Content-free political labels

Here’s a quiz. Who said the following:

“In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush calls 9/11 the day “when freedom came under attack.� This is sophomoric. Osama did not send fanatics to ram planes into the World Trade Center because he hates the Bill of Rights. He sent the terrorists here because he hates our presence and policies in the Middle East.


The 9/11 killers were over here because we are over there. We were not attacked because of who we are but because of what we do. It is not our principles they hate. It is our policies. U.S. intervention in the Middle East was the cause of the 9/11 terror. Bush believes it is the cure. Has he learned nothing from Iraq?

In 2003, we invaded a nation that had not attacked us, did not threaten us, and did not want war with us to disarm it of weapons it did not have. Now, after plunging $200 billion and the lives of 1,400 of our best and bravest into this war and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, we have reaped a harvest of hatred in the Arab world and, according to officials in our own government, have created a new nesting place and training ground for terrorists to replace the one we lately eradicated in Afghanistan.”

Was this said by some radical leftist? Some long-haired peacenik? Ward Churchill? Actually, it was Pat Buchanan, a staffer for Richard Nixon and long-time Republican stalwart writing in a recent issue of the magazine The American Conservative.

Ok, here’s another writer:

“The US economy is headed toward crisis, and the political leadership of the country–if it can be called leadership–is preoccupied with nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.


Oblivious to reality, the Bush administration has proposed a Social Security privatization that will cost $4.5 trillion in borrowing over the next 10 years alone! America has no domestic savings to absorb this debt, and foreigners will not lend such enormous sums to a country with a collapsing currency–especially a country mired in a Middle East war running up hundreds of billions of dollars in war debt.

A venal and self-important Washington establishment combined with a globalized corporate mentality have brought an end to America’s rising living standards. America’s days as a superpower are rapidly coming to an end. Isolated by the nationalistic unilateralism of the neoconservatives who control the Bush administration, the US can expect no sympathy or help from former allies and rising new powers.â€?

Who is this Bush-hater? Michael Moore? No, it was none other than Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration and former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review.

The point of my using these quotes is to illustrate my view that the labels ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ ‘Democratic’ or ‘Republican’ have ceased to be meaningful in identifying people’s political positions on many issues. They may have at one time identified particular unifying political philosophies, but now have ceased to have content in that there are no longer any clear markers that one can point to that identify those positions.

Not all political labels have ceased to have content but those four broad-brush categories in particular are used more as terms of political abuse than for any clarifying purpose. Their only purpose is to set up fake debates on television’s political yell shows. If you advertise that you have a liberal and conservative on your panel (or a Democrat and Republican), you can claim that your program is ‘fair and balanced’ even though both people pretty much say the same thing on major policy issues, differing only on minor tactical points or on style.

It makes more sense, rather than identifying and aligning with people on the basis of these meaningless labels, to form alliances on specific issues based on where they stand with respect to those issues. And when one does that, one finds that many of the old divisions melt away.

The greater danger of labels (whether they be of religion, nationality, or politics) is that they are used to divide us and herd us into boxes and make us think in terms of what we should believe and who are allies should be than what we really want them to be. They are being used as weapons to divide people into ineffective warring factions and thus prevent them from finding commonalities that might lead to concerted action.

I do not agree with Buchanan or Roberts on everything they say. On some things I strongly disagree. But unlike the members of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade who should be ignored, they are serious people who often have useful information or perspectives to share and I read them regularly.

Dismissing the ideas of some people simply because of the label attached to them makes as little sense as supporting other people for the same reason.

Putting thought police in the classroom

Most of you would have heard by now about the bill pending in the Ohio legislature (Senate Bill 24) to “establish the academic bill of rights for higher education.�
The bill is both silly and misguided. It mixes motherhood and apple pie language (“The institution shall provide its students with a learning environment in which the students have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study.�) with language that is practically begging students with even minor grievances to complain to higher authorities.

In a previous posting, I spoke about how lack of trust leads to poor learning conditions and that we need to recreate the conditions under which trust can flourish. This bill goes in the wrong direction because it effectively creates a kind of ‘thought police’ mentality, where any controversial word or idea in class can end up causing a legal battle.

Let me give you an example. The bill says “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.�

As an instructor, how would I respect “all� the knowledge in the area? What do we even mean by the word “knowledge.� How do we even separate knowledge in the humanities and social sciences from those in the sciences? What constitutes “dissenting viewpoints?� And how far should “dissenting� be taken? If a particular point of view is not mentioned by the instructor, is that grounds for complaint?

Take another example.

“Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study and shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political, ideological, or religious beliefs.�

Grading is an art not a science. It is, at some level, a holistic judgment made by an instructor. To be sure the instructor has a deep ethical obligation to the profession to assign the grade with as much competence and impartiality as he or she can muster. But even granting that, a letter grade or a point allocation for an assignment is not something that can be completely objectified. Give the same essay or problem to two different teachers and they will likely arrive at different grades even if it were “graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge.� And this can occur irrespective of how agreeable or disagreeable the student’s views might be perceived by the instructor. So if a student complains about a grade, how can this be adjudicated?

As I said in a previous posting, the reason we currently have so many rules in our classrooms is that we seem to have forgotten the purpose of courses, and have lost that sense of trust that is so vital to creating a proper learning atmosphere.

This bill, rather than increasing trust in the classroom, will decrease it. Because as soon as there is legislation prescribing what can and cannot be done in the classroom, it will inevitably lead to teaching and grading issues ending up in the courtroom. And in order to avoid that tedious and expensive process, universities will start instituting detailed lists of rules about what can and cannot be done in the classroom, and teachers will start teaching and assessing defensively, simply to avoid the chance of litigation.

Is this what we want or need?


Tomorrow (Thursday, March 3) from 7:00-9:00 pm in Thwing Ballroom, Case’s Hindu Students Association is hosting an inter-religious dialogue on how to reconcile a belief in God in light of major disasters like the recent tsunami.

There will be a panel of religious scholars representing all the major religious traditions (drawn from the faculty of the Religion department at Case and elsewhere) and plenty of time for discussions. I will be the moderator of the discussion.

The event is free and open to the public and donations will be accepted for tsunami relief efforts.

Living in a reality-free world

Here is some news to curl your hair.

The Harris Poll® #14 of February 18, 2005 reports that:

– 47 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001;
– 44 percent believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis; and
– 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded that country.

Virtually no one who has followed these stories believes any of the above to be true. And this poll was released just last week, long after the David Kay and Charles Duelfer reports were made public, putting to rest all the overblown claims that were used to justify the attack on Iraq.

Also something that experts do believe to be true, that Saddam Hussein was prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction by the U.N. weapons inspectors, is supported by only 46 percent.

How is it that so many Americans seem to be living in a reality-free world?

The reason is that such falsehood as the ones listed above are strongly implied by influential people and uncritically reported in the media, or influential people stay silent when such falsehoods are propagated.

Take for example a speech made just last week (on February 17, 2005) by California congressman Christopher Cox at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Michelle Goldberg of Salon was at the conference and reports his exact words: “We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and the facilities to make them inside of Iraq, and even more about their intended use, including that a plan to distribute sarin, and the lethal poison ricin — in the United States and Europe — was actively being pursued as late as March 2003.â€?

And who were the members of the audience who did not contradict Cox as this nonsense was being spouted? Michelle Goldberg reports that among those “seated at the long presidential table at the head of the room were Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Missouri Senator Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and NRA president Kayne Robinson.� Cox’s comments were made while introducing Vice President Dick Cheney, who gave the keynote address.

Now it is possible to carefully deconstruct the congressman’s words so that some semblance of truth can be salvaged. But that would involve re-defining words like ‘discovered’ and ‘weapons’ and ‘facilities’ and ‘plan’ in ways that would make Clinton’s parsing of the word ‘is’ seem like a model of transparency.

So what are we to make of political leaders who can say such deliberately misleading things? What are we to make of other politicians who know the facts but choose to remain silent while the public is led astray? And what are we to make of the national media who spend enormous amounts of time and space on issues like Michael Jackson’s trial but do not provide the kind of scrutiny, factual information, and context that would make politicians more cautious about what they say?

Politicians who mislead the public may be just cynical in that they know the truth and are just saying things for the sake of political expediency. But the danger with allowing this kind of talk to go unchallenged is that it creates an echo-chamber in which people hear the same false things from different directions and start to think it must be true. When people start believing their own propaganda, then they have entered a reality-free zone and this can lead to disastrous consequences.

George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) wrote “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.� The sad truth is that Cox’s speech is by no means the only, or even the worst, example of this kind of linguistic chicanery. One has only to go back to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq to see even more egregious examples of deception by the highest ranking members of the government, and timidity and silence from the supposed watch-dogs in the Congress and media.

Is it any wonder that so many people live in a world that does not exist?

The importance of trust in the classroom

The more I teach, the more I feel that there is an inverse correlation between the quality of learning that occurs and the number of rules that govern the classroom. At its best, teaching involves trust between students and teacher, and among fellow students. The assumption should be that we are all there to learn and that we will help each other learn.

To be sure, the teacher has a responsibility to the students and the institution he or she works for to ensure that learning is occurring and that the unavoidable grades that have gained a stranglehold in our educational world are assigned fairly.

But apart from this minimal expectation, I feel that there should be no other rules, except those that are created collectively by the entire class in order that things run smoothly. It is for this reason that my courses are becoming progressively rule-free over time. This is also why I oppose efforts to treat course syllabi as quasi-legal contracts and to mandate what they should and should not contain

But I know that I am swimming upstream on this one. Many course syllabi are becoming increasingly crammed full of rules and regulations. Why? To my mind, this is a measure of the lack of trust that has developed between student and teachers. Students and faculty don’t really know each other as people. We don’t see ourselves as having come together for an endeavor (learning) which should be enjoyable and from which all of us will benefit and which will form the basis of a lifetime relationship. Instead we seem to see ourselves as temporary acquaintances engaged in a commercial transaction. The faculty member has a product or service (knowledge, grades) that the student ‘purchases’ with money, time, and effort.

A natural consequence of this commerce mentality is the need for rules, just like those in the marketplace. Students seem to feel the need to have rules to protect themselves from arbitrary actions by faculty members who are strangers to them, and faculty feel the need to have rules to protect themselves from complaints by students whom they don’t really know. This dynamic inevitably leads to a spiral of increasing rules since having written rules at all implies a lack of trust, which then results in people testing the limits of the rules, which creates the need for more protective rules, which leads to even greater distrust, and so on.

But the reality is that there are only a tiny handful of faculty and students who might take unfair advantage of one another in the absence of a detailed set of rules. In my work in many universities, it is hard for me to recollect cases of faculty members who did not take seriously their ethical obligation to treat students fairly.

This does not mean that faculty members cannot be arrogant, condescending, and unrealistically demanding. We are, after all, human. But it is rare that a teacher will act out of spite against a specific student. And if it does happen, there are mechanisms in universities to try and redress these wrongs when they occur, because the other faculty members know that we can only succeed if we as a learning community try to uphold the highest standards.

We don’t have written rules of behavior among friends. We don’t have written rules of behavior among family members. The reason is that the common interests that bring us together are strong enough to make us want to resolve the issues in a manner of friendly give-and-take. Why is it that we do not even try to create a similar situation in class? Surely a common interest in learning is strong enough to serve a similar role?

When I think about what is the one change that I would recommend to dramatically improve education at all levels, I come to the conclusion that we must create a greater sense of trust in the classroom so that we can minimize the number of rules and thus allow the natural enjoyment that true learning provides to emerge.

Creationism and moral decay

In the previous posting, I said that the reason that there is such hostility to the teaching of evolutionary theory by ID advocates and young-Earth creationists is that they feel that it implies a lack off special status for human beings, which leads to atheism, which has led to the current state of moral decay in the US from a more wholesome past. They feel that eliminating the teaching of evolution is the first step on the road to moral redemption.

There are many flaws in this line of reasoning but for the moment I want to look at one feature and pose the question as to why such people think that the moral state of America is in worse shape now than it was in the past.
[Read more…]

Natural selection and moral decay

In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so upsetting. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.

While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God’s image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant in trying to have evolution not taught in schools or its teaching to be undermined by inserting fake cautions about its credibility. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it. [Read more…]

The home of the brave? Or the fearful?

I have done the people of Ohio an injustice. In a previous posting, I said that sometimes it seems to me that there is no half-baked idea that originates anywhere in the known universe that does not quickly find influential adherents anxious to institutionalize it in Ohio.

This was a slur on the people of Ohio implying as it does that we are merely followers. It appears that influential Ohio politicians are quite capable of coming up with original half-baked ideas all on their own. Evidence of this comes from the introduction of Ohio Senate Bill 9 that seeks to expand the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (which is already a very disturbing law) and apply these extensions to the people of Ohio.

Jeffrey M. Gamso, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio stated the case against the Ohio bill in his testimony before the Ohio’s Senate Judiciary Committee:

“The ACLU of Ohio opposes many of the provisions of S.B. 9. The proposed legislation makes criminal what is already a crime (and may criminalize obedience to the law); requires that people incriminate themselves and in some cases makes criminal their failure to do so; provides sweeping powers to law enforcement to demand identification from wholly innocent persons. It does all that while doing remarkably little to make us either safer or more secure. Like the USA PATRIOT Act, S.B. 9 effects a needless expansion of wide-ranging police powers which threatens the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect.

There are five broad categories of problematic bad legislation tied together in S.B. 9: (1) Legislation which simply duplicates already existing federal law; (2) legislation which provides government with broad powers to investigate and prosecute even wholly innocent activity; (3) legislation which prohibits possession of that which may be misused rather than the misuse itself; (4) legislation which attempts to restrain the people of Ohio from expressing their disapproval of the actions of the government, and (5) legislation which forces people to incriminate themselves. In addition, S.B. 9 may require, in some circumstances, government employees actually to violate existing law – and does so without shielding them from the consequences of such a violation.�

As a proud card-carrying member of many years of the American Civil Liberties Union, I have major concerns with the rapid encroachment of civil liberties in this country under the guise of fighting terrorism.

What amazes me is that so many people are so scared of the possibility of potential terrorist acts that they are willing to let politicians dismantle even the provisions of the Bill of Rights. It is a disturbing feature of modern American political life that people can be so easily terrified that they so surrender without a fight what they should hold most dear. It seems like people are unable to make judgments about how safe is safe enough.

One way to make such a comparison is to compare the probabilities of two scenarios. On the one hand, there is the probability that we are harmed by some terrorist activity that this law would have prevented if had been enacted. The other is the probability that this law once enacted, instead of being used to protect us, is used against innocent people. Which do you think is more likely?

For me this is a no-brainer. The chances of being the victim of a terrorist attack are very small. Yet, if history is any judge, the chances that laws introduced under the guise of protecting us from ‘outsiders’ will eventually be used against us instead is relatively much higher.

So we should oppose this legislation and also seek to sustain the sunset provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act when they fall due at the end of this year.

To find out what you can do, go here.

What makes us good at learning some things and not others?

One of the questions that students ask me is why it is that they find some subjects easy and others hard to learn. Students often tell me that they “are good� at one subject (say writing) and “are not good� at another (say physics), with the clear implication that they feel that there is something intrinsic and immutable about them that determines what they are good at. It is as if they see their learning abilities as being mapped onto a multi-dimensional grid in which each axis represents a subject, with their own abilities lying along a continuous scale ranging from ‘awful’ at one extreme to ‘excellent’ at the other. Is this how it is?

This is a really tough question and I don’t think there is a definitive answer at this time. Those interested in this topic should register for the free public lecture by Steven Pinker on March 14.

Why are some people drawn to some areas of study and not to others? Why do they find some things difficult and others easy? Is it due to the kind of teaching that one receives or parental influence or some innate quality like genes?

The easiest answer is to blame it on genes or at least on the hard-wiring of the brain. In other words, we are born the way we are, with gifts in some areas and deficiencies in others. It seems almost impossible to open the newspapers these days without reading that scientists have found the genes that ‘cause’ this or that human characteristic so it is excusable to jump to genes as the cause of most inexplicable things.

But that is too simple. After all, although the brain comes at birth with some hard-wired structures, it is also quite plastic and the direction in which it grows is also strongly influenced by the experiences it encounters. But it seems that most of the rapid growth and development occurs fairly early in life and so early childhood and adolescent experiences are important in determining future directions.

But what kinds of experiences are the crucial ones for determining future academic success? Now things get more murky and it is hard to say which ones are dominant. We cannot even say that the same factors play the same role for everyone. So for one person, a single teacher’s influence could be pivotal. For another, it could be the parent’s influence. The influences could also be positive or negative.

So there is no simple answer. But I think that although this is an interesting question, the answer has little practical significance for a particular individual at this stage of their lives in college. You are now what you are. The best strategy is to not dwell on why you are not something else, but to identify your strengths and use them to your advantage.

It is only when you get really deep into a subject (any subject) and start to explore its foundations and learn about its underlying knowledge structure that you start to develop higher-level cognitive skills that will last you all your life. But this only happens if you like the subject because only then will you willingly expend the intellectual effort to study it in depth. With things that we do not care much about, we tend to skim on the surface, doing just the bare minimum to get by. This is why it is important to identify what you really like to do and go for it.

You should also identify your weaknesses and dislikes and contain them. By “containâ€? I mean that there is really no reason why at this stage you should force yourself to try and like (say) mathematics or physics or Latin or Shakespeare or whatever and try to excel in them, if you do not absolutely need to. What’s the point? What are you trying to prove and to whom? If there was a really good reason that you needed to know something about those areas now or later in life, the higher-level learning skills you develop by charging ahead in the things you like now could be used to learn something that you really need to know later.

I don’t think that people have an innate “limitâ€?, in the sense that there is some insurmountable barrier that prevents them from achieving more in any area. I am perfectly confident that some day if you needed or wanted to know something in those areas, you would be able to learn it. The plateau or barrier that students think they have reached is largely determined by their inner sense of “what’s the point?â€?

I think that by the time they reach college, most students have reached the “need to know� stage in life, where they need a good reason to learn something. In earlier K-12 grades, they were in the “just in case� stage where they did not know where they would be going and needed to prepare themselves for any eventuality.

This has important implications for teaching practice. As teachers, we should make it our goal to teach in such a way that students see the deep beauty that lies in our discipline, so that they will like it for its own sake and thus be willing to make the effort. It is not enough to tell them that it is “useful� or “good for them.�

In my own life, I now happily learn about things that I would never have conceived that I would be interested in when I was younger. The time and circumstances have to be right for learning to have its fullest effect. As Edgar says in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.�

(The quote from Shakespeare is a good example of what I mean. If you had told me when I was an undergraduate that I would some day be familiar enough with Shakespeare to quote him comfortably, I would have said you were crazy because I hated his plays at that time. But much later in life, I discovered the pleasures of reading his works.)

So to combine the words from the song by Bobby McFerrin, and the prison camp commander in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, my own advice is “Don’t worry. Be happy in your work.â€?


John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.,1999.

James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, 2002.

Why is evolutionary theory so upsetting to some?

One of the questions that sometimes occur to observers of the intelligent design (ID) controversy is why there is such hostility to evolutionary theory in particular. After all, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are pretty much guaranteed to find that the theories of any scientific discipline (physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, in addition to biology) contradict many of the things taught in the Bible.

So what is it about evolution in particular that gets some people’s goat?
[Read more…]

The questions not asked

You can tell more about the sorry state of the mainstream news media by the kinds of questions that are not asked as by the questions that are.

Take for example the news this week that North Korea publicly acknowledged having nuclear weapons and withdrew from the six-nation talks, saying that it wanted bilateral discussion with the US. The news communiqué from the North Korean government said that the reason it had developed nuclear weapons was to defend itself from possible attack by the US.

In response to this announcement, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that “The North Koreans have no reason to believe that anyone wants to attack them,�

Really? Let’s see now. The Bush administration famously created the ‘axis of evil’ that consisted of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The first country (Iraq) has since been invaded by the US, and the second country (Iran) now has US forces on two of its borders (Iraq and Afghanistan), with the bellicose language and arguments that preceded the attack on Iraq being now reprised against Iran

Then there is the fact that there are nearly 40,000 US troops in South Korea, along the border with the North.

Also, Rice identified North Korea as an “outpost of tyrannyâ€? at her confirmation hearings just last month. And Bush earlier called the North Korean leader a loathsome “pygmy.â€?

Given all this, I think a person might reasonably conclude that the North Koreans have grounds for being concerned about an attack.

So when Rice pooh-pooh’s North Korea’s fears about an impending strike, you might think that a reporter might question her about these past statements and ask her why she expects the North Koreans to believe her. But as far as I can tell, it did not happen.

Or as another example, take the case of the recent horrific bombing in Beirut that killed the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. In response to this event White House spokesman Scott McClellan is quoted as saying that the United States will consult with other members of the U.N. Security Council about how to restore Lebanon’s independence by ending what he termed foreign occupation.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher went further and said that the killing undercuts Syria’s stated reason for keeping 14,000 troops in Lebanon which was to maintain the multiethnic country’s stability.

Mr. Boucher also said that this “shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence that shows that the excuse, the reason, the rationale, that’s given for the security — for the Syrian presence really doesn’t work. It has not provided internal security for Lebanon, and therefore, in light of that kind of event, we need to look at the whole range of issues that we’ve had, including Syrian presence in Lebanon.â€?

Now when statements like this are made, the adage about glass houses immediately jumps to mind. How can these spokespersons say that one bombing in Lebanon, however major, underscores the need for the removal of 14,000 foreign troops there since no security has been created by them, when just down the street in Iraq there are more that ten times that many US troops present, yet civil war seems a possibility, bombings on the scale of what happened in Lebanon are almost routine daily occurrences, and lawlessness is so rampant that even the road to the Baghdad airport is now a no-go zone?

The reason that these spokespersons can make these statements is that they know they will not be pressed on the awkward contradictions.

The point is not that there may not be good reasons that explain away the contradictions. The interesting question is why these people are not even expected to make the case.

These are not isolated instances, and in future postings we will look at further examples and pose the question of why it is that reporters who have access to these spokespeople do not seem to ask the obvious questions.