Monday, September 01, 2014

Is there really a connection between education and economics?

If you listen to education debates even casually, you soon begin to realize that the universal assumption is that there is some strong correlation between education and economic performance. We need "workers for the 21st century," we are told. Our "economic future is dependent on our education system," and so forth an so on.

But here's a graph comparing NAEP test scores (accounted to be the most reliable national education measures) and U.S. economic performance.

All this is not to say that there is no correlation between real education and a good economic system, just that there doesn't seem to be any between education as it is measured by tests and the economy. I suspect that if there was a way to measure the individual economic success of students with a good liberal arts education, you would get a very different result.

But even so this evidence should make us rethink the whole connection everyone likes to make between education and economics and should make us ask whether our materialist fixation with economic success isn't actually hurting both education and the economy.

Ever since the purpose of education was changed from the old classical education (in which the purpose was to pass on a culture) to the progressivism of the 1920s (in which the purpose was to use schools to reform the culture), and the pragmatism that came in in the 1940s (in which the purpose was to fit children to the culture through directly teaching job skills), our education system has been in decline.

In other words, we ought to reassess whether economic performance should even be a goal of education.

As long as our education system continues to focus on external goals such as "career readiness" and "social skills" (not to mention multiculturalism and political correctness) and neglects the true goal of education, which is to acculturate students and develop their ability to know and think, it will continue its long downhill slide.

Maybe if we got back to trying to make students better human beings, rather than better workers, they would be both better human beings and better workers.

HT: Schools Matter

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Five books that refute atheism

There have been a lot of good books defending Christian theism or refuting atheism, but for my money the following five books (one of philosophy, one of history, one on science, a biography, and a novel) do the best job of demonstrating that modern atheism is an untenable position that cannot intellectually withstand the force of the theistic position:

The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, by Edward Feser (philosophy). The great modern defense of Aristotelian-Thomism (The only thing that can really be called "Christian philosophy," despite many attempts to define it otherwise) by one of the great modern Aristotelian-Thomists takes a philosophical wrecking ball to the New Atheism. Feser defends the classical Christian worldview in an enjoyable polemic style (enjoyable, that is, if your not on the wrong end of it) and makes mincemeat of the silly and shallow argumentation of the New Atheists. He shows that arguments such as "But if God is the first cause, who caused him?" betray a total misunderstanding of the cosmological argument, an argument that really cannot be refuted if it is actually understood.

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart (History). Hart argues that the moral revolution which we still enjoy the benefits of today was only made possible by the coming of Christianity. Of course, today's secularists, ignorant of the origin of the beliefs that underpin the modern view of such things as human rights, see no problem with holding a secular worldview and, say, being charitable. Hart points out that, for example, the opposition to slavery arose outside the chain of historical causation and was not only introduced by Christianity, but was impossible without it.

The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, by David Berlinski (Science). Berlinski received his Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton and was a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology from Columbia University. He is not only a formidable thinker, but one of the greatest prose stylists now writing. There are many people today who think that science somehow undermines religious belief. Berlinski points out that this position betrays a hopeless ignorance of both religion and science. His historical account of the debate over the Big Bang theory shows scientists such as Einstein desperately trying to justify belief in an eternal universe and having to reluctantly face the reality of a universe that has a beginning--a position that theology has held for millenia.

St. Augustine: A Life, by Garry Wills (Biography). Wills, a somewhat heretical Catholic, does a magnificent job showing us the life and thought of the man commonly acknowledged to be the greatest thinker of the first thousand years of the Church. Augustine received the best education of his time, made his way through the various systems of thought in the ancient world, and rose up through the academic ranks to eventually become the Professor of Rhetoric at Milan, the highest academic chair in the Roman Empire. Then, one day on the porch of his mother's villa, after having spend several years confronting the claims of Christianity, he opened up his mother's Bible, and was converted. He was known to have dictated several books to several secretaries at once, and wrote some of the most intellectually formidable defenses of Christianity ever penned, including his great masterpiece, the City of God.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Narrative Fiction). Tolstoy may have been the greatest novelist of all time and Anna Karenina was his greatest novel. What many people don't understand about this story is that it is just as much about Levin, a young agnostic nobleman with all the secular prejudices becoming common at the time, as about Anna, the seductress whose affair with a dashing young army officer is her moral and psychological undoing. Through his courtship with the adorable and earthy Kitty, the barricades of his heart are broken through and he begins to see his life in the moral context of the economy of God. In one scene, his future brother-in-law reminds him before his Orthodox wedding that he is obliged to perform the sacrament of Confession, something his agnosticism has prevented him from doing for many years. The priest who, during the mass, Levin thought had just been going through the liturgical motions, surprises him in the confessional with his piercing questions and his understanding of Levin's spiritual conditions. It rocks Levin's world. By the end of the book, Levin realizes, partly through the Christian love of his wife, that his opposition to Christianity is intellectually groundless, and is the result, not of any sound rational objections, but only of his own intransigent attitude.

