Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 5/5/2018: “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” Edition

Good Morning!

(I’m happy to report that my Clarence Darrow ethics program for a lawyer group yesterday in Annapolis was received wonderfully, in no small part due to actor Paul Morella’s moving and powerful recreations of Darrow’s courtroom oratory. As is often the case, attendees said that they didn’t realize a legal ethics presentation could be so interesting. If fact, there is no excuse for any kind of ethics NOT being interesting…)

1. I call this “cultural defacing.” At 10:30 last night, I watched the end of “The Princess Bride,” and was thrilled to arrive just as the final showdown between Ingo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Count Rugen (Christopher Guest). Here is the scene, a classic one, which begins with the Count apparently fatally wounding Inigo with a dagger:

Inigo Montoya: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

[Inigo advances on Rugen, but stumbles into the table with sudden pain. Rugen attacks, but Inigo parries and rises to his feet again]

Inigo Montoya: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

[Rugen attacks again, Inigo parries more fiercely, gaining strength]

Inigo Montoya: Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!

Count Rugen: Stop saying that!

[Rugen attacks, twice. Inigo avoids and wounds Rugen in both shoulders. Inigo attacks, bellowing:]

Inigo Montoya: HELLO! MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA! YOU KILLED MY FATHER! PREPARE TO DIE!

[Inigo corners Count Rugen, knocks his sword aside, and slashes his cheek, giving him a scar just like Inigo’s]

Inigo Montoya: Offer me money.

Count Rugen: Yes!

Inigo Montoya: Power, too, promise me that.

[He slashes his other cheek]

Count Rugen: All that I have and more. Please…

Inigo Montoya: Offer me anything I ask for.

Count Rugen: Anything you want…

[Rugen knocks Inigo’s sword aside and lunges. But Inigo traps his arm and aims his sword at Rugen’s stomach]

Inigo Montoya: I want my father back, you son of a bitch!

[He runs Count Rugen through and shoves him back against the table. Rugen falls to the floor, dead]

Except “you son of a bitch” was cut!

We settled this when the TV showing of “Gone With The Wind” let Clark Gable’s iconic exit line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” remain uncensored, and later,when John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn uttered the words, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” before charging Ned Pepper and his gang. It is unfair and disrespectful to wreck the best work of writers and actors for the few remaining people on earth who take to their fainting couches when rude language meets their ears. You don’t edit Rhett, or Rooster, or Inigo, or even John McLane when he says, “Yippee ki yay, mother fucker!” Show the movie, or don’t show the movie, but don’t ruin the movie for the most easily offended in the audience. Continue reading

When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring: “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View”

A history teacher at the Great Hearts Monte Vista Charter School (in San Antonio, Texas) distributed an assignment consisting of a worksheet titled “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View”  to eighth graders. The idea was for student to list the positive and negative aspects of slavery.  After parent Roberto Livar posted to social media the worksheet his son Manu brought home to complete, the teacher was placed on leave and the school said it would audit the textbook associated with the lesson.  Aaron Kindel, the superintendent of Great Hearts Texas, which operates 28 public charter schools in that state and Arizona, said in a statement posted on the Great Hearts Facebook page, “To be clear, there is no debate about slavery. It is immoral and a crime against humanity.”   He said the school’s headmaster plans will explain the mistake to the history class.

I can’t wait to hear what that explanation is. How does any American living in the 21st Century not flinch at a title like “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View”? It sounds like a joke, in fact: there is a whole genre of galley slave cartoons that rely on the idea that there is anything positive about being a slave is inherently ridiculous. (“It’s not a paid position but I’m gaining invaluable experience in the rowing sector!”). Yes, this teacher is incompetent, and leave is too good for him (or her). If you can’t trust a teacher not to hand out something that stupid, what else might be handed out? Hand grenades? “What Happened”?

Sadly, Mr. Livar couldn’t maintain the high ground, and had to say this:

“We are fully aware that there is a concerted effort by the far-right nationally to reframe slavery as being ‘not that bad’ and trying to revise the Civil War as being about ‘states rights’ and not about slavery. We were concerned that this assignment fell in line with that ideology and were naturally concerned, as well as other parents. These issues are not isolated to one school or one book. These issues are systemic and continue up the chain all the way to the Texas School Board of Education.”

He also said this likely happened because the school is short on diversity.

No, it happened because someone mistakenly hired an idiot as a teacher. Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Eugene M. Lang

A kind, courageous Ethics Hero died last week. To my shame, I had never heard of him. In 1996, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but that award has been so degraded and politicized that I no longer pay much attention to it. My mistake: in this case, the award was well-earned.

