Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kings, Creeds, Canon: Musing on Wright's "How God Became King"

Over at The Twelve blog, I've just put up a post that critically engages N.T. Wright's argument in How God Became King. In some ways, it's a response not only to his published argument but also some face-to-face encounters we've had over the past few months. It's not comprehensive, but perhaps registers a point of concern that's worth discussing.

One could read this as growing out of the new chapters I've included in the second edition of The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, which reframes my argument as an "ecclesial" hermeneutic, in dialogue with the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Kirsch on Trilling on Forster on Liberalism

Lionel Trilling classic work of criticism, The Liberal Imagination, has been a companion for me over the past several months (and makes a brief cameo appearance in Imagining the Kingdom). It's difficult for us to read now, over fifty years later, because almost everything has changed, including our perception of "liberal"--and so we almost inevitably come to Trilling's book with misperceptions and wrong expectations. For example, we might come expecting some manifesto for an ideology that eventually gives us, say, Nancy Pelosi. That's hardly the case.

Indeed, much of Trilling's concern is a critique of liberalism--not, of course, in the name of a "conservativism," but in the name of a more authentic liberalism, one characterized by a "moral realism" that calls to mind Niebuhr. In fact, I would suggest that both liberals and conservatives have things to learn from Trilling's sketch of "the liberal imagination."

Adam Kirsch's little book, Why Trilling Matters, does an excellent job of contextualizing Trilling's work. In particular, Kirsch shows the emergence of "Trilling-ish" themes in his earlier studies of Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster. The study of Forster (1943), as summarized by Kirsch, would seem to be as relevant as ever today, in no small part because Trilling targets the illusions of moral purity that can beset liberalism (surely no less a danger for what passes for "conservatism" today). Indeed, Trilling chastises liberals for a lack of imagination: "liberalism," he says, "is always being surprised."

Forster embodied such naive-but-confident liberalism in the character of the Schlegels in Howards End. Trilling's observations are worth quoting in full:

liberal intellectuals have always moved in an aura of self-congratulation. They sustain themselves by flattering themselves with intentions and they dismiss as 'reactionary' whoever questions them. When the liberal intellectual thinks of himself, he thinks chiefly of his own good will and prefers not to know that the good will generates its own problems, that the love of humanity has its vices and the love of truth its own insensibilities.

(This is just the sort of holier-than-thou liberal self-congratulation that is excoriated in Franzen's Freedom [is Franzen our Forster?].)

What Trilling will eventually hail as "the liberal imagination" is characterized by a sensibility that is not so easily surprised--by a "moral realism" that has appropriately calibrated its expectations to the mess of our intentions. And this imagination and sensibility is fostered, above all, by the novel as "a kind of mithridate against our being surprised by life."

Here is the province of the novelist, for the novelist explores the realm beyond conscious motivation and knows far better than the moralist that an act or a conscious intention may be good at the same time that there is behind it a lack of innocence or an element of self-assertion which, because it is not expressed, makes the act of virtue either issue in badness or fail of subjective worth. Into this realm law can never penetrate, articulate social judgment cannot go, nor even religion. This is the providence of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, of Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster, of George Santayana and Aldous Huxley, of all the writers of fiction who are concerned with the question of style in morality.

If political discourse in the United States have devolved into farce, it is in no small part because we lack just this imagination--which is to say, we have become a nation that has largely abandoned "the novel" on these terms.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Professionalism, Virtue, and Education: Ravitch meets Brooks meets Murray

Diane Ravitch's recent two-part essay on education in the New York Review of Books is a must-read, beginning with "Schools We Can Envy" (on the model of Finnish education) and culminating in "How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools." While Ravitch can be polarizing, the quarry of her concerns--the dismal state of public education in the United States--deserves the attention she gives it. Disagree if you want, but you only get to disagree after reading Ravitch.

Her target over the last several years is "GERM"--the "Global Education Reform Movement," which includes agendas such Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' and Obama's 'Race to the Top' (in other words, like Obama's foreign policy, his educational policy differs only in degree, not kind, from his predecessor). GERM assesses teaching and learning on the basis of standardized tests and assumes that the failure of American public education is primarily an 'internal' problem--and more specifically, is the effect of lazy, incompetent teachers who now need to be held accountable by producing results measured by standardized test scores.

