In his “Re-Educate for America” (November), Malcolm Rivers identifies correctly the cultural hegemony that undergirds the educational establishment (and the leadership class) in America. A decade ago, as a New York City Teaching Fellow (a program in lockstep with Teach for America), I witnessed a similar hubris. Rivers also rightly describes the ghastly school cultures that are prevalent today, conditions that contribute to morally destructive behaviors by students. These behaviors are tacitly and sometimes overtly condoned by those in power, including many teachers and administrators.
Which leads me to a glaring omission in the article. The author’s overarching argument is that a teacher’s duty is first and foremost to overcome students’ “academic deficits.” Indeed, Rivers chastises his TFA colleagues for imposing their moral beliefs on their students. In the name of humility, he admonishes them instead to focus on helping students to achieve academic success.
Of course, academic achievement is a major goal for any teacher. But it must be underscored that a teacher is, first and foremost, a moral agent. I bristled when I first heard this statement from an educator and administrator in the New York City public school system. The administrator made this statement to a cohort of new teachers who were beginning their teaching careers in the Bronx. To be sure, this educator’s moral views are much more closely aligned with those of Rivers’s TFA colleagues, and my own personal views are no doubt closer to those of the author. Nonetheless, after well over a decade of teaching, I must assert that I myself, Rivers, and every other teacher have no other choice but to teach morality to students. Whether it’s in the way we interpret literature, history, or philosophy, or in how we present the interconnectedness of knowledge in the sciences and humanities, or in how we make teleological inquiries related to larger questions about the human condition, teachers have the responsibility of understanding the moral situation in which they reside.
I currently teach at a charter school whose curriculum insists that all academic subjects—indeed, all knowledge and experience—are related to truth, beauty, and goodness. Our students learn about natural law and the virtues along with the ways in which each academic subject is connected to the others and how each person and event in history is a unique part of the Great Story. This is not an unbiased view of knowledge and education. Nor are the teaching content and strategies of mainline public schools. What would an unbiased curriculum even look like? In any case, let’s not kid ourselves: Tolerance, freedom, and even the words “education,” “academic,” and “culture” are all contested terms. If we are not on the offensive in hanging our pedagogy around the ideas that underpin the moral universe, these ideas will (and already have) come to mean the opposite of their true meanings. These words and concepts will not be taught properly and accurately unless we actually teach them to students. The hegemonic establishment consistently reinforces the opposite interpretation.
You can’t be neutral on a moving train.
winston-salem, north carolina
Malcolm Rivers replies:
First and foremost, I’d like to thank Rusty Roberson for his thoughtful response. My goal in writing the piece was to prompt consideration and discussion of the responsibility of teachers in varied cultural contexts, and it appears that my effort has met with success. With that said, I believe Roberson makes some good points but may have mistaken my thesis for a glaring omission: My TFA colleagues thought themselves to be moral agents, and that was the problem.
In attempting to promote secular humanist ideologies and attitudes, my fellow corps members, in their minds, were serving as moral agents. The problem with their moral agency was that it was ignorant of the cultural origins and ideologies of those truly responsible for a child’s moral and philosophical development: the child’s family. Ultimately, families set the moral agenda for their children, and teachers attempting to serve as moral agents in ways that run counter to the beliefs of their students’ families should be careful not to overstep their bounds.
Students may learn from a given teacher for one month or several years, but the people with whom the student will learn and grow into maturity are in their families. Families raise their children, are familiar with relevant cultural contexts, and deal most directly with the consequences of the child’s decisions, making them naturally better suited to serve as moral agents based on their higher degree of investment and knowledge. A teacher with limited comprehension of the context or culture of her students’ communities and lower levels of investment in individual students is ill equipped to be an arbiter of morality beyond serving as an example.
Moreover, teachers are, by necessity, more practical than moral agents. The reality is that we live in a pluralistic society where value, goodness, truth, and beauty are, as Roberson so rightly notes, up for debate. A teacher cannot be an effective moral agent if teachers and the communities they serve cannot agree upon the nature of morality itself. The teacher’s role is in service of the community and the students, and teaching morality to students too easily becomes promoting a personal moral agenda which serves no one but the teacher herself. Thus, students are best served when teachers introduce perspectives and ideas to them and hand them tools and lenses to examine them with, leaving the students to reach their own conclusions.
