The Briefing 03-20-15

The Briefing 03-20-15

The Briefing


March 20, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Friday, March 20, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Common Core false dichotomy between fact and opinion subversive to moral truth

As we go into the weekend several important news stories have appeared recently and they all have a common theme; that is the moral development of children and teenagers, how education happens or doesn’t happen, what kind of parenting even the secular world now understand to be problematic, and just how narcissists become narcissists – some very important stories for us all to think about.

The most important of them is a column that appeared at the New York Times; it’s in the opinionator column by Justin P McBrayer. McBrayer is an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He works in the area of ethics and the philosophy of religion and the title of his article gets to one of most important issues we face today. Here’s the title, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts. The article, now again remembered it appeared in the New York Times, is really, really important. McBrayer writes,

“What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

“I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”

Now if we stopped at just that point there will be plenty for us to think about, because here you have a professor in a secular college telling us that philosophy professors are reporting that an overwhelming majority – that’s the very term he uses – of college students believe that all moral claims are mere opinions, or are true – if indeed they are true at all – only in a sense that is relative to a culture.

Now this is a pattern that can be traced all the way back to the 1980s when professor Alan Bloom wrote a blockbuster book entitled “The Closing of the American Mind,” and he wrote in the very first chapter of that book that the one thing that you can count on every student in the university now believing to be true is that all truth is relative. And now you have this kind of report coming some 20 years later, if not 30 years later, telling us the philosophy professors say that the overwhelming majority of college students now believe all moral claims to be merely opinions – not facts.

But the really interesting part of the article by Justin McBrayer is not about college students at all, it’s about second graders. He writes,

“What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t.”

He then ask the question,

“So where is the view coming from?”

Now comes his blockbuster analysis,

“A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

“Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

“Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.”

He then writes,

“Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled ‘fact vs. opinion.’ The definitions I found online were substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to ‘distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.’ And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.”

He then asked the question,

“So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?”

First he says –  and this is really important,

“…the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it.”

He then says,

“…second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house.”

Now remember his son is in the second grade,

“He [that is the son] confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed.”

And then he said they had the following father-son conversation:

Father: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”

Son: “It’s a fact.”

Father: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”

Son: “Yeah, but it’s true.”

Father: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”

The father then writes,

“The blank stare on his face said it all.”

As if this report isn’t scary enough he tells us about some of the assignments he found online and in his own son’s homework. He says,

“Kids [now remember, second graders] are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here’s a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?

1. Copying homework assignments is wrong.

2. Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.

3. All men are created equal.

4. It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

5. It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.

6. Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.

7. Drug dealers belong in prison.”

He then sought in this homework exercise to find out what the answer was to be, again, are the following facts or opinions? He then writes, and this is truly chilling,

“In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum…”

Then (and remember, this is published at the New York Times) this professor, in a public college says,

“In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.”

Professor McBrayer points out that there is inconsistency that it is obvious in all of this. For one thing, at the beginning of the school year his second grader brought home a set of rules and expectations that the school treats as moral facts – not merely as opinions. But they insist nonetheless that when it comes to moral knowledge there are no moral truths, there are no objective moral truths – everything is simply a matter of moral relativism and mere human opinion.

He points to the problem beyond grade school, but he points out that even in grade school this simply won’t work. He says, they’re told to do their school work with academic integrity, but at the same time the curriculum sets up our children for doublethink.

“They are told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.”

Well that’s a problem in the second grade. Its writ large, not only in the American college and university but also in what’s increasingly coming to us from Hollywood, from public officials, from the society at large. This is one of most important essays I’ve seen in a very, very long time because what we’re looking at here is the subversion of truth itself, which makes morality absolutely impossible. And without a basic moral structure, civilization, society, is simply impossible. Not only that, you can’t possibly raise kids in any consistent way by telling them there are no moral facts, but you better behave. That is an absolute impossibility.

Furthermore, there is nothing that is more subversive of human dignity and of human rights then the idea that there is no objective moral value. If there is no objective moral value, if there are no moral facts, than thou shalt not murder is nothing more than a statement of moral opinion. Once again, the most amazing dimension of this article isn’t the fact that it was written, it’s not that it was written by a concerned parent of a second grader, it’s that it was written by a secular college professor and published at the New York Times.

Now if the New York Times is concerned about moral relativism, then that really out of tell us something. If the New York Times is at least publishing this article that says break glass in case of this emergency, just imagine how much faster Christian parents should have been breaking the glass. Of course this also means that Christian parents better understand that educating our children in a biblical Christian worldview means making very clear why we believe that there are moral facts. And who we believe is the author of those facts.

2) Greater dependence on technology decreases likelihood of academic success

Another article appeared just a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times, it’s by Larry Gordon and it is entitled Students Focus Improves Offline. This is one of those articles that tell us of research that we shouldn’t actually need, but nonetheless can be helpful. Gordon’s writing about research on how college students learn, or you might say how they fail to learn, and here’s one of the most important insights – and there’s been similar research we reported on before – it turns out that greater access to and dependence on high-technology is inversely related to knowledge and wisdom and even to academic performance. As Gordon writes,

“USC [That is University of Southern California] professor Geoffrey Cowan is a scholar of free speech and communication. But Cowan, the former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, insists that students sometimes should be cut off from the social media and websites that are so prevalent in their lives.”

This professor, according to Los Angeles Times, bans the use of laptops, cell phones, and wireless devices during his freshman introductory classes. And according to Gordon, like a growing number of professors nationwide, this professor says that electronic equipment, even just for note taking, causes students to mentally disconnect from lectures and distracts them from class discussions.

Now there are several things addressed in the research reported on in this article. For one thing there’s really clear research that students who go to social media sites and are browsing the web during class lectures don’t learn much – as if we actually needed research to tell us that. But the more important issue here is that one of the things that is now becoming evident is that students who take their notes on technological devices often do not learn as much as students who take down notes by hand. Now there are a couple of things going on here; for one thing, reading directly from the article,

“Other research published last year in the Psychological Science journal suggested that students learn concepts better if they take notes in longhand than if they type them on a laptop.”

Now here’s something that I’ve also noted as a professor: when students are taking notes on a laptop they tend to take notes in terms of verbatim statements; they are just writing down what the professor states. On the other hand, if students are writing in longhand they are far more likely to write down their thoughts about what the professor is saying. They are writing down what the professor is teaching and what they are thinking about as the professor is teaching as they are putting it in their own words.

Now previous research also mentioned on The Briefing has indicated that if this is true for all students in general, it’s probably truer even for the male students in the classroom. And this goes down to boys in high school and even in middle school, because as it turns out, as tactile learners boys actually learn more because the movement of the hand on the paper in a way that is tied to the brain in terms of writing down those objects we know as words. It turns out that has an effect in terms of how boys think, how their brains develop, and what they actually retain. Now that’s interesting research, but it also points out the fact that often times the technologies that are sold to us as the promise of the future when it comes to something like education, turnout – though they do have certain advantages and can bring tremendous gifts – to become a significant cost.

One of the things that Christians need to think about is the fact that every technology comes with a moral set of challenges. And not only that, but we learn a great deal about what it means as fallen human creatures to engage technology when we discover that we want to be rescued by technology. And this is yet another reminder that there is no rescue in technology; there is no magic pill and there is no magic machine when it comes to learning. And it also turns out that this research is pointing to something we actually should know, and that is that there is nothing like a teacher and a student in the classroom and there is nothing like pen and paper and books. There is nothing like the old technology of words and sentences and thoughts. Oh, with reference to just the last thing mentioned in this article citing so much research is the fact that professors are also concerned about the fact that when you add all these technologies in the classroom you make cheating a lot easier – a lot more difficult to trace, a lot more difficult to detect and a lot easier. And the last thing we need is to make cheating easier.

3) Study reveals tremendous influence on parenting on narcissism in children

Next, a very interesting question: where do narcissists come from? As it turns out, they tend to come from other narcissists. But more importantly, they tend to come from parents who keep telling them how special they are. This again is an article that appeared in a secular newspaper, this also originated in Los Angeles Times by Deborah Netburn. She writes,

“If you don’t want to raise a narcissistic brat, consider taking a hard look at your parenting style.”

She goes on to write,

“A new study found that parents who believe their kids are better, more special and deserve more than other kids can pass that point of view on to their children, creating young narcissists who feel superior to others, and entitled to privileges.”

Brad Bushman is a communication and psychology professor at Ohio State University, he says,

“Loving your child is healthy [well we know that already]…. but thinking your child is better than other children can lead to narcissism, and there is nothing healthy about narcissism,”

Over a generation ago a prominent thinker pointed out that we are becoming a nation of narcissism. We are making narcissism central to the American experience. And as it turns out, at least many believe that can be traced to patterns of parenting. You may recall the radio personality Garrison Keillor who writes about his fictional hometown Lake Wobegon where, as he says, all the children are above average. And we chuckle at that because it’s mathematically impossible for all the children to be above average, but every single parent seems to believe that his or her children is above average. And we can understand that in part, but there is danger in this, especially when parents tell their children they are above average when, as is it turns out, one of the most interesting insights in this article is how many parents said they would be disappointed if their children turn out to be normal; if they didn’t turn out to be spectacular.

Now from a Christian worldview perspective here’s the big thing we should think about: every child is spectacular, every child is above average when it comes to understanding what it means to be made in the image of God is a priceless gift and what it means for every child to have an individual personality with individual gifts and also individual challenges. But when it comes to telling children that their above average as compared to their peers, when children are told that they are simply excellent in all things and superior in many, what turns out is that we produce narcissists. And when people begin to ask the question “where do narcissists come from?” it turns out that they come from parents who tell researchers they wouldn’t be satisfied or pleased if their child turn out to be of normal aptitude.

So it turns out there’s a huge difference between telling our children they are special to us and special to God, and telling them they’re more special than the other kids they know. That turns out to be the big problem. And one of the things we as Christians need to think about is that that original sin of pride that took place in the Garden of Eden was, to use another word for it, narcissism. So narcissism isn’t new to the human experience, but perhaps it is new that so many parents seem to be so content with producing narcissists.

And from a Christian biblical worldview perspective something else is revealed here. What we think about our children in this case is probably an undisguised reflection of what we actually want to think about ourselves. Maybe, from a narcissistic perspective, there’s something even missed in this article here. Maybe a secular authority looking at this doesn’t know to ask the question, is the narcissism really about our children or is it really about us? That may be the harder question to measure by scientific research, but from a biblical perspective it is probably the easier question to answer from the Bible.

4) Chores found to foster important qualities needed for success in life

Finally, as we go into the weekend another very interesting article on a similar theme appeared – this one in recent days in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s the headline, The Chore Filled Path to Success. Once again, it comes from a secular newspaper. Reporter Jennifer Breheny Wallace writes,

“Today’s demands for measurable childhood success—from the Common Core to college placement—have chased household chores from the to-do lists of many young people. In a survey of 1,001 U.S. adults released last fall by Braun Research, 82% reported having regular chores growing up, but only 28% said that they require their own children to do them. With students under pressure to learn Mandarin, run the chess club or get a varsity letter, chores have fallen victim to the imperatives of resume-building—though it is hardly clear that such activities are a better use of their time.”

She quotes Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist in Paradise Valley, Arizona who says,

“Parents today want their kids spending time on things that can bring them success, but ironically, we’ve stopped doing one thing that’s actually been a proven predictor of success—and that’s household chores,”

Now remember we’re not talking about advice being given in church or advice written from a Christian worldview being given to Christian parents, we’re talking about something that shows up in one of the nation’s most influential secular newspapers because even the secular world understands ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem.’ As Wallace writes,

“Giving children household chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance,”

Now in this case Wallace cites a lot of research having to do with the fact that children who are required to do chores at home tend to do far better later in life than those were engaged in other kinds of activities. And one of the most interesting aspects of this article is the fact that putting down chores in terms of a college application isn’t likely to be the kind of resume building that many people think you’d simply have to do if your kids going to get into a good college or university. But the point made by this article is that the habits of life, the habits of thinking, the habits of self-discipline, the habits of self-mastery that come with the accomplishment of doing chores and being expected to do chores actually leads to children who do have the kind of lifelong success that their parents seem to be so concerned about.

And from a Christian biblical perspective we should understand why that is so. God made us as creatures with an inherent dignity, but one of the ways we demonstrate that dignity is by our work, our labor. We are assigned the task as God’s human creatures of doing work. One of the interesting things about the transformation of childhood is how children are now expected not only not to work – we would see that as moral progress, that we aren’t sending children into the mines as industrial workers – but there also not expect to contribute to life increasingly in the home. One of the interesting things that come out of this research is that language even matters. I read to you directly from the article,

“In a study of… 3-to-6-year-olds in the journal Child Development last year, researchers found that thanking young children for ‘being a helper,’ as opposed to ‘helping,’ significantly increased their desire to pitch in. They were motivated by the idea of creating a positive identity—being known as someone who helps.”

Now once again, there’s a biblical dimension to this. It turns out that children respond better when they are told that they are to be helpers, in concrete and assigned ways rather than simply being told they are helping. Being a helper turns out to be linguistically different than helping. And when we think about it there’s a linguistic difference that is a basic moral difference there as well. It’s the Christian worldview that points to the fact that who we are is prior to what we do. When you put all this together and it turns out the parenting is in irreducibly moral act, and we as Christians we should be the first to know that. And as that most important article of today by Justin McBrayer in the New York Times makes clear, it is indeed not just a moral thought that it is our responsibility to raise our children in a moral way that is – according to Scripture – a moral fact. And that’s a moral fact that begins with us even before we get to our children.

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1) Common Core false dichotomy between fact and opinion subversive to moral truth

Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts, New York Times (Justin P McBrayer)

2) Greater dependence on technology decreases likelihood of academic success

Classes that go off the grid help students focus, Los Angeles Times (Larry Gordon)

3) Study reveals tremendous influence on parenting on narcissism in children

Narcissistic kid? Blame the parents, study says, Los Angeles Times (Deborah Netburn)

4) Chores found to foster important qualities needed for success in life

Why Children Need Chores, Wall Street Journal (Jennifer Breheny Wallace)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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