Friday, July 28, 2006

The Importance of Parenting

I enjoy reading the contributions of National Review Online writers posted at "The Corner." Most of the time, when they are not being facetious or mischievous, their comments on the news of the day are not only interesting but insightful, and decidedly from a conservative outlook. Yet, because they are a mix of characters and viewpoints, they comprise a spectrum of philosophical viewpoints. All may be conservative but they are of all stripes within that broad label.

Over the past few days, columnist John Derbyshire has been on his high horse on the subject of parenting. The 30-year-old daughter of a friend of his committed suicide, apparently as a result of her beyond-stressful relationship with her "ne’er-do-well" husband, a drug addict. Derbyshire opined that another friend's advice—never let your daughter date, much less marry, a loser—is of paramount importance to a parent to help her to avoid a hard and bitter life. So far, so good.

Evidently, this situation started Derbyshire thinking about the influence parents actually have over their children—specifically, how significant parenting practices are in determining the success of children in later life. He concluded in a later post, ". . . parental influence is less than we all think, or wish." As proof, he cites social statistics he has discovered in his research:

Your life outcomes are determined 45-50 percent by genetics, 45-50 percent by outside-the-home socialization (which is affected by parental decisions about housing, schooling, etc.), 0-10 percent by in-home socialization (=parenting). That's what the evidence tells us, as I read it. Parenting has been WAY over-sold.

He particularly excoriates Freudian psychology for overselling parenting, as Freud thought that all psychoses could ultimately be traced back to the patient's relationships with his parents. Derbyshire posits that Freud's ideas have evolved into our present-day hyper-parenting, in which parents hover over their children, exhaustively schedule their lives, and go above-and-beyond to provide them with their hearts' desires. In this, he is probably correct.

Later, when criticized by another Corner pundit for his apparently contradictory parenting practices, Derbyshire responded: "Since I've made it clear that I'm working hard at parenting myself, why am I, if it makes so little difference? Possibly no difference at all? Well, because in a competitive society, even a little difference counts, and I want my kids to do well." In other words, since his influence will amount anywhere from zero to a paltry ten percent, he will make the best use of his meager slice of the pie.

Before considering his argument any further, one vital piece of information must be brought forward: John Derbyshire is a diehard evolutionist and at least an agnostic, perhaps an atheist. As the psalmist writes, "God is in none of his thoughts" (Psalm 10:4). Any advice from mankind's Creator would not necessarily be welcome. I can almost hear him say, "Let's not drag the Bible into this. I'm talking about the real world."

For the rest of us who do believe in a loving Father in heaven, what is the truth about the importance of parents and their doing as good a job as possible in fulfilling their responsibilities? The Bible devotes a great deal of space to the parent-child relationship, both in terms of examples and instruction. In fact, we could assert that the entire Bible, being God's instruction manual for mankind, is all about God rearing His children! He gives good examples (Abraham, Joseph and Mary) and bad examples (too many to mention) among humans; offers sage advice through Solomon, Paul, and others; and patiently illustrates and explains His own methods "in bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10; see Romans 8:29). The Bible is this era's "This is the way; walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21) for rearing godly offspring to God (II Corinthians 6:18).

Therefore, it is obvious that God places a high priority on parenting. Of course, He is most interested in how a parent affects the spiritual outcome of a child's life, and is not as much concerned with how a parent shapes the child's material and economic fortunes, as is Derbyshire. While proper, godly parenting does not guarantee financial success in life, it does promote lifelong principles that can lead to wealth, position, and prestige. God, we can see, puts first things first, while Derbyshire skips straight to secondary matters, imperiling the whole program.

Of course, this points straight to Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it." This verse has been sliced and diced every which way by preachers and parents for three thousand years, but no matter how it is viewed, the simplest meaning provides the foundation of a parent's responsibility: 1) A child must be actively trained. 2) The parent must aim his training toward a specific, desired result. 3) His early training will remain with him throughout his life. This verse, as simple as it is, exerts a great amount of pressure on the parent to be diligent, thoughtful, farsighted, and godly. Parenting is no walk in the park!

In the New Testament, Paul's concise instruction in Ephesians 6:4 perhaps acts as the foundation of Christian childrearing: "And you, fathers [parents], do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." In its essentials, the apostle's advice centers on understanding the child and his limits, particularly emotional ones, and on using God's wise instruction as a guide. Paul's teaching neatly complements Solomon's proverb, placing gentle boundaries on the parent's zeal and providing the substance for "the way he should go."

I am sorry to have to say it, but on this, John Derbyshire has fallen victim to the godless and dead-wrong ideas of this world. Sadly, it could not have happened on a more important subject for a person who seems to look no higher than humanity. At least he is trying to make the most of his ten percent.