These are my picks. I would interested in what books have influenced others.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Woody Allen is not a nihilist even though he thinks he is

Fr. Robert Barron on recent comments by Woody Allen:
I was chagrined, but not entirely surprised, when I read Woody Allen’s recent ruminations on ultimate things. To state it bluntly, Woody could not be any bleaker in regard to the issue of meaning in the universe. We live, he said, in a godless and purposeless world. The earth came into existence through mere chance and one day it, along with every work of art and cultural accomplishment, will be incinerated. The universe as a whole will expand and cool until there is nothing left but the void. Every hundred years or so, he continued, a coterie of human beings will be “flushed away” and another will replace it until it is similarly eliminated. So why does he bother making films—roughly one every year? Well, he explained, in order to distract us from the awful truth about the meaninglessness of everything, we need diversions, and this is the service that artists provide. In some ways, low level entertainers are probably more socially useful than high-brow artistes, since the former manage to distract more people than the latter. After delivering himself of this sunny appraisal, he quipped, “I hope everyone has a nice afternoon!”
Fr. Barron then goes on to argue that the mere fact of Allen's aesthetic sense is a sign that he can't believe in his own nihilism, since beauty assumes the transcendent. The same goes, he says, for morality--morality too, positing, as it does, an ought--necessarily implies an order outside the physical. Barron could have added that truth itself implies a transcendent order, since truth is itself a metaphysical concept.

In fact, anyone who claims that nihilism is true is denying his own assertion, since any meaningful statement implies a metaphysical order. In George Steiner's words, any meaningful statement is a "wager on transcendence."

Read more here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What the 20th century's most influential philosopher thought about scientism

Ludwig Wittgenstein
There have been a number of recent skirmishes on the issue of scientism in the last couple of years. In most of these altercations, critics of scientism offer a clear and meaningful definition of the term and then apply to people who practice it, who, in their turn, either question the term 'scientism' altogether, ignoring the clear definitions and claim that it doesn't mean anything, or who deny that their positions fit the meaning despite the fact that they do.

And then there are a few, like the philosophically-challenged Jerry Coyne, who alternatively deny they are practitioners of scientism and engage in it depending on the issue and the day of the week.

Raymond Monk authored one of if not the best biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher whom Monk, among others, considers the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. I think by "greatest," Monk means "most influential," but I may be wrong about that. In any case, I'm closing in on the end of the book and it is truly fantastic.

Monk weighs in on the scientism issue by pointing out Wittgenstein's view of it, which could be summarized as "dim." Wittgenstein helped to spawn, unintentionally and ironically, logical positivism, a scientist school of philosophy that proposed the verification principle of truth. Wittgenstein influenced the Vienna Circle, the group of intellectuals who birthed it, but was never a part of it, and never really endorsed the program, although there are parts of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the reader can be excused for interpreting as scientistic.

But Wittgenstein was never really a positivist. Partly this is because he was a mystic as well as a philosopher. he believed you couldn't say anything meaningful about God or the transcendental, but he never made the leap to the belief that, because of this, they don't therefore exist.

There are a number of interesting points in Monk's article in the recent issue of Prospect Magazine, but the most basic is just the description of what scientism and why it is fundamentally flawed:
Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.
There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better. 
Read the rest here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A critique of the patron saint of libertarianism

John Stuart Mill is the patron saint of libertarianism (a word Americans use for what Europeans more correctly--and historically--refer to as simply "liberalism"). Mill's Enlightenment rationalist view of freedom has exercised a mischievous influence of American political thought.

