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Codes Of Meaning

This unique moral chronicle led to an everyday behavioral code which worked so well that in a matter of centuries it became the dominant perspective of Europe, and soon it made inroads into every belief system across the planet. But the sheer extent of its success caused it to run afoul of three other competing systems for producing meaning, each of which held common people in contempt or worse. These competing codes viewed Christianity antagonistically because of its power to liberate ordinary people from the bondage of fear and envy.

Those competing codes of meaning gave us formal schooling, public and private. The first competitor, the aristocratic code, comes out of pagan traditions. It is still the philosophy taught in upper-class boarding schools like Middlesex and Gunnery, and through home training and particular class institutions. Its operating principles are leadership, sportsmanship, courage, disdain for hardship, team play, self-sacrifice (for the team), and devotion to duty—as noble traditions define duty. The boardrooms of certain global corporations are one of the great preserves of this exclusive but universally attractive pagan attitude.

The second code in competition with Christianity was taken from the practice of great commercial civilizations like the Hanseatic League of medieval times or the society of Holland in the seventeenth century. This behavioral code makes security, comfort, health, and wealth the central purpose of life. The main thrust of this kind of seeking is radically anti-Christian, but the contradiction isn’t obvious when the two come into contact because commercial cultures emphasize peaceful coexistence, tolerance, cooperation, and pragmatism. They reject the value of pain, and take principled behavior with a grain of salt, everything being relative to security and prosperity. Pragmatism is the watchword.

The wealth that a commercial perspective delivers produced a dilemma for Puritan society to wrestle with, since the intense neo-Christianity of Puritanism was yoked to an equal intensity of business acumen, a talent for commercial transaction. In the Calvinist vein, this contradiction was resolved by declaring wealth a reliable sign of God’s favor, as poverty was a sign of His condemnation. Both pagan and mercantile ethical codes operated behind a facade of Christianity during the Christian era, weakening the gospel religion, while at the same time profiting from it and paying lip service to it. Proponents of these different frames called themselves Christians but did not live like Christians, rejecting certain tenets of Christianity we’ve just examined, those which interfered with personal gain. Yet in both cases, the life maps these competing theories tried to substitute were not, ultimately, satisfying enough to stop the spreading influence of Christian vision.

Stated more directly, these competing moral codes were unable to deliver sufficient tangible day-to-day meaning to compete against the religious prescription of a simple life, managed with dignity and love, and with acceptance of the demands of work, self-control, and moral choice, together with the inevitability of tragedy, aging, and death. Neither the pagan outlook nor the commercial philosophy was equal to overthrowing their unworldly rival. Because the commercial code lacked sufficient magic and mystery, and the aristocratic code, which had those things, froze out the majority from enjoying them, it fell to yet a third scheme for organizing meaning to eventually cause the major sabotage of spiritual life.

I refer to the form of practical magic we call Science. Kept rigorously and strictly subordinate to human needs, science is an undeniably valuable way to negotiate the physical world. But the human tendency has always been to break loose from these constraints and to try to explain the purpose of life. Instead of remaining merely a useful description of how things work, great synthesizing theories like Big Bang or Natural Selection purport to explain the origin of the universe or how life best progresses. Yet by their nature, these things are beyond proof or disproof. Few laymen understand that the synthesizing theories of Science are religious revelations in disguise.

In the years around the beginning of the twentieth century, the scientific outlook as a substitute religion took command of compulsion schools and began to work to eradicate any transcendental curriculum in school. This happened in stages. First was the passage of compulsion school legislation and invention of the factory school (isolated from family and community), appearing in conjunction with the extermination of the one-room school. That job had been largely accomplished by 1900. The second stage was introduction of hierarchical layers of school management and government selected and regulated teaching staff. That job was complete by 1930. The third stage comprised socialization of the school into a world of "classes" and de-individualized individuals who looked to school authorities for leadership instead of to their own parents and churches. This was accomplished by 1960. The fourth and last stage (so far) was the psychologizing of the classroom, a process begun full scale in 1960, which, with the advent of national standardized testing, outcomes-based education, Title I legislation, School-to-Work legislation, etc., was accelerating as the last century came to a close.

All these incremental changes are ambitious designs to control how children think, feel, and behave. There had been signs of this intention two centuries earlier, but without long-term confinement of children to great warehouses, the amount of isolation and mind-control needed to successfully introduce civil religion through schooling just wasn’t available.

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