now dead form of analysis in movies, television shows, and commercials, sometimes without any irony even though real psychoanalysis is dead in the actual profession. 

Medieval Science.

On a lesser level, transactional analysis burned brightly for a while, influencing pastors among others, as THE answer to the guilts and anxieties afflicting modern humans. Transactional analysis is also now more of an historical curiosity than the cutting edge of the mental healing arts. 

One final example: the literary critic Paul de Man helped usher in the movement labeled "deconstruction" which overwhelmed English departments in America in the 1980's and '90's. This movement was so pervasive that one could even attend regional Conferences on Christianity and Literature and hear professors apply De Man's ideas--just as the whole deconstruction movement was actually on the wane. Additionally, recent evidence indicates the de Mann was a liar, a plagiarist, a Nazi sympathizer, and a deadbeat husband, abandoning his family in Europe in order to reconstruct his life in America as an academic superstar. Imagine the embarrassment today of "scholars" who in the 1990's gleefully embraced the literary practices of de Man as the way of building a scholarly career.  

Literary icon and Nazi lover.

Which is worse--looking at a photo from the 1980's in which you sport really tall hair or a curriculum vitae in which you have several papers and articles based on the writings of a fascist who abandoned his wife in order to become an academic superstar? 

One purpose of the Institute is to help us learn to avoid fads, and thus avoid looking like idiots.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Instant Rhetoric

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the rhetorical tradition in the history of Western civilization. Beginning with Homer's epics, and moving through the classical age of Greece and then through the Roman Republic and its subsequent history, the rhetorical tradition was embedded into the deepest, earliest strata of the life of the West. Via Augustine and other Church Fathers, through the Medieval period, then into the Renaissance, the Neo-Classical, the nineteenth century, and into the early part of the twentieth century, classical rhetoric adapted to differing cultural situations without any trouble and without too much distortion. That is, classical rhetoric remained remarkably the same throughout this long history, although at different points there were different emphases, such as stressing style over invention, or valuing highly figurative language over plain speech. 

One obvious demonstration of rhetoric's simultaneous staying power and usability is the writings of America's founding fathers and others since then. Jefferson and Franklin were immersed in classical rhetoric. And Lincoln's utilization of rhetorical techniques for deeply moving purposes shows the similarities and differences between different eras regarding the implementation of rhetoric. This applies to such diverse communicators as Augustine, Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis. They differ in style, tone, and purposes, yet they all learned their lessons from classical rhetoric. 

But how do you get this now? Some composition classes in college and some speech or communication courses may dip into this major tradition, but usually such academic environments downplay or disregard classical rhetoric in favor of more contemporary "critical theory" approaches, such as "Queer Rhetoric" which " seeks to uncover the symbolic and performative strategies whereby queer identities have been and continue to be constructed in different times and places" (this is from the 6th annual LGBT Conference at Hofstra University. In case you wanted to know.). So if this is the case today with secular education, how do you get into classical rhetoric without resorting to muddling through on your own overprice and antagonistic textbooks? 

Leland Ryken can help you. Ryken has been for years applying traditional rhetorical and literary techniques to the Bible, and his works can help you get into the habit of reading rhetorically, teaching you how rhetoric works. 

 His major work is Words of Delight: a Literary Introduction to the Bible,   and it is worth investing in. Ryken takes familiar texts and shows how the standard elements of style, organization, figurative language, parallelism, and so on are thickly embedded in all biblical texts (the title of the book makes it sound as if he is dealing only with literary issues, but the line between the literary and the rhetorical is very foggy, so he employs both interpretive strategies, and this makes his book that much more useful). 

Another  Ryken work is his  Dictionary of Biblical Imagery Ryken edited this mostly, though some of the entries are his. Again, many of the entries are more about rhetoric than literary techniques--though-- again--many of these overlap. 

You can also find on the internet some PDFs by Ryken. These are abbreviated versions of material from his books, but I would urge you to invest in the books themselves and leisurely wallow in them when you can. You will learn about rhetoric this way while also shaping up your understanding of how the Bible works as a human document. That is to say, whatever your doctrine of the Bible's inspiration, the Holy Spirit did not short circuit individual human personality, making every writer sound exactly the same. That's what the Koran does, interestingly. Indeed the monophonic, depersonalized nature of the Koran is suggestive of its theology . . . . The Bible speaks with multiple voices in multiple ways. Even Paul is different from letter to letter and even within a letter he can change rapidly his rhetoric.  

So, reading the Bible rhetorically with Ryken's help will plug you into the deepest currents of Western civilization, and it will also help you read the Bible with greater acuity, and thus with greater devotion.