Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dennett on Religious Education

Dennett argues that public schools should teach "facts" about all religions.

He seems to think this would be the easiest thing in the world. "No problem! Just teach the facts."

But there are two problems with his plan that he doesn't address:

1) The facts are disputed. Who wrote the Bible / Quran / Vedas? When? Why? Did the events reported occur? Did Jesus die and rise like the Christians say, die and not rise like the atheists say, not die on the cross at all like the Muslims say? Or did he even exist? What are the facts?
2) Which facts are to be selected? Do we emphasize the Crusades, or the Abolitionists? The selection of facts itself creates a different image in the mind of the student. Who decides what the balance is to be?

Those two decisions are philosophical, not factual -- and they will be made by the teacher.

And the reason I don't want religion taught in school is because I don't trust teachers -- any teachers -- to make those decisions.

The problem becomes clear as he goes on -- he quotes PDL, but his only response is essentially, "I think that's wrong," and/or "I want this meme to go away." Well, yeah. You two disagree about the facts. That's why I don't want either of you teaching religion in school.

He also, off-handedly, says, "Intelligent design? Not from Francis Crick." But Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, was an advocate of ID -- specifically, directed panspermia.

Dumbass can't even get his own facts right. Why should I trust him or his philosophical minions with the mind of my child?

Friday, June 19, 2009

East and West Rome

Growing up, I was taught that the Roman Empire was split in two by diocletian, East and West, and that the West "fell" in the 5th century.

But as always, the story is far more interesting than that.

The split was administrative only -- meaning the Empire remained intact. There were augusti over East and West -- but there were also prefectures, diocese, and provinces. Diocletian created a federal system for a united Empire.

He also moved the capitol of the Western portion to Milan -- so Rome was no longer the capitol of ANYTHING significant.

But then Constantinople became the de facto heart of the Empire -- because of its fantastic trade location, that's where the money went. And because that's where the money was, that's where the power went. And the West was neglected, and became something of a backwater -- the center of power lay in Constantinople, and the rest of the empire suffered a brain drain, as always happens in every highly centralized state.

And eventually, the Germanic tribes from up north took the Western provinces -- but this was a loss of territory to a single Roman Empire now effectively capitoled in Constantinople ... not a "fall of the Roman Empire."

That event -- the true fall of the Roman Empire -- occurred in 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomon Turks.

If I were to guess, I think our current view of the Roman Empire stems from:

a) cultural bias on the part of Western European historians that see only the Western portion of the empire as significant;
b) professional bias on the part of Western European historians -- because which makes a more interesting story -- "The Ancient Roman Empire Crumbled from within into a ball of fury from mysterious causes which I will now elucidate" or "Nobody cared about Rome anymore, because all the money was in Constantinople -- which is studied by the professor down the hall."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dirty words and racism

I got into an interesting discussion about this event, in which a prominent SC Republican joked in a Facebook comment that Mrs. Obama's ancestors were gorillas. The left was, of course, up in arms.

At first, I got caught up in the literal meaning of what was being said, and noted that Bush had been called a chimp and a cracker, and I wondered aloud why there appeared to be a double standard. It also occurred to me that if one takes biology textbooks seriously, it's not far from the truth about her and the rest of us.

All in all, it seemed a very strange thing to get upset about.

But then I thought about it a little harder.

And it seemed to me to be similar to the issue of curse words, which didn't really make sense to me until tonight. The words "Fuck" and "Shit" are widely considered obscene. But why? Each of them has non-offensive equivalents ("Intercourse" and "feces," to name only two) -- so it is not the subject matter itself. And I can't imagine there's anything particularly offensive about the mere ordering of the letters. So why are they offensive?

And then it occurred to me, it's because of the groups that commonly use those terms. They are seen as "prison language," or the language of coarse, vulgar people. It's not the meaning or word itself -- the use of the word is a social signal that one belongs to a particular class. And it is membership in that class that drives the offense.

Perhaps the same thing applies to the comment about being descended of gorillas. From an objective standpoint, there doesn't appear to me much basis for offense. After all, per the theory of evolution, it's true! And also, it's common to call people apes, but seems to only be offensive when applied to blacks -- a rather strange double standard.

But let's look at it from my new vantage point. When a white, southern male says that a black female is descended of gorillas, he is associating himself with a particular group -- specifically, ignorant, old-timey racists. He's doing the same thing as the KKK. It doesn't matter that it's ostensibly true per the theory of evolution -- it's offensive because he's connecting himself with racists.

For comparison, it would be like a gynecologist telling a patient, "Alright, let's see that pussy." The meaning itself is identical to "Alright, I am going to examine your vagina." But it's offensive, because it associates him with those who treat the female anatomy disrespectfully.

But when a black man calls a white man a cracker, what group is he associating himself with? Nobody except a trendy, bold, sarcastic black man -- a group which doesn't have negative associations -- and even has positive ones.

Or when a white man calls a white man an ape, what group is he associating himself with? Every 10 year old who's ever wanted to give somebody shit on the playground. No horrible group there either.

From this vantage point, all these strange offenses common in our culture (and other cultures) come into focus -- it's not about the word -- it's about the speaker.

But what's funny is, the emphasis is on the statement, not the person. We consider the PHRASE offensive, when in fact it is the PERSON we are judging.


Saturday, June 6, 2009


Often I read articles or hear people speak about how "the education system is failing our children, or us, or something." Implicit to those arguments, of course, is that schools have a responsibility to make kids smart -- to mold them, to educate them. To take the blank minds of the youth and mold them into passionate, skilled learners and employable, responsible citizens, yada yada yada.

Noble as the sentiment appears, I think it's backwards and extremely dangerous. The responsibility for education lies not with schools, but with children and parents. The responsibility of schools is simply to make resources available which children and parents can use as tools in educating themselves -- providing lectures, books, and activities that the child can seize upon to educate himself. Or not seize upon, and fail to educate himself.

Here's why this is important: No school can make a child smart if the child doesn't want to. The child simply will not retain, because children only learn when they want to. No school can make a child want to learn -- that desire comes from the child.

The result of shifting the responsibility for education from children and parents to schools is passivity. Children and parents wait for the school to "make them smart" -- an impossible task. Only the children and their parents can do that.

When a child fails to learn, the parent and child blame the teacher, believing the teacher has failed to do something magical in the child to make them not only interested in the topic, but also to retain and apply knowledge. But who has failed to learn? The child. And who has failed to train their child to learn? The parent. Educators are only resources -- by their very nature, they cannot do the essential work of education -- learning.

I think educators brought this shift in responsibility on themselves, as there's a narcissistic appeal in viewing yourself as "molding the young," and it also has political benefits, insofar as you use rhetoric of your own indispensability to get funding and support. Parents and students seem to accept this view, as it relieves them of the responsibility for education. Nevertheless, it's still wrong.

The issue here is of course philosophical, rather than practical. It requires an attitude change on the part of the student and parent, rather than any systemic change to the educational system. But I think it's vital. Children need to go to school in the belief that they are being given an opportunity to grow and learn so that they can be well-equipped to conquer the world. Parents need to see it as their responsibility to train their child in the value of that education, and to make it happen. Teachers need to stop trying to brainwash reluctant learners -- they need to make the tools available and provide structure, but not perceive the responsibility for (and waste time attempting to) educating the unwilling. If a child isn't learning, the teacher needs to tell him and his parents, "If you don't learn, these will be the consequences for your life." Beyond that, the responsibility lies with the child, and with the parent.

Schools are a resource for education, but they are only a resource -- and often not the best one, especially with the advent of the internet. My education always has and always will take place primarily outside the classroom.

It's important that the responsibility for education be placed where it belongs. Because when school is over, if a child got a shitty education, he has no one to blame but himself, and he alone will suffer the consequences.