Meeting venue in Prague

visiting Prague

I’m briefly in Prague for a valuable symposium on “Democracy in the 21st Century: Challenges for an Open Society” organized by the Czech political research and reform group called Institute H21. I will share substantive ideas from the conversation when I’m home. In lieu of new comments about this beautiful city, I’ll share a link to an introduction I wrote during a longer visit here in 2008. Sometimes, I find my own writing from that long ago cringe-worthy, but I think this mini-essay about how to “read” the city of Prague holds up OK and may have some value for other visitors.

the progress of the king (note #4 from the Levine library)

Last week I wrote about my copy of the Rheims-Douai Bible, an English translation made by Catholics in 1582 and smuggled into Protestant England for Catholic laypeople to read. One of the translators, Edmund Campion, is now a saint, tortured to death for his secret work in England.

This Bible refutes the widespread myth that Catholics opposed translating and disseminating scripture. I think the myth sticks as a result of Protestant propaganda plus a desire to believe that religious bodies typically seek to control knowledge whereas technology (in this case, the printing press) liberates it.

I mentioned in passing that this Bible was printed in Douai, now a city in France, which then belonged to Philip II. I also inherited from my father a 1552 volume that describes some possessions of that monarch, who later became King of Spain, King of Portugal, King of Naples and Sicily, officially the King of England and Ireland for a few years, Duke of Milan, Lord of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, and the colonial ruler of the Americas from New Mexico to Peru. In my translation from the Spanish, it’s entitled The Most Happy Journey of the Highest and Most Powerful Prince, Don Philip, Son of the Emperor Charles V the Great, Through Spain and His Lands in Lower Germany, With a Description of All the Estates of Brabant and Flanders.

Douay is presented on pp. 161-3. It is a “very good and well-favored [suerte] town of Gallic Flanders on the banks of the River Scarpe.” It is the site of a “good monastery” that has produced several saints. Its jurisdiction extends over many nearby villages. In mid-paragraph, the text then launches into a description of the visit by the young Philip with his father, Charles V, “who came to eat at Orchies [now in France], which was made very fresh and special with fruits and bouquets, strewn in the streets as a sign of welcome, and there the prince first ate before entering Douay. … Out of the town came the burgomasters, knights, and counselors, very well accompanied, and in the field beyond was a flag with [pisaros – ?] and drums, and there were three hundred soldiers very well ordered in colorful arms and clothing, yellow and white, and at the gate of the city the clergy processed …” — and so on for a couple more pages.

The aim is evidently propagandistic, which doesn’t imply that the authors were insincere. Perhaps they thought that Philip was a “most happy” prince of a happy empire. He did, however, face a massive uprising in his Low Country dominions.

This book was written three decades before the English Bible was printed in Douai/Rheims, but it gives a flavor of the times, which were still feudal and chivalric.

See also: A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

lessons from the Virginia social studies controversy

In Politico, James Traub offers a deeply reported account of the recent conflict over standards in Virginia, entitled “Virginia Went to War Over History and Students Actually Came Out on Top.”

Standards are official guidelines about what must be taught in public schools. They may influence enforceable policies, such as which textbooks are purchased and what is covered on exams, and hence the experience of students and teachers. Standards for history and civics often provoke the most intense debates, because they address the nature of our society. Although I had no involvement in the Virginia episode, I have been deeply engaged in other efforts to write frameworks and model standards for social studies, and Traub’s account rings true to me.

A very brief summary: under former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the Virginia state department of education drafted new state social studies standards. Before these standards could be reviewed by the state board, Northam was succeeded by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, whose campaign emphasized his opposition to “woke culture” and “critical race theory.” Youngkin named a new superintendent of public instruction and a majority of members of the school board. With those appointees in place, the state paused and then dramatically rewrote the draft standards, with input from strong conservatives.

Then the board, despite its Youngkin majority, rejected the new draft as biased and error-prone. It stepped in and painstakingly revised the document in ways that satisfied all of its members (including those who had been appointed by Northam) and drew support from outside groups viewed as both liberal and conservative. Traub writes, “The six-month debate was an absolutely terrible experience for everyone involved, yet the standards the board finally approved achieved something almost miraculous: something close to unity.”

As an example of the results, the state board coalesced around this language in the new standards document:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of world, United States, and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of wars and genocide, including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that have occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples, the indelible stain of slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of totalitarian and communist regimes. Students also will study inspirational moments … 

For me, these are the most important general lessons from the controversy.

First, although people bring prior political views into debates about what should be taught, our opinions are highly diverse (not simply left or right), and most of us want students to encounter and assess ideas that we personally do not endorse. Philosophical diversity is valuable because even those of us who want students to encounter a wide range of views may have implicit biases that can be challenged in a discussion. When serious participants who are ideologically diverse try to write good standards or guidelines together, they need not polarize into two camps, or even take predictable positions as individuals.

Debates about content are nuanced and often involve the appropriate balance between social and political history, leaders and popular movements, compelling stories and complexities, and domestic and international affairs. These questions do not necessarily have liberal or conservative answers.

Second, the hot debates are not only about which topics and ideas should be “covered” but also about how to teach. Should all students be required to learn some information, whether it interests them or not? Or should students have a lot of choice about which topics to investigate? Should students encounter highly charged topics–at all ages, only as older teenagers, or at all? Specifically, should public schools confront students with ideas that challenge their sense that they belong and are valued in the school? Does it matter which students are so challenged? Should the emphasis be on skills or knowledge, on theory or practice, and on discourse or action?

Again, these debates do not line up so that there is a right and a left camp. For myself: I believe that all students should be required to confront some information about our past that many will find uncomfortable and that relatively few students would seek out if they could drive all the questions in their classrooms. This position would seem to align me with pedagogical conservatives, except that the same points are being made most forcefully by progressives. For example, The 1619 Project is all about conveying facts deemed essential.

As many have noted, the new Florida African American History Standards basically suggest that no one supported slavery. Florida students must learn “how the members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery” and “how slavery increased … in spite of the desire of the Continental Congress to end the importation of slaves.” Florida students will study white people who were abolitionists, but no one who actually defended slavery. John C. Calhoun is never mentioned, let alone assigned as an author to read. Florida students are supposed to “recognize” the title of Dred Scott as a “landmark Supreme Court case” but do not have to read that decision, which declared that people of African descent could never be US citizens.

I would require students to read racist texts (no “de-platforming” Sen. Calhoun or Chief Justice Taney) and learn specific information. Ron DeSantis defends omitting that information and has ordered that “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” In partial contrast, the new Virginia standards say: “Students should be exposed to the facts of our past in a content-rich and engaging way, even when those facts are uncomfortable.”

Since these issues have many dimensions and nuances, it should not be surprising to find views shared across political differences. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is generally considered conservative. Commenting on the draft Virginia standards, their reviewers said, “The Dred Scott decision is not noted by name in any of the U.S. history course standards. Its enormous impact should at the least be mentioned here in what is (presumably) the high school course.” Likewise, they criticized the omission of McCarthyism, which “led to the violation of Americans’ rights.” I find myself perfectly aligned with this feedback despite being generally quite liberal as a voter.

Third, even when people’s views are diverse, nuanced, and unpredictable, there can be political advantages to presenting differences as polarized and defining the stakes so that a majority will agree with your own side. Glenn Youngkin waged a campaign against “woke” ideology in public schools. From the opposite end of the spectrum, someone went to a lot of trouble to create a popular meme about innocuous books that the DeSantis administration had allegedly banned, when the state had banned no books.

Actual misinformation is unacceptable, but I’ll mention a closer case. Florida did not pass a bill labeled “Don’t Say Gay.” That name was affixed by Democrats and liberals who criticized the law. The relevant provision says, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

I am not sure that the label “Don’t Say Gay” is false, but it simplifies the law in order to drive opposition to it. This mode of political debate is not necessarily wrong or bad. I oppose the actual Florida law and understand why liberals would mobilize people against it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues chose Birmingham, AL as their target in 1963 because they knew they could draw a clear contrast with the racist outgoing police commissioner. King wrote that a nonviolent campaign

seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

In short, dramatizing differences with one’s political opponent is a legitimate move in a free society. However, onlookers should be aware when this strategy is being used and should assess whether the goals are appropriate, and whether any collateral damage is necessary to accomplish the goals. They should also ask whether rhetoric has strayed from divisiveness into downright falsehood.

Ron DeSantis does not have to wage a rhetorical war against liberal educators; he could choose to deliberate with them, as the Virginia board did. Voters should recognize the choice to polarize an issue for what it is. They should not assume that it is inevitable. The Virginia case shows that another outcome is possible (although not automatically preferable) — people with diverse opinions can come to agreement.

Although politicians can be tempted to polarize, official bodies such as state boards can be equally inclined to present consensus even when they have not quite accomplished it. Above, I quoted the Virginia standards’ aspiration to “provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage” of history, but anyone may each assess whether they offer that. In my personal opinion, the list of “principles” on p. 4 is mildly problematic, presenting the debate between socialism and market economies as closed when I would ask students to think about it for themselves. But I don’t believe that this list matters much. In my view, the presentation of slavery and Black American “accomplishments” in the body of the Virginia standards is appropriate. Overall, the standards seem to take a both/and approach, genuinely including both the crimes and the successes of US history.

The whole document is quite short and general, which is itself a choice, leaving a lot for teachers to decide (for better and worse). Any major commercial textbook series would be compatible with these standards, which means that in many classrooms, the textbook will determine the content. In fact, the most important policy question may be who should decide what is taught–students, teachers, parents, local authorities, state authorities, or publishers? Because of its generality, the Virginia document may actually represent a delegation to the publishers.

See also: two dimensions of debate about civics; “Teaching Honest History:” a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools; a conversation with Danielle Allen about civic education; etc.

Cover, Douay–Rheims Bible, 1582

A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Many people seem to believe that the medieval Church forbade translating the Bible into modern languages–in order to monopolize access to scripture–until a technological innovation (moveable type) and/or the Reformation liberated people to read the Bible in their own tongues.

This story is false: translations were regularly made during the Middle Ages. It also neglects a real obstacle to translating, which is the need to coin many new words and turns-of-phrase to render an ancient book into a new language–a task that often lags behind the emergence of the language itself.

I think it’s worth correcting this history because too many people are in the grip of technological determinism and don’t appreciate the cultural work involved in a task like translation.

I have inherited from my father a 1582 English Bible that was published in Rheims and Douai by exiled English Catholics, including St. Edmund Campion, who was later hanged, drawn, and quartered for his faith. They published this Bible to be smuggled into Protestant England for the secret and illegal use of Catholic recusants. (This is almost the opposite of the idea that Catholics were against translation.)

In the preface, the translators explicitly note that the Catholic Church had, “neither of old nor of late, ever wholly condemned all vulgar versions of Scripture, nor have at any time generally forbidden the faithful to read the same.” They promise to translate more accurately than the Protestants, who have worked out of “pride and disobedience.” They seek the “preservation of this divine worke from abuse and profanation” by rendering it better in English.

The title page says “cum privilegio.” Usually, the permission of the Church is designated with the phrases imprimatur and nihil obstat (“let it be printed” and “nothing stands in the way”). As far as I can tell–and I could easily be wrong about this–cum privilegio generally refers to the permission of a sovereign. France encompassed Rheims, and Douai was a Spanish Habsburg possession, so I wonder whether one of those governments authorized this Bible. Or does the phrase “cum privilegio” imply–falsely–that the book will be legal in Elizabeth’s realm?

For a flavor of the translation, consider Luke 2:8-10:

8 And there were in the same countrie shepheards watching, and keeping the night watches over their flocke.

And behold, an Angel of our Lord stood by them, and the brightnes of God did shine round about them; and they feared with a great feare.

10 And the Angel said to them: Feare not; for, behold, I evangelize to you great joy, that shal be to all the people…

The King James Version of this passage (1611) may be more familiar from Christmas celebrations:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

In the KJV, the Angel “bring[s] good tidings.” The Catholic 1582 version renders this phrase as “evangelize.” Perhaps the Douay–Rheims translators noticed that when St. Jerome had translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, he left the Greek word evangelizo in his Latin text. They may have decided that they should import this word into their English Bible as well, for maximum accuracy. (And the English verb “evangelize” was already available in 1582.) In contrast, the proto-Protestant John Wykliffe had translated the Greek verb as “preach to you.” He saw the Angel in Luke as a preacher. The KJV’s “I bring good tidings” is more poetic than either alternative, in my opinion; and it’s justifiable, since the Greek verb means to bear a good message.

Here is Tintoretto’s painting of the shepherds, completed the same year:

Tintoretto, Adoration of the Shepherds (1578-1581)

See also: Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library); innovation in technology and the humanitiestwenty-five thousand books to Bosnia.

church attendance, religious identity, and politics (revisited)

In the Atlantic, under the headline “What Really Happens When Americans Stop Going to Church,” Daniel K. Williams argues:

people become even more entrenched in their political views when they stop attending services. Though churches have a reputation in some circles as promoting hyper-politicization, they can be depolarizing institutions. Being part of a religious community often forces people to get along with others—including others with different political views—and it may channel people’s efforts into charitable work or forms of community outreach that have little to do with politics. Leaving the community removes those moderating forces, opening the door to extremism.

Williams cites his own research that suggests that Christians who stop attending church “become hyper-individualistic, devoted to law and order, cynical about systems, and distrustful of others.” Notably, Williams published that analysis in Christianity Today and serves as a senior fellow at Ashland University–so he may be able to reach audiences that I could not. However, he also cites Samuel Stroope, Paul Froese, Heather M. Rackin, and Jack Delehanty, who reached similar conclusions and published their paper, “Unchurched Christian Nationalism and the 2016 US Presidential election,” in Sociological Forum in 2021.

This argument makes good sense to me, and I have tried to test the same thesis myself in different ways. At one point I found: “For white Christians, being actively involved in a church builds the values that we need for a pluralistic democracy. At the same time, simply identifying as Christian and hearing Christian messages is associated with intolerant values.”

I still believe the Tocquevillian theory that people learn to collaborate, deliberate, and accept other human beings by participating in self-governing communities, of which churches are key examples. Of course, Christianity also makes a compelling moral case for love, acceptance, and fairness when it’s interpreted in ways that both challenge and uplift the believers, which is supposed to happen in a church. However, for White Americans, the sheer sense of being Christians (Christian identity) is associated–in my research and others’–with intolerance. This means that when White Americans who identify as Christians go to church, there is at least the potential to channel their beliefs and behavior in positive ways. If they leave the church and also stop identifying as Christians, things can go well or badly. But when they stop attending church and yet continue to think of themselves as Christians, bad results often ensue.

See also the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trump; churchgoing and Trump; and active church membership may counteract problematic religious messages