Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Archive for July 2008

Defend Western Civilization—-Anyone?

with 2 comments

Was Osama bin Laden justified in making the Pentagon a target for his terrorists?  That’s not a question that should concern American journalists according to David Westin, president of ABC News.   After the 9/11 attack, Westin told an audience at Columbia’s School of Journalism that it was not his place as a journalist to condemn the attack. “I can say that the Pentagon got hit . . . but for me to take a position that this was right or wrong . . . as a journalist I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on.”  And he said he wanted all his reporters to think that way.

Journalists take stands on every other issue in the news, no matter how insignificant.  One wonders how a journalist could justify taking a stand on relatively trivial issues like budget controversies while remaining indifferent to threats to the nation’s survival. Mr. Westin apologized later for his statement when he was criticized for it.  But was the apology sincere or a retraction calculated to keep ABC from losing viewers to other networks?

It’s getting harder to find anyone willing to defend Western civilization.  The  intellectual leaders in American colleges and universities have undermined  belief in it, according to Dr. Allan Bloom. In his book,  The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom says our students have been taught that the highest virtue is an openness.

“There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.”  All other cultures are represented to American students as equal to our own culture, no matter how incompatible their cultural practices are with our constitution, laws, and customs.  As a result, a generation of students has been rendered incapable of valuing and defending Western culture.

“The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better.”  But what students are not told is  that “every one of these [non-Western] cultures is ethnocentric.  All of them think that their way is the best way, and [that] all others are inferior.”

Ignored in the university courses are human rights abuses and atrocities being committed in other cultures.  And in some countries it’s  much worse than just depriving people of the right to vote. Slavery is still practiced in third-world countries: young girls are sold by their families. In some societies girls are castrated so that they will not be tempted to be unfaithful to their husbands.

American students are typically very idealistic but haven’t learned enough about the real world to direct that idealism effectively.  Dr. Bloom, who taught philosophy,  tells of putting this question to students to get them to think: “If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?”  The answer he got from his students was either silence or the reply, “the British should never have been there in the first place.”

A culture’s survival doesn’t depend on whether it has superior ideas or institutions.   No, survival depends on self confidence.   The future belongs to the culture that believes in itself.  Rome was overrun by relatively primitive tribes of Huns and Goths because Rome had lost its energy and belief in itself.

What are some of the signs of a self-doubting culture?   (1) Welcoming into one’s country multiple cultures —some of which are fundamentally at odds with one’s own culture.   (2) Making no distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants coming  into one’s own country and being indifferent as to whether the newcomers become assimilated citizens. (3) Encouraging the rise of a second language by publishing official documents in that language.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger in The Disuniting of America writes:  “What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same political sovereignty?  Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal antagonisms will drive them apart.  In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?”


Written by polemicscat

July 31, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Can We Take Fashion Seriously?

leave a comment »

Anything new is irresistible to many people. The urge to have the new goes hand in hand with the flawed assumption that change of any kind is always an improvement.  That impulse makes millions for commercial enterprises while rendering perfectly functional equipment obsolete. What’s better than this computer’s operating system? That’s easy to answer: Why, next year’s version!

I bought Vista because the software I wanted to use runs only on Vista. There was one little hitch— none of the other software I had would run on Vista. I decided I’d learn to live without the Vista-only software and went back to XP. Looking at the big picture, I figured I’m probably not going to live long enough to make learning all the new software for Vista a practical activity, anyway.

Some economist needs to do a study to determine whether this rage for the new is absolutely necessary to keep the economy afloat. Doesn’t it just send a lot of resources to the garbage dump? And isn’t that really borrowing on the future since the earth’s resources are finite?

Unfortunately, it’s true that the passion for fashion rules. It certainly dominates in the realm of cars, clothes, and coiffure. Consider this. There is only a limited number of ways to shape an automobile to convey the human body in comfort and convenience; a limited number of ways to wrap the human body in cloth; a limited number of ways to arrange the hair on a person’s head. We have tried different automobile shapes for a hundred years; we have tried different clothes and different hairstyles for thousands of years. Surely in that time we have discovered the most aesthetically pleasing and the best functioning. But because fashion demands change, we revert to the ugly and the grotesque.

“Yes,” you say, “but what of variety as the spice of life?” I answer, “If variety is the aim, why were people so rude about Hillary’s abominable hats? Why are people so intolerant of the styles of yesteryear? Why are people so preoccupied with the best-dressed and worst-dressed celebrity each year?”

The young people of each generation look at the clothes and hair worn by their parents fifteen or twenty years earlier and giggle. They giggle and never seem to realize that in years to come their own children will snicker at the clothes and hair they are wearing today. And so it goes one generation after another; the giggling and snickering in each case grows out of the mindless assumption that there is an absolute standard of good taste but only one’s own generation knows what it is.

Liberal Arts Education

leave a comment »


In the nineteenth century, British author and theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman defined  liberal education in a series of lectures which he later published under the title The Idea of a University.  In this work, he made the case that the knowledge acquired through the study of liberal arts is valuable in itself.  By “valuable in itself” he meant that education need not have an “instrumental” value; that is, it need not be designed to enable the student to perform any particular task or to help the graduate earn money in a particular profession.   Rather liberal arts education was meant to develop the mind and character of the student.  He said that in this way knowledge could be its own end.

At the time he was writing, anybody who thought about education assumed that only certain people were intellectually suited to get a university education.   It was also assumed that university graduates would be the  intellectual leaders of society.  In England, that meant that––as a rule—class and social position determined which citizens would be able to get a university degree.  But intelligence, made apparent in early schooling, enabled other boys to attend a university. 


To a large extent higher education in the United States until mid-twentieth century resembled that in England.  It was generally assumed that a college education was not for everybody.  And who attended a college or university in the United States was determined largely by social and  economic standing.  But the intellectually gifted often found a way to get a university education.


The liberal arts curriculum was considered an integral part of a college education at the time. Before the 1960’s, virtually all American college students took a set of courses known as liberal arts during their freshman and sophomore years.  These courses drawn from the arts and sciences were meant to acquaint students with a wide range of subjects: science, mathematics, literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and physical development.  Only during the junior and senior years did students concentrate in a major––a subject that prepared them to enter a profession.  

The thinking behind this curriculum was that anyone claiming to have a college degree ought to be conversant in more issues than just those associated with a single profession.  College graduates were expected to become the intellectual leaders of society, and their education was meant to be more than just preparation for a specific career.  In those days, a liberal arts degree was often, in itself, enough to get a person into a career.  It was not unusual at that time to find a person who majored in history or literature or philosophy in an executive position in a corporation. 

In the United States in the 1960’s two factors undermined college liberal arts and the belief in knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  First, the Sputnik scare caused heavy funding for college education, and, second, political activism increased on college campuses.  The first greatly increased the number of students on campuses, and the second tended to erode control of the curriculum by faculty.

Just the increased number of students assured that more of them would object to the wide variety of subjects required by the liberal arts curriculum.  Many of the students were out of sympathy with certain goals of liberal arts—for example, the study and appreciation of Western Civilization.   Others were minimally qualified to take rigorous academic courses.  These students demanded “more relevant” courses—- that is, subjects that made graduates more narrowly employable or subjects that were more easily seen to impact on the here and now. 

At the same time, political activism interfered with the discipline needed to pursue serious study. It also tended to put a political spin on subjects being taught.  College administrators were caught up in the frenzy of the moment too.  They were interested in soothing the unhappiness of students and avoiding disruptions like sit-ins at the administration building.  They began to insist that the faculty revise the curriculum accordingly.  

In more recent years, under the pressure of specialization, administrators at colleges have become business people, not educators.  Whereas college presidents used to be educators themselves— people who were promoted up from the teaching faculty—nowadays they more likely hold degrees in college administration and to have never taught academic courses.  They commonly believe that colleges are businesses and that students should be treated like customers, bearing in mind that the “customer is always right.”   That is why grade inflation is a common problem even in prestigious  colleges and universities in the country where most students get As and Bs for average work.  


The results are evident.  It is not just that politicians educated in recent times are mendacious and licentious.  People have been that way down through history.   It’s that they have no shame and are unrepentant when they are caught lying or being lascivious.  And voters have come to expect and thus to accept that kind of behavior in national leaders.    Often corporate executives are so obsessed with “the bottom line” that they ignore moral and ethical issues when conducting business.


