Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The Internet and our thinking

posted by Rod Dreher

The Edge’s 2010 World Question survey is out today. The question, and answers:
How is the Internet changing the way you think?
I’m about to get on the road for the long drive back to Texas, so I don’t have time to give this question the thought it deserves before answering — but I decided to answer it anyway when I realized that to answer it in this way illuminates one way the Internet has changed my thinking. And it’s this: I’m much more likely to publicly state a half-formed opinion, simply because I count on the answer to the question being arrived at collaboratively. For example, in last night’s post about Caitlin Flanagan’s critique of school gardens, I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about Flanagan’s point before I posted. My post reflects my ambiguity. In the past, I would have thought the essay through more completely before writing something about it, and would have offered firmer, clearer conclusions (something I would still do if I were writing a newspaper column). But on the Internet, I find it more satisfying to post something incomplete, in hopes of drawing intelligent commentary from readers that can lead me to a conclusion.
The down side of this is a certain intellectual laziness, which is obvious, but also a tendency to indulge in attention deficit disorder. I mean, I notice in myself a restlessness to put down a topic and pick up the next shiny topic before I’ve examined the first one sufficiently. I think I have this tendency within myself naturally, but it’s greatly exacerbated by the Web. The other day in Philly my GPS system wasn’t working quite right, and I ended up driving around the outer city for about an hour, trying to find my way to the hotel. I reflected that if I hadn’t had the GPS to rely on, I would have studied the map and oriented myself to the area. But having the GPS, I just jumped into the rental car, punched in my destination, and hit the road, trusting that the technology would get me where I needed to go. Now, this is not quite the same thing as the intellectual laziness I’m talking about here, but it’s related, in that the Internet trains me to have more faith in the epistemic system (if that’s the phrase) than in my own resources.
One possible up side, though, is that I’ve learned to be more tentative in my conclusions, because I’m exposed to far more counterarguments, or at least differing takes on questions, thanks to the Internet than I was before. If you want to find out what others are thinking and saying about the same topic, it’s very easy to do so. Of course many people use the Internet to gather more opinions that agree with their own, but in my case, learning to think with the Internet has made me more open-minded — though I regret that it has not made me more tough-minded.
Along those lines, Nassim Nicholas Taleb answers The Edge’s question by pointing out that accumulating information is not the same thing as acquiring wisdom — and that the Internet accustoms us to mistaking the former for the latter. W. Daniel Hillis also gives a thoughtful response, explaining that if you see the Internet merely as an information exchange and dissemination technology, you’re missing its transformative effect in how we think, and how we relate to our thoughts collectively. Excerpt:

We have embodied our rationality within our machines and delegated to them many of our choices, and in this process we have created a world that is beyond our own understanding. Our century began on a note of uncertainty, as we worried how our machines would handle the transition to the new millennium. Now we are attending to a financial crisis caused by the banking system miscomputing risks, and a debate on global warming in which experts argue not so much about the data, but about what the computers predict from the data. We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.

There are many, many more answers to the Edge’s question — I’ve only been able to dip my toes into them this morning. I’m going to leave now, but you read as many of them as you can, and share your views.
Here’s one more thought before I go. In 1982, I was a lonely and alienated high school sophomore who was deeply curious in life abroad. I wrote to a pen pal agency and got several high schoolers around the world to correspond with. I lived for those letters coming in from all over the planet, with their strange and beautiful stamps, and text written in alien styles of script. I became particularly good friends with a Dutch girl, and later with her circle of friends and acquaintances, including her sister, B. We all stayed in touch, visiting each other many times over the years. In 1998, Julie and I went to B.’s wedding to P., a Frenchman, in the Loire Valley. Well, yesterday I installed Skype on my computer, and learned that P. has an account. I “phoned” him on Skype’s video phone, and moments later, there he was, live, a face on my computer, sitting in his home office in the south of Holland. We talked for about 20 minutes, and I think we were both a little overwhelmed at the thought that we were able to do this.
Our children, P.’s and mine, will grow up thinking this is normal. And mostly, I think that’s great. But our children will almost certainly not know the pleasure of anticipating those beautiful handwritten letters from abroad, and of opening them, and taking in their aesthetic pleasures. I wouldn’t go back to the old way … but then again, I have a written record of that time of my life, and the people who were in it. My conversation with P. disappeared as soon as we both hung up. Tech giveth, and tech taketh away.

