I greatly enjoyed Veronica Clarke’s “Why I Went to a Catholic College” and her clear reasoning for the superiority of choosing such a path (December 2022). Although I am a graduate of three universities (two private, one public), I can no longer bring myself to give them donations when they come begging. They have become too Woke for my tastes. Instead, I give what I would have given to them to Thomas Aquinas College, where, instead of studying sometimes questionable textbooks, the students study the great books of Western civilization. Other readers may want to consider doing likewise. Let’s support colleges where the students are taught to revere Christianity and the civilization it helped create. By the way, I am not Catholic.
Arthur Nifong Jr.
I join Mark Bauerlein in lamenting the disuse of memorization in our schools (“Sweat the Small Stuff,” December 2022), and more specifically, lamenting the material that is no longer memorized. Our heritage is something to prize. We can’t understand ourselves or our society if we cut ourselves off from history, no matter the pretext for doing so. Besides which, it’s hard to see what learning can be done at all when “retaining information” is dismissed from school grounds. If there is any one model of education that can claim to be the Catholic model, it would have to be the trivium, and the first phase of the trivium is grammar, which mainly consists in memorization. Dorothy Sayers’s famous essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” profiles the whole business excellently, and she points out that on the whole, young students love memorizing and reciting things.
In a sense, I’d go even further. A politically driven education that sacrifices truth to ideology would certainly be a bad thing; nevertheless, there is no content-neutral education. There can’t be. The mere act of putting a text in front of students implies that it is worth their time and attention. Even teaching students logic and rhetoric, the keys to all independent thought, is rooted in the view that independent thought is a desirable thing. Nor can you have an education divorced from morals. Virtues like honesty, patience, fair-mindedness, and humility are essential not only to good character, but to good scholarship; cultivating them is an indispensable part of education, and certainly not something to be ashamed of or pretend we aren’t doing. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., education has to mean nurturing both intelligence and character, or it isn’t education at all.
That said, I part somewhat with Bauerlein’s description of critical thinking, and of the educators who support it. It’s true that public schools rarely offer more than a muddle of fallacy-spotting techniques and that they present actual fallacies under the name of “critical thinking” (though many of them don’t even offer that much). But surely the thing itself, properly taught, is something any Catholic would endorse? The trivium doesn’t end with grammar; it moves on to logic and rhetoric, which are what constitute real critical thought. Without those tools, we would be in no position to answer arguments against American values or Catholic beliefs, or to make arguments for them. And I think it also bears saying that our nation’s history is not above criticism—we have special cause to know that as Catholics, whose rights haven’t always been respected by either our government or society at large. Our heritage is a treasure, but not a treasure so fragile that it wouldn’t bear some judicious cleaning.
As a retired reading teacher, I was struck by the clarity Mark Bauerlein brings to the sidelining of memorization and elevation of “critical thinking.”
In 2000, I championed memorization in a letter to Education Week, “Homeric Heritage: Call for Classroom Poetry Has Echoes in Athens.” I quoted from A Forest of Pencils: The Story of Schools Through the Ages by Winifred Trask Lee:
“His [an Athenian boy’s] writings were now passages of poetry . . . The favorite was Homer . . .” From writing and reading it over again, the boy learned much of Homer by heart.
“Could it be,” I asked Education Week readers, “that the innovative capacity of the ancient Greeks—in science, mathematics, visual arts, drama, philosophy, politics, medicine—was nurtured by that culture’s emphasis on poetry and memorization?”
What’s new with “Sweat the Small Stuff” is the role of “critical thinking” in displacing memorization:
Memorization is a mode of adherence to the past, a preservation of old things. Critical thinking is a mode of dismantling . . . The first operation maintains the past; the second claims superiority to it . . . A methodological change had steered the meaning of the past in an ideological direction . . . Memorization, it turned out, was one of the foundations of a traditional formation of the young. Its loss opened the door to progressive lessons in Western and American guilt, in patriarchy and colonialism, in false heroes and white privilege.
Exactly. Now to bring that foundation back.
lenoir, north carolina
Mark Bauerlein replies:
Jeremy Tate agrees with me on memorization and politics in the classroom, but wants to retain critical thinking as a valuable ingredient of historical understanding. He’s right, of course, though as I consider where we are at this extraordinary moment in the life of our country, I wonder if that fitting advice fully applies. The push for “critique” in classrooms throughout the land from the last fifty years has given us two generations of citizens with meager historical knowledge, little patriotism, and no cultural traditions in their bones. They know what is and is not politically correct, but they don’t know the Sermon on the Mount or Washington’s “Farewell Address.” Why bother with that old stuff now that critical thinking has unveiled its flaws?