I am in no way suggesting that a moral universe does not exist or that right and wrong are fictive concepts. I do, however, recognize that the right and wrong you and I recognize may not be aligned with the moral perspectives of some fresh-faced TFA recruit—and I would hope that she’d respect a family and community’s autonomy enough not to force-feed their most precious investments her own personal brand of Truth.
No doubt I speak for many fellow transhumanists in thanking Mark Shiffman for his detailed critical engagement with the movement’s underlying philosophy and theology in his “Humanity 4.5” (November)—the first of its kind, really. If one controls for his critical tone, he largely succeeds in capturing the range of the transhumanist imagination.
Shiffman correctly identifies Gnosticism as a problem for the movement, one over which opinion is divided—though the two sides rarely disagree openly. One strand of transhumanism would have us live in the biological bodies of our birth indefinitely, either by reversing the aging process or, per cryonics, resurrecting the dead. Although clearly non-Gnostic, this strand would have us live in a world where an individual would have the time to realize aspirations that in the past were routinely transferred to offspring. The other strand would be more expressly Gnostic, by having us migrate from a carbon to a silicon base, such that we merge with “artificial intelligence,” perhaps culminating in the “Singularity.” Here “we” means the digital record of our lived experience, which is presumed to remain intact in translation, only to be enhanced through experiences in the new medium. This is the materialist analogue of “pure spirit.” Whereas the first sort of transhumanism fetishizes the human body, the second sort regards the body as simply a means—a “platform,” if you will—for the execution of our spirituality.
Interestingly, turning to Shiffman’s own positive argument, I find no mention of the Son of God—either in his human (Jesus) or divine (Christ) form. Moreover, his few mentions of the Bible are more as a generic influence than as the actual Word of God. These are not nit-picking complaints, but rather signs of his failure to see how Christianity naturally lends itself to transhumanism. Shiffman is captivated by Christian doctrine and its cultural practices rather than by the ultimate sources of these developments. His blindness here is like that of the sixteenth-century Catholics vis-à-vis the Protestant Reformers. Shiffman cannot see how people might be authentically inspired by the same theological impulses yet not abide by the institutional arrangements through which they are conventionally channeled.
In the case of Jesus, Christianity’s Eastern Orthodoxy has long stressed the moment of theosis in the Gospels, when Jesus experiences the Gestalt switch that leads him to realize that he is the Son of God. In terms of its implications for transhumanism, we need to take what Shiffman calls “Humanity 3.0” more seriously than he himself does. Jesus is indeed a divine mask (i.e., “persona”), one designed to interface between abstract divinity and its concrete realization in creation. To be human is to be this interface. While the Jesus interface fitted the user needs and capacities of his day, the interface may need to be upgraded over time to have a comparable, if not improved, effect. Indeed, the Second Coming may involve a cyborg or android whose moment of self-consciousness corresponds to the new theosis.
Implied here is that even if the human persona requires embodiment, it need not be embodied as Homo sapiens, as in the case of Jesus. Rather, what is required is that the persona command the relevant sense of authority and bestow the relevant sense of power. And here the Bible as the first fully embodied expression of the Word of God needs to be given its due. The Bible is neither a set of stone tablets nor a literary Rorschach. Rather, it is a collection of scripts—or “programs,” if you will—for leading your life, which “you” (whoever you happen to be) then need to inhabit, perhaps in the manner of a “method actor,” who may acquire divinity in the process.
What I have presented may seem like a rather demystified view of the Bible, but even so it does not diminish its power. From John Milton’s Areopagitica to Norbert Wiener’s God and Golem, Inc., a continuous thread can be discerned that the creative word, however it is embodied, is ultimately sacred. In this respect, the manufacture of artificial intelligences capable of reprogramming themselves to outstrip the capacities of their masters is not a threat to humanity but a demonstration of our own divine status as its creators.
university of warwick
coventry, united kingdom
Mark Shiffman’s excellent article is too rich for me to be able to assess all the good points in it. Let me single out one problem that he very aptly mentions. If the transhumanist project were to come true, a two-tier mankind would arise. What would be the fate of the left-behind? Now, this question was asked in 1929 by a distinguished Irish scientist, John D. Bernal (1901–1971)—by the way, father of Black Athena’s late Martin Bernal. His scientific utopia The World, the Flesh and the Devil contains a real jewel that I quoted in my Le Règne de l’homme:
From one point of view the scientists would emerge as a new species and leave humanity behind; from another, humanity—the humanity that counts—might seem to change en bloc, leaving behind in a relatively primitive state those too stupid or too stubborn to change. The latter view suggests another biological analogy: there may not be room for both types in the same world and the old mechanism of extinction will come into play. The better organized beings will be obliged in self-defense to reduce the numbers of the others, [emphasis mine] until they are no longer seriously inconvenienced by them.
In 1953, Bernal received the Peace Prize named after Stalin, a man who was particularly adept in reducing numbers of people.
Mark Shiffman replies:
My thanks to Steve Fuller for providing the provocation and opportunity for some further clarification of our disagreements. To be accused by a transhumanist of being insufficiently biblical and christological is at least interesting in comparison to the ripostes one might typically expect from that direction. He is certainly right that a more complete argument would involve these dimensions, as well as the ecclesiological one. In “Humanity 4.5” I tried as much as possible to remain on a level of generality where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews might find some common ground.
That being said, I also agree in principle with Erasmus that disputation on scriptural interpretation in an adversarial public forum is almost certain to be counterproductive, and so I tend to refrain from it. But I would at least commend to Fuller’s attention the textually scrupulous interpretation of the Tower of Babel by Leon Kass, which I think throws the transhumanist project into its properly blasphemous light. I might also go so far as to suggest that interpreting the Incarnation as a technologically upgradeable “interface” is quite the opposite of a “demystified view of the Bible.”
This brings us to the trickier business of trying to clarify what “Gnosticism” means in its strictly modern guise. (Tellingly, Fuller contrasts the two diverging transhumanist attitudes toward the body as “clearly non-Gnostic” and “more expressly Gnostic,” the second phrase giving the lie to the first.) I do not think the attitude toward the body is the decisive feature of modern Gnosticism. Rather, the question is whether “theosis” is something we enter into through prayer and receptivity to transforming grace (the authentic view of the Eastern Orthodox tradition) or through aggressive transformation of the given creation (Fuller’s modern and transhumanist view). What is decisive in relation to the body is whether one considers the will obliged to cooperate with its natural teleology or utterly free to exploit its potential for the fulfillment of one’s wishes.
While a more adequate treatment would require an article unto itself, modern Gnosticism might provisionally be described as the wanton destruction of actually possessed or sustainable goods under the alluring spell of imagined thrilling possibilities. The bird in the hand is always to be sacrificed for the two asserted to be in the bush over the next hill. Thus Rémi Brague is right to remind us that the sacrifices the Gnostic attitude blithely makes to its strained and insubstantial fantasies of the future include the lives and livelihoods of those who refuse to bow down to the idols of History and Progress. Its proneness to foster the seeds of totalitarianism is, for anyone with eyes to see, no idle concern at present.
I enjoyed Mark Bauerlein’s “When Teachers Don’t Matter” (November), a nostalgic exercise in teacher-student relations back in the day. Alas, we professors are all fated to be “content providers” now. But he doesn’t inquire very strenuously into the reasons for this vile designation, and he doesn’t even mention reasons closer to home—for instance, the closed office doors of faculty, the institution of adjuncts, and the rise of online teaching. The fact is, two-thirds of faculty—some estimates of adjuncts are even higher—don’t even have offices. It’s hard to revere them if they’re nowhere to be found. How long before those faculty offices are made over into computer labs or game rooms, while former occupants learn how to conduct their classes exclusively through the use of Blackboard and similar programs?
It’s not only all very sad but rather ironic when we consider the example of Paul de Man. Bauerlein has to go pretty high up the food chain in order to invoke him as an example of charisma, mentorship, and open doors. He has to ignore one of de Man’s more infamous assertions that “teaching is not primarily an intersubjective relationship between people but a cognitive process in which self and other are only tangentially and contiguously involved.” Some might find this view of teaching thrilling—others, chilling. One thing is for sure: These days, even the intersubjective nature of teaching is gone as an antagonist. What we are increasingly faced with is online “content providing” without so much as cognition, a development that surely pleases Bauerlein no more than me, and which would have prompted de Man to turn in his office key.
san antonio, texas
I was Mark Bauerlein’s classmate at UCLA, and I can confirm his description of the English department corridors, offices, and lecture halls back in the ’80s. I was awed yet made to feel welcome by the eminent scholars whose doors stood open in Rolfe Hall. The names on those doors were the same ones I saw on the back covers of the Pelican Macbeth or Arden Hamlet used in literature classrooms everywhere. Lecturing to the students taking the incomparable English A, B, and C survey courses, these professors were anything but content providers—they were sages and sometimes shamans, the Norton Anthology their spellbook. Ten years later, nearly all of my teachers, the last of the New Critics and devoted humanists, had retired, but after more than thirty years of teaching I still consider myself their acolyte.
I have no reason to question Bauerlein’s depiction of the impersonal, hoop-jumping academic culture that now prevails in the universities. For us hoary, chalk-stained wretches, few things are more satisfying than crying O tempora! O mores! Well, I hate to spoil the mood, but all is not lost. After spending the first half of my career as a college professor, I became a boarding school teacher. I write this letter from the common room of a dormitory, where I have evening duty. My students pull up a chair, open their books, and ask me to walk them through “Batter My Heart,” or help them deepen the personal meditation on friendship they’ll deliver at the whole-school assembly on Thursday. Or they just want to talk about life. I’ll see these same students in class tomorrow, or at afternoon practice for the team I coach, or in the small advisory group I meet with weekly. Through all these interactions, the faculty here dedicate themselves to forming, not just informing, their students. In short, at boarding school, teachers still do matter.
Michael R. Bonin
portsmouth, rhode island
Mark Baurlein replies:
Terry Caesar observes that I don’t “inquire very strenuously into the reasons” why teachers have sunk to “content-provider” status. He’s right. What teacher—who was once a student fired up by a high school or college instructor and thenceforward dedicated to the path of learning—wants to admit to that mechanical identity? I had a professor in freshman year who took us slowly through the Inferno and exploded one adolescent moral conception after another. If I had understood him as a component in a delivery system, it wouldn’t have happened and I wouldn’t remember him. With more instruction run through screens and handled by part-time instructors with no institutional authority, Caesar is right to envision inspiration’s dim future.
I would, however, interpret differently the quotation from Paul de Man that Caesar recalls, at least in regard to his followers. Caesar says that de Man’s observation thrilled some and chilled others. But in my experience it wasn’t an either/or case. De Man’s “children,” many of whom have worked at Emory over the years, were thrilled and chilled. They spoke of de Man not with warmth or happy discipleship, but with an odd obliquity, as if they still sensed his shadow looming over them when they spoke. His judgment was still alive in their heads long after his death. That’s what the most powerful teachers do, and here we see the risk involved. They can become a burden forever if the discipleship isn’t broken, or at least contained, at some point.
Michael Bonin’s letter takes me back to a Golden Age: graduate school in English at UCLA in the 1980s. Life was hard, to be sure. We had grueling written qualifying exams to pass in our third year, sixteen hours on four historical fields of our choice. Around one-third of the students failed and were dropped from the program. Most of us had to work our way through school by teaching composition courses, too. We were anxious and tired.
But labor was simple and clear. Read read read, study study study, think think think. We didn’t have to pay attention to national politics or identity politics or academic politics. We had to know what Hegel said about Antigone, to distinguish a Spenser sonnet from a Drayton sonnet, to define Romantic irony. We didn’t worry about the job market; we worried about whether we got Carlyle right. The professors expected us to become learned and articulate in writing and speech—that’s it. They favored erudition over trendiness, and never did I feel from them the pressure of political correctness. They could be irritable and off-putting, and they took conflicting approaches to literature, but they shared an admiration for literary-historical knowledge and required the same of us.
For four years, before plunging into a dissertation specialty, we had to cover several centuries of literature and language and criticism, philology and stylistics, plus their historical contexts. Why would someone aiming to study modern American poetry have to compose phonetic transcriptions of Shakespeare’s verse? Because, it was clear, knowing some early-modern English linguistics was valuable in itself. Why read The Aeneid? Because it’s important. No postmodern skepticism intervened in our commitment, no multiculturalist questioning of the tradition. We just did it, and I’m glad we did.
Rule of law
In his “While We’re At It” (November), R. R. Reno criticizes Pope Francis’s encouraging Kim Davis to refuse to sign marriage licenses for homosexuals, writing, “I’m not convinced that he has thought through the logic of the matter.” He then adds, “How can the rule of law survive?”
Let me get this straight. Is Reno telling us that Justice Kennedy, in his Obergefell v. Hodges legislation from the bench, is the “rule of law”? Is he telling us that the two Democratic Justices who joined Kennedy and who, as lawyers, had previously energetically argued for homosexual marriages, were applying “rule of law” when they refused to recuse themselves from hearing this case because they had already decided on the outcome they wanted? Is he telling us that Kennedy applied “rule of law” by invoking his shopworn “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning” slogan that he first conjured in Planned Parenthood v. Casey to justify killing the entire next generation of Americans, and that trumps the U.S. Constitution he swore under oath to defend? Is he telling us Kennedy’s “rule of law” would equally justify marriages between people engaged in sadism, masochism, pedophilia, incest, polygamy, necrophilia, zoophilia, etc., thereby extending the LGBTQ alphabet soup to LGBTQSMPIPNZ and counting?
Or, for that matter, is he telling us that Kennedy’s “rule of law” trumps over five thousand years of human civilization and Kim Davis merely because, like Bill Clinton’s justification for sexually abusing Monica Lewinsky on the grounds that, as he said, “I could do it so I did do it,” he’s a Supreme Court Justice with a lifetime tenure and Kim Davis is just a lowly county clerk?
He says all this is “rule of law” that we should support? I’m not getting it. I would ask him to “think through the logic in this matter” for us, so we can all understand.
fort pierre, south dakota
R. R. Reno replies:
Strictly speaking, Terry Hughes is quite right. As Thomas Aquinas teaches, an unjust law is not a law at all. Put somewhat differently, a law that perpetrates injustice such as abortion ends up undermining a system of just laws, not just in the particular instance of allowing for the killing of the innocent, but in general, for unjust laws discredit the legal regime. The Obergefell decision does both. It proclaims as true something that is false (that two men or two women can marry), and in so doing makes any sensible person wonder about the underlying soundness of our constitutional regime.
Yet there’s another way of viewing the rule of law, one that emphasizes the inherent good of settled rules. Even a legal regime with some bad laws is preferable to a regime governed by the personal preferences of the powerful and the principle that might makes right. As a consequence, we’re to accept the authority of a legal system, even as we object to this or that law.
Martin Luther King Jr. worked with both of these truths. He saw nothing immoral about disobeying unjust discriminatory laws. But he also submitted to the authority of government officials who arrested and jailed him and his colleagues. The unjust law did not bind his conscience, but his overall commitment to the civic good of the rule of law placed him in the position of civil disobedience, not rebellion. (The modern Christian tradition allows for rebellion and revolution, but only in the direst circumstances, and only when one has the reasonable expectation of success.)
King’s approach strikes me as morally sound: disobedience to bad laws combined with submission to the rule of law. Kim Davis, however, was in a more complicated position because she serves as representative of the law. The rule of law is imperiled when those commissioned to impose and execute laws refuse to do so.
In the event, Davis submitted to the rule of law, as did King, even as she refused to obey the unjust Obergefell decision. She did not resist arrest or confinement in prison, and accepted a court-ordered arrangement that was designed to protect her conscience while nevertheless requiring her office to conform to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. This strikes me as a sound judgment. We should resist unjust laws, but we should support the legal system as a whole, because having a rule of law, even a flawed rule of law (and all are), is better than no rule of law.
By being courageous but not rash, Davis drew the right sort of attention to the injustice of Obergefell. In all likelihood, her witness affected the recent round of elections in Kentucky that put underdog Republican candidate Matt Bevin, a strong supporter of religious liberty, into the governor’s mansion. Getting civil disobedience right is important. It can also be effective.