April 2nd, 2011


Moral Equivalency cuts both ways

A lot of ink has been spilled over Pastor Terry Jones burning a Koran down in Florida and the riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that followed it. (BTW, since so much publishing is now electronic, shouldn't that be "a lot of electrons have been spilled?" No matter.) The first result of all the coverage is, of course, to magnify the Rev. Squit's actions down in Swampland. Makes me wonder, What if they held a Koran burning and nobody came? Or how about, If a Koran burns in Florida, and nobody was there to report on it, would anybody know to riot?

Me, I think somebody should tell Pastor Needsalife that his fifteen minutes are up. Then, the media need to stop taking his calls. And that would take care of that.

But beyond commenting on the actions of just about the only pastor I know of who doesn't have enough to do, most of the other nattering and grommishing I read usually makes some sort of moral equivalency argument. You know, we really can't blame the poor Afghans (or whoever) because, after all, they've been offended. And besides, Christians have done it, too.

Now, that is quite an argument to make. Yes, Christians have, in times past, gone on rampages. I could name a few: the pro-Mary riots surrounding the calling of the Council of Ephesus that eventually declared her to be theotokos; the spasms of medieval anti-Semitism that would erupt whenever somebody said the Jews were poisoning wells or something; various outbreaks of iconoclasm directed against pagan temples or pictures in church or "Romish" decorations. These are nothing to be proud of.

That said, if we are to semi-excuse the rioting Muslims because of our past history of rioting Christians, let's understand what that means. If it's okay for Muslims to riot and to kill people all because of what somebody did eight or ten thousand miles away (and even if, as before, he had only said he was going to do it), then it must have been okay for those Christians long ago to riot and kill, too. They, too, had provocation -- or thought they did.

Are we really prepared to go that route? For make no mistake, that's what the moral equivalency argument gets you. Rather, we should condemn this kind of violence wherever it breaks out. We don't excuse Christian rioters from the past; on the contrary, we confess the repugnance of their actions -- and call Muslims to live up to the same standard. That's the only moral equivalency I'm interested in: that all persons and groups should be held accountable for their actions, without excuses or special waivers for certain ideologies or approved victim groups.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's great work, The Lord of the Rings (a novel far more morally serious than anything written by the literary "mainstream"), the warrior captain Eomer asks, "How shall a man judge what to do in such times?" To which Aragorn replies, "As he ever has judged . . . Good and evil have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." Substitute Christians and Secularists for Elves and Dwarves and Muslims for Men and it is just as true.

Blaming parents

I was telling some folks recently that the confirmands I work with are two reading levels below the same kinds of kids I was working with when I started teaching confirmation three decades ago. Someone blamed parents for not reading to kids, helping them learn, supporting schools, etc. There's a lot of truth to that, but not as much as you might think.

In fact, schools have been blaming parents since Horace Mann launched the "Massachusetts Model" public school movement in the first half of the 19th Century. Central to Mann's thesis was that the problems of ignorance and delinquency were tied to unfit parents. Schools were necessary to correct the slovenliness and poor values instilled by the family in children. In many ways, public schools ever since have been hostile to the parents of the children they teach.

One prime example of this hostility can be found in the Reform School movement, again pioneered by Massachusetts in the 19th Century. Under certain conditions, the state could remove children from the homes of obviously unfit parents and place them under state guardianship in a Reform School. One of the indicators of parental unfitness was a habit of truancy from school. But here's the kicker: Massachusetts courts, at the initiative of the schools, began removing children from their parents' homes for failure to attend public schools and sending them to Reform School before the passage of the first compulsory attendance law in the state. Think about that for a moment. The parents were under no legal obligation to send their children to school, but some school administrator could sue to have their children taken away on the basis of truancy from school. Just because educators know better than parents what's good for children.

This hostility to parents is bred in the bone of schools today. And the problem with it is, if schools are necessary to counteract the unfitness of parents -- to make the children turn out "right" -- then why haven't their parents turned out right, since the schools had charge of them a generation ago? In fact, after a hundred and eighty years or so of the "Massachusetts Model," why haven't schools succeeded in turning out adults who will be the right kind of parents? It would appear that the schools have failed at their self-proclaimed mission.

I think the first thing we have to wrestle with is why adults show so little interest in reading, such poor writing skills, and so on. The parents of today are the schoolchildren of yesterday. If the schools' impact upon them has been minimal -- or even pernicious -- then we need to completely overhaul school.

The next thing I'd suggest is that the schools are obsessed with changing the facts they teach and the way they teach them. I suspect that this is so others will not tumble to the fact that teaching is not rocket science. Not that good teaching is easy, mind you, but any educated person should be able to contribute to the making of a public school curriculum. After all, they're educated, aren't they? But the schools want to exclude all who are not members of the "priesthood," and one way to do that is to constantly fiddle with "what knowledge is of most worth."

The result of that is that the schools are not passing along a cultural heritage that parents and grandparents can recognize and affirm. Once upon a time, a child would read a story or learn a poem, and the folks at home would say, "I remember when I was your age and read that story/learned that poem." The intergenerational sharing of that bit of curriculum made it easier to learn it. Today, much of what children learn is not what their parents learned, so they can't help them with it. And since it is so rootless, it is often discarded as soon as the test is over. For most subjects, only what is shared can be retained.

Of course, there's always something new to learn. But most of the new stuff that has become "known" in our society is on the high end of science. Elementary students learning how to read and what to read don't need to trouble themselves with Stephen Hawking's latest musings on the universe. At the same time, the treasures of our shared heritage are more important than the latest dreary bit of relevance added to the Reading book to make it more "inclusive."

Public schools, in their utopian mission to create the citizens of tomorrow, have set about to create an ersatz society that nobody wants to live in, nobody wants to read about, and everybody wants to forget as soon as they can. Not only that, but even if you wanted to live in that society, the knowledge and skills that were to be valued in it change sufficiently in only a few years that the previous generation cannot help the next to adjust to it.

Some years ago, a young man serving as our camp's Ecology-Conservation Director was talking with me. He was a freshman in college, and planned to teach biology upon graduation. He was trying to remember a word, and he said, "you know, one of those little one-celled animals with the whip-like things on it . . ."

"Do you mean a euglena?" I asked. "The whip is called a flagellum."

"Yeah, that's right," he said. Then he paused in a kind of shock, and said, "How did you remember that?"

"You want to be a biology teacher," I said. "Don't you think I should remember that? Why else teach it?"

Even teachers who aren't yet teachers are shocked when somebody remembers the stuff they teach. So, how much do they value it, themselves? The poor product our schools turn out is not the fault of parents, but of teachers and administrators and politicians who have created the public schools as they are today.