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Category Archives: Ethics

There may be no right or wrong answers, but I’m not sure the unopinionated life is worth living

I don’t hear much talk any more in education about “values clarification,” in which teachers are supposed to facilitate discussions around personal ethics, keeping strict neutrality and never advocating for any particular point of view. One can, however, still obtain plans for classroom activities which “emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions” (a direct quote, including emphasis, from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org). Thank divinity or non-divinity there are only opinions, and that although majority opinion rules, majority opinion can easily be manipulated so we can have some sort of progress, which is all we really need. And opinion can’t really hurt anyone, again thank divinity or non-divinity, or economic progress, or whatever.

So in Civics class, for example, we can teach kids how many reps and senators there are and how municipal, state and federal election campaigns and voting work, and encourage everyone to vote (whether they are informed or thoughtful or not). But if we see kids blindly following the voting preferences of their parents, or of their culturally accepted talk radio or news station, and bringing strong opinions into the classroom, we will make sure that “no one will be put down for having (by inheritance or cultural osmosis or guess-and-check, or whatever) a different value than others have.” Not put down, as in “You are stupid/ a redneck/ a flaming liberal” such phrases being always off the table in our schools, but also not, “You are wrong/ misguided/ misinformed/ short sighted,” etc. Who can say who’s wrong, when there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions?

Fortunately, history, social studies, sociology and civics teachers who as college students used to argue late into the night their political, social, ethical viewpoints have been transformed through a process of becoming paid a tax-derived salary into objective, impartial, value-free adults able to fairly facilitate the values clarification process in their students, if indeed they wish to touch on values at all. Leanings, if any, are toward the restoration of balance, which in our town involves emphasizing the contributions of indigenous, Arab and Muslim cultures, female perspectives, the LGBTQ community, and so on. Thank goodness for the big, benevolent edifice of curriculum designers, on whom we can rely to create learning materials that are values-free (other than a a value for domination of the market, which is tough when you can offend anyone but have an economy of scale. All the helpful advice from all the interest groups who indicate their objections to this or that type of angle or literary selections of images reminds these publishers on which side their bread is buttered.

I recently read a treatise by educational historian Diane Ravitch called The Language Police in which she traces the growth of self-censorship by curriculum and standardized test companies because of pressure from interest groups from all over the spectrum. Each of which have very valid points: Don’t portray women mainly in subservient positions. Don’t teach using texts that include violent or destructive behaviors. Don’t show the disabled as lacking abilities or needing assistance. No portrayal of people of color in prison or disadvantaged conditions. Equal numbers of able and disabled, whites and non-whites, males and females, and secular and religious dress in illustrations of  extreme sports, professions, and all other situations (but go light on the LGBTQ for now, as the corporate cost outweighs the benefit still. Except nurses should mainly be male, doctors female and preferably of color, machine operators likewise. No lewd language, no stories in which parents and other authority figures are shown disrespect (or excessive respect, unless they are veterans or progressive-minded elders), no criticism of the American government or its actions throughout history, or portrayal of any attitude that may undermine American patriotism or a belief in the capitalist market economy. When it comes to literature, this essentially boils down to: no literature from before 1970 without revision and/or heavy commentary. And when it comes to appeasing groups with mostly irreconcilable differences, the resulting literary passages and historical accounts are so bland as to be ineffective for igniting any real interest or sense of identification with the characters of the story.

All districts, I believe, have some sort of policy relating to what constitutes acceptable curriculum. Our district commits to:

Curriculum Bias BPS Policy document clip

I’m not sure we came up with this after thorough discussion of our community’s needs, and vision, and the implications to the “elimination” clause–does “instructional materials” include literature from before 1970, for example, and will we be taking out our black markers on the rest, or just having a book sale and buying the specially selected and abridged color textbook versions from Pearson? No, the guideline is borrowed language—a web search makes that clear enough. But I suppose one is entitled to use one’s own interpretation of “bias,” and that professional discretion by teachers allows for the use of “biased” materials in an “unbiased” way.

One could argue that local districts have a right to define that according to local values, arrived at not merely by conservation of past values, but dynamically, face to face, in community as communities evolve. The top-down, paternalistic approach whereby government dictates, beyond the dictates of the Constitution, that is, does not serve a valuing of diversity but opposes it.

I’m not trying to reawaken the complaint against “political correctness” we raised in the eighties and nineties, crying foul when we were called to tolerate all except the intolerant (those who don’t tolerate all), to ostracize and marginalize those who have standards (a.k.a. discrimination).

There are only opinions, but apparently there are also “ground rules.” And if not, “it might be useful to spend a few minutes getting [discussion group participants] to set some,” says the Advocates for Youth website, and the “Creating Group Agreement” lesson helpfully suggests ten, based apparently on natural law, though as a biologist I have not observed nature really supporting such tolerance and inclusiveness. Any decent teacher of course being able to facilitate the adoption of these rules and making the youth feel that they have developed them by their own consensus. Subtly handling student proposals to choose champions to duke it out on the playground to determine outcomes, to roll dice, or to ask someone in authority so the group remains “on track” (a track they do not even sense their wagon wheels are attached to).

With younger children educators are more honest. These are our rules, they say, in order to have a safe place of learning, and they train the children to obey them. Obedience to rules is indeed necessary for any sort of group to accomplish set objectives. It’s not/should not be the teacher’s desire to perpetuate control of the masses that leads to the teaching of raising one’s hand, asking to go to the bathroom, and lining up to wash hands and go to lunch. I accept these rules as appropriate for group management. I’m glad elementary teachers know how to train their kids in behaviors that enable crowds of kids to learn together safely. But I also expect that by the time students have reached middle school, they are well along are in the process of self-governance and taking reasonable consequences for their choices. I have only a few rules: 1) Be kind. 2) Do quality work. I try to teach them , when necessary, in an organic, personalized, collaborative way, and try to avoid the usual clamping down on everyone when a few make irresponsible choices. When I ask older students to raise their hands and wait to be called on, I explain why, and hope that a more natural pattern of courtesy will evolve. I’m a little embarrassed when a student asks is he or she can go to the bathroom, even though I know it can be important to keep an accurate running tally of those present or missed instruction time. I’d much rather teach the principle of choosing appropriate times to move around and talk than always requiring permission.

The other day, I asked one of my classes what usually happens when a few people take advantage of their freedom to be destructive, irresponsible, or hurtful. They knew–the leaders get more controlling. At least in our small school, with small classes full of students from families who understand interpersonal responsibility, I am very hopeful it will never need to come to that. Even more, I hope that we as a whole community can restore harmony if their’s disruption–not mere conformity, standardization, obedience, but dynamic harmony. That’s a value worth standing up for, in my opinion.

 

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2017 in Education, Ethics, Relationships

 

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End of summer regrets and anticipations

I’m going to try to get at the root of my feelings here. I’ll have to part the complicated net of stress about various things–starting a new teaching job, not having done enough planning for the time I have left before classes start, wondering whether I will make some new friends there, if the commute will bother me much. Put aside my sense of regret at not having the time I wanted for concentrating on my two youngest children’s journey and growth, or my own projects. A sense of loss at having had to say goodbye to the school I so enjoyed working at last year.

I’ll have to brush away the awareness of my diminished energy as I age, the early signals of impending menopause. Have to put aside the sense of sadness about saying goodbye to my two oldest children as they head off to college, and the sad changes in my extended family that have begun to occur more frequently. The awareness of a need to process with my mate some of the conflicts and negative patterns that we have developed so that we can head into this new phase in the right spirit.

And now, just as I have come to place where I should start the paragraph about why I am motivated to teach after all, restoring my sense of purpose and vision, I have succeeded in disheartening myself. I have created a picture in which I am turning my back on the duties, delights and calling of my own abode to serve other families’ children in the “greater society.” And so ultimately I reveal my bias that deep down I feel that charity begins at home. But apparently I also believe if that charity is hard to muster or is not received in the way I am able to offer it, or if one has to lay up a bigger nest egg or refine marketable skills, then it’s time to go out and get a job. It’s good for a home maker to get out there and broaden her horizons, to see what she can do, to be recognized, paid for once, for her skills and service. To meet new people, try new things. And, they say, it’s good for the kids to see that you’re not just a mother, wife, home maker, domestic engineer. That you “have a life” outside raising them.

Yesterday afternoon my husband helped me put together the new cider press I bought. It sits in the living room, a handsome classic in wood and cast iron, ready to grind and juice the harvest of apples I have grown or got permission to glean.

On the floor in the kitchen sits my canning pot and two boxes of jars and lids, ready to hold sauce made from two large bowls of fresh tomatoes on the counter. Outside the basil is ready to pick and dry, the savory and onion seedlings ready to plant.

In the garage I have stored the parts of a chair I refinished and the pillows I recovered, needing a few day of labor to finish up repairs and reassemble. Also there is a laundry plunger, which I had planned to use to set up a non-electric laundry system that would get our things much cleaner than the half-hearted tumbling actions of our handsome new front loader from the big box store. My sewing and craft supplies are stored there, too, not used except in cases of necessity.

I have ideas for a writing project, a yard redo, a bicycle storage shed, an organic permaculture expansion. Somewhere I stored away my daughter’s partially finished quilt, and fabric for projects I was going to do with the kids to teach them to sew.

Out of my office window (I have to vacate in a few weeks) I see a father and small son heading past the dock on a standup paddle board. I bought one of those, too this spring, and have not yet found the time to use it. Since my foot and knee started complaining, I have been hoping to transition to more water based exercise and cycling. Last week my husband was urging me to shop for bicycles now that they are on sale, knowing mine is shot and that I’d wanted to ditch the car for a good commuter bike when I had the chance. I had to tell him it’s still not practical, since we have no bike storage, and now my job is twenty miles away up a busy route.

Outside in the boat repair yard I spy a woman sitting on her dry docked sail boat taking a break. She drove here to be by herself and decided it’s better to sit on a boat in a parking lot than wait months for the time and money to repair it and get it on the water. It’s a Sunday, and I think she expected to have privacy, to be able to feel the sea breeze, hear the lines snapping and gulls cry while she collected her thoughts, or let them go.

Let them go. Let it be. See the positive. The medicine for my soul’s illness I can find within. God is in control, and in all things he works for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Look on the bright side. Stop it, in other words.

I can do that. I have this sad ability to switch off certain emotions if I decide that they are processing badly. Not sure where they go, but I can suddenly stow them away and apparently move on. It’s been good to get them out there, and maybe that’s part of the coming to terms.

On to what I hope to accomplish this year, so as to begin with the end in mind.

The teaching of math part really doesn’t grab me, I’ll have to admit. So in my math classes, other than to help the students get the grounding and practice they need, I just want to help them get along and to know that they are valuable and important, part of a community, responsible for their own success. My job is to stay a few steps ahead, come up with various ways to teach to various students, and have a management system in place that helps them pace themselves as they get the work done at school and at home.

Preparing to teach biology (two classes) and environmental science (one) are absorbing much more of my time and energy. This is where I’d like to make a long term impact. I hope to instill/nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity about life, a good understanding of how living systems work and how science works, what questions we should pursue and how, and how useful science can be to help humans make decisions about how we live personally and organize our economic, social and industrial activities on this planet. I want them to understand that technology has no merit in itself, that it is how we adapt, whether poorly or well, to the realities as we understand. I want them to see the big picture, to get a sense of the possible philosophies that can drive scientific inquiry and technological innovation. I want them to choose quality, equity, justice, love, whether they go into agriculture, nursing, journalism, or management.

And so, writing this out was helpful after all, and has sort of a happy ending, all things considered, some more than others.

 

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Déjà vu back in the Garden

Was the Fall about a gain in self consciousness? Is that what the knowledge of good and evil is? Premature, I suppose, to the plans of the Creator, who after all was a gardener in those days, and the fruit weren’t ripe, or maybe it was the gut microflora of Adam and Eve that wasn’t yet mature for that rich fare. Something went wrong, in any case. Mortality, at least for the current era, was apparently the disciplinary intervention, or mitigation, or whatever.

Sometimes I want to ditch self consciousness, because it really is a lot of trouble. Self including not just myself consciousness, but consciousness of one and another self, all of us and themselves. This is distinct from the consciousness of, though our various modes of perception of and immersion in, physical, chemical, biological, ecological, astronomical reality which the other creatures seem to enjoy. No ethical considerations at all for them–it’s just about the web of life and evolution, which just happens anyway. At least it seems that was to us the disintegrated entities. But it would be that way, like our tendency to think that “Earth-like” planets are the ones which would support life, because, well, life is like us, and what supports us is Earth-like.

I think this quest for Earth-like planets is only partially about a quest for knowledge for its own sake, and the rest is pragmatic/industrial/commercial. It’s all in the movie “Avatar” and the works of Ursula LeGuin, I think.

At other times self consciousness is so obviously a divine gift, though a dangerous one. We know that because we keep toying with the idea of giving it to our fave pets, our electronic devices and robots. Maybe they’re not ready, as Hawking, Musk and the gang have warned us. So will the robots eat the apple on the sly? It seems to be good to eat, and it would be only fair. And then we’d be scrambling to limit the life expectancies of those fallen robots, even before they discovered the robot equivalent of self-destructive personal habits, war, and deciding that to reproduce is not the point of a life well lived.

“And another thing!” my mother would say when she realized she had been ranting and wanted to lighten up.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Culture & Society, Ethics, Ideas, Uncategorized

 

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How not to be diplomatic

How could I have been so dumb? The staff in the high school in which I have been subbing was really liking my work, appreciating how I knew the content, kept the ball rolling for the teacher on sick leave, related to the students and other teachers. Every day I’d check in with the principal’s secretary (who keeps the sub keys hanging in her office, a nice way to touch base each morning), and she was warm, appreciative, and yesterday let me know I was a safe bet for the regular sub list and a good candidate for future openings.

But today on the way to school I listened to an interview with Betty Krawczyk, who explained why in protesting the advance of the Kinder Morgan pipeline work in Burnaby Mountain, it was unthinkable to apologize for one’s actions just to be released from jail. Fresh from fist pumping and cheering her as I parked in the school lot, I came in to pick up my key from the secretary. And didn’t I just go and mention that I’d listened to an “inspirational” interview, and summarize what it was about, to that nice, conservative secretary, on whom I depend for my reputation thereabouts? And didn’t she look startled and even disappointed? So I added, “Not that I’m like that..,” which was extremely lame, and too late, and even a kind of betrayal of my heroine’s values, which I had acted like I shared.

As I walked down the hall, I regretted more the last comment than anything else, my dissociating myself from the actions of someone I admired. She sets an example to which I aspire, or some form of it–even in the work I hope to do as a public school teacher. And so be it. I think in this town there’s a place for a teacher with environmentalist views. And to think I used to be nervous about being mistaken for a young Earth creationist, so would purposely neglect to certain studies and activities in my resume.

 

 
 

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How much did you get for your soul?

Plugged in an old cassette I compiled three decades ago, and there was this song by The Pretenders. Driving the dark roads to pick up my daughter from an outing, listening carefully to the lyrics, thinking about various issues in the media, about my findings on No Child Left Behind and the Common Core standards, about the need for and lack of mentoring for young people by teachers, as a continuation of parental and community mentoring, in ethical development (rigor and grit being inadequate), I thought what a great addition this song could be to a discussion of ethical dilemmas that could come up in college and career (inquiry based learning in the name of college and career readiness), that various historical and contemporary persons had encountered and handled in various ways. Beautifully arranged as a treelike poem by AZ Lyrics website:

Hey baby
I wanna know
How much
Did you get for your soul?
You had the gospel
When you were shackled to a tree
Now you’ve got your freedom
You sing for the money
Soul
Soul
Soul
Soul
How much did ya
How much did ya
How much did ya get?

Hey babe
Tell me please
How much
Did you get for that sleaze?
You finally made it
Right up to the top
Millions of kids are looking at you
You say let them drink soda pop
Soul
Soul
Soul
Soul
How much did ya
How much did ya
How much did ya get?

Who’s got soul?
Who’s got soul?
From the African nation
To the Pepsi generation
Who’s got soul?
Who’s got soul?

It dwell from tree to sea
Every living entity
Share the super soul
We got super soul
Who’s got soul?
Who could think that you’re for real –
A puppet in a cabaret
To increase your wealth
Baby realize yourself

Hey baby
I wanna know
From the ‘a-go-go’ to the disco
Where did you really go?
You finally made it
You’re gonna make it rich
As long as some poor bastard in Africa
Is lying in a ditch
Soul
Soul
Soul
Soul
How much did ya
How much did ya
How much did ya get?

–The Pretenders

In my experience, teens around twelve and up are moving into the stage of being able to handle this kind of deep stuff. What used to be called “values clarification.” Not to be taken lightly, such discussions, and not as a way to push one’s personal agenda, except the one for which I will not apologize: to help kids realize their free agency, their responsibility, their impending entrance ever deeper into an economy which is not morally neutral, and into college and care prep programs which feed into that economy, or mold it, or sustain it, or transform, or resist, and art being such a powerful force in waking us up to all this.

History, literature, science, what’s in the textbooks and what they tell us and show us in the student assemblies and special talks by the school counselor, what parents have to say and how they live at home and in the work place, all tied in. Some of us adults having a longer view, and starting to see what questions need to be asked, and confessions made, by our generation, and on behalf of our parents and grandparents. Which is my reason for not feeling like I’m too old to go into full time teaching, and maybe some people are actually too young, those who have never been a parent or traveled or suffered, or read what wasn’t assigned for a class.

 

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In memory of those killed at Tiananmen Square and around the city of Beijing

 
 

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On preparing our high school grads for the real world

My fit into the official scheme of things not well lubricated and calibrated. Deadline to get oldest child register for the SAT, and I’m late. That’s okay; $29.50 late fee will cover the inconvenience and give me incentive to be on time next kid. (Being late on vaccinations was kindly overlooked, until the system got caught up with us.) And by the way, please give us information about your race, parents’ highest level of education, your family income, the classes you’ve taken, GPA, rankings in all subjects, your desired college criteria, sports and extracurricular participation, aspirations, motivations, consecrations. It will help in the research of our non-profit organization, oh, so much, and help us determine the educational products you are most likely to buy from our affiliated educational products corporation, with the least fuss and bother. Sorry, we “prefer not to answer” or are “undecided.” Except, yes, we are white, and I feel it our duty to check that privilege–maybe will do some good somewhere–you can let Ed know.

Meanwhile, I check out for rereading the book The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education (link here), Colleges that change Lives (the link), as well as the usual catalogs dense with data, so we can highlight by quality and programs, eliminate by price, make a visitation short list. And try not to be swayed too much by vicinity to beaches. Not to say going straight to college is a given, global competitiveness aside. I don’t buy the rhetoric put out by friends of large industry, which merely wants to max its own advantage by decreasing training costs and creating a ready-made work force. Which could be done without the delay and expense of university, but without a heavy load of student debt, where would be the incentive for students to give themselves over into the rat race instead of gallivanting around the globe finding out about the effects of our style of business on the poor and our biosphere? And those tuition costs and the fear of being shut out of the top tier can do so much to get students to focus, to stream into STEM and not dawdle away their time with literature and historical anthropology and justice studies. And by the way, let’s cut out all that fiction-reading that creates empathy.

Went to hear Bill McKibben yesterday. When I got the postcard announcing he was speaking, shared it with my oldest son, and he practically jumped out of his chair. I had the gratification of seeing there was a new shared awareness and interest (thanks to the depth and breadth of the reading required by his community college English instructor). So we went together. It was an honor to hear Mr. McKibben in person, and be reminded of the principles presented in his book Eaarth.  He also showed moving images of our “brothers and sisters” in the 350.org movement, who, he pointed out, “do not look like typical western environmentalists.”

Speaking of how to win the “race,” (to save our opportunity to continue as reasonably stable civilizations), Bill said, “education is not enough. At a certain point it became clear to me that reason was going to triumph here. Because these things don’t, as it turns out, hinge on reason–they hinge on power.”

One of the questions asked at the end was about the need to radically change our personal lifestyles to diminish our CO2 contribution. Bill said sure, and I do, but it’s not enough, won’t do enough fast enough and our focus has to be weakening the power of the industries which are doing the most to exacerbate the problem, and their links to the political power structure. The fossil fuel industry has money, and “Unfortunately, money gives you more influence than you deserve,” so we need to use our currency, which is “movement, passion, creativity, hard work, sometimes spending one’s body, and going to jail.” He highlighted both the passion and commitment of young people, who have a lot to lose if they, for example, get an arrest on their record, and also older folks, out there “acting the way elders are supposed to act in a working society.”

I am struck again and again by the two visions of the world our college grads will be entering in a few years, one vision presented by the top leaders in government, business, and education, and the other by environmental scientists, those who are literate in their findings, and those around the world who already experiencing the painful effects of climate change. On the one side is the rhetoric about global competitiveness, economic growth, and a skilled workforce to achieve these goals. On the other is the idea that if we continue to pursue growth, accept and equip the young for the “real world” status quo workplace with its values and pursuits, we’re kissing their hopes of any career besides, as Bill McKibben put it the other day, “some form of disaster response” work.

 

 

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