Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Underpants of Justice, Huge and Small

Justice Stephen Breyer’s underpants made the national news last week, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Safford Unified School District v Redding. When Savana Redding was in eighth grade, she was strip-searched by school officials on suspicion that she was hiding ibuprofen in her underpants. Another student had told school officials that Savana might have prescription-strength ibuprofen, and, on no further evidence, school officials made Ms. Redding strip to her underwear, shake out her bra, and pull out her underpants. Supported by the ACLU (and doesn’t this kind of thing make you grateful for the ACLU!), she and her family took the case to court.

The Supreme Court and the media are framing the case as a conflict between security and student rights. On the one hand, students’ right to privacy; on the other hand, the school’s responsibility to put safety first. The Supreme Court seems to be leaning towards supporting security. As reported by the New York Times, Justice David Souter “may have summarized the mood of the court near the end of the argument in the case” with his comment that “I would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search, if we can’t find anything short of that, than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry”.

If the case is framed that way – privacy rights versus security – the arguments go back and forth in a familiar way. But there’s another principle at stake here that media commentary has mostly overlooked. If we look at this situation not as a battle but as a problem for schools to solve – how to stop young people from harming themselves and each other with drugs – both sides could probably agree to the principle of respect for bodies. One of the strongest arguments against abusing drugs (I’m not going to say using, as I’ve taken the occasional ibuprofen myself) is that our bodies make it possible for human beings to achieve marvelous ends, provided we treat them with the respect they deserve.

I’m not exactly calling for decriminalizing drugs, nor am I advocating the “your body is a temple” line. Rather, I am suggesting that adolescents might be more likely to avoid doing dumb stuff with drugs if the adults around them encouraged them to think of their bodies as powerful, respect-worthy, and capable of taking them places they want to go. Some of what adolescents do with their bodies, of course, is unlikely to win the approval of all parents (the obvious example is having sex, but also staying up all night dancing, hitchhiking around Europe, midnight sledding, etc.), but these activities are hardly criminal or a threat to others. And if we want to treat adolescents to respect their own bodies, schools will need to treat students’ bodies with greater respect too. No strip searches.

Also in the news last week was the Obama administration’s response to the Bush-Cheney era torture cases, the separation of young children from their deported parents, and stories of people desperate to hold on to health care after losing their jobs -- all stories of institutional disrespect for the bodies of others. They are a chilling reminder that our legal system respects the bodies of some people but not all. The same is true of schools, where authorities often forget what it feels like to be small and powerless. “In my experience, when I was 8 or 10 or 12, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day (for gym)”, said Justice Breyer. “And in my experience too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear”. The comment provoked much laughter, but it made me imagine little Stephen Breyer at the age of 8. No one is going to strip search Justice Breyer now, but it’s true that schools have not traditionally protected children from bullying, harassment, and other insults to one’s embodied personhood.

Nowadays, of course, advocating respect seems to be a de facto requirement of elementary and middle schools. Often it’s stated as a rule, which has never made much sense to me, since respect can no more be produced on demand than love, or friendship, or happiness. To give the command substance, perhaps schools should “flesh it out”, literally.

Drawing by William Hanifan published in The Huge Underpants of Gloom, Issue Three, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Evolution for Dummies? A Canadian Cabinet Minister and the Public Understanding of Science

Last month, Gary Goodyear (pictured left), Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, created a scandal when he refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether he believed in the theory of evolution, stating that he felt that the question was “inappropriate” because it pertained to his religious beliefs. After a media frenzy ensued, Goodyear changed course, claiming that “of course” he believed in evolution. He then commented that we "are evolving all the time" and added, "That's a fact, whether it's to the intensity of the sun, whether it's to … walking on cement versus anything else, whether it's running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment, but that's not relevant and that's why I refused to answer the question."

Needless to say, this remark did not inspire a great deal of confidence among scientists. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory of evolution--Goodyear, evidently, thinks of evolution as a deliberate process that is somehow analogous to human beings' purposive choices.

A misunderstanding like this would be less likely in the United States. Cabinet members in the United States are (usually) subject matter experts, and a qualified scientist would (hopefully) be unlikely to make an error like Goodyear’s. However, in Canada, cabinet ministers are usually members of Parliament. The Prime Minister must choose the cabinet ministers from amongst the members of Parliament (MPs) from his party, which is, necessarily, a fairly limited pool.

Still, the Goodyear incident prompts several questions. One of these is whether he should have ever been appointed to this post--Goodyear failed to complete his undergraduate science degree and, prior to becoming an MP, he was a chiropractor (there is significant debate as to whether chiropractic is scientific). Perhaps most importantly, however, his initial refusal to answer questions about evolution was seen to indicate a lack of commitment to science. Surely, one would hope that the Minister of State for Science and Technology would not possess views that were inimical to the practice of science! (American readers, however, will know that the Bush administration has offered some “great moments in inimicality”—see, for example, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and his views on the U.N.)

Yet this episode also raises a number of broader questions: what kind of understanding of science should a citizen possess? Does it matter whether citizens understand natural selection? Are there some aspects of science that are more important for citizens to understand than others? Certainly, even in his earliest work, Dewey was an emphatic supporter of the public understanding of science. He realized that, as the 20th century dawned, society was becoming increasingly reliant on science and technology. He felt that if citizens were to participate democratically in such a society, they should be able to engage effectively and intelligently with science and technology. As we know from School and Society and from the accounts of the Dewey School, this implied a deep commitment both to the experimental method and to key scientific and technological concepts.

Perhaps, if Gary Goodyear had received a Deweyan education, he would not have bungled the question about evolution so badly. At the very least, however, the whole incident has probably prompted the Minister to engage in an activity very much in the spirit of Dewey: a little bit of "lifelong learning" about the theory of evolution.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Social Journalism and Education

Woody Lewis at Mashable writes that on-line social media have replaced the traditional newspaper/magazine media as sources of fast breaking on-the-ground news.

To grasp the power of social media think of the citizens who caught the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD 30 years ago. They could have turned off their cameras and called 911 or the LA Times but did not. Todays citizen advocacy and investigative blogs play a similar role. Lewis explains:

The Web is now the sole distribution channel for newspapers that can no longer afford to publish hardcopy, and those that don’t follow the best practices of social media may see their brands marginalized in cyberspace as well. Social journalism, an extension of those practices, is now an essential component of any news organization’s strategy.

Citizen journalists post photos of fast-breaking events, and cover stories from a different angle than legacy news organizations, but it’s the premeditated watchdog or advocacy role that defines a social journalist. Another factor is the network effect: people using social media to communicate and collaboratively produce content. Editors are still important, but the pieces are shaped by crowd dynamics and the velocity of information.

Lewis' post runs through the past-present-future of social media and is worth a close read. He sees advocacy blogs with an investigative bent as playing a major role going forward.


Progressive educators frequently complain about the educational coverage in news and the retrograde policies pushed by even progressive politicians. On-line educational journalism by teachers and students, documenting school conditions and amplfying the voices of concerned teachers and students, would offer a counterpoint and a pressure for change.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Blogging is Better than Schooling

Debbie Harbeson at Blogging Tips states that Blogging is Better than School.

The mental habits we pick up in school are deadly when blogging, she explains. "People think blogging is hard because they get stuck in schoolish thinking . . . which kills curiosity and makes many people lose confidence in their ability to learn."

She adds:

In school, teachers are necessary for learning . . . But you can learn to blog without a teacher.

In school, there is only one correct answer. . . but in blogging there are many solutions to the same problem.

In school, mistakes are bad. A big part of the success and fun of blogging is experimenting, and mistakes are just another way to learn.

In school, you don’t get to choose the topic you are going to study. When blogging, you get to choose a topic you are truly interested in. Plus, you can go as deep as you want into the subject because there will be no teacher or bell to make you stop and move on to the next class.

You get the point.

But one thing Debbie doesn't consider is that blogging in school is a way of cutting through some of the problems of schoolish thinking.

Courses built around blogging instead of those phony "research projects" may just get some kids involved in creative ways, in learning (mostly) by themselves and their peers, in choosing topics to study based around their interests, in finding their own answers and discovering their own styles, in making non-fatal mistakes and learning through creative fast failure.

Can you think of uses for educational blogs in college classes, or in teacher training?