Friday, July 25, 2014

The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

I love the intersection of Faith and Science. So for that reason, I picked the highly acclaimed, The Language of God by Francis S. Collins. Collins is best known for his work on the Human Genome Project, and I expected to have to wade through a scientific jargon-filled tome.

I was wrong.

He writes in a delightfully accessible-to-the-layman manner. He shows in simple to understand terms how one can quite peaceably live in the world of both science and faith. He uses his book to defend both.

He opens by stating, “In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and person who believes in God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a real not possible to explore with the tools and language o science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul – and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.” To embrace both realms “enriches and enlightens” the human experience.

Collins was not raised in a religious home, and by college considered himself an agnostic, which gradually shifted to atheism. As he tried out different career direction, he worked in the medical field with profoundly religious people. The peace they experienced despite tragedy began to affect him. He was stunned to discover, that despite being a rational scientist, who would follow evidence where ever it led, he had never considered the argument for religion.

In order to prove to his scientific mind that religion held no purchase for him, he began to read intellectual Christian theologians. He became stuck when he encountered the Moral Law, which seem to be embedded in each of us. Science had no explanation for this. In fact, he quickly realized that science would never be able to answer the vexing questions about life he began to have.

Rationality pushed back on his burgeoning belief in God with the argument that religion was merely “wish fulfillment.” We just make up God in order to fulfill some need for meaning. But C.S. Lewis made clear that the God he served was not the kind of God one would make up. This God demands something of us. He is not coddling and indulgent. Annie Dillard had a line that spoke to searching heart when she said, “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying; Hello?”

He had to confront the harm done in the name of religion, the suffering allowed by a loving God, and the irrationality of believing in miracles. Fortunately C.S. Lewis and other great thinkers were there to satisfy his questions. 

He then turns his attention to the origins of the universe. This seems to be where science and religion experience the most conflict. But for him, a belief in God actually solved, what were for him, “deeply troubling questions about what came before the Big Bang, and why the universe seems to be so exquisitely tuned for us to be there.” His scientific brain marveled at the logical answers the belief in God offered him. Science offered the “how,” God offered the “why.” In fact, his belief in God combined with his understanding of science led, rather than away from a God that can be explained away, to a renewed sense of awe in a majestic Creator.

He specifically dives into his research in the Human Genome Project. This project thrilled as he explored “the DNA language by which God spoke life into being.” His scientific and religious endeavors has led him to a place where he embraces Theistic Evolution. He summarizes it thusly, “If God is outside of nature then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could, in the moment of creation of the universe, also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and evolution of humans, right to the moment of your reading this book – and beyond. In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.”

Collins’ journey from atheist to believer in not only God, but Jesus Christ as His Son, is compelling and thoughtfully laid out for us. He pulls no punches, but goes wherever the evidence takes him.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Crunch Cons by Rod Dreher

I actually wrote this post on my old blog on May 18, 2009, before I had a book blog. Maybe it was what inspired me! 

Somehow I found out about this book and I HAD to get if from the library. It's called Crunchy Cons, meaning crunchy conservatives. Here is the subtitle if you can't read it: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party) It was that "hip homeschooling mamas" that leapt out at me.

This conservative writer had started eating organic vegetables because they taste so much better and he liked the idea of supporting family farms, and he was teased by his fellow conservatives for going "crunchy". As he began to think about that, he started to rethink what being a conservative means.

He makes the case that true conservative seeks to conserve what he calls the "Permanent Things". A real conservative values faith, family, and friendships above politics and economics. Crunchy Cons are those that want their faith in God to inform every aspect of their life, whether that means being good stewards of the planet or favoring economic policies that help, rather than hurt, families. Crunchy cons know that it is only through faith in a being higher than ourselves that we can avoid the hopelessly empty trap of self-worship.

Again and I again I found myself in the pages. One thing of value to a crunchy con is the wisdom and beauty of the past in terms of architecture. How many times have I railed against cookie cutter track homes that are nothing more than places to sleep. These are not homes in the true sense. They don't invite you in. They don't shower you with warmth. And if you decide to customize your house in such a way as to appeal to your sense of hominess, watch out for the Homeowners Association! That's against the CC&R's.

He also nailed my ambivalence for Facebook, et, al... While crunchy cons value technology to the extent it furthers our vision of faith, family, & friends, when technology inhibits those things, it is to be rejected. Many times, Facebook is the opposite of what a crunchy con like me really desires - true relationship. Just this last week, I had other people tell me things they had learned about someone else. "He had surgery." "She saw that movie." "He tried that restaurant." When I asked, "How's he doing?, How'd she like the movie?, What did he think of the restaurant?" The response is, "I don't know. I saw it on Facebook." That's not real relationship!

