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Karen Armstrong and Religion’s Truth 30 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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An interview with Karen Armstrong appeared in this morning's Salon.com, which provoked some thinking in me about why, as much as I love reading her books, there are moments when I just am dissatisfied with her analyses. I find that even as an agnostic–in the Huxleyan sense of "no knowledge without evidence"–I do find much in religious traditions to admire and that the search for the ineffable can be quite satisfying. I'm a great fan of Armstrong and her books…but also a respectful critic of some of her thinking.

In general, I understand Armstrong's arguments about the relationship of logos and mythos, but I find that the stark divide between the two can be problematic. It's a common division that ends up functioning to excuse religion from intellectual and moral rigor. It also fundamentally misunderstands "meaning," which, in Armstrong's Platonic formula, falls under the purview of mythos. John Dewey and George Herbert Mead argued that meaning is derived from the use of an idea; that is, you know what something (an event, an object, an idea) means by the way you interact with it. Science and Religion aren't two opposing systems giving us different aspects of life; they are two different ways of coming to understand (of interacting) with things. Human beings derive knowledge through interaction, be it scientific or religion knowledge. Religion and Science are different in quality, not in kind; therefore, it is not only legitimate, but essential that we compare them and criticize their relative strengths and weaknesses. In a shrinking world of dramatic cultural pluralism where ethno-religious violence is always bubbling, we can no longer afford Plato's (or more recently Stephen J. Gould's) categorical splitting of religion from science (Gould's "separate magesteria"…blech).

Armstrong's efforts to salvage religion from secular/scientific critique often slide into apology. Justifying the Koran's (or Bible's) brutality by interpreting the passage as a call to peace collapses the complexities of religious text and practice and paralyzes our ability to evaluate them, to produce moral judgments of the usefullness of a particular belief. Armstrong argues that those who say the Koran (or Bible) are violent texts merely misunderstand them. But the fact that millions of people believe and act in their religion counter to Armstrong's "true" interpretation demonstrates that the text means different things to different people in different contexts. Again, the meaning of a religion (or a passage in a religious text) emerges from the way people interact with it and enact it in the world. Meaning is not a fixed, immovable, knowable thing like a Platonic Ideal; the right interpretation isn't a thing that if we all look hard enough we'll all come to the same conclusion, especially not in a world where a single religious tradition is straddling thousands of different cultural, social and economic contexts.

A better tack would be to take the social scientific stance that religions are vastly complex cultural systems–the major traditions are thousands of years old; they encompass millions of diverse people, histories, and languages; their texts, practices, and beliefs are internally inconsistent and contradictory; and they contain both the impetus to violence and the call to peace. This would open religion up to more nuanced and targeted critiques of the immoralities of religious meaning in practice. It would also enable the kinds of critiques that Daniel Dennett calls for in his most recent book, where we can make rational decisions about what needs to be excised from our religious traditions, what no longer "works" in the world as we experience it now, not least of which are those major aspects of Islam and Christianity (not to mention Judaism and Hinduism) which push to tight community isolation and violence to outsiders.

Gender on PBS 25 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Cognitive Science, Gender, Science.
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The past couple weeks, PBS has been airing a British documentary program with the absurd but titilating title, "The Secrets of the Sexes." I watched about 1/2 hour of it, and literally every single segment was characterized by misrepresenting and exagerating evidence, occluding contradictory research, tacking on irrelevant research, ignoring complexity, drawing conclusions not warranted by evidence, and/or pretending no human being has ever been socialized. Admittedly, I could only make it through about 1/2 hour before my brain started to seize, so maybe things got better or they repented of their intellectual sins later in the show. But in the 30 mins I watched, I kept thinking about all the amazing gender researchers in cognitive science and anthropology and even genetics who are doing such amazing work on the complexities of gendered phenotypes and how they were completely missing from this "scientific" program.

To be clear: I do believe that male and female bodies occupy different bell curves for a number things (not least of which is physical stature). However, scientifically, those bell curves overlap a great deal, so that most human beings actually fall within the same statistical norms for things like cognition and emotionality (not to mention physical stature). But for some reason, we seem incapable of having the complex discussions about the mutual relatioship between bodies/genes and society/culture–indeed, as I've said before, I don't think "nature" and "nurture" can be separated anymore in any scientific way. But culturally, it is just too easy and comforting to think that Women Are from Venus and Men Are from Mars. (Please, if you really believe that, you've never spent a night at a bar with a man who just got dumped.)

Let me give one illustration: A group of scientists begin by testing multi-tasking abilities. They find in the population that women score better. Therefore, they conclude that "women" must be better multi-taskers. In reality, what they found was overlapping bell curves; that is, lots and lots of men are also really good multi-taskers. So then they have to figure out why say 65% of women and about 35% of men are good multitaskers, but the rest are not. They begin to find that scores correspond to jobs, so that stay-at-home moms with more children are very good multi-taskerrs; so are nurses (both men and women) and elementary school teachers and university professors. Then the neuro-scientists sweep in and begin testing and find that the ability to multi-task can be learned, and is in fact learned relatively easily in both sexes.

So not conceding anything about the gendering of multitasking, let's assume for the sake of argument that a female brain may more naturally be able to multitask. Even if that were true, the complexity is that all normal human brains actually can multitask right nicely and are easily trained to do so. This holds true with just about any cognitive ability you can think of, from nurturing and caretaking, to being an engineer or a physicist. Even morphological differences are actually plastic. For example, in the bell curve, women's brains tend to have more connections between the hemispheres; but women whose lives revolve around, say, computer science have connections that look more like "men's" and men whose lives revolve around say raising children have connections that look more like "women's".

Like I said, I do think that our genes play an important role in how we gender (i.e., nature); but the realities of those genes' phynotypical expression is that they are intricately connected to our social and cultural world (i.e., nurture)–that is, socialization and experience in the lived environment, including the social and cultural experiences, interacts with genetic expression. In fact, most evolutionary scientists working in cognition now argue that our brains evolved in precisely this way, giving us the advantage of being able to pass on to new generations incredibly stores of information. On the other hand, it is important to note that our brains are biological and physical, and that they work in particular ways to specific ends; they are plastic, but not completely plastic; our brain structures and genes determine how we learn and how we pass on information and even how we socialize. Like I said earlier, the separation between nature/nurture is false and detrimental to our understanding of where human minds and cultures actually come from. But for the issue of gender, our brains are so plastic and our genetic predispositions so connected to the experiences of our socialization as to make any easy statements such as "Women are" or "Men are" nearly impossible to make without a hundred caveats.

Educational Testing (K-12) 7 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences, Teaching.
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To be clear up front: the punitive and ridiculous Federal "no child left behind" program is detrimental to American education, to students of diverse backgrounds and beleaguered school disctricts who struggle just maintain minimum services. I am not speaking in this post of the fucked up idea that funding for education should be linked to poorly conceived and designed standardized tests, which is having the effect of worsening our public education system. This is not the kind of testing I'm talking about here. I also need to admit that in what follows I ignore the tight budgetary constraints in California, which have eliminated music, vocational ed, and arts in many public schools around the state; and which keep many talented individuals from entering the education profession.

It's time to change the way America educates. Like many things, the issue of standardized testing in schools evokes contradictory emotions and values for me, but after living with California education for the past 6 years, I'm at a loss as to what can be done. One thing that seems clear to me is that the education students are receiving leaves them largely bereft of basic intellectual skills and basic knowledge, let alone higher abilities.

In California, we are left with some disturbing questions: Why do students have (supposedly) more homework than ever before, but end up graduating without basic reading skills? or knowledge of geography? or ability to do simple algebra? (etc.) Why do one half of all the freshman admitted to the CSU, supposedly from the top 1/3 of every year's high school graduating class, have to take remedial English and math?

This spring, hundreds of graduating seniors failed the California high school exit exam—enacted in 1999—and several are now suing the state to receive their diplomas anyway, demanding alternatives to the test be given to demonstrate academic competencies in English and Math. The exam can be taken multiple times, starting Sophomore year, and students have only to pass it once. I can't help but find myself unsympathetic to their law suit. There are only so many excuses that can be made for being a high school senior and not having the basic skills to pass an exam on English and Math, which is basically at an 8th grade level.

As a college professor teaching young people educated in both public and private schools in California, I have found a core set of "Faulty Educational Values" driving K-12 education in the state (and perhaps around the country), which I find reflected in my students' attitudes and performance at the college level. (To be fair, I also find some of these problematic values in higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences.)

Value 1. So-called "critical thinking" without requiring students to learn anything to think about—facts, ideas, data, history, biology, chemistry, geology, sociology, literature, etc.
Value 2. Self-esteem at the expense of having adequate expectations and accountability for the students, and rewarding failure by facilitating students' move through the grades, regardless of their skills or abilities.
Value 3. Business skills for the job market (e.g., using Microsoft Office Suite) over substantive content, valuing delivery method over meaningful thought.
Value 4. College education is normative, without providing K-12 education that actually prepares students for college.
Value 5. College education is normative at the expense of perfectly legitimate trades and skills, eliminating funding for trades and skills both in the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Values must be judged by their consequences or effects, and clearly, the "touchy-feely" values that have driven education since the Baby Boomers became teachers and parents have not worked. Students are less well-educated, less proficient in basic English and Math, less knowledgeable of the world around them than they were 35 years ago (see the School & College report mentioned below). This failure of values requires a rethinking of both values and means to our educational ends as a nation, a society, and a democracy.

The tension between the college level and the secondary level is increasing around the country. In Nevada, for example, the state legislature just cut off funding for remedial education at the University of Nevada, arguing that students who need remedial educaction should not be at UNR to begin with and that high schools need to be producing college level graduates. The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published the results of a study about high school graduates' preparation for college and the gulf between university professors' and high school teachers' perceptions called School & College. For example, roughly 80% of college professors say their students are not prepared for college, whereas 80% of high school teachers say their students are prepared.

One way to deal with these issues is to set standards for knowledge and skills at specific grade levels, which must be demonstrated in tests before advancement to the next level. To be most effective, I would suggest grouping grades together, so that there would be a test maybe every three years, grouping students within 3-5 years in age of each other together, rather than in yearly grades. This would require us to give up the idea of automatic yearly progress through grades, and would require the disarticulation of "grades" from skill level. This is roughly the French system, which every four years requires students to demonstrate their readiness to advance. However, I do have some serious reservations about this kind of testing, but I think that many of them could be addressed, and we could have a more fair American system that would still put expectations and accountability in place. Here are my reservations:

1. In European systems, at age 14, students are tracked in either a "university" or a "trade" high school. Rather than tracking for university or trade that early, I would suggest that the testing be used as a tool to gage students' progress and skills and knowledge and to get them the effective help they need, maintaining as much flexibility and openness as possible for students to choose their own paths' goals. I do believe that a functioning democracy should maximize the availability and quality of education for all its citizens; but I also have to believe that that democratic goal can be met without a universal dumbing down of our population or lowering of standards and expectations.

2. The content of these tests can be very problematic, especially in multicultural America. And yet, even in History, there are key issues and events that I would argue must be discussed and learned about and debated by young people to bring them into the sphere of democracy and train them for public participation. In many states, there are already curriculum committees in place which lay out general curriculum guidelines, which are provisional and change regularly, in everything from math to history, from biology to English. These tests could be linked to those curriculum changes and developments, and designed in a similar fashion by a committee of experts that debates the content. This would allow for the contingency of knowledge to be acknowledged and for value debates to occur in the designing of the test to ensure they are flexible enough to change over time and follow the developments of the students' education.

3. I fear that these kinds of tests could lead to an opposite effect of the current values. Whereas teaching students supposed "critical thinking" without teaching them any facts or data to think about is problematic, it is equal problematic to establish a kind of education that would devolve into rote memorization without thinking and evaluation in order to pass the tests. One of the possible strengths of the American education system is that it has the potential to encourage creative and innovate thinkers. I don't have any good ideas about how to do this, but the testing needs to be implemented in such a way that students would still be learning critical and evaluative and creative thinking skills and have the basic knowledge and skills to pass the gateway tests.

Despite these reservations, from the vantage of a college professor, I am at present firmly in favor of high school graduation examinations and perhaps even college admissions exams (more along the lines of the ACT, rather than the SAT). And I've even been reading lately about some majors that require exit exams for Bachelor's Degrees. I'm open to suggestions and arguments contrary to what I've laid out (sparsely) here.

On Gay Marriage 5 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Queer Theory.
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Over the past week, I've been teaching about the history of gay and lesbian rights movement in the 20th century in a course about the "American Dream," and have been re-examining (for the umpteenth time) my feelings about gay marriage and the future place of gay men and women in American society. I've mentioned here already my growing unease with the straightening of queer spaces here in San Francisco.

No surprise that I'm torn in thinking about issues like gay marriage. The issue consists, for me, of layer upon layer of contradictory desires. To marry: to be normal, to be accepted, to be recognized fully and equally in your society. Not to marry: to maintain one's position as outsider, to be free to structure one's relationships how one chooses, despite society's approval, to eschew the homogenizing effects of becoming 'mainstream.' I haven't desired to be "normal" for years now, but I do desire recognition and equality. I'm too old to truly want outsider status (which is more often than not a status for the sake of status, rather than anything meaningful), but I do desire the social space to define my own relationships and to be who I am without the pressure to conform to the heterosexual norm.

Like many other critics before me, I fear that the adoption of the fight for marriage rights may ultimately be the end of a meaningful gay and lesbian movement, not because we will have achieved equality and will have nothing left to fight for, but because we will have, as a people, been domesticated, tamed, transformed into the image of the dominant culture. But I am clever enough and compassionate enough to understand why my gay brothers and sisters are fighting to be married. I stood out in the rain in February 2004 in front of City Hall, shielding couples from the raving Christians, as they waited their turn to be married in San Francisco. I could not help but feel what they were feeling, that there public and legal declaration of love held deep meaning and that the social sanction of the city of San Francisco made their love binding in a way that has been missing. It was a moving experience for me that day to witness what it meant to those couples to be married, even though I had always been against the fight for gay marriage. Democratically, clearly it is unjust for the government to privilege one particular marriage arrangement and family above others, granting literally thousands of legal benefits, not to mention the financial advantages (in taxes and workplace benefits) that derive from legal marriage.

And yet the thing that I most value about the queer community, the foundations of which I have researched in depth, is their capacity as a group, in arguing about their place in society, to forge new and different, creative and adaptive kinds of relationships and families of choice. From the most conservative gay man who wants to be married in the suburbs and vote republican with his neighbors in Johnson County, Kansas, to a young queer thugs in Los Angeles who is playing the field and hanging with his homies, to the threesomes, to the serial monogamists, to the open relationships, to the celibate monks, to the liberal urban guppies with kids, to exes who are family-for-life, to friends who fuck…

If we win the right to marry, I fear we will loose the right to create, modify, adapt, change, move, and spin our relationships as queer, unorthodox, as pleasing and profound, as they have been without marriage. Most minorities have the problem of moralizing the hell out of each other. As gay men and women, we already spend way too much of our energy having the good gay vs. bad gay epithet hurling. Gaining the right to marry will draw a definitive, socially sanctioned line in the sand, as it has for heterosexuals, between the "good" and the "bad" gays. It will be the worst thing we've ever done to ourselves.

The only way I can think of to balance these contradictions is for gay men and women to fight until we have the right to marry, and then to refuse it. [Of course, the legal and social benefits are too great for this to be realistic].

All things being ideal, I would suggest that we should fight for the dissolution of legal marriage altogether, and move for marriage to be moved completely into the private sphere, perhaps religious, where people may marry culturally if they want to, but where the government would have no business interfering in the way its citizens form their relationships or families. [Of course, realistically, the culturally meaning of marriage is still to great for people. Perhaps after several generations, it will have waned, as it has in France, such that people will take or leave it, and then the government can be weaned from its social engineering.]

Things being as they are, perhaps the only thing that can happen is to hope that we have the wherewithal to maintain our queer spaces enough so that we can have equality under the law, so that individual queers may choose legal marriage, and that we can continue to argue with each other about whether or not we should choose marriage, as we have for the past 55 years.