What is needed now is appreciation unmixed with critical thinking, heroes without clay feet, fewer protests, more gratitude, and no more victimology. If we could have lessons in critical thinking about the past without sliding into identity politics and ressentiment, perhaps it would have a place in the classroom. But I don’t see that happening anywhere except in the classical school movement that starts with the assumption that Western Civilization is a glorious heritage, and proceeds on the idea that that very assumption need not be interrogated, theorized, or critically rethought. In public schools, which still handle more than 80 percent of American kids, and in many private schools (including, I am sorry to say, many Catholic schools), it’s dicey even to mention Western Civilization.
Let us have critique, then, but only at a later stage in the curriculum, after a proper knowledge and respect for persons and achievements in the past have been instilled. Before I listen to a Woke Millennial gripe about the whiteness of classical music, he will have to show a little acquaintance with Bach and Chopin. Before another one opines about the imperialism of American expansion across the continent, she must show she’s dipped into the journals of Lewis and Clark. Knowledge first, critique second; we need knowledge without ressentiment, familiarity with the persons and works themselves, not in a context of critique. And it is my expectation that the more young Americans immerse themselves in the outstanding materials of the past, the more they will find that critical thinking as currently understood and taught has a lot less merit than they thought.
Tom Shuford implies that memorization of verse has broad ramifications for later studies in the sciences. I most certainly agree, especially given the heavy role memorization plays in basic science courses. You can’t make it into and through medical school without a grasping memory. Let’s start with “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” then “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan . . . ,” “Five years have past . . . ,” “Out of the cradle . . . ,” “Let us go, then, you and I,” “One must have a mind of winter . . .”
Cancel the F-Word
Stanley Payne’s review blends his familiar erudition and good sense with writerly flair (“The F-Word,” December 2022). He contends that the left’s promiscuous employment of “fascism” causes more problems than it resolves. Payne is more percipient than the book he considers, Fighting the Last War, by Jeffrey M. Bale and Tamir Bar-On. Their effort is encyclopedic, and Payne packs as much analysis in his 2,500 words as they do in their 470 pages.
Still, Payne’s examination does not go far enough in urging the limited role of the term fascism. He seems to think that, in some cases, we can rescue the pejorative expression if a scholar is objective and determined only to understand a different perspective. This argument appears to assign a cognitive core to fascism.
On the contrary, this evaluative concept has no descriptive content. Even the most constrained expert cannot control the negative implications of what Payne neatly designates the “f-word.” In American English, it simply denigrates. No one today would dream of using the “N-word” and expect that its mean and wicked connotations could be contained, however careful the specialist. The f-word should be retired, just as we have retired the N-word.
It is much easier to offer critique than to show a way forward. But reasoning differently about politics is a prerequisite to avoiding partisanship in its study.
university of pennsylvania
Stanley Payne replies:
I thank Bruce Kuklick for his helpful comment on my review of Fighting the Last War. Readers should know first of all that the resourceful and ever-perceptive Kuklick has just published a new work of his own titled Fascism Comes to America. All those interested in learning the full extent and incredible variations of the way in which the epithet has been used in the United States during the past century should read his deft analytic survey. (My own review appeared online recently in Compact.)
I agree with his chief observation. I am totally in accord with his conclusion that use of the “f-word” has become meaningless in contemporary usage and should be retired altogether from the current political lexicon. On numerous occasions during the past thirty years I have argued insistently that any entity with the characteristics of historic European fascism cannot be recreated in any significant form in the twenty-first century.
The word is only meaningful in specific historical usage, applied (to paraphrase the old Soviet term) to the only “really existing fascism”—the Italian Fascist movement and regime of 1921–43. Those who use the term nowadays are sometimes nonplussed by the latter, since for the greater part of its history (before, as Kuklick accurately puts it in his new book, Mussolini was “contaminated” by Hitler) Italian Fascism was one of the more moderate of the major dictatorships of the twentieth century—not characterized by mass murder of its own or other citizens, moderate in its repression, “progressive” in its artistic expression, and for some time free of anti-Semitism and foreign expansion at the expense of its neighbors. Hence a few have even admitted that the only “really existing fascism” was somehow not quite fully “fascist,” in the polemical and demonic sense in which the term is normally employed.
Unions and Democracy
Jane McAlevey’s 2020 book offers an agenda to renew democracy, end racism, eviscerate wealth inequality, and achieve political victories for the left (“Conservatives for Labor,” December 2022). To achieve her goals, she insists that unions are a necessary weapon. Although the exclusionary history of labor unions and the existence of irrefutable economic data from Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, David Bernstein, and others fatally undermine McAlevey’s analysis, Colin Redemer embraces McAlevey’s contentions.
Instead of accepting McAlevey’s conclusions, readers should examine three issues. First, our present political discourse is diminished by the claims that specific initiatives are necessary “to save democracy.” Similar language invades McAlevey’s book title even though the Constitution fails to guarantee democracy. Instead, the text of the Constitution frames a republic of limited government. McAlevey’s claims are infused with ideological predispositions inescapably tied to the political left’s desire to overthrow, rather than sustain, the United States as a constitutional republic.
Second, readers should observe that it is doubtful that labor unions are capable of, or have any genuine interest in, fairly representing all workers. Similar to rival corporations’ thirst for market share that drives them to eliminate competition, unions exhibit a pervasive appetite for market power as they often exclude certain workers (mainly women and minorities) from the workforce. This move embraces the preferences of Britain’s Fabian Society, which concluded that members of particular groups are unfit or unemployable.
Third, careful readers should note that when labor unions collect compulsory dues, this shrinks workers’ First Amendment freedoms and fuels the political power of leftist ideologues. Despite entrenched opposition, the Supreme Court overruled Abood. The Court’s 2018 Janus decision disallowed compulsory dues collection because forcing non-union workers represented by a public-sector union to subsidize the political speech of third parties (labor union leadership) violates the Constitution. The forced subsidization of political speech is also a crucial issue in private-sector labor markets because 80 percent of union dues collected in the private sector are utilized for non-collective bargaining, primarily political purposes.
Although Redemer prefers a local view of economic life to a global one, reality intrudes because local labor unions are controlled by and compelled to contribute the lion’s share of their dues income to national unions headquartered in Washington, D.C. Adequately contextualized, McAlevey’s book remains an exercise in political language. George Orwell, a man of the left, notes that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Harry G. Hutchison
Colin Redemer replies:
Harry Hutchison correctly points out that current unions direct a great deal of money to Washington, D.C. I share his disapproval. Little that is wholesome and true comes from Washington, D.C. It is mostly fake political fighting done as theater and, like theater, each of the actors on stage is hoping for self-enrichment and fame. Perhaps we need to found new unions; whatever the case, something must be done. I certainly don’t want readers influenced by the “pure wind” that comes from D.C.
Regardless, his letter is what ChatGPT would produce if asked for an establishment conservative response to my argument. I am no enemy of stock responses, provided they work. So, tell me: What exactly has the establishment conserved?
In his Laws (704a–705b), Plato argues that when nations trade with one another they grow more similar. Recent history proves him right. The vast deregulation of trade overseen by our leadership class has led to an America that simultaneously looks more like Brazil (with our growing favelas) and more like China (with our corrupt and anxious elite buttressing its fragile power with an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus). Meanwhile, the importation of immigrant labor has added unprecedented supply to the labor pool, depressing wages, increasing competition among workers, and reducing aggregate social capital.
The Economist-reading position Hutchison argues from has nothing to say about this. That is because, as I explain in the recently released book Protestant Social Teaching, the editors of The Economist misunderstand politics. They see politics as a nuisance, or at best as a means by which the people can be prodded into line so that the economy can do as it wishes unimpeded. But economics comes after politics logically. A free market can exist because a political community has determined that the form of exchange taking place there is just.
Hutchison, bizarrely, seems to share one of McAlevey’s core views of the nature of justice. I plead guilty to the charge of sharing the left’s concern about the erosion of my countrymen’s real wage value, and the view that worker solidarity is a natural good. But Hutchison is guilty of sharing the left’s fixation with identity politics. This is a perfect outline of the decision before conservative voters. However you vote, avoid Newspeak and its lies.
As I said in the review, consider supporting the ongoing HarperCollins strike. They broadcast their efforts on Twitter @hcpunion.
The Literal Sense
I am grateful to Alastair Roberts for his accurate, fair-minded, and overall sympathetic review of my Vindictive Bully book (“God’s Wrath,” December 2022). I am heartened by his agreement on the hyperbolic nature of Canaanite war texts and other severe-sounding passages. I also appreciate his recognizing the deeply problematic “textual God” vs. “actual God” dichotomy propounded by Boyd and Seibert. Nevertheless, I would like to comment on a couple of points Roberts makes.
