Comment Of The Day: “No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate”

[I’m using this morning to post some important, backlogged Comments of the Day. Today’s Warm-Up will be after noon, if all does according to plan.]

Keith Walker registered a fascinating reflection on his experiences as a teacher in response to the post regarding the decline of cultural literacy. I do take umbrage at his categorization of my commentary about public school’s ongoing failure as “ranting” and his implication that I have designated teachers as “useless.” If I have criticized teachers and administrators, it has always been based on specific conduct. In Alexandria, VA., I had to pull my son out of one public school, a Catholic school and two private ones upon observing exactly the kind of incompetence, bias and abuse I have written about over the past eight years.  Indoctrination, child abuse, incompetence and sexual predation in the schools are real, and teaching is still a “profession” without codified ethics standards. Dedicated, smart, competent teachers are heroic, but their existence does not make my criticism and analysis less valid or less urgent.

Here is Keith’s Comment of the Day on the post, “No Wonder We Can’t Communicate With Each Other Or Have Coherent Debates: We’re Culturally Illiterate”

As one of those useless public school teachers so often ranted about in this space, I want to rise to the occasion here and, if not defend our profession, at least offer my take on things over my 31 years in the business.

I was a fairly new teacher when Hirsch’s book came out. I thought then that it was a silly tome, written from the perspective of a grumpy old man. I still don’t hold much respect for it, though I have become a grumpy old man myself. Who gets to decide what’s important cultural literacy? (Yes, I am about to say something like “it’s always been old white guys…”) I wonder if someone else had written that book if it would have contained different things?

But since 1988 several things have happened to make teaching these important things virtually impossible, the internet and standardized testing being two major ones. Yes, I know that standardized testing has been around for many decades; I remember taking the MEAP (Michigan’s state test) when I was a small boy in the 70s. But in the 70s test scores were not blasted across the front pages of newspapers everywhere, and politicians were not decrying our “failing public schools” and telling everyone that privatization and profits would be a much better plan for education.

The pressure on schools, teachers, and students to “succeed” on these tests is ridiculous, and it has gotten to the point that if it can’t be measured, we don’t have time to teach it. And everything is measured. As a music teacher I am happy to have a job any more; much of my curriculum isn’t “measurable” to a certain extent, and it certainly isn’t required for success in life. But I digress… Believe me, if Cromwell was going to be on the ACT, SAT, or AP History exams, you can bet he’d be talked about in schools. It’s all about competition, and everyone is fearing for jobs, funding, and students as we move to a market-based system of educating our next generations, and the members of that generation all want to get a 7.0 GPA and get into Harvard (starting as freshmen with 75 credits due to all of their AP test scores), and the way to do it is to excel on those tests. It’s fairly terrifying. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Comment Of The Day: ‘Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat’”

This is the second Comment of the Day within a week from Ethics Alarms prodigal son Curmie, a college prof, who makes the case that college education is being excessively maligned. You should probably re-read the post he’s responding , another Comment of the Day, to appreciate his argument.

Here is Curmie’s Comment of the Day on the post, Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat”:

This is a cogent analysis up to a point, but I must say I’m more than a little sick and tired of having people tell me what goes on in my classroom. I teach at a non-flagship state university. And the description of what happens in college classrooms simply does not match my experience of them.

(Side note to Ryan: I really do like a lot of what you’ve said here. I apologize if the succeeding sounds like a personal attack. It is not intended in that spirit. Just one too many sweeping generalizations about my profession, and the last straw happened to be yours.)

Ryan cites Thomas Aquinas. I prefer the great late-20th century philosophers known as Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet.”

I do expect students to know some objective facts: if you can’t tell me the basic tenets of neoclassical theory or who David Garrick was, you’re not going to fare well in my theatre history class. If Ryan wants to say that in this sense I insist on regurgitation, he has my permission to do so.

But to get an A on the research paper, you’d better be able to interpolate from incomplete data, and to articulate a point of view based on the facts as they are available to us. That means finding out what the facts are, but also finding context: okay, so it cost a penny to see a play at the Globe Theatre. But that’s a meaningless statistic if you don’t know what that Elizabethan spectator could have bought for a penny if he didn’t spend it on standing room in an outdoor theatre. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat”

This excellent comment requires no introduction, just reading. 

Here is Ryan Harkins’ Comment Of The Day on the post, “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White Of Popehat”:

One thing I have noticed on those rare occasions when I truly listen to someone whose viewpoint is diametrically opposed to my own is that I discover there are indeed legitimate points being made and legitimate concerns that need to be heard. That doesn’t mean that I experience a paradigm shift. I will still believe that opposing viewpoint is incorrect, but at the same time I discover that my understanding of that opposing view was actually wrong.

There’s a great deal of satisfaction in being right, and I confess that at times I am more concerned with being right than with listening to someone whom I think is wrong. But there may be much more to the desire to be right than mere ego. Our brains are wired to find the simplest and easiest course. We learn actions that can then be performed by rote, without even thinking about them. That is why we find ourselves, upon walking into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and staring at food for five minutes before we recall we really entered the kitchen to find a flashlight. Our brains have developed a pattern that says: “enter kitchen, open fridge”. Having the right answer is a great thing, for our brain can discard all else and hold onto that right answer. It is easier. Simpler. Life now makes sense and we can proceed with cataloguing the more important details in life (the current Kardashian scandal or the names of all the Pokemon and their evolutions).

Being challenged in our right answers is uncomfortable. It can be especially distressing when someone presents us with a set of facts that, at least on the surface, contradict our right answers. We have two choices when confronted with such a challenge: we can either try to hone our own arguments, or we can retreat and try to insulate ourselves from further confrontation. We’ve seen quite a bit of the latter. We develop little adages about how it is impolite to discuss religion and politics — the two most important areas of life, and the two areas most likely to spark an argument. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, listen to the news that most appeals to our viewpoints, and never venture outside the echo-box. Certainly all these tactics are easier than constantly assimilating new arguments, researching new theories and developments, stringing together logical narratives, and perhaps even adjusting our own viewpoints when our conclusions lead us to recognize errors in our previous judgments.

I’ve read a little bit recently on St. Thomas Aquinas, and in reading I gained a peek into life in the universities of the thirteenth century. Students did not come to a university to attend lectures. They essentially apprenticed themselves to a master, who then did not teach so much as dialogue. They demanded that their students ask questions and find answers themselves. I read an account of how universities would host open debates, and the masters would throw their students into the ring to answer the challenges and objections people would raise. Continue reading

When “Oh, Grow Up!”, “That’s Ridiculous” and “You Need Help” Are Appropriate Responses

Oops...I forgot the trigger warning...

Oops…I forgot the trigger warning…

Columbia University’s descent into madness continues.

Columbia University’s student newspaper recently featured four members of the school’s student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board demanding that professors consider their students’ delicate sensibilites when teaching intense, violent or otherwise provocative material. This will give you a flavor of what the students advocate:

“Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background…Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities. The MAAB has been meeting with administration and faculty in the Center for the Core Curriculum to determine how to create such a space. The Board has recommended three measures: First, we proposed that the center issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.”

I take a lot of criticism on the blog for not expressing false respect when someone espouses a position that is cultural cyanide, or, in some cases, just plain stupid. This argument by the Columbia students would qualify. Some affirmatively bad ideas should not be pampered, mollycoddled or treated as if they deserve sustained attention and debate. It just encourages them. Long ago I feared that the multi-culturalism and diversity movements would run amuck, and indeed they have. Being literate,respectful and tolerant, as well as open-minded, toward other cultures is healthy and essentially American. Nevertheless, nations, societies and communities require a consistent culture, as well as the cultural values that a dominant culture contains. Ethics, among other critical features of a healthy society, is impossible without this, and chaos is inevitable. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Columbia University

A Columbia professor charged with teaching his students the bewildering topic of quantum physics chose to employ performance art to send the message that conventional assumptions would be an impediment to their learning. Using projections, music, and himself as a performer (he stripped to his boxers and ate a banana before curling into a fetal position), Professor Emlyn Hughes got his students’ attention and tried an innovative approach to teaching. Now the university says it is “reviewing” his methods, with a spokesman saying that “Universities should have a climate of academic freedom though classes should stick to the subject matter.”

Translation: “Columbia gives lip service to ‘academic freedom,’ but it is perfectly happy to do what it can to discourage creative and controversial teaching experiments by publicly announcing an investigation whenever that likes of Gawker starts making fun of us, and the university certainly is hyper-sensitive to breaches of political correctness, since Professor Hughes employed gratuitous violence in his performance by having Ninjas impale stuffed animals.” 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

Comment of the Day: “The Folly of Sacrificing Integrity to Kindness in Competitions”

Today’s Comment of the Day is on the post about using awards and honors to make the less fortunate and unqualified feel good, as Michael carries the issue into the related matter of grading:

“I run into this every semester. I can’t give anyone a C in a class. I can’t give anyone a B in a class. You have to earn it by demonstrating that you understand and can apply the relevant material. You may be the most attractive, most charitable, most loved person on the planet, but if you can’t do this work, you can’t pass. Usually, they still don’t understand, and I have to give a speech I title “What a C student does.”

“Where do my ‘C’ students go? What do ‘C’ students do after they leave? ‘A’ and ‘B’ students go to graduate school, medical, and dental school. They may hold people’s lives in their hands in their careers. But what about the ‘C’ student? Surely there is no harm in letting someone squeak by with a ‘C’? Well… they test your water to make sure it is safe. They determine what amounts of new pesticides can be used without causing harm. They run the tests that determine if you raped someone or if that really was a bag of cocaine in your car, or just some borrowed powdered sugar (as you insisted). My ‘C’ students work jobs where people die if they mess up. The ‘C’ stands for competence. If you don’t have it, you don’t get a ‘C’. Continue reading

The Dilemma of the Legless High School Pitcher

Seemingly an inspirational movie in the making, Anthony Burruto is a student at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida. He has been playing baseball since he was 8 years old, despite the inconvenience of having both of his legs amputated when he was an infant. He plays the game on prosthetic legs that are all he has ever known, and does it well as a pitcher who can throw a mean curve and a fastball that has been clocked at 80 mph. This is Anthony’s sophomore year, and his goal was to play on Dr. Phillips High varsity baseball team this spring.

After two days of try-outs, Coach Mike Bradley cut him. Anthony’s metal legs, adept as he was at using them, made him too slow off the pitching mound when he had to field a bunt, said the coach, and teams would take advantage of his inability to jump off the mound quickly.

Sorry, kid.  Continue reading

Integrity, Rep. Mark Kirk, and the Citizen’s Duty to Pay Attention

The defenders of G.O.P. Rep. Mark Kirk, who has been caught in more than one misrepresentation of his achievements, will argue (as such people always do) that these “mistakes” are simply campaign gotchas that tell voters nothing about what really counts, which is how he will perform when he is elected, as he hopes he will be, a U.S. Senator from Illinois.

In fact, a candidate who lies about his past honors and job history, as Kirk has, cannot be trusted. He continues to show voters that quality, or lack of quality, as this incident, reported in several sources, proves. From The Plum Line: Continue reading

Mark Kirk’s Misrepresentations: When Twice Is Too Many

Mark S. Kirk, the Republican candidate for that troublesome Illinois Senate seat (the one Rod Blagojevich tried to sell, the one Roland Burris lied to get) was caught in perpetrating some credential-inflating on his curriculum vitae when it was discovered that what he had long claimed was an award bestowed on him for outstanding service as a military intelligence officer was really a group award for his whole unit, and, in fact, someone else had received the honor he claimed as his own. Continue reading