Mountebank Blog

"There is nothing so impossible in nature, but mountebanks will undertake; nothing so incredible, but they will affirm."

Sad but sadly not too surprising

John Rennie at the SciAm Perspectives Blog describes a truly disheartening encounter with a group (more than a dozen, he says) of university presidents. At a media roundtable he posed the presidents this challenge:

Suppose we have a petition here that says, “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection is a demonstrated fact of science. We also assert that any failure to teach evolution, or to teach ‘intellectual design’ as an alternative theory, harms students’ educational standing.” Who here would not sign, and why?

How many university presidents said they would sign? All? Some? A few?




College presidents, unfortunately, far too often, have priorities that are far removed from student learning, or the growth of a rational society, or civilization or science. They see themselves, really, as executives, not as educators.

I remember the days, years ago now, when our own current (then new) president faced, and lost, a vote of no-confidence from the faculty. I remember thinking how much easier it could have been for him, and for all of us, if he had approached us (the faculty) cooperatively–as our leader, but our leader who was our ally, who was working toward the same goal as we were.

Time has passed since then, and my opinion of him (and probably his opinion of us as a faculty) has certainly improved. I’ve seen him take some actually brave steps, and I’ve seen clear evidence of a real commitment to our students. He’s still an executive, and I’ve begun to see reasons why an executive is an important thing to have.

But I wonder if, faced with the kind of challenge Rennie posed, our own president would have reacted as an educator, as a colleague, as someone who cares about truth and learning and knowledge. I like to think that he would. I like to think that he would be braver, less political and more principled, than the presidents of the University of Texas, Stony Brook University, the University of Chicago, and the others (the hiss of shame upon them all) Rennie encountered.

Under Attack!

I feel so bad for those folks in Dover, Pennsylvania. I mean those poor, beset (I should say “benighted”) religious folks who are having their kids abused in school science classes. Abused, mistreated, misled and misunderestimated because in science classes they’re actually having to learn…science.

…Pastor and parent Ray Mummert, 54, explained their point.

“If we continue to indoctrinate our young people with non-religious principles, we’re headed for an internal destruction of this society,” he said.

“Evolution is just a theory and there are other theories,” Mummert explained, smiling through his beard.

“There is such a complexity in life, and science wants to hang its hat on a belief that life somehow started — they say there is no creator, no order … I believe there is a creator,” he said.

Both sides acknowledge the political context of the debate over Darwinism, and the relation to the re-election of staunchly Christian President George W. Bush.

“Christians are a lot more bold under Bush’s leadership, he speaks what a lot of us believe,” said Mummert.

“We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture,” he said.

You know, if that’s who’s “attacking” you, mightn’t it be a good idea to just maybe consider why you’re being “attacked”?

Thanks to DovBear for the link.

Historical/Ahistorical Judgments

Jon Rowe has a blog that I like a lot, and read regularly (it’s right there in my blogroll). But in a recent post he made a point to which I had to take exception. It wasn’t his primary point in his post, but he was making an argument that tends to really annoy me–it was the “they didn’t know better in those days” argument. This goes (generally) “the Founders (or Columbus, or any literary or historical figure you’d like to excuse) lived in a time when nobody really questioned slavery (or genocide, forced conversion, racism, sexism, etc.). So we can’t blame them for just accepting what everyone else accepted and nobody at all ever saw anything wrong with.”

That argument just doesn’t hold up. In the guise of a call for historical accuracy, it’s a whitewashing of history. At the time of the US Constitution, there was a lively, active, and loud abolition movement, with a long and distinguished history. Las Casas was very clear about the immorality of Columbus’ treatment of the Indians, right there at Columbus’ moment in history. Conrad’s racism, or Hemingway’s anti-Semitism may have been more broadly acceptable in their times, but that certainly doesn’t mean that nobody saw the immorality and hate, or that nobody was willing to call it what it was.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read Conrad or Hemingway, of course, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t honor the accomplishments of the Founders. But to let them completely off the hook for their lapses is just as ahistorical (maybe more) than to condemn them completely for those lapses.

