Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

I decided to read Tides of War by Steven Pressfield when I heard Dr. Larry Arne and Hugh Hewitt discussing it on Hewitt’s radio show. They mentioned it was a great book on the Greek hero, Alcibiades. Since I had never heard of Alcibiades and they spoke of him as if everyone who considers themselves educated would have understood the reference, I had to get the book so as not to embarrass myself in educated company.

Little did I know, it was actually a fact-based fictional account of the man. Since his life spanned most of the 4th century B.C., the events he is a part of weave in and out of the most memorable of ancient Greek history. Therefore, this fun, quick read helped me to put other actual historical accounts into one narrative. 

The story is told by an old man to his grandson who is fascinated with Grandpa’s stories. After describing all the great men he has encountered in his life, his grandson asks if one in particular haunted him. In fact, the grandfather replies, the story of one client in particular kept returning to him lately. It is the story of Polemides, the man who assassinated Alcibiades.

The story weaves the grandfather’s words with those of Polemides. It is a wonderful conceit as the story moves from modern day to the old days. 

Polemides describes his love/hate relationship with the marvelous Alcibiades. In the context of the story, we focus mainly on the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens for control of the Greek city-states. 

Alcibiades is an unstoppable, charismatic warrior and therefore strikes terror into the hearts of the power-hungry ruling elite of Athens. He is a master strategist, and in a bold, unconventional move, convinces the Athenians to attack the Sicilian city of Syracuse. It is a dangerous and complicated maneuver for hegemony over Greece. Once the attack is launched, Athens has cold-feet and abandons the effort and Alcibiades is recalled home for trial for treasonous and reckless behavior. 

He escapes into the waiting arms of his enemy, Sparta. From here on, he fights for the Spartans against his beloved, and in his view, corrupt, Athens. Polemides, however is left to torture and rot in Syracuse until his “friend” Alcibiades plucks him free. 

After years of battle with Athens, Alcibiades double-crosses the Spartans and with Polemides returns as a hero in Athens. 

Once again, Alcibiades is consumed with an another audacious scheme - attack the Persians, after allying themselves with Sparta. Alcibiades’ plan is to win in Persia and then turn on the Spartans. The whole enterprise is once again cut short by the power-protecting Athenian leadership.

Now both Sparta and Athens want Alcibiades dead. Polemides has suffered terribly as he has followed Alcibiades through thick and thin. Finally, he is hired by the Spartans to kill Alcibiades. Although he doesn’t actually kill the man, he is there at his death. 

I feel like I have a much greater feel for the political and military history of ancient Greece after reading this novel. I’ll have to see if he has any other fact-based fictional accounts.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow

My favorite thinker, Dennis Prager, has recommended God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow multiple times as a book that had a profound impact on him. So of course I had to read it.

This short book, written in 1978, is so clear and concise and such an easy read for anyone concerned with a supposed Religion vs. Science dilemma. 

Robert Jastrow was a world-renown astronomer, the one-time head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Professor of Astronomy and Geology at Columbia, and Professor of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth. He begins his book by stating, “When an astronomer writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers. In my case it should be understood from the start that I am an agnostic in religious matters. However, I am fascinated by some strange developments going on in astronomy – partly because of their religious implications and partly because of the peculiar reactions of my colleagues.” 

He is particularly curious about his fellow scientists who claim to follow the evidence wherever it leads in an unbiased manner. Yet when the evidence begins to line up with a Biblical viewpoint, suddenly the “unbiased, evidence-following” becomes unhinged. The burgeoning acceptance of the Big Bang Theory, in direct contradiction to the eternal universe theory, made scientist, inexplicably, angry. Where was the anger coming from? It seemed an odd response.

In his understated humor, he states, “It turns out that the scientist behaves the way the rest of us do when our beliefs are in conflict with the evidence. We become irritated, we pretend the conflict does not exist, or we paper it over with meaningless phrases.”

The first time the Genesis story began find scientific backing came with the discovery in 1913 that the universe was expanding. Even Einstein was disturbed by an expanding universe because it implied a beginning – a time when the expansion started.

Then Hubble came along and his telescope showed the universe to be of an unimaginable size. Hubble postulated and Hubble’s law: “the faster away a galaxy is, the faster it moves.” So not only was the universe expanding, it wasn’t slowing down! Therefore, based on the theories and the evidence, the universe definitely had a beginning.  Like Genesis says, “In the beginning...”

Scientist began to theorize that while the universe had a beginning, it was not THE beginning. Perhaps the universe began with a Big Bang, expanded until it exhausted itself, and then collapsed back on itself to begin again with another Big Bang. The fatal flaw to this argument is the lack of fresh hydrogen needed to restart the process. Hydrogen is turned into heavier elements within stars. The process cannot be reversed. 

Faced with the evidence for beginning, scientist responded with statements such as, “the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me... I simply do not believe [it].” Or, “I would like to reject it.” Or, “It cannot really be true.” It seems that science had become a religion itself, complete with its own dogmas.

