Thursday, April 29, 2010

Telling Our Story

I recently came across The Catholicism Project, an effort by Fr. Robert Barron. While the trailer is a bit melodramatic - some might say cheesy or jingoistic - I think it has a lot of promise. Most importantly, Fr. Barron has put his finger on a major problem facing Catholicism (and Christianity generally): "The Catholic story is being told, but being told by the wrong people in the wrong way."

The Church is usually portrayed in the media as a corrupt and decaying institution of wealthy and ignorant white men. Fr. Barron sets out to offer a counter-narrative: "Catholicism is smart. Catholicism is beautiful." From the trailer and the episode guide, it is clear that this series seeks to show that the Church is international, young, vibrant, cultural and intellectual, rich and poor. At the heart of the effort seems to be a desire to share the truth about the Gospel, rather than letting its detractors tell the story.

I applaud Fr. Barron and The Catholicism Project, and hope that it lives up to this lofty goal.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thoughts from Afar

Arizona's new immigration legislation had drawn national and even international press. The bill has garnered widespread criticism, including from the Catholic bishops of Arizona. Though I no longer live there, my home state has a particular interest to me. And it seems to me that while the bill has a number problematic elements, some of which are talked about more than others, many of the criticisms which have been leveled do not hold water or are less important than is usually suggested.

Dubious Criticisms

First, let us consider the claim that the bill, which gives local law enforcement the power to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand identification, will not be effective. Of all the charges against the bill, this seems least plausible. While some illegal immigrants will doubtless say, many will judge that the real possibility of fines or jail time is too much of a risk to bear. Reports are already circulating of such immigrants leaving for Mexico or other states.

Some have argued that the bill will open the door to rampant discrimination against the state's considerable Hispanic community, both legal and illegal. While this is quite possible, it strikes me as a bit of a red herring. I once heard a police officer explain that the average driver could be pulled over at any given time for three different violations. Racist law enforcement personnel already have opportunities to make life difficult for non-whites by hitting them with petty crimes and misdemeanors that usually go unenforced. But, by and large, such racist and unequal enforcement is not currently a problem: our law enforcement personnel are trained to high standards of professionalism, the courts are sensitive to charges of racism and the media quickly reports on such matters. Would the new law create new opportunities for racist misconduct? Yes. But we should not discount all the countervailing forces which currently exist and will continue to.

Another criticism raised is that the new law would take energy and resources away from law enforcement's more legitimate work elsewhere. There are two answers to this. First, the bill's supporters, including its sponsor, Russell Pearce, argue that the new law will actually free up law enforcement personnel by reducing illegal traffic at the border, leaving more officers free to operate elsewhere. Even if this does not pan out, I question the claim that this new law will draw law enforcement away from more serious crimes. Every police force has to prioritize its resources. Have you ever seen someone speeding in your neighborhood? Of course. Why? Because the police have decided that, given their limited budget, having an officer sit on your corner with a radar gun 24-7 is not the best use of their resources. There are other neighborhoods and more important crimes that occupy most of their attention. This law would add one more concern to law enforcement's list, but it would not have to be their top priority. Indeed, I doubt it would significantly alter the hierarchy of considerations.

Some people have argued that the bill will have a negative effect on Arizona's economy. This comes in two forms. First is the contention that illegal immigrants provide useful labor, stimulate the consumer economy and - even if they do not pay income tax - contribute to the tax base through sales taxes. There is some validity to these claims, but at stake here is a deeper question, namely, whether immigration limitations are beneficial or if we should simply have open borders. That is a very important question, but not the question on the table. With regard to the proposed bill, we are asking how current immigration laws should be enforced (particularly in the light of the federal government's limited success in doing so). Leaving aside the deeper question, there are some qualifying comments which can be made about this first economic argument. While illegal immigrants buy a variety of consumer products in the States, stimulating the local economy, they also send a considerable portion of their income back home. Thus, the stimulus value of one illegal immigrant is less than the corresponding value of a domestic worker who keeps the entirety of his income in the States. Moreover, while illegal immigrants do pay sales taxes, the kind of goods which they purchase - most notably food - have the lowest tax rates, so the addition to the tax base is somewhat reduced.

