Something You Were Forced to Do, For Which You Should Be Thankful

If you are reading this post, somebody probably made you to go to school somewhere along the line.

Most likely, you found yourself in school before it occurred to you that you might have a choice in the matter.  All the kids you knew went to school.  You did not ask where school came from.  You did not hire the teachers, you did not assemble the curriculum, and you did not pass the laws that compelled kids like you to go to school.  You just went.

Maybe in third grade you protested and asked your mom or our dad why you had to go to school.  Your protests did not matter.  School was inevitable.

It has not always been this way.  For most of human history, formal education was a privilege for the elites.  In fact, there are still places in the world today where children do not have the opportunity or the economic resources to go to school.

In some ways, it is odd that the United States requires all children to attend school.  Americans believe in liberty, rights, limited government, the freedom of individuals to make choices, and the chance for people to live their lives the way they want.  And yet, parents can be punished for not sending their children to school.  Isn’t this a violation liberty, limited

Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) would not have been happy with the Puritans.  John Calvin, however, would have approved.

Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) would not have been happy with the Puritans. John Calvin, however, would have approved.

government, freedom of individuals to make choices, rights, and the chance for people to live their lives the way they want?  Disgruntled third graders (if they stayed in school long enough to learn about such things) might make this argument.  But there it is:  in the land of the free, everyone is compelled to go to school.

There are, of course, good reasons for mandatory education.  Imagine how different society would be if only a handful of people could read.  Imagine how you would be different as a person if you could not read.

You should be thankful, then, for mandatory primary school education.  And you should be thankful for those persons in history who built this system.

Disgruntled third graders (if they stayed in school long enough to learn about such things), would be correct to lay much of the blame for this system at the feet of the Puritans.  American Puritans, who even required people to engage in leisure activities, had a knack for passing laws that kept individuals from straying from the Puritan way.  Believing that a conversion experience was necessary for the elect, the Puritans practiced spiritual disciplines like Bible reading in order to pave the way for conversion and holy living.  They also believed that they held a covenant with God that would bring judgment on the whole community if they strayed from the path.  By golly, then, Puritan children better learn how to read the Bible.  So they passed laws requiring each town to provide a schoolteacher who knew Greek and Hebrew.  (I have a Ph.D., but I would not be qualified to teach first grade in colonial Massachusetts).  As a result, Puritan New England ended up with some of the highest literacy rates in the world – literacy rates that included females, I should add.

Nor would Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) have been happy with Horace Mann.

Nor would Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) have been happy with Horace Mann.

In the early 1830s, the common school movement sought to make education mandatory for children across the United States.  Who spearheaded the movement?  Yankees from Massachusetts, who were building upon two centuries of educational practice.  Their purposes had shifted somewhat from their Puritan ancestors.  Horace Mann, who led the charge, believed that mandatory education was necessary for good citizenship, democracy and the health of society.  Today, purposes have shifted somewhat again, as Americans tend to think of mandatory education as necessary for a strong economy.  We differ on the ends of mandatory education, but a theme of the common good runs through it all.

This is no small development.  With the assistance of plenty of non-Yankees, the idea of mandatory education has spread throughout the world.  It is hard to imagine how a modern economy could function without widespread education.  It is still seen as necessary for democracy.  It is difficult to see how reform movements, like abolition, women’s rights, or civil rights, just to name a few, could have gained traction without widespread literacy.  In the modern world, Christian ministries could not function without widespread education; churches simply assume that their congregations are literate.  Biblical translation has proven to be a critical component of the spread of Christianity beyond North America and Europe.

In fact, so much of what we consider to be good in the historical developments in the world from the past two centuries have been built upon education, that a person of faith would have to say that God must be behind it all in some way.

And so, give thanks that somebody forced you – and others — to go to school.



The 80% Rule

I spent the previous post critiquing the idea of the “self-made man/woman,” but I should put in a word for the idea.  After all, our decisions, work ethic and efforts count for something.

But how much?

Economists, actually, can figure this out.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable:  I am not making this up.

An economics book that is interesting and understandable: I am not making this up.

According to Branko Milanovic, in a rather interesting (and readable!) little book entitled The Haves and the Have-Nots:  A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, this is how it works:  take the actual incomes of everyone in the world and compare it to the mean incomes of their countries.  The result of the global analysis that the nation where we were born determines 60% of what we have.  Not only that, but the family one is born into within a given nation counts for an additional 20% of one’s wealth.  (One might be born in Brazil, for instance, but there is a great difference between being born to the household of a professional businessman in Rio de Janeiro verses being born in a two-room shack in a favela – the slums — in Rio).  Furthermore, an undetermined amount of the remaining 20% is due to factors over which one does not have any control (gender, race, chance, etc.).  But somewhere in this remaining 20% of our wealth we find the factors like effort, decisions, and hard work.

The 80% Rule (my term, not Milanovic’s) means that the most of our economic destiny was determined at birth.  (Who knew that economists could be 4-point Calvinists?)

80%.  Really?   Less than 20% of our income is due to what we actually do?  Is that true?

You’d need to read the book to get a full picture (though you probably have to be an economist to figure out if this analysis is flawed), but I find it compelling.  Having lived six years in Kenya and spent time in Jamaica and Brazil (as well as having read a fair amount about the economic history of different societies) it is obvious to me that millions of people (billions, actually) do not have the resources and opportunities that I was born with in the United States.  The gap in income between a middle-class American and the vast majority of people in the world is really a stunning one. The world is not a level playing field.

At first glance, the 80% Rule looks rather discouraging.  Shouldn’t effort count for more than that?  The American Dream – the belief that one can be substantially better off than one’s parents if one just works hard enough – has motivated a lot of people.  It has produced a great deal of inventiveness and encouraged a great deal of hard work.  With that in mind, one might be hesitant to give up on the “Self-Made Man/Woman” myth.   It would be hard to inspire 7th grade boys by telling them that 80% of what they will earn in life is already determined for them (much less try to get them to understand exactly what is meant by that).  What would you say if you were to write inspirational posters for middle school classrooms?   “Something less than 20% of what a person achieves and something less than 20% of what they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts!”   Or how about, “If you dream it, the law of averages shows you can achieve up to 20% more than your family has now!”   Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

On the other hand, the 80% rule has the potential to help us get a clearer sense God’s purpose for our lives.  Think of the 80% Rule as helping us to shift our perspective from the American Dream to the Parable of the Talents.  (See Matthew 25:14-30).  The master gives out talents in unequal portions to different people in the world.  The point here is not that the amounts are unequal.  Instead, we are to ask what we, as the servants, are to do with the talents we are given.

The talents God gives us refer to a lot more than money.  But let me just stick with the money point a bit longer.  40% of regular church goers in America give nothing to churches, charities or ministries.  The vast majority of the funds that support our churches, non-profits, and ministries come from 10% of regular church-goers.  (Non-church attenders give even less, on average – but that is a different discussion).  Most Americans are stingy, folks.  Tithing 10% of our income should be the bare minimum for American Christians, particularly when we realize that 80% of what we have is really none of our doing.

We also need to work on cultivating a deep sense of stewardship.  I know I need to get a better sense of this.  The 80% rule is merely empirical economic evidence that what we have comes from God and is not “owned” for eternity by us.  We should be ready and willing to listen to God’s call on our lives and put what we have been given to use for God’s purposes.

By the way, donating to the relief efforts for the victims of the Philippines typhoon right now would be a good way to put to use a very small part of what God has given us.  I recommend the Mennonite Central Committee, though there are plenty of other organizations that are active there as well.

Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman? I Know the Answer.


New Picture (1)If you can trust historians, however, my great-great grandfather was a self-made man.  Zopher Case (yes, that was his real name — the nearly-biblical spelling was real, too) received the following treatment in the 1882 History of LaGrange County, Indiana:  “Mr. Case is representative of the self-made man. He began with nothing, at the age of twelve, working for $3.00 per month. By labor and economy, he has acquired one of the largest and finest stock farms in the county, and at present owns 800 acres, having given the remainder to his children.”

But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t trust historians.

Wait a minute. Don’t trust me when I say you shouldn’t trust historians.

Anyway, my point is that the LaGrange County historian may have gotten the facts right, but the idea of the “self-made man” is a flawed concept.  Zopher Case was not a self-made man.

We Americans sure like the idea.  We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character.   And the idea is still alive and well today.  A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school:   “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.”  There it is.

This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works.   It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.

How was God at work in the life of Zopher Case?  What does God have to do with his economic status?   Most American evangelicals would probably try to answer that by looking for characteristics of his spiritual life.  Was Zopher Case inspired by God to work hard?  Did God help him through the tough times?  Did Zopher flourish because he grew in Christian discipleship?

Those are good questions, but I would like to draw our attention to something else.  Consider the birth of Zopher Case, an event that stems from God’s creational activity.

What did Zopher Case do to get himself born in 1816 in Ashtabula County, Ohio, twenty years before he moved to Indiana?  He did not earn that birth through hard work, wits, high moral character, intelligence or “labor and economy.”  Furthermore, had he been born as a black man or an Indian or a woman, his opportunities would have been very different.  While I am sure that ol’ Zopher worked hard, he did not begin with nothing.  He was born with economic, familial and cultural resources that many others did not have.

Who made this man?

Who made this man?

For instance, what if Zopher Case had been born in Suipacha, Argentina in 1816?  (Disclaimer:  I actually do not know a thing about Suipacha except that it is a town outside of Buenos Aires.)  From the colonial era through independence and up to the present, small classes of wealthy elites have owned most of the land in just about every country of Latin America.  One family in Argentina in the 19th century owned 1.6 million acres of prime land – that’s bigger than the state of Delaware.  Another family in Mexico in 1848 owned 16 million acres, a piece of land about the size of South Carolina.  Right after independence, a group of 500 individuals in Argentina owned 21 million acres, which is about the size of Indiana.  If Zopher Case were born in 1816 in Suipacha to a family of modest means, it is very likely that he would have ended his life as a hired hand on a ranch, without any land to his name.  Furthermore, it is likely the same fate would have been true for his son, Riley C. Case, and his son, Riley L. Case, and his son, Riley B. Case and his son, Jay Riley Case.  (Apparently, my family found “Riley” to be a comfortable and reliable name. They must have been spooked by “Zopher.”)

But Zopher Case was born in Ohio and moved to LaGrange County, Indiana when he was twenty.  He was able to buy land there.

I have benefited economically from Zopher’s efforts.  My grandfather grew up on that farm.  The prosperity of the farm and the educational opportunities of LaGrange County (we also often forget that none of us earned or paid for our primary school education) enabled my grandfather to get a college education at Purdue University in 1914.  He used that degree to become a high school principal and then a county extension agent.  When the Depression hit, he not only had a steady job, but extra capital, which he invested – and he continued investing through the 1980s.  When my grandfather passed away in 1988, his estate passed down to my father and aunts.  My parents did not enjoy an especially high income on my father’s salary as a Methodist minister, but they then found themselves with a fair amount of capital.  So when I entered graduate school in 1993, my parents became our banker:  they purchased a house in South Bend that our family moved into.  We were able to make payments to my parents (enjoying generous terms in the deal) even though my graduate school income technically put my family of five below the poverty line.  When we left South Bend six years later, we owned half of the house.  We used the capital from that house to buy the house where we now live in North Canton, Ohio.

Meanwhile, about 174 million people in Latin America make less than $2.50/day.

I have worked hard in my life (well, maybe not so much during those junior high years), but I am still not a self-made man.  Nor was Benjamin Franklin.  Nor are you.  For some mysterious reason, God decided where and when you would be born.

What do we do with that reality?  More on that in a later post.

Thanksgiving Eels and Other Historical Challenges

A few years ago my parents were on one of those big air-conditioned tour buses that retired Americans sometimes find themselves on.   They were out west somewhere and the tour guide was talking about Native Americans.  The guide retold the story of the first Thanksgiving and concluded by saying that the Pilgrims gave the Indians.  He did not mention God. My father, who as Methodist minister is attuned to things theological and historical (and is descended from Puritans, to boot) approached the tour guide afterward and informed him that the Pilgrims gave thanks to God, not the Indians.  The guide responded by saying, “I know, but mine is a better story.”

Today one can find not just tour guides but educational curriculum that marginalize religion or neglect to even mention God while teaching us about the Pilgrims.  Many Christians are rightfully bothered by this.  I know my first instinct is often to turn to historical accounts for ammunition.  After all, we want the truth to get out.

But we might be careful what we wish for.

McKenzieIf you pick up Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving:  What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (and I urge you to do so), you will find that there are a lot of inaccuracies in both traditional and contemporary accounts of the First Thanksgiving.  For starters, we don’t know for sure whether or not the Pilgrims and Indians actually ate turkey (though it was quite likely they feasted on geese).  Pumpkin pie and yams were definitely not on the menu.  They probably served eels, parsnips and turnips, which means that an authentic Thanksgiving dinner would please nobody in my family except my father, who gets excited about eating strange vegetables odd aquatic creatures.  Moreover, the Pilgrims didn’t wear big buckles on their shoes and they most likely wore bright clothing.

OK, most of us could live with these adjustments (well, maybe not the eels).  But McKenzie pushes the point further, into areas that might bother us more.  For instance, the Pilgrims were not a particularly tolerant lot and had enjoyed religious freedom in Holland before they set sail on the Mayflower, which means we need to readjust conceptions that they came to America for religious freedom.  Squanto, that friendly Indian whose agricultural advice to the Pilgrims probably warded off starvation during that first winter, was not simply a good-hearted humanitarian who exemplified multi-cultural cooperation, but seemed to be using both the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indians for his own ends.  Apparently, neither side trusted him.  And that is just the beginning of our historical misperceptions.

It should be pointed out that McKenzie, a history professor at Wheaton College, loves Thanksgiving and is inspired by the Pilgrims.  Most of the book, in fact, does not concern itself with correcting historical errors.  McKenzie has deeper goals here, deeply Christian goals.  As the subtitle of the book states, he wants us to be better at loving God and learning from history.

That means many things.  I was helpfully reminded that we ought to turn to history for illumination, not ammunition.  McKenzie argues, correctly, that since we are much better at judging others than judging ourselves, authentic education ought to change who we are.  He writes about erroneous conceptions of Thanksgiving to help us consider how we have a tendency to distort the past because we want our heroes to be just like us.  In fact, if we really dug into the historical record, the Pilgrims would seem strange to us in many ways.  That is actually fine, as McKenzie points out, because “if they were just like us, they would have nothing to teach us.”  We prioritize rights, for instance, while the Pilgrims prioritized responsibility.  There is plenty to ponder there.

We learn how stories of the Pilgrims have been created and put to use by Americans down through history.  I did not know, for instance, that the only documentation we have of the first Thanksgiving is a single 115-word paragraph in a letter William Bradford’s assistant sent back to London merchants.  Bradford never even mentioned Thanksgiving in any of his writings, though there is a fake document (containing at least six factual errors) circulating on the internet that purports to be a Thanksgiving Proclamation issued by the governor.  (False information on the internet?  Who knew?)  Curious, I googled “Thanksgiving Proclamation William Bradford” and found that the very first link on the list took me right to the imposter proclamation.   I was entertained by the fake “Olde English” language of the thing, which was signed by “Ye Governor of Ye Colony.”  However, I cringed a little bit to think of all the fifth-grade reports, Christian devotionals and presidential speeches (yep, even our Presidents have fallen for it) that have employed this fake document to inspire us all.

A picture of what the First Thanksgiving really looked like.  Wait a minute -- How did the Sioux Indians from South Dakota get to Massachusetts?  And where are the Wampanoag?

A picture of what the First Thanksgiving really….wait a minute! What are the Sioux Indians from South Dakota doing down at the end of the table? And what did they do with the Wampanoag Indians?

But then, this sort of thing has been going on for a long time, as McKenzie demonstrates.  How about the historical novel from 1889 that described how the first Thanksgiving dinner was an occasion just packed with numerous budding romances – the widower Bradford making eyes at Mary Chilton, for instance?  The novel imaginatively described, in great detail, the dishes and foods that the Pilgrims supposedly ate at the First Thanksgiving, which the 1897 Ladies Home Journal accepted as historical fact.  We’ve been enjoying the historical inaccuracies ever since.

Meanwhile, the “example” of the Pilgrim story has been used to support causes ranging from capitalism, communal living, the melting pot, the war in Vietnam, the regulation of Big Business and, of course, peace in the Middle East.  This is just part of the reason why McKenzie argues we should just drop the term “revisionist” when discussing history.   History has always been “revisionistic” project and has never been written in pure form, as if it could be special revelation, like Scripture.  Furthermore, McKenzie points out that cries of “revisionism” can lead us to mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness, rather than humble self-reflection.

There are a host of other thoughtful points in this book that I can’t even get to.  But if we are concerned with historical truth and want to love God better, we should follow McKenzie’s proposal that we approach the past with a stance of “moral reflection” rather than “moral judgment.”  Moral reflection requires humility by asking us to question ourselves and engage in respectful conversation with others.  Aren’t those some of the qualities that we want Christians to be known for?

This is the kind of history that Christians ought to read.   And since The First Thanksgiving does the sort of things that a Christian liberal arts education seeks to do, I’ve decided I’m going to assign it as a text in my American history class.