The Second Amendment

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution in close association with his friend Thomas Jefferson, did not think a Bill of Rights was necessary. Alexander Hamilton agreed and said in a lengthy discussion of a possible Bill of Rights in Federalist Papers #84,  “The Constitution is its own Bill of Rights.” These men worried that if a list of such rights was drawn up something would be left out or, worse yet, folks would think those were the only rights that citizens have. Indeed, Hamilton went on to note that a Bill of Rights is both “dangerous” and “unnecessary,” since he thought such rights are clearly implied in the Constitution itself and need not be specified or if specified could be circumvented by devious minds. Hamilton assures his readers that “Here in strictness people surrender nothing [by not having their rights specified]; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations. . . . [the Constitution] contains all which in relation to their objects, is reasonably desired.” Further, the men thought that citizens’ rights were self-evident, a favorite concept of Enlightenment thinkers.

But since several states were reluctant to ratify the Constitution without a specified Bill of Rights, Madison eventually drew up a list of twelve such rights that were soon pared down to ten. The one that is most talked about these days is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms, the Second Amendment. This right was specified because the Founders regarded militias, raised by the states and paid by the states as the need arose, as essential to the freedom of the American people. Their model, in all likelihood, was Cincinnatus, the citizen/farmer in the early days of Rome, who fought when the need arose and then went back to his farm when the danger had passed. The founders were known to have greatly admired the Roman Republic, using it as a model for their own government. And given their experience with the constant presence of the red-coated British, they were very concerned about the possibility of a standing army — even their own army — that would strengthen the government and weaken the people’s freedom.  Indeed, when they were considering ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton had to assure his New York readers, in Federalist #24, that they need not fear the presence during peace time of a standing army: it simply wouldn’t happen.  The states would retain the power to raise militias when necessary and disband them when the danger had passed: they would be “well regulated.” Thus, in order to avoid a standing army, state militias were essential. Not only had the conjoined militias won the Revolution after all, but, during Washington’s presidency, a collection of several state militias amounting to 17,000 men was quickly rounded up and, led by the President himself, headed West to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. The word got out that the militia was headed their way and the Rebellion broke up. At that time it was determined that the militias could safely protect the citizens of the new nation.

The point of this little history lesson is to show that the Second Amendment was less about the right to keep and bear arms than it was about the need for armed militia. Indeed, when, much later, in 1934, the Congress passed the National Firearms Act to keep such things as sawed-off shotguns out of the hands of gangsters, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court whose decision clearly centered around the Founders’ express need for a militia. In their decision, they reasoned that “The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.” Might not the very same thing be said of today’s automatic weapons?

In fact, if you read the Second Amendment carefully, you will see that it presents us with a compound statement in which two clauses are interdependent. It reads, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In other words it states that since a militia is necessary to defend freedom, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The statement is quite precise: one thing necessitates the other. If there were no need for a militia — as, say, if there were a standing army, navy, marine corps, air force, and national guard — then there would be no grounds for the so-called “right” to keep and bear arms. And, conversely, the right to keep and bear arms need not be recognized when the need for a militia disappears — because of the presence of a standing army, for example.

The relentless attempts by the arms manufacturers — for the most part — to bully this Congress and the Supreme Court into allowing any and all weapons in the hands of any and all citizens, regardless of age, flies in the face of the Second Amendment as it was written and understood for many years. The arguments by groups such as the NRA tend to focus exclusively on the “right” itself, and ignore the explicit concern for militias. But, assuredly, the fact that state militias are a thing of that past implies that the right to keep and bear arms can no longer be said to be protected by this Amendment. Perhaps in the end Hamilton was right — certainly with respect to the Second Amendment: it has proven to be “dangerous.”

Loyalty

In one of Bill Cosby’s hilarious stand-up comic bits, he noted that we don’t cheer for players in professional sports any more, we cheer for the uniforms. In a day when players and coaches stand up before an array of microphones and swear allegiance to the team and then are gone before the next day, there is much truth in Cosby’s comedy. Until the uniform is retired, we had better not get too excited about the star that is playing for the home team because he may not be there in the morning.

Many would call this “disloyalty,” but given the commercial world we live in this is simply regarded as “good business.” No one, it seems, can find fault with the young man or young woman who simply wants to “better themselves” by moving on and taking a better deal. By “bettering themselves,” we mean, of course, making more money. It is no longer even a point of debate to suggest that perhaps a young man or a young man would be happier if they stayed where they are, any more than it is to suggest that young athletes would be well advised to remain in college until they earn their degree. There are some who have done that, of course, but it is almost always a function of the home team coming up with enough money to persuade the hero to stay with the team, or the promise of more money down the line after another stellar year in college. It raises an interesting question about the possibility that, perhaps, the notion of loyalty is a thing of the past along with so many other virtues in our day. Unless, of course, we recognize that for many the object of their loyalty these days is money. And not just athletes. I can’t recall offhand a churchman who heard a “calling” from a Church that promised to pay him less. But back to the athletes.

Though I have not really paid attention to these games because the rampant commercialism has destroyed any semblance of amateurism, the most intriguing story to come out of the Sochi Olympics, in my view, is the story of the snowboarder Vic Wild who got no respect from his American support group so he decided to become a Russian citizen and race for “them.” True, he married a Russian woman, but any doubt about where his loyalties lie is erased when one considers the fact that he simply wanted to race and was willing to do so anywhere if the price was right. In this case, it was a simply matter of getting the financial support he insists is required to perform at the highest levels. He wasn’t getting it in his home country, so he went elsewhere and earned two gold medals for his adopted country, as the following snippit from a Yahoo News story makes clear:

Less than 24 hours before the Sochi Games’ closing ceremony, Russia led the overall medal table with 29. The United States ranked second with 27. Were he still competing for the U.S., Wild would be the most decorated American Olympian at the Sochi Games – and the athlete who pushed them into the lead.

Instead, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association dissolved its already-underfunded alpine snowboarding program after the Vancouver Games, leaving Wild with a choice: end his career or defect. When he married Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina in 2011, Wild applied for citizenship in her country and its greatest perquisite: the support of an Olympic organizing committee that valued alpine snowboarding.

“I would not have snowboarded for the United States,” Wild said. “I was done snowboarding. I would have moved on. I would have gone to college. And I would have had a great life. I had another option. The only option to snowboard was to go to Russia and snowboard. I wanted to continue snowboarding, to see how good I can be. I wanted to know I gave it everything I had. …

“I was done. I had called them. I had retired. It has nothing to do with the United States itself. It only has something to do with the nonprofit organization, the USSA. They didn’t give me what I needed. That’s cool. I’m stoked for them. They’ve done a great job at these Olympics. They’re amazing. They do a great job. But not everybody can be happy. I had to make my decision. And I’m very happy that I did that.”

Ignoring the false dichotomy between either Vic quits snowboarding or he defects [there is a third alternative], his fellow snowboarders don’t fault Vic, as I dare say few if any Americans will. He was simply seeking to “better” himself, i.e., put himself into a position where he could excel at a game he loves. But we need to recall it is a game, despite the tons of money that are thrown at successful athletes before, during, and (especially) after the Olympics. If Russia is anything like America in this regard, as reports suggest that it is, Vic will be a very wealthy and adored hero in his adopted country, which I suspect might have been part of his motive in the first place. But make no mistake: he is not being disloyal. He is being loyal to the only thing that really matters to so many of us, namely, money. And if you can make a ton of money doing something you happen to be very good at doing, so much the better, regardless of where you do it.

Gold As God

Have you ever wondered what makes people like the Koch brothers tick? What possesses a person to want to accumulate more and more wealth when they already have enough to buy a small country? Clearly, it’s a mania, but how does one penetrate into the psyche of such a type and figure out what lies deep within? Apparently this question, or one very like it, has occurred to a number of novelists who have examined miserliness. The classic example, of course, is Molière’s Harpagon. And then there’s George Eliot’s Silas Marner who is a bit of a miser but who comes out of the darkness in the end because of the love of a young girl he has allowed into his life. Eliot shows herself to be an old softie here, since Silas isn’t true to the type: misers love only money.

The writer I am most familiar with who seems to have been fascinated by the miserly type is Honoré de Balzac who wrote 92 novels, a number of which deal with the type. Balzac was deeply concerned about the consequences of the growing fixation around him for wealth in all its forms. It becomes a recurring theme in his novels, as it was in the novels of Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. But the miser is a special case. There is the filthy rich Jérome-Niclas Séchard in Balzac’s Lost Illusions who is quite willing to see his only son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchild starve rather than give them any of his money. But even more sinister is Eugénie Grandet’s awful father who whose first name is mentioned only once in Balzac’s novel by that name. He is simply referred to as “Grandet” who “towered above the other actors in [his town], exploiting enormous profits from [others’] pretense of friendship. . . . There, incarnate in a single man, revealed in the expression of a single face, did there not stand the only god that anyone believes in nowadays — Money, in all its power?” Old Grandet refused to spend a sou unless he absolutely had to. He gave his wife an allowance, a mere pittance every now and again when necessary — keeping her large inheritance for himself. And he insisted that she pay for all household expenses out of her allowance. He allowed his daughter to buy the material to make herself a dress every year for her birthday. They used the cheapest candles, and very few of them. And his rooms rarely saw a warming fire in the fireplace. His house was cold, bleak, and run down and he insisted on making essential repairs himself. He had a locked room in the attic where he went to count his gold and calculate rates of interest on his investments. In Balzac’s mind the miserly type was the result of the sudden awareness of the possibilities (very real in his day) of accumulating huge amounts of wealth. He saw this not as mere avarice, but as a sickness that drove the sick person to madness or even tragedy. As he put it

“Misers hold no belief in a life beyond the grave, the present is all in all to them. This thought throws a pitilessly clear light upon the irreligious times in which we live, for today more than in any previous era money is the force behind the law, politically and socially. Books and institutions, the actions of men and their doctrines, all combine to undermine the belief in a future life upon which the fabric of society has been built for eighteen hundred years. The grave holds few terrors for us now, is little feared as a transition stage upon man’s journey. That future which once awaited us beyond the Requiem has been transported into the present. To reach per fas et nefas [by fair means or foul] an earthly paradise of luxury and vanity and pleasure, to turn one’s heart to stone and mortify the flesh for the sake of fleeting enjoyment of earthly treasure, as saints once suffered martyrdom in the hope of eternal bliss, is now the popular ambition! It is an ambition stamped on our age and seen in everything, even the very laws whose enaction requires the legislator to exercise not his critical faculties, but his power of making money. Not ‘What do you think?’ but ‘What can you pay?’ is the question he is asked now. When this doctrine has been handed down from the bourgeoisie to the people, what will become of our country?”

As is clear from this stinging passage, Balzac connected the miser’s love of money with a spreading disease that has serious ramifications for the whole of an age and a people. It’s not only that the miser’s heart turns to stone — a phenomenon he explores in great detail in Eugénie Grandet — but that his disease is spreading. But what is of singular interest for my present purpose, especially if Balzac is on to something here, is the perception that the miser’s love of gold becomes all-consuming and his feelings die within his breast as passion takes over and those around him become mere instruments for the gathering of more and more wealth. There is no question why? since the miser doesn’t even consider the possibility of spending it. There is simply the question “How?” and the all-consuming passion for more and more of that which he already has in abundance. Balzac makes the following penetrating observation regarding Grandet:

“A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest: but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion — egotism. . . . Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns . . . . To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who are unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet, that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world, and of their future, the symbol which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats, and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.”

I suppose this takes us part way, at least, to an understanding of modern-day misers who can see nothing beyond the process of maximizing profits at whatever cost to satisfy their own bloated egos. They have no better nature to appeal to: an appeal that is based, say, on the very real possibility that they are blind to the deterioration of the world around them, a blindness that will eventually destroy them and a great many others along with them. They care not: their only urge is to amass a larger and larger fortune. It becomes an end in itself. The means simply do not matter.

Why Great Books?

Many years ago when “Rosemary’s Baby” was the talk of the country the movie appeared in the town of Marshall near where I live. The local paper was full of letters to the editor from local zealots who were urging people to stay away from the movie — including at least one who proudly admitted that he hadn’t seen it himself and was determined not to do so. That same sort of closed-mindedness is reflected in the outspoken criticism by a great many college teachers of literature in this country who are promoting postmodern literature and trashing the “great books” which they insist are the work of “dead, white, European males” and thus not worth reading. Like the letter-writer, a number of them have apparently not even bothered to read the books they condemn! One might expect closed-mindedness of small-town zealots but one would hope for a broader view from supposedly educated people who are responsible for opening the minds of the students in their charge.

The criticism of the great books tends to center not only on those who wrote them but also on the notion of “greatness” which, it is said, cannot be attributed to any works — except in an arbitrary manner. I have always disagreed with this claim, since there are criteria of greatness which some works of art and literature exhibit and the majority do not. Great books, especially great works of literature, are exceptionally well written, with a rich vocabulary, vivid descriptions, engrossing plots, and characters we recognize immediately. Further, they are rich with insights into the human condition and often contain profound reflections on the world we share in common. They are not just “stories;” they exhibit a kind of intuitive truth that simply cannot be found anywhere else. They make us pause and reflect. And there are great books in philosophy and science which may not be as well written, but have provided us with some of the seminal ideas that have helped shape our world, not to mention our nation’s Constitution — and even brought about revolutions.  Such books are classics in the sense that they are seminal and they ring true today no less than they did when they were written, no matter who wrote them. They are the books that have been read by the exceptional minds that have preceded us; we seem determined to marginalize them — which is our mistake.

I have blogged about the wisdom of George Eliot so I won’t repeat here what I have already said. But Eliot was a superb writer, recognized in her day as one of the brightest and wisest of women who spent her declining years responding to letters from innumerable readers seeking her advice. But there are a great many authors of novels and plays who have exhibited remarkable insight and wisdom as well — and humor, such as Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, Part II where we are told “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Or this, in King Henry V, “The saying is true, ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”‘  And also Edith Wharton, whose sometimes biting satire leaves one’s head spinning — as in this description of a type: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.” Wharton, who knew whereof she spoke, was able to strip the New York upper crust if its pretense and leave it shivering in the cold.

From his remarkable novel, Lost Illusions, I add Balzac’s characterization of a fop who “always behaved with distant politeness, cold, a little supercilious, like a man not in his proper place and waiting the favors of power. He allowed his social talents to be guessed at, and these had everything to gain by remaining unknown.” Pure genius (even in translation!). Like so much humor, these descriptions have the ring of truth in them. We all know women like Mrs. Ballinger, for example. But there is also the disturbing observation about the rapaciousness of humans by writers like the extraordinary Joseph Conrad, writing in a second language, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . . The Eldorado Exploring Expedition . . .was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

I hesitate to cite passages in the great works of philosophy, but one cannot do better than reflect on the early dialogues of Plato to which John Dewey said the rest of philosophy was mere footnotes. And there is Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country for nine months in the early nineteenth century and then wrote the most perceptive book on Democracy in America that has ever been written, showing us all our warts and flaws along with the remarkable strengths that arose from the experiment we were then engaged in, such as the following: “I think that the democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery.” Or Mark Twain who had so many penetrating insights into the human condition: “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” And so it goes.

The pages of great books are filled with such insights and well crafted, profound words that cannot but change those who read them and take them to heart. And that is what ultimately comprises greatness in art: the power to change those who come into contact with it, a power it does not lose as the years pass. Great books, like great art, invite and reward repeat visits. Thus, those who would displace the works of Dead White European Males on the grounds of political correctness had better make damned sure that after reading those works they can find words of equal power and worth in the writings they substitute, because it is a zero-sum game. For every work chosen one is ignored.

Arthur Ashe

In the current issue of Inside Tennis there is an extraordinary interview with Arthur’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, that takes us back to the days when there were occasionally exceptional human beings who excelled on the courts and playing fields — and in their lives. Those were the days! I had the good fortune of seeing Arthur Ashe up close once in my life in Florida when I went to spend a week at Sanibel Harbour to receive a coaching award. And he used to stay with one of my closest friends when he came to River Forest, Illinois each year to play in the National Clay Court Tournament. I have always admired the man and I suppose he is the standard against which I hold current athletes who invariably fail to meet that standard. He was not only an exceptional athlete, he was an exceptional human being who cared about others and who had a strong sense of duty.

You may recall that Ashe died of AIDS soon after he received contaminated blood during a heart bypass. He was still young and much-loved and his passing was noted by people around the world. One of his close friends and one who regretted his passing was Nelson Mandela who, upon coming to New York after being freed from prison after 27 years wanted to know where Arthur “my brother” was.  Upon Arthur’s death, Mandela called him “a citizen of the world. . . an extraordinary individual who has given me and millions hope at a time when we needed it most.” Arthur had gotten to know Mandela in South Africa at a time when apartheid was at its height and Mandala and Arthur, each in his own way, were determined to bring it down. After breaking many racial barriers as a young man growing up in the Jim Crow South and a minority student at UCLA, Arthur helped break down racial barriers in South Africa as well by playing tennis there only on his terms: in a non-segregated stadium, where blacks would be invited to attend and allowed to sit wherever they wanted. Young blacks in that country, like author Mark Mathabane, said later on that Arthur Ashe was the first free black man they had ever seen.  He later asked, “How could a black man play such excellent tennis, move about the court with such confidence, trash a white man, and be cheered by white people?”  Ashe was for them, and indeed for all of us, a remarkable example. It’s too bad more contemporary athletes don’t follow the example he set.

I recall sitting around our tiny 12″ television on a hot, July day in 1975 watching Arthur beat Jimmy Connors for the Wimbledon title. At the time it was easily the most prestigious tennis title in the world and it may still be so. But Arthur, after the win, simply came to the net, shook hands with his opponent — who was one of the inventors of histrionics on the tennis court — and waved to the crowd. Arthur didn’t fall to his knees, or leap in the air, point to the sky, fall on his back, or leap into the crowd to embrace his “team.” In fact, I don’t recall that he had a “team” who supported him through the travails of a Wimbledon fortnight. He simply played superb tennis, won the match, went to the net, and shook hands. Always the calm, collected gentleman.

And that’s what set Arthur Ashe apart: he was cool, calm, and collected. His widow tells us that beneath the calm exterior burned a heart of fire, intense hatred of racism and a determination to make the world a better place. But he never let us show. He read copiously and he thought a great deal. And he stood up for what was important not only to himself but to others of his race and kind. He practiced that ancient art of self-control, patterned after the Greeks, one might imagine. As South African writer Don Mattera said to Arthur in a letter he wrote to him, “I love you not for the rage in your soul, but how it’s been trained to be rebuked and summoned.” What a great tribute, though it is an art that has been lost — especially so in our day when rage is all the rage and raw emotions are the tune all delight in playing. Arthur would today be a severe disappointment to the media who crave the spectacular, who have substituted entertainment value for character because it sells the sponsor’s products.  He eschewed the spectacular for the effective. He stood fast against what was wrong in the world and quietly and with relentless determination did whatever he could to put an end to it. As Bill Simonds says in his article in Inside Tennis, “That was Arthur’s modus operandi — he was always controlled, but he spoke out, he got arrested in front of the White House and in front of the South African embassy. He convinced the ATP not to have tournaments in South Africa.” Senator Bill Bradley said of Arthur, “Ashe was not loud, he did not boast, he thought before he spoke. Like a good poet, he used silence to his advantage. He held back until he was ready, and he made that restraint his best advantage. His best smile showed no teeth.” Beautifully said.

Arthur did not approve of the more militant stand many of his peers took against the racial injustice they saw all around them. He was particularly upset when black gang members dragged Reginald Denny from a truck during the L.A. riots. That was just not his way, though he felt the injustice of racism just as deeply. He was considering a run at the U.S. Senate when his health made it impossible. And while he was criticized for his apparent quietism by people like John Thompson and Jesse Jackson, he was convinced that his way was the best way: it was the only way he knew. He liked to quote Martin Luther King who said of the Black Power movement, “I hope our thirst for freedom doesn’t make us want to drink from the cup of bitterness.”   I am convinced that if others around him had adopted Arthur Ashe’s approach in time more people would have come around to his way of thinking. But before he could give full voice to his quiet rage, he was silenced by a disease that entered his veins unknown to him. It is truly sad that there aren’t more like him.

Teaching Creationism

With all the talk — not to say screaming and shouting — about the teaching of Creationism in the schools (under the aegis of “Intelligent Design”) it’s hard to think that the battle about the teaching of evolution goes back well into the nineteenth century, to the days of Dwight Moody in the 1870s and Billy Sunday in the 1890s. These men joined a cadre of fellow itinerant preachers and evangelists who were worried that such teaching would destroy what we now call “family values.”

The controversy, of course, came to a head in the famous Scopes trial in 1925 and the spokesman for those evangelists and defenders of the family was William Jennings Bryan who was nothing if not passionate and even at times eloquent. His notion was that since the majority of people in the country at that time opposed the teaching of evolution, and since those folks paid the teachers’ salaries, evolution should not be taught. It was a question of majority opinion. Bryan did not trust science any more than today’s opponents of evolution do and he preferred to look at “the science of government” that tells us that the majority rules. He appealed to the Constitution (?) and argued that “They [the teachers] have no right to demand pay for teaching that which the parents and the taxpayers do not want taught. The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In the end, he said, “If we have to give up either religion or education, we should give up education.” As it happens, that sentiment (while grounding a terribly weak argument) is still strong today as the attack on the public schools continues and kids are sent instead to charter schools or schooled at home where they are taught such things as creationism as science.

But we should be clear that this is not education. It is indoctrination, which is hardly the same thing. Teaching young people ideas in the form of beliefs that cannot be questioned has nothing whatever to do with education, whatever those ides might happen to be. The notion that creationism should be taught along with (or instead of) evolution presupposes that they are both science, which is false: the latter can be questioned and scrutinized the former cannot. People like Bryan worried that a small group of intellectuals was determining what should and should not be taught in the schools and the majority was being ignored. But this is precisely what schooling is all about: a small group of people who presumably know what kids need to know determines what the curriculum should be. And creationism should not be in the curriculum because creationism, even in the guise of “intelligent design,” is not science. The central feature of scientific claims is precisely that they can be tested. They can be shown by tests and evidence to be true or, more importantly, to be false. Creationism cannot be shown to be false; its truth depends on faith, not evidence. Therefore it is not science. And people who do not understand what science is and what science is not cannot be said to be educated or expected to succeed in the modern, and post-modern, world. And they certainly should not be determining curriculum in the schools, even if they constitute a majority.

Does this mean that kids should not be taught about the Bible? Of course not. It simply means that they should not be taught about the Biblical version of creation in the schools (public or private). If it is taught it should be taught at home or in the churches. So, in the end, Bryan’s dichotomy, education or religion, can be shown to be a false dichotomy, what logicians call “bifurcation.” It supposes that children must either be educated or raised in a religious atmosphere. It need not be either/or. It can be both. It’s simply a matter of propriety: which is to be taught where.

The notion that kids are going to be forced to give up their family’s religious beliefs because they are taught about evolution, which is a tested scientific theory, is absurd. They need to learn what science is and what it is not, especially if they are to survive in the modern world. If they are never taught such things as evolution their minds will remain stunted and they will, in the end, be the losers because they will not be able to contend in the real world where, like it or not, they will either succeed or fail. It is understandable that a great many people want their kids to hold on to the beliefs their parents have held all their lives. But it is a mistake to insist that by expanding their minds they will invariably give up those beliefs. This is one of the many fallacies that has accompanied the attack on intelligence in this country: the notion that mind and heart cannot live together in harmony within the same person.

Defining Moments

In the truly remarkable seven-part HBO series on John Adams there is one of those defining moments that almost redeems the American movie-making industry, allowing us to forget for a moment that so many movies today are just technical display with no plot and maximum sex and violence. That moment occurs immediately after the representatives from the thirteen colonies meeting in Philadelphia have voted to become independent from England. After months of acrimonious debate and the delaying tactics of a number of cautious representatives who sensibly feared the might of British arms and pleaded patience, the vote was taken and the results read to the small contingent in the crowded room. At that moment, the camera backs off and slowly pans the faces in the room; there is no sound; there is little or no movement for nearly 10 seconds — it seems like hours — as the delegates realize what they have just done. One imagines them thinking: “My God! We have just declared war on one of the most powerful nations on earth — and we have no army and no navy! We are marked men with targets on our chests. If we are caught we will be hanged.” The moment is powerful and extremely effective.

At the time of America’s declaration of independence there were no political parties. There were, of course, grave differences among the various colonies, each of which prized its own uniqueness. There was a growing rift between North and South which would eventually erupt into the Civil War — a slave economy in the South violently opposed to the aggressive, commercial enterprise of the North. That tension soon gave birth to what eventually became political parties, the Federalists in the North and the Republicans in the South. The former, led by people like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, tending toward a stronger national unity, the latter, led by folks like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, insisting on autonomy for the individual states and a minimum of national interference. As President, Adams signed into law the infamous “Alien and Sedition Act,” designed to protect the new nation from foreign spies. And one of the first things Jefferson did as President was to disband the navy — which was a bit of a joke to begin with. This difference of opinion about what the new nation was to become eventually broke up the close relationship between Jefferson and Adams, who had become very close in those formative years. Late in their lives they became friends again and died on the same day 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence. Remarkable!

But those early differences among the various delegates were buried in a common concern: rid the colonies of the dreaded British and declare independence as a confederation of states free of English Parliamentary abuse. During the 200th birthday of this country Henry Steele Commager was asked what the major difference was between the America of 1776 and the America of 1976. He did not hesitate, but said the major difference was that 200 years before America was looking to the future; now we have become focused on the present and tend to ignore the future altogether. There is no question whether Commager was right. But there was another difference as well: in the eighteenth century the men who got together in Philadelphia to deal with the abuses of a common enemy were able to put aside their differences and act in common. Despite the acrimony, deep and genuine ideological differences, and the relentless heat of a Philadelphia Summer, they were able to decide on a common course of action and prepare to act together, whatever the costs. They were marked men, traitors to the Mother country. But they were determined and of one mind (for the most part). That doesn’t even seem possible any more.

We are at a time in our history when we need more than ever to act in accord. Our country is not under attack (seriously), but our planet is. We need to put aside our differences, like those delegates, and act with one common accord to attempt to reverse the terrible consequences of a damaged planet we are in the process of destroying. But the special interests, Big Oil and Gas and folks like the Koch brothers, have all the cards and seem determined to play out the hand they have dealt themselves — regardless of the consequences. Once again we have acrimony and tension between those who fear for the future of the planet and those who are blind to the problems that stare us all in the face out of a love of unlimited profits — or just plain ignorance. In Congress, loyalty to political party has completely erased loyalty to what the Founders referred to as the Common Good. It would appear that this time there will be no meeting of the minds, folks will not come together and put aside their differences to cooperate and reach agreement on what must be done. This is, assuredly, a defining moment, not in a film made for television, but in real life.

Prophetic Words

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been endemic in our culture generally, especially since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has discouraged many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  and a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.

More From the N.R.A.

The NRA is at it again. They want the Supreme Court to read the Constitution the way they do, to agree that the Second Amendment permits minors to carry guns outside the home. The story reads, in part:

The Second Amendment, at its core, spells out not one, but two, rights when it protects “the right of the people.”  There is a right to “keep” a gun, there is a right, to “bear” a gun.  There is an “and” between the two in the text, so that might well be taken as a significant indication that these are separate rights.

The Supreme Court in 2008 made it clear that the right to “keep” a gun is a personal right, and that it means one has a right to keep a functioning firearm for self-defense within the home.   But it has refused repeatedly since then to take on the question of whether that right exists also outside the home.  If there is a separate right to “bear” a gun (and the Court, in fact, did say in 2008 that the two rights were separate), it has not said what that means.

The National Rifle Association, and some of its members, are now pressing the Supreme Court to answer that question.  They are doing so in two cases testing whether the federal government and the states can restrict the rights of minors to possess a gun outside the home.   The Court is expected to take its first look at those cases later this month, to decide whether it will hear either or both of them.   The federal government, once again, is urging the Court to bypass those cases, as it has done with perhaps a half-dozen others seeking clarification of the Second Amendment’s scope.

In a case from Texas, the NRA’s lawyers have reduced to elementary constitutional logic the question of what a right to “bear” guns means: “The explicit guarantee of the right to ‘bear’ arms would mean nothing,” the NRA’s filing argued, “if it did not protect the right to ‘bear’ arms outside of the home, where the Amendment already guarantees that they may be ‘kept.’   The most fundamental canons of construction forbid any interpretation that would discard this language as meaningless surplus.”

Now there are two things about this that strike the attentive reader right away: the NRA wants kids of any age to be allowed to carry guns and they want them to be able to do it outside the house. Got it? In their argument they show a painfully careful reading of the Second Amendment that, they insist, allows not only the “keeping” but the “bearing” of arms. Thus, they say, the latter permits taking weapons anywhere and apparently at any age — though I honestly don’t see where the lack of age restriction comes in. Perhaps it’s somewhere in the small print.

However, in their close reading of that Amendment the NRA lawyers seem to have ignored altogether the antecedent of the hypothetical sentence. It says that “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” I have blogged about this before, but apparently the NRA lawyers don’t read my blogs. And that’s a pity, because the entire case for the so-called “right to bear arms” rests on the supposition that there will be no standing army and because of that we require a militia. But we do have a standing army (and then some). It follows that the right to bear arms is not protected by this Amendment, since there is no need for a militia. The two are conjoined in the Amendment which the NRA lawyers claim to have read so carefully.

Of course this is the group that stood by silently when the Congress was debating the possibility of outlawing certain types of weapons to keep them out of the hands of the militant blacks during the turbulent 1960s, and said nothing when Congress actually passed The National Firearms Act in 1934 prohibiting such things as sawed-off shotguns during the days of Al Capone, a law that was later upheld by the Supreme Court as Constitutional. If you read the decision of the Court in 1939 regarding the National Firearms Act, titled United States vs. Miller, it is clear that the Court regarded the necessity for a militia as the key ingredient in the Second Amendment. Their reasoning was as follows: “The Court cannot take judicial notice that a shotgun having a barrel less than 18 inches long has today any reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, and therefore cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees to the citizen the right to keep and bear such a weapon.” Not only can the NRA apparently engage in selective protest, but also selective reading. So much for matters of principle and a genuine concern for what the Founders actually said. And, seriously? Kids carrying guns?

Beacon or Mirror?

Like so many colleges and universities around the country, tiny Iowa Wesleyan, a college with an enrollment of 650 students in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, has recently announced that it will be eliminating sixteen academic majors, mostly in the liberal arts, in order to concentrate on majors in more practical disciplines — where the student demand and the jobs are. As the president of the college said in a recent statement:

The reorganization will allow Iowa Wesleyan College to focus its resources on academic programs that have high demand and strong student enrollment. They include business administration, nursing, elementary and early childhood education, human services, physical education, exercise science and wellness, psychology, pre-medical studies, biology, criminal justice, and music.

The irony is that recent studies reveal that college graduates who majored in one of the liberal arts (contrary to popular opinion) make more money in their lifetime than those students who major in one of the “useful arts.” But I will ignore that, since the problem here is that Iowa Wesleyan is simply following a national trend and it is one that has serious repercussions for us all.

Let me begin by stating that I am fully aware of the financial pressures on small colleges (especially) these days, with tuition increases and the pressure from low-cost online colleges promising the sky to those who demand an education. The students around the country are taking courses in “practical areas” where they are convinced the jobs are and they are eschewing the liberal arts and humanities where the jobs are not. I get that. It’s been going on for some time. But it is not only wrong-headed but also short-sighted — and a serious problem when one considers that the trend takes our young people away from an education that develops their minds and simply trains them for jobs. I have blogged about this before, but it remains a problem. Indeed, it is a growing problem. Ignoring for the momenbt the fact that liberal arts graduates make more money in their lifetime, since this really shouldn’t be the issue, democracy needs citizens who can use their minds and the trend away from education to job training does not promise much in the way of enlightened citizens in the future. It worried an astute thinker such as Antonio Gramsci many years ago in Italy which stressed job training for its students and eventually went the way of fascism, and it should be worrisome to us in a nation founded by men who knew how necessary a good education was to the survival of this democracy. Education breeds leaders who can think for themselves; training breeds followers who will do what they are told.

Years ago Robert Hutchins remarked that colleges should be beacons, not mirrors. They should stand fast and hold the line against the latest fashion and the various trends that come and go. An education, properly conceived, prepares a young person for an uncertain future and also enables them to train for whatever jobs that might be available when they graduate — and, moreover, enables them to change direction quickly as trends change and/or their preferences become altered as they mature. Job training prepares that person for a specific job and if they later find it stifling they must go back to school to re-train and redirect their energies elsewhere. Colleges, as Hutchins suggests, are supposed to provide the students what they need for their future endeavors, whatever those might be, and not simply give them what they want at present

My suggestion to my students when I advised them was to find something they loved to do and concentrate on that field while they are in college, even if the subject is viewed as “useless” by their parents or the marketing people. Of course, they might be wise to also take some practical courses in such things as business and computer science to enable them to find that first job. But they shouldn’t succumb to pressure and prostitute themselves to a narrow career path that might lead to a lower income in the long run and eventually a dead-end. I have had letters from students years after they graduated who thanked me for that advice and one letter from a young woman who did not take the advice and told me years later she wished she had. In any event, the breadth of preparation is essential to a young person’s future happiness and the colleges do them a great disservice to simply cater to their current whims and eliminate those courses that have little market appeal even though they are central to a good education. The only thing certain about the future is that it will change.

Thus, Iowa Wesleyan, like so many of its sister institutions around the country, is making a mistake of the first order. It is, obviously, driven by marketing strategies (though I note in passing that the college supports fourteen different sports programs, including football, with no plans to cut any of them). But even in a nation where the demand is for the practical and the useful it is the purpose of the college to show young people the direction they should take, not simply to blindly follow their lead. As Hutchins said, they should be beacons, not mirrors. And they can survive in a very tight market by making clear what their ideals are and convincing the young that those ideals will translate into the best possible preparation for their own uncertain futures.