The Philosophy and Politics of Education, Part 1

Author’s note: This was going to be one post about how the ideas contained in my last post might be applied and seen being applied in events taking place across the country, but then it ended up being almost 3000 words, so I’m splitting it up. Also, I’m trying a smaller font. If I have any readers, I would appreciate them letting me know which they prefer.

Actual post:

At the University of Chicago, where I go to school, there is a tradition of the Aims of Education speech. Every year, the first years, during their Orientation Week, are asked to go to Rockefeller Chapel with their houses to hear that year’s speaker discuss the aims of education. This is an honor for the speaker, not only because it’s a long tradition, but because this school so strongly prizes the investigation and application of exactly that question, of what it is that a school is for. Their attempts to reach the proper aims are clear, from the Core to the Fundamentals major. But the search goes on. The tradition stems from Alfred North Whitehead’s address to the Mathematical Association of England in 1916, which was as far from a detailed tractate on the teaching of mathematics as can be imagined. Instead, it was a paean to vision, a plea to progressivism, a fervent request that education and learning never be allowed to stagnate, so that we would create a generation of thinkers instead of simply knowers. As he says, 

“A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.”

And he’s simply not the only one. I know I’ve discussed this before as I see it, and also as countless others have, but I’m struck by how present these lovely images of the role of education are, even if they do not manifest themselves so proudly in our educational system. And it’s intriguing to me to see how these ideas do and do not play out.

For example, Bertrand Russell, in his own piece on education, said, 

“The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilization, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own profession, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of life. In communities, civilization demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends. If these are to be the purpose of education, it is a question for the science of psychology to consider what can be done towards realizing them, and, in particular, what degree of freedom is likely to prove most effective.”

Don’t you love that last sentence? That in the midst of an imaginative discourse (which is still more rational than most of the uplifting manifestos about the cultivation of excellence in a citizen), he appeals to consequentialism, pointing out that we have a fairly solid idea of what we’d like to see, even if we can’t formalize that quite yet. After that, the role of philosophy is over, and we look for effectiveness in achieving that goal. That’s really all I meant by my support for testing, and for pilot programs, so that we can see what works. It’s also deeply important that once we have a sense of some truth or another, we acknowledge it and work with it.

So I applaud the efforts of many around the country who are following exactly this thinking. For example, in New York, there’s this: “100 New York Schools Try Common Core Approach“. It’s a trial program, put in place to try to change education to be more engaging, more general and more the type of education that could produce well-rounded thinkers. If it doesn’t work, they’ll try something else. Essentially, exactly what we should be doing. I especially like this teacher who “On a recent Wednesday closed a unit on the meaning of the American dream not by assigning a first-person essay, as she once did, but by asking each student to interview an immigrant and write a profile of the person.” 

It not only gives the students a better understanding of the issues involved, but it teaches them personal skills, including how to conduct an interview. It allows them to put a human face to the abstract English and history they’re learning, and is all-in-all a fantastic idea. I hope the students got a lot out of it. I also feel that the program demonstrates a smart approach because it relies on an understanding of pedagogy and the importance of teaching in reformulating education. This trial is not only about the students, but about teachers, and giving them freedom to try new tactics that just might work, as well as encouraging them to raise the standards of the classroom. But the best part is the criticism, which in this article came from Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who that “the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books”. It excites me because it’s a criticism from within the system, seeking to improve what is a good idea by pointing out the unfortunate fact that exterior circumstance often impact the success of education in powerful ways. It leaves the discussion open to keep looking for what might work better.

And that, in fact, is addressed here: The Limits of School Reform. Social factors, which I discussed last time, play a major role in education. That shouldn’t be something so-called reformers are scared of admitting. Firstly, it’s not as if the schools themselves don’t need changing; clearly that work is still immensely valuable. Secondly, as previously discussed, schools themselves can affect the social environment around them, and in fact, where possible, would seem to have an obligation to do just that. And thirdly, if you’re a reformer, you should be welcoming data which will help you do your job better. This is hard, and it doesn’t have simple answers. Clearly, children who work to support their families, or are often sick, will have difficulty being present in class. If things are difficult at home, they may fail to complete their assignments, or they may exhibit signs of attention disorders or learning disabilities. They’ll also tend to score poorly on IQ tests. But again, that’s an unfortunate truth we should be facing head on. Consequentialism – we all have the same goals in the end, for the most part, don’t we? So, as is said in the article, “To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. “
Always a goal worth striving for, indeed.

