Solzhenitsyn: The Disaster of the West

I’ve never read any of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels. His Gulag Archipelago has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of decades at least. Yes, I’ve glanced at it a few times, but to my utter shame, I’ve not taken the time to digest it. My only excuse is the volume of other reading that has always been either more enticing or more needed at the time.

I do plan to read it, fitting it in somewhere between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Plato’s Republic, among others.

Yet this doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who suffered in that very gulag he wrote about, who was then internally exiled for a number of years, who had to sneak his writings out of the USSR, and whose brilliance was recognized in the West by the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and was then expelled from his native country for “treason” in 1974.

Solzhenitsyn lived in the US for many years during his expulsion, hibernating in small-town Vermont and rarely making public appearances. However, in 1978, he accepted an invitation to speak at Harvard’s commencement. The liberal intelligentsia didn’t know they were going to hear a speech about the spiritual vacuum of the West; they were appalled at his audacity. In fact, he was speaking truth.

I read that speech in the late 1980s and was deeply impressed by his willingness to say that hard things that needed to be said.

His second paragraph offered a preview of what the audience could expect to hear that day:

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

When Harvard first came up with that motto, it knew what truth was. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had departed from God’s truth. Solzhenitsyn was prescient when he noted that when we leave aside truth, we still have “the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it.” That’s the status of a typical university in our day.

He went on to make a statement that undoubtedly caused his audience to squirm, as it seemed to be aimed right at them:

A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations.

Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

This was in 1978. The statement rings true still today.

Governments were meant to serve man, Solzhenitsyn noted, and America embedded that concept in its Declaration of Independence, but the pursuit of happiness of the eighteenth century has now resulted in the welfare state and a debased meaning of “happiness.”

If Solzhenitsyn were alive today, he might be amazed how another of his warnings has become the norm for our society:

The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.

On the other hand, destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.

This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

From his decidedly Christian worldview, he asserted,

This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man — the master of the world — does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected. Yet strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still remains a great deal of crime.

In other words, man is sinful.

Solzhenitsyn wanted to make sure his audience did not misunderstand his critique:

I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall not speak for such an alternative.

What then, is to be done? The rest of his speech is replete with memorable phrases that I will attempt to offer here in a coherent, logical order:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Delivering His Harvard Commencement Address

The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? . . .

In early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. . . .

Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. . . .

Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. . . .

I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. . . . Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.

It has made man the measure of all things on earth — imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. . . .

We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.

There is so much more, but I will stop there. Read it all for yourself sometime. You can see why it was not enthusiastically received by the liberal elite. Yet it was truth delivered from the depths of personal experience.

Puritans & Education

My last few posts about the early Puritans have contained controversy, as they attempted to deal with disagreement in the Massachusetts colony. They had to decide what to do with people like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Quakers who showed up later. Some of their decisions may have been just, while others (such as hanging Quakers) clearly were not.

Let’s leave most of that controversy behind today and examine the Puritan desire to educate their communities. In a document called New England’s First Fruits, written in 1643 to explain what they were doing with education, we get this bedrock philosophical foundation for the need for education:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, rear’d convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the Civil Government; One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning, and to perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the dust.

Dame SchoolHow did they go about this for the different levels of education? First, considering they lived pretty much in small communities, they tended to organize what they called “common” schools. These schools usually met in the church building, since it was at the center of the community; often the local minister doubled as the schoolteacher. Educational standards were set by local committees who were also members of the church.

It’s important to understand that the Puritans never conceived of any type of education that wasn’t clearly Biblical in orientation.

Education acts passed by the legislature in the 1640s required parents to ensure their children were properly instructed in the Christian faith, reading proficiency, the laws of the colony, and in a vocation (often through an internship with another member of the community who had a business). Parents were even warned that if they didn’t take this responsibility seriously, their children might be placed in another home to make sure they got the education they needed.

A more specific act, often referred to as The Old Deluder Satan Act, passed the legislature in 1647. It was given that name because the Puritans believed an uneducated person, particularly one who was ignorant of the Scripture, could be more easily deceived by Satan and fall into error.

This act required towns with at least fifty families to set up common schools. Towns with at least one hundred families had to set up a grammar school, which was a higher level of learning. The decision for how to fund these schools was put in the hands of the locality; the citizens of the town could determine if they wanted to pool their money for them (i.e., taxes) or charge tuition. Or both. The key, though, is that is was the locality’s choice; it was not imposed by a higher authority.

