Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Free Education and the Founding Fathers

I’ve just begun to read James Traub’s new biography, John Quincy Adams.  Traub sets the stage with Adams’ youth, starting with his mother, Abigail Adams, taking him to a hill where he can see the smoke and fire from the battle of Bunker Hill in the distance, and the care that she and John Adams gave to his education.  Herein lies a lesson for us as we look at the role of education in a democracy two and a half centuries down the path.
            The Adamses and others involved in the Revolution, notes Traub,
“understood that while a nation of masters and servants needed only to elevate the one and abase the other, a nation of free men needed to cultivate the gifts of all its citizens. ‘Every man in a republic is public property,’ as the physician and patriot Benjamin Rush put it.  A monarch could compel acquiescence, but a free people could be governed only through consent.  A republic would work only if citizens could be trained to overcome their natural selfishness, pettiness, and factionalism.  The virtues that John Adams prized in himself were those that needed to be inculcated in the next generation—disinterestedness, a contempt for meanness, and abhorrence of injustice.” (p. 11)

            For at least the last half of our nation’s existence, we have struggled with how best to realize Benjamin Rush’s vision in our public education system.  During John Quincy Adams’ lifetime, we made a commitment to tax-supported higher education with the founding of land grant universities and, a bit later, teacher education institutions—today’s network of state colleges and universities.  That vision was expanded in the twentieth century with the creation of community colleges and with the GI Bill and a range of tax-funded grants and scholarships to support individual students, so that today all colleges and universities receive some sort of public support, if only through taxpayer-funded scholarships.  The same happened at the K-12 level.  Originally, public schooling extended only through 8th grade.  In the twentieth century, a high school education became tuition-free and, ultimately, required of all students. 
            Which brings us to today.  As a nation, we seem to be of two minds about the social value of higher education.  On one hand, we hear the argument that higher education has become a private good—nothing more than a way for the select few to train for a profession.  On the other hand, we see proposals that community college education—or, perhaps, the first two years of the baccalaureate degree—be made available at not cost to students—essentially, that our commitment to universal high school be extended to the community college.
            I support the idea of making the first two years of undergraduate education—the associate degree or the first half of the baccalaureate—available at no cost to students.   It is the logical next step in our evolution as a nation that empowers citizens in order to sustain and evolve democracy.   Like high school, this should be funded by a mix of local, state, and federal taxes, with the goal of ensuring that all Americans have the skills they need to be successful in today’s global information society and, by extension, helping our communities thrive, both economically and socially.  In the short term, this would help generation of Americans find good jobs and, equally important, fulfill their potential as citizens of a participatory democracy.  In the long term, it will help make American communities healthier and happier places to live well into the future.
            This is not just a question of funding, however.  If American colleges and universities are to fulfill the promise inherent in this idea, they must respond not only by opening their campuses and classrooms to new students, but by offering a curriculum that will fullfill the vision.  At the core of Adams’ idea of education was the study of ancient history—the classics—which Adams, in Taub's words, saw as a “lens through which to examine and understand the life around you.” (p. 14).  Today, however, most of higher education reflects not the needs of society but how academia has distributed knowledge across disciplines.  The first two years of study at most colleges and universities are devoted to “breadth” courses—survey and introductory courses that give students an introduction to the disciplines around which academia has organized itself—the arts, humanities, social sciences, hard sciences—as well as early courses in a professional major.   The result is that students get an exposure to a wide range of knowledge, but not necessarily a coherent understanding of the world around them.  The challenge is to design a general education curriculum that truly reflects the public mission of preparing students to live as contributing members of a democratic community.
            Making college free would also open new doors to collaboration between colleges and high schools and other community agencies, stimulating a potentially wide range of innovation at the community levels.  
           The founders saw education as a critical part of the democratic experiment.  It is time for us to take this next step.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Problem of Political Parties

Our first President, George Washington, detested the idea of political parties. In his Farewell Address, he argued, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”  The party system, he said,
“serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot & insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence & corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
            He knew of what he spoke.  During his Presidency, he gathered around him people of differing views and philosophies in order to best inform his decisions.  However, the party system developed in his first term in office, led by two members of that diverse Cabinet:  Alexander Hamilton, who was serving as Secretary of the Treasury, founded the Federalist Party, while Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, founded (along with Washington advisor James Madison) the Democratic-Republican Party.  Washington remained convinced that the party system would compromise the delicate balance of authority and power in the three-legged federal government established by the new Constitution, which had been enacted only seven years before this speech.
            In our own time, the last seven years have served to illustrate Washington’s concerns.  The Republican Party, especially, has become increasingly fragmented and doctrinaire, losing its ability to work with others to find a mutually workable solution to governmental problems.  The election of the nation’s first African-American President stimulated a near revolt in the Republican Party, which saw the so-called “Tea Party” emerge as a conservative reaction to the broad social changes that President Obama’s election reflected.  The Republican-led Congress, anchored by the Tea Party faction, has effectively frozen the political process, with adherence to the party’s most extreme wing replacing a shared commitment to national ideals.  The most recent example is the refusal of Senate Republicans to consider the Administration’s nominee for the Supreme Court.  As Washington predicted, the result of polarization in the party system is that none of the three independent branches of the federal government has been able to adequately fulfill their Constitutional responsibility.
             Meanwhile, the traditional distinctions between the parties have fragmented and, in some ways, become confusing to voters.  It’s odd.  On one hand, the Democratic party is the party of labor and of civil rights.  On the other, the Republican party has become the party of the displaced working class and of evangelical Christians.  The Republicans are historically the party of business, but the Democrats are under fire for their connections to big corporations.  Democrats are the party of big government, but Republicans want the government to step in to control individual behavior on a wide range of moral issues and to aggressively pursue international affairs. 
One solution, it would seem, would be to encourage development of smaller parties, built around a more defined public agenda and then govern through coalitions.  That’s not likely to happen.  For the foreseeable future we will surely be locked into a polarized two-party system, even as that idea becomes less tenable.   However, I would hope that the next President could help bring us together by following Washington’s example, creating a cabinet that includes the best and most experienced thinkers in government, regardless of party affiliation, as a step toward breaking the stalemate that we’ve lived with for the past eight years.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Trump Card

 Below is a piece I posted back in July on another blog.  Given what's happening with the Republican primaries, I thought it was time to re-post.  

I worry about Donald Trump.  While some commentators have noted that his popularity is with a particular wing of the conservative movement—working class white people who are among the greatest victims of the social change that, ironically, is one of the byproducts of the unrestricted capitalism of Trump and his fellow greed-worshipers—he is a media darling at the moment.  Whether his ideas have value or not, he is getting incredible airtime on the news channels.  And that, in turn, is reinforcing his message to the fringes of his base, expanding his impact. 
            There is good potential that Trump will simply divide the Republican party or fade away as others rise.   He may even try a third-party run if the Republicans reject him, which could help the Democrats.   However, I cannot see him simply going away.  Instead, I would expect him to take ever-more radical positions as the campaigns move forward, forcing a political conversation built on manufactured fears rather than on our common interests.
            My concern is simple:  Right now, our country seems to be losing its political and moral center.  The news media keeps looking at extreme positions on every issue rather than seeking a common middle ground.  If Trump were to become President—or even Vice President—it would solidify the power of the new oligarchs and make it very difficult for democracy—what John Adams called “government for the common good” to thrive.   Moreover, should a megalomaniac like Trump take power, it could be disastrous for us in terms of our international relations and whether we can come together as a nation around common, shared interests.   
            All this is a good argument for public funding of our elections.  Unfortunately, that won’t happen before the next presidential election.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Quantum Christianity

Lately, I’ve been reading about the history of Christianity, in order to better understand the rituals I encounter in church and, more broadly, the importance of Christianity in today’s world.  Three books, in particular, have opened doors:  Zealot by Reza Aslan, An Historian’s View of the Gospels by Michael Grant, and A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass.  Their generally historical perspective has helped me put the substance of our organized religious practice into perspective.
            I learned that Christianity has always found room for a variety of interpretations and perspectives and that, in the years immediately after the crucifixion, two schools of thought developed around Jesus.  The first, led by Christ’s brother James the Just, was centered in Jerusalem and was directed at bringing his message to Judeans of Jerusalem other communities around the Middle East.  For this group, the assumption was that Jesus’ message was directed specifically to Jews.  The second school of thought was led by Paul—Saul of Tarsus.  Paul saw Jesus’ message as being universal—intended for all people, not just Jews.  Paul took the message to the Gentiles.  He argued that all people could enter into Christ’s Kingdom of God.  For the adherents of James the Just, Christ must have seemed like another in a series of failed messiahs.  Within a few decades of his crucifixion, James would be stoned to death and Jerusalem—and its Temple—would be destroyed by Roman armies.  Paul, too, was killed for his beliefs, but his idea of a universal new covenant ultimately stimulated a social revolution that defined a new western civilization and, eventually, became a global religion and way of life. 
            Christ preached that what the apostles called the “Kingdom of God” was approaching and, with it, a “new covenant” that would replace the covenant between Jehovah and Moses that gave Jews the ten commandments.  One thing both historians and theologians have remarked on is that Christ said little to define what he meant by “Kingdom of God.”  I have often wondered how Christ—and those who wrote the Gospels in the decades after his life—would have described his vision if he had lived in a time when kingdoms were not the normal structure of society.  What if he had lived in a democracy?  How then might he have described the idea?  Would it be a community of God?   Two millennia later, we might want to put the concept into a context that reflects our current understanding of the world around us.
            One of the biggest changes in our worldview since ancient times has been our understanding of our physical world.  For several centuries, classical physics described a universe of things, where the big bang created a physical universe out of which our consciousness developed as biological forms evolved.  In the twentieth century, quantum physics began to replace classical physics as a way of understanding the world.  It introduced new ideas about the relationship between physical reality and consciousness.  The “quantum enigma” is that, at the atomic level, things seem to exist as waves of potential and take on a fixed physical form only when they are observed.  Most recently, this idea has taken the form of “biocentrism.”  It suggests that, before the physical universe came into play, there already existed an infinite or universal consciousness, which, in turn, gave rise to the physical universe (or, perhaps, universes) as we perceive it.  In this view, one could argue that all conscious life is an extension of the universal consciousness into a particular physical environment.  God is not a bearded old man on a throne in the sky, but instead is the universal consciousness itself.  One can then project that human beings—along with all the other conscious beings around us—are extensions of that universal consciousness, embedded in the particular physical environment which we experience as our world. 
            The quantum approach also resolves an issue that was divisive in early Christianity and that still affects many Christians: the tendency to see spirit and the material world as unavoidably in conflict with one another:  the belief that the spirit is good and that the material world is evil.  In a quantum world, there is no division between the material and “spiritual” (or “conscious”).  They are inextricably related.   Perhaps, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God is the ‘beyond’ in the midst of our life.”
            The one thing a reading of quantum physics will leave behind is a sense that the universe is vast, that little of it is available for us to understand, and that as a result, we know very little about our world.  We live by faith, being it religious or scientific—or both.  Using quantum theory to experience Christianity through a modern lens is a leap, perhaps, but I think universal truth of Christ’s message remains viable in the context of a new scientific understanding.  There is a universal consciousness out of which all things—including all conscious beings—in the universe have come.  One could argue that this is the best way to interpret the “kingdom of God” in our times.
            Ultimately, the challenge for this generation is to find spiritual fulfillment—to discover faith—in both science and spirituality.  Christ’s moral teachings about compassion for each other—about the need to love our neighbors as ourselves—and many of the teachings of his apostles take new meaning and are right at home in this new context.   The Christian ideal of a new covenant is especially meaningful in today’s quantum world.