Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cut from the Same Augustinian Cloth: Benedict XVI and Rowan Williams

Oh, what a treat is this article here - in this week's Tablet, a British, lay Catholic magazine. It comes from Rupert Shortt whose biography of Williams has won rave reviews and who also has a biography of Benedict XVI published in 2006. Here are two compelling snipets on what each church leader demonstrates about their mutual dependence on Augustine and more.
"Rowan Williams may represent a fairly uncommon amalgam of liberal and conservative impulses, but that is no less true of Joseph Ratzinger..."

"It seems to me that Benedict’s understanding of Catholicism itself might be enlarged through further engagement with a figure of Rowan Williams’ stature. The journey could at the same time reconnect Joseph Ratzinger with his younger, pre-conciliar self."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hey students! Hard work yields success

This time of year, faculty members adopt tactics both subtle and not-so-subtle to implore students to set aside the gadgets and crack open the books. And, yes, it is true that hard work can (and does) yield academic success, but for reasons that are largely cultural, hard work has become feared and praises of hard work are deemed politically incorrect. Two articles spotted today seem to indicate how significant this cultural problem is.

First, take a look at Tom Friedman's article from Saturday's Times in which he cites another article in the Washington Post on the lack of student motivation as a major problem that besets America. The U.S.A. has dropped to no. 11 in a "ranking" of best countries, and there are good reasons why the U.S. is underperforming. Excerpt:

The second piece, which could have been called “Why We’re No. 11,” was by the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson. Why, he asked, have we spent so much money on school reform in America and have so little to show for it in terms of scalable solutions that produce better student test scores? Maybe, he answered, it is not just because of bad teachers, weak principals or selfish unions.
“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said.
  The other article comes from the University Affairs, a Canadian university monthly for faculty, administrators and others. In that article, Alan Slavin, a Physics prof at Trent University in Ontario discusses the failed curricular reforms in that province made during the late 1990's. But, then, in a revealing aside near the end comes this:

I recently reviewed the drop-out rate from my introductory physics class that I have taught quite regularly from the 1980s. Over this time, the drop-out rate has increased gradually from eight percent in the early 1980s to more than 20 percent now, with one glaring exception. In the Ontario double-cohort year of 2003-04 and the next year, (which included about 25 percent of the four-year students who stayed in high school for an optional fifth year), the drop-out rate plummeted to eight and 10 percent, even though the class performance was not exceptional. Similar results were seen at Brock and Guelph universities. The best explanation is that these students were told that they would have to work very hard to gain one of the limited places at university. The work and study habits they developed then carried into university, and helped them through their first year. The lesson is that at least some student problems can be reversed very rapidly if the incentive is large enough.
The double cohort is a reference to the year in which grade 12 and grade 13 students graduated together, thus swelling universities' freshman year classes. Revealing though...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Religious Naturalism Against Undergraduate Atheism

In this fascinating review of two books by religious naturalists, John Cottingham takes on what is termed the undergraduate atheism of the Ditchkins crowd (Dawkins, Hitchens et al) and the responses of religious naturalist Mark Johnston and the French writer André Comte-Sponville.

It's a brilliant review, but the books sound brilliant in their own ways too, especially Johnston's, since he appears to have reoriented the atheism/theism debate to one in which the evolutionary desires for selfish and selfless behaviour play a central role in the analysis of religion. Johnston apparently offers up process thought as a third option lying between the classical theist / atheist divide. Ok, but can a process God, who is indistinguishable from Nature (capital N) really sustain the retrieval of a true morality and life's true meaning that Johnston wants to retrieve? Cottingham says no. For instance:

Both writers mention, en passant, that they were brought up as Catholics. But, like many academics and intellectuals, I suspect they have given insufficient credit to the pervasive subliminal effects of the culture to which they were exposed, day by day and week by week, as they grew up. To be sure, there was much about that culture, especially in its more rigid and fossilised forms, that was no doubt oppressive, if not worse. But the sense, powerfully articulated in both writers, of the sacred, of the mystery and wonder of existence, of the power and resonance of the moral ideals that call us to transcend ourselves, of the supreme value of love and self-sacrifice — how much of this is really independent of the liturgical and scriptural and sacramental culture which nurtured them? And how much of it can be retained once that culture has been dismantled?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reviewing Hauerwas

I've heard several people laud Stanley Hauerwas's memoir, Hannah's Child. Here is a review by Martin Copenhaver in Christian Century that summarizes and evaluates the book in a fair and insightful way. Excerpts from the review:
As he writes elsewhere in the memoir, he believes that "wherever Christians exist they are constituted by words and actions that should—but may not—make their lives difficult." This is a moving account of a Christian simply—and powerfully—living out the implications of his convictions...
Hauerwas contends that you cannot rightly consider someone's thought apart from that person's life; as he often puts it, "Only ad hominem arguments are interesting." Obviously, to write a memoir is to invite just that kind of argument....
It is telling that Hauerwas is fond of Oscar Wilde's contention that we are never more true to ourselves than when we are inconsistent. In his inconsistency, then, Hauerwas is consistently true to himself.
The first line there is an excellent way of describing the essentially (i.e.: not optional) challenging character of Christian faith and the theological reflection that it inspires - in our culture of 'live and let live'

The Great University Debate Has Begun

Well, at least south of the border. There are good reaons to hold this debate in Canada too, except that Canadians are a lot more reticent to debate most things. We are complacent if nothing else....

Here, read Camille Paglia's praise of trades, in which she also advocates core curricula in colleges and universities, an idea that couldn't arrive fast enough in the increasingly fragmented and hyper-specialized Canadian university. She is a bit too sweeping in some of her statements however. See for yourself...

And here, taking up the two big books on the subject of tenure is a fine New York Times piece.


Friday, September 3, 2010

William Cavanaugh on Hitchens

Whew, what a devastating critique of Christopher Hitchens this is. In politics, this kind of writing would be called a 'gotcha'. Cavanaugh (St. Thomas Univ., Minneapolis) takes apart Hitchens' argument that religion is inherently violent- in an Australian Broadcasting essay. Completely demolishes the argument that is.

Totalitarianism aims at human perfection, which is essentially a religious impulse, according to Hitchens. Religion poisons everything because everything poisonous gets identified as religion.
At the same time, everything good ends up on the other side of the religious/secular divide. Hitchens says of Martin Luther King Jr., "In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian." Hitchens bases this remarkable conclusion on the fact that King was nonviolent, and the Bible preaches violence from cover to cover.
What is not violent cannot possibly be religious, because religion is defined as violent. So Stalin is religious but Martin Luther King is not.

HT: faith and theology