Star Wars Virtue

I write this post as hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast. Though so far it has been something of a let down. While I certainly don’t want mass damage, so far there has been little more than a steady rain. Oh well. [Note- not five minutes after completing the first draft of this essay the power went out, not to come back for 24 hours. It was out even longer in neighboring towns. Guess I tempted fate.] School is about to start here in New England and I have been giving some thought as to how I can incorporate the classical virtues in my every day teaching.

Values education has been around for years, but most programs I have seen have revolved around reading kids painfully fabricated stories and then discussing the moral decisions the characters must make. They tend to be preachy, unrealistic and the kids treat them accordingly. The teacher “covers” the values section of the curriculum and the kids file it away, never really gaining anything long lasting.



Enter the four classical virtues.
Ideally a values education program would allow English teachers to use the works they always have- books and stories that have stood the test of time and appeal to students intellectually and aesthetically, rather than prepackaged “programs.” It is my hope that by applying the classical virtues to what we already read we can show students examples of how to live without it coming across as phony, or put on.

I believe every major character in a work of fiction either exemplifies one of the four classical virtues or is lacking in one of them. Many times a protagonist will do both, with the lacking virtue acting as the character’s fatal flaw. Let’s use Star Wars as a proxy for all fiction simply because it is familiar to most.
Each character in Star Wars can be analyzed by looking at how much or how little of each classical virtue he has. I am going to limit myself to the first movie (by first I mean 1977 release, not the chronological first- confusing isn’t it?) I’ll look at two characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
 
Luke the Evolving Hero
He is brave enough to decide to rescue Princess Leia and his sense of justice will not let him leave the job undone when they go up against superior forces in the Death Star. Yet, he lacks prudence. This devil-may-care, jump-before-you-look attitude leads him into trouble time and time again. It is not really until the end of the first trilogy that we see a Luke who is able to think about his next move and make it confidently, knowing he is doing the correct thing at the correct time.
 
Han  the Complete Hero
Solo on the other hand is quite prudent and moderate in his dealings. However, because these two virtues are not tempered by Justice, he tends to only look out for himself. It is not until he puts others before himself that he becomes a true hero. He is in fact the real hero of the first film, even though Luke is the one who saves the day.
Han is the one who overcomes his main flaw and comes in to save Luke just before certain death. The fact that Luke is the one who destroys the Death Star is an important step in his hero’s journey, but he is not finished. Han on the other hand has essentially completed his journey and will be a steadfast hero throughout the rest of the films.
Looking at fictional characters through the lens of the classical virtues allows you to see deeper into their motivations and eventual actions. In turn you can discuss morals and values in a more authentic manner.
I will return to this topic in a few posts and elaborate on how I will try to incorporate this into my teaching over the course of the year.

The Virtues of Our Ancestors

I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800’s. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.
Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father’s side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it’s mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.
I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.
The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t survive.
Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it –  at least materially- pretty quickly.
Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.

When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man’s natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800’s. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.

Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.
Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn’t have. I love living where I do and when I do,  and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.

What This Blog Is Not

A plethora of sites inhabit the blogoshpere that purport to teach you how to make the most of your life. They use terms like risk-taking, unconventional life and doing the impossible to motivate you to do more and live better. To steal a quote made famous by the US Army, they try to enable you to “be all you can be.”
  
Development For Development’s Sake
Just Google the term lifestyle design or personal development and you’ll be inundated with information about how to become a better human. You’ll learn how to travel the world, live minimally, be location independent, raise an army to your cause and many other such things.
Before I go any further I want to make clear that I have no problem with these sites as far as they go. If they serve to motivate people to realize there is more to life than Netflix and iTunes then that is great. These sites act as giant pep rallies, and rallies have a purpose in life, a good purpose. They get us to move, break us out from our self-imposed lethargy. But rallies generally do not answer the questions, Why? and How?
I can readily find information online about how to run my first marathon, do 100 consecutive push ups or travel around the world with little more than a back pack. But aside from a feeling of personal satisfaction, or greater global awareness, I still do not really know why I should do these things or how they make me intrinsically better than I was before I accomplished them.
What This Blog Is
This has been a long-winded way of saying A Certain Quality of Life will not be one of these sites. I will hopefully inspire people to make more of their lives; that is of course why I am chronicling my own journey here. But more importantly, I think, is that I will be attempting to discover and share why living a fuller life is important to our being human and how living a certain way can help us attain that life. I admit I do not have the answers yet, but I hope a few of you will stick around for the conversation.
By focusing on the classical virtues as the glue holding this site together I hope to draw on the learning and experience of people much wiser than I am. The world has changed so much, and so fast, over the past 100 years, hell, over the past 20! It is easy for us to feel like we need to find the answers to life’s biggest questions on our own. But we don’t. People have been struggling with how to define what a good life looks like, what happiness is, for literally millennia.
People like Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Thoma Aquinas.
Books like The Bible, Summa Theologica, and The Art of Living.
These sources can give us insight into how people, who dedicated entire lifetimes to study, attempted to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions. Through a study of those who have gone before us I hope to get closer to an answer to the Why and How.

