The Love of Learning

There are a number of different critiques of the state of American education. Some are most concerned about the lack of discipline in the schools. Others decry the dumbing down of the standards. They point to the decline in scores on standardized tests such as the SAT. A lot of that decline has been hidden by the trick of “centering” the scores. For instance, a 1200 on the SAT today means a whole lot less than it meant in 1963. Then there’s the grade inflation technique, powered in many instances by adherence to self-esteem philosophy. We wouldn’t want our students to feel bad about their lack of knowledge. We need to understand, however, that eliminating the idea of failure also undercuts success. How do you measure the latter when the former is not allowed? All of this has led to a dumbed-down society.

The problem is deeper, though. It has to do with the desire to learn. Most students, at least in my personal experience, have never developed a love of learning. This malady has multiple causes: broken families, uninspired teachers, an educational bureaucracy more concerned about its perpetual existence than the good of students [this includes the teachers’ unions], and loss of purpose in teaching. When we dismiss the Biblical worldview, we no longer have a reason to learn beyond the mundane desire to make a living. We become earthbound creatures with no vision of the heavenly.

I have a “truism” I share in class that goes like this: “Ignorance can be corrected, but apathy makes learning impossible.” I was sadly amused recently when one of our culture’s iconic comic strips captured the spirit of apathy perfectly:

One of my goals as a professor is to help students develop that essential love of learning. Christians should have it naturally. After all, who created the mind? Who gave us the ability to reason? If God went to all that trouble to make people who aren’t simply marionettes, shouldn’t we explore the grand design He established? Some of my favorites Scriptures along this line come from the book of Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. . . . The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Fear—reverence—for God is the starting point for all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. If we have that reverence, it opens the door to a wide field of knowledge, a proper grasp of the significance of that knowledge [understanding], and the application of that knowledge to one’s life [wisdom]. What better rationale could ever be provided for developing a love of learning?

Most education in America ignores God. By doing so, it robs the individual of any solid basis for wanting to learn. Only by restoring reverence for God in our education will we have any hope of restoring education itself.

A Few Statements about God, Truth, & Life

Nothing fancy today . . . or long. I just want to make a few statements to help provide some understanding for why I am so dedicated to speaking out about righteousness in government and culture. I don’t do so from some position of presumed authority or because I think I’m the fount of all wisdom. In fact, it’s precisely due to the failures in my own life over my 61+ years that I feel called to write and teach.

When I was 25, I knew everything. I wouldn’t have said so at the time—who would be that foolishly bold?—but as I look back now, I see that I thought I had captured most of the truth about God and life. That confidence was shaken, though, when I went through a time of estrangement from the Lord. I walked away from the faith and tried hard to find another way. God’s grace, however, prevailed as He allowed me to follow a path that led to a dead end.

At the end of that path, I had nowhere to turn but back to Him, and for that I’m eternally grateful. He gave me a second chance. He showed me the devastation of sin in one’s life, the cleansing nature of repentance and faith in His atonement, and hope for a new start—a new path. I’ve traveled this new path with Him now for about 25 years. It has not all been easy. I’ve had to live with some consequences from that period when I wandered, and the path has contained some rather large potholes, some of which I navigated successfully, others into which I fell. Yet even in times of near-despair, He has shown me His faithfulness.

I am more attuned to some things now. Sin is uglier than ever to me. A culture awash in sin makes me grieve. The politics of hypocrisy and self-centeredness brings pain to my heart, even as I know it does to God’s heart. Falsehood, whether in theology or political philosophy, brings the response of wanting to correct all such falsehood with declarations of truth. As a teacher, which is God’s calling on my life, I have a natural tendency to discern error and counter it with Biblical principles.

Yet I am also more attuned to God’s mercy. He showed mercy to me when I deserved judgment. Even as I point out error and talk of God’s potential judgments, I must leave room for His mercy, particularly toward those in the culture and government who are deceived and are deceiving others. God’s judgment may fall, but I will continue to pray that it be forestalled and that spiritual renewal may increase.

We are to judge. That is Biblical. We are to evaluate men’s hearts and actions. We need to do so, though, only when we have first taken the beam out of our own eye.

A couple of sentences from a small devotional book that I’m reading stand out to me today. The first deals with sin:

It is no secret that when a man sins he ever so rarely does anything unique or original or new or different. Sin is monotonously the same, generation after generation.

My sins were not unique. God’s forgiveness is not unique. But it was uniquely applied to my life. It gave me a new life.

The devotional also noted this:

There is a perpetual power of renewal in the Christian religion. It is forever producing prophets and saints who keep calling it back to the heart of its message.

I have been the recipient of a renewal. God continually calls me back to the heart of His message. My goal is to spread that message in any way I can. This is why I write.

Education & the Corruption of Principles

Chicago public school teachers are out on strike. They’ve been treated so unfairly there was just no other option. After all, in a city where the median income is $47,000 per year, they make only $76,000. Sure, they get all their benefits on top of that, but since they are the most important people in the city, they deserve more. So you can understand why when they were offered a measly 16% raise, they hit the roof. How insulting. Wouldn’t you be insulted if you were given only a 16% raise? Surely you can feel their pain.

The other indignity they’ve been forced to suffer is the threat to evaluate whether they are doing their jobs well. I mean, what other profession has to worry about that? They are being singled out, and they know why. Reports are that 79% of eighth-graders are are not proficient in reading and 80% are not proficient in math. But is that their fault? Absolutely not. It’s an unreasonable expectation to demand results to match one’s salary. No wonder they have decided to strike. Life is the pits for Chicago teachers.

They know the solution to the problem:

And they certainly deserve to live a more luxurious life; they’ve had to scrape by much too long:

I’m sorry. I can’t go on. I’m just so frustrated by the poor treatment these teachers are receiving. My empathy for them is boundless. I’m going to continue to teach at the college level where we make sure our students are well-rounded individuals who are fully aware of their heritage:

Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but only mildly, in as good a humor as I can generate. We are in a mess educationally. There are many particulars we can examine to determine why that is, but I believe Noah Webster, back in 1837, clearly described the root of the problems we face—an insight that applies universally, whether the year is 1837 or 2012. He stated to a correspondent,

Principles, Sir, are becoming corrupt, deeply corrupt; & unless the progress of corruption, and perversion of truth can be arrested, neither liberty nor property will long be secure in this country. And a great evil is, that men of the first distinction seem, to a great extent, to be ignorant of the real, original causes of our public distresses.

Wisdom from our Christian heritage. If only our politicians, teachers, and students could be well-schooled in it.

9/11 & the Two Visions of America

Can anything new be said on the anniversary of 9/11? Maybe we don’t need to hear anything new; perhaps we just need to be reminded that there are those out there who hate us. However, what is meant by “us?” America, you say? Yes, in the abstract, but what comprises America anymore? Do I with my Biblical worldview represent the true America, or do Planned Parenthood—as one example—and Barack Obama constitute the real America?

On 9/11, eleven years ago today, members of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol and sang together. At the moment, I can’t recall if they sang “America the Beautiful” or “My Country Tis of Thee” or another similar tune. That specific memory eludes me. But sing they did, although some commentators noted that the Republicans seemed to be leading it and a good number of the Democrats looked reluctant to add their voices to the chorus. What a wonderful image it presented: a united nation.

But it was a false image.

It played well for the camera, but the camaraderie was short-lived. The chasm between two very different visions of America is too deep and wide to be bridged for long, even with a common enemy. After the initial shock of the attack, the progressive visionaries began to downplay the severity of the terrorist threat. They even began seeing in their minds’ eye, though not in reality, a kind of pogrom instituted against Muslims in the U.S. All of a sudden, we were the problem, not them. We weren’t sensitive enough to the way they had been treated; we had brought this on ourselves.

That vision of an America that was too big for its britches, and that needed to be slapped down, clashed with the other vision—that of an America that, while often making mistakes in foreign relations, nevertheless had attempted to do the best for others most of the time. It’s the vision of an America that has helped rid the world of truly evil dictators and totalitarian movements such as communism. It’s the vision of an America that retains basic moral values stemming from its faith in God.

These two visions cannot mesh; they are too opposed to each other.

