What’s atheism got to do with it?

For most possible values of “it,” nothing.

I got into a Twitter argument with Somite yesterday after he cited a trio of old/dead white cisgendered anglophone men as a reason that Atheism+ might be unnecessary. The conversation went in a few different directions, but kept coming around to Somite saying various things were “unrelated to atheism.”

And he’s right. Atheism–dictionary atheism, anyway–is a single position with respect to a single claim. The claim is “god exists;” the position is “I don’t accept that.”

And that’s it.

Now, I happen to think that said position is the one that people would arrive at necessarily if applying skeptical and scientific methods to the god-existence claim. But it’s trivially obvious that that’s not the only path to atheism. Some people arrive at that position through wholly irrational processes, like the Raelians. There’s nothing inherent in atheism that implies rationality or skepticism. There’s nothing about atheism that implies an appreciation of science–just look at Bill Maher. There’s nothing about atheism that implies a rejection of other supernatural beliefs and claims; the most recent Atheist Experience episode had a secular reincarnationist, for instance. There’s nothing about atheism that suggests that one should argue with religious believers or try to deconvert religionists. There’s nothing about atheism that says an atheist should be out and vocal about it. There’s nothing about atheism that implies the necessity to fight for free speech and religious freedom, or to try to dismantle religious privilege. Nothing about atheism suggested supporting Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist. Nothing about atheism suggests the need for something like the Out Campaign or the Clergy Project. There’s nothing about atheism that implies any course of action–it’s why the whole “Stalin’s atrocities were motivated by his atheism” argument falls apart so easily. Atheism is a single position on a single claim, it gives no instruction, implies no values.

So, yes, there’s very little that’s actually “related to atheism.” And yet, The God Delusion is a pretty sizable book. And it’s certainly not the only book about atheism on the market. I suspect that there’s more to George H. Smith’s Atheism than just 355 pages of “I don’t believe in gods.” But how? How is any of that content related to atheism?

The answer is that atheism as a movement has never been just about atheism. Movement atheism has been composed primarily of people with similar values and positions on a number of topics. Movement atheism has been largely pro-science, skeptical, pro-religious freedom, pro-free speech, and anti-religion. Movement atheism has typically valued education to the point of fighting for proper science education and against religious encroachments into secular classrooms. Movement atheism has typically valued atheists as people, and fought against tyrannical anti-blasphemy laws and repressive theocracies, for the benefit of atheists under those kinds of oppression. Movement atheism has been concerned with dismantling religious privilege so that questioning religion and coming out as atheist is more acceptable in heavily religious cultures, and providing a framework and support network for atheists who face discrimination or other obstacles as they go public. Movement atheism has always been a group of people who share certain values working to promote those values, and adopting the label “atheism” in part because of its stigma, and in part because it’s a major focal point and common thread uniting the various people involved. We all share atheism, and by and large, we also share a common set of values.

Movement atheism has always been atheism plus.

So is “Atheism+” necessary? I’d say so, if only because it’s a label for something that’s already existed for some time now. For years, some of these atheists who share values like skepticism and education and promoting science and improving life for atheists and so on and so forth, have also realized that they share social justice values. For many of us, these values spring from the same place as our atheism–from skeptical inquiry, empathy, and valuing human rights. We’ve noticed that, unlike values like promoting science and free speech and fighting religious tyranny, suggesting that these values are things atheists should be concerned with and fight for has been much more controversial. There’ve been a lot of people pushing back against the crusaders for social justice, and one of the arguments they fall back on is that these social justice topics are “unrelated to atheism.”

They’re right, so long as by “atheism” they mean “dictionary atheism” and not “movement atheism.” Fighting school prayer has nothing to do with dictionary atheism, but I never saw these people speaking up against the campaign to support Jessica Ahlquist, or suggesting that that’s not something “atheism” should be concerned with. The place where they’ve decided to draw the line is telling, I think.

But that’s really neither here nor there. They can have their line in the sand, they can have their opposition to social justice (or do it their way), and the folks under the “Atheism+” umbrella will work on it in our way, undeterred and un-derailed by the “that’s unrelated to atheism” arguments. Fine, great, it’s related to “Atheism+.”

There is one last point that I want to hit, and I hit it (clumsily, as usual when Twitter’s involved) last night as well. It’s true that none of the stuff I’ve talked about has anything to do with atheism. And it’s also true that “atheism” shouldn’t be concerned with issues of social justice or religious freedom or whatever. It can’t be. “Atheism” is a concept–as I said, a position. It does not have the capacity for concern. But atheists–who are people–do. And this is where the Out Campaign and Science-Based Parenting and the Clergy Project and Iron Chariots all come from. Atheists are more complex than just “I don’t believe in gods.” Part of it comes from empathy and rational self-interest–we recognize that our freedom of conscience and freedom to refuse to practice a belief system is contingent upon laws and governments, so we fight against those laws and governments who would restrict that freedom. Part of it comes from living in religious cultures–we recognize that some people face difficulties when they come out as atheists or living among the religious, and so we raise money for them, create support networks and discussion forums for them, and come out ourselves to remove the stigma. Part of it comes from the values that led us to atheism, like skepticism and education and science and so forth–we fight for good science and argue against the unsupportable claims of religions. Movement atheism has been, from the very start, only in small part about dictionary atheism, because dictionary atheism is only a small thing. The conferences, the speeches, the books, the movies and videos and blogs and podcasts, have all been about what interests and concerns atheists, not atheism.

And “Atheism+” is about recognizing that there are more things that should concern atheists if they want to continue fighting battles–and possibly winning–for the values they share. Some people disagree, and they’re welcome to do so. There are people–atheists–who’ve disagreed with various of the values of movement atheism, from science promotion to skepticism to whatever. Some of them came along despite the differences, others were left out of the movement. And they were welcome to do so as well.

On Educational Reform

I don’t like to talk about work on this blog1. Despite everything, I like to maintain a modicum of anonymity, especially with respect to my career. But I’ve had some recent conversations that touch on it, and I feel like venting a little. So, without much detail, I’ll say that I’m currently employed as an educator. Most of what I’m going to say in this post is off-the-cuff and anecdotal, so take it with a serious grain of salt and do the research for yourself–and feel free to let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong (but also feel obligated to direct me to a primary source).

So, I had a recent conversation with a good friend about education reform, largely based around the claims of the film “Waiting for Superman.” I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m inclined to skepticism–not just because of who I am, but also because of the counterclaims and responses that paint it as a kind of anti-union propaganda piece, the “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” of public schools. This Washington Post piece isn’t exactly the point-by-point rebuttal I’d like to see, but it echoes the sorts of responses I’ve heard from the unions and others.

So let’s start with the basics: there needs to be reform at nearly every level of the process. Let’s start with one of my favorite topics in this conversation: teacher education. My own experience is still fairly recent, and while anecdotal, I feel like it’s fairly representative. One of the biggest problems is just attracting people into the field; teaching is not exactly the most presitgious or well-paid of careers. Education programs often go beyond the average four-year college plan, including at least one semester of full-time student teaching. Student teachers still incur tuition costs, but do not get paid for their time in the classroom, rarely get reimbursed for any travel costs, and often are discouraged or outright prohibited from holding outside jobs. That means a full four to six months of mounting debt before they can even begin looking for a teaching job. Not the most attractive of propositions, I assure you. All of the significant incentives–tenure, insurance, stability–only happen well after the novice teacher has been hired and established. Consequently, it’s hard to attract people to education if that wasn’t their goal all along.

Most teacher candidates go into education from the start. On one hand, this means that their entire college experience is supplemented with educational philosophy and psychology courses, and they’re on-track to become educators as soon as they graduate. On the other hand, this means that they often don’t get the same rigorous, in-depth examination of their subject area as a non-education major in the same field. Education courseloads are not major-plus-education, they are education-plus-subject-area. This presents a number of problems; some might be attracted to education as an option because they don’t want to do the in-depth work required by the advanced courses in the subject major. On the other hand, the people who end up teaching lack some of that in-depth knowledge, and while they may never be expected to teach a class on those topics, a more thorough understanding of any topic is important to being able to teach it accurately and correct students’ misconceptions and answer questions.

This is especially problematic when we’re talking about elementary school teachers. At least in some education programs (and I would suspect it’s a majority), elementary school and even some middle school teachers get only a minimum of education in science or math. It’s been my experience that many non-science or non-math teachers exhibit the same distaste and disdain for those subjects as non-science and non-math majors did and do, and consequently science education at the elementary level is often cursory or nonexistent. While students may do some reading or occasional experiments, rarely is there any education on the actual process of science. Math is much the same, teaching skills devoid of conceptual context. I’ve been in districts where entire elementary schools had eliminated science as a subject because no one was trained or particularly interested in it. This problem will rear its head again shortly.

My own path was different; I went to college on a typical four-year career-oriented track, but decided mid-way to go into education. Naturally, it was too late to start up an education major, so instead I went through all the four-year extensive training in my subject areas, then did my education training in graduate school. I think this gives me a leg up when it comes to some of the more arcane and advanced questions I get from students, and it certainly gave me a leg up on the pay scale to come into the field with my Master’s degree. Unfortunately, it also drove me further into debt, kept me in a dwindling program that was tied up in the academic bureaucracy of three different departments (four, in my case) so that no one knew what my requirements were or could communicate them to anyone else, and made me radioactive to various low-budget districts who won’t hire a first-year teacher with a Master’s, due to the pay requirements. Six-point-five years of college and plenty of knowledge earned me a degree that made me too risky a candidate for many underfunded schools. The economic side of the system, in at least some cases, is designed to penalize highly-trained candidates. This is a problem.

The economic problem is a major one, and if that Washington Post article is accurate, it’s a problem that Waiting for Superman largely ignores. That seems strange, since it was a recurring theme in just about every semi-popular text that I read in my education courses; it’s not as though economic disparity is some arcane issue that no one’s explored. I can’t speak for every state, but in my state the schools are funded primarily by local property taxes. I can understand the reasons for this, but the unfortunate consequence is that this perpetuates and furthers the economic divide between the rich and poor; wealthy neighborhoods tend to have schools that are better-funded, have better equipment, have more opportunities for electives and extracurriculars, and can lure top teachers away from smaller, poorer schools. On the other side of things, I have a hard time believing that anyone could be ignorant of all the schools who have cut music and art programs, sports and extracurriculars, and have even been unable to buy textbooks or equipment due to funding problems.

NCLB and related programs have exacerbated that matter by imposing various–often draconian–regulations on which schools get additional help and what metrics are used to measure student ability and growth. I know that my teacher education classes explored a wide variety of different pedagogical styles, techniques, and methods, designed to stimulate students with different strengths and different levels of ability; it didn’t teach me what the requirements of the ACT were and how to teach students to pass standardized tests. I didn’t go to college to be a test preparation tutor, and the more that schools move toward that, the more you’ll see qualified, passionate teachers leaving the profession.

The more you’ll also see qualified, passionate teachers forced out of the profession as schools cut any programs that are not explicitly tested on the common standardized tests. Music programs, art programs, and foreign languages are typically the first to go. In many cases, it seems the only reason that Physical Education remains is because it’s typically mandated by law. Whole subjects of teachers are being cut out of the industry as the number of available jobs in their fields dwindles. The teachers whose subjects and programs remain experience increased pressure to align their curricula with the expectations of the standardized tests, which generally means a very tight focus on a very small set of skills. The ACT doesn’t require you to have read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, it doesn’t require you to know who wrote the Declaration of Independence or what the Magna Carta was, it doesn’t require you to know Avogadro’s Number or how to balance a chemical equation. The ACT is designed to measure a certain set of reasoning, verbal, and mathematical skills, and all the other things that go into a high school education–from hands-on experiments to basic cultural literacy–can be allowed to fall by the wayside. If they’re not on the test, then they’re a lower priority.

Which, unfortunately for everyone, goes against all the research that says students perform better when they can make connections between disparate fields of knowledge, and are more likely to graduate the more invested they are in the school, through courses they enjoy and extracurricular activities. Cutting out the electives and extracurriculars that students enjoy cuts down on their interest and cuts into their performance. Restricting teachers to the skills-based topics covered by standardized tests cuts down on their interest and cuts into performance. No one excels when no one is motivated to excel.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the matter of tenure and the unions. Again, teaching is not the most prestigious or high-paying of careers. It involves, especially early on, considerable education and a time commitment that well exceeds the typical 40-hour work week, much of it unpaid. Contrary to what many think, the teaching doesn’t end at 3:00, and grading papers is no small task when you have over a hundred students and have to plan lessons for the following days on top of it. The longer you teach, the more you build up a set of assignments and techniques and things that you can go back to without re-inventing the wheel each year, but novice teachers only have those kinds of archives in the form of what their colleagues have accumulated. The problem with this is that it stifles innovation; when it’s 9:00 at night and I have to be up at 5 to get ready and be at the school on-time for a staff meeting, and I have to choose between using a decade-old worksheet that may not represent the best modern research practices, a textbook-designed worksheet that may not reflect the emphases I have in my particular classroom, or a tailor-made assignment that I take time to put together on my own (with my knowledge of educational research but lack of expertise in crafting assessments), circumstances are often going to necessitate taking the easier options. Circumstances especially dictate those shortcut methods when, in the last few months of the year, when students have checked out mentally (and in many cases physically, what with the increase in field trips and family vacations) the novice teacher receives notice that they will not be hired back for the following school year. April, May, and June become a juggling act, where the novice teacher must continue their commitment to cover a certain amount of material and keep consistently grading to maintain the fidelity of the students’ scores, while also rewriting their résumés, submitting applications, and arranging interviews–with administrators at other schools, whose goals are to complete hirings before their own current school years end, and who are only available for interviews during school hours on school days. The faint glimmer at the end of this whole process is that, if you get hired by a school district, perform well for your periodic evaluations, and are not let go due to budget- or enrollment-related issues–for two to five years (more in some places)–then you don’t have to go through that juggling act again. You can settle down, put down roots, and have insurance during the summer months. That’s tenure.

“Ah,” you might say, “what about bad teachers? Doesn’t tenure make it so hard to fire a bad teacher that some districts refuse to even begin the process, preferring to just wait until they retire?”

Yes, it does. The union-negotiated contracts and tenure process make it difficult to fire teachers, even really terrible ones. This graphic from the Chicago Tribune demonstrates a typical process, and how it can take 2-5 years to remove a tenured teacher. Obviously, the process differs from district to district, but I suspect this is fairly typical. After all, it took over two years and nearly a million dollars for Mount Vernon, Ohio, to fire John Freshwater, who openly taught creationism in his public school science class, proselytized to his students, had been the subject of complaints by other teachers for eleven years, defied orders from the administration to stop teaching creationism for two years, and branded a student with a Tesla coil. Obviously, there’s something wrong with that system.

Except. Except that for every John Freshwater there’s a Dover School Board, full of elected ideologues with no educational background, who want to force teachers to promote their agenda. For every John Freshwater, there’s a Christine Comer, forced out of an educational position because the administration disagrees with their beliefs or legal conduct. The reason it’s hard to fire bad teachers is because the tenure system and the unions ensure that teachers have fair representation and an appeals process as a defense against ideologically- or personally-motivated administrations or school boards, against false accusations and unconstitutional mandates, and against biased people with personal vendettas. It’s hard to fire a veteran teacher for the same reason that it’s hard to execute a murder suspect. When those protections are taken away, you end up killing a lot of innocent people. Without those protections, administrations are free to staff schools with sycophants and the curriculum is decided by the non-expert school board; without those protections, any student can hold every teacher hostage with the threat of crying ‘rape’ or ‘assault,’ potentially ending a career on a whim, even if the teacher is acquitted. The appeals process protects bad teachers because it also protects good teachers, just as due process under the law protects the guilty because it also protects the innocent.

The system could certainly be more streamlined in many cases. Take, for instance, the Rubber Room situation in New York City, where teachers who were under investigation for a variety of reasons, ranging from the spurious to the serious, were removed from the classroom during the hearing process, but still required by contract to show up, and the districts were still required to pay them in full. It was an unfortunate confluence of protections for both the teachers and the students that worked out poorly for everyone. The trick for unions and districts is to strike a balance between protecting students from bad teachers and protecting teachers from bad students, bad administrations, and bad school boards. That’s a difficult balance to strike, and it differs from district to district.

The hope in any iteration of this process is that bad teachers will be rooted out before they get to the tenure stage. Novice teachers, as I mentioned above, go through a trial period before receiving tenure, and that can take between two and five years (or possibly more) depending on the district. Teachers who don’t make the cut–whether it’s because of performance or because of other issues–get pink slipped and sent back into the job pool. Teachers who survive all the cuts over that whole term are potentially retained for life.

This process creates a couple of problems, to be sure. For one, a teacher’s ability can vary greatly over their lifetime; they may get considerably better with experience, they may burn out and check out, and hell, they may do both at different times. Tenure is a gamble that a school district takes based on a few years of rookie performance. Not that there aren’t checks on that matter; teachers typically have to meet certain requirements of continuing education and periodic evaluations over the course of their tenure. It’s still not easy to fire them, but the schools typically have some recourse.

The other problem is what the process does to the pool of available teachers. My friend who inspired this rant directed me to this podcast, where an economist and education expert suggests that a solution would be to fire the bottom 5-8% of teachers and replace them with teachers of average ability. There are problems with this plan, not least of which is that it’s based around data from students’ improvements on standardized tests–which are not an accurate measurement of anything except how good the teacher is at tutoring students on test preparation. I’d be curious to see how this plan could be implemented regarding teachers whose subjects aren’t tested by the standardized tests–like Spanish class, or Shop class, or most Social Studies classes. The bigger problem, though, is the matter of replacing those 5-8% of teachers. Let’s ignore the point that this is a nationwide survey, and so those bottom 5-8% of teachers might themselves be more heavily concentrated in completely different states than the more average and above-average teachers, and saying “if only we moved teachers from New York to Mississippi” is not feasible. The teachers who are mobile, who are available for new jobs and new hires are almost entirely (by definition) made of teachers who are newly graduated and thus unexperienced, experienced teachers who have not (for whatever reason) been granted tenure by another district, and experienced teachers who have been fired from a tenured position.

In other words, if you fire those 5-8% of bottom teachers, you have to take a gamble on the job pool of untested teachers and failed teachers. I can’t entirely fault districts for going with a “better the devil you know” approach even if they had a fairly easy time of firing those poorly-performing teachers.

Which is where the Hanushek plan makes the same basic mistake as just about any plan I’ve ever seen for an education reform panacea: its proposed solution ignores the complexities of reality. As I said, I haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman,” but my experience and the responses lead me to believe that it makes the same errors–and does so less out of ignorance than out of ideological reasons and a desire to promote propaganda. The truth is that there is no one culprit in the production of bad teachers and bad schools, but a tangled mess of problems in higher education, problems in the management of schools, problems of funding and budgeting, problems in the negotiation of contracts, problems in the turnover of administrations, problems in the measurement of student achievement, problems of priorities, and a further list of problems that would make even Jay-Z blush. Proposing any one school type as a solution or any one group as the villain is, at best, completely myopic, and at worst, profoundly dishonest. The only solution to education reform must be a comprehensive plan that addresses the problems at every level, from teacher education to tenure and everywhere in between, and recognizes that different places have different unique problems and needs. And that’s not a plan that can be expressed in a slick two-hour movie.

1. If recent history is any indication, I don’t like to talk about anything on this blog.

The R Word

The term “mentally retarded” was coined around 1895. Eventually it became the preferred euphemism to refer to people with various developmental and cognitive disabilities. It was used to replace the then-current clinical terms, which had gained wide use in the general culture as pejoratives. Those earlier terms? “Moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile.”

Today, “retarded” is joining those terms, and for the same reason, called the euphemism treadmill. We have something that is perceived negatively by the general public, and so we develop terms to describe it. Those terms eventually take on connotations that denote the generally negative feelings, and so we develop new terms which lack those connotations, and the cycle begins anew.

And so we have it that “moron,” once a neutral term, is now a common epithet. “Cripple” gave way to “handicapped” gave way to “disabled” gave way to “differently abled,” as each new euphemism took on the negative connotations that caused the rejection of the previous ones.

I can understand the people on any given side of this issue. There are those clinicians and others trying to develop new terms so as to stay ahead of the pejoration of the previous terms, and that’s fairly necessary in writing academic, judgmentally-neutral papers and reports. There are those who try to reclaim old terms, using them as points of pride or power, which has some limited success. The problem is that words then come to carry two related sets of connotations: when Dan Savage calls one of his writers a “fag,” the result is very different from when a bully does the same thing to a kid on the playground. So the word–at least for a time–becomes taboo for some, or in some contexts, but not always, and that really slows down the “reclaiming,” which is (at least in part) an attempt to strip the word of the oppressive power it has from being taboo. There are those who develop new, more positive euphemisms, which are often subject to even quicker pejoration due to their transparent purpose and their use sardonically–for instance, terms like “handicapable” and the use of the word “special” to refer to those with mental disabilities quickly became dismissively pejorative themselves–to the point where a phrase like “She’s special” can have two very different meanings depending on my tone. This can also create terms with other problems; “African-American” was coined as a euphemism to replace “black,” but the consensus seems to be settling on the latter term, since it is more accurate than the term which suggests that many natural-born citizens are originally from Africa. I suspect this is also a part of why the term “people of color” has experienced some resurgence, probably to replace “ethnic.”

And then there are those who try to bring clinical terms into common use, using them to escape the same pejoration as the clinicians, but ultimately starting the cycle up again.

There are some ways to hinder this, I suppose. The more lengthy and multisyllabic and technical a term is, the harder (I think) it becomes to make it into a pejorative. A current preferred term like “developmentally delayed” is unlikely to become a playground insult, but it may still gather that pejorative baggage. Especially since “retard (v.)” means “to delay.” Using a synonym has the obvious danger of making the terms synonymous.

The problem with all of these positions–developing new euphemisms, reclaiming old ones, etc.–is twofold. First, language is a tricksy thing, evolving in a very similar way to the way organisms do. It’s possible with either to exert some selection pressure, but it’s not entirely clear how language will respond to those pressures. For instance, the term “gay” originally meant “happy” or “carefree,” and gradually adopted sexual connotations (“carefree” turning to “uninhibited.” It became somewhat linked to homosexuality during the life of Oscar Wilde, and became the preferred term by homosexuals during the 20th Century. “Gay” was subtle enough to go under the radar for quite some time, positive, and a better alternative than the more obviously pejorative terms like “queer.” And I’d say it was pretty successfully reclaimed, becoming a point of pride, with the homosexual connotation completely eclipsing the original meaning, and even the more pejorative “sexually uninhibited” connotations of the late 19th century.

But in the hands of schoolchildren, it has become synonymous with “lame” or “stupid,” due to its association with the perceived negative of homosexuality. “Gay” as a term is now on its second cycle of pejoration.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t try to reclaim words or exercise some control over what words mean and how language changes. I would only caution such people that such change is slow and unpredictable at best, and in many cases eventually leads to new problems analogous to the ones that you’re trying to solve.

Which brings us to the second prong of the problem: by exerting influence over language: it’s only addressing a symptom of the real problem. The issue of pejoration will occur and the euphemism treadmill will keep spinning until we correct the root of the problem: the social attitude that holds some people to be generally negative or inferior. The reason that we’ve seen the same thing happen to “retarded” that once happened to “moron” isn’t because the words themselves have some kind of power, it’s because people consciously or unconsciously see the developmentally delayed and disabled as less than people. Until people become so familiarized and accepting of their fellow humans with developmental disorders that they no longer see the difference as negative, the cycle will continue.

Attacking and altering the language we use is a necessary step in these kinds of situations; Richard Dawkins talks about how feminists’ insistence on gender-neutral terminology was a key component of the consciousness-raising aspects of the women’s rights movement. But I think people have a twin tendency to focus on the words more than the attitudes behind them, and to (consciously or unconsciously) blame the problem on the words we use. This ends up making the words taboo, which gives them a power to offend, which only really perpetuates the problem of the connotations which made them taboo in the first place.

In order to combat prejudice, fear, and hate, you can’t stop at correcting the language of the prejudiced, fearful, and hate-filled. That only creates a class of words that are associated with prejudice and starts off a new set of words down the same path. You have to correct the attitudes alongside the language if you want any kind of lasting change.

I’d like to see a world where we don’t ascribe greater power to particular arrangements of letters than others, where we don’t use descriptions of differences between individuals as pejorative terms, and where we all accept each other as equals because of those individual differences. I’d like to buy that world a Coke.

Until then, I suppose we’ll all keep running on this treadmill, naïvely believing that we’re making progress.

An Open Letter

Dear America,

Thanks for not fucking this one up. I’d like to say you should pat yourself on the back, but I’m honestly not that impressed by people who do what ought to be expected of them. Let’s face it, this is the 21st Century, and we’re the ostensible leaders of the free world, a superpower among industrial nations; we shouldn’t still be seriously debating whether or not healthcare is something that the people ought to have. We shouldn’t be considering people for the highest offices in the land who are opposed to science, who think mankind walked with dinosaurs and that a planetarium is in any way comparable to an overhead projector. There shouldn’t be a question over whether or not children should be educated about their bodies, over whether or not women should have inviolable control over their reproductive rights, over whether or not marriage should be an equal right for all people.

Oh, and that reminds me: fuck you, America. Fuck you, California, for voting to amend your fucking constitution to make gays into second-class citizens, to remove a right guaranteed them by the highest laws in the land, regardless of whether or not you backwards fucks realize it. Fuck you, Florida and Arizona, for passing similar amendments. And Arkansas, well, let’s face it, no one expected you to be a beacon of progressive values. The one hope I have about all this is that President Obama will have the chance to appoint new judges to the Supreme Court, and those judges may get to hear the cases objecting to the Amendments in these states, and they may get to decide those cases based on any reasonable person’s reading of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. And then this won’t be a state-by-state issue anymore.

But I don’t want you to think I’m not happy, America. In fact, I’m elated. I’m so proud of you for pulling out an election that wasn’t on the goddamn razor’s edge all night; it was really nice to be able to vote in a landslide for once, and to go to sleep at a decent hour on an election night. I’m proud of you for rejecting McCain and Palin and their consistently inept and vitriolic campaign. I’m proud especially of young America, who didn’t just wait for the world to change, but actually went out in droves and recognized that they need to make a stand about the issues that affect their lives. Don’t get a swelled head about yourself, America–you’ve still got quite a way to go just to clean up the messes of the last eight years, let alone catching up with the rest of the civilized world–but you did well last night. I had some harsh words for you up there, America, but it’s only because I recognize that you’ve got a lot more potential than you’re actually exercising.

To the Republicans of America: This might be a good time to stop and think and actually consider what your party’s values are. What this election should have taught you is that you can’t continue on trying to hold two vastly different groups of people together with masking tape and string. The fiscal conservatives, whose rhetoric has dominated Republican talking points for decades, are obviously no longer represented in the party’s decision-making process; while I heard non-stop claims about tax-and-spend Democrats in this election cycle, it seemed hollow compared to the Republican administration’s gigantic deficit, no-bid contracts, and endless war. Their calls for smaller government ring hollower still as the administration works to expand the powers of the Executive Office, flaunts the rule of law, ignores checks and balances, and uses every excuse to pry into the private lives of its citizens; meanwhile, the social conservatives seek to legislate their religious convictions, interfere with education, intervene in people’s relationships, and determine what individuals are and are not allowed to do with their own bodies. Cronyism and pandering to big business do not constitute fiscal responsibility, and moral legislation is not small government. Republicans, you need to figure out which base you want to appeal to: the small-minded set of rubes and radicals whose primary concerns are fetuses and suicide-bombers, who you can convince entirely through fear and dog-whistle words and apocalyptic rhetoric, or the Grand Ole Party of sober fiscal conservatives who believe in small government and the rule of law, and who have spent the last six years wondering if maybe they ought to be voting Libertarian instead. The two groups clearly do not get along, and I think that infighting and disagreement was a lot of what cost you this election.

To the American Democrats: Okay, we have all three houses now. Can we please stop acting like the minority party? For two years, our majorities in the House and Senate have been squandered by party leaders who have seemingly lacked any initiative or desire or courage to stand up to the failed and destructive policies of the President and the Republican party. Yes, we lacked a veto-proof majority, and yes, the President decided to get out his veto stamp at every opportunity this term, after largely forgetting he had one for the first four or five years of his presidency. None of that should have been a barrier to more decisive actions, more symbolic gestures, and more clear demonstrations of desire to make changes and do the right thing. There’s no reason that the Speaker of the goddamn House should have categorically opposed bringing articles of impeachment to the floor, except that the party didn’t want to rock the boat and potentially endanger the future of its majority. Can we be done with that now? Can we please actually do things now to enforce the rule of law, to restore checks and balances, to shrink the Executive Branch, and to make things better for the people of the United States?

It’s a great new day in America, and I think I’m going to have to look into a nice going-away party on January 20th. I’m so happy I could cry. Thanks for that opportunity, America.

All my best,

P.S.: Please don’t kill this one, okay?

Creationism in my Classroom

I’m going to take a brief break from politics, morality, and not blogging about GenCon to actually blog about something that happened to me a couple of weeks back. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve started student teaching. At this point, I feel like I ought to step up the anonymity; I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s privacy, nor do I want to make myself a pariah. So excuse me if I’m a bit vague; it’s intentional. Also, if it becomes necessary, I may invoke some pseudonyms. Buffy-related ones, no doubt.

Today, a substitute teacher was filling in for my mentor teacher. We’ll call him Mr. Ted. He’s well-known and well-liked by the students. I knew he was a local pastor of some flavor, and whatever, he’s a nice guy and it’s a small midwestern town. I’m not an idiot; I know what’s to be expected.

I did the bulk of the instruction, which mostly consisted of following my mentor teacher’s plans and corralling the unruly high schoolers, while Mr. Ted read some preachery book and helped out as necessary. Now, I figure this is well within his legal rights; I know teachers are allowed to wear cross or Star of David necklaces and other religious paraphernalia, and I would be surprised if they’d be barred from reading religious materials in the classroom. Still, and maybe it’s just because I don’t want to rock the boat or bring unnecessary complications into my life, I wouldn’t sit down and read The God Delusion or Atheism: The Case Against God or something during free time in the classroom. For me, that’d be at least one step too close to endorsing a religious position while acting in the capacity of an authority figure under the state’s employ. But I’m the kind of person who puts a lot of thought and concern into that sort of thing, and one of the privileges of being in the majority is that you really don’t have to. My views and reading materials are more likely to cause problems and offend my students than Mr. Ted’s. And that’s not where Mr. Ted and I ran into trouble; other than the fact that it caused me to mull over the ethical question of what a teacher ought to be able to read in a public school classroom, I didn’t have any qualms about Mr. Ted’s reading material.

No, the real situation is a little more depressing, and a lot closer to illegal. The bell rang to dismiss my fourth-hour class, which is the one right before my lunch break. One of my students, a quiet girl who we’ll call Faith, stayed behind to chat with Mr. Ted. I was busy picking stuff up and packing up so I could go eat, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what they were talking about halfway across the room.

That is, until I caught a snippet of Faith saying “…really believes we came from monkeys.” That gave me some pause, and the next thing I heard was Mr. Ted saying something about how evolution could be “scientifically disproven,” but “they” wouldn’t let it get taught in the classrooms. This, sadly, confirmed that they were having precisely the conversation I feared they were having.

Faith said something along the lines of “he told us” (and by “he,” I assume she meant her Biology teacher) and then launched into a pretty decent explanation of Darwin’s finches. It was slightly muddled, as you might expect from an average high school student, but she definitely had a handle on the concepts. Mr. Ted interrupted her, literally handwaving (as I recall) and gave the standard line–changes, but no they can’t change between species.

At this point, I chime in. “Actually, they’ve observed speciation in the laboratory,” or something to that effect. I’ll be honest here in saying that while I remember broad swaths of the conversation, I have very little idea what was said in what order. That’s not a matter of it being over a week since the event occurred; even immediately after the conversation, I realized that I didn’t know the details. More on the reasons for that in a moment. Anyway, I’m going to do my best to present things as a rough progression, but I guarantee it’s not particularly accurate.

At this point, I think, is when I looked directly at Faith and suggested that she go to TalkOrigins.org, which can answer any and all questions she has about biological evolution.

Here, I think, is where Mr. Ted upped the ante–no longer was it just that some scientists had scientifically disproved evolution, but he has a friend who is a “deep scientist,” who says he can scientifically disprove evolution. I left aside the question about what a “deep scientist” was (he said it like you might say “deep undercover”) and asked instead what field his friend worked in. Mr. Ted replied (after what I recall as a brief hesitation) that he was a biologist. I asked where his disproof has been published; Mr. Ted said that “they” won’t let him.

If I’d had a moment or two more to think, I might have mentioned that the Institute of Creation Research has a journal, the Discovery Institute has publications, why couldn’t his “scientist friend” go to one of them? Certainly they’d be open to his contributions. Instead, I turned up the sarcasm and said “Yes, because science is so rigid and dogmatic,” with emphasis on the last word. Mr. Ted shook his said, and said something that sounded like “I wish…” which I assumed was going toward “I wish it weren’t, but…”

I cut him off at the pass, and said that if someone could disprove evolution, they’d win a Nobel Prize, because it would open up vast new lines of research. If they managed to prove what I’m sure Mr. Ted believes, they’d be up for a certain million dollar prize as well.

I’m not entirely certain where the discussion went right then. Somehow, Mr. Ted started giving his perspective on evolution. “According to evolution [or something like that], with these billions of years that are supposed to have happened, but there’s no proof for–“

I interjected, “which can be shown through multiple lines of evidence.”

He continued, “we should see all kinds of different [species, variations, or something along those lines], and we don’t.” I thought of the vast tapestry of life, the tens (or hundreds) of millions of different known species, with all their subtle differences, tied to one another by the threads of common ancestry and shared genetics, and wondered how anyone could say such a myopically ignorant thing. Unfortunately, my only response was an incredulous “Yes we do!” He then (slightly stammering) reiterated the point about evolution not being able to make new species. If I’d had time to think, or if I’d remembered (or if I’d memorized the Index to Creationist Claims) I might have mentioned the new species of mosquito that evolved in the London Underground, or Helacyton gartleri or something; instead, I said “just recently, in an experiment, bacteria–E. coli bacteria–evolved the ability to digest citrate” (referencing, of course, Richard Lenski’s long-term E. coli experiment). To be quite honest, I think I was wrong that that’s an instance of speciation in the laboratory, but I’m also not entirely sure how they define “species” at the level of unicellular organisms that reproduce asexually.

I want to say that this is where Mr. Ted said “Well, I don’t think that’s the case,” or something along those lines. I know my response to that was along the lines of “you can think whatever you want, but the facts say you’re wrong.” Mr. Ted said “that’s what I’m talking about–scientific facts.” He then said something about DNA, though it wasn’t even a complete thought. If he’d continued on that, I’m not sure where I would have gone. Should I explain that DNA was a fantastic test of evolutionary theory, and could have refuted it when it was discovered, but instead has supported the theory and changed the face of evolutionary science by providing the mechanisms of mutation and evolution, and by giving us a much clearer and more solid picture of how organisms are related to one another? Should I bring up Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current evangelical Christian, who says that the DNA evidence alone proves common descent? Should I talk about specific things, like the broken vitamin-C-producing gene that helps prove common ancestry between humans and other primates?

Thankfully (or not) Mr. Ted spared me the choice, instead saying (something like), “just watch ‘Expelled.'” If I’d had another two seconds to think, I would have said “sorry, I don’t believe everything I see in movies,” or something to that effect. Instead, I was just floored–I honestly couldn’t believe there was anyone who wouldn’t have seen through the blatant tactics and idiocy of that film. So I sputtered “watch ‘Expelled’? Oh, I’ll watch ‘Expelled’.” It was not the highlight of my debate career. I moved on, “‘Expelled’ is full of lies, distortions, and misinformation,” or something to that effect. Mr. Ted just sighed or chuckled or sighckled or something, and I think he said something dismissive. That’s about when he left the room.

Shortly thereafter, Faith came up to me. I think she was there the whole time, and I have no idea how that all played out to her. She asked me “so, are you a science teacher, or…” or something to that effect–a legitimate question, since I’m teaching English. I explained that my undergraduate degree was in English and Physics, and that I’d be certified to teach English and all the high school sciences. I think that was met with a nodding “oh,” and she more or less left the room.

I continued gathering my things in order to go on my now-abbreviated lunch. I shut the door when I left the classroom, and passed Mr. Ted in the hallway. In the spirit of having to work with him for another three hours, I wished him a good lunch, and went to get my things from the teachers’ lounge. When I passed the classroom again, I noticed the door was open. I looked in to see Mr. Ted, eating his sandwich at the desk, alone in the dark.

In terms of education, I’m not sure how successful I was. I certainly don’t think I made Mr. Ted think at all, but at least I gave Faith an alternate perspective and a good resource for her questions. The fact that she asked about my background seemed positive to me, though I don’t think I’d suggest that it was a victory for science and reason. She’s quiet, so I don’t see much difference in her conduct toward me since then, but she also doesn’t seem to think I’m the godless devil incarnate.

What I learned from the experience, though, was why I don’t generally participate in face-to-face arguments of this sort. I was shaking–full-body shaking–from just a few moments into the discussion, and throughout most of my lunch period thereafter. Part of it was nervousness–it was my first week as a teacher in that district; I had no idea (and still have pretty much no idea) what the general consensus was regarding evolution and science and whatnot, nor did I have any idea what Mr. Ted might say to my colleagues while I was out to lunch. I didn’t know what impression this would make on Faith, or what she might thereafter say to her classmates. I don’t know how quickly they would make the equivocation of “evolutionist” and “atheist” in this small town, nor do I know what that would do to my relationship with my mentor teacher and my supervisor, nor do I know how that might affect my evaluation and job prospects. Sure, it’s entirely possible that I could be totally open and honest with my colleagues and suffer no ill effects, but I’d rather do so when I’m operating as an employee rather than a student. I needed to walk the line of science education, to not be dismissive of the beliefs that Mr. Ted and Faith likely shared (since that would no doubt sink my credibility), while also explaining that the evidence disagreed with their faith. I had to present myself as knowledgeable on a subject that is not the focus of my expertise, while also trying not to come off as the stereotypical condescending, arrogant atheist scientist boogieman.

More than that, I was on the spot; normally when I have arguments like this one, I can walk away, get a sandwich, do research, mull over what I’ve written and change it if necessary, link to sources, respond point-by-point, and generally take precisely as much time as I want to draft a response to the average asinine woo or creationist or whatever. I’m used to point-by-point debates without real time constraints, not face-to-face, heat of the moment debates. Debating by text loses a lot of the inflection and emphasis that help convey meaning in normal communication, but I’ll take it any day over the alternative; the parameters, such as they are, ensure a more honest exchange and allow for a much easier presentation of research and evidence. There’s a reason that the Gish Gallop is more useful face-to-face than online: you can’t baffle the audience with bullshit when your opponent has the ability to clean it up as thoroughly as you toss it out. I can’t pull up all the information to respond to creationist claims at a moment’s notice out of my memory with full citations, but I can do it on Google.

The other thing that feeds into that is that I was angry, and desperately trying to hide it (to be honest, I think the nervousness kind of outweighed it anyway). I’ve gotten angry in debates before, but like I said above, I’ve usually got the option of standing up and walking away from the computer. I can cool off for as long as I want, then return to the discussion when my demeanor is more cool and rational. But I couldn’t exactly walk away from Mr. Ted and Faith, any more than I could let him spread his arrogant ignorance without opposition. It upset me to see a schoolteacher flaunting the Constitution and decades of case law in order to promote a worldview that’s as thoroughly debunked as geocentrism or phlogiston. It made me angry that he apparently thought nothing of flatly dismissing and contradicting the teaching of a colleague in the building, when he has no expertise on the subject. It made me angry to think that it’s the twenty-first damn century, and we’re still beating the dessicated corpse of an argument that was settled in the nineteenth. And yet, if I’d lost my cool, I’d have lost the argument.

I’m not sure what to think about the whole event. I certainly don’t think it was a victory for science and reason, but I’m glad I stood up and said my piece. If nothing else, I refused to let misinformation go unchallenged, so that’s something.

Incidentally, Mr. Ted’s subbing for my class again on Wednesday. I’ve taken over the teaching, so he shouldn’t be doing much, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Regardless, I’m going to bone up a bit on speciation.

Talk amongst yourselves; I’ll give you a topic

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is full of shit.


But is it art?

The walls of the high school at which I do my student teaching are decorated with paintings by students. Some of them are quite good, some aren’t. And then there’s this one:

I can almost guarantee that my interpretation is very different from the artist’s intention.

Incidentally, how did “morbid” and “loath” get in there? Maybe I’m just a parallelism nazi, but an adjective like “morbid” really doesn’t fit with all those nouns, and the noun form of “loath” (not to mention that spelling) is pretty archaic. Looks to me like someone sat down with a thesaurus and didn’t quite understand all the words. Sadly, that’s not an isolated problem, if all the student writing I’ve read in recent years is any indication.

An incomplete list of things I don’t know

  • The musical term for the rising inflection/voice cracking thing that you often hear singers do in Irish music, such as at the end of nearly every line in the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”
  • Where to find honey-roasted walnuts, outside of Steak ‘n’ Shake salads.
  • Why anyone in their right minds would name a cemetery “Resurrection Cemetery.” That’s just begging for a zombie invasion.

Classic Tom: Abstain from incomplete sex education

Look at all that hair!Originally published in the Augustana Observer, vol. 104, issue #12, January 28, 2005
I thought I’d talk about abortion this week, due to the recent debate, Augustana Right to Life’s screening of “The Silent Scream” and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That, and I haven’t gotten enough letters about being controversial lately, and I was beginning to miss them.
I recently realized that, for all I know about philosophy and fetal development, I really didn’t know how an abortion was actually performed. I watched “The Silent Scream,” but I’m not foolish enough to think that many medical practices are the same now as they were in the mid-’80s. Besides, Planned Parenthood debunked that film (link). I recognize their bias, but their facts check out better than the movie’s do.
Planned Parenthood should know about abortion procedure, especially if the anti-abortion groups’ “4,000 per day” figure is accurate. ARTL really needs to find a more up-to-date movie. If their position is really based on logical philosophy and not religion, then they should be able to support it with a film that’s not so obsolete and sensationalistic.
But I’m not talking about abortion. I’m talking about gambling. Sort of.
Imagine that someone gave you more money than you know what to do with. They dropped you off in the biggest, brightest casino in Las Vegas and told you some of the basic rules of the games. Then they told you “okay, now don’t play anything,” and left. What do you do?
Most of you would play, and most of you would lose.
That, boys and girls, is abstinence-only sex education.
It’s clear that Sex-Ed in this country needs an overhaul, but that’s not the right direction. Adolescents have sex, whether or not it’s a good idea. People who know the ins and outs of sex (pun very much intended) will be a great deal safer regarding diseases, contraceptives, and even what to do in the bedroom than people who are firing blindly.
Abstinence-only sex education mixes a tiny amount of factual information with an almost equal amount of misinformation.
Touching your genitals can get you pregnant? HIV is spread by tears?
Educated people should not consider “abortion increases one’s risk for breast cancer” to be a remotely rational statement. Honestly, if it were ovarian cancer or uterine cancer it might seem plausible, but it doesn’t take a doctor to see how little sense that makes.
The other problems with abstinence-only sex-ed are the parts it ignores. Adolescents are in the process of developing individual adult identities. This means making their own decisions, and thus their own mistakes.
Part of teenage rebellion is doing what your parents don’t want you to, because it means you’re making a decision on your own.
Telling teens “don’t do that because I said so, and I know what’s best” only encourages them to try it. Telling them “I don’t think you should, and here’s why, but I’ll leave the actual decision up to you” forces them to make choices that will have serious impacts on their lives (you know, like adults do).
All that aside, what happens to the abstinence-only kids when they grow up? Chances are, unless they become clergy or eunuchs, everyone will have sex at some point. Putting on a wedding ring doesn’t magically teach you how to do the deed, and if you’ve engaged in total abstinence, there’ll be quite a few surprises on the honeymoon.
If there’s a woman with an instruction manual on her vulva, I have yet to meet her. Teaching teens about sex will make sure that more people will have a decent time on their wedding night.
Teaching teens about the dangers of intercourse and about how contraceptives can protect them will only help everyone in the long run. You can still push abstinence, but far more people will stay chaste if it’s their own decision, rather than what grown-ups told them to do.
Teens who only know abstinence are like gun owners who don’t know how to aim. If they decide to fire, they will be a lot more dangerous. Without education, a condom is just a fancy rubber band. But with a little knowledge and some spermicide, it becomes a 98 percent effective tadpole catcher.
So wait, education plus contraceptives equals fewer unwanted pregnancies, which equals fewer abortions. Hmmm…seems to me that, if ARTL really wanted to stop abortions, they’d stop sending anti-birth control bookmarks and “Condom Sense” pamphlets, and start distributing condoms and real information.
It looks like there is less logic and less reason in the Right to Life philosophy than meets the eye.