Saturday, March 31, 2012

Our Declining Schools

Laments about the poor quality of American public schools have long been matched by a blizzard of remedies by politicians, often joined by corporations, foundations and nearly every Op-ed writer. Most of these include rewarding teachers using standardized tests as a measure of academic success.

In a recent two-part article in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch has focused on studies of what happens in Finland, where the evaluation of students is made by the teachers, not by state-mandated standardized tests--and only at the end of high school. The nine-year comprehensive school is a "standardized-test-free zone," she writers, one that encourages kids to learn, think, and create.

Of course, what happens in tiny Finland can hardly be comparied to the vast educational-indusutrial complex we have the U.S. A central part of this system, to which I and many of my university colleagues often fault, are the schools of education (teacher training), which have long been held in low esteeem in the academic world.

I remember my own undergraduate experience in St. Louis, where no one was allowed to major in education and take mindless courses to give them tips on how to manage a classroom or design a syllabus. I took a few of these courses for certification and found them generally useless: much theory, little substance.

When I came to Florida to teach full-time, I was shocked to see students being allowed to enroll in the College of Education and major in "math education" or "language education." Why not insist that future teachers major in the subject(s) they intend to teach? This was the message I and many of my colleagues in the arts and sciences promoted.

If you want to teach English, I told my students, learn all you can about literature and writing, not ways to teach them; and get a master's degree, something many states and districts still do not require. They are all for state certification, based on teacher-training courses.

Ravitch's article includes the weakness of most education programs, but they are part of the vast bureaucracy of the educational establishment, along with standardized tests, that never seem to change because so many corporate reformers who speak from business experience rather than from an academic viewpoint support them.

If we are to learn anything from the Finnish experience, it would be to made a radical break with the practices of the past 75 years. It would require master's degrees for teachers and incentives to keep them in the profession. It's too easy to enter teaching in this country and too tempting to leave (low pay) and so up to 50 percent of teachers leave, typically, after the first year or two. Sadly, as Ravitch says, teaching in the public schools has become a revolving door.

The message many students grow up with is: anyone can teach. It's a fall-back position for too many. Let the teachers be skilled professionals in their fields, allowed to test their students' proficiency, rewarded not with threats of state-mandated tests but with good pay based on their performance. Eliminate much of the peripheral nonsense that takes place in public schools, which should model themselves on the private and parochial model where discipline and respect in the classroom are taken for granted.

All this is easy to pontificate about, but changes can occur if we eliminiate much of the political interference and allow teachers the freedom to do their real job: to educate each student to the best of his or her ability. This does not include teaching to the test, which is what I see throughout Florida, where students live in annual fear of the FCAT, the state-mandated evaluation exam--seen as a panacea for learning but in fact a simplistic solution to a complex problem.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dorothy Day

I thought of Dorothy Day (1897-1980) today when The Catholic Worker, a newsletter of the peace and justice movement she co-founded in 1933, arrived in the mail. It still sells for one cent.

Dorothy would be pleased that the price has remained the same and that her followers on the Lower East Side of New York continue her work, reporting on injustice in various parts of the world, helping the needy and generally doing work many people don't care to do.

I believe G.K.Chesterton once said that we cannot call Christianity a failure since it has never been tried. Well, Chesterton did not know Dorothy Day, whose life of radical poverty, pacificism, and prayer made her a saint-like figure.

She would be amused to read in the current issue of efforts, beginning in 1984 by then Cardinal-Archbishop O'Connor to promote her cause for canonization. She was a thorn in the side of the hierarchy and hated the idea of being considered a saint.

But if anyone in recent American history deserves this honor as a witness of what the Gospels really are about, it would be this tall, thin woman who was once called "the most influential, interesting, and significant figure in the history of American Catholicism."
She did so with no official job--she was never a nun or a church employee--except to do what was necessary as a simple but eloquent laywoman, often at the cost of considerable suffering, to stand up to unjust power.

Day was shot at, jailed, and investigated by the FBI as a Communist; she called herself an anarchist and was opposed to all war and to predatory capitalism. She wrote, after reading about the lives of saints who helped the needy, "Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?" She wanted to do nothing less than change the social order since it too often led to poverty, crime, war, and other violence.

At a time when the American hierarchy supported the status quo, Day in her many writings and sit-ins represented the church of the people, most of them in New York at that time poor and oppressed. The sight of the poor attending Mass led her to convert to Catholicism and then to join with Peter Maurin, an activist, to establish the Catholic Worker Movement. It was not enough for her to set up a soup kitchen at the hospitality house on First St. (still there) during the Depression; it was not enough to live like the poor she served or to pray daily or to protest war: she wanted to change the causes of poverty and injustice.

