Category Archives: Education

Inmates take over asylum at small Oregon college

There is a course called Humanities 101 at Reed College, a small liberal arts institution in Portland. It is described in a Nov. 2 article in The Atlantic this way:

A required year-long course for freshmen, Hum 110 consists of lectures that everyone attends and small break-out classes “where students learn how to discuss, debate, and defend their readings.” It’s the heart of the academic experience at Reed, which ranks second for future Ph.D.s in the humanities and fourth in all subjects. (Reed famously shuns the U.S. News & World Report, as explained in a 2005 Atlantic article by a former Reed president.) As Professor Peter Steinberger details in a 2011 piece for Reed magazine, “What Hum 110 Is All About,” the course is intended to train students whose “primary goal” is “to engage in original, open-ended, critical inquiry.”

All well and good, right? This is what college is supposed to be about. Challenging assumptions and forcing students to learn critical reasoning skills so that they can not only defend that which they think they know, but learn also what they do not know, and how to debate these issues in a civil society — and to further and defend their future academic research, if any.

Except that is not how it is working out at Reed, as writer Chris Bodenner notes in that Atlantic article:

[In Humanties 101], a 39-year-old Saturday Night Live skit recently caused an uproar over cultural appropriation. In the classic Steve Martin skit, he performs a goofy song, “King Tut,” meant to satirize a Tutankhamun exhibit touring the U.S. and to criticize the commercialization of Egyptian culture. You could say that his critique is weak; that his humor is lame; that his dance moves are unintentionally offensive or downright racist. All of that, and more, was debated in a humanities course at Reed.

But many students found the video so egregious that they opposed its very presence in class. “That’s like somebody … making a song just littered with the n-word everywhere,” a member of Reedies Against Racism (RAR) told the student newspaper when asked about Martin’s performance. She told me more: The Egyptian garb of the backup dancers and singers–many of whom are African American–“is racist as well. The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface.”

Such outrage has been increasingly common in the course, Humanities 110, over the past 13 months. On September 26, 2016, the newly formed RAR organized a boycott of all classes in response to a Facebook post from the actor Isaiah Washington, who urged “every single African American in the United States that was really fed up with being angry, sad and disgusted” over police shootings to stay home on Monday. Of the 25 demands issued by RAR that day, the largest section was devoted to reforming Humanities 110.

The article goes on to say:

Beginning on boycott day, RAR protested every single Hum lecture that school year. In-class protests are very rare on college campuses. During the nationwide upsurge of student activism tracing back to 2015, protesters have occupied administrative buildings, stormed into libraries, shut down visiting speakers in auditoriums, and walked out of classrooms–but they hardly ever disrupt the classroom itself. RAR has done so more than 60 times.

A Hum protest is visually striking: Up to several dozen RAR supporters position themselves alongside the professor and quietly hold signs reading “We demand space for students of color,” “We cannot be erased,” “Fuck Hum 110,” “Stop silencing black and brown voices; the rest of society is already standing on their necks,” and so on. The signs are often accompanied by photos of black Americans killed by police.

“Facebook conversations at Reed bring out the extreme aspects of political discourse on campus.”

One of the first Hum professors to request that RAR not occupy the classroom was Lucía Martínez Valdivia, who said her preexisting PTSD would make it difficult to face protesters. In an open letter, RAR offered sympathy to Martínez Valdivia but then accused her of being anti-black, discriminating against those with disabilities, and engaging in gaslighting–without specifying those charges. When someone asked for specifics, a RAR leader replied, “Asking for people to display their trauma so that you feel sufficiently satisfied is a form of violence.”

But another RAR member did offer a specific via Facebook: “The​ ​appropriation​ ​of​ ​AAVE [African American Vernacular English]​ ​on​ ​her​ ​shirt​ ​during​ ​lecture:​ ​‘Poetry​ ​is​ ​lit’ ​is​ ​a​ ​form​ ​of​ ​anti-blackness.”

Oh, brother. 

Liberals like to observe, with good reason, that education has failed American students, from public schools on through college. Any one of us knows people with a college degree who nearly lack the critical reasoning skills necessary to find their way to a cogent position in political arguments.

But it’s not just students at right-wing, religious universities who are asking to be shielded from the real world. Liberal students are asking the same at many institutions. 

Civic-mindedness and the public spirit in which we all share some common values are both dying slow deaths in American culture, not to mention the strangling of nuance. 

No wonder our body politic cannot agree enough to pursue even the most anodyne of common goals now being threatened by a takeover of the poltitical system by American oligarchs.

Put another way: if Steve Martin singing King Tut is enough to send today’s students in search of safe spaces, and create efforts to shut down an entire required freshman class, then even comedy and comedic satire are both on the same intolerant, know-nothing chopping block. 

An after-school satan club?

Right-wing and mainstream media have been filled with breathless stories about the After-School Satan Club. The group says it was created to counter the work of the Good News Club, a child evangelism organization that operates in thousands of schools worldwide, many of them public schools. They claim to reach over a million children each year.

They can do this in public schools because they operate after school and parents have to opt-in to the programs because they are not considered official school clubs, but rather function as after-school private clubs.

The After-School Satan Club markets itself as being founded upon “free inquiry and rationalism, the scientific basis for which we know what we know about the world around us. We prefer to give children an appreciation of the natural wonders surrounding them, not a fear of everlasting other-worldly horrors.”

All well and good. Free country and all that.

But as comedian Jim Jeffries points out in the YouTube video below from his eponymous show on Comedy Central, the After-School Satan Club is in zero schools yet still begs for money for doing, well, apparently nothing but stroking the egos of its founders and causing problems for those of us who want to present science in schools as a rational, non-threatening alternative to the know-nothing, anti-education agenda of the most conservative theologies in America.

No matter how any atheist might feel about religion in their own lives, not all people of faith are the enemy. I have a church a few blocks from my home, First United Methodist Church of Omaha (FUMC), that focuses on the goodness and kindness and love that humans can bring to one another while still being believers in a higher being. FUMC does amazing work in the community around social justice issues.

I would rather see these churches built up, instead of insisting on the fool’s errand of trying to rid the world of religion.

After School Satan is doing far more harm than good, but their efforts do illustrate an important point: the progressive side has just as many stubbornly doctrinaire people as does the right-wing side, with one important difference: many of them are people with formal education. That does not, apparently, stop them from doing very stupid things.

On a final note, the National Science Teachers Association has this to say about starting a science club in your own schools without any of that annoying, useless BS about Satan.

People believe falsehoods despite new factual info

This is not news, but it turns out can be replicated in carefully designed experiments, as researchers at University College in London have observed in a submission to the journal PLOS: Computational Biology. And it turns out this bias toward old facts we thought were true over new facts showing the opposite can still exist even when choosing the old beliefs costs us something in return.

This last presidential election was a watershed moment for many of us in terms of politics, and not in a good way. No matter which candidate one supported, the amount of false news being passed about online was staggering and, if you value credible news, disheartening.  I witnessed perfectly intelligent people — some with advanced degrees — sharing articles which most any informed person would immediately assume to be factually incorrect.

Part of this is because the purveyors of false news — whether they are simply offering clickbait to make money or because they are spreading political propaganda — have become much better at making fake news seem real.

But part of it is because the false news being spread on both sides simply confirmed the biases of the person sharing it — confirmation bias.  If an article confirms our previous beliefs it seems true for that very reason no matter how outlandish it might seem when held up to scrutiny.

But what if choosing the wrong answer we knew to be true previously would cost us something in return?

Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, set up an experiment whereby individuals were shown symbols worth varying amounts of money. After a while, participants learned which symbols were worth most and began choosing those symbols as expected.

In a second experiment,  however, participants were shown the same lucrative symbols from the first experiment. Added to these were new symbols worth more money, making the choosing of the old symbols cost participants in terms of potential earnings lost.

An interesting thing happened: participants would still choose the old symbols even though they were plainly shown doing so would cost them money . 

This all sounds exceedingly simple, but the researchers controlled for all sort of variables in the participants and in the way they crunched their numbers.  I don’t know exactly what “dimensionality reduction and model comparison” and “parameter correlation and parameter recovery” are, but the trained scientists who do these sorts of experiments know exactly what they are and that is what elevates research like this from something you might do with your friends into the realm of accepted scientific research.

Of course, this will all have to be confirmed with more experiments by other scientists who read these results in this respected journal and try to replicate them, which is how science works and why it is so important that it be done properly.

These same kinds of results keep appearing in similar studies. If these findings are confirmed down the road it raises interesting questions for our everyday life, in education, and in understanding why people continue to hold onto false beliefs.

The researchers from University College have some ideas as to why people might still hold onto false information even when still believing it to be true might cost them something. 

Some of it might be simply the satisfaction of thinking we are correct and refusing to let go of that feeling that we are smart.

It also might hold some evolutionary reasons which translate into today’s world, such as the mere fact that, as other research has shown, being supremely confident in your own abilities and choices can often make a person with few facts and low ability more successful that a person with more facts, greater abilities but possessing chronically low self-confidence.

I have a friend, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, whose grandparents are staunch supporters of President Donald Trump despite the latter being tied to, and refusing to immediately condemn, Nazis and other forms of anti-Semitic rabble.

This has, of course, caused great pain among for the grandparents and some of their progeny who cannot understand how the grandparents could support such a man — especially considering the background of the grandparents with Nazi Germany.

There has been much shaming of the grandparents and hurt feelings on all sides. Through it all, grandpa — the self-made business success story — has dug in his heels with grandma the dutiful follower.

Grandpa the self-made man likely has much emotional real estate invested in his stubborn support of Trump.  Plying him with facts and condemning him for his choices has gotten nowhere.

Perhaps the best approach to grandpa — and anyone else we are trying to dissuade from contradictory beliefs which alarm us — is to find a way of helping them to save their ego while still choosing the the thing that is true over the thing they want to be true.

How one might do that is an open question and will likely vary from person to person.

In the real world, it is clear that telling a person how stupid they are for not acknowledging the plain-to-see (for most of us, anyway) facts in front of them simply doesn’t work with many people.

Who will protect the children’s minds?

“Who will protect the children?”

Some form of that question has been used to justify all manner of bigotry along the lines of race, sexual orientation and gender, just to name three. 

But so few seemed to be willing to stand up for the opposite way of thinking. Namely, what about the harm that is done to children when they are taught that closing one’s mind off to critical reasoning skills is a way to ward off evil spirits, and that too much schooling can be a bad thing? Who will protect the kids from adults who traffic in myths and bigotry?

If the Trump ascendancy teaches us anything, it’s that America is failing to teach its children to think critically, which makes them easy marks as adults for all kinds of charlatans, including political
ones.

Now there is a group which hopes to compete on equal footing where it is possible in order to offer an alternative to parents who want something more for their kids.

Meet the good folks at Young Skeptics:

The mission of Young Skeptics is to promote and facilitate critical thinking and evidence-based learning among the youth of local school districts.  We believe in discovery through tangible problem solving and the scientific method, and refrain from offering supernatural explanations for occurrences in nature.  Young Skeptics is committed to teaching children how to think, not what to think.

Young Skeptics was started to counter groups that were going into public schools and proselytizing young kids, all with the approval of local school districts:

Young Skeptics is sponsored by The Better News Club, Inc. (BNC), an incorporated non-profit organization run by a board of directors consisting of unpaid volunteers.   

The BNC/Young Skeptics was created first as an alternative to the Good News Club, a Christian evangelical group who enters public schools to proselytize to children and, according to their own materials, declares them all sinners in need of salvation.  The BNC/Young Skeptics feels the approach of Good News Club is a form of psychological abuse, akin to telling small children they’re flawed or evil, and must subscribe to a dogma in order to avoid eternal punishment.  It’s a fear tactic that accompanies extremism and is a dangerous, albeit effective, technique when performed on children who trust adults and believe what they’re told.  This is why Young Skeptics originated at Fairbanks Elementary School in Churchville, NY, to give children (and parents) an alternative to the Good News Club that is operating there.

Young Skeptics operates in stark opposition to the Good News Club’s philosophy, understanding it’s more important to teach children how to make belief decisions for themselves, rather than accept claims presented to them without thinking critically about those claims.  In Young Skeptics sessions, children are encouraged to ask questions, make discoveries, and challenge the ideas presented to them.  

Despite the reasons Young Skeptics was created, the organization has blossomed into something unique and exciting.  Our curriculum is based on science, critical thinking, evaluating evidence, and navigating through the misinformation that kids are surrounded with today — and has nothing to do with religion or irreligion.  Religion is not discussed in Young Skeptics sessions, nor is atheism or any other belief system.  We believe such discussions belong in homes and churches, and not in public schools.

Young Skeptics is relatively new, but it is managing to get a growing number of school districts to agree to let them come into their systems, with local parental approval and supervision, to offer something that encourages kids to use their minds.

This would not have been possible not long ago, since the rights of religious leaders to proselytize freely in schools was pretty much unquestioned on official levels, and any opposition to dogmatic religion was muted.

Now with the rise of non-believers in America, or at least the increase in the number of people who see much of organized conservative religion in America as the mouthpiece of the Republican Party, this kind of effort seems possible if it is handled correctly.

Don’t make it about being against religion. (Young Skeptics does not make that their focus in any way.) Be in favor of education and more information and science. Let kids and their parents handle religion while we teach how to think critically and make up their own minds.

You can contact them here.

Note also that they need help and they need donations.

 

Things certified cat behaviorists say

So I ran across this article online:

Those empty boxes may be trash to you, but your cat can’t get enough of them. What’s up with Fluffy’s affinity for cardboard castles?

There are several reasons why cats love boxes, but the big one is safety and security, says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of TheCatCoach.com.

Boxes are like Winterfell! Casterly Rock! The Wall! But for cats!

I knew it! I totally got this one, people.

Who certifies cat behaviorists? Is it expensive? Is it difficult to get certified? Is the process certified by some questionable accreditation organization that seems to accredit just about anybody? Do they take advantage of have special programs for military veterans?

I know tons about cats*, and not because I can, you know, read cat minds. I just know things. I know a lot of things. Terrific things. The greatest things. The best things you can know about cats? I know.

“Mr. Cat Behaviorist, why did my cat piss in the bed and shit in my slippers?

“Because he is angry at you.”

“Angry at me for what?”

“How the hell do I know? That wasn’t part of my certification. Next!”

See? I feel as if I am at least halfway to certification already.

*Although there was that time I bought my male cat one of those motorized, battery-driven automatic cat pooper scooper litter boxes. Except my cat kept urinating not in the litter, but directly onto the battery compartment, shorting it out and eventually ruining the $100-plus contraption.

You ever tried cleaning cat piss out of a battery compartment? Not pretty.

I never did figure that one out. Perhaps that issue is covered in one of the advanced cat behavior courses.

Source: Why Do Cats Like Boxes? | PawCulture

A cat in her cat fort. May or may not be an actual pet cat. Actors may have been used.

Will Trump’s former neighborhood vote for him? ‘Unequivocally, absolutely not’

Kew-Forest School
Kew-Forest School

The people at one of the schools Trump attended can’t stand him either:

The alleged recipient of the punch, who taught Trump at the private Kew-Forest school in Queens, New York, would later insist it never happened.

Even so, it seems Trump is still an unpopular figure among the school’s staff.

“I don’t think any of us that work here are proud that he went here,” one employee told the Guardian on Monday morning.

The woman requested anonymity because “some of the parents here are gung-ho for Trump”. She said she did not plan to vote for Kew-Forest’s most famous alumnus.

“Unequivocally, absolutely not. Because of who he is. His stance on women, on immigrants, on vets, on the disabled, and just Trump as a person,” she said.

Trump’s father pulled him out of the Kew-Forest school when he was 13 years old after numerous misdemeanors. Trump was sent to the New York military academy, located 70 miles north in Cornwall-on-Hudson, in upstate New York.

More at the link below.

Source: Will Trump’s former neighborhood vote for him? ‘Unequivocally, absolutely not’ | US news | The Guardian

Male student letter: Women in science, we are not equals

Eastern Washington University engineers engineering sexism jefferly.com
An Eastern Washington University engineering student named Jared Mauldin writes a spot-on letter to the editor about women in science.

 

 

USC professor does a takedown of Ben Carson

Ben Carson Beat Operation jefferly.com
 
, USC Annenberg professor and Norman Lear Center director, takes an academic’s look at Ben Carson and is shocked at what he has seen:
 
When Wolf Blitzer asked Carson if he wanted to amend or take back his comparison of Obama’s America to Nazi Germany, he replied, “Absolutely not.”

Am I comparing Carson to Nazis? Absolutely not. I’m comparing the compatibility of a scientific education and intellectual ignorance with the compatibility of a humanistic education and moral ignorance.

The simple yet appalling fact is that we have at least some solid evidence that a top scientific education and a distinguished career in medicine does not make a man any less capable of believing untruths to be true and truths to be false.

I don’t know how I’d react if a shooter opened fire in my classroom. Maybe I’d risk my safety to protect others. Maybe I’d be too petrified do anything. But I do know the feeling that would devastate me if someone I loved became “a body with bullet holes”; it would not be the feeling that the Second Amendment is in jeopardy. It is at least conceivable that the clinical detachment required by a doctor to deal with the deaths in this room makes the deaths in the next room less urgent, less real.

I know plenty of physicians of whom that is not true. But when Ben Carson blames a mass murderer’s victims for failing to foil him, I know of at least one man of science whose capacity for moral response has been absorbed by fictions.

A good piece. And a total slapdown by one respected academic of a candidate who 1) has chosen to turn his back on his education for political purposes or 2) is so blinded by ideology he has lost all reason.

Source: Ben Carson, the Nutty Neurosurgeon | Marty Kaplan

The war on science from those who know

IFL Science shared the video above detailing the war on science. It’s worth a look.

Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

Despite science being appreciated and understood more widely now than in any other period of human history, the past decades have seen politicians, investors and society turn their back on science.

This short film by AsapSCIENCE examines the “War on Science”  – which has seen massive cuts to science funding and the decline of science’s influence in politics.

Source: The War On Science | IFLScience

War On Science Union Of Concerned Scientists jefferly.com
Graphic: Union of Concerned Scientists

Candidates ranked by supporters’ grammar

Washington Post: Candidates ranked by the supporters' grammar jefferly.com
Washington Post: Candidates ranked by the supporters’ grammar