Gardening with SWPLs

posted by Rod Dreher

It was with automatic hostility that I came to Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in the Atlantic Monthly in which she rips Alice Waters and the state of Calfornia’s educational establishment for its school gardening program, Edible Schoolyard. What is wrong with working gardening and food consciousness into a public school curriculum? Flanagan starts out asking a rhetorical question: how do you think it feels to an uneducated immigrant Mexican field worker who has labored intensely picking lettuce to get his kid into school so the kid can learn to … pick lettuce?
Put that way, you see her point — though one can reasonably ask whether Flanagan is wrong to assume that progress in America requires casting aside agrarian knowledge and sensibilities. This is what chafed me initially about her essay.
But as I read on, the more sympathetic I became to the general thrust of her argument. She says that California public schools (49 percent Hispanic) are awful at providing a basic education to students. These kids don’t even get the basics down; what on earth is the state doing tacking on extras like this? I found this to be a pretty effective punch:

If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.

Surely, though, Flanagan doesn’t believe that the Edible Schoolyard people have an agenda to disempower the poor as a form of political control. I don’t think she believes that, but I do think that she believes the well-meaning people foisting this stuff onto the California public schools are doing something that really does disempower the poor — something they would recognize if it were being done in a different historical and geographical context. Here’s Flanagan again:

I started to ask Michael Piscal, founder and CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, which runs 15 successful charter schools in South Los Angeles, what he thought about the Edible Schoolyard and school gardens in general, but he cut me off. “I ignore all those e-mails,” he told me bluntly. “Look,” he said, when pressed, “there’s nothing wrong with kids getting together after school and working on a garden; that’s very nice. But when it becomes the center of everything–as it usually does–it’s absurd. The only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college? If I can get a kid to read Shakespeare and laugh at the right places, I can get him to college. That’s all that matters to me.”
With the Edible Schoolyard, and the thousands of similar programs, the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom. This kind of misuse of instructional time began in the Progressive Era, and it has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outer-course,” and in another it’s abstinence-only education. (Sixth-graders at King spend an hour and a half each week in the garden or the kitchen–and that doesn’t include the time they spend in the classroom, in efforts effective or not, to apply the experiences of planting and cooking to learning the skills and subjects that the state of California mandates must be mastered.) But with these gardens–and their implication that one of the few important things we as a culture have to teach the next generation is what and how to eat–we’re mocking one of our most ennobling American ideals. Our children don’t get an education because they’re lucky, or because we’ve generously decided to give them one as a special gift. Our children get an education–or should get an education–because they have a right to one. At the very least, shouldn’t we ensure that the person who makes her mark on the curricula we teach be someone other than an extremely talented cook with a highly political agenda?

I think she’s mostly right here, though I don’t see that spending 90 minutes in a garden is any big deal, and I disagree with her assumption that learning to grow and to appreciate good food is a cultural luxury. Still, from her description of the Edible Schoolyards program, it does sound like obnoxious SWPL faddishness, and if I were a poor Hispanic parent with a kid in a struggling public school, I suspect I would be far less willing to have patience with this kind of thing than if I were the parent of a child in a prosperous suburban public school. Still, I can’t affirm Flanagan entirely, because I think food consciousness is a lot more important to living a good, responsible and meaningful life than she does — and that it ought not be something rich people care about in their leisure. Whether my kids are going to be lawyers or lettuce pickers — and they have a far greater chance of being the former than the latter — I want them to know something about how food is grown, and what it’s like to grow it. This is not the kind of knowledge that’s going to get them into grad school, and put them on the fast track to Success in America. But it’s important to building their souls and their character. I’m not saying Edible Schoolyards is the way to go about this, but I do question Flanagan’s judgment on the relative unimportance of this kind of knowledge and experience.
It seems to me you could use her logic to argue against any field of study that didn’t directly help students acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to getting into college and getting ahead. Isn’t time spent in theater class time that could be better spent mastering basic academic skills? For that matter, why not cancel the football schedule and have the players cramming for their NCLB exams. You see what I’m getting at. If gardening were an after-school activity, I doubt Flanagan would be very upset by it. It’s the working it into the curriculum that has her irritated, as well as the unproved conclusion that this kind of thing helps kids learn.

Taking responsibility as an empty gesture

posted by Rod Dreher

The president said today that the failure of the government to stop the failed Christmas bomber is ultimately his own. We’ve come to expect this from our leaders — the ritual claiming of responsibility. I find it an empty gesture, unless it’s accompanied by an action that actually costs somebody something. To be sure, the president’s speech was impressive, and I don’t think necessarily that somebody should lose his or her job over this. Fox’s Neal Cavuto has been banging the drum for someone to get fired over this, but Gov. Haley Barbour, the Mississippi Republican, said it’s bad public policy to fire people every time a bad decision is made. (Cavuto asked Catholic priest Father Robert Sirico if he thought authorities ought to be fired if catastrophe occurred on their watch; I was very curious about how Fr. Sirico was going to answer that question; he gingerly suggested that it might be good for someone in such a circumstance to offer his resignation).
Anyway, I don’t want to comment on whether or not the president did the right thing today, but rather to ask what it means for a person in authority — a president, a bishop, a CEO, a university president, et alia — to come out and claim responsibility for a massive screw-up. I agree with Barbour: resignation shouldn’t be easily sought, or offered, as a general rule. But sometimes honor requires it, or requires someone to pay a significant price for the mistake. It seems to me that too often these days this kind of responsibility-taking by authority figures is an empty gesture meant to quell public criticism. Gov. Barbour did bring up Gen. Eisenhower’s drafting his resignation speech the night before D-Day, in case the invasion failed. Ike knew that if he failed in that undertaking, he wouldn’t have the authority to lead the Allied armies any longer. Barbour — who, again, was surprisingly supportive of Obama’s response today — suggested that today, we have lost that sense of honor that would compel a leader who has overseen a large and significant failure to step aside. I feel that he’s right, and that more and more, people feel that they shouldn’t really be held accountable in a meaningful way for failure.
What do you think? What would make saying “the buck stops here” meaningful in a given situation, as opposed to mere PR? Please let’s discuss this not in terms of partisan politics, but in terms of cultural mores related to guilt, shame and authority.

Here in the homeland

posted by Rod Dreher

Today I’m in sub-freezing, wet south Louisiana, where I flew yesterday from Phila. I’m picking up a couple of pieces of furniture from my mom and dad’s place, and driving it back to Dallas in the morning in a U-Haul. You can imagine how excited I am about driving a 14-foot moving van eight hours on an icy road. I’ve already slightly injured my back again loading the stuff this morning, but at least I got something good out of it: our neighbor Mr. Ronnie, who helped me hoist the furniture into the van, shared with me his recipe for his potliquor soup, which is great stuff I had once at his camp on the creek. So there’s that.

I’ve also got to give a speech tonight at the local Chamber of Commerce banquet. I hope people show up; not only is the weather abysmal, but tonight’s the national college football championship game. Alabama vs. Texas. Personally, I’m undecided. Naturally, I want to support the SEC champion. But I live in Texas and more to the point, am married to a UT graduate. Please do advise. I confess that I’m supporting ‘Bama … until I cross the Louisiana-Texas border tomorrow, in which case: Hook ‘em, Horns!

It’s been a bit of a struggle trying to figure out what to say to local folks tonight. I want to say something meaningful, but I haven’t lived here regularly since 1983. So I don’t have a lot of credibility. On the other hand, a lot of the things that have happened here over the past 20 to 30 years, and are happening right now, play into the themes I write about a lot: a sense of place, the role of “progress” in changing a place, the inevitability of change, the role of economic structures and human choices in establishing the character of a place, and so forth.

West Feliciana Parish, where I’m from and from where I write today, is still largely rural. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Louisiana, and historically significant too (lots of plantation houses around here). But there are fewer people living here today than 100 years ago. The consumer economy is less diverse today than it was when I was a child, and far less diverse than when my parents were children. As beautiful and as wonderful in many ways as life is here, there aren’t many jobs for the young. It’s fine to talk about the need to build up your community, to stay in place and all that, but you’ve got to be able to provide for your kids. This is something the parish and its leaders, both political and in private industry, are grappling with: how to grow economically so it’s economically feasible for families to remain here across the generations, while also preserving what is essential about the local culture and character?

There is no formula for this, and as an outsider it’s not my place to tell people here what policies they ought to be following. The solution, if there is to be a solution, is going to have to be worked out by local people — the people who have to live with the consequences of their decisions. But in my speech tonight, I’m going to suggest a broad framework for thinking through this challenge. I think it’s the best I can do.

Strange to think about the kind of speech you would give if you were given the opportunity to address an audience in your hometown. I’m giving a particular kind of speech tailored to this particular hometown audience, but it’s interesting to think about what I would say if asked to address a general audience here in the place I grew up in. How about you? If you had the chance to spend half an hour talking to a representative office in your hometown, what would you say? Why would you say it? What would you leave out?

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