Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Investment news

The latest investment option, available in the new year, is called a Broth IRA. All money placed in it will be invested in beef or chicken stock.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Huckabee's Bottom Line

Spot the typo:

(CNN)Tuesday, December 11, 2007 - Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's comments about AIDS in 1992 have come back to haunt him as he surges into the national spotlight in the 2008 presidential race. Dana Bash reports from Miami, Florida about Huckabee's views on some hot bottom issues from the 1990's and whether the Republican White House hopeful is sticking with those views today.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise"

Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" is subtitled "Listening to the Twentieth Century," and that is an apt if laughably understated description. This glorious book is a must-read for anyone interested in music, and also for anyone interested in the ways in which music affects and is affected by society.

I am not a music critic of any subspecies, but I do listen to a fair variety of what is broadly classified as classical music, as well as popular and folk music centered around my own formative era. I know what I like and what I don't like, and for the most part I am content to allow such determinations to translate as good music and bad music.

To his credit, Ross does not tell the reader that a particular composer would do the world a favor by jumping into traffic (James Merrill wrote of his wish that Schoenberg's piano would collapse mid-concert so the audience could flee), but rather sets forth the conflicts and changes in music from the late 1800s through today.

There are acres upon acres of fascinating cultural linkages in this book. The effect of jazz and traditional Negro music on Dvorak and various French composers may seem arcane and brutally old, but this week I heard the Eugene Symphony perform a set of traditional spirituals with the splendid young baritone Nathan Myers. The guest conductor, David Alan Miller, mentioned some of this history in his introductory remarks, and then proceeded to conduct a set of eight songs re-set with orchestra by eight different living composers.

When I saw this dangerously modern item on the program, I expected something that I could barely put up with between Smetana's "Moldau" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. In fact Myers was superb and the modern orchestrations were interesting and often gorgeous. Miller's comments could have come directly from "The Rest is Noise" and perhaps they did. History matters. History is relevant. History is happening.

Also here are the excruciating political entanglements of Shostakovitch, the iconic swirl and unexpected political difficulties of Richard Strauss, the dark musical involvements of Hitler and his enablers, all in perfect balance. I have never understood the "why" of Schoenberg, atonalism and the strange unpleasant sound-splatter they caused and still cause in music, but having read Ross's history of this, I have a better feel for it. It still sounds awful, but the reasons why we hear some of it even today are more clear.

What Ross does better than many writers is create and maintain connective tissue. He recognizes the flow of key events and adds only those side details that really build the story. I am reminded of such books as John Keegan's "The Price of Admiralty," Roy Jenkins's books on Gladstone and Churchill, Michael Barone's "Our Country" or Robert Massie's "Dreadnought." The perfect blend of detail, consequence and insight is rare, and Alex Ross is a master.

Just one example is his description of the Prokofiev opera "Semyon Kotko" in which "a change in Soviet foreign policy forced a revision of the opera's libretto. The signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 meant that Germans could no longer be depicted as villains."

The tone, however, almost always stays fairly light, with doses of appropriate humor, such as the inclusion of a scene in which American soldiers, not recognizing a bust of Beethoven, cause Strauss to grumble that "if they ask one more time, I'm telling them it's Hitler's father."

The long autumn sunset of Stravinsky, the long vernal sunrise of Copland, the clattering surge of twelve-tone sound and the late twentieth century advent of so-called "minimalist' composers such as Philip Glass are all here.

Ross is writing expressly about classical music, but toward the end of the book he begins including references to song and popular music. I hope that this is a teaser for his next book; little would be more worth anticipating than Alex Ross on the last 100 years of American song.

By way of epilogue, I sent Alex Ross a thank-you note, together with a CD featuring the Symphony No. 1 of Australian composer Colin Brumby. Ross, no culture-snob, sent me back an e-mail saying he had never heard Brumby before, loved the symphony and did I have any more Brumby? I sent him Brumby's piano concerto and two clarinet works this week.

History is happening.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Music for the Ages

This evening when I decided to play some music from iTunes while working on my latest book, I was surprised to see that "Sean's Library" had appeared among my choices of places to get music.

Now who might Sean be, I thought, and why is his library or any other part of his person taking up residence in my computer without so much as a "good evening"? Is this the next step by Dick Cheney to invade my personal space in search of terrorists? Then I recalled that this had happened once before, and represents one of the stranger aspects of sharing a network with others who have iTunes: anyone's music is available to others on a play-only basis.

The only network I am on, as it happens, is my own wifi station, which is also used by my neighbors across the street, three college-age guys including a Sean.

My next realization was that I was about to know more about Sean than he thinks I know. And he about me, should he download my music library as well. Then it occurred to me that perhaps he was getting my collection of, er, exotic videos also. Well, he'd sure know me better after seeing those. Fortunately videos don't seem to transfer.

Then the decision. Do I, well, peek? Do I really pry into someone else's musical tastes unasked? Granted, we are both from Tillamook County, but that hardly seems enough of a connection. But one little peek can't hurt, can it?

Well, here are some things I have heard of. Linkin Park, I think they did "In the End," a great song that I know from the On The Rocks acappella version performed at the University of Oregon. Metallica, not my style but I know what it is. But what on earth are Alice in Chains, Dashboard Confessional, Dropkick Murphys, Hatebreed and, really, Lesbians on Ecstasy?

But wait, what is this? Beatles, not a huge shock. Creedence? And is this really---it IS Magic Carpet Ride ! And this can't really be In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida? Oh but it is. Cat Stevens. Charlie Daniels Band. Acres and acres of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. A tasteful selection of Queen, well, well. Vans Halen and Morrison. And yes, a phalanx of Bob Dylan. Bach in a cameo.

My duty is clear. I need to make sure than Sean does not miss out on Al Stewart, Imogen Heap, Aqualung, Colin Brumby, Lindsay Mac, Phil Ochs, Guster, Nero, Indigo Girls, Steeleye Span, The Pogues, Stevie Nicks, Shaun Davey, Ture Rangstrom, Philip Glass and Jimmy Eat World. It takes a village to raise the musical awareness of the young.

And those Dropkick Murphys - not bad, not bad at all.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Wicked or otherwise?

Strangest self-description found on the web lately:

"I'm currently going to school to be a marketing agent for my step-mother."

Another gem:

"Be naughty...Save Santa the trip"

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The ins and outs of online dating

Some years ago, a friend with a dubious sense of humor mailed me a copy of A Consumer’s Guide to Male Hustlers – to my office, in an ordinary envelope. The secretary displayed the calm professionalism for which we had hired her by opening and delivering this, as it were, disrobed object with my daily mail stack, offering no comment whatsoever. The book itself is a perfectly straightforward overview of the mechanics of hiring pleasure-boys and the nature of their profession.

Although I have never been in that particular market as provider or customer (setting aside the time when I, a college student, was offered five dollars to perform an unlikely act), I have wondered from time to time just what the less visible side of gay male dating was like. The advent of large, Internet-based databases for gay men to join and use as dating services makes the world of dating exceptionally broad, whether you are looking for Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now.

I recently joined a number of these services to see how they work and how they differ. I also attempted to arrange meetings with two men who provide what Craigslist matter-of-factly calls “erotic services” in order to ask them how their profession works in the age of Internet-based dating. Historically, hookers and hustlers, mostly young, lurked on certain streets at certain times in order to find customers. Today it seems that at least the more upscale ones use the Internet to peddle themselves. Unfortunately one of the hustlers changed his travel plans and the other simply did not show up. I suspect that the latter was a student doing a research paper on people like me while I was doing one on people like him.

Joining the various services is easy. As a gay man, I only joined the ones that offered a chance to meet other gay men “in my area.” It turns out that some of the services interpret “my area” to include the entire northwest rain belt: they gladly sent me profiles of “local” men from Seattle to Eureka. Of the services I joined, Dlist and JustGuys are free, Manhunt has a nominal fee, Gay.com a higher fee, Elitemate pretends to have no fee to start with but is all but impossible to use as a guest and has by far the worst signup process. Men4Rentnow, which might be called a special-purpose site, and which I didn’t use other than to look at its setup, has no fee. The general-purpose Craigslist is also free. There are lots of other services, but these seem to be the largest or most active ones.

These services vary greatly in purpose, ease of use and tone. Most of them are straightforward dating sites, though Elitemate seems to be mainly a bait-and-switch site designed to generate names and addresses for spam and the like, as is Naughtyornice. Both of these use bogus posts to Craigslist as bait. My test of their various signup sequences made that pretty clear, though I gave them mostly bad info and they are now sending a lot of messages into space, not to me.

Gay.com is one of the older sites and has a lot of men on it, but it is brutally commercialized, poorly laid out, has clumsy, sometimes nonfunctional controls for moving from page to page and includes a cute little trick in the registration process through which it hopes you don’t notice that it reinstated a fee that the registrant thought had been deleted through an opt-out. In short, lots of guys but a real hassle to use.

DList and JustGuys seem to be connected in some way, though I did not spend any time looking into that. Both are fairly easy to use basic services that have pictures, info about the guys and minimal advertising. However, they seem to add members rather slowly, which means that when I want to meet Mr. Right Now on Saturday night, the available faces are pretty much the same ones (in my “local area”) that have been offering themselves for some weeks or months. These sites are heavily used by college-age men, perhaps because they are free.

Manhunt is the best all-round service. For a small fee, you get a very well-designed, user-friendly structure that is all but adless, has plenty of people on it who really are in my local area (heck, I even recognized two of them), and does not seem to generate a separate spamflow. The site seems to have been designed by people who might actually want to use it, and flows wonderfully.

Craigslist is, in many ways, the most practical, and is an increasing favorite among both gay and straight people wanting to generate dates in their area. It is also becoming a favorite way for prostitutes and gay male hustlers to promote their wares, as was discussed in an Oregonian feature article this fall.

One of the main problems I ran into with all of these services is that I don’t speak the language very well. I’m a 51-year-old who does not own a television or a PDA and whose cell phone is rarely on and used with minimal competence. The combination of gay sex-term babble and text-message code shorthand (shortfinger?) used by twenty-somethings often produces a homotextual sputtering that reads the way my Scottish ex-boyfriend sounded when he got agitated: only half the words needed for meaning are present on a canvas of apostrophes, and they don’t mean quite what they would in standard English. Reading what people say about themselves (and what they want in a date) can be as clear to an amateur as FAA tower-chat or the more arcane marine forecasts of the National Weather Service.

But in all this world of linguistic obscurity, fake photos, unlikely measurements, no-show hustlers and unrealistic expectations, I did emerge from this experiment with one actual date, a perfectly delightful evening with a tall, dark, handsome 23-year-old. So my commitment to research has had, if you will, a result with benefits.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On shooting varmints

My local newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, published a story by Rebecca Taylor on October 17, 2007 in which a local resident accidentally shot a visitor. As of today, the victim is still alive. The story, however, brings to light an interesting aspect of American rural culture, the concept of the varmint. In our local case, the shooter was described as firing the shot from a "small-caliber Ruger varmint rifle." Now what is a varmint rifle?

Ruger makes solid, mid-priced, good-quality firearms (I have used their pistols) and the rifle in question, though this was not specified in the story, was probably a .22, which fires a fast, small bullet suitable for killing crop-damaging rodents and other very small animals. My mother was a good shot with this kind of rifle while growing up on a farm near Salem, Oregon.

But what is a varmint and why did the shooter fire at "what he thought was an animal" in the brush?

My dictionaries, and such supplemental works as Woods's The Naturalist's Lexicon, make clear that the word varmint is a variant, if you will, of vermin, which in turn is based in the Latin term for worm but is today used more broadly to refer to any kind of loathsome, obnoxious or unpleasant animal, particularly a small animal.

I used to do some consulting work for Leupold & Stevens, an Oregon firm that makes high-quality optical equipment, especially scopes for use on firearms. Some of these are also marketed as great for varmint shooting, mounted on a .22 rifle or long-barrelled pistol, or perhaps a slightly higher caliber. One doesn't usually shoot varmints with large-bore weapons such as .44 revolvers or .45 automatics.

So what is a varmint, really, in daily use in rural America? The term has come to mean just about any small animal under almost any conditions. That is the shame of all who enjoy shooting sports.

I have no quarrel with hunting, having enjoyed from the land of Oregon venison, elk, rabbit, curried bear and even frog legs from frogs caught by my uncle and prepared to perfection by my grandmother. Likewise, it seems to me fine for farmers and ranchers to get rid of ground squirrels that pepper pastures with ankle-breaking holes (though setting up nest platforms for raptors might be more effective).

But our local shootist wasn't out to get dinner. He wasn't trying to keep his land safe and productive. He certainly wasn't protecting himself. He saw something move - something completely unidentified - and he shot it for fun.

From what cultural sump do we get the idea that killing animals purely for pleasure is morally acceptable? The idea is not limited to slow-witted young men out for a joyride on an ATV: hunting big game purely for trophy purposes is perfectly acceptable, even among the wealthy and educated. That is a subject beyond the meaning of "varmint," but is clearly related.

We see young men (mostly) shooting Burrowing Owls off fenceposts simply for target practice. In the case of most birds, unlike most mammals, this is a crime. Even my new neighbor, a nice young man, last year shot (with his varmint rifle) a raccoon in a residential district of Eugene, which was illegal not because it was a raccoon, but because he fired his rifle inside the city. I wonder if he could clean out the neighborhood cats for me?

So we return to our young ATV rider who fired at something unknown that moved in the bushes. The headline on the article referred to the shooter as a "hunter." Wrong. Hunting by definition has seasons and rules, and is limited to certain animals. Our young man, waving his rifle, admits to simply firing at something rustling in the underbrush. Just a varmint, let's shoot it for fun. I wait for the shame. I wait in vain.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Religious versus secular territory: a response to C. John Sommerville’s "The Decline of the Secular University"

What is the best way for universities and religion to co-exist? Some would say in different time zones, others think that Bible college is the only Great Book program they will ever need. C. John Sommerville’s "The Decline of the Secular University" (Oxford, 2006), which focuses on this question in a mostly practical way, is one of the most worthwhile books on the purposes of higher education to appear in recent years.

As a college evaluator, I find it enlightening, as a nonbeliever I find it challenging and as a citizen I find it in part persuasive. However, its focus on one religion (albeit one under which much of western culture arose) and its lack of awareness of what is really happening in religious education in the United States today weaken what is otherwise a very important message.

In academe, and to some extent in society and government, we have come to believe that anything that isn’t science (broadly defined to include applied technologies) isn’t important, and to the extent that everything else can be made to look and quack like science, it moves up the ladder of prestige (and might get better funding). Another way of looking at this issue is that if a book or article does not contain numbers, it is not important.

Page Smith made this point in Killing the Spirit (1990), which was less pointedly about the role of religion in universities. Sommerville makes it more explicitly, citing specific examples of what science can’t do and of scientists who have seen the light, or at least a light. He asks universities to reestablish their role as a place in which moral questions are taken seriously and in which religious people can comment on these issues as a natural part of the everyday life of collegiate culture without being dismissed as weirdos or defined away as nonacademics. I, speaking as an atheist, think this would be a plus at most institutions, whose students and faculty are today obsessed with money, prestige and job training.

Sommerville tends to conflate morality with religion and religion with Christianity, which poses certain obstacles to his goal of persuasion. However, he points out quite correctly that the expandable basket called “religion” in fact contains such a wide variety of philosophies and belief systems that to discuss it in generic terms risks a result so bland and devoid of weight that we might as well not bother. That said, surely his definition of religion as “that which gives access to something beyond the ordinary” is astonishingly flat and godless.

He treats Christianity as a culture or philosophy more than a faith, or at least shelters faith behind an amiable flurry of familiar academic language. His God does not smite (at least not directly) and his Jesus is more an emeritus faculty member worthy of respect than the Son of God. Although he does not ignore what I will boldly call the religious aspects of Christianity, Sommerville hardly mentions such things as divinity, the idea that God could have a son or whether anyone has risen from the dead lately and in what form. Sin does come up occasionally and appropriately, but forgiveness in an expressly ecclesiastical sense is modestly tucked away behind the curtains. Is this the Son of God who dare not speak His name?

The problem of distinguishing between Christianity as a distinct religious faith and the “Christian culture” underpinning the clusters of nation-states that have grown up with it exists in many venues, not just universities. It is an everyday presence in the courts. It is also a discussion not limited to Christianity. The late Oriana Fallaci recently pointed out in The Force of Reason (English edition, 2006) that as Islam moves into Europe, its culture seems likely to demand more concessions from European social norms. Europe is finding that its Christian-rooted tendency to treat others fairly may result in social changes and behaviors unacceptable to most of its inhabitants. Israel faces this question daily: is it a Jewish state in which others may live under certain conditions acceptable to Jews or a state that happens to contain mostly Jews - for now?

Can secularism render a nation vulnerable to a less accomodating culture based in a different faith than the sometimes nominal Christianity that the “West” hardly notices because we have lived with it for so long? Fallaci says yes. Many Americans of faith would agree. This is not Sommerville’s principal subject, but he clearly thinks that an educational system that has no common, natural, everyday way to discuss moral issues, including from religious viewpoints, is not well suited to the education of people who have to deal with such issues. I agree.

It may be that the book’s subject matter, which has to do mainly with what ought to happen in universities, does not have a need for visible altars and wood from the cross, but it is a little odd to read about Christianity as though universities could benefit from its undoubted capacity for encouraging moral discourse without mentioning its most fundamental basis: belief in its tenets. There is a hint of Wizard of Oz in the approach: we won’t talk about what is behind the curtain and let’s see if anyone notices.

On the rare occasions when other religions appear, they are mere ghosts who pass across the stage, bow slightly and are ushered courteously to the egress. Surely the presence of a vigorous Christianity smiting, loving and saving its way across campuses could only be made more interesting to faculty and students by a Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism doing the faith-based equivalent? Yet they do not figure in the book in a meaningful way.

The Corruption of Religion by Science

One problem that the author does not discuss, the absence of which constitutes an unfinished wall in his perimeter, is that religion has allowed itself to be corrupted by the notion of science as the only source of what is true. Religion, especially certain subspecies within Protestant Christianity, seems to be caught in a Charybdis of self-doubt that results in it believing that science really does have the answers. This results in a sorry, unseemly panting after misapplied scientific methods and associated tinsel (a museum of creationism?) that serves only to tarnish what fine metal remains of the edifice of faith.

Sommerville recognizes this problem. He points out quite correctly that science by itself contains no “should” function: “science itself didn’t teach [Nazis] that humans shouldn’t be treated as things.” He seems to have more respect and understanding for scientists who recognize the limits of what they do than for social scientists who seem less sure of themselves and therefore less willing to even discuss matters of faith and morality. The great American essayist John Jay Chapman wrote of science that it

“…neither sings nor jokes; neither prays nor rejoices; neither loves nor hates. This is not her fault, but her limitation. Her fault is that, as a rule, she respects only her own language and puts trust only in what is in her own shop window.”

This, written in 1910 (reissued in A John Jay Chapman Reader, University of Illinois Press 1998), is both more and less true today. Science as a sealed monolith is even vaster and more dominant than in Chapman’s day, yet many scientists as individuals are keenly aware of where it fits in the modern world and what it can and cannot do.