Evaluating Education, Evenhandedly

A story went around the interwebs a couple weeks ago that garnered many stories and more opinions. Unsurprisingly, it focused on a traditionally controversial subject which features prominently in politics at various levels, and a divisive figure. Given that that description could refer to any number of topics, I’ll end the suspense (if you didn’t figure it out from the title): education. (Which I’ve talked about before, by the way).

You’ve probably heard about Michelle Rhee: wonderwoman, education radical, fearless reformer, draconian, unfeeling witch who wants to pump students out like so many mass-produced cans of tuna. By which I mean to say, there are a range of opinions regarding Ms. Rhee and her testing paradigm, which came under some scrutiny in the media after reports surfaced that may have indicated widespread cheating by the DC teachers during Rhee’s chancellorship of that public school system. All of the traditional divisions came up in full strength, with conservatives, anti-teacher unionites and Ms. Rhee herself defending the results as well as the program itself, and liberals, pro-unionites and teacher advocates leaping on the reports and declaring that not only had there been cheating, but that such cheating was an inevitable part of the overly pressurized, teach-to-the-test system imposed on DC schools.

Such a range of opinions does not exist when it comes to the state of public education in this country in general. It’s awful. We know. So what do we do about it? When faced with a problem this seemingly intractable, my first reaction might be to either throw up my hands in the air or go with the liberal opinion, given how often I tend to fall on that side. But this is actually a great example of an issue which is important enough to spend time researching and considering, complex enough to warrant some attention and distillation of the maelstrom of information and viewpoints that exist on the internet, difficult enough to be interesting and political enough that one needs to be cautious wading into the mix. Which means that it’s a great subject on which to practice rational, disinterested analysis, given in particular that it’s incredibly difficult, because children and the next generation and our dearly beloved public school teachers and all that are at stake. I say this with some sarcasm, but also self-deprecatingly, because this all worries me as well.

So, the basic story is that Michelle Rhee thinks that the problems with the school system are that the incentives aren’t in the right place, because teachers have tenure and aren’t held accountable for their skill at teaching or the results they produce. Her system gathers empirical data from standardized tests administered each year, ruthlessly fires bad teachers regardless of seniority and makes sure that kids keep doing better every year. It turns out that this system seems to have worked. A good, if perhaps overly generous summary is here. The problem is that there are suspicious patterns of erasures from wrong to right answers which might indicate cheating.

Here, Michelle Rhee defends herself. A friend sent me this article, and asked me to respond, which is really how this blog post got started (which also explains why this is written in a somewhat less formal tone). In the piece, she really doesn’t say anything new or radical, she just defends her record against all the allegations of cheating that have been going on. I think the evidence is very murky. The evidence in her favor is certainly considerable, but much of it may not have been her at all. Testing district based on a few years of data is notoriously difficult, and some of the work, such as facilities upgrading, is done by a completely different agency than the DC Public Schools System. More can be read at the links above. The cheating is hard to prove, especially since the testing service only releases certain data.

But, as a broader issue, my brilliant rational analysis has led me to the following…I’m loath to say conclusions, since most of the work that I’ve done here is, I think, asking the right questions. That’s almost always my approach, since if we can agree on the important values and ends we’d like achieved, the rest is just empirical. With that caveat, I’m pretty sure the main points are as follows:

1. What is education for? Whose interests are at stake, and which need to be protected?
2. How do we find out whether it’s happening?
3. How do we fix it if it’s not? What are the underlying causes of the difficulties in our educational system?

