Archived Posts February 2007 - Page 2 of 8 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: jarmstrong
Monday, February 26, 2007

U.S. high school students are taking harder classes, receiving better grades, and from every indication in recent data, leaning much less than their counterparts fifteen years ago. Go figure. All the talk about spending more money and about improving testing and teacher standards and the end result is that two decades of educational reform may not have improved things overall.

The U.S. Department of Education released two studies Thursday that raised very tough questions. David Driscoll, the commissioner of education for Massachusetts, notes, "I think we are sleeping through a crisis." He called these two new studies "stunning." Two means were used for this study: (1) A standardized 12th grade test, and (2) An analysis of the transcripts of 2005 high school graduates.

The fascinating thing is that students in 1990 had a GPA of 2.68 and in 2005 it rose to 2.98, and this included students taking more college preparatory courses than ever before. 12th grade reading scores have been dropping steadily since 1992. So, what are students learning in college prep classes? As for math fewer than 25% scored in the "proficient" range.

This study involved 900 U.S. schools, including 200 private schools! 26,000 transcripts were used. The chief of curriculum for Chicago high schools said, "We know the root to solving the problem is having more rigor in classes." But how? We already have teachers who fear their students, killings in our schools, and armed guards in most U.S. high schools. What next? The fact is few leaders, and especially politicians and educators, have real answers. The system is broken. Do parents and citizens have the will to fix it? I have my doubts. Such problems call for Christians to make a difference. Talk about a cultural opportunity, here is a huge one. But most of us have run away from public education, condemning it with John Dewey and  his ilk to the pit. Even if we do not want our children in the public system can we afford to form ghettos for Christians and ride this storm out to its long term conclusions?

The movie Amazing Grace came out this weekend. We desperately need a Wilberforce-like leader (or hundreds of lesser known but similarly courageous leaders) to begin to work for the real education of our children or our values will be entirely lost in a few more decades.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 23, 2007

Anthony Esolen, from the March issue of Touchstone:

The most bountiful alms that the rich can give the poor, apart from the personal donation of their time and means, are lives of virtue to emulate. It is their duty. But when they use their means to buy off the effects of vice, or, worse, to celebrate it, that is an offense against those whom Jesus called ‘little ones,’ and no amount of almsgiving can lighten the millstone.

Read the whole thing (HT: the evangelical outpost).

ON SECOND THOUGHT, the reality of the situation is probably a bit more complex than the editorial above indicates. That is, there is a cyclical and reciprocal dynamic in the popularization of any trend, as it moves from sub-culture to the mainstream. Very often the rich are dependent on the poor for determining what is “cool”. The rich and famous are typically derivative and dependent in this sense. Just as often the newest trend is wearing a trucker hat or grunge as it is Dolce & Gabbana.

Take the case of rap music. An underground, urban, and grassroots phenomenon has become mainstream. And in any such transition, there are disputes as to who is loyal to the movement itself and who has simply latched on to cash in on the mainstream popularity. Thus, for instance, the dispute between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre in the mid-90’s about who is a real “G.”

This dynamic does underscore the truth of Esolen’s observation about the “disconcerting sameness” between rich and poor. Wealth and power certainly do not by themselves confer any special moral standing or integrity, and as our namesake quote from Lord Acton indicates, they can often be the occasion for greater and more comprehensive corruption.

This made me think of this.

From the NYTimes: “Zimbabwe’s economy is so dire that bread vanished from store shelves across the country on Wednesday after bakeries shut down, saying government price controls were requiring them to sell loaves at a loss. The price controls are supposed to shield consumers from the nation’s rampant inflation, which now averages nearly 1,600 percent annually.”

From the poem, “The Incredible Bread Machine”:

Now bread is baked by government.
And as might be expected,
Everything is well controlled.
The Public well protected.

True, loaves cost a dollar each,
But our leaders do their best!
The selling price is half a cent.
Taxes pay the rest.

Blog author: jrichards
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Over at Planet Gore, I responded to Catholic layperson named Mary Colwell who seems to have her theological priorities out of whack:

Colwell complains that the Catholics are not consistently green, and hopes things will improve. She speaks as a Catholic, but I wonder where she’s getting her theology. She tells readers: “What is the true nature of our relationship with the earth? Get this right and everything else will begin to fall into place.” That’s the Green Gospel speaking. Jesus didn’t give the relationship between human beings and the Earth pride of place. He said that the first and greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourself. Everything follows from that. Christians of all stripes should take seriously our stewardship of the Earth. But our relationship to the Earth is not the first principle from which everything else follows.

Having a small child in the home gives the opportunity for exposure to things you might otherwise never have reason to see. Such is the case with the VeggieTales in my house. We have “King George and the Ducky” on VHS, which gets occasional play on the set. The story itself adapts the tale of David and Bathsheba, but before the story gets underway, there’s a brief prelude.

Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato are the stars of the VeggieTales, but two of their friends who don’t usually take center stage give telling a story about selfishness a try. What they come up with doesn’t meet the VeggieTales standards, but it does help tell us something about the way the market works in the real world. Jimmy and Jerry Gourd tell the tales of “The Englishman who went up a hill (and came down with all the bananas),” and “The Swede who went up a hill (and came down with all the strawberries).”

The Englishman has taken all the bananas, “leaving of course the inhabitants of the hill with no bananas and therefore bestowing the term ‘selfish’ upon myself” (QuickTime video here).

When asked if he’s going to eat any of the bananas, the Englishman responds that of course he can’t eat any, because you can’t have bananas without strawberries. “You’re soooo selfish,” cries a voice from off-camera.

The Swede who went up a hill does the same thing as the Englishman, but with strawberries instead of bananas. And the Swede will not eat any strawberries, because you can’t enjoy strawberries without bananas.

When the Englishman and the Swede see that the other one has what he needs to enjoy his own fruit, they ask in turn, “Might you spare a banana/strawberry?” But each character is so selfish that he is unwilling to part with any of his own fruit, and so both the Swede and the Englishman are left unable to enjoy their fruit but unwilling to simply give away his own fruit to make the other better off.

This brief story ends with Jimmy and Jerry Gourd moralizing, “Don’t be selfish.”

Needless to say, Larry and Bob are not satisfied with this tale, and go on to tell the story of King George and the Ducky. Part of the reason Jimmy and Jerry’s tale doesn’t work is that it is too simplistic and unrealistic.

That is, it doesn’t take into account the way in which market mechanisms can redirect selfish behavior into something that does benefit both parties in an exchange. The situation Jimmy and Jerry sets up simply has each possessor of the fruit ask for the corresponding fruit, implying a reliance upon the charity of the other party.

But what is much more likely to happen in a situation like this is that the Swede and the Englishman would engage in a trade, so that each would give their own fruit to get the other fruit, and in the end both would be able to enjoy strawberries and bananas. There’s no need to depend on or appeal to the charity of the other party in this situation. And an unwillingness to trade would make the lot of both the Swede and the Englishman worse off, as they would each be left with unusable and rotten fruit.

The incentive for their own material benefit would be to trade. In this way the market mechanism can function to take selfish action and make it serve a mutually beneficial purpose. In doing so there is an element of public, civic, or social good that is performed, irrespective of the selfish motivations of the parties involved.

None of these observations do anything to mitigate concerns about the ways in which the Swede and the Englishman went about obtaining their monopoly on the respective fruits. Nor does the material benefit created in the exchange obviate the need for charity and love in human social relations. And furthermore we certainly can’t say that because selfish behavior resulted in some material good that somehow selfishness is to be understood as a virtue in the truest sense. At best brazen selfishness can manifest itself as external righteousness, civic virtue, or a public good and is to be distinguished from true righteousness, virtue, and good. Selfishness is still sin.

But what such an exchange does show is that even in a world marked by sin and depravity, some good can come out of evil. As the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter has written,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men.

In this sense, the market mechanism functions as a sort of preserving grace by which material wealth is created and enjoyed, allowing human beings to continue to live and even flourish. But rather than being the end of human activity, such material prosperity is a foundational reality necessary for the actualization of greater goods, a necessary but not sufficient condition for human happiness.

I promise not to belabor this point any further (well, unless something really juicy comes in…), but Jay Nordlinger, in the latest National Review, offers more observations [subscription needed] on the religious qualities of “secular” environmentalism, from his perch at Davos. Along the way, he cites my PowerBlog post from a couple weeks ago. The relevant passage:

In other words, you can contribute to an anti-global-warming fund in order to relieve your guilt at having used, for example, an airplane. I put this in Jacksonian terms (I mean Jesse, not Andrew): Don’t be emittin’ without remittin’. Later, Kevin Schmiesing of the Acton Institute will write that these remissions remind him of the indulgences of old, whereby you washed away your sins by your financial contributions. The notorious German friar Johann Tetzel (allegedly) said, “As soon a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” (He was a rhymer too, at least in English translation.) And more than a few of us have described a certain kind of environmentalism as a modern religion.

The basic idea has gained traction at the top levels of the Catholic hierarchy, as this column by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney demonstrates. I must tip my hat to His Eminence, by the way, for introducing an important nuance: the most zealous promoters of global warming hysteria are not really “religious” in a Christian sense (that would give religion a bad name); they are more accurately described as “”superstitious.”

Blog author: jrichards
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I’m contributing to a new blog at National Review Online, called Planet Gore, which focuses on the Global Warming controversy. Check it out.