Sunday, August 10, 2014


Recently saw "Jersey Boys" and was struck by what seemed to me to be a sub-text; that is, for a group of guys who grew up within the strict manners and mores of a society and a Church to decide to do whatever they felt like doing instead led inevitably to a series of personal and communal disasters.

This was by no means the Message of the film, although I suspect that Clint Eastwood would not have been bothered if told about its presence. But to "read the text" of the film was to see clearly that one selfish and hurtful act leads to a geometric progression of subsequent selfish and hurtful acts.

In short, the history of "the '60's" and thereafter.

Two or three generations from now, someone with the necessary emotional distance will be able to write the definitive book about the effects of this time. That book will not be written by people who suffered through it, partly because the pain is too paralyzing but mostly because most of us still believe --- despite all evidence to the contrary --- that all the various liberating ideologies were right.

It's a little easier to examine how and why it happened, although like all major cultural shifts, its chronology and causality are intricately intertwined and complex. One element, and only one, is the influence of the Humanistic Psychologists --- Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm et al. These were men who came to their personal and professional maturities in the period leading up to and during the unspeakable horrors of World War II and who concluded that the rationality and faith of Western Civilization were --- patently and obviously were --- inherently corrupt. There was no other explanation for why the Germans --- especially but not uniquely --- had acted the way they had. It could only be true that we had deluded ourselves for hundreds of years that Christianity and science were the paths that led to an ever more humane progress.

Their alternative, articulated and argued in smart, thoughtful, and effective books, was to replace rationality with emotion, religious faith with the dynamics of personal relationship. Hence Dr. Rogers' "client-centered therapy" grounded in Rousseauian ideals of the inherent perfection of every human and meant to lead to the flowering of each uniquely wonderful self.

Another element was how innocent, naive, and --- therefore --- vulnerable our generation was to these seductions. It has long been a cliche that the generation of men returning from service in World War II were steadfastly silent about their experiences. The result was a social and psychic separation from their children that had many consequences, few of them beneficial.

They had lived through one kind of horror during the long Great Depression and a whole other set of horrors during the War. Now they came back, moved to the new suburbs, had children, and committed to protecting them from the kind of pain they had endured for so long. The unhappy unintended consequence of this approach to child-rearing was to keep us ignorant of "how the world wags and what wags it." That kind of ignorance leads to a lack of wisdom, foolishness, and that made us vulnerable.

A third element was that those on whom we depended for guidance --- not only parents but priests and pastors and nuns, teachers and counselors, professors and politicians, and eventually the entirety of the mass and massively influential entertainment complex --- had been seduced by the primacy of emotion and desire.

After a while, neither from the pulpit nor in popular entertainment, was one encouraged to believe that acting on principle was better --- for individuals and for society --- than acting on feeling.

I am reminded often lately of a moment during my first Rehearsal Dinner. I was expected to stand up and say something. Nor surprisingly, I was not prepared and had never thought for a moment about preparing something. As I stood there hemming and hawing, my best friend and Best Man said, "Just tell us how you feel." To him, to me, and to everyone there, that seemed perfectly apposite. I realize now that it was a metaphor for what was to come.

Barely more than 5 months after the event that began "The '60's" as a cultural phenomenon and we were already imbued.

The wisdom writers, to use a general phrase, are still available to us and one day we will turn back to them. In the meantime, there is still the occasional satirical attack on the status quo and the occasional preachment from the mass entertainment complex (especially, perhaps, The Lord of the Rings). And there are the millions of people who choose to lead lives of decency, honesty, truthfulness, modesty, trustworthiness, accountability, and caring.

"There is," as Aragorn said in time of great peril, "always Hope." As we hope, let us do what we can can, as T.S. Eliot said, to "redeem the time."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

School Reform

Recently I wrote about school reform mostly as a way to make a point about the current state of political apathy and to make a call for wider and deeper participation in an important discussion. The final paragraph read

          We have to hope that someone will start to move us away from the narrow, specific,
          and moment-bound policy debates and toward a public, thoughtful, and meaningful
          conversation about the role of public schools in a mass, pluralistic society.

Now I would like to attempt to write something coherent and helpful about school reform, not as an object lesson in the importance of political participation, but as an examination and evaluation of some elements of school reform on the merits.

The basic and very frustrating problem with trying to write coherently about school reform is that the topic is akin to 7-level chess; or to some amorphous being which when any part of it is grasped, seven other parts pop out. How, I ask rhetorically, does one make sense of a phenomenon which includes the following:

          a commitment to "providing" an education for all without a complementary demand that
          all students work to acquire an education

          a commitment to sending all students to the same secondary schools because it is the
          "democratic" thing to do when all evidence shows that by adolescence students have
          demonstrated various levels of intelligence, various talents, and various interests

          a teaching corps which deeply desires to be considered professional while demanding
          to be unionized and to have virtually untouchable job security

          public opinion which harshly criticizes public schooling in the aggregate but has affection
          and admiration for the local school

          academic content standards which have been carefully chosen, sequentially ordered, and
          which offer the opportunity to integrate, but which have led to such a rigorous testing
          process aimed at determining accountability that there is less creative, engaging,
          and humane teaching

Such a list could be extended by a lot, but these will suffice: Trying to get a handle on school reform in some general way is extremely difficult, so I won't try. What I will do is to touch on what I think is a key aspect of any beneficial school reform, the role of the Principal.

 As it now stands, the Principal is not meant to be a visionary, decision-making, personally-engaged leader of a single school but rather a mid-level administrator, a middle manager, whose role is to communicate and enforce the policy decisions presented to her by the district for which she works. In almost all districts, the Principal's role is seen as one that can be filled by anyone who has the requisite credentials, the result being a revolving door of ambitious individuals moving in and out as they work their way up the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Recently I taught a course to graduate students in educational administration in "Transformational and Instructional Leadership." As part of the course, I gave a PowerPoint presentation on "instructional leadership." As you can see, the assumption throughout the presentation was that the Principal was an autonomous professional who had both the right and the duty to make thoughtful and creative decisions regarding the curriculum and teacher performance.

Coincidentally, someone from the university for which I was teaching the course was in class that evening. Her response to the presentation was, "Of course the Principal just has to do what they're told."

Besides being professionally deflating, this was representative of the thoroughly bureaucratic and operational understanding of the Principal's role in the school.

The other important thing to understand about the role of the Principal is that she is not trusted by the people who work for her to make sound, honest professional judgments about the people who work for her. This is part and parcel of the unionization of teachers, a furtherance of the industrial factory model upon which the relation of teachers and administrators was based some 120 years ago. In the world of the factory, there was management and there were the workers. For reasons good and not so good, the workers became organized labor in order to negotiate with management, thereby creating a relationship that was inherently mistrustful and adversarial. This was the model adopted by teachers' unions in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries and which continues today.

On this model, the Principal is "management" and the teachers are "labor." They are not professional colleagues who have different responsibilities but are collaborative colleagues in the best interests of their clients.

But if there is to be genuine school reform, this is one of the things that will have to change. In short, the Principal will have to be in charge of the single school and have both the power and the authority to make decisions about the essential activities of the school, primarily curriculum and teachers.

This would be a radical --- and shocking --- shift. Teachers would have to overcome their mistrust of "management" and learn to conceive of the Principal as a collaborative colleague who also had the authority to hire and fire; that is, as a fellow professional who was also the leader, someone who had the responsibility to lead from within but also had the responsibility to decide, in Jim Collins' now famous phrase, who was to be on the bus and who was to be off the bus.

It is not sufficient to point out that this is a successful, effective, and efficient model for most businesses, for schools are not businesses. But schools are not factories either. Schools are places that should be staffed by autonomous, creative professionals, but that statement has implications regarding demonstrated achievement, ethical adherence, and someone having the decision-making power to reward or admonish, to retain or release.

The contention that the Principal should be an autonomous, creative professional with real decision-making power has implications for far more than the relationship between labor and management and the psychology of teachers. It also has implications for the preparation of teachers and for the preparation of principals.

This is the phenomenon I touched on at the beginning: There is a complex of incoherent and conflicting ideals, ideologies, and mind-sets. It appears to be a Gordian knot, impossible to unravel. Perhaps a more congenial metaphor would be a log jam, in which there is always a key log, which when removed allows the logs to move freely again down the river. In this case, I will choose the role of the Principal as the "key log." Let's see what would happen if we start with a new definition of Principal. What would be necessary? What would have to happen to the preparation of teachers? To the preparation of principals? To the organization of schools? To the thinking about class size and school size? To the concept of accountability?

School reform is dependent on a re-conceiving of what schools are for and how they're organized. In this process of re-conceptualizing, let's start with one thing that we know would be good if it were to be effected and then see what else would have to happen to ensure that. I suggest we start with the re-definition of the Principalship.



Saturday, June 15, 2013

Civilized Behavior

It is possible to define civilization as opposed to other terms that signify groups of people: tribe, clan, gang, society, culture. While there is some disagreement about the precise definition of civilization among those who worry about such things, it is possible, I believe, to understand it as something distinct from those other kinds of groupings. Or, to put it in negative terms, one does not have to conflate all those terms as if there were no distinctions to be made.

The most helpful definition I have encountered is the one that says civilization requires three things: learning, religion, and law. To be blunt about it, this is to say that to the extent that a social group lacks any or all of these three things, that group is, to that extent, lacking in civilization. This obviously implies a continuum, with social groups that are more or less civilized at one end and those that are not civilized at the other.

(Not that this is an argument-settling example, but new towns on the Western frontier saw themselves as having passed over into something better when they had added a church, a school, and a law enforcement officer.)

It is important to note that all three of these qualities --- learning, religion, and law --- are not natural; that is, not instinctive. A group of people has to decide to devote time, energy, and money to learning; to set it as an ideal; to push for it for as many people as possible; to honor it; to create the resources necessary to learning, the books and libraries and museums and schools and teachers without which learning is close to impossible. A group of people has to decide to institutionalize religion and use it to give meaning to existence, to provide moral guidelines, to provide common beliefs and common practices. And a group of people has to decide that there will a code of law, derived from a moral code, that will help people refrain from acting in ways that may be "natural" but are also destructive both to the individual and to the society. They have to decide to do these things because they recognize that it is better to do so.

It is this last --- the importance of law --- that has been on my mind recently. Maybe this is nothing more than a function of aging, or maybe I'm reading the wrong daily publications, but it seems to me --- and I will claim nothing more than "it seems" --- it seems to me that there are more and more instances of people acting in ways that can be described as "natural" but are profoundly destructive of themselves and the people around them.

These are the parents who beat and torture their infant children, often to death, because the child has disturbed or interrupted or annoyed them. This is the mother who drives herself and her children into the lake so that they all drown because she feels bad. This is, apparently Jodi Arias, who seems to have felt entirely justified in doing what she did to her erstwhile boyfriend because he rejected her. This is the aggrieved former husband (or, more and more often) boyfriend who kills his ex and their children and, usually, himself as a way of punishing the ex for having caused him pain.

And there is the phenomenon of gangsterism that is so common in some urban areas that we hardly even mention it anymore. Within that world, the logic is clearly that the world is a war of all against all, that the end justifies the means, that the end is that I want something, and that preventing my getting that deserves death.

And there are the mass killers of Columbine and Viginia Tech and Aurora and Newtown. Whatever their mental health diagnoses, on some level of their interior life they "knew" that what they were going to do was justified.

And, perhaps most pertinent, the rapist: I have sexual desire and you will satisfy it, whether you want to or not.

I have never been a watcher of reality TV but I will confess that recently I have found myself staring in slack-jawed amazement at Harcore Pawn. There are several kinds of behavior manifested in these episodes that rightly provoke dismay, but the one that fits here is the person who demands that the pawnshop give him or her money, no matter what. It doesn't matter that there is no ticket, that what the person wants to do is against store policy, or in contradiction to the contract that he or she signed. It doesn't matter; they don't want to hear it.

On some unattractive level, this is amusing. And we can pass it off as simply weird, even aberrant. But I think that both of those responses miss the point: There is a profound sense of self-righteousness in these people which is something like "Because I want it you have an obligation to give it to me. And if you thwart my desire, you deserve to be punished."

And, on another level entirely, there is the Islamist belief that if you don't believe what I think you're supposed to believe, you must die. That's a really big time version of this, but as we say in philosophy, it is not a difference in kind, only a difference in degree.

These are the beliefs and practices that law is meant to protect the society from. Civilized societies know that seeing the world as a "war of all against all," a place where the only ethical code is that the end justifies the means, and that desire defines the end, and that physical violence is the only determiner, is profoundly dangerous to the individual and to the society. And so such societies write law, make policies, and enforce those laws.

But it is obvious to anyone paying attention that the law alone is not sufficient. I believe that we could have as many policeman as civilians and it still wouldn't be "enough." A critical mass of a society has to be self-governing in order for it to be and remain civilized.

And self-governance mostly boils down to choosing to do the right thing rather than the desired thing; to do what is better for the other, or for the group, than what is better for me. To boil it down even further, it means that the parent knows --- deep in his heart, as we say --- that no matter how annoying the child is being, that the parent's primary responsibility is to the welfare of the child. It means that the pawn shop patron knows that no matter how powerful his desire, the contractual and mutally respectful relationship must be maintained. It means that "I want a baby" is not a good reason to have a child. It means that the individual knows that although "the end justifies the means" may result in short-term gain, in the long term it will be destructive to all concerned.

As I said at the beginning, maybe there is no issue here; maybe the vast majority of the American population is effectively self-governing and I should simply stop paying attention to the various sources of sensationalism. I hope that's right.

If it isn't right, then these seemingly separate instances of abberant --- that is, uncivilized --- behavior are harbingers of social breakdown and remedial work cannot begin soon enough,

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Democratic Participation

There are two conceptual problems when trying to talk about “school reform.” The first is that those who are already involved in the debate are fighting for specific policies that they want to see implemented now, while lacking any historical or philosophical understanding of American public schooling; in other words, no understanding of how we got here and, therefore, little or no informing background concerning what public schooling ought to be and why.
The second is that the debate is being waged by a relatively small group of people, while the great majority of the population is entirely disengaged from it. It is an extreme example of “inside baseball,” even though the questions and the potential answers affect everyone in the polis, and in serious ways.

These two conceptual problems create a practical problem. Because the debate is focused entirely on the operational, any attempt to place the debate in a larger historical and philosophical context will inevitably be seen as pedantic, inapplicable, and boring.

This has created a classic vicious circle: The people who will be most affected by any such policy decisions don’t want to hear about it thereby allowing the handful of people who do care about it to fight it out without awareness or participation from the larger public. This makes it an excellent metaphor for all the political questions of our time and well our politicians know it. While some pundits decry the lack of honest and intellectual public grappling with important issues, successful politicians and their handlers know that it is much safer to speak banalities and pre-approved catch-phrases, which the larger public is apparently happy to let them do.
It would be helpful to understand that this democratic process --- that is, a political process which engages all citizens so that it can in fact be “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” --- is at the heart of the creation of schools paid for by public funds and then requiring all students to attend them for as long as possible in the context of over 300 million persons. It would not be an exaggeration to say that choosing to do such a thing was and is the greatest experiment in democracy ever attempted.

Although we now take the ubiquitous public school for granted, it was not always thus. During the Colonial Period and well into the 19th Century, virtually all schools were funded by private money, by tuition. It wasn’t until the 1830’s and 1840’s that states took the extraordinary step of imposing a new tax to support schools for all students. To show what a remarkable step this was, consider the fact that Thomas Jefferson went to the Virginia House of Burgesses three separate times to request funding for a free grades 1-3 education for all students. All three times, his proposal was rejected.

Why, then, did state legislators, then as now leery of imposing taxes, choose to fund schools with public money? The answer is simple and straightforward and easy to understand: By the 1830’s, the United States had committed to a democratic republic form of government, one in which they knew that the suffrage would be extended more and more, and they knew that if citizens were going to be granted liberty, they would have to be taught how to use that liberty well. While they still could take for granted the influence of home and church, the way that the State would form citizens by imbuing them with the right principles and the right practices, would be at school. To put it another way, religious sectarianism and ethnic solidarity were fine in the home and in the neighborhood, but the way young people would all become Americans was in what Horace Mann called “the common school.”

Over time, more and more young people went to school and spent longer and longer there. It happened slowly, but it happened steadily, until by the 1950’s it was taken for granted that (virtually) everyone would graduate from high school. We take this for granted (to the point where those who ‘drop out’ of high school are a scandal) but historically this was not just unprecedented, it was remarkably odd. That everyone should read and virtually everyone should vote was unimaginable through most of human history.

That schooling in the United States has become more and more democratic --- that is, more and  more inclusive --- is a straightforward story, based on a kind of faith that more schooling makes for more personal and social success.

Where the story has not been straightforward but, rather, full of contradiction and conflict, has been in our definition of the deep purposes of publicly-funded schools.

From the time of the Colonial one-room school house until the end of World War I in 1918, there was a remarkable consistency in the publicly understood purposes of schooling. To review the history of this period of some 300 years is to reveal what seem like big changes, but the common element, despite huge changes in circumstance, was the belief that public schools were meant to form students as American citizens. But, as with so many things, that was no longer the case after 1918. From that time to the present, there have been deep and powerful conflicts within the American public over the role and purpose of public schools. Rather than a commitment to a fairly consistent set of principles, the period since the end of World War I has seen dramatic shifts in our thinking about the purposes of public schooling: progressives vs traditionalists; essentialists vs those who believed in a child-centered curriculum; scientific curriculum-making vs social meliorism; life-adjustment vs back-to-basics.

This is a frustrating story, at least for those of us who believe it’s possible to settle on a set of right purposes and figure out how best to achieve them. But here is the comforting or confounding thing about this story (depending on how you look at it): Our commitment to democracy has led to our inability or unwillingness to commit to a form of schooling specifically aimed at preparing young people to be thoughtful, active, and principled citizens of a mass and pluralistic democracy. 

Within the great democratic conversation, there is so much disagreement that we have not --- for good or ill --- been able to come to a consensus about what the deep purposes of school should be. As a result, our default setting is to think of schools as places that are relatively safe, where a reasonable number of academic and other activities are available, and where young people can be free to “develop” without attempts by teachers, administrators, or the State to “form” them.

Currently, the battle over the purpose of public schooling is dominated by the conflict between what we can imprecisely call the “standards” people and those who represent the “ante-standards” people. These are shoddy descriptors that would rightly offend both sides, but some kind of shorthand is needed.

After the institutional self-immolation of the ‘60’s and ’70’s, there was first a public outcry against what was happening in public schools, and then the Federal pamphlet “A Nation at Risk,” and then the governors of the several states committing to a re-definition of public school curriculum, and then to each state creating a set of academic content standards.

Logically, having standards in any field of human endeavor implies having an assessment to find out if those standards have been met, so there had to be some form of testing and given the many millions of students, that testing would have to be standardized. With the involvement of the Federal government in the “No Child Left Behind” act, given the immense amounts of money that almost every school district depended on, standardized testing became the tail that would wag the dog.

The not necessarily wise but logical development of this process has brought us to “Race to the Top” and the  Core Content Standards, both of which have provoked a reaction, mostly by teachers but apparently by more and more parents. Anger over the dominance of standardized testing, a frustration which has been growing greater and greater over the last dozen or so years, has led some teachers and others outside the system to contend that students, parents, and teachers should “opt out,” which would amount to a kind of passive resistance movement.
Anger over the Core Content Standards is a whole other kettle of fish, but is related because of its connection to and its dependence on the standardized testing industry.

I think it is essentially important to see the current conflict in two larger contexts. The first is that it is just the current manifestation of the on-going and ever more complicated debate since 1919 over what the purpose of public schools is and how that purpose should be pursued.

The second is that everyone involved on both sides of this conflict is convinced that they are right and the other guys are wrong. This is at the very heart of the great democratic conversation and so is entirely understandable. Both sides are involved in an incredibly varied, rich, frustrating, and engaging democratic process, and the stakes seem incredibly high.

Bu like all the battles fought before it in this on-going war, this will be resolved, one way or another and life will go on.

There have been so many ebbs and flows, triumphs and failures, in this process since 1919, that I’m less worried about the specifics of the current iteration and much more worried about the apathetic self-removal of the larger public from the conversation.
We live in a time where self-interest and self-importance predominate. If I don’t have children in public school, I don’t care. Even if I do have children in public school, I care only about them and their experience.

But this conflict requires that eventually the public come to a meaningful conclusion about the deep purposes of the most “public” institution in the United States.

We have to hope that someone will start to move us away from the narrow, specific, and moment-bound policy debates and toward a public, thoughtful, and meaningful conversation about the role of public schools in a mass, pluralistic democracy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

All You Need is Love

Yesterday I had lunch with 17 men whose only common bonds were their friendship with and affection for Pat Mullen and their having gone to the Jesuits for high school and/or college. It was almost entirely a wonderful experience. The conversation was easy; no one was texting or checking his cell phone; and there were lots of funny stories, most of them true, all of them self-deprecating.

But I am prone to abstracting things beyond all recognizability so part of me part of the time was wondering about the people from those stories who were no longer with us, who had died. Died! These were vital, enjoyable people, people whose presence in my life made it better and more meaningful, and now they were gone. How could that possibly happen? What could that possibly mean?

And given that the lunch group was made up of men who were 70 and 71, I smoothly shifted into wondering about our deaths. How we looked and how we acted did not line up with my image of being 70 and yet I know that none of us has too terribly long to be here. Being there in the midst of all that vitality and energy and humor, it was almost impossible to imagine.

This kind of thinking leads one almost inevitably to some kind of fatalism, a spiritual throwing-up-of-hands, a giving up, and I could tell that I wasn't far from that.

This morning I was blessed by a Facebook post by Darya Bronston, a long version of the Liberty Mutual TV ads based on the notion of paying it forward (you can see it here), and it struck me that in the midst of all the confusion and contradiction that is life, the one thing that is always true, that always matters is acting in love.

Aristotle taught essentially the same thing, except that he framed it as "practicing the virtues." He knew that the only way to achieve happiness --- not pleasure or the satisfaction of desire, but happiness --- was to act well.

And, of course, it was Jesus of Nazareth who taught this most powerfully: "Love another as I have loved you."

For those who are tempted to believe that this teaching has to do only with romantic or filial or familial affection, read Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verses 4-7. This is seriously demanding stuff.

And the much more recent Immanuel Kant argued that we must never treat other people as "objects" but only as "subjects;" that is, that we must never use people for our own purposes as if they were things but must always treat them with the respect that is due them because of their inherent worth and dignity.

To act in love always. Always. To use a line from one of the characters in the James Lee Burke novels, "everything else is just rock 'n' roll."

I recommend the video that Darya posted. I also recommend a Valentine's Day meditation I wrote almost five years ago: Devotions

And, as I say in the "Devotions," properly understood, John and Paul were right: "All You Need is Love."

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Reminder from the Reverend Doctor King

"Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong and are a matter of what the majority are doing. Right and wrong are relative to the likes and dislikes and customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein's theory of relativity, which properly describes the physical universe,  to the moral and ethical realm.....This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens."

                                                                     from "A Knock at Midnight" (1963)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Our Time

My perception is that we live in a particularly confounding time, and the more history, literary criticism, and culture criticism I read, the more convinced I am that I'm right.

There are, however, two things that I must keep in mind when heading into this. The first is that temperamentally I am prone to pessimism. I have fought against this my whole life, and I like to think that I've hidden it pretty successfully, but I know it's there and I certainly don't want my version of culture analysis to be nothing more than a feelings-driven rant.

The second is that I have lived through a time of remarkable change, in matters small and large, and the tendency --- especially as one gets older --- is to see change as leading to things that are not just different but worse. This, too, I hope to transcend.

For a long time, I have thought that the period between the Civil War and World War I was a time of defining change in American life; that the change took place before the War; and that the period after the War right up until our own time is of a piece. In other words, and in very broad strokes, that there was an American life before the Civil War that was irretrievably lost; that there were a large number of economic, social, and political changes in the period between 1865 and 1914; and that the new American life that came about because of those changes has been remarkably the same since 1919, despite the obvious differences on the surface.

I make this point partly for its own sake but mostly to set up an example. The changes in American life between the Civil War and World War I were huge and most, if not all, of them were driven by the changes in our economic life. The North's victory had committed the United States to the modern way of doing things which positioned us perfectly to take advantage of the Second Industrial Revolution, the one of the 1870's. Put briefly, this led to the creation of monopolies and to the creation of vast new wealth, much of it held by people from places different from the established centers of economic and political power in the East.

These were "the new men," the nouveaux riches, the "men of affairs," the masters of what Twain called The Gilded Age. These were men for whom wealth was all, except to the extent that wealth led to power. There was much talk of an "invisible government," the influence wielded by the wealthy on matters of public policy. And it was not mere talk: Commodore Vanderbilt once said, "Law! What do I care about law? Hain't I got the power?"

These new economic realities provoked a number of reformist (and even revolutionary) responses; it was a time of a great deal of unrest. But the movement that won out was Progressivism and the most visible sign of its real-world triumph was that it held the White House from 1901 to 1917, under Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.

Progressivism is difficult to talk about because it is made up of a complex and even contradictory set of attitudes and goals. In general, the Progressive story is about the conflict between liberal righteousness and evil. But in practice, the movement included a revolutionary mood but resulted in no revolution; it was the political champion of the middle class but also encouraged socialism; it was devoted to the poor and downtrodden but also enthusiastic about imperialism. So it's not that Progressivism was a unified and coherent movement.

But either despite its incoherence or because of it, Progressivism became the popular response to the economic evils of the time. There was an enthusiasm for it unlike anything that we have seen in our lifetime.

One of the many things that I find confounding about our time is that although many of the same economic evils exist today, there is no generally embraced response to them.

Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement were meant to be reformist but it didn't take very long for both of them to be quietly moved to the sidelines.

Bankers and other versions of financiers have committed the most egregious crimes against both the law and the people to whom they had a moral obligation, yet, with the exception of a few highly publicized scapegoats, they are not only not in jail but are continuing to make obscene amounts of money.

It is also hard --- hard for me, at any rate --- to believe that federal and state executives and legislators are as inept as they appear to be. It is far easier to believe that there is still an "invisible government," one that influences through power that comes from wealth and economic influence.

And while our involvement in overseas wars is not popular, there is little enthusiasm, much less a wide-spread popular movement, against them.

So, despite living with essentially the same phenomena that created Progressivism in the 1890's, we mostly just go about our business, tacitly giving our approval to the way things are.

It's important to remember that while it is true that industrial capitalism has produced great wealth for a few people, and created a perhaps-too-large gap between those at the top and those at the bottom, it is also true that industrial capitalism has --- contra Marx's prediction --- created wealth and distributed that wealth much more widely than anyone could possibly have predicted 100 years ago. Most of us have a whole bunch of stuff, a lot of which didn't even exist 60 years ago.

So maybe the reason we are as tolerant of economic and political misbehavior as we are is that most of us are so well off. We have bread and we have circuses, and we have very, very little knowledge of  the past and its meaning for the present. (And the few financiers and politicians who are revealed, shamed, removed from their positions, and jailed are seen as just part of the circus.)

The Progressives of the 1890's rightly saw the miserable conditions of the new industrial cities as a target for reform. Industrial capitalism had created a widespread and intense poverty that was morally unacceptable. The victories of the Progressives, although hardly total, were victories against that poverty.

We have no analog to that progressive enthusiasm, perhaps because most of us are so well off and few of us are aware of and morally outraged by the morally unacceptable conditions of our own time.

But just as it is difficult to talk about Progressivism because of its complexity, it is difficult to talk about our own time in this regard. While it seems obvious to me that there is not a generally felt enthusiasm for reform, it is also true that there are thousands of public and private agencies that work tirelessly on behalf of those who are in need.

Maybe that lack of generalized enthusiasm is because we have been so successful in creating "progressive" social agencies and we now see that as a reform already accomplished.

I don't know. I told you: I find this time confounding.