And with the idea of a beginning, science hits a wall. It cannot and never will be able to answer the question, “What came before the Big Bang?” “Who or what put the matter and energy into the Universe? Was the Universe created out of nothing, or was it gathered together out of pre-existing materials?” And when science reaches its limits, “the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized.”

He ends the book with this wonderful metaphor, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Monday, September 8, 2014

Real Education by Charles Murray

I found Real Education by one of my favorite thinkers, Charles Murray, fascinating. The subtitle is “Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality” and the book focuses on each of the truths in turn. Murray believes the educational system is living a lie and aims to correct these fundamental misconceptions. He states, “The unifying theme of the [book] is that we are unrealistic about students at every level of academic ability -- asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top.”

The four truths he promulgates are:
  1. Ability varies.
  2. Half of the children are below average.
  3. Too many people are going to college.
  4. America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

You can see these statements are not only heretical, but push uncomfortably into territory the educational behemoth has staked out for itself. 

Ability varies. Murray shows how with the theory of multiple intelligences, it is assumed that everyone excels in at least one of them. However, research shows that only four of the main seven contribute to academic ability and those are closely related to each other. Therefore, someone with may have high bodily-kinesthetic abilities, but that doesn’t correlate to academic success. It may correlate to other kinds of success, however, but not academic. 

Half of the children are below average. So the question becomes, can we raise the academic ability of those who are below average in the intelligences that matter most to academic success? Apparently, very little. 

Those at the lowest level of ability are able to rise a little and become a little less below average. But basic ability seems to be fairly fixed. (He’s not talking about taking a talented, but underachieving youngster out of an atrocious school and seeing him rise in a more conducive environment. He’s talking about ability regardless of environment.) In fact, he believes we have already made the leap at which most schools are adequate and the source of underachievement is not bad schools. The dream of raising up the bottom half through fundamental reform of the public schools is a romantic dream and a “triumph of hope over experience.”

Too many people are going to college. Murray estimates that between 10-20% of all students are mentally equipped to handle the rigors of a true college education. He further makes the case that colleges are not delivering a good, quality liberal arts education anyways. In fact, most students should be receiving that in high school. In addition, college as we know it is becoming obsolete. With the invention of the internet, the educational establishment is being blown wide open. Finally, the correlation of a college degree with monetary success is not necessarily true and the resulting stratification of society is an outcome to be avoided. 

This chapter hearkens back to the book I just read, Cultural Literacy, and makes the same case that even at the elementary level, our kids are not getting a true education. Creating a core of knowledge that all children proceed through is the best way to educate our citizens, not expecting everyone to go to college and pick it up there. 

He illustrates the difference between our current standards and a core knowledge format. Current Standards: “Read a variety of literature such as folktales, fairytales, poetry, newspapers, magazines, & Internet Web sites.” Core Knowledge Standards: Read “poetry by Lewis Carroll, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Eve Merriam & Ogden Nash. Read or are read Alice in Wonderland, tales from The Arabian Nights, “The Little Match Girl,” “William Tell,” selections from Wind in the Willows, Norse myths, Greek & Roman myths, & folktales from around the world.” See the difference. Business as usual hitting and missing key cultural components vs. a true education for all students. 

College has become a no-cost (to the employer) way of screening applicants, has lengthened the time of adolescence, has cost parents a small fortune, has wasted the time of most students, and has led to assumption that the graduates are actually educated. Sigh. 

Murray summarizes the theory behind college today quite nicely: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it. 

America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. Ideally, college should be for the 10-20% of our most gifted students. Although it is not politically correct to say, these students are the ones who will end up in influential positions in society (whether we like it or not). “All we can do is try to educate members of the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, the obligations that go with the roles they play.” “The elite is already smart. It needs to be wise.”

Murray calls for a revival of a classical liberal education in college that best teaches the elite to do its duty to society. He advocates rigor in verbal expression, rigor in forming judgments using the study of history, rigor in thinking about virtue and the good starting with Aristotle and the cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, practical wisdom, and justice, as well as Biblical virtues and wisdom, and finally humility. Our elite must be taught what it is to fail. The responsibility of leadership must only be bestowed on those who know how badly things can go wrong. 

Finally, Murray advocates viewing education as a funnel. Those in the lower half are represented by the narrow end. The gains in this area are minimal and the focus should be on core knowledge. Those with the most ability are represented by the wide opening picturing the almost limitless possibilities of the elite. This is the opposite of our current system where gains by the bottom half are the most sought after. 

Instead, group children by ability and treat them differently. Pure heresy, I know. The kids know who is at the top anyways, why try to paper over it. Instead focus on the needs of each group. Teach the bottom half how to make a living and become productive citizens rather than college drop-outs. Offer school choice so kids can go to the school which best fits their abilities. Focus on the overall success of the students in life, not simply math and reading scores which necessarily focus only on those with high academic ability. Forget degrees as the one and only path to success and create a system that embraces interning, credentialing, and entrepreneurship. Open up our current one-size-fits-all system to welcome and facilitate different paths and abilities. 

Redefine the goal of education - “to bring children into adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and doing them at the outermost limits of their potential.”