Word Nerd Wednesday: Panglossian

I had another word on tap for today. It was a strange one, but my mood has shifted from zaniness to something else. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s not zaniness.

In our house we’ve talked a lot about impending doom. Culturally, politically, and economically, our country cannot seem to make it to what I refer to as “peak absurdity”; namely, that moment when things cannot get any crazier and people begin to revolt against the madness and begin the work of bringing sanity back to our society.

It just isn’t happening, and more than that, no small percentage of Americans seem to be happily jumping on the train to Crazyville. We Americans, writ large I mean, seem to have a stunning lack of imagination, and combined with our historical ignorance, become panglossian.

Panglossian: marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds : excessively optimistic. Merriam-Webster

For those unaware, the word panglossian is drawn from Dr. Pangloss, a character in Candide, the satirical book written by Voltaire, a French philosopher of the Enlightenment period.

Pangloss is Candide’s tutor, whose philosophical perspective, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, never wavers despite all evidence to the contrary. Evil, mayhem, chaos and disease encroach further and further into his own country, society, and personal life. No matter; Pangloss insists that it is all ultimately for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

I often feel as if our country, or at least large swaths of it, are trapped in a maze of Panglossian delusion. Faith in the institutions which are so obviously corrupt persists; at least enough that we are all at risk of living in a totalitarian state.

Our churches have neglected all sense of commitment and conviction to hard truths. Our schools operate as little more than basic training camps for the revolution, and we persist in believing that things can only go up from here.


Education is Never Neutral

The experience of teaching older students this year has impressed upon me a reality that I knew, but had never ruminated on for very long. That reality is that education is never neutral, nor can it ever be. Most people, regardless of political or philosophical persuasion, are beginning to realize this. I could fill this post with video after video, from various sections of the country, where teachers openly acknowledge that their main priority is to shape ideology. I’ll spare you that, however, and just share one or two, if you haven’t seen them yet.

This teacher is far more direct and explicit as he states his educational aims:

There is a war on for the hearts and souls of the next generation, and for far too long, religious and traditional minded Americans have failed to recognize the reality of what happens in a public school classroom.

Upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the reality is much worse than many of us ever realized. Our culture has pretended for the better part of 75 years that education can be neutral, that we can pour facts and information, void of ideological perspectives, into the heads of students. When you stop to consider that for a minute, it’s farcical on its face.

The fact is, we have always administered education with a point of view. When I was a kid, the ideology assumed the inherent goodness of the American system. No teacher or curriculum ever ascribed perfection of behavior to the founding fathers or successive generations. There was, however, a clear presumption that America has always been working, wrestling, and striving towards the ideals espoused in her founding documents.

There were higher standards and a general sense of trust between parents and students. Government education was never perfect, but it was decent. It produced a literate populace and it imparted a sense of cultural cohesiveness to its students.

What it failed to do however, was acknowledge that education can never be morally neutral. We live in a zeitgeist where moral relativism reigns supreme primarily due to generations of failure to explicitly offer an understanding of right and wrong. As homes splintered and came apart, while churches turned into seeker sensitive houses of lukewarm doctrine, the result has been at least two generations of people who are genuinely confused about what is acceptable and what is not.

One thing I know for sure is that kids want someone to give them a concrete answer to hard questions. This year, I have been asked questions with answers that have deep and far reaching implications. These teenagers are not asking me what I think about these things in order to be told, “Whatever you want to do is fine. You can figure it our for yourself.” They are asking me questions about the nature of life and morality because they assume, as they should, that their middle aged Christian teacher knows more about life, morality, and living the Christian life than their 16-year-old selves.

Education can never be neutral. Ever. 2+2 will always equal 4. This much is true. But history, literature, the sciences, and every other area of intellectual and academic life is built on basic assumptions about God and man.

Please be involved in the education of your kids. Don’t assume the school has it covered.

More Commentary on the State of American Education

I wish I could take credit for this, but I ripped it from Instagram. It was on the account of @thekangminlee:

“Take your vaccine so mine works better”

This apparently makes sense to 50% of Americans. Leaving aside for the moment that this particular shot would be the first vaccine that ever only works if everyone takes it. Let’s follow this line of thought into other areas of life:

“Take your vitamins so mine work better.”