Indeed, there are scientists (e.g. physicist Alan Lightman, A Sense of the Mysterious, 2005) who write on these themes, and a recent brutally academic conference paper collection (Is Nature Ever Evil?, Willem Drees, ed., 2003) in which writers from academic backgrounds in science, philosophy and theology take the subject so seriously as to achieve in their writing the atomic density of platinum.

In order for universities (and all other schools) to allot an appropriate place to religion and morality, whatever that place may be, and for the discussions that Sommerville wants to take place, religions must stop trying to be sciences. Art does not try to be psychology, theater does not try to be chemistry and engineering does not try to be Bach except under unusual leadership, but religion wants to be science. Religion must cease attempting to stuff itself into the Trojan horse of creationism in order to canter backward through the wide-open portals of science, and must step back from the whirling genetic cell-storm of evolution and natural selection.

Science (a set of fact-gathering processes used for certain purposes) does not pretend to be religion, and religion (a way of viewing life and the world from the outside) should stop thinking that it has to be a part of science. There is no reason for religion to want or need to be science, and it sullies itself by trying.

Why does religion want to be science, aside from acquiring some of the prestige that science holds in our society? Because it wants to play on every field, not just its own. This is not unique to Christianity: watch how the mullahs treat art and literature. The commonplace sin of jurisdiction creep can be found in other parts of academe, but religion, at least the major monodeity sky-god versions that include most Americans, is unique in one respect that is fatal to a potential role in academe: it enters the Great Conversation that Sommerville rightly cherishes with the answers and is not interested in changing any of them, no matter what the questions may be.

That is untrue in any other field found in a university with the possible exception of units run by famous athletic coaches, which are arguably religions as well. Christianity is therefore unable to fully participate in the diastolic give and take through which ideas are refined, modified and improved in a collegiate setting: it can only speak, it cannot listen. This is not wrong in itself, but it precludes the kind of meaningful cross-pollination that Sommerville hopes could happen were faith-based dialogues to occur more often.

I simply don’t agree when the author says that

“...Christians, at least, do not think it discredits theology that it is still a work in progress, any more than it discredits science to think that it may be just beginning.”

This statement supposes the refined, academic theology of, say, 1850 or even 1950, rather than the absolutist inerrant faith that drives much of practical theology on the American ground today. If there is one thing that I have learned as a state regulator who works with a wide variety of religious colleges, it is that they do not think their theology is a work in progress - little is more carved in stone than what they believe and teach.

What the Religious Market Demands

If that earlier theology were still marketable to the masses of American believers whom Sommerville thinks secular colleges need to reach, we would not have hundreds of incompatible Bible colleges and church-basement degree-granters peddling their mutually exclusive wares in every sizable community.

Consider who religious colleges can’t reach. Missouri, where I once worked in higher education, has 34 accredited and about 50 unaccredited degree-granting institutions controlled by churches. Note that the 34 are not public universities or even secularized independent private colleges, they are church-controlled institutions representing 14 different Christian sects and four independent but expressly Christian entities. Among these 34 exceptionally various accredited educational providers scattered widely across one state, the people who attend the fifty - fifty - small unaccredited religious colleges in that same state could find no religious comfort zone.

Louisiana has 55 unaccredited degree-granting religious colleges, Georgia has 40, South Carolina 28 and California a staggering 250. Many other states have them, too. And these are the ones that we know about. We are absolutely sloshing in the heady brew of religious postsecondary education. But we do not live in a society in which religious groups have any interest in expanding their theological homes: Christianity today is a splintered faith of wall-builders and bunker-diggers.

There are exceptions, and there are people of faith who can work very well within an academic setting. However, they are the ones who are most flexible in their ways of interacting with others and most interested in learning how their faith might learn from the world, not just preach to it. They are therefore as disconnected as many nonbelievers from the large blocks of people whom Sommerville refers to here and there in the book, those of faith outside the academy who are, in reality, not interested in what anyone else thinks or believes.

If these extraordinarily varied believers were suddenly transported to Sommerville’s University of Florida, what would they contribute? Certainly a stunning volume of noise, but a meaningful dialogue on moral issues? I doubt it. Sommerville seems to recognize this in his discussions of interactions between religion and science, where he in effect divides Christianity into those who are not interested in merging with science (people like him) and those who mistakenly want to fight on foreign ground.

But in our large society, it is Christians who want to fight science within the enemy’s own walls who are the principal leaders most critical of educational systems. They do not want a dialogue with science or within academe, they want to uproot science from its own territory, which is impossible, despite occasional burnt books around its fringes. How very odd that people who would never consider the truths of their faith subject to public vote often expect such votes on the truths of science, which are equally immune to majoritarianism.

They, as Christian leaders, don’t have faith in the sacred ground whence they came, the ground where the forest of morality grows, where ethics was born in its shaded glens, where right defends its battlements against wrong. Most importantly, where science cannot go. Until they do, their role within universities will be viewed as largely destructive and not serious in the academic sense.

Finally, Sommerville doesn’t say much about other sources of nonfactual authority that are available (or should be available) within education. Certainly philosophy need not have a base in western religion, though to be sure some of it does or did. Concepts of beauty, meaning and other fundamentally esthetic matters should, as the author suggests, have a greater role in what happens inside universities.

However, they don’t have to come from a Biblical or even religious source, unless the word “religion” can simply be interepreted to include anything not connected to the scientific method, which strikes me as cheating: defining the problem away with a whisk-broom rather than dealing with its odd spikes and edges.

The credibility problem of religions in academe

When religion’s most widely visible faces are always talking about a narrow range of issues and never seem to care about anything else, the credibility of religion inside the university as a source of viable views on life in general is seriously circumscribed. The peculiar political dichotomy of Catholic leaders who are so visible regarding abortion and so invisible regarding the death penalty, both of which are theoretically contrary to that faith’s teachings, is one example of this problem. Religion that does not look or act like a source of consistent moral leadership is unable to assume that role in any venue, let alone one in which truth, however broadly defined or culturally based, is a goal.

To the extent that people who are active because of their faith look and act like political cherry-pickers who read the latest polls before speaking out, their claim to authority from moral sources is degraded. People of faith are perceived by many as hectoring, intrusive, obsessed with sexual issues (the least likely speeches for anyone not already an adherent to listen to) and uninterested in poor people, social justice (pick your definition) or improving people’s lives. Congressman Barney Frank’s famous comment of certain religious conservatives is still applicable today: they think that “life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

I am far more inclined to listen to a religious leader’s thoughts on an important moral issue if that leader is not attempting to acquire or use government power to make me act like him. Once again, uncertain faith seems to have come to believe that secular authority, like the cast-off pyrites of science, must be used to bolster a shaky religion. Why? Is it simply the common human desire to force other people to do things? A failure to persuade on moral grounds?

The relatively recent movement of some religious leaders away from a James Watt-like “the-end-is-near-so-stripmine-today” mentality and toward an ethic of environmental stewardship is a good sign of broadening of the religious dialogue, and its collision with the money-driven norms of politics will be interesting to watch. Our nation and our universities would surely benefit from religious activity that has the effect of getting people to look at their lives and their world with a greater awareness of moral issues and the consequences of moral choices.

Lest I seem to be a tribune of niggling, I need to mention once again that this is an excellent book that raises issues that absolutely need to be raised, in writing that is sometimes so delicately pointed that the stiletto can hardly be felt, for example, in a discussion of dogmatism in the collision of belief systems in ancient Europe, that we owe to Jesus “the idea that religion goes bad when it used in support of power systems.” Amen.

I would welcome to the academy any person of faith who can make a genuine contribution on religious grounds to the discussions of issues affecting humanity. Sommerville states that “universities have too easily assumed that their job was to dispel wonder.” I wholeheartedly agree, and would line up with him on the side of wonder any time. However, in order for wonder rooted in faith to recur on campus on a significant scale, changes that I do not expect would have to occur within the larger communities of faith in the country.

Respect cannot be imposed, it must be earned. If religion has lost the respect of university communities in recent generations, it is not just because of change inside the walls. Only when religion once again acts like religion instead of desperately pawing the middens of science and politics for shards of someone else’s legitimating grail can it earn back a senior place at the timeless table of learning.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

If not religion, what?

Note: This essay is slightly revised from a version that originally appeared on August 31 in Inside Higher Education. It has been reposted in part on the Canadian Catholic education site: Tomorrow's Trust: A Review of Catholic Education (http://www.tomorrowstrust.ca).

In a variety of arenas, from politics to high schools, from colleges to the military, Americans argue as though the proper face-to-face discussion in our society ought to be between religion and science. This is a misunderstanding of the taxonomy of thought. Religion and science are in different families on different tracks: science deals with is vs. isn’t and religion, to the extent that it relates to daily life, deals with should vs. shouldn’t. There are a few areas of overlap, but when science strays outside questions of fact, it rapidly loses its identity.

These are fundamentally different trains. They may hoot at each other in passing, and many people attempt to switch them onto the same track (mainly in order to damage science), but this is an act of the desperate, not the thoughtful.

It is true that a portion of religious hooting has to do with is vs. isn’t questions, in the arena of creationism and its ancillary arguments. However, this set of arguments, important as it might be for some religious people, is not important to a great many (especially outside certain Protestant variants), while the moral goals and effects of religious belief are a far more common and widespread concern among many faiths. I was raised in Quaker meeting, where we had a saying: Be too busy following the good example of Jesus to argue about his metaphysical nature.

Until recently, most scientists didn’t bother trying to fight with religion; for the most part they ignored it or practiced their own faiths. However, in recent years Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have decided to enter the ring and fight religion face to face. The results have been mixed. I have read books by all of these authors on this subject, as well as the interesting 2007 blog exchange between Harris and Andrew Sullivan, one of the best writers active today and a practicing Catholic, and it is clear that a great deal of energy is being expended firing heavy ordnance into black holes with no likelihood of much effect.

The problem that the scientific horsemen face is that theirs is the language of is/isn’t. Their opponents (mostly Christians but by implication observant Jews and Muslims as well) don’t use the word “is” to mean the same thing. To a religious person, God is and that’s where the discussion begins. To a nonreligious scientist, God may or may not be, and that is where the discussion begins.

The two sides, postulating only two for the moment, are each on spiral staircases, but the stairs wind around each other and never connect: this is the DNA of unmeeting thoughts. Only shouting across the gap happens, and the filters of meaning are not aligned. That is why I don’t put much faith, you’ll pardon the expression, in this flying wedge of scientific lancers to change very many minds.

Dennett’s approach is quite different from the others at a basic level; he views religious people as lab rats and wants to study why they squeak the way they do. That way of looking at the issue seems insulting at first but is more honest and practical in that it doesn’t really try to change minds that are not likely to change.

But these arguments are the wrong ones at a very basic level, especially for our schools and the colleges that train our teachers. The contrapuntal force to religion, that force which is in the same family, if a different genus, speaks the same language in different patterns regarding the same issues. It is not science, it is philosophy. That is what our teachers need to understand, and this distinction is the one in which education colleges should train them.

Those of us who acknowledge the factual world of science as genuine and reject the idea of basing moral and “should” questions in the teachings of religion are left seeking an alternate source for sound guidance. Our own judgment based in experience is a strong basic source. The most likely source, the ‘respectable’ source with sound academic underpinnings that can refine, inform and burnish our judgment, is philosophy in its more formal sense.

The word “philosophy” conjures in many minds the image of dense, dismal texts written by oil lamp with made-up words in foreign languages, and far beyond mortal ken. In fact, many writers on philosophy are quite capable of writing like human beings; some of their books are noted below.

When we introduce more religious studies into our K-12 schools, as we must if people are ever to understand each other’s lives, the family of learning into which they must go also contains philosophy. It is this conversation, between the varieties of religious outlooks and their moral conclusions, and the same questions discussed by major philosophers, that needs to happen.

Philosophy is not all a dense, opaque slurry of incomprehensible language. Some excellent basic books are available that any reasonably willing reader can comprehend and enjoy. Simon Blackburn’s Think, Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins’ A Passion for Wisdom and Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe are some recent examples.

An older text providing a readable commentary on related issues is John Jay Chapman’s Religion and Letters, still in print in his Collected Works but hard to find in the original, single volume. Chapman wrote of changes in our school system that:

“It is familiarity with greatness that we need—an early and first-hand acquaintance with the thinkers of the world, whether their mode of thought was music or marble or canvas or language. Their meaning is not easy to come at, but in so far as it reaches us it will transform us. A strange thing has occurred in America. I am not sure that it has ever occurred before. The teachers wish to make learning easy. They desire to prepare and peptonize and sweeten the food. Their little books are soft biscuits for weak teeth, easy reading on great subjects, but these books are filled with a pervading error: they contain a subtle perversion of education. Learning is not easy, but hard: culture is severe.”

This, published in 1910, is remarkably relevant to education at all levels today. The idea that philosophy is too hard for high school students, which I doubt, simply means that we need to expect more of students all through K-12. Many of them would thank us.

Paul Kurtz’s Affirmations and my brother John Contreras’s Gathering Joy are interesting “guidebooks” that in effect apply philosophical themes in an informal way to people’s real lives. There are also somewhat more academic books that integrate what amount to philosophical views into daily life such as Michael Lynch’s True to Life: Why Truth Matters, physicist Alan Lightman’s A Sense of The Mysterious and the theologian John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.

Some of these are denser than others and not all are suited for public schools, but the ideas they discuss are often the same ideas discussed in the context of religions, and sometimes with similar language. It is this great weave of concepts that our students should be exposed to, the continuum of philosophical thought blended with the best that different religions have to offer.

The shoulds and shouldn’ts that are most important to the future of our society need to be discussed in colleges, schools and homes, and the way to accomplish this is to bring religions and philosophies back to life as the yin and yang of right and wrong. That is the great conversation that we are not having.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Coaches and their Degrees at the University of Oregon

Note: this essay originally appeared in the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard on August 28, 2007

Recent stories and George Schroeder's excellent column on the diploma-mill degree purchased by Dave Serrano, a former candidate for baseball coach at the University of Oregon, raise several issues. Are diploma-mill degrees legal for use? Do coaches need degrees at all? Do athletic directors?

Oregon law separates degrees into three categories. Standard degrees such as those issued by the UO, Lane Community College, Eugene Bible College and other accredited schools can be used with no restrictions, although employers may require certain kinds of specialized accreditation or preparation. Degrees that go through the state's approval process also are legally valid for most uses.

Unaccredited degrees from U.S. colleges and foreign degrees from colleges not comparable to accredited U.S. colleges can be used in Oregon with a disclaimer of accreditation, provided that the college actually exists as a legally operating degree-granter in its home jurisdiction.

The last category is what are usually called degree- or diploma-mill degrees, those simply purchased, sometimes requiring "life experience," often not. Using such a degree in Oregon and many other states is illegal; in Oregon, it is a Class B misdemeanor as well as a civil violation. It is the floor below which no degree used in Oregon for any purpose, public or private, is allowed to fall. The Legislature established this nationally recognized standard in 1997.

Any employer who allows an employee to use a diploma-mill degree had best have a good attorney and deep pockets for the potential liability claims when that employee screws up. Unfortunately, it is that third category into which Serrano's degree falls. Therefore, had the UO hired him, he would have had to erase the degree from his rèsumèwhen he took the job.

But should coaches be required to hold degrees at all? Of course not, because athletic "departments" are not really parts of universities, at least not at top-level schools. The UO athletic department is an ancillary business that is allowed by our cultural norms to use the university's name and trademarks to operate a large-scale entertainment business. The more private money it gets (thereby freeing other actual and potential funds for academic uses) the better.

That is why someone such as Pat Kilkenny is a good choice to lead such an enterprise. He's an experienced businessman with the ability to attract and manage money. The fact that Kilkenny has no degree is a who-cares. The problem he faces is that he is unaccustomed to operating within the slow, talkative process of academe, in which his actions will be publicly trashed by low-income people he has no choice but to work with. He is accustomed to doing things in private with people in his own economic stratum.

But I'd take one degreeless Kilkenny - even with an absurd, poorly considered cheerleading team - over 10 Serranos with degrees from a mailbox in Delaware. The problem with Serrano and those like him who acquire and use bogus degrees is not that they are bad coaches; it is that they are proven to have poor judgment.

An employer, including the UO, always can require that a degree meet whatever requirements the employer deems appropriate. Many employers require that degrees be from accredited schools; some require certain kinds of accreditation. Employers interested in finding out more about how to distinguish real from fake degrees should use the

A degree is not a toy or a decoration. It is a public credential that people rely on in many aspects of their lives. Degrees don't tell us all we need to know about a person, but we need to respect their value, not trash it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Idaho Sex God

Comes word today from the town crier in the guise of CNN that conservative Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho has pleaded guilty to a charge of lewdness based on his behavior in the Minneapolis airport restrooms with a man who turned out to be an undercover police officer.

Ah, family values, exemplified by this salty pillar of the right-wing mountain west, a man who displays the conservative paint but lacks the moral primer. Craig must be so very thankful that his indiscretion was revealed on the same day that Alberto Gonzales finally choked on his own rat sandwich and resigned as attorney general, leading the political news.

But it won't be enough. Craig's supporters will rally around and screech entrapment, his loyal family will loyally familize as needed, but he's done as a credible public official.

And he didn't have to do this. All he needed was to get an account on DList or Manhunt, under the name, say, Large in Lewiston or Pocatello Pork, and he could discreetly arrange for whatever boyfriends he needed.

And the cop wasn't really that attractive, was he, Larry?

Monday, August 20, 2007

George W. Bush in Perspective

An acquaintance and I were discussing the appalling sump of the Bush presidency not long ago and concluded that the next bumper sticker needed in our community should read "Nostalgic for Nixon."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Plaid Dragon

When I was a kid, traveling through small towns in eastern Oregon en route to various birding destinations, my family sometimes ate at a restaurant that had a dragon on the sign out front and served Chinese food. However, the dragon was plaid, I recall green and white but that was 35 years ago. The restaurant, with its menu of egg flower soup and chow mein, was called Scotty's.

In 1972, this strange juxtaposition was a true oddity and became a family joke. My mother would sometimes refer to plaid dragons when something seemed out of place. Today, cultural interpenetration has become so everyday that it takes a moment to notice things that hardly seem incongruous anymore. Yesterday, for example, I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant staffed entirely by Hispanics who referred to the the food (among themselves) in a mixture of languages. I don't know what the Spanish words for kung-pao chicken are, but "pollo" is a word that never saw Shanghai.

In June I was in Barrow, Alaska, which is 60 percent native Inupiat but otherwise boasts a remarkable mix. Right across the street from our motel was an excellent Korean restaurant whose owner (a first-generation immigrant Korean) brought us her home-made kimchee. Then we had lunch at a good Italian restaurant-also operated by a Korean family, serving Swedish tourists, German scientists and all other comers, just down the beach from the local Inupiat whale-roast and no great way from the North Pole.

I should not be surprised. This week I joined the U.S. branch of the Arthur Ransome society, an organization devoted to promoting the wonderful books of the British writer and encouraging children to enjoy the outdoors. The society mentions a bit about its own history, and it turns out that the first branch was not in Ransome's beloved Lake District. It wasn't in England at all. It wasn't even in an English-speaking country. It was in Japan.

West Coast Credibility

Lloyd Thacker, a professional colleague, was recently interviewed by Julia Silverman, a young reporter from the northeastern part of the U.S. She seemed surprised to have been asked to interview him, and one of her first questions was whether he felt that he had any credibility issues in advancing his cause, because he was from the west coast. He got over his incredulity at such an inquiry quickly enough to provide a suitable answer, and the interview continued.

In fact, he is the leader in his line of work in the U.S. I would call him cutting-edge, which the reporter didn't seem to know, even though that's why she had been assigned by a major news outlet to speak to him. He was so intrigued by her peculiar inquiry that he checked into her background and found that she had gone to an upper-scrapings private eastern prep school and a similarly top-froth college in the northeast. It was clear that her cramped cultural world stopped well short of the Ohio River, unless it allowed for access to Chicago (presumably her Far West) by aircraft. If she is a skier, it's at Mt. Mansfield, Vermont, not Aspen, let alone Sun Valley.

Her story, which was picked up in my local paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, referred to Portland, where Lloyd works, as an "outpost," as though she expected to find smelly trappers hauling beaver pelts through Pioneer Square. In fact, metro Portland is larger than any city in Ohio and all but five in the whole Northeast coastal corridor.

Why is it that the west, home of Apple, Microsoft and many other successful leading organizations, including Oregon's Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Leupold optics and many others, is perceived as having an inherent credibility gap? At the risk of unseemly immodesty, I will note for the record that I am probably the best in the U.S. at what I do, too, and certainly in the top few. I was the only person in my line of work to be invited to represent states at a U.S. Senate hearing a few years back. It seems to me perfectly normal that someone from the northwest would be a national leader in his field.

I wish we could see more, not less, spatial and social diversity in the sources of what we read and hear. I subscribe to many journals, and they all seem to feature the same suspects from the northeast corridor bleating at each other the same lines they used ten years ago. Enough of this east-coast upmanship. We're not impressed. We don't need it any more. Our world looks out on the Pacific future, not down into ancient arguments of the North Atlantic and eastern Europe.

The easterner who wonders why we are not worried about our credibility has nothing that we want. We do not envy her cities, her coastlines, her social culture. We have seen them. We know what they are. If we do not shout our gloriousness so that she knows it in full splendor, it may be because we are not a shouting people, or perhaps we do not need to be found.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Covenant: agreement among witches

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Cheerleading for Men

The University of Oregon recently announced that it was going to expand its athletic offerings to include baseball for men and varsity cheerleading for what the university called "women." Federal law requires that such offerings be balanced so that men and women have similar opportunities.

A friend who has observed this situation closely commented to me last week that the university's decision is appalling because cheerleading is a bogus "sport which will prepare young women for lucrative jobs in the adult entertainment industry. A 'sport' which not one of the men I know who have teenage or pre-teenage daughters would allow their daughters to participate in."

In fact, cheerleading is quasi-sexual entertainment for men who think of the participants as "girls." It has nothing to do with women in the same sense that other varsity sports do. This is an almost-humorous fumble for the new athletic director, Pat Kilkenny. I think Kilkenny was a good choice for this job. He gets two strikes before his head is in any jeopardy. This is strike one.

There is a solution. Make varsity cheerleading a men's sport and replace the proposed addition of men's baseball with a genuine women's sport. That would show a true commitment to equality before the law.

We're waiting, Pat.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Foreign Policy

Bumper sticker seen in Eugene, Oregon today:

"YEEHAW! is not a foreign policy."

Monday, July 30, 2007

Let the South Go

Why not? Why not let the South go? After all, they wanted to leave and we Yankees made them stay. Big mistake. We should have seen their desire to leave as an opportunity to solve problems. But that was then and this is now. There were problems that needed fixing back in 1860, and I guess we had to keep the South for a while to fix them.

But why keep them now? They would love to leave. That solid block of densely religious, profoundly redneck good-ol-boys would gasp in relief as the weight of the hyper-rational Upper Right Coast, the libertarian West and those good-government Lutherans in the upper Midwest was lifted from their shoulders. We hardly need to mention the Left Coast. They could establish their own national religion and those who didn’t like it would have free passage North.

Of course, poor Utah would be rather stuck, but then so would the non-Southern parts of Florida. But just imagine: the United States of Northern America would no longer have to pay attention to those screeching Miamians who pretend to want to return to Cuba. Missouri would take a deep breath and stay North, though the bootheel might simply join Arkansas for the convenience of all.

The biggest question would be what to do with Texas, but then, the rest of the nation wonders that right now anyway. As I recall, Texas entered the Union reserving to itself the right to split into up to five states if necessary. Well, now’s the time. There’s cottony East Texas, The Valley, the Greater Panhandle, the Plateau and West Texas. East Texas clearly belongs to the Conf…that is, to the South; the Panhandle, Plateau and West are clearly western. And the Valley, well, why not give it to Mexico on a more formal basis? That would be great for international relations and all the spring break parties at South Padre Island would be Cancun del Norte: somebody else’s problem.

Party realignment in the United States of Northern America would be rapid. Democrats would become Labor, Republicans would become what they were back when places like New York and Connecticut elected them, and Libertarians would become a serious force in the interior West and Alaska. Those who couldn’t live in a genuinely secular country could simply move to one of the new Free South states.

Think of the policy issues that would be so much easier if we let the South go. Civil unions, abortion rights and teaching evolution would all be common sense in the North and felonies in the South—so much more simple and no reason for doubt in anyone’s mind. No serious fights over Supreme Court justices (in either country). Northerners could wash their hands of the question of who is responsible for rebuilding New Orleans where a city shouldn’t be. Southerners would not have to care why the money is being spent on a bridge in Alaska instead.

All those upsetting Dixie flags would be nationalized in the South and, as flags of a foreign government, legally restricted in the North. Slavery is out of fashion just now so its return need not concern the black population in the South, where life would go on as badly as it does now. In the North, life for urban black people would continue to be as bad as it is now. Affirmative Action would disappear completely in both countries, neither of which pay any attention to it now.

Think of the border crossing problems that would be solved. People in New Jersey would no longer have to think about what to do with Haitian boat people. They’d be sent to North Carolina to work for $1.49 an hour in the newly rejuvenated textile industry. If they didn’t like it, they could go back to Haiti.

A wetback would be someone who swam the Potomac River, not the Rio Grande. At least the Potomac is still wet. Anyone who crossed the border illegally in West Texas or New Mexico could simply be sent Down The River until they were back in Mexico del Norte east of Falcon Dam.

Words like NASCAR would slowly disappear from the Northern lexicon, as would the phrase “labor union” in the South. Wouldn’t southern employers really be more comfortable on the warm side of NAFTA anyway? Whole new cultural traditions would rise: the World Series would be truly international (Montreal and Toronto being relieved of traditional token roles by the addition of teams from the South).

Then there’s the food. I concede that I would miss good catfish, but then tourists would be welcome (at least married boy-girl Christian tourists) and they could have catfish. But northerners would no longer have to deal with okra, pickled pigs’ feet, grits and other delights of southern cuisine. Pecans are overrated, anyway. Southerners could restrict public consumption of lutefisk and California wines. A brisk trade in corn and rice would be a firm base for commerce, as would the sale of oil, wheat, shrimp, potatoes and many other staples and manufactured goods.

Without the South, the United States of Northern America could make a plausible case for merger with any Canadian provinces that were interested. Quebec could become independent and negotiate with France for control of St. Pierre and Miquelon. British Columbia would fit in just fine with the west coast and most of the provinces would be much more comfortable with the USNA after the South departed.

Conservative Alberta would be left slightly stranded like Utah, but they would have a lot in common with the Dakotas and Montana, and would actually boost the prairie vote in the expanded Congress, as Alberta has significant population centers.

That raises the question of capital cities. Washington has always been a lousy place for a capital, Ottawa not much better, so merger with Canada would allow some compromises. A more central location, less vile summer climate and air service in winter would certainly be issues. A new, smaller federal district between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska might work well. But where would the South put its capital? The shining star of Atlanta is an obvious choice (Richmond having slipped a little in relative glory in the past 150 years), but I can see the Dallas-Houston axis being a bit uncomfortable ceding place to a comparable rival. I suspect that a compromise with no pretense to secular glory such as Oxford, Mississippi would do very nicely.

So let us end this most unnatural civil union. Release the South from the surly bonds of the Constitution as we know it, and let all peoples breathe free.

The Well-tempered Beretta

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2007

The recent shootings at Virginia Tech have raised an old question: Should we allow responsible people to own guns to protect themselves and others?

Along with about 7,000 of the 325,000 people in my county, I have a permit from the sheriff to carry a concealed gun. Many more people keep guns in their homes, for which a permit is not required. In fact, no permit is required to carry a gun openly in my state of Oregon, or in many other states, although that practice is so uncommon outside very rural areas that most people don't realize it is legal.

Some of the people at the colleges and universities I visit as part of my job probably didn't know that I carry a gun on their campuses. Now they do. I carry it as protection from criminal attacks, and I couldn't have gotten a permit if I had a serious criminal record or had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems.

I know how to operate my gun safely; I know when I can use it legally; and I never leave it where anybody else could take it. I practice shooting at a range, to make sure that I remain competent. Yet even some of my friends think I am strange, possibly wicked, for owning a gun. I don't understand that view. Surely each person has the right to decide whether to kill or die — and that is the choice we are talking about.

Should I — a 51-year-old bookworm with no significant biceps — have to defend myself with a broom handle if a knife-wielding thug attacks me in my yard? It is true that, given reasonable warning, I might be able to run away. But why make me run off my property merely because some criminal has run onto it? Though I was raised a Quaker, I no longer accept that flight is morally superior to self-defense.

One reason for my decision to carry a gun is that I live in a small city in the mostly rural Western United States. In rural areas, guns are readily available to criminals and unwilling victims alike.

Also common in the West are some of the less congenial animals. Cougars have entered the city where I live twice in recent years; one hid under a house. Black bears are common, although they are usually not dangerous. Usually. Wolverines live at one place where I go birding every year, and where many people camp. I once went to a small store in southeastern Oregon and found a rattlesnake guarding the doorway. Granted, snakes can usually be escorted away with a long-handled push broom (after being swept away from the store, the serpent promptly slithered under the driver's side of my car, where it waited in the shade), but I don't always carry a broom.

Of course, the key issue in most people's minds is whether, in an emergency, it is right to use a gun not against an animal, but against a human. Some people would not shoot another person in self-defense. I would.

The argument that the police can't be everywhere may sound like a cliché from the National Rifle Association, of which I am not a member — not believing in a personal right to own machine guns or armor-piercing bullets. In fact, it is an important reality. There are few police officers in rural America; those we do have (my father was one) are usually located in isolated towns. In some parts of Oregon where I go, the nearest police officer may be 50 miles away, across uninhabited country.

That fact adds to the general libertarian attitude in the West of preferring to solve problems personally. Sometimes government help is not an option: The district attorney of my county announced several years ago that no misdemeanors and only major property crimes would be prosecuted, owing to a lack of resources. In effect, he transferred the economic burden of resolving "minor" crimes from the public coffers to citizens' insurance rates.

There is certainly something macabre about the idea, shown graphically in a cartoon shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, that we should just let the good guys and bad guys shoot it out. Yet it is even worse to pretend that the good guys and bad guys should be treated as morally equivalent.

The question of who should be allowed to own a gun is a legitimate one, and it is proper to ban private guns from certain places, like courtrooms. But let's argue about gun ownership from a coherent moral and factual position, not from the gut reactions of any one moment, however tragic that moment may be.

On Becoming An Expert, or How I Lenskafied Myself

NOTE: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2007. It will appear in the Daily Australian in September, 2007.

I am an expert. Everyone tells me so. They tell me that I am an expert on diploma mills and degree fraud because I have been working professionally in that field for many years. I have become either glorious or notorious, depending on whether the person evaluating me got a degree from a genuine college. I am invited to write book chapters and introductions and give speeches and testimony, owing to my general splendor in that arena. However, I don't have any degrees in higher-education administration or policy.

They tell me that I am an expert on birds because I have published three books about them, including co-editing Birds of Oregon (Oregon State University Press, 2003), a five-pounder whose bibliography contains 4,000 citations. I proved that volume's worth and my expertise when asked, by a person who hadn't seen it, if she could carry it in her pocket in the field. I said, "Sure, if you're a large kangaroo or a small aircraft." I don't have any degrees in ornithology, either.

I may be a nascent expert in a few other subjects - time will tell. Or will it? Who makes those decisions, anyway?

To pick an example that may be unfairly obvious, who decided that Noam Chomsky was an expert in everything? Did he simply declare that one day, following which the assembled masses bowed down in unison? How does a renowned professor of linguistics transmute into an expert on world affairs and the human condition? Surely this is a mega-meme of great cultural import: Word has gone forth that Chomsky is an expert.

I can understand that a chemist would be treated as an expert in chemistry, and an architect an expert in design. That approach doesn't quite work, however, when novelists are classified as experts in literature for academic purposes - given that the creative force and the explicative force are profoundly different - and linguists become experts in political sociology.

The relevant difference may be between fields in which clear questions lead to definitive answers, and those in which opinions - that is, individual aesthetic or value judgments - render all truths flexible. The line may be between the sciences and everything else, or it may lie somewhere in the murk.

Chomsky seems to be an expert because he says he is, and enough people agree. It doesn't seem to matter which people, as long as there are enough of them. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Camille Paglia (both favorites of mine) are in a similar category.

Perhaps that is all that is necessary: We can all be the Rula Lenskas of our own domain. Do you recall the late 1970s TV ads featuring a woman who sailed forth - draped in couth, untrammeled by care, her nose in the air – and imperiously announced, "I'm Rula Lenska"? Nobody in the United States had ever heard of her, but her brazen self-declaration of splendor levitated her briefly to the status of cultural icon. In fact, she was and still is a successful if rather offbeat actress in her native Britain, and the cultural joke may be on us: She is technically a Polish countess, though not, as it were, practicing just now.

Can I, if you will, lenskafy myself? To a certain extent, I can; that is how some people develop reputations.

There are limits, of course. I could stroll into Fermilab and declare myself an expert on particle physics, and my friends George Gollin and Heidi Schellman, who really are such, would just look at me oddly, say "whatever," and go about their business. That is because I cannot really navigate the quark jungle. At some point, the waiter brings the check, and the lenskafier has to be able to pay up with appropriate coin.

However, if I declare myself an expert on, say, the poetry of Loren Eiseley, the music of Colin Brumby, or the essays of John Jay Chapman, I cannot be dismissed out of hand. I should at least have an opportunity to demonstrate my expertise. In the fine arts and many of the social sciences, there are no mazes of facts to negotiate, as there would be were I to attempt to feel my way through the glutinous slurry of quarks, leptons, and forces with which physicists work.

In theory, I can be just as much of an expert in more-subjective fields as anyone else. If I say that Brumby's Symphony No. 1 is better music than anything by Virgil Thomson and merits standing alongside the works of Edward Elgar and Samuel Barber, or that Edwin Muir is a better literary critic than Edmund Wilson, I can be challenged but not corrected. Those are judgments of value and quality.

Of course, I might end up like Wilson's fictional Galapagos iguana, which, when questioned by a fictional zoologist, declared that it knew all it needed to of its world, and that it was an über-being. Experts greater than I may pick me up by the tail and carry me off for further study, which is what happened to the iguana in Wilson's tale.

To what extent is being an expert the result of our education and the degrees we hold? My degrees from the University of Oregon are in political science and law. Neither has any special relationship to the arcana of evaluating degree programs, or anything whatsoever to do with the distribution and movements of the spotted towhee.

Alex Walker, one of the more important ornithologists in Oregon history, had a day job at a cheese factory. As far as I know, he had no college degrees at all. Was he not an expert? I met him in 1969, and he certainly seemed like one to me. His data were collected in an appropriate manner, and his articles appeared in the field's major journals.

On the other hand, we now have scores of M.F.A. factories in the United States, pumping out certified experts in poetry, fiction, drama, and that useful catch-all, literary nonfiction. Yet when we look at our best living poets - let me herewith declare that they are W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich- we see no such "professional" degrees. Nor do we see those degrees in most foreign countries. Even worse, some American universities now offer creative-writing Ph.D. programs, which will not give us better writers but merely add an invisible layer of academic dignity to the emperor's current unnecessary garments.

American universities also produce in great numbers that peculiar cultural artifact, the Ed.D., which seems to denote a certified education bureaucrat. Surely we need education bureaucrats in moderation - I am one, and I argue for both need and moderation from personal experience - but we don't need a unique credential for them.

Why do Americans insist on believing that degrees confer worth and qualification? The citizens of other nations are following our example here, as shown in Ronald Dore's excellent The Diploma Disease, but we are clearly the masters.

I have always appreciated Paul Valéry's view: "Let us confess: The real object of education is the diploma. I never hesitate to declare that the diploma is the deadly enemy of culture. As diplomas have become more important in our lives (and their importance has done nothing but grow as a result of economic conditions), the less has education had any real effect. ... The aim of education being no longer the development of the mind but the acquisition of the diploma, the required minimum becomes the goal of study."

Not long ago, I had a submission rejected (by a newspaper editor who has accepted other work of mine) on the ground that I was not enough of an expert on the subject. His concern, at least officially, was not that the piece was wrong or poorly written; it was that if he accepted my commentary as a nonexpert, he'd have to accept lots of other commentaries by
nonexperts, and then where would we be?

He had rejected my attempt to lenskafy myself. Of course, he doesn't have to accept anything he doesn't want to, and it may be that he was sparing us both by not saying that he thought my piece really stank.

I hear the carping already. You object that "lenskafy" is not a real word, and that I have therefore constructed my argument on at least one faulty tower. I disagree. If Richard Dawkins, a nonlinguist, can establish the word "meme" no great number of years back, and I get to use it in this essay, then I, with equivalent professional authority, can create the word "lenskafy" and establish its meaning. I declare myself competent to so expand the English language.

I will even ask an expert linguist to weigh in on my right to do so. Noam Chomsky, where are you when I need you?

A Glorious Wind: Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. University of New Mexico Press, 2003

NOTE: this post originally appeared in the journal Fireweed

Whenever a writer as powerful as Gabriela Mistral is translated by a writer as distinctive as Ursula Le Guin, the result is likely to be unfortunate or glorious. Le Guin taught herself Spanish, though she doesn’t speak or write the language, but poetic translation requires as much esthetic sense as linguistic facility. She recently issued her own translation of Lao Tzu (she does not read Chinese), and has now brought forth not only the largest collection of Mistral’s work ever available in English, but a translation of great beauty, filled with the sensitivity to subtleties of human experience that we have come to expect in her own novels and poems.

Any translation is the creative work of at least two people. The key to a successful translation is to convey as much of the original writer’s meaning as possible without the translator’s own creative personality burning through. In this review I will attempt to convey a sense of how Le Guin approached her task compared to how others have translated Mistral.

There are four previous selections of Mistral’s work in English: a 1957 selection by Langston Hughes, a sizable block published in 1961 by Mistral’s literary executor Doris Dana, Maria Giachetti’s 1993 “Reader” that also includes some prose, and Christiane Kyle’s large-format illustrated edition of The Mothers’ Poems issued by Eastern Washington University Press in 1996. The latter has relatively few poems but is visually spectacular. These four have significant differences in selection and none is complete. Neither is Le Guin’s; with her characteristic directness she simply says that she was unable to translate some of the poems satisfactorily, so didn’t. Nonetheless, this is the largest collection now available in English.

How should a translator approach a poem? With respect, modesty and trepidation, one hopes. Yet excessive caution can drain the life out of a poem and convert it from inspirational art to a technician’s wordpile. We can be thankful that Le Guin knows how to balance respect with boldness, thereby filling the English words with the same earthy fire for which Mistral is known in Spanish. Consider how she handled The Foreigner, a poem that appears in all three of the previous major collections. Le Guin’s version in its entirety reads as follows:

“She chatters about her barbaric seas,
seaweeds and shores that nobody here knows.
She prays to a bodiless weightless god.
She looks so old she might die any moment.
She’s made our own garden alien to us,
planting cactus and saw-toothed grasses.
She breathes life from the desert wind,
and she has loved with a blanching passion
that she doesn’t talk about, and if she did
it would be like the map of another planet.
She’ll live among us eighty years
always as if she’d just arrived,
speaking her panting, whimpering tongue
that nobody can understand but animals.
And here among us, on some night
of fearful agony, with only her fate
for a pillow, she’ll die
a silent death, a foreign death.”

The word “seaweeds” is a good example of Le Guin’s esthetic sense leading her to the right poetic word, not just the right English word. The Spanish in this line is “algas,” which is a general word for algal plants. In theory the Spanish for seaweed should be “algas marinas,” yet in the context of the lines, “marinas” is clearly not necessary because the first two lines are all about seas and shores, thus “seaweeds and shores” is both accurate and poetically superior in English to what two of the other translators used: Giachetti’s “mystic algae and sands” (a strange combination in English: mystic algae?) and Dana’s “sands and algae unknown to me.” Hughes also had the good sense to use “seaweed,” though his line “God knows what seaweeds and God knows what sands” seems overcooked, since the “God knows” parts are not in the Spanish at all.

The very first line gives an idea of what poets do in translation. The poem begins “Habla con dejo... .” which translated literally, means “speaks in a slight accent” (Hughes version) or perhaps more precisely, speaks with an odd accent. Le Guin starts simply “She chatters,” which does not convey the meaning of “dejo” very accurately, yet in the context of the poem as a whole, fits very well, because this foreign woman is babbling away about all these strange things, and “chatters” also suggests that the sounds are less than understandable, much as an exotic parrot or monkey might sound.

Compare this to the technically purer but boring Hughes version or the Giachetti version “She speaks with abandonment” and Dana’s phantasmic excursion: “She speaks with the moisture of her barbarous seas still on her tongue,” far afield from the words of the original but poetically the most vivid. Le Guin has stopped at the edge of the revisionist abyss, Hughes never got close to it, Giachetti is off on an uninspiring side trail and Dana has leapt the abyss in one stride, in effect presenting her own images filtered through the original. Such is translation.

Le Guin does not always choose the word I would choose-for example, her “saw-toothed grasses” is milder than the “claw-like” grasses of Hughes or the dangerously active “clawing grasses” of Dana, which I like best because it fits with the idea of a strange, foreign, uncomfortable, possibly dangerous garden. Giachetti launches into “herbs that rustle in the wind like sails,” which does not convey the image of harsh difference that the original intends, as well as having a curious notion of herbs. I might have said “clutching grasses.” It is a question of what image the translator sees in the original and wants to retain.

Giachetti does hit exactly the right note with her “elvish animals” where Le Guin uses simply “animals,” Hughes “beasts” and Dana the technically accurate “little beasts.” The Spanish word “bestezuelas” clearly implies a diminutive, and the “elvish” provides both the size and the idea that maybe these little creatures are able to communicate in some way with humans a la Narnia, thus “elvish.”

This collection is not the complete poems of Mistral in English that we still await, but anyone who hungers for a broad selection of poetry from Latin America’s first Nobel laureate will find a consistently readable and poetically crisp array in Le Guin’s new translation.

Finally, one of Le Guin’s best poems, “For Gabriela Mistral,” appears in her own collection Sixty Odd, apparently inspired by her work on this translation. Sixty Odd is a fitting companion to her translation of Mistral.

The Risk of Reading

Our reading choices build our intellectual universe book by book, essay by essay, poem by poem. We who read are faced each day with choices about what, from the extraordinary delta of writing flowing past our islands, to pluck from the flow, set aside and (perhaps) read. How do we decide what is worth the risk of reading?

I use the word “risk” in its Vidalian sense: Gore Vidal has famously written that he only reads fiction by Nobel prize winners, thereby being assured that he will never read a bad book. This is the opportunity-cost approach to reading that brings the word “risk” to mind. We have only a limited number of hours in which to read. Some of that time is necessarily spent reading professional material which, although it may contain kernels or even nuggets necessary for our work, also contains enough mere dicta, the space-filling dreck and overstuffed furnishings of academe, that we don’t generally read it for pleasure or enlightenment.

We are increasingly expected to make no errors in our reading decisions, to avoid side channels and to read the “right” books, especially because we are all short of time. Sometimes these books, the ones “everybody” is reading, prove to be exceptionally good, for example Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Sometimes they leave us wondering “what was that all about?” I have a list of the latter that my lawyer would rather I not publish.

It is true that my own tastes are suspect. After all, I have said many times that Moby Dick is a brilliant story up to the point that whales enter the picture. I know some English professors who agree with me, but they have to pretend that they think the book is great because everyone knows that it is. How can you get tenure if you think Moby Dick is a turkey instead of a whale?

There is a peculiar lack of judgment, or perhaps a lack of willingness to judge, in what we hear of books. It is pretty rare to hear someone say that a book is awful, especially if received wisdom says otherwise. But what is a good book, really? A good book is a book that inspires you, that resonates with you, that conveys a message to you that is effective. What it does for a reviewer at the Times Review of Books, Toni Morrison or President Bush makes no difference.

There is one way to resolve the question of what to read when presented with the stacks of new books that tumble like so much clinker-lava into our mailboxes, doorways and work-spaces. Ignore them. Take a break from the new and return to the books that have made a difference for you in the past. These are the books that have always spoken with a clear voice, have such a rich weave that different threads are visible in each new reading, or seem to adjust their effect successfully when read under different conditions or in different settings.

Most of us have these books to which we return, year after year, when the latest stack looks a lot like slag, the nuggets are oppressed by excessive overburden (I dedicate that phrase to the memory of W. H. Auden, who loved mines and geologic terminology) and we need a refresher in every sense of the word. Thus I return to Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, the essays of John Jay Chapman, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Vidal, Asimov’s Foundation series and the mysteries of Arthur Upfield (yes, one can profit from reading mysteries many times, if they glow with setting and humanity as Upfield’s do).

The poetry of Carl Phillips (well-known), Cameron La Follette and Leonard Cirino (‘unknown’) and W.S. Merwin (ultra-famous) meets my needs at a similar level: it doesn’t matter which ones are the “best” or best-known. The nation’s most gifted poets are not necessarily like each other: I might enjoy the rushing surges of Reginald Shepherd one day and the delicate brush-notes of Ce Rosenow the next.

I also think Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1915 children’s story The Lost Prince ought to be considered a classic owing in part to a character called The Rat, and I have read Arthur Ransome’s young adult adventures many times.

Likewise, there are some very well-known and successful writers, e.g. Charles Simic and Ray Bradbury, whose work simply doesn’t reach me. So make your own decisions about my tastes. It is true that we need to emerge from our lexical wombs and try new things now and then, but if reading a book, no matter how Great or touted, results only in a yawn or a who-cares, we are not obligated to salute it.

I recently had occasion to evaluate a formal Great Books program for a college in another state, and the school proposing the program seemed to realize that in this whirling cloud of iPods, MySpace, cellular devices, Blackberries and other electronic shrubbery, they need to do something to make books interesting to students at all. To their credit, they realized that the canon, although mostly traditional, needed to have its windows opened to let some new air in.

What do we recommend to young readers? Too often it is what they “should” read rather what we ourselves actually like and find most enjoyable and enlightening, not just once, but over time. For that reason I don’t usually give young people books from the heavier or more ancient end of the spectrum (except maybe the Satyricon). I give copies of the things that I have the most passion about and that have made the most difference to me. I can’t sound genuinely enthusiastic about anything else.

When I have given a young person one of my own choices, I often find that yes, nineteen-year-olds can and do decouple from their electronic universe to read a good book. There is, of course, an element of self-selection and cherry-picking involved: I encounter few dullards because I choose to avoid them. Yet I was once a fraternity advisor and participated in a round of pass-the-bottle with young people who were largely in the middle and lower register of the academic production line, and some of them read books, too.

We who claim that writing is important too often assume that students’ lack of interest in course-related reading or books means that they are not interested in words in general. That is less true than we sometimes think. If we take the time to offer young people unusual reading choices that reflect our own passion for reading, we’d see that although the text may not be on their iWhatever, it may still catch the sparks that all young people have, and kindle from those sparks fires different from our own, but light, real light, all the same.

The Musical World of Shaun Davey

The works of Ireland’s Shaun Davey remain oddly unknown in the United States. The U.S. is in general a friendly venue for Celtic-themed music, where musicians such as Alasdair McIntyre and Bonnie Rideout can fill moderate houses and such spectacles as “Riverdance” can draw as well as any major performer. Why, then, is the superb music of Davey never heard except in odd snippets on radio shows such as Thistle and Shamrock?

The main problem is that Davey does not fiddle away his talent, if the expression may be excused, on little pieces and folksy songs. His talents, well-known in Ireland and the United Kingdom, are usually devoted to massive, distinctive works that involve acres of musicians or large blocks of time. In other words, not the kind of music that crosses the Atlantic with a couple of flutes and a harp for a road show. To a great extent, Celtic music is perceived as coterminous with folk music, outliers such as H. H. Hardy excepted (and not often played, either). It is as though the whole notion of an Irish (or Scottish) composer (of anything but “folk songs”) is unnatural.

Consider Shaun Davey’s major works to date. The ones with which I am most familiar are the splendid song cycle “Granuaile,” (1985) about the unorthodox life of Irish seafarer Grace O'Malley, “The Relief of Derry Symphony,” (1990) the set of collated historical songs collectively know as “The Pilgrim” (1983, CD 1994) and the historical setting “The Brendan Voyage” (1980). He has also written extensively for television programs in Europe.

The Brendan Voyage can be thought of as a musical companion volume to Tim Severin’s remarkable 1978 book of the same name. The composer credits this book as inspiring him to write the piece, which is in essence a concerto for Uilleann pipes and orchestra. The book describes Severin’s efforts (ultimately successful) to build and sail a replica of Saint Brendan’s leather boat hypothesized to have sailed from Ireland to the New World around 500 A.D. Davey’s suite, my least favorite among his works, is nonetheless a lush, powerful musical translation of the storms and joys of a small-boat passage across the North Atlantic. Wilder than Debussy’s La Mer, it is full of the swirls and crashes of the northern ocean.

The Relief of Derry symphony represents another historic event, though one that can be authenticated with more precision: the siege of Derry in northern Ireland in 1689, in which the city, defended by the Protestant army of William of Orange against an attack by the Catholic army of James II, held out in the face of starvation until a fleet of ships finally broke throught and saved the city. Stated musically, it is a stunning achievement.

“Relief” begins with a clear trumpet solo and duet with light orchestral support, reminiscent of Tim Morrison’s pure ascendants in James Horner’s score for the movie “Apollo 13.” It then moves into what amounts to a musical recollection of the movement of two armies and the closure of the city, emphasized by the arrival literally from offstage of a pipe band. When the piece was premiered in Derry (it was commissioned by the city for the 300th anniversary of the siege), this band actually arrived from outside the building, and this “they are coming” effect is apparent and effective even on the recording. The closure of the city gates is followed by a period of orchestral blaring and rumbling to represent the ensuing bombardment and siege, which killed an estimated 15,000 people.

It is in the closing segments that “Relief” rises to the level of a masterpiece. First, there is a lovely song called “The White Horse,” sung on the recording by Rita Connolly, which represents the image said to be visible over the city at the height of the siege. This song is a blend of plea and lament for the city’s suffering people, as simple and perfectly imagined as possible. Rising even above this plane, the orchestra drifts into a period of quiet, then the wind changes, and with it, the city’s fortunes.

The arrival of the relief ships, which catch the rising wind and force their way through a boom to reach the city, is represented by steady, increasing surges in the rhythm of the piece, culminating in a glorious ascending theme topped by the ringing of the city’s bells. The piece closes with a quiet concluding air, said by the composer to represent the city’s thanks for deliverance and, at the same time, a wish for peace in modern times.

“Granuaile” is Davey’s song cycle built around the life of one person. The Pilgrim is built around the life of an idea: the early Christian missionaries, for lack of a better term, working within and emanating from the Celtic lands in the early centuries after Christ. It is a rather loose assemblage of twenty-two related pieces, some of which are a little too rambling but several of which are astonishing in their power and grace. Of the latter, I especially like the haunting “Iona,” the amiable roar of “Ymadawiad Arthur,” “Samson Peccator Episcopus” and the concluding sequence, which features the lush purity of Rita Connolly singing “The Deer’s Cry” (imagine a priest alone, sailing in a small ship to a faraway land) and finally the glorious sprawl of “A’Ghrian,” again featuring Connolly but including the entire musical force.

It is the sheer size of the forces required and the unique requirements of the music (The Pilgrim features songs in both modern and historical Celtic languages, and most singers are not trained in Old Cornish) that contribute to the lack of performances in the United States, yet I suspect that “Granuaile” and “Relief of Derry” would be relatively easy to stage, since they require no special forces other than pipes, which are not rare. “Pilgrim” is easily disassembled into a “selections from,” in fact the recordings involve only half of what was actually performed at the Lorient Festival in 1983. The same is true of “Brendan,” though it is less musically interesting.

I hope that the music of Shaun Davey finds and keeps a larger international audience, which it deserves.

Let Today's Children Explore

Most days at lunch, I hear cell phones go off, or see middle-aged moms dialing in near-desperation to reach their teenage children. These children are not in Darfur or in the path of a tornado, they are nine blocks away at the high school or grocery store. The children also call their parents, though they usually call their friends first.

When did this desperate desire for constant contact develop, and why? It is surely true that security is on people’s minds these days, but the amount of hourly contact between parents and children seems absurdly high. Perhaps it is unreasonable to single out parents, since teenagers have always been phone-happy with each other. Yet it is the claustrophobic embrace of parents that limits children from developing their own judgment.

I know a family in which the only child, seventeen at the time, once ran six miles home—uphill—to ask his father to come help him change a tire rather than figure it out himself or ask anyone in the small, friendly town where the car had its flat. Even today his parents, accomplished professionals, stick to him like remoras in the apparent absence of lives of their own, though at 21 he has now held a number of interesting summer jobs elsewhere in the country and indeed the world.

How did children get so dependent on their parents in today’s society? When I look back into history, I see a different model. I see Robert Ridgway.

Remembered today as one of North America’s preeminent ornithologists from the late 1800s until his death in 1929, Ridgway had corresponded as a boy with naturalists in the biological survey in Washington. He was eventually offered a spot with one of the major natural history research expeditions to the west.

These surveys were sometimes formally associated with commercial needs, indeed, one of the greatest sets of reports from such expeditions is incongruously titled “Pacific Railroad Reports.” Of course, today in Texas the oil and gas industry is regulated by a body called the Railroad Commission, so nomenclatural peculiarity may not have changed much.

Ridgway went west with the expedition in 1867 and spent almost two years collecting specimens and living detached from towns. He was sixteen years old when he left for the west.

If today’s parents allowed their teenage child to go off into a wilderness for two years with a group of people largely unknown, the child would be forcibly removed into state custody, stuffed into a lavender-scented suburban home, and the parents would be charged with a crime. The child would learn nothing except not to trust the government, which I concede is a good start in life.

The argument that today’s world is more dangerous is simply erased by the example of Ridgway. More dangerous than traveling across the Rockies and into the deserts of the interior west on foot and by horse in 1867? That is not a remotely credible assertion. What are the dangers between home and the grocery store? Sure, drugs are fairly easy to come by, but constant parental phone calls will hardly stop that. I have a good friend, a lawyer, who is the very avatar of the hovering mom, and her daughter is a heroin addict today despite all the contact imaginable.

If I may be permitted an example of childhood exploration from the world of fiction, consider We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea (1937), arguably the best novel by Britain’s Arthur Ransome. Owing to a series of perfectly plausible misfortunes, four children, the oldest perhaps 14, are on board a small sailing vessel when it parts company with its anchor in the harbor and drifts out to sea in a fog. From that point on, the children, who have some experience sailing small boats, have to figure out how to stay alive while blowing across the North Sea under poor conditions. They can’t call for help, they just have to figure it out.

Gary Paulsen’s excellent Voyage of the Frog has a somewhat similar scenario involving one boy and one small boat. Paulsen thinks that young people today can rise to the occasion when necessary—indeed he specializes in this kind of literature—but Frog was published in 1989, when cell phones were less ubiquitous. I wonder how he would deal with today’s always-in-touch modes of living? I suspect through the simple expedient of dropping the cell phone overboard; the ocean is a good venue for stories that require something to disappear beyond recovery. Of course, figuring out how to break a hypothetical 2007 Frog’s built-in GPS and homing signal would take more ingenuity.

What we really have today is a change in expectations of young people’s growth and independence of thought and judgment. As a society, we don’t have any broadly-pursued expectations that make sense; what we have instead is a strange mixture and no norms. We have foie-gras parents whose idea of child-raising is to force-feed their child year after year on an oppressive diet of parent-supervised Good Activities, while never really knowing what their child’s interests are and never allowing the child much room or time for spontaneous exploring in new directions.

We have car-key parents who think a car for the kid solves everything. What it does is change the parents’ worries from time-pressure based on constantly lugging little Jane all over town to phone-pressure: “Jane, where are you right now? Are you ok?” We have indetectable parents, of the kind who didn’t know that their drunken sixteen-year-old was trying to kick in my door at 2:15 one Sunday morning. We of course have some parents who truly raise their children and pay attention to their need for growth in experience and judgment.

Judgment is the key. How is a teenager supposed to learn judgment without ever being allowed to exercise any? We have to allow children to make mistakes. How are teenagers who never have wine with dinner at home going to develop an understanding of what alcohol actually does (until they are off somewhere with their new car keys)?

I have a nineteen-year-old friend who has been rock climbing and going into serious wilderness with his peers for many years, and they have developed their judgment through experience. Last year they wisely aborted a plan to summit Mt. Rainier (having climbed most of the way up) because they could tell from experience that conditions were going to get worse.

This experience of how life really works and how the world really is needs to start before children suddenly go halfway across the country to college, or join the army, or sign up for the summer on an Alaskan trawler. Children need to be encouraged to explore the world in all its glory and strangeness early in life, bumping into objects and falling over experiences, so that their judgment is already a sturdy sapling when they suddenly face the winds of independent adulthood.