For too long, we have tried to ignore this massive chasm and assured ourselves that we are all Americans who will pull together despite our differences. We need to face reality.

There is no real external union without internal unity.

These two separate visions of America stem from two contrasting worldviews. One is Biblical and God-centered, while the other is secular and man-centered:

  • Beliefs are different on both sides of this divide
  • Purposes/goals are not the same
  • Christian morality battles humanistic immorality
  • One holds to the sacredness of life while the other aborts it
  • One supports traditional marriage and the family while the other redefines sexuality and the very nature of marriage
  • Limited government and constitutionalism inspire the one, whereas a socialistic welfare state is the dream of those who would transform our society and make it into something neither God nor the Founders ever desired

It would be a fascinating object lesson to be able to separate these two groups and let them have their way completely—two entirely distinct nations with two distinct worldviews—and then compare the results. One would go the way of every socialist/communist experiment that has ever been tried, while the other would be an energetic, thriving society where innocent children would be safe in their mothers’ wombs, the family structure would dominate, Biblical morality would be enacted into law, and the government would not be overseeing all aspects of one’s life.

But that won’t happen; we cannot separate the two; we have to make it work somehow the way it is.

What have we learned, eleven years later? Unfortunately, we’ve learned we are not really one people. We are not united. Our foundations are crumbling and we are in danger of turning our backs on the God who gave us life and liberty. If we choose that path, we are lost.

God didn’t make 9/11 happen. It was the brainchild of perverted individuals. Yet when sin abounds, He seeks to use the consequences to get our attention. He will use every circumstance to try to reach into a people’s hearts and lead them to repentance. By all means, may we never forget what happened on 9/11, and may we honor those who displayed great courage on that day. But the best way to honor them is to return to the truth, and to the One who is Truth. That is our only hope.

David Barton, Thomas Jefferson, & Historical Accuracy

Those who know me know I’m convinced America’s roots are fundamentally Biblical. I deplore efforts to wipe out Biblical influence in the Founding of this country. However, I also deplore any effort to force a Christian interpretation on certain events or individuals. We must be honest with the evidence.

The drive to reestablish the basis for our Biblical roots, at least in more popular Christian reading, probably began with Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory, which appeared in the 1970s. I read it at the time and was impressed, although I also was slightly disturbed by how the author concocted conversations between historical figures. Literary license, I guessed. Since then, many have entered the field, trying to augment what Marshall began.

The most successful writer in this genre has been David Barton. I’ve read a number of his books and have appreciated the fact that he has tried to unearth documentation that others might have missed. In fact, I was pleased when he admitted that one supposed James Madison quote everybody was using to show that the Founders based our government on the Ten Commandments was, in fact, spurious. That displayed honesty, and I always seek that in someone who names the name of Christ. We must be honest above all.

Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, was published by Thomas Nelson, a respected Christian publishing house. I admit I haven’t yet read the book, but that’s going to be a moot point very soon. Thomas Nelson has ceased its publication and pulled it from the market. Is this a case of pressure from the historical profession, which is so secular it doesn’t want to give Barton’s views a chance to be heard? If so, why are conservative Christian historians critiquing it? Have they gone over to the dark side?

One of the goals of the book is to establish Jefferson as a Founder who didn’t really abandon Christian orthodoxy, among other presumed lies about the third president. There’s only one problem with that: Jefferson did indeed desert orthodox Christianity and considered it a superstition. All one has to do is read many of his letters to John Adams, another of the Founders who fell away from the faith. In one of my earlier blog postings, I pointed specifically to a letter Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, in which he stated he was a Christian, but only in the sense that he was following a Jesus who never claimed to be anything other than a man. In other words, Jefferson admired Jesus’ moral teachings, but didn’t consider him to be God.

Then there’s Jefferson’s Bible. Yes, it was meant to be used to help spread civilization to the Indians, but it was never, in Jefferson’s mind, to be used to convert them to orthodox Christianity. He really did reject the miraculous in the gospels, declaring them to be later insertions by Christians who wanted to make Jesus into more than He really was. That’s why he omitted miracles—even Jesus’ resurrection— in his version of the gospels. There’s just no getting around those facts. They are well established by solid research, and as a Christian, I have to accept their validity.

I certainly don’t mean to speak ill of Barton. I can sympathize with his desire to highlight the role of Christian faith in our Founding. But we do the Christian faith a disservice when we go beyond what the evidence reveals, thereby undermining whatever good we may do otherwise.

Are there historians who denigrate Christianity’s influence in our formative years? Absolutely. Some will ignore vital evidence that points to that influence. Yet the antidote is not to commit the same error on the other side. While I don’t think a non-professional historian like Barton should be dismissed simply because he hasn’t jumped through all the hoops to earn a doctorate, nevertheless, some of those hoops are valuable. I’m glad I had to learn research methods and read widely on the various eras of American history. That training, in itself, is not secular; it all depends on how it is used.

I’ve taught American history now for more than twenty years. When I teach my introductory course that focuses on America from its colonial beginnings to the aftereffects of the Civil War, I begin by showing students that different schools of historical interpretation exist. I take them through a school of thought that believes all the good of America’s Founding came from the Enlightenment’s embrace of human reason. Historians from that school summarily dismiss the Pilgrims as a group hardly worth mentioning and portray the Puritans as harmful for their autocratic ways and doctrinal dogmas.

After that, I tell them about those who are so focused on the existence of slavery during this era that they assume the Founders are all hypocrites who offer us nothing valuable as a study. At the opposite extreme, I say, are those who view the Founding as a Golden Era, almost a utopia, where all things were Christian. I then let them know I have issues with all three of those schools of interpretation.

Finally, I present where I’m coming from as I look at American history, particularly its Founding Fathers. I believe it’s important to inform students where a professor stands on major interpretational issues. No one learns in a vacuum. I tell them I see the Founding era as one based on Biblical principles. This means the consensus of the society at that time was Christian, and human laws were based on a Biblical concept that God’s law was supreme and eternal, and that societal laws had to be in accordance with God’s law. Not everything was perfect and/or Christian; neither were all the Founders. Yet there was a general agreement that society functioned best when Biblical values were incorporated into it.

Some Christian historians don’t agree with me. They don’t see the influence of the faith as readily as I do. That’s their prerogative. Yet I must be sure that my arguments for my views are as historically sound as possible. I cannot try to prove that which is demonstrably untrue. I’m afraid David Barton fell into that error this time. I sincerely hope, for his sake and for the sake of accuracy in Christian historiography, that he will reconsider what he is attempting to prove. I want nothing but the best for him personally; that starts with acknowledging he has misstated the historical evidence in this case.

Meanwhile, I genuinely hope that my fellow historians will be just as eager to hold their more secular colleagues accountable for any inaccuracies they espouse. The critique needs to apply equally.

Death of a Vision? Or a Rebirth?

About seven years ago, a vision took shape in my heart and mind. Yesterday that vision may have died, but I am hopeful that it’s merely a prelude to a resurrection. Let me explain. I’ll start first with the basic facts, then go on to what I think the Lord may be teaching me through this episode.

I’ve always admired Ronald Reagan: his character, his principles, and how he attempted to convert them into action. I’ve equally admired Whittaker Chambers, a man less well known than Reagan, but one who was instrumental in sending a warning to Western Civilization that it must return to faith in God or all will be lost. Reagan was the quintessential optimist; he believed freedom was the wave of the future. Conversely, Chambers was the epitome of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who held out hope but whose message was primarily one of judgment.

Both men are considered cornerstones of modern American conservatism. Yet even though they were part of the same movement, their perspectives on the ultimate success of a West grounded in a Biblical worldview differed significantly. My goal was to examine the roots of Reagan’s optimism and Chambers’s pessimism, show how those diametrically opposite temperaments manifested themselves during their lives, and then evaluate, to the extent it is possible, which viewpoint is more accurate with respect to the future of freedom.

For seven years, off and on while teaching fulltime, moving from Virginia to Florida, and blogging daily, I slowly made headway on the book. My search for a publisher was difficult until last November when an academic press gave me a contract. It wasn’t until after I signed that contract that I fully understood some of the ramifications: I would have to pay for the typesetting and for any permission fees for the use of quotes from other sources. I also didn’t realize that I was not guaranteed a paperback version of the book. It was slated to come out in hardback only, and would be turned into a paperback if it sold well enough, which would be difficult because the price tag was going to be over $60. How many people are currently willing to pay that much for a book?