Eugene M. Lang was born poor and became  a successful and wealthy  investor. In 1981, he was invited to deliver a commencement address to 61 New Your City sixth graders at Public School 121, his alma mater.  “I looked out at that audience of almost entirely black and Hispanic students, wondering what to say to them,” he recalled years later. “It dawned on me that the commencement banalities I planned were completely irrelevant…So I began by telling them that one of my most memorable experiences was Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and that everyone should have a dream.”

Then, in a flash of inspiration, he decided on the spot to tell them that he would give a scholarship to every student in the class who was admitted to a four-year college.

That impulsive promise led to his establishment of the I Have a Dream Foundation, with an office in Manhattan. Lang hired a project coordinator and established a year-round program of academic support including mentoring and tutoring as well as sponsored cultural and recreational outings. In the meantime, he virtually adopted that 6th grade class, taking them on trips and restaurants, and personally counseling them through personal travails as well as school problems, often intervening with school officials on their behalf. By the time Eugene Lang died at age 98,  his dedication had changed the lives of more than 16,000 at-risk children nationwide.

Lang said the he knew, when he made his pledge to those 11 and 12-year olds, that giving poor and  troubled children money for an education would not ensure their success. He knew many would succumb to the cycle of poverty,  drugs, jail and irresponsible parenthood.  “When I made the original promise, the principal told me that maybe one or two students would take advantage of my offer,” he told  one interviewer. That’s why he dedicated himself to doing more.

Continue reading

Our Untrustworthy Public Schools, Part I: The Administrator

wolf_in_sheeps_clothing

How could this happen in a trustworthy institution?

It couldn’t.

The Washington Post reported this week that Robin Anthony Toogood II resigned as  principal of Jennie Dean Elementary School, a job he had held since 2009. He also surrendered his Virginia teaching and administrative license. Toogood, who had worked as a teacher and administrator in Washington D.C. area public schools since 2000, had not only falsely claimed to have  a doctorate in education, he also never received an undergraduate bachelor’s degree.

Manassas City officials never checked Toogood’s credentails when he was hired as principal five years ago. The fake degrees were only discovered because he applied to be an elementary school principal in neighboring Prince William County, where to his evident surprise, a proper background check followed. It revealed Toogood’s resume to be Toogood to be true.* He had falsified transcripts from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Trinity Washington University in the District and Regent University in Virginia. The County alerted Manassas schools, which confronted Toogood. He did not deny the findings and resigned.

He is also apparently a pastor. Manassas City discovered that Toogood also claimed to have earned a doctorate from Andover Theological Seminary and had not.

The Post reports that Toogood had previously been a teacher in D.C. public schools and held administrative positions at several D.C. public charter schools. D.C. public school officials confirmed to the Post that Toogood had taught there from 2000 to 2005, after which he was an administrator at Friendship Collegiate Academy from 2006 to 2007 , and principal of the Center City charter school from 2008 to 2009.  The D.C. Public Charter School Board’s spokesperson told the Post “that the schools conduct their own background checks with board guidance.”

Nice job, guys. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Mixing Math and Black Humor

[Yesterday I was en route to Las Vegas for a speaking engagement—actually one of my rock classic parodies musical legal ethics seminars with rock singer and guitarist Mike Messer—and essentially went from 7 hour trip to hotel to restaurant to bed last night, then to an all day session today. I’ll catch up: I’m not ignoring comments, just haven’t had the chance to read them.]

"If Bugs Moran has 276 gangsters, and Al Capone's men massacre 7 every Valentines day beginning in 1929, how many gangsters will he have left today?" Hey, math is fun!

At the Trinidad Center City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., third graders have been given math problems like this…

  • “Tilda Tiger had many hungry children to feed on Thanksgiving Day. She caught 169 Africans, 526 Americans and 196 Indians. She then put the people equally into 9 enormous ovens to bake. How many desperate people were in each oven?” Not to mention…
  • “When I was sleeping in a forest last night, 2555 fire ants crawled up my nose and built a nest in my brain. I woke up screaming the next morning. My distraught mother rushed me to hospital for an emergency operation. The doctor was able to kill 1953 fire ants. The remaining ants in my brain formed themselves into 7 equal-sized groups and fled to 7 different organs in my body, one being my stomach. a) How many fire ants escaped? b) How many ants fled to my stomach?” As well as… Continue reading