Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Larnin'

Intriguing article in the New Republic for parents of high schoolers by William Deresiewicz. (And even if you are not considering a top-tier school, helpful in considering why you are sending them to college.) 

Don't know what it's like today but this essay made me appreciate my experience at William and Mary -- a great education, excellent and available professors, thinking and engaged students, at a public university. 

While I'm not sure I agree with the weighted SAT, I like many of his other suggestions. 
I've also posted some excerpts:
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment [among students at top-tier schools], and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
So why is this?

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”...

On quality of education:
...Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocraticthe development of expertiseand everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.
At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no? Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much. There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a “nonaggression pact.” Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.
And later, on the value of extracurricular activities:
I’ve noticed something similar [college-essay building rather than true service experience] when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselvesthat is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?
If there is one idea, above all, through which the concept of social responsibility is communicated at the most prestigious schools, it is “leadership.” “Harvard is for leaders,” goes the Cambridge cliché. To be a high-achieving student is to constantly be urged to think of yourself as a future leader of society. But what these institutions mean by leadership is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to. I don’t think it occurs to the people in charge of elite colleges that the concept of leadership ought to have a higher meaning, or, really, any meaning.

And finally, on the cultural impact of this system:
Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.

What's a kid to do?
Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” and not in the spirit of “making an effort,” eitherswooping down on a member of the college support staff and offering to “buy them a coffee,” as a former Yalie once suggested, in order to “ask them about themselves.”
Instead of service, how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any collegeoften precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not “smart.”
I am under no illusion that it doesn’t matter where you go to college. But there are options. There are still very good public universities in every region of the country. The education is often impersonal, but the student body is usually genuinely diverse in terms of socioeconomic background, with all of the invaluable experiential learning that implies.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Baby, tell me what you think about this..."

Some modern country for your listening pleasure

Love the way these two harmonize together, gorgeous harmony. Beautiful song and video.

Back at Mama's

And another good song by Miranda Lambert.


Old stuff:
Nickel Creek 
The Hand Song

Out of the Woods

And of course some Alison Krauss. You didn't think I do even a wee post like this without her?

The Lucky One

Ghost in This House


Monday, July 21, 2014

Remembering an Old Friend

A friend of mine from college died recently. He was known for encouraging others in the faith, and loved by many friends. But he took his own life this April, overwhelmed with a heavy burden.

These two short pieces were both written by friends of Mark for a recent memorial service. They were both written independently of each other. The Lord knows us fully -- but our friends know us more than a little, too.

Remembering Mark
Scott Redd

I consider it a great honor that I was able to call Mark Finch a friend for so many years.

I suspect that many of the remembrances of Mark highlight his intellect and sense of humor. Mark’s depth of knowledge became more apparent to me over the years as we would talk about topics ranging from theology to politics and social life. Usually there was some topic that I had recently discovered only to find that he was not only familiar with it but had thought about it from several different perspectives. Mark was a consummate self-learner, broadening his own intellectual horizons far beyond the material covered in his formal education.

Much of his intellectual energy was, of course, directed toward memorizing lines from Saturday Night Live skits and Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey and then reciting them back at just the appropriate moment, when the situation was particularly fitting. The man could deadpan. I remember standing by the drink fountain at the William & Mary “Caf” when Mark sidled up, resting his arm on the ice dispenser, and saying in accented character, “You lika the juice, eh? Juice is very good, eh?” (from an SNL skit).

Mark was also a loyal friend. He helped me through several difficult times in my life, reminding me of the comfort that we have because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was immensely interested in the personal struggles Christians experience throughout their lives, and he would listen to me as I gave expression to my experiences. I knew he was listening, because he would often ask me about something I had said a week or a month before and inquire about how I was doing now.

I knew that Mark wrestled with deep things, personal things. The life of the Christian is often marked by conflict, spiritual and otherwise, and I know these matters concerned him deeply. I am profoundly saddened that the conflict isolated him and that his burden seemed too great for him to bear in this life.

I am so sorry for you, Mark’s family, grieving the loss of a dear brother and son. I have been lifting you up in prayer, for comfort in the Lord and the grace to grieve as ones who have hope (1 Thess 4:13-14).

I miss Mark. We had fallen out of touch in recent years, but he is one of those people whom the Lord used to influence me in my early Christian life. I miss him sharing this world with us, but I do know that our Good Shepherd lives, and he gathers his sheep to himself. He knows them and they know his voice.

Thank you, Lord, for letting me know Mark Finch.

Here is a link to my brother's blog about Mark's death.


Mark and I knew each other in college at William and Mary, we were part of the same social circle of InterVarsity friends. 

I best remember Mark's sense of humor. He enjoyed both nuanced and frank humor. He could tell a good joke -- and also he could spot a good joke from another source, and recount it with flawless timing and inflection. Mark would start to laugh while he was telling a joke and be overcome mid-sentence -- shaking with laughter and holding his side while he tried to get out the words.

