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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Repost: Catholics Can Do Halloween

[I had a spare day off I had to burn, so we were out and about visiting family today and then dashing back just in time for trick-or-treating in the freezing drizzle, but since I'm been running quiet lately, here's a timely repost.]

In my early days of elementary school, we lived in neighborhoods where my parents weren't sure about the wisdom of going trick-or-treating, so my early Halloween memories are of going to the Haunted House and Halloween Party put on in the parish hall, as a trick-or-treating alternative for similarly worried parents. This gave me the chance to charge around in costume with my friends from the parish school, bring home a massive haul of candy, and get scared silly by the Haunted House designed and staffed by the eighth graders and teachers. It was, as the phrase goes, good clean fun.

As such, I've found it odd, of late, to see Catholic parishes, schools and homeschooling groups start putting on "All Saints Day" parties on Halloween or on the nearest weekend as a sort of holy second best to the more goulish folk holiday. Children are encouraged to dress up as their favorite saint and religiously-themed games are played. (Toss the halo over the angel, go fishing with Noah, join St. George in attacking the dragon pinata, etc.)

These are all harmless enough, though as a kid I think I would have found them too goody-two-shoes-y to be fun (candy haul aside), and we've taken our kids to such parties most years because their friends are going and no kid wants to be left out of a get-candy-and-play-with-friends opportunity.

Nonetheless, I can't help a little annoyance at the idea of turning All Saints Day into low rent counter-programming to Halloween, when Halloween (All Hallows Eve) has its origins in the working of the Catholic folk imagination on All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Father Augustine Thompson provides a good summary:
So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory? What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland, at least, all the dead came to be remembered — even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar.
The article goes on to describe how the fusion in America of various Catholic immigrant customs centering around All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day with the trick-or-treating-like customs from England which had evolved around Guy Fawkes Day, gave birth in the peculiar way that folk customs have the way of doing to modern, the modern American holiday of Halloween.

While it's perhaps in keeping with a Puritan ethic to be suspicious of goings on, there's really no reason why Catholics should be afraid to don a fun or scary costume, carve a jack-o-lantern, consume far too much candy, and then leave out a bowl of creme for the household hob or brownie in hopes that he'll take care of the clean up during the night.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ethical Thought Experiments as Rhetorical Questions

I got involved, over the weekend, in an email discussion about moral issues which strayed, all too quickly, into ethical thought experiments. You know the sort:
A and B are standing by the edge of a cliff. The cliff edge under A is crumbling and she will surely fall to her death if B does not grab her hand. If B grabs her hand, she will almost certainly save her, but there is a small but unknown probability that B will either fall off the cliff with A or will be injured in the process of saving A. You are a third party, C, who is watching. You cannot help A or B, but you can legally require B to help A, or even physically coerce B into rending assistance. Is it moral for you to do so?
X volunteers to take part in an ethical experiment. He thinks it will be some simple classroom exercise, but instead he finds himself in a large room with only one exit. Blocking the exit is another person, Y who is tied to a chair sitting on a trap door. X can only leave he room by pressing a button which will cause Y to fall through the trap door into a meat grinder and be gruesomely killed. X is told that there is a 1 in 1000 chance that the roof will fall in and kill both of them before the experiment is over. If he pushes the button, he can go free but Y will be killed. If X waits till the experiment is over and the roof does not fall in, they will both go free. Is it right for X to push the button in order to be sure that he will be safe?
Yes, I wrote one of these. (Actually, I kind of touched up both, but I think my modified version of the one I didn't originate is still true to the original's point.) The only excuse I can make for my behavior is:

MrsDarwin was listening to me discuss the course of argument and remarked, "Of course, you're not going to change any minds with that argument. It's too abstract." She's right, of course.

It strikes me that these sorts of "thought experiments" tend to be more extended rhetorical questions than actual experiments. It's really a way to say "I think that the moral situation we're discussing is like this." As such, the response from the person challenged with such a hypothetical is usually not to answer the hypothetical but to challenge the thought experiment or propose an alternate one. There's some utility to this, so long as you're just trying to understand how you think about something differently rather than reach any kind of agreement. However, it seems to me that it's seriously problematic to discuss moral questions in a context other than the way in which people actually face moral questions.

Brandon on Till We Have Faces

Brandon's last fortnightly book was C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, and he has a review up which provides some fascinating philosophical and historical context for it. A selection:
Glome is a fictional land supposedly well north of Greece, in an area in which there are many barbarian kingdoms. However, and very interestingly, the story can be dated with a fair degree of probability, allowing for literary license. The upper limit for it Apuleius's Metamorphoses. It is clearly implied that the Cupid and Psyche story in the Metamorphoses is based indirectly on Orual's book; she is writing for an unknown Greek, and the novel ends with arrangments to send the book to Greece. We don't know at what stage in life Apuleius wrote the Metamorphoses, but he died about AD 180. Apuleius wrote in Latin, but claimed to be adapting an earlier Greek text by someone named Lucian, and so Orual's book somehow is adapted by Lucian and then by Apuleius. This puts things more or less around the end of the first century at the latest. This can be confirmed in other ways. The Fox, who becomes the tutor of Orual and Psyche, is a Stoic philosopher who has been captured in war and sold into slavery and by that means come to Glome. He is very definitely Stoic, because almost everything he says is standard Stoicism -- this book would be a fairly easy way to introduce the topic of Stoic philosophy. And at one point, Psyche, in the course of describing the Fox's teaching, gives what is in fact a close paraphrase of the opening of Book II of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius is a nearly exact contemporary of Apuleius, since he also died in AD 180 and we know that the Meditations were more or less composed in the last decade of his life. It is not, of course, plausible that Lewis is suggesting Marcus Aurelius as the source of the Fox's teaching, but it is entirely plausible to suggest a common influence. The Emperor was only writing a sort of philosophical notebook for himself, and often quotes and borrows from other authors in various ways. If one assumed that Marcus Aurelius was quoting or alluding to someone, then, one would take the Fox and the Emperor as having a common link somewhere.

In any case, while details do not matter, this is actually somewhat relevant, for in the Roman Empire, too, there was in this period a contrast like that which we find in Glome: the rationalist Stoics looking down on pagan sacrifices, and it was the Stoics who first came into sharp conflict with Christianity. (Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius criticize the Christians as fanatics, and Marcus Aurelius launched one of the major persecutions of Christians.) Like any good Stoic, the Fox understands the importance of civil religion; but he has no grasp of the sheer power of Ungit, and this is a severe defect in his otherwise excellent teaching. One of the more notable scenes in the book occurs when Orual is waiting in the House of Ungit to preside over a festival and she watches a peasant woman praying to the bloody stone that represents Ungit. Orual asks her whether she always prays to that Ungit rather than the Aphrodite-Ungit done in beautiful Greek style. And the woman replies that she does, because the other Ungit, the Greek one, wouldn't understand her speech, since she is the goddess only of scholars and the upper class of Glome society. It is an irony; the cosmopolitan goddess of the Stoics does not speak at so fundamental a level as the barbarian goddess who is worshipped with blood and sex, because sex and death are the matter of human life, and a goddess who can speak to ordinary people, and who can understand their speech, must be a goddess who understands sex and death. One can have both, but the people of Glome have no way of unifying them, only of putting them side by side; and part of Orual's difficulty is that she straddles both sides of the divide.
The whole thing is worth reading

This reminds me that I should re-read Till We Have Faces. I remember liking it a lot, but at the same time feeling like the religious twist at the end was a bit of a cop out. Our teenage selves are pitiless, and I wonder if I would still think that now. (I'm being purposefully oblique now, but spoilers are allowed in the comments so if such things bother you, beware!)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Just stop

I yell "stop" all the time around here, but my children never feel impelled to collaborate and listen. Thanks for nothing, Vanilla Ice.

Also, no more, no more of this:

When Mrs. Obama gives advice to her daughters before their wedding nights, will she tell them to close their eyes and think of voting for their father?

Aw, let's compare voting to losing your virginity, because that'll appeal to the apathetic college crowd. Let's make fun of those who don't feel ready, because that's just creepy. Let's pressure people to tell us about their vote, because keeping it private is a sign of hidden perversion, like virginity.

I like her insistence on doing it for the first time with a guy who cares about whether you have birth control, because no fool waits to have sex until she's married! No one wants kids!

But most importantly: will he still respect them the morning of Nov. 7?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Problem with the "Pregnancy is Work" Argument For Abortion

Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates reprints a post that he wrote two years ago which he considers to be a strong argument for the unrestricted "right to choose" abortion. This argument is basically that pregnancy is hard and sometimes dangerous work, and that women should thus not be forced to do it if they don't choose to.
Like most people, I have deep problems with the termination of life -- and that is what I believe abortion to be. Still a decade ago, I learned that those problems were abstract, and could not stand against something as tangible and imposing as death.

My embrace of a pro-choice stance is not built on analogizing Rick Santorum with Hitler. It is not built on what the pro-life movement is "like." It's built on set of disturbing and ineluctable truths: My son is the joy of my life. But the work of ushering him into this world nearly killed his mother. The literalism of that last point can not be escaped.

Every day women choose to do the hard labor of a difficult pregnancy. It's courageous work, which inspires in me a degree of admiration exceeded only by my horror at the notion of the state turning that courage, that hard labor, into a mandate. Women die performing that labor in smaller numbers as we advance, but they die all the same. Men do not. That is a privilege.
He says that since writing this, his feelings have only become more one sided on this issue:
I no longer have "deep problems" with the termination of fetal life. I don't think it's my place. I don't think I have much right to any qualms. I will never be pregnant. I will never be subject to the many biological functions that precede pregnancy and the ones that follow. I cannot know what it is to subject my body to such a process for the benefit of another. I don't believe everyone's opinion should be weighed equally. Some people carry more than others.
The thinking here seems to be that the work of being pregnant is so great that only those who have experienced it (or could) can really have an understanding of what it means. Now my first thought was: If one sees pregnancy as the big dividing line here, are women who have been pregnant more or less likely to support the "right to choose"? I consulted the General Social Survey to see if I could find out. Sure enough, all the data one needs is in there. I focused in on the question ABANY: "Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if: g. The woman wants it for any reason?" This is part of a series of questions in the survey which ask whether abortion should be legal for any reason (this question) and if it should be legal in certain specific situations (not able to afford another child, doesn't want more children, serious health problem for the mother, etc.) I filtered my data to look at women only and then I broke the data out by the number of children the woman had. The results are interesting, and basically what I expected:
Bold numbers are percentages, regular text represents absolute numbers.
Women who do not have any children (I'm not able to filter on whether they may have experienced miscarriages or abortions, but in general this should be the group of those with the least experience of pregnancy) are the most likely to support abortion on demand. Women who have experienced pregnancy (and the new life which it represents) are less likely to support abortion on demand. I tried separating the data out for married women and never-married women, but the views are almost exactly the same.

But what about the most extreme "hard case" situations? I pulled similar data for two questions in the survey dealing with pregnancy in cases of rape and pregnancies that severely threaten the health of the mother. As in the population as a whole many more women support abortion being legal in these situations. This table shows support for abortion being legal in cases of rape:
This one shows responses to the following question: "206. Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtaina legal abortion if: The woman's own health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?"
This last is somewhat different from the others in that support for legal abortion in cases of serious health risk to the mother is virtually the same among women who have 0, 1 or 2 children, but then falls off progressively among women with three or more children. I tried splitting this out by how often she attends religious services, but while women who attend religious services weekly or more than once a week are much less likely to support abortion in cases of serious health risk than women who seldom or never attend religious services, the shape of the pattern is similar with women with 0, 1 or 2 children having fairly similar opinions and then increasing opposition to abortion as the number of children goes up from three.

While this doesn't mean that pregnancy isn't a unique and difficult experience, it seems to show that experiencing pregnancy does not make women more likely to support the "right" to "terminate a pregnancy". Indeed, it appears that pregnancy generally makes women less likely to support abortion. If, as Coates suggests, we left the question up to the veterans of pregnancy, abortion would be restricted more than it currently is.

"We Happy Few"

Today is St. Crispin Day, which we remember with Harry's rousing speech from Henry V:

The speech itself is invigorating, but listening to Kenneth Branagh almost singing the lines is glorious.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Clever Economics Behind Romney's Tax Plan

One of the things which the candidates sparred over repeatedly in the debates was Romney's tax plan, on which Obama has repeatedly charged "the math doesn't work".

Romney's plan, as it has been presented, is to reduce tax rates by 20%. Thus, for example, the top rate would go down from the current 35% to 28%. Deductions and credits would then be reduced such that while the middle class would experience a net tax decrease, those at the top would continue to pay the same amount in taxes as they do now. Romney suggested how this might be done in the first debate:
[W]hat are the various ways we could bring down deductions, for instance? One way, for instance, would be to have a single number. Make up a number, $25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people. That's one way one could do it.
The idea here would be that for a family making, say 60k/yr that currently takes a total of $15k in deductions, the deductions would remain untouched while their rate would go down, resulting in lower net taxes. For a family making $400k/yr that currently takes $70k in deductions, their deductions would be capped at $25k but their tax rate would be lower, so they would pay about the same as they do now.

Democrats seem to want to suggest that some sort of secret poison pill would be slipped into the plan such that either the middle class would get a tax increase (while the rich would get a tax break) or such that the deficit would go up because fewer tax revenues would be collected. What this tends to miss is that the president does not get to unilaterally pass a tax plan. He has to ask Congress to pass one along the lines of what he would like. I think it's highly unlikely that Congress will pass anything that is a net tax increase on the middle class (or, indeed, anyone) if it's dominated by the GOP, as seems likely, especially if the election has gone well enough for the GOP to put Rommney in the White House. That Congress would pass a plan that increases the deficit is more likely (goodness knows they've done it before) but the president himself isn't exactly standing on a good record in that regard either so that argument seems something of a wash.

The thing about this tax plan which is actually interesting, and which isn't being discussed (probably because it takes more than one minute of shouting to convey) is how it's designed to increase the amount of income available to be taxed, and in a way much more clever than the somewhat stale "tax people less and they will make more money" argument. This supply side argument is true, and we've seen examples of it working in history, but although tax cuts do tend to result in pre-tax incomes going up as people seek to increase the income that they make more of, the effect is pretty mild when the existing tax rates aren't absolutely confiscatory. Thus, you might actually see total tax revenues go up cutting the top marginal rate 20% from 80% to 64%, because if 80% of your incremental earnings are being taken away you have little incentive to find ways to increase your earnings. You're better off finding ways to enjoy leisure with the earnings you already have. However, cutting the top rate 20% from 35% to 28%, it's a lot less clear that people would increase their incomes enough more to actually lift total tax revenues.

In a good post over at EconLog the other day, David Henderson digs into the different incentives that wage earners experience when their tax rates are cut:
When the government cuts a marginal tax rate, and that's all it does, that cut has two effects in opposite directions: a substitution effect and an income effect.

The substitution effect is to make leisure more expensive. If you're facing a 35% marginal tax rate (MTR), for example, and the rate is cut by 20% to 28%, your "price" of leisure rises by (72 - 65)/65, or 10.8%. When the price of a normal good rises (and leisure is a normal good), you buy less of it. So people work harder.

The income effect is to make you buy more leisure. The cut in marginal tax rates increases your real income and therefore you demand more leisure. That is, you work less.

Empirically, the substitution effect tends to outweigh the income effect slightly for men and strongly for married women. This means that cuts in MTRs alone will tend to increase income somewhat for men and a fair amount for married women. That was the effect of Reagan's cuts in MTRs in the early 1980s.
Now, I'm certainly not one to say that the government has a need to maximize the amount of total tax revenues it takes in. Maximizing the size of government is not an end unto itself, and it can actually cause all sorts of problems. So in the abstract, one might argue that if lowering marginal tax rates were to cause incomes to go up, we should simply do that and find a way for the government to get by with a little less. However, the fact is, right now the government is spending far, far more than it takes in. Even the most aggressive responsible budget cutters (emphasis on responsible here -- there are some silly plans out there that claim they can cut spending by huge percentages right off) need tax revenues to remain fairly stable in order to get the budget balanced.

Well, it turns out that by cutting marginal tax rates but also cutting deductions so that the who balance out, you can have the substitution effect that Henderson describes without having the income effect. The rate cuts and deduction cuts are perfectly balanced, so your income is exactly the same as it was before. You don't "feel richer", and so you don't have the incentive to rest on your laurels and enjoy your newfound wealth. However, the substitution effect does come into play. If you have the opportunity to make more, less of that incremental income will be taken away in the form of taxes, and you'll get to keep more of it. The reward for making more is higher, and so (all other things being equal) people will tend to do it more.

And, of course, if this does result in incremental total income for citizens, that incremental income will be taxed (at the new lower rates) and result in incremental tax revenue which can be used to close the deficit. Thus, a tax reform that was essentially revenue neutral (people pay the same taxes each year) but which decreased marginal tax rates and deductions would have the same stimulative effect on incomes that a tax cut would have, but wouldn't present the deficit risk of significantly decreasing tax revenues and counting on economic growth to make up for that gap.

The plan really is quite clever, which makes it a shame that no one is willing to talk about it except in tiresome soundbites.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Emergency Compliment Generator

Having a bad day? Yeah, I know. What you need is an emergency compliment:
Your hair smells like freshly cut grass.
Does that do it for you? No? Well, head to the Emergency Compliment Generator and fish for something else.
You think of the funniest names for wi-fi connections.
There. I feel better now.

h/t Calah

Bearing on the Liberal Arts

Bearing has a longish post on the Liberal Arts (in response to recent discussion here) which I strongly recommend.

Sticking By The Electoral College Regardless

As we move into the final stretch of the election, with the national polls virtually tied, the small but real possibility looms that we could once again see one candidate win the electoral vote and the other win the popular vote. Were this to happen, it would probably be Obama winning the electoral vote (through holding on to Ohio which is virtually essential to realistic Romney victory scenarios) while Romney won the popular vote.

If this happened, we could certainly count on hearing some conservatives make arguments against the electoral college. Before the heat of the moment, let me just go on the record now and say that's a bad idea. For all its quirks, I'm a supporter of the electoral college system, and conservatives have long defended it with good reason. Ditching that history in the heat of a close election would be a rather base road to travel.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Liberal Arts: Adapting to Modernity

Last week I tried to expand a bit on the concept of the Liberal Arts as "the skills of a free man". I described the purpose of the ancient and medieval liberal arts education as being to develop a general and adaptable set of skills that allowed the liberally educated person to understand and reason about the world, and I attempted to contrast this type of education from being trained to perform some one task or set of tasks well.

The classic set of liberal arts is: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy

Some of these disciplines are defined rather differently now than they were in the pre-modern world, and the modern world presents its own particular challenges to understanding, so I think it's worth thinking a little on how one might update this list. The following is rather unrigorous, but hopefully the exercise of thinking it through is illustrative even if the conclusions are far from the last word.

History and Literature
In the classic liberal arts, one would have read and memorized a lot of this during one's early education, and since grammar and rhetoric were taught in the context of examples, one would also have studied much of the best historical, literary, legal and political writing of the age as part of learning grammar and rhetoric. Further, I'd argue that context in the doing and writings of people in other times and places is essential to help free one from some of the modern world's assumptions about how the world works.

Writing and Rhetoric
Not only is the ability to write and speak clearly and persuasively essential to communicating to others one's own ideas, but the process of writing or speaking in an organized and persuasive fashion can help one refine and improve one's thinking. Further, understanding persuasive and reasoned discourse can serve to help one see through the ruses of those who misuse those arts.

The ability to use logic remains as essential as in the ancient world, and the ability of think about ethical and metaphysical issues in some manner other than "feelings" is equally so.

I found my background in studying Greek and Latin surprisingly useful in mastering skills such as programming. While I certainly don't think that one must study the ancient languages, it seems like the process of learning how to express or understand thoughts conveyed in a language other than one's own allows to learn things about how thought relates to language that it's hard to learn any other way. In that regard, I feel like one of the major gaps in my education is that I never learned to speak a foreign language fluently (Greek and Latin being read rather than spoken languages, at least the way I learned them.)

This is an area where I wish I'd learned more when I was in school, though I've been able to make up some ground since. I went through calculus in high school, but I was self-teaching using the Saxon textbooks, and I never took any college level math classes, which I regret. I think one key element is that one should get far enough in math and geometry to deal with proofs and see the way in which logic and mathematics meet up: that there are abstract concepts which are absolutely provable which we can then turn around and see reflected in how the world works. Also, given the extent to which we live in a mass society in which statistics and probabilities are constantly discussed, I think freedom in the modern world almost requires a certain basic understanding of statistics and probability. Otherwise, one finds oneself at the mercy of those who use (or misuse) these arts.

Science (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.)
Again, this is an area discussed so commonly (and receiving so much reverence) in modern society that some understanding is, I think, essential to the free life. Especially essential, I think, for those who are acquiring only a passing familiarity with science would be a conceptional and process understanding: how he scientific method works, what it's capable of determining, etc. Also, enough of the basics of physics, chemistry and biology to see how it ties in with the mathematics and geometry one has learned.

The more abstract elements of Computer Science and Engineering
Again, for the non-specialist, I think the key elements here would be on concepts that have more general conceptual application and that intersect with other fields. Thus, for instance, understanding how physics and geometry drive machine and architectural design elements. Some understanding of the problem solving methodology and process development aspects of engineering. The basic grammatical concepts of computer programming would also seem key (algorithms, loops, etc.) I'm tempted to say that some understanding of database concepts (normalized data, relating tables through keys, etc.) is also of general application, but I kind of suspect that this is over-reaching.

Political Science, Economics, Anthropology
Here I hesitate a bit, because it can get kind of sketchy pretty quickly how much can actually be known from the social sciences. However, there are definitely concepts and approaches to analysis that should be learned here.

What to make of these?

I think it could be useful to take a whole post to look at how the concept of a liberal arts education relates to real higher education as we find it these days, rather than taking this post to absurd length to try to address that as well. But let me at least touch on a couple things.

The scope here is necessarily very wide. The concept, after all, is of a general and adaptable education. I think the breadth is important. Fr instance, looking back at my own education I do regret that I took no college level math, science, computer science or economics. I've picked up amounts of these since, but I feel like I had a lopsided emphasis in my own education.

At the same time, different people have different interests and abilities, and so it seems clear that different people would put far more emphasis on certain areas of the liberal arts than others. This seems fine and indeed very good. I don't want to try to make a case against specialization in study (I think there's a particular value to having a field of specialization and knowing one subject area quite well) but in keeping with the idea of a liberal education it seems to me there has to be some breadth as well as depth.

Seven Quick Takes


Yes, the sheet music for John Cage's 4' 3". I'd like to teach this one to the kids, but I'm wondering whether I should buy five copies, or have them share one.


Wikipedia on versions of the 4' 33" score:

Several versions of the score exist: The original Woodstock manuscript (August 1952): conventional notation, dedicated to David Tudor. This manuscript is currently lost. Tudor's attempt at re-creating the original score is reproduced in Fetterman 1996, 74.

The Kremen manuscript (1953): graphic, space-time notation, dedicated to Irwin Kremen. The movements of the piece are rendered as space between long vertical lines; a tempo indication is provided (60), and at the end of each movement the time is indicated in minutes and seconds. Edition Peters No. 6777a.

The so-called First Tacet Edition: a typewritten score, lists the three movements using Roman numbers, with the word "TACET" underneath each. A note by Cage describes the first performance and mentions that "the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time." Edition Peters No. 6777 (out of print).

The so-called Second Tacet Edition: same as the First, except that it is printed in Cage's calligraphy, and the explanatory note mentions the Kremen manuscript. Edition Peters No. 6777 (i.e., it carries the same catalogue number as the first Tacet Edition)

Additionally, a facsimile, reduced in size, of the Kremen manuscript, appeared in July 1967 in Source 1, no. 2:46–54; the First Tacet Edition is described in Nyman 1974, 3, but it is not reproduced in that book.

There is some discrepancy between the lengths of individual movements specified in different versions of the score. The Woodstock printed program specifies the lengths 30″, 2′23″ and 1′40″, as does the Kremen manuscript, and presumably the original manuscript had the same indications. However, in the First Tacet Edition Cage writes that at the premiere the timings were 33″, 2′40″ and 1′20″. In the Second Tacet Edition he adds that after the premier a copy has been made for Irwin Kremen, in which the timelengths of the movements were 30″, 2′23″ and 1′40″. The causes of this discrepancy are not currently understood, the original manuscript being still lost.

A friend has assured me that this is really the best version of 4' 3".


I'm a tea drinker, and my brand is Twinings. I just bought a box of their Prince of Wales Tea, which is urbane and charming and not too strong. And then today I read the blurb on the side of the box: This exquisite tea was originally blended by Twinings for HRH The Prince of Wales in 1921, who later became King Edward VIII.

Great. I've been sipping Abdicator's Brew.


The girls have been paging through The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook: Favorite Songs from the Little House Books. Our favorite song is Green Grows the Laurel, a simple, haunting melody. However, the arrangement must be very old. I can't find anyone singing the same tune under that name. The closest I've come is this lovely performance by Sandy Denny:


There is no Take 6.


There is nothing more soothing, when one has a headache, than being kissed on the forehead.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Other Side of Cultural Despair

For no other reason than that we've been blogging for a number of years, we've landed up on some publicity mailing lists and find our inbox clogged with press releases for this or that boring thing we don't care about. Usually these get deleted without a second glance, but I was so amused by this one that I had to share it with you. We tend to see a lot of the conservative hand-wringing over what the Terrible Left has done to the culture, but here's a glimpse through the looking-glass at the other side of despair over the culture wars.

 Note: I haven't read the article in question

Playboy contributor Nancy L. Cohen predicts a losing battle for your sexual rights in a Romney White House

From the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and the Great Plains, in the past year heartland Republicans pushed nearly a thousand laws to restrict access to contraception and abortion. The House spent one out of every seven days focused on America’s lady parts, where Senator Rand Paul tried to attach a “life begins at conception” rider to the National Flood Insurance Program while Florida was bailing out from Tropical Storm Debby. Welcome to the war on your sex life. In the November issue of Playboy, author and activist Nancy L. Cohen reveals what you can expect should Romney win the November Presidential election.

When Willard Mitt Romney entered high school in 1961, birth control was illegal in some states, abortion was illegal except in rare cases, and young women had to lie to get the pill. Is America going back to those days? That depends on what happens in November.

Cohen reports the evidence from Romney’s years as governor—a subject he religiously avoids talking about—proves him to be anything but moderate. Governor Romney reneged on just about every campaign promise he had made to women and gays about sexual rights, personal freedom and privacy. Romney wouldn’t even protect a rape victim from having to bear the child of her rapist; he vetoed a bill requiring hospitals to give emergency contraception to rape victims.

Romney 2016? Here’s Cohen’s prediction: As Americans ready themselves for another presidential election and watch the Rio Olympics, most of the old porn-friendly computers have been sent off to the scrap heap of history. In half the nation abortion is illegal and birth control is rare. The average age of marriage has plummeted to 20. The notion of casual sex is a fantasy, the sexual revolution history. The sexual counter-revolutionaries have won.

Welcome to the future of your sex life. Welcome back to 1950.

Grab your smelling salts; the repression is getting positively Victorian!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Some Quick Post Debate Thoughts

President Obama's performance in the first debate was, unarguably, pretty lethargic, and he took a big hit in the polls shortly afterward. The general wisdom drawn from this, especially on the democratic side of the aisle, seemed to be that what was really needed in the debates was, thus, more aggression. Biden delivered this in his own unique way in the Veep debate, to such an extent that one wondered at times whether he would have to be removed from the stage in a straight jacket, still alternating between wild cackling and angry shouting, but at last he ran out of gas and calmed down in the last 20 minutes. Obama has a sense of personal dignity that Biden lacks, and so although he certainly came to the debate in a pugilistic frame of mind, he didn't make himself silly in the way that Biden did. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the debate was supposed to feature the candidates answering questions directly from voters, it instead was most notable for intense bouts of the candidates rhetorically hammering each other.
The common wisdom is that this kind of thing turns undecided voters off. I saw some anecdotal evidence of this in the reactions of my less partisan friends on Facebook, one of whom posted in indignation:
Dear Gov Romney and Pres Obama,
Every time you keep talking when you are reminded that a normal citizen has a question for you, you reinforce that you think what you have to say is more important than the concerns of the people of your country. You both lost my vote tonight.
This aside, though, I think the focus on rhetorical dominance and aggression has probably been misplaced. Was it really that Obama's performance in the first debate was so sluggish that cost him so much in the polls? I don't think most Americans care whether the president is a skilled debater or not.

I think a lot of it is that in the first debate it became clear (and this second debate didn't change that) that Obama doesn't really have a second term agenda other than "ROMNEY IS SCARY!!" and "don't change horses in mid stream", while Romney laid out an apparently simple plan for improving the economy. (In some places I think it goes from simple to simplistic, but leave that aside for now.)

If that's correct, anything that gets the real Romney up on stage rather than the Obama Campaign straw man version potentially helps Romney with that small group of voters who don't already have a strong preference, and the "be more aggressive and call him a liar" advice that Obama has taken so much to heart really kind of misses the point. The problem for the President is that he's mostly run against a phantom Romney of his own creation, and due to the disappointments of his first term, he's done this almost entirely in place of actually running on a clear agenda. Not only is this somewhat disappointing for voters, but it is in utterly stark contrast with Obama's first campaign, which was definitely long on "vision" and promised all sorts of sweeping changes that would make America better.

If it's the "vision thing" which is really at issue, and not debating vigor, I don't think we'll see this more aggressive performance by Obama helping him much in the polls.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tuesday Afternoon Read-Aloud

For commenter Jenny: here's how most reading aloud here really sounds. This is half of Fin M'Coul by Tomie dePaola, and in keeping with the Irish theme, baby played the part of the wailing banshee.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The View from the Porch

I stepped out onto the back porch this afternoon to toss the trash in the big can, caught some movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up to see two men in the playhouse at the bottom of the yard.

I think they were as startled as I was. I called hello, and one of them peered over the roof from the back.  We stared at each other for a moment.

On the one hand, they didn't look very old -- perhaps under 20. And the one I could see clearly looked sheepish and surprised. On the other hand, there is absolutely no reason that anyone should be on my property, in the playhouse, at 2:00 PM or at any time. In the playhouse.

"You'll need to leave right now," I said clearly, "or I'll call the police."

"Just let us get our stuff," the one guy mumbled. The other guy climbed out the window at the side of the playhouse, hauling a big backpack. Why the window, when he could have walked out the door with less trouble? They weren't moving fast enough to suit me, so I stood on the back steps and watched as they shuffled off into the green belt behind our house -- platted for an alley that was never paved -- and paused behind the garage. I went in the house and counted ten, and they still lingered behind the garage. The kids were bouncing up and down under my elbows, asking, "What is it, Mom? Who are those guys? What were they doing?" I got the phone and dialed 911.

I've only called 911 once before, and that was during the boiler fire and I don't remember much about it except that we all had to leave our house in pajamas on a freezing November morning. Here's what happens. The dispatcher asks for your address, then the number of the phone from which you've called, and then what your emergency is. I explained -- maybe it wasn't an emergency, but I wanted to be sure. The guys had by this time wandered up toward the backyard of the house behind us, and it was probably nothing, but I was going to report it anyway.

I remember at the time of the fire that I heard the sirens while I was still on the phone with the dispatcher. This time there wasn't such a rush -- the officer arrived five minutes later, so we had time to straighten the entryway ("Julia! Put this Encyclopedia of Guns in the library, and shut the door!"). She arrived, checked out the playhouse and behind the garage, and came up to the back porch where the peanut gallery was hanging, agog, over the bottom half of the dutch door.

"I didn't see anything," she said, "but anyone could get on the roof of your garage from back there." This is true, but I can't do anything about that.

She surveyed the masses with mild surprise and said, "I hope these aren't all yours."

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "We're homeschoolers, and home all day, which is why I don't like to see men in my backyard."

She told me to call immediately if I saw them again, and headed off. Of course I didn't see them again. Why should I? Why would anyone come back to the spot where they were busted? But I kept watching. all afternoon. I lurked by the kitchen windows. I obsessively checked my email and Facebook just to feel that other people, people I knew, were in some sense around me. I called Darwin, but he wasn't available. By the time I found myself staring out the back door, twisting and untwisting my scarf, I had to shake myself. It's not as if anything happened. I never felt threatened at any time. I wasn't scared. But the backyard, which had always felt so sheltered and innocuous, was suddenly territory. From the windows I patrolled the playhouse (why would anyone want to be in our playhouse?), the garage, the opening in the fence that leads to the greenbelt. I was acutely aware that the garage -- never shut because the doors are so big and unwieldy -- had tools in it, and that the van is always unlocked. I checked all five exterior doors downstairs and made sure that they were all secure.

For the rest of the afternoon, the young man, who has a four-year-old's sense of humor, thought it funny to bellow that there was a man in the back yard. And every time he said it, I had to check. Because the view from the porch isn't so idyllic today.

Newsflash: Being a Subject Different From Subjecting

It is, perhaps, one of the perennial temptations of the apologist to get too clever by half, to allow the phrase to defeat the argument. A particularly dangerous tactic in this regard is the tactic of reversal, in which the apologist takes the accusation leveled at him and replies, "Why yes I do. And that's a good thing!" Marc Barnes of the Patheos blog Bad Catholic finds himself floundering in this rhetorical tar pit in a recent post in which he attempt to fend off the accusation that traditional morality seeks to "enslave" women, subjugate them, make war on them, etc. He writes:
The liturgical chants and battle-cries accompanying and bemoaning the war on women are true in an erotic context.

The man who loves does wish to “control a woman’s body,” with an ardor rivaled only by his desire for the beloved to control his own. For what on earth is the sexual act, if not an attempt to control the body of the beloved? This is obvious in the physical sense, as the lover tries to “control” the other’s body into experiencing ecstasy, but it is also true when considering the nature of sex itself: If sex is the ultimate physical expression of erotic love, and love is desiring the good of the beloved, than sex — in its fullest — is the physical attempt to bring the beloved to his or her ultimate good, and thus an obvious attempt to control.

Similarly, the lover does desire a “slavery for women,” and for one woman in particular, a desire overwhelmed only by his desire to be enslaved by her.
Now, maybe I'm just a stodgy old married guy, but I don't actually think that slavery is a very good analogy for love. But let's leave that aside for a moment and accept the standard poetic conceit. Here's the problem: There's a big difference between offering yourself as a slave to someone and wanting them to do the same to you, and wanting to enslave someone. It's the difference between gift and domination. A relationship could work well in which each person wishes to serve the other's every desire: in which, according to the chosen metaphor, each person is a slave to the other. But that only works if they both want to be the slave. If, in any relationship, one or both members want to be the master while the other is the slave, you have a recipe for strife and unhappiness in abundance, not to mention a fair amount of cruelty.

This, really, is the problem with the metaphor. It's all very well for the poet to say, "I want to be your slave," but if his beloved takes him up on the offer by behaving like a slave owner, the poet is going to be dreadfully unhappy. (Which, come to that, brings us to another whole genre of often tiresome poetry.) Even if we accept the metaphor of wanting to be a slave to the beloved, a loving relationship is one in which each wants to be a slave to the other, but neither wants to enslave the other. Being a slave is not the same as enslaving, it's the opposite.

The same problem comes with the attempt to turn "control a woman's body" into a positive. Sex in which both man and woman strive to control each other's bodies is not going to work out well. In seeking to "control" one seeks to make the other do what one wants. If we assume that the lover wants his beloved to get what she wants (say, sexual release) one might assume this would work out to the same thing. But in actual interactions between people "I want to make you do what you want" is very different from "I want to give you what you want".

The inversion and capture method of apologetics is appealing in its cleverness, but the fact is that there are a lot of expressions that you really won't want to capture and make your own, indeed that you can't make your own without expressing your beliefs as something rather distasteful. In this case, terms like "control a woman's body", "enslave women" and "war on women" are not terms that Christians should seek to adopt and turn to positive meaning. It doesn't come off as some clever turn of phrase that makes one appreciate Christian love and a Christian understanding of sexuality in a new light. It just comes off as too clever by half and makes Christian morality sound vaguely nasty.

Interior Castle for the Young

In honor of the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, we read the first chapter of Interior Castle, in which Teresa uses an image of the soul that the girls found congenial: a castle made of a single diamond. Teresa is an engaging and easy writer, and this first section is a very accessible introduction for children to her thought.

* * *



  1. Plan of this book. 2. The Interior Castle. 3. Our curable self ignorance. 4. God dwells in the centre of the soul. 5. Why all souls do not receive certain favours. 6. Reasons for speaking of these favours. 7. The entrance of the Castle. 8. Entering into oneself. 9. Prayer. 10. Those who dwell in the first mansion. 11. Entering. 12. Difficulties of the subject.

 1. WHILE I was begging our Lord to-day to speak for me, since I knew not what to say nor how to commence this work which obedience has laid upon me, an idea occurred to me which I will explain, and which will serve as a foundation for that I am about to write.

2. I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions.If we reflect, sisters, we shall see that the soul of the just man is but a paradise, in which, God tells us, He takes His delight. What, do you imagine, must that dwelling be in which a King so mighty, so wise, and so pure, containing in Himself all good, can delight to rest? Nothing can be compared to the great beauty and capabilities of a soul; however keen our intellects may be, they are as unable to comprehend them as to comprehend God, for, as He has told us, He created us in His own image and likeness.

 3. As this is so, we need not tire ourselves by trying to realize all the beauty of this castle, although, being His creature, there is all the difference between the soul and God that there is between the creature and the Creator; the fact that it is made in God's image teaches us how great are its dignity and loveliness. It is no small misfortune and disgrace that, through our own fault, we neither understand our nature nor our origin. Would it not be gross ignorance, my daughters, if, when a man was questioned about his name, or country, or parents, he could not answer? Stupid as this would be, it is unspeakably more foolish to care to learn nothing of our nature except that we possess bodies, and only to realize vaguely that we have souls, because people say so and it is a doctrine of faith. Rarely do we reflect upon what gifts our souls may possess, Who dwells within them, or how extremely precious they are. Therefore we do little to preserve their beauty; all our care is concentrated on our bodies, which are but the coarse setting of the diamond, or the outer walls of the castle.

 4. Let us imagine, as I said, that there are many rooms in this castle, of which some are above, some below, others at the side; in the centre, in the very midst of them all, is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse. Think over this comparison very carefully; God grant it may enlighten you about the different kinds of graces He is pleased to bestow upon the soul. No one can know all about them, much less a person so ignorant as I am. The knowledge that such things are possible will console you greatly should our Lord ever grant you any of these favours; people themselves deprived of them can then at least praise Him for His great goodness in bestowing them on others. The thought of heaven and the happiness of the saints does us no harm, but cheers and urges us to win this joy for ourselves, nor will it injure us to know that during this exile God can communicate Himself to us loathsome worms; it will rather make us love Him for such immense goodness and infinite mercy.

 5. I feel sure that vexation at thinking that during our life on earth God can bestow these graces on the souls of others shows a want of humility and charity for one's neighbour, for why should we not feel glad at a brother's receiving divine favours which do not deprive us of our own share? Should we not rather rejoice at His Majesty's thus manifesting His greatness wherever He chooses? Sometimes our Lord acts thus solely for the sake of showing His power, as He declared when the Apostles questioned whether the blind man whom He cured had been suffering for his own or his parents' sins. God does not bestow these favours on certain souls because they are more holy than others who do not receive them, but to manifest His greatness, as in the case of St. Paul and St. Mary Magdalen, and that we may glorify Him in His creatures.

 6. People may say such things appear impossible and it is best not to scandalize the weak in faith by speaking about them. But it is better that the latter should disbelieve us, than that we should desist from enlightening souls which receive these graces, that they may rejoice and may endeavour to love God better for His favours, seeing He is so mighty and so great. There is no danger here of shocking those for whom I write by treating of such matters, for they know and believe that God gives even greater proofs of His love. I am certain that if any one of you doubts the truth of this, God will never allow her to learn it by experience, for He desires that no limits should be set to His work: therefore, never discredit them because you are not thus led yourselves.

 7. Now let us return to our beautiful and charming castle and discover how to enter it. This appears incongruous: if this castle is the soul, clearly no one can have to enter it, for it is the person himself: one might as well tell some one to go into a room he is already in! There are, however, very different ways of being in this castle; many souls live in the courtyard of the building where the sentinels stand, neither caring to enter farther, nor to know who dwells in that most delightful place, what is in it and what rooms it contains.

 8. Certain books on prayer that you have read advise the soul to enter into itself, and this is what I mean. I was recently told by a great theologian that souls without prayer are like bodies, palsied and lame, having hands and feet they cannot use. Just so, there are souls so infirm and accustomed to think of nothing but earthly matters, that there seems no cure for them. It appears impossible for them to retire into their own hearts; accustomed as they are to be with the reptiles and other creatures which live outside the castle, they have come at last to imitate their habits. Though these souls are by their nature so richly endowed, capable of communion even with God Himself, yet their case seems hopeless. Unless they endeavour to understand and remedy their most miserable plight, their minds will become, as it were, bereft of movement, just as Lot's wife became a pillar of salt for looking backwards in disobedience to God's command.

 9. As far as I can understand, the gate by which to enter this castle is prayer and meditation. I do not allude more to mental than to vocal prayer, for if it is prayer at all, the mind must take part in it. If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer. Sometimes, indeed, one may pray devoutly without making all these considerations through having practised them at other times. The custom of speaking to God Almighty as freely as with a slave--caring nothing whether the words are suitable or not, but simply saying the first thing that comes to mind from being learnt by rote by frequent repetition--cannot be called prayer: God grant that no Christian may address Him in this manner. I trust His Majesty will prevent any of you, sisters, from doing so. Our habit in this Order of conversing about spiritual matters is a good preservative against such evil ways.

 10. Let us speak no more of these crippled souls, who are in a most miserable and dangerous state, unless our Lord bid them rise, as He did the palsied man who had waited more than thirty years at the pool of Bethsaida. We will now think of the others who at last enter the precincts of the castle; they are still very worldly, yet have some desire to do right, and at times, though rarely, commend themselves to God's care. They think about their souls every now and then; although very busy, they pray a few times a month, with minds generally filled with a thousand other matters, for where their treasure is, there is their heart also. Still, occasionally they cast aside these cares; it is a great boon for them to realize to some extent the state of their souls, and to see that they will never reach the gate by the road they are following.

 11. At length they enter the first rooms in the basement of the castle, accompanied by numerous reptiles which disturb their peace, and prevent their seeing the beauty of the building; still, it is a great gain that these persons should have found their way in at all.

 12. You may think, my daughters, that all this does not concern you, because, by God's grace, you are farther advanced; still, you must be patient with me, for I can explain myself on some spiritual matters concerning prayer in no other way. May our Lord enable me to speak to the point; the subject is most difficult to understand without personal experience of such graces. Any one who has received them will know how impossible it is to avoid touching on subjects which, by the mercy of God, will never apply to us.

Find the rest here.

They Don't Make Them Like That Anymore

Yesterday was the hundredth anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt (running for another stint as president against his own Republican Party under the Bull Moose Party banner) was shot while on the campaign trail yet refused to seek medical attention until after he had delivered his 90 minute speech.
On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was giving a speech in Milwaukee. A deranged saloonkeeper, John Schrank, shot him in the chest. Roosevelt refused to cancel a scheduled speech. His opening is perhaps one of the most memorable for any speech:

Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.

Only after he completed his speech, he spoke for 90 minutes with blood running down his shirt, did he consent to go to a hospital. The bullet could not be removed from his chest and he carried it in him for the rest of his life. He was off the campaign trail for a scant one week, a week in which his opponents, sportsmanlike, also left the campaign trail out of respect for him. What a man! No matter one’s political views, and Roosevelt held a diverse group of views certain to both offend and inspire virtually all portions of the American political spectrum today, it is hard not to admire him. As one of his enemies once said about him, “A man would have to hate him a lot, not to like him a little!”
At the link above Donald McClarey provides more details on the indomitable TR.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Night Read-Aloud

For commenter Laura: here I am reading a chapter from our current book, Little Women. It doesn't have lots of variation, but it does have the virtue of being quite short.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I'm not watching the debate

...but somebody must be, so feel free to clue me if if I'm missing anything awesome.

Prudential Judgement

It seems, at the moment, like one of the best ways to start a fight among a bunch of serious Catholics is to start throwing around the term "prudential judgement". However, for such a frequently used term, the concept is not often defined, and given all the contention around it, I think it would be helpful to try to write a fairly brief post defining it and examining why it seems to be the center of so much controversy.

Prudential judgement is the application of the virtue of Prudence to some given situation in making a judgement as to the virtuous course of action. The Catechism defines Prudence as follows:
1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; "the prudent man looks where he is going." "Keep sane and sober for your prayers." Prudence is "right reason in action," writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid. [emphasis added]
So a prudential judgement is the application of moral principles to a particular case in order to achieve good and avoid evil. Thus, obviously, saying something is a matter of prudential judgement does not mean that "there is no right answer". The process of making a prudential judgement is one of judging which is the virtuous action to take in a given circumstance. Prudential judgments are definitionally moral questions. "Is vanilla or chocolate ice cream more tasty?" is not a matter of prudential judgement, it's a matter of personal taste.

Often "matters of prudential judgement" are contrasted with "intrinsic evils", especially in matters of political discourse. This leads to a lot of angst in some quarters. What is the difference?

An action which is intrinsically evil is something which is always and everywhere wrong. To use one of the standard examples: Abortion is an intrinsic evil in that the act of abortion can never be a just action. The taking of human life is not an intrinsic evil because it is an action which is unjust in some circumstances (murder) but just in others (self defense, just war, times and places when the common good requires the use of capital punishment). (My goal is to be short here, so I'm not going to enter into discussion of double effect.) As this example shows, just because something is not intrinsically evil doesn't mean that it isn't worthy of very, very serious moral reflection. Clearly, one can't say, "Killing another human being is not intrinsically evil, so reasonable people can feel free to differ on it." The prudential judgement of "does this situation justify the taking of human life" is clearly a moral question of the very highest magnitude.

Why then this distinction between "intrinsic evils" and "prudential judgments" in political discussion among Catholics? I think reason is that some moral principles seem to have political applications so obvious that there can be little room for variance in judgement. For instance, abortion is often cited as an example of an intrinsic evil on which Catholics may not vary in their opinion in politics. It is a belief held by much of the political left in this country that there is a "right to choice" in regards to abortion, in other words that a woman has a fundamental human right (which the state must respect and protect) to choose to have an abortion if she so chooses. From a Catholic moral point of view, one may not have a right to do something which is evil. I cannot have a "right to choose to torture" or a "right to choose to murder". As such, I think it's legitimate to say that a Catholic may not hold that a person has a right to procure an abortion.

However, as we get to less direct applications of moral principle to practical situations, there comes to be more room for disagreement. Perhaps a good way to look at this would be to sidestep for a moment our contemporary political issues and look at one of Thomas Aquinas' more controversial prudential judgments: He held that although fornication was always wrong, and prostitution was necessarily an act of fornication (and thus acts of prostitution are always wrong), it was not necessarily prudent for the state to try to ban and stamp out the practice of prostitution, because trying to enforce such a ban would cause greater evils than not doing so.

I don't agree with Aquinas on this one, at least in regards our own time and place, but since the example seems outrageous right now I think it underscores two important points: First, it's possible to have differing prudential judgments from serious Catholics even on seemingly very black-and-white moral issues. Second, when faithful Catholics find themselves strongly disagreeing on a matter of prudential judgement, the key difference is over the practicalities of the application of moral principle, not the moral principle. So, if I found myself in a debate with Aquinas about whether to outlaw prostitution, my arguments would necessarily need to address his concerns as to the potential ill effects of enforcing a ban on prostitution and how those ill effects should be measured against the evil effects of not banning it. It would not make sense for me to keep insisting to him, "But don't you know that prostitution is wrong?" (One of the difficulties in these kinds of debates is that often the participants harbor the suspicion, perhaps with justification, that the person on the other side doesn't really think that the evil under discussion is all that wrong. I have no way to deal with that here, though, so I'm going to leave it aside.)

The more complicated the practical application, and the more pieces of knowledge and assumption other than the moral law at stake that analyzing the situation depends on, the more we will expect to see variance among faithful Catholics on an issue of prudential judgement. For instance, many on the left objected to the following comments from Archbishop Chaput in a recent interview:
Question: "What about the wing of the church that says a party that supports the Ryan budget also ought to cause concern?"
Abp. Chaput: "Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic...."
While many accused Chaput of suggesting that because something is open to prudential judgement, that it thus isn't a moral issue, what Chaput is doing here shows, I think, a very clear appreciation of the difference between moral principles and the prudent application to particular situations. First, he very clearly states the principle and the absolute necessity of living it out to the best of our ability: "Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it." He then makes it clear that faithful Catholics may, through the exercise of prudence and their understanding of the situation, come to different conclusions as how to best follow this moral principle. In so doing, he makes it very clear that although our understanding of what is best to be done may vary widely, we cannot shrug this off as "just a matter of prudential judgement" because our salvation rests on our ability to honestly follow this principle to the best of our ability.

Some may feel that this still leaves too much room for people going astray. After all, in some quarter "conscience" has been used as a sort of get-out-of-sin-free card over the last fifty years, with people insisting that they can ignore Church teaching on certain issues so long as they follow their own consciences, thus ignoring the moral imperative to rightly form our consciences.

There is legitimacy to this concern. Especially when it comes to debating issues such as federal budgets and economic policy, citizens are being asked to form opinions on subjects which are incredibly complex and which even experts in the field often do not agree on. To take just one example, when asked about Paul Ryan's budget in the same interview, Abp. Chaput replied:
"The Ryan budget isn’t the budget I would write. I think he’s trying to deal with the same issue in the government I’m dealing with here locally, which is spending more than we bring in. I admire the courage of anyone who’s actually trying to solve the problems rather than paper over them. I think a vigorous debate about the issues, rather than the personalities, is the way through this problem. It’s immoral for us to continue to spend money we don’t have."
You'd think that the idea that one should not continue to spend more than one makes (thus running up debt) would be fairly non-controversial. But in fact, you'll find economists subscribing to "modern money theory" who insist that government debt is simply not a problem and that we should never pay off the debt and never run a budget surplus (because, in their theory, this would cause a recession.) More in the economic mainstream, you'll find varying opinion among economists as to whether government deficit spending during a recession can "jumpstart" the economy by getting money flowing, or whether increasing debt simply makes the situation worse, and a whole range of gradations in between. Certainly, it behooves the archbishop, if he's going to form a prudent opinion on budgetary policy, to read a bit about these various schools of thought, but given the variance of opinion even among experts in the field, I think it's understandable that well meaning Catholics with the same moral principles will nonetheless come to very different policy preferences when they attempt to apply prudent judgement to the circumstances as they understand them.

One of the difficulties here is: For many of those deeply attached to particular points of view, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine that reasonable people might differ. This is exacerbated when people are arguing about topics on which their understanding is not necessarily comprehensive in the first place. And so often we find people questioning motives rather than realizing how different other people's beliefs about how the world works can be. (e.g. "If Paul Ryan really cared about balancing the budget, he wouldn't be proposing tax cuts." and "If Obama really wanted to grow jobs, he wouldn't be threatening to raise taxes.")

Many among our bishops, Chaput and Dolan among them, seem to recognize this reality: that well meaning Catholics will necessarily differ on questions such as how the economy works or what will be the result of various policies, and that we would necessarily see an incredibly wide range of different ideas of what it means to concretely apply the moral necessity to "help the poor" in the political arena. Thus, when they acknowledge that there will be disagreement among the faithful on those issues that are subject to prudential judgement, they acknowledge that even among well formed and prudent people, opinion will vary on what is best to do. This doesn't mean that what decisions we make don't matter. It just means that it is very difficult to reach comprehensive agreement on what our situation is, how the incredibly complex systems of our economy and our culture work, and what actions we should take in order to achieve the common good. Indeed, we should expect that Catholics will, in good faith, passionately disagree on many of these "prudential judgement" issues.

On Reading Aloud

Leah Libresco recently linked to a series in the Atlantic about new ideas for teaching writing, and noted in particular this post about one low-performing school examining students' poor writing skills and coming to the conclusion that students couldn't write because they could not understand fairly basic grammatical concepts such as conjunctions:

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”

On reading this, I wondered, "What are these students hearing at home, and have they ever encountered this kind of language from people other than teachers (if even from them)?"

Over dinner, I tried the "although" experiment with my three older ones, using prompts from our current read-aloud, Little Women.

Eleanor, 10: Although Amy loved to draw, she didn't know how to sculpt.

Julia, 9: Although Jo liked Teddy, she didn't want to marry him. Although Meg loved her children, her children were sometimes bad.

Isabel, 6, in a silly mood: Although Beth was a baby, she never cried in her life.

Bonus, from Jack, 4: Although Teddy didn't want to marry Beth, he kissed her on the lips.

Everyone: JACK!

It seems to me that regardless of what is being taught in school, young children will absorb the language they hear at home. Darwin and I do tend to speak in grammatically accurate and complex sentences, but we also have a natural human tendency to simplify our speech for everyday use. That is why reading aloud has pride of place in our homeschooling paradigm: besides being a fine method of packing lots of literature into little heads, it's a wonderful format for presenting more formal structures of speech and complex arrangements of ideas in an enjoyable and memorable way. I've also found that having the children recount the plots of novels we've read over extended periods aids in retention and comprehension. Reading aloud also introduces children to a richer world of thought than their limited reading comprehension allows them to access on their own, as well as preparing them to read these books one day.

No small part of successful reading aloud, however, is having a good reader to interpret the works, to use inflection and emphasis to set off grammatical clauses, and to make clear what can be obscure on the page. Most people are capable of reading aloud at the level of speaking what is written, but anyone who has listened to a trained and experienced reader knows the wealth of nuance and detail they can bring to a work, whereas anyone who's ever had to listen to poor reading knows that even the finest words can be made tedious by someone who either doesn't understand what they're reading or is unable to present those words well.

Reading aloud is something particularly dear to my heart, not only because I like reading in general and because it's essential to our homeschooling, but because it is how I use, every day, my liberal arts studies and my degree.

I've followed the recent chat about the economic value of a college education, and of studying the liberal arts, with mild curiosity but little desire to engage in the discussion. This is in part because it's not a topic on which I have much angst. My degree, as long-term readers will know, in in theater -- English with a drama concentration, to be precise, since Drama did not become a major proper until after my time at Steubenville. Never at any time, in my short theatrical career, did I make more than minimum wage on any show I teched. Speaking at a personal financial level, my life choices make it unlike that I will ever make enough money using the skills I gained through my drama studies to recoup my investment. However, by the most utilitarian calculations, studying the liberal arts at college was an economic boost for me because it placed me in Darwin's path and helped make me attractive to him, and he makes more than twice what I would likely make on my own, even had I been working these past ten years. Yes, I incurred debt -- I had some aid, but my parents could afford to pay scarcely any of my tuition or expenses -- but we've always been able to make the payments, and we're on track to pay it off next year. So, college was a path to my own economic success, even though I'm outside the workforce.

Some people have objected that really, education is wasted on 18- and 19-year-olds because they simply don't have the commitment to study or the drive to better themselves that comes with age. I don't agree. I was no great shakes at acting when I was in college, despite studying it rather intensively. Although I could easily pick up the history of theater and the theory and structure of directing, I didn't have at that time the physical confidence to be comfortable on stage, and I spent a lot of time wondering what on earth my professor meant when he enthused about "changing the other" or "vulnerability". But I've had eleven years since graduating to internalize what I learned and to apply each realization ("Oh, now I get it!") to honing my own craft, which happens to be educating my children through reading aloud.

And with years of practice, I am a good reader. I love acting out different roles, coming up with unique voices for the characters, and using tactics and intentions to convey motivation and subtext (and how much easier is reading a book, which often lets you on what the characters are thinking and doing, than a script in which you have to interpret everything for yourself!). I love interpreting the grammatical structure of convoluted sentences. I love the technical challenge of making narration flow, of following the cadence of the author's voice, of reading clearly, smoothly, and distinctly without being ponderous or treacly. I love using my education to pick up on historical, cultural, religious, philosophic, and scientific references in what I'm reading, and then explaining those to the children. And what a wealth there is to be discovered in Dickens, Alcott, Augustine, Homer, St. Therese, and Shakespeare even before one is old enough to read them to oneself!

I love listening to other people's reading, analyzing what is good in their style to apply to my own, and taking their flaws as reminders of what I still need to work on in my own reading. I love watching my children absorbed in a story and to know that they enjoy and understand what they hear. I love to hear them recount, sometimes word for word, what I've read. Most of all, I love to hear them reading aloud clearly and comfortably because they're following my model.

And that's what I'm doing with my economically impractical, financially unfeasible college education: reading aloud to my children.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Liberal Arts: The Skills of the Free Man

I want to see if I can clarify and expand a bit my thinking on the Liberal Arts, broadly defined, and their place in education, particularly post-secondary education.

First off, I think some discussion of terminology is in order. When people talk about "liberal arts majors" in modern colleges, they generally seem to mean people who major in English, History, Philosophy, Art, Religious Studies, etc. Thus, in disputes about education, you'll sometimes hear someone say something along the lines of "You want a liberal arts education? Go to the library if you want to read the classics!" Or some particularly easy general math or science course will be dismissed as "for liberal arts majors" when talked about by students actually majoring in Mathematics or in one of the sciences. However, even in current formal usage, "liberal arts" still designates a wider range of skills than this more colloquial usage. Miriam-Webster defines "Liberal Arts" thusly:
1. the medieval studies comprising the trivium and quadrivium

2. college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills
I rather like Google's definition for conciseness:
1. Academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences as distinct from professional and technical subjects
This range of disciplines reflects the original list of the Seven Liberal Arts which derives from the 5th Century Roman writer Martianus Capella: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy

To the modern eye, this seems like a wide and somewhat odd collection of skills, and I would not say that a modern liberal arts education should necessarily mirror the original Seven Liberal Arts in exact detail. However, I think there is a useful general point do be derived from them. The seven liberal arts represented the education of a generalist. It was an advanced education. In late antiquity someone getting a liberal arts education would have mastered both Latin and Greek, and gained the ability to write and speak fluently in a variety of genres: Political speeches, poetry, history, etc. The student would have mastered formal logic and the major philosophical schools of the time, including an understanding of science (natural philosophy), ethics, and metaphysics. The student was also expected to master mathematics and geometry at a fairly high level. If you've worked a bit of Euclid, this wasn't exactly "math for liberal arts majors", it's fairly hard core stuff. And the modern equivalent of Music and Astronomy as the Ancients dealt with them would arguably be the hard sciences.

What made these "liberal arts", the skills of a free man? Some of these related directly to the responsibilities of a citizen taking part in ancient civic life: rhetoric, for example, was key to the political campaigning and legal wrangling which was a common part of aristocratic life in antiquity. More broadly, however, these are general skills. Someone who has only a specialist's education in some given trade is thus limited to his chosen profession. He is, in some sense, educated to be an implement. An education in the liberal arts is suited to a free man because they provided a general foundation on which one can quickly develop a more practical expertise on any of a number of subjects. So the liberal arts are those skills suitable to a free man because they are adaptable, allowing him to turn to any of a number of subjects and have sufficient knowledge and adaptability to master them.

Further, the idea of a liberal arts education is based on an understanding of the human being as a rational creature. We have a human need to understand questions of "why" and "ought", not just "how". As such, it's suitable to the human person to develop the skills that allow us to reason about the human condition and about the problems we face in our lives and in society at large.

The liberal arts are skills that provide us with the ability to understand the things that surround us and reason about them. As such, some degree of liberal arts are (at least if we take seriously the idea that we all share a human dignity rather than being by nature either "servile" or "ruler" in type) necessary skills for all of us.

What that leaves open is the question of what relation (if any) the liberal arts bear modern education at various levels, and since I've already spent far too much time on this post, I'll try to begin addressing that in another post.