Like other crunchy cons, I don't worship the Republican Party. But I do believe it is the party that best holds the values I do. One thing that excited me about this book is the possibility that the Republicans, or even a third party, (the Democrats, with their fairly open hostility toward religion would probably never go in this direction) would take these ideas to heart and see a groundswell of support from people like me.

But the book is out of print, which does not bode well for it's transfomative power. So I'm not holding my breath that any politician will start to promote a life that puts faith above all, family first in policies, and seeks genuine, authentic community.

This Town by Mark Leibovich

This town by Mark Leibovich was a sad read. He chronicles the lives of the politically famous in Washington D.C. Any thought that these “public servants” are in fact, public servants, quickly goes out the window.

Although he readily admits he’s part of “This Town” and the accompanying parties, he tries to give us the outsiders view. He pokes fun at the hypocritical politicians who become lobbyists after spending their career condemning said lobbyists, the social ladder climbing types, and the adulation of  “rock star” T.V. people. 

It’s all very depressing and makes you feel like those we elect, and those who go to Washington anyways just to soak up the largess, are laughing at us rubes (read: Americans) all the way to the bank. 

I wonder if anyone actually believes what they say they believe, or are they all so superficial and materialistic?


Friday, July 11, 2014

Breakout by Newt Gingrich

I found the book Breakout by Newt Gingrich both exciting and frustrating. He details the amazing innovation taking place in the world today. That’s the exciting part. Then he describes the opposition trying to kill the wonderful advances being made simply because they threaten the status quo. He makes a powerful case that the bureaucratic and regulatory apparatus has become a stagnating and retrogressive instrument. Notice the most highly regulated areas, health care, education, and transportation are the least innovative.

He states his thesis: Even as pioneering scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs apply their genius and industry to overcoming some of our most serious problems, there are institutions, interests, and individuals hard at work to thwart this breakout.

This is a fight, he believes, not between right and left, but between the future and the past. Will we stayed mired in the old and regulated to death (sometimes literally as we will see) or will we move forward into a future filled with innovative and almost miraculous solutions.

Onto the good news. And the bad.

Education: The internet has provided an unbelievably new way to teach and deliver education around the world using the best methods and teacher available. Khan academy is doing just that. The educational blob would love to see Khan and his ilk killed in the cradle so as not to disrupt their monopoly.

Medicine: We have the technology to personalize medical like never before. 3D printers are able to print human organs! Cell phones can test you and transmit medical information to your doctor. New drugs are being developed that show surprisingly effective levels of treatment. But you will die waiting for these innovations if the FDA has it’s way. Either they require enormously expensive testing taking time and resources or they have no way to test it at all therefore some of these discoveries will never be approved. 

Energy: Fracking is changing the face of energy in this country in previously unimaginable ways. We have access to enough oil and gas to power us into the distant future. Yet the Luddites are doing all they can to end this fracking revolution and get us away from fossil fuel.

Transportation: Self. Driving. Cars. Hallelujah! I can’t wait! To be able to read/sleep/talk on my phone while driving 100mph - glorious. Letting your car drop you off at work, take your kids to school, go pick up your husband, then take you out to dinner. Imagine! No parking problems. The car drops you off and parks itself miles away, then comes when you call it! But how can the Dept. of Transportation even begin to consider such a thing. The regulations for self-driving cars don’t exist. And driverless cars will never fit in their rubric. Not to mention the salivating lawyers. Sigh. How are we ever going to get the flying cars the Jetsons promised us if we can’t even figure out how to put a self-driving car on the market?
Space: We are in the embarrassing position of having to buy seats on foreign space craft for American astronauts. To meet this challenge, the private market is offering prize money to private firms that can send a man into space. And the challenge has been met at far lower costs than the political and bureaucratic NASA could do it for. In fact, offering prize money is a great way to spark all kinds of innovation. Rather than wasting billions of dollars, the government could give it away to private innovators and wait and see what happens! 

Government: Stacks of rule are stifling inventions in many areas. In fact the regulatory state, built up over the last 60 years, is now costing the average American family $277,000 annually. This means the median income should e $330,000 a year. Regulation comes with a cost. The paralyzing behemoth that is our government has broken down in competency, common sense, and the rule of law. We need to destroy the beast and decentralize power. Ordinary American citizen need to be empowered to make decision that affect them. He tells of a story where a tree fell in a stream backing it up and threatening to flood the town. The simple, common sense plan to remove the tree was thwarted when it was discovered that approval from a federal bureaucrat was needed before the tree could be removed. Does this even make sense??

Poverty: American compassion has resulted in more poverty. This is an area in deep need of breakout in the correctional system, housing, and welfare.

America is capable and poised to see many more breakout if only we will not let the “prison guards of the past” cripple us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell was such an easy and joyful read. He is an amazing storyteller and writer. The subtitle states “Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants” and that is exactly what the book is about.

He begins by retelling the original “David and Goliath” story. Except this time he exposes the reality we have missed. David was an underdog, but by playing to his strengths and Goliath’s weaknesses, he overcame the giant. David had the skills of a sniper and came running to Goliath with courage and faith. The giant was mostly blind, lumbering, and expecting a conventional hand-to-hand fight. By “taking a gun to a knife fight,” David reversed the odds and won the day.

Through the similar stories that follow, Gladwell states, “I want to explore two ideas. The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our wold arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the source of great weakness.”

Part One: The Advantages of Disadvantages (And the Disadvantages of Advantages)

It may seem surprising, but in the last 200 years, when unmatched sides battle in war, the underdog triumphs in roughly 1/3 of the cases. It appears that when the ostensibly weaker side takes the David strategy, rather than the conventional strategy, and plays to his strengths and the enemy’s weakness, he greatly increases his chance of success.

Lawrence of Arabia exemplified this principle. He and his band of misfits approached the Turkish help port town of Aqaba from the direction of the dessert. Only a fool would do that and so the Turks never saw them coming. He refused to have a rigid definition of what an advantage was and didn’t assume the battle was already lost. 

Next Gladwell moves on to a touching story of Vivek Ranadive and his Silicon Valley girls' middle school basketball team. He had never played basketball, and his girls were awful. But he used his engineer’s analytical skills to deduce that most of the court went uncontested in a traditionally played game. He worked his girls hard to produce endurance and stamina and introduced them to the full-court press. If the other team could not get the ball in bounds in time, they would never have a chance at a shot. It was ugly and the other teams hated it, but the girls went all the way to the championship! 

So why doesn’t everyone use the full-court press. Because it’s hard! It’s physically exhausting and it can be overcome by a good team. But if you are a really bad team, it may be the best option. One thing about winning as an underdog is you must be so bad as to have no option to fight conventionally. You must be desperate. 

Sometimes even advantages become disadvantages when you have too much of them. Gladwell introduces the concept of the “U-shaped world.” Basically it states that there can be too much of a good thing. He uses the illustration of very successful Hollywood producer. The man grew up poor and learned to work hard. He learned the value of money, how to grow it, and how to take risks. His kids would never learn these lessons. No matter what, they would never have to put in the back-breaking work he did to learn the value of money. They simply would never want for anything. 

Other things, like class size, operate on a U-shaped curve as well. Too small, too suffocating and not enough interaction and discussion; too big, not enough attention and kids get lost. Yet we blindly assume smaller is better. 

He also tells the wonderful story of the Impressionists. Unable to garner much attention or acclaim in the traditional way, they opened their own gallery. Once exposed as big fish in a small pond, their fame and admiration grew. Similarly, he describes the life of Caroline Sacks. Although very gifted in science from an early age, she ended up in the field of accounting. She was accepted by her dream school, Brown. But once there, surrounded by other brilliant students, she became a very small fish in a big pond. Failing and flailing in her science classes, she dropped them and went another directions. Had she gone he lower-tiered University of Maryland, she would have stood a very good chance at becoming a respected scientist. 

Small fish in a big pond. Big fish in a small pond. Sometimes, in order to succeed, underdogs need to be big fish in small ponds.

He details a fascinating study comparing “Hartwick All-Stars” (those at the top of a no-name lower tier school) to the “Harvard Dregs” (those at the bottom of the most prestigious university.) Again and again, the Hartwick All-Stars outdid the Harvard Dregs. Why? Big fish in a small pond = success.

Part Two: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

Sometimes an overwhelming obstacle can lead to the greatest success.

Gladwell tells the tale of David Boies, a very accomplished lawyer, who has dyslexia. By learning to memorize very well in order to hide his reading disability, read body language cues, simplify ideas to their most basic concepts, and listen intently, he rose to success. The case can be made that although a disadvantage like dyslexia cannot always be turned into an advantage (many with dyslexia end up in jail), for those who can, it may be better for them than if they had never had it. 

Being an outsider, standing apart from society and having to innovate and take risks in order to do what comes naturally to others, is a big factor in those who experience phenomenal success. 

He goes on to demonstrate other difficulties that, if overcome, can become a desirable thing. Losing a parent as a child, experiencing a near-miss, or growing up in very adverse conditions, can often propel people to unimaginable heights. The stories Gladwell tells to illustrate these are wonderful and inspiring.

Part Three: The Limits of Power

Power, itself, can create an underdog to oppose it when it is misused and becomes illegitimate. Legitimate authority is based on three things: people must believe they have a voice and will be heard, the rules must be predictable, and authority must be exercised fairly. 

Gladwell uses the heavy-handed crack down on the Irish by the British. They turned ordinary people in rebels with their brutal, unfair, and unpredictable tactics. In the same way, the Three-Strikes Law in California gave rise to push back when it appeared capricious and unfair. Despite the best of intentions to crack down on law breakers, in both cases, more law breakers were created. He points to a group of Mennonites, and their unbelievable power of forgiveness, as a potentially better way to react to injustice. 

The U-shaped curve show up again in the limits of power. Sometimes too much exercising of power leads to the opposite of the intended effect. Sometimes, when people are backed into a corner, with nothing to lose, and the power that be have lost their legitimacy, the weak become strong. 

Brilliant book. Easy to read. Wonderful storyteller. I highly recommend this!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D Hirsch

I really enjoyed reading The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them by E.D Hirsch. This book follows his very successful book, Cultural Literacy, his creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation, and his Core Knowledge series of books for parents. Yet being written well before Common Core and other “standards-based” educational reforms, I’m not exactly sure how much of what he suggests is being or has been implemented. 

He begins by stating the obvious. American schools are, by and large, failing. Because this is an acknowledged fact, reforms have been popping up for the last century. However, Hirsch believes, “Most current ‘reforms’ are repetitions or rephrasings of long-failed Romantic anti-knowledge proposals that emanated from Teachers College, Columbia University, in the teens, twenties, and thirties of [the 20th] century.” Despite the “reform mantra,” there has been no reform. Yet we should acknowledge that the enemy to true reform is not certain people, but certain, ubiquitous ideas.

A republican-democracy like ours requires a literate citizenry. Thomas Jefferson believed the purpose of education was “to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people.” It’s this idea of diffusing knowledge that has been lost. But not just any knowledge will do. “...only that knowledge which constitutes the shared intellectual currency of the society” is useful to enable children to communicate and learn effectively. 

Unfortunately, our educational establishment has shifted from providing knowledge to providing tools for learning. This shift “has resulted in social consequences of tragic proportions.” Knowledge builds on knowledge. True learning tucks new knowledge into the schema already in place in order to make sense of a new concept. Teaching children to “think” without giving a foundation of ideas to think about and incorporate new thoughts into is a fool’s errand. By championing education as a means to develop tools rather than knowledge, we have done something incredibly hard - we have thwarted the natural curiosity and eagerness to learn that is inborn in children. We have bored them to tears.

The obviously controversial nature of choosing which knowledge to include in the curriculum has made it easier to leave the details to individual schools and districts. For example, the educational establishment embraces the teaching of the ability to read maps, and leaves the knowledge of certain locations up to the individual schools/districts. This is why a third grade student will learn about his hometown, but know nothing about the capital of the United States or the Rocky Mountains.

Unfortunately, although a particular district may be very good at including all the essential knowledge they deem necessary as the child progresses from K to 12th grade, this system fails to account for the migration of families throughout the United States. We are a highly migratory people. Perhaps if we stayed put, we might see better educational outcomes, but we don’t. We move. Therefore a child has a high probability of experiencing “gaps” in his knowledge as a result of changing schools. Using a standard of core knowledge has proven to educate children to much higher level than what we are currently experiencing in the United States.

Hirsch point to studies that show, compared to the world, not only are we doing a bad job overall of educating our children, but we are the least fair. We have the most disparity between the results of good schools and the bad. He points to the high mobility inherent in the area where “bad” schools tend to be located. He states, “Throughout the world, just one way has been devised to meet the double challenge of educational excellence and fairness: to teach definite skills and a solid core of content appropriate in an effective manner in each year of preschool and grade-school education.” 

Yet this basic, common sense idea is under attack by entrenched interests. A classical “grammar” education is constantly derided as “mere facts” or “rote learning.” In the age of technological explosions, we are told the facts are always changing, so since we can’t keep up, let’s focus on the tools. However, why would we be teaching “facts” that have not stood the test of time to children? Hirsch knocks down this argument by asking us to start with the things that are solid. Columbus really did sail in 1492. That fact is not a modern construct. Yet the educational monopoly continues to make anti-knowledge excuses. 

Hirsch deconstructs the methodology of the educational monopoly and stresses what the actual results are:
  1. To stress critical thinking while de-emphasizing knowledge reduces a student’s capacity to think critically.
  2. Giving a child constant praise to bolster self-esteem regardless of academic achievement breeds complacency or skepticism, or both, and, ultimately, a decline in self-esteem.
  3. For a teacher to pay significant attention to each individual child in a class of twenty to forty students means individual neglect for most children most of the time.
  4. Schoolwork that has been called ‘developmentally inappropriate’ has proved to be highly appropriate to millions of students the world over, while the infantile pablum now fed to American children is developmentally inappropriate (in a downward direction) and often bores them. 

Yet the progressive monopoly on education marches on. For to question their basic assumptions is to question their very identity. They have imbibed deeply at the well of Romanticism that teaches humans are basically good and therefore nature should be allowed to take its course, and that children are so uniquely special and trustworthy that their impulses should be allowed to develop and govern the growth of the child. These are the assumption that form the foundation of our failed educational experiment. 

Unfortunately, the truth has a irritating habit of popping up. And the truth is, humans are not basically good and children must be formed and guided, or left to their own devices, will become little hellions. The goal of education should not be to defeat human nature, but rather to guide humans toward humane and worthy ends - toward a good civilization. Hirsch points out the “too neat” parallel between class and educational results. Are we to believe that poor children just “naturally” can’t learn as well as rich kids. Really? Is that a stance we are prepared to take? Something is wrong here. And our misguided notions are hurting the ones who can little afford it.

Hirsch answers the question, “How did we get here?” when he discusses the history of teacher’s schools. When Teacher’s College of Columbia University became part of the larger academic institution, they wanted to cloak themselves in rigorous academic “bona-fides.” Started initially as a place to train teachers in the basic skills they would need to impart knowledge to their pupils, they tried to transform themselves into places worthy of academic respect. Unfortunately, they found the disciplines they might incorporate already the provinces of other academics. They had to find a way to differentiate themselves from the History Department or the English Department.  

Consequently, they moved away from teaching pedagogy in two-years to teaching educational theory and more esoteric Romantic and Progressive ideology stretched to a four-year degree, plus additional time for credentialing. This model became the standard and the graduates went on to reproduce this process all over the country. Today, educational schools are still looked down on by true academics, leading to more pseudo research and theories to bolster their reputation, leading to more hoops teachers must jump through and nonsense they must absorb, leading to more children who don’t learn. “Not only do our teacher-training schools decline to put a premium on nuts-and-bolts classroom effectiveness, but they promote ideas that actually run counter to consensus research into teacher effectiveness.” 

This desire for intellectual respect has led to the major themes we see in all “reforms” since the early 20th century: “the identification of correct pedagogy with liberal, democratic American ideals; the dubious claim that it was basing itself upon the most advanced scientific research; the insistence upon the individuality of the child and the autonomy of the teacher; the disparagement of mere subject matter and of other nations’ educational methods; the admonition to teach children rather than subjects; the claim that knowledge is changing so fact that no specific subject matter should be required in the curriculum; the attack on rote learning; the attack on tests and even report cards; the claim that following the project method would develop critical-thinking skills.”

Of the educational monopoly, Hirsch bluntly states, “There is no possibility of adequate improvements in the quality of schooling so long as these influential experts continue to hold both their current ideas and their influential positions as trainers of teachers and administrators.” Therefore, since we cannot dismiss the whole mass of people, we must change ideas. 

Hirsch has a chapter titled, “Reality’s Revenge.” In it, he looks at what research is ACTUALLY telling us rather than the pablum preached by educational “experts.” It turns out that just teaching students to think fails to teach them how to think. It turns out that learning things by rote frees the brain to absorb new things. It turns out “that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar problems and who are broad-gauged problem solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners are, without exception, well-informed people.” It turns out that the much maligned “drill and kill” methods are essential to “complex and creative intellectual performance[s].”

It will be interesting to see how the current Common Core works now that it is being unveiled across the country. If if works as Hirsch advocates, common knowledge broadly dispersed, it may in fact be the first “good” reform in a hundred years. If, however, it becomes a victim of the establishment and simply another Romantically informed version of “reform,” it will go on the trash heap with “New Math” and “Whole Language.” 

We’ll see. Reality is a b-word.