Why students fall behind on history

I recommend a read of this short article from CNN.com discussing and demonstrating the levels of cultural illiteracy that we have reached. What is not explored in this article is the implications that this will have for the future of Western Civilization, but I think that goes without saying (for those of you who read this blog regularly). A highlight:

At Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, teacher Jeff Frazer said he’s surprised by how many of his incoming students know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 but don’t know that it was a list of grievances against Great Britain.

“I think they learn information by itself, in isolation,” Frazer said of his students. “But putting the big picture together is not happening.”

And during the comparative religions unit at Rutland Middle School in Rutland, Vermont, Ted Lindgren regularly asks students, “What is Easter about?”

He said they invariably br ing up the Easter bunny but don’t know the significance of the holiday to Christianity. It shows a lack of cultural literacy, Lindgren said, that they have to compensate for during class.

Fear and Trembling at the Washington Post

Americans don’t have to go to Muslim lands to hear our religion blasphemed by Muslims. In a Christian church in Portland, OR, I heard an imam (an immigrant from Yemen) say to the post-worship assemblage, “God has no son.” (Not, “We Muslims believe that God has no son.”) When I yelled, “Blasphemy!” the assemblage was shocked to silence and he was so unnerved that he initiated a handshake with me seven times before he left the church.

Read the whole article at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

Loughner and Nietzsche

Thanks to some insightful commentators at Leiter Reports, I was able to find a couple of interesting articles on Jared Loughner, the shooter in the recent massacre in Tuscon, AZ, and the philosophy that inspired him. As the American Left and Right point fingers and hurl insults and threats, veiled and not so veiled, back and forth, both equally miss the point. Loughner was probably no more inspired by Sarah Palin than he was by Barack Obama, by Ayn Rand than he was by Karl Marx (both Rand and Marx make appearances on his list of “favorite books,” which, by the way, appears to be a copy of the list of books every liberal arts major reads in his first two years of college). Equally, Loughner’s actions were probably not, as many have begun to chant loudly over the Left-Right finger pointing, entirely the result of any form of mental illness or insanity (I think I’ve heard and/or read about a dozen different guesses at what his mental ailment was thus far). Mental illness is the modern man’s version of the ancient man’s “demonic possession” or “lunacy.” It is a decent general explanation, generally unfalsifiable, for the actions of anyone who does something contrary to the norms of society; basically, it’s a cop out that allows us to avoid looking deeply at what were surely cultural and social factors motivating such aberrant behavior. The constant need to turn to “mental illness” to explain away evil actions and dismiss larger society from any culpability is a pseudo-scientific superstition.

So, if it wasn’t the American political climate or mental illness that prompted Loughner’s actions, what was it? I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic, but Loughner is a “sign of the times.” He was a nihilist. The New York Times reported the mention by one of Loughner’s friends of his interest in Nietzsche and dreams shortly before the shootings:

The new details from Mr. Gutierrez about Mr. Loughner — including his philosophy of anarchy and his expertise with a handgun, suggest that the earliest signs of behavior that may have ultimately led to the attacks started several years ago.

Mr. Gutierrez said his friend had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” and embraced ideas about the corrosive, destructive effects of nihilism — a belief in nothing. And every day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings.

This article, and this passage of the article in particular, has rightfully been mocked in several places online and elsewhere for the obvious ignorance of the reporter on the subjects he mentions here. He seems to indicate that reading Nietzsche and keeping dream journals are indicators of impending violent behavior. Clearly, they aren’t, unless every awkward teenage boy is a potential murderer.

But there is something to the observations, if not the analysis, in this report. Matt Feeney at Slate.com seems to get much closer to the target with his analysis of the Loughner-Nietzsche connection. Loughner was not a Nietzschean; he was a nihilist. And the two, in spite of the beliefs of the philosically illiterate, are not the same thing. He may have thought he was a Nietzschean, but he was living out what Nietzsche was fighting against. Loughner is an example of that form of nihilism that embraces chaos and destruction; Nietzsche attempted to rescue modern man from that nihilism by proposing, as one of his books is titled, “the reevaluation of all values.”

Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most important, most popular, and yet most misunderstood modern philosopher. I certainly don’t claim to understand him completely. And Loughner doesn’t appear to have understood him much either. What can be said, however, is that Nietzche’s proclamation (more accurately, observation) that “God is dead” permeates the modern world. Sure, most Americans still say they believe in God, but when we get specific into what precisely that means, things get a little sticky. Modern man’s “God” is not the personal, historical God of the Judeo-Christian tradition; it (not “he,” but sometimes “she”) is Nature (with a capital “N”), Science (with a capital “S”), a good luck charm, and, more often than not in practice, material wealth and physical health. We cannot do away with the Judeo-Christian God and simultaneously cling to values and morals which originate with and depend upon a belief in that God. Nihilism is the embrace of the logical implications of what that means: it is the destruction of all meaning and all value. Mitchell Heisman, the young man who recently killed himself and left a 1905 page suicide note explaining nihilism and its implications, is a particularly vivid example.

Nietzsche looked nihilism in the face and sought to overcome it with his concept of the “superman” who would create new values for himself and, it seems, impose them on others. In some sense, Loughner was, as Feeney points out, running contrary to Nietzsche in his nihilism, and yet he did just what Nietzsche proposed, if not in the way that Nietzsche would have preferred: he created his own values and meaning — in the destruction of the lives of others.

It is not some undoubtedly short-lived political bickering that will be forgotten in a decade or two that prompted Loughner, nor is it some vaguely defined and over-eagerly diagnosed mental illness. It is the state of modern Western man, one who lives increasingly in a world hostile to and in denial of its own foundations in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Westerners continue to chip away at their own cultural heritage, nihilism will become, just as Nietzsche predicted that it would, increasingly the philosophy, even if by default if not by conscious adoption, of the modern man. Imagine a generation of children raised with no concept of a personal God and with the ingrained belief that life is ultimately futile and meaningless, that man is a puny, small speck of no significance who came into being entirely as the result of biomechanical processes and who will one day, not only individually but as a species, cease to exist. That generation is now. And Jared Loughner is an example of what that generation will inevitably produce.

Marxism as a Christian heresy

I’ve comment in the past both here and elsewhere that perhaps the strangest and most ironic aspect of the modern Leftist movements is that they are in fact the product of Judeo-Christian (with emphasis on the latter portion) thinking. Leftism, with its dreams of an egalitarian and Utopian future society, draws heavily on the Christian heritage of Western Civilization at the same time as it attempts to downplay, distort, and derogate that heritage. Modern Leftists and liberals may reject Christianity as patriarchal, unenlightened, unscientific, and so on, but, unless they choose a complete and total ignorance of history (and most of them, of course, do), they must admit that they and their philosophy are in fact a result of the influence of Christianity. The problem with modern Leftism, however, is that it is simultaneously chiliastic and atheistic; in other words, attempts to institute the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and without, and even in opposition to, God. The result is Nazism, eugenics, the Holocaust, Marxism-Leninism, the gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, the “Cultural Revolution” of China, and so many other marks the Left has left on the world in the last 150 years. Bertrand Russell explains the connection more succinctly:

The Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and the unfortunate at all times. Saint Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity, Marx to Socialism. To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth.

The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx’s eschatology credible. A similar dictionary could be made for the Nazis, but their conceptions are more purely Old Testament and less Christian than those of Marx, and their Messiah is more analogous to the Maccabees than to Christ.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, pp. 363-4.

Oration on the Dignity of Man

I once read that Abdala the Muslim, when asked what was most worthy of awe and wonder in this theater of the world, answered, “There is nothing to see more wonderful than man!” Hermes Trismegistus concurs with this opinion: “A great miracle, Asclepius, is man!” However, when I began to consider the reasons for these opinions, all these reasons given for the magnificence of human nature failed to convince me: that man is the intermediary between creatures, close to the gods, master of all the lower creatures, with the sharpness of his senses, the acuity of his reason, and the brilliance of his intelligence the interpreter of nature, the nodal point between eternity and time, and, as the Persians say, the intimate bond or marriage song of the world, just a little lower than angels as David tells us. I concede these are magnificent reasons, but they do not seem to go to the heart of the matter, that is, those reasons which truly claim admiration. For, if these are all the reasons we can come up with, why should we not admire angels more than we do ourselves? After thinking a long time, I have figured out why man is the most fortunate of all creatures and as a result worthy of the highest admiration and earning his rank on the chain of being, a rank to be envied not merely by the beasts but by the stars themselves and by the spiritual natures beyond and above this world. This miracle goes past faith and wonder. And why not? It is for this reason that man is rightfully named a magnificent miracle and a wondrous creation.

What is this rank on the chain of being? God the Father, Supreme Architect of the Universe, built this home, this universe we see all around us, a venerable temple of his godhead, through the sublime laws of his ineffable Mind. The expanse above the heavens he decorated with Intelligences, the spheres of heaven with living, eternal souls. The scabrous and dirty lower worlds he filled with animals of every kind. However, when the work was finished, the Great Artisan desired that there be some creature to think on the plan of his great work, and love its infinite beauty, and stand in awe at its immenseness. Therefore, when all was finished, as Moses and Timaeus tell us, He began to think about the creation of man. But he had no Archetype from which to fashion some new child, nor could he find in his vast treasure-houses anything which He might give to His new son, nor did the universe contain a single place from which the whole of creation might be surveyed. All was perfected, all created things stood in their proper place, the highest things in the highest places, the midmost things in the midmost places, and the lowest things in the lowest places. But God the Father would not fail, exhausted and defeated, in this last creative act. God’s wisdom would not falter for lack of counsel in this need. God’s love would not permit that he whose duty it was to praise God’s creation should be forced to condemn himself as a creation of God.

Finally, the Great Artisan mandated that this creature who would receive nothing proper to himself shall have joint possession of whatever nature had been given to any other creature. He made man a creature of indeterminate and indifferent nature, and, placing him in the middle of the world, said to him “Adam, we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgement, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose. All other things have a limited and fixed nature prescribed and bounded by Our laws. You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature. We have placed you at the world’s center so that you may survey everything else in the world. We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose. To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgement, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine.”

Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be! As soon as an animal is born, it brings out of its mother’s womb all that it will ever possess. Spiritual beings from the beginning become what they are to be for all eternity. Man, when he entered life, the Father gave the seeds of every kind and every way of life possible. Whatever seeds each man sows and cultivates will grow and bear him their proper fruit. If these seeds are vegetative, he will be like a plant. If these seeds are sensitive, he will be like an animal. If these seeds are intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, satisfied with no created thing, he removes himself to the center of his own unity, his spiritual soul, united with God, alone in the darkness of God, who is above all things, he will surpass every created thing. Who could not help but admire this great shape-shifter? In fact, how could one admire anything else? . . .

For the mystic philosophy of the Hebrews transforms Enoch into an angel called “Mal’akh Adonay Shebaoth,” and sometimes transforms other humans into different sorts of divine beings. The Pythagoreans abuse villainous men by having them reborn as animals and, according to Empedocles, even plants. Muhammed also said frequently, “Those who deviate from the heavenly law become animals.” Bark does not make a plant a plant, rather its senseless and mindless nature does. The hide does not make an animal an animal, but rather its irrational but sensitive soul. The spherical form does not make the heavens the heavens, rather their unchanging order. It is not a lack of body that makes an angel an angel, rather it is his spiritual intelligence. If you see a person totally subject to his appetites, crawling miserably on the ground, you are looking at a plant, not a man. If you see a person blinded by empty illusions and images, and made soft by their tender beguilements, completely subject to his senses, you are looking at an animal, not a man. If you see a philosopher judging things through his reason, admire and follow him: he is from heaven, not the earth. If you see a person living in deep contemplation, unaware of his body and dwelling in the inmost reaches of his mind, he is neither from heaven or earth, he is divinity clothed in flesh.

Who would not admire man, who is called by Moses and the Gospels “all flesh” and “every creature,” because he fashions and transforms himself into any fleshly form and assumes the character of any creature whatsoever? For this reason, Euanthes the Persian in his description of Chaldaean theology, writes that man has no inborn, proper form, but that many things that humans resemble are outside and foreign to them, from which arises the Chaldaean saying: “Hanorish tharah sharinas “: “Man is multitudinous, varied, and ever changing.” Why do I emphasize this? Considering that we are born with this condition, that is, that we can become whatever we choose to become, we need to understand that we must take earnest care about this, so that it will never be said to our disadvantage that we were born to a privileged position but failed to realize it and became animals and senseless beasts. Instead, the saying of Asaph the prophet should be said of us, “You are all angels of the Most High.” Above all, we should not make that freedom of choice God gave us into something harmful, for it was intended to be to our advantage. Let a holy ambition enter into our souls; let us not be content with mediocrity, but rather strive after the highest and expend all our strength in achieving it.

Let us disdain earthly things, and despise the things of heaven, and, judging little of what is in the world, fly to the court beyond the world and next to God. In that court, as the mystic writings tell us, are the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones in the foremost places; let us not even yield place to them, the highest of the angelic orders, and not be content with a lower place, imitate them in all their glory and dignity. If we choose to, we will not be second to them in anything.

Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man