The always excellent Imaginative Conservative has an excellent critique of Mill:
As long as there have been “libertarians,” there has been hero worship of John Stuart Mill. This Nineteenth Century utilitarian author, most famously of On Liberty, has been looked to as a kind of fount of holy writ for individualism. And Mill was an individualist. Unfortunately, he was not a supporter of liberty in any meaningful sense.
It is somewhat odd, frankly, that Mill should enjoy the reputation he does, given the depth and breadth of the written record of his opinions and proposals advocating an administrative state with unchecked power to regulate people’s daily lives. What is more, excellent studies by Joseph Hamburger and, more recently, Linda Raeder, have shown the character and statist intentions of his life’s work. Still, some of the many passages so frequently quoted from his works might give evidence, to those who do not read more and with moderate care, that he was a friend to individual freedom and reasoned, principled service to mankind ...
Read more here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

What the Redskins controversy is really about

Now that religious religion is unfashionable, we have to have secular replacements for it. With the cultural decline of traditional religion, we get, as substitutes, either some kind of vague, New Age religiosity or, if you are of a more scientific rationalist bent, you can go in for New Atheism, which makes a religion out of opposing religion.

You can either go to lectures by the Dalai Llama, become a vegan, practice yoga, and advocate for animal rights, or you can take up the Global Warming cause, fight creationism, harass smokers, and go post monosyllabic insults against Christians on P. Z. Myers' blog. Both stem from the same fundamental impulse, which is religious and which, when repressed, manifests itself in any one of the various moralistic secular crusades, all of which involve some cause for which the follower can at least pretend to sacrifice, a cause whose detractors can be plausibly treated as heretics.

In fact, these secular enthusiasms become more extreme and supercilious the less formally religious they are. Having no way to meet their deeper spiritual needs, their acolytes become all the more preachy and intolerant.

Detractors are not just wrong, they are "homophobes," or "sexists," or "IDiots." The gay rights movement is full of it. So are some environmentalist sects.

The irony is that so many of these people profess, not only to be irreligious, but to be ethical relativists at the very same moment that they demand the absolute and unconditional submission to their secular dogma at the cost of cultural ostracism.

Almost anything, however trivial and inconsequential, can serve this secular religious purpose. The most recent example, of course, is the effort to force the Washington Redskins to change their name.

There is very little at stake in this Politically Correct crusade other than the establishment of one's liberal bona fides. There is no rational basis for concerns about the name. There are very few actual Indians who are upset by the mascot, and Washington fans root for the Redskins, not against them. Not a single Indian (Oops, were we supposed to say "Native American"?) will suffer from the sports franchise continuing to use the name and not a single one will benefit from its removal.

Indians, like every other minority, serve as a Politically Correct totem: They are one of the sacramental objects that gives meaning to the lives of secular liberals. The Redskins controversy simply offers another occasion to strike a secular sacramental pose.

When it's over, there will be something equally meaningless to fill the spiritual vacuum.

Friday, August 22, 2014

This is Your Culture on PC: Abortions for men

It gets weirder and weirder:
A Texas pro-abortion organization, Fund Texas Women, has announced that it is changing its name to Fund Texas Choice.  This is because the reference to “women” excludes trans-sexual individuals who now identify as “men” but who still have female reproductive organs and who may thus get pregnant and “need” an abortion.  This is from the announcement
HT: Gene Veith

Since males and females are now interchangeable, surely men have some kind of right to abortion too.

Kalb Speaks: What do traditionalists and progressives really disagree about?

James Kalb, author of two excellent books of political and cultural analysis―The Tyranny of Liberalism and Against Inclusiveness―is one of those rare people who can tell you why people think the way they do. He has another excellent essay on the divide between traditionalists and progressives in the always excellent Crisis Magazine:
A recent account of moral sentiments, proposed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), has attracted attention for its explanation of the difference between progressives and traditionalists.
According to the account, moral judgments typically have to do with six dimensions of concern: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation. Surveys show that progressives, by and large, are concerned with the care, fairness, and liberty dimensions, while traditionalists are concerned with all six. So it appears that the “culture wars” have to do with the moral status of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Traditionally minded people accept them as morally important, while their more progressive fellows do not.
But why the difference? It appears, although Haidt’s concerns lie elsewhere, that the difference lines up with the opposition between the modern tendency to view man as radically free and the world as technological, and the traditional, classical, and religious view of man as social, and the world as pervaded by intrinsic meanings, natural ways of functioning, and natural ends.
Read more here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pro-police demonstrations in Ferguson spin out of control

As soon as new evidence leaked out that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was viciously beaten by Michael Brown after Brown had robbed a store, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri began to clear and residents enjoyed a brief moment of calm. But just as it seemed peace was setting in, a new firestorm of protests hit the town, this time from supporters of officer Wilson.

