Where have all the good men gone…

If you are of the ’80s generation you have that song in your head, just go ahead and admit it. Now why I used it: this short piece by Heather Wilson who sits on the Rhodes Scholar committee (i.e. selecting them) and has been a US representative. Read Here.

Money quote…

As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.

Unlike many graduate fellowships, the Rhodes seeks leaders who will “fight the world’s fight.” They must be more than mere bookworms. We are looking for students who wonder, students who are reading widely, students of passion who are driven to make a difference in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through enlightened and effective leadership. The undergraduate education they are receiving seems less and less suited to that purpose.

Not that she would listen to me, after all I’m just a humble parish pastor, but I can tell you exactly why she doesn’t get the kids she’s thinks she’s longing for (all the good men…). Our education system is not designed to uncover truth except in the narrowest possible way. It doesn’t even aim at truth, and good portions don’t believe in that word. Absent of truth, the only thing to be passionate about is consumption and power.

The students that succeed wildly in our system are those that learn early that the actual questions don’t matter, just that you are on the right side of whatever the question is for the immediate context. And those students get very good at giving the right contextual answers, posing an ironic stance outside of the classroom (again the right context), and never earning either. Reading widely, wondering and having passion are all signals that you don’t actually get it. They are the very activities that our education and merit system weeds out. The student who stumbles, shows some real passion for the wrong side because she read Plato’s cave and saw a flicker of a shadow of reality gets the A minus. The A minus takes her out of the running for valedictorian, etc, etc, etc.

To find the student she is describing the Rhodes would have to change their sort and put their prestige at risk as the Rhodes would look different that everybody else. To find your life, you must lose it.

Just a personal reflection. The confirmation class knows that I have “answers” to the questions I ask. My goal is actually less to get them to that answer then to get them thinking. If I get them thinking they may never be Rhodes Scholars, but they might be those good men and women. But these 6-8th graders have already fully learned the lesson of right answers in the right context; they are just a little more flip in my class because I can’t grade them. One student in particular has taken to “locking in” his answers. Trying to break that ‘learning is a game’ cynical reaction is necessary.

A medicinal reminder

I’m usually pretty rough on institutions. If I am being truthful it is because I’m a trained cynic. The best training and advice I ever got as a young financier was to understand the compensation structure. Once you understood the compensation of everyone key in the room, you knew what position they were going to take. Crafting good presentations was all about making sure all the key people appeared to get a slice. The net effect of that is that institutions always act in their own best interest. Even if their mission or the collective best interest will be smothered and crushed. Here is a great example of the UAW turning down a contract that would have kept an ‘Old GM’ plant open because the current workers preferred to keep their slots at ‘new GM’. The chance at getting a UAW GM job was worth more than a current job and an increase in the number of jobs in the local area.

One of the tough questions I asked the confirmands last night was does following the 8th commandment (which according to Luther means putting the best construction on everything) mean being an idiot? Is my cynical take on institutions, which I have rarely seen violated, a breaking of the 8th commandment? (My answer is probably, but sin boldly.)

As much as the church usually confirms my cynical view of institutions, it still remains about the only place where I get surprised. And it is usually because of individuals who refuse to sin boldly against the 8th commandment. And while not being idiots, they choose to act like them and work within the institution. And they usually bear the price – the cross – of such a choice.

Jason Byassee at Duke Divinity recalls the good of institutions in the hellhole of the Sudan. It is a medicinal reminder of the good of functioning institutions.

I guess here is the crux of my problem. Acting like my cynical view rarely endangers the mission of most institutions. But the mission of the church is directly damaged. There is a sense that your could say the mission of the church is to be the anti-institution, the institution that acts not according to the rules of this world but according to the kingdom of God. The church here and now is about putting your neighbor at the same level, about being your brother’s keeper. When it works, when it is competent, it can give a glimpse of stitching the world back together as Mr. Byassee puts it. It gives a foretaste of the Kingdom currently hidden among the cynicism.