The Value of a College Education

A classical education is defined as one that focuses on the seven liberal arts. According to Andrew Kern over at The Circe Institute, “[c]lassical education is the only hope for democracy. It is the only form of education that can make people fit to rule themselves.” While I tend to agree with Mr. Kern, I do think reasonable people can debate whether a classical education is the sole purveyor of self rule. However, according to recent reports our currrent college system may be missing the mark.

A recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand looked at both the purpose of college and the results presented in a new book, Academically Adrift, by, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whose premise is that American colleges are more about a social experience than learning. I know the gut reaction to the latter is probably a, “Yes, of course. we didn’t need a study to tell us that!” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just quite yet.
First, Menand states two possible purposes for college. One, it is essentially a sorting hat for the world of work. An IQ test is not reliable, but if someone makes it through 4 years of college with an acceptable G.P.A. then a potential employer can assume a certain level of proficiency. The second purpose, in his own words, is to

  …expose[s] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.

He then goes on to state that one of the problems with our modern college system is that it attempts to do both. As a classicist I support theory number two fairly strongly, though I have to admit to the efficacy of some type of sorting for the purpose of creating a productive society. But can a system that has as a main aim a vocational education truly create a citizenry of creative and independent thinkers? Here is where Arum and Roska come into play.

The book has an ample appendix and is full of research and data- it is not one of those red-meat diatribes against education. There are of course plenty of surveys included that talk about how much less studying goes on now a days, and how more and more college students spend their time on social and entertainment activities. To a certain extent I disregard these. The older generation always feels the younger just isn’t up to snuff in one way or another.
But one piece of interesting data that they focus on quite a bit is a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A., which they gave to incoming freshman, sophomores and seniors to judge how much they were improving. The results were less than flattering.
Arum and Roksa say that 45% of the students showed little if any improvement. On the face of it this seems bad. However, you need to dig a bit beneath the surface to find the ray of hope. Menand finds this ray,

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

We are coming full circle back to the idea that a classical education is the one that best prepares one for life in a democracy. Those students studying the liberal arts, the foundation of any classical system, perform best. Unfortunately liberal arts students make up less than 20% of the population of college students. The far and away leader? Business degree. want to guess who score the lowest?
The point seems to be that while we need vocational training in a society that needs more and more specialized skills in the productive world, we also need a classical or liberal foundation to be more than just a cog in that world. How do we succeed at both?

The Importance of Self-Control

I am a teacher. I understand the value of learning the “3 R’s”. I believe all sorts of schooling scenarios can work: public school, private school, home school or even guided independent study. A lot depends on the teacher and the type of student(s) involved.  However, I also know that there are things even more important than the basics of reading, writing and computational skills.

Character counts.

And character is not as easy to quantify, teach or assess. Many schools institute a type of values education, but this is often just an add-on to an already over-crowded curriculum. The teachers resent having one more topic to cover and the kids sense their ambivalence. Not a recipe for success, which is why these programs never seem to go the distance. They pop up only to disappear once the teacher or administrator who spearheaded the program moves on to something else. At the same time we are learning more and more about just how important character is in determining the quality of your life.

Your character can be defined as how well you abide by the four classical virtues, one of which, Temperance has been in the news lately. Back in the early 1970‘s Stanford did a study to see if four-year-old kids had an innate sense of temperance, or self-control. They put a child alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were free to eat it, but if they could resist for a set amount of time they would receive two marshmallows.  Turns out, some kids were better at this than others. The finding were an interesting curiosity at the time, but decades later the follow up data has made news once again.

Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.

Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.

What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.

While it is always nice to have scientific back-up, the fact that virtue takes practice is hardly new. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle said that excellence, or virtue of character was a habit more than anything else. We need to constantly exercise our self-control over small things if we ever expect it to “work” when the big temptations of life come along. Many religions instinctively realize this, hence the self-limiting disciplines- no meat on Fridays or set times for prayer. It is not that these specific practices need to have a dogmatic relevance; it is that they help train your self-control muscles as it were.

This is where the tricky part comes in to play. We currently live in a culture that values instant gratification. Self-control is almost looked at as a vice, rather than a virtue in many cases. How many parents give their children everything they could want, and do so out of sincere love, only to be stripping them of the opportunity to train the temperance muscle.

The same goes for adults, myself included. One of the unforeseen benefits of the hard economic times we are currently facing in much of the western world is the drying up of readily available credit. Most of us can not simply whip out the plastic and make spontaneous purchases anymore. But this is a good thing. Part of being human is dealing with lack. It is unnatural to live in a perpetual state of plenty. Just watch one of those lottery-ruined-my-life shows to see how having everything soon leads to nothing.

Self-control, Temperance, a classical virtue that is being thrust, unwelcome, upon many of us could be just the training we need in a 21st century world. Which brings us back to schools. How do we incorporate true character education? Again, they best society has come up with is often based in or around religion, therefore religious schools have the best track record here. Is there a way to bring this to a secular public school setting?  This is a topic I will be exploring in the future and I welcome any thoughts below in the comment section.

Living & Finding Meaning in Work

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayOne thing I really enjoy is the reading of older self help books. By older I mean ones written between 1850 and 1920. The advice they give is often more clearly grounded in tangible acts of virtue than much of the modern,feel-good platitudinous works. The best resource for these treasures is Google Books. My latest find: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (1910), written by Arnold Bennett. 

It is part of a more complete book called How to Live. Bennett offers everyday advice on how we can live and not just exist within the limits of a 24 hours day. He is writing at the turn of the century and for an English audience, but the message is surprisingly relevant.
Much of the populace was moving towards working in an urban jungle of cubicles and offices and they were leaving behind much of what he argues made them “men.” People worked to make money, but their day-to-day lives consisted of waking up, going to work, going home, relaxing, going to sleep, and repeating the whole thing the next day. 
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? 
Basically, he didn’t believe they were really living. And to a large extent, not much has changed in the ensuing 100 years.
I would argue that meaning can be found in work. That is actually a prevailing theme of this site, but I would not disagree that many of us toil away in jobs that currently have little intrinsic meaning to us. Bennett says the solution is to use our leisure time for self improvement: reading, studying and other  classical pursuits. These are of course all valid and useful endeavors. But this doesn’t really solve the problem of not enjoying our daily work. 
To lead truly full lives we need to both use our leisure time well and find something meaningful in our actual jobs.

Plato and Our Current Culture

Plato: RepublicWe like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?

The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4

The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.

C.S. Lewis and Political Virtue

Mere Christianity

I have been rereading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity over the past few weeks and a section really got me thinking about the whole idea of the need for virtue in the political world. I apologize for the long quote, but I certainly can’t summarize Lewis’ point better than he does himself.

When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick to the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing-the tidying up inside each human being-we are only deceiving ourselves.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behaviour, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realise that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

 I am in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this point.  Unless we fix ourselves we really can not fix society. I am not suggesting that we stand by and let the country go to hell while we work on some sort of new age self improvement. What I am suggesting is that we hold our leaders to a higher standard. We need men and women who are serious, and who conduct themselves is a manner that is in accordance with some basic virtues. Otherwise we will just end up with more of the same.

New Scholarship

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie…well, not dummies, but the uninitiated anyway. Scholarship that is digestible to the common man is a prerequisite for a modern virtuous society. The pursuit of happiness is really the pursuit of Wisdom. Wisdom prompts virtuous action, which in turn leads to a virtuous society. So how do we make scholarship available? We start by encouraging scholars to stop obfuscating Truth and start building straight bridges towards it.
Timothy Burke, a polymath professor at Swarthmore, writes about Wendy McClure’s new book, The Wilder Life:

The book is offering no strikingly new findings about the Ingalls or their place in history. As McClure points out, it’s not even the first book to offer a travelogue of journeys to important Ingalls-related tourist sites. But it is a smart, personal engagement with the big questions that the Little House books pose: why were they written and published? (By whom, in fact?) Why do we like them? (Which ‘we’?) What have they done to and with national, religious, cultural and gender identity in the United States over the last forty-odd years?

 We need more writing like this.