Monthly Archives: September 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Life in the Old Country

I’m afraid the title of this blog is a bit misleading. It sounds like I really know something about the old country, Wales—that I know specifically what it was like for the Jones clan, the Evans clan, the Hughes clan or the Eynon clan. I don’t. In fact, I can only imagine what it must have been like in mid-nineteenth century Wales. I can get a rough idea, though, from a piece by Chris Evans (a distant relative?), who in 2012 wrote a for the BBC on mid-nineteenth century Wales. Evans describes the most difficult of living conditions, living conditions that, even if they were not quite as harsh in Llwynhendy, a hamlet contiguous with Llanelli, as they were in Merthyr Tydfil, were undoubtedly hellish nonetheless.

How do I know? They left. By “they,” of course, I mean the Jones’ and the Evans’. The Jones’ didn’t bring much with them—just the contents of a black trunk marked with the name of Lucy Jones on the lid. But they most certainly did leave, and to cross an ocean, surely never to return, takes more than courage.

Courage is only the first step. It is not borne out of a desire to see the world or a quest for new opportunity. Rather, it requires a desire to get away from something, a strong desire. And what would the Jones’ and Evans’ have been fleeing? Well, if the article cited above is correct, it was the oppressive industrialization of Wales, from coal to ironworks, and the concomitant lack of opportunity for even the brightest to break out of the virtual caste system that they had been born into. If your father was a miner, you would almost certainly be one, too. If your father worked in the iron industry, chances are, were you a young man, you would, too.

And if that were not push enough, add to it a notable lack of educational opportunities. Now I’m not talking just about a robust liberal education, the kind I wrote about last week—the kind that allows the student to learn English literature, mathematics, science, art, and offers two years (at the very least) of language study. Rather, I’m actually speaking about education on a much smaller scale—what we would refer to as a basic high school education, or even a technical education that permits the person who receives it to move up the social ladder one or two rungs, not ascend it all at once. But to say that such educational opportunities were scarce in the mining towns of Wales would be a gross understatement. They simply did not exist. Yet how did David Evans, whose musical influence upon the family was profound—my daughter owns and still plays his violin—learn to play the violin, you might ask, and how did he get his hands on such an instrument in the first place?

The answer to that is shrouded in a bit of mystery, but suffice it to say that David would seem to have been born in America; whether his mother or father had been able to play the violin in Wales, we shall never know. But we can imagine. While we can imagine that he was likely not to have been the first person in the family to have musical ability—any Welsh miner could sing good Welsh hymns at Sunday service or even as he walked to work on a weekday morning—it is likely that David Evans was the first person in the family to play the violin, or even to be able to afford one. He would, himself, go on to write lovely Welsh hymns, one or two of which he co-wrote with a certain Reverend Hugh Griffith, whose name figures prominently in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes.

After such struggles, the descendants of David Evans, through the Jakes line, have had the great privilege of studying music at a major university in Texas with an excellent school of music and liberal arts. Sadly, even as I write this, however, that very university’s college of liberal studies is considering severely reducing its core requirements—the pitiable indulgence of the constant Sirens’ call for “practical” education. Hopefully, as there is more at stake merely than joi de vivre and simply beauty—there is, too, at stake truth, not the Keatsian parallel of truth and beauty but the truth that lies deep in a man’s soul, the profound truth that a woman like Lucy Hughes Jones was willing to travel across the sea to obtain—that truth is at stake, as it is, and must always be, the central goal of true liberal education. It needs to be preserved for a new set of dreamers, a new generation of immigrants longing to discover through music, art, science, mathematics, literature and language study the eternal Truth that has formed us and continues to shape us, and ultimately that binds each and every one of us together in complex, yet profoundly simple, humanity.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Illiberal Education, Shakespeare, and Campus Rape

It is fun to go on a college campus, even that of a college you never attended. It reminds you how privileged you are. You are walking across a mall that famous scholars have walked across and, more than just famous scholars, so have some of society’s great leaders. The campus that I was on this week for a breakfast with some old friends who are heavily engaged in the academic enterprise once held the soles of the shoes of visiting lecturers such as LBJ, Margaret Thatcher, Desmond Tutu, and Ronald Reagan. So it is that a college or a university campus has a way of making you feel small, small in a good way—small, as in part of something greater than yourself—young and fresh, and eager to learn, whatever your age might be.

Yet today you find two dangerous, and perhaps not unrelated, trends developing on college campuses. These were among the otherwise quite pleasant topics of conversation that I had during my breakfast with old friends when I found myself visiting a local college this past week. The friends and I had been in a Think Tank, or if not quite that, a talent cluster whereby which we had spent a few weeks thinking together about how best to lead—years ago, considering leadership in a variety of settings. And now we had all grown in different directions but, on the invitation of one of us, we were once again sitting and talking delightfully in a campus dining establishment enjoying a delicious breakfast and a rich, multi-various and even for a few moments, disturbing conversation.

I say disturbing because we happened to light upon a ghastly topic, which is one of the two trends that I mentioned above, campus rape. We agreed that it is much more widely reported now than it had been even fifteen years ago when we had been in our select group together. And that, of course, was good. We agreed, too, that in the current climate the alleged aggressor was more or less guilty until proven innocent—not a good thing but perhaps apotropaic or at least admonitory. We spoke about the relative lack of a moral code among college students today, with relative being the operative word, as the notion behind the phrase “it’s all relative” (and old phrase now) had, over the last twenty years not just gained ground but flat out triumphed. Then we all laughed, as we knew that now we, too, sounded “old,” as we once thought, when we were in our twenties or thirties, people in their fifties had sounded to us.

But sadly we only brush-stroked a part of the solution to the current amoral climate. Let me define “amoral” here before I try to address the solution. By amoral I mean not simply that rapes happen on a college campus, but that many young men and women, whether of religious upbringing or not, nowadays are swift to engage in premarital sex. I’m not saying that premarital sex didn’t happen when I was in college—indeed, it did, as my generation found itself in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution. But I am saying that the trend toward premarital sex as the norm that began then has by now supplanted, by and large, even the attempt at chastity. Less people come to college with a moral foundation that was forged in their homes; or, if they do, their parents would seem conveniently to have left out the idea that sex is a special thing to be enjoyed by a married couple, not by just any two people who find each other attractive.

Why? Sociologists and many journalists would say that this is the case, at least in part, because the parents themselves had sex before they were married, whether with each other or multiple other partners.[1] Now parents would seem to feel it is hypocritical to tell their children that they should be married first. Besides, many may reason, that kind of legalistic thought is old-fashioned, not part of today’s mainstream thought, whether that be simply the popular morality one hears espoused at a Starbucks on a Saturday morning or one might hear in a mainstream church. And we want to be in the mainstream, we want to keep in step with our environment, to do what the world around us is doing. Right?

Let me now return to the setting of the delightful breakfast, delightful in every way except, of course, the sad moment when we considered campus rape. It seems to me that the current way of dealing with the vast problem of campus rape is to create a thoroughgoing legalistic culture, with “Report It!” reminders everywhere adorning a college campus—on T-shirts, on posters, on the university webpage—all prompts to the young person that she (or occasionally he) needs to let the authorities know if something dreadful has occurred. Certainly that is important, as the gathering of proof must be done almost immediately after a violent act such as sexual assault.

But to get at the underlying causes—to prevent rape from happening in the first place—that seems to me to be something that should ideally first come from a home environment that teaches young folks that their bodies are not commodities to be “had” by another or “used” by themselves, even if the use is intended to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. That is still “use,” maybe even abuse. Secondarily—and this, too, runs counter to mainstream thought—perhaps another arena in which discussions about one’s body and one’s sexuality might come into play could be a college classroom, via literature. If a student has the opportunity to read Virgil’s fourth Aeneid and have a robust discussion about it, maybe, just maybe, he or she can see the unintended consequences of a relationship founded on sex (what Dido saw as marriage, Aeneas saw as a fling). If those same students might read C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, or read about tragic love in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the humorous circumstances of courtship in Love’s Labor Lost, then real conversations might be held on a college campus—conversations between friends, flowing from classroom to dormitory—about love, whereby love might be distinguished from lust and so on. I know in my college that very thing happened. I can remember Plato spurring conversations about ideas, Aristotle about virtue, Augustine about life’s journey and God’s call.

“Take away those great books,” I said as I directed the discussion to the second topic that I referred to above, “and you take away the opportunities for rich and meaningful conversations. You’ve changed “liberal” education to “illiberal” education. As learning becomes more and more career-oriented, we should expect our young folks to see their education as merely a means to an end, and their bodies, too, as merely something to be used with a view to a goal—even a good goal, such as a loving relationship. That good goal of the loving, perhaps even monogamous relationship,” I waxed on, “parallels the good goal of eventual gainful employment. But the means by which each is achieved—that makes all the difference.”

I was done. As you may have guessed, I had managed to throw a wet blanket over an otherwise delightful social event. I succeeded in wiggling my way out of the momentary yet deafening silence that followed my disputation by making a quip about my penchant for biking just about everywhere and my friends thinking it is because I’ve had a DUI. They laughed about that heartily. But I meant what I had said. The solution to our social ills must rely exclusively on the moral formation that may or may not occur in the home. Years ago that environment may have been the incubator of virtue; it is no longer. Rather, it may be that the last bastion of moral formation lies in books, books with great ideas and great ideals, perhaps out-of-fashion but never out-of-date. These ideals, shared via literature with many of the great men and women who came before, might just make us feel small in a good way, a part of something greater than ourselves, and eager to keep on learning, whatever our age may be.



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cake

When I was in college, the word “cake” was used to describe an easy course or an easy test. It was “cake,” meaning of course, “a piece of cake.” That’s why, when a close college-professor friend used the word “cake” (oddly over coffee) to describe how the liberal arts core of his university was being gutted, I was surprised. (Now his university is a large, private university in Texas, which for the sake of my friend’s anonymity I won’t mention by name, as he indicated he had some qualms about anyone knowing just who was criticizing the power move by a committee hand-picked by the dean himself.) That said, that word, cake, really jumped out at me as I sat there sipping from my favorite mug, the one with Axel Munthe on it.

“What do you mean?” I queried.

“Well, it seems that students and parents alike,” he said, “don’t find the traditional core valuable enough to want to be bothered to stick with it.” Now I knew, of course, from my own liberal education at Dickinson College years ago what this meant. The core requirements are the traditional courses—some mathematics, at least one (usually two) science class(es) with time in the laboratory, a history course, a philosophy course, at least a couple of English classes, four semesters or the equivalent of a non-English language—at the best colleges and universities about half of the classes a student will take are core classes.

“What do the parents and students have to do with the core?” I asked, though I anticipated the very answer he gave.

“Well, it seems that many colleges are moving to a consumer model—if the customer demands a different product, we have to adapt. And that’s what I mean by there is confusion on the dean’s part about the cake.”


“Indeed,” he continued. “In caving into the consumer model which is driven by rankings generated by a magazine [sic!], the dean has clearly confused the icing and the cake. He is treading the core of what we are doing as if it were just icing on some pre-professional/job training cake, not the cake itself, upon which the job training and pre-professional job fairs are added like sweet floral decorations on an otherwise finely baked cake. Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and Homer are seen as mere icing, and job security as the cake. It’s upside down, man, it’s all wrong. And it seems quite clear that the dean wants it served that way, and he won’t listen to anyone telling him how inverted (and perverse) such a baking process is.”

Now I admit here that his analogy, sweet as it might be, is far from perfect. But it got me thinking. The fact is, when I look back on my own education at Dickinson the courses that shaped me the most were not simply those in my major—okay, as an Ancient Greek major, Homer’s Odyssey had, needless to say, a major impact on me and informed at least the spirit of the Curious Autobiography. But I shall never forget Milton—indeed, to this day I hold many sonnets of Milton in my mind, memorized and there to help me when I need them like Scripture—or Shakespeare or even my physics class or one of even greater impact, an anthropology class that considered South American urban poor. I studied art history, history, archery (for yes, physical education was also required) and drama, too. The core, not my individual major, was the center of my education. My major was, as my dear friend said, the icing on the cake. My education was the cake.

But it was far from “cake.” It was hard. Yet in those days my mother, Elaine, whose story I will here shamelessly put in a plug for you to buy and read, would never have thought to call and complain because I didn’t do so well in my Calculus class—it’s true, I did not. Yet not doing well in that class was actually good for me. The teacher was not a good one, yet I learned great deal from him about how not to teach, and it was amply worth the D+ that I got in that class. I am truly grateful for my broad, liberal education—an education that has stayed with me my entire life and made me into a writer, a blogger, a father, a husband, and even an amateur athlete (to the extent that I am one). Yes, archery and racquetball and a few other physical education classes shaped me (pun intended), as well.

So, where does that leave my friend—I’m afraid it leaves him about to bake a cake upside down, or rather to turn into a confectioner not the baker he signed up to be. He will be in charge of icing only. His Homer class (for he teaches Homer pretty regularly) will be under-enrolled—indeed it will probably cease to exist in a few years. And who will read Shakespeare or Milton, since the class that they were required in will also be out of the core? And many students will know no mathematics now, as it, too, has been removed. I suspect that donors may be less excited about giving to the university, as well. (I have given quite a bit to that university in the past, but now I think my money shall go to my alma mater, Dickinson, where a liberal arts education, I am glad to say, remains intact.) I hope for my friend he can prevail upon the dean to save those classic (if not classical) authors; but he doubts he can. Still, let me close this blog with a “Viva Shakespeare!” if only just for old-times’ sake (or should I say old-times’ cake?).


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Wealth and Hurricanes

He “loves like a hurricane,” says John Mark MacMillan in a contemporary Christian song, referring to God. These days, with images of Harvey and Irma fresh in our minds, such a simile is indeed frightening. Such love does not immediately give the hearer peace of mind. It bends him, twists her; it is violent, uncontrolled; it is superabundant, dangerous.

A recent article described women valuing wealth more than men primarily for a surprising reason. While men would prefer to have money to splurge on material things, luxuries, sports cars, etc., women would prefer to have it for “security.” Most women would forego shopping, plastic surgery, and even a fancy vacation (though of course those who love travel would consider the last of these) to obtain this savings. The gist of the article is this: women are more sensible than men and would like simply to streamline their life, making it less hectic, more livable. “On average,” Julia Carpenter, the article’s author, writes, “the women surveyed said they’d consider around $2.4 million the number required to be considered ’wealthy.’ That’s nearly 30 times the net worth of U.S. households.”

The last bit of this jumped off the page at me, that figure of thirty times the net worth (net worth is not just liquid assets but everything combined, after debts are subtracted). The use of a calculator quickly reveals that such a figure means the net worth of the average household is $80,000. That is not one individual—that’s a family’s net worth. I verified this by a quick Google search.[1] While I could not find a definitive number for global net worth, it is apparent that that figure would be significantly lower than the average American household’s eighty grand. Quite significantly.

Not that I am against peace of mind—nearly everyone recognizes that having some savings is a good idea, as one should, if it is possible, be sensible. But amassing most of the money in the world—the top 1% has between 33 and 42% of it; the exact numbers are disputed[2]—how is that a good idea? Does everyone have to be Bill Gates? And anyway, how can one feel the hurricane’s force when bunkered in an entirely safe wine cellar on a private island?[3]

Which brings us back to John Mark MacMillan’s song. I suppose women are more sensible than men in wanting enough wealth not to have to worry constantly about how to make the bills. But the number that the article says they advanced—2.4 million—such a figure goes well beyond worrying about paying the electric bill.

Thus I close with this thought. When the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, their God offered them manna every day, gratis, poured down on the gentle winds of heaven, a provision, a blessing given to the people of God in time of need. But there was a condition: one could not gather more than one needed, except that he or she might not have to work on the Sabbath day. What a strange thing, when one thinks about it. God giving provision mercifully, every day; to turn the formula around, we, if we believe in him, receiving all that we need from his hand, every day. Does that preclude our working hard? No, of course not, for the notion of the manna is not a literal lesson—one eats heavenly provided food only—but rather a symbolic one, just as the hurricane is a symbol for the powerful love of God, a frightening one, these days.

I end this blog with this thought—the wind can come and blow away wealth, not just houses. That means that real peace of mind isn’t available to us, whether we are men or women or an entire household, by over-amassing wealth but instead, perhaps, only by feeling the wind, being aware both of its power and the provision that the winds of heaven can confer upon us, like manna. And if we have extra manna, maybe we should share it with those in need, like those now in the path of Irma or the wake of Harvey.

May those who have suffered from those hurricanes find that peace now, may they sense God’s grace in the midst of trouble and be provided earthly provision by those who care. May they, and all of us, find the peace of mind that doesn’t come with wealth, but comes from knowing that He who made the wind and the stars is with us in the darkest hours.






Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History

Each one of us has a personal history, and amidst that history is a story. I can recall very well in the nineties, when I thought the politically correct movement was at its highwater mark—never could I have anticipated the inundation of our current day, so high up on the mountain that its waters have created a generation of snowflakes—that some wanted to make a false etymology of history and create a category called herstory; i.e., the important contributions women have made to the world. The spirit of that venture was, of course, quite well justified: how often women are ignored, how often their talents and accomplishments are overlooked because of piggish, sexist attitudes that are, all too often, endemic to any given culture. And as much as has been accomplished, in part driven by a strong politically correct agenda, there is yet more to do. A woman is too often underpaid for the same work as a man—need I even mention (quite liberal but apparently not liberated) Hollywood as the locus classicus for this imbalance?

Yet the larger history—the one that is both ugly and beautiful, noble and ignoble, joyous in victory and often sad in defeat—that history, the one related not to “his” and “hers” but to the Greek word historia, meaning “witnessed events,” things that were seen (derived from the word eidon, the aorist of the Greek verb horao, meaning “see”), is another matter. It isn’t biographical, as “his” or “hers” might be. It is rather a wider narrative, involving men and women, social trends, economic trends, technology, even animals—need I mention the Zion Mule Corps at Gallipoli (Curious Autobiography, p. 256)? It can be looked upon askance, it can be extolled, it can be argued over and, most importantly, it can be learned from. But it can’t be unwritten.

Which brings us to Frank Rizzo. Elaine Jakes was no fan of Frank Rizzo. Though she lived in New Hope when he was the hardball mayor of Philadelphia, she and a number of other folks in that distant Philadelphian suburb felt that he was, by extension, their own mayor, as Philly was the nearest big city to Bucks County. Frank Rizzo is dead now, long dead, and though his body lies decaying in the grave, his aura, it would seem, has not passed away. There is a statue in Philadelphia to that former mayor, and a large mural on the wall of an apartment building. Yet it has become the fashion to deface such monuments, particularly if they are images of folks with whom you might disagree. Even if the vast majority of those protesting the mayor’s statue never knew him as mayor, or never knew him at all. I understand, of course, that Delbert Africa, was beaten badly when Mr. Rizzo as mayor ordered the eviction of the Move members from their squalid abode. But I rather would love to know if, when they are protesting, the vast majority of the protesters actually know about Delbert Africa, and even if they do, what removing Mr. Rizzo’s statue will accomplish. With the removal of Mr. Rizzo’s statue, to some extent we also remove the memory of Mr. Africa, and we remove dialogue about Mr. Rizzo’s legacy that is likely to have been both good and bad. We do not change history; rather, we suppress dialogue about it. If that’s not quite removing history, it is certainly whitewashing it.

Take God, for example. Perhaps one can see, after Hurricane Harvey, why someone might blame God for these disasters—certainly, if he is the God associated with the Bible, he could have prevented Harvey from ever happening. And it’s easy to blame God and religion for nearly all the atrocities that humans inflict upon each other. Don’t competing religions, after all, produce conflicts? Wasn’t Christianity responsible for the Crusades? Aren’t many of the terrorists of today, in places like Ireland at least, Christians? Isn’t at least some of the bombing that goes on nowadays done by radical Muslims, for example? Thus, one solution that some have advanced is simply to remove any hit of God or religion from monuments, schools, mottoes. Surely removing God from a motto, as Harvard did for its own in 2011, is more likely to produce a fundamental shift in society than simply pulling down a statue of Frank Rizzo or Robert E. Lee, for that matter.

Pulling down a statue of Robert E. Lee

Not that Frank Rizzo and Robert E. Lee are really all that comparable, other than the fact that both of their statues have come under fire—one actually already toppled, the other likely soon to be. I base this lack of comparability not on Elaine Jakes’ dislike of Mayor Rizzo, but on her admiration for General Lee, even though she obviously disagreed with him on the issue of slavery. Though she herself was quite unpolitical and, if anything, rather left-leaning and quite hopeful when Mr. Obama was first elected president. Elaine believed fervently that one could disagree with someone but still respect them or at least respectfully discuss their legacy. She saw the good of and, to some extent, contributed quietly to what was called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s. She greatly admired Martin Luther King Jr. She loved the Kennedys and the democrats of the 1960s, save President Johnson. She even threatened to move to Canada when Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968. (I was young and didn’t understand that she was only joking; when I went to school and told my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, that we were moving to Canada she had a going away party for me in mid-November of 1968. Poor Mrs. Hendrickson never understood why I never left.)

But Elaine never thought for a moment that you shouldn’t even listen to the other side. Had she had such an attitude, she herself would never have changed her opinion on the abortion issue (cf. Curious Autobiography, p. 100) or any other. She never thought that a statue of someone you might have disagreed with should be pulled down. She hated racism, despised and resisted what she would have called “male chauvinist pigs” (and Mr. Rizzo likely qualifies under both of these categories) and would speak up for the oppressed at any and every turn. But she did not and would never have advocated rewriting—or worse—suppressing history. There are lessons embedded in our history, lessons we can only learn if we acknowledge the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the insipid and intelligent in history. These things, the Greeks would remind us, are not myths but they were witnessed. We have written testimony about those who witnessed them. They are not matters of opinion, like “God must not exist because there was a flood or an earthquake.”

No, history is something that was witnessed and, for better or worse, is something to be remembered. Monuments can be despised, but do they need to be removed? Not if we are to remember our history, for history is a shared experience with good and bad, a positive and negative legacy for all, not just for some. If we lose our shared history, we shall never, I ween, have a shared future. May that future be our shared story, as well.