Obviously, this is political, social, sociological, economic and everything else you can think of, which is why it’s so damn complicated. Preliminary answers, from a progressive concerns with outcomes rather than means:

What Education is For:
1. Education is for creating a certain type of citizen. It’s often emphasized that we need to encourage math and science education, which is to say we are trying to create productive, economically fruitful citizens for the purpose of our national economy and for their own ability to sustain themselves. For example, I say this with some knowledge of the values of a system that includes vocational schools, and the arguments in favor of making an institutional distinction between those with working class skills and jobs and those with service class skills and jobs. It might be the case, for example, that that sort of division makes it easier for everyone to develop a minimum level of skills needed to succeed and become economically independent and to be a productive member of society.

Others argue, and I tend to agree with them, that what we need is broader than that. I still think it needs to be firmly defined and if at all possible, operationalized, so don’t think I have some nebulous conception of an idealized Montessori-for-everyone system (as awesome as those schools are). I think we need to be cultivating critical thinking, logical reasoning, the ability to amass and process data in productive ways, argue, employ and critique rhetoric, understand abstract concepts. We should be instilling the valuing of knowledge, of empathy and understanding, of science and its capacity to understand and change the world. We should be teaching science as well as scientific thinking, math as well as formal logical thinking, history and an understanding of narratives and politics, economics, politics and how they work, and absolutely the ability to write well. These qualities are necessary for a functioning democracy, they serve national interests, and they are also vital for allowing people to self-actualize.

How we gain insight into our educational system:
2. Testing. Absolutely. I would never argue against the use of empirical data to understand whether or not important things are happening. I get fairly apoplectic when I see the phrase, “policies that over-rationalize teaching and learning.” Over-rationalize? As if rationality isn’t the way to go? The problems are: what are we testing, and what are the effects of testing? The answer to the second is clear: not always, but often, teaching to the test, overly standardized classrooms and teacher cheating. The reason for this, I think, is because of the answer to the first question, which is mostly multiple choice questions about specific knowledge bases. If we had broader questions, more essays and questions about critical thinking, (tests for which have been developed. Mostly, they’re just incredibly expensive to proctor and grade), then it would be hard to teach to the test, and even if it happened, the kids would be being taught the right things. I’m still in support of specific knowledge, of course; people need to be mathematically and scientifically literate. But we absolutely need to test better. I happen to agree with Michelle Rhee that cheating is probably not that common, and anyway, it would be much harder to cheat on these tests.

What the problems are:
3. Poverty, race, marginalization, poor parent involvement, not enough money, not enough ideas, poor health and yes, in some part, bad teachers. So what do we do? A few things. We should absolutely be funding, probably on a federal level, extracurricular activities, after school programs, breakfasts, clubs, sports, medical facilities on campus for free, etc. These are proven to raise student performance and also increase the well-being of entire communities. See here, here and here. They allow parents to work throughout the day and make more money, make school a safe and healthy environment, keep kids off the streets and reduce the disparity between wealthy neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

As for ideas, somehow we need to encourage alternative learning methods like plays and dance and projects for students who learn differently. We don’t have to test them differently, but we should teach differently. We should definitely be launching pilot programs. Charter schools are great for this, when they’re not funded by corporate interests who want all schools privatized. Longer school years would be great.

And sure, we should fire bad teachers. With good tests as well as a good understanding of pedagogy, we can see who those are. There’s a metric, for example, called “value added“, which measures how much teachers add to a student’s ability in a year, regardless of the starting point. We know that bigger classes with better teachers are better than smaller classes with worse teachers. I’m ok with bonuses and performance pay mostly, I’m just worried about what that’s going to incentivize, because it may not be creativity. What would be really helpful would be higher standards (they should have a degree in what they’re teaching and we should pay for them to get masters degrees in education) and pay them all much more money to get the good ones. Unions can play a great role in this. We focus so much on teacher tenure and such, but unions do other things as well. I worry, for example, that this more dynamic, market-based system might cause more movement of teachers between schools, and that lack of continuity can be bad for children’s learning and development.

These are my ideas, and they’re probably overly idealistic and would cost a lot of money, but it might help us rethink how we approach education. At least we should be asking the right questions.

EDIT: I forgot to mention that many of the ideas I have here about the importance of alternative methods of learning and the construction of citizens I got from Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Not for Profit. Although, I suppose I should point out that the ancient Greeks pretty much had those things figured out, with the balance between gymnastics, music and mathematics, and education as cultivation. Also pretty much every political philosopher ever had this opinion about education.

Speaking Up

The first talk I went to was called ‘Evolutionary Leadership for a Just and Sustainable World

I wasn’t sure exactly why this talk thought it was describing “Evolutionary Leadership,” but it essentially described a sort of classic criticism of the way we live today, that we are not seeing the vast, overarching forces and narratives that in many ways constrain and change our lives. Manuel Manga, the speaker, said that there were impending crises, ecological and economic, and that to have our vision focused narrowly on our lives, for example, allowed us to miss these problems. He directed our attention to the importance of using our capacities to satisfying human needs and also acknowledging our interconnectedness, globally and with other species.

There were few concrete suggestions, but I generally appreciated the overall mood. I was worried about what “being connected with nature” might mean for his attitude towards transhumanism, which is rather important to me. Of course we’re connected with nature, sort of, and we should acknowledge it, especially insofar as we need the environment to work for us and to prevent needless suffering. Past that, though, I’m less sure.

The most important part of the talk for me was when someone asked a question regarding the way one might communicate these ideas to a larger audience. It started innocuously, but then quickly moved into dangerous territory when he ‘worried’ that perhaps it would be difficult to speak to groups where words like ‘paradigm’ for example, weren’t common. And then he used a phrase that has served condescending elitists well for many decades. He said, “What if we have to dumb it down for them?” And it was at this point that I became rather uncomfortable. I mentioned in my last post that I had been worried about the community and the culture that would exist at this conference, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps this population of middle-aged, wealthy, white, very liberal atheists didn’t have all that much in common with me, despite the apparent similarities, because they also seemed to think that they might be better than anyone who didn’t understand the word ‘paradigm.’ Then another woman picked up the phrase, because that’s often how language works, and added “They fall for the hype. That’s what they want to hear” referring probably to either poor populations or largely conservative ones, assuming that somehow they were more prone to cognitive biases than the people in the room. Which as anyone who’s done some rudimentary research into cognitive science knows, is ridiculous. In fact, a few were developing as she spoke: group polarization and conformity. I really didn’t know what to do. So I did the only thing I could; I spoke up.

Manuel had already begun to move on, but I raised my hand and said something like, “I’m disturbed by, during a presentation about being loving humans, an us vs them narrative being created. People respond to hype because we all do. We’re exquisitely sensitive to the context in which we’re brought up, that’s what this presentation is about [creating and educating better leaders]. If people don’t understand us, we’re not being good communicators; it doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent.”

I felt good about making the statement, changing the direction of the talk, and even more so when a couple sitting behind me, whose names I don’t remember [EDIT: I think the woman’s name was Carol Solomon] nodded approvingly. Later, when I went to introduce myself, she congratulated and complimented me, and her husband told me that they’d been fidgeting uncomfortably, thinking exactly the same thing, wanting to say something but that I’d said it better. Then he hugged me.

At some other point, a fellow named Bruce stopped me in the hallway and said I’d made the best comment during the talk, especially the emphasis on self-responsibility [in terms of our responsibility to communicate well]. I completely understood what he meant, and told him about how I’d chosen UChicago over a small liberal arts school like Amherst or Oberlin because I was worried that there would be too much agreement and not enough rigorous justification going around. That might be totally unfounded regarding the schools, but the principle of encouraging heterogeneity rather than homogeneity still stands. I also brought up a fantastic essay I read once about higher education and the opportunities it closes off, in particular the ability to talk to people who haven’t had a college education.

So that was a tremendous ego boost, and it also reassured me that the atheist/humanist community was a place I wanted to be. Nonetheless, that kind of readjustment is important sometimes, and it requires that somebody say something. Otherwise, as Asch’s conformity studies show, even smart people will say things that are very very wrong. It’s a constant vigilance kind of thing, making sure that your actions and speech are in line with your beliefs, and making sure that the world around you reflects the kind of world you want to see.

For a recap of the conference, go here.

AHA 2011 – A Recap

I spent this last weekend at the American Humanist Association national conference. It was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I have a lot to say about it, and according to JT Eberhardt and Jesse Galef (more on these folks later), I really ought to be blogging more, so there will be quite a flurry of posts coming up.

First, a recap:
As the secretary of the University of Chicago Secular Student Alliance, I get weekly emails from the wonderful Lyz Lyddell. A few weeks ago, it included an interesting tidbit. “Have breakfast with Richard Dawkins (at the AHA conference) for $49 (which is the registration fee for students)!” my email offered me, ever so alluringly. (Hilarious: when told this (minus the parentheticals) at the conference, Richard Dawkins himself said, “I feel like a prostitute!”) Of course, I couldn’t resist, and signed up. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve only been to one conference, and that was ISHE (International Society for Human Ethology) with my father last summer, which turned out to be a lot like the University of Chicago all grown up. Nerdy scientists walking around, asking interesting questions and making psychology-related jokes. But what would a conference of atheist activists look like?

As it happens, oddly similar.

I arrived on Thursday evening and went straight to my aunts’ house and caught up with one of my aunts and my cousin while raiding the fridge (garbage salad + ice cream is delicious nighttime snack) and playing monopoly. My cousin, who’s been homebound for a week after knee surgery, has gotten problematically good, but I survived with my Secret Socialist Strategies of making alliances and putting on my puppy face when it looked as if things weren’t going my way. You should try it sometime. Anyway, I got to bed and set my alarm for the terrifyingly early 6:45 so I get get out the door by 7:30 and be at the conference for registration at 8:30. And in fact, that’s what happened, except my aunt drove me part of the way, and the bus came in a timely fashion, and I was at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge by 8:15. Me? Early for something? I must have been really excited.

I registered, walked to the restaurant to grab some coffee and immediately started meeting people. It was a pretty welcoming crowd the whole weekend through, which was certainly reassuring. I ran into my friend Josh Oxley, who’s the graduate advisor to Rockefeller Chapel back at UChicago. Eventually, it was time for the first breakout session, and on the way there, I ran into none other than Greta Christina. I almost freaked out. That’s a lie; I did freak out, but in general I kept it together. She was incredibly sweet, waving my silliness away when I ‘admitted’ to being boringly cis and straight and even recognizing my name from the comments. We then walked over to the breakout sessions, which varied in topic and quality.

In the middle of the day, I was invited to have lunch with the “Feminist Caucus” which seemed like a good idea, with Serah Blain discussing the difficulties that mothers have in going to meetings and conferences and others bringing in ideas about gender and technology. Unfortunately, it was pretty disorganized, so I have no idea what’ll happen with that.

After the first session of the afternoon, I got to meet Jen McCreight of Blag Hag and Lyz Lydell, Sharon Moss and JT Eberhard of the Secular Student Alliance, which made me really happy. Then, on the way over to the next breakout session, I went by the SSA table and saw Jesse Galef, the Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. As it turns out, he’s my second cousin, so I introduced myself and we ended up talking straight through the session and the afternoon plenary. How things work when you read all of the same blogs and have many similar interests.