The study of literature, history, and philosophy raises enduring questions of morality and ethics.  It calls on students to think critically about the normative questions in philosophy, “What is the good life?” and “How should people treat each other?”  The trend away from liberal arts in education has been unfortunate for the nation because every citizen in a democracy should be prepared to think beyond the present moment and beyond purely personal interests.  Perhaps it is too much to expect that every citizen have a college degree and be liberally educated in the way that Newman describes.  But civics and issues of morality and ethics should be a part of education from the lowest grades.

Written by polemicscat

July 19, 2008 at 10:58 am

Private Life and Public Trust

leave a comment »

Richard Wagner, the famous nineteenth-century German composer, wrote both the words and the music of his operas. His talent is universally recognized, and he is generally considered  a genius.  Yet, today, when performers or audiences think about the man and his life–not just about his music–-they are troubled.

For one thing, in his private life Wagner took unfair advantage of people’s trust and generosity. He lived beyond his means and then left town to avoid paying his debts.

For another, he was anti-Semitic.  He wrote a treatise expressing  his belief in an Aryan master race and voicing his dislike of Jews.  Even some of his operas reflect this prejudice.  Thus his social-political ideas attached themselves to his reputation as a composer.  In the twentieth century Hitler adopted Wagner as the preeminent composer for the Third Reich.

About people like Wagner the question arises, “Should we or can we enjoy and admire the work of a very talented artist when other aspects of his life are highly repugnant to us?”

In the case of Wagner, directors of orchestras have sometimes felt a need to apologize when performing his music in front of audiences which might be offended.  I remember that  Zubin Mehta thought it was necessary to explain his reasons for performing Wagner’s music in Israel when he took the New York Philharmonic there on tour.

It often happens that the personal lives of public figures become mixed up with their professional work.  Today, more than ever before, the public is hungry to know all the details about the personal lives of singers, actors, and politicians.  Thus, publications like People magazine do a brisk business in gossip about prominent figures.  Sadly, even television news programs are succumbing to the temptation to gossip about pop stars.  Edward R. Murrow warned us that it could happen.

Since  rock music became popular, rock stars have intentionally emphasized personality in their performances, and their eccentricities become intertwined with their work.  Their fans have been attracted by their weird behavior and strange costumes which have become an integral part of their performances.

These stars know that having personal oddities can be profitable in their line of work.  They know that the music written and played by a rock star is so closely identified with his personality that, typically,  fans won’t listen to the music when done by other performers.  But the weird personalities that rock stars project during concerts are a pretense: undoubtedly their private lives are something different from their concert personalities.

It is usually better not to know that your favorite singer is actually morally corrupt.  I am often disappointed when I hear the sordid details about improprieties in the private life of an artist whose work I admire.   So when the artist has not committed a serious crime, I try to ignore the gossip about his peccadilloes and to go on enjoying his art.

But certain vices such as the tendency to lie and to violate law cannot be easily overlooked in a political leader.  When a leader asks citizens to trust him, to obey laws, or to make sacrifices for important causes, he himself needs to have character and integrity that warrant the people’s trust.

Written by polemicscat

July 16, 2008 at 5:33 pm

The Disappearance of Agrarian Life

leave a comment »


About thirty years ago when I was teaching at a small college, I came across a document designed to trace migratory patterns of Americans.  It was a survey to determine the linguistic practices of students and, thereby, to learn where the ancestors of the students had come from.  The instructions for filling out the survey said, “For many things in daily life, people in different parts of the United States use different words.  As Americans moved westward, they brought with them the terms used in their home states.” 

The survey consisted of items beginning with a description of an object followed by a list of different terms people might use to name the object.  For example, one was “SHELF OVER FIREPLACE: fire board, mantel, mantel board, mantelpiece, mantel shelf, shelf, clock shelf.”  Each student was asked to circle the term used in his home to describe that shelf.

All of the entries were fascinating to anyone who loves language.  Here is one of my favorites. “A VERY HEAVY RAIN THAT DOESN’T LAST LONG: squall, flaw, down-pour, cloudburst, lightwood-knot-floater, goose-drownder, gully-washer, trash-mover, toad-strangler.”       

Recently, when I looked at my copy of the survey, I began to notice something else.  Many of the objects considered “things in daily life” by the authors of the survey may be familiar to people of my generation, but they are practically unknown to today’s college students. 


There is no date on the document, but it seems probable that it was written in the 1950’s or earlier. Before mid-century the United States was an agrarian society; that is, most people lived on family farms.  And much of the farming was done using horses and mules.  In rural areas, even people who were not really farmers still typically raised a garden and had chickens, a cow, and a few pigs.

This survey’s words that evoke life on the farm and life in rural America reminded me that the nation’s agrarian culture has essentially disappeared since World War II.  Of course, tractors have replaced horses and mules.  Also Corporate farms have, to a large extent, replaced family farms.  It is an irreversible trend.  But the disappearance of that agrarian culture has had some unfortunate effects on the American people.   

One effect is that each generation is more alienated from nature than the last.  It’s not surprising that people who live in closed, air-conditioned apartments; who ride to work in closed, air-conditioned cars; and who work in closed, air-conditioned buildings can go through life without realizing that human beings are inextricably bound to the natural world.  Many of us are out of touch with natural processes, and we show it in our disregard for the health of the earth.

Another effect is that most of us have lost the sense of freedom and independence that growing our own food and providing our other material goods can bring.  Until mid-century the family farm made the owning and bearing of firearms an unselfconscious continuation of a tradition going back as far as the Revolutionary War.  During the Great Depression firearms helped farmers feed their families as they had served Americans for two centuries.  

The founding fathers didn’t imagine it could be otherwise.  Jefferson thought that the United States would continue to be an agrarian society for a very long time.  In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”   And of urbanization he said, “The mobs of great cities add just so much support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”

In the United States, democracy with its most meaningful liberties is owed largely to the freedoms made possible by an agrarian society.  But under the pressure of urbanization and accelerated population growth, increased governmental regulation will make the decline of many liberties inevitable.

Written by polemicscat

July 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

The Case for the King James Bible

leave a comment »


Some of us who grew up hearing the King James version of the Bible read at home and in church feel a little disappointed when we hear familiar passages read from one of the later translations.  It’s as though someone is trying to recite the Bible from memory and can’t quite get it right.  Are we just being sentimental about the matter?  I don’t think so.

Of course, having an accurate translation of the Bible is important if the meaning of a particular verse is crucial to theological doctrine.  But since we have concordances and other reader aids available for the King James version, are the other, more-recent English translations really necessary?

Aside from the desire for accuracy, another reason is given for publishing new versions: to make the Bible more accessible to the semi-literate.  It seems that the language of Shakespeare is too difficult for some modern readers.  So the Bible has been put into other kinds of English in the hope that a reader with poor language skills can be made to understand it.  It is an argument that could be used for translating any literary classic into a more modern English.

There has even been a street-language Bible published, presumably for those who can’t read standard modern English.  Or maybe the idea is to make it sound more “relevant” to our times.  But why would anyone want the Bible to sound as common as a laundry list?

Whatever the rationale for these new translations, their appearance has had unfortunate results.

If another authoritative English version was needed to replace the King James version, we still don’t have it.  Instead, we have several other versions, none of which commands the same widespread respect and acceptance that the King James version did.  And none of the new ones has enough authority to settle any doctrinal dispute.  Any dispute over meaning would have to be settled by referring to Greek and Hebrew texts anyway.

Since we now have numerous versions for each pastor or congregation to pick from, the English-speaking culture has lost a special Biblical language.  There was an advantage in  having a recognizable language for scripture.  It was a dignified language that set the Bible apart from daily discourse–and especially apart from modern street-language.  Its rhythms commanded our attention.  Its nobility created a receptive mood in us.

The King James Bible is a classic of literature because of its language. For centuries British and American poets have been influenced by that language and have borrowed from it when they wanted to give dignity to their utterances.  Today, unfortunately, many young people have not heard that language and do not feel its unifying force in our culture.     

Authors of the new versions often fail to preserve the poetry of the Bible. In any writing, the interplay between language and meaning is important, but it is especially so in poetry: to treat a poem as though it has a translatable meaning aside from its language is misguided.  It is like peeling away the layers of an onion to get to the edible part.  

Much of the Bible is poetry.  The 23rd Psalm, for example, explains the relationship of God to man, but that meaning is embodied in figurative language; as poetry, that relationship is described as that of a good shepherd to his sheep.  To take out that figurative language weakens the poetry and can lead to clumsy distortions of meaning.  

