Monthly Archives: March 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cut to the Core

A Young Man Being Introduced to the Liberal Arts by Sandro Boticelli, c. 1484.

A few weeks ago, in a blog perhaps uninspiringly entitled, “The Difficult Road,” I wrote about how valuable my college education has proved to be, how life-changing a course in anthropology was, how moving a course in history was, how challenging a course in Latin or Greek turned out to be. Hearing, if only imperfectly, the voice of Homer, considering the ways that party politics have stayed constant from antiquity to today, reflecting on the crisis of urban poverty and crime—these are just a few of the core issues that I was privileged to consider at Dickinson College, where I studied so many years ago.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Coincidentally I have a friend who teaches in a college here in Texas which is undergoing deep reflection on what constitutes a liberal education. They are looking at their own core issues. I say core issues because my friend’s institution is, in fact, reexamining what some call distribution requirements but others, more metaphorically, call the core, for those studies do in fact form the very core of what constitutes a liberal arts degree. At his institution there are a number of folks who want to trim that core significantly, chiefly for practical reasons. Some want to see the mathematics requirement eliminated (me genoito, St. Paul once wrote—“God forbid!”), as some students don’t like it; others, the science requirement curtailed, still others, literature and art removed from the core (nefas! [Latin for “an abomination”]) —after all, they say, literature isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—and finally, the study of non-English language done away with (double nefas!). Everyone speaks English nowadays, they argue. Besides, they add, students can simply elect to take those things on their own. And, they add pragmatically, the parents are wont to complain when their children find this or that course distasteful, uninteresting, and—and this is the big one—too time-consuming, too hard. There is no need to impose language or literature or art or even math on anyone. Those who have interest in math, can simply choose to study it; those with interest in language, can do the same. One of their more vocal proponents, so I heard, spoke at a town hall meeting, citing, a la ancient Greek rhetoric, the case of his own children: they simply hate, he stated contentiously, taking “superfluous” courses that are not in their area of study. His children, he apparently argued, would do much better (or at least be much happier) were they allowed simply to take courses in which they had genuine interest. Their grades would be better, their attitude better, their experience of college, much better overall.welcome

Now on the surface of it, that argument might seem to make sense. It is at least in part, right. No doubt the grades of the students—and I don’t mean just one person’s children but all students—would be higher. No doubt the students would seem happier, as they could simply take whatever they wanted. And, at any rate, if they were unhappy, they would have no one to blame but themselves. All true.

But the rationale for core requirements isn’t to make college enjoyable for students. College is, for many people, a very enjoyable and even “fun” time in their lives; but it is fun in spite of, in most cases, not because of the core requirements. I remember signing up for classes that I didn’t really want to take but I was required to take. And I made the most of them. I learned to enjoy a class in something that I failed at first to appreciate because I knew that somehow it was ultimately beneficial. I didn’t know then, but that somehow was the result of a group of faculty members sitting around a table and determining for me what was good for me. Their authority for that assessment lay in their expertise, their study, their publications and, yes, their instincts. They did not consider the complaints of students. They did not consider the much more vociferous complaints of parents. They did not have a “target number” of credits that they were aiming for. Rather, they considered only what they sincerely believed was good for me, or at least me envisioned as the average Dickinson student. And though I didn’t then know precisely why I was thankful for their guidance, I was ultimately very thankful for it.

I say ultimately because at the time—like nearly everyone, I had fun in college in spite of the workload, not because of it—I would never have said that I was happy to have all those distribution requirements. But I understood the reason for them, even then. And perhaps, in some general way, I was grateful for them, even then. I am more grateful for them now because I know what they did for me: they forced me to learn. To learn mathematics, science, art and even Latin. But I would never have been able to say as much then or now, had the Dickinson core been cut to its core, been trimmed, been decimated in the name of some practical goal like the rate of graduation, appeasing overly concerned parents or making students’ college experience generally happier or more enjoyable. In fact, I would have been cut to my own core, for my intellectual and to some extent spiritual core was formed then and now is and will forever be indebted to that liberal arts education that I received so many years ago. I say it again: I would have been cut to what would ultimately form my own core.books-travel

So I wish my friend and his college well. Would that that institution come to its senses and hold fast to the core of its curriculum, of its very being, and preserve its character that it might vouchsafe that character to those whom it seeks to educate for a better life and a better future. What for each student might well become his or her very core is at stake.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Multi-culti Irish

st-patricks-dayThere is nothing sweeter to a Welshman than confusion about the Irish, especially when the confusion comes from the president of the United States, the vice president of the United States (though only a little, in the case of Mr. Pence) and, best of all, from the speaker of the house, because he is actually of Irish descent—nothing sweeter: nid oes unrhyw beth felysach to Cymro. And in this sweetness, the Irish turn out to be rather multi-culti; a bit Irish, a bit Nigerian, and a wee bit Scot.

