North Hall Society

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Democracy At Risk

Here is a post from one of my favorite political blogs, MSNBC's Hardblogger, the reason why I like it so much is it is one of the very few political blogs where the posters are both politically balanced and competent. With commentators like Pat Buchanan, Joe Scarborough, Ron Regan and Joe Trippi (just to name a few and not even considering the msNBC reporting staff) you would be hard pressed of find anywhere else that gathers as many diverse political opinions and this much practical political experience in the same place. The other day one of their reporters David Shuster posted an article entitled “Our democracy at risk?” which was on a topic that I was planning on writing about but Mr. Shuster article was much more elegant then anything I could throw together in my spare time so I thought I would just re-post his article for popular consumption.

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." ~Thomas Jefferson

I've been wondering lately what Thomas Jefferson would think about the millions and millions of people who are about to step into a voting booth... and instead of being "well-informed," they are "mis-informed."

I'm talking specifically about those voters who are convinced Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction when U.S. forces invaded.

Despite a recent and well-publicized report from the Bush administration's own chief weapon inspector that Iraq did not have WMD or WMD programs before the Iraqi war, a new poll suggests that 53 percent of "uncommitted voters" believe that Iraq did have such WMD or WMD programs. The University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm, had even more stunning numbers regarding "Bush voters." 72 percent of Bush voters said they believed Iraq had WMD or WMD programs when the U.S. invaded. (47 percent of the Bush voters believe Iraq had actual weapons of mass destruction, and 25 percent
believe Iraq had WMD programs.)

A few weeks ago, Charles Duelfer, the Bush administration's own Iraqi weapon's inspector, wrote a report concluding that Saddam Hussein's regime (1) destroyed its chemical and biological weapons after the first gulf war 13 years ago, (2) ended the nuclear program 13 years ago and never restarted it, and (3) abandoned biological weapons research 8 years ago because of UN sanctions.

To me, some intellectually logical and honest arguments do exist that support the invasion of Iraq. I respect people who feel that because our government suspected in March of 2003 that Saddam had WMD... the invasion was justified to find out for sure. (Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision to invade versus continue diplomacy/inspections is an entirely different matter.) My point is that you can argue for the invasion while still acknowledging today that Iraq didn't have WMD.

So, why are so many voters clinging to the now disproven claim that Saddam had WMD? Have those voters been misled? Are these voters simply ignorant? Whatever the reason, an electorate that is widely "misinformed" is dangerous to us all. Thomas Jefferson, if you can hear us, please help.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Our Commander-in-Chief

This little piece of footage (from the last few months GW Bush was governor of Texas) pretty much speaks for itself. However, perhaps it explains what our current commander-in-chief considers victory to be and why he sees the current status of Iraq as a "great victory in the war against terror."

Declaring Victory (.mov Quicktime 1.09Mb)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Deconstructing the liberal arts curriculum

I have been carrying on a lively exchange with a couple of colleagues who favor dismanteling the current liberal arts curriculum. On the one hand, they oppose the reduction of liberal arts core requirements, since this would compromise their own investment in the core curriculum. But on the other hand, they are opposed to the traditional division of subjects along the lines of distinct "disciplines" corresponding to traditional "departments." The reason they offer for this opposition is that it does not do justice to the "inter-disciplinary" nature of knowledge. My own hunch is that two related concerns are more likely what really animate their opposition: first, their postmodern commitments, which inevitably tend toward deconstruction; and second, their desire to teach philosophical issues (what they would call the "meta-" issues) rather than what is traditionally proper to their own disciplines. In any case, the lively discussions we have been having may be followed, for anyone interested, at the following links:

  • An exchange on whether the liberal arts core should be deconstructed in the college curriculum (Part 1) [Note: this post focuses on the question whether the contention that curricular disciplines are cultural constructs means that the traditional distinctions between curricular courses and majors has no basis in fact. I cite Herman Dooyeweerd's work for the negative.]
  • An exchange on deconstructing the liberal arts curriculum (Part 2) [Note: this post focuses on the question whether an "interdisciplinary" approach to the curriculum is justified by the assumption that there are no irreducible aspects of experience or reality that serve as the basis for distinct subjects and majors. I cite Herman Dooyeweerd's work for the negative.]
  • An exchange on deconstructing the liberal arts curriculum (Part 3) [Note: this post focuses on the question whether there are irreducible dimensions of experience or reality, which serve as the basis for dividing the curriculum into distinct subjects or majors. I cite the work of Herman Dooyeweerd for the affirmative.]

Pro-choice logic

I recently forwarded an email to several colleagues with what I consider to be an absolutely brilliant parody of pro-choice logic by Robert P. George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. It goes like this:

"I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go as far as supporting mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even non-judgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity—not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately 'pro-choice.'"

One colleague who received the email responded, which led to an interesting exchange, which you can read on my Philosophia Perennis blog here.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Dr. Janet Smith visits Lenoir-Rhyne College

Well, well, well ... What a weekend it was. Lenoir-Rhyne College hosted the Aquinas-Luther Conference this past weekend, beginning on Thursday evening with a festival vespers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hickory, with the magnificent accompaniment by the Lenoir-Rhyne College choir, followed by an hour-long presentation by Dr. Janet Smith entitled "Why Natural Sex is Best." Dr. Smith presented a natural law-based defense of the traditional Catholic view of marriage, including an interesting discussion of what makes contraception and homosexuality problematic, including a discussion of the scientific studies by Lionel Tiger.

The following two days included talks by Richard Niebanck, yours truly (Philip Blosser), Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis, John Pless, and Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of Touchstone magazine. Friday evening, following the banquet presentation by Bishop Jugis, Campus Pastor Anderew Weisner (pictured left) organized a student discussion session in the Hickory Room, where students could ask questions directly of the presenters. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, Pastor Weisner had asked student, Sean Fagan, to "drop a bomb" to spark a good discussion. Mr. Fagan's rather liberal interpretation of Weisner's suggestion led him, while sitting near the Bishop of Charlotte, to assume the role of an overheated gay activist promoting the glory of anal sex. Fellow student, Eric Wallace, who had introduced himself as Mr. Fagan's roommate, quickly ventured to withdraw the earlier statement he had volunteered during introductions that he was Fagan's roommate. The discussion, for obvious reasons, was quite lively, with particularly memorable input by student Amy Greensfelder and presentor Dr. Janet Smith.

My only regret, as I mentioned to Dr. Smith after the conference, was that more students did not have the chance to hear or engage in discussion with Dr. Smith. Whatever their views on sex and marriage, those who met and talked with Dr. Smith were nearly unanimous in their assertions that she had given them a lot to think about. Thank you, Dr. Smith.

For books by Dr. Janet Smith and other related books, see below:

Monday, October 04, 2004

Axing liberal arts courses in a market driven curriculum

[Note: this is a reprint off another one of my blogs, but I thought it appropriate to post here for a wider audience.] ... About every five or ten years it always seems to come back around to what can be cut from the liberal arts core at these private, church-related liberal arts institutions. Funny isn't it, how the liberal arts is nearly always one of the central components nestled securely in their mission statements. Yet the liberal arts courses are usually the first to fall under the axe. Usually something like art. Or philosophy. Or history. Or religion. Why? The problem, apparently, is that they seem the least defensible in a market-driven economy.

Aristotle gave us our distinctin between theory and practice. He also had a third category: production. These were his division for the sciences (from the Latin term scientia, meaning "knowledge"), which where not sharply distinguished from philosophy. These three categories corresponded to 'knowing', 'doing', and 'making'. Productive science improves things in the world. Practical science improves our practice. But what does theoretical science (knowledge for the sake of knowledge improve? The philistine mind might well answer: nothing.

This, you see, is what we're up against. The usefulness of subjects like "computer science," or "industrial arts," or "auto mechanics" is immediately apparent. They are practical. If you know auto mechanics you're not worthless. You can fix cars. You can get a job. You can make money. Auto mechanics thus provides the clear means towards attaining the desired practical end: gainful employment. Thus one becomes a productive citizen. But to what end are liberal arts courses like history, philosophy, literature, and religion directed? What are they good for? Again, the philistine answer would seem to be: nothing.

Why "philistine"? Because the liberal arts are the core of a what the accumulated wisdom of the Western tradition has long regarded as a genuine education. Productive science may improve things in the world. Practical science may improve our practice. But theoretical science -- or "knowledge for the sake of knowledge," which is what the liberal arts represent -- which seems so "useless" to the philistine, actually improves the most important thing of all: the self, one's self-understanding and depth of understanding of human experience as such. People who lack an education in the liberal arts lack depth perception, glimpsing only the surface of things. They themselves are flat, like cardboard cutouts. Yet demonstrating this is next-to-impossible in an ethos that has been effectively eviscerated of this depth dimension of understanding. Socrates said "know thyself," and "the unexamined life is not worth living." People today seem to frightened of self-knowldege and to suppose that the effort required in examining life makes the only life worth living the unexamined one.

The Lenoir-Rhyne College administration is floating a proposal that would mean the diminution of the liberal arts core of its curriculum by a little over 20%, and a reduction by approximately 25% in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. From the vantage point of someone educated in the classic Jesuit tradition where core requirements included three courses in philosophy -- one in logic, one in ethics, and one in philosophy of human nature -- the fact that Lenoir-Rhyne is now floating a proposal to eliminate their single core requirement in philosophy and effectively undermine the viability of a philosophy major strikes me as ludicrous. Of course, though, from the vantage point of administrators who view courses in terms of market forces, the prospect of requiring students to take something as "useless" as philosophy is understandable. It's not even that philosophy is unpopular among students. Rather, it's that most of them don't even know, before they've had a class, what philosophy is. All they want to do is make themselves marketable when they graduate, and they think thy know that philosophy won't be of any help.

At the same time, it's mildly amusing that one problem the administration faces is graduating students performing abysmally poorly in senior exit exams in the area of "critical thinking," an area in which more rigorous philosophy requirements could help shore up scores considerably. What, these students don't need logic? Out of my 78 students in two sections of Intro to Philosophy this fall, only one student could tell me who "that man" is in the following simple puzzle of logical relationships: "Brothers of sisters have I none; but that man's father is my father's son." And that's after I gave them five minutes to puzzle it out in their notebooks. No wonder these students succumb to the pervasive pedestrian relativism in the atmosphere! They don't even know the difference between an argument and an unsupported assertion (which is why so many of them think John Kerry "won" the first "debate" with George Bush), much less the difference between what's "valid" in reasoning and what's "true."

And what, they don't need ethics? And they embrace a sophomoric subjectivism that collapses any possible distinction between the "apparent good" and the "authentic good"? And they don't need a philosophical understanding of human nature, the basis for any notion of natural rights? of any notion of natural vs. abnormal psychological development? of our tradition of political liberalism, which says government is best that governs least because human nature can't be trusted with absolute authority?

And now they want to drop 3 hours of religion from the core. In a school where we've graduated a senior (a daughter of a prominent local lawyer) who didn't know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where a graduating senior came into my office and asked in her senior year: "Can you tell me, just who was this Jesus dude?" Where 19 out of 25 students flunked an introductory religion course because they couldn't pass a final in which the curve allowed anyone to pass who made 50% or higher?

And they want to drop 3 hours in history, in an ethos intellectually inimical to any study of the historical, where, as George Santayana declared, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it"?

The School of History, Philosophy of Religion, lies at the core of the liberal arts, with its disciplines centered on tradition. From the utilitarian perspectives of the market-driven economy, these disciplines are very difficult to defend. What looks more impractical and useless than history, philosophy, and religion? Yet these are in many ways the "mother disciplines" at the heart of an education that cultivates intellectual virtue, not merely as an end in itself, but as a means
of fostering practical wisdom and pointing the way to the virtues of morality and faith.

Two indispensable components of our institutional mission lie at the heart of Lenoir-Rhyne: (1) a liberal arts committment, and (2) a committment to the Christian perspective represented by the affiliated religious tradition. I see the current proposals, however inadvertently, as undermining the integrity of this mission. I see little hope in an environment where members of the college board of trustees no longer have much of a clue what they hold in trust. Let us hope that there are still some burning embers around in whom the fire of intellectual life has not died out completely.

I keep telling my students that the ideal of a liberal arts education for everyone is a relatively new and novel ideal in history. Just take a look at when most small liberal arts colleges and universities were founded. Most were founded in the mid-19th century. Most of their grandparents, I tell them, probably didn't go to college. And now, looking ahead, I suggest to them that their children may no longer have available the possibility of a liberal arts education. They have the privilege of living during this opportune window of time in which they have access to the kind of education that most ancients and medievals would have died for. Of course such remark don't have much impact.

For an excellent example of a church-related liberal arts institution that has done it's homework, see: Christian Liberal Arts Education: Report, Grand Rapids, Curriculum Study Committee, Calvin College.

For a profoundly insightful discussion of what the liberal arts means in a life devoted to the Socratic ideal, see: A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

For another excellent discussion, see Robert Benne's Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions

For extended discussion of this issue, see subsequent posts in Musings of a Pertinacious Papist.

I found this press release from the ELCA rather interesting... any comments?

CHICAGO (ELCA) -- About 45 scientists and pastors, membersof the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, studied the linksbetween their Christian faith and their vocations and avocationsin science and technology. They gathered here Sept. 17-19 for a"Sunday Scientists! Symposium" sponsored by the ELCA Alliance forFaith, Science and Technology. "The aim was twofold," said Dr. Kevin Powell, a member ofthe Alliance, symposium organizer and a pediatrician, College ofMedicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "One wasto improve how Lutheran congregations relate to science, and theother was on a more personal level," he said. "For many of these people there's been a conflict betweenscience and religion, and they are people who really want tointegrate the two. They feel that what they are doing with theirvocation is what God has called them to do," Powell said. "The symposium was to give people cognitive tools, emotionalsupport and some affirmation from the institutional church thatyes, what they are doing is in fact God's calling," he said. "This was a great opportunity for people to come together tothink about what it means to be a scientist and a Christian andhow to live this out in their daily lives," said Gail Bucher,retired pharmacologist and chair, ELCA Alliance for Faith,Science and Technology, Belmont, Mass. "It met all of ourexpectations and probably exceeded them," she said. The symposium attracted Lutheran pastors, scientists,retired scientists and students, Bucher said. Some pastors weretrained in the sciences as well as Christian ethics andcongregational dynamics. The scientists represented such fieldsas astronomy, atomic physics, biochemistry, biotechnology,chemistry, computer science, environmental chemistry,mathematics, meteorology, molecular biology, neuroscience,nuclear chemistry, organizational biology, physics and publichealth. Participants came from California, Colorado, Illinois,Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico,New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia,Washington and Wisconsin. Their ages ranged from early 20s to80s. "If nothing else happened, we have now a great network offolks from within the ELCA" who can be a resource for the churchand a support system for each other, Bucher said. The symposium's agenda included worship, lectures,discussions and activities. Speakers included:+ Sarah Fredericks, a doctoral student in science, philosophy andreligion, Boston University, Mass.+ Dr. Theodore Hiebert, professor of Old Testament, McCormickTheological Seminary, Chicago+ The Rev. Antje Jackelen, associate professor of systematictheology, religion and science, and director, Zygon Center forReligion and Science, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago+ The Rev. George L. Murphy, ELCA pastor and trained physicist,pastoral associate, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Akron, Ohio, andadjunct faculty, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio+ Dr. Scott Nichols, scientist, Dupont, West Chester, Pa.+ The Rev. Patrick Russell, associate pastor, St. Peter'sLutheran Church, Lafayette, Pa.+ Roger Willer, part-time associate for studies, ELCA Divisionfor Church in Society, and doctoral candidate in theology,University of Chicago Presentation topics included a history of the interactionbetween science and religion, neuroscience and theology, andgenetically modified organisms. Small group discussions dealtwith the minimum scientific and theological understandings themodern Christian needs, a Bible of the book of Genesis, and theUnited Methodist Church's position on science and creationtheology. "George Murphy and Antje Jackelen handled the topic ofevolution and creation," Bucher said. "These are very difficultissues for Christians who are scientists to get their headsaround" and to explain how creation and evolution can co-exist inthe faith life of a Lutheran scientist, she said. Some of the most interesting speakers were the participants,Powell said. They discussed their experiences in ELCAcongregations and gave the Alliance some ideas on how to proceed,he said. "Our aim is to make congregations friendlier to science sothey can understand the world they are living in, which is soprofoundly influenced by science," Powell said. "People in thecongregations, especially the non-scientists, recognize how muchtheir lives are affected by science, but they can be veryfrustrated trying to figure out how to impact that change," hesaid.

Political Mumbo Jumbo

Anyone have any reaction to the debates or the campaigns in general. We can keep this train of discussion up until the election or beyond.