Essays worth reading

I don’t have a lot of time to write this week, but here is a collection of excellent and thought-provoking essays that I wanted to pass on. What follows are excerpts, you can click on the links to read the full texts.

Saving Persuasion – America’s Rhetoric Problem Reflects a Wider Cultural Malaise (Claremont Review of Books)

You guys know I love Aristotle, and this essay sums up so much of how I feel these days. It is interesting to see historical parallels regarding the tendency to try to bully or shame people out of their genuinely held perspectives rather than persuade them into new beliefs. (I would add the tendency toward conspiracy theories to this list too.) Persuasion is something that requires a quality education, however, and the mob mentality that pervades our society now says a lot about what is happening in schools.

America has a rhetoric problem. Our political rhetoric has never been particularly decorous, but in recent years, fueled by the internet and social media—and especially by the accelerating decline of American education—public discourse has collapsed into a slough of name-calling, pervasive obscenity, hysterical claims, and unashamed irrationalism.

Oddly enough, rhetoric’s prestige in the academy is at its highest in centuries. This reflects postmodernism’s dominance of contemporary intellectual discourse. In a world lacking objective truths there can only be a variety of “narratives,” deployed as instruments of personal or political power—and the master science of the narrative is rhetoric.

This situation bears more than a passing resemblance to that of classical Greece before the Socratic revolution of the late 5th and 4th centuries B.C. The sophists and rhetoricians pilloried by Plato in dialogues such as the Protagoras and the Gorgias prided themselves on their ability to make persuasive speeches in defense of any cause, and sold their skills to prospective litigants and politicians. It was rhetoric’s claim to “make the weaker argument the stronger”—to make the weaker case prevail, whether in courts or public assembly. Such rhetoric employed deliberately fallacious arguments (“sophistry”) as well as ad hominem attacks and emotional manipulation.

Because of this, Plato’s Socrates concluded, rhetoric was no art but merely a “knack.” What aspiring young politicians really needed wasn’t (simply) skill at speaking, but a substantive knowledge of human affairs, available only through the disciplined study of philosophy. But this apparent dismissal of rhetoric could not be Plato’s last word—after all, Plato’s Socrates was himself a master of rhetoric, even as he spoke contemptuously of it.

Rediscovering the Lost Power of Reading Aloud (Literary Hub)

I found this essay very interesting, as reading out loud is a central part of our family life (and our homeschooling life). When we drive in the car to anywhere more than an hour away, we take books with us and someone in the car reads them out loud. This predates the birth of Elise, actually, as Rodney and I would do this on car trips together going from Baylor to visit my family in Colorado or his family in Georgia. Our latest fun is reading Dungeons and Dragons-based Choose Your Own Adventure books, which is the single easiest way not to hear “are we there yet” from your kids. But we have read a lot of novels and non-fiction too. We also like to read out loud as a family in the evenings occasionally, sitting in the big armchairs in our library.

At the British Museum in London, down a long string of galleries filled with Greek antiquities, there is a glass case that contains a glossy black-and-ocher amphora, resembling a jug or vase. The object was made by a craftsman in Athens sometime early in the Golden Age, around 490–480 BC, and it’s decorated with a figure on either side. The first is a musician in long skirts and a checkered tunic shown in full-length profile. We seem to have caught him just as he blows into a reed instrument.

On the other side, a man in pleated robes stands in a position of relaxed command, with one arm thrust out and resting on a tall wooden staff. The man’s mouth is open, and if you look closely, you can see a tiny arc of text springing from his lips. Translated, the words read: “Once upon a time in Tiryns . . .”

This figure is a rhapsode, or “stitcher of songs,” and a kind of living prefiguration of the act of reading aloud. In ancient Greece, a rhapsode did not read from a book, however. He was the book. His memory held, among other works, the two great epics of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. He would pull them from the shelf and read them aloud, so to speak, when he recited them.

The Homeric tales, loved to this day, are terrific creations. They brim with action, drama, stealth, deceit (and with manifestations of honor and dishonor so distinct from our own as to seem bizarre). The Iliad encompasses the ten years of the Trojan War, when the massed armies of the Greek kingdoms besieged the walled city of Troy. In its verses we meet sulky, ferocious Achilles, noble Prince Hector, handsome Paris, and lovely Helen. The second great Homeric tale, The Odyssey, follows Odysseus, wiliest of the Greeks, over the ten years it takes him after the conquest of Troy to reach his home island of Ithaca and his clever, long-suffering wife, Penelope. During his travels, Odysseus contends with mutinous crewmen, the erotic temptations of Circe and Calypso, and monsters such as the man-eating cyclops Polyphemus and the homicidal Sirens. At one point, Odysseus also has to wrest his men free of the addictive, obliterating pleasures of the lotus flower.

Today, if you pick up a printed and bound copy of The Iliad or The Odyssey, what you may notice first is not the richness of the storytelling but the sheer size of the thing. The epics are long and sprawling, and though they are strewn with mnemonic devices that would work as mental bookmarks for the would-be memorizer—vivid phrases and epithets such as “gray-eyed Athena,” or “Zeus who wields the aegis”—it is still incredible to think that once upon a time people committed them to memory. Not only would a good rhapsode have both stories stored in his head, but he would be able to pick up either tale at any point and recite onward without a hitch. This is mastery of a sort that has become foreign to most modern people.

With schools having largely withdrawn from the practice of making students memorize poetry, few of us today have anything approaching the interior resources of a rhapsode. You might argue that we don’t need them: books are inexpensive and widely available, and we can use the Internet to look up pieces of writing that we may have forgotten or that we want to read. The rhapsodes themselves were obsolete long before the digital age was a glimmer in the eye of the future. Still, though they’ve long since disappeared, their role in the ancient world is a reminder that in reading aloud, we are taking part in one of the oldest and grandest traditions of humankind. Indeed, the long and rich lineage of reading aloud, as a type of oral storytelling, stretches back to the days before anything was written down.

The Pleasant Mandolin: TS Eliot’s Musical Enthusiasms

If you ever wondered where all the musical references in his poetry came from.

While composing The Waste Land, Eliot apparently had a mandolin to hand. Writing from Margate to Sidney Schiff on November 4, 1921, he said: “I have written only some fifty lines, and have read nothing, literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practise scales on the mandoline”. In a note to the line in The Poems of T. S. Eliot I, the editors Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue quote the letter to Schiff and add: “The instrument had been bought by Vivien [Eliot’s then wife]. The first two decades of the century saw a craze for the mandoline, and ‘The Mandolin Club’ is often photographed in the Smith Academy yearbook during TSE’s time there.”

How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools (Quillette) – I can’t do an excerpt for this essay, as the force of it is in looking at the maps and charts. This absolutely reflects my own personal experience working in education policy, however, and how public school district boundaries are weaponized to segregate kids by race, religion, and economic class. The corruption in public education is one of the best arguments for school choice there is.

The Last Gasp of James G. Blaine: The Supreme Court Weighs Tax Credits and a 19-Century Bigotry (Wall Street Journal)

The Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments today in an important school choice case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which is focused on religious private schools receiving funding through scholarship tax credits. As the Trump administration has proposed similar policy, this is a pretty big deal in the education realm.

Most people do no know that the public education system we have today was built on prejudices about Roman Catholic immigrants, who preferred to educate their children in parochial schools (and still do today). There was substantial investment in public education at the turn of the 20th century in an attempt to squash parochial schools. The idea was that you could more easily assimilate immigrants by forcing their kids to attend government schools, which would teach that Catholicism right out of them.

When the Montana Legislature created a K-12 scholarship program funded via private donations and tax credits, it was a godsend to Kendra Espinoza. An office assistant by day and janitor by night, the single mom had pulled her two daughters out of public school. One was bullied for studying the Bible during recess.

Ms. Espinoza enrolled them in the nondenominational Stillwater Christian School. “I love that the school teaches the same Christian values that I teach at home,” she later said. But even with financial aid, odd jobs and yard sales, the tuition was “a real financial struggle.” Extra money from Montana’s scholarships, enacted in 2015, could go a long way.

Five years later, Ms. Espinoza is fighting to keep that support. On Wednesday the Supreme Court will hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case touching on education, religious liberty, and whether 19th-century bigotry still has a place in American law.

The Montana scholarships worked similar to tax-credit programs in many other states. People or companies donated to a private nonprofit fund. In return the state gave them a tax credit, dollar for dollar, up to $150. The money was awarded to families like Ms. Espinoza’s to defray tuition at the schools of their choice.

One complication: Montana’s constitution has a clause saying public funds can’t be spent for “any sectarian purpose.” Many states adopted such language in the late 19th century, amid that era’s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic fervor. These are often called Blaine Amendments, since a federal version was unsuccessfully pushed in 1876 by Congressman James G. Blaine (“the continental liar from the state of Maine,” as his political opponents chanted).

Montana’s Revenue Department issued a rule to exclude the religious from the scholarship program. Secular schools could still get the money, but not Ms. Espinoza and Stillwater. Parents sued with help from the Institute for Justice. In 2018 the state Supreme Court killed the whole program, ruling that the tax credits were indirect state aid to religious schools, in violation of the Blaine Amendment.

Now at the U.S. Supreme Court, the parents argue that Montana’s ruling is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Free exercise of religion means that if a state passes a neutral program of student aid, it can’t exclude families who pick religious schools. The parents cite Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017), in which the Justices held 7-2 that a Missouri ban on sectarian aid couldn’t deny a public grant for playground resurfacing to a religious school.

The parents also say Montana violated the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws.” Here they give a history of Blaine Amendments. In the 1800s, the public schools reflected a predominant culture: “Teachers led students in daily prayer, sang religious hymns, extolled Protestant ideals, read from the King James Bible, and taught from anti-Catholic textbooks.” When states banned aid to “sectarian” schools, that meant Catholic.

Montana replies that there’s no discrimination, at least not anymore, since the scholarships don’t exist. They were thrown out by the state court, see? Neither the faithful nor the secular are getting the money. This argument seems too clever in its circular logic. If a court strikes down a law explicitly because it includes religious believers, that can’t be unconstitutional since the law was struck down?

The state says its “No-Aid Clause” isn’t anti-Catholic bigotry, but rather a “distinct intellectual tradition.” When Montana wrote a new constitution in 1972, its convention debated and largely readopted the old provision. The goal then, Montana argues, was “protecting religious liberty by creating a structural barrier between religious schools and government.”

Yet the longer history remains. So does the effect: to cast out religious believers from a program enacted in the general interest. Such bias in law requires strict judicial scrutiny.

Given the incrementalism of Chief Justice John Roberts, perhaps it’s too much to hope that the Supreme Court will relegate James G. Blaine to the 1800s where he belongs. In Trinity Lutheran, the Chief’s opinion came with a pregnant footnote, saying it only covered “express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing.” But as the Justices have shown in a long line of cases, religious freedom doesn’t end at the playground blacktop.

Why I Resigned from Tavistock: Trans-Identified Children Need Therapy, Not Just ‘Affirmation’ and Drugs (Quillette)

This whole essay is fascinating. I went down an Internet rabbit hole after reading it looking at websites on gender dysphoria that are directed at teenagers, of the same nature of the pro-suicide and pro-anorexia websites that have developed cult followings among teenagers in the past. The idea that, due to political activism, medical professionals can no longer provide dissenting opinions that could save a child from such a toxic web of influence is incredible.

I was reminded of the controversy over the pro-suicide sites specifically, and how Hollywood tried to capitalize off of the teenage suicide trend in America with the 13 Reasons Why series, much to the horror of sane and responsible parents. There seems to be a real trend of destructive “culture” aimed at children: shows glorifying depression, mental illness and suicide; shows glorifying teenage pregnancy or working teenagers getting abortions into their plot lines; and now content about switching genders. It’s a phase of human development where seeking attention is a central concern and easy to exploit, and many less-than-well-intentioned adults now are exploiting it. I have read a lot of debates on parenting and education sites about the practical value of regulating what your kids consume, but honestly I think a brilliant starting point is not sending your kids to public schools in the first place.

In part, this trend is rooted in the faddish idea that everyone—including children—has an innate gender identity, akin to a religious soul, that one discovers and nurtures. But as authors William J. Malone, Colin M. Wright and Julia D. Robertson recently wrote in Quillette, the concept of gender identity is dubious:

This term commonly is defined to mean the “internal, deeply held” sense of whether one is a man or a woman (or, in the case of children, a boy or a girl), both, or neither. It also has become common to claim that this sense of identity may be reliably articulated by children as young as three years old. While these claims about gender identity did not attract systematic scrutiny at first, they now have become the subject of criticism from a growing number of scientists, philosophers and health workers. Developmental studies show that young children have only a superficial understanding of sex and gender (at best). For instance, up until age seven, many children often believe that if a boy puts on a dress, he becomes a girl. This gives us reason to doubt whether a coherent concept of gender identity exists at all in young children. To such extent as any such identity may exist, the concept relies on stereotypes that encourage the conflation of gender with sex.

It is certainly true that therapists shouldn’t seek to impose their idea of what is “normal” on a patient who believes he or she is trans. Nor should they engage in an attempt to convert the individual to their way of thinking. However, as in all contexts, the therapist must resist the temptation to suspend curiosity, uncritically accept the patient’s presentation at face value, and then act as an “affirming” cheerleader for life-changing acts of transition. Rather, the goal of exploratory therapy should be to understand the meaning behind a patient’s presentation in order to help them develop an understanding of themselves, including the desires and conflicts that drive their identity and choices.

To some extent, the extreme deference now being shown to trans-presenting children may be linked to the more general change in the way doctors and other authority figures are perceived in the internet era. While such authority figures once had broad licence to evaluate their patients according to their expertise, such “gatekeeping” is now seen as controlling and even repressive. Many patients now see a doctor’s visit through the lens of consumer culture—whereby the customer is always right.

When doctors always give patients what they want (or think they want), the fallout can be disastrous, as we have seen with the opioid crisis. And there is every possibility that the inappropriate medical treatment of children with gender dysphoria may follow a similar path. Practitioners understandably want to protect their patients from psychic pain. But quick fixes based only on self-reporting can have tragic long-term consequences. And already, a growing number of trans “desistors” (also known as detransitioners) are seeking accountability from the medical professionals who’d rubber-stamped their trans claims. And in 2019, when a formerly trans-identified British woman named Charlie Evans went public with her desistance, she was contacted by “hundreds” of other desistors, and formed a group called The Detransition Advocacy Network to give them a voice and support in a contentious environment that has been dominated by dogmatic trans ideology.

In the NHS, clinicians typically are legally required to discuss the serious negative effects of any offered treatment. As in so many other ways, however, the issue of gender dysphoria seems to lie outside the usual rules that govern medical practice. Many involved in this field have commented on the peculiar fact that, despite the extraordinary preoccupation with the abstraction of gender that suffuses this area, there is little discussion about the flesh-and-blood reality of sex and reproduction.

A clinician interviewed by the Times of London reported being discouraged from even asking patients about these issues: “I would ask who they wanted to have relationships with, but I was told by senior management that gender is completely separate to sex.” Yet part of the developmental struggle in adolescence requires us to come to terms with the reality of who we are, including our natal sexuality and the different roles demanded of us in reproduction. There are all sorts of anxieties attached to these activities and the functioning of the body—anxieties that may be so severe as to distort our sense of self. As Dr. Cantor has noted, the available studies show that most pre-adolescent children who present as trans eventually revert to an identity that accords with their biological sex. Yet many of these children (and their parents) seem to receive little information about how their lives will be affected if they proceed with transition. In the words of one young woman who went through this: “Lots of talk about gender politics and none about the physical realities involved in transitioning.”

In Russia, they are building an amusement park that is based off of the writings of Pushkin.

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