To Jon Rowe’s credit, when I pointed this out to him in an email, he promptly and fairly put my email up on his blog–asking for more reader discussion. I hope he gets it. I’ll be interested to read it. (Although I do wish he would just have comments on the blog, rather than waiting for emails).

Herzl’s Diaries

A big argument with an anti-Semite in a thread at DSL Reports motivated me to re-read, for the first time in many years, Theodore Herzl’s diaries. A fascinating read, especially for the window into the life and emotions of an important player in an important historical moment. Especially fun because he was such a cranky, nasty, angry guy. Pretty much walking around disgusted with everyone.

Sometimes big changes happen because of noble, heroic figures, and sometimes because of irritated, obnoxious curmudgeons, who would be a real pain in the ass if you had to deal with them.

It’s also interesting that a quote posted by the above-mentioned anti-Semite, and one which is repeated on many anti-Zionist websites, purporting to be from Herzl’s diary, is completely fabricated. It would be a good example of how with selective misquoting and liberal use of ellipses, it’s easy to make someone appear to have said something completely the opposite of what he really said.

Community Colleges in the Bush Era

Last week I went to the League for Innovation in the Community College‘s Innovations Conference. Overall, I have to say that this conference was far less interesting to me than the League’s CIT, where I presented in Florida in the fall. This is not specifically an ed-tech conference, which was part of the reason, and it was here in NYC, which may have been another part, and I was only attending, not presenting, which was another part. (Although that confence did have the major disadvantage of Jeb Bush’s keynote).

But I kept being reminded, forcefully, of how different we are at BMCC from other community colleges–especially in today’s world. President Bush has said, repeatedly, that he thinks of community colleges, and will fund community colleges, specifically and (relatively) exclusively as job-training (or retraining) institutions–vocational programs. Now, that’s certainly a part of all education, but, as I’ve commented before, it’s not what I see as the primary or optimal objective. Particularly at BMCC (more than most community colleges, perhaps because we’re part of a larger university), we’re committed to the idea of a liberal education, not just job skills. Our faculty are required to have PhD’s, and to research and publish, exactly like faculty in the senior colleges. I don’t think this is the case at most community colleges.

Two specific anecdotes to illustrate…

First, Maricopa Community College‘s Vice Chancellor Ron Bleed talked about “Overcoming the Biggest Barrier to Student Success.” He gave us some observations which made a lot of sense, and some which made less sense (a disquisition, for example, on the superiority of Barnes and Noble stores in Arizona, to the one on 5th Avenue in New York). But his main point, his “biggest barrier to student success” was (I’m oversimplifying) spending time in class. Now, I certainly understand that student convenience is important, and that students (especially in community colleges) do have limited time, and multiple responsibilities. I teach online, after all, and I certainly know that distance learning has advantages which are practical, not just pedagogical. But there’s such a thing as being too practical by half. And when I raised this point, when I wondered whether there were actually some advantages to having students spend an extended time on a subject, working together, and learning as a community, I got dismissed quite abruptly. “Well,” Vice Chancellor Bleed answered, “I don’t think we’re in any danger of losing that model. There will always be some old-fashioned faculty who will never let go of that.”

But he really wasn’t so bad…at least not relatively. The low point was reached in the conference’s closing session, with Gay Gilbert, the Administrator of the Office of Workforce Development, Education and Training Administration in the Bush Department of Labor. “For too long,” she told us, “community colleges have been social service institutions first, and market/economic institutions second. This administration, this president, will reverse that. We see community colleges as market institutions with economic benefits, with any social benefits only incidental.” She went on too describe, with glee and relish, how very much money the Bush administration would be throwing at community colleges which would fall into line with that vision, and how easy it would be to get that money.

I couldn’t really get a sense of how she was being received by the audience (closing session of the conference–most people had their coats on and their rolling suitcases by their feet), but she was being received by me with shock and horror. I don’t work for a “market institution” (I’m not so sure it’s “social service,” either, but that’s closer). I work for an institution of higher education. Increasing productivity, economic growth, sure, those are benefits of higher education. But they’re incidental. We’re here as part of a much grander tradition–the tradition of culture, and knowledge, and civilization.

I would hate (and I will fight against) the idea that what we do is primarily a market function…that we serve “customers.” There will certainly be a place for that function, and maybe some community colleges are that place. But if so, I wish they wouldn’t call them “colleges.” Because we’re a college, a campus of a university, and we don’t have that mission. We’re doing something very different, very much more important, and very much more admirable.

No more cross in La Jolla

Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports some encouraging news from the San Diego Union Tribune. The giant cross on Mt. Soledad in my hometown of La Jolla is finally, really, going to have to come down (it looks like). That cross was always there as I was growing up, serving as a constant reminder that I and people like me were outsiders in our own community. It was on public land, the highest point in the immediate area, serving as constant proof that the Constitution didn’t really apply when the majority wanted to demonstrate their superiority.

Well, in 1991 (long after I no longer lived there) a Federal judge made the right decision, upheld the Constitution, and ordered the cross removed. The city tried almost endless wrangling, wriggling, and slithering, transparently trying to keep it there by whatever stratagem or excuse they could find.

Finally, last November, the voters overwhelmingly rejected the ploys, and finally finally (I hope) the city attorney and the city council have confirmed that the struggle is over and the cross will go. It probably won’t go far, but it will go to private land (a church’s land), which is where it belongs. A big victory for the Constitution and the American way.

Schwarzenegger’s not so bad…

I knew I always liked Arnold’s movies (a guilty pleasure, but my own), but I was distressed that he would be elected governor of my own ex-home-state. But as it turns out, he’s really not so bad in a lot of ways.

A good example…how many other elected Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter…but especially Republicans) would be willing to stand up quite so strongly, and clearly, and unequivocally, for the separation of church and state as this. The Wall of Separation blog at Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports this interview between Schwarzenegger and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:

The ABC anchor then moved to religion noting that Schwarzenegger is a Catholic and asking, “How do you reconcile your political positions on abortion, on gay rights, on the death penalty? They’re opposed to the positions of the Catholic Church, the pronouncements of the pope. How do you reconcile that?”

Schwarzenegger said it was “easy” and that he never experienced a “sleepless night” over supposed conflicts between religious dogma he professes to and his political actions.

“I’m representing the people of California,” Schwarzenegger explained. “The people of California, all of them are not Catholics so, therefore, I do not bring in my religion into this whole thing. As a matter of fact, religion should have no effect on politics.”

No effect at all, Stephanopoulos asked.

“I think it should not,” the governor continued. “I mean, if you make a decision, it should not be based on your religious beliefs. It should be based on what is it how can you represent the people of California the best possible way? And we have a combination. We have Jews, we have Christians and we have Hindus. We have Buddhists. We have all kinds of different religions here and there’s 140 some religions in this state.”

Seemingly surprised or somewhat dubious, Stephanopoulos continued, “So your faith plays no role in the forming of your political philosophy?”

“Not for me,” Schwarzenegger said.

Good for you, Arnold!

Lawrence Summers, among others

I’ve been thinking about the Lawrence Summers comments (women and men have different brains, that’s why women are always going to be underrepresented in science and math, this is primarily genetic and biological, not cultural and ideological, etc., etc.), especially in the light of some pieces of the same kind of thinking which Beth came across in an otherwise interesting book (Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design). Then I read another, similar comment, in a defense of Summers by a colleague on the CUNY Senate Forum listserv.

This colleague, like the others, said (I’m paraphrasing), that there may be all kinds of subtle cues, and cultural forces, pushing women out of math and science, and pushing men in, but that “if you really want to do something, no subtle cue will stop you.” And besides, he says, there’s nothing bad about women being different from men in this way (more empathic, less systematizing…less eager to try new things, more eager to model on others…less able to think abstractly, more able to think emotionally). It’s just different, and in fact women are better! Yeah, that’s it! They’re really sweet and nice. Why do they need that nasty old science and math when they’re so nurturing and soft and pretty?

The more I think about this, the more it seems that this colleague, and Koster and Summers and all the others are not just missing, but denying, a very powerful psychological fact. They don’t see just how powerful early experience (very early) is in shaping our development. It’s not that “if you really want something the cues won’t stop you,” it’s more that the very nature of what you really want is shaped by cultural/psychological/ideological forces before you even become self-aware or fully sentient.

