Reflections on Learning and Teaching

As a student of history, economics, political science, law and other humanities courses at six colleges and universities[1] and as an instructor at three such institutions,[2] I have participated in different ways of instructing and learning such bodies of knowledge and skills: college and university lectures, other lectures; seminars, research and writing; tutorials; the Socratic method; and role-playing. Similar methods were used in my practice as a litigating attorney and now as a blogger and ordinary citizen. Underlying all of them, of course, are reading and studying. Here are a septuagenarian’s lessons in life-long learning.

My thinking about this subject and writing this blog post were prompted by a recent article about the lecture as a mode of instructing and learning. That article by Molly Worthen, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was put into a broader context by her quoting John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” where he said the humanities taught a student “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent. He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”[3]

College and University Lectures

“A good lecture class,” Worthen says, teaches “comprehension and reasoning” by keeping “students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action.” It does so by emphasizing “the art of attention, the crucial first step in … ‘critical thinking.’” She quotes Monessa Cummins, the Chair of the Classics Department at Grinnell College, my alma mater, as saying the lecture places “a premium on the connections between individual facts . . . [and] the building of an argument.”

This is “hard work” for the students, Worthen adds, requiring them “to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Indeed, students need to be taught how to listen, and lecture courses are exercises in “mindfulness and attention building.” This skill cannot be assumed, but must be taught. One way of doing so, in Professor Cummins’ classes, is to assign one student in each session to present a critique of her argument at the subsequent small discussion section.

Such a lecture course teaches that “listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next–and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.“

This is enhanced, Worthen argues, by requiring the students to take notes by hand, not by typing them into a computer. The former makes it impossible for them to make verbatim transcripts of the lecture, but instead to synthesize as they listen. That may be true, in my opinion, when the lecturer does not provide the students or audience with an outline of the lecture.

Lecturing, on the other hand, with a PowerPoint outline and providing the students or audience members with the Notes Page version of the outline enables the student to glance at the entire presentation in advance and see how the individual points fit into the entire lecture or presentation and then add his or her notes to individual pages as the lecture proceeds. PowerPoint also facilitates the use of graphs, maps and photographs in the lecture. [4]

Worthen also recognizes the utility of combining a large lecture session with small discussions sections and thereby obtain the reactions and comments of the students.

My memories of my first exposure as a student to lecturing 58 years ago as a freshman at Grinnell College are fuzzy at best, but I do not recall being provided with tips on how to take full advantage of this form of instruction. I now wish I had been told how to listen, to be mindful and to synthesize as I listened. I wish I had had a professor assign one student in each session to present a critique of the lecture’s argument at the next class session. Of course, then all notes of a lecture were handwritten.

As a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford, 1961-1963, attendance at university lectures on these subjects, often by world-famous scholars, was optional. I attended some primarily to see and hear such people as philosophers A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle, economist J. R. Hicks and legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart, but regrettably I did not regularly do so. (Instead my attention was focused on tutorials as discussed below.)

As a law student at the University of Chicago, 1963-1966, the Socratic method was the dominant form of instruction, not lectures. The latter instead were formal occasions for all the students and faculty, usually provided by visiting scholars and judges. (The Socratic method also will be discussed below.)

In addition, I was a lecturer when I taught a course on the American Civil Law System at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm, when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law, when I was an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and when I was on the faculty of various continuing legal education courses while I was a practicing lawyer. That experience required me to review the material to be covered, to conduct any additional research I deemed necessary, to determine the main points to emphasize, to construct an outline for what I wanted to cover in the lecture and, in some cases, to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for use at the lecture.

Other Lectures

All of us obtain information and are educated, or not, in other oral presentations throughout our lives. I think of major political speeches like the State of the Union and Inaugural Addresses; other speeches at public events; and sermons at churches.

When, for example, I listen to speeches or presentations at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, I sometimes take handwritten notes and submit proposed questions for the moderator to ask the speaker. Later I also can go to the Forum’s website to re-listen to the speech. I also have written blog posts about some of these presentations. Another recent source of lectures for me is those offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) of the University of Minnesota.

For sermons at Westminster Presbyterian Church, I sometimes make handwritten notes of some of the points on the church bulletin in my hands while the morning prayer, hymns and choral anthems usually emphasize some of the sermon’s main points. I also have found that I learn more about the sermon’s lesson by reading its text when it is subsequently posted on the church’s website and by reading and reflecting on the Scripture passages for the sermon; additional insight is often providing by writing a blog post about a sermon.

