Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Minor Musing About Education, Religion, Literature, Pat Powers, And Larry Kurtz

There's no way this post is going to make anyone happy.

This week, I started reading Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and James K. A. Smith's How (Not) To Be Secular. This reading has caused abstract, unconnected ramblings about place and spirit to come to mind frequently. These abstractions may infect this post. I've also been reading a lot of blogs and spending a lot of time on Twitter. (Please pray for my wife's sanity because I sometimes tell her what I'm reading on the blogs and in the comments.) Now, let the metaphors and allusions begin.

A few education reforms ago, in a South Dakota education galaxy that seems far, far away, South Dakota teachers were sat down before computers, directed toward a website called Techpaths, and instructed to create curriculum maps. (To the best of my knowledge many, if not most, South Dakota districts abandoned Techpaths when the original funding disappeared.) Techpaths requires curriculum cartographers to develop essential questions as the initial step in map creation.

I rather enjoyed creating essential questions. The essential questions one creates determine how one approaches most situations, so they allow for a little introspection and guide how one constructs a unit or a full course. The asking of different essential questions also explains how different religions and philosophies can come up with radically opposed tenants. David Berge's succinct summation of Stephen Prothero's God is Not One helps make the point:
To investigate these eight religions, Prothero interrogates them with four questions: (1) what’s the problem? (2) what’s the solution? (3) how do we get from problem to solution? (4) who are some exemplars of this path?
Christians would answer these questions: (1) sin (2) salvation through Christ (3) faith and good works (4) the great saints of the church. A Buddhist would answer these questions: (1) suffering (2) nirvana (3) the Noble Eightfold Path (4) arhats, bodhisattavas, or lamas.
As this comparison makes clear, Christians and Buddhists aren't just different embodiments of the same human response to the “divine” as the Perennial Philosophers say, they are different diagnoses of the deepest problem of humanity and how it can be solved.
Blogs in the South Dakota blogosphere seems to be guided by essential questions as well. Reading Pat Powers tweets and his Dakota War College blog convince me that Powers believes that South Dakota is, or can become, a Republican Eden. His essential question seems to be "How can I keep the non-Republican serpents out this South Dakota garden paradise?" By asking how he can keep the serpent from infecting this place, he has taken on himself to do what the Almighty could not, always a risky endeavor.

Powers is diligent and not an ineffective gardener. Humans, however, are notoriously poor at maintaining, let alone creating, a paradise; we are much better at creating parking lots. Powers, therefore, serves up lots of what he claims to be apple pie made from trees in his paradise. He has numerous taste testers who proclaim it the best pie they've ever eaten. Some skeptics claim that the offerings remind them of mock apple pie composed primarily from Ritz crackers. Still, voter registration numbers indicate that South Dakotans are not being tempted by fruit Republicans hope to keep forbidden or at least difficult to obtain.

If I read Larry Kurtz's tweets and his interested party blog correctly, he sees South Dakota and his purpose far differently. With due apologies to Flannery O'Connor, Kurtz is asking "How can I reclaim 'territory largely held by the devil?'" O'Connor chose to shock: in her stories, the Misfit kills the family including the garrulous grandmother; the fraudulent Bible salesman steals the nihilistic philosopher's leg and leaves her stranded in the hay loft, and a bull gores Mrs. Greenleaf. It should be noted that O'Connor, who died in 1964, lived in a more genteel age.

Like O'Connor and the best contemporary performance artists of our decidedly more aggressive era, Kurtz has chosen to shock rather than sympathize, cudgel rather than comfort. Audience members may not like the performances, but when one has chosen to fight  the devil, one is engaged in a street fight not a bout conducted under the Marquis of Queensberry rules.

Yesterday, PNR enjoined us to enjoy the holiday:
So celebrate the Fourth of July, the gift this nation has been to us and to the world.
We can fight again on the fifth.
As the arguments begin anew, it seemed worthwhile to discern  how and why some folks in South Dakota blogosphere fight the way they do. Herein endth today's metablogging

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