These people don’t just want to deny any responsibility to work toward equality in society (although that’s clearly a major motivation for Summers, at least). They want to deny the influence, the impact and power, of early childhood–they want to deny, in a way, basic Freudian psychology. “It’s nothing we can do anything about–nothing to make us think about our own childhood, or our own mothers or fathers. Oh, no, not that. It’s just the structure of the brain.”

In addition, they’re not able (or not interested) to realize that “normal” and “natural” are themselves socially-constructed categories and labels. It’s an old argument, and (sadly) a thoroughly regressive and anti-intellectual one.


Chuck Schumer has posted an easy-to-use Social Security Calculator to predict how Bush’s Social Security privatization plan will work out for real people, in the real world, beyond the false promises.

For this real person, in this real world, Bush’s wonderful plan will mean a 15% cut in my retirement income. In other words, I’ll lose money, every month, if Bush suceeds. What a great plan.

Postcards from Buster

Buster and his DadI’m a big fan of the PBS Kids show Arthur. My daughter’s been watching it for years, so I’m very familiar with all the stories and all the personalities. Buster, Arthur, Francine, Binky, and DW are well-known characters in this house. The show is consistently educational, consistently fun, and consistently interesting.

So the new spinoff, Postcards from Buster, is also a big hit around here. Buster Baxter (a bunny) travels around the country, meeting different kids in different kinds of families. The stories aren’t quite as compelling as in Arthur, but it’s still a fun show, and works well as a kind of travelogue.

But in one of the shows (which we haven’t seen yet), Buster is going to meet a family with two moms. So what? So the Bush administration and its Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, finds this unacceptable. In the ever-vigilant quest to make the country safe for homophobia (I’m quoting Richard Goldstein), she has decreed, and PBS has cowardly agreed (so much for that much-vaunted “liberal bias” at PBS–they folded like a house of cards), that kids shouldn’t see that gay parents and their families are normal, natural, and part of our country–or even that they exist at all.

The New York Times today presents a very necessary humanizing picture of the poor kid, Emma, who is being told, by the US Government, that there is something wrong with her and her family. That she should not be seen.

It’s outrageous. My own 9-year-old, in hearing about this case, says “that’s stupid. Buster sees all kinds of families. People who live in trailer parks, his own dad’s a pilot and he works for a rock band and he’s divorced. There’s lots of different kinds of families, that’s the whole point!”

Kids get it, and they get it easily. A girl from another episode of the show was interviewed for the Times article.

Farah Siddique also knows what it means to feel marginalized, and she is grateful to “Postcards From Buster” for helping her feel less so. Farah, 12, lives in a Chicago suburb with Pakistani and Filipino parents who are Muslim. In a telephone interview, she explained why she was happy to appear on “Postcards From Buster,” wearing her hijab (a head covering) and studying the Koran.

“It was important to tell people about my religion and everything,” she said. “Some people think we’re bad because of 9/11 or something, and I’m telling them we are not bad, we’re not trying to hurt anyone or do anything wrong.”

Asked what she thought about PBS’s decision not to distribute the “Buster” episode about the children with two mothers, she said: “We don’t believe in that stuff. My opinion is that it is bad or wrong. My sister is 7, and she watches PBS Kids shows. I wouldn’t want her to watch that kind of thing.”

What if people said they wouldn’t want to watch the episode about her because they don’t like Muslims?

Without hesitation Farah replied: “Wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that. Can I change what I said? If people were judging me because of my religion I would get really sad. Now I think maybe they should show it.”

Spellings’ attitude–the idea that kids should somehow be “protected” from knowing about homosexuality–is a way of making sure that it’s safe and easy for their parents (and the policies of those who their parents elect) to be homophobic. Her idea that parents should get to “decide” whether or not they want to teach their kids that homosexuality is OK is just as stupid and dangerous as letting parents “decide” whether or not child abuse, or racism, or anti-semitism are OK.

If only Margaret Spellings, her boss, and the Dobsons and Dobson-followers et al. who agree with this narrow-minded, regressive thinking could watch Buster, feel empathy like Farah does…maybe they too could “change what they said.” But it’s probably too late for them. Their fears and insecurities about their own sexuality are too, too powerful.