Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?


What Technology Do We Need in Schools?

More is more.  That is the mantra of many public-school technophiles these days.  It rests on an often-implicit notion that any problems with schools can be cured with just the right dose of technological innovation.

It is a mantra that Andrew J. Ellison takes to task this morning in the pages of the Front Porch Republic.  Real education, Ellison argues, must be based on mastering language, the most fundamental technology of all.  Bypassing such authentic learning with a series of flashy touch-screens and web apps will only impede learning, he insists.

Of course, one does not have to be culturally conservative to have qualms about the overheated rush to technologize America’s schools.  The recent massive flop of LA’s expensive IPad gamble can turn any taxpayer’s stomach.  And as Stanford’s Larry Cuban has argued compellingly, every American generation has had naïve dreams about the promises of new technology.

Ellison worries specifically about a new program sponsored by President Obama.  Obama asks America’s schoolchildren to submit videos in which they prove that technology improves education.

Ellison notes that the language of this question skews any discussion of the merits of classroom technology.  As he puts it,

the assumption is clear: if you are critical of the faddish and unreflective technologization of our schools, your view is not part of the mainstream.  If you are skeptical of the outlandish educational promises being made by the peddlers of the current classroom iPad fad (maybe because you remember the non-fulfillment of the outlandish promises made in the 1970s about videocassette-based education, or the outlandish promises made about Apple II-based education in the 1980s), your views are unwelcome.  If you are even just a teeny weeny bit inclined to think that the perennial human problem of cultivating intellectual and moral excellence cannot be solved by ANY electronic technology, and that the pursuit of technological solutions to these problems is as inappropriate as the pursuit of a moral and spiritual solution to landing a man on the moon, then you might be discouraged from entering the contest.

In addition to the blithe assumptions of technology’s spotless promise, Ellison lambastes the needlessly and gratingly childish language that the White House uses to promote its program.  Like many clueless adults, the White House tries to wrap its outreach in language that young people will presumably embrace.  Instead of speaking intelligently to young people about real issues involving technology, the White House takes a depressing Hannah-Montana tone:

Yeah, having your schoolwork posted on the fridge at home is cool. But having a video you made posted on the White House website and screened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? We think that’s pretty cool, too. That’s why we’re super-excited to announce the first-ever White House Student Film Festival.

As Ellison points out, this language assumes that young people are somehow unable to handle real language or real questions about technology and culture.  “The condescension of consciously  informal English,” Ellison argues,

is exactly the opposite of real teachers worthy of the name speak to the children entrusted to their classrooms, the opposite of the way we ought to talk to young people if we want to uplift, ennoble, inspire, exhort, challenge—in a word, educate—them.  If we want to make young people better, we have to pull them up towards something better—and while that certainly doesn’t mean that we should talk at uncomprehending 3rd graders in the most difficult and complex literary English we can muster, it does mean that when we speak to children, when we write for them, and when we assign things to them to read, we should be aiming ahead of them, as if we were training a wide receiver to run faster and strain harder to catch the football.

Only if educators focus their efforts at teaching young people to master the real beauty and promise of language will education really happen, Ellison concludes.  Indeed, this sort of training will provide young people with a real mastery of the only educational technology that really matters.  After all, Ellison insists, language is

the first and most human of all technologies, the one upon which all social life depends, the one absolutely indispensable technology, without command of which we become completely unfit for life as free citizens, productive workers, and human beings in the 21st century, at the mercy of others and subject to forces beyond our control and even recognition.


What’s Wrong with School? A Traditionalist Remembers the Bad Old Days

Nostalgia can pack a political punch.  Ronald Reagan promised it was “morning again in America.”  More recently, Tea Party activists have worked at “Taking America Back.”  Even President Obama used nostalgia to infuse his 2012 campaign with some of the energy and verve of 2008.

Recently, one traditionalist essayist has warned of the dangers of nostalgia, especially among conservatives.  At Front Porch Republic, Mark Signorelli reminds readers that going home is often the worst sort of backwards movement.

As I have argued in a Teachers College Record essay, the power of nostalgia among educational conservative thinkers has always been intense.  Lots of different types of conservative intellectuals, from Milton Friedman to Max Rafferty to Henry Morris to Sam Blumenfeld, all based their educational policy arguments on a bedrock assumption that something had gone terribly wrong with American education and culture.  Each of them posited a different educational golden age, before teachers’ unions, or evolution, or progressive education trampled on proper education.

Mark Signorelli doesn’t disagree that the education system in America is terrible.  His mother, a veteran teacher in his hometown school district, suffered repeated harassment for trying to do a good job.  Nor was the experience uplifting for Signorelli as a student.  As he writes,

The schools in my town had problems reaching far beyond the poisonous effects of identity-politics, however.  They are the same problems afflicting schools throughout the country – the disorder in the classroom and the hallways, the narrowing of pedagogical aims to the strictly vocational, the failure to transmit anything resembling our intellectual and artistic heritage.  I do not wish to sound ungrateful; throughout my schooling, I had a number of remarkable teachers, to whose instruction I owe much.  But they, like me, were confined within an aimless system, which had long ago abandoned any responsibility to tend to the moral development of young minds. . . .  It seemed to me as though my teachers had engaged in an extensive conspiracy to rob me of my proper literary patrimony.  But they did teach me the varieties of STD’s.  The situation was exactly the same in the Catholic as in the public schools; I moved between the one and the other throughout my youth, but found little difference between them except for the dress code at the Catholic schools, and their considerably lower rates of assault and battery among the student body.

Signorelli warns that such shoddy educational experiences make nostalgia a dangerous weapon, especially for those traditionalists prone to fetishize “going home.”  If such was the fare on offer in our hometowns, how can we ever justly yearn to go home again?


Required Reading: RJ Snell and a NEW New Christian Right

“Isn’t a ‘Fundamentalist intellectual’ an oxymoron?”

People ask me that question a lot.  There are lots of ILYBYGTH readers out there who are intrigued, but baffled, by the culture of conservative Christianity in America.  Like me, these are mostly folks who came from secular or liberal backgrounds.  Like me, most of these people just don’t have an intuitive grasp of the culture of conservative Christianity in America.

And a lot of those folks (still) assume a connection between conservative Christianity and intellectual sterility.  They tend to agree with Richard Dawkins’ 1989 statement, that if you meet someone who doesn’t believe evolution, that person must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  In this case, some secular or liberal people who don’t understand Fundamentalist America assume that any conservative Christians must be like Dawkins’ creationists.  In this understanding, the very definition of conservative Christianity means accepting a bunch of outdated ideas hook, line, and sinker.

In this vision of Fundamentalist America, conservative Christianity appears like a threatening monolith, a Borg-like* force that insists on transforming America into a goose-stepping echo box.

One of the first steps toward understanding what we’re calling Fundamentalist America is to understand the limits of that stereotype.  If we want to understand FA, we might start by trying to get a sense of the complexity of it.

A recent article by RJ Snell at Front Porch Republic will help.  In “Thoughts toward a New Religious Right,” Snell criticizes the impulse among some conservative Christian political activists to embrace an ethos of individualism too eagerly.

Snell writes,

We’re accustomed to thinking that the greater a being, the less it requires from others, the more it is self-sufficient, but this is only partially true. Shellfish have no friends, while humans need friends to thrive, and this is a mark of our grandeur, not our inadequacy.  

Snell critiqued the last generation of Christian activists for slipping too easily into the myth of the rugged individualist.  In their eagerness to combat an aggressive idea of collectivism, conservative Christians leaped precipitously into its opposite.  In doing so, Snell argues, conservative Christians forgot the central lessons of their own faith.

We outsiders who are hoping to understand the thinking of conservative religion in America could do well to begin with essays like Snell’s.  It is easy to think we understand the meanings of Fundamentalist America once we grasp a few high-profile ideas.  But if we really want to understand, we need to dig into the many different ideas and thinkers that make up its kaleidoscopic vision.

*Nerd alert.