After the plenary, they brought out fruit and cheese and other nibblings for noshing, and I got to briefly meet the wonderful Debbie Goddard, with whom I’ve been exchanging email for a while. More on her later. Also, Roy Zimmerman. Now, let me explain this. Roy Zimmerman is a liberal satirist songwriter who as far as I’m concerned is this generation’s Tom Lehrer with a more partisan (as a compliment) bent. He’s excellent. I’ve been listening to his songs obsessively for years. And then he was there! In the room! Much taller than expected! Which I told him, in an effort to defuse my overwhelming fangirliness. But he was great, and we had a fun conversation in the midst of a massive swirling of hungry people about the use of music and art to broaden the conversation surrounding political activism (to which Debbie said “We need to be friends”), especially in his series The Starving Ear. I also asked him about the use of satire in difficult circumstances, as in The Sing Along Second Amendment, when he references the Columbine tragedy. He responded that he felt that humor engaged people and challenged them, especially when it was about difficult topics. I was impressed by how much he’d thought about these things, as evidenced by his deep sincerity when we discussed a time when he hadn’t used humor (or perhaps it’s simply black humor), in his song the The Last Man. He just seemed to feel that his humor was his contribution, but also saying that songs often wrote and rewrote themselves, allowing him to just follow along and see where they led. I also complimented him on his measured response to the commenter on that song who seemed offended (though I felt he’d misunderstood the lyrics). To me, it demonstrated that Roy really sees his songs as a medium through which to transmit a message, not just to poke fun at people he doesn’t like. He could certainly get caught up in the idiotic flame wars on youtube in general, but he lets his faithful commenters do that (see: To Be A Liberal).

Eventually, things wrapped up, and because I was on a student registration, I wasn’t invited to the evening banquet, so several of us students went off to try to find food in Cambridge. It ended up being me and Josh, as well as several excellent folks we had met throughout the day, namely Serah, Josiah, Thomas (a 21 year old computer science PhD!) and Kaeleena. We found a pub/bar and started to get comfortable when we discovered that the upstairs, where we had been seated was 21+, which was a problem for Serah, who had forgotten my ID and me, as I had also ‘forgotten’ my ID. When obstacles like that used to come up, it was always strangely awkward, so I was relieved adults tend to handle themselves better. We just up and left and found an Indian place on Mass Ave. Interestingly enough, most of us were vegetarian or vegan, so that was quite convenient. We talked about that as well as the relative benefits of nuclear power all through dinner.

Afterwards, everyone except Tommy and myself went off to have a good time, but he needed to go home, and I needed to get back to my aunts’ place. Given my awful sense of direction, I was lucky that a Green Line station was close, so we both got home just fine. My aunts were still awake, despite the lateness of the hour, so I got to talk to them about the conference and what humanism meant to me. I actually didn’t know what their beliefs were (we’re a family of generally secular Jews, but it varies), so I explained it all in the most diplomatic way possible. They seemed to really take to the idea and were really supportive and interested, which just strengthened my convictions about the worldview I’ve chosen for myself. In particular, I think they took to the notions of the harms of religion towards women and gays and other marginalized groups throughout history. When I told them the statistic about atheists being the most mistrusted group in America, they were genuinely shocked. One of my aunts eventually went to bed and I spoke with the other about the different approached to humanism and atheism, making sure to emphasize the positive elements. Much to my surprise, she wanted to know more about Dawkins, Hitchens and their respective books, so maybe she’ll turn into one of those evil ol’ confrontationists 🙂

The next day, there were more talks. There seems to be a lot of talking at these conferences. I missed the early morning plenary because the Boston public transit system was not nearly as helpful as it had been the previous day. Something to do with it being Saturday, and late, and I had to take a different bus, it was all kind of a mess. Luckily, I have a somewhat intelligent phone, so I downloaded the bus schedule as a pdf and boy does the BTA’s site not have a mobile version. Also, the pdf only showed the arrival time to one stop along the entire route besides the end points, and it happened to be mine. What if I’d been somewhere else? Am I supposed to be able to calculate all that? This is why I don’t like public transportation #firstworldproblems.

Anyway, talks and food (pizza party for the students, at which we got much free schwag from the Richard Dawkins foundation including two A-pins, which I’ve been wearing around everywhere). Because I go to a largely secular university where self-deprecation rules all interactions, no one minds or is offended by the symbol or message (once I explain it), but they all think the ‘scarlet letter’ thing is much too earnest and clever for its own good). Afterwards, I ran into Debbie Goddard again, and I took the opportunity to ask her about the different movements within The Movement, and she told me the story of Skeptics and Humanism and Atheism and Secularism and how those map onto the Council for Secular Humanism, the Center for Inquiry, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. We also discussed race and the way in which cultural privilege can blind much of these movements to the wariness of, for example, the black community to medicine and science, which we see as unequivocally good, not having in our cultural narrative Tuskegee and AIDS. She also pointed out that the science as a force for good narrative is also tempered by the great destruction it has wrought, and separating the science from how it’s used isn’t always easy. We transition from all that into our stories, though hers is much more interested than mine. Eventually, we’d been talking about science, secularism, atheism, activism, queer issues, race, genderqueerness, identification and all manner of other things for two hours, and then: more talks!

After the talks, there was yet another banquet, but this time, we students were invited, though with a different (cheaper) meal. Luckily, as a vegetarian, I got this delicious stuffed something or other. And cookies! Then, Roy Zimmerman came on stage and performed a prayer to God or Goddess or Gods or gods or none of the above, To Be A Liberal, Creation Science and few other hits. He was on fire; the crowd loved it. Then Steve Wozniak gave a speech. Now, Steven Wozniak is a very intelligent man, and that’s an understatement. But I’m pretty sure he has no idea how to give a speech. He switched topics every 3 minutes or so, ranging from how you don’t need religion in your daily life (duh) to how morality is the study of ethics revolving around truth (what?) so engineers are the best kind of people (double what?). It was strange, so I left before the Q&A and headed over to the restaurant. There, I had a series of conversations about rationality, morality and religion with Jesse Galef, John Shook, Annie Calicotte, Woody Kaplan and others. The problem with conversations like this is that they last a while, in this case until 2:30 in the morning, when only a few of us were left talking (I think it ended with me, Jesse, Chris Stedman and Josiah talking about community service and interfaith work).

I thought about staying at the hotel, but my aunt had been so sweet as to text me telling me to call her to open the door at whatever hour, so I called a taxi, which failed to come for quite a while, and when it did, had a driver upset that I was asking him to take me to Boston. This left me quite confused and thinking about Mandelbrot sets. Does he want to drive me to the border of cambridge and leave me there to grab another taxi into Roxbury? I think not. Eventually, very late, I got back, crashed, and woke up three hours later for the last day of the conference.

I’d tell you about all the closing sessions, but I don’t know anything about them. Public transportation failed me, coming infrequently on Sundays and then being almost an hour late, so I got to the hotel rather late, and then spent the entire morning talking to Jesse, Jen McCreight and Sandra Korn, who came up from Harvard to see me! We had a good time talking about the importance and drawbacks of outspoken activism, and I got to ask Jen whether group selectionism is actually taken very seriously in evolutionary biology (answer: no) or whether punctuated equilibrium vs gradualism is a matter of some debate (answer: no, they’re just useful for different types of analysis). I also got to express my admiration for the inclusiveness of the community, and how they’d all come together despite being bloggers from opposite sides of the country. Jen acknowledged that the grassroots nature of their work added to the conferences made for deep friendships that easily brought in new people (like me? I sure hope so).

And that’s actually one of my main takeaways from the conference. Atheism, as Debbie Goddard pointed out, doesn’t actually say much. It just means you don’t believe in god or gods. It doesn’t mean you’re a liberal, or scientific, or rational, or political, or an activist, or a humanist or kind or fun to be around. So I was worried that bringing lots of people together under such a minimal banner wouldn’t necessarily create a supportive and challenging and exciting community, and I was so thrilled to realize that, at least in this case, it did. It made me want to get all the more involved and energized and be a part of this excellent, thriving, diverse (somewhat; we’re working on it) community, filled with opinionated people of different persuasions, bringing their experience and thoughts to bear on making our movement broader, bigger and better.

Things started to end around noon, so I said goodbye to all the incredible people I’d met, sad to leave, but excited to go back and bring all of my new ideas to my community. Sandra and I went off to lunch, talking about our blogs and the interaction between rationalism/intellectualism and politics/activism, which she thinks a lot about as well. She took me to Harvard, where she goes to school, so I could see her room and meet some of her friends (many who were Christian, interestingly, but also one “secular, hard agnostic, socially liberal, fiscally conservative Israeli nationalist.”) When they asked about why I was in Boston, I got to grin widely and tell them a tidbit or two about the magnificent American Humanist Association National Conference, and in the case of her friends down the hall, launch into an overly excited analysis of the different words (secular, humanist, atheist, bright etc.) that are used in the movement and what separation of church and state has done for religiosity in this country (Hint: helped, at least according to Tocqueville and many religious people).

