Thoughts on Service and Honor

My Grandfather during WW2

My grandfather, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. (center), on a ruck march during the Second World War.

By virtue of education and occupation, I now spend a lot of time in a world that is a couple of social echelons above that of my childhood. In contrast to the blue-collar, middle-class environment that defined my neighborhood and public education, our son graduated from a private school where the annual tuition would be enough to buy a new car every year. He now attends an elite, Northern liberal arts college where the families of half the students can afford the $65,000 per year cost of attendance, out of pocket, without financial aid.

Over a decade of social overlap with members of the “one percent” has taught me more than a few lessons about class differences, and has occasionally made me self-conscious of our solidly middle-class income and home. Comments like, “Our nanny has an apartment that’s bigger than your whole house,” and “You don’t make enough money to understand why I vote Republican,” have had the cumulative effect of reminding me that our family’s definition of wealth and prosperity is out of step with the one used by wealthy elites. In fact, there have been moments of jarring collision between the working-class values that shaped me and the lives led by those in the upper class.

None stands in more stark relief for me than the Spring concert when our son was in elementary school. The auditorium, which could comfortably seat 300 people, was packed with parents and grandparents who listened intently as their cherubic progeny sang their hearts out. For the final performance, the music director asked everyone who had ever served in the military to stand. The school’s founder, a retired Navy Commander in his late eighties, was at the front, bracing the American flag. I stood, as did two other parents. One was a Coast Guard officer, the other an Army officer. I was was the only NCO.  The other two men were in or near their fifties, I was in my early thirties.

It was a vivid, visual reminder that the social tier that produces our political and cultural leaders is not the social tier that places its life on the line to defend the policies they put in place. Over 300 people – physicians, attorneys, politicians, academics, corporate executives – were gathered in that room. The question was asked who there had taken an oath to serve their country. Fewer than 1 percent stood, and only one of them was an enlisted person, a former soldier who was also the only one under fifty.

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

Larger samples of age and demographic data also support that anecdotal visual. This trend is reflected in the makeup of Congress, a statistic that likely includes very few former NCO’s or junior enlisted. The numbers also show that military service tends to run in families, as it does in mine (including my grandfather, a mustang who climbed from private to Lieutenant Colonel and served in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Increasingly, however, those are not the families that are casting the votes – in Congress or in the shareholder meetings that actually govern our country – that send us to war.

Wanting our leaders to have “skin in the game” is reason enough to encourage our elites to consider military service, but I don’t think it should be our primary motivation. Those with power will always have ways to keep their families out of harms way. I think the formative aspect of military service is a much better argument for military service among the ruling class.

Uncle Henry

My Great Uncle, TSgt Henry Clay Travis

Another anecdote from observing my son’s academic world is perhaps relevant here. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at our son’s top-notch school. A gifted professor was leading a spirited discussion on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a medieval text that, among other things, deals with the price of honor and loyalty to friends and family. The professor asked the students, “Is there such a thing as too much honor?” One student answered, “These days, probably. Then, no.” There were murmurs of assent from the other students in the class.

It occurred to me that the students, all of whom were obviously smart, thoughtful, and conscious of the many social and political nuances and relevancies of this 700-year-old text, are likely to choose careers where concepts like “honor” and “loyalty” are considered anachronisms. They are unlikely to enter career paths where commitment to integrity and an established code might mean life or death for themselves and for their comrades-in-arms. Whether a member of the military ever sees combat (and, unlike my grandfather, I never did), joining into the centuries of tradition that train our warfighters shapes us in ways that no other experience can. To a servicemember, there is no such thing as too much honor, and there is no price too high to pay for the sake of loyalty.

Aubrey Thompson Villines, Jr. - 2LT

My Uncle, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Jr., during Vietnam.

The military has a long, successful history of inculcating the importance of those archaic values. It carries forward other anachronisms too, like honoring the generations who preceded us, and respect for those who have earned their place of leadership or authority through diligence, skill, and sacrifice. My own understanding of leadership was shaped as much by knowing I could trust that my NCO’s and officers earned their place, and that they would put my needs above theirs, as it was by the sophisticated, formal leadership training I received. Having watched the world of elite education firsthand, I am deeply concerned that we are training our future leaders to begin at the top and only periodically peer down from there, a critique that William Deresiewicz articulates beautifully in his book Excellent Sheep. Military service, even for those who begin as officers without having been enlisted, teaches leadership from the bottom up. Living that out changed the way I understood my obligations and expectations as a leader in ways that I think are unique to the military.

That life also let me to shared experiences of collaboration and interdependence with people from the widest range of socio-economic backgrounds I have ever encountered in one place. As an enlisted person, I served alongside a (fellow enlisted) Harvard graduate with a law degree from Boston College, as well as a soldier from the swamps of Louisiana fresh out of high school. In Basic Training, I was one bunk over from a soldier from the south side of Chicago, and one bunk over from him was a guy who enlisted after finishing his Master’s at Tuskegee. In an era where our neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class and income, and where social mobility is, at best, stagnant, military service is a rare opportunity to actually work alongside people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Grandpa, Great-Great Grandpa, Barbara

My grandfather, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., newly graduated from OCS, stands with his grandfather, John Castner Villines, and his newborn daughter, Barbara.

“Alongside” is the key adverb there. Military service means knowing, trusting, and sacrificing for the person on either side of you, no matter how much or how little you might have in common. This is vastly different from the controlled, scripted opportunities for “cross-cultural understanding” or “community service” through which young elites are dutifully filtered before returning to their lives of privilege. I remember the moment in Basic Training when I realized that my strong academic skills and linguistic facility had absolutely zero likelihood of determining my success, and that I needed to rely on the people around me, people with far less experience with the skills that – until then – had defined “achievement” for me, to survive. When I was going through PLDC in the Okefenokee swamp in July, I didn’t care if the guy pouring his canteen of water over my head to stop me from puking had read Chaucer. I was just glad to know that if I needed him to, he would carry me out of that godforsaken swamp, or die trying.

We do our best to teach our future leaders that they should value everyone equally, but that equality takes on an entirely different dimension when you realize that the “value” of the person who is saving you from heat exhaustion has nothing to do with their level of education or tax bracket. Our next generation of leaders could benefit greatly from that kind of education.

If they are not going to get it through the military, then we need to have a serious discussion about where they might. There are millions of people for whom honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are not abstract concepts. Our future leaders should be among them.

Grandpa's Grave Marker

After presenting the Flag of the United States to my Grandma Sue, I stood, in uniform, at attention, on this spot in Lynchburg, Tennessee as my fellow soldier was finally laid to rest. I carried forward his watch, and others will succeed me.

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Let Students Use Their Laptops

Students and teacher using Microsoft Surface Pro

Surface Pro in the Classroom Source: Surface Blog

Dear Colleagues, Friends, and Fellow Teachers:

Please do not take arguments like this one too seriously.  They remind me of the classical Greek arguments against the dangers of literacy, that teaching people to read and write would impair their ability to memorize things.

Forcing students to take notes in a way that does not work for them does no one any favors. A better practice is to encourage students to be aware of the benefits of different methods for different learning styles, and try to accommodate as many different learning styles as possible. I let students record me if they are auditory, and I write bullet points on the whiteboard for students who are taking bulleted notes. I draw diagrams for the very visual.  I also talk about note-taking strategies with all of my lecture-heavy, survey-level classes, and recognize that part of my role is to teach them how to use the various tools that are available to them.  If I’m concerned that the presence of technology will inhibit discussion, I talk with students about strategies for using their preferred tech in ways that will aid rather than limit their ability to participate.

Just because studies show that on average people retain more by handwriting their notes, that does not mean that the technology of typing is flawed. It just means that the way some people use it may be ineffective.  A computer (or, even better, a tablet with keyboard and stylus) is vastly superior to pen and paper as a tool for organizing written information.  Students can quickly group ideas, correct content errors, flesh out earlier points, and correct for errors in their own (or the professor’s) organization and taxonomy.  They can bold things or color code them, and they can also hyperlink key points to web content.  They can easily back their notes up to the cloud, and review them on multiple devices.  Simply put, notes on a laptop are better-organized, cleaner, and more versatile.

