Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sacred Violence

Anthropologist Scott Atran reflects on war, finding it unavoidably a product of man's irrational nature, no matter how rational its justification may seem.  He doesn't appear to be making a case for absolute pacifism, but rather reminding us that rational thought will always be colored by what he calls "sacred truths" we have accepted - for good or ill.  Further, as a violent project, war inspires in us certain tendencies.

In one study, we asked 656 Israeli settlers in the West Bank about the dismantlement of their settlement as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians. Some subjects were asked about their willingness to engage in nonviolent protests, whereas others were asked about violence. Besides their willingness to violently resist eviction, the subjects rated how effective they thought the action would be and how morally right the decision was. If the settlers are making the decision rationally, in line with mainstream models, their willingness to engage in a particular form of protest should depend mostly on their estimation of its effectiveness. But if sacred values come into play, that calculus should be clouded.

When it came to nonviolent options such as picketing and blocking streets, the rational behavior model predicted settlers' decisions. But in deciding whether to engage in violence, the settlers defied the rational behavior models. Rather than how effective they thought violence would be in saving their homes, the settlers' willingness to engage in violent protest depended only on how morally correct they considered that option to be. We found similar patterns of "principled" resistance to peace settlements and support for violence, including suicide bombings, among Palestinian refugees who felt "sacred values" were at stake, such as the recognizing their moral right of return to homes in Israel even if they expressed no material or practical interest in actually resettling.
A twist on "might makes right", the act of violence seems to inspire a passion that clouds out reason, focusing narrowly on violent response. 

Thinking of capital punishment, that the law is on the books, as a violent option, would by itself inspire violence. We've seen many studies in which the suggestion of an option or concept, changes decisions that would seem to be rational, and not directly connected to the suggestion.

I wonder if this dynamic in justice doesn't have to with a basic human fear impulse. The suggestion of violence triggers something deep in us, a sort of fear response, which is built to respond with violence. Something like a fear:attack mechanism.


A larger question is what we mean by sacred ?  Surely, its basis is something quite ineffable, and changes over time. Today, not being racist is a sacred truth. But it surely wasn't a few decades ago. Other, almost invisible things have slipped away. Why were we ever racist? I'm not sure we even knew at the time - it was sacred truth. (I'm actually convinced that this lack of knowing is what allows many today to believe themselves above racism - accepting that sacred truth - while still falling subject to the many prejudices and cognitive failings that afflicted previous, consciously racist generations)

And each of us has our own sacred values, defined by various allegiances and assumptions. I think the oddest thing is the circular way in which we hold sacred truths to be self evident, yet which are based on values and principles derived from thousands of years of cultural evolution. And yet that evolution of values and principles was surely informed in no small part by "sacred" considerations. Our sacred is informed by a reason, which itself is informed by a sacred.

OK, this is kind of terrible, but I just finished Robopocalypse, by Daniel Wilson, and there's a horrendous scene near the end where the robot mind has created these little robot parasites that attach themselves to a dead body, and by squeezing the diaphragm, vibrating the voice box, manipulating the lips and tongue, are able to make the body speak. As you know, I'm a determinist, and this might be the most disturbing, misanthropic analogy for what I generally claim to be occurring in human thought! But, it is vivid.

So, seeing this kind of abyssal relationship between the sacred and the rational, and the frighteningly unconscious way in which we think - even indeed, as we think - make me all the more skeptical of the notion that we are much in control at all.

Mind you, I actually find this insight liberating, in that in a seemingly paradoxical way I feel empowered by it. In religious terms, as best I can relate to and understand them, I see this determinist operational dynamic, this causal force of the natural world, as the closest thing I can imagine to a God. And in the manner I imagine people have always taken solace from religion, as a part of something larger than themselves, something that reminds them that their personal struggles are petty in the grander scheme of things - God's plan, I too feel a sense of belonging, forgiveness and purpose in this great natural unfolding of biological and cultural evolutionary history.

Especially, when reminded of the silly ways in which I as a human am bound to think.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Just Feelings

Will Wilkinson makes a fine case against the death penalty.
Now, I don't know how to convince you that even especially heinous murderers don't deserve to suffer the same fate they meted out. I suppose I would start by distinguishing justice from vengeance. I would observe that there is no pervasive ethereal moral substance that must be kept in some sort of cosmic balance lest society devolve into chaos. We may feel deeply, in our marrow, in our prickling indignant skin, that the yin of crime calls out for the yang of punishment. But I would warn against putting much trust our retributive instincts. I would suggest that civilization demands setting these feelings aside, that it requires that we ask ourselves in a cool hour the point of criminal justice.
I'm still convinced that justice is still largely about what people feel, not what they think. It isn't necessarily an illegitimate stance, but certainly cause for concern. That is, if you can't make a rational argument for something, without merely resorting to "how it feels", then you're in dangerous territory.

I've highlighted in bold what I think is a crucial point.  Revenge is a very common argument for punishment from the general public. Yet eye-for-eye style justice is absurd, leading to all sorts of logical barbarism, much of which those same people would likely find distasteful (until they got used to it, no doubt! Fox would make a killing on P.P.V.).

So this sort of justice-by-feeling seems rather squishy, even when we are merely talking about that nebulous concept of social retribution. In other words, what determines what wrong has been done to society, if our "feelings" are so unreliable?

I'm still unclear as to what service it provides us that utilitarianism does not. Certainly a citizen 1000 years ago would experience feelings of unwhetted blood-lust, were a convicted murderer not to be executed in public, after humiliation and torture. Yet we require modern man to bite his lip and be satisfied with less. Is the modern man worse off, not having had his dark taste? Maybe in order to truly fulfill what is rightfully ours, by this supposedly sacred instinct, we should indeed give the thirsty public what it wants.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Beyond Standards

When I was taking graduate courses in education, I had a memorable interaction with one of my professors.  She was a relatively conservative type, didn't go in for what you might call out-of-the-box thinking.  She once remarked to the class that she thought teachers were paid "plenty".  But it was during a discussion on standards, and what they meant for instruction in the classroom.  It occurred to me that she had an overly narrow view of teaching, as she seemed to be presenting the state standards as the beginning and end of all classroom instruction.

I raised my hand to suggest that there must be things that teachers teach their students that don't fit within the narrow confines of the state-approved standards.  She asked me what those could possibly be.  Put on the spot, I offered a few ideas of the top of my head - cooperation, love of learning, personal growth.  Certainly there must be more to education than content standards.   Had I been more prepared, I might have quoted Dewey:
“The aim of education is to enable individuals to continue their education ... (and) the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth. Now this idea cannot be applied to all the members of a society except where intercourse of man with man is mutual, and except where there is adequate provision for the reconstruction of social habits and institutions by means of wide stimulation arising from equitably distributed interests. And this means a democratic society.”
However, I did not.  Flustered by her incomprehensible narrow-mindedness, I could only propose a hypothesis: there must be something we teach, something we ought to teach, beyond simple academic content.  I remember her words:

"If you aren't teaching the standards, you shouldn't be teaching."

Now in my 5th year of teaching -  Biology, Earth Science and Health at a continuation High School for at-risk students - her words haunt me.  Over the past half-decade I've seen a system in which classroom instruction, as monitored and mandated by principals, administrators and school boards, has been strictly defined by these narrow academic standards.  Teachers are then held accountable for student knowledge of these standards as evidenced by the results of yearly state testing mandates.  In theory, if a child has performed poorly on the state test, the teachers have not been doing their job in the classroom, and the principals haven't been holding their teachers accountable.

Of course, in practice, the system is incredibly flawed.  School performance tracks with poverty and population, itself an indication of a host of environmental factors that - more than any other factor - determine student success.  Transient students and ever-evolving life circumstances make the task of matching test scores to the performance of any specific teacher highly complex.  However the design of the state tests, and the fact that they involve hundreds of thousands of students yearly, spread across the entire socioeconomic spectrum, and the myriad ways in which the results can be gamed, make the scores little more useful than very general and vague reflections of any given neighborhood.

Yet the high-stakes nature of the testing regime - schools face intense pressure to demonstrate yearly progress - has meant an increasing shift in thinking among administrators and policy makers (most of whom have never taught in a classroom themselves) towards a narrow view of instructional content.  Standards have become the be-all-end-all of education, simple and reducible, testable and empirical.  If you aren't teaching a standard, you shouldn't be teaching.

Last year one of my third period Earth Science students was shot to death in front of her house, her baby boy surviving a bullet wound to his leg.  I was probably helping her learn the difference between convection and conduction.  I'm not sure if she ever completed any work.  Later in the year, I overheard another student - routinely obnoxious and defiant - recount to her friends how just a few years earlier she had been been gang raped by two neighborhood brothers.  She described in brutal detail how they had enticed her into their home with offers of drugs, and after she passed out she came to as they were assaulting her.  She described coming into and out of consciousness as the rape unfolded.  She was eventually expelled for fighting.  She was bright, and wanted to go to college.  But doing work was often the last thing on her mind. 

A local paper recently reported that our school had the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of drug abuse, according to an anonymous survey of the students.  Many regularly speak of family members' addiction, neglect, abuse, incarceration, or mental illness.  Last week one student told me of an aunt serving 13 years for killing her baby accidentally after she threw a bottle at its head and left to party with her friends.

Because our school is designed for credit recovery - we regularly have students who are 2-3 years behind in credits needed for graduation - we must tailor content to their extreme needs while keeping the content as rigorous as possible, balancing reality with academic optimism.  What this often means is that student work becomes a sort of shallow hoop through which they must jump in order to receive a diploma.  There simply isn't time for them to gain mastery, especially when it is all most of them can do to simply show up and not get into trouble.  The sad truth is that for many of these students, showing up to class, completing the bare minimum of work will at least earn them a diploma, and a sense that they will have something to show for the 13 years they put into an educational system which for them often feel more like a penitentiary than anything else.

While the standards are important, they certainly aren't all I am teaching. So, what is it I am teaching, exactly?

I try to smile a lot and joke around.  I never know what a student is going through at home, or what demons are lurking just beneath the dead look in his eyes.  I take lots of deep breaths and think about phrasing my words in the right way.  I've learned that if I say the wrong thing, I could send a kid into a reactionary rage, or put him off his work for another whole day - becoming just another adult who doesn't understand, who wants him to play a game he's tired of playing.

But if I say the right thing, I begin to make a difference in their life.  I know that I and the other teachers in the building are often the only kind faces they'll see that week.  If I can get them to smile, I remind them that there's hope.  If I can get them to see me not as the enemy, but as someone who they can count on to help, I become a pillar of support in their life.  Anyone can be dismissive of them, belittle them, or kick them out of class.  They've come to expect it.

I had a student last year, a tough white girl with an attitude, who walked into my class on her first day and asked me, "What the fuck do you want?"  After a lot of patience, and holding out hope that she would one day do anything at all in my class aside from sit and sneer, she began to change.  It took me a while, and she still hasn't stopped cussing, but at least she no longer cusses at me.  I would actually go so far as to say that she enjoys my class.  This year she showed up, said a warm hello, and got to work.  She's actually been one of the more productive students.

Then one day last week, she asked me if she could stab me with a thumbtack.  This is her idea of humor.  I told her no, but she could stab me with ten thumbtacks.  I had previously shown a video of a balloon being popped by one nail, yet easily withstanding the force of a bed of nails.  I imagined I could demonstrate this principal at my desk, with my palm.  Giddily, she lined up a grid of ten tacks.  I then slowly placed my palm over them.  Before I could say a word, she swung her arm down hard on my hand.  Pain screamed up my arm.  I turned my palm over and saw that almost every pin had been driven up to the hilt into my flesh.  I'm sure the first word out of my mouth was an expletive.  Followed by a question, "Why did you just do that?!!!!"  Her response was somewhat predictable: "You said I could!" 

After bandaging the bloody wound, I continued teaching.  No principal.  No call home.  What would that have done?  Would it have taught her that you shouldn't stab people with thumbtacks?  I doubt it.  It certainly would have made her even more angry and resentful.  Would it have taught her that there are consequences for her actions?  I think she knows that lesson well enough.  The problem is that she doesn't really care.

What lesson did I want her to learn from the experience? I wanted her to feel empathy for me, to feel remorse.  If she learns to more readily feel empathy, she might be able to access it quicker in the future, and thus be able to halt whatever terrible impulse she might be feeling. I knew that was a tall order.  But given the rapport that I had developed with her, it was the only real point of leverage I had.  If she respected me, if she considered me a thinking, feeling human with whom she needed to share the Earth, if she trusted me to believe in her, to never stop believing that she was a good person, capable of being a better person, then maybe, just maybe she might allow herself to be more empathetic in the future.

I spoke with her about it the following day.  Fortunately the damage was limited to a (rather cool looking) grid of red dots in my palm.  But I told her it wasn't OK, and that it had really hurt.  Really, it was a formality.  I think that any lesson that she learned from the incident went unspoken.  She had stupidly lashed out at me, pushing a joke way too far.  But I think she was probably testing me in a way.  People who feel like the world is their enemy have a knack for making it into one.  They don't feel loved, and so they're going to make damn sure that no one wants to love them.  In a funny way, the rapport I had built with her might have pushed her into feeling the need to hurt me, or at least comfortable enough to treat me as ruthlessly as she might another of her friends.

Who knows.  But, I kept treating her with the respect and love that I try to show all my students - even when they try to bite me.  Apparently, it frequently works.  The next day she was back to work, and I was still her teacher, helping her with her assignments again.

In education you learn that every student is different.  Each child has special needs.  When we teach to these needs we call it differentiated instruction.  Of course, in a class of 30+ students it can be difficult to identify and then meet all of them.  But you try. 

The needs are complex and varied - these are humans we are discussing.  Aside from basic academic competencies in reading, writing, speaking, math, etc., there are considerations of temperament and intelligence modalities (spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, reflective, etc.).  There are great variations in social and emotional skills.  There are the situational needs that arise because of events occurring outside the classroom. 

All of these needs tangle together in a blend unique to each student.  To teach effectively is to become a master at keeping countless plates spinning at once, both in lesson preparation as well as on-the-fly improvisation throughout the school day.  To do so is a skill that cannot be taught, but learned through experience.  Just as learning to ride a bike requires what feels at the time like keeping track of multiple tasks at once (steering, balancing, pedaling, looking ahead of you, holding on), learning to teach is likewise overwhelming.  And yet just like a riding a bike, the cacophony slowly blends into something not only manageable, but second nature.  The needs of the students become more easily targeted.

This process of human interaction is nuanced and as much art as science.  It is different for each educator, as each educator will bring his own unique personality, temperament, skill set, style and interest to the classroom.  And each educator will be able to meet the needs of his students in unique ways.  Some combinations of teacher and student will work better than others.  A baseline of good practices and pedagogy can be laid down, but educators will need to do what works best for them in pursuit of the needs of each child.

These needs will certainly not be met by assuming that the only things being taught in the classroom are standard academic content.  Educators teach patience, self-respect, respect for others, determination, humor, humility, confidence, compassion, courage, skepticism, open-mindedness, conviction, optimism, dependability, self-reliance, and much, much more.

Educators teach these things consciously and unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly.  They do so more on some days than others.  Some days they simply want to go through the motions, anything to make it through to the final bell.  Yet other days they radiate energy out to their students as if nuclear fusion was taking place in their hearts.  Together, with their students, they journey through the year.  Through good and through bad, they make a promise to each other that neither will give up on the other.  An in the end, what can be a better lesson than that?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Solyndra Mistake

Obama is getting  criticism over the colossal failure of Solyndra, the solar manufacturing company whose stimulus package loan-guarantee had been touted as a promising investment in green jobs. 

But as others have pointed out, the failure of one investment does not argue against government investment more broadly, as many are claiming.  It could have just as easily been the case that Solyndra would have been a good investment, both in terms of creating jobs but also in easing the transition away from our dependence on dangerous fossil fuels. 

All this worry about the idea of state funding certain industries is missing a key point: these industries are vital to the national interest. The most obvious example of this is military contracting. No one ever argues that military industries shouldn't be supported by the state. The same logic applies to things like environmental, health or infrastructure industry. There are many areas of life in which there exists no natural market.

The upset over the auto and bank bailouts was based in the incorrect assumption that it was another example of the government interfering the markets, or even a government "takeover". Yet these were highly unusual cases in which the market had broken down, and the government had a national interest to uphold. In neither case was the government interested in entering these markets more than temporarily - a fact proved shortly thereafter. You can argue the counter-factual that it was bad policy, creating moral hazard and we would have been better off. But as it stands the interventions stabilized both areas in which we intervened.  Will automakers and bankers be more reckless, assuming that they might get bailed out in the future? I see no evidence of this. Automakers have gotten severe concessions from unions, and banks have tightened lending considerably.

The real question is not whether the government should be intervening in markets.  It always has and always will, as there are national interests that require investment, yet because individual companies face great risk and little reward, there is little incentive to pursue projects of great national importance.  Solyndra may have been a mistake, but it was part of an enormously important larger national project.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ponzi Party

Rick Perry calls social security a Ponzi scheme.

Pretty ironic.

Wouldn’t the whole supply-side BS the current Republican crop and Tea Party zealots hold sacrosanct fit the definition of Ponzi scheme perfectly, i.e. work hard and play by the rules and you’ll enjoy a comfortable standard of living, access to health care, well-funded public infrastructure and a secure retirement? We trade our hard work for the promise of these things, even if it isn’t directly reflected in our paycheck, because we are doing work that needs to be done, and we assume that the rest of society will do its part to contribute to the collective good, to the extent that they are able. Yet the wealthy don’t end up paying their fair share because free market apologists pretend that their hard work is somehow more important than than that of the rest of us. They assume that the market is meritocratic. They deny inherent structural inequalities of capitalism and only see governmental responses as the true inequalities. (For example, denying that there is anything wrong with inherited wealth and fighting government attempts to introduce fairness into what is essentially an aristocratic dynamic)

Yet as health care costs rise and access dwindles, infrastructure crumbles, and retirement seems ever more ethereal, they tell us this is the fault of greedy public workers, regulatory protections, and the recipients of the safety net. The idea that a police officer can expect to retire on a modest pension with access to health care, while living in a clean environment with functioning roads, libraries and parks, somehow represents everything that is wrong with society. Who does he think he is, they tell us. Because through their policies of tax cutting and deregulating, they have made his simple world seem somehow luxurious. Only by bringing him down, they tell us, will we too get to enjoy his success. If that doesn’t seem like the greatest Ponzi scheme of all time, than nothing does.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Eating Humanely

A column in the NY Times today asks readers to submit their thoughts on ways in which food for them has become an ethical issue.  The majority of comments express deep thoughtfulness on the choices we face in eating food that has been made without harming animals.  A few however were quite perturbed by the "self-righteousness" they felt emanated from these remarks, and found them offensive.

Expressing irritation at those who are concerned with the welfare of animals seems a protest too much. Being rude to meat eaters is one thing, but expressing one's personal feelings on the matter (especially when asked by the column!) is quite another. Maybe you feel they are insulting you by their own moral choices, as if their moral claim is accusatory. I think that's probably fair. But is that so wrong? When two people disagree over a moral issue, the accusation goes both ways.

Animals feel pain and suffer. You may agree and still not be bothered by contributing to it, feeling as though for you it is right. That is your choice. But at least allow others the dignity of making their own choices based on what they feel is right.

Personally I still struggle with the moral temptation to derive my culinary pleasures from animal flesh.  Philosophically, I actually don't see much harm in killing an animal, as long as it is painless.  I'm not sure I think domestic animals really miss their "friends".   But they do suffer in confinement, and I would prefer that they be kept in stimulating environs.  There are a number of ways today of getting certified humane meat and dairy products - at a marginal expense.  The Chipotle chain of mexican taquerias guarantees its meat and dairy to be humane. 

If you are concerned about animal welfare and yet still can't quit the delicious flavor of meat and dairy, I would suggest contacting your local grocer.  I think many of today's consumers would appreciate knowing that their products haven't come at the expense of undue suffering.  They just need the choice.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

When Science Is Not Enough

What does science have to tell us about the abortion debate?  In my view, not much.

I mean, first you have to define life. So even if you begin at fertilization, then you must decide how it becomes sacred. The things we use science to tell us about morality are largely non-existent at this stage. In fact, science tells us they don't exist - thinking, feeling aren't happening. And of course there's no evidence of any kind of soul.

That doesn't mean you can't have feelings about it, or come up with definition that make sense. But it will always be an artificial construct you are inventing. For what it is worth, there is much clearer evidence that killing animals for their meat is immoral. Science shows that thinking, feeling, creatures undergo immense suffering - immensely more than a fetus ever could at any prenatal stage.

So the question becomes where we apply our morality. To value human life/suffering over animal life/suffering is a human, not scientific construct. (And of course, any attempt to invoke Darwin here as a moral guide is preposterous. It quickly leads to what we would agree are immoral conclusions. )

I'm reading The Information right now, and there is a fascinating chapter on Dawkins and the concept of memes and cultural evolution. Again, there is no moral prescription, but an explanation of a process. Not only are we a highly evolved physical organism, we are a highly evolved cultural organism. In our lifespans, we are exposed to such an amazingly rich developmental diet of content, many ideas - memes - of which go back thousands of years.

Of course, the fact that they evolved - survived - has no bearing on their morality! However, it does have a bearing on their existence as human constructs, as they have arisen from the fertile soil of previous generations. Generations! You could say in both senses of the word - our biological ancestors, as well as their ideas which generated our ideas today.

So, here's a question: what does free will have to say about the meme? I've long felt that defenders of contra-causal free will tend to sound very similar to creationists. And in a way, they are making the same argument. The claim that God is the originator of human biology, or evolution, is similar to the claim that the individual is the originator of his own memes.

So as to deny that there is a purely physical process of random mutation of DNA that gives rise to evolved life forms, is similar to denying that there is a random mutation of memes within the individual's neural net. In fact, the notion that the individual is in control of his own mind is about as absurd as the notion that God is in control of mutating DNA. To take this further, one might ask why God would create so many absurdly inefficient mutations. So too, would one ask why humans make such absurdly poor "choices"? Of course, the evolutionary explanation makes perfect sense, as seen in the fossil and DNA record, etc. So too does the determinist explanation, as seen in developmental, sociological and brain science.

At best, science can tells us the mechanics of how life develops, as well as the physical world in which our feelings exist.  It can also tell us about how our thoughts develop.  But can it tell us whether or not an embryo is "sacred"?  At the very least, it would seem to tell us that it is not.  Yet for many, having embraced greatly evolved historical traditions that stretch deep into the unconscious minds, science will not be enough.