After saying goodbye to Sandra, I made my way back to Roxbury, with a fair amount of difficulty and mostly barefoot (my heels and feet were giving out; I’d been doing a lot of walking over the previous days), said goodbye to my wonderful aunts and cousins, got into a cab and got to the airport, luckily in plenty of time. Josh was already there, but he elected to grab some vouchers and stay another few hours, so I got back alone, and didn’t stop grinning for several days.

Who knew conferences could be so amazing? I’ll certainly be going to more in the future.

Abortion Rights Curtailed

News from South Dakota!I’m pro-choice. I support the right to abortion. So excuse me if I get a touch irritated when attempted violations of that right are being made in what seems like every state government in this country.

Which brings us to South Dakota. 

Governor Dennis Daugaard passed a law on March 22 that makes women in South Dakota who are seeking abortions to go to a pregnancy help center so as to receive assistance and advice intended “to help the mother keep and care for her child.”

Things wrong with this bill:

1. Stop making it harder for women to have abortions! This is a difficult decision already, and it’s really no business of the state government what medical procedures women are undergoing as a result of decisions they’ve made themselves.

2. So now, they have to go to a pregnancy help center. They have to go to their doctor, then hike off to some clinic with fluorescent lighting and overly smiley attendants, then go back to their doctor. After three days. They clearly aren’t capable of making the decisions themselves, so they need help. Government-mandated help, to tell them all of the options, because, you know, abortion, pregnancy and adoption constitute an incredibly difficult list to memorize. And women need it told to them in simple terms.

3. Even worse, since the kind of consultation described above is present in other states as well, these pregnancy help centers must be staffed by anti-abortionists. I cannot believe this is even legal. The women have to go to centers (which have a disgustingly disingenuous title, by the way) to be talked at, excuse me, to, by pro-life ideologues whose job it is to convince these women that they’re making the wrong decision. The response from a founder of one of these centers? “What are they so afraid of?” Ms. Unruh asked. “That women might change their minds?” What this disgustingly flippant answer fails to address is concerns that women might be bullied, badgered, intimidated, shamed, guilted or psychologically harmed because unqualified anti-choicers are making them feel dirty, immoral and incapable of making autonomous medical decisions. I’m sure that worry is completely unfounded.

And it gets more ridiculous. South Dakota already has the lowest abortion rate in country except for Wyoming and Idaho, less than a third of the national rate. Doctors already have to drive in from Minnesota to perform abortions. Those doctors are heroes, by the way. But of course more restrictions are necessary. Even more than the one-day waiting period and counseling informing women that their abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being” that are already in effect.

Why? Why are the Republicans doing this? According to Roger Hunt, one of the legislators, 

“There’s greater assurance that a woman considering an abortion is going to be fully informed about all the risks and about all the options. That’s not being done at the current time.”

So, basically, because they can. What nonsense. All of this anti-choice propaganda is being thrown at women all the time. They know what their options are. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood tells them everything they need to know. They’re an incredible organization.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been emphasized as it should. The NYT article says 

“Each side regularly accuses the other of manipulating and coercing women.” 

This is a perfect example of bullshit centrist journalism. Yes, they regularly accuse each other. But only one of those is true. The New York Times never bothers to do the journalism required to tell the readers the truth. Instead, they leave it to the Planned Parenthood president, who explained exactly what the excellent policies of Planned Parenthood are, and says, perfectly, 

“They’re not licensed, they’re not regulated, they’re not accredited and they’re openly ideological…[The fact that women are] legally mandated to be coerced by people who aren’t even medical professionals — not that they should be coerced by anyone — is really beyond the pale.”

At the end of the day, this is just Republicans passing anti-woman legislation and not bothering to do anything about, you know, jobs, or anything else important. So glad half the country identifies with this party.