Saturday, September 23, 2006

Fighting Monsters in the Night

Last night my wife says I earned my keep as a husband … by removing a Big Scary Bug. She was awake at 4, facing some insomnia by reading a murder mystery, when she realized that a praying mantis was sitting on top of her reading light, about 18 inches from her face. It was staring at her. I was soon, um, encouraged to become awake and Do Something. Since we are a pro-mantis household, I eventually succeeded in scooping the bug into a cup unharmed, and then tossing it out the window.

I suggested that if we just waited for it to walk on her face in the night she would make a noise sufficient to let the whole house know just where the bug was, but she didn't go for it.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Turning China's Elite into its Next Ruling Class

There is a fascinating article by Howard French in the New York Times about the race of China's new rich to give their children a boost in the next, even more competitive generation. FasTracKids – what a wonderful, perfectly revealing name – has sprung up in Shanghai to tutor preschoolers in elite culture, sports, and manners.

The late, great sociologist E. Digby Baltzell said that a society will have a stable and legitimate ruling class only when it turns elite individuals, who rise to the top by merit and other individual skills, into a class made of families. The Chinese have, in the past generation, created such an elite of individuals. Now, before our eyes, we see them creating the first generation of what will become the Old Money of the New China.

What is equally fascinating is seeing exactly what they want their kids to learn. Another great dead sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, said that what separates the merely well-schooled from the most socially successful is their mastery of that parallel curriculum of "cultural capital." This is just the kind of knowledge that FasTracKids, and thousands of enrichment programs like it, teach children in families eager to rise socially. And what is the cultural capital that the next generation of the ancient Chinese civilization needs to know? Golf. For pre-schoolers. " In addition to early golf training, which has become wildly popular, affluent parents are enrolling their children in everything from ballet and private music lessons, to classes in horse riding, ice-skating, skiing and even polo." Manners classes are also in demand, as the Chinese rich have been embarrassed to learn that they are considered rude, "ugly Chinese" abroad.

In other words, the next ruling class in China is acquiring the same social capital that the ruling class in the West has been developing for centuries. I expect that mastery of Chinese culture will also be a part of their training. That distinctly Chinese culture they may learn better in regular school and at home. But when the stars of the world's most populous economy join the next global ruling class, they will be just like today's global ruling class: they will all play golf.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Assisted Marriage

There is a wonderful story on Muslim speed-dating in the New York Times. Neil MacFarquhar paints a vivid picture of a "matrimonial banquet" at the Islamic Society of North America's annual meeting in Chicago. 150 women sit at small tables, while 150 men circulate among them for ten short conversations. They had to ban parents from sitting at the tables, too. Instead, the mothers cluster along the walls, watching and swapping information about their accomplished, eligible children. The parents are allowed to mingle with the young people only during the social hour that follows.

The organizers don't even call it "speed dating," because the very word "dating" suggests pre-marital sex to the potential participants and their parents. Yasmeen Qadri, an education professor who spoke in a panel discussion about dating said that what American Muslims really needed to create was an American version of arranged marriage. Since that term would probably seem too directive for freedom-loving Americans, she suggested "assisted marriage."

With the eldest Gruntled daughter now at college, Mrs. Gruntled and I have been trying hard not to be the kind of "helicopter parents," hovering over our child, that college deans come to dread. But, as our eldest said, she is a "helicopter child." Like many in her generation, she wants her parents involved in her life, and values their opinions as she is considering her choices. She makes the choices, but she wants to talk them over with us first.

Could any parent ask for better? Is that not the most civilized arrangement – the children do make their own decisions, but seek the wisdom of their most loving elders? And when better to ask for parental help than in making the most consequential and permanent choice of adult life, the choice of your husband or wife?

Assisted marriage sounds good to me.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Most Business School Students Cheat

56% of students in graduate business programs reported cheating last year. Other graduate students don't do much better, but at least they stayed below the 50% threshold. They do it because "everyone does it." Lead researcher Linda Trevino suggested that students who were drawn to business school were "more self-interested or bottom-line-oriented." Moreover, business schools' "emphasis on the free market and maximization of shareholder value, changes student attitudes." Business school breeds cheaters.

Good to see that the lessons of Enron are sinking in.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How Did They Forget About Children in the No-Fault Divorce Debate? Today's "Privatize Marriage" Arguments Show How.

Judith Wallerstein, author of the benchmark study of the long-term effects of divorce on children, often points out with exasperation that the debate on no-fault divorce in the 1960s and '70s simply ignored the effects on children. Today, when we have the largest generation of divorced-upon children ever and the sad effects of no-fault are to be seen every day, it seems incredible that people could talk about marriage and divorce as if only the married couple mattered.

No-fault effectively privatized divorce. Today a couple can divorce for pretty much any reason and no reason. In fact, one person can just leave another and easily legalize it through divorce, and there is not much the other person can do about it. The children can do even less.

Today we are in the midst of a debate about whether we should privatize marriage the way we privatized divorce. The proponents of this view say that if marriage were just another contract that individuals could choose to make, then the whole messy debate about gay marriage, and the potential debate about polygamy, and a hundred other combinations, would disappear as a governmental issue. People could make contracts with whom they want, for how long they want, with whatever boring or kinky provisions they want.

A good example is the argument by Slate economist David Boaz helpfully titled "Privatize Marriage." This is an old argument, but the main points haven't changed lately. He makes the straightforward case that it would be more rational for the state to get out of the marriage business. Any bond you want to make, of any duration, in any combination and number, and with whatever internal division of power turns your crank should be just another contract. Not a word, not a hint of children. No suggestion that the reason the church, and then, under much prodding, the state got involved in regulating marriage in the first place was to protect children and women from abuse by the more powerful.

The arguments of economists are usually quite rational. But they sometimes miss some essential human factors. When thinking about any aspect of marriage, we have to think about the kids.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope Defends Reason; Churches Burn

The Pope has gotten into hot water for quoting a medieval emperor in a dialogue with a Persian philosopher. The Christian asks the Muslim to "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

As a result of this quotation, Muslim mobs have been burning churches.

So what was the Pope talking about? Christian philosophy believes that God is always reasonable. Muslim philosophy believes that God is beyond reason. The Byzantine emperor thought it self-evident that God was always reasonable – to suggest otherwise must be "evil and inhuman."

The Pope was not actually trying to slam Islam. He was really criticizing what he always criticizes – the secularity and materialism of the formerly Christian West. We, he said to his German audience, have lost the deep connection between God and reason that was taken for granted in Christianity's golden age.

The argument that the Pope was actually making seems reasonable to me.

The irrational and senselessly touchy Muslim mobs who are burning churches over the Pope's remarks are proving that it is not only secular Westerners who have lost the connection between God and reason.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Church Leaders Make Connections Locally

I spent the weekend at the leadership retreat of Abingdon Presbytery in the left-most corner of Virginia. Executive Presbyter Kevin Campbell and the ministers and elders who joined this conversation are developing a workable and positive idea of how to build up the presbytery.

A presbytery, for those unfamiliar with the Presbyterian system, is a regional association of congregations. In Abingdon's case, there are 55 congregations, some small town, most little country churches. A presbytery is the equivalent of a diocese in a bishop-led system. Instead of a bishop, a presbytery is served by an executive presbyter (sometimes called a general presbyter), as well as a stated clerk and many committees. Even congregational churches, such as the Baptist conventions, usually create local associations, which do much the same thing. Regional associations are a help to a congregation, without being too big to be human-sized.

Leaders of regional associations, whatever they are called, are about the only church people in a position to know what is going on in a group of neighboring congregations. It is the rare congregation that can do everything itself, without ever needing help or getting ideas from outside.

Vibrant denominations rest on vibrant local associations. Local congregations are too small to reliably do everything for themselves – even megachurches. National denominations are usually too large to keep in touch with all the locals.

Church leaders at the regional level are crucial to making strong and responsive denominations.