Seminars

My best educational experience at Grinnell College was taking the Political Economy Seminar my senior year with nine other students and with faculty from the economics, history and political science departments. We read important books in the field, not textbooks, and wrote and presented our papers on the former for discussion by all.

The Washington Semester at American University in the Fall of 1959 provided another type of seminar experience as a group of students from all over the U.S. met with politicians, government officials and others to learn about the operations of the U.S. government and political process.

I also organized and led a liberal arts seminar for lawyers at Grinnell in 1984. After reading various materials, we gathered at the College to discuss American legal history, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), jurisprudence and the lives and challenges of being humane judges and lawyers. Our leaders were a federal appellate judge, a national ADR scholar, an American history professor, a jurisprudence professor and a practicing lawyer.

Being in a book group, for me at Westminster Presbyterian Church, is another seminar experience for groups of 12 or smaller. Reading an assigned book and then gathering for a discussion of the book led by one of the group usually leads to a greater understanding of the book and its issues. For example, I recently led my group in discussing David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” after I had written about the book in this blog.[5]

Research and Writing

During my student years I conducted factual and other research about various subjects and in the process learned a lot about those subjects as well as research skills. The task of then reducing that research into a paper on the subject provided more learning about the subject plus the process of writing such papers. Later as a practicing lawyer these skills were further developed with the aid of the legal process for obtaining evidence in lawsuits, including the examination of witnesses, and the writing of briefs and other legal papers under rules for their contents and length.

The student research paper I best recall was at American University. The topic was how political interest groups participate in important cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and more specifically in contempt-of-congress cases in that court. I identified such cases, read the Court’s opinions in the cases, interviewed staffers at the relevant congressional committees (especially the House Un-American Activities Committee) and at the relevant political interest groups (especially the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors) and then spent a lot of time at the Supreme Court’s Library reading the briefs in the case, including those from the ACLU and the AAUP as amici curiae (friends of the court). The paper summarized this research and conclusions.

My enjoyment of research and writing continued as a practicing lawyer, both in my work as a lawyer and as a putative scholar. For example while at Harvard Law School for a short summer course, I spent time in its library doing research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling, both prominent attorneys who were graduates of that Law School and of Grinnell College, and interviewing attorneys at Welch’s Boston law firm, about his representation of the U.S. Army in the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Later I wrote articles about both of them for the Grinnell Magazine [6] and even later with excerpts from the Welch article in this blog.[7]

A similar process was involved as a law student in researching and writing comments for the law review and as a lawyer in writing briefs.

Grinnell College recently has enhanced its use of research and writing as an educational method by adding a public website, The Grinnell Post, that hosts student essays about current events, public debates, and issues of interest to the Grinnell community. Its mission is to allow students to share their work in a public forum and foster conversations with a diverse readership and solicit their comments and criticism.

Another Grinnell effort to incorporate digital technology in the liberal arts is a website, Ashplan, initially devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses. It seeks to foster the inheritance of classroom culture; that is, it forges connections among students studying the same material at different times, allowing new students to benefit from, remix, and add to the work of their predecessors.

Tutorials

As discussed in a prior post, the tutorial was the primary mode of undergraduate education at Oxford. During each week of the three terms of the academic year, I would have two tutorials, usually with only one other student and the tutor and sometimes only by myself with the tutor. The assignment was always in the form of a question with the tutor’s suggestions of books and articles one should read.

As a result, most of my time each week at Oxford was spent in the university libraries reading those sources and other relevant materials, figuring out how I would answer the assigned question and writing an essay setting forth that answer and analysis. Then I would see the tutor again and read my essay for critiquing and discussion.

I loved the independence of this system and being “forced” to come to a conclusion on an issue and to construct my own analysis and documentation for my conclusion. This was exactly the skill that was tested in Oxford’s university-wide examinations at the conclusion of my student-years, as also discussed in a prior post.

Grinnell College now has a First-Year Tutorial for all freshmen in groups of about 12 students that are led by “faculty members . . . from all academic departments . . . in more than 35 topics.” For the Fall of 2015 these include “Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership;“ “Racism: Color, Culture, Class; “ and “The Origins of Capitalism.” Every tutorial emphasizes writing, critical thinking and analysis, and oral presentation and discussion skills. The tutorial professors also serve as the advisers to their tutorial students until they declare a major field of study.

