Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stupidity Is Not The Only Impediment to Reason

Stupidity is not the only thing, perhaps not even the main thing, that prevents intelligent reflection. Many individuals with considerable native intelligence cannot, or will not, engage in careful thought because they are too emotionally needy. In other words, they are not too dumb to think straight; they are too unloved, angry, scared, insecure, guilty, depressed, and so forth. Our prisons, for example, are overflowing with intelligent people who, for a variety of reasons, including childhood neglect and abuse, simply will not or cannot think deeply about the costs and benefits of their own behavior.

Additionally, many intelligent people willfully shut off their intelligence in order to gain psychological reassurance from one or another true belief. The folks who joined Jim Jones's People's Temple, the Koresh's Branch Dravidians or Bo and Peep's Heaven’s Gate cult, were not necessarily stupid. Their emotional needs may simply have gotten the better of them, causing them to willingly put intellectual blinders on.

As a matter of fact, there are entire sub-cultures within generally more enlightened cultures that willfully reject learning in order to preserve key beliefs The Amish are a clear-cut example. Reason and understanding are effectively ruled out of key aspects of member’s lives in return for community and religious certitude. Many other religious sub-cultures, some quite large in numbers, also fit this description.

Culture itself can be another barrier to reason. Some cultures facilitate reasoning by providing rich resources for reflection, but others stifle it. After all, many cultures never experienced an enlightenment. Fine native intelligence can be smothered in the cradle by pre-enlightenment social surroundings.

Let us also not forget good old-fashioned laziness. Some folks avoid thinking simply because it takes effort and can generate discomfort. It isn’t that they can’t think; they just refuse to think. They are, in affect, bone idle when it comes to exercising their mind.

We also should not assume, as many do, that increased schooling necessarily equals improved reasoning and understanding. Too often schooling is less about reasoning than it is about conformity and the mere mastery of technical skills. Consider the scientists who eagerly apply their technical competence to the creation of unimaginably vicious weapons. Is the man or woman who applies their knowledge of biology to perfect a vaccine-resistant plague virus, for instance, really reasoning the thing through as well as they should?

And what evidence is there that the average MBA or Ph.D. degree holder, is more reasonable or thoughtful than those who are less well schooled? Sure, they have hopefully mastered a range of techniques, but can they think more deeply and well? Consider Lyndon Banes Johnson’s top staffers. They were supposed to be “the best and brightest” minds of that era. There was Secretary of Defense Robert Strange MacNamara, B.A. U.C. Berkely, M.B.A., Harvard; Special Assistant to the President McGeorge Bundy, Groton, Yale and Harvard; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford and U.C. Berkeley, for example. And what did these well schooled can-do guys accomplish? They bogged us down in a loosing ten thousand day war in Vietnam. Forty eight thousand Americans died; another three hundred and four thousand were wounded and many more were psychologically maimed for life. In fact in the five years following the war there were an additional nine thousand suicides resulting from wartime trauma. On top of all this there were an appalling 5.1 million Vietnamese casualties. Not to mention that one hundred and eleven billion dollars was wasted and America was torn apart domestically. Does that sound like the work of men with superior reasoning?

More recently we have the example of George W. Bush, perhaps the most clueless President in living memory. Yet he has a B.A. in history from Yale University and a Harvard M.B.A. Were his reasoning and understanding improved in consequence of this schooling?

What percent of the general populace has the innate capacity to be think things through in the sense we’ve used it here? Many. What percent of them actually use it? Far fewer.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, April 13, 2009

100% Americans Censor Textbooks

One hundred percent Americans usually are the very first to ignore the most fundamental values of the Constitution. Consider that, for many years, the American Legion, a self-proclaimed first priority guardian of the Constitution, searched schoolbooks for un-American content, and then whipped up witch-hunts against bewildered educators who had adopted books the Legion’s censors didn’t like.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization “dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America's future through better education for children,” also censored textbooks. In fact, in the 1960’s they published a “Textbook Study” listing a disquieting total of 170 books that they deemed unfit for the nation’s youth. The hyper-patriots at the DAR, charged that these offending e texts “described the U.S. as a democracy rather than a republic” and “emphasized the Bill of Rights rather than the Constitution.” One hundred percent Americans often worry about overemphasizing democracy and the Bill of Rights.

Such attacks haven't gone away. Textbooks are routinely criticized for their un-Americanism by everyone from home-brewed schoolbook review websites to right wing pundits at Fox News.

Faced with such complaints, state school authorities and local school boards typically grant them deference. It seems public servants are often reluctant to challenge the legitimacy of these complainant’s convictions or their self-serving interpretation of Americanism. Instead they treat the most ludicrous complaints with earnest attentiveness, thus exposing educators to insult and intimidation. These folks need to toughen up and tell our native-born Taliban where to get off. But, given the nature of the beast, such courage seems unlikely. -- GKC

See also Education for Democracy: is this more than rhetoric?

True Believers Target Educators

A few years ago a suburban school district was the site of a memorable incident. A 10-year-old boy, ostensibly protesting the presence of costumed witches and demons in his public school’s Halloween parade, declared he was going to march as Jesus — complete with white robe, paper crown and twig crown of thorns.

The boy’s mother, host of a local gospel radio talk show, claimed that the principal told her son to forget the Jesus costume and instead parade as a Roman emperor. The principal claimed that a meeting with the youngster and his mother resulted in a mutual decision that the boy would parade as a contemporary of Jesus.

The mother took the matter to Federal Court, charging that the district had attacked freedom of religion. She added that the district was giving unbridled discretion to school officials to suppress free speech. A self-described Christian conservative organization backed the mother’s suit, claiming that it “Defends the right to hear and speak the Truth.” (Note it is “the Truth,” not “our truth.”)

Before deciding the merits of the mother’s case, one should first ask: “Whom would Jesus sue?” After all, it was he who advised his followers thus:

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,] carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow."
- Matthew 5:38-39

Why do so few self=professed Christians take this absolutely clear injunction to heart? Are they hypocrites professing beliefs and opinions that they do not actually hold? Are they befuddled and honestly fail to recognize that they simultaneously hold, and selectively act on, incompatible beliefs. Maybe they confuse their own desires with those of the almighty. Doubtless some are bunko artists looking to mine other people’s religiosity for money, status or fame. Still others might be mentally ill. But whatever the origin of their behavior, such individuals are dangerous. For what they lack in truthfulness, clarity, insight, honesty or mental health, they make up for in unscrupulousness or narcissistic conviction that their 'holy' end justifies most any means. Thus does religious dogma become synonymous with personal peculiarity, criminality or pathology.

Why should educators care about this sort of thing? Because religious true believers regularly target teachers, principals and superintendents, that’s why. Who better for these folks to stick a bull’s eye on than relatively powerless public educators?
Compounding this vulnerability, local school boards often grant serious regard to these hypocritical, opportunistic, narcissistic, befuddled, self-righteous or just plain crazy individuals.

Americans get along as well as they do by generally holding their tongue about their fellow citizen’s most deeply held beliefs. Most of us understand that doing otherwise destroys community. But such civility lends inadvertent cover and misplaced authority to the hypocrites, narcissists, numskulls, fools, knaves and scoundrels who misrepresent, or mistake, their own agendas for the teachings of Jesus.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The End of Ignorance?

Have you noticed that no one is ignorant anymore? They're just part of the "low information" crowd. The folks who voted against Barrack Obama because he is a Muslim, for example, weren't ignorant. They were just low on information.

Note how delightfully nonjudgmental this is. No one is ignorant, they're just less informed. It's like being left handed as opposed to right handed!

We seem to have forgotten that ignorance, unlike congenital stupidity, is an achieved trait. Sure, the ignorance of the mentally incapacitated is due to diminished capacity. But what about a person of normal intelligence who, for example, still insists that Saddam Hussein was in league with El Quaeda and in possession of weapons of mass destruction? Given decisive evidence to the contrary, such ignorance is entirely their own handiwork.

The politically correct would have us believe that ignoramuses have disappeared. Such folks are just low on information. The next thing you know "less informed" will be out and "differently informed" will be in. Think the earth is a mere 6,000 years old? Well that's just as good as any other age. It all depends on how you look at it.

How far shall we take this nonsense? Has personal responsibility been removed from our lexicon? And what about the implications of this rampant political correctness for schooling? Don't even ask. -- GKC

For similarly irreverent ruminations and lots of other interesting stuff on education visit www.newfoundations.com

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Not Cheat?

When it comes to schoolwork, why not cheat?
Essentially, there are two sorts of reasons. The first involves looking out for number one. The other has to do with doing the right thing. Let’s examine them both.

Looking Out for Number One

If you are smart, you won't cheat because the potential costs far outweigh the likely benefits. This is not a moral argument. The point here isn’t that cheating is wrong, though it is, it’s that cheating isn’t smart.

Sometimes students cheat because they don’t realize the seriousness of the consequences if they get caught. Don’t make that mistake. Few things enrage educators more than cheating and they often take serious measures against students who are guilty of it. They include:

• Double weighted zeros on the test or assignment
• An informative phone call to parents
• Course failure
• A letter of reprimand in the student’s permanent record
• Compulsory community service
• Expulsion from a program
• Expulsion from school

Another selfish reason for not cheating is that it stifles the development of the cheater’s own human potential. In other words, cheaters cheat themselves of their own possibilities as persons. That’s pretty basic.

Here is a final selfish reason not to cheat. Often it only postpones the inevitable. Let’s say you cheat your way through a math course. Your lack of actual skill will typically catch up with you in the next math course. In other words, cheating usually only postpones the inevitable. Plus, as time goes by, the odds that you will be able to keep cheating your way through get slimmer and slimmer.

Ethical Arguments

The Judeo-Christian tradition offers one well-known ethical argument against cheating. “Thou shalt not steal,” states the commandment. And since you are getting a grade you didn't earn, cheating is stealing.

An additional ethical argument against cheating is that it produces unfair and unjust consequences. Justice requires that each person gets what he or she deserves. Sometimes deciding what people deserve isn’t easy. But that's not the case with a cheater. He or she didn’t do the work and their honest classmates did. Therefore, the cheater doesn’t deserve the same grade.

A further ethical argument against cheating is that it involves using others to advance a personal goal without regard for their rights as human beings. People aren't things and should not be treated as if they were.

Finally. in deciding what is morally right it's helpful to consider the total good that will come from our action as well as the total harm. With cheating, the total harm outweighs the good. What is more, honest effort provides greater benefits to a greater number. Therefore, cheating is wrong.

Summary
You’ve seen there are two kinds of reasons not to cheat. The first involves looking out for number one. The second involves ethical considerations of right and wrong. The combined force of both arguments suggests cheating is a bad idea.

Psychological research reveals that when people have a chance to reflect on a moral issue, they are much more likely to behave in accord with their consciences. Give yourself that opportunity.