"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for January, 2012


Much of the national conversation is dominated by issues on which the media and academic elite claim that they’re out in front of us backwards Christians.  What I find rather remarkable is the number of issues on which those same people end up figuring out that us backwards Christians were right all along.  One excellent example comes from this paper:

Monogamy reduces major social problems of polygamist cultures

You got that?  It turns out that “societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage” have major advantages over those that don’t.  Among the bad things that researchers found in societies that practice polygamy are “greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality” and “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud”.  Societies that only allow monogamous marriage will see “lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict” and “increases [in] long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment”.  The researchers also note that “monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized” and “monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.”  Sounds pretty good for monogamy, doesn’t it?

None of this should exactly be news for informed people.  All of it has been known for awhile.  For instance, The American Conservative published an article a decade ago, Sex and Consequences, which covers the same ground.  I’d hazard a guess as to why that article wasn’t announced all across the media landscape as this latest one is.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the earlier one was published in The American Conservative, and also because it tackles gay marriage along with polygamy, and the results aren’t very positive for either.

But nonetheless, the word is now out.  There is actual evidence that allowing polygamous marriage will lead to harm for individuals and society.  But why should we care?  After all, virtually no one thinks that polygamy should be legal, right?

Actually, I’d say this is very important.  Anyone can look and see that there’s a movement afoot to make polygamy acceptable in America.  There are whole TV shows dedicated to doing so, and to presenting a highly innacurate portrait of how a polygamous family functions.  Such families have been interviewed on Oprah and other high-profile places, again giving a misleading picture.  And it’s obvious, though some would try to deny it, that if it’s legally accepted that  the government can’t discriminate in its marriage laws, then eventually polygamy will become legal.  When that happens, the research tells us that we can expect higher crime, higher poverty, greater gender inequality, and other bad effects.  If we don’t want those things, we should ensure that monogamous marriage remains the only legal possibility, and that socially it’s encouraged as much as possible.  Indeed, I seem to recall that Jesus Christ took that general position, and if he were actually just an ignorant carpenter from first-century Palestine it would be rather remarkable that he stumbled on precisely the definition of marriage that is best for modern society.

Population Control, Part Deux

(This is a follow-up to my first post on the subejct.)

I was in the process of addressing this comment by a population control advocate:

Though nine billion is only a projected figure, based on assumptions about birth and death rates that may or may not be accurate between now and 2050, it is most often accepted as a fait accompli. That leads us, then, not to ask questions about whether we should intervene in that growth somehow, stop it, or even reverse it, but rather to focus on questions about how we are going to provide for it. Rather than ask why we want or need another 2.1 billion humans on the planet, researchers focus almost exclusively on how we are going to provide those additional people with safe drinking water, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and other needs, even though billions already do without some or all of those things.

I promised to note “two things” about this argument, but only noted one: that there’s no evidence that more people means more poverty and starvation, andthere’s ample evidence that they do not.  My second point involves the poster’s use of the word “we”, as in “rather than ask why we want or need another 2.1 billion humans”.  Now “we” and its sidekick “us” have caused controversy before.  In Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem, the totalitarian bad guys ban first-person singular pronouns and require the use of plurals instead, thus displaying their collectivist tendencies.  The heroic good guy eventually rediscovers the power of “I”.

That’s absurd, of course.  There’s nothing intrinsically evil about first-person plural pronouns.  Sometimes human beings make decisions as groups, and in such cases “we” is perfectly appropriate.  The American people will elect a President this November.  It’s quite all right to say that we will elect a President.  When my family decides to go to Florida on vacation, it “we” who make the decision.

Those are instances in which a group makes a decision, and it’s a decision that must be made as a group.  Other decisions are not made by groups, however.  The decision about how many human beings should inhabit earth is not a group decision.  If my wife and I choose to have children, no one else gets any say in the matter.  Likewise we get no say in the decision of whether or not anyone else has children.  As far as populating the earth is concerned, there is no “we” involved, save the two-person we’s known as couples.  There is certainly no global “we” who makes a global decision about what the population of earth will be.  Anyone should be able to see easily that in this case, treating all these individual decisions as if they were a single decision made together would be a gateway to authoritarianism and tyranny.  China’s One-Child Policy testifies to that clearly enough.

More on NCLB

Following up the not-so-dramatic revelation that the No Child Left Behind Act is failing drastically, I decided to post some more facts about the state of public education in America.  Unfortunately, I cannot do so, because of another failure of the same piece of legislation.  NCLB, you’ll recall, was supposed to make information about education readily available.  By any standard, I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t done so.

