Drones are finally on the national radar, thanks to a question posed by Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the final debate of the presidential candidates. And not a moment too soon. When the United States launched the war in Afghanistan, only a handful of aerial drones were in use. Today the number exceeds 7,000. In the Middle East, the word drone has become synonymous with a uniquely American instrument of terror.
Consider, then, this illuminating fact: The number of aerial drones in Afghanistan is actually surpassed by the number of remote systems on the ground: over 12,000 in all. Most of these devices are used to detonate roadside bombs and other explosives. (Think of the opening scene of the film “The Hurt Locker.”) Yet the military is clearly hoping that robotics will play a larger role both in the air and on the ground in future conflicts. The Pentagon recently offered a $2 million prize to the developer who can engineer a humanoid-type robot. They say the product would be used in emergency situations like the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Yet it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which such robots could be put to more sinister use.
Robotics will have a profound effect on modern military campaigns—as important, perhaps, as the advent of gunpowder. Yet the international community has failed to assess adequately the ethical ramifications of their use. That needs to change quickly, lest humanoid robots become as ubiquitous, and as deadly, as their airborne counterparts.
No PowerPoint, Please
Few Americans have embodied the meaning of the word intellectual in the 20th century more thoroughly than Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian who spent most of his career teaching and writing at Columbia University and who died recently at the age of 104. Far from being an “armchair” or “pseudo-” or otherwise detached intellectual, his wide-ranging enthusiasms included th e relationship between European and American art, history and literature; the “great books” curriculum for which Columbia University is famous; detective fiction; the ninth-inning collapse of the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1951 National League playoff series, which he compared to Greek tragedy; and the educational reputation of the Society of Jesus.
Mr. Barzun’s Teacher in America (1945) is a classic book for educators, and its author was often asked for advice on how to cure the ills of U.S. education. He answered in a lecture, “What Is a School?” published in 2002. His advice is basic: learning demands listening, memorization and discussion. Students should learn to draw with pencil or charcoal and read sheet music. Multiple-choice exams do harm. Schools teach morality by example. Teaching aids are of “dubious use.” Classroom technology should consist of a piece of chalk and a blackboard eraser.
In his 877-page masterwork, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present (2000), he laments the decline of the West, but adds: “Meanwhile, by care and thought and continually revised methods, the Jesuits shone as schoolmasters—unsurpassed in the history of civilization. They taught secular subjects as well as church doctrine and did so with unexampled understanding and kindness toward their pupils.” For Mr. Barzun, the intellectual life and basic human kindness were friends.
From Roma, With Love
U.S. Catholics can be forgiven for missing an article in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published on Oct. 31. Between the serious ravages of Hurricane Sandy, the travails of a presidential election campaign and the lighthearted revels of Halloween, Americans had much on their minds. But the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise did not go unnoticed in Rome. No less than a full-page spread was afforded to Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, who is also the hero of the new film “Skyfall,” starring Daniel Craig. L’Osservatore’s film critic, Gaetano Valini, praised Mr. Craig’s portrayal of the character known as 007 as “less of a cliché, less attracted by the pleasures of life, much darker and more introspective.”
L’Osservatore has been venturing more and more of late into the world of pop culture. In recent years, the newspaper has opined on everything from the Blues Brothers to “Avatar” to the Harry Potter series. In 2010, they memorably pronounced Homer J. Simpson (and his dysfunctional family) to be crypto-Catholics. Admit-tedly, the newspaper devotes most of its pages to weightier matters, suffering and salvation among them. But the editors of L’Osservatore also recognize the need to seek God in all places, including the realm of film and television, and to interpret that world for believers as part of the new evangelization. The paper’s editor noted that the church needs to “pay attention to the popular culture of our time.” And to shake things up, we would add—but not stir them.