Good Books for Civilizational Greatness

Coming from a family with a long history of loving books and valuing true education (not necessarily having anything to do with “school”), I found this essay by William Edmund Fahey interesting.  He writes about great and good books and the effect and importance they have on culture and education:

Our own disorders spring from so much neglect of the real soil of culture: the widely shared canon of good literature and the widely affirmed understanding that there must be goodness in literature, and that such literature should be read aloud within families and by each and every person who dares call himself civilized—before, during, and after their formal education.  Goodness is the soil of greatness.

I do not mean by goodness in literature and good literature that all characters should be plaster statues without depth or real complexity.  No, I mean literature which elicits a clear understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful, because what is light is seen nearby to what is dark.  Enchantment will not work in an imbalanced world of goody-goody mannequins.  The enchantment offered by good literature works because those reading or listening to a tale already know first-hand that life is complex.  We need go no further than Squirrel Nutkin to understand how this very real balance is achieved even in a children’s literature.  Nutkin is, at once, morally flawed and attractive.  No one who encounters Squirrel Nutkin—even one of five years—can fail to miss his conceit, fail to anticipate his demise, or fail to recognize his own fallenness in the impertinent will-to-power of Nutkin.

I will go so far as to say that a reader who has not had his experience nurtured and refined by the likes of Squirrel Nutkin is unlikely to comprehend Thucydides, St. Augustine, or Nietzsche.

Do the Great Books Sustain Wonder and Lead to Morality?

Over the last century, “great books” programs and colleges have fought a valiant battle to keep up the high standard of what it means to be human and civilized.  Sadly, most of the progenitors of these programs neglected or gave little time to thinking about the supporting culture—especially as it touched upon family life and social customs.  Worse still, some of the “great books” proponents thought that by rubbing up against Milton’s Areopagita, or joining in a seminar discussion of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, leaders would be born who would create, leaven, and sustain a good society.  Somehow the idea has held steady for decades that an almost sacred encounter with great literature between the ages of 17 and 22 could transcend a hollow and malnourished family life, where little song was heard and none sung.

Yet the great books demand a supporting culture—both before and after and throughout.

Would we place our trust in a man who was well-versed in Nichomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but who could not complete a line of nursery rhyme, who had never slept under the stars with Jim Hawkins, never wanted to rescue the likes of Princess Flavia, never shrunk in horror at the witches of Macbeth, never wept at the death of a bull dog named Jack or sorrowed over the sins of Kristen Lavransdatter?  The one thing a liberal arts or great books education will not do is create a moral imagination where there is none.  Yet somehow many educators believe that reading advanced works and chatting about them will lead to a good society.  It may lead to a well-read society, but that need not be a good one or a happy one.

Fahey goes on to quote John Senior’s article, “The Thousand Good Books:”

The “Great Books” movement of the last generation has not failed so much as fizzled, not because of any defect in the books—“the best that has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase—but like good champagne in plastic bottles they went flat.  To change the figure, the seeds are good but the cultural soil has been depleted; the seminal ideas of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, only properly grow in an imaginative ground saturated with fables, fairy tales, stories, rhymes, adventures, which have developed into the thousand books of Grimm, Andersen, Stevenson, Dickens, Scott, Dumas and the rest. Western tradition, taking all that was best of the Greco-Roman world into herself has given us the thousand good books as a preparation for the great ones and for all the studies in the arts and sciences, without which such studies are inhumane.

Read the rest here, including a list of recommended good books for different ages to read.

(The list looks interesting and makes me feel not nearly well-read enough!)

Offense Taking is Immature

I’m not sure I understand exactly what our obligation to “not give offense” is when everyone is hair-trigger offended all the time.  But the rest is interesting.

“Being offended is a sign of immaturity because it’s an unwillingness to acknowledge and live in the truth”

“To choose to be offended is to choose to be a victim”

A Few Spots of Hope

The GOP might be mostly worthless (and possibly traitorous), but we have had a few hopeful developments this week.

Trump Reins in Federal Role in Education, Common Core

President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order doing something unprecedented: establishing as the official policy of the federal government to “protect and preserve State and local control over” our nation’s education system.

You can watch the press conference and official signing of the document online.

President Trump’s executive order also directs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to review every single regulation, guidance document, or other publication from the U.S. Department of Education to see whether any of them violate laws limiting the federal role in education. The order specifically directs the secretary of education to “rescind or revise” any such regulations or guidance documents “no later than 300 days’ from yesterday…

In recognizing the primacy of these laws [No Child Left Behind & Every Student Succeeds Act], President Trump’s executive order is unique. Past presidents—from both political parties—have often used such directives to increase federal control over various aspects of society, including education. Whenever the federal government increases its role in education, children suffer, as bureaucrats far removed from parents, teachers, and locally elected school boards exert their will over how our students are educated.

The order also singles out the “Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative” as one specific area where state and local control over education has been attacked.

Executive Order Recognizes Religious Freedom

After an eight-year war on faith, President Trump finally called a ceasefire on the conflict started by Barack Obama with an executive order on religious freedom. The measure, which was celebrated in a signing ceremony at the White House, was the fulfillment of one of the most significant promises made by the longshot candidate: “to preserve and protect our religious liberty.” …

Among other things, the directive checks another big box on the White House’s to-do list — lifting the gag order on churches and other nonprofits under the Johnson Amendment. Since the first days of his candidacy, Donald Trump has railed against the 60-year-old piece of tax code that liberals have turned into a club to punish pastors with. For too long, the Left has used the IRS to threaten the charitable status of churches who dared to speak out on the moral issues of the day…

Medical professionals, charities, businesses, and even nuns who’ve suffered under the outrageous mandate of Obamacare will finally have the relief they need to say no to insurance coverage that violates their conscience. After years of court battles, they’ll be free from regulatory harassment of including contraception and abortifacients in their health care plans. But that’s not all the order does. It sets in place a multi-step process that will provide some long-overdue protections by directing the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to develop guidelines for every federal agency to ensure they protect and promote religious freedom. This includes members of our military, who, under the Obama administration, have been systematically silenced and even purged. Men and women like Chaplain Wes Modder (U.S. Navy-Ret.) and Monifa Sterling, who stared down the ends of their careers for their deeply-held beliefs, can finally come out of hiding and live out their faith openly.

Finally, for our friends like Barronelle Stutzman and Don Vander Boon, who’ve suffered for their biblical views on marriage, there’s hope. As President Trump said, “No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith,” President Trump told those of us gathered in the Rose Garden for today’s ceremony. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” the president said. “We will never ever stand for religious discrimination.”

And finally one that might not pan out, but here’s hoping…

Republicans Back Pact to Gut Obamacare

By a 217-213 vote, the House advanced the mission the Americans elected them for — defunding the nation’s biggest abortion group and gutting an unsustainable and unconscionable law. Despite almost three months of drama, the GOP managed to pull together a coalition that put the American Health Care Act (AHCA) over the top, fulfilling a major pledge the president’s party has campaigned on since 2010… House leaders have struck a compromise that lowers premiums, boosts freedom, and protects taxpayers and the unborn.

Today’s win was a long time coming for pro-lifers, who watched with revulsion every David Daleiden video detailing the horrors of Cecile Richards’s group. For once, the moral injustice done to taxpayers has a voice: Congress’s. There was the usual phony panic from Planned Parenthood, which insisted that if Congress didn’t send them their usual half-billion taxpayer dollars, women’s health care would cease to exist. (What they didn’t mention is that the money would be redirected to thousands of local health clinics — which, incidentally, haven’t been referred for criminal prosecution.) Not surprisingly, they’ve called the effort to defund their organization a “national scandal.” But honestly, the only real scandal is that America has been funding the group as long as it has!

Let’s hope the Senate follows quickly in the House’s footsteps and sends the AHCA to the desk of the pro-life president we’ve been waiting for. It’s time for Donald Trump to make history and bring our nation closer to the day when all human life is protected under law.

 

Is Yoga Evil?

I’ve run across the idea that yoga having come from eastern spiritual tradition was somehow bad, but it always seemed sort of fringe, a little like the fundamentalist freak out over fantasy stories – a bit silly.  But then I ran across this: Yoga: a cautionary tale

This blogger has seemed very reasonable about things in the past, and she’s certainly not being hysterical about it.  I don’t doubt her personal experience, but…?  The one thing that doesn’t seem well-defined is this: is there a way to separate the physical movements just for exercise and lose the Hindu spiritual meaning?  This seems to be implying no, but how is it that the Church is able to transform other pagan practices but apparently not this one?

Is old film the answer to forming our children’s imaginations?

Anthony Esolen thinks so.  Our children need not just our example or direct teaching to form their imagination and moral sense, but good art, including film.  If it isn’t explicitly religious or moralizing, all the better.

Why the Miley Cyrus generation needs the old movies…urgently:

For I find this black mark impinge the man,
   
That he believes in just the vile of life.
   
Low instinct, base pretension, are these truth?
                   
– Robert Browning, from The Ring and the Book

…we should welcome our allies wherever we may find them, particularly among the creators of films that celebrate marriage and innocent life, piety and faithfulness, before such things became controversial. The unconscious witness of people who are not party to our current confusion can be most powerful indeed. A film like Penny Serenade, about a marriage that hangs by a thread, between a good man who is a failure at work and a good woman who cannot bear children, has more to say to us about not tearing asunder what God has joined together, than any number of lectures in theology…

Here someone will object that the people who made those films were often not at all pious. Some of them did things that, if you knew about them, would make it almost impossible for you ever again to take any pleasure in their work. What then separates them from the people who make films now? Aren’t they all sinners like the rest of us? And cannot bad people make great art?

Yes and no. There are sinners who feel the pain of their sin because they acknowledge how far they fall short of the glory of God. That might have described the hard-drinking, fist-throwing Catholic director, John Ford; and the womanizing Gary Cooper, who became a Catholic shortly before he died, partly because of the example of Ford. But then there are sinners who are numb to their sin, because they no longer acknowledge the glory of God. They are like the wicked man whom Robert Browning’s pope describes in the quote above. They believe “in just the vile of life.” For them, all piety is sanctimony, all patriotism is bigotry, all chastity is prudishness, all innocence is naïveté, all tradition is hide-bound, all judgment is arbitrary, and all love is but selfishness with sugar.

Such people cannot make great art. They can be a part of great works of art only to the extent that they are borne up by the faith of better people around them. They cannot otherwise raise themselves out of the mud…

We wish not only to tell our children what the truth is, but to show it to them. This we can do by the example of our lives, but because children so often feel the need to place some distance between themselves and their parents, if only to win their separate identities, we must turn to others to confirm that truth. We can do much on our own to form their memories. We can do little on our own to form their imaginations. That is what good art and great art are for.

We cannot hand over their imaginative catechesis to people who, en masse, reject or despise our trust in God and in the coherence and beauty of the nature which God has created and sustains. That is not because they are bad people. As people they may be much better than their principles. It is because their principles are bad; the well is bad from the source…

And since, for most people, imagination leads and reason follows, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ignore it. The forming of the imagination is not a part of a Christian education. It is a Christian education.

That does not mean that we turn to specifically religious art. Again, a religious vision of the world often strikes home more powerfully when it is like the fresh air, or like health…

But I hear an objection: “Our children cannot watch the old movies!” Their attention wanders if they are not regularly needled and sparked by noise, a visual and aural and neural overload, an induced Saint Vitus’ dance. If that is true, their imaginations need more than formation. They need healing.

Education and the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has received a good deal of commentary recently.   Certainly we are living in post-Christian times.  This review makes me more interested in reading it.

In Fearing Dreher: Why the Benedict Option Scares Christians, Thomas Ascik writes:

But it is most interesting that Mr. Dreher barely talks about the curriculum of public elementary and secondary schools. He emphasizes, instead, the peer culture of the school environment. Christian parents may try very hard, but everything can be undone by “the toxic peer culture” of public schools. In addition, the parents themselves may neither understand nor be capable of resisting. The effects are pervasive. Mr. Dreher quotes communications to him from parents of children in public schools who describe the startling number of public-school students who have come to believe that that they are transgender or bisexual. In the bluntest statement of his whole book, and one aimed directly at Christian parents, Mr. Dreher asserts that “two or three hours of religious education weekly is unlikely to counteract the forty or more hours spent in school or school-related programming.” The conclusion: Christian parents should remove their children from public schools.

A senior in a large public high school located in a major western city recently told this reviewer that he did not know any Christians at his school. Now, since there are obviously students there who are Christians, that means that the Christian students never identify themselves as Christians nor say or do anything identifiably Christian. Plainly, those students think that a public school is not an environment where it is appropriate or even permissible to be an open Christian. So, we may ask, if you never express who you really are, aren’t you inevitably changing who you really are?

***

In order to combine Christian education with an education in the liberal learning of Western civilization, Mr. Dreher endorses the classical Christian school movement and gives both Catholic and Evangelical examples. If such schools are too expensive or not available, the alternative is to homeschool.

I couldn’t agree more that the public schools in our country are a disaster and the best thing you could do for your kids is to keep them out.  Here are a couple recent examples of the sort of negative influences in school he’s talking about.

A Florida teacher demanded her 9th grade student remove a cross necklace that she was wearing.  The teacher’s room is full of LGBT posters and rainbows.  She’s allowed to proselytize the kids, but the kids can’t even wear a symbol of their faith?  Although the girl obeyed the teacher’s demand at the time, she and her parents aren’t taking this without a fight:

Together with her attorneys, this brave ninth grader is asking for the right to express her faith, which is already guaranteed to her by the Constitution. Students should never have to check their beliefs at the school house door — or anywhere else for that matter.

Emily Zinos writes “A ‘transgender’ kindergartner registered at my kids’ school. That’s when the madness began.”  She goes on to describe what happened in her school district: the school’s attempts at accommodation, the “trans” kid’s parents suing anyway, school sponsored meetings telling the rest of the parents they had to comply and when these parents funded a meeting to counterpoint the school’s presentation, “Well over a hundred local pro-LGBTQ protesters came to the presentation, prompting the local police to send a sergeant and two patrolling squads as protection.”  Because tolerance, folks!

