Protecting the Child’s Eagerness to Learn

Today, on the Op Ed page of the NY Times Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College asks this question:  “Why don’t children get intrinsic satisfaction from learning in school.” It is assumed that they don’t. And in fact for most of us, school was always more a tasteless, sometimes bitter pill that we had to swallow than an uplifting, often joyful experience from which we gained fresh and exciting insights into ourselves and our world.

We know all too well, and Schwartz reminds us, that by fourth grade students are no longer eager to learn. As a result children need to be bribed to learn, with gold stars and candies in elementary school, and in high school with grades and college acceptances implying eventually good jobs and successful life experiences. Now in NY City they’ve upped the ante. It is proposed that diligent, high-achieving seventh graders,  based on their attendance records and exam performance, be paid up to $500 a year.

In case you’re wondering Schwartz makes it clear in his Op Ed piece why money for gold stars won’t work. (In this regard see also Heather Mac Donald’s article in the weekly Standard, Learning for Dollars.) But other than to say that neither intrinsic (love of learning) not extrinsic (dollars) rewards do work he makes no attempt to answer his own question, as to what has made the schools so "dystopian" that the children go from eagerness to learn to absolute boredom "almost overnight." Actually the process usually takes a few years, that which is a tribute to the great strength of the innate desire to learn within all children, at least at the start of school.

But isn’t the answer to Schwartz’s question staring us in the face? Isn’t it obvious that children’s (and people’s) learning varies directly with their interests and abilities, and that no two children share the same interests and abilities? And doesn’t it follow from the fact that schools group their students together by chronological age, and not by interests or abilities, that they are thereby placing students, differing widely in both respects, into a single learning environment with a single teacher?

In most cases this seems to have been enough to destroy the child’s eagerness to learn. For it has meant that most children spend most of their time witnessing the efforts of others to learn, and very little time with efforts of their own. School for most children has turned learning into a spectator sport.**

So why would we ever expect children in this situation to be eager to learn!? Perhaps a few will learn in order to outdo the others. But most, of course, can’t and won’t. It does take our schools three years (everyone points out that it is gone by year four) to destroy the child’s eagerness to learn, but destroy it they do, as anyone who has taught the middle school years knows.

How sad and dismal places our schools have become when the highest achievements we can point to are all related to such things as how well the children do what they’re told, how neat and ordered is the classroom, and now, in particular, how many students in the class have reached proficiency on standardized tests.

Yes, only radical solutions are relevant. And one has to start with the most radical of them all, bring an end to grouping by age. This of course has never been seriously proposed by the political and educational establishment and hence the failure of all (lesser) reforms up until now.

To end grouping by age would mean many more places of learning, and for the most part outside the school building itself, in places where there are working and caring adults with time for children. The school buildings would find better uses, for times when large group spaces are necessary, but they could never, by themselves, provide hundreds of classrooms for hundreds of students all differing from one another in terribly relevant and important respects. Only the society at large could do this.

We have to rethink what we mean by education, and the rethinking has to begin with the absolute necessity of protecting the child’s natural eagerness to learn. We have to be sure this time around that whatever we do we do not take away the child’s natural curiosity. Horace Mann and his followers in the common school movement never seemed to understand that it wasn’t enough just to put all the kids together with a single teacher in a single classroom.

Finally, what is it that differentiates the one room school house of the 19th. century from the large inner city middle or high school classroom today? Many things of course. But in the one room school house, especially when the children were of many different ages, children were much more apt to be taken as individuals, each with his or her own individual interests, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and all the rest, and then as individuals helped to learn and grow. Not, alas, what currently takes place in the places we call school.

** I find unexpected support of my comment about student learning being a "spectator sport," in a "featured article" from this month’s TCRecord, The Cultural Myths and Realities of Classroom Teaching and Learning: A Personal Journey, by Graham Nuthall, 2005.

"We were discovering the ways students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom. They whispered to each other and passed notes. They spread rumors about girlfriends and boyfriends, they constantly commented on each other’s and the teacher’s behavior, and they continued arguments that started outside school. It became clear that the students cared more about their peers’ judgments than they cared about the teacher’s opinion. Within this pervasive (but hidden) peer culture, sexism and racism were alive and flourishing even when the teacher actively promoted fully inclusive learning activities or believed she was treating girls and boys equally (Alton-Lee, Nuthall, & Patrick, 1987; Alton-Lee, Densem, & Nuthall, 1991).

The New Confederacy

You would think, wouldn’t you, I would, that these four U.S. Senators, three Republicans and one Democrat, all from the South, and all from the (former) Confederacy, that they would not be leading the charge against the 11 million illegal immigrants, that we are told are currently in the country. (One wonders how they were counted? Do you know? Send me an email and let me know.)