Neither did parents have to put their children in these schools; they remained free to educate at home, if they chose to do so.

What about those who sought a higher education? In 1636, plans were put into effect to set up a college. Mr. John Harvard offered his library to help it get started; as you may guess, it was named after him.

Harvard BuildingsIt’s fascinating to review Harvard’s Rules and Precepts in its initial years. Here’s one of the precepts:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3 and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov. 2,3.

Yale--First BuildingIn 1701, Connecticut set up its first college, Yale. Like Harvard, the original intent was to give students a solid foundation in the faith as they went into the world to do God’s will. Early instructions at Yale included the following:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study . . . to know God in Jesus Christ and answerable to lead a Godly, sober life.

All scholars shall lead religious, godly and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.

Seeing God is the giver of all wisdom, every scholar, besides private or secret prayer, . . . shall be present morning and evening at public prayer in the hall at the accustomed hour.

Not bad for beginnings. Now, the best aims don’t always come to fruition. Certainly not all the students followed those principles; yet it’s significant to take into account the goals of the founders of these institutions.

Yale continued as a bulwark of Christian education at least through the first half of the nineteenth century, aided by leadership from men such as Timothy Dwight and Nathaniel Taylor. Revivals occurred at Yale regularly.

Not so for Harvard, which, by the turn of the nineteenth century, had been taken over by Unitarians who denied the deity of Jesus.

This points to a hard truth: one must stay vigilant to keep education on track. The temptation remains today for Christian colleges and universities to water down the Gospel and try to fit into the trends of the times. We do so at our spiritual peril.

Let’s at least give the Puritans credit for putting into operation an educational system that sought to honor God first.

Snyderian Truism #11

Another semester comes to a close tonight with the fall commencement at Southeastern University. I’m in my twenty-fifth year of teaching at the college level and have now witnessed a multitude of these. As I watch the graduates cross the stage and receive their diplomas, I hope that the four years they have invested were worth all the effort and the money that was spent. At least I have a higher comfort level at a university like SEU, knowing that a significant portion of what they received came from professors, for the most part, who are dedicated to providing a Biblical grounding for their subject matter. But that’s not the norm nationwide, which is what leads me to share another Snyderian truism. This one’s quite short and to the point:

Higher education sometimes isn’t.

Harvard CollegeA new report has just been made public. At Harvard College, the undergraduate school for its Arts and Sciences program, the most common grade is an A and the average grade is A-. Back in 2001, 91% of its students graduated with honors; the grading system has become even more lenient since then. Even in 2001, the Boston Globe called Harvard’s grading system “the laughingstock of the Ivy League.” And this is supposed to be the “gold standard” for university education in America?

I’m sure this story could be repeated at a great many of our institutions of higher education. Personally, I believe that university education as a whole has been dumbed down over the last few decades. The basic American history courses I teach are what students should have learned in high school, yet most of my students are fairly ignorant of even the most noteworthy people and events in our history. A college education now can be equated with a high school education of yesteryear. Now you need a master’s degree to obtain the type of education you would have received at the undergraduate level decades ago.

We’re also on a “critical thinking” bandwagon. We say students need to be critical thinkers, but we don’t offer them any solid worldview from which to do their thinking; most wander in the realm of moral relativism and nihilism, without any grounding at all. Critical thinking degenerates into uninformed, but firmly held, opinions.

Another hobby horse is “diversity.” We apply it externally to admissions policies, focusing on percentages of minorities entering the institution; internally, we say we value diversity of views in teaching. Right. Do you really think most public universities would welcome my views on American history and government, complete with Biblical principles for arriving at those views? Diversity is a sham, but it’s trendy.

Thought Diversity

Of course, as the above comic reveals, real diversity must operate within a certain framework of general agreement. That’s why a Christian university comes closer to the real definition of the term—we have a Biblical framework within which we can hash out different views in our subject areas. The secular university is a no-holds-barred free-for-all with no unity at all, except for a general disdain for the Biblical worldview.

So, anyway, those are some of my thoughts today as another commencement looms. I want to do all I can to ensure the students who pass through my courses are challenged to do their best, are grounded in a Biblical worldview to enable them to do critical thinking, and when they graduate, are closer to the ideal of what a higher education should provide for them.

The Case Against Barack Obama: Character

Yesterday I examined Obama’s roots and the worldview he received from others. Just as important in an evaluation of the man is the character he has developed over the years. Each of us is exposed to many influences that help in shaping our character, but it’s always important to recognize that they are influences only—our path is not determined; how we respond to those influences is the key. Therefore, we cannot blame anyone else for whom we have become.

I say that because in Obama’s case it would be easy to blame his father, who didn’t stay with the family. Just as easy to blame would be his mother, who pushed him away from Western values, Christianity in particular. And then there were his grandparents who introduced him to his communist mentor, Frank Marshall Davis. Obama’s formative years were filled with what I would call pernicious influences. I’m sorry he had such an upbringing, but he is still accountable for how he responded to all those influences.

Abandoned by his father, raised by a white mother and grandparents, he can be excused perhaps for feeling out of place and in need of an identity. That’s probably why he created a fantasy image of his natural father. So in one sense he had a deep need for affirmation as a person. Yet, simultaneously, he was really quite the child of privilege. He never lacked for anything materially. He went to a private high school in Hawaii, then on to Columbia and Harvard later. Those are hardly the credentials of someone who is a hardship case. He even became editor of the Harvard Law Review despite no real writing accomplishments of his own. Many have raised the question of just who paid for all this education, but he has not been forthcoming with that information, and his college records have remained sealed.

By his own admission, he was an active drug user in his youth. There’s also no indication he ever had to work hard at any job to help pay for his expenses. All the privileges he received, along with an active imagination about a heroic father, compensated for his loss of identity. He determined to be part of black America even though he lived primarily in a white family and society. This apparently gave his life meaning.

As I noted yesterday, he became a convinced Marxist by the time he went to college, and also latched on to his father’s anti-colonialism, which made him anti-establishment, anti-Western civilization, and even anti-American since it was part of that civilization.

Because everything seemed to be handed to him on the proverbial silver platter, he became self-righteous and arrogant, traits that made it easy for him to slide into the role of political messiah in 2008. He never really discouraged his adoring followers to consider him as simply another flawed human being. After all, as he stated, his election would be the starting point for the lowering of the oceans and the healing of the planet. No lack of self-confidence there. He also proclaimed that we [kind of a royal “we”] were the ones “we” had been waiting for. As if all of history revolved around the coming of the new messiah. The media should have showcased this arrogance, but instead has become his chief enabler, ignoring the fact that the emperor has no clothes and inventing “scandals” for anyone who dares offer a critique of the One.

Since he has been in office, other traits have come to the surface. Even those around him comment that he is aloof. He doesn’t form relationships with anyone outside his own little circle of confidants, all of whom seem to bow to his every whim. He doesn’t even develop solid relationships with congressional Democrats. It’s almost as if they are beneath him and not worth the time. And as for Republicans . . . well, that’s a non-starter. He will talk about compromise, but never do it, and then blame the Republicans for being obstructionists.

Many have commented on his thin skin; he bristles at any hint of disrespect. Often, he is petty, and lets it show publicly. Two examples. First, when he was making overtures to Republicans about budget compromises, he decided to make a speech and invite Paul Ryan to be there. So there was Ryan, sitting in the front row, I believe, and Obama then turned his rhetorical guns on the Ryan plan for getting the nation out of our deficit mess. Ryan, to his credit, took the verbal assault calmly.

But the more famous example was during one of his State of the Union addresses, when he criticized a recent Supreme Court decision as the justices were sitting right in front of him. It was an attempt to humiliate them in the national spotlight. No president has ever used this important address to berate the court while they were honoring him with their presence. The term “mean-spirited” is not too strong for his actions in both of these cases.

I firmly believe Obama is a classic narcissist. He lives to please himself and won’t take any responsibility for anything that goes wrong. The economy? Nearly four years after George Bush has left the office, Obama continues to blame him for the current problems. And his penchant for not paying sufficient attention to his day job—president of the most powerful nation on earth—is becoming painful to watch. He spends an inordinate amount of time playing golf, attending fundraisers, and partying with celebrities. But he seems to get away with it since we are a nation apparently hooked on the celebrity culture. It seems to be hard to get his attention lately:

The most baffling aspect of all this, to me, is that polls show people find him likeable. Reagan was likeable, as even his detractors admitted; Obama is not. He’s the epitome of the anti-Reagan. His arrogance, aloofness, and narcissism are deadly in a leader. And where is he leading us? That will be the subject of the next two posts.