Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Time Magazine Falls for Intelligent Design Trick

The most recent issue of Time magazine features a cover story on the teaching of the Bible in American high schools. Not just reporting on it—the article was written by David van Biema, Time’s religion writer, who ends by recommending that American high schools should teach two-semester courses on the Holy Bible. The article claims that such a course is necessary for anyone who claims to be educated, and for anyone who would understand American history. However, van Biema fails to make a convincing argument.

Here are some of the main points of the article:

Such a class would be constitutional. The article notes that the Supreme Court has decided that, although it is unconstitutional to require students to study the Bible as the received word of God, there is no problem with using it an object of study—in other words, as long as the Bible is being used for historical context or as literature. This is a nice idea in a theoretical sort of way, but in reality, people come down in one of two camps where the Bible is concerned. They either believe it is the inspired Word of God—or they don’t. If a teacher believes that the Bible is God’s word, there is absolutely no way he can teach it impartially. If he doesn’t believe it, his teaching is sure to arouse enormous amounts of controversy. Imagine the riot that ensues when the first teacher tells his eleventh-graders that the first few verses of Genesis are self-contradictory creation myths derivative of many previous such myths, and couldn’t possibly be true. Of course, most people who care enough to become teachers on the Bible are going to be true believers. Just because it would be constitutional to teach a Bible course doesn’t make it a good idea.

People think the Bible contains wisdom. Van Biema cites a poll that says two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life’s problems. This is actually a good reason to teach students the Bible—it would quickly dispel this notion. Again, though, those who would actually be teaching this class would almost certainly agree with the poll. Students would be taught that prayer with strong faith gives guaranteed results, or that the meek shall inherit the earth. Nice thoughts. Not true.

The Bible is the most influential book ever written. This, too, is a true statement, but it’s not a good reason to teach a high school course about the Bible. Mein Kampf and Das Kapital are also extremely influential books, but it’s not necessary to study every word of them to understand their influence. Reading Psalms is not necessary to understand how the Bible has been used as an excuse for colonialism, genocide, bigotry and homophobia. In fact, one could make the case that the Bible has been too influential, and teaching it in high school would only make it more so. The article makes a big deal out of the fact that there are innumerable literary and pop culture references to biblical stories—there is a full-page picture layout with a photo of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction and another of Superman looking all crucified. (Did you know “el”—as in Jor-el—means “God” in Hebrew? Wow!) Apparently we should read and study the Bible so we can enjoy The DaVinci Code. Really, if we’re going to teach the Bible in public schools because of the pop-culture references, shouldn’t we be more eager to teach students about Seinfeld or The Simpsons?

Van Beima lists several arguments against a high school Bible course, then dismisses them out of hand. Most of the people pushing for teaching the Bible in public schools are evangelical Christians who are by definition interested in making converts. It’s okay, Van Biema says, because it’s possible for a conservative Christian to teach the Bible impartially. Commercial Bible curriculums contain creationist anti-science drivel. Not much, Van Biema says.

The best argument against teaching the Bible in high schools is the people who are pushing the idea. These folks are thinly disguised intelligent design advocates, attempting to get their pseudoscience wedged into public schools. For example, the author of one of the primary textbooks used in such courses is Chuck Stetson, a graduate of the Wilberforce Forum founded by Chuck Colson (of Watergate fame). This Forum lists among its board of directions two of the usual ID suspects, Phillip Johnson and William Dembski, as well as Marvin Olasky, the prominent Christian reconstructionist and dominionist. These are not innocent Christians only interested in promoting the Bible as quaint literature. This is just another attempt to circumvent legal separation of church and state.

Van Biema endorses the teaching of the Bible, but rejects courses in Comparative Religion because kids are “already overloaded.” He ends his article with a vignette of a classroom in which high school students are taught by a conservative Christian teacher that the Ten Commandments (presumably including “I am the Lord thy God, you shall have no other gods before me”) are to be taken literally. This little play is supposed to relieve us of any concerns about Christianity being taught in the schools. “Sure, there will be bumps along the way,” Van Biema says.

Sure there will.


TenaciousK said...

Well, you know I have a more mixed opinion on this issue than you do, which doesn't seem to make sense, if you know I grew up in an environment of religious oppression.

But I keep coming back to the peculiarity of my experience growing up - that nobody was ever allowed to talk about any of it. The people who were in the best position to challenge (educated people from elsewhere befuddled by the series of events that led to their living in Provo) were voiceless.