“You have to exercise to make sure I lose more weight.”

“Wear sunscreen so I’m protected against UV radiation.”

“Stop eating fast food so I won’t gain weight.”

“You shower, so my hair won’t be greasy.”

This is clearly ridiculous and most people would think the person uttering such nonsense is pretty dumb. Apparently, “Take the vaccine so mine works better” does not reveal ignorance, but compassion.

It does, however, speak to the sorry state of American education, and not just recently. This reveals something about the way education has been sliding down hill for at least the past 50 years, if not longer.

Short Story: How Much Land Does a Man Need?

How Much Land Does a Man Need, a short story by Leo Tolstoy, written in1886. You can read it here, for free.

All of our children read this recently, and being somewhat out of the loop, I took a half hour today to read it. I do not regret it. First of all, it’s Tolstoy, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee satisfaction, but it definitely guarantees food for thought. The story is less than 20 pages long, which costs very little of your time. Consequently, I will offer a teaser, but no quotes, leaving you to decide for yourself if you wish to invest the half hour of your life.

Pakhom is peasant man, enjoying a happy and healthy life. One day, he overhears his wife debating with her wealthy sister the advantages and disadvantages of country life versus urbane life. He says to himself, “If only I had more land, I wouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” He has no idea that the Devil is sitting behind the stove, eavesdropping on him as he muses to himself aloud, and things begin to get quite interesting.

We read a hard copy pamphlet of this story which was prefaced by an 8-page foreword by Os Guinness. I decided to read the story before reading the foreward, so as not to be “tainted” by someone else’s analysis of this beloved morality tale. I will however, share a snippet from Guinness’ foreword:

Throughout history, the most universally acknowledged problem with money is that its pursuit is insatiable. As we seek money and possessions, observers note, the pursuit grows into a never-satisfied desire that fuels avarice- described by the Bible as a vain “chasing after the wind,” by Buddhists as “craving,” and by moderns as an “addiction.” The very Hebrew word for money (kesef) comes from a verb meaning “to desire” or “languish after something.” This emphasis is important because avarice is often confused with an Ebeneezer Scrooge- like hoarding. Traditionally, however, it has been better described as a form of spiritual dropsy or an incurable thirst that can never be slaked. The insatiability touches two areas: getting what we do not have and clutching on to what we do.

If you have a spare 30 minutes of reading time and you haven’t read this one (or haven’t read it in a very long time), give it a read. It’ll make you think.

Word Nerd Wednesday: Progressivism

This post is slightly different from my regular Word Nerd Wednesday installments. Rather than offer up a dictionary definition of the world progressivism, I’m going to tell you a story.

Yesterday, one of my history students asked me to explain the meaning of progressivism. Because we had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to cover it, I decided to tell her the hypothetical story that I am about to tell you.

Imagine, Katie”, I told her, “that your great grandmother bequeathes you a two-story 1920s era home with French country decor. Inside the home you found a wide variety of beautiful things. There is gorgeous wood molding, elegant poster beds, and Tiffany lamps. The house is lovely. However in the den is a strange nod to a 1970s style decor that you hate. Overall, you’re really not a fan of the house. Even with all of its acknowledged charm, you have a strong preference for modern architecture and decor. You’ve decided that you’ll probably nevrer live in the house.”

“Having mostly found it useless to you at this stage of your life, you decide to get rid of it. To accomplish this as soon as possible, you go and grab a can of gas, and pour gas on as much of the walls and furniture as you can manage, and toss a match on the whole shabang as you walk out the front door. In your haste to unload the old house and find a new one, you fail to consider the valuable treasures from your grandmother you are leaving behind. Gone is the ugly 70s den and the drafty attic, but also gone are the beautiful Tiffany lamps, highly artistic wood moldings, and pretty poster beds. It’s all reduced to ash, despite the fact that you’re not quite sure exactly what it is you’re looking forward to in your next house. Your entire focus is directed towards leaving the known behind coupled with the unquestioned belief that the next house you find will necessarily be better, simply because it is newer.

That, Katie, is progressivism in a nutshell.

I really wish you could have seen the look on the faces of these teenagers. Some were shocked, and others were clearly processing what I said.

Here;s to hoping they never forget it.