Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Girl Without a Face

I'd found a posting on joelcomm ( after watching a show on the science channel with my kids. I found the story of Juliana Wetmore touching, and some of the negative comments on joelcomm revolting. It inspired me to write this comment, and to reopen this blog. Indeed, it will even cause me to consider once again my position on abortion, though I believe I will remain pro-choice. It's not as well written, and is more emotional than I would usually prefer.

Were one of my sons to grow up and in fifteen or twenty years come home and announce they wanted to marry a girl like Juliana, I would weep -- I would sob tears of joy that I'd raised a child who could be so compassionate and wise, who could look beyond the shallow surface of a person's body, and was so willing to go through what would surely be hardship for a woman he loved. If any of you who have children can say differently, that you would rebuke your children for such a decision, that your emotional reaction would be revulsion, you are horrific monsters.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a show on Juliana on the Discovery channel, along with my wife and two sons, 8 and 6 years old. It gave us a wonderful opportunity to stress to them how they should not judge others on appearance, and the hour-long show gave them a chance to be both interested in her plight and get used to the idea of seeing her as a person. My older son wants to be a doctor, and so is interested in all medical shows. It's not the first time we've seen a severe facial deformity on tv, and won't be the last.

The parents face some incredibly difficult decisions. I don't think it's fair to criticize their choice of whether to go through with the surgeries or not. The program did mention how the parents were struggling with whether they should continue with further surgeries that might not be possible for her later in life, or just let her be a kid now. They want what all parents want for their children -- for her to have a fulfilled life, where she can contribute to society and feel love, if not sex (and frankly, who knows -- there are likely some who can look past her facial issues). I've worked with the mentally handicapped for several years, including many with Down's syndrome and far more profound difficulties. Rarely did I find their happiness in life to be in any way related to their mental problems.
The one I felt the most pity for was not the most disabled -- he was the one who had started life normally, and was hit by a car at age 12 and suffered permanent brain damage. He was excrutiatingly aware of what he had lost.

One of the striking things I find about this thread is that it's one of the few places on the internet I've seen where Christians are saying the things that they should be saying. Often, I see them saying things that seem like complete and utter rejections of the philosophy they purport to believe, and I feel like I'm the most "Christian" of them.

Which is a bit disconcerting, since I'm an atheist. I don't believe any god exists, nor that there is some divine purpose to Juliana's existence. I write here using the pseudonym I usually use on "militant" atheist boards such as PZ Myer's Pharyngula. I'd encourage other atheists to think about purpose for a moment. If you follow the new atheist rationale, you will assert that there is no divine purpose -- there is only the purpose that we create for ourselves. Are you seriously willing to assert
that it is impossible for Juliana to create a purpose for herself? Are you really just the dull materialists, so tied to outward appearance, as the theists would claim you are? Or do you really believe that people can make their own purpose, that people can overcome their own situations, and that people can learn tolerance -- as I suspect the triad of Dennett, Dawkins, and (yes, even) Hitchens believe?

Friday, February 29, 2008

It's not chance

What is below is unusual, even in Japan, but high levels of dedication are not unusual. There seem to be more people like this in Japan than in the US. Is it the schools? The parents? The culture?

Probably it has to be put down to all three. Let's just be glad there are great things about America in all of these regards as well.

And if any piano teachers out there need to inspire your students.... she's 10, and says she learned this in six dedicated months.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gender discrimination in schools

The California Education Committee has filed a complaint calling for declaratory judgment over California's planned change of language in their school antidiscrimination code. In particular, the rephrased statute replaces "sex" with "gender", and include "sexual orientation" to the list of topics against which teachers cannot discriminate. Gender is not only the physical sex of the person, but also how the person self-identifies and behaves.

Many of the arguments raised in the complaint are fairly poor. The complaint makes a lot of the teachers having to "have foreknowledge of the private mental impressions, thoughts, and disabilities of each person withwhom the educational institution comes into contact." The claim here is that one might unknowingly discriminate.

This line of reasoning falls apart in the face of the other, unchallenged categories for which it is unlawful to discriminate -- ethnic group identification, race, national origin, and religion among them -- which are invisible but which educators routinely refrain from discriminating against.

The practical argument has to do with restrooms and lockers. The plaintiffs are convinced the change in wording will allow all the boys to go into the girls' restrooms just by claiming transgendered status, and that this will constitute a violation of privacy and safety under California's constitution. I don't know that this is necessarily what the change in language intended, but the transgendered community makes their feelings well enough known that it seems it should have been contemplated as a possibility.

Somehow, it seems somewhat dubious that there would be a huge rush of typical juvenile boys identifying themselves as transgendered just to get these privileges. The social stigma is pretty high just for a chance to sit on the same toilet seat as a girl, or even the potential of changing in the same locker room as a girl (and thereby what? Maybe seeing a girl change briefly? In my high school, we never removed our underwear in the locker rooms). Though a lot of blogs fret over the possibility, I suspect nearly all of those who self-identify as transgendered do indeed have gender identity issues.

The plaintiffs cite the California constitution's promise of safety and privacy to support their claim that the change in wording is unconstitional. I have very little doubt the privacy clause in the California constitution was intended to limit government agents from invading privacy, not to place a duty on the government to keep residents from invading each other's privacy and/or safety. After all, if a transgendered person could invade someone's privacy, why couldn't a person of the same gender identity? If safety and privacy are that much of an issue, why aren't they pushing for everyone to have individually lockable private bathrooms?

The plaintiffs are probably right that requiring allowing transgendered individuals into the bathroom they identify with is a break from tradition, and therefore cultural expectations. However, it is a legislative change of culture, not a judicial one. The legislature is permitted, indeed intended, to make such changes. When the courts do it they are frequently criticized for judicial activism, even though many lauded freedoms were won only through the court's interpretations.

The Advocates of Faith and Freedom don't put their real reasoning into the complaint at all, but it is available on their website.

Senate Bill 777 and Assembly Bill 14 are radical threats to religious liberty. They attempt to eliminate your right to exercise your faith in everyday life by telling you that all forms of discrimination are illegal.
Yes, what they really want to argue is that discrimination based on gender identity or orientation is a religious right. Never mind that the bills apply specifically to educators in performing their government duties, something some of the religious refuse to wrap their heads around. This complaint isn't about privacy at all: it's about preserving the right to vilify homosexuals or prevent the status of being homosexual from being "normalized". The religious have been fighting -- and losing -- this battle for years.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Teachers v. Parents: a comparison

Teachers have a lot of gripes about parents. A recent article in Time magazine even goes through a litany of teacher woes concerning problem parents -- mostly those who hover too closely to their children or advocate too aggressively for them. Teachers fill sites with other complaints, as well -- parents who insult or undermine the teachers, who pull their children out of school, or who make unreasonable demands.

The message of the teachers is clear: parents often don't treat them fairly.

There's some substance to some of these complaints, of course. Any parent knows other parents who engage in questionable parenting practices. There's no mandatory certification or training process for being a parent. Teachers are all college graduates -- statistically, a high percentage of parents will not be.

In defense of these unreasonable parents, they don't generally have a lot of options. If it were an outright war, the weaponry available would look something like:

Parents (against teachers):

  • Abusive language
  • Ability to pull child from school
  • False accusations
Teachers (against parents or children)
  • Abusive language
  • False accusations
  • Ability to set policies
  • Summary imposition of punishment
  • Teaching inappropriately
  • Formal legal protection

There's clearly a substantial difference in the number and quality of techniques at the teacher's command. The teacher is largely unfettered by due process when imposing punishments, but protected by it when threatened. A teacher's accusation against a student leads to immediate punishment, whereas a complaint against a teacher is met with a long, drawn-out process that may lead to a reprimand, but is unlikely to result in removal.

Add to this that the school is essentially a teacher's turf. There are a bewildering number of acronyms and terminology for procedures, policies, and measures. The teacher often has years of experience inside a system that parents see only from the outside. Teacher contact and communication is entirely centralized.

One might hope that teachers would hold themselves to some standards of behavior, and likely most of them do. Nonetheless, they're still human, and still open to human weaknesses. One internet thread relays stories of teachers using racist language, criticizing family religious practices, denigrating students for being poor or having divorced parents, and other transgressions. It seems unlikely any of these would result in significant punishment for a teacher, and most states seem to report extraordinarily low numbers for tenured teachers being dismissed (on the order of less than ten per 50,000 per year) for either incompetence or cause.

One teacher cited in Time, Roxsana Jaber-Ansari, even proudly relates her defiance of parent desires:

Jaber-Ansari was challenged for hanging Bible quotes on her classroom walls. But she had studied her legal standing, and when she was confronted, "the principal supported me 100%," she says.

Perhaps Jaber-Ansari was on legally firm ground, and perhaps not (I'd hardly take the principal's word as definitive on the subject). But clearly she's running right over the concerns of some parents with no more than a cheerful thought of spreading her own values.

There is also a difference in the effect. A poor, abusive, or unreasonable teacher can affect a student for years, or their entire life. An unreasonable parent slewing invective against a teacher causes nothing more than an evening of crying. Small wonder, then, that a parent might become unreasonable on seeing that they have virtually no real power over their child's education sans a prohibitive investment of time or money.

Some teachers will disagree with this; they'll claim that the Board of Education or the Superintendent will bend over backwards (or, perhaps, forwards) for complaining parents. I've never seen these situations, and the ones I've heard about have mostly been regarding getting a student out of punishment. For myself, the only time I've had to influence the board I had to send them a notice citing statutory law and inform them their position was illegal before they'd bend a little. They didn't even say they'd conform to the law, but just softened their position somewhat.

Time is a polemic periodical: it has no obligation, legal or moral, to report from a balanced perspective. For this article, it's pretty clear where the bias lies.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paddling Pedagogy

A lot of the time, the edu-blogging verse (at least, what I see of it, which is admittedly a small portion) focuses on grand policy or curriculum changes, or whether the parents or children are to blame for children failing, or the detrimental effects of NCLB.

When it does get into the basics of how a classroom should be run, the views are often rather sophisticated. Ken DeRosa over at D-Ed Reckoning recently had guest blogger palisadesk do a four-part series on effectively managing a classroom. Ken has often discussed curriculum, and how the lack of proper presentation on the part of the teacher affects learning.

However, I recently found something which suggests more fundamental issues. While trolling through the forum discussion boards at a teacher's site, I found a post full of cautious optimism that teachers were no longer allowed to smack children on the derriere with a wood board. The original poster notes that while she's happy about the new policy, other teachers are "in an uproar" and convinced "all hell is going to break out".

Oh, and one thing I should note: the policy was changed so the teachers could no longer paddle. They now have to send the students to an assistant principal to get paddled. Ah, such social progress!

Sadly, the teachers probably will see a worsening of behavior. Punishment is a behavioral technique, but, as I've mentioned before, it's implementation is quite difficult. One of its effects is resentment. So now they'll have a bunch of resentful students who are itching to get back at any teachers who've had liberal foreswing. Now they know the teachers can only levy the punishment when they're able to send the student to an assistant principal. If the student knows it will be difficult or impossible to send them, they'll freely act out. The operational costs of sending the child to the assistant principal means a greater variety of escape behaviors will be available. The children will soon be testing them thoroughly.

It's also worthwhile noting that punishment on a variable schedule doesn't work well at all -- to actually prevent the behavior punishment should be meted out every time the behavior occurs. The operational costs of the policy decision will work against them here as well, as punishment becomes more erratically administered.

There is further the issue of the temporality of the punishment. With their new policy, the punishment will be delayed; not much, perhaps, but still enough to make it a less effective practice.

One poster recalls how it was legal in her state when she was a child: "Thankfully, I never had to go to the principal (apparently the teacher also could do it before my time) but my husband did. He said it didn't hurt. " I would dare say if it was known that the paddling didn't hurt, it wouldn't be a very effective punishment unless there was something else about it that was aversive (shame, perhaps).

The discussion above might sound like I'm advocating the district to let the teachers' arms swing freely. I am not. Using punishment is an erratic way to control behavior that can occasionally work, but which is largely incompatible with actually imparting subject matter content. A school system that allows corporeal punishment is essentially one that allows physical abuse.*

Further commenters to the post indicated that school-sanctioned beating is allowable in nearly half the states, and that it actually occurs in at least three. To their credit, the teachers posting almost unanimously decried the practice, which gives some comfort that it may not occur in many states where it is technically legal.

The original poster eventually follows up with

On one challanging day I didn't say a word, but took it [the paddle] out of the drawer and put it on the chalkboard ledge. I could hear the kids suck in their breath and they did get still and very much on task. I have to admit I liked the effect, but at the same time I knew they were only behaving out of fear... and I knew it was just a bluff on my part....What I've learned about the paddle is it puts fear into the souls of the children who don't need it and the ones who do seem to need it, don't really need a paddle to solve their problems. It may alter their behavior for the moment but not change it in the long run.

(emphasis added)

I find this to be a fairly wise statement for someone who's not familiar with the academic research on punishment (one might hope ALL teachers would be familiar with the research, and particularly those teachers where physical punishment is expected practice). I take it along with the realization that fear was the driving factor, she also realized she couldn't afford to repeat the performance often without carrying through. Punishment generally does not have a long-term effect of reducing the target behavior. This doesn't exactly mean it doesn't change their behavior in the long run, it just may not be a desirable change.

*Of course, a neat counter to this is that nearly all school districts allow mental abuse, which is likely worse. At least paddling is fairly consistent, compared with the uncontrolled use of humiliation and verbal insults currently allowed (I know -- most teachers try to avoid turning their kids into sobbing basket cases, but I don't know of anything actually stopping them).


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Is Christianity the Problem?

I attended the debate last night between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza at Kings College. The topic of the debate was "Is Christianity the Problem?" This is a bit sketchy as an impression

I didn't previously have a particularly good impression of D'Souza; the only time I had heard of him he was using the VT massacre in a particularly morbid critique of atheism. He acquitted himself far better here.

Hitchens has a somewhat rambling and expansive style of debate, trailing into myriad topics with an answer. It contrasted sharply with D'Souza's more succinct approach. It also caused some friction as D'Souza accused Hitchens of using excess time at one point, exclaiming, "See, that's what atheists do! They hog the public square!" I take it the irony of saying this at Kings College, a Christian school where religious statuary adorned the walls, did not occur to him.

A lot of the debate was rather predictable for anyone with a passing familiarity with the arguments -- most of the points were tried and true, and they didn't have time to get long beyond the first salvos. During parts of the debate it felt as though they were going through a secretly collusive dance for the benefit of the audience. But perhaps that was just me.

Hitchens main point, at least the main point that focused on the titular topic of the debate, was the immorality of the methods of Christianity. Essentially, framing ethics in a hypothetical original sin relieved only by a "blood sacrifice", where the alternatives are heaven or hell, based on acceptance of this framework, is per se immoral. Pasquale's wager, whether posed by humans (as Hitchens believes) or God (as D'Souza believes) is an extortive attempt to control behavior. He backed up his statements with the evils that only someone bound by religion would conceive. In some Islamic countries, he related, a virgin cannot be executed. Apparently, these nations, in holding closely to their religious traditions, do not execute virgins: they rape them first.

Hitchens has something of a point here. Plenty of Christians over countless generations have played the threatening aspect of Christianity. The mere fact that Pasquale's wager exists suggests as much. The "fire and brimstone" preacher and ramrod nun are perhaps stereotypes, but not entirely imaginary ones. His unfortunate problem here is his own hyperbole: when an audience member asked him to justify his quote "Religion poisons everything", Hitchens reply was lacking in force.

D'Souza's point (the one that actually focused on the topic of the debate) was that Christianity has done a lot of good for the world, from inspiring scientists to developing values. He defended against the "religious wars" argument by noting the small numbers of people killed in the Salem witch trials and the Inquisition. D'Souza also tried to cut the Greeks mostly out of the ethical picture by noting some of the reprehensible practices of their day: leaving infants on mountaintops and slavery, without protest by important philosophers of the day.

The audience skewed more towards D'Souza than one might expect for New York City, with some young audience members giving fist-pumps to his statements. This was likely an effect of holding the debate at a Christian college. Both debaters received applause at their strongest points and laughs at the sharpest of their witty jabs, but most of the audience questions were directed towards Professor Hitchens.

Much of the debate, however, was pulled into a direct discussion of theism v. atheism. Hitchens had no particular motive to stick very close to the topic of debate, and while D'Souza remained somewhat closer, he also wandered a great deal from the alleged topic. Topics like whether miracles are possible or not is pretty much irrelevant to whether Christianity is a problem.
Frankly, I would rather have seen an actual debate on the topic of whether Christianity is a problem than a rushed rehash of atheist-theist arguments that you can troll through on a thousand internet fora. As an atheist myself, I'm not at all sure that Christianity is a problem, and it is an interesting idea to explore (though I believe theism to be false, it's not obvious that an idea is destructive purely because it's false).

Whether Christianity is a problem or not shouldn't really have to do with whether it killed people in the past, or did good in the past, but should be based on where it will go -- or avoid going -- in the future. There are likely arguments of some depth on each side here, but as yet they're largely unaddressed. Christians don't want to address them because they get into internal debates about topics like whether Christianity can accept homosexuality. Atheists don't particularly spend much energy addressing them either because atheism is not a value system at all (and most would argue that it should not try to be one).


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrity Welfare Schools

I'm not really a big fan of Andrea Peyser, but occasionally her editorials are informative. In particular, her recent note about private schooling certainly interested me. The Churchill school in Manhattan is an elite private school catering to "bright kids, grades kindergarten through 12, who've been declared learning disabled". The kids there are usually wealthy and upper class -- examples include the offspring of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, fashion designer Dana Buchman, and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (also winner of 2007 Cannes best director award -- congratulations, Julian).

So, nothing wrong with the wealthy sending their kids to a top private school, right? After all, what good is money if you can't use it to help your children?

Except that the parents who send their children here get reimbursed for their $34,000 a year tuition from city tax rolls. The city paid out $57 million last year. Apparently, the right to a free and appropriate education has been taken a left turn somewhere.

Tom Freston, a former head of Viacom who received $60 million in severance, is fighting legally to assert his right to be reimbursed despite never attempting to send his son to another such elite school, "on principle". Oh, how generous of him to defend our rights that way.

Certainly, the disabled have a right to schooling tailored to their needs. And a lawyer, Neal Rosenberg, who gains clients entrance into the school for a living says he's never seen a parent present a disability just to get the Board of Education to foot their bill. I'm willing to believe him. However, what does it say about the system if these wealthy parents, who are fortunate enough that they could fairly easily send their children to school from their own pocket, are instead shifting out some of that money to a lawyer who enables them to get an expensive education at the expense of the general taxpayer, thereby reducing the money the public school system can spend on its own improvements?

Do other districts have these problems?

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