A second variation on the economic argument is that businesses will leave Arizona or will choose not to come in the first place. One perfectly valid reason is that they do not want their (completely legal) Hispanic employees being harassed by law enforcement. But I wonder if some companies are not also worried about the loss of cheap illegal labor. Even companies which do not employ such workers could feel the knock-on effects: Those involved in real estate may contract with construction companies which make use of illegal labor. Even high-tech companies make use of cleaning services which sometimes hire illegal immigrants. And even if a company is not contracting with someone who utilizes illegal labor, the very presence of illegals in the market increases the labor supply and depresses labor costs. Companies may be worried, and some for legitimate reasons, but I wonder if some are not also worried for selfish reasons.

Legitimate Concerns

One of the most troubling aspects of this bill is the requirement that people be able to produce identification at all times. This might seem like a minor item. Indeed, there was a time in my life when I thought it a perfectly reasonable policy. But I have since come to see that this is but one aspect of a troubling callousness toward our own liberties. In reading Brian Jenkins' The Fenian Problem: Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-1874, as I prepared to write a review (forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of History), I was struck by the keen sense of personal liberty present in the 19th century. Though battling terrorists, the British government could not countenance the notion of restricting gun ownership; this was, after all, a free country. The assumption was that individuals were free to live their lives as they pleased, and the state could only interfere in that for very compelling reasons. Today, even those who profess an attachment to liberty frequent assume the state will intervene in our everyday lives.

A few other aspects are worth consideration. One is the question of families: what if one parent is an illegal immigrant, the other a legal worker or citizen, and the children citizens? Should we imprison parents of young (and legal) children? Or does this cause undue harm? It seems to me that the simplest answer here would be to deport the offending parent, with the remaining parent and children having the option of staying in the States or also leaving. This is, admittedly, a difficult choice, but, I think, a fair one. The problem here is that states do not have the power to deport. So the new law would punish illegal immigrants with fines or jail time. This could pose a particular burden on children who are citizens but both of whose parents are illegal immigrants. A certain degree of leniency should be built into the law, giving judges leeway in determining sentences, and allowing them to take family circumstances into consideration. Still, the underlying problem is that the federal government, the one with the most relevant powers - those of deportation and of passing comprehensive immigration reform - has provided an inadequate response. Arizona can hardly be blamed for doing what it can.

One other concern raised has been that illegal immigrants may now increasingly become the victims of crimes because they are unwilling to call authorities for fear of being arrested themselves. This is a real problem. Faced with language barriers and short of money, illegal immigrants are already the victims of a considerable amount of crime, not least horrible abuse by "coyotes," guides who take them across the border, often forcing them to carry drugs as part of the deal. Being in the US illegally is a violation of the law and should be treated as such, but should be dealt with in a fair and legal manner; their illegal status should not make us wholly blind to the plight of illegal immigrants. That having been said, I wonder just how many fewer illegal immigrants would call authorities under then new law than currently do; many already fear law enforcement personnel. However, as with the issue of family, I would favor the inclusion of language in the new bill which might mitigate (or, at a judge's discretion, waive) punishment for illegal immigrants whose status was only discovered because they reported a crime. This is not an absurd notion, since the same concept can be found in so-called Good Samaritan laws.

The bishops complained that the bill is "mean-spirited," a charge I find particularly interesting. On the one hand, law enforcement is never going to be a very friendly or pleasant matter: it is, ultimately, the use of coercive force to uphold the law. On the other hand, I have been reading lately about Camp Hearne, in a work titled Lone Star Stalag. The camp held German POWs during World War II, and did so in a friendly and generous manner that is, frankly, shocking to the modern mindset. Reading about the humane and pleasant treatment of the prisoners, and their positive response to it, is truly uplifting. I cannot help but think that we are a lesser society for having lost that sense of generosity, even toward our enemies. But it strikes me that the present bill in question is more of a manifestation of society's mean-spiritedness, than it is a contributor to it. This spirit of vindictiveness is indeed worrisome, but we should focus on destroying it at its roots, not just its branches.

Let me be clear: I favor immigration reform. I think it should be easier, not harder, to legally come to this country, either as a permanent immigrant or as a temporary worker. What the present bill demonstrates is that the federal government has failed to provide such reform. We should not be surprised that a state like Arizona, with 460,000 illegal immigrants within its borders, would pass a bill like this. Indeed, similar measures in other states would not surprise me. Let us hope that all this furor has put a fire under Congress to take action.

H/T to my brother, Matt, with whom I disagree on some of these issues, but who keeps me informed and honest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One of Those Days!

I'm fidgety. It's one of those days: the weather is beautiful and I should be somewhere other than in a computer lab entering exam grades. Even if my body cannot be out doing other things, at least my mind should be, right?

Have you ever noticed how items can lump themselves together in our minds? The weather has immediately conjured up the following constellation of diversions:

Musically, it is a day for Beirut, DeVotchKa, the Decemberists and Andrew Bird.

It is a day for Indiana Jones, The Life Aquatic, Tombstone or Apollo 13.

It is a day for Mickey Mouse and Tintin, The Twenty One Balloons and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

It is days like these that make me want to join the Explorers Club, the CIA or Mission Aviation Fellowship.

In a word: it's a day for adventures!

Alas, I'll get back to my exams now...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Am I Attracted to This?

A little while ago the trailer for An Education came across my desk, probably because it was nominated for three Academy Awards.

The film, starring Carey Mulligan, tells the story of a British school girl who runs off to Paris. I watched the trailer once, then again a few days later, and then a time or two more. The question that kept floating in the back of my mind was, Why am I attracted to this?

I am a traditionalist in my ideology and a conservative by temperament. I favor old stuffy schools and extensive planning; I oppose both extramarital affairs and spontaneous trips to Paris. So why am I so intrigued? Am I simply that big of a sucker for love stories? Is it the British accents that do me in? Or, as a friend suggested, do I simply "crave a little spontaneity in [my] very busy, structured and cerebral life"?

In addition to my own personal questions, there are larger ones in the background: Why are we ever attracted to things that are different from us? Simply a break from monotony? The glamor of evil? The light of truth? Perhaps even deeper than that, what is attraction? I don't mean that in a definitional sense, but an anthropological one. What is going on inside a person when he becomes attracted to something? Clearly this is different from attachment, and yet, there is something of that here, when we can't seem to look away. In a world full of stimuli, why do some things, even relatively unimportant things, catch our eye?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Against the Great Books?

The Great Books are not the solution to the problems of higher education in this country. In fact, the Great Books are enemies of wisdom.

How could a proud graduate of the University of Dallas like myself say such a thing? Such a statement practically amounts to blasphemy!

But, before you dismiss me as some crazy liberal, let me point out that I am not the one who made those statements. They were made by Patrick Deneen and Fritz Wilhelmsen--hardly crazy liberals. If anything, they are usually described as crazy conservatives. And indeed, both men make their critique of Great Books programs from a conservative perspective. Last week Deneen wrote an article "Why the Great Books Aren't the Answer" which has sparked some lively discussion on a couple Internet forums. Deneen's concerns, though, are not entirely original; they were voiced years ago by one of UD's very own, the late Fritz Wilhelmsen, in his essay "The Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom."

There is a lot to think about in Deneen's and Wilhelmsen's articles, but I would like to focus on one interesting issue they both raise, and one which is, I believe, at the heart of their critique of Great Books programs: the role of tradition in a proper education.

Deneen identifies two potential effects that Great Books programs will have on most students. On the one hand, making students read a "potpourri of conflicting views"--from the ancient Greeks through the 20th century--can easily lead a student to adopt relativism or to despair of ever finding the truth once he realizes that all the great thinkers he has read disagreed radically with one another. On the other hand, many students enter college with a progressive theory of history in their mind: all of history has reached its culmination in the present, therefore the present is the best. Instead of relativism, these students will simply be confirmed in progressivist dogma. But more worrisome than either relativism or progressivism by itself is the possibility that students will combine these twin dangers of relativism to form a single monster: the dogmatic relativist. The dogmatic relativist will believe that history, and therefore truth, has culminated in relativism.

To fend off these dangers, universities, in Deneen's view, need to give students a framework within which to read the Great Books, and not simply approach them with neutrality. Ultimately, Deneen (a professor at Georgetown) believes it is necessary to teach "in the light of the standards that the Catholic tradition would provide."

Wilhelmsen in his article focuses less on the conflicting content of the Great Books and more on the inadequacy of the Great Books in fostering in students the virtues necessary for the philosophical life. For Wilhelmsen, following Aristotle, philosophy is a way of knowing; it is not found in books, but rather in the philosopher's virtues, the habits of the mind, "through which things are understood in their causal structures." Philosophy, though, also requires that a master educate a beginner in these virtues. This approach to philosophy--which Wilhelmsen describes as it used to be practiced in Catholic universities in America--is at once both traditional and personal. Each student (and teacher) submits to the tradition, but is also able, thanks to his own virtues, to contribute to that tradition. Wilhelmsen at one point even uses the word "apprentice" to describe a student's relationship to his teacher. A philosophy department at a university, then, should in this respect quite literally resemble a craft guild.

For Wilhelmsen, one of the chief follies of the typical Great Books program, besides only teaching students what others said rather than to philosophize themselves, is to teach certain texts with no regard for the historical context in which they were written. Students are expected to cope with the most varied authors "without having the faintest hint of the kind of world within which these men lived and thought." In other words, the typical Great Books program utterly neglects the importance of tradition.

Deneen's and Wilhelmsen's critiques of Great Books programs, though they emphasize different aspects of education, both rest on the assumption that a student cannot learn the truth unless he is embedded within a craft and a tradition.

This insight that has been developed by Alisdair MacIntyre in the area of virtue ethics, especially in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (in particular, chapter III: “Too Many Thomisms?”) According to MacIntyre, tradition embodies the claim that “reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.” This claim would sound preposterous to most people today, especially in a discussion of higher education, since most people conceive of higher education as “free enquiry." MacIntyre, however, defends the rationality of tradition by pointing to two things an apprentice in any craft has to learn:

[First,] the apprentice has to learn, at first from his or her teachers and then in his or her continuing self-education, how to identify mistakes made by him or herself in applying the acknowledged standards, the standards recognized to be the best available so far in the history of that particular craft…[Second,] the apprentice has to learn to distinguish between the kind of excellence which both others and he or she can expect of him or herself here and now and that ultimate excellence which furnishes both apprentices and mastercraftsmen with their telos.
But, how does an individual’s membership in a craft connect with a larger historical tradition? “The standards of achievement within any craft are justified historically. They have emerged from the criticism of their predecessors and they are justified because and insofar as they have remedied the defects and transcended the limitations of those predecessors as guides to excellent achievement within that particular craft.”

To conclude before I quote the entirety of Three Rival Versions, I would like not to provide a complete justification of tradition--that would require me to write books I am not capable of writing--but simply to draw out three implications which Deneen, Wilhelmsen, and MacIntyre's position has for higher education, particularly Catholic higher education.

First, we must take the historical aspect of learning within a tradition much more seriously than we do now. Many of the problematic aspects of a Great Books program arise from false philosophies of history--especially, as Deneen notes, relativism and progressivism. The solution is a proper understanding of education as initiation into a craft, into a tradition. And a tradition's standards, as MacIntyre reminds us, are justified historically.

Second, if we want to restore this understanding of education as initiation into a craft, we cannot make students fumble in the dark reading all the Great Books yet expect them somehow to figure out how to philosophize on their own. And realistically, we cannot expect students to find their own way into the tradition in the four short years of their undergraduate education. College is, in many cases, already a late stage to enter into a tradition. This means we have a lot of work to do in restoring the educational craft, not only at the university level, but also in high schools, and even in elementary schools.

Third, if any healthy tradition necessarily excludes fundamental dissent in order to teach students to philosophize, we have to radically rethink our notion of academic freedom. More specifically, we have to rethink the relationship of education and religion. Academic freedom today is often portrayed as the freedom to ignore or even disparage religion. But academic freedom is not the freedom to mock what is holy, or even to read the Great Books; academic freedom--as Wilhelmsen explains--is really the freedom of a craftsman working in a tradition.

Note: For further comments on Deneen's article, see Front Porch Republic and First Things.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Comprehensive Exams


On Monday 17 May, about six weeks from now, I will begin my comprehensive examinations. The exams cover two weeks, involving written questions from four different professors and then an oral exam. The list of books to read runs for more pages than I care to count. I've been studying since last year. As you might have discerned, these are kind of a big deal.

And therefore, I am asking you for your prayers. As a friend who recently passed her exams explained, "I know I would not be where I am today without God's grace and the prayers of others." Some people might wonder if - big though they seem to me - God is not particularly interested in my comprehensive exams; for someone Who holds the cosmos in His hand, they might, indeed, seem insignificant. But this week we celebrate the Easter Octave, a time when we remember that our God stepped into time and became a man. He walked, and talked and got dirt under His fingernails. He cares about the little people and doesn't mind the messy details of finitude and mortality. He suffered, died, and then conquered death. Thus, I am firmly convinced that God is not only Lord of my exams, but also stoops to care about them.

So do put in a good word for me in the next few weeks. By His grace, I should complete my oral exams the morning of Thursday 27 May, officially becoming a PhD candidate.

Happy Easter,

PS If there is a shortage of posts from me in the coming weeks, you'll know why.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

~ St. John Chrysostom