Teaching, philosophy

The death of heroes, the recovery of the heroic

David Hein:

. ..DEEPER FACTORS are also at work in the demise of the hero, The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has compared the post-Enlightenment West to the heroic societies of ancient times (repredented, for example, in the epic poems of Homer) and found them to be separated by fundamentally different understandings of the self and of moral conduct. Heroes, he believes, do no flourish outside of a network of relations in which personal identity is inseparable from one’s social role and in which such comcepts as honor, duty and shame are deeply meaningful. Other commentators have also pointed to our culture’s inhospitableness to heroes. Even more than the surrogate-hero Don Quixote, we find outselves tilting not at giants but at unromantic mechanical contraptions. Our age is much more ready to believe in the antihero than the hero, and to cast a wary eye on any soul addled by quixotic longings.

The death of the hero is further advanced bacause we recognize that Thomas Carlyle was seriously off the mark in believing that the history of the world is the history of great individuals like Moses, Muhammad, Cromwell and Catherifne the Great. History, we know, is shaped by forces far more complex, and we have learned to pay attention to the diverse contributions of workers, minorities and immigrants. They, their families and their communities used to be deemed inarticulate and irrelevant; they are now recognized as important actors in the historical drama. Moreover, an important trend in historical writing of recent decades has been the “personalization” of nonhuman entities. Historians look at the influence of large structures and processes--demography, ecology, economics, geography. While all sorts of history are still being written, there is a clear movement away from focusing on the great man and the big event. And these changes have affected education down to the earliest grades. No longer is the history of the nation represented to the young in terms of the exploits of its great individuals, as it was 50 years ago.

Finally, the demise of the hero can be seen as the inevitable result of a democratic society. Democratic heroes from the very beginning were different. Americans liked military victors if they acted like Cincinnatus and relinquished their military careers to return to civilian life. We suspected the strong man and loved the good loser, like Lee; we required our rulers to be subject to the will of the people. Sidney Hook aptly pointed out that if the hero is someone who changes the course of history, then it follows that a democratic community must be ever on guarf against such a person.

The contemporary observer could well be ambivalent about this whole phenomenon of the death of heroes.

. . .Religious-studies scholar Conrad Hyers has proposed replacing the perspective of “tragic heroism” with the outlook of “the comic hero” precisely because the latter view recognizes our fallenness and opposes all forms of dualistic thinking, and is thus much more congruent with Christian faith and the reality of the human condition. Tragic heroism, Hyers says, involves absolute dedication to causes and the clash of contending forces: good vs. evil, truth against error. It embraces the warrior virtues of courage, duty and honor. It is consonant with unquestioning obedience, the fight to the death, and kudos for the champion.

The comic vision, on the other hand, is intolerant of pride and pretension, of self-righteousness, of all finite claims to the infinite; it endorses humor, humility, child-likeness and the willingness to negotiate and settle differences. It is deeply suspicious of dividing the human family into the lowly and the lofty, the unrighteous and the righteous, the cowardly and the courageous. Its loyalty to the ultimate prompts the rejection of all human professions of goodness and claims to greatness as vanity, and enjoins acknowledgment of the dignity and worth each creature before God.

. . .We can acquiesce in the cultural process that has eventuated in the death of heroes. What we cannot accept is the loss of the heroic. The hero is an extraordinary being possessed of superior powers; the heroic is a potential attribute of ordinary men and women, as well as of children (as children learn from fairy tales). The heroic is consistent with democracy, the hero a possible threat. The hero has been honored with monuments everywhere; the shrine of the heoric is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The concept of the heroic bridges the gap between the tragic and the comic. It accepts the fragmentyary character of our knowledge, our virtue and our power (to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr), while holding fast to the old-fashioned “warrier virtues” of courage, honor and loyalty. It sees that, pace hyers, steadfastness may or may not mean a fight to the death, obedience need not be unquestioning, and the desire for kudos may be replaced by the will to act for others and for the glory of God. The traditional hero was chosen by fate or the gods to undertake a journey into the unknown; heroic thinking and doing is part of the vocation that God lays on us all as we venture unrehearsed into the terra incognita of our everyday lives.

THE “HEROIC” POINTS to certain positive features of flawed human beings who are in fact a mixture of virtues, vices and motives. The heroic vision accepts the fact that, as Plato makes clear in his Republic, the heroic by itself is not enough. England’s King Henry V and his “happy few” were heroic in their victory at Agincourt, but the point of their endeavor, the conquest of France, was less praiseworthy.

. . .Joseph Campbell has said that the hero of myth is a being who does what no one else can or will do. Today we must distinguish the heroic from the hero and say that the heroic is what all of us can and must undertake. The most important occasions of heroic striving lie pretty close to home: the efforts of the young to achieve independence and a sense of purpose, the commitment of responsible selves to marry and raise families, the work of parents in setting their children free and then in renewing their own lives. The Aztecs, who had a notion of multiple heavens, were wise to believe that women who died in childbirth went to the same heroic heaven as warriors who were killed in battle. The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has rightly pointed out that while ethics courses tend to focus on big social questions like capital punishment, censorship and the policies of hospitals and corporations, students also need to think carefully about the virtues and vices of everyday life: compassion, self-respect, courage, honor, genorosity, jealousy, narcissism and self-deception.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/19 at 06:14 AM
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Is the “boy problem” related to the “underclass”

Again, this year, nearly all the essays we received were written by girls. I’ll be asked about this at our Executive Committee meetings, so I continue to wonder what’s the deal with boys.

In my readings about boys today, I came across these statistics:

Boys from blue-collar families are particularly suffering. Among kids in families earning $80,000-100,000 per year, girls are 8 percent likelier to be on a college track than their brothers. At family incomes of $10,000-20,000 this swells to 56 percent likelier. ("Let Boys Be Boys,” The American Enterprise. Volume: 11. Issue: 4. June 2000. Page 4)

The data struck me, because it seems to link the “boy problem” to the larger problem of an underclass, which has also been getting a lot of attention of late.

Does your experience confirm or disconfirm this? Does the trouble with disengaged boys seem more a problem for blue collar kids than for wealthier ones?

The most useful insight I’ve found thus far in trying to understand the underclass is the extent to which marriage has been abandoned as an ideal in the underclass, at least among the males.

(I should note that I’m not idealizing or romanticizing marriage in the past. In fact, in the 1910s and the 1930s there were more single parent families and stepfamilies than there are today, although there were as many single-father as there were single-mother households--take Atticus Finch as a fictional example. I would guess we are now in the golden age of marriage, as much as there has ever been one, in that I suspect we have more people married because they love each other and want to be together than during earlier times, when marriage was often arranged for reasons other than mutual fulfillment.)

It’s a little tricky to figure out what’s really going on with marriage today. Advocates of the “sexual revolution” in the sixties have largely succeeded in their goal of separating sex from marriage in people’s minds, so today people are more likely to talk about whether sex should occur “within a loving relationship” or “between consenting adults” than “between married couples.”

Such talk convinces people that marriage has faded as a cultural institution more than is actually the case. Among the college educated marriage is still the social norm. And middle-class marriages frequently are organized around a zealous commitment to children, keeping busy schedules to get kids to their various activities and tutors to ensure intellectual and physical development thought important for middle class success. It’s all but impossible for a single parent to raise a kid to today’s middle class standards.

But to a large extent the the underclass has abandoned marriage. The story of how that came to be is interesting cultural history. The blame is most credibly given to commercial media and the large foundations, which channeled millions of dollars into programs targeting the poor while teaching an ethic of nonjudgmental acceptance, which often morphed into encouragement, of behaviors the middle class would consider self-destructive. In any case, many demographers have noted recently that it is primarily among the poor and uneducated that the institution of marriage has faded.

The numbers are stark. Women who did not attend college have an out-of-wedlock birth rate of nearly fifty percent. But among women who have graduated from college, the number is less than five percent. Nearly all college graduates get married eventually, but marriage rates continue to drop among those who did not graduate from high school. Divorce is high for all groups but it has gone down among the well educated since the 1980s while it is still climbing among the underclass:

In the middle class, couples first build solid relationships, then marry, and then have children. Among the poor, this sequence is generally reversed: Children are desired and childbearing comes first. Strong relationships and marriage are postponed to some indefinite future. Most unmarried fathers drift off after a few years, leaving the ill-equipped mother and child to struggle on alone.(Robert Rector, “How not to be poor,” National Review, Oct 24, 2005 v57 i19 p26)

The usual explanation for why the poor don’t marry is that the men can’t make enough money to support a family. This is the “folk Marxist” explanation, attributing everything bad that happens to people to structures of economic oppression. But this explanation is failing before a flood of evidence (see the New York Times today: “A Poverty of the Mind”: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/26/opinion/26patterson.html).

Unmarried women among the underclass tell a different story:

. . .men’s antisocial behavior, not unfulfilled economic expectations, is the main obstacle to matrimony among this group. The women do not complain of men’s failure to earn enough, but rather of their unwillingness to grasp opportunities, work steadily, and spend wisely. The objection is not to modest earning power, but to financial profligacy, defiant attitudes, and lack of work discipline. These women bear tales of their men mouthing off to bosses, alienating fellow workers, failing to get to work on time or at all, behaving erratically, quitting abruptly, or avoiding work altogether. What money the men manage to earn is seldom applied to family needs, but is dissipated on luxuries such as “alcohol, marijuana, new stereo components, computer accessories, expensive footwear, clothing and jewelry.” But poor work habits and financial irresponsibility are the least of it. The most vociferous complaints are reserved for men’s chronic criminal behavior, drug use, violence, and, above all, repeated and flagrant sexual infidelity. Most men made no effort to hide their frequent liaisons, which were often carried on simultaneously. More often than not, those relationships produced babies. Offspring by other partners loomed especially large as obstacles to stable and harmonious relationships. Women resented children fathered with other girlfriends as evidence of a man’s imperfect devotion and as a drain on his attention and resources. The presence of a woman’s children by previous boyfriends also produced conflict by undermining the man’s authority and engendering divided loyalties.  (Amy L. Wax. “Too few good men.” Policy Review, Dec 2005 i134 p69(11))

These descriptions will come as no surprise to most of you, who’ve talked with me about children from similar circumstances. No Child Left Behind is driven, as much as anything, by the persistent failure of schools to change the destiny of kids from this class--thus all the requirements to “disaggregate” the statistics so we can’t hide the fact that there’s a class of students who we have persistently failed to teach.

My sense is that this problem is the main social problem we face today, in somewhat the way segregation was the big problem for people in the 1950s.

What I’m wondering about is how strong or weak the linkage is between the trouble we have in helping the poor and the “boy problem.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/26 at 08:23 AM
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Teachers caught in the muddle

Charles Glen wrote in Wilson Quarterly about the profound disagreements about the purpose of schooling that leave teachers in a muddle. Should schooling aim at shaping the character of pupils? Many have argued that it should, going so far as to claim that liberal democracy cannot survive without common schools to form the correct character of future citizens:

. . .As Montesquieu pointed out in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), “there need not be much integrity for a monarchical or despotic government to maintain or sustain itself.... But in a popular state there must be an additional spring, which is virtue.” For this reason, “it is in republican government that the full power of education is needed.... One can define this virtue as love of the laws and the homeland. This love, requiring a continual preference of the public interest over one’s own, produces all the individual virtues.... in a republic, everything depends on establishing this love, and education should attend to inspiring it.”

The American founding generation agreed. Benjamin Rush urged, in 1786, that “our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, the same year, that schools were the most important instrument of society for “ameliorating the condition, protecting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.” The 1790s brought a spate of proposals to create a national system of education. A generation later, Horace Mann pointed out that “it may be an easy thing to make a Republic, but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans.... But if… a Republic be devoid of intelligence, it will only the more closely resemble an obscene giant.., whose brain has been developed only in the region of the appetites and passions, and not in the organs of reason and conscience.... Such a republic, with all its noble capacities for beneficence, will rush with the speed of a whirlwind to an ignominious end.”

On the other hand, many Americans have strongly resisted the idea that the state should try to mold its citizens through control over religion and education. This resistance led to the creation of more than 100,000 elected school boards across the country, established to keep education decisions close to parents and local citizens.

By now, of course, local control is almost meaningless, even in a “local control” state such as Montana. Local school boards hire teachers licensed by the state and treat them as specified by state labor laws. Students are given tests created and mandated by the state. The role of the federal government, though limited, has grown greatly under NCLB. Its influence is greatest in schools that serve poor children. The notion that citizens can have meaningful influence on their schools by attending local school board meetings is mostly a fantasy.

Resistance to government control of education has continued because critics believe that giving government the power to shape the beliefs and attitudes of children is, over the long term, a threat to freedom. Such critics share with the promoters of a strong state role a high estimation of the power of schooling to counter the influence of family and society on the developing child. They agree that schools and teachers are a crucial factor in preserving or transforming culture and social life. In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill spoke for those who urged that government should not be entrusted with a monopoly on schooling, while conceding it the role of ensuring that schooling was available to all:

The objections which are urged with reason against State education do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education, which is a totally different thing.... All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government.., in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

The strong sense that schools need to teach values in a clear and distinctive way and the equally strong sense that state schools cannot favor any particular set of values is being resolved by a signficant trend (resisted successfully in Montana so far) toward parental choice provisions such as charter schools, magnet schools, and vouchers. Such innovations have the potential for schools to be free to try strong and distinctive approaches while parents retain the freedom to choose an approach appropriate to their goals for their children. Education may be moving in the direction Mill advocated, toward “many competing experiments.” This trend is bolstered by the growing body of evidence that “schools with distinctive character, including faith-based schools, are more effective than schools reflecting a lowest common denominator of values.”

The tension has been avoided in many communities that have had enough cultural agreement about the purpose of schooling--such as suburban schools where the values of academic success and achievement are widely shared by parents, students and teachers--to forge a strong identity. But many public schools continue trying to operate with a hodgepodge of incoherent values:

Here is a primary source of the confusion of teachers today. School reformers celebrate distinctive approaches to education, and parents seek them, but the norms of the profession continue to insist that all teachers (and schools) are interchangeable, and that neither should “impose their values.” But good teaching is all about urging those we teach to accept what we believe to be true and worthy of their acceptance. Bad teaching imposes values, too, and schools that are incoherent are not neutral or “value free.” Cynicism, indifference to truth, disinclination to carry out tasks thoroughly, and disrespect for others - all of these can be learned in school.

Only schools with a distinctive character to which staff and parents alike are committed can shape the character of pupils in positive ways. This is one reason why Catholic schools now enroll many non-Catholics, and some Evangelical schools serve pupils from non-Evangelical families. Parents in these cases perceive that a school centered on a religious ethos, even if it is not their own ethos, is more likely to reflect their own convictions about the good life they want for their children than a school without such a common ground. Motivated pupils, a relatively safe and undistracted environment, and a size that allows the pupils and adults to know one another well more than offsets, for these parents, the material advantages that public schools, with their computer labs and highly credentialed teachers, usually enjoy. Shared values and clarity about goals offer a distinct advantage to faith-based schools. According to a study by Susan P. Choy for the National Center for Education Statistics, 71 percent of teachers in small (fewer than 150 pupils) private schools agree that “colleagues share beliefs and values about central mission of school,” compared with 41 percent of those in small public schools. In large schools, with more than 750 pupils, both numbers drop, to 49 percent in private schools and only 26 percent in public schools.

. . .Unfortunately, many teachers have been made tentative and confused about such matters by their own schooling, and by college or graduate school teacher-training programs. They have been told that public schools should be “value neutral,” and have taken that to mean that they should seek to give the impression that they have no fixed convictions about any matter on which Americans disagree. Even more damaging, they may let their pupils assume that they have no understanding of the nature of a good and honorable life, which would serve to anchor such convictions.

The lives of teachers in many systems are plagued by inconsistent philosophies. Teachers are told that they need to teach the content specified in state standards. This is an essentially “conservative” task, passing on to a new generation the core knowledge and accumulated wisdom of society about what is important to know.

But they are also told their teaching should be “child-centered"--they should take their guidance not from curriculum mandates but from each student’s own needs and interests. They are taught to disparage “mere subject matter” and to believe that knowledge is changing too fast to focus on “mere” facts, and to feel that it is harmful to young people to suffer through tests and grades.

Teachers who pay attention to professional associations are also frequently told that they are the front line in the battle to transform society “by convincing pupils that the beliefs of their parents and of their communities of faith or tradition about the roles of men and women, about sexual orientations and practices, and about a host of other sensitive matters are simply wrong. In Plato’s sense, teachers are to disillusion their pupils about what they think they know and what meaning to attach to it.”

These various educational philosophies are not compatible. To implement any of them coherently is to exclude the others:

If we are entering, as it appears, an era of many competing educational experiments, teachers and school administrators must be made aware of an essential truth: different ways of understanding the goals of education have different implications for the classroom and curriculum. Before this can happen, however, we need to recognize that the competing goals of education themselves reflect different philosophical, even theological, choices about how we understand the nature of reality itself.

“Teachers’ Muddle.” The Wilson Quarterly

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/07 at 04:07 PM
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