Perhaps putting people down is something these Senators have inherited from their slave owning ancestors? The number of illegals happens to be three times that of the slaves in the South at the start of the War Between the States. Perhaps the illegals represent for these Senators a serious threat, as the freed slaves in earlier times, to their (our) way of life?

In any case these Southern Senators are leading the charge against the illegals, in particular, as I read in today’s N Y Times, by their diabolical anti-immigrant amendments to the Immigration Bill currently being debated in the Senate.

Republican Senator from Missouri Christopher Bond’s amendment would have barred illegal immigrants from eventual citizenship. Not too different from their predecessor’s efforts to bar freed Blacks (and women) from voting.  People you’re afraid of, people you don’t understand, you keep them out.

Republican Senator from Texas Kay Bailey Hutchison’s amendment would have required that illegal immigrants return to their home countries before they could obtain even temporary legal status. Diabolical is the right word for that one.

A bit more palatable is the amendment of Senator Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia. This would permit only those immigrants who have been in the country at least four years to be eligible for eventual legal status. What does that mean? Four years of illegality is better than just one year or two?

Delaying tactics were the weapon of choice of yet another of the Southern critics of the Immigration Bill. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina insisted on a full reading on the Senate floor of all 27 amendments. After about one hour of this the Senators who were present revolted and brought the reading to an end, promising hard copies of the amendments to all for homework that night.

I don’t know whether Republican Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, was also the author of an anti-immigrant amendment, but this man from the Deep South announced that he “continued to be “flabbergasted and amazed” that people think the bill (which would put the illegals on a track to citizenship) would work. Instead, he said, it would bring a new flood of illegal immigrants.

There are those among us who would like nothing better than a new flood (illegal because that’s the only way they can get here) of immigrants. It would mean that our country is still the destination of choice for millions of the dispossessed throughout the world.

And that’s good, especially when there are so many who speak bad of our country. It’s a good thing, both for those who want to come here, and for us who are already here and have so much to gain from those coming.

The illegality of the eleven million is not what is most important. What is important is that these people have come here at great risk to themselves, and for the most part by doing so have shown admirable qualities, strength and courage among others. Can our country ever have too many of these kinds of people?

What is important is that the “illegals” have come here to work and thereby help themselves, their families, and the country, America, that, unlike the government, does need them and does have a place for them.

I’ve rarely had a good word to say about our President. His conduct of the Iraq War ought to lay him open to impeachment proceedings. But immigration is one thing he got right. Why is that so?

Well we learn why from an article in the NYTimes of last week: We learn that, “the roots of Mr. Bush’s passion [to help the illegals obtain citizenship] lie in Midland, Texas, now heavily Hispanic, the city where Mr. Bush spent much of his childhood and to which he returned as a young adult after spending his high school and college years [at Andover and Yale].”

Mr. Bust, the reporter says, "developed a particular empathy for the new Mexican immigrants who worked hard on farms, in oil fields and in people’s homes and went on to raise children who built businesses and raised families of their own, without the advantages he had as the scion of a wealthy New England family.”

This is the sort of wisdom that one acquires from living and working closely with all kinds of people, with people clearly unlike oneself. We used to learn this in the public schools when the economic, ethnic, and racial separations were not so pronounced; perhaps there was a period like this just after WWII. Perhaps we learned it best of all when we had the military draft, and the average patrol represented all of America.

George Bush learned it by living and working among a poor, Latino population in Midland, Texas, both as a boy and as an oilman. Unfortunately that now seems to be all that he learned. Would that fellow Texan Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and fellow Southerners, Christopher Bond, Jim Webb, Jim DeMint and Jeff Sessions had also learned it. If so the U. S. Senate might now be doing the right thing.

Embryo Questions

    Do you want to try your hand at this? Which one’s the chicken? the rabbit? the salamander, the fish, the human? 

    (The picture was taken from the Scientific American of February, 1994, from an article by William McGinnis and Michael Kuziora: The Molecular Architects of Body Design)

    The Evo-Devo (evolution-development) biologists tell us that all forms of life have pretty much the same beginnings. And in many, as above, pretty much the same look, at least in the early stages of development. Also we’re told that pretty much the same groups of HOX genes in the five examples above, and in all other animal forms, determine exactly what changes will occur throughout the development process, leading to the great diversity of life that we see about us.

    Given that the embryos of the fish, salamander, chicken, rabbit and human (in that order above) are almost identical in the early stages of their development why is it that we humans continue to set ourselves apart from all other life forms as if somehow we were special, and that all other life was there for our benefit?

    Why also is it that humans, developing from identical embryos and who are mostly alike, why do they go on killing each other? And why is it that those who are most alike, as the peoples of the Middle East, kill one another with a particular vengeance and savagery?

Truths the presidential candidates are not telling. Part One

1)    It’s very costly to provide adequately and properly for a child’s upbringing. And so far, aside from affluent families for the benefit of their own children, no one is willing to foot the bill. The public schools continue to try to do it on the cheap, and of course many, if not most of them do not succeed, the extent of their failure varying directly with the child’s unmet needs, the greater those needs the greater their failure.

2)    The United States is not yet a Democracy. Whether it’s closer to being one today than at the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 is very much an open question. Today, powerful politicians and probably even more powerful corporate CEOs are the de facto Heads of government.
Democracy probably has little to do with how our decisions are made, let alone with how many people vote. Even more important our democracy has almost nothing to do with rule by consensus, stemming in turn from the deliberations of an informed people.

3)    People want mostly strength and warmth in their political candidates. Well actually Drew Western made this point in a Huffington Post piece of June 25. Losing democratic presidential candidates since the end of WWII, including Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry, all lacked either strength or warmth, or both, although all were better supplied with knowledge and intelligence than their winning Republican opponents.

4)    Medical doctors are no longer within easy reach, sometimes any reach at all, of those in need of help. And that’s probably an understatement. House calls as well as unscheduled visits to the doctor are things of the past. The family physician is no more. What happened that lawyers, even garage mechanics, although less so, and grounds keepers and baby sitters are everywhere, whereas doctors, and now nurses, are nowhere?  Here it’s a question of supply and demand and unlike earlier periods in our country’s history today’s heavy imposition of government regulations keep the availability if not the supply of doctors and nurses at a minimum.

5)    Governments, not immigrants, have made the altogether natural and healthy movement of men and women across national boundaries illegal. This was not always the case. There were no significant barriers to immigration during the period of our country’s founding, nor during the great territorial and industrial expansion of the country in the 19th century. In fact, waves of immigrants have always been the main source of this country’s growth, and wealth. And we would bring this most beneficial process to a halt! People come here to do things, not to take things, and by working and doing thereby grow our  national wealth. We would stop them?

6)    In a world where the enormous disparity between the haves and the have-nots is more and more apparent the terrorists will find an almost endless supply of  people willing to blow themselves up thereby lessening the poverty and powerlessness of their lives. We refuse, however, to address the present distribution of wealth in the world as being the principal culprit behind the threats and ravages of terrorism.
Terrorists, we’re told, come from the upper echelons of society, not from the world’s poor and excluded classes. That’s true. And it’s also true that terrorism has always been with us, if by that word we mean that that some people love death more than they love life. And we can’t root this out.
But we can do something about the large numbers of people who now seem ready to answer the terrorist’s call to single destructive action. Not terrorism, but diminishing the supply of terrorists should be the principal goal of the war. We need to become like Hamas and Herzbollah, close to the have-nots, but replacing their religious extremism with a moderate, secular and compassionate humanism. Although it’s an open question whether we are still in possession of the latter.

Stanley Fish and the Three Atheists

Stanley Fish has recently written two op-ed pieces for the NYTimes, the “Three Atheists,” and “Atheism and Religion,” commenting on the books of Sam Harris. “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).

Here I’m posting the second of these pieces, Atheists and Religion, interspersed with my comments, in red italic type face, on what Fish is saying. Go to this link in order to read the first of his two pieces, The Three Atheists.

Here is Fish:

“Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens believe (in Dawkins’s words) that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world” and that “if there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”

In reply, believers, like the scientist Francis S. Collins (”The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”), argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic explanation of that?

And my commentary:

But why does Fish zero in on the lack of a satisfactory explanation for morality? This is not the main thrust of the three books. In any case, why can’t the universal presence of moral impulses be simply a given part of the nature of homo sapiens, why does its presence have to lead to hypothesizing a God?

I see impulses within myself that one might call moral, love of a partner, willingness to sacrifice for my children, a strongly felt friendship, and of course all the virtuous acts as they may or not appear in my life, illustrating  courage, loyalty, compassion, tolerance etc.

There are even aspects of my dog’s behavior that I might call virtuous, but again why does this behavior need a God explanation? The “three atheists” in as much as they tried to explain moral behavior by Darwinian science did go beyond the theory’s present adequacy to the task.

But again, Fish makes too much of this, neglecting to comment on the much more important and well documented account of the terrible actions and multiple errors of religion that the authors present in these books and instead dwells on science’s up until now inability to satisfactorily explain moral behavior.

The weight of these writers’ criticism of religion falls not on the weakness of the believers’ arguments for the existence of God. It falls rather on the long series of atrocities committed by men on men in the name of religion. That is the main subject of these works, what seem to be the terrible failings of religion. Hypothesizing a rational or scientific explanation for morality is not what these books are mostly about.

In any case there is so far no completely rational, or naturalistic explanation for our so called moral, or ethical behavior, nor for our love of truth, beauty, and goodness. Why can’t we simply accept this fact about ourselves? Why can’t we simply believe that this is what we are, without feeling that we are required to come up with an explanation as to how it came about that we are this way? Isn’t it enough just to be?

Fish is too much taken up with this issue, and pays little or not attention to the evil that religions have and still do inflict on man, the main subject of these books. The most interesting question of all, what it is that keeps man from doing evil, is not the subject of these books, nor of Fish’s commentary.

For me God seems a much less satisfactory answer to this question than simply my own sense of right and wrong, wherever that may have sprung from. In my case I don’t think my sense of right and wrong came from my parents, from my church, and here I would agree with Fish that it certainly doesn’t come from current Darwinian theory.

Why can’t, just as between the Left and the Right, there be a middle ground where we are most comfortable, one that we might very well call humanism? And why need there be a link from this middle ground to God, unless by God we mean absolutes such as truth and beauty and justice and the like?

Fish’s biggest mistake is to overemphasize the opposition between believers and non-believers, in order to belabor the obvious point that in important respects the non-believers have no more “reason” on their side than do the believers. He doesn’t mention the middle ground, the ground where most of us are, and probably should be.

The rightness of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens’s books stems from the fact that in man’s history up until now religion has probably accounted for more of man’s cruelty to man than non-religion, although in the 20th. century the secular “isms” may have overtaken religion in this regard. Today the Islamists may be returning us to the more usual situation in history when religious fundamentalists are the main obstacle in the way of efforts to further social justice, bolster human rights, and strengthen mankind’s natural penchant to live and let live.

Easy, say Dawkins and Harris. (Hitchens doesn’t seem to have a dog in this hunt.) It’s just a matter of time before so-called moral phenomena will be brought within the scientific ambit: “There will probably come a time,” Harris declares, “when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” And a bit later, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Too much of Fish’s commentary addresses the atheists’ predictions of the future. This is an easy target to hit. For example, he cites Harris who says probably without justification that, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Much more important, however, to the arguments of these books, are the real accomplishments of Darwinian science and the real failures of religion to enable us to understand the way we are and thereby improve the quality of our lives together. It should be added, however, that neither science nor religion is yet a fully satisfactory explanation in these respects.

Fish confuses the “truths” of literature, such as those that we find in the poem by George Herbert, in Milton’s epic and Bunyon’s morality tale, those of with religion. These great works of literature are achievements of man, and should not be attributed to God or religion.

What gives Harris his confidence? Why does he have “every reason to believe” (a nice turn of phrase)? What are his reasons? What is his evidence? Not, as it turns out, a record of progress. He acknowledges that, to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”

But we will , if we are patient. The field of “the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition” (a real mouthful) is young, and “it is clearly too early to draw any strong conclusions from this research.”

Of course one conclusion that could be drawn is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in. No, says Harris, the reason for our small knowledge in this area is the undue influence of – you guessed it – religion: “Most of our religions have been no more supportive of genuine moral inquiry than of scientific inquiry generally.”

Fish is too much interested in pointing to the unsubstantiated claims of Harris in regard to the promise of natural science of one day reducing morality to physical processes.  It’s too easy to point out that Harris was probably wrong to make too much of this “promise.”

But again, Fish avoids taking up the really important issues raised by these three books. He doesn’t confront the reasonableness of the Darwinian explanation, nor does he address the unreasonableness of the various stories of the origin of man that stem from religion. There is such a thing as “evidence” in science, which is qualitatively different from “evidence” in belief systems or religion. Fish ignores this.

Thiese are the sorts of things Fish ought to have been writing about. It seems, however, that it was just too easy to take pot shots at the atheist’s “beliefs” about the future, although it’s probably true that both Harris and Dawkins would have been better served to have rested with what we are and what we know, here in the present. I agree with Fish that when they speak of what natural science might accomplish in the future they are on very shaky ground.

It’s right here and now in the present that the moral underpinings of our lives, which we recognize and are there, ought to receive our attention, regardless of whether the ultimate explanation for our moral being is to be found in God or natural science. As of yet there is no ultimate explanation (for anything, let alone morality) and we ought not to live as if there were.

In this regard one might be justifiably critical of Dawkins and Harris, less so of Hitchens who is mostly taken up by the harm that true believers inflict on the rest of us, and not by Dawkins and Harris’s conceit that natural science will provide an explanation for it all.

This is a remarkable sequence. A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride – expectations based only on a first premise (itself asserted rather than proven), which, if true, demands them, and which, if false, makes nonsense of them.

Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”

Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.

Too often Fish simply goes too far in his criticism of Richard Dawkins. For example, he cites Dawkins who declares, “I believe in evolution because the evidence supports it.” In response to this Fish says (incredibly, I think) that “the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.”

Here Fish is clearly mistaken. The situation he describes is no different from my saying that I believe that the earth goes around the sun because the evidence supports it, and his then replying that my evidence is only evidence because I’m seeing with Copernican-directed eyes.

This is not the situation. The evidence of Darwin’s theory, as well as that for a sun centered solar system, no longer needs Darwinian or Copernican directed eyes. The evidence is now there for us all to see. Darwin may have been the first one to point to it, but he didn’t make it up. It’s out there and Darwin is not longer necessary for us to see it.

Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who “can’t see” the evidence or “refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,” but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share – “hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time” – and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Again further on in his op-ed piece Fish, says that Dawkins is not less dependent on his faith in the promise of science than are the true Christian and probably other believers whose definition of faith is that of Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

That may be so (I’ve always liked that definition from Hebrews), but to say that Dawkins is guilty of the same mistaken logic as those who believe in the Biblical explanations for things is not to say that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is no more substantial than the evidence for the existence of God.

Fish doesn’t address at all, and this is the major weakness in everything he has to say about these three books, the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Rather he goes on taking the easy pot shots, especially at Dawkins’ and Harris’ penchants for telling the future, where, of course, they stand on the shaky ground.

What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look. Bunyan glosses the scene in which the townspeople mock Christian as he flees toward a light he can barely discern and they do not discern at all: “They that fly from the wrath to come are a gazing stock to the world.” Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 2 that to the man “without the Spirit” the things of the Spirit are “foolishness”; he simply “cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.

Here Fish declares that “science requires faith too before it can have reasons.” In this he is just wrong. What was the faith that Charles Darwin had to have had before he could offer his explanation for the different beaks of the Galapados finches? The relation between faith and reason is just the opposite of this. Darwin’s belief in the origin of species came from the evidence of the finches, from his powers of reasoning about that evidence. His belief follows satisfactory explanation. He didn’t begin with that belief. In fact he even resisted “believing” in his theory for some thirty or more years, before the overwhelming accumulation of evidence gave him no choice but to “believe.”

But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.

The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them. Whatever you are doing – preaching, teaching , performing an experiment, playing baseball – you must always give a reason (if only to yourself) for your faith and the reason will always be a reason only because your faith is in place.

Some respondents raised the issue of falsification. Is there something that would falsify a religious faith in the same way that some physical discoveries would falsify natural selection for Dawkins and Harris? As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.

It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package. There are still distinctions to be made, but they will be distinctions between different structure of faith, or, if you prefer, between different structures of reasons. The differences between different structures of faith are real and significant, for each will speak to different needs and different purposes.

Most of all Fish betrays clearly that he is not a scientist, and probably has had no scientific training. Otherwise, for example, he could never have said this: “It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package.”

The “faith” of the scientist is not the “faith” of the believer. Fish speaks as if the two “faiths” were the same. Mostly this shows an ignorance on his part, or a failure, an unwillingness to engage the position of the scientist on his own ground.

Fish thereby oversimplifies, reducing science to just another belief system. Although it may be in some senses a belief system, it’s not “just another belief system,” and  it’s not a religion. And Fish never seems to acknowledge this.

Mine is not a leveling argument; it does not say that everything is the same (that is the atheists’ claim); it says only that whatever differences there are between religious and scientific thinking, one difference that will not mark the boundary setting one off from the other is the difference between faith and reason.

This does not mean either that the case for God and religion has been confirmed or that the case against God and religion has been discredited. (Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.) My point is only that some of the arguments against faith and religion – the arguments Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens most rely on – are just not good arguments. The three atheists needn’t give up the ghost, but they might think about going back to the drawing board.

His is a leveling argument. And finally, and disingenuously, he says: “I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.”

Well of course he is taking a position. To have written what he has written he has to be a believer, although probably more in the camp of Herbert, Milton, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, than that of any established religion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But again science is not a belief system like religion. It’s something else. And it has since its modern beginnings in the 17th century transformed our lives in ways totally different from the ways of religion in the past. Science is something else again and it ought to be looked at differently from the way we look at religion.

Perhaps Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens should not have published their attacks on religion in the way they did, speaking as if they knew more about man’s future than those who were not scientists. Perhaps they ought to have confined their critical commentary to the truly horrible things that religion has inflicted on mankind, with a view to putting a stop to this same sort of thing happening in the future. For these atrocities do seem to be happening right now in the present as Islam confronts within itself an extreme fundamentalist, Jihadist current that if left to its own devices would take us all back with it into a cruel and thoroughly inhuman past.

Arming the Enemy

Today in the New York Times we read that, “Americans officers acknowledge that providing weapons to breakaway rebel groups is not new in counterinsurgency warfare, and that in places where it has been tried before, including the French colonial war in Algeria, the British-led fight against insurgents in Malaya in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam, the effort often backfired, with weapons given to the rebels being turned against the forces providing them. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division and leader of an American task force fighting in a wide area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers immediately south of Baghdad, said at a briefing for reporters on Sunday that no American support would be given to any Sunni group that had attacked Americans. If the Americans negotiating with Sunni groups in his area had ‘specific information’ that the group or any of its members had killed Americans, he said, ‘The negotiation is going to go like this: You’re under arrest, and you’re going with me. I’m not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.’”

Incredible? Yes! With all we know about the Iraq war, even we who live far from the war zone, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, we would call it the height of folly to arm the Sunni insurgents. Aren’t these insurgents the very same Baathist followers of Saddam who, when allied with the Al Qaeda jihadists, have been killing, maiming and kidnapping Americans during the four years since the President’s announcement of “Mission Accomplished” while on the deck of the Battleship, the USS Abraham Lincoln?

Incredible? Yes! But now we learn that there are American officers, Generals, who are not in Marblehead but are over there on the ground in Iraq, and who therefore certainly know what we know plus a lot more about the war, and about the Sunni insurgents; there are American generals who are ready to arm the Baathists in support of our battle with Al Qaeda.

Such a strategy can only spring from the desperation of our Armed Forces in Iraq, and from the Generals’ great career need to make the “Surge” work. For how else could they believe themselves capable of judging between the good insurgents and the bad, between those who have killed Americans and those who haven’t?

General Lynch assures us that he’s "not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.” How can the American officer ever be sure that the “folks,” as he calls them, don’t have American blood on their hands?

If someone had ever told me that this was going to happen, that we would finish by arming the Sunni insurgents, the remnants of Saddam’s armed forces, I would never have believed it. And now it’s happening.

We’ve known for a long time that we have lost our way in Iraq. This latest action on our part is just more confirmation of that fact. Our deluded President goes on talking about bringing freedom and democracy to people who don’t want it enough to fight for it themselves, in fact to people who leave the fighting almost entirely to us. What country was ever rebuilt from without?

And no less incredible our Congress goes along with the President, funding the President’s war without time restraints. Our soldiers continue to die on a battlefield when the presence of the enemy is only recognized after a bomb explodes, never before when the enemy might have been stopped and the explosive device defused.

Liberal, Conservative. Two sides of the same coin.

In his op ed piece in today’s Washington Post George Will would make the case that the basis of today’s dominant political argument lies in the tension existing between the poles (and goals) of freedom and equality — conservatives being more allied with freedom, liberals with equality, or at least equality of opportunity if not outcomes.

Would that this were so! That a genuine and mature difference of political opinion animated the conflict between those on either side, left or right, of the center.

What is more probably the case is this: Those who have most to gain by being allowed greater independence and greater freedom of action will be on the right. Those who have most to gain by a greater dependence on government actions and programs for their own livelihood and security will be on the left.

In other words for most people the ages old and still fascinating argument between freedom and equality is now, and perhaps always was, only “livelihood deep.” The lottery winner who may very well have been a passionate government employee the day before will the day after become a passionate promoter of the free market. The fallen owner of a failed business, or the president of a savings and loan association, undone by his own policy of sub-prime loans, will both become zealous takers of government bailouts.

It may very well be true as Will says that the most powerful group of liberals are the public employees, those whose livelihood comes directly from the government. Accordingly, if we follow this same reasoning, the most powerful single group of conservatives would be those most removed from government entitlements, in particular entrepreneurs and the owners of small businesses.

But from saying that it’s a far cry to saying that the ones are passionate supporters of equality and the others of freedom. The arguments that thinkers like George Will make, for freedom on the one side and equality on the other, are not what drives the union members nor the business owners to support respectively, say, the liberal and conservative candidates. Again, their being on the side of one or the other follows much more from whence comes their livelihood.

Reason, that is, reasonable arguments on one side or the other, has never been what drives most men, although thinkers (and I too) would like this to be so. That it’s not so is not a secret. Not a generation has passed by that one writer or another has not bewailed the fact that most men’s actions do not spring from a well considered and well reasoned analysis of the situation.

Al Gore’s recent book, Assault on Reason, reveals the superficiality of his own thinking when he writes as if he had made an important discovery, this being the superficiality and unreasonableness of our leaders in Washington. Would that Al were right and that these times were exceptional and that we had only to return to a prior time or golden age in our history when our leaders’ actions and words were based on a well reasoned and persuasive analysis of the situation.

George Will himself, of course, is on the side of freedom. He is one of those who does not look to government for the solution. However, I think he overstates the case, in this case, his case against liberals. “Liberalism,” he says, “increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.”

The duality that Will highlights, that of freedom vs. equality, conservative vs. liberal, is neat and memorable, and continues to lend itself to endless although mostly sophomoric discussion. But a kinder and gentler view of the difference between liberal and conservative thought, and a more believable and just view of liberalism than that of Will, would be the following.

First of all freedom and equality concerns are not what most separates liberals and conservatives (assuming that true liberals and true conservatives do in fact exist). Liberals that I have known, Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, would defend freedom no less than equality, and conservatives, William Buckley and George Will himself, would certainly place themselves very much in the camp of equality in regard to many current issues.

What separates these men is far more subtle than George Will’s freedom/equality tension or opposition. What separates them is the degree to which they would restrain, the one, freedom, and the degree to which they would promote the other, equality.

This is a difference of degree only. And in many situations they would probably find themselves defending the same position, such as the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities (making more government necessary), and school choice programs represented by magnet and charter schools (bringing about more freedom).

George Will makes liberals, who in his estimation are mostly looking for government solutions, thereby less admirable, than conservatives who, according to Will, look much more to individuals and individual initiatives for solutions. This is an unfair oversimplification and distortion of what is in fact a fully legitimate opposition between group and individual responsibilities. Both are necessary. Liberal and conservative positions are like all true oppositions two sides of the same coin. That which forces most of us to be in the center.

What Have We Done

I read this in today’s NYTimes:

“Many militias and terrorist groups are just waiting for the Americans to leave,” said Salim Abdullah, the spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front,… "This does not mean the presence of American troops in Baghdad is our favorite option,” he said. “People in the street say the United States is part of the chaos here and they could have made it better and safer. Still, we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, themselves, have caused.”

It’s Salim’s last sentence that’s the shocker, when he says, apparently in all seriousness:   “we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, [the Americans] themselves, have caused.”

In other words we have created the trouble and now we have to stay to eliminate the trouble we have created. How do we do that? Maybe a bad marriage of our own creation can be made better by our staying, but the country, Iraq, will be better by our staying? We’re in our fourth year of believing this with a total absence of evidence for that belief. Our being there creates the trouble. Our continuing to be there will somehow do away with the trouble? I don’t think so.

Unbelievable, isn’t it, first Vietnam, and now Iraq. We have shot ourselves in both feet, and at this time we can hardly walk. In both instances we have created situations for which there is no solution other than our walking away (if our feet would allow it) and thereby making a bad situation, of our creation, even worse. Unbelievable that we have done this to ourselves. What horrible chain of reasoning adopted by our leaders enabled this to happen?

Then further on in the same article I read this:

“The conditions that need to be achieved before a major troop reduction, General Odierno said, are a reduction in insurgent and militia attacks and an improved ability by Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants.”

Now haven’t we heard this before, probably each year, since the President’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, in May of 2003? What has led General Odierno to believe that anything we have done during the now four years since the President’s ill-chosen words on the Carrier deck has led to anything but an increase in insurgent attacks? What has led the General to believe that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants is improving? Perhaps he is new to Iraq?

He must be, for I see no other explanation for the continual folly of his and others’ pronouncements, than the fact that our military personnel is constantly changing and that with the arrival of each new contingent in Iraq comes the belief that with our help the security conditions can be improved and the responsibility for the country’s security can eventually be placed in Iraqi hands.

But those with the long view, many journalists among others, realize that with the passage of each year the only significant changes taking place in Iraq are in the numbers of the dead and wounded and the numbers of those fleeing the country. What have we done?

Let’s not turn them away.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in response to the recent compromise deal reached by the U.S. Senate on immigration made this statement: "I strongly oppose today’s [immigration] bill…. Any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely, as the new ‘Z-Visa’ does, is a form of amnesty. That is unfair to the millions of people who have applied to legally immigrate to the U.S."

Romney, and the others who speak as he does, are dead wrong. Immigrants, all immigrants, are what this country is all about. Our country’s present strength and high standard of living stem in large part from the successive waves of immigrants, including the hundreds of thousands of black Africans who came here, "€œlegally?"€ in the 17th. and 18th centuries.

Immigrants have always been a major factor in our country’s cultural and economic growth and resulting economic and cultural prosperity. And they still are. If you have any doubts about this you need only go to Silicon Valley and confirm that the majority of the technology companies there, in no small part the drivers of our economy, are headed by Chinese and Indian immigrants.

OK, you may respond. But Romney is only talking about illegal immigrants. I would answer that illegal immigrants may be the very best kind. For they, unlike someone’€™s mother-in-law, or half brother or second cousin, who all had legal access to the country, who were "€œentitled" under the old system, the "illegals" are prepared to pay any price just to get here. Don’€™t we want people like that? Shouldn’t we welcome them? And shouldn’€™t we help them to help themselves become Americans like ourselves?

Was what we have meant to be just for ourselves? I don’t think so.

It is clearly evident that once here the so-called illegals are especially dedicated to the task of making a go of it, and much more so, I believe, than the large numbers of those who are already here and have given up on their chances.

For no one can doubt the immigrants’ desire to improve their lives. If our own poor, of which we are told there are now tens of millions, had this same desire we might see more of them lifting themselves out of poverty.

Because we have placed so many obstacles to their coming here the illegals have had to have shown what they are made of, and they have shown toughness and courage, resourcefulness and entrepreneurship, all qualities that we want to see in our new citizens. Romney and others of like mind would tell these people that we don’€™t want them? We do want them.

Immigrants, and perhaps especially the illegals, whose time here is threatened by demagogues in public offices, want their children to do well in school and are prepared to make whatever sacrifices will be necessary to that end. If you have any doubts about this look at the life stories of the many immigrant children who were first or nearly first in their high school graduating classes last year, in Boston where I live, but certainly in many other cities with large immigrant school populations as well.

These people, these so-called illegals, are a precious resource, and we would turn them away? Those who want to come here, whatever the cost, may very well be the  single most important "natural" resource we possess.

Unlike the Governor I’€™m encouraged by the passage of the Senate bill. It’s a start, although it makes too many concessions to the forces of darkness (read Harry Reid’s reservations). The immigrants, and especially the large numbers of them coming from East and South East Asia, from Central and South America, and across the border from Mexico, bring light along with them (in this regard see David Brooks’ op ed piece).

And whatever happened to:

  "Give me your tired, your poor,
  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

                                         from The New Colossus
                                                  by Emma Lazarus

Equality and Difference

Those who write about education, and the schools, rarely address the principal problem that parents, teachers, and all those who spend much time with children, must confront on a daily basis. On the one hand the teachers and the others have learned to believe that all children, no less than all men, are equal and are deserving of equal treatment. On the other hand their experience with children has convinced them that no two children are exactly alike and that consequently no two children must be treated in the same manner.

This seeming paradox accounts for the widely different statements that people make about education and the schools. There are those who say categorically that the Common School is a failure. They are of the opinion that the neglect of the differences between children has meant that too many children have been left out.

Then there are those, just as many or even more, who attribute to the Common School and its graduates the predominant leadership role that this country has achieved during the past 150 years. For them promoting equality, or at least equal treatment has meant equal opportunity for all regardless of ethnic, class, or racial origin. No one’s chance of being one day president of the company or president of the country will be diminished by a common school environment where all are equal.

Thus there are, as it were, two poles, that of equality and that of difference.

Those drawn to the equality pole would not track children. They would have every child enrolled in an academic program leading to college. There is a "what’s best," and this "what’s best" ought to be what’s best for all.

Those drawn to the difference pole would separate the children from one another at various points along their way through school, having some leave for work, some  go into vocational programs, some do advanced placement work, some even go on at an early age, 15 or 16, to college, and so on.

If children came in different colors, colors that meant college, no college, the trades, etc. things would be easy, but they don’t (although for a long time the color black was considered to mean no college, even no school). The colors of children don’t now relate (and never have related!) to how and what they will best and most usefully learn, although there are still today those who may use ethnic origin for this illegitimate discriminatory purpose.

Now what does the classroom teacher do with all those "equal" children no two of whom ever learn in exactly the same way? It’s a big problem and it sends young teachers fleeing the classroom in large numbers after only a year or two on the job. The problem has not yet been solved.

The politicians have mostly come down on the side of equality, NCLB being their bungled attempt to make the underachievers equal to the achievers. Of course it can’t be done, given the differences, the fact that children, although equal, are not all, or at all alike.

So what is to be done? First of all we should, I think, understand differently, if not play down the place of "equality" in our thinking about the schools. Change "equality" to equality of opportunity, or "equal treatment," and certainly give everyone equal respect.

But in our schools, and in our legislative bodies we should much more "play up" the differences among us. For they are real. And ultimately it’s by our differences that we will make something of our lives, not by what makes us all the same, not by what we all share equally, even those qualities that make us all human.

Title One plays, rightly, to the differences, as does the Westinghouse now Intel Science Talent Search program, as do all those great teachers who see and support each child’s different and unique learning style.

NCLB would have been more acceptable if it had not been presented as something applied across the board equally. If there hadn’t been an achievement gap there would have been no NCLB, so why then wasn’t NCLB, like Title One, directed to those most at risk and most in need of extra help?

Well, I know why. We weren’t, and are still not ready to abandon the facade of equality that we insist upon in our schools. At best we may reach some of the large number of kids at the top of the Bell curve. But in reality we probably won’t. In reality we lose most kids to the extent that what we teach is addressed to all of them equally. To repeat, they are not equal in how they learn.

The lesson to be drawn from all this? Pay more attention to differences in our schools, and more attention to equality everywhere else, especially in our lives in common with others like and different from ourselves.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité