Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Shootings at Emanuel Church--And the Inevitable Reaction

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

We knew this was coming.

My Facebook feed is now aflame with irate and disgusted left-wingers condemning, not the killing in Charleston, but Rick Santorum and Fox and Friends for portraying the recent Emanuel Church shooting as an attack on religion. At the same time, the same leftist sources are characterising the suspected killer as a “right-wing terrorist.”

From the perspective of anyone who is religious, the fact that the attack took place in a house of prayer, on people at prayer, is literally infinitely more important than the skin tone of those killed. After all, if we are not racist, as Martin Luther King pointed out, we ought not concern ourselves with the colour of someone's skin.

The left will respond that the killer himself said his motive was racism. That is not conclusive for three reasons. First, we should not jump to conclusions based on early news reports. We make a point of never doing so when Islamist terrorism, for example, seems to be involved. Out of sheer common sense, we should keep to the same standard here. Second, we are under no obligation to accept the killer's own interpretation of events. Why does he deserve such power? Why should we give his views such authority? Doesn't that aid and abet the act? Third, and related to this, even the mere fact, if true, that he saw no special significance in killing people in a church would itself seem to suggest a profound disrespect for religion. This violates ancient norms of sanctuary, after all. The act is self-evident in this regard.

Murder in the Cathedral: martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket,

Now, for his being “right-wing.” I for one have seen no evidence that he was right-wing in any way. We do not know his political views. He seems to have had no affiliation with any political group. What makes him right-wing? Certainly not the fact that he shot blacks. If that is the assumption, it is simply a slander against conservatism. On the other hand, we do know that he shot people in a church, and in a historic church. If he was at all politically conscious, and politically motivated, he must also have been aware that he was violating the ancient principle of sanctuary. That makes him, if political at all, clearly not conservative, no respecter of tradition. Not right-wing.

Left-wing, on the evidence so far, in fact. If you insist on bringing politics into this tragedy.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Laudato Si

The Garden of Eden, Cranach, 16th C.

I agree with most of Laudato Si. Care for Sister Nature, for our fellow creatures, is indeed, and should be understood to be, a vital Catholic value. Our mission, as good gardeners (Genesis 2:15), is the preservation and promotion of beauty; this of course includes natural beauty. It would be terribly wrong to put the Church on the opposite side in that effort.

I also agree with Francis's condemnation of a consumerist lifestyle. Even apart from environmental issues, this is bad for the soul. We should be seeking, each of us, to keep our physical wants and our physical demands small; to walk lightly on this earth, in the world but not of it. We should seek instead, in the words of the gospel, our riches in heaven. And, of course, the less we take of the world's goods, in principle if not necessarily in practice, the more there is left for others. No, I do not buy Keynes to the contrary on this point.

However, past this I run into problems. Francis goes on to declare that there is a current environmental or ecological crisis; and he blames technology, the free market, and economic development for it.

Heavens, no.

If there is some urgent crisis now, it seems to me invisible. And if there is, technology and development are not the cause; they are the solution. What is an improved technology? In essence, an improved technology is one that reduces waste and increases efficiency. That is what technology is. Therefore, any advance we can make in technology and development automatically reduces pollution, helps the environment, and improves the lot of the poor. You think developed countries are polluted? Visit an undeveloped country.

Rousseau's Edenic "Reve."
As for the free market, Francis writes:

Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention 

He has the most fundamental point wrong here: the free market does not work to maximize profits for anyone. Monopolies do that. Free markets keep profits down, as they increase general efficiency. Because they are efficient, they start out being intrinsically good for the environment. Moreover, so long as consumers care about “the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems,” the market must also care about it. If the market does not care, government, in any democracy, cannot do better: it is based on a similar canvassing of popular demand.

Saint Francis preaches to the animals.

Concern for the environment and natural beauty will grow with general wealth. When one is starving today, one lacks the luxury to care about tomorrow; or, for the most part, about aesthetics. Once basic needs are met, people will spend more as consumers in return for a better environment.

Popes are infallible on faith and morals. Sadly, they are as fallible as the rest of us on science and economics.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Yesterday Is Still Over

It looks as though Marco Rubio's campaign has spotted the same huge vulnerability in Hillary Clinton's campaign launch speech that I pointed out here:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


A Medieval classroom.

There is nothing so certainly known, in the world of educational theory, than that lecturing is a lousy idea. “Lecturing doesn't work,” one lecturer affirmed ironically at a conference I recently attended. “We know this. There are so many studies.”

Part of the objection to lecturing is certainly political. It is disrespectful to the learner: it makes the teacher, in the popular phrase, “the sage on the stage,” instead of, as he ought to be, “the guide on the side.” There is an obvious power differential there. Part of the objection is philosophical: all knowledge is now supposedly “socially constructed.” So the instructor has no right to impose “his truth” on the students. We are all supposed to make it up as we go along.

But I note that our present lecturer did object on practical grounds. Here are the practical arguments, as I have heard them:

1) Studies show that we retain very little from what we hear in a lecture.

2) Our attention span is a scant twenty minutes long. Anything after that is wasted breath.

3) We read faster than we can speak. And its all already in the text. It only makes sense to transmit new knowledge by textbook, not lecture.

Class time is better used by having the students work on “projects,” on discussion in groups, or at least some sort of exercise to demonstrate mastery.

Now, siddhus, break into small groups and discuss.
Nevertheless, I retain my doubts. As a student, this is not at all how it feels. Sitting in that recent conference, I would far rather be lectured to than be told to discuss the matter in groups. First, a project or discussion feels like an imposition: my energies, thoughts and actions are under another's control to a greater extent than if I were passively listening to a lecture. Rather than feeling respected by this, I feel subjugated. Further, I can listen to a lecture and quietly disagree with it, as I did in this case. Being obliged to enter into a discussion or project more or less compels me to agree with whatever has been said or written, or to disagree at the risk of making a scene. Then too, if I am expected to come up with the lesson myself, with reading or with debate, if I am obliged to make all the effort, I begin to question the need for either instructor or class. What am I paying for here? Finally, despite said studies, it really does seem as if time is being wasted, as if it really would be faster and more efficient to just tell us what we are supposed to learn and move on, instead of, too often, frittering time on some project or discussion to demonstrate to ourselves what we already know.

So, how to account for those studies that show lecturing is useless? Well, you aren't likely to hear it in any ed school, but it turns out there are also studies that show the opposite. That's the charm of studies in the social sciences: you can always find one or create one to support any imaginable point of view. The US government sponsored what was probably the largest study of educational techniques ever, Project Follow Through, and it reported back that, at least in terms of results on standardized tests, the technique that worked best was “Direct Instruction,” essentially lecturing to a prepared script. A recent Harvard study suggests the same: that more time spent on lecturing boosts results on standardized tests.

Because in education generally the consumer is given no choice, there is a bias in the industry towards whatever seems in the best interest of the provider. In other words, the idea that lecturing is pointless and the studies that seem to show this have achieved widespread acceptance not so much because they are convincing, but mostly because they are what teachers want to believe. In this regard, there are two problems with lecturing: first, most teachers can't do it well, and second, it is a lot of work. 

Listening to a lecture in the Chautauqua auditorium.

Most people are not blessed with the ability to give a really interesting talk. It is a talent, like being able to tell a joke, or to write well. Since teachers are not selected for this talent, it is a statistical dead cinch that most teachers cannot pull it off. Most teachers do not want to lose their jobs. Ergo, it is best to believe it is not important.

The obvious flaw in the studies that show learners retain nothing from lectures, and that nobody listens after the first twenty minutes, is that they make no attempt to differentiate between good lectures and bad lectures. All they are demonstrating is that most professional teachers cannot lecture to save their lives.

Consider this: if our attention spans are really only twenty minutes long, how is it that we are all prepared to pay for movies that last an hour and a half or even two hours? A free market should have long ago replaced this with a more profitable format of a series of twenty-minute short features—the more so since, until relatively recently, presenting a longer feature was a technological nightmare, projection reels being only twenty minutes long. How is it that tent revival meetings last days? How is it that the old Chautauqua lectures, which people paid to attend as popular entertainment, sometimes lasted for hours?

The difference is obvious: movies, and good lectures, make some effort to hold our attention. Modern educational doctrine completely ignores the issue of motivation. There is a reason for this: making motivation important puts an onus on the teacher to be interesting. It is better for the teacher if all responsibility is on the students. Twenty minutes is no doubt the limit for fixing ones concentration by sheer will power on something in which one has no intrinsic interest; but this figure obviously varies with interest.

As to reading being more efficient than listening, to believe this requires the second great omission from modern educational theory: memorization. Modern ed theory of course knows about memorization, but it is a bad word, something to be avoided. It is a lower level skill. Accordingly, no notice is to be taken of what is and is not memorable
Prof. Russell Conwell. His "Acres of Diamonds" lecture, the most popular ever on the Chautauqua circuit, runs one hour and twenty minutes on YouTube.

Yet, put simply, if we do not remember, we have not learned. 

The slightest awareness of mnemonics makes clear why lecturing would be valuable even though it it repeats information in the text. It is not just a matter of repetition; we retain exponentially better when more than one sense is involved. Here sight is reinforced by hearing.

The real reason memorization is currently rejected, I suspect, is that it is boring for the teacher to repeat things he or she already knows. It does not follow, however, that this is boring for the student, who does not already know the information. And again, the concentration on “higher level” thinking skills, instead of humble things like memorization, tends in practice to be an intrusion on the student's intellectual autonomy. He or she should retain the right to make his own judgements.

So let's hear it for the good old college lecture. Rejecting the lecture format, after all, requires us to reject the wisdom of the ages, to reject a technique sworn to by many of the greatest minds that ever lived. For most of our greatest minds have been teachers, and our traditional teaching techniques come down to us from them: Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Mencius, Hillel, Maimonides, Jesus, Aquinas, Gautama, Ngarjuna, to name a few. Cheeky to suppose they all had it wrong.

Aristotle. All his surviving writings are actually lecture notes taken by his students.

Indeed, the quality of a teacher used to be measured directly by his ability to command audiences at a public lecture, and to convince attendees in public debate. There was and is a great deal of wisdom in that. And, whether the educational establishment likes it or not, that is almost certainly where we are headed again. With the internet, learners are now able to seek out and learn from the best lecturers wherever they are. They are no longer stuck with the teacher their school says they must have. Consumer choice is back.

It is a democratic revolution as great as or greater than the printing press.


IF Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, then, whoever gets the Republican nomination, the case for Carly Fiorina as running mate becomes quite strong. She is positioning herself as tbe anti-Hillary, and could pull the guilty-liberal sting of voting against a woman. She is also showing herself to be a fighter and a good speaker, two highly valued elements in a VP candidate. VP nominees  are often called upon to brawl so that the top of the ticket can take the high road.

Smart campaign.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Eleanor Roosevelt Launches Her Presidential Campaign Yesterday

You can't make this stuff up. Hillary Clinton reboots her campaign by claiming that her Republican opponents are living in the past. She quotes “Yesterday” as their imaginary theme song.

Nice cultural reference, Ma'am. That'll resonate--with anyone over 65. It's a good song, but it's officially 50 years old today. Even when it came out, it was the one Beatles song your parents liked. Her command of its lyrics is sure to demonstrate to everyone that she is not living in the past herself, no doubt.

Especially since the entire theme of her announcement was to evoke the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—on Roosevelt Island, in Four Freedoms Park.

It might not be a bad idea to play up her long experience. After Obama and Bush II, many might be craving a steady hand on the wheel. Moreover, after eight Democratic years in the White House, and her role as part of that administration, “Hope and Change” is not a convincing slogan.