Yes, some students will blindly transcribe your lecture without critically analyzing or organizing it, just as some students with pen and paper will write down random points without understanding the structure of your lecture.  Similarly, some students will instead surf Facebook, just as some students will doodle on a piece of paper instead of taking notes.  None of this is the fault of the tool.  The laptop (or full-featured tablet) is, plain-and-simple, as much of an improvement over paper as paper was over clay tablets.

Good students spend their whole academic careers learning the study and note-taking techniques that work best for them.  Do not handicap them because you don’t trust them to be able to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.

If someone asked me to handwrite notes for an hour, I doubt I could do it. I’m not sure the last time I hand-wrote a complete sentence.  Also, since I keep all my notes typed up and on a tablet, I think it would be a bit hypocritical to then deny my students access to technology because I don’t trust them to function as members of the twenty-first century.

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On the Banning of Books

Nazi Book Burning

Source: http://totallyhistory.com/nazi-book-burnings/

I mock and vilify all sorts of attitudes and behaviors here. I dislike unregulated capitalism (and I’m not terribly fond of the regulated kind). I have a low tolerance for people who confuse superstitious ignorance for religious faith. I am intolerant of those who allow bigotry and intentional ignorance to perpetuate the marginalization of people who live on the margins because of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

But the most deserving target of my pure, undiluted wrath are those pedantic and parochial morons who – because of the narrowness of their own pathetic, underfed, and feeble intellects – withhold books from those children who wish to read them.

And yes, I am looking at you, Randolph County, North Carolina.

I am also looking at you, “Parents Action League of Annoka-Hennepin

Shame on you all.

To quote José Martí:

Asesino alevoso, enemigo del pueblo, y digno del escarnio de todos los hombres es todo aquél que, con el pretexto de guiar a las generaciones futuras, les enseña un sistema aislado de doctrinas y les musita al oído, en lugar del mensaje dulce del amor, el evangelio bárbaro del odio.

Treacherous assassins, enemies of the people, and worthy of everyone’s ridicule are those who, under the pretext of guiding future generations, teach them an isolated system of doctrines and whisper in their ear (instead of the sweet message of love) the barbarous gospel of hate.

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Bryan Fischer Does Not Speak for Christianity

 

Bryan Fischer makes an idiot of himself

Screenshot from YouTube video (links to the video itself)

I haven’t written anything about yesterday’s horrendous events in Newtown, Connecticut because a number of writers with far more skill and wisdom than I continue to produce outstanding, thoughtful, compassionate commentary that I think will be invaluable in guiding our citizens as we grieve.  As a general rule, I try not to write an opinion piece unless I think I have something original to add to the dialogue.  Sometimes, however, when someone says something egregiously stupid, dangerous, or damaging, I feel compelled to respond.

Thanks to Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the despicable American Family Association (the public policy arm of the notorious hate group Focus on the Family), I now have something to say.

Fischer used a little of his broadcast time after the massacre in Connecticut to address the fundamental theological question of theodicy – how do we reconcile the presence of evil with the power of a benevolent God?  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Religious leaders all over the country will be doing the same.  As evidenced by the number of possible answers theologians and philosophers have offered to this question, any honest Christian approach to the topic must begin and end with the limits of human knowledge and experience.  We don’t know why there is evil in the world.

We don’t know why there is evil in the world.  Anyone who offers any other answer as final and absolute is, quite simply, a liar and a charlatan.  Christianity is not about explaining the existence of evil, it is about proclaiming the gracious good news that God is present with us despite the horrifying and sometimes-overwhelming presence of malice, selfishness, violence, and destruction in the world.  Any member of the clergy who answers the question “Why did this child die?” with any answer besides, “I don’t know” should find a new line of work, preferably one where they are never again allowed to talk to people.

Which brings us to Bryan Fischer.  In offering his answer to the question “Where was God when all this went down?” Fischer offered the following:

“Here’s the bottom line.  God is not going to go where He is not wanted.  Now we have spent since 1962, we’re fifty years into this now, we have spent fifty years telling God to get lost, telling God we do not want You in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you in our schools…in 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools, in 1963 we kicked the Word of God out of the schools…we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me into your world first.  I am not going to go where I am not wanted.  I am a gentleman.‘”

So where to begin?  Let’s start here – any god who needs a request before he or she will intervene to prevent the massacre of children is not worth worshiping.  If that is genuinely the way the world works, I would rather be damned to Hell along with all those who believe in compassion and empathy than fawn in Heaven alongside those comfortable bowing before an egomaniacal sociopath, no matter how “divine.”  I don’t know for which god Fischer presumes to speak, but it is not the Christian one.  Jesus, when asked about a massacre, clearly says in Luke 13 that death by violence or disaster is not a consequence of sin or rebellion.

Fischer has apparently confused God with the vampires of movies and television, who cannot enter a home unless invited.  (I like Vampire Diaries a lot, but Fischer of all people should look elsewhere for his theological guidance.)  For just a moment, though, let us assume that this absurd claim makes sense.  God – like Dracula or Caroline Forbes – needs an invitation.

With that bizarre rule in mind, I am willing to bet that when the deranged mass-murderer opened fire, someone in that school said a prayer to God for help.  What an opportunity for Fischer’s “gentlemanly” God.  A school full of young, impressionable “atheists” have finally invited Him in – at their time of dire need.  What a great opportunity for an act of divine intervention, one that would almost certainly convert all of those pitiable “atheists” into true believers.  One tiny answer to a whispered invitation, and God suddenly wins over hundreds of previously-unreachable “non-believers” and “heretics” who had previously denied Him access.  If Fischer is right, God was just waiting for a word that almost certainly came.  In Fischer’s bizarre scheme of arbitrary restrictions on God, this was the perfect time for a miracle.

As we know, whatever miracles took place that day, dozens of young lives were still lost, and God (the real one, not Fischer’s) stood weeping alongside the grieving parents and teachers.

Perhaps, though, what Fischer wanted to imply was that – by taking prayer and Christian Bible readings out of public schools – we have removed the influence that would have kept a troubled man from turning into a homicidal maniac.  This claim is almost as stupid as the one Fischer explicitly stated.  If you need state-sponsored, institutional prayers to be told not to shoot a child – your problem is not a lack of religious influence, your problem is that you are a sociopath in need of mental health care.

This is painfully obvious to anyone who has stopped to think about this tragedy, yet common sense and common decency have never been barriers to the AFA, Fischer, and those of their ilk pushing their anti-social agenda.  The things they believe are so ridiculous that the only way they can persuade impressionable people to agree with them is to convince the general public that groups like the AFA are speaking for God.  This means they have to use every opportunity to impose a kind of mindless, irrational pseudo-piety on the general public when people are at their most vulnerable.  Fischer’s comments are one more pathetic attempt to reach out from the outer darkness of irrelevance where his hate speech belongs and grasp at any opportunity to sway a few people to his agenda.

Mr. Fischer, since you felt so comfortable speaking for God, I feel compelled to do the same.  For fifteen years now I have been entrusted with the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church and the obligation to proclaim the gospel.  With all the authority of that call and ordination, let me say very clearly, “You, Bryan Fischer, are a fucking idiot!  You do not speak for God.  You do not speak for the Church.  You do not speak for Christianity or Christians.  You have proclaimed a false gospel of ignorance and hate.  If you wish to continue to teach in the name of this cruel, capricious god – please have the integrity to admit that it is not the God who – incarnate in Jesus – “died for us while we were yet sinners.”

For those of you who came here for more than an excoriation of Bryan Fischer’s heinous heresy – perhaps looking for something to make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut – I hope I provided ample warning early on that I do not have that to offer.  Christianity does not have all the answers, we are just an extended and diverse family of people united in seeking meaning in the ancient teachings of Judaism and the Early Church.  We have come up with many possible explanations for the presence of evil, but on some level they all eventually fall apart.

Where they all collapse is at the foot of the cross, a place that is simultaneously the triumphant cornerstone and the greatest shame of our faith.  Ours is not a religion of a thundering god crashing through the world magically repairing all the brokenness of our lives.  Ours is a faith built on a God who – seeing the pain, fear, and grief inherent in the human condition – joined us on our journey, even though it ultimately meant torture and murder at the hands of the forces of greed and selfishness.

The message of the cross is that the miracle of God is not in saving our lives, the miracle of God is in the purity of a Creator’s love that is so powerful that God is willing to step down from the luxuries of Heaven and take on our suffering.  God did not save the lives of those children because – for whatever reason – the Universe does not work that way.  According to our Scriptures, Jesus begged God, his Father, to save him from being murdered – and God did not do that either.

It sucks.  It makes no sense.  And it causes us all to question why we should bother worshiping such a God in the first place.  If you are looking for a God like Fischer’s, one who can be propitiated to intervene violently in mortal affairs, I recommend Durga.  For better or for worse, the God of Christianity does not consistently act in such a fashion.

Unlike Fischer, I do believe God was present at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that God acted.  I believe that the presence of a God who understands heroism in the face of suffering inspired teachers to risk their lives for their pupils.  I believe that a God who was vulnerable and broken at the hands of vicious killers was there for every excruciating second of that horrible time, and that each one of those children entered into eternity gently cradled in the arms of a loving God who understood what they had endured.

Perhaps that’s not enough.  In the days to come, some of us in our grief and anger will turn away from a God who would not or could not intervene to save the lives of those children.   Others will turn to other faiths or philosophies for answers.  I don’t think God will begrudge us that, after all God knows what it’s like to be forsaken.

And so, for those of you hoping that I could replace an insipid and shameful answer to the “Why?” question with a useful and theologically sound one, I cannot.  I cannot even promise you that if you pray and study and give every second of your life to God you will be spared the grief of another tragedy like this one.  I can only offer you what I have been given, what I believe, that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch, and that beyond the boundaries of our senses is a loving Creator who connects us to each other and to that world of greater meaning in ways that ultimately inspire more questions than answers.

When we seek that Creator, we are seeking to be more than we can be as individuals.  We are seeking to be greater than our limitations, stronger than our brokenness, and more powerful than our flaws and vulnerabilities.  We are seeking to stand in the face of evil, not in the hopes of easy victory, but in the certain confidence that – even in our most shocking  defeats – love, compassion, and grace will ultimately triumph.

We have seen some of that in the aftermath of Newtown, and more examples will certainly be forthcoming as people respond to the acts of one man at his worst by showing what humanity can be at our best.  Even as we join our tears to God’s in memory of those we have lost too soon and too horribly, perhaps we can also see some glimpse of the miracle of a God who knows our struggle and draws us into a people who refuse to be overcome by evil, but who instead will – every time – overcome evil with good.

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Collaboration Across the Divide

The Good Samaritan - Ferdinand Hodler (1885)

The Good Samaritan – Ferdinand Hodler (1885)

I am unashamedly a partisan in our current political debates.  I think we have two major political parties in this country: a conservative one and a far-right party controlled by anachronistic theocrats and billionaire robber barons.  I would love to have an actual, “liberal” party here, but I think it may take several more generations before we catch up to the rest of the Western world in that regard.

I point this out to explain that the observations which follow are not those of a “centrist” or a “moderate.”  I have very strong political views, and an intense dislike of nearly every aspect of the opposing party’s platform.  I think much of the work of my own party does not go far enough – to protect the environment, to protect the working class, and to protect our civil liberties.

Which leads to my conundrum.  To be so partisan, how can I have close friends, beloved friends who are like family, who are Republicans?  We are not friends because we have to be.  I like these women and men, value their opinions, and am grateful for their friendship.  And yet, they stand on the other side of this enormous political chasm, aligned with a political party that represents all of the values I oppose.

