Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I Believe … But I Don’t Understand

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On Monday, May 23, Patheos published an article by Rebecca Bratten Weiss on suffering and “the clamor of insufficient explanations”. By “insufficient explanations”, Weiss means not only the myriad of clichés we Christians inflict on the suffering and despairing (“If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it;” “God shapes the back to fit the burden”), but also the assertion, “It must be God’s will.”

The Challenge of Suffering

The problem of suffering is the single most potent argument against Christian theology and cosmology, because it cuts past the dry hairsplitting of philosophy to pose a direct challenge to the heart. As Weiss puts it, “The fact that we need to suffer to be well is a symptom of a fallen world, but to suggest that the suffering itself comes not from the darkness of nature but from God on high is horrifying, sadistic.”

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother Ivan refuses to believe in a God who allows the suffering of children, and says that even if there is some inexplicable benefit to be derived from this, he will not have it. “I respectfully return the ticket” he says. I sympathize. I respectfully return the ticket to whatever fun-house or extravaganza somehow necessitates this terrible suffering. I would rather join Ivan and deny God outright, than believe in a God who is up there pulling all the strings that lead us to torment and loss, because this was the only way, the best of all possible worlds. [N.B.: Weiss has not abandoned the Faith, either formally or informally.]

We can’t escape the challenge by blaming the darkness of nature; for if Nature is dark, it can only be by God’s Will. And it’s not even the best of all possible worlds (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:25:6 ad 3). Whether God manipulates all events directly, or simply sits back and watches everything play out by itself, or some combination of the two, the buck stops at His desk.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Choosing Classical Education Over Common Core

Students at St. John Bosco, Rochester, NY
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On April 28, the National Catholic Register published an article by Peter Jesserer Smith on the growing number of Catholic schools and systems converting from conventional progressive education to classical — or perhaps we should say neo-classical — liberal arts education. While one hundred American sees, just over half, have elected to conform to Common Core, widespread rejection of the controversial curriculum is creating greater demand for an alternative to homeschooling, leading to more charter and non-profit startups.

The Problem of Education

Catholics aren’t the only ones returning to the trivium. Philip Kilgore, director of the nonsectarian Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter Schools Initiative, told Smith that “[parental] dissatisfaction with contemporary education has been driving the demand for a return to the classical tradition.” Says Kilgore, “I speak with so many people from every corner of this land who are eager to do something about the problem of education.”

Many people from various ideological backgrounds agree that American K-12 education is failing. Some, like Prof. Jack Schneider, would contest this, pointing to tests of limited scope, like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, that purport to show American schools as doing well. Others, like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, seem to recognize the problem only insofar as it affects the production of hire-ready future employees, as if the only worthwhile goal of education were to generate Homo oeconomicus.

The most commonly-perceived problem, however, is that the current systems produce moral and cultural illiterates, that the systems have abandoned teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think. Writes Patrick J. Deneen:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. … Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).