The pro-police demonstrations soon spun out of control. Nicely-dressed police supporters, many of them from out of town, took to the streets and, marching in neat rows, politely called on justice officials to take their time, conduct a careful, deliberative process to find out exactly what had happened, and added that these were just suggestions and that they were in no way trying to force their beliefs on anyone else.

The protests  took a turn for the worse when several national religious figures arrived to show solidarity with the protesters.

Joel Osteen, taking time away from his church in Texas, grabbed a bullhorn and softly announced to the crowd, "God knows your value; He sees your potential. You may not understand everything you are going through right now. But hold your head up high, knowing that God is in control and he has a great plan and purpose for your life." He then urged everyone to join hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Nervous police in riot gear stood by with tear gas at the ready in case the shallow sentimentalism got out of hand. Several people reported seeing police in a canine unit having trouble restraining their dogs, who appeared more and more out of control with each succeeding life fulfillment principle.

The police were then pelted with what they first thought were rocks, but which turned out to be hundreds of "30 Thoughts for Victorious Living" tracts.

One protester reportedly confronted a police officer, yelling, "It’s vital that you accept yourself and learn to be happy with who God made you to be." The officer responded by threatening the man with his gun. The officer was immediately called back to headquarters and given a promotion. He has since been taken off the streets and given two weeks of extra vacation time.

Billy Graham too made a brief appearance. When the 96 year-old evangelist was wheeled up in front of the crowd, he slowly stood up from his wheel chair, raised a shaky fist into the air, opened his mouth, and then keeled over sideways.

Residents of Ferguson, many of whom had watched the earlier anti-police demonstrations with fear and trepidation, responded to the new demonstrations by quickly throwing a few essentials in their cars and permanently leaving town. "Molotov cocktails are one thing," said one fleeing resident, "but if I hear one more way to become a 'better you', I think I'll throw up." "Yeah," said an elderly woman in response. "Bring back the looters."

Police Chief Tom Jackson told the media that the new protesters posed a different kind problem for his force. "Within seconds of issuing a curfew," he told reporters, "Every single one of them left the area instantly, pausing only to pick up any trash they might have left on the ground." Many of the protesters, in fact, thanked the officers on the scene and apologized profusely for any inconvenience they may have caused. "No one can be this law abiding," said Jackson, "We think this is a trick."

Meanwhile critics of the new demonstrations, after having spent recent days criticizing Ferguson police for being too aggressive in dealing with anti-police demonstrations, called on local law enforcement to deal more aggressively with the pro-police demonstrators. "The cops need to start cracking some heads," said Al Sharpton to CNN's Anderson Cooper. He called for more military-style equipment for the Ferguson police force.

"This is a defining moment for this country," he said. "These demonstrators are going to give protesting a bad name."

Mob justice in Ferguson

Rich Lowry at Politico:
The chant “no justice, no peace” is an apt rallying cry for Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters don’t truly want justice and there has been no peace. 
What justice demands in the case of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in disputed circumstances is a full and fair deliberative process that goes wherever the evidence leads. But is anyone marching so that Wilson can go free if the facts don’t support charging him?
Read more here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Journalists brave hail of earplugs in Ferguson

Courageous journalists on the front lines of Ferguson brave hail of earplugs to get their story, says Michelle Malkin:
The J.V.'s have been hailed for their "courage" on the "front lines" -- like veritable 21st-century versions of Audie Murphy and Ernie Pyle! Of course, Audie Murphy and Ernie Pyle would know real bullets when they saw them. But Reilly revealed his abject cluelessness this week when he hysterically tweeted a photo of what he thought were "rubber bullets." They turned out to be high-capacity... ear plugs.
Read more here.