Tag Archives: Science

The Secularist’s Rise

Atheists gathered this past Saturday in Washington, D.C. for what they called the “Reason Rally”. The purpose, according to a quote in this article, was to show America that “we are here and we will never be silenced again.”

An estimated 30,000 people of diverse backgrounds showed up. It was a heartening turnout for what is becoming a necessary cause in the United States of America.

Since the end of the 1960s, a Christian fundamentalist movement has been afoot. There were wide swaths of the population who were disoriented by the changes of that era. Technology, morals, politics and everything else were undergoing rapid change. Religion provided solid answers and stability amidst these changes.

The simplicity of fundamentalism made it a great vehicle for political organization. We started seeing signs of this with the election of Jimmy Carter, who wore his religion on his sleeve and even in his policies. Through televangelism, Jesus camps and church organization, southern-style Christianity became a form of political activism. The Culture Wars of the early 1990s provided the fertile ground needed to turn the Democrats out of Congress and elect a crop of very Christian Republicans. This bore fruit later with Clinton’s impeachment and the election of George W. Bush.

Since this time, we have seen attacks on women’s reproductive rights, homosexuals and Muslims. We have taken to seriously debating the merits between creation and evolution, as if they occupy the same intellectual plane. We have become a country where policies inspired by a small but organized group of Christian fundamentalists impact the lives of everyone around the world.

Around this trend is the rise of a counter narrative of American history that portrays the Founding Fathers as intolerant Christians. Although the Founders talked a lot about God, it was the God of Enlightenment Deism that ruled their day. It was a mechanical God, a “watchmaker” as Isaac Newton would say, under which they lived. It was a God that had created the universe and then walked away, allowing humans to use their brains to divine the underlying laws of nature.

So, it is necessary that the secularists gathered in the nation’s capital over the weekend. Unbelievers need to show that they can be a political force as well. Leaders need to see that there is a base of very organized, very vocal Americans who feel attacked by religious fundamentalism.

At the same time, secularists need to take care of not falling into the trap of the fundamentalists. It is very easy to be dogmatic. My own views on religion are complex. I am more agnostic than anything. There is a danger of falling into dogma whether you are a believer or unbeliever. What the secularists are fighting against is the intolerance, the demagoguery, the arrogance of Christian fundamentalism. We should be careful not to replace religious dogmatism with secular dogmatism.

What we should be fighting for is a free and open society. There are atheists who are just as demeaning as fundamentalists. Faith in science can be just as severe and unyielding as faith in God. Our aim should not to be severe, but to be free.

Occupy Outer Space

Elon Musk, visionary, hero or deity?

Last night, “60 Minutes” kicked off the show with a story entitled “Space X: Entrepreneur’s Race to Space”. The story featured Elon Musk, head of a company called Space X, who the story lauds as a visionary in the field of space travel. Musk envisions his company making regular space flights to the point where it becomes affordable and widespread. He wants the human race to be interplanetary colonizers because it is obvious that the earth on which we currently live is headed for doom. Currently, Musk has a $1.6 billion contract to make regular trips to the international space station. He is the only private contractor to send a spacecraft into orbit and retrieve it.

This segment was very similar to the segment 60 Minutes aired last week about Salman Khan. They both tell stories about visionaries with big plans for humankind. Both of these visionaries work out of the private sector. They both hope to transform functions currently handled by moribund government bureaucracies.  Both stories tugged at the heart strings, painting their respective stars as selfless servants of the human race. Both stories only made glancing mention of their critics, who were dismissed out of hand as close-minded curmudgeons.

Musk has received criticism from Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and last men on the moon. Musk was shown towards the end of the segment with tears in his eyes over the fact that his “heroes” have been so dead-set against his visionary company. He cannot understand why they do not see that Space X represents the future of space travel. It would be tough for anyone to see why they would have a problem with Space X if all they had to go on was this 15 minute segment.

While space travel is not my area of expertise, it seems that Armstrong and Cernan are concerned about its corporatization. They testified before Congress last year that they believed the Obama administration lacks vision when it comes to the space race. Obama has put the government’s money on private contractors like Space X to make regular space flights to the International Space Station. For two guys who landed on the moon thanks to a massive government investment in science and technology, Obama’s program “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature”, in the words of Neil Armstrong.

Gutting NASA in favor of privatizing the space program was a trend that started under Bush 43. With all of the celebration of Elon Musk as a visionary, the truth is that the private sector revolves around turning profits. What Armstrong and Cernan are getting at is the problem behind giving space travel over to the marketplace. They come from an era when space travel was a patriotic venture; something American citizens could get behind. Now it is being relegated to the domain of dollars and cents, with all of the corner-cutting that entails.

The biggest story of all is how people can still, after the last three decades of corporatocracy, claim that corporatizing a venerable public institution like NASA or the education system is tantamount to “progress”. There is nothing new under the sun here. Rather than a forward step, corporatizing space travel is an outgrowth of the same old worship of the private sector we have seen from both political parties and every major media outlet.

What the protests in Greece, the occupations around the United States and the upheaval in the Middle East have shown is that the next generation is crying out for something collective. They have been reared on the ethos of the private, of the bold CEO, of the visionary business leader and they see that it has led nowhere but inequality and repression.

Like the media so often does, they have turned the narrative on its head. While thousands of young people around the world are fighting to hold public space and build public institutions, 60 Minutes has shown that they know little more than the same old formulaic “visionary business leader” trope.

The youth are already starting to occupy education. Maybe the next occupation should be in outer space.

Teaching is not a Science

Teachers perfecting their craft.

Teaching is not a science. Somewhere along the way, around the late 1800s, people started thinking they could apply the rules of science to every aspect of human life. Just as Newton discovered that the laws of gravity applied everywhere in the universe, so-called thinkers tried to distill the universal laws of our great institutions. Government, economics and education all became objects of scientific inquiry. They became subjects studied on their own, the avowed mission being to find the universal laws that could be applied to the state, the economy and the schoolhouse everywhere in every circumstance.

It has been over 100 years since the mission has started and the experts are no closer to discovering any universal laws. Yet, each generation of education scientists and school reformers believe they have found the scientifically bona fide way of running a classroom. Their theories are clad in the trappings of science: data, jargon, studies and a sense of urgency that they are on a cutting edge that everyone needs to get in front of at the risk of being left behind. It can be said about most of these ideas that their creators were thoroughly convinced of their scientific validity.

At the end of the day, it does not escape me that there are people who make a good living off of the faith that there is a science to standing in front of a room and teaching kids new ideas. The implications of this are enormous. This means that the education theorists have faith that there is some ultimate, if still undiscovered, method of teaching that can work anywhere. With every new theory comes the secret hope of its creator that it will catch on and be used in every classroom. Every new idea in education is an attempt to reduce teaching to the mindless movements of automatons.

This is why the art of teaching is dying. The education scientists control the training of new teachers. With fast track, 5-week training programs like Teach for America, the assumption is that anybody can learn a few core theories and be empowered enough to teach a class. With the efforts of the education deformers, the assumption is that anybody can read a few scientific education books and know enough about the classroom to propose sweeping reforms. It is the cheapening of education. If the same ideas apply everywhere at all times, then there is no room for original thought on the part of the teacher.

This is what the education scientists and education deformers have done. They have rested their assumptions on some Newtonian faith that there is an educational essence independent of the teacher. They have assumed that there are a few general things that make up teaching. All one needs to do is know these things, act upon them and kids will automatically learn. What science and corporations have done to vegetables they are now trying to do to teaching. They want to freeze dry it so all one needs to do is add water and serve. Have no experience? No worries, all you have to do is read this book, remember to take no excuses from kids and get them to pass the test. It is education from concentrate, microwavable teaching.

It goes beyond the mere deskilling of the teaching profession as an excuse to treat teachers like fast food workers. Education science is part of a relentless march of so-called researchers to reduce every human activity to the cold nomenclature of the physical sciences. Instead of a vibrant humanistic activity that requires intelligence and passion, education scientists want to bury teaching under a mountain of sterile jargon. It is the same thing economists did with economics. They have all constructed a narrative of real life situations that bears very little resemblance to real life. They use neutral-sounding language to describe actions that are anything but neutral. Whether it is teaching or economic activity, human beings use judgment and experience to inform their choices. The bland jargon used by the social scientists takes us away from our humanity. They dehumanize human activity.

And this is why the corporate reformers love education science. It allows them to clad their very biased, self-interested agenda in neutral language. They want “positive outcomes”, “continual assessment” or “school choice”. It is the benevolent and objective language of science pressed into service for very selfish ends. It is the same thing whenever a corporation lobbies for more tax breaks for the wealthy, union busting or free trade. There is an army of economists there with data, theories, charts and projections scientifically proving that these things will bring prosperity. Social science is not science. Social science is politics through another means.

What the education deformers fear most is losing control of the debate. They want to hide behind the carefully controlled language of social science so their privatization schemes do not seem like the blatant money grab they really are. They are afraid to have teaching discussed in the language of teachers. A real life account of teaching would involve choices like how to break down this tough idea I have to teach tomorrow so my students can understand, or how do I diffuse this behavior issue without letting it affect the class, or what grade should I give the ESL student who tried really hard but just missed a passing average. These issues would humanize teaching, make it seem like an art form and force the deformers to speak in terms they do not understand. They need to keep the public debate in the neutral language of education science. It is the only way they can access the institution of public schooling, since so many of them had the privilege of private school.

Teaching needs to be treated like a medieval guild: a specialized craft that greatly benefits society, open to anyone with talent but requiring years to perfect.