Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Down Time

And this, my friends, is why I don't write many posts. A photo documentary of the madness that goes on when I sit down for 30 minutes at the computer and put my feet up:

That's mud on his face, from an earlier escapade in the back yard.

He made sure that the trash was just where liked it to be.

The contents of the wastepaper basket has been scattered and the cushion pulled off the couch.

And the big girls are dueling, while Jack fusses as he always does when someone else has the temerity to use a sword.

Yeah, just another afternoon in the Darwin household.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Old Enough to Marry

Nothing makes me feel like I'm living in an alien culture so much as reading secular discussions of marriage. Thus, when Megan McArdle took time off last week to write a bit about the latest upper-middle-class-thirty-something-woman-ruminates-on-what-marriage-is-and-what-she-should-do-about-it book Marry Him, I was thrown by this thought:
But imagine that these critical few whom Gottlieb wants to save did take her (very) heartfelt advice. Would they make themselves better off? A lot of people, (including me) are not ready to get married at 26, even if they're with someone great. Perhaps college-educated people are more likely to stay married because they marry later, and are thus less likely to make rash and short-sighted choices with visions of wedding gowns dancing in their heads.

Hmmm. Yes. Twenty-six. That wild and irresponsible age at which we had been married for four years, we had our third child, had already owned a house for a couple years, etc. Glad I didn't make any binding decisions back then.

It's not that I have anything against people who marry late -- one marries when one meets the right person and can afford to start a household together. For some people, finding the right person may not happen until their 30s or 40s. Well enough. Marrying the wrong person because one's biological clock is ticking is no recipe for happiness.

But this idea that most educated people simply aren't "ready" to marry until their 30s throws me rather. How long does it take to "grow up"? What does it take, exactly?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Money Through Time

This is the sort of thing that someone like me can spend far too much time fooling around with, a calculator which will convert purchasing power through time. Enter an amount in US dollars and an initial year (as far back as 1774), then select a target year to convert the currency into.

So, for instance, a 1909 Model T Ford cost $850. Convert that to 2009 currency and you get $20,700.

In 1933, the first national minimum wage law set the minimum wage at $0.25/hr. In 2009 dollars, that would be $4.14.

In 1867, Alaska Territory was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million. In 2009 dollars, that would be $108 million.

If that seems fun, turn yourself loose on this website: The Current Value of Old Money

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rural Ideal, Suburban Compromise

For those who spend quantities of time philosophizing about lifestyles, suburbia is almost universally reviled. Large tracts of similarly designed homes, each set on its patch of lawn, seem for many people to epitomize the problems of isolation, conformity, mass production, consumerism, or whatever the bugbear of choice may be. And yet, suburban life remains persistently popular.

Having spent the last month building a large raised vegetable bed and putting in this year's expanded garden, such that I can now look out on the garden with my morning coffee in hand and not with satisfaction the growth of the tomato plants and the strangely obscene orange flowers of the zucchini and butter-stick squash, or go out in the warm evening when I return from work to gauge the progress of the pair of grape vines and the climbing rose bush, the explanation for this does not seem strange to me. There is, it seems to me, a desire that a great many of us have, despite our city-based jobs and cultural tastes, for a home and small plot of land we can call our own.

A yard to mow or landscape or turn the children loose in. Space to have a pet larger than a fish or hamster. Streets which are comparatively free of cars so that kids can tear around on their bicycles and scooters. Enough space between houses that one does not hear the pacing of the upstairs neighbor at midnight, or the morning arguments of the couple next door. Arguably, these desires originate from an inborn desire to live closer to the land, and in a smaller community, than modern urban society makes possible. Our instincts tell us that land is vital to us, and that we should live with a small group of people who are "safe", "our kind".

However, if your career depends on living near a large city, and your cultural ties similarly draw you to a city large enough to provide fellowship with the other 1% of the population which shares your interests or background, actually living in a village or agrarian setting is not a realistic possibility.

And thus the attraction of suburbia, which grants its residents a stand-alone house and enough yard to give privacy and some sense of touching nature, while at the same time leaving them able to commute to their jobs, belong to a church which only claims membership by a minority of the population, enjoy bookstores and ethnic foods and all the bustling variety which an urban center provides. Suburbia represents a compromise between our natural desire for land and local rootedness, and our cultural and economic desire to take part in city life.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Does It Matter How You Tithe?

Our parish is deploying "e-giving", and asking people to strongly consider setting up a weekly or monthly electronic donation rather than getting envelopes. (If you sign up for the e-giving, they stop mailing you envelopes.)

The benefits for the parish are pretty obvious: the expense of sending out envelopes to nearly a thousand families are pretty high, this regularizes their income and makes it smoother and more predictable, etc. In my case, there's actually an additional incentive to give electronically -- if I have the money deducted directly from my paycheck through my company's charitable giving campaign, they'll match my donations, doubling the amount.

I have a certain amount from each paycheck set up to be sent to the parish through the corporate matching program, but up till now I've been hesitant to do all our tithing that way. There are two reasons for this:

1) When donations are made via withholding, it becomes nearly invisible to us, our income is simply lower. It seems to me that there is probably some personal and moral value in accepting the discipline of having to set aside some of the money that actually hits our bank account for the parish and other donation recipients, rather than simply having it all happen out of our sight. The fact that we could simply use the cash some other way in a tight pay period seems like it makes the action more real.

2) As parents, we're not simply doing things for our own benefit, we also have to be conscious of how our actions model what we believe is moral living to our children. They're already required to put a portion of their allowances into the collection basket each week, but it seems like it is probably also good for them to see us actually writing a check to put in the basket. I remember being staggered at seeing my father write checks for what seemed to me princely sums such as $25 when I was a child, and having looked over my dad's shoulder as a child when he was writing checks before mass or during the sermon gave me a sense of what was expected of me when I was living on my own. I wouldn't want the kids to think that giving money to the church is one of those things which children are required to do but adults don't bother with -- and having them sit down with me once a year to set up charity witholding and file my taxes does not seem like a substitute for actually seeing one's parents spend real money every week on supporting the parish.

I see a certain value to 1), but I think it's easily outweighed by the fact that my employer would double my donations. The parish getting twice as much money seems a fairly major incentive. However, I'm not sure how much weight to give to 2). I'm strongly conscious of the fact that while we as adults have difficulty feeling the same about more abstract processes such as electronic tithing via paycheck witholding, it's necessarily entirely invisible to children. And I put a very high value on forming our children correcting in Christian living.

Thoughts? Has anyone else struggled with this question, and what sort of resolution did you come to, for what reasons?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Audience Participation

I did my last presentation to the RCIA group last night. During the post-reception-into-the-Church period there's a set of "Christian Living" talks themed around the chapters in the US Catholic Catechism For Adults on the ten commandments. I had been assigned the 6th and 9th commandments.

So there I was, the one delegated to get up in front of 20 new members of the Church and talk about sex.

You think of giving a talk as being a fairly uni-directional interaction, but this situation in particular gave me a chance to think on how much audience reaction affects you as the speaker/teacher. The middle-aged husband at the second table nodding and taking notes in a spiral bound notebook urged me on to explain more fully. The woman staring out the window and idly turning her cell phone over in her hands caused me to fear I was failing to persuade or be clear. I was inordinately grateful for the enthusiasm of the young college-age couple -- Scott Hahn fans who after the talk told me they were hoping to have a Christopher West study group with their Christian Fraternity.

At the end of an hour I wrapped things up and asked if there were any questions. Silence stretched out. Given the topic, I'd expected that. So we closed with a prayer and I made a beeline for the coffee pot.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I Mean, Come On, Guys!

Just the other night I was telling Darwin that maybe I wanted a break from blogging. I'm kinda feeling over the internet, and also feeling like I don't really have all that much to talk about. But I had to laugh as I pulled the Wall Street Journal out of the wrapping yesterday. Sometimes a topic comes along that really just writes itself.

The feature article in the Personal Journal section was The Birth-Control Riddle: Fifty Years after the Pill's Debut, almost Half of all Pregnancies in the U.S are Unplanned.

Yet despite all these options, the rates of unplanned pregnancies remain high: Almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S.—some 3.1 million a year—are unintended, according to the most recent government survey, from 2001. One out of every two American women aged 15 to 44 has at least one unplanned pregnancy in her lifetime. Among unmarried women in their 20s, seven out of 10 pregnancies are unplanned.

An updated version of those numbers from the 2006 National Survey of Family Growth is expected to be released next month. But population experts don't anticipate much change; the rate of unplanned pregnancy was the same in 1994, and smaller studies have found that even newer birth-control methods haven't made much of a dent.

Why are the numbers so high?

The answer is a complex tangle of cultural, religious, behavioral, educational and economic factors. Many of those unplanned pregnancies become wanted babies. About a million are aborted each year and others are miscarried.

Almost half (48%) of unintended pregnancies involve contraceptive failures. In 52% of the cases, couples used no birth control at all. (Emphasis mine.)
I have to say that even if I felt so inclined to use contraception, what would be the point? Thanks to knowing NFP, I know when my fertile periods are, and I'd be too worried about the contraception failing to feel comfortable using it then.

At first I had a knee-jerk irritable reaction to the fact that article made practically no mention of Natural Family Planning, but by the end I was glad not to have it lumped in with the other methods. Because NFP may involve family planning, but what it is not is contraception. Here, a money quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject:
2399 The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).
But we have not exhausted the riches of the WSJ in regards to making relationships work. On the other side of the marital behavioral spectrum, we have Honey, Do You Have To...?, an article about the little peevish things one's spouse does. It holds an instructive reminder that the jerks you shall have always with you.

When Jim Caudill's first wife sat him down and explained that she wanted a divorce, she had a long list of complaints: He didn't help enough with the kids. He didn't do his share of the housework. They were more devoted to work than to each other.

Then she brought up the English muffins. "She said, 'You never butter them to the edges, you just pat it in the middle,'" says Mr. Caudill, a 59-year-old winery marketing representative in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Mr. Caudill was stunned. But gradually, the message sunk in. "The weight of a small thing can be onerous," he says. "It's a symptom of a larger need."

OMG. She's talking about ripping apart a family and reneging on her vows, and to support this she brings in... the English muffins? Talk about moral seriousness.

Or, take this gem:

The dishwasher was a sticking point in Vige Barrie's first marriage. She says her husband often left his dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter, a habit that so infuriated her she even brought it up with their marriage counselor. "It was beyond me that he couldn't get his hand in gear to deliver a dirty dish a few inches over to the dishwasher," says Ms. Barrie, 57, who works in media relations at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Was I a maid?"

Ms. Barrie, who has since divorced and remarried, was dismayed to find that her second husband also leaves his dirty dishes in the sink. But she says she has finally learned to take it in stride. "By the time you marry a second time, you grow up," she says. "I realized how important it was to have a partner for the big life stuff and that the little life stuff ruins the present moment."(emphasis mine)

Too bad she learned this lesson in maturity too late to save her first marriage.

And if it turns out that it wasn't really that important, that other factors ruined the first marriage, then why even bring it up? I pondered this as I remembered sitting listening to another woman complain about her husband's similar habit. Here is a lady who considers herself to be in a very happy marriage, I thought, and yet why does she find it necessary to tell everyone about this dumb little trait of her husband's? What's the point of running him down like that, especially if it will simply make you focus on the small things that irritate you, instead of all the qualities about him that you rightly admire? Why deliberately rip holes in the seams of your marriage?

More to the point: let him who is without sin cast the first stone. For every complaint a woman can make about her husband, the husband can doubtless match in kind. (And vice versa.) But that kind of tit-for-tat beefing is hardly conducive to maintaining a strong mature relationship. Pulling the log out of one's own eye is usually a good starting point for marital happiness.

And I'm off, to do the dishes. For my husband, not at him.

Ash over Europe, Wilting Flowers and Produce in Kenya

Economics may be the "dismal science", but I find this kind of story about the interconnectedness of the world endlessly fascinating. With flights restricted throughout the UK and Northern Europe because of the volcanic eruption, vegetable and flower growers in Kenya find themselves with mountains of produce with no market.
If farmers in Africa’s Great Rift Valley ever doubted that they were intricately tied into the global economy, they know now that they are. Because of a volcanic eruption more than 5,000 miles away, Kenyan horticulture, which as the top foreign exchange earner is a critical piece of the national economy, is losing $3 million a day and shedding jobs.

The pickers are not picking. The washers are not washing. Temporary workers have been told to go home because refrigerated warehouses at the airport are stuffed with ripening fruit, vegetables and flowers, and there is no room for more until planes can take away the produce. Already, millions of roses, lilies and carnations have wilted.

“Volcano, volcano, volcano,” grumbled Ronald Osotsi, whose $90-a-month job scrubbing baby courgettes, which are zucchinis, and French beans is now endangered. “That’s all anyone is talking about.” He sat on a log outside a vegetable processing plant in Nairobi, next to other glum-faced workers eating a cheap lunch of fried bread and beans.
“It’s a terrible nightmare,” said Stephen Mbithi, the chief executive officer of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. He rattled off some figures: Two million pounds of fresh produce is normally shipped out of Kenya every night. Eighty-two percent of that goes to Europe, and more than a third goes solely to Britain, whose airports have been among those shut down by the volcano’s eruption. Five thousand Kenyan field hands have been laid off in the past few days, and others may be jobless soon. The only way to alleviate this would be to restore the air bridge to Europe, which would necessitate the equivalent of 10 Boeing 747s of cargo space — per night.

“There is no diversionary market,” Mr. Mbithi said. “Flowers and courgettes are not something the average Kenyan buys.”

Thus, the trash heap of greens. At Sunripe, one of the most profitable sides of the business is prepackaging veggies for supermarkets in Europe. Most of the peppers, corn, carrots, broccoli and beans are grown in the Rift Valley, trucked to Nairobi, and then washed, chopped and shrink-wrapped. There are even some packages labeled “stir fry,” which few Kenyans have ever heard about.

The vegetables are marked with the names of some of England’s biggest supermarkets. (They requested not to be mentioned in this article.) But those supermarkets are very particular about their brands and do not allow Sunripe to give away excess produce with their labels on it.

So, on Monday, a man in a Sunripe lab coat and mesh hair net stood at the back of the pickup truck in the company’s loading bay tearing open plastic bags of perfectly edible vegetables, each worth a couple of dollars, and shaking out the contents. Sunripe does give away unpackaged food, and two nuns from an orphanage stood nearby, waiting for some French beans.

With the ash clouds clearing, hopefully the laid-off fieldhands will soon be back to work, and vegetables and flowers will again be winging their way to Europe. For all the complaints about globalization and potential environmental damage caused by international shipping, the ability of Kenyans with their milder climate and opposite set of seasons to supply Europe with vegetables and flowers has doubtless lifted hundreds of thousands if not millions of Kenyans out of poverty -- flowing money from upscale European markets to Kenyan packagers and growers, and from them to other Kenyan's with local businesses who serve them.

For all that I can appreciate the romance of agricultural localism, there's something inspiring about the complex interplay of relationships that provides British shoppers with fresh zucchini in April and Kenyan farmers with a new chance to lift their families out of poverty.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Iceland Does Its Bit Against Global Warming

It is notoriously claimed that every cloud has a silver lining, and those worried about climate change may be assured that this is true of ash clouds as well. It seems that although volcanos put out a great deal of CO2 themselves, it is estimated that the flight cancellations across Europe have resulted in a reduction in CO2 per day emmissions in excess of the (very roughly) estimated CO2 emmissions by day by the volcano itself.

Of course, this ignores the primary effect of ash-heavy volcanic erruptions, which is to reflect/block more sunlight in the atmosphere, thus producing a cooling trend which can last several years. When Krakatoa blew itself up in 1883, the following years was called "the year without a summer", with global average temperatures falling by 2.2 °F and the average temperatures not returning to trend until 1888. (In an interesting side note, the climate effects of Krakatoa also represented the last time that Western Europe suffered significant food shortages as a result of climate-induced crop failure. By the turn of the century, the global grain market was so well established that only war and economic disruption could cause food shortages in the developed world.)

So people stuck in airports across Europe can, at least, reflect that The Day After Tomorrow will now instead be The Day After the Day After Tomorrow (Or Perhaps The Next Day). And perhaps there's a way forward here in the contentious global warming debate. Surely we can all agree that volcanos are pretty cool. I think it's high time that we establish a UN panel to site new volcanos around the world. Each industrial nation will be required to host its fair share of volcano offsets. Sunsets will be more beautiful, the weather will be cooler, and life will generally be more exciting. I, for one, welcome our new volcanic overlords.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Personal Sin, Shared Reparation

Mark Shea has an interesting post at National Catholic Register in which he answers a reader question which goes in part:
One of the priests at our parish spoke about the pedophile scandals and how we should confess our sins (and he said it like that - sounding like it implied we should as a group ask for forgiveness as Catholics for these terrible crimes) and seek forgiveness for allowing this to happen. Even though I think that these are horrible, awful, abominable events, and pray for both those who have been damaged by these sins, and as difficult as it is, those people who committed these sins, don’t exactly feel responsible for doing this myself so am having a hard time wrapping my head around repentance for the sins of others. I have sinned in a multitude of other ways but do I need to carry the burden of other people’s sins as well? Do I need to ask forgiveness for this myself? Are we supposed to ask forgiveness as Catholics even though we individually didn’t have anything to do with it?

Mark's reply is worth reading in its entirety, but I think the key passage is:
It is a radical misreading of the Tradition to say that, for instance, you are somehow personally guilty for some sin committed by a pervert priest or negligent bishop. Don’t approach penance for their sins as though you must somehow feel guilty for crimes and sins you did not commit. Therefore, you also cannot and should not try to “repent” for sins and crimes you did not commit.

On the other hand, part of the nature of the Christian faith is that it recognizes the fact of human solidarity. You neither personally ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, nor handled the hammers that drove nails through the flesh of the Son of God. Yet, in some mysterious sense, when these sins were committed, we were all implicated in them. This is why it doesn’t do (as many Catholics have done over the centuries) to say that “the Jews killed Jesus” (with the convenient suggestion that I most certainly had nothing to do with it). The fact is, Jesus’ death occurred because we, the human race, killed Jesus—and therefore, by the miracle of grace, Jesus died for us all and now offers his grace to us all. It is in the awareness of our radical solidarity with each other and with Jesus that we can offer penance for one another.

I thought this was a particularly helpful way of explaining things.

Drawing it out a bit further, in development of the thinking I'd done on the topic of individual versus collective in earlier, it strikes me that one of the important things to understand here is that the groups within which we live out our lives (families ties, church ties, associative ties, etc.) may not be capable of committing sins as a group, but that the necessary reparation for sin does often carry through a group. This is because sin is not merely the violation of a legal code, but is destructive to the relationships that bind us together into communities.

Take this down to the most direct human relationship, the family. Imagine a situation in which it becomes known that the father of a family abused one of the children over a period of years. This is clearly a sin of the father -- and it may be that the other members of the family never knew about it or had any ability to prevent it. Thus, they do not share in fault. But the relationship between the mother and the abused child, and the other siblings and the abused child will have been changed by the father's sin. They can't just ignore the fact that the sin occurred, and indeed they will need to make special efforts to heal their relationships with the abused member of the family. That is not because the whole family was at fault for the abuse, but rather because the experience of the child at the receiving end of the abuse was not merely personal but social -- not merely "my father abused me" but "I was in a family where I was abused by my father".

In our family of the Church, we now face a similar situation. Few of us shared any knowledge or culpability in the abuse which a small percentage of priests perpetrated, and yet our relationships with those abused, with each other, and with our priests have been changed by the fact that this abuse occurred within our family. That is why healing will require work towards reparation on the part of all Catholics (in different ways depending on our places within the Church) even though most of us hold no personal culpability in the sins themselves.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Panis Angelicus

Today our oldest makes her First Communion. Please remember her and all the classmates in your prayers today.

(Freudian slip: When I first typed the title of the post, I wrote "Panic Angelicus". That's the post-communion party mania talking.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bleg: Book repair, part 2

Charlotte sensibly points out that considering the price of used copies of my torn children's Bible, perhaps I just might want to replace it. And thinking about it, she's probably right. (I only hesitate because I hate to throw away a book.)

But here's another case.

Here's our other children's bible. It's older, and Catholic, and the New Testament is illustrated by the celebrated Provensons. It's also rarer: the one copy on Amazon with the word "Provensen" in the listing goes for $40. (Here's three copies of the same book without "Provensen" in the listing for about $6 each: The Holy Bible The Old Testament and New Adapted for Young Catholic Readers -- but I'd be disappointed if you guys didn't snap them up right away.)

Also, this book was a gift (either from the Catholic Bibliophagist or the Opinionated Homeschooler, I can't remember. Sorry, ladies.). So I don't want to replace it, or mutilate it. I want to preserve it. This should be just a matter of anchoring the torn spine, but I want to make sure I do it right. Linen tape? Clear plastic library binding tape? How best to strengthen the book without completely destroying it?

Mrs. Cranky, I'm counting on you to come through for me here with the professional advice... :)

Bleg: Book repair

Here's a book. It needs help. And I need to use it almost every day. So, gentle readers, I ask you: what do you use to repair books? (This is not the only book in this house that needs some TLC.)

I looked up "bookbinding tape" at Amazon, but a lot of the stuff they have is clear protective tape, which I could see being very useful for reinforcing spines, but not for the complete repair I need to do. I'm thinking I might need linen tape for reattaching the cover to the interior, and possibly for rebuilding the spine as well.

If you're going to be clever and say "duct tape it!", don't. I want a good useable fix that won't damage the book or start peeling in an ugly fashion or get too dirty. And as you can see, someone's already tried duct tape (not me; the book came to me with the spine duct taped together) and it fell off.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Great American Novel, and others

During the height of my ambition, perhaps around age 10, I thought I might write the Great American Novel. I wasn't really clear what exactly the Great American Novel was, but I was sure it involved summer camp, and I spent a great deal of time hashing out the details of my character's names and personal appearance and the number of brothers and sisters they had -- all crucial details in such literary serials such as The Baby Sitters Club which the girls in sixth grade passed around during study hall. These were the sort of seminal works in which you learned all you needed to know about the characters by description of their personal appearance: such girl had frizzy reddish hair and braces and wore a turquoise turtleneck! This one had her ears double-pierced and wore big sweaters and leggings! 'Nuff said. And these were the minutiae that had to be wrestled with by the budding author of the Great American Novel, which could only be written with a mechanical pencil in a fresh lined notebook (not one in which half the pages had been torn out or scribbled upon by younger siblings, or with the wire binding twisted and warped), or preferably, upon one's mother's collegiate electric typewriter, when the ribbon could be unraveled and rewound upon the spools.

I think I first encountered the term Great American Novel in the place where I first encountered so much literature: in the back of our set of encyclopedias. This particular repository of knowledge has passed out of our family, so I can't give any details about the age or the title of the set, but at the end of each volume one could find synopses of novels whose titles fit within the alphabetical confines of that book. I owe much of my knowledge of literature of a certain provenance -- the works of Theodore Dreiser or of John Steinbeck, God's Little Acre (referenced somewhere in P.G. Wodehouse, and I knew what he was talking about), Trilby, Silas Marner -- to these encyclopedias. I don't know what the editors' criteria for inclusion was, as Don Quixote and The Picture of Dorian Gray were included, but not such novels as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. (I can state this with confidence not because of my own encyclopedic memory, but because the plots of both were new to me when I read them.) Nor was a novel I would consider a leading contender for the Great American moniker: The Great Gatsby.

My enthusiasm to write the Great American novel waned along with my fondness for the nifty names with which I endowed my juvenile characters (but none of my actual children), and I try to avoid the kinds of novels in which the height of characterization is to describe the clothes the characters wear ("her Prada handbag brushed against her toned thigh as she strode down the hall, her Manolos clicking on the parquet floor with each step..."). Still, I miss the idealism of the days in which a vast literary potential could be unlocked if only I had the proper writing instrument and a fresh blank notebook. Then, time was on my side.

Speaking of Great American Novels, drop in on our discussion of Absalom, Absalom! at Reading for Believers.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Our Representatives At Work

This is absolutely hilarious. [HT: Donald at TAC]
In a new report, the Congressional Research Service says the law may have significant unintended consequences for the “personal health insurance coverage” of senators, representatives and their staff members.

For example, it says, the law may “remove members of Congress and Congressional staff” from their current coverage, in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, before any alternatives are available.

The confusion raises the inevitable question: If they did not know exactly what they were doing to themselves, did lawmakers who wrote and passed the bill fully grasp the details of how it would influence the lives of other Americans?
But the research service found that this provision was written in an imprecise, confusing way, so it is not clear when it takes effect.

The new exchanges do not have to be in operation until 2014. But because of a possible “drafting error,” the report says, Congress did not specify an effective date for the section excluding lawmakers from the existing program.

Under well-established canons of statutory interpretation, the report said, “a law takes effect on the date of its enactment” unless Congress clearly specifies otherwise. And Congress did not specify any other effective date for this part of the health care law. The law was enacted when President Obama signed it three weeks ago.

It doubtless says a lot about how people of all ideological stripes feel about their representatives in congress these days that the comments on the New York Times website were universally of the, "Ha, they deserve it," persuasion.

Are Great Books Not The Answer?

Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University has an essay on Minding The Campus in which he argues that cultural and intellectual conservatives should be more cautious about championing Great Books type programs in colleges and universities as an antidote to the rootlessness and relativism of the modern curriculum, because the Great Books format itself is often essentially relativistic:
Most curricula in the Great Books offer the various philosophies as inherently coherent and valid systems, suggesting to each student that there is finally no basis on which to decide which philosophy to adopt other than mere preference. One must simply decide. This Nietzschean (or Schmittian) lesson is reinforced by the typical organization of such curricula (where they persist), which is typically chronological. Given that most students today have deeply ingrained progressive worldviews (that is, the view that history has been the slow but steady advance of enlightenment in all forms, culminating in equal rights for all races, all genders, and all sexual preferences), a curriculum that begins with the Bible and Greek philosophy and ends with Nietzsche subtly suggests that Nietzsche is the culmination of Enlightenment’s trajectory. The fact that his philosophy is reinforced by the message that an education in the Great Books consists in exposure to equally compelling philosophies between which there is no objective basis to prefer only serves to deepen the most fundamental lesson of a course in the Great Books, which is a basic form of relativism. The choice of a personal philosophy is relative, and the basis on which one makes any such choice is finally arbitrary, the result of personal preference or attraction.
I would certainly agree that Great Books programs can end up being run in an essentially relativistic way. I recall one of the things that turned me off St. John's College in Santa Fe was when the student guide who was taking us around on our high school student tour exclaimed, "You spend, like, the first couple months reading Plato, and it's like mind-blowing. By the time you finish reading Plato, you don't believe in anything anymore."

I wouldn't claim for either my current or my 17-year-old self any kind of serious Plato scholarship, but at the time I had already read some of the basics (Crito, Apology, Phaedo, Symposium, and Allegory of the Cave) and one things I was pretty sure of was that this was not the result I had found from reading Plato, nor that which the Church and Western Culture in general had derived from him.

If a Great Books program is run by relativists, it will have a certain tendency to turn out relativists. So I would agree with Deneen that it is not enough for us to push for Great Books programs and simply leave it at that. However, I would tend to differ somewhat from his analysis here in that I retain a fair amount of faith in the fundamental power of the great works of Western Civilization to speak for themselves. While I don't think that the mere creation of a Great Books program is the end of the road, with little weight given to how it's run and by whom, it does at least seem to me that for those who believe an education rooted in Western Culture is important, reading the works themselves is a great start. Surely it is better to have someone with a well ordered understanding of their place in the western canon to guide the student through such a program -- indeed, my experience in the Great Books core curriculum at Steubenville underlined for me how at sea a group of unprepared students can get reading the Ancient Greeks without proper preparation and guidance -- but I have enough faith in the quality of the great books themselves to think that it is better to have read them under almost any circumstances than not to have read them at all.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Waiting On Math

This article has been on my brain ever since seeing it on a friend's Facebook page a while page. The claim: teaching math can be delayed entirely until junior high and students in the end learn it better.
In 1929, the superintendent of schools in Ithaca, New York, sent out a challenge to his colleagues in other cities. "What," he asked, "can we drop from the elementary school curriculum?" He complained that over the years new subjects were continuously being added and nothing was being subtracted, with the result that the school day was packed with too many subjects and there was little time to reflect seriously on anything....

One of the recipients of this challenge was L. P. Benezet, superintendent of schools in Manchester, New Hampshire, who responded with this outrageous proposal: We should drop arithmetic! Benezet went on to argue that the time spent on arithmetic in the early grades was wasted effort, or worse. In fact, he wrote: "For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child's reasoning facilities." All that drill, he claimed, had divorced the whole realm of numbers and arithmetic, in the children's minds, from common sense, with the result that they could do the calculations as taught to them, but didn't understand what they were doing and couldn't apply the calculations to real life problems. He believed that if arithmetic were not taught until later on--preferably not until seventh grade--the kids would learn it with far less effort and greater understanding.

Benezet followed his outrageous suggestion with an outrageous experiment. He asked the principals and teachers in some of the schools located in the poorest parts of Manchester to drop the third R from the early grades. They would not teach arithmetic--no adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. He chose schools in the poorest neighborhoods because he knew that if he tried this in the wealthier neighborhoods, where parents were high school or college graduates, the parents would rebel. As a compromise, to appease the principals who were not willing to go as far as he wished, Benezet decided on a plan in which arithmetic would be introduced in sixth grade.

As part of the plan, he asked the teachers of the earlier grades to devote some of the time that they would normally spend on arithmetic to the new third R--recitation. By "recitation" he meant, "speaking the English language." He did "not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or the textbook." The children would be asked to talk about topics that interested them--experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion. This, he thought, would improve their abilities to reason and communicate logically. He also asked the teachers to give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers.

In order to evaluate the experiment, Benezet arranged for a graduate student from Boston University to come up and test the Manchester children at various times in the sixth grade. The results were remarkable. At the beginning of their sixth grade year, the children in the experimental classes, who had not been taught any arithmetic, performed much better than those in the traditional classes on story problems that could be solved by common sense and a general understanding of numbers and measurement. Of course, at the beginning of sixth grade, those in the experimental classes performed worse on the standard school arithmetic tests, where the problems were set up in the usual school manner and could be solved simply by applying the rote-learned algorithms. But by the end of sixth grade those in the experimental classes had completely caught up on this and were still way ahead of the others on story problems.

The article goes on to speculate on why this might be, and why it hasn't caught on. In addition to children of younger ages often (I've certainly known extreme exceptions) possessing limited abilities to grasp mathematical concepts, the article seems to lay much blame at the feet of elementary teachers, who are often required to be generalists and often personally do not like math and know little more than what they are trained to teach. (In one example, the author of a recent study goes through an entire elementary teaching staff and fails to find anyone able to explain to him correctly how to calculate the area of a rectangle, despite being responsible for teaching multiplication.)

Also important to note, it seems to me, is that despite the audacity of the overall suggestion, the proposal tested by Benezet did not actually involve not teaching math in the younger grades (at least, not as we would think of it) but rather not doing drill in arithmetical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions.) Instead, it says he asked his teachers to, as well as focusing on recitation, "give their pupils some practice in measuring and counting things, to assure that they would have some practical experience with numbers." Obviously this kind of more practically focused work has since 1929 become much more common in better classrooms and certainly in the books used by most homeschoolers.

Still, this does tie well with my own reaction to "math class" when I was in parochial school, which was that underneath all the drill we learned very, very little between second grade and fifth. And come to that, very little more was done up until seventh or eight grade when the curriculum started taking baby-steps into algebraic concepts. I wasn't a math wiz, but I was at least able to latch on to what we were doing within the first couple days after a new concept was introduced (up till now you've done "short division" up through twelve, we will now do "long division" of larger numbers) and proceed to be bored for the next two to three months while we repeated it. (We now move to from long division of five digit number to long division of six digit number. And now, we will do word problems involving long division. And now we will do long division of decimal numbers. Buckle your seatbelts!)

Also, at a minimum, this kind of finding strikes me as reassuring as a homeschooling parent, since a couple times a year MrsDarwin and I take time out to sit down and freak out that we aren't getting through enough stuff with the girls. Being assured that there's still plenty of time to get people up to full mastery later is thus a plus.

In the end, though, while the viewpoint it interesting, I'm hesitant to commit to actually holding off on introducing arithmetical concepts (and drill) until that late. Homeschooling parents often see their children as being like those of Lake Wobegon, with all of them above average. And MrsDarwin and I do both know very well how to calculate the area of a rectangle. So surely, we can get these concepts in sooner and avoid the mental chloroform trap, right?

I do, however, find the article very interesting. And I remain convinced there must be something applicable we can get out of it, though I am unsure as to what.

UPDATE: From one of the links The Other Sherry provided, some more info on Benezet's approach:
. . . Benezet in Manchester, N. H., carried out a study from which he concluded "If I had my way, I would omit arithmetic from the first six grades . . . . The whole subject could be postponed until the seventh year . . . and mastered in two years’ study." This led many people to conclude erroneously that all arithmetic could be deferred until the seventh grade. However, closer observation showed that there was much arithmetic taught in grades I to VI. Thiele visited the Manchester, N. H., schools and said: "Firsthand observation leads me to conclude that Benezet did not prove that arithmetic can be taught incidentally . . . . Instead, he provided conclusive evidence that children profit greatly from an organized arithmetic program which stresses number concepts, relations, and meaning. Buswell found that Benezet had only deferred "formal" arithmetic, and that all other aspects of a desirable arithmetic curriculum were present. Of the formal arithmetic, Buswell said, "I should like to eliminate it altogether." On the same topic, "deferred arithmetic," Brueckner says, "From these studies the conclusion should be drawn not that arithmetic should be postponed, [page 18] but that the introduction of social arithmetic in the first few grades does not result in any loss in efficiency when the formal computational aspect of the work is introduced later on, say in grade three." — What does Research say about Arithmetic? By Vincent J. Glennon and C. W. Hunnicutt, National Education Association, Washington D. C., 1952, page 17. [source]

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Vacation, part I: Long Car Rides

What most of the country looks like from major interstates.

Driving long distances with kids. I think it's wise not to live-blog vacations, because every post would be a clever variation on "These kids are driving me crazy!" Whereas in retrospect, we can now say that everything went smoothly. And that we wish we had more days of vacation, which we certainly did not wish as we pulled into our driveway at 11:30 PM two Saturdays ago.

(When we say we wish we had more vacation, we actually wish that we as adults could go away together with no kids for some period of time comprising less than a week and more than a weekend. This is clearly a pipe dream at this point in time, but it's good to have goals.)

There is no magic doohickus that will stop kids from arguing in the back seat (unless maybe you are inclined to go the DVD-player-in-the-car route, which we are not), but one can stave off some fights with numerous activity books, multiple sets of crayons, and books on CD. Note to parents of the 4-8 set: Pippi Longstocking was a big hit. The Rescuers was a close second. The girls enjoyed Ella Enchanted, but the little-girl voice of the reader undercut the story to adult ears.

When your kids sleep for long stretches in the car, be prepared for craziness in a hotel room later, especially if the main snoozer is a small boy of 18 months.

A long car ride with your spouse is the ideal time to plan out the rest of your life together, especially since none of the plans require concrete action at that moment.

If I never see another Starbucks coffee drink, it'll be too soon. And I discovered that Starbucks (or maybe just the one in Jackson, Miss.) doesn't carry lemon wedges for tea. What is that all about? I think some enterprising person should start a nationwide chain of quality tea houses. I'd be all over that.

We met up with many great bloggers on our trip, but now is a good time to recognize the wonderful people in Nashville who gave us breakfast and good company: Jordana of Curmudgeonry and Meredith of Like Merchant Ships. I want to live in Jordana's purple bungalow, and that's high praise.

New Bishop for Los Angeles

Whispers in the Loggia and New Advent have exciting breaking news for the church in the US:
Pope Benedict will name Jose Gomez, 58, archbishop of San Antonio since February 2005, as coadjutor-archbishop of Los Angeles.

In the process, the native of Mexico -- the lone American bishop professed as a numerary (full member) of Opus Dei -- will make history, becoming the first Hispanic prelate placed in line for a Stateside red hat.

The appointment would bring to a close several months' worth of intense consultation and speculation since word of Cardinal Roger Mahony's request for an understudy began circulating late last year. A coadjutor will first spend some months learning the ropes alongside the 74 year-old cardinal before succeeding to the helm of the 5 million member local church -- its Catholic population estimated to be three-quarters Latino -- shortly after Mahony reaches the retirement age of 75 next February 27th.

Born in Monterrey and ordained for Opus Dei in 1978, Gomez served in Texas from 1987 in both Houston and San Antonio. A former executive director and president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests, in 2001 Pope John Paul II named him an auxiliary to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, then rocketed him into the lone senior US post customarily held by a Latin cleric on his appointment to San Antonio in late 2004. Six months after his installation there, TIME magazine named Gomez one of the nation's 25 most influential Hispanics.

MY NIECE looking good

I take all comers in the niece cuteness stakes.

For what it's worth, she looks just like MY baby pix.

Monday, April 05, 2010

All Morality is Personal

One hears, at times, frustration expressed that too many Catholics think only in terms of "personal morality" or "personal piety" and that insufficient attention is paid to social or political sin. Certainly, the results of an average Catholic's examination of conscience might seem paltry on the stage of political activism. How can people worry about paltry wrongs such as, "I lied," "I took the Lord's name in vain," or "I indulged in lustful thoughts," when there are third world workers being cheated out of their just wages, the environment being destroyed, racism being perpetuated, nuclear weapons being built and imperialist wars being fought? Isn't it time that we stopped obsessing over these small issues of lying and swearing and sex in order to concentrate on the massive, societal evils that afflict our country and our planet?

This line of thinking strikes me as, in the end, an approach no less dangerous than that of the Pharisee who was so notoriously contrasted with the publican. Why? Because while there are unquestionably social evils that afflict us at a wider level (though there is certainly room for debate as to the precise nature and cause of social evils, I don't think there's any question that such things do exist) morality must, in the end, be examined at the level of individual actions. And for us, that means our actions. Societies do not perform sins, people do. While it may make sense to talk about some pervasive evil such as racism as being a "social sin", racism does not in fact consists of "society" being racist but rather of a number of individual people within a society behaving in a racist fashion. If workers are being treated badly or paid unjust wages, it is not because society does this, but because a certain number of individual people choose to commit those acts.

I think the instinct to think of the large scale problems as social rather than personal moral problems is that in many cases the social problems that people find themselves most concerned about involve actions that they are fairly remote from. Say, for instance, one reads about a clothing plant in China in which managers routinely lock workers in for 16-20 hour shifts, forcing them to work overtime in order to meet production quotas without their consent and without paying them for the additional hours worked. I don't think it would be controversial to say that those factory owners and shift supervisors are acting wrongly -- they they are far away from us and our ability to change their behavior is minimal.

And yet, people are often uncomfortable with admitting that there is little they can do about some evil that is being committed. And so, moral weight is assigned to another set of activities which surround the issue. Do you advocate against low wages and seek to raise awareness? Are you in solidarity with the oppressed? Do you buy local, or buy fair trade, or live sustainably? Do you denounce "the system"? Do you vote for change?

I do not want to argue that people should not engage in advocacy on issues they believe to be important. Helping other people to understand what is right is a moral action, and as citizens in a polity we also have a civic responsibility to persuade our fellow citizens to support policies which will be to the common good of us all. So I would certainly encourage people to engage in political advocacy on those issues they believe to be most pressing (whether that issue is abortion, unjust wages, immigration, human trafficking, etc.) But at the same time it seems to me important for us to remember that our most basic moral responsibility is for our own personal actions, not for advocacy we engage in or groups we join.

The great temptation with these social and political understandings of morality is that they make it all too tempting for people to put all their moral energy into focusing on other people's sins rather than their own. In the story of the pharisee and the publican, the pharisee may in fact be a person who has committed fewer unjust and immoral actions than the publican, but his great fault is that when approaching God he asks not for forgiveness for his own sins (and the strength to avoid them in the future) but rather provides God with a quick run-down of everyone else's sins.

Given that most of us do not have it within our personal power to mistreat third world workers, declare war, torture terror suspects or destroy wetlands, a heavy focus on issues such as these necessarily means focusing on the sins committed by others rather than the sins we ourselves commit. However un-exciting admissions such as "I gossiped about the guy in the next cube behind his back" or "I lied" or "I was short tempered with my kids" might be, if those are the sins we actually have the chance to do something about it is important that they be our primary focus in our moral life. When we focus on sins which are more distant to us to the exclusion of our own, we risk turning morality into an enemies list -- a danger which is the same whether that list is populated with "torture advocates", "economic imperialists" or "baby killers". If he can convince us to focus, in this way, on the sins of others while allowing our own to fester (after all, they are so insignificant compared to the great injustices in the world!) the great tempter scores a victory, not a defeat.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

On The Third Day He Rose Again

A glorious Easter to all our readers!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Night Before He Died

Where Is Chesterton When We Need Him?

My sister observes that this year's calendar provides the perfect opportunity for a Chestertonian observation as to why it is entirely appropriate for Holy Thursday to fall upon April Fools.