Why? Well, it stems, I suppose, from the irrational rivalry between the Welsh and the Irish, a contest that we Welsh have pretty much never won. Of course, despite their endless rivalrly, the Welsh and Irish have often been united. Who could forget the Battle of Banbridge, the 100th anniversary of which approaches in July four ywelsh flag blowingears hence? Then Welsh and Irish stood firm against the Scots and English, achieving Irish independence. But not Welsh independence. And that is why, I suppose, the Welsh love it when President Trump gets an “Irish” proverb so hilariously wrong.

What did President Trump do this time, you might be wondering, if you haven’t been following the “Irish in the News” section of your local paper. Well, according to David Quinn of People magazine, in the midst of the visit of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny to Washington D.C., Mr. Trump quoted (properly in a speech, not a nattering via twittering) an apparently allegedly Irish proverb:

“As we stand together with our Irish friends, I’m reminded of a proverb—and this is a good one, this is one I like. I’ve heard it for many, many years and I love it.”[1]

shamrocksThis was particularly poignant as Mr. Quinn tells it, because there were no less than twenty reporters from Ireland stationed nearby. There was the annual Shamrock Ceremony, during which the American president ritualistically receives a gift bowl of shamrocks. Then, having accepted the gift, the president is called upon, of course, to say a few words. This is when Mr. Trump’s speech went off the rails, so to say, for he cited not an Irish proverb but the second stanza of a poem, “Remember to Forget,” by a Nigerian poet (Albashir Adam Alhassan), of which I quote the first two stanzas here:

Always remember to forget,

The things that make you sad,

But never forget to remember,

The things that make you glad.

Always remember to forget

The friends that proved untrue,

But never forget to remember

Those that have stuck by you.

Ironically, Mr. Alhassan, according to NBC News (in an article by Mary O’Hara and Alexander Smith[2]) is a Muslim. So, how did Mr. Trump go from Ireland to Nigeria, from the celebration of the legacy of a Christian evangelist such as St. Patrick to the gentle but certainly not Irish words of Mr. Alhassan? Can’t answer that one.

While Mike Pence’s “Top of the Morning,” spoken to a select audience representing Ireland at a breakfast that he was hosting at his residence to honor the Irish, drew the overly sensitive twittering response of an Irish journalist by the name of Órla Ryan, who stated in all caps that the expression is not used, still the more hilarious bit came from another Ryan, our very own speaker of the house, who attributed golf to the Irish (when every real golfer knows that it is a Scottish game in origin).

What lessons can we learn about ourselves—whether we are Irish or Welsh or Nigerian or something altogether different—from this series of ridiculous missteps on St. Patrick’s Day? First, perhaps, we can learn to lighten up. We live in an age when everyone takes everything and everyone else (and themselves!) so seriously. Good gracious, can we learn to be gracious again? Second, maybe we should learn some real Irish proverbs, for some are quite wonderful; even a Welshman will admit that. Try this one, a beautiful and no doubt somewhat familiar Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.[3]

That’s a nice one, and would have been even nicer than the quote from Mr. Alhassan’s poem. But if Mr. Trump was feeling grouchier, he could instead, had he done his homework, have cited a much stronger verse, also quite Irish, one that doesn’t remember to forget but actually remembers not to forget:

May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of Damnation that the Lord himself can’t find you with a telescope.[4]

That’s a lot firmer, as it were, than what Mr. Trump actually said. And given the world in which we live perhaps more appropriate.

But enough of citing missteps that were intended to honor the Irish and making fun of the Irish for it. Let’s close with one more Irish proverb, a good one—multi-culti as it spans all cultures (at least where potatoes grow)—and kind, to boot: “It’s easy to halve the potato where there’s love.” I like that one.

And now, to quote the vice president, “Top of the morning to you!”








Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Shadows of Suffering

No blog can begin to address in just a few words the problem of suffering. But perhaps it can shed light on it, that the shadows effected by that light might tell a story.

national-lotteryThe content of this story is not entirely unknown. Indeed, certain aspects of it have been in the news lately. Let’s start with the recent account of a woman by the name of Jane Park in England’s green and pleasant land. While one news outlet salaciously focused on Jane’s corporal curves, the real story lies in her revolting rebuke of Britain’s national lottery. Now, for the record, I am not defending the lottery system, an institution that raises false hopes and essentially institutionalizes, with the state’s smiling approval, gambling. It is an obvious fact that the poor play the lottery, not the rich, so it is a clever tax on the poorest of the poor, engendering false hopes of false happiness, the proof of which is evident in the cantankerous claim of this tetchy (if buxom) protestor. Her complaint? “… it feels like winning the lottery has ruined my life. I thought it would make it ten times better, but it’s made it ten times worse,” she told a reporter. “I wish I had no money most days. I say to myself, ‘My life would be so much easier if I hadn’t won.’” According to that same news source, she is “… seeking legal assistance …” to file … “a lawsuit against UK’s National Lottery.”[1]

Let us contrast this kind of human suffering with another piece that has recently been in the news. A ten-year-old lad named Benjamin responded to a school assignment that required him to complete lines in a poem. The teacher had eighteen partial verses, beginning with simple phrases such as “I see,” “I feel,” and “I am.” Benjamin’s mother made the completed poem available to the National Autism Association which posted it on Facebook.[2] His exquisite lyrics tell the story of human suffering from the inside out, as true a first person narrative as one will ever read.benjamin-poem

How do these two instances of human suffering explain the problem of pain? They obviously do not. But they do suggest what you can do with pain. You can look at it and feel sorry for yourself, or you can stare it down and be bold and courageous. Martin Luther believed that our will is so bound by sin that we cannot do that in our natural state. Perhaps, and maybe more than just perhaps, he is right; we do need help. That’s the idea behind treatment programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other “unashamedly Christian”[3] recovery programs. That said, we can certainly see in any of our fellow human beings behaviors that are admirable and those that are not. I leave it for you to decide which of the two of these folks who suffer, Jane or Benjamin, have dealt with it in a more admirable way. One need not look very far or try very hard to find the answer.

Frontispiece of the first translation (1823 by Henry Cole) of Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will (1525)





Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Confusion about Race

triathlonThree years ago I was in a triathlon. I fear that it will be my only triathlon in part because I went 65 miles per hour down a steep hill on a bicycle—a happenstance that felt, even to my daredevil self, unsafe—and, in part (embarrassingly), because I got lost. I was flat out confused, during the running course, which way to go. As if an insult added to the injury of my sore and aching limbs, I wound up running an extra kilometer.

But that is not the confusion about race, to which this blog refers, nor is the famous case of a woman who recently claimed to be African American (and still does, so it seems) even though she is genetically Caucasian. That’s just weird. No, rather, I refer to an event in my life that occurred recently when I was confused (and apparently looked quite so) when I came upon a certain train platform in St. Louis, Missouri. That train platform is known as Delmar Station, and it is partially subterranean. One descends a series of comely, tiered steps to a lower level where one can buy a ticket and then cross the tracks on a walkway to get to trains running westward, toward the airport, on the other side from the machine and the eastbound track.


Being unfamiliar with this system, I began my descent down the comely flight of steps, pausing as another person clearly more familiar with that transit station pushed briskly by me. As I hesitated, a gentleman dressed in a semi-official looking St. Louis transit authority outfit, possibly beyond retirement age who had gone back to work to supplement his pension, inquired about my obviously hesitating gate. “Can I help you? You look lost.”

“I am,” I said, “as I am not familiar with this station. How does one get across the track to go westbound? Oh, and is that the ticket machine there?”

“Yes,” he said, “It is. And the passageway over the tracks is over there, to the right.” He gestured.

After a proper thank you, I continued my descent toward the ticket machine. Yet before I could even fumble through my wallet to find the cash to purchase the ticket, an emotional eruption broke forth from the woman who had briskly passed me.

“Why did you not ask me if I needed any help?” She asked the man in a highly accusing tone. “It’s because he is white. And it’s because he’s a man.” She answered her own question before the unsuspecting Information Assistant (for I think he had some such title) could even say a word.

“No, mam,” he responded, “It’s because he looked lost.”

At this point I tried to affirm the man’s correct assessment about my befuddlement but the woman shouted loudly over my statement.

“No,” she proclaimed, “It’s because he is white. A white male. And I am a black female. I was overlooked because of my race. He was catered to because of his race. You are a (insert-expletive-here) racist. Go expletive yourself, you expletive racist.”

The information assistant seemed taken aback. Perhaps he was so because he, like the woman, was African American. He continued to show a gentleness that befit the wisdom of his years. “No mam,” he said decorously, “It is simply because this man looked lost.”

Not accepting his explanation, she offered several more expletives before she purchased her ticket; I had already bought mine by now. I then crossed to the westbound track, she took a seat on the eastbound side, directly, as it happened, across from me. Heated from the previous exchange, she now directed her antagonism towards me. “You and your expletive-ing people held mine in chains. Here, right here,” she said pointed to her ankle, slashing at it with the side of her hand, “is where you put your expletive-ing shackles. You beat me, you raped me. You made me your possession. You will burn in hell. God, my God, will punish you and all of your kind.” Now I was taken aback, even to a greater extent, I imagine, than the kindly retiree assistant whom she had accosted moments before.

backpackA friend of mine, who is in fact of a racial minority, insists that white people like me have no real understanding of white privilege. Whites cannot, he says, understand what it is like to be from a minority group. He believes, as I suppose all who subscribe to the notion of white privilege do, that folks from minority backgrounds carry around with them an invisible backpack of weights that pull them down, weights that are the constructs of disadvantages that society has imposed on them. This woman, my friend likely would argue, was merely showing me a small portion of the contents of her backpack, the extreme pain that I and other Caucasians have caused in her life. In any case, my friend once told me, I and nearly all white people are virtually asleep in our own dreamlike state when it comes to this issue. You might as well leave them asleep, he says, because they don’t want to be woken up.

Now I’ve given this issue a lot of thought, in no small part because I have such high regard for my friend. I think he has some valid points. People, I would argue, all people, are fallen and anyone, I would also argue, in the “right” (really wrong) environment will seek the path of least resistance, will try to take the most comfortable way, ignoring those in need, ever taking more and more for themselves. They will do this no matter what race they are. Becoming aware that some folks feel very put upon because they have been maltreated owing to their heritage is one way of disrupting that comfort, and that is good, for that comfort needs to be disrupted or it will likely be unhesitatingly grasped after. But that might be where the period in the white privilege sentence needs to go. And maybe the term itself needs to be rethought.

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

The reason for that is it is a term that divides. It divides Caucasians from African Americans and other minorities. It takes a racial term and puts it front and center in the same manner that Black Lives Matter does. It says, racial division is important to me. In other words, whether it wants to hear or admit as much or not, it does the very thing that segregated bathrooms did until the extraordinarily noble, fantastically unifying and stupendously dignifying efforts of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I have a feeling that that good, noble and courageous soul would not want to celebrate the contents of the invisible backpack that that woman on the train platform did. He would, I think, were he alive today, encourage all folks, white and black, to discard their backpacks and love each other.

My friend about whom I wrote above would doubtless be quick to reprove me. What can I possibly know about this? Thus, I imagine, he would more than obliquely criticize. And who am I to say? After all, I’m a white guy with a backpack full of advantages. But I know of two people whose backpacks are not yet filled. These are two kid who have been in the news lately, and I think they can answer very well to the woman on the platform or even to my idealistic friend better than I can. One’s name is Jax, and he got his hair cut so that he could look just like his best friend. That friend, Reddy, is African American; Jax is white. By getting a matching haircut, Jax wants to be a twin of Reddy playfully to confuse his teacher so that she can’t tell them apart. While someone might say that celebrating our differences is a beautiful thing, perhaps confusion, like Jax’ and Reddy’s, about race that celebrates our shared humanity is beautiful, too—far more beautiful.