The rest of Ms. Zinos’ article is interesting, especially that a group of feminists has joined the fight against transgender activism because of common ground of ensuring the rights of biological women.  Here is her conclusion about what’s happening in the schools:

institutionalizing gender ideology will require that schools ignore the evidence that it causes real harm to children. You can’t extol the virtues of gender ideology and question its soundness at the same time. By celebrating transgenderism as a valid identity, schools are promoting a body-mind disconnect that may very well bring on the gender dysphoric state they were attempting to prevent. And when the widely accepted “affirmative” medical treatments of gender dysphoria in children are both poorly studied and glaringly injurious, we have nothing to celebrate.

We’re building a school-to-gender-clinic pipeline that will feed this new pediatric specialty with young patients. There are now more than thirty gender clinics specializing in youth across the United States, and the young patients who are under their care are often given bone-destroying puberty blockers at eleven, potentially sterilized with cross-sex hormones at sixteen, and permanently mutilated by plastic surgery soon after that.

Make no mistake, schools that endorse and celebrate transgenderism as valid are endorsing child abuse.

Given examples like those (and those are only two, only the tip of the ice berg where trans-issues are but one problem among many), I’d say Dreher isn’t wrong about the state of education in America.  He also opines that most of the American colleges may be beyond saving – unless they are replaced by truer places of secondary learning.  What about his other ideas?

Mr. Dreher, who visited the Benedictine monastery at Nursia, Italy, in preparing his book, holds that the Rule is a “manual of practices, and its precepts simple and “plain enough to be adapted by lay Christians for their own use.” He derives eight main principles from the Rule and states why each would literally be a godsend for Christians in the modern, secular world. Against the disorder and loss of tradition of the modern world, the first principle is that it is order—ordered daily life, rather than today’s randomness—that sets the stage for “internal order.”

The second is prayer. “Prayer is the life of the soul,” Mr. Dreher quotes a Benedictine monk, and time must be set aside for it. The monastic emphasis on regular, daily prayer is the precisely needed antidote to the maniacal busyness of the contemporary world. Echoing the standard understanding of the role of prayer in Christian life, Mr. Dreher suggests that “if we spend all our time in activity, even when that activity serves Christ, and neglect prayer and contemplation, we put our faith in danger.”

Third, against the intellectualizing of everything today, Benedict’s Rule understands that the involvement of the body in manual labor is an essential part of human work. Again, Christians today, having been forced out of some of the professions, may have to resort to more labor by hand, Mr. Dreher concludes.

Fourth, contrary to the supreme modern principle of satisfying one’s own desires, “relearning asceticism—that is, how to suffer for the faith—is critical training for Christians living in the world today and the world of the near future.”

Fifth, even that most monastic principle of stability—that is, staying in one place—has some relevance to lay Christians, for what is the overall benefit of our constant mobility?

Sixth is community, the human architecture of a monastery, but also of a family, a neighborhood, a city, a society, and a polity. We readers might add to Mr. Dreher’s analysis the observation that we now increasingly live without a sense of shared life, without a “collective consciousness,” as Emile Durkheim put it. We are “free, equal, and independent,” but, pace John Locke, we are alone.

Seventh, contrary to Mr. Dreher’s critics and to a true understanding of the Rule, hospitality is a daily duty not only of monastic life but also of lay Christian life. Pilgrims and visitors are to “be received like Christ.” But hospitality, like all the virtues, must be practiced with prudence and according to the other principles of the Rule. A visitor cannot disturb or disrupt the community.

Mr. Dreher adds an eighth principle—balance, partly derived from the Benedictines but also from his own reflection and observation. By being too strict, some Christian communities have fallen apart or become “cultlike.” On the other hand, since abandonment to the will of God is the goal, Christian communities cannot be based on “spiritual mediocrity.”

Something hopeful for a change

Joseph Pearce writes about signs of renewal in the Catholic church in France. Definitely worth reading the whole article.

In light of these words, a recent essay in America about the rise and renewal of Christianity in France illustrates all too clearly the “resurrected embryonic form” of the Christian revival in Europe.

“A few years ago,” writes the essay’s author, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “I started to realize something. Whenever I was less than five minutes early for Mass, I had to go to the overflow room, and I would typically have to step over people sitting on the floor to get there. The church was filled to the gills every Sunday, with young families and children most of the time.” Mr. Gobry, who lives in Paris, experienced the same thing when he moved to a different part of the city. The church was packed. There were wealthy and elderly Parisians but also many immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean countries, as well as “the kinds of hipsters you might not expect to be religious.” Also, and significantly, Mr. Gobry tells us that “there are children everywhere.”