Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Snobbery and Playing God

Rick Santorum has accused Obama of snobbery for wanting every American to go to college. Much of the negative response concerns his rhetoric. The governor of my home state reflected the general mood with his "I wish he'd said it differently."

Perhaps, but I'm more interested in asking about the matter than the manner of what he said. Is it snobbish to want everyone to go to college?

Obama's plan for universal higher education would have been unthinkable in past centuries--for many reasons. Among those reasons was the widespread belief that not everyone belonged in the university, because it was in people's best interest not to quit the sphere into which they were born. Pretending that this system promoted a separate-but-equal system would be the height of bad faith, as separate-but-equal claims generally are. If any views about higher education qualify as snobbish, this one certainly does.

For the most part, such views are--thankfully--no longer live options. But how could their apparent opposite--the idea that everyone belongs in college--then be snobbish?

Because the truth of the matter is that some people go to college and some do not, and the desire for everyone to do so seems to imply that the first group, at least at the completion of their formal education, is somehow better or better off than the second.

By some standards--particularly those that are easy to measure--it is clear that college graduates are better off. Their lifetime earning is higher; their rate of unemployment is lower. Because these goods appeal to everyone, their value is difficult to question. But we do run into dangerous territory if we mean that college graduates are morally better, more excellent human beings, or members of a higher class defined by something other than earning potential.

Obama attempted to respond to this criticism by insisting that he did not mean that everyone needs a four-year degree. He intended his remarks to apply to technical training as well--the kind that might help those "decent men and women who go out and work hard every day," in Santorum's words, earn and keep gainful employment. He did not mean, in other words, that everyone needs the traditional liberal education associated with the four-year degree and that earlier, snobbish class system.

Fortunately, one is increasingly unlikely to acquire a liberal education at most four-year colleges.

It is worth asking, however, what such an education might liberate one from. At its best, it might liberate one from the kind of sentiment expressed in Santorum's following sentences, much neglected by the news reports:

"Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his."

This religious allusion is particularly odd. If we are already made in God's image, as I presume Santorum believes, do we need remaking in the image of fallen human beings instead? Putting that aside, ought parents to see their goal as reproducing images of themselves? Isn't the more loving and properly humble thing to hope and strive that your children might overcome your weaknesses, escape your faults, and excel your achievements?

Certainly, it is frightening to allow one's children to learn. Hoping for and encouraging their education raises the very real possibility that they may come to believe and embrace things that are foreign or even anathema to their parents.

There is nothing wrong with wanting your children to share your standards and convictions. There is something wrong with prioritizing sameness in itself over their development, or with closing oneself off to the possibility that they might grow to teach you that your standards and convictions are misguided. There is something more wrong about resenting your children if they choose to follow those standards in ways that you did not. The child of a lawyer may choose to pursue justice by living with the poor, and the child of a steel worker may choose to mold the world through the quite different honest hard work of a heart surgeon. Neither child would be the image of the parents. But if either parent responded to this situation by resenting her child's choices, the accusation of snobbery would be apt indeed.

One does not, indeed, need a formal education to come to these insights about human development. My father, who does not have a four-year degree, possesses them to the highest degree of anyone I have ever known. But again, liberal education at its best makes such insights available to some not so parentally blessed. Can everyone benefit from such an education? Is everyone capable of it?

This is a genuinely difficult question. I can only respond with the remark of one of my students on this topic:

"We have to hope so."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On Lenten Observance and the Labyrinth of the Heart

In Nietzsche's too-neglected essay, "Schopenhauer as Educator," he observes that "wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated; for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way, the inward cave, the labyrinth of the heart."

This is a mournful, beautiful sentiment. Here is a man who knows that philosophy can indeed console--and a man whose forced solitude has often made consolation necessary.

It is, perhaps ironically, a sentiment appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Christ offers us the deepest consolation--a joy that can only be had after the cutting engagement with sin. And, at its best, the church provides the means for such consolation--forms and rituals that help bring our hearts, minds, and bodies into the necessary receptive stance.

I grew up in the Baptist church, and there are many things about that formation for which I will always be grateful. But my worship experience as a child lacked a deep sense of such rituals. And it lacked altogether a sense of the liturgical year beyond Christmas and Easter. Advent was a children's game involving calendars and festivity, and Lent was missing entirely.

Like many with this formation, I have treasured coming to know more liturgical traditions. The liturgy, at its best, provides words when words fail us. It is a sanctuary in the true sense--an asylum into which tyranny cannot force its way.

At its best. But it is all too easy to forget--perhaps because it seems so obvious--that forms can also be empty shells. Worse still, they can be sources of pride, thus contradicting everything this day is supposed to remind us of. Those of us walking around with ashes on our foreheads must ask ourselves: is this really humbling, or do I want people to know that I have observed the appropriate ritual today?

The form, the asylum, the sanctuary are all open spaces with walls--or perhaps cradles--around them. They are nothing unless filled with the inwardness of the labyrinthine hearts who realize how much they need them.