As you might imagine, many teachers (rightly!) balk at this analysis and diagnosis. The real problem with GERM, they argue, is that it fails to take into consideration the 'external' factors that impact educational success: adequate nutrition, stable family environments, pre-school intellectual stimulation in the home, etc. In short, the elephant in the room that GERM wants to ignore is poverty. Or, actually, GERM doesn't ignore poverty, it just sees it as irrelevant: if Ravitch and others argue that it is poverty that prevents educational success, the heart of the GERM movement is to suggest that the "right" teachers can overcome poverty. This is the myth purveyed by the Gates Foundation, and in her second essay Ravitch documents how "Teach for America"--that domestic peace corps that is the idyll of so many of our liberal (and liberal arts educated) young people--is one of the primary drivers of this "poverty-is-not-the-problem" ideology. (How many of those Obama-supporting TFA teachers would be surprised to learn that their two years of public service are made possible by $50m from the Walton Family Foundation? Would it give them pause to realize that what they sign up for as an expression of left-leaning noblesse oblige is funded by the Wal-Mart empire?)

False dichotomies abound here. GERM effectively says, "It's not poverty, it's schools (or more specifically, teachers)." So we don't need to worry about income inequality or the systems that foster poverty; we just need to fix schools and teachers. In contrast, 'liberal' responses flip the dichotomy: "It's not teachers, it's poverty." So leave schools and teachers alone and attend to the socio-economic conditions from which students come.

These are, as I say, false dichotomies. Clearly we have a both/and problem here. Unfortunately, Ravitch is usually taken to be a proponent of the "It's-not-teachers-it's-poverty" dichotomy, but I think that's an unfair assessment. Read closely, I think Ravitch is a both/and reformer. For instance, while criticizing Bill Gates for purveying the "it's-not-poverty" ideology (decrying what Gates sees as "the myth that we have to solve poverty before we improve education"), Ravitch pointedly remarks: "Gates never explains why a rich and powerful society like our own cannot address both poverty and school improvement at the same time."

So Ravitch is not saying that there is no need for school reform or modes of teacher accountability. In other words, she is not guilty of what her "conservative" critics fear: that she is out to simply protect incompetent teachers as the darling of "the unions." To the contrary, in these most recent essays I think she puts her finger on a crucial issue that deflects this criticism: teaching as a profession, and hence the nature of professionalism.

The theme arises from the model of Finnish education (celebrated in Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?). What drives Finnish teachers is not the stick of testing or the carrot of incentives, but a sense of responsibility, a "moral mission" that comes from an important sense of their identity: "they are professionals." So the Finnish system doesn't need to be driven by (external) testing precisely because teachers have been inculcated into a profession, which is to say that they have been habituated to a "moral mission" and a vocation such that they now have an (internal) professional compass that guides their work. The absence of testing accountability can only work, however, where this internalized sense of "profession" is operative. (Conversely, the externalized accountability of testing becomes increasingly necessary where the internal compass of professional commitment is absent. It is on this point that TFA comes in for critique. Teach for America is the "short-term missions" of American education, a bit of a socially-conscious sojourn for well-educated elites who, after two years, go on to other work. As Ravitch notes, in 2007-2008 the majority of teachers were in their first year of teaching. That is not the demographics of a profession. And yet TFA holds itself up as a model for educational outcomes: "they believe," Ravitch wryly comments, "that a steady infusion of smart but barely trained novices will change the face of teaching. In no other field but education would such judgments be tolerated, because they reinforce the low status of education as a profession, one where no prolonged preparation is thought necessary." This stands in marked contrast to the standards upheld in the Finnish model.

Summarizing this point about professionalism, Ravitch observes in the second part of her essay:
In Finland, the subject of the first part of this article, teachers work collaboratively with other members of the school staff; they are not “held accountable” by standardized test scores because there are none. Teachers devise their own tests, to inform them about their students’ progress and needs. They do their best because it is their professional responsibility. Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.

I think Ravitch's focus on professionalism in these essays blunts David Brooks' earlier criticism of her work (in a July 2011 column). I think Brooks, like other conservatives, worries that Ravitch's argument gives comfort to incompetence--that she is merely the voice of teachers' unions which, according to this argument, largely function to protect incompetent teachers. (And whatever your view of organized labor, it won't help your cause to ignore the evidence that this is, in important cases, all too true.)

But in fact that I think Brooks and Ravitch can actually come to agreement around this theme of professionalism, precisely because such professionalism is really about the dynamics of virtue (which is also why, contrary to all other intuitions, I actually think one could build an argument that brings together not only Ravitch and Brooks, but Ravitch and--gasp!--Charles Murray).

What we need in this country is a renewed sense of "professionalism," not as the glint and polish of expertise but as the vocational commitment to mission. (I remember first thinking about these matters when I used to teach engineering ethics, prompted by Michael Davis' book, Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession.) We need a renewed conversation that solidly locates professionalism in its proper heritage of virtue formation that inculcates in professionals an inner compass of affection that then guides action and nourishes a commitment to mission irrespective of external sticks and carrots. Only then will we get beyond the false dichotomies inherent in current policy and pursue a holistic vision for reform that might actually improve education for the public good.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Post-Secular in Question

I just got my copy of The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, edited by Philip Gorski, David Kyuman Kim, John Torpey, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (published by NYU Press). This is the fruit of a conference at Yale University several years ago. My paper, now chapter 7, is entitled "Secular Liturgies and the Prospects for a 'Post-Secular' Sociology of Religion" (pp. 159-184).

It's a fascinating collection that represents a kind of vanguard in social scientific understanding of both "religion" and "the secular." (And how many books from NYU Press mention Cornelius Van Til and John Frame? And those citations aren't even in my chapter!)

And the endorsements are notable:

"In the last two decades we have witnessed constant deconstructions and reconstructions of the categories of religion, the secular, and now the post-secular. This volume is the best entry I know to the whole debate. It serves both as a perfect illustration of the shifting terrain and as a helpful analytical guide to its exploration.”
-José Casanova, author of Public Religions in the Modern World

"The quality of almost all the chapters of this book is unusually high. One can learn things one didn't know and see them in a way one hadn't thought of by reading this diverse but very stimulating collection. The book does not solve the murky problem of the secular, much less the post-secular, but it gives new ways of thinking about them that have great promise as our work on these issues goes forward.”
-Robert Bellah, author of Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Twitter clarification - @james_ka_smith

Some of you might follow @jameskasmith on Twitter. I should point out that, in a sense, that's not me. That account was set up several years ago by someone else who merely used it as a feed for my blogs. And since he can no longer remember the account details, I'm unable to use that account.

So I have decided to tentatively experiment with Twitter via @james_ka_smith . Those who are interested in more than the blog feed might consider following the new account. And bear with me as I figure out how to use this wisely.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Re:Tune My Heart to Sing Your Praise: Symposium Audio

Here's a timely resource that might be a fitting follow-up to my "Open Letter to Praise Bands" (and the P.S.):

At the Calvin Worship Institute's 2012 Symposium, I had the privilege of being part of a panel discussion (and hymn-sing!) on the "re-tuned" hymn movement. I was really just an interloper, since the panel, hosted by Greg Scheer, included luminaries such as Kevin Twit, Bruce Benedict, Isaac Wardell, Sandra McCracken, and Eelco Vos. They represented creative collectives like Indelible Grace (home to the fabled RUF Hymnbook), BiFrost Arts, Cardiphonia, and The Psalm Project.

The "re-tuned" hymn movement names a return to hymnody (especially among young, restless, Reformed folk), mining the theological riches of hymns for worship, but setting the hymns to different tunes, often played with different instruments. The discussion about this phenomenon gets at some core issues about what worship is--what worship is for.

The whole symposium is worth listening to, and you might be introduced to new hymns and settings. My own opening contribution (from about 2:00-20:00) attempts to give a "theologically-attuned sociology" of the re:tuned hymn movement and thus gets into some fundamental issues about the nature of worship, the significance of musical form, and raises questions of culture and race.