Townes

Townes

Spending a lot of time with this old friend the last few weeks.

The Problem of Community Colleges

I recently came across this 2004 study by the Alabama Policy Institute that examines the cost of remedial education to businesses and institutions of higher learning.  (Here’s a link to the pdf)  I was particularly struck by the statistics related to students at Alabama community colleges.  I think a quick note is in order here as it concerns community colleges within the state.  My understanding is that the community college system in the state of Alabama was designed for a few purposes.  First, it was designed for adults seeking to switch careers or those needing to take some college classes without moving their families to the campus of a four-year school.  Second, the community colleges existed to provide job training and certification for blue-collar jobs that had seen a certain level of technological advancement.  I think it is fair to say that the current use of community college – a time to get “core” classes out of the way before jumping to a four year school – was not the original intention of the institutions.  Even if it were, my argument is that in Alabama today, students who attend community colleges are more likely to get a watered down education.

According to the API study, roughly 42 percent of all students who enter community colleges nationwide take a remedial class.  That figure in Alabama is on target, with our state seeing only a slight increase to 44 percent.  Keep in mind that this number applies to incoming freshman.  It does not include adults returning to school later in life. This in itself should give pause to educators, parents and students who see community colleges – either in Alabama or nationwide – as a viable option.  For those students who graduate from high school with high grades (A/B honor roll) and easy passage of state graduation exams, community college should be viewed as a last resort only.  The study suggests that even non-remedial courses may have been watered down to accommodate students.  The study notes one math instructor who mentions an algebra class being broken into two semesters so as to make it easier on the students.  I suggest that with this fact in mind, solid students who have a general idea of what they want to do with school should not be in classes were nearly half of their classmates – on average – were unprepared for college-level work.

That leaves us with two primary concerns.  First, what about those students who need remedial work in four-year colleges and universities?  Second, and very pertinent in our current economy, what about the cheaper cost of the community college?

Both are important points that I plan to answer in upcoming posts.

Thoughts on Tiger Woods.

Now that the Master’s is here – one of the most glorious weekends in all of sports – I thought I would offer a few thoughts on the sad Tiger Woods story.  Here are some initial thoughts, and I will continue to follow up on this in the next few days.

Concerning the Tiger Woods debacle, it seems that Christians can view the issue from one of three perspectives.
Option number one is to cling primarily to the matter of addiction.  What Woods did was the result of addiction, a psycho-sexual impulse so deep within him that was powerless to control his sexual activity.  This option is indistinguishable from the defense used by alcoholics and drug and gambling addicts – that the addiction is so pervasive that the perpetrator is not even aware that what he is doing is wrong.  There is no choice – there is only deeply ingrained compulsion, and you are powerless to stop it.  The obvious problem here is that this option appears to absolve the perpetrator of any guilt or wrongdoing.  Judging by what I have heard on talk radio and television, our culture – while often quite squishy when it comes to moral matters – is boldly rejecting this claim on the part of Tiger Woods.

Option number two is a step away from addiction but it still holds something in common.  In this case, the perpetrator knows that he should do certain acts, but finds that despite his better judgment, he engages in them anyway.  We might call this Freshman Girl syndrome, wherein a young lady who knows she ought not to drink so much on Friday nights – and she tells her friends as much as on Friday afternoons – consistently goes on to indulge herself and is forced to live with the messy consequences.  This option is quite similar to option one, but the differences hinge upon the acknowledgement that the action in question is, indeed, an act that one should avoid committing.  This option is precarious, because it can very quickly drift back to option one, or it can move on to the very popular option three.

I consider option three to the most repeated comment in the discussion over public scandal, whether Tiger Woods is that the center or not.  In this case, the perpetrator makes zero excuses for the behavior and instead takes full responsibility for his actions and their consequences.  There are no comments to be made about addiction or stress relief or bad childhoods or missing fathers.  Instead, the guilty party steps forward to state that he, and he alone, is to blame, and – this part is always present – he or she will work tirelessly to correct the mistake.  This option is most prevalent in the debate surrounding Tiger Woods.  It is plainly obvious that people do not want any of Woods’ explanation; they simply want him to acknowledge his wrongdoing and fix the problem.  As best as I can tell, this option is the one that Christians drift towards most frequently.

The reason people find option number three so persuasive is because many people – myself often included – have grown weary of living in a culture where people rarely own up to the responsibility for their actions.  It is all too common to hear public figures duck and dodge their way out of a situation, suggesting that they might have done something, and if, maybe, they have, then they are sorry to have hurt someone’s feelings.  This is a far thing from honesty, and we are right to be repulsed by it.  Nevertheless, I am very uncomfortable with demanding this third option from public figures who have fallen into public sin, because this third option results, in theological terms, in a high anthropology and a low Christology.  In other words, when we choose option three, we often find ourselves with a low view of Christ and a very high view of ourselves.  In my next post, I will explain how this works.

Conservative Media

Here are some thoughts on Glenn Beck and the new conservative media.

You will notice a comment I left in the thread below.  I won’t mince words except to say that as a conservative – a deeply committed, unapologetic conservative – I have a visceral disdain for the conservative media.

What is my problem?  Conservatives have fallen victim to the same thesis that Mark Noll developed in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, where we favor passion and energy over thought and reason.  I have a shelf next to me full of books by William F. Buckley, Jr. and it pains me – I mean it makes my head and stomach hurt – to think of how our movement has squandered his legacy.  The dear man has been dead just two years and we have somehow devolved to looking up to a loon like Glenn Beck and a jerk like Mark Levin.  Of course I know that WFB once famously called Gore Vidal a “queer” and threatened to sock him in the “goddam nose.”  But Buckley never told someone they should kill themselves as Levin did.  And Beck speaks for himself.

Here’s the thing, and I’ll unpack this more as time permits:  Limited government is good.  Free market economics are good.  A strong, though often restrained foreign policy, is good.  Social conservatism is good.  But our spokesman are, with limited exceptions, a joke.  I’ll take Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and of course David Brooks and George Will.  But the rest?  Let them go.   They are an embarrassment.

Michael Spencer, R.I.P.

Michael Spencer has died.


He died on Monday night, a day after we Christians greeted the happy morning whereupon our Lord Jesus Christ conquered hell and the grave.  Michael is no longer singing words in a sanctuary.  He is there existentially and metaphysically in the resurrection, going forth with joy like a calf from its stall.  I envy him.

In the fall of 2004, Alabama football was floundering around with a child as its head coach, John Kerry was trying to convince America he could be President (eventually we would do worse), and I was twiddling my thumbs at a law office.  I was also bored out of my mind – listening to the same records on repeat, watching Simpsons reruns over and over and going to bed at nine pm on Friday night just to avoid the boredom.  I was also on the verge of quitting church and winging it on my own, just me and my own comfortable notion of a Jesus who cared very little for what I thought or how I acted.

I was tired of a falsely emotional Christianity.  I was sick of legalism and anti-intellectualism.  Catholicism actually sounded really good to me but I never came close to pulling the trigger.  And one day – I have no idea how – I came across the Internet Monk site while pretending that I was working at my desk in the law office.  Here was a guy, like me a Southern Baptist, asking questions and saying the things that I had always wondered about deep down.  I will not belabor the point by recounting the million different ways that Michael’s writing encapsulated my own needs.  But it did.  It was a collection of words and essays that simply changed my life.  I thank God for it, for him and for the fact that Michael pointed me towards Luther and Robert Farrar Capon and John Piper and Brennan Manning and Mark Driscoll and Eugene Peterson and a wild assortment of pastors and theologians who disagree with each other and with me but who understand – as sure the sun will come up tomorrow – that Christ has died and has risen and his great offer to me is unconditional love and grace and mercy and pardon.

That was the word I needed in a dark hour, and it was the word I heard.  I was and remain a miserable offender, but thanks be to God for a humble, flawed man in rural Kentucky who had something to say and said it loudly for thousands of us in the wilderness who needed his voice.  Michael once railed against what he called wretched urgency but he knew how urgent the Gospel is – that we must hear and hear now the good news that we are dying and dying soon but that Jesus the God-man has died already so that we might yet live.

Something Is Wrong

A lot of bloggers I like and respect have been playing the Ten Books game lately, wherein they try to lay out ten books that have deeply influenced the way they view the world.  For a quick example, see these lists by Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Rod Dreher of the Templeton Foundation.

I’ve been working on a list, and I hope to share it in the coming days.  For now, let me talk about two books that made the list and how they connect with two of my favorite rock bands and, timely enough, Easter.  For the book lists, I’m still thinking things through, but I know that I will have to include at least two novels:  The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.  Both novels are set in roughly the same time period – post-World War II America – and they both do a fine job of capturing something of the existential angst that comes with living in a time of great change.  Of course they are quite different, as well.  Salinger sets his teenage protaganist loose in New York City for a weekend of cheerfully foul-mouthed hedonism.  Percy’s Binx Bolling is a grown man in New Orleans.  Each character carries great weight upon their shoulders.  Holden Caufield carries the weight – how we forget this! – of being simply a teenage boy.  Bolling, like all self-aware Southerners, carries the heavy weight of the past upon him; his family, his region and his religion.  The novels, though, are also united in their pervasive theme that something is deeply, terribly wrong with the world.

That is what keeps me coming back to both books.  They grasp – for different reasons, mind you – that we live in a world where things are not right.  Something is tragically amiss.  Percy hits this theme over and over again, and The Moviegoer may not even be his best job (see Love in the Ruins).  I can’t fully explain why this makes sense to me in art, but in poetry, novels, movies and rock music I find myself continually drawn to expressions that bludgeon us with the fact that our world is deeply troubled.  Of course we all know things aren’t right – there is sadness and sickness and sorrow.  But it seems more pervasive at times to note that we are caught in the middle of something.  Please understand that I am not making cause with Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche, those philosophers of death and mayhem.  But I note that it is merely human to grasp that the world has gone off its rails.  And we know this took place many years ago – but sometimes it seems so fresh.

Exhibit A:  The Arcade Fire, a marvelous Canadian band, and their marvelous song Intervention.  This bombastic, anthemic music that exults in the mass confusion of our present age.  It is almost Nietzschean in its triumph over the tumult.

Who hasn’t related to the creepy (yet beautiful) refrain:

I can taste your fear

Pick me up and take me out of here…

 

Here is another of my latest obesssions.  The band is called The National, from Brooklyn.  The song, one of their best and only a few years old, is entitled Fake Empire.

The video is unofficial, by the way, but works well with the song.  There are, of course, some leftwing political overtones, but even a staunch conservative such as myself can appreciate the sentiment – we are sleepwalking through life.  We’re half awake, and this – this empire, this life, this world we have constructed – isn’t real.  And how appropriate that on Holy Week we should look at ourselves and see that we are indeed half awake.  That we are like Walker Percy’s moviegoer, wasting away in a lonely theatre.  There is no hope.

But there is hope – there is hope on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter morning.  Let us find comfort in the words Christ on the Cross.  It is finished.  Our wondering.  Our wandering.  Our search.  It is all over.  It is all consumated in the death and resurrection of the Son of God.   Thinking back to the novels, Salinger may – it is debatable – have missed the point.  Percy, the Catholic, understood the confusion is only solved in Christ.  Our lives are indeed puzzle pieces, but on from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, like the final frantic moments of a great mystery, the pieces are put together.

Thanks be to God.

A Violent, Terrible Grace

It seems that we long desperately for grace to be on our own terms – kind and gentle, similar to what we find in the writings of Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning.  And it often is!  But there are times when grace is clouded.  No one who lived in the moment of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus would say that was grace, but when given new eyes to see and new ears to hear Paul would look back and see that the violent encounter was, in fact, the mighty grace of God.  Same thing with all of these stories from Flannery O’Connor.  I see that a little in Dostoyevsky, too…maybe Walker Percy.  Now in truth I’d much prefer that grace be revealed to me in a gentle way, but in our fallen state, some times God must speak to us – work in ways we cannot see – by shouting.

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