Nevertheless, I moved forward with all that was necessary to submit the manuscript, simultaneously making the case for a paperback version. Things seemed to be going in that direction, and one scholar who reviewed the book for the publisher—a man who is a Reagan expert and has written a number of Reagan books—was so delighted with my manuscript that he even wrote a wonderful foreword for it.

I was also getting all the permissions together, and pretty successful at getting those fees down to a reasonable level. One source, though, that had rights to two of the books I quoted from extensively, required a fee that was far above all others, and one that I just couldn’t pay. It would have been fiscal suicide for me to have done so. Even communication with the publisher didn’t change that source’s opinion on how high the fee had to be.

Therefore, my publisher and I came to a mutual agreement yesterday to dissolve the contract. The book is dead.

But is it, really?

I admit my first reaction a week ago to the fee demand was one of anger, which then turned to discouragement. All I could think about was seven years of labor wasted. Slowly, though, as I meditated on what God would want me to think and to do, I began to see things from a different angle. Perhaps this was His way of getting me out of a bad situation; maybe another door will now open, one that won’t be so restrictive.

He reminded me of the many times in my life when I came to a point of near-despair over some turn of events. One in particular always comes to mind. Eighteen years ago, I was a candidate for a teaching position at an evangelical college on the West Coast. I recall how my office would have faced the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean; I was sure this was God’s call for me. When I didn’t get the position, I was devastated. Anger and resentment burned within me over what I considered to be a bad decision by that college. Yet a couple of months later, out of the blue and totally unanticipated, I was contacted by a university where I had sought to teach earlier. Within a matter of days, I had that position, and it was one that was truly fulfilling for a number of years. I learned a valuable lesson: God is always at work even when you don’t see the evidence at first; trust Him and He will guide your steps.

There may be another lesson He is teaching me through this current mini-crisis. It’s possible I was too focused on academic credentials as I sought to get this book published. Perhaps I wanted to impress others a bit too much, and pride was taking hold of my heart. The Lord reminded me that humility is the way to please Him. If I never publish another book, that’s okay, as long as I am doing what He has called me to do—teach this generation His ways through history.

I am at peace with the state of my manuscript. I believe I’ve written something that is worthwhile, and I will see if another publisher is willing to take it on. I don’t know if that publisher exists, but if God wants it to be published, it shall be. Meanwhile, I will continue to do my best with the tasks He has given me already.

I just finished reading the book of Ecclesiastes again. The theme throughout that book is the futility of any work that is done purely in one’s own strength or for one’s own purposes. The last chapter offers the sort of wisdom we all need, but especially someone in my field:

But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

I take that admonition to heart.

Educating a New Generation

The Fourth of July used to be one of the premier American holidays. People celebrated it because they understood the principles behind the resistance to taxation without representation and the potential for government overreach. Those were lessons we used to know. Things have changed.

But if you were to take a survey of our current knowledge of America’s founding and the principles upon which it was based, you might get a variety of responses, few of them heartening:

If some of our Founding Fathers could appear to us now to explain the those principles, I wonder how we would receive their wisdom?

And if anyone should ask why we have degenerated to this level, I would offer this as one of the reasons:

Education has been stripped of the Biblical, eternal values; they’ve been replaced by a new set of values that goes under the guise of teaching children how to think, not what to think. But if you look carefully at what is being taught, you will realize there is no such thing as value-free education. Values are always being taught; the question is which values.

Along with the expulsion of Biblical principles from our education, we also don’t expect too much of our students. We wouldn’t want to damage their self-esteem by giving them failing grades. I can speak from experience that an unhealthy percentage of college students are shocked when they don’t get an A. The problem must be the professor; he expects too much.

This dumbing-down has affected our entire society. A recent study of how congressmen speak, for instance, is most revealing:

Yes, quality education still exists, but you have to know where to find it. In the meantime, I’m going to do all I can to educate this new generation in the basic Biblical principles that undergird all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We need a new declaration of independence from the likes of Jersey Shore, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart.