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The War on Teachers Ignorance III: What Could Work

(The title is inspired by Historiann’s excellent post. Also a note: unlike most of the things I blog about, teaching is what I’ve done professionally for decades. I taught in universities, not schools, but the two aren’t totally unrelated.)
Part I, Part II

If you need a metaphor for education it’s not work or play or a factory or a ladder. It’s a journey. People join at different points, and leave at any point. No power on earth can keep them on it if their minds don’t want to go. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s mind-altering, sometimes it’s a real slog, and sometimes the fleas force a change of plan. The same people are guides or need guides for different things at different times. Sometimes the travellers learn things on the road that are useful in the next village. Sometimes they climb mountains and see the whole world spread out before them.

Certification — whether it’s a cosmetology degree, a B.A,. or an M.D. — is the commuter traffic of that journey. The roads used, however, still have to be in good condition. Better, if anything, to withstand all that traffic. The necessary aspects of education still have to be done right, even if all anyone wants is a piece of paper for the wall. Where that’s most important is at the foundation: in schools. Read more »

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War on Teachers II: Why It Can’t Work

(The title is inspired by Historiann’s excellent post. Also a note: unlike most of the things I blog about, teaching is what I’ve done professionally for decades. I taught in universities, not schools, but the two aren’t totally unrelated.)

Let’s face it. The war on teachers is about money. People want to pay less and get more.

Sometimes you can do that. Solar power and energy efficiency instead of nukes and oil come to mind. In that case paying less and getting more is the sign of an intelligent choice. But when the low price comes from a flimflam artist selling cheap hope, falling for it is the mark of a fool. So, really, the first order of business is to see how low the price can go and still give you what you’re paying for.

So what are we paying for? What is learning, really? And, for that matter, teaching? Read more »

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War on Teachers I: GIGO

(The title is inspired by Historiann’s excellent post. Also a note: unlike most of the things I blog about, teaching is what I’ve done professionally for decades. I taught in universities, not schools, but the two aren’t totally unrelated.)

Every time you turn around, there’s a new front opened in the war on teachers. They don’t work hard enough. They get paid too much They’re not accountable. They can’t be fired. Their unions protect dead wood.

If we could just find the right stick to smash the cabal, the teachers would have to be good workers. Then, like good workers, they’d produce what they’re supposed to, which is good students.

So various fixes have been tried over the years. Read more »

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About those midterm elections: Who Cares?

If you check back sometimes, despite the long silences I fall into, you already know I think current US politics are worthless. So I haven’t mustered up the energy to say anything about the impending rearrangement of deck chairs on our Titanic. However, I see on The Distant Ocean that Thomas Kenny has made the only comment needed:

Heaven forbid that the Republicans win on Nov. 2!

  • They might escalate in Afghanistan and fake a withdrawal from Iraq.
  • They might pass a bogus health reform law written by the insurers, thereby entrenching them in the system for many years to come.
  • They might put EFCA (labor rights reform) on a back burner.
  • They might step up deportations of undocumented workers.
  • They might expand the military budget to an all–time high.
  • They might retain Bush’s apparatus of repression, including torture and assassination of US citizens by White House fiat.
  • They might keep Guantanamo open and tighten the blockade of Cuba.
  • They might threaten war with Iran.
  • They might cave in to Israel and the Israel lobby, and neglect Palestinian rights.
  • They might throw billions of our tax dollars at mega-bankers, but do little or nothing for ordinary homeowners.
  • They might tolerate a 10 percent unemployment rate, with jobless rates double or triple that for youth of color.
  • They might start overthrowing lawful elected governments in Central America.
  • They might start raiding the homes of leftwing antiwar activists.


He did forget a huge one:

  • They might trade away the right to control one’s own body for votes from theocrats.


In the inimitable words of vastleft: The Democrats, a roach motel for progressive energies.

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About the Chilean Miners

I’ve been watching, like everyone else. I don’t think I remember such a glad time since the Berlin Wall came down. Humanity at our best.

some of the trapped Chilean miners, smiling to the video camera, looking fit, healthy, and fine, after over forty days underground. Sept. 17th
from BBC

So much so, I didn’t even mind President Pinera showing up forever where nobody needed him that much. He really cared, and not just about the cameras. So much so, that even the flag waving didn’t bother me. Usually it does. But this time, honestly, the Chileans have a lot to be proud of. The way they searched for the miners without giving up, without worrying about how much it cost, or even mentioning it. The way the miners held on, the way their families and friends waited. And waited, and waited.

People say of the final rescue, the bringing up of each miner, one by one, the meetings of the people whose love had kept them alive, people say that the whole media angle was minutely managed.

I think that’s true. The media were managed. They weren’t allowed to overwhelm the quiet dignity and the unassuming humanity of all the people involved. That was Chile’s biggest gift to all of us.

You know, one of the side effects is going to be an increase in tourism. There have to be lots of people like me, who are now fascinated by the country. I want to go see it for myself. I want to see these remarkable people. I want to find out how they pulled themselves out of such a deep dark hole.

Although, if the secret ingredient is modest people who soldier on, people who can control even the media, that’s maybe not so good. They seem to be in short supply. But still, after this, I feel hope:

the first note from the 33 trapped miners, proving they were alive: Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33
(Was: Q.barrales, Wikimedia. Now no longer there.)

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Noise is not Free Speech

We’re on a collision course with technology. Free speech is being killed in order to save it.

Something is always boiling up that involves free speech. Cartoons are drawn of the “wrong” person, somebody is jailed for speaking out and gets the Nobel prize, there are plans to build a mosque in the “wrong” place. And some people picket funerals to gloat.

All of these things are a step too far for some people. Others insist that we can’t draw any lines without sliding down a slippery slope of more and more lines until there’s no free speech left.

The dilemma doesn’t actually seem intractable to me. Try a thought experiment. You’re in a huge room with 10,000 other people. Nobody can say anything. There’s total silence except for the occasional suppressed cough. Is there any freedom of speech?

Now you’re in the same room, but anyone can speak and anyone can say anything. Everybody’s talking — shouting, really, to make themselves heard. You can’t even hear yourself speak. Is there any freedom of speech?

We’re not in the first situation anymore. When the great thinkers of the 1700s were articulating the essential freedoms, few people had the means to disseminate their ideas to begin with, so there weren’t many voices. Nor was there the technology to din at people 24/7/365. So noise was not a large concern. They worried about silencing.

Silencing was and is a crime against inalienable rights and has to be prevented.

But noise can kill a message just as dead as silence. Either way, you can’t hear it. Either way, we lose the freedom of speech. Either way, the loss is just as lethal to a free society.

Insisting that everyone, everywhere, for any purpose, has an equal right to speak hasn’t preserved freedom of speech. It’s killing it. When everybody can shout as loud as they can about whatever they want, you either can’t hear anything or the biggest voices will dominate. It’s right back to the king having the only voice. The fact that it’s not literally a monarch these days doesn’t make it all right.

Yes, I know. If speech is limited we have to — horrors! — draw some limits. Well, … we already do, and that hasn’t killed free speech. That promotes it. Unless the signal to noise ratio favors signal, there is no signal. That’s not exactly hard to figure out.

So, let’s start with the easy cases, the ones where limits have long been applied and clearly don’t lead to disaster. Free speech doesn’t confer a right to perjury, to wrong answers on exams, to yelling “fire” for nothing in crowded theaters, or to incitement to riot. Truth in advertising laws say it’s unacceptable to lie in order to extract money. None of these limits has led to thought control. It is possible to apply limits on speech without losing freedom. As a matter of fact, we’d lose freedom if they were not applied.

If some limits work, then limits work, and people can stop pitching a fit every time there’s talk of limits. The rational response is, “What are the best limits for preserving freedom of speech?”

Half the answer is contained in the question. Anything that remains murky after our best efforts to find the limits gets the benefit of the doubt and is covered by freedom of speech. That part’s not hard to figure out either.

The hard part is updating the limits for a technological age in which everybody can shout their point of view. If everybody gets veto power, nothing can be said. If there’s no way to draw the line, nothing can be heard. There has to be a better way.

There’s a common denominator to the limits that work. If everyone claimed the right to the forbidden kinds of speech, chaos would ensue. If everybody lied, incited to riot, and yelled fire in crowded theaters, life would become impossible. Those kinds of speech require double standards. Only some people can use them and only some of them time. Everybody else has to keep the system working. Double standards have no place in a democratic society, so that kind of speech not only can be but must be forbidden. It’s noise. Bad noise. (Discussed at greater length in Free Speech vs. Noise.)

So, how does that help us resolve any of the disputes? Let me give it a whirl.

  • Publishing cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper explicitly to make the point that Muslims cannot dictate what is published in secular papers. This one belongs in the “Well, duh!” category. Religious people don’t have to read secular papers. This is not an in-your-face exercise. If one side can veto the other’s reading material, then in a world without double standards, secular people could object to anyone reading about God in a holy book. Everything rapidly descends into absurdity when that kind of veto power is allowed.
  • Building a cultural center containing a mosque near Ground Zero. If there is to be freedom of religion, there have to be places of worship. Some areas are certainly not appropriate. For instance, in a secular government that separates church and state, it would be wrong to worship in or next to government buildings. (I’m sure protests about the Congressional Chaplain will break out shortly.) But to start limiting worship with no basis in justifiable principles ultimately means the end of freedom of religion. And, again, if one side can suppress another’s beliefs, it can go in the other direction too. That way lies madness. There’s plenty of proof all over the world.
  • Pro-democracy activist in China should not be jailed for speaking out. Okay. Seriously Duh! (And that goes double for his wife!)
  • And then there’s the Phelpses and their crusade against queers. Do they have a right to speak out? Of course. Do they have a right to be sure they know what God thinks? Just as much as anyone else does. Is somebody else’s funeral their only avenue to expression? No. No, no, no, no, no. They can make websites, write books, sing songs in their churches, fulminate there, parade, start radio shows. Their freedom of expression is not limited.

    What’s limited is their right to use it in a way that deprives someone else of their own rights. Political speech is very heavily protected, but you can’t use it within 200 feet of a polling station on election day. Because that would interfere with people’s right to vote. It would be a relatively minor annoyance, but it’s still illegal. If interfering with voting is enough to place a limit on free speech, how much more so interfering with the even more basic human right to bury one’s dead in peace.

When everywhere else is a venue for free expression, it’s idiotic to insist that crashing a stranger’s funeral is the only thing that will do. Of course, the Phelpses are idiotic, so that’s no surprise. The rest of us shouldn’t be as confused as they are about where the limits lie.

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