To examine this apparent contradiction, I started by asking myself which traits are common among all my close friends.  What do I value in a friend?  Based on my own observations, there are five core traits (in descending order) that are of fundamental importance to me in choosing my friends:  loyalty, integrity, kindness, generosity, and intelligence.  I am fortunate to have several close friends who have these traits in abundance.

This led me to my next question.  How is it that loyal, kind, ethical, generous, smart people could come to such different conclusions from mine about how we should govern the country?  I know from personal experience that they are not mean or cruel, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – wants to deny healthcare, a living wage, and safe working environments to our citizens.  I know from personal experience that they are deeply ethical, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – wants to give corporations free reign to destroy the health of our planet and our citizens.  I know from personal experience that they are loyal and generous to people of all backgrounds, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – privileges wealthy, straight, white men and denies rights and opportunities to people from other groups.

I’m sure from their perspective they find my politics equally puzzling.  How can we have so many values in common, yet ally ourselves passionately with opposing political parties?  How can we all values personal responsibility, kindness, excellence, and community; yet have such different understandings of how we – the people – should act to nurture those things?

Perhaps our values are more different than I think?  Asking this question led me to consider specific scenarios.  How would my friends and I respond to a person we found injured by the side of the road?  (I didn’t come up with that one, Jesus did.)  How would we respond to someone we knew whose child had cancer but could not afford their medical bills?  What would we do if we saw someone dumping toxic waste into a river?

In every scenario I could think of, my friends and I – despite our profound political differences – had approximately the same response.  Yet our posts on Facebook, our bumper stickers, and the conclusions of every pundit and political poll would claim that we do not agree on anything.   Where is the disconnect?

My best guess is that it is rooted in the fact that our political debates are not about specific scenarios.  Instead, we align our loyalties to broad doctrines:  libertarianism, objectivism, socialism, family values, progressivism, and many others,  We plant our flags on what we think those ideas mean, and then defend them against all comers.

Along the way, I don’t think we stop often enough to ask ourselves: What problems are we trying to solve?  Perhaps if this became our starting point – working inductively from what we hope to accomplish rather than deductively from the partisan concepts we hold most dear – we would begin with our common values rather than our opposing worldviews.  We would answer the questions collaboratively, rather than combatively.  We do this sometimes on a local level, working together to solve a known problem or sudden catastrophe.

On the national level, however, we almost never manage to do the same.  As a result, we spend a lot of time arguing about ideological differences rather than rolling up our sleeves and working to make this amazing country stronger, healthier, and ready for the future.   The single mother working two full-time jobs and still unable to provide a safe home and healthcare for her children is not  helped by our bickering.  The student who has diligently studied and sacrificed for their whole life for an education they realize they cannot afford will not suddenly be able to earn a diploma because of our debates.  The children who suffer from preventable ailments caused by unbreathable air, undrinkable water, or a lack of access to healthcare will not be miraculous healed by the time and resources we spend attacking the ideas of people who actually share our same core values.

So who is served by this impasse, in which people who care about the same things and share the same priorities spend their time arguing about whose theories are right – rather than realizing that there are plenty of practical solutions we actually agree upon?  Perhaps it benefits a small number of plutocrats who take advantage of the distractions to continue to exploit the system for their personal gain.  We, the common citizens, are certainly not helped in any way, and those of our neighbors in need clearly reap no benefits from our partisanship.

Unfortunately, I cannot think of an easy solution.  Our political system is built on a balancing beam of two opposing parties; and nothing short of a constitutional mandate is likely to change that.  On a personal level, though, perhaps it behooves us all to stop and consider the enigma of our friendships with people with whom – according to the claims of our respective political parties – we have nothing in common.  When we do, we might find ourselves digging down past convenient labels and dogmas and instead talking about how we can, together, build on our shared values to fix what is broken in our communities and our nation.  Doing so won’t advance the agenda of either party, and it won’t resolve a single political debate, but we might just realize those things don’t matter quite as much as we thought they did.

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