For example, let me take the public high school nearest to me: Rappahannock County High School, in Rapphannock County Virgina.  With a simple search, I can find the school’s website.  The front page of the site gives me fascinating information about the calendar, school lunch prices, and office hours, but no visible information about the school’s academic performance.  I look to the list of tabs on the left, and I click the one labeled “Academics”, but that only leads me to the transcript request form.  Nothing wrong with a transcript request form, but I don’t see any information about academics there.  I click the most promising of the other tabs, but none of them give me any information about the school’s performance on standardized testing or anything other solid, factual measure of how the school performs.  It’s safe to say that most public schools in this country follow the same pattern.  They are not eager to give parents direct information about how well they’re doing their jobs.

Searching a little bit farther afield, I find the site greatschools.com, run by a private nonprofit group, which has a page for Rappahanncok County High School.  They do have some actual data, all coming from the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, the testing regimen that Virginia created to meet the mandates of NCLB.  They do tell the percentage of students that pass each test each year.  But that’s it.  Parents cannot, as far as I can tell, get any information more specific than that.

Obviously there’s a great deal more that a parent would probably want to know about their school beyond merely whether their child is likely to pass a certain test.  Parents might want to know the distribution of actual scores that students got on that test.  They might want to know how many students go on to college, and which colleges they go to.  Parents might want to know which areas the school is most successful in, what the pass/fail rates are in every class rather than just overall, and how experienced the teachers are in various areas.  Parents might want to know a great many other things.  This information may, for all I know, be available somewhere, but it should be readily available to anyone who looks.  It should be gathered in one place and presented clearly.  A section on the school’s website would certain suffice.

So why isn’t it.  Well, the answer isn’t too difficult to figure out.  Nobody associated with the public schools–teachers, administrators, unions, or politicians–wants this information to be readily available.  Too much of the information reflects negatively on those exact groups of people.  If word got out about how bad America’s public schools are, the public might actually demand serious change.  That’s why they do their best to hide the information.

How to turn failing schools into succeeding schools

I’ve been blogging for over a year and I’ve written 162 posts, and yet I’ve written little about a subject of great interest to me, which happens to be my chosen profession: education.  I am a teacher, and as such a follower of trends in education.  My attention was grabbed by a recent newspaper headline with the self-explanatory headline: Half of U.S. Schools Fail Federal Standards.

Let me give you a brief history.  For decades we’ve known that America’s public school system is failing, with test scores and other measures for our public school students lagging behind private school students, behind previous generations, and behind students from other countries.  In 2001 Congress and then-President Bush finally did something in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The idea was that every state would have to implement a strict testing regimen for its public schools, by which it would measure whether each school was ‘failing’ or not.  For schools that were failing, there would be consequences.  Of course, as with most federal legislation, a lot was left blurry and ambiguous.  States had a lot of leeway in how to create their tests, how to evaluate schools, and how to respond once any school was found to be failing.

The result, 10 years later, is summarized in the headline above.  Almost half of schools are failing.  That means half of schools will face consequences, right?  No more passive acceptance of mediocrity, no more pretending not to notice, no more leaving any child behind?

Actually not.   As the article explains, our Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a response.  The failures are “an alarming trend that Duncan hopes to address by granting states relief from the federal law.”  Yes, that’s right, if half our schools are failing, we should just change the law that was instituted to prevent them from failing.  But it gets better:

The numbers indicate what federal officials have been saying for more than a year — that the law, which is four years overdue for a rewrite, is “too crude a measure” to accurately depict what’s happening in schools, said Jack Jennings , president of the Washington, D.C.-based center. An overhaul of the law has become mired in the partisan atmosphere in Congress, with lawmakers disagreeing over how to fix it.

“No Child Left Behind is defective,” Jennings told The Associated Press. “It needs to be changed. If Congress can’t do it, then the administration is right to move ahead with waivers.”

So now our “federal officials” are telling us that the federal government’s own law is a bad thing.  Really?  It’s too bad they couldn’t have figured that perhaps ten years ago, before the federal government passed the law that they’re now badmouthing.  It’s too bad that even while everyone from teachers to parents to local governments was well aware of NCLB’s many large failings, the federal government wasn’t willing to listen until a year ago.  But I guess that’s just too much to ask from the federal government.

Chesterton on Beauty and the Beast

Now that I’ve commented on the revival of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in theatres, it seems as good a time as any to present one of Chesterton’s greatest passages, thefamous section from Orthodoxy concerning fairy tales.

But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep. But I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts.

It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities. We believe that a Bean-stalk climbed up to Heaven; but that does not at all confuse our convictions on the philosophical question of how many beans make five.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


Beauty and the Beast … in 3D

On Saturday night I went to a movie theatre for the first time in almost six months.  Amazingly, I managed to emerge without seeing a single depiction of or reference to torture, farting, genitilia, stoners, profanity, or anything else vile and repulsive.  I saw Beauty and the Beast, the Disney Animated version from 1992, in 3-D.

I give Beauty and the Beast two thumbs up.  It’s a very well-done fairy tale, closer to the spirit of the great Disney films of the 40’s and 50’s than anything else they’ve done in the past generation.  The jokes are sometimes funny, the music is generally funnier, the writing is sound and the characters are well-developed.  The good guys are genuinely good and the bad guys are genuinely bad.  The story elemenets, which expand on the classic tale, are arranged intelligently and hte pacing is good.  This last comes as a particular surprise when compared to modern filmmaking, which seems to be entirely shaped around the needs of the ADHD generation.  In movies these days, everything is always happening fast, and filmmakers never take the opportunity to linger on a quiet room, a peacefuls woodland scene, or anything else.

I give 3D a definite thumbs down.  Before Saturday I had never seen a movie in 3D, and afterwards I hope to never do so again.  At it’s best, the 3D adds nothing at all to the viewing experience.  Most of  the time it’s a horrendsou distraction that took me right out of the story.  Most of the scenes with a 3D element had the characters in the foreground in front of a painted background.  This only made it painfully obvious that the characters were very two-dimensional andlooked like cardboard puppets dancing around in front of a cardboard backdrop.  Worse, in many cases, the objects in the foreground appeared to have ridiculous placement and proportions.  In the ballroom scene the audience at one point looks down from above, with a chandelier in the foreground and the floor and walls behind it.  The perspective makes it look as if the chandelier is miles high, whereas in the original 2-D version it appeared to be at exactly the right height.  Similarly in the castle’s front entrance hall, there’s a staircase in which the lower part sticks straight out at the viewer, appearing to be the length of a football field.  In the original it looked just fine.

If anyone from Hollywood chances to read this (yeah, right) here’s my advice.  Give up on 3D, and make better, more tasteful movies, and you’ll be more likely to get me to the theatre.

More of Chesterton on Population Control

Here’s some more from the same essay that I quoted from earlier.  In this passage, Chesterton takes on the central contradiction of leftists who support population control.  On the one hand, these people claim that they support the poor and are trying to help the poor.  Much of their identity is wrapped up in the idea that they supposedly love the poor and want to save the them from the horrible excesses of capitalism.  Yet every population control effort that’s ever existed has attacked the rights of the poor while leaving the rich alone, which might lead some people to suspect that getting rid of the poor is the real motive behind population control efforts.

If anybody doubts that this is the very simple motive, let him test it by the very simple statements made by the various Birth-Controllers like the Dean of St. Paul’s. They never do say that we suffer from a too bountiful supply of bankers or that cosmopolitan financiers must not have such large families. They do not say that the fashionable throng at Ascot wants thinning, or that it is desirable to decimate the people dining at the Ritz or the Savoy. Though, Lord knows, if ever a thing human could look like a sub-human jungle, with tropical flowers and very poisonous weeds, it is the rich crowd that assembles in a modern Americanized hotel.

But the Birth-Controllers have not the smallest desire to control that jungle. It is much too dangerous a jungle to touch. It contains tigers. They never do talk about a danger from the comfortable classes, even from a more respectable section of the comfortable classes. The Gloomy Dean is not gloomy about there being too many Dukes; and naturally not about there being too many Deans. He is not primarily annoyed with a politician for having a whole population of poor relations, though places and public salaries have to be found for all the relations. Political Economy means that everybody except politicians must be economical.

The Birth-Controller does not bother about all these things, for the perfectly simple reason that it is not such people that he wants to control. What he wants to control is the populace, and he practically says so. He always insists that a workman has no right to have so many children, or that a slum is perilous because it is producing so many children. The question he dreads is “Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?” His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: “You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice, I will deprive myself of your children.”

-G. K. Chesterton, Social Reform versus Birth Control

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