Friday, July 21, 2006

What's in It for Us?

While in college, I took a yearlong course in International Relations under Gene Hogberg, news editor of The Plain Truth magazine. One of the primary ideas he hammered into his students is that an observer of the world scene must always remember that nations act out of self-interest. In other words, nations only do what will benefit them. It is a rare—indeed, almost unknown—thing for a nation to sacrifice its own well-being to help another nation. On the surface, the American interventions in the first two World Wars seem to be exceptions to this rule, but in both cases, America's entry into those conflicts occurred after careful calculus. The United States sacrificed a great deal in men and materiel in those wars but gained so much in international power and prestige that these sacrifices were considered by its leaders to be well worth it.

If a person has a firm grasp on this principle of self-interest and what a nation considers to be good for it, he can forecast with a fair degree of accuracy what a nation will do. For instance, had the Soviets been more astute in this area, they might have been able to hold out longer against the U.S., and perhaps against Ronald Reagan in particular, during the Cold War. Though the Kremlin may have had intelligence that Reagan was of a different stripe than his predecessors, it did not believe that he was considerably different. Specifically, he was different in that he was not satisfied with détente or containment but desired to defeat the U.S.S.R. so soundly that it could never recover. In short, America's national interests shifted once Reagan became President, and the Soviets missed it. Once they did, they had lost the Cold War.

In coming to understand the U.S. position in the latest Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, this principle of self-interest must hold a prominent position. Just what is America's interest in this war? What are its interests in the region? What does America hope to gain among its "peers" (Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, etc.) by its stance? These are not easy questions to answer, but considering them helps to clarify matters. Let us begin with a few corollary principles:

First, in determining national interests, actions speak louder than words. A raw, historical example of this is Adolf Hitler's 1938 "peace in our time!" agreement with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The agreement had come about as a result of Hitler's aggressive annexation of the Sudetenland, and any impartial observer should have seen that the German Chancellor would not be satisfied with just a small part of Czechoslovakia. It was well known—even on Downing Street and in Whitehall—that one of his chief aims for Germany was lebensraum: "living space." Nevertheless, Chamberlain believed Hitler's smooth promises, and Europe was plunged into World War II in 1939. Thus, smart observers of the world scene remember that diplomatic language is, frankly, 1) vague, polite speech designed to say nothing, or 2) bald-faced, but courteous deception.

Second, follow the money. National power cannot be maintained except by mass infusions of wealth. All wars—and probably just about all other national decisions—have economic justifications. Thomas Jefferson has a reputation, as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, as being a foremost defender of the U.S. Constitution and an advocate of limited federal government and states' rights. However, he was willing to throw his reputation to the winds to buy the territory of Louisiana from Napoleon for what was then a huge sum that the strained national treasury could not handle. His unilateral decision was made on almost purely economic grounds, as the Louisiana Purchase doubled U.S. territory and increased its potential wealth exponentially. It was in America's interests, the Constitution be hanged. Today, oil plays a premier role in Middle Eastern geopolitics, as the whole world runs on the stuff.

Third, a balance of powers provides more advantages than unequal powers. As an interested geographically contiguous nation, Britain played this game in Europe for centuries. If the French became stronger than its neighbors, the British would ally themselves to the weaker nations to keep France in check. If the Spanish gained hegemony, Britain would align itself with Spain's enemies. If Germany ascended to greatness, Britain supported those opposed to the Germans. Though it appears complex diplomatically and militarily, this balancing act provided Europe with a fair amount of stability—at least enough to keep one power from becoming dominant and thus imposing its will on the others. For Britain, it opened marketplaces to its businessmen and helped it become a world-spanning empire. The U.S. is playing similar games today as the world's lone superpower. In this vein, remember the old axiom: War is just politics by other means.

So, then, what is America interested in vis-à-vis the current crisis in the Middle East?

My take is that the White House welcomes this war and supports Israel for several reasons:

  1. It does not mind if Hezbollah, an arm of Iran, is mauled, as this is a way to strike back at the ayatollahs for their recent belligerence.
  2. It wants Israel to be slightly dominant in the region to counter the nearby Arab nations, taking some of the weight off America's military.
  3. It actually welcomes the instability this conflict causes because it takes pressure off its operations in Iraq and some of its domestic problems.
  4. It knows that because the region's turbulence continues, its presence will be necessary for many years, ensuring America's access to Middle Eastern oil.

Internationally, it is willing to take some diplomatic heat for being slow to intervene in order to drive the point home that the Bush administration's methods of handling situations like these (methods that the Israelis also employ) work. Put negatively, the U.S. is sticking its finger in the international community's eye (specifically, the UN's).

This analysis may be all wet, but it is considered under these principles. What God may have in mind may be altogether different (Psalm 2:4-5; Isaiah 40:15-17, 22-23; 48:3).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Why We Homeschool

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Back in the early years of the homeschooling phenomenon, its advocates were largely tie-dyed, granola-munching, back-to-nature, hippie types whose primary goal was to disassociate from just about everything manmade, and certainly from Establishment institutions like the public schools. They fought running battles with local and state governments for the right to teach their children themselves, and—to give them credit where it is due—they had patchy success, especially in more progressive states like California. It is no wonder that homeschooling has the reputation, even today in some quarters, as being a far-out, counter-cultural movement.

However, somewhere about the time of the Reagan Revolution, homeschooling dramatically switched its poles, shifting from a leftist movement to a rightist one. A growing number of religious and social conservatives, frustrated with both the iron grip of liberals (read: teachers' unions and school district administrations) on the country's educational system and the cultural mayhem rising in the public schools, opted to take on the additional burden of teaching their children at home. The movement has grown far beyond anything its pioneers ever imagined.

And a burden it can be. Homeschool parents pay the same taxes for the public schools as everyone else, plus they take on the additional expenses of books, fees, supplies, and miscellaneous costs associated with education. This amounts to hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year, depending on how ambitious they decide to be. A math, science, or history textbook may cost upwards of $50, and the family must still buy teacher's guides and answer keys, and for science, microscopes, test tubes, specimens, etc. There are further outlays of cash if the child desires to participate in any extracurricular activities: art, music, or sports, activities that are usually subsidized in public schools. In addition, foreign language classes—or for that matter, any outside instruction beyond the abilities of the parents—can cost the proverbial arm and/or leg. It must also be factored in that homeschool families must function on only one salary, since one of the parents must stay at home to teach.

Beyond these expenses, it is a burden of time and energy. Homeschooling is a full-time occupation in itself. Not only is there one-on-one instruction, but there are additional activities like lesson-planning, reviewing, testing, grading, experimenting (science again), reading (lots of reading—to stay ahead of the kids!), and taking the students to this, that, and the other class. It is a blessing that, as the student ages, he is able to do a great deal more on his own and with only minimal oversight. Otherwise, the homeschool parent would simply burn out.

At this point, many a reader is probably saying to himself, "Why do it, then?" Despite the fact that homeschooling is not for the faint of heart, its rewards far outweigh the efforts.

Homeschoolers benefit both by what they avoid and by what they receive. Because they are able to assemble their own curriculum, they can steer clear of distasteful and objectionable subjects. For instance, they can (or not) study the theory of evolution in a more balanced way, comparing it with biblical creation and Intelligent Design and emphasizing their preferred understanding. Further, they can replace the oftentimes horribly inappropriate sex-education teaching with a better alternative. They can also avoid humanistic, socialistic, multicultural, and postmodern ideas that have been integrated into textbooks, teaching aids, and lesson plans by teachers, teachers' unions, and school districts. Besides these, they do not have to deal with power-obsessed administrators, holier-than-thou counselors, know-it-all teachers, and scores of undisciplined, Ritalin-candidate students—not to mention a load of perverse cultural influences.

On the flipside, those who homeschool are compensated, though not monetarily, far more than most people who have never tried it realize:

  • For starters, the family becomes very close. This may seem paradoxical to those who think spending several hours each day in the near vicinity of their children would drive them to drink. Yet, the time and the shared activities and understanding bind parents and children tightly together, bridging the "generation gap" to a great degree.
  • Done well, homeschooling teaches children more thoroughly than public schools do. This comes as a result of more one-on-one instruction and the ability to study a subject in depth. Public school children waste a great deal of time in meaningless activities during school hours (and in their commute to and from school), but at home, a well-organized, disciplined child uses this extra time to read or to pursue an interest spurred by his study. What is more, he still usually finishes his school day earlier than his neighbor who attends a local school!
  • A homeschooled child also has a wider variety of subject fields to study than his public-school counterpart. While the public school has a set curriculum and a handful of elective courses, homeschoolers are limited only by time, money, and their communities' offerings. However, with the Internet and easy, fast transportation, they can pursue even exotic topics relatively effortlessly. Whether it is learning Sanskrit, investigating Central American archeology, or studying Australia's marsupials, homeschoolers have the freedom to explore these individual interests.

Nevertheless, homeschooling is not for everyone. Some parents just do not have the inclination or the patience required to do it well. However, it is worth serious consideration for all Christians who desire to minimize the world's influence on their children. God gives to parents the primary responsibility for educating their children, not to worldly schools: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6), and ". . . bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Homeschooling is a way to be far more involved in our children's growth into godly, mature adults.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Evaluating Culture

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In listening to a series of 48 lectures by University of California at Berkeley Professor Robert Greenberg titled "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" (one of the Great Courses offered by The Teaching Company), I have come to a greater realization of the evolving tastes among consumers of Western music. We ignorantly call all orchestral music "classical," when in fact there are a handful of long periods in which such music took quite different forms, for instance, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. It does not take a specially trained ear to distinguish the differences between works from these periods. A Bach fugue sounds nothing like a Chopin mazurka.

As one would expect, between eras were transition periods of varying lengths due to the fact that audiences took time to accept new forms. Younger composers, feeling constrained by the strictures of their elders, experimented with new, then-cutting-edge musical styles, and when their works premiered, the critics and most of their audiences were aghast at their progressive, offensive music. Such was the reaction to what are now much-loved favorites as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Berlioz's First Symphony (Fantastíque), and Brahms' First Symphony. These three masters were criticized roundly for their "grotesque" and "incomprehensible" themes. Even the universally admired Haydn incurred the wrath of the public and critics when his "Surprise" Symphony was too startling for his audience. To us, the "surprise" is just a loud, sudden chord, but to the audience of his day, it was as shocking as the jarring clatter of a jackhammer.

We would probably have a similar reaction at the cinema if we had bought a ticket to see Bambi, were comfortably ensconced in our seats, bag of popcorn and drink in hand, and suddenly were assaulted by the opening blare of a Star Wars movie. If our tastes had been trained to enjoy benign, pastoral, gentle films like Benji or Black Beauty, the dynamics and themes of a dramatic space adventure—not to mention the brassy music—would be jolting and uncomfortable. We might learn to enjoy it over time, but our initial reaction would be negative.

Literature has suffered similar periods of great change, in which venerable authors—from our point of view—broke new ground and faced vilification for it. Even today, Mark Twain is excoriated for his realistic portrayal of relations between whites and blacks in Huckleberry Finn. William Wordsworth's poetry was considered by some to be essentially unreadable when first published. Edgar Allen Poe's works, most of them macabre, were—in some cases, literally—on the bleeding-edge of acceptability during his lifetime. Several great works of literature (by esteemed authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, James Joyce, Daniel Defoe, Thomas Hardy, Voltaire—even Hans Christian Andersen!), thought to be tame by modern standards, were condemned as obscene when they first went on sale.

However, things changed drastically in the twentieth century, especially after World War I. Artistic standards began to stretch beyond the suggestive to the explicit, and not just in sexual terms. While there had always been composers, authors, and graphic artists who strayed into pornographic, occult, or other taboo areas, their works had remained essentially private, for society as a whole maintained respectable limits on what it considered to be proper. Yet, after the First World War, these limits began to crumble in one area after another until today, when anything goes. While society still uses ratings of one sort or another to inform the public about artistic content, there are few societal impediments to restrict either their creation or consumption. Really, how vigilant is the local theater in keeping young teens from seeing R-rated movies? Or the local merchant in keeping them from buying M-rated video games?

In the end, the answer to this problem of down-spiraling artistic and cultural standards is a spiritual one, of course. The prevalent philosophy in the Western world—one that has been dominant since at least the Enlightenment—is humanistic liberalism. This is the intersection of two major ideas: 1) that man is the center and height of all that is, and 2) all men should be free to do as their conscience dictates. From this, it is easy to trace a direct line to today's general consensus that there are no real absolutes, so each person is free to believe and do whatever satisfies him.

This obviously flies in the face of biblical morality. These two philosophies are incompatible, and thus the more pleasing to mankind's nature has become dominant, leaving God's standards behind as "outmoded," "archaic," and "unrealistic." Under humanistic liberalism, cultural standards exist on a sliding scale, depending on the tastes of the individual. In the end, this means that there are no standards.

To Christians, however, the exact opposite is true: We have a set of absolute, eternal standards, which are provided to us in the form of principles in God's Word. By them, we can judge artistic achievements on their true merits. In music, we can judge more accurately if a piece is uplifting, hopeful, harmonious, helpful, etc., applying the principles of the fruit of God's Spirit. We can judge literature by these same principles, plus those found in God's commandments. (And by the way, just because a piece of literature contains, say, a murder does not mean that it is immoral. We have to go beyond this to see how the work resolves the sinful act and the circumstances it causes. If we were to do otherwise, we would have to condemn the Bible itself, as it contains murders, adulteries, incest, lying, stealing, coveting—you name it!) These same standards can be applied to the graphic arts too.

Learning godly judgment is no easy thing. It is an acquired skill. But God has called us to learn how to judge righteously. As our Savior commands, "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24). How do we do this? Jesus answers, "My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (John 5:30). As we strengthen and deepen our relationship with God, our judgment of these cultural phenomena will improve—we will be able to discern what is truly classic.