First, on allegorization: I agree with Roberts that, in reading difficult texts in Numbers or Joshua, we should approach them “as Holy Scripture.” Origen and other Church Fathers allegorized such passages to their spiritual profit and saw the victorious Christ therein, and God be praised for the edification that this brought them. However, before applying a Christological lens to these texts—texts that Roberts says are “about Christ”—we ought to do our best to read these passages as the first audience would have understood them. Roberts would no doubt agree on this point.
Beyond this, the normative guide for a Christological reading of the Old Testament is not these allegorizers. Rather, it is the New Testament authorities themselves who, it turns out, read Joshua as recounting actual historical events of divinely mandated physical battles (Acts 7:45; 13:19; Heb. 11:31–33 cf. James 2:25). And John Goldingay—the scholar I follow most carefully and who is not an inerrantist—writes, “If there is a contradiction between loving your enemies and being peacemakers, on one hand, and Joshua’s undertaking this task at God’s command [to drive out the Canaanites], on the other, the New Testament does not see it.”
What’s more, the New Testament’s Christological reading of Old Testament texts does not diminish their severity, even if hyperbole does so in places. For example, before St. Paul mentions severe divine judgments against the ancient Israelites (1 Cor. 10:5–12), he states that Christ himself accompanied them through the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4: “that rock was Christ”), and thus Christ was evidently involved in those very judgments against rebellious Israel. And this is reinforced by Jude 5’s similar use of Christological language: “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” This Christological severity is evident in other parts of the New Testament. In Revelation—indeed, in red letters—Jesus himself threatens not only to cast the false prophetess “Jezebel” onto a sickbed and throw her into “great tribulation,” but also to “strike dead” her followers (Rev. 2:20–23).
Second, on the “whistle-stop tour”: Roberts points out that my book, though “comprehensive,” is “something of a whistle-stop tour of problem passages.” No doubt the same could be said about my earlier book Is God a Moral Monster? Yes, I wish I could have delved further into certain texts to draw out the nuances and arguments from various sides. However, part of my goal, which Roberts acknowledges, is apologetical, and I am trying to bring the tools of Old Testament scholarship, theology, and philosophy to a lay audience, without overloading the discussion and losing the reader.
My project is very much in the spirit of C. S. Lewis’s admonition from “Learning in War-Time”—namely, that of Christian scholars distilling academic topics and discussions and making them accessible to the broader church. We do not want “to throw down our weapons and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.”
Perhaps even whistle stops at certain challenging Old Testament passages can nevertheless provide some direction and illumination and also offer preliminary insights to explore at greater length elsewhere.
palm beach atlantic university
west palm beach, florida
Alastair Roberts replies:
Paul Copan’s concern for the trustworthy character of the literal sense of the Bible is one that I both applaud and share. This literal sense, the principal focus of my own research, is under assault from various quarters, and I am thankful for those who, like Copan, devote themselves to its defense.
My concern is not to pit an allegorical sense against the literal one, or to dismiss the appropriate concerns of those who have defended the trustworthiness of the literal sense in inerrancy debates and elsewhere. Rather, my conviction is that attentive hearing of such texts “as the first audience would have understood them” will itself often direct our attention to something that exceeds the immediate historical referents.
Numbers 31 is as good an example of this as any. While the modern listener may principally be concerned with the sanguinary character of the battle and the scandal of killing the women, the text itself belabors the enumeration and careful division of the spoil. The numbers are striking: The total number of items of spoil (sheep, cattle, donkeys, and persons) comes to 840,000, exactly seventy items per man of the 12,000 (one thousand for each of the twelve tribes) who fought. Elsewhere in Numbers, and Scripture more generally, such numbers are significant. Only a couple of chapters later, for instance, we read of the twelve springs and seventy palms of Elim (33:9), within an itinerary that Gordon Wenham suggests is designed to follow a symbolic numerical structure of forty-two elements that can be ordered in six “weeks” of stages (eighty-four divided by two is forty-two).
Later, in the concluding chapter of the book of Judges (which records events chronologically prior to most of the rest of the book), we see surprisingly paralleled events, once again in a climactic narrative in its respective book. Phinehas (cf. Judges 20:28) is once again involved in the sending out of 12,000 men—a thousand from each tribe—to fight a holy battle. In Numbers 31, 32,000 virgins were taken; in Judges 21, four hundred (that is, 32,000 divided by eighty) were taken.
Numbers 31 focuses on the division of the huge number of 840,000 items of spoil into two halves and the offering of tribute from it, Judges 21 on the challenge of doubling a small number into a tithe of the number of Israel’s 12,000 by obtaining brides for six hundred Benjaminites (numbers are an important narrative feature of the concluding chapters of Judges).
While the early Church operated more from their sense of a dominical warrant and apostolic example for allegorical reading (cf. 1 Cor. 10), there are other routes to such figural readings. Without abandoning the literal sense, as we follow the Scripture’s own breadcrumbs, we can soon be led into intertextual theological and symbolic reflections on passages that may initially have seemed to be little more than bare historical records.
Patrick Gray’s excellent review “Reactionary Shakespeare” won’t win him many friends in the Shakespeare industry (December 2022). He nicely captures the tendency to ascribe to Shakespeare the progressive pieties and politically correct opinions of the moment. Surely an artist as great as Shakespeare must be on the right side of history, the thinking goes. To take Shakespeare seriously as a Christian, a patriotic Englishman, or an admirer of vigorous monarchs, as Gray does, is as refreshing as it is decidedly unfashionable.
There is another growing trend in Shakespeare studies, however: those who don’t find the “correct” ideas in his works, and therefore find him unacceptable. For example, Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Regents Professor of English at ASU, stated in a 2019 interview with NPR that while some Shakespeare is worth studying, he has “three toxic plays that resist rehabilitation and appropriation.” Poor Shakespeare, beyond rehabilitation! She insists we stop thinking of Shakespeare as universally good for us, and looks forward to the day when we can rewrite his plays. While she’s a scholar of Shakespeare’s works, she clarifies that she is not a fan.
Projecting contemporary progressive values upon Shakespeare and wanting to banish Shakespeare for not having contemporary progressive values are antithetical approaches, but both spring from the same self-absorption and pride that give shape to so much literary scholarship today. We read Hamlet to read about ourselves, to hear our own ideas echo back to us. We sit in confident judgment, condemning anything that doesn’t confirm what we think. We stand athwart history shouting “Racist!” How different it would be if, instead, we had the humility to really listen to what Shakespeare has to say. Like Miranda in The Tempest, we might find a brave new world.
Patrick Gray replies:
Benedict Whalen raises a timely question. Why would a Shakespeare scholar disparage Shakespeare and advise rewriting some of his plays? Ayanna Thompson’s comments, representative of a vocal faction within Shakespeare studies, may make more sense in light of internal academic politics. Traditionally, disciplines in the humanities have been organized chronologically. English departments, for instance, would conceive of expertise, hiring, and course offerings in terms of English literary history: medieval, Renaissance, Augustan, Romantic, Victorian, modern, and contemporary. More recently, however, activists in most legacy universities have managed to sideline this structure in favor of a new conceptual framework: identity politics. Resources such as funding, new hires, and space within curricula are increasingly divvied up not by historical period but by race, gender, and sexual orientation: black, Asian, Latinx, feminist, queer, trans, and so on. The result is an atmosphere like that of a prison, where members of rival gangs, separated by immutable characteristics, vie for supremacy and venture onto each other’s turf only warily, if at all.
The ostensible aim of this reorganization is “representation.” The most immediate effect is dwindling student numbers. Another, more deliberate effect, however, is the marginalization or outright disappearance of material written before 1900 or even 1960. I would even go so far as to say that this “cancellation” of pre-Marcusian “wrongthink” is often, if perhaps only half-consciously, the more substantive and primary aim, for which “diversity” serves as a convenient stalking horse. Having pushed living, breathing conservatives out of the professoriate, progressives now seek to remove dead conservatives as well; that is, any material such as Shakespeare that might lead students to question “the current thing.”
By exaggerating the importance of race and sexual orientation in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as focusing on recent productions, adaptations, and rewrites, rather than what Shakespeare himself wrote, Thompson and others like her are trying to have their cake and eat it, too: to keep Shakespeare from being thrown out alongside the other “Olds” in an ongoing Cultural Revolution. I propose, by contrast, that progressives suffer at the moment from their self-imposed confinement to “safe spaces” of like-minded opinion. Like Whalen, I believe that part of the great value of Shakespeare and other premodern authors such as Montaigne is that they allow us to think outside present-day preconceptions. Taken on in a more receptive spirit, this “encounter with the other” could help progressives understand not only themselves better but also the great many of their fellow human beings worldwide who do not share their point of view.
Image by sl wong via Creative Commons. Image cropped.