Socratic Method

After the treasured independence of the Oxford undergraduate experience, I initially was shocked in my first weeks in the Fall of 1963 as a student at the University of Chicago Law School. Now I was in large classes with daily assignments of certain pages in our large casebooks. The professors did not lecture. Instead they cross-examined individual students, one-by-one, about what the holding of a particular case was and what the result should be in a hypothetical case. We were being taught, we were told, how to think like a lawyer.

This method clearly taught you how to read a judicial opinion very carefully (and very painfully and slowly during that first semester of law school), to analyze that opinion to determine what its holding was and to think about the arguments that could be raised in similar, but different, hypothetical cases. Then in class you had to learn how to think on your feet and respond to questions from the professor as you would later do as a lawyer when questioned by a judge.

Reading and analyzing constitutions, statutes and regulations are also important for a lawyer, but I do not have clear memories of how that was done in my law student years. Of course, many judicial opinions concern judicial interpretations of such materials, and the overall law-school emphasis on reading and analyzing judicial opinions covered that methodology.

Learning how to do legal research and write legal briefs is another important part of law school. In addition, being a member of a law review staff and editorial board gives experience in writing and editing articles about legal topics.

Role-Playing

Participating in moot courts and playing the role of a lawyer making an argument to a court is another prominent method of legal education. I did not take advantage of this opportunity in law school as I was busy working on the law review doing legal research and writing and editing articles for the journal.

I, however, employed this method when I taught for one semester at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm. I acted as a trial court judge hearing arguments by students as lawyers on a motion to compel production of a college tenure committee records in a hypothetical lawsuit brought by a professor against a college for denial of tenure. A different kind of role playing in that course was having the students, in lieu of a final examination, play the role of a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and write an opinion deciding a case after reading the briefs in the case along with my memoranda summarizing some of the legal issues and after hearing the case argued before the actual Court.

I also used the moot-court method when I was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School; I acted as a federal district court judge hearing arguments on a motion to dismiss a complaint under U.S. federal statutes (the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act) alleging a corporate defendant’s violations of human rights in other countries. I also acted as a judge of an immigration court to hear arguments on whether the court should grant an application for asylum by someone who allegedly had a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country due to political opinion or other protected ground.

I used a different kind of role-playing when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law. In a first-year civil procedure class, I played the role of a law firm partner while the students played the roles of associate attorneys working for me as we collectively identified issues, potential arguments and additional legal research needed for preparing a civil complaint under the strictures of Rule 11’s requiring such a pleading to be warranted by existing law or a non-frivolous argument for changing the law and by evidentiary support.

In such role-playing exercises, the student learns about procedural and substantive law, identification of legal and evidentiary issues and how to write and analyze briefs and make oral arguments.

In my experience, this is an effective way of learning several areas of law plus the skills of advocacy, and most students appreciate these opportunities to have a taste of what it is like to be a lawyer.

Conclusion

I am fortunate to have experienced different methods of teaching and learning from able practitioners of the different methods. I have learned in each of these settings and cannot say one is better than another. A lot depends on the size of the audience and the stage of your educational career. Seminars and tutorials require a small number of students while lectures are more appropriate, if not required, for a large number of students. I hope that I have been able to convey the same excitement of learning when I have been the instructor.

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[1] Grinnell College, 1957-1961; American University (Washington Semester), 1959; University of Oxford, 1961-1963; University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966; Harvard Law School (Summer Program), 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2001.

[2] Grinnell College, 1982, 1984; University of Iowa College of Law, 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2002-2010.

[3] Worthen, Lecture Me. Really, N.Y. Times Sunday Review (Oct. 18, 2015).

[4] Aaron Fichtelberg, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, strongly disagrees on the value of PowerPoint. Indeed, he argues that it “turns good teachers into mediocre ones and mediocre lectures into a sludge of unengaging facts.” According to him, it “forces rigidity on the content of the course and passivity onto the students.” I agree that sometimes such use is boring. But as with all of these modes of teaching, there are the good and the bad. Other opinions?

[5] The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on the Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

[6] Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2006, at 12; Edward Burnham Burling, Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009, at 21.

[7] Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 14, 2012); The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 8, 2012); Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 6, 2012); U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012); President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 10, 2012); Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012); Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie (June 12, 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Brooks Speaks on “The Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church
David Brooks @ Westminster
David Brooks @ Westminster

This was the title of David Brooks’ May 14th presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Town Hall Forum. An appreciative audience of over 3,000 filled the Sanctuary and other rooms at the church to hear the talk and demonstrated why he called Westminster his “favorite venue.”[1]

Both the talk and his recent book, “The Road to Character,”[2] emphasize “modesty and humility” and assert that “human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness” and that “character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.” This at least is what the Syllabus for his “Humility” course at Yale University states. Or as he said in his talk, we are “splendidly endowed, but deeply broken.”

Brooks recalled with gratitude three personal uplifting moments. One was observing his then three young children playing on a beautiful day. Another was watching women in Maryland teaching English to immigrants. The last was sitting at a luncheon next to the Dali Lama and experiencing his inner joy and laughter. These moments produced David’s overwhelming sense of gratitude to have experienced these moments of higher joy, an enlargement of his own heart and an acknowledgement that these had happened to him by the grace of God.

Because issues of morals and character in western culture have been discussed by Christian theologians, his book uses their vocabulary. We need to recover and perhaps modernize that vocabulary, said Brooks, especially to recover the meaning and importance of the concept of sin.

He also mentioned that many contemporary U.S. politicians feel compelled to promote and advertise themselves and as a result start to believe their own propaganda. Exceptions of politicians of modesty and honesty are former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Westminster member who was in the audience; Minnesota’s former U.S. Senator David Durenberger; and current U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

His book provides biographical sketches of how 10 different people in different ways created disciplines that built character. He mentioned the following six of them in his talk.

Ida Stover by age 11 had lost both of her parents and then was an overworked indentured servant in another household, but at age 15 she left to be on her own, to get a job and an education. Later she married David Eisenhower, became Ida Eisenhower and raised five sons, one being Dwight D. Eisenhower. After Ike threw a temper tantrum at age 10, Ida paraphrased Proverbs 16:32 to him: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater that he who taketh a city.”[3] In other words, the central drama of your life is fighting against your own sinfulness and weaknesses. Many years later Ike said this was one of the most valuable moments of his life that helped him to recognize his temper as a weakness and to develop techniques to prevent it from interfering with his leading others.

Frances Perkins was a genteel graduate of Mount Holyoke College who found her vocation of improving worker safety by happening to be a witness to the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in Manhattan, in which many workers lost their lives. She responded to what the world was demanding of her.

Augustine for many years resisted his mother’s efforts to become a Christian, but after he had done so, the two of them shared a beautiful moment in a garden just before she died when “all the clamors of the world slipped into silence” and were “hushed.”

Dorothy Day, a social activist, near the end of her life started to write her “life remembered,” but could not do so. Instead she “thought of our Lord [Jesus], and His visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had Him on my mind for so long in my life!” Day’s “The Long Loneliness” shows her intense self-criticism, her discovery of her vocation and her humility. It is one of Brooks’ favorite books and also of the students in his Yale course on humility.[4]

George Eliot (born Mary Anne Evans) obtained character through her love for George Lewes, and such love, according to Brooks, humbles a person, making you realize you are not in control of your own life; allows you to express tenderness and vulnerability; de-centers your self; and fuses two individuals together.

Brooks advised the high school students in the audience to make the following commitments by the time they were at least in their mid-30’s: adopting an existing faith or philosophy of life; choosing a vocation; getting married; and choosing a community in which to live. Although he did not say so, these commitments may change during your life.

With respect to the marriage commitment, Brooks quoted this beautiful excerpt from a beautiful wedding toast that was offered by his friend and noted American author, Leon Weiseltiere, to an unnamed couple:

  • “Brides and grooms are people who have discovered, by means of love, the local nature of happiness. Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh. Love prefers deep to wide, and here to there; the grasp to the reach. It will not be accelerated, or made efficient: love’s pace is its pace, one of the fundamental temporalities of mortal existence, and it will not be rushed or retarded by even the most glittering pressures of service or success. Love is, or should be, indifferent to history, immune to it — a soft and sturdy haven from it: when the day is done, and the lights are out, and there is only this other heart, this other mind, this other face, to assist one in repelling one’s demons or in greeting one’s angels, it does not matter who the president is. When one consents to marry, one consents to be truly known, which is an ominous prospect; and so one bets on love to correct for the ordinariness of the impression, and to call forth the forgiveness that is invariably required by an accurate perception of oneself. Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses, but we may not be idols.”

The unnamed couple who were thus toasted were (a) Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the author of the award-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and a former Harvard Law School Professor and (b) Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School Professor, an acclaimed author and a former aide to President Obama.

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[1] The audio recording of the speech is available online and later the video of same will be added. . Brooks’ prior appearances at the Forum, also to overflow audiences, are also available online: “The Historic Election of Barack Obama” (Nov. 13, 2008) and “The Social Animal: Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement” (Mar. 31, 2011).

[2] The recent book was discussed in the following prior posts: The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character “ (May 1, 2015) and David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015). Brooks has created a website about the new book to foster readers’ comments about character.

[3] The Authorized King James Version of Proverbs 16:32 states: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

[4] The Dorothy Day book is on the 2013 edition of the Syllabus for Brooks’ “Humility” seminar at Yale. The other books on the syllabus as well as the topics covered in the seminar make one wish to be a student again. In light of Brooks’ recent book’s not including biographical sketches of any Jewish people and his comments on that omission to a Jewish critic, it is noteworthy that the Syllabus describes one seminar session as being devoted to Moses, the “most humble man on earth;” the “Jewish formula of character building through obedience to the law;” the “way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge;” and the Book of Exodus as the reading. The Yale seminar has prompted comments by a student who was in the seminar, criticism of the Syllabus and Brooks’ defense of the seminar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar

David Brooks
David Brooks

CharacterIn The Road to Character,[1] as noted in a prior post, David Brooks asserts in the last chapter, ““No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.” (Emphasis added.)

But the book does not identify such an exemplar (an admired person who deserves to be copied). Brooks’ short biographies of ten individuals do not suggest, at least to me, that any of them should be an exemplar. Yes, each of them can be admired for certain aspects of their lives, but they are hardly exemplars.[2]

Instead Brooks describes an ideal exemplar in these words from the first chapter. “[C]ertain people seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are . . . the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain.”

Such people “seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.”

“They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly accused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service. . . . They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.”

Such people, Brooks says, “are the people we are looking for.”

Look no further, Mr. Brooks. Such an individual has been found. He is Jesus Christ!

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[1] Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House; New York, 2015). A lengthy interview of Brooks provides fascinating background for the book and his thinking about religion and other topics. (Bailey, Interview: David Brooks on sin, Augustine and the state of his soul, Wash. Post (May 1, 2015).)

[2] These individuals are Francis Perkins, Dorothy Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne.

The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks “The Road to Character”

David Brooks
David Brooks

Character

David BrooksThe Road to Character [1] makes the legitimate point that too often in contemporary society all of us emphasize what he calls “résumé virtues” at the expense of “eulogy virtues.”  [2]

In the final chapter, Brooks sets forth the following as what he regards as the most important eulogy or moral virtues:

  1. “We . . . live for holiness . . . ., [for lives of ] purpose, righteousness, and virtue.”
  2. Living lives of purpose, righteousness and virtue “defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature . . . [:] we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence . . . . to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do things but end up doing the opposite.”
  3. We “are also splendidly endowed. . . . We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing.”
  4. “In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. . . . Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.”
  5. “Pride is the central vice. . . . Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. . . . Pride deludes us into thinking we are the authors of our own lives.”
  6. “Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. . . . This struggle against sin is the great challenge, so that life is not futile or absurd.”
  7. “Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment.”
  8. “The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility. . . . People with character . . . are anchored by permanent attachments to important things.”
  9. “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.”
  10. “We are all ultimately saved by grace. . . . It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. . . . [You] are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.”
  11. “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. . . . The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement—reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing—and a capacity for reverence and admiration.”
  12. “Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is immeasurably complex and the private stock of reason is small. We should be skeptical of abstract reasoning or of trying to apply universal rules across different contexts. . . . The humble person thus has an acute historical consciousness . . . [and] understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. . . . [Wisdom] is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.”
  13. “No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. . . . [which] is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?”
  14. “The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it. . . . [He] prefers arrangements that are low and steady to those that are lofty and heroic. . . . [He] prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden.” [2]
  15. “The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin . . . will become mature. . . . [Maturity] is earned by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation.”

Most of the book is devoted to short biographies of ten individuals who struggled against sin and weaknesses and who demonstrated that such a struggle is, in Brooks’ words, “the central drama of life” and that “character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. [3]

For a Jewish man like Brooks, many of the words in this list sound amazingly like Christian theology: sin, humility, pride, vocation, saved, grace, redemption. Moreover, most, if not all, of the biographical subjects in the book were serious or nominal Christians, and none is Jewish like Brooks. The only reference I found to Jewish thought is the Introduction’s use of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s creation of the notions of Adam I, whom Brooks characterizes as the “external résumé Adam,” and Adam II, whom Brooks calls the one “who wants to have a serene inner character.”

In an interview on NPR, Brooks admitted that he is “a believer” and for this book has been “reading a lot of theology” which has “produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart. But it’s also fragile and green [and] I don’t really talk about it because I don’t want to trample the fresh grass.”

Moreover, at last October’s annual meeting of The Gathering, “a community of Christian givers actively providing opportunities for education, challenge, connection and encouragement to people all over the world, as well as one another,” Brooks delivered a speech, “How to be Religious in the Public Square.” He said he “spend[s] a lot of time in the Christian world” and before he criticized some Christians’ creation of walls of separation from others, he said, “I want you to know I am for you and I love you.” Brooks then affirmed “ramps” to the Christian life, saying, “There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ.”

A Jewish critic asked Brooks why there were no Jewish subjects in the book. The response: “an earlier version included a chapter on Moses. He was the meekest man on earth and yet called to lead. He was humble enough to try to get out of it. That basic humility, the wrestling — the Greeks and Romans didn’t know what to do with Moses’ style of leadership. But the Moses chapter ended up on the cutting room floor because the great biblical prophet didn’t leave a trove of personal writings the way other characters did.” [4]

I wholeheartedly agree with Brooks that “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. . . . Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside—from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.” Providing such assistance is a major duty for family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions and institutions like congregations, both Christian and Jewish. A subsequent post will discuss our shared need for “redemptive assistance from exemplars.”

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[1] Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House; New York, 2015). The New York Times review of the book, in my opinion, is a very unhelpful grappling with the book. (Iyer, Résumé vs. Eulogy, N.Y. Times Book Review (April 29, 2015).)  Much more on point is Gerson, David Brooks’ new book: ‘The Road to Character,’ and a path to grace, Wash. Post (April 23, 2015), A review in the Guardian from London complains, “Any reference to how economics – the lack of money or status – shapes character is myopically absent.” (Roberts, The Road to Character review—a smug search for the roots of good nature, Guardian (April 20, 2015).)

[2] Item 14 about leadership seems out of place on this list of moral virtues. It is a succinct statement of a classical conservative political philosophy ala Edmund Burke, and one may certainly be a moral person and an exponent of this philosophy. But, in my opinion, this point is not a sine qua non of moral virtue. For similar reasons, I also wonder whether item 12 about “epistemological modesty” should be in this list of moral virtues.

[3] The subjects of these short biographies are Frances Perkins (“The Summoned Self”); Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Self-Conquest”); Dorothy Day (“Struggle”)’ George C. Marshall (“Self-Mastery”); A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin(“Dignity”); George Eliot (“Love”); St. Augustine (“Ordered Love”); and Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne (“Self Examination”).

[4] Eisner, The Road to David Brooks’ Character, Forward (April 23, 2015).

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prior posts have examined the substance of the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, the performance of Joseph Welch, the Army’s lawyer, in the hearings, and the Army’s hiring of Welch for this purpose.  Now we look at the role of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in these events.

During the hearings, President Eisenhower maintained his public distance from the battle between Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Army. The President believed that any public criticism of McCarthy by the President would merely enhance the Senator’s publicity value without achieving any positive purpose and that it was the Senate’s constitutional responsibility, not the President’s, to curb the Senator.

George C. Marshall

Eisenhower did so despite having an intense dislike of McCarthy and his methods. This stemmed from the Senator’s past attacks on George C. Marshall, who was Eisenhower’s friend and Army colleague and who was the former Secretary of State in the Truman Administration. The dislike was exacerbated by McCarthy’s attacks on several of Eisenhower’s top-level nominees in 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration, and by McCarthy’s investigation of the Army starting in 1953. Eisenhower said privately, “I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk.”

