Sunday, July 24, 2016

What's Missing from Modern Education... in Two Commercials

Just recently I attended a seminar at Notre Dame on the relationship between science and religion. It was spectacular. I had the opportunity to listen to several preeminent scientists, as well as some incredible theologians, all of whom helped elevate my understanding surrounding both subjects. I took notes like a starving man scarfs down a meal. It was great to be back in the classroom as a student again, especially a student like myself who loves theology and philosophy. Education is wasted on the young, I tell you! OK, maybe it's more accurate to say that it was, to some degree, wasted on me.

While I am mature enough to appreciate this now, when I was in high school, I was not. Perhaps it is the nature of education today, or maybe it was my lack of maturity, but I believe that when I was in my teens my time would have been better served learning a trade. The truth is that while I enjoy transmitting important information in my capacity as a teacher, I feel- in a sense- an absence, especially as it relates to my capacity to create and fix things as a man.

Man is, by his nature, both a creator and a redeemer (simply consider the nature of the majority of the jobs out there), for he is made in the image and likeness of God. And while I am not a fan of the cynical (and simplistic) adage that states; "if you can't do… teach",  I do sometimes feel that there is a lot to be said for a saying like this in a world that is as abstracted as ours. Unfortunately, for the past several generations we have created a kind of one track system of education, suited primarily to an office-cubicle kind of world. Consequently, it is not only me who feels this longing for a more "physical" brand of education, but many of my students as well.

My students often complain of what they like to call this "race to nowhere" education, wherein they are made to jump through any number of hoops in order to satisfy the latest demands of college administrators. While some of this problem can be solved by a more purposeful and focused education- wherein teachers and administrators grasp the deeper motive for education, and where subject matter in one class works in harmony and dovetails with other subjects (as opposed to existing in hermitically separate containers), there is something more at issue here.

What I am getting at is more than just the importance of kids playing a sport, or involving themselves in some sort of extracurricular activities. All of this is essential, but certainly not off the radar as far as educators are concerned. The larger point here is about the kind of education imparted by St. Joseph, a master carpenter, who happened to teach our Lord how to employ his holy and venerable hands in the art of creating and redeeming.

This is not a criticism of those who do good work in the field of education today; rather it is an encouragement for our culture to return to the noble and necessary work of learning a trade, or rather to return to the "carpenter's bench" once again. Consider St. Paul, for example, who studied the Law as a Pharisee, but who also learned a important trade (he was a tentmaker).

The following commercials to a large extent reveal what's is wrong with our mentality today, celebrating cleverness and technological superiority over craftsmanship. These commercials exist for the general purpose of making light of our ancestors and their retrograde mentality, but what they reveal, in my opinion, is something quite to the contrary:

The ironic name given to this "backward" family are the "Settlers". Obviously it is meant to be a double entendre, and the humor is well taken, but there is also a reverse humor, and I wonder if the makers of this commercial actually see it. We as a society have also become "settlers", but in an entirely different sense. So great is our obsession with technology that we actually have the nerve to mock people that are in reality better fit for long term survival in this world than ourselves.

In truth, we have built our various DirecTVs on the back of craftsmanship and innovation of our ancestors, who all too often worked their fingers to the bone to create a world stable enough for the leisure that we assume is our right today. We live in technological castles in the air, while they chose to build their lives on the rock of things fashioned from the earth. In any other age of the world- these so called backward "Settlers" would not only have been the ones who survived, but also those who serve as the backbone of society. By contrast, the "superior" family next door would in all likelihood have wound up becoming some sort of Darwinian casualty.

In the following GE commercial, similar humor is employed (i.e. prior generations can't seem to appreciate the technological savvy of the current generation). However, by the end of the commercial, as you will see, one is left wondering whether this kind of physical impotency is really a good thing after all:

It is possible that these commercials are attempting to make light of both world views, and truth be told, that is my take away- even if it is not intended by the company. However, in terms of real world application, it is hard not to come away from these ads thinking that we have lost something along the way far more than essential our "boiled clothes" or our "grandpappy's hammer". Indeed, creatures made from the soil of the earth after all, and the more we neglect that aspect of ourselves, the more we imperil future generations by placing undue focus on only one aspect of our being.

Do you genuinely believe that the young man in the above commercial would survive in a world of even slightly harsher conditions? Obviously, we need all sorts of people to run the world today, but right now with all of the "tablet toddlers" and "computer kids" out there, could anyone possibly argue that what the world needs now is a greater proliferation of screens with eyes glued to them?

And so it may be that the kings and queens of the future world are the plumber and the tentmaker, the carpenter and the cloth merchant. For if we need the above technology at all (and I believe we will), it will certainly not be for the purpose of useless entertainment, but rather for the kind of technological advances that allow us transmit the necessary means and methods of survival across the face of the earth, much like the monks' were able to do during the Dark Ages of Europe.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Millennials and Micro-Agressions: Why Our "Victim Culture" Needs the Sacrament of Confession More Than Ever

In adolescence we often believe (at least subconsciously) that all the good that has come to us is there on account of our own worthiness, while all the bad things are the result of the failings of those who reared us. The first day of spiritual adulthood truly begins when one realizes, not so much that everyone in the world is innocent, but rather that while we were spending our time assessing the faults of others, we ourselves were accruing a sizable debt.

In the past (or so it seemed), people tended to grow out of this behavior relatively quickly, after all, who would really have the time or patience for this kind of self-pitying narcissism? Today, unfortunately, this "victim culture" is somehow thriving and has much more of a market (as well as an audience).

Somewhere along the line we have taught this generation how to confess everyone else's sins, but have forgotten the most important lesson (viz. how to confess their own). We have practically given them trophies for existing, while simultaneously teaching them to despise the ones who have given it to them. This modern day Pharisee has no problem dismissing virtues that have been embraced for the past three thousands years, while elevating to the level of unchanging dogma terms that were invented in the previous month.

Practically speaking, this has become a total nightmare for every day communication. For who knows where and when all of these verbal land mines will be detonated. Indeed, what was once thought to be a pleasantry, has inexplicably become an insult. What was once thought to be an act of chivalry is now an act of sexual aggression. And what was once thought to be a simple attempt at humor, has now become grounds for firing. This is not to say that there are no examples out there of behavior that is worthy of condemnation, however, the following video should make it quite clear just how far we've taken this "art" of being offended by everything:

One has always been able to find people in society who will say just about anything in front of a camera, but what makes our times particularly unique is that the people that are speaking in this video (and the following one) are quite sober and reasonable in their assessment of these questions.

Towards a Solution

The question is what has inspired this self-centered obsession with how others have failed us? Let us first consider Jesus' rather ironic saying about the danger of judging others; "You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother" (Matthew 7:5).

Here Jesus is describing something that is a physical impossibility, namely the reality of an entire plank/log of wood being lodged into the eye of a human being. The purpose of this hyperbole is to make a point about how hypocrisy distorts and disfigures our perception of the world around us.

In other words, when we enthusiastically set ourselves up as the supreme judge of the goodness of others, we are so comically off base that we are worthy of a kind of satirical mockery (and so Jesus in essence does just that). At any rate, if we had even an ounce of humility we might see just how merciless and disproportionate our judgments are under these circumstances (an idea that is embodied in this saying).

Yet the point here is less about what our neighbor did or didn't do, and more about our own failure to recognize what needs correcting in ourselves. By neglecting this essential discipline, the faults of others become significantly (and mysteriously) magnified. As we become more innocent in our own eyes, others become increasingly guilty. It's magic!

In the meantime, we are so preoccupied with our campaign of perfectibility, that we progressively find ourselves incapable of even listening to such "offensive" personages, fearing that even the sound of their voice might taint us. Consequently, not only are we offended by most everything, but we go about looking for further opportunities of being offended, like some child in the first grade (or Pharisee) taking pleasure in tattling. Indeed, these hypocrites love the sin, but hate the sinner.

However, what Jesus is saying here is not merely that personal hypocrisy is a bad thing, but rather even more importantly, that self-recrimination is something which is good and necessary. To put it another way, if we do ponder our faults and failings before launching into an attack on others, we may well see their faults in the proper proportion (faults that are quite frequently more forgivable than we first thought), an initiative that might genuinely lead to the resolution of the problem as opposed to a shouting match.

There is a tremendous difference between pointing out failings and trying to resolve them. In this case, Jesus isn't simply looking for his followers to have a proportionate response to the wrongs committed by others, but an attitude of remedying the situation. To remove a splinter from someone takes tremendous caution and care (I think of a mother trying to remove a tiny splinter with tweezers), not the reckless bluster that we often bring to these occasions.

For these reasons (and many more), the Sacrament of Penance is needed more than ever today. Where else in our society is this form of self-accusation encouraged? Where else do we encourage individuals as a practice to critique themselves? To many individuals today, such criticism amounts to masochism, or a kind of self-harm, but to the one who practices it in reasonable measure, it is the key to seeing everything, including ourselves, in the proper light.

According to Scripture, before we can take an account of anyone else's transgressions, we must take a full accounting of our own. And if after we're done judging ourselves with sufficient care and circumspection we still have the strength to pick up stones and hurl them at others, then we should proceed with utmost caution, knowing that we too must be forgiven for our failings.

However, if (on the other hand) you find yourself a little less ferocious and little more humble after examining your conscience, you may want to use the rest of your strength to figure out how to heal a particular situation as opposed to exacerbating it.

By pointing the finger at ourselves before blaming others, and by marshaling our efforts towards a regimen of self-improvement, we  develop a healthy sense of conscience. This is not to be confused with a destructive negativity which seeks to turn everything into a sin, as our "victim culture" is wont to do, but rather to turn every moment into an opportunity to be the best version of ourselves.

As an adult, there are far fewer opportunities for genuine self-critique (in childhood it is built into the natural framework of things), but by developing a gentle spirit of self-examination, we can learn to hold ourselves to account and work towards improvement. In confession we get to observe the plank in our own eye, because we actually stand outside of ourselves and see our lives "flashing before our eyes". We take, as it were, a God's eye view. It is a judgment day of sorts, but on the bright side, when we take the initiative to call ourselves out first, we know that the story will end in our favor.