One of the most flawed of the new Bibles is the New English Bible (1970) published by Oxford University Press.  Here are its second and third verses from the 23rd Psalm:

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
    and leads me beside the waters of peace;
    he renews life within me,
    and for his name’s sake guides me in the right path.

Let’s look at the three most serious weaknesses in the language of these verses:          

(1)”waters of peace” is not as good as “still waters” because it introduces the abstraction peace which is not in keeping with the concrete shepherd imagery;

(2) “he renews life within me” is worse than “He restoreth my soul” for two reasons: (a) “within me” is verbose (where else would life be?) and (b) the word life is not synonymous with the word soul since all biological things have life but not soul

(3) “in the right path” does not mean the same thing as “in the paths of righteousness”: the “right path” may be found on a map; but the “paths of righteousness” cannot be found on a map.

These faults are typical of this edition.  Suffice it to say that if this one is meant to be an improvement over the King James version, it is a dismal failure.

Written by polemicscat

July 10, 2008 at 11:43 am

Is Knowledge of Grammar Useful?

leave a comment »

In some respects, the history of education is a patchwork of fads.  Gurus in the field of education quickly come and go.  In schools of education at universities, professors rise to fame by giving new names to old ideas and for making proposals that re-invent the wheel. (A note to readers who have come of age recently: “Re-inventing the wheel” used to be considered a ludicrous expression because it was thought that once a thing was invented, it could not be invented again.)

These fads would be laughable except that they can lead a whole generation of students into the wilderness.  For example, the back-to-basics movement that began several decades ago was a reaction to an earlier fad in public schools which advocated–among other things–teaching children to read without using phonetics.  As a result, private companies today are making money by teaching phonetics to students who aren’t learning to read that way in public schools.

Colleges and universities have their share of fads too.  For some time now instructors of English composition have been told that research shows no correlation between writing ability and a knowledge of grammar.  Many instructors have embraced this conclusion wholeheartedly.  They hate the drudgery of teaching grammar and prefer reading poetry and fiction in their composition classes.  My guess is that most college English instructors today don’t know grammar well enough to teach it because they weren’t taught grammar themselves.

How valuable is a knowledge of grammar to students taking writing courses?  Some people do write very well without being able to name the parts of speech and without being able to distinguish a dependent clause from an independent clause.  In a similar way, some students are able to organize essays without preparing a formal outline before they begin to write.  English instructors love such students because they don’t need much instruction and their papers are easy to grade.

But such students are relatively rare.  Typically the ones who write well without a knowledge of grammar have  high verbal aptitudes, and they have learned the language but not with formal instruction.  They have absorbed the principles of grammar through reading and hearing good models of language spoken in their early years, an age when children are most impressionable.

But there is no art without its technical aspects, and the technical aspects are the things that can be taught.  So it is with writing.  The kind of instruction that struggling students want and need is technical. Typically the students who are really interested in learning demand some reason for each mark of punctuation.  They can benefit from rules to guide them.  In their attempts to understand, they ask questions that an instructor without technical knowledge cannot answer.

Even the student with great natural ability in language benefits from such knowledge.  Indeed, linguistically gifted students are the very ones who should study language in depth.  They are the logical ones to teach language courses to the next generation of students.

Courses in composition are lame when taught by an instructor without a knowledge of grammar.  Imagine a conference between students and such an instructor.  Their discussion of a recent writing assignment goes something like this:

Instructor: “Well, Sean, how do you feel about your paper?”

Sean: “I  feel real good about it.”

Instructor: “You do have some good ideas in it.  But do you think this sentence could be improved?”

Sean: “I guess so.”

Instructor: “Then go back to your desk and try to make these places I have marked sound better.”

Sean: “But I like the way they sound; that’s my way of writing.”

Instructor: “Okay, but what grade do you think it deserves?”

Sean: “An A.”

Instructor: “Okay, take your seat.  Misty, come up and let’s talk about your paper.”

Any person passing along the street could teach English composition this way and with the same effect.  If the art of writing has no technical content worth teaching, why make it a college course?  Why bother with such a course at all?

Written by polemicscat

July 8, 2008 at 10:19 am