In school Mark worked as a night guard in the foyer of the English building. This meant he sat at a big wooden table and checked people's ID cards. I would meet him there to study (we were both in the same classes), but more often than not, we ended up either in muffled laughter over something ('Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey') or in sharing good lines of Shakespeare. (Well, I guess that last part helped me in my classes a little bit!) 

Other people would come by to sit and talk. I remember that Mark was always game for a good discussion about Scripture (he was reading a tome called Hard Sayings of the Bible at one point) or Literature. In his studies, he could catch -- brilliantly -- the whole meaning of a passage, including the pathos and humor of any story. 

Mark loved photography and taught me some basic things about taking good photographs. Once we spent a day on Cumberland Island in Georgia, with its beautiful modern ruins and white sands and dripping trees covered with Spanish moss. He taught how to catch just the right angle to make a shot interesting -- and to make one picture tell a story. His pictures could make you want to climb right into the shot.

Mark loved literature and read it with insight and understanding. In writing and in conversation and in humor and in photography, Mark was a master of nuance and understood something not just in the obvious way, but for what was implied, however subtly. 

It is a sadness to me that Mark is not here to listen to his friends remember him, and that such a gifted and insightful person is not here any more. I trust and hope that he is now with the One who fully knows him and loves him and enjoys him as he was made -- the Giver of all of his personality and significant talents and gifts.

-- Anne Chamberlin 

Christian Understanding

Paraphrase from pages 141-142 of People of the Book by David Lyle Jeffrey.

The Bible teaches us the Christian understanding of the invisible is limited, has not yet reached fullness (I Corinthians 13:9-12)

And yet Christian understanding of the invisible is also "referential" -- can be inferred from what we do see (Romans 1:20)

We are limited in our understanding of an infinite God, yet not fully limited -- we do enjoy revelation.

Marilynne Robinson on the Human Mind and Truth

* On the condescension of the modern thinker:

"Much of the power of an argument like Kugel's [that the Biblical flood narrative is diminished by modern confrontations with the Babylonion Gilgamesh flood story] comes from the notion that the information on which it is based is new, another one of those world-transforming thresholds, one of those bold strokes of intellect that burn the fleets of the past. This motif of a shocking newness that must startle us into a painful recognition is very much a signature of 'the modern,' and potent rhetorically, more so because we are conditioned to accept such claims as plausible. But it often achieves its effects by misrepresenting an earlier state of knowledge or simply failing to enquire into it."

And here she cites Hugo Grotius discourse confronting the Biblical and Babylonion flood narratives -- a discourse dating from 1622. In other words, the "modern" confrontation of the Biblical Flood narrative with the Gilgamesh epic is quite old news, and the implications of the Babylonian flood narrative on Biblical history have already been grappled with -- straightforwardly -- by long-dead thinkers. According to Robinson, Kugel condescends to critique older thinkers, yet seemingly hasn't actually read them.

Furthermore, "[Kugel's] low estimate of Babylonia becomes the basis for a lowered estimate of the Hebrew Bible--the modernist declension. Assuming one narrative is without meaning, we must or may assume the other is, too. [But] This conclusion in all its parts is perfectly arbitrary."

Makes me want to read Kugel (and more Robinson).

* Another quote, discussing the modern naturalist's view of the mind:

"The great breach that separates the modern Western world from its dominant traditions of religion and metaphysics is the prestige of opinion that throws into question the scale of reality in which the mind participates. Does it open on ultimate truth, at least potentially or in momentary glimpses, or is it an extravagance of nature, brilliantly complex yet created and radically constrained by its biology and by cultural influence?"

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Training for the Kingdom of Peace

"In these days we are in training for the kingdom of peace that will come on earth. The bible is full of of promises regarding the things that are going to happen when Jesus returns. The wolf will lie with lamb, swords will be changed into plowshares, nuclear energy will be used to build up, to heal, and no longer to destroy."

Corrie ten Boom

2 Corinthians: "18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,[a] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."

From Genesis 2: "15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it."
From Revelations 21:

"Then I saw ya new heaven and a new earth, for zthe first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.And I saw athe holy city, bnew Jerusalem, ccoming down out of heaven from God, dprepared eas a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, fthe dwelling place1 of God is with man. He will gdwell with them, and they will be his people,2 and God himself will be with them as their God.3 hHe will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and ideath shall be no more, jneither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And khe who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I lam making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for mthese words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, n“It is done! oI am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. pTo the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. qThe one who conquers will have this heritage, and rI will be his God and she will be my son. tBut as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, utheir portion will be in vthe lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is wthe second death.”

Then came xone of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full ofythe seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show youzthe Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And ahe carried me away in the Spirit to ba great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 chaving the glory of God, dits radiance elike a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal."