Eye-Openers

Not all the time, but from time to time, actually pretty often if I have the time to read widely, I encounter in my reading bits of what I will call new awarenesses, or new truths, “eye openers,” things that I really didn’t know before the encounter and that have made my life thereafter a bit richer, by enabling me to see a little bit further into life’s mostly dark and unfathomable depths.

I suppose when I ask my grandson what he learned in school I’m assuming that he had had a similar eye opening experience. He never does, or rather he never tells me about it. He must have them. Everyone must. Isn’t this what living and learning is all about? Anyway, my new understanding, or eye-opener as I’m going to call this sort of thing in what follows, may stem from little or nothing at all, from a few words, a brief anecdote, a new application of a well worn idea or image, or it may come from something more substantial, such as the reading of the works of scientists, philosophers, thinkers of all kinds, whose new to me ideas flood my mind as a bright light from a beacon, and whose ideas I immediately steal and make my own. Talk about walking on the shoulders of others, well that’s what I do.

What do I mean by a new understanding stemming from an encounter with just a few words, from “little or nothing at all”? Here’s an example. Earlier today I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how the creators of worms and viruses are now attacking the Mac operating system, and to do so “they use what are called ‘social engineering’ techniques to trick users into doing things that they shouldn’t do, like unwittingly installing programs.

The Anna Kournikova worm from 2001, for example, infamously tricked Windows users into installing it by masquerading as photos of the leggy Russian tennis star attached to e-mails.” My “eye opener” in this instance was just this one sentence from the article: “These approaches exploit a bug in peoples’ brains, which is much harder to patch.” Wow, weaknesses in my brain that are virus and worm prone and that are hard to patch, no less so than computer operating systems. Makes you wonder how many “bugs” you carry about with you during your daily activities. Makes you certainly less sure of yourself because suddenly you know that your brain probably does contain a number of bugs (downloaded from where?) that do interfere with what should be normal brain (whatever that is) activity.

I wonder what “bug” it is in the suicide bomber’s brain, placed there by a fanatical Imam, and that then permits the terrorist’s message to enter the brain, take root, and eventually destroy that brain and others along with it in the single mad action of blowing himself or herself up. Now that is a deadly virus. The ultimate worm of all worms. And how are we to correct faulty operating systems of this kind? We don’t yet even know how they enter and take root in someone’s brain. In this case our Norton or McAfee anti-virus software are our intelligence services but so far these services have not proved up to the task of finding and destroying the suicide bug.

Here’s another example, this time not a few words, but a simple anecdote, of how something you thought you already knew comes alive again and with a new force, bringing new life to old knowledge as it were. For me this was another eye opener. The old knowledge was that similar, very much alike features of our anatomy closely relate us to all other mammals, as well as to other organisms even further removed from us in the Linnean order of living things. For we’ve known for a long time, well before Charles Darwin even, that many seemingly very different species belong by their common anatomical structures, to the same biological class of animals.

Here’s the example of how a simple anecdote can make this old truth come alive again. I encountered this one in last Sunday’s Times in Chip Brown’s account of a Taliban at Yale (see my last Blog entry). The Taliban, Rahmatullah, who will eventually enroll as a freshman at Yale College, asks his benefactor Mike Hoover a question:

“Do you believe people are related to dogs?” (Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.) “Yes,” Hoover said.  The Taliban all laughed in amazement. “How can you possibly believe that? We are so different.” “You see only differences. I see similarities.” “Similarities! Like what?”  (Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.) “Bilateral symmetry,” he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him. “What does that mean?” “It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable.”

No new knowledge, but oh did that old knowledge come alive in this exchange between the American, Mike Hoover, and the young members of the Taliban.

Then there are the eye openers that bring new knowledge. And as long as one seeks to learn there is no end to this kind of experience. Here’s just one of many examples of new knowledge that I have acquired from reading Robert Wright’s books, in this case, Nonzero, or The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright is discussing the growth of complexity during the evolution of biological organisms on this earth. How much can we conclude from this? Is it the meaning of life to grow in complexity, reaching at some far off point in time, what,… God, a “mind” straddling the entire Globe, as thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have imagined it?

Wright asks the question, does the growth in complexity represent progress? Then he reminds us that Stephen Jay Gould rejected the idea of progress, as well as the importance of man’s place in life’s history. Run it again from the beginning and there’s a good chance that man would not even appear.

Gould showed clearly that the multicellular biological organisms now living on the earth, and in particular man, were not at all the principal form of life on the earth, nor did he make up more than a tiny part of the history of life on earth. For in regard to numbers of individuals, biological mass weight, and probably even numbers of distinct species, bacteria were, and are, far more remarkable.

Man is just one species, and even today when he numbers in the billions, he is bested not only by bacteria, but also by the ants and termites in respect to total biological mass weight, and he is bested by most other life forms in regard to total time on the earth, that being so far well less than a million years, or a tiny instant in the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. So if we look at the huge place of single celled bacteria among living things we can’t then make too much of the relatively small place taken up by the multi-cellular organisms including man. For these forms make up only a small segment of life’s history and presence on the earth. Bacteria have always dominated the whole picture and still do. And bacteria have shown no movement towards more complex forms. They are much the same today as they were 2 billion or more years ago.

Here are, for me, some of the eye opening passages from Wright’s book, Nonzero:

“Yes. Gould is saying not only that bacteria are pretty simple creatures; he’s saying that they outnumber us. Or, as he puts it: “modal” complexity shows no tendency to grow; the level of complexity at which the greatest number of living things resides—the mode—has not changed noticeably since at least 2 billion years ago. Back then, most living things were about as complex as a bacterium. One billion years ago, ditto. Now, ditto.

“Indeed, not only do bacteria outnumber us; they outweigh us. In fact, they outweigh just about anything, if you add up all the underground bacteria. Also, they can survive under lots of weird conditions. “On any possible, reasonable, or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on earth.”

To go on, what about the numbers of different species? Do we know how many there are? Do we know that there are more bacterial species than all others combined? No, we don’t yet know the answers to either question. The biologist E. O. Wilson estimates known species at approximately 1.4 million, while another study estimates the number at approximately 1.5 million. And there are scientists who say that there could be tens of millions more of spiecies still unknown.

When I think about it it’s probably biology more than any other academic discipline that has opened my own eyes to things previously unseen. I learn, from this same investigation that began while reading Robert Wright’s Nonzero, that while it is relatively easy to classify mammals and plants, this is not true in regard to bacteria, hence one source of our ignorance in regard to their total numbers.

Another source of our difficulty in determining the number of species living on the earth is that biodiversity is not evenly distributed throughout the world. There are many imbalances, skewing the counting process. For example, over half of all described species are insects, including approximately 300,000 known beetles, a fact which led biologist J. B. S. Haldane to remark that God has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Also seventy percent of the world’s species occur in only 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, and Zaire. The tropical rain forests, common to these countries, are believed to contain more than half the number of all species on Earth.

To return to our bacteria we learn, still from Edward O Wilson, that “the vast majority of bacterial types remain completely unknown, with no name and no hint of the means needed to detect them. Take a gram of ordinary soil, a pinch held between two fingers, and place it in the palm of your hand. You are holding a clump of quartz grains laced with decaying organic matter and free nutrients, and about 10 billion bacteria. How many bacterial species are present are present in that gram of soil?

How many species of bacteria are there in the world? Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology, the official guide updated to 1989, list about 4,000. There has always been a feeling among microbiologists that the true number, including the undiagnosed species, is much greater, but no one could even guess by how much. Ten times more? A hundred? Recent research suggests that the answer might be at least a thousand times greater, with the total number ranging into the millions.”

Wilson wrote those words in 1992.

Much more recently, just last year, in 2005, a group led by William Whitman at the University of Georgia made a direct estimate of the total number of bacteria, not the number of species, but the number of individuals, and as you would expect that number makes the number of humans look downright puny. Their estimate of that number is five million trillion trillion, that’s a five with 30 zeroes after it.

Or, if each bacterium were a penny, the stack would reach a trillion light years. The team also found that the total amount of bacterial carbon in the soil and subsurface, where over 90% of the bacteria live, to be yet another staggering number, 5 X 10**17 g or the weight of the United Kingdom, a quantity nearly equal to the total carbon found in plants.

All eye openers. My final “eye opener” is taken also from the Georgia study in regard to the rate of mutations and how bacteria operate in nature. The authors point to the fact that “events that are extremely rare in the laboratory could occur frequently in nature. … And because the number of bacteria is so large in nature, events that would occur once in 10 billion years in the laboratory would occur every second in nature. New species, anyone?”

Chip Brown’s Account of a Taliban at Yale

I do love this country. There is a certain greatness in America that is still with us (in spite of all that is wrong now and has been wrong in the past), a real, admirable quality that is always turning up if one has the eyes to see it. Courage and generosity, and being able to laugh at oneself and admit one’s mistakes, these are, I think, the words that best describe our country’s greatness. These qualities are easy to discern in the big events of the country’s history, in the survival of the early Atlantic seaboard colonies, the settling and the winning of the West, the making room in our public lives, alongside of the white males, first for women, then for Blacks, and now for all those who come to our shores from nearly every corner of the earth. These are generally recognized instances of greatness in our country’s history, but there are also innumerable individual instances of greatness, demonstrated by the actions of individual Americans and resulting from an inner sense of what is the right thing to do, and not from an outer awareness of convention, or tradition, or from fear of risk taking, or from a need to be well thought of, well remunerated, and the like. Americans have always reached out to people, whoever they are and wherever they be, disregarding whatever the particular circumstances and prejudices there might be surrounding these people and that might have stopped a lesser person from becoming involved, and have instead welcomed that “other” into their lives and hearts and homes.
In the instance before us the American with a “great soul” is Mike Hoover and the “other” to whom he reached out is Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, now 28 years old and a freshman at Yale, but a former roving Ambassador for the Taliban. Chip Brown in today’s NYTimes tells us this fascinating story. In what follows below I will be taking whole passages from Chip’s account.

In May of 2000, when he first met Rahmatullah at the airport in Quetta, Pakistan, Mike Hoover was a “hale, rangy, black-haired 56-year-old, mountaineer, cameraman, filmmaker, and possibly the only member of the American news media whose life was as eventful as Rahmatullah’s. He had been to both poles, all seven continents and, during the making of “The Eiger Sanction,” served as Clint Eastwood’s stunt double. He had one Academy Award, three wives, four children and 14 Emmys and had had many brushes with oblivion. In 1994, he was the only survivor of a ski-helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada that killed four people, including his second wife, Beverly Johnson (at one time the best female rock climber in the world), and Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Company.”

Typical? Well maybe not, but certainly American with a not untypical American story.

“In the 1980’s, Hoover slipped into Afghanistan for CBS News and filmed mujahedeen battles against the Red Army. The Afghans dubbed him Shutur, or “the Camel,” because he insisted on lugging his heavy camera equipment up trails in the Hindu Kush. Now, in May 2000, he was one of the few American news cameramen who had been given Taliban permission to visit Afghanistan since Clinton’s attempt to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles in August 1998. Rahmatullah had been assigned to take him around as a guide and translator and show him whatever he wanted to see.”

“Rahmatullah had a driver, and Hoover was traveling with another filmmaker, Cindy Carpenter Spies, who was working on a documentary about Afghan women. The party set off around noon for Kandahar in an old station wagon. After they had been going for a while, the driver pulled to the side of the road. He and Rahmatullah got out. They were in the middle of nowhere, and no one was around. “I thought this was it,” Spies recalls. “I thought, They’re probably going to kill us right here.” Hoover wasn’t sure what the two Taliban were up to until they faced southeast and got down on their knees to pray.

“Over the next three weeks, Hoover and Rahmatullah traveled around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and formed a deep friendship. One night, a week or so into the trip, Hoover was sitting on the floor of the foreign office guest house in Kandahar, drinking tea as Rahmatullah and some other Taliban peeled potatoes and onions. Rahmatullah asked him a question.”

“Do you believe people are related to dogs?”

Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.

“Yes,” Hoover said.

The Taliban all laughed in amazement.

“How can you possibly believe that? We are so different.”

“You see only differences. I see similarities.”

“Similarities! Like what?”

Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.

“Bilateral symmetry,” he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him.

“What does that mean?”

“It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable.”

Recalling the exchange not long ago, Hoover said: “Now you could hear a pin drop — and it was a dirt floor. They were starting to get uneasy. There was a dog right outside. It was scraggly and covered with sores; I think the appropriate word for it would be ‘cur.’ When I finished laying out how they might be genetically related to the cur outside, they went off and started talking among themselves very intently. What they were discussing and what they wanted to understand was if what I was saying was true, would it fit within the teachings of the Koran. After a long time they came to the conclusion that it would.”

Chip’s account in the Times makes it clear that Mike Hoover recognized the worth of this young man, and brought him to Yale via Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he, Mike, now lives.

So who is Rahmatullah, the “other” in this story? Two anecdotes in Chet’s account are particularly revealing of the young man’s character, qualities that Mike and Yale probably recognized in turn.

Waiting to hear from Yale, Rahmatullah spent the holidays in Jackson Hole with Hoover. [While there] he spoke to students at several local schools…. After a talk to the young teenagers at the Jackson Hole Middle School, two boys approached Rahmatullah.

“Can we ask you a question? Have you ever been in a war?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell us about it? We want to be Army Rangers.”

He thought for a second. “Do you guys play video games?”

“Yeah,” they said, looking at him as if he had rocks for brains.

“I thought so,” he said. “Let me ask you, have either of you ever killed a chicken?”

They shook their heads. They didn’t know anyone who even had chickens.

“When was the last time you had to kill anything to eat?”

They were confused.

“I killed a goat before I came here,” Rahmatullah said. “I hated doing it. Go kill a chicken, and pluck it, and eat it,” he said softly. “And then maybe you will know a little bit about war.”

And then a bit later the writer has this to say:

Many distinctions could be drawn between his old life and his life at Yale. But he had seized on one.

“You have to be reasonable to live in America,” he said. “Everything here is based on reason. Even the essays you write for class. Back home you have to talk about religion and culture, and you can win any argument if you bring up the Islamic argument. You can’t reason against religion. But you cannot change Afghanistan overnight. You can’t bring the Enlightenment overnight.”

Well, I thought, what about that, “you have to be reasonable to live in America. Everything here is based on reason.”
And then, “you can’t bring the Enlightenment to Afghanistan overnight.”

Well, I’d like to believe that, not that you can’t bring reason to Afghanistan, but that everything here is based on reason. My own activities, such as reading books purchased through Amazon’s used book network, downloading newspaper and magazine articles from the Web, through it all constantly on the outlook for new ideas that I can then write about and share with my email correspondents, highly reasonable activity all that? I’d like to think so, and I’d certainly rather be called a reasonable man than a born again. But, “you have to be reasonable to live in America,” probably not.

So I wouldn’t agree with Rahmatullah that it’s the place of reason in our lives that is our most striking characteristic. (Nor was it probably that noticeable in France during the Enlightenment, followed as that was by the least reasonable period of their history.) In fact I don’t know many people whom I would characterize in that manner. I do know a lot of people for whom money, not reason, is most important. But I also know many Americans who are fundamentally good, who are extraordinarily generous with their time and money, who are quick to reach out and help others who have much less than they. It’s not so much by the place of reason as it is by the place of generosity in our lives that I would judge the greatness of our country. And right along with that generosity, and an inseparable part of it, is the American’s ability to look to the worth of the man or woman underneath whatever might be the clothes he or she is wearing, the color of that person’s skin, the social or economic class to which the person might belong. I would say that people in general, no less than Americans, may be called great souled or magnanimous when in their dealings with others they disregard the external factors of others’ lives and see them and relate to them for what they are underneath. Only for the scientist, perhaps, are externals all important. Most of us try to go directly to the essence of things beyond the externals, or at least we would like to think we do. For when the externals, one’s social position, one’s bank account, one’s golf game are all important, well then we’re in big trouble. And most important we are much less the man or woman that we could be. Up until now I’d like to think that America’s times of greatness have overshadowed the instances of its littleness. For some of us they have, and for others they haven’t, and today we find ourselves divided because of our differences in this regard. I think it was one an instance of greatness that had Mike Hoover bring Rahmatullah to Jackson Hole, and another one when Yale University accepted Rahmatullah as a freshman at the college.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the Mohammad Cartoons

Below in French is the complete text of a speech given by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Berlin on February 9th of this year. You will see that she speaks passionately for those like herself who believe no less passionately that the Danish editors were right to publish the Mohammed cartoons. Whether or not you agree with her (You will see that I don’t if you read my earlier Blog, Random Thoughts on the Mohammad Cartoons) you have to pay attention to what she is saying. She has earned the right to be listened to.

Hirsi Ali was born and grew up a Muslim herself in Muslim lands, first in Somalia, then in Kenya and later in Saudi Arabia. Still in her teens and on her way to Canada to marry the husband who had been chosen for her, Hirsi Ali decided that she would not go through with her arranged marriage and instead jumped plane and took up residence in Holland where she now lives. Right away in her new country she spoke up against what she came to see as a more and more totalitarian and intolerant form of Islam and quickly connected with others of like opinion living in Holland and in Europe and like herself trying to resist the new Muslim immigrants to Europe who were trying to impose their own narrow and fanatical interpretations of Islam on everyone else. In Holland Hirsi Ali quickly became well known and well respected and was elected as a deputy to the Dutch Parliament. Then her good friend, Theo Van Gogh was assassinated by a fanatical Islamist because of a film overtly critical of Islam that he and Hirsi Ali had made together. This terrible event resulted in her becoming even more critical of the intolerant forms of her own religion that were gaining ground in Europe as well as in traditional Muslim societies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Hirsi Ali herself was threatened by the same people responsible for Van Gogh’s death and since then has accepted to live her private and public (as a deputy to the Parliament) life in Holland under constant police protection.

If you’re able to read the French text below you will see that Hirsi Ali throughout her talk compares her own situation to that of dissidents in the former Soviet Union. This is why, as she explains below, she chose to give her talk in Berlin, in the city that knew at first hand the closed totalitarian communist society and then experienced also at first hand and up close the collapse of that society when the Berlin Wall came down.

Hirsi Ali believes that there is now a virtual wall separating the closed civilizations of Islam and the East from the open civilizations of the West, of which she is now, gratefully, a part, and that she and others like her need to make it their life’s work to bring that wall down, just as the dissidents under communism had helped to bring down the wall in Berlin. Would that the situation between Islam and the West be that simple. And that we needed only to “contain” the expansion of intolerant Islam, as we contained communism in the past, and support the dissidents, wherever they might be, for the wall eventualy to come down.

For those of you who don’t read French, here in a free English translation are a few of the points she is making:

“It is my opinion that Jyllands-Posten was right to publish the Mohammed Cartoons and that other European publications were right to republish them.”

“Shame on those publications and TV stations that didn’t have the courage to show their own readers and viewers the cartoons.”

“Today the free societies are threatened by an intolerant form of Islam…. While most Muslims are tolerant and peaceful,… at the heart of Islam today there exists a current of thought that rejects democratic freedoms and is doing all in its power to destroy them.”

“This is not a question of race, of color, of tradition. This is a war of ideas that transcends all else.”

“Like everyone else I believed for a long time that Mohammed was perfect, that he was the only source of good and the only means of distinguishing between good and evil. In 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeiny issued a Fatwa for the death of Salman Rushdie for having insulted Mohammed I too thought he was right. I don’t think that anymore.”

“I think that the Prophet was wrong to place himself and his ideas above all other critical thinking.”

“I think that the Prophet was wrong to subordinate women to men.”

“I think that the Prophet was wrong to decree that homosexuals should be killed, that those guilty of adultery stoned and whipped, and those guilty of theft have their hands cut off.”

“The Prophet was wrong to say that those who died for Allah’s cause would go to Paradise. He was wrong to hold that a just society could be built on his ideas.”

“I think it’s good and right to publish cartoons and films critical of the Prophet…. The people have to know.”

Here is the article that appeared in Le Monde of February 15th.

“Je suis une dissidente de l’islam”

par Ayaan Hirsi Ali

[Ayaan Hirsi Ali, d’origine somalienne, est députée au Parlement néerlandais, membre du parti libéral VVD. Scénariste du film Submission, qui valut à Theo Van Gogh d’être assassiné par un islamiste en novembre 2004, elle vit sous protection policière.
Invitée à Berlin le 9 février, Ayaan Hirsi Ali a prononcé un discours de combat, à la suite de l’affaire des caricatures de Mahomet, contre l’islamisme et pour la défense de la liberté]

Je suis ici pour défendre le droit d’offenser. J’ai la conviction que cette entreprise vulnérable qu’on appelle démocratie ne peut exister sans libre expression, en particulier dans les médias. Les journalistes ne doivent pas renoncer à l’obligation de parler librement, ce dont sont privés les hommes des autres continents.

Mon opinion est que le Jyllands Posten a eu raison de publier les caricatures de Mahomet et que d’autres journaux en Europe ont bien fait de les republier.

Permettez-moi de reprendre l’historique de cette affaire. L’auteur d’un livre pour enfants sur le prophète Mahomet n’arrivait pas à trouver d’illustrateur. Il a déclaré que les dessinateurs se censuraient par peur de subir des violences de la part de musulmans, pour qui il est interdit à quiconque, où que ce soit, de représenter le Prophète. Le Jyllands Posten a décidé d’enquêter sur le sujet, estimant – à juste titre – qu’une telle autocensure était porteuse de lourdes conséquences pour la démocratie. C’était leur devoir de journalistes de solliciter et de publier des dessins du prophète Mahomet.

Honte aux journaux et aux chaînes de télévision qui n’ont pas eu le courage de montrer à leur public ce qui était en cause dans “l’affaire des caricatures” ! Ces intellectuels qui vivent grâce à la liberté d’expression, mais acceptent la censure, cachent leur médiocrité d’esprit sous des termes grandiloquents comme “responsabilité” ou “sensibilité”.

Honte à ces hommes politiques qui ont déclaré qu’avoir publié et republié ces dessins était “inutile”, que c’était “mal”, que c’était “un manque de respect” ou de “sensibilité” ! Mon opinion est que le premier ministre du Danemark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a bien agi quand il a refusé de rencontrer les représentants de régimes tyranniques qui exigeaient de lui qu’il limite les pouvoirs de la presse. Aujourd’hui, nous devrions le soutenir moralement et matériellement. Il est un exemple pour tous les dirigeants européens. J’aimerais que mon premier ministre ait autant de cran que Rasmussen.

Honte à ces entreprises européennes du Moyen-Orient qui ont mis des affiches disant “Nous ne sommes pas danois”, “Ici on ne vend pas de produits danois” ! C’est de la lâcheté. Les chocolats Nestlé n’auront plus le même goût après ça, vous ne trouvez pas ? Les Etats membres de l’Union européenne devraient indemniser les sociétés danoises pour les pertes qu’elles ont subies à cause des boycottages.

La liberté se paie cher. On peut bien dépenser quelques millions d’euros pour la défendre. Si nos gouvernements ne viennent pas en aide à nos amis scandinaves, alors j’espère que les citoyens organiseront des collectes de dons en faveur des entreprises danoises.

Nous avons été submergés sous un flot d’opinions nous expliquant que les caricatures étaient mauvaises et de mauvais goût. Il en ressortait que ces dessins n’avaient apporté que violence et discorde. Beaucoup se sont demandé tout haut quel avantage il y avait à les publier.

Eh bien, leur publication a permis de confirmer qu’il existe un sentiment de peur parmi les écrivains, les cinéastes, les dessinateurs et les journalistes qui souhaitent décrire, analyser ou critiquer les aspects intolérants de l’islam à travers l’Europe.

Cette publication a aussi révélé la présence d’une importante minorité en Europe qui ne comprend pas ou n’est pas prête à accepter les règles de la démocratie libérale. Ces personnes – dont la plupart sont des citoyens européens – ont fait campagne en faveur de la censure, des boycottages, de la violence et de nouvelles lois interdisant l'”islamophobie”.

Ces dessins ont montré au grand jour qu’il y a des pays qui n’hésitent pas à violer l’immunité diplomatique pour des raisons d’opportunité politique. On a vu des gouvernements malfaisants, comme celui d’Arabie saoudite, organiser des mouvements “populaires” de boycottage du lait ou des yaourts danois, alors qu’ils écraseraient sans pitié tout mouvement populaire qui réclamerait le droit de vote.

Je suis ici aujourd’hui pour réclamer le droit d’offenser dans les limites de la loi. Vous vous demandez peut-être : pourquoi à Berlin ? Et pourquoi moi ?

Berlin est un lieu important dans l’histoire des luttes idéologiques autour de la liberté. C’est la ville où un mur enfermait les gens à l’intérieur de l’Etat communiste. C’est la ville où se concentrait la bataille pour les esprits et les coeurs. Ceux qui défendaient une société ouverte enseignaient les défauts du communisme. Mais l’oeuvre de Marx était discutée à l’université, dans les rubriques opinions des journaux et dans les écoles. Les dissidents qui avaient réussi à s’échapper pouvaient écrire, faire des films, dessiner, employer toute leur créativité pour persuader les gens de l’Ouest que le communisme n’était pas le paradis sur Terre.

Malgré l’autocensure de beaucoup en Occident, qui idéalisaient et défendaient le communisme, malgré la censure brutale imposée à l’Est, cette bataille a été gagnée.

Aujourd’hui, les sociétés libres sont menacées par l’islamisme, qui se réfère à un homme nommé Muhammad Abdullah (Mahomet) ayant vécu au VIIe siècle et considéré comme un prophète. La plupart des musulmans sont des gens pacifiques ; tous ne sont pas des fanatiques. Ils ont parfaitement le droit d’être fidèles à leurs convictions. Mais, au sein de l’islam, il existe un mouvement islamiste pur et dur qui rejette les libertés démocratiques et fait tout pour les détruire. Ces islamistes cherchent à convaincre les autres musulmans que leur façon de vivre est la meilleure. Mais quand ceux qui s’opposent à l’islamisme dénoncent les aspects fallacieux des enseignements de Mahomet, on les accuse d’être offensants, blasphématoires, irresponsables – voire islamophobes ou racistes.

Ce n’est pas une question de race, de couleur ou de tradition. C’est un conflit d’idées qui transcende les frontières et les races.

Pourquoi moi ? Je suis une dissidente, comme ceux de la partie est de cette ville qui passaient à l’Ouest. Moi aussi je suis passée à l’Ouest. Je suis née en Somalie et j’ai passé ma jeunesse en Arabie saoudite et au Kenya. J’ai été fidèle aux règles édictées par le prophète Mahomet. Comme les milliers de personnes qui ont manifesté contre les caricatures danoises, j’ai longtemps cru que Mahomet était parfait – qu’il était la seule source du bien, le seul critère permettant de distinguer entre le bien et le mal. En 1989, quand Khomeiny a lancé un appel à tuer Salman Rushdie pour avoir insulté Mahomet, je pensais qu’il avait raison. Je ne le pense plus.

Je pense que le Prophète a eu tort de se placer, lui et ses idées, au-dessus de toute pensée critique.

Je pense que le prophète Mahomet a eu tort de subordonner les femmes aux hommes.

Je pense que le prophète Mahomet a eu tort de décréter qu’il fallait assassiner les homosexuels.

Je pense que le prophète Mahomet a eu tort de dire qu’il fallait tuer les apostats.

Il avait tort de dire que les adultères doivent être fouettés et lapidés, et que les voleurs doivent avoir les mains coupées.

Il avait tort de dire que ceux qui meurent pour la cause d’Allah iront au paradis.

Il avait tort de prétendre qu’une société juste pouvait être bâtie sur ses idées.

Le Prophète faisait et disait de bonnes choses. Il encourageait la charité envers les autres. Mais je soutiens qu’il était aussi irrespectueux et insensible envers ceux qui n’étaient pas d’accord avec lui.

Je pense qu’il est bon de faire des dessins critiques et des films sur Mahomet. Il est nécessaire d’écrire des livres sur lui. Et tout cela pour la simple éducation des citoyens.

Je ne cherche pas à offenser le sentiment religieux, mais je ne peux me soumettre à la tyrannie. Exiger que les hommes et les femmes qui n’acceptent pas l’enseignement du Prophète s’abstiennent de le dessiner, ce n’est pas une demande de respect, c’est une demande de soumission.

Je ne suis pas la seule dissidente de l’islam, il y en a beaucoup en Occident. Et s’ils n’ont pas de gardes du corps, ils doivent travailler sous de fausses identités pour se protéger de l’agression. Mais il y en a encore beaucoup d’autres à Téhéran, à Doha et Riyad, à Amman et au Caire, comme à Khartoum et Mogadiscio, Lahore et Kaboul.

Les dissidents de l’islamisme, comme ceux du communisme en d’autres temps, n’ont pas de bombes atomiques, ni aucune autre arme. Nous n’avons pas l’argent du pétrole comme les Saoudiens et ne brûlons ni les ambassades ni les drapeaux. Nous refusons d’être embarqués dans une folle violence collective. D’ailleurs, nous sommes trop peu nombreux et trop dispersés pour devenir un collectif de quoi que ce soit. Du point de vue électoral, ici en Occident, nous ne sommes rien.

Nous n’avons que nos idées et nous ne demandons que la possibilité de les exprimer. Nos ennemis utiliseront si nécessaire la violence pour nous faire taire. Ils emploieront la manipulation ; ils prétendront qu’ils sont mortellement offensés. Ils annonceront partout que nous sommes des êtres mentalement fragiles qu’il ne faut pas prendre au sérieux. Cela n’est pas nouveau, les partisans du communisme ont largement utilisé ces méthodes.

Berlin est une ville marquée par l’optimisme. Le communisme a échoué, le Mur a été brisé. Et même si, aujourd’hui, les choses semblent difficiles et confuses, je suis sûre que le mur virtuel entre les amoureux de la liberté et ceux qui succombent à la séduction et au confort des idées totalitaires, ce mur aussi, un jour, disparaîtra.

AYAAN HIRSI ALI

Culture Doesn’t Matter

While reading earlier today Kevin Mattson’s review of Mark Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind I noted the following passage:

“Dissecting the ‘place of passion in the life of the mind,’ Lilla starts,… with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, examining his friendship with Karl Jaspers, his love affair with Hannah Arendt, and his willful embrace of Nazism. Lilla recounts a terrifying conversation between Jaspers and Heidegger.
Jaspers: ‘How can such an uncultivated man like Adolf Hitler govern Germany?’ Heidegger: ‘Culture doesn’t matter. Just look at his marvelous hands.’
Heidegger’s philosophy of ‘being’ and ‘authenticity’ have turned into madness. Need we debate Jaspers’s conclusion that a ‘demon had crept into’ Heidegger’s mind?”

How many times have I asked myself Jasper’s question not about Hitler but about George Bush, “How can such an uncultivated man like him govern America?” Heidegger’s response was that culture didn’t matter. What mattered instead were “Hitler’s marvelous hands.” In Bush’s case what is it that “matters,” what is it that holds onto his supporters? Is it his grin, his ranch in Texas, his clearly not belonging to an intellectual or artistic elite but being just one of the boys? Are his supporters mad? Are they possessed, like Heidigger, by a demon?

Then I read, not entirely unrelated, in today’s NY Times that the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, has been touring Muslim countries seeking out other sources of financial aid for the Palestinians, and that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map among other terrible pronouncements, has told Mr. Meshal that Iran would provide the Palestinians financial aid. The president’s reasoning was simple, “Since the divine treasures are infinite,” he told Mr. Meshal, as if teaching him a lesson, “you should not be concerned with economic issues.”

As with Heidigger’s comment about “Hitler’s hands” don’t we find ourselves kind of blown away, or pinned down to the ground unable to move, by Ahmadinejad’s words? What possible reply might we make that could compete with the Iranian president’s infinite supply of divine treasures? I’ve always thought that the best of us are children of the enlightemment and that reason is our principal weapon of persuasion, and ultimately the source of our security. But what chance does reason have against “infinte treasures,” the madness within? How could the things that we are all about, the things that we would accomplish in Iraq, voting rights for women, freedom of the press, electrical grids, indoor plumbing, clean air and clean water, a free, market economy, possibly compete in the struggle for the hearts and minds of people who are daily promised divine treasures by their leaders?

Most of all I ask myself, does Ahmadinejad really believe what he says, let alone the people who listen to him? And if he does, and I think he probably does, how can we ever hope, in our unbelief, up against his belief, to win the stuggle that pits humanists with reason as their only weapon against true believers whose much grander weapon is their readiness to die for that belief? Like Heidigger’s Mahmoud Ahmadiunejad’s mind seems to have a well entrenched and probably indestructible demon living within.

War in Iraq: Negligence or Recklessness?

The quote below is from Joe Klein’s column in this week’s Time Magazine. As usual it’s well said and the application to the War in Iraq is well drawn.

“One valuable metaphor emerged last week. The New York Times described the possible legal charges that could be brought in a hunting accident. “Mr. Cheney could be charged with negligence, defined as failing to understand the dangers involved and disregarding them, or recklessness, defined as understanding the dangers and disregarding them.” Which is perhaps the neatest summary I’ve seen of the public debate surrounding the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq. Absent further evidence, the Administration seems guilty of negligence—a cavalier insensitivity to the unimaginable calamities that attend the use of lethal force. And while I have little faith that Cheney’s awful experience at the Armstrong Ranch will change his views of war and peace, I do hope that it gives him pause and that he gains wisdom from the intimate knowledge that there are experiences other than “pleasure” that can attend the firing of a weapon.”

Klein is saying that Bush et al. are guilty of “negligence,” that is, going ahead with the invasion of Iraq while having failed to understand the “dangers,” or consequences of what they were doing. I agree, for if they had understood they probably would not have gone ahead. For then they would have been reckless, and politicians are not reckless. Are they?

I have just a few more days left on my one month’s electronic subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary. For your information here are that dictionary’s entries for negligence, reckless and recklessness. You’ll note, but only if you read these definitions, that to be reckless includes being neglectful. Or negligence is on the road to recklessness. Did Bush et al. at the very beginning reach that further stage on that road, going from neglectful to reckless? Klein says no, and, again, I guess I would agree with him, although given the actual state of affairs in Iraq this distinction is of little or no comfort.
Klein doesn’t ask the question whether or not Bush’s war activities have now become reckless, nearly three years after the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. Perhaps to describe the present state of affairs we need another word. How about “mistaken?” How long before we can simply say that they/we are wrong? Probably more Americans than not are close to coming to that position. If many still hold back from that it’s because of the “support our troupes” thing. (That Los Angeles Times columnist who said he no longer supported the troupes because he didn’t support the war, is now a pariah, at least among the conservative talk show figures.) How many more weeks, months, years before we begin our “phased withdrawal,” or retreat? Because withdraw at best but more likely retreat we will. Does anyone really believe that the Iraqis will get it together in their own peaceful “multicultural” society before we leave? Don’t you get the feeling that the dike is broken and it’s only a matter of time before the waters of sectarian strife, barely held back at the moment by the finger of the US military, will completely overrun that country as that finger is withdrawn, as withdrawn it must be in time.

For your pleasure and enlightenment in regard to the two words negligence and recklessness, I include below brief clips of the meanings of these words taken from the Complete Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. I note that to be reckless is also to be negligent. But if one is negligent it doesn’t follow that one is also reckless. And we have no trouble separating our reckless from our negligent friends. I would say that the hunter who shot his friend was negligent, and that the president who invaded Iraq was reckless. But what will he be if and when Iraq does become a peaceful liberal democracy? Wise, smarter than the rest of us, able to see things that no one else could see? If I think of my own life I can think of hundreds of instances of negligence. Recklessness? Very few. At the time maybe a few more, but as it turned out no. I’m still alive, and fairly healthy and haven’t significantly harmed anyone else, at least to my best knowledge. Wishful thinking on our president’s part, that he wasn’t reckless and that things will turn out to be different, and better, from what they appear to be now, is what our president is holding on to for dear life.

NEGLIGENCE:

1. a. Lack of attention to what ought to be done; failure to take proper or necessary care of a thing or person; lack of necessary or reasonable care in doing something; carelessness.
b. Law. Not doing what a reasonable person would do, or doing what a reasonable person would not do; failure to carry out a legally imposed duty of care; lack of reasonable care.

2. a. Disregard or neglect of something. Obs.
b. Disregard (of a thing or person); neglect. Obs.

3. Originally: careless indifference, as in appearance or dress, or in literary or artistic style. Later: freedom from artificiality or restraint. Also: an instance of this. Now rare.

4. An instance of inattention or carelessness; a negligent act; a careless omission.

RECKLESS:

1. Of persons: Careless, heedless.
a. Careless in respect of ({dag}one’s conduct, reputation, or) the consequences of one’s actions; lacking in prudence or caution.
b. Careless in respect of some duty or task; negligent, inattentive. Obs.
c. Having no care or consideration for oneself or another. Obs. rare.

2. Of actions, conduct, things, etc.: Characterized or distinguished by negligent carelessness or) heedless rashness.

RECKLESSNESS:

1. The quality of being reckless.

2. Neglect or disregard of something.

Random thoughts on the Mohammed Cartoons

Now you wouldn’t raise a red flag in a bull ring and not expect a violent reaction on the part of the bull. Yes, the seemingly reasonable and calm, Flemming Rose, the arts editor of the Copenhagen Daily, Jyllands-Posten, with the agreement of the newspaper’s editor, Carsten Juste, did just this sort of thing on September 30th of last year by publishing twelve images of the Prophet. Whether or not he was perfectly within his rights to publish what now are referred to as the Mohammed Cartoons is not the point. Although in his defense he couldn’t possibly have known, in view of the consequences still raging today nearly five months later, the result of what he was doing. The images of the Prophet were a red flag, and just as red flags will arouse the bull, so in this case the cartoon images aroused the anger of the Muslims, first in Denmark, then months later in the Middle East and on throughout the entire Muslim world. The current state of the world is, and probably has always been, like a bull ring in that at any moment the bull may be aroused by someone’s ill-considered action and only calmed down after a good amount of blood has been shed. At the present time, “There is,” in the words of Robert Wright writing in the New York Times, ”if not a clash of civilizations, at least a very big gap between the ‘Western world’ and the ‘Muslim world’.” Publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed is no way to bridge this gap, and in hindsight the Danish newspaper editors, and their imitators at other publications in Europe and elsewhere, did a reckless and thoroughly foolhardy thing.

Why did they do it? Why did the editors of a small newspaper in a small country, pretty much out of the line of fire during the wars of the past and the wars of the present, why did they enter the ring in this manner? Well the most common explanation one hears is that we in the West, Danes, Europeans, and Americans, need to show that we are free to publish whatever we want, and that in order to preserve this freedom we have to use it, and not allow our freedom to publish weaken in the slightest through lack of use. Roger Köppel, the editor of the German newspaper, Die Welt, said it most bluntly, “It is the core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire. If we stop using our right to freedom of expression within our legal boundaries then we start to develop an appeasement mentality.” And many others have picked up on that, their mantra being, avoid appeasement at all costs. Tony Blankley writing for the rightist internet publication, Townhall, reminds us that Britain’s decision to appease Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in October of 1938 did not buy peace but only encouraged further Nazi aggression, because Nazi demands were unlimited and non-negotiable. The implication is that Muslim’s demands on us are similarly unlimited and non-negotiable, and that regardless of the wisdom of the original decision to publish the cartoons there is no backing away now from defending our right to do so, if we would hold on to that right and not allow it to slowly wither and die from disuse. Well, to push the appeasement button in this affair of the Mohammed Cartoons is a red herring, diverting attention from more substantial and interesting topics and issues underneath. Even though we are at war with al-Qaida terrorists and their ilk this talk of appeasement wages the wrong battle at the wrong time. The wrong time because of the on-going Israeli Palestinian conflict and the War in Iraq, to say nothing of the situation along the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The position of the West in all three conflicts has not been helped by the Cartoon War. The wrong battle, too. The right battle would have been, and would still be, to seek to bridge that gap, not open it up even further and thereby make any future bridging even less likely to happen. This is not Munich in 1938. In this affair of the Cartoons there is no Sudetenland of immense strategic importance being lost to our enemies.

Appeasement is just one example of the wrong word being used throughout the crisis. Another is “self-censorship.” Both show the power of words, and in both cases the wrong words, to arouse the passions. We won’t be charged with being appeasers, and we won’t restrict our right to publish whatever we want, especially within the borders of our own liberal democracies. But again, there is no appeasement here. Rather our recognition that the publication of the cartoons was insensitive and inappropriate, as many Western governments have wisely done, is best seen as a kind of affirmative action on our parts. There are many people in the world, billions of them in fact, and especially in those countries where Islam is the dominant religion, who are not even close to seeing the rightness of our rights, and the rightness of our defending these rights. Perhaps we have to help them get to this point, or at least respect and understand our position, but it’s going to take a long time. And if there is ever a chance of their being changed in this manner (for the better?) it will be in response to our making an effort in their behalf. In any case we lose nothing by that effort, for unlike Munich in 1938, there is in the case of the Cartoons no strategically valuable Sudetenland hanging in the balance. The other word, self-censorship, is just as misplaced, just as much of a Red Herring. We are told that Jyllands-Posten “dared to challenge the creeping self-censorhip that was undermining precious freedoms.” However, we haven’t yet seen examples of this loss of precious freedoms through self-censorship. Jasper Gerard in the Sunday Times of London, said “Islam is protected by an invisible blasphemy law that is called fear” the implication being that any self-censorship on our part came from our fear of retaliation. On the contrary, self-censorhip is much more a mark of civilized behavior. We do it all the time if we would live peaceably and happily with our families, with our neighbors, with our fellow countrymen, not to mention with those huge numbers of people living in other lands and immersed in other cultures. In general, self-censorship is simply another term for using the proper restraint in all our dealings with others, but especially when the others are not able to understand our point of view, especially in the instance before us. Muslims most of all adhere to the words and the life of the Prophet, or at least what they have understood of those words and that life. Westerners, Europeans, North Americans et al. adhere to the words of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, and in particular to the First Amendment to the US Constitution that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These different loyalties have created and continue to fuel the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds. All that we do should be aimed in good part at bridging that gap. On the other hand those cartoons, although trivial in themselves, have become the favored vehicle for promoting the destructive passions of the least gifted and least capable and intelligent players on both sides of what may yet turn out to be a war of civilizations. The cartoons should never have been printed. They were a mistake, and in that regard not too different from the Iraq War itself. Both the editors of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and the proponents of the War wanted to promote the values of the West. They have in fact put these values at even greater risk than ever before.

CES Common Principles

The Coalition of Essential Schools share a common set of beliefs about the purpose and practice of schooling, known as the CES Common Principles.
I have restated these ten principles down below in bold, and to each one of them I have added commentary of my own in itallics. You will quickly see that I’m not as convinced as the CES that their principles are based on a valid reading of how children will best learn. In fact, I leave little of their language untouched and still whole.
Also, if we assume for the moment that there are such “common principles,” I would insist that the number of them not be limited to 10, nor even to 100. For learning is only in small part what goes on in the school. Learning is much, much more. Learning is life, and life is learning, and you can no more reduce learning to a set of principles than you can life itself. The coalition ought to have been content to simple recommend some changes in school practices, reform a few abuses, because there’s no lack of such in our schools. The coalition ought not to have tried to impose their own partial vision of what schooling is all about on the rest of us. For we, if we’ve thought much about it, have other, and no less valid ideas of what school should and could be at best.

1. The school should focus on helping young people learn to use their minds well. Schools should not be comprehensive if such a claim is made at the expense of the school’s central intellectual purpose.

[The problem that I find with this is that it’s simply too vague, open to too many interpretations, and as such not much help to the teacher or school administrator, let alone the student. “Helping young people to learn to use their minds well.” Of course, but what does that mean in regard to what you do in the classroom? Rather I would say that students ought to read a lot, and do a lot of work with numbers and as soon as possible with mathematical symbols. And if students are properly taught, if they learn to read well and to handle algebraic symbols, they will in the process be using their minds well, for that’s exactly what these sorts of activities demand of them. No need to say “use their minds well,” and in any case that’s never an answer for the teacher who wants to know what to do Monday.]

2. The school’s goals should be simple: that each student master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. While these skills and areas will, to varying degrees, reflect the traditional academic disciplines, the program’s design should be shaped by the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies that the students need, rather than by “subjects” as conventionally defined. The aphorism “less is more” should dominate: curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement rather than by an effort to merely cover content.

[I have even more problems with this one. The first sentence implies that the student will not master some of the essential skills, or perhaps it means that there are only a limited number of essential skills? In either case who on earth could say with confidence that these are the essential skills, and these others are not essential? For example, reading a musical score is or is not an essential skill? How about being able to break down a diesel engine? I could very well accept that one’s education should primarily consist of learning to read musical scores and being able to diagnose the problem and then repair a diesel engine, that these both were essential skills. And for both of these pursuits doesn’t one make good use of one’s mind? Furthermore, if you ever met a diesel mechanic who spent his spare time reading Mozart opera scores would it ever occur to you to say that he wasn’t educated? Rather might you not say that here was an educated man?
But there’s a lot else wrong with number two. For who is prepared to say what a student needs? It turned out that my own son needed most to learn to swim, for it’s through that activity that he has lived most intensely in his adult years. With us he almost never swam, but played basketball, that which he never plays now. Also, we “made” him speak French all his life, and he is now bilingual, but if you asked today he probably wouldn’t say he needed that language. He probably would tell us that if he needed an additional language it would be (and should have been) either Arabic, Hindi, or Mandarin, for now he finds himself traveling among the peoples who speak these languages, as much, or more, as among those who speak English and French.]

3. The school’s goals should apply to all students, while the means to these goals will vary as those students themselves vary. School practice should be tailor-made to meet the needs of every group or class of students.

[I suppose this principle stems most of all from the authors wanting to be inclusive, for now-a-days that’s what one is supposed to be. As in “everyone should go to college.”
But at the same time if the means to these goals vary, and if school practices should be tailor-made to fit the students, how will the school’s goals ever be successfully applied to all the students, except on paper as in this list of principles?]

4. Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Efforts should be directed toward a goal that no teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school. To capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.

[Because teachers used to see 120-150 different students in one day’s time, this seems like a real reduction in teacher responsibilities, enabling more one on one time between student and teacher. For of course if teachers have daily contact with fewer students these fewer students will or should get more of their teacher’s time. O.K.
But what has this to do with the other common sensical statement in the same paragraph that the choice of teaching materials etc. be in the hands of principal and staff? This shows how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction if this even has to be said about the governance of our schools. Is it really different from saying that parenting ought to be done by parents than to say that teachers and principal ought to make together “the decisions regarding the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of materials?”]

5. The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker, rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.

[This is the first principle that I would wholeheartedly agree with, although I’d say “learner” rather than “worker,” simply because for most people the word worker doesn’t refer to students in school. No sense in battling with language usage. There are enough problems without creating new ones in regard to the meanings of words. But I do agree that school should mostly be about students who are learning and about teachers who are helping them to learn. In other words, students should be going to school because they want to learn something, not simply to spend x hours doing what they’re told before they’re sprung loose in order do what they want later. So yes, I’m all in favor of students teaching themselves. In Russian the word meaning to teach is ssss (sorry, I haven’t figured out how to get cyrillic letters into my Blog); and to learn, it’s ssssss, or to teach oneself. So in Russian there’s only teaching (or only learning). And it was with their educational system (and in particular with their mathematics and Physics) that the Russians living in the former Soviet Union had their greatest successes.]

6. Teaching and learning should be documented and assessed with tools based on student performance of real tasks. Students not yet at appropriate levels of competence should be provided intensive support and resources to assist them quickly to meet those standards.

Multiple forms of evidence, ranging from ongoing observation of the learner to completion of specific projects, should be used to better understand the learner’s strengths and needs, and to plan for further assistance. Students should have opportunities to exhibit their expertise before family and community. The diploma should be awarded upon a successful final demonstration of mastery for graduation – an “Exhibition.” As the diploma is awarded when earned, the school’s program proceeds with no strict age grading and with no system of credits earned” by “time spent” in class. The emphasis is on the students’ demonstration that they can do important things.

[Here, I believe, we run smack up against the greatest problem with the principles. According to this principle the student will not be tested in the usual manner (although in order to determine the student’s “appropriate level of competence” what other means is there?) but will be asked to demonstrate his or her knowledge to the entire school community. But this is a “performance,” acting, theater, showmanship, and draws on other skills than the knowledge of a subject matter. Real knowledge of that kind can only be “demonstrated,” if at all, over a long period of time, staying with a task, staying in school, finishing school, going on to college, and graduating from college, successfully holding down a job, certainly not in a half hour or so of showing and telling in front of the other students and school community members. The “exhibition” will at best only reflect the preparation for that single happening, certainly not tell us what the student has learned of the entire subject, any more than the correct answer to a single test question will be an accurate reflection of what the student knows. I’ve witnessed these exhibitions, and have been impressed occasionally with the real ability of some students to communicate well on their feet in front of an audience. Many others don’t have this ability and it’s at best tedious, and at worst embarrassing to sit through the entire exhibition.]

7. The tone of the school should explicitly and self-consciously stress values of unanxious expectation (“I won’t threaten you but I expect much of you”), of trust (until abused) and of decency (the values of fairness, generosity and tolerance). Incentives appropriate to the school’s particular students and teachers should be emphasized. Parents should be key collaborators and vital members of the school community.

[Of course, but this was not less true, or should have been true, of the traditional school. Who would ever deny the essential place of trust, decency, fairness, generosity, tolerance et al. in any community, including that of the school?
Parents welcomed in the school? Well that depends on the parents. There are some parents that you would never want to see in the school, let alone as “key collaborators and vital members of the school community.”]

8. The principal and teachers should perceive themselves as generalists first (teachers and scholars in general education) and specialists second (experts in but one particular discipline). Staff should expect multiple obligations (teacher-counselor-manager) and a sense of commitment to the entire school.

[I would reverse this, at least as regards the teachers. Teachers should perceive themselves first and foremost as knowledgeable in a particular discipline (let’s avoid the word “specialist” which has the wrong connotation for a community of learners). It is the teacher’s particular knowledge, whether it’s being able to read musical scores or being able to take down a diesel engine, that will first and most powerfully reach the student. Generalists are not apt to touch the students, because students can’t be generalists, and therefore probably can’t understand generalists, whereas they can become quite knowledgeable in one particular subject area, especially when the teacher is their role model, and as a result feel close to that teacher and profit from that closeness.]

9. Ultimate administrative and budget targets should include, in addition to total student loads per teacher of 80 or fewer pupils on the high school and middle school levels and 20 or fewer on the elementary level, substantial time for collective planning by teachers, competitive salaries for staff, and an ultimate per pupil cost not to exceed that at traditional schools by more than 10 percent. To accomplish this, administrative plans may have to show the phased reduction or elimination of some services now provided students in many traditional schools.

[If the Essential Schools Movement hasn’t been more successful it’s probably because of this principle, number 9. For if the reform, whatever it might be, is going to cost more it’s going to lose the interest of many communities simply because of that. And if the reform also means eliminating some positions it’s going to lose even more interest and support. It there are two things that entrenched powers don’t want it’s budget increases and program cuts.]

10. The school should demonstrate non-discriminatory and inclusive policies, practices, and pedagogies. It should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school. The school should honor diversity and build on the strength of its communities, deliberately and explicitly challenging all forms of inequity.

[This number 10 is of little or no interest. It’s simply being politically correct, kowtowing to the authorities. It would stave off such things as an IRS investigation or a suit by a disgruntled parent, townsperson, or other.]

An Open Letter to Gerald Bracey

An Open Letter to Gerald Bracey
Jerry,
Today I happened to read the interview with Jaime Escalante in Ed Week. His criticism of our public schools (and what he said didn’t depend on the schools being public, except that’s what most schools are) struck home with me. He simply said that not enough kids were in school because they wanted to learn, and as a result the school and classroom lacked the atmosphere of discipline and respect without which learning could not take place.

Here are some excerpts from the interview with Jaime, and in what he says he does make, it seems to me, a valid international comparison, although I’ve never been to Bolivia. (I have been to France and the French classroom is often just as unruly as ours.)

Q. You taught there for 12 years before you came to the U.S. How would you compare teaching in Bolivia with what you experienced in California?
A. First of all, we don’t have gangs. You don’t have discipline problems. The kids follow directions. And they don’t have [textbooks]. You have to copy everything from the chalkboard, whatever the teacher is telling you. This country gives [out] new books, and soon the books are full of graffiti. In Bolivia, the kids appreciate education. They want to be something. Over here, education is, for some students, a punishment. Over there, it’s a privilege.

And a bit later in the same interview:

Q. What should schools be doing for students that most aren’t?
A. At any school, the first thing that you have to do is, like in Garfield, to show [and] teach respect, hard work, and discipline, and today, they are not doing that.

Isn’t Jaime blaming failure on a failed learning atmosphere? He is not blaming it on poverty, single parent homes, lack of proper mental health, social, and other services etc., as the liberal would do. Nor is he blaming the failure on the lack of school choice as the conservative holds. He is blaming the failure on the lack of classroom discipline, meaning in its highest form students being in the classroom because they want to learn (its lowest form being school uniforms and all that sort of thing, perhaps also necessary in some schools).
His analysis from the gut strikes home with me because I see schools where the poorest and most at risk kids are learning because the teacher has somehow (by magic, I admit it’s not easy) created that necessary, disciplined learning atmosphere in the classroom. In Boston where I work there are Nativity, Pilot, Charter and District Schools (all serving extremely poor and highly at risk kids), where this learning atmosphere exists, and where students learn. Such an atmosphere is what Jaime created in his math class at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, although not by himself, but with, as he stresses, the help of the whole school. He is the first to admit that he couldn’t have done it without that help.

I mention all this because most of our discussions — more often quarrels and disagreements, revolve around the validity of the criticisms from the left, from the Kozols, the Meiers, the Kohls, the Berliners, or around those from the right, from the Friedmans, the Bennetts, the Petersons, et al…. I find that the names of those on the right don’t come as easily, are there fewer of them? (By the way, where do you stand? In regard to NCLB, you’re definitely on the left, but in regard to the students themselves being held accountable, there you’re on the right perhaps?)

But what I really want to ask you is this: "Aren’t all these discussions regarding our public schools missing the essential? For isn’t it the discipline, stupid.” When that’s there, and only then, does learning take place. And again, I don’t mean by that the discipline of the boot camp, although that also has its place, but the discipline that emanates from people who are together because they want to learn together.

When the conservative says that throwing more money at the problem won’t help, isn’t it because the discipline problem is not usually addressed let alone solved by the additional expenditures? When the liberal says that vouchers won’t help, that charters won’t do the job, that educational management organizations won’t succeed any better than the failing schools they would replace, isn’t it because none of these solutions stress enough the prime importance of the attitude that the student brings with him or her into to the school and classroom? The best example of the failure of money to solve the problem is probably Kansas City Public Schools (could this have been one of the few things that John Stossel got right the other night on ABC’s 20/20?). The best example of the failure of charter schools is probably Washington DC when the same disorderly and undisciplined classrooms are born again in a new guise.

You must talk with teachers who leave the profession, especially the young idealists who last just a few years, perhaps those from Teach for America. Don’t they often say they left teaching because the kids in their classrooms didn’t want to learn? Wouldn’t it be better if all our discussions of school reform were centered around the single issue of how to “get the horse to drink?” Furthermore, who cares about anything else when the thirsty horse starts to drink? Who cares about the class size, the length of the school day, the degree of autonomy of the school head, whether or not there are school vouchers,… when the student right there in front of you wants to know what you’re going to do to help him to learn.

I know things were never as we think they were, but wasn’t there ever a time when the students wanted to learn and you didn’t have to fight with them to get them just to pay attention? Perhaps when we were hunters and gatherers? Perhaps in the workshops of medieval Europe? Perhaps now in the homes of some of the home schoolers?

I like to read you. You know more than I do about all this. And I like very much when I’m able to follow your reasoning in one of your books or Bracey Reports for the Kappan.

Reply from Gerald Bracey
1/27/06

If I were interviewing Escalante I would ask "Jaime, how come you think you know anything about Bolivian education? You left in 1964, that’s 42 effing years ago. Even late in the 1980’s, the secondary school graduation rate was only 5%. You were teaching an elite, man. Anyone can teach an elite."

That said, school probably is seen as a punishment because too many teachers make it far too boring. Maybe universal secondary education doesn’t work. We didn’t try it until well after World War II (our graduation rate then was about 50% and a lot of people derided "book learnin’).

As I recall, the principal reason teachers give for leaving is that there was no process for showing them the ropes, no mentoring. TFA is a special case since they are recruited to teach in urban slums, but a surprisingly high percentage of them (to me, anyway) stay on well after their 2-year commitment is over.

JB

Doctors and Teachers

While creating and establishing its present system of public school education this country made two huge mistakes of which we are still sufffering the tragic consequences.

First of all, probably at some time during the latter part of the 19th. century, medical doctors were given or assumed what should have been just as much or more the rightful of teachers in regard to the respect and remuneration accorded them by the population. The result is that people now look up to doctors and pay them accordingly, whereas teachers are looked down upon and are poorly paid. If you’re a parent who should be more important in the life of your child, the teacher or the doctor? It’s strange that we need even ask this question, and not be sure of the response. A symptom of the problem our country is up against in regard to the education of its children. We’re probably the only developed country in the world where teachers are not held in high regard, respected even more than medical doctors. Why this came about is for another, probably book-length post, but it did come about, and we’re still paying for the consequences, on the one hand with the exorbitant cost of medicare care and the resulting absence of health insurance for millions, and on the other hand with the mediocre achievement of our schools over all, and their failure in particular among the poor and the disadvantaged youth of our inner cities.

So in the 19th. century our teachers saw the position they should have had go to the doctors, although this didn’t have to be a competition, or a zero sum game. Both could have been well remunerated and well respected. Then in the 20th century, in spite of their loss of respect among the population as a whole, the teachers gained many more students as state after state provided free schooling, from Kindergarten through high school, to every child. It was at this point that our country made its second big mistake. For some reason the schools placed the burden of the child’s learning on the teacher, the curriculum, and the conditions of the classroom, and not on the child. Was this a conscious decision on the part of the school authorities? I don’t know. But the children were not made to understand that if they learned anything at all it would be mostly through their own efforts, and that the school and the teacher could help, but could never replace what they had to do for themselves. The children were never told that they would learn only to the extent they made an effort to do so. So they ended up, huge numbers of them, going to school and waiting to be taught, and in many cases, when they realized they were not learning, dropping out of school along the way, often well before finishing high school.

Now this is a tragedy because lives, those of teachers as well as students, are still being lost, and we seem powerless to turn things around. The doctors are still well paid (although less so today than yesterday) and are well respected, and the teachers are still poorly paid and not respected. Americans are constantly hearing about all the efforts, one after the other, on the part of politicians, business leaders, school superintendents, principals, and teachers to reform and improve teaching and learning in the schools, and then they invariably see how each reform effort brings about little or no substantive change for the better. And the students, instead of being confronted with the fact that they are responsible for their own learning, go on, mostly at ease, and probably amused, while observing the reform efforts made constantly in their behalf. The fact that children during the first few years of school do seem to be learning illustrates this point, for very young children haven’t yet learned to attend school and class waiting to be taught by the teacher. Instead, they go to school at that young age still carrying their natural learning with them. After a few years they do learn otherwise, that school really isn’t about their learning, and they become disillusioned and for good in some cases, and for bad in others, look elsewhere to learn other things not taught in the schools.

Failing Schools and International Competitivenes

I sympathise with Jaime Gass. See "Rounding out our future work force" in today’s Boston Globe. No one would disagree that our schools, in particular the failing public schools in our inner cities, should be improved for the kids who attend these schools. However, to make a connection, as so many including Jaime Gass seem to do, between these failing schools and our economic competitiveness, is totally without basis in fact. We are living in, and we have been for at least two generations or more, a society where these failing schools are the norm (a situation, by the way, which no one so far has been able to change for the better, probably because it’s a social, economic, and cultural problem combined, more than just a problem within the schools themselves). And in spite of this, in spite of the large numbers of failing schools, large numbers of high school and college dropouts, and all of these and other deplorable statistics, it’s a fact that during this period the United States has led the world in creative entrepreneurship and resulting increased economic productivity (witness the recent comment by the Singapore foreign minister pointing to the great success of their kids in school, but then their failure thereafter relative to Americans no longer in school but now in the workforce).

Gass says that the “decline of American manufacturing and job losses due to outsourcing are exacerbated by the lack of academic excellence and the inequality of opportunity in too many school districts.” But there are absolutely no statistics that back this up. Indeed, more and better educated high school graduates would probably mean even greater losses due to outsourcing (and, perhaps even more detrimental to our economy, fewer highly educated and capable immigrants, although for obvious reasons this would most likely not happen), because the latter is most of all looking for a cheap (capable, but not necessarily well educated) labor pool, and well educated graduates are certainly not the cheap labor pool that the outsourcers go to Mexico, China, India et al in order to find. Outsourcing stems from a basic principle of economics, that which says that companies will always seek the most cost efficient means of making their products, whether the latter be wooden matches or sewing needles, computers or automobiles. The only way to stop outsourcing is to have equally expensive/inexpensive labor pools throughout the world (and then the world would be “flat”). The highly desirable goal of improving our schools for our most disadvantaged kids should not be confused with the no less desirable goal of insuring that our economy continues to compete successful with the growing economic juggernauts of India and China. So far not the quality of the graduates of our inner city high schools, but, and I admit the irony of this, the steady stream of highly educated immigrants to our country, has been probably the most significant factor enabling us to remain competitive.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité