Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Albums of the 00's

#10 +/- - Self-Titled Long-Playing Debut

#9 The Church – Uninvited, Like the Clouds

#8 John Vanderslice – Cellar Door

#7 Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

#6 Radiohead - Kid A

#5 TV on the Radio – Young Liars EP

#4 The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat

#3 Sleater-Kinney – The Woods

#2 Notwist – Neon Golden

#1 Rumah Sakit – Rumah Sakit

runners up:
Tarwater – Animals, Suns & Atoms
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
Fucked Up – Chemistry of Common Life
Madvillain – Madvillainy
Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf
Dilute – Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape
Frog Eyes – The Golden River
Wilderness – Wilderness
Beirut - Gulag Orkestar

Real Education Reform

There's a lot of talk about education reform these days. Many on the left are accused of making excuses for teachers, opposing reform and doing nothing but complain about poor teacher salaries.

I'm on the left and I think teachers are underpaid, but would like to see reform. Just not in the form of union busting and straw charter schools. The bottom line is what we're all talking about are crappy student populations where the state is trying to make up for every conceivable social ill that comes to bear on each individual student.

There will be crap administrators. There will be crap teachers. But there will be great ones. No one complains about the high-scoring suburban schools, even though their structure is mostly no different than ghetto schools. In fact, I'll bet if you took the entire staff of a suburban school and swapped it with a ghetto school, your results wouldn't be that different.

We need to get out of the blame-the-schools model and focus on instituting neighborhood intervention, starting with pregnancy and continuing with early childhood home-visits, highly qualified pre-school, health services, parent support classes and incentives. Kids are entering the system 2-3 years behind, and then getting cobbled-together classroom interventions - basically requiring the teacher to single-handedly make up for a tidal wave of social capital-destruction happening outside school.

We set teachers up to fail. The amazing ones manage to achieve great things, and we then base our expectations off of them. We stick to our expensive, bloated and ineffective model - but when the vast number of teachers - as in any profession - are simply not in the 95%, we blame all teachers. Especially the ones who happen to teach in the most difficult environments, and getting the worst test scores. This is insane.

What we need will be expensive. But it will be effective. It won't require extraordinary sacrifice by teachers (whose sacrifice now is only "ordinary"). It will be scaleable nationally. It will be targeted and take into account demographic need. Suburbs won't be compared with ghettos. Parents will get the support they need. Difficult classrooms will be smaller. Poor schools will be smaller. Teachers and administrators in such schools will receive extra support. Social services personal will be on hand to intervene early and quickly.

While this may be expensive in the short term, it will pay out many times over in long-term dividends - not only in decreased late-childhood intervention, but also in social costs such as criminal justice and health services which end up costing much more. Not to mention the lack of a productive member of the workforce. Of course, those are only the practical benefits. The moral imperative is even stronger.

Which is what the real burden in all of this is: moral clarity. We need to acknowledge that poverty is being perpetuated by our current system. We need to take responsibility for those least among us and come to their aid in a real and urgent way. When a teen mother gives birth and brings her child in to school 5 years later, we cannot expect the teacher to be the only capable person in that child's life, one of 30 others, for a handful of hours a day. We can't wait that long. We can't do that little.

Before we expect more from the situation, we need to begin to expect more from ourselves.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Civics 101

Victor Davis Hanson doesn't like Liberalism:

It works like this: The ghetto resident, the denizen of the barrio, the abandoned and divorced waitress with three young children, can all chart their poverty and unhappiness not to accident, fate, bad luck, bad decisions, poor judgment, illegality or drug use, or simple tragedy, but rather exclusively to a system that is rigged to ensure oppression on the basis of race, class, and gender—often insidious and unfathomable except to the sensitive and gifted academic or community organizer.

So Obama combines the age-old belief that the state is there to level the playing field (rather than protect the rights of the individual and secure the safety of the people from foreign threats), with the postmodern notion that government must recompensate those by fiat on the basis on their race or class or gender. Remember all that, and everything from the Professor Gates incident, to the dutiful attendance at the foot of Rev. Wright to Van Jones become logical rather than aberrant. Michelle Obama could make $300,000 and she will always be more a victim than the Appalachian coal miner who earns $30,000, by virtue of her race and gender.

Apparently he doesn't comprehend liberalism.

Quick civics lesson:

White supremacists legally oppress minorities up through the 60's. Laws passed, culture slowly changes. "Legacy of oppression" still exists: high levels of minority poverty & dysfunction relative to whites. Liberals react against history of oppression and continue culture war: political correctness. After a few decades racism becomes socially unacceptable: miscegenation no longer considered terrible; conservatives "no longer see race".

Yet inequalities still exist: minorities fall behind in almost every indicator of demographic success. Paleo-liberals continue to argue its all because of active racism. Neo-liberals point to cultural and institutional factors that perpetuate poverty. Social research supports this thesis: general "risk-factors" are hypothesized to predict social outcomes; education, wealth, race are linked to success.

Conservatives deny that any of this is a factor. They "have a buddy" who grew up poor and is now wealthy; his daddy beat him but he didn't whine about it! They see liberals talking about inequality and dismiss it as a fantasy: everyone can succeed. They see liberal notions of equality as relics of a bygone era which doesn't exist anymore: Michelle Obama is doing great, Appalachian whites are suffering; race doesn't matter.

Yet this hypothesis would predict that all races would have equal rates of success. As would all incomes, educations, family backgrounds, etc: if "a buddy of mine" can truly be extrapolated to larger society. But they do not. The results contradict the hypothesis.

The liberal hypothesis predicts that success will be correlated with wealth, race, education, etc. It is. Year after year. This is a scientific fact. Race is just one factor of many; A bright black girl with a good family who goes to Harvard will almost always do better than a poor white man whose dad is drunk and drops out of school.

These are facts. They prove liberalism. Why conservatives continue to exist in their present form can only be explained by psychology. There is only so much you can do with people who continue to believe that 2 + 2 = 5.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Drill, Baby, Drill!

My morals on death are determined by reasonable social cost, and pain and suffering of the individual. Until a baby is birthed, into our society as an individual with a birth certificate, I see no real social cost in killing it. As long as its suffering is not too terrible, I see no problem killing it. A baby in the 8th month of gestation having its skull drilled in and crushed is fine with me.

The above may seem cruel and unsavory - but only in the context of a society in which many view the fetus (even the zygote, often) as a complete human being. I find the hunting of large mammals as cruel and unsavory - especially the part where they are stuffed and hung on the wall. But I recognize that my feelings are relative to my own moral compass, its bearings aligned with my religious, political, and cultural views. There is no overwhelming rational clarity that places either abortion or hunting into a clear moral category.

Unlike, say, the murder of a ten year old, the gutting of a family pet, or incest. Those fall into specific moral domains defined by broadly agreed upon - universal among humans - moral and social codes. These codes may someday change, and individuals may develop personal convictions contrary to norm, but until they achieve politically viable status, they will remain subject to democratically achieved laws. This has no bearing however, upon whether any of them are morally correct - that will be up to the individual to determine for him or herself.

But governing laws are not passed on the moral compass of individuals, but on that of the state, representative of the will of the people. Thus, while I personally feel hunting as despicable, not only do I respect my fellow citizens' moral trajectories, more importantly I respect the will of the people and all laws it passes within that context. Were my convictions strong enough, I would be well within my ethical rights to break the law in order to do what I felt was right. Legal rights, of course not, but ethically speaking, yes. If a ten year old boy was going to be murdered legally before me, I would be ethically obligated to stop the act, as long as I felt sufficient conviction (I would!).

So while it would be ethical to oppose abortion (or hunting), one would have to be sufficiently confident enough in their convictions to oppose its legal practice, much less otherwise illegal personal actions to stop it. And yet while I am confident in my ability to evoke powerful logical and rational arguments against murdering ten year old children and having most reasonable people accept them, I am not nearly as confident in my ability to persuade foes of abortion or hunting enthusiasts. Thus I cannot expect fellow citizens to consider banning either. Until abortion or hunting become as morally compelling to the will of society as murdering young boys, we cannot expect others to go along with our personal convictions on the matter.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Brokeback California

In his blog today Ross Douthat bemoans the current state of American government spending and warns of its impending slide into... California. This is an increasingly popular reference and one I'm not sure I'd disagree with. He points to 2 essays by William Voegeli which specify what, in tarnation, is wrong with California.

The first, The Big-Spending, High-Taxing, Lousy-Services Paradigm, lays out the crux of the issue:

What is surprising is the growing evidence that the low-benefit, low-tax alternative succeeds not only on its own terms but also according to the criteria used by defenders of high benefits and high taxes. Whatever theoretical claims are made for imposing high taxes to provide generous government benefits, the practical reality is that these public goods are, increasingly, neither public nor good: their beneficiaries are mostly the service providers themselves, and their quality is poor. For evidence, look to the two largest states in the nation, which are fine representatives of the liberal and conservative alternatives.

So basically, paying less for less ultimately gets you more than paying more for more. He goes on to lay out what he considers is wrong with California.

I must say I find his writing style graceful, yet his arguments unpersuasive.

His main point is that California pays too much and receives to little; its services are inefficient and ineffective. Yet while he does a good job cherry-picking some obviously distasteful-seeming expenditures, he then admits that they represent a small portion of the budget. Instead, he says, their continued defense simply illustrates California politicians' intransigence.

The real problem is the costly pension system, which apparently is too luxurious. Really? Even if this were the case, it hardly seems as though it can receive the blame for California's services being inefficient and ineffective. Unfortunately Voegeli spends almost zero time delving into just how and why these services are so poor. One could almost say that, if pensions were to blame, the only correlation might be to the funds they siphon away. Yet this doesn't make the case for inefficiency and ineffectiveness, but rather underfunding - a position of which I'm sure Voegeli would not approve.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Free Will and the Religious Tradition of Forgiveness

I'm often struck by how the disbelief in contra-causal free will seems to square up nicely with the sentiment of so many religious moral traditions. That is, "I am an agent of God, thus through Him I do my good work (while through the Devil I do evil). Your choices are simply the activations of (preordained?) Divine agency"

Of course this is an interpretation - but many for many pre-Cartesian traditions this is indeed the emphasis. You are an agent of the Almighty.

Now, say for a minute we simply substitute God for scientific materialism... Voila! "You are an agent of nature. Both your Good and Bad are manifestations of genetic and cultural evolution. Your choices are simply the activation of (determined?) natural agency".

I think religions evolved this construct as an insight into human behavior. We are silly animals. We do silly things. There is right and wrong: we desire what is "right", not what is "wrong". Yet we are HUMAN. We are frail and subject to forces beyond our control.

This tradition of religious interpretation is one of forgiveness, and a central narrative. In Hinduism it embodies the notion of Karma and reincarnation. In Christianity it embodies the redemption of Jesus' crucifixion. You are "free" to make any choice: but whatever you do will be ultimately determined by a grand play of Good vs. Evil.

And thus, if we simply replace the religious narrative with that of scientific materialism - nondogmatic and evidence-based as it is - we get the same ultimate insight: we are helpless to the greater forces at work; we are agents to its design. Fortunately for us, we are fancy humans with amazing brains that can do algebra and write poetry - nay, isn't our REAL luxury the ability to cure disease and defend against predators?

So our forefathers were on to something. They sensed it intuitively. They saw it when they played with their children; when they welcomed the grumpy neighbor in for tea; when they experienced the transcendent bliss of "letting bygones be bygones"; when they found humility. They just lacked a scientific means to place it in its true context. They were forced to invent a primitive scaffolding.

My naturalist outlook reminds me to be kind and patient, selfless and brave. It reminds me that I am merely a human caught up in a fantastic swirl of causal events. My choices and actions are nothing but manifestations of all that has come before. I do good because I was meant to do good.

If I were to choose differently it would be a lie - and yet one that I was meant to tell myself! But I do not. Nor do I stab myself with a knife. Why would I, as I do not desire pain. And as I am able to perform the mental geometry required to create a model of myself in others, neither do I stab them. I was created to seek out symmetry and harmony. And so I yearn for truth and justice. I vote accordingly. I speak accordingly. I think accordingly. I was determined to.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Climategate and True Belief

This whole climate gate thing is just bizarre. Who are these freaks that believe this stuff? First they didn’t believe in global warming. Then they didn’t believe it was anthropogenic. Now they think they have this smoking gun that proves the ENTIRE science (all the papers, researchers) is fraudulent.

What’s really weird is that creationists aren’t even this bold. They never say its all a big conspiracy paid for by wealthy Darwinist donors, or scientists knowing Darwinist research will get them grant money. No, that would be too retarded even for them.

Instead, they ignore the 99.9% of evidence FOR Darwinism, and focus on the “gaps” – trying their best to spread F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt). This is much of what the AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) denialists are doing with climategate, but taking it to a whole new level by attacking the scientists, not the science.

Of course, we all know what creationists’ real problem is: Darwinism doesn’t fit their dogma. And this is exactly what’s wrong for AGW denialists: it doesn’t fit their dogma. It is no coincidence they are all people who are fundamentally opposed to any regulation of business by government. They need to take a serious look in the mirror and ask themselves if any evidence would EVER be convincing enough. This is certainly the case with creationists. Evidence stopped being relevant a long time ago.

I fear AGW denialists have joined their ethereal ranks.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Question of Free Will and its Bearing Upon Governance

Governments can be, and are, defined in many ways. I think the modern world is pretty well discovering that, while not perfect, a capitalist social democracy is generally best. We enjoy electing our leaders, starting businesses, and the provision of public education. I think it’s safe to say that neither extreme communism nor libertarianism are sensible options.

At its most basic level, government is formed to provide for individual security and freedom. How these come to be defined, and then achieved, present a formidable philosophical and practical challenge. Yet I believe a key insight into where we must begin on this matter, is the question of Contra-Causal Free Will (CCFW). In order to define what government ought to be, you need to determine whether CCFW exists. A large enough subject in its own right (although one I firmly believe has been settled, due in no small part to the discoveries of modern scientific research), for the purposes of this discussion, I will avoid much of the arguments for and against the question of CCFW, and concentrate mainly on the implications of its resolution.

Because I don't believe in CCFW and the processes underlying what makes us who we are, I don't believe it is fair for a child born to a family poor in social capital to have to compete with a child born to a family rich in social capital. Therefore, any government system that does not actively seek to redress this inequity of means not only does not guarantee freedom, but through inaction actively promotes the continuation of a status quo that is anti-freedom.

For instance, in our modern economic system, if one man is able to live richly off the low wages of thousands of others, whose freedom are we talking about? Should his wealth be relative to the stability and basic fairness of the larger society upon which his market is based, or is it simply relative to what he can buy with it?

These are certainly not easy questions. And we see them being labored over intensely in current debates over healthcare - does our modern society owe it to each individual to guarantee a minimum of health services?

Conservatives know exactly where they stand on the issue of free will and why it is so central to their concept of government. They come back to it again and again as a justification for their interest in maintaining the status quo. They see a socially activist government as entirely unethical: not only does it seek to unfairly redistribute income through progressive taxation, but it seeks to fritter it away on services that would be unnecessary if people would only choose correctly (drugs, parenting, education, hard work, crime, etc.).

Liberals are the ones I always find oddly oblivious to the inconsistency in both holding that society has a responsibility to promote fairness, and that free will does indeed exist. I think the reason has more to do with free will having an entrenched philosophical advantage in being the incumbent world view, well, for most of recorded history.

But I think the paramount example of why CCFW matters is in constructing a criminal justice system. Currently, we inflict terrible punishment upon convicted criminals – a prison sentence is certainly cruel, if not unusual. Yet if CCFW does not exist, then what business do we have in exacting revenge upon people who could not have chosen any differently? Going back to my point regarding children: we treat them with forgiveness to the degree we attribute to them a lack of CCFW. The reason we treat them with the full harshness of the justice system when they reach 18 years of age is precisely because we deem them as suddenly possessing full CCFW: they could have made better choices.

Were we to instead deny CCFW, we would then have to treat adult criminals with the same sort of understanding that we do children: that they were not really responsible for their behavior: that society and genetic chance was. While acknowledging any continued threat they may pose society, as well as providing a message of deterrence, we should certainly still hold them accountable and protect society from them. But we ought to treat them with dignity, at least attempt rehabilitation, and certainly not subject them to the sort of violence and abuse rampant in today’s prisons.

On the flip side, neither does rejecting CCFW allow us to treat the millionaire as if he is responsible for his own success, rather than society and genes – at least in so far as he enjoys a level of power and privilege due to simple circumstance. This is why we no longer tolerate kings and aristocracy. What right does the wealthy man have to his wealth when it was obtained through no doing of his own? A civilized society is based in the concept that every man ought to be free to “pursue their own happiness at minimal detriment to everyone else's”. Implicit in this assumption is that we all ought to begin that pursuit at a reasonable level of equality of social capital.

So it would appear to me that not only does the question of free will have great bearing upon our personal values, but it must be dealt with if we are to structure a government that is able to best deliver freedom of opportunity to society. Fittingly, just as whether or not CCFW exists we must act as though it does, we must also structure our society according to whether or not we believe in CCFW. The consequences for either belief or disbelief could not have more dramatically different political implications.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Why Aren't the Liberals Interested in Poverty?

photo: Banksy

On the Secular Right blog, Heather Mac Donald asks, "Where are all the black fathers?"
It is an iron-clad rule, presumably taught in journalism schools, that when discussing black single mothers and their children, one must never, ever ask: Who and where is the father, and how many fathers are there? Tens of thousands of articles have been written about the struggles of black single mothers, and the appearance of their children is always treated as a virgin birth. Not only are there no fathers in sight in such articles, there is no curiosity about where the fathers are and why they’re not stepping up to the plate. ... But no amount of government programs can possibly compensate for the wholesale exemption of males from the responsibility of caring for their children. The fiction of the inner city virgin birth makes for a booming social service sector, but it otherwise spells disaster for a culture.
Where are they?

Oh, you know exactly where they are...

Conservatism, through its endless denial of how human society works (i.e. basic principles of economics, sociology, psychology, biology, neurology, and every -oly that actually took the time to study the reasons behind why we do what we do), stuck its head firmly in the sand and pretended that poverty would just "go away" if we continued to ignore festering social problems and went on thinking that we're all just snappy rational actors who choose our lots in life.

It denied that people are created by the societies in which they live. It influenced public policy and social thought, seeking to strip away any effort on the part of society to help people achieve equal access to success. It sought to limit access to quality public education. It sought to limit access to drug treatment and prevention. It sought to limit access to affordable mixed-income housing. It sought to limit access to public television programming.

It sought to limit progressive taxation to pay for any of these programs. It sought to limit minimum wages. It sought to limit the regulation of environmental pollution in poor communities. It sought to limit criminal rehabilitation programs, and instead maximize punishment for drug crimes. It sought to limit public parks. It sought to limit gun control laws that might have prevented the explosion in inner-city violence.

Lets continue. It sought to limit multiculturalism. It sought to limit the celebration of other forms of expression than the standard norms. It sought to elevate one particular "American" culture to a moral standing above all others - which just happened to be white, heterosexual, Christian, patriarchal and wealthy. It sought to limit intellectual inquiry and free thought. It sought to limit the types of journalism and academic study that intended to gather data and develop theories of how and why so many people have been so marginalized and mistreated throughout history. It sought to brand any who took part in such activities as traitorous and Unamerican.

So what happened to all those dead-beat black fathers?

In short, Ms. Mac Donald happened.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sarah Palin & Al Qaeda

I've been thinking about the trap so many liberals fall into with conservative ideologues. Basically, we're suckers. Our political enterprise is one of exploration. This is why academia & journalism, two pillars of civilization, are fundamentally liberal. Professors don't get to throw up their hands and say (as the modern conservative might), "There, all finished! We've got it pretty well figured out." Journalists don't get to simply report events that unfold, like automatons.

Liberalism is about genuine relativity - that all ideas are relative to one's perspective. It is corrosive to tradition and entrenched powers. But it is what it means to be a conscious human. It is an extension of the basic existential project: to reflect upon the world and find it's truth and meaning. This requires a certain amount of annihilation of self. Our model of the world is only as good as the model we are able to create. By this fact, everything then must be approached with a certain humility. When we engage the world, we must always allow for the fact that we do not have all the answers. There is no common sense for us. Skepticism begins with oneself, and then extends outward.

Yet none of this means that there is no Truth. It only means that we sometimes have a very hesitant relationship with it. Which causes problems when it comes to taking a stand for things. We may think we know what is true - but that could always change. When faced with fundamental injustice, dishonesty & illogic, we often struggle to rise above our hesitant stance and take the leap of faith that is declaration and certitude.

This isn't a problem for conservatives. Men are men. Women are women. God is god. Right is right. Love it or leave it. Real Americans. This is a fundamentalist mentality. Debates are not had in order to learn, they are to be won. - the model is perfect. It is one of obedience and authority. The model must not be questioned, because that is a slippery slope. Questions simply lead to more questions. There is a point where the questions just need to stop. The tap must be turned off and the sooner, the closer to the source, the less chance of contamination.

This is not communication. This is a fight. The same sort of mentality drives men to believe that infidels are expendable. It fits perfectly with the concept of God, because what could be more perfect, more authoritative, more true and worthy? What is more, every God comes with a special book! You don't even need to think for yourself. It's all right there in black and white. Just follow along. No stopping to critically reflect, unless as a way to more perfectly correct oneself in line with the Right way.

So do we argue with Al Qaeda? Of course not. And not only because they'd likely kill us. But because there is no point! Arguing requires an honest effort on both sides to try and understand each other. But these people do not want to understand us. How could they, when they don't even want to understand themselves?

Sarah Palin is not Al Qaeda. Glenn Beck is not Al Qaeda. (Although some of their follows I do sometimes worry...). But their thinking shares many commonalities. It arises out of an utter lack of self-reflection. At first principles, its core assumption is of inerrancy - an obedience to the tautological premise of an idea being so demonstrably true that it must not be questioned. A zeitgeist of such folk is now coalescing, almost in the way natural disaster builds to a critical mass that becomes self-sustaining. As a movement, what matters is not the legitimacy of its claims, but the size of its mass. The lack of tolerance for deviation is fascinating.

I'm not sure how to deal with these people. But engagement on the issues likely isn't an option. And to the degree that it is, success will come not from the strength of argument, but from the ability of the individual to reclaim some vestige of dialogue within their self. That process of self-reflection must be reacquired before any outsider can hope to have any impact.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Intelligent Dimension

Many are suspicious that Intelligent Design proponents are nothing more than creationist apologists in disguise. But God didn't do it. It was an advanced race of aliens. See, God is only one being, so he could not have possibly created himself. Whereas aliens were a race that evolved, by natural selection, from inorganic molecules. their technology become so advanced that they were able to travel back in time and initiate the big bang.

After our solar system had formed, they then devised advanced extra-dimensional machinery that allowed them to billions of years ago form organic Earth molecules. They have been covertly manipulating the DNA in our dimension ever since. Their technology is so advanced they they were able to reach in and design the mutations that created bacterial flagellum and dinosaur feathers.

But the real strange part of the story is that they are indeed here on Earth, living among us as members of the Discovery Institute. They had planned on giving a big reveal to the world but felt that Darwinists needed to first be dealt with in order to set the stage for an amenable public reception. However there were some slight setbacks in Dover where their clone of Judge Jones began to malfunction, thus thwarting their plans to kidnap the real justice and remove him into an extra dimension.

But despite Behe's controversial status, they are still 100% behind him and will continue to support him via wired money transfers of undisclosed sums into an off-dimension account.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where Are the Conservatives?

photo: Pieter Dirk

My thinking has been thus for a while now: Modern conservatism is about as far to the right as communism is on the left. To communists, all business is bad; To modern conservatives, all government is bad.
What’s fascinating is how we got here. Where did the intellectual right go? Did they sell their soul for populism? Did a sort of fuzzy, emotional relativism get the people to follow – but then turn on the Svengalis in a sort of headless blood lust?
I’m wondering where the Christian right is in all this? I thought it was kind of ironic when the Stupac amendment ended up showing that the quickest way to outlawing abortion might just be through a single-payer system. I know there are two misaligned sides to the modern conservative coin, with Jesus on one side, and Ayn Rand on the other – a match certainly headed for trouble. But what gives?
And now with Obama escalating the conflict in Afghanistan, the Democrats have a liberal president who believes in using military force preemptively – at least in as Al Queda doesn’t seem to have any active training camps in Afghan territory.
The Democrats are firmly planted in the center, while the Republicans seem incredibly off-kilter.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pedagogy and Controversy

Over at the Times, Stanley Fish has an interesting post up looking at a couple of views from the right and left on political correctness in the classroom.

The pedagogical issue of how a teacher presents ideas, whether as a part of the curriculum or not, is profound. And it does not begin in college. It begins in Kindergarten! (In any space where the teacher is teaching, really). The teacher is in a position of authority, and sets the tone, structure, content and direction of the instruction. And while Kindergarteners will likely not be discussing the notion of Democracy as a relative construct in post-colonial countries, they are still in the powerful grip of the teacher and all his subjective notions about the world.

As a high school science teacher, I was sensitive to this dynamic on a daily basis. Many students had religious and cultural perspectives that were entirely unscientific. But it would have been inappropriate for me to tell them that their perspectives were wrong, as their beliefs were part of a larger construct that was about more than merely facts - that would have been an abuse of my authority. I could, however give them the evidence - which was always overwhelming - and then let them decide for themselves.

But what then of issues where it isn't a matter of evidence, and is instead a matter entirely predicated upon cultural assumptions? There is no evidence for whether it is wrong or right to abort a fetus. Nor is there any that life begins at conception. But there is evidence of the dangers posed to some mothers due to complications. There is evidence of when a fetus begins to feel pain. Unless specifically studying the abortion issue, there isn't time in the classroom to fully explore it. However, as is often the case, controversial issues will come up, and should not be shied away from.

Teachers are facilitators of models. A students comes to class with a set of perspectives on the world, making up a model of reality. This model will be based upon core assumptions that form its supporting structure. The teacher's role is to enrich that model by presenting new information, but always explicitly based on a clear framework of assumptions. As new information is incorporated with the old, the student's models are then reconfigured accordingly, always starting at the base, and then building upwards. Some things may ultimately be be tossed out, while others more deeply carved.

In my science classroom, I always taught the evolution controversy starting with first principles. When any objection to evolution was raised (and it invariably was), I began with a definition of science as based on evidence, and then proceeded from there. I would state that religious objections to evolution are not based in evidence, and thus unanswerable by science. By starting with first assumptions, I created a model that the student could then get their hands around and authoritatively compare and contrast with their preconceived own.

If a student is feeling excluded in a classroom, it is because the teacher is not presenting their ideas in a way that is understandable and recognizable to the student; an attempt has not been successfully made to present that student with a model they can identify and legitimately contrast with their own. Of course, some gaps will just be too wide to fully address in one lecture, or even one course. But hopefully the student will come away with a deeper understanding of both their own, and the teacher's perspective.