We now know, however, that the President was active behind the scenes to fight McCarthy.

Though his Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, Eisenhower selected Welch as the Army’s attorney. Before and during the hearings, privately within the White House, Eisenhower expressed his extreme displeasure with McCarthy and was active in various ways regarding the hearings.

Robert Stevens

Moreover, Eisenhower wanted to give McCarthy enough rope to hang himself even though the Army would suffer in the short run. When the initial hearings went badly for McCarthy, the Senator suggested that there be no more television coverage. Army Secretary Robert Stevens discussed this proposal with the President, who rejected the idea, saying, “Now we have the bastard right where we want him!” The proposal was rejected. Television coverage continued. McCarthy destroyed himself.

As another example of the “hidden hand” of the Eisenhower presidency, the President invited television-journalist, Edward R. Murrow, to the White House to congratulate him for his television program’s exposure of McCarthy’s methodology.

When the hearings were over, the Army’s lawyers, Joseph Welch and James St. Clair, had a private meeting at the White House with the President. The President congratulated them on their presentation of the Army’s case and agreed with Welch that the main effect of the hearings had been to expose McCarthy’s disgraceful tactics before a national audience and that this exposure would ultimately benefit the country.1[1]


[1] Subsequent posts will review Welch’s activities after the hearings and his background. I interviewed Fred Fisher and James St. Clair in 1986 and have reviewed many source materials that document the assertions in this post. If anyone wants to see the bibliography of these sources, I will do so in another post at the conclusion of this series. Just make such a request in a comment to this or the other posts in this series.  By the way, after the hearings, Welch and St. Clair also had a private meeting with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had been one of Welch’s law school professors at Harvard.

Growing Up in a Small Iowa Town

In 1949 my parents and I moved to my Dad’s home town of Perry, Iowa– 6,000 population only 40 miles northwest of Des Moines. My Dad bought an interest in the Perry Granite Works. My Mother soon thereafter started working as an assistant librarian at the town’s Carnegie Library and later became its Head Librarian.

I finished my last two years of elementary school in Perry followed by six years of junior and senior high school. Although there were not many optional courses in the schools, I did have math through trigonometry, physics, chemistry, speech, American and English literature, world history and social studies. I also took typing and at least one shop class. (The only foreign language was Latin, which I did not take because I was confident I would go to nearby Iowa State University to become an engineer and have no need for the language and because I was scared of Latin.) I had some excellent teachers; the ones I especially recall are Emma Hepker, Charles Bennett, Elsa Hay, Gayle Junkin, David Evans and Leonard Rossman.

I always did well in school and finished as the 4.00 valedictorian of my high school class of 62 members and as a member of the National Honor Society. I was a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship and National Honorary Society Scholarship. (Close, but no cigar.) The local Elks Club named my best friend and me “The Most Valuable Students” of our class, and he and I were the town’s representative at Hawkeye Boys State where I was elected Secretary of the mock Iowa Senate.

I was active in the Speech Club and served as its president my senior year. I won top honors in state contests in radio speaking and extemporaneous speaking. (There was no debate program.)

I lettered in football my junior and senior years. I played offensive and defensive end even though I was not very big (155 lbs.), tall (5’10”), fast or strong. One of my favorite football stories is about tackling the star running back on the team from Winterset (John Wayne’s hometown); I did not tackle low like you are supposed to do; instead I tackled him straight up; he was carried him off the field on a stretcher while I put my helmet back on and continued playing. The captain of the team my senior year was my best friend, who played center at 135 pounds. (A medical problem prevented my playing my freshman and sophomore years.)

I also lettered in track as a member of relay teams, and in the summer I played shortstop or second base on a local town baseball team. The “Perry Wildcats” we were called. After finishing high school, I managed the team one summer.

Another extracurricular activity was concert and marching band. I played the alto saxophone and occasionally was a soloist in concerts and state music contest.

Playing the tenor saxophone with me in the band was Norman Lewiston, who was a year ahead of me and a tall, socially awkward, farm boy. He, however, excelled in the sciences and was the valedictorian of his class. Later he became a respected physician and Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. After he died in 1991, each of his three wives discovered the existence of the other two. This real-life drama was made into a movie–The Man with Three Wives–starring Beau Bridges as Norman. The concluding scene in the movie has one of the wives returning to the farm just east of Perry and throwing Norman’s ashes to the wind.[1]

 

Perry Methodist Church

The local Methodist Church was another center of activity. I was in the Youth Choir and a member of Methodist Youth Fellowship, and its president my senior year. I fondly remember when our church was visited by five college students on what they called a Youth Caravan to assist the MYF programming. The senior pastor was Rev. Arlie Krussell, who was reserved in what seemed like an English manner; he urged me to go into the ministry.

In junior high, I had a newspaper route for The Des Moines Register. Later for several summers I detasseled seed corn in the area. I also worked as a sales clerk at a local men’s clothing store and did all sorts of jobs at my Father’s monument store. After I had a driver’s license, I drove the Perry Granite Works truck to local cemeteries to deliver and often install the monuments. I also learned how to sandblast the names and dates of birth and death of the deceased into the granite stones.

On Saturday nights my friends and I frequently would “shoot the drag,” i.e., drive in one of our cars up and down the few main streets of the town. We also had pork tenderloin sandwiches at “Sam and Chuck’s” restaurant at the east end of town or a “Maid-Rite” sloppy-joe hamburger at the town’s only franchise operation. (We had no pizza restaurant. One had to drive to Des Moines to get this delicacy.)

There were many aspects to life in this small town that were enjoyable. I seized the many opportunities it offered.

I was interested in politics back then. For example, The Des Moines Register reported that a high school teacher in northern Iowa had been fired for assigning certain books to his students. My letter to the editor protesting his dismissal was published in the same newspaper. Soon thereafter I started receiving letters and materials from the Young Communist League in the U.S.S.R.

I was growing up during the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In the Fall of my senior year of high school I moderated a school assembly about the 1956 presidential election between Eisenhower/Nixon and Stevenson/Kefauver. As was true in Iowa and the U.S. as a whole, the Republican candidates won by a large margin in our mock election.

The Cold War overshadowed my high school years. The Korean Conflict ended in 1953 after “Ike” Eisenhower had pledged in his first campaign to go to Korea to end the war. Just before I entered high school, Joseph Stalin died, and Nikita Krushchev became the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for transmitting U.S. atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R. J. Robert Oppenheimer was charged with possible treason. There was open-air testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The Soviets crushed revolts in Poland and Hungary. The first nuclear-powered submarine and the first satellite–Sputnik–were launched.

In the U.S. civil rights issues were prominent. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then 27 years old, organized a boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama while in Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus challenged the Federal Government over school desegregation in Little Rock.

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate now that television was new in these years. I remember when my parents bought our first small, black-and-white TV set. The first World Series I watched was the 1950 Yankees-Phillies match with Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford of the Bronx Bombers and Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty of the Phillies. I also recall watching news of the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 when the Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, punctured McCarthy’s big ego.

Elvis Presley burst onto the national stage with such hits as “Love Me Tender,” “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock.” I remember watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, when the TV cameras were not allowed to focus on his shaking pelvis. Little did we know at the time that we were witnessing the start of an American cultural phenomenon.

In this and other ways, television was just starting to break down the sense of social isolation I felt growing up as an only child in a small town in Iowa, far away from where things were really happening–Washington, D.C. and New York City. Europe and the rest of the world were even farther away, places that I never thought I would visit some day. Iowa, of course, was (and still is) primarily an agricultural state, which did not have much status in the larger world. Nor did my Dad’s business. I did not want to be trapped into taking over this business although this was never mentioned as something expected of me. All of this produced in me a sense of being an outsider. This sense of isolation also helped motivate me to work hard at school as my way to escape this small town and its life.[2]


[1] Paddock, Doctor Led Three Lives with Three Wives: Polygamy: Stanford Professor never divorced and kept households with each of the women. Truth emerged after his death in August, L.A. Times (Oct. 14, 1991); The Man With Three Wives, http://www.fandango.com/themanwiththreewives_v467704/plotsummary.

[2] I already have mentioned my visits to eastern universities in the summer before my senior year of high school to explore the possibility of going there for college before I decided to go to Grinnell College. (Post: Selecting a College (Aug. 10, 2011).)