Is Sonlight Curriculum sufficiently Christian?

John Holzmann has just written a much more detailed version of the story of how Sonlight Curriculum came to be banned from exhibiting at the Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC) annual convention. His account includes the correspondence he exchanged with the CHEC officials who were responsible for the decision, which is very helpful. I recommend you read this post.

In particular, a passage from one of the letters from CHEC started me wondering whether in some circles the idea of a Christian worldview is being given a new and dangerous twist. This is from a letter from Kevin Swanson, executive director of CHEC, explaining why the board is having some difficulty deciding whether Sonlight Curriculum is sufficiently Christian:

Your philosophy statement in the catalogue is excellent. I couldnt’ (sic) have written a better one myself. Education is not neutral. Either it will be taught in the fear of God or it will not be taught in the fear of God.

Yet, as I read through the Biology 1 syllabus and workbook that you sent down… I’m not seeing a God-centered metaphysic weaving through it. (I’m certainly willing to be corrected on this perception, John.) What I see is a verse at the front of it, that seems sort of like a post-it note at the beginning. I see a short summary of Russell Humphrey’s view on the age of the earth.

But as far as the content of it… We read Rachel Carson’s book… and I’m wondering whether Rachel fears God. Does Rachel maintain the right metaphysic throughout, and if not, does the student ever notice it? Is God missing? Why does Rachel want to preserve the earth? Why do we want to preserve/take dominion over the earth?

At the end of each book, does the student understand both the creation and the providence of God, and is he/she pressed to worship God? In fact, I only found 1 or 2 references to God in the entire syllabus, which seemed strange when the books appear to be written by those of a materialistic/naturalistic mindset.

Now, I know that nobody does any of this perfectly. I can see that Wile tries to include references to "Creation" throughout his books. You see references like "God has designed each living organism’s. . . " or "Symbiosis is an incredible testament to God’s forethought in designing his creation…"

I know that you like to use books written by materialists/naturalists for their engaging content. But I wonder how you intend to weave the fear of God and a God-centered metaphysic back into the course? If you could just share a little bit on how you intended to do that in the Intro to Biology course, I think that would be helpful for me. [Emphasis added.]

I take the emphasized statement to mean not only that to qualify as Christian, a curriculum must have the fear of God woven into it as well as a God-centered metaphysic, but that this must be done to a certain degree above which it becomes acceptably Christian.

There are certainly curricula out there which could easily meet this standard. But I think there are also curricula which fail to meet this standard and are also quite acceptable for a Christian to learn from. Easy examples include books on economics or mathematics or appliance repair, which occasionally include explicitly Christian content but usually do not. A harder example might be a book on the history and theology of Buddhism, which could easily describe the beliefs involved while taking no position on their truth or falsity; a particular Christian parent might choose not to expose a particular Christian child to such a book, but it is hard to make a case that such a book poses a danger to even the average faithful Christian.

I have no problem with a group which intends to offer or support or approve of material only if it is explicitly Christian, as an aid to Christians who want such material but can’t find it in the secular arena, in distinction to a group which caters to Christians by offering explicitly Christian material in addition to material that is not explicitly so. But I object to a group which, intentionally or not, intends to be the first kind while purporting to be the second. I think this has happened to CHEC, and it would be good for them to clearly announce that their group now supports only those Christian homeschoolers who subscribe to a particular philosophy of Christian education.

Swanson’s closing paragraph also bothered me, but it also suggests what might be an opportunity to lessen the tensions that are developing.

Thanks John. I hope you don’t find this too burdensome. I’m trying to assess what is a Christian vs. a secular curriculum, and to tell you the truth I haven’t really spent a whole lot of time thinking about it (esp. in the implementation phase.) It’s one thing to philosophize, it’s a lot harder to implement!

I think it’s unwise to be in the midst of implementing a philosophy that one hasn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about, especially when the resulting business decisions can do great damage to a Christian brother. But the good news, perhaps, is that these decisions aren’t proceeding from a settled philosophy—and perhaps there is still time and room for Christians of good will and different points of view to start articulating their own views of what makes an education Christian, so that the philosophy ultimately adopted by groups like CHEC might strike a wise balance among the many, many different concerns that are involved.

As California goes, so goes the nation

California is rightly considered a bellwether for American social and economic trends; just about every important shift in American life, from high technology to cheap food to McMansions to loose lending standards sexual license to the therapeutic view of life, was invented or at least adopted first in the Golden State. Which is one reason to watch California closely as the current economic crisis unfolds.

So far the news isn’t good. Given its current financial obligations, California now needs $42 billion more than it expects to collect in order to make it through the next eighteen months—and its expectations about future revenue are almost surely too optimistic. In order to conserve what little cash it has on hand, the state has begun to delay sending out tax refunds, scholarship checks, and some welfare payments. Most worrisome, it has delayed distribution of tax monies to the counties—and some counties may respond by keeping what tax monies they collect for themselves, rather than forwarding them on to the state.

Meanwhile, the courts have approved the governor’s plan to force state employees to take two unpaid days of leave per month, effectively imposing a 10% pay cut on 238,000 workers, saving the state $1.4 billion. Which gets the state about 3% closer to being able to pay its bills.

One thing that fascinates me about this is how deeply intertwined and unprioritized it shows the countless elements of a state government’s operation to be. You might think that a 10% pay cut to the workers would be a last-ditch effort to fix the problem, rather that an initial, relatively feeble attempt. But apparently the nerve center of the government has so little control over the extremities that there is no way to scale back the overall system intelligently; state worker pay is one of the few elements over which the nerve center has authority it can exercise without encountering a paralyzing resistance.

I’m actually very sympathetic to the idea that once again we will somehow muddle through a crisis. It’s happened before, many times, and I don’t know that in the midst of those crises I would have been any better at detecting the light at the end of the tunnel. So I don’t take this, or anything else, as evidence that we are doomed. But at the same time, “we’ll muddle through somehow” is not a satisfying response for me. I want to know as much as I can about how we will muddle through. For example, I would like to hear the specifics of a scenario where the California economy rights itself without a major social upheaval. So far I haven’t been able to imagine one, and I don’t think it’s because I’m blinded by a desire for it to end in disaster.

Up from modernism

Settle in.

I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s weblog for a few months now, and he’s been on quite a journey. I first read Dreher a number of years ago on National Review Online, back when it was one of the few websites publishing online opinion pieces. Most notably he wrote a piece, which turned into a cover story for the magazine, about the phenomenon of “crunchy cons,” conservatives who exhibited social tendencies usually associated with liberal counterculture types—eating (crunchy) granola, recycling, gardening, shopping for organic vegetables at a co-op, etc. He made the case that these were actually conservative values, provided we see conservatism as a rejection of progressive modernity, and perhaps we ought to ponder the fact that mainstream conservatives join liberals in embracing modern progressive social values.

The article turned into a book in 2006 which received its due measure of buzz, and for awhile there was some talk that made me think movement conservatism might actually become a richer thing, encompassing a broader range of thought. Two years later, it all seems a bit quaint; the new great divide, I think, will separate the modernists from the traditionalists, with the liberal/conservative distinction being a matter of inside baseball within the modernist camp. Meanwhile, there will be modernists, both liberal and conservative, whose interest in crunchiness will lead them out of the modernist camp altogether.

(In fact, I think the main thing that is slowing this movement out is the fact that traditionalism, weirdly enough, is something that is barely alive right now and needs to be rebuilt from its foundations, meaning that there is no easy off-the-shelf political and social thinking that can be substituted for the liberal/conservative thinking being left behind.)

Because of his interest in crunchiness, Rod Dreher was particularly vulnerable when the modernist project began to fail last year. While times were good, it was easy to take a dilletante’s approach to pre-modernity, sampling and evaluating and appreciating from a distance, mixing daydreams of what might be with nostalgia for what we once had. But now crunchiness has to confront the crunch, and there is a decision to be made: retreat into modernity and hope that the ship of progress will somehow right itself; or embrace the traditionalism that crunchiness hints at by rejecting modernity—and figuring out exactly how much of modern progress needs to be jettisoned in order to put our community back on a solid footing.

Having only begun following his blog a few months ago, I feel like I’m coming in during the middle of the movie. He posts frequently, and his posts are an uneasy mixture, alternating hip, engaged observations about cultural and political material currently making the rounds of the blogosphere, with horrified reactions to the latest evidence of societal disintegration. At least the mixture makes me uneasy, perhaps because I’ve tried the same mixture in the past and ended up giving up on the hip, engaged observations, concluding that hip engagement was in direct opposition to the traditionalist attitudes I was trying to nurture in myself.

(This is one reason I’m having a difficult time commenting on Ken Myers’s book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Myers takes the approach, which is certainly coherent, that the difference between good and bad culture is in the details, and by being careful of the details we can purify ourselves of dangerous degenerate cultural tendencies. I think the problem is much deeper, a structural problem in fact, and so I prefer rejecting modern culture outright rather than quibbling over the details that distinguish good and bad elements of modern culture.)

Just yesterday, but already many posts back at this point, Dreher wrote a very good post that jumped from a Peggy Noonan column about how the what-could-go-wrong delusions of the Masters of the Universe got us into this economic mess, to a piece in Foreign Policy about how the Masters take no personal responsibility for what has happened, to a piece by Sharon Astyk on how gardening isn’t always fun, to a New York Times article on newly unemployed Wall Street financial people, to the piece that actually caught my attention, an article by Matthew Crawford on the nature of manual work.

All these are tied together with some where-I’m-at-right-now reflections which might be boringly narcissistic but are actually good and helpful because Dreher is aware that he is putting off some hard decisions and is willing to say so in writing:

In other words, I think for all my theorizing, there’s something inside me that desperately—desperately—hopes that these hard choices can be avoided. I don’t like to face that reality, because it seems cowardly, but there it is. I wish I could think of a single meaningful sacrifice I’ve made recently, but I just don’t see it, even though it’s plain that I need to be saving as much as I can right now. That tells me that I have not really internalized the lessons of our times, and the logic of my own convictions. Damn. I really do believe that most of us will have to live poorer, but that we’ll live better, though it won’t seem that way at first, and may not for a long time.

I hope that is enough to encourage you to read the whole post. Meanwhile, I’ll move on to Crawford’s essay on manual work, called “Shop craft as soulcraft.”

What caught my eye initially was this opening paragraph:

Anyone in the market for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”

The reason it caught my eye is that Chris has lately become very interested in metal working, and although the series he is studying shows the reader how to build a complete metalworking shop from scrap, he could make faster progress if we could get him some basic equipment. A friend has already donated a small antique forge that needs some repair work.

And so I was floored when this article pointed out the obvious, namely that shop class is a thing of the past and schools are letting all that shop equipment go for little or nothing. I should have thought of this, since when I first wanted to buy an upright bass I was told that for a long while folks had great success getting upright basses for nothing from schools that had once had orchestra programs and were glad to free up the closet space they took up.

But of course it isn’t just the chance for some cheap/free equipment that interested me. At the same time that Chris is on a self-appointed mission to acquire manual skills (as are Debbie and Maggie, who have now added spinning yarn to their crafting repertoire), the article reminds me that modern society is deep into an experiment to see if a society can remain viable whose members pride themselves in their lack of manual competence:

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is call
ed forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

When I said far above that the traditionalists suffer from a lack of off-the-shelf political and social thinking, I meant in part that we have no settled response to the arguments against manual competence raised by Crawford’s economist and educator. It will take many articles like this one by Crawford (which fortunately will become a book this spring) to establish traditionalism as a credible, viable alternative to modernity.

Part of the reason that traditionalism suffers is that modernity has successfully purged the modern mind of things that were once well understood, such as this observation by Aristotle that Crawford quotes:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

Once we knew such things, but we have forgotten them and now we have to argue them back into our collective knowledge of how the world works

At points Crawford’s article verges on eggheadism (or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to think through some of the harder thoughts), but his thinking on this matter is anchored in real experience:

Socially, being the proprietor of a bike shop in a small city gave me a feeling I never had before, or since. I felt I had a place in society. Whereas “think tank” is an answer that, at best, buys you a few seconds when someone asks what you do, while you try to figure out what it is that you in fact do, with “motorcycle mechanic” I got immediate recognition. I bartered services with machinists and metal fabricators, which has a very different feel than transactions with money, and further increased my sense of social embeddedness. There were three restaurants with cooks whose bikes I had restored, where unless I deceive myself I was treated as a sage benefactor. I felt pride before my wife when we would go out to dinner and be given preferential treatment, or simply a hearty greeting. There were group rides, and bike night every Tuesday at a certain bar. Sometimes one or two people would be wearing my shop’s T-shirt. It felt good.

What has me excited about the potential of Crawford’s books are anecdotes like the following one about Henry Ford doubling the wages of his workers. Most of the pro-consumption history I’ve read, when it mentions this, hails it as a great innovation because it put Ford’s workers in a position to afford one of his cars, which led to the sale of more cars, which led to Ford’s success as a company, a win-win-win situation. Crawford adds a few facts that throw a very different light on the situation:

Given their likely acquaintance with such a cognitively rich world of [wheelwright] work, it is hardly surprising that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, workers simply walked out. One of Ford’s biographers wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

This would seem to be a crucial moment in the history of political economy. Evidently, the new system provoked natural revulsion. Yet, at some point, workers became habituated to it. How did this happen? One might be tempted to inquire in a typological mode: What sort of men were these first, the 100 out of 963 who stuck it out on the new assembly line? Perhaps it was the men who felt less revulsion because they had less pride in their own powers, and were therefore more tractable. Less republican, we might say. But if there was initially such a self-selection process, it quickly gave way to something less deliberate, more systemic.

In a temporary suspension of the Taylorist logic, Ford was forced to double the daily wage of his workers to keep the line staffed. As Braverman writes, this “opened up new possibilities for the intensification of labor within the plants, where workers were now anxious to keep their jobs.” These anxious workers were more productive. Indeed, Ford himself later recognized his wage increase as “one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made,” as he was able to double, and then triple, the rate at which cars were assembled by simply speeding up the conveyors. By doing so he destroyed his competitors, and thereby destroyed the possibility of an alternative way of working. (It also removed the wage pressure that comes from the existence of more enjoyable jobs.) At the Columbian World Expo held in Chicago in 1893, no fewer than seven large-scale carriage builders from Cincinnati alone presented their wares. Adopting Ford’s methods, the industry would soon be reduced to the Big Three. So workers eventually became habituated to the abstraction of the assembly line. Evidently, it inspires revulsion only if one is acquainted with more satisfying modes of work.

Tom Jackson’s music business advice

Occasionally I’m glad to have landed on someone’s mailing list. A couple of months ago I started getting emails from Tom Jackson Productions, containing excerpts from Jackson’s blog that were intriguing enough to have me go read the whole thing. Jackson kept sending and I kept reading, as well as spending a little time poking around his website.

Which is his intention, of course; Tom Jackson Productions is in the business of selling pricey (to me) instructional videos that show musicians how to get their act together. I am slightly outside of Jackson’s target market, enough so that I am not interested in buying any of his videos. But I’ve enjoyed his blog posts and watching the free video excerpts, and based on my own experience his advice is sound and should be valuable to those who are more aggressively pursuing a musical career.

Jackson’s latest blog post contains some observations and advice that can easily be generalized to most of life. He begins with this:

Just an hour ago, I taught a workshop for about 100 independent musicians. The panel after my class included a producer talking about his career as a musician. He was telling everyone how his band (which I won’t name) played 5 or 6 years and how they rocked the world. But they had to come off the road because they weren’t making enough money. Now I’ve seen the band, and guess what – they didn’t rock the world. They thought they did, but they didn’t. They spent most of their time, energy, and money in the studio, on equipment, on trying to get a record deal,… and not enough time, attention or money on what they should have. They had cool lights, big sound, and I think a couple of the guys even went to prestigious colleges to learn to play their instruments. But they were gone in 5 or 6 years.

I think this is a danger posed by just about any ambitious endeavor. There are a number of things that have to be done eventually, but we mistakenly (or self-indulgently) focus on the things that would be the most fun to do, at the expense of the ones that absolutely need to be done. I wrote about this problem here, and more generally in my Getting Things Done series of posts.

What should you invest in? Jackson refers to them as things that will “move the needle”:

Ariel Hyatt, a great publicist I know from NYC, speaks at a lot of the same conferences I speak at. She has a saying – that people need to invest in things that "move the needle." In other words, you should look at your career like a business investment. If you spend money on something, it should bring you a return. Eventually. Otherwise it’s not a good investment.

He goes on to say that he has made a list of seven such things. The first is essentially that an artist needs to be sure he has something to say:

I get hundreds of demos every year, and the biggest problem with the demos is not the playing, singing, or the production of the CD – it’s that the songs are not great. I can’t tell you how to write a song because that’s not my expertise, and I know just enough about it to "overstep my boundaries." (Read about that being one of my pet peeves on the FAQ "choosing songs for an album")

But a couple things I do know. One, the better the song, the more I have to work with when producing a live show. And two, a great song will have a better shot at emotionally connecting with an audience. So the key is coming up with great songs. But like my assistant says, that’s a heck of a hard thing to do! However, it doesn’t take a lot of money. It DOES takes a lot of time and energy, and (maybe in some cases) a little bit of money.

Some of the problems I see with people who write their own songs is that they write them alone. No co-writer. In most cases that’s a BIG mistake. In Proverbs it says "Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another." In Nashville (where I live), co-writing is the norm. I’ll bet I’ve worked with artists on 60 or 70 #1 songs over the years, and I can only think of one right now that someone wrote by themselves (that’s "Love Story" by Taylor Swift).

Our own guru, Pete Wernick, has repeatedly emphasized (to the world in general and to us personally) that songwriting is key. In fact, in typical Pete fashion he told me recently that he thought that our major shortcoming now is that we have no original material to perform, and he has “assigned” us the job of coming up with some.

The first few times he mentioned the idea I almost immediately dismissed it out of hand (in my mind, not to his face), thinking that songwriting is a mysterious and difficult creative process best left to specially gifted people. But now that it is an assignment I’ve had no choice but to spend some time looking into it, and it turns out that even though the best songs contain an irreducible element of magic, there is a lot about piecing a decent song together that can be learned and executed by normal people.

But should you bother with writing songs if you aren’t likely to come up with a great one? Yes, for a number of reasons. One is that it gives you an opportunity to connect with your audience using your own thoughts and experiences, rather than relaying those of someone else. Another is that it is almost guaranteed to be new to your audience. A third is that you are likely to play  and sing it with more conviction than a song someone else wrote. And, for what it’s worth, you don’t have to pay royalties on it.

Anyway, take a look at Tom Jackson’s blog. Even if you aren’t pursuing a musical career you will find clear thinking about confronting real-life problems, always a helpful thing.