I wonder what she would think of today's hierarchy, whose priorities have shifted after some promising decades of emphasizing peace and social justice. I know she would be pleased that her St. Joseph House and Maryhouse continue and that people like Robert Ellsberg, who worked there before his conversion to Catholicism, remain committed to non-violence in the face of social evils. (Ellsberg wrote a 1992 biography of Dorothy Day.)

To me Dorothy Day and her legacy are a dramatic reminder that in every age remarkable people at least try to live out the Beatitudes and keep Christianity alive.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Freedom: Does it exist?

Sam Harris, a champion of secular, rational thinking and chairman of Project Reason, has a new little book (at only 66 pages, more a pamphlet) called Free Will. The treatise is brief, I suppose, because he thinks this major philosophical issue can easily be dismissed. Free will, as the blurb on the booklet states, is "an inherently flawed and incoherent concept."

So much for the limits of reason, which tells some thinkers that, since our behavior is determined by outside causes, free will is an illusion. It does not exist.

I have always believed and taught the opposite, using as support the philosophy of Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Camus, and the modern existentialists. Freedom of choice is basic to morality. Of course, believing is not the same as reasoning, as Harris would be quick to point out. But I like to think we have an emotional intelligence.

The reality of feelings in making philosophical judgments is nothing new. In a recent New York Times article, Gordon Marino traces the prevalence of anxiety in the work of Kierkegaard and makes an important statement: "Many philosophers treat emotions as though they were merely an impediment to reason, but for Kierkegaard there is a cognitive component to angst. It is in our anxiety that we come to understand feelingly that we are free, that the possibilities are endless."

As I understand this, the feeling of fear is a legitimate part of our known response to reality, and it tells us we are free, even though we have no control over our genetic inheritance and very limited control over the environment in which we are raised. We are conscious of the present and can make the necessary choices to continue to live as well as to do or refuse numerous things.

What does the fascinating world of neuoscience tell us about free will? As Alfred Mele, the recent recipient of a major grant to do a scientific study of free will, says, everything depends on how you define "free will." Does it mean we have not only a body with a brain but a non-physical part of ourselves called the soul or mind? In answering affirmatively to such a question, it seems to me that we have to rely on more than reason.

Michael Gassaniga, a neuroscientist, apparently believes that free will involves a spiritual (non-material) element: "some secret stuff that is you." Mele and many others may disagree with this, and the scientific question remains an open one: does the brain work in such a way that choice is facilitated? (Unknown) Do we need a non-material essence to exercise our will? (Probably not) Are we capable of having thoughts and making choices independent of any physical process? (Apprently not).

So there is no free will if you are a neuroscientist who is limited to studying the brain without considering other realities. But, as one who needs to read much more on this topic, who knows much less than it seems I do, I would say that the will is related to the soul or true self, and that the self, which is comprised of feelings and thoughts--has its own reality, independent of the body.

And I doubt if science can ever silence all the thinkers of the past who would agree with the witticism once made by I. B. Singer: "You have to believe in free will; you have no choice." Why? Because the reality of the self, not to mention the complexity of decision-making, is infinitely more mysterious than a single, rational, scientific answer--especially one reduced to 66 pages, plus notes--can hope to provide. We need to understand feelingly.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Life Sentences

I was happy to see in today's New York Times an article by Jhumpa Lahiri, "My Life's Sentences," on the importance and beauty of sentences.

This is a topic I explore with my writing students each year. Like Lahiri, I save memorable sentences, and I agree with his summation: It is "a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a person, a place, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do."

He and I share the habit of fussing with sentences until the meaning or character emerges; I am not one who writes a draft, then revises each sentence so that it is as polished, mature, and expressive as I can make it. The joy in writing comes with shaping each sentence and discovering new, maybe even transcendent things.

Can this art be taught? That's a question I have long wrestled with. Wide reading and the absorption of the work of many great stylists can certainly affect one's emerging style, but this assumes years of reading that many would-be writers are unable to bring to their work. Imitating the work of others can be futile and counter-productive.

Sometimes too much education inhibits good writing. I am thinking of academic writing and of a piece by Bruce Cole I recently read. He laments the fact that few academic scholars "survive the tyranny of their doctorates" to reach a wider audience. I remember how my own dissertation had to conform to the director's ornate, almost pretentious phrasing and how my articles and reviews on 17th century literature, aimed at other experts, had to sound equally artificial, slightly inflated, and trendy. And I learned in the university that writing intellectually challenging material in clear prose for the general reader, as David McCullough and Garry Wills admirably do--despite Wills having a Ph.D.--is not good for one's career.

Barbara Tuchman once confessed that, if she had gone for a Ph.D., it would have ruined her writing capacity. She went on to produce numerous award-winning historical studies. I wonder how many graduate students who want to be writers see that scholarly writing is not in their best interest. I admire storytellers like Tuchman and McCullough who do solid research but keep an eye out for the wider culture and audience. Alas, there are too few of them.

In the postmodern world of academia, scholarly articles and books are often so deadly in their style--impersonal, passive, wordy, pretentious--that they become almost parodies of themselves. The language of the social sciences has infected literary criticism, which has been dominated by issues of race, gender, and class for the past two decades. At least in this country. English academics (at least when they write journalistic pieces) are more readable and fresh.

The main problem with academic jargon is that students, encouraged to read such articles, pick up this disembodied, overheated language in an effort to sound more impressive. The ordinary, direct beauty of an English sentence disappears. Here is an example of a sentence a former university colleague shared with me recently from one of his honors students:

"It can be theorized that the emergence of the modern femme fatale archetype was valorized as an integral, even essential, part of the bourgeois culture in nineteenth-century Europe." Can you imagine 20 pages of this sort of thing? The student apparently thought this imitation of what he or she had read was good writing.

Yet if I were to tell the student who wrote this to "use your own language" and avoid "imitating the academic style of what you have read," he would probably be puzzled and/or offended, assuming I was implying plagiarism.

Is there a chance of bringing such ambitious students back down to earth, immersing them in The New Yorker and other journals in which writers produce memorable, witty, or descriptive sentences that make a difference both for the writer and the reader? I would like to think so--if the teacher values good prose style, which begins with respect for the magic of the individual sentence, as well as research. That is, if the teacher remains human.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Being a Catholic is Hard

If growing old is not for sissies, being a Catholic is never easy, especially if you try to remain faithful to the faith, be informed, and keep an open mind about the instituional church. I know the spiritual path has to be tough, but does the institution have to disturb and disappoint so routinely?

I am reminded of a story (apocryphal, I'm sure) about what Napoleon said to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris after being crowned Emperor in Notre Dame-Paris: "Your Eminence, I intend to destroy the Catholic Church." To which the Cardinal responded, "Sire, we in the hierarchy have been trying to do this for over 1500 years."

So I suppose the rock of Peter will survive the myopia of certain prelates as they ask us to listen to not-so-subtle arguments that we should vote against Obama because of "religious liberty" involving a choice (contraception) that most Catholics have made long ago: that Rome's teaching on this topic is untenable.

As E. J. Dionne puts it with his usual acuity (in Commonweal): Do the bishops want to defend the church's legitimate interest in religous autonomy OR do they want to wage an election-year war against Obama, thereby turning the church into "the Tea Party at prayer"?

I have a devotion to my parish and its fine people but know that I must endure reminders of the unholy alliance between the bishops and the ultra-right in ways that disrupt the reason I attend Mass: to pray (and to escape political battles).

Reading some of the extreme statements from Cardinal Dolan and others recently makes me wonder if the church hierarchy really wants to drive even more of the faithful away--or do they just want us to suffer a bit more? It is Lent, after all.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Thin Spaces

This piece is not about slimming down, although that would be something I should do, but about finding places, anywhere, where the distance between heaven and earth narrows so that we can get a sense of the timeless presence of God.

I am grateful to Eric Weiner's travel article in yesterday's New York Times for introducing me to the idea of thin spaces, but the origin of the term, as he notes, is ancient: the early Irish, who did so much to spread Christian civilization in the Dark Ages, have a saying: Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.

Like Mr. Weiner, I have my list of favorite places where I have felt the presence of something transcendent, where time seems to stop. One of the major ones happened in Ireland, at the tip of the Dingle peninsula called Slea Head, where I stood on the edge of the world, so it seemed; actually, it was the western-most part of Europe, looking past the rocky Blasket islands toward America, mindful of the vast, wild landscape behind me as well, a landscape marked with prehistoric and medieval artifacts as well as the abandoned cottages of farmers forced to flee during the rough days of the potato famine.

I was mindful of the sad history but was able to transcend it and be, under perfect blue skies on a windy day, aware of only the ocean before me, with its suggestion of infinity. I could not have anticipated such an experience, though I had read a bit about the land and the history; nothing, as Weiner says, gets in the way of genuine spiritual experiences as much as expectations.

When I encounter a quiet courtyard, with a fountain, as in the Frick Collection in New York, or in one of the many palazzi in Florence, I have gained entry into a thin place. And the memory of those places lingers, like the memory of scenes read about or seen in films, like the Venice evoked by Luchino Visconti (with a big assist from Mahler) in Death in Venice.

Usually, as I write in more detail in the journal Cithara (May 2010), silence is the language I use to describe such moments when my relationship with time is somehow altered, extended. This happens often in older churches, especially Gothic cathedrals like Chartres (it's no wonder Weiner includes St. Patrick's in NYC in his list)--places of prayer where the vast space of the nave and vault are intended to be uplifting, even affecting non-believers.

My list of thin spaces is long and includes the experience of reading as well as listening to music and looking at paintings or films in which language becomes irrelevant to having a keen sense of God's presence in the here and now. So for me, travel is not necessary at all, in the usual sense, although seeking thin places is a wonderful reason to travel, to search for unexpected peak experiences, moments that remind us that we are all mystics sometimes, that take us out of ourselves so we can (in Weiner's words) loosen our death grip on life.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Big, Fat Failure?

I recently saw a 1954 movie by Vittorio Da Sica, famous for The Bicycle Thief, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and other classics, and called by its Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick "Indiscretion of an American Wife."

It was originally called, after the novel by Cesare Zavattini, Terminal Station. To me it is a minor masterpiece. And I was shocked to see that one of its co-stars, Montgomery Clift, called it "a big, fat failure." He was reacting to the troubled production history that ended up in fights with Selznick, who cut the original film down to 89 minutes.

What struck me about this neorealist film is that, although shot entirely at one location, the Rome train terminal, it is filled with motion and with unforgettable faces of ordinary folk. There is nothing static about this movie in which Jennifer Jones, radiant and sad, must leave her lover (Clift, whose face always registers anguish eloquently--even if he is not the ideal choice for the Italian boyfriend) and return home to her American husband. The action takes place in real time and, although the story is simple, it is full of what Da Sica wanted to convey: the painful and ludicrous nature of love relationships, the tragic irony of confused desire.

The two main characters enact their very private goodbyes in a most public space--and even get arrested for doing so--and this ironic setting, complete with marching soldiers, a flock of nuns, a group of priests, and assorted others, is almost as important as the faces of Maria and Giovanni, the two lovers. It is the type of film that could only have been made in Italy, by a master.

Indiscretion of an American Wife, despite its awkward title and the bad reviews it received, somehow has triumphed over its big, fat failure at the box office and should be seen as one of those great little examples of Italian neo-realism that Martin Scorsese documents so well in his "My Voyage to Italy."

As a one-time movie critic who continues to have a love affair with good films, I am grateful to Netflix, Turner Classic Movies, and my public library for reminding me that even flawed films can contain wonderful things.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Who Needs Religion?

When my university colleagues in the Department of Philosophy dropped religion from the curriculum as a major some years ago, I told the dean, who was sympathetic to my concern, that no self-respecting university should be without a religion department.

His concern, of course, was with numbers: few, if any majors; courses under-enrolled meant lack of funding and so religion must go. Some on the faculty, being agnostic or atheistic, probably cheered because they believed that religion historically has done more harm than good and is actually at the root of most of the world's conflicts and problems.

But this trite old argument, still widely heard, is to ignore the enormous contribution of religion to civilization. It has from ancient times provided humankind with a source of meaning and of community as well as wisdom and ritual and beauty. It has been there to remind people of virtue. Can one find happiness without being and knowing the good? Ask Aristotle.

Or, more easily, ask Alain de Botton, the often clever Swiss pop philosopher who resides in London and writes engaging, witty books like the one I enjoyed a decade ago:
How Proust Can Change Your Life (even if I was not entirely persuaded that he could). He has now come out with Religion for Atheists, which apparently tries to show that the secular skeptics should borrow a few ideas from religion---notions like kindness, tenderness, community, and "making our relationships last."

Calling himself a "gentle atheist," de Botton has great respect for the intellectual contribution of religion, by which I think he really means the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in contrast to the best-selling atheists of recent vintage like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have attacked religious belief as folly. So I welcome this effort to emphasize the positive aspects of religion in our history and culture, including its impact on art.

De Botton apparently believes that religion is capable of changing the world as few secular institutions can, and it helps us emotionally so that we feel less alone. The notices for this new book also promise some practical ways in which religion, like reading Proust, can change our lives. I will have to see the specfics, but I am doubtful how serious the author, who respects religion but not devotion or dogma, really is.

What intrigues me the most about this original approach to religion is that it counters the view of many that the childish creeds of faith are the mark of simple minds, as if Augustine and all the other great religious thinkers were intellectually deficient. The usual opponents of religion don't read theologians or religious philosophers yet conclude that believers are dim-witted. Try reading Karl Rahner or Charles Taylor. Or Pascal, the great 17th century mathematician, scientist and author who had the humility to mistrust the intellect and to respect the wisdom of the heart.

I hope de Botton convinces his secular readers that religion provides the only effective means of cultivating the values we need. But I wonder how useful or practical religion can be when shorn of its supernatural doctrines, its vital heart. Who needs a religion made up of spiritual platitudes?