Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"I Weep for the Future"

         In 1997, I started teaching a night class each semester at the University of Texas at Tyler.  Last year, I picked up a class at Lon Morris College in nearby Jacksonville.  Starting this fall, my UT classes will go online (unfortunately), but I will be teaching 2 night classes, and possible a 3rd, at Lon Morris.  Since I still have my "real" job during the day, this should keep me occupied.  The pay is pretty meager, but I thoroughly enjoy teaching, especially college students.
     Without being condescending, I will have to say that it continues to amaze me how little these young people know--and I'm not even talking about history, for that is a given.  I am referring to the very popular culture that defines them in every way.  They seemingly have little to no knowledge of any cultural currents that precede their present and immediate past.  Last Monday night, I was introducing my class to the 1980s--Reaganism and Republican economic theorizing and all that.  To try and explain "Supply-Side Economics" which then-candidate George H. W. Bush correctly labeled "voodoo economics," I referenced the opening scene from Ferris Beuller's Day Off.   (Every informed reader here will undoubtedly remember Ben Stein portraying a boring high school economics teacher---"something d-o-o economics, voodoo economics.")  My class of 23 had absolutely no idea of what I was talking about.  Not a single one of them had ever seen the film.  Now, if I wanted to get on an intellectual high horse, I could dismiss this movie as a bit of inconsequential, superficial fluff about the improbable adventures of 3 snotty, pampered--and not particularly sympathetic--rich kids skipping school on a lark.  I would suggest that someone taking this view needs to lighten-up a bit.  The film is a guilty pleasure of mine, and I still find it a helluva lot of fun--with any number of classic lines.  Young people could do far worse than take the last, or near last line of the movie as a charge for life.  When I first started teaching, I could affect a monotone and ask "anyone, anyone" and usually get a glimmer of recognition from a few students.  No longer.  They would be equally oblivious were I to toss out a line from Animal House or Blazing Saddles--not to mention more serious fare, such as the The Graduate
     Granted, none of these films speak well for the health of our American nation, other than perhaps an ability to laugh at ourselves.  But that does not mean they are without importance.  I once had a friend who refused to read fiction, it being a a position of pride with him.  I used to argue with him about this.  How could one possibly know anything about the Victorian era, for example, without at least some exposure to Dickens?  Our son grew up reading everything--and watching these classic movies with us, as well.    A conversation between the 3 of us could contain a line from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or All About Eve, or Young Frankenstein, and we all get it.  For better or for worse, these films were touchstones of particular eras of our history, and help provide context for a confusing present.  My students have no such moorings, and are seemingly adrift--historically, culturally, and in far more serious aspects of life.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"A Nation of Heretics"

I had an interesting and oddly humorous conversation yesterday. An old business acquaintance (about 25 years my senior) stopped by my office. We have not visited on a regular basis in a number of years. The man--whom I will call Harvey--is a retired banker who has made a ton of money speculating in real estate and stocks. He is generally good-natured, but with a reputation of being tight with a dollar, a fact brought home to me a few years ago. I purchased a small office condo from him about 13 years ago, and he carried the note. In those days, Harvey was in an out of our office on a daily basis--it was convenient, and we always had the coffee pot on. Anyway, my payments to him were due the first of the month. There were times when "first of the month" was too loosely-interpreted on my part, I suppose. But it was not a big deal--he knew where to find me, and it was not as if he actually lived off these payments. Anyway, after a number of years, I refinanced, bundling this property with the building where I officed into one note. When it came time to determine his pay-off, he stopped by my office with his copy of the amortization schedule--where he had very meticulously figured the extra interest amount due on each and every month when I was late. I took offence at the time, but now I laugh about it. And I thought of Uriah Pert, the old skinflint (and only interesting character) in the Gasoline Alley comic strip.

Harvey, however, wanted to talk about politics and religion, rather than money. The conversation took an odd turn when he asked me the following question:

"Where do you think our President went to church on Sunday?" (Meaning, of course, that he probably didn't)

"I hadn't given it a thought," was my response.

Harvey then went on to bemoan the fact that for the first time in our history, we didn't have a President who was a Christian. For a time, I just looked at him, and then decided that I would take the bait. I now know that he is not a particularly perceptive man when it comes to anything outside of his worldview. Harvey would find it inconceivable that someone of my age, in business, working in the smug and snooty city that I do, would have a differing take on things. If he had taken time to look around at a few items on my shelves and on the wall, he might just realize that he had wandered far from the local Republican party headquarters. Anyway, I did not let this pass.

"Are you saying that the President is not a Christian?" (nervous laughter on his part.)

I said, "He's Christian like most of this country is Christian. You've heard the old line about American Christianity being 3,000 miles wide and 3 inches deep, haven't you? The President is no different than most Americans today--they say they are 'spiritual' but not religious." (more nervous laughter.)

"Now, are you saying that the Mormon Romney is more 'Christian' than the President?"

He did answer no to that, at least.

I then delivered the deepest cut of all:

"You know, Ronald Reagan didn't go to church, either."

By this time, Harvey was ready to leave--but I was not through. It just so happens that I had cut out Ross Douthat's column from the Sunday NYTimes and had it handy. I found the clipping and read aloud the following selection:

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory. These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

The old Christian establishment — which by the 1950s encompassed Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Church as well as the major Protestant denominations — could be exclusivist, snobbish and intolerant. But the existence of a Christian center also helped bind a vast and teeming nation together. It was the hierarchy, discipline and institutional continuity of mainline Protestantism and later Catholicism that built hospitals and schools, orphanages and universities, and assimilated generations of immigrants...[and] provided a kind of invisible mortar for our culture and a framework for our great debates. Today, that religious common ground has all but disappeared. And the inescapability of religious polarization — whether it pits evangelicals against Mormons, the White House against the Catholic Church, or Rick Santorum against the secular press — during an election year that was expected to be all about the economy is a sign of what happens to a deeply religious country when its theological center cannot hold.

Douthat's article is a good one. Check it out.

(I had a great-aunt who loved to relate her "telling-off" of someone. She would always end with a cock of her head and saying, "and I told him!" I hope this anecdote does not come across that way.)