But that does not excuse the irony of attacking her opponents as old-fashioned. Using a song that would officially quality as an antique.

It makes her sound not just hopelessly out of touch, but lacking in self-awareness. Give it a little push, look in her sometimes-not-quite-properly-aligned eyes, note her weird smirk, and you might suspect she is delusional.

How could her aides have let this pass? Perhaps she does not listen to her aides.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

No Representation without Taxation?

The Boston Tea Party.
There is an interesting implied corollary to the war cry under which the American Revolution was waged. If 'no taxation without representation,' then why not 'no representation without taxation'?

In fact, in the early years of Canadian democracy, and perhaps elsewhere, this was taken for granted. Anyone receiving public assistance was excluded from the voter rolls. So was anyone receiving a wage from the government—that is, the civil service. The point, and it is reasonable enough, was that any such person had a conflict of interest. Couldn't they just vote themselves more money?

It seems to me it would be a small enough sacrifice, for those truly in need. And, although largely symbolic, it would tend to end any sense of entitlement, among both the recipients of public assistance and the civil service.

Of course, it would probably devastate the NDP...

Friday, June 12, 2015

Joan of Arc Writes in from the Culture Wars

Typical insipid church art. Anglican.

This article is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is absolutely correct in pointing out that Catholics and the right must not ignore the culture. That is the one sure way to lose the culture wars. Moreover, while Christian morality is now a hard sell, the appeal to beauty is the ace we hold in the new evangelization that is so desperately needed in Europe and North America.

In any case, the creation of beauty is our religious duty. And we have indeed not been doing it. Judge is spot on to point out that the recent art we have been getting in Church—the new hymns, the words of the vernacular mass, the redesigned altars, the stylized banners—has been insipid.

But if Judge is right that religion cannot do without art, I think he is wrong to believe that art can do without religion. He is wrong to claim that, since the two parted ways, modern and postmodern art has been doing any better than religion. It has not been incredibly “inspired and dynamic” over the last fifty years. Judge may be too young to know better, but it has not. It has been in a dead stall. Even pop music and pop art, after a brief flowering, has been moribund since the 1960s. Art cannot survive with nothing to say.

He is very right about one thing: “We need our own Rolling Stone magazine. We need an online journal devoted to exploring and explaining popular culture.” This is indeed the needful thing today. We need a lifeline for young Catholics of an intellectual and an artistic bent.

Insipid art from "Rainbow Cathedral."

Because right now, they are trapped in hostile territory.

It's a chicken-egg problem. There are surely a large number of artists who are secretly Catholic; but they know that, if they come out publicly, or make this too clear in their art, they are sacrificing their career. All of the money comes from government grants, and these are doled out by bureaucrats who are themselves highly politicized and leftist.

Stephen Harper Meets Pope Francis

This is the official picture everyone is featuring. It will not be suitable, I expect, for CPC campaign materials.
It seems obvious to me that Stephen Harper received the diplomatic cold shoulder in his recent visit to the Vatican.

When it comes to diplomacy, little things mean a lot. Harper got only ten minutes with the pope: “unusually brief.” Given the time taken for photo op, and the issue of translation, they must have barely had time to speak. Harper was hustled in and hustled out, the minimum that could be done short of the diplomatic scandal of standing him up.

And that photo op? It shows this perennially smiling pope scowling; while Harper's smile looks plastered on. If the pope's scowl were inadvertent, a momentary thing, there would presumably have been a second shot taken without it, and that would be the picture distributed. It seems that the pope's scowl was a consistent feature of the meeting, and reflects its tone.

This was no doubt because Harper was expected to be delivering the demand from the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the pope apologize for the Church's supposed mistreatment of Canadian native people, do it within one year, and do it on Canadian soil. Harper was in an awkward situation: if he did not do this, the opposition parties back home would make hay with the claim that he cared nothing for native people.

But, for the sake of Canadian domestic politics, it put the Vatican in a yet more awkward position. To say yes was unthinkable; to say no suggested a breach with Canada.