So, I'm thinking it would be nice to find some way to open a discussion on the matter without opening the floodgates of propaganda. Utah has an interesting compromise on the issue, BTW - students are free to take LDS seminary class as an elective, for which they are considered temporarily checked out of school for a period every day, and they traipse across the parking lot to the privately-owned seminary building.

Or, they use it as an excuse to take an extra-long lunch every day.

So, students could be free to take Christian seminary (or Hindu seminary or Scientology seminary), but nobody would be required.

This isn't what's proposed, of course, and you're right - a required class in bible studies is ludicrous. I don't know that this is fueled only by creationism, though - there's an element of cultural oppression in it too. Also ironic - for a chemistry teacher, or geometry, or psychology, or history, we optimally want someone who is enthusiastic about their subject.

For bible studies, we secularists would be screaming for impartiality.

Can you imagine asking a chemistry teacher to be impartial on the matter of Chemistry's value to people? The parallel between bible studies and other subjects breaks down, at this point.

august said...

I'm not opposed to secular classes on the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures. It would rank lower on my list of educational priorities than, for example, foreign language teaching, basic geography, math (especially statistics), chemistry, etc., all of which seem to be woeful in public schools. I took a two semester sequence in college, and it was one of the best classes I ever took. It really is something one should read. Very hard to get most American history and literature (for example) if you haven't.

That said, I don't believe for a second it would quiet the ID folks. Their complaint is not an ignorance of scripture (Dawkins has presumably read the Bible). Their problem is something more akin to magical thinking. If you're trying to deal with ID, you are much better off having teachers who can explain abstract concepts, particularly logic, and schools who provide continuing support and training.

It seems to me that a truth about most subjects in teaching is that the truth is often counterintuitive. See, for example, Bayes' Theorem. Get students to understand that and let them read as much as we can possibly throw at them.

While we are piling up expectations for the (often semi-literate) Dick and Jane, perhaps an architecture class? Might that help make America less ugly?

Dawn Coyote said...

august makes a good point regarding something I experienced first hand as an ESL tutor (back when the ink was still wet on my degree): Western literature, music and art draw heavily on Christian and classic mythology. Without that whole constellation of ideas and stories, my students had a heck of a time with literary analysis.

I took one Religious Studies class in university, and I'd have taken more if I'd had time. I see your point about the agenda behind the push, but perhaps there's some negotiating room. Critical thinking and Judeo-Christian history, I think, concurrently.

Schadenfreude said...

The 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not read the Bible for its prose.

The solution: the class must be taught by an Anglican bishop. They're all atheists anyway.

maximo said...

i read that "article" too. it's one of those things. there are maybe a few ways to do it right... and an infinite number of ways to do it wrong.

Archaeopteryx said...

You guys are all being rational and reasonable, and that's what the ID proponents are counting on. Spend some time reading the wedge document that describes the ID strategy for "retaking America for Christ."

TK--it's incredible to me that students would be allowed to count an LDS class as an elective toward graduation. Imagine the uproar if a Muslim group decided to set up housekeeping in the school parking lot and insisted that students be allowed to study Islam for credit.

August--you make an excellent point. As soon as all the students can work a quadratic equation and write an English paragraph, let's teach them the Bible.

Dawn--I teach ESL now. I can't imagine doing literary analysis--it's more along the lines of "Can you tell me how to get to the police station?" Again, your point about cultural literacy is well-taken, but the problem is that this particular piece of literature is considered by about two-thirds of the people in the country to be the direct word of God. How are you going to be critical of that?

Schad--I attended a Methodist church as a child where the minister was an athiest. How exactly does that work?

JohnMcG said...

I think having the Bible presented in a lukewarm manner in public schools is likely to result in lukewarm Gary Wills "I'm OK; you're OK" type religion, which would be a secularit's dream. This would backfire.

That does seem to be a hornet's nest, though. When Greek and Roman mythology is presented, it can be done as a fantasy, and implausible events can be dismissed because it's just a story. If the Bible is presented, they could not be dismissed as such without offending a lot of people.

It does seem that part of one's cultural education should include knowing what things like Passover, the Great Flood, David and Goliath, wisdom of Solomon, turn the other cheek, etc. refer to.


As for the creationism agenda -- gimme a break. Is evolution such a delicate hothouse flower that it cannot stand in the face of some bible study classes? I think this attitude of "we can't let the evil other side have a victory" is poisoning our politics, and the policies of this Administration are a prime example. Maybe more inspections would have been prudent, but that would mean caving to the French, and we can't do that! Maybe we should admit that firing the US Atty's was a bad idea, but that would mean admitting that those critics have a point, and they want to cripple the executive branch!

And we can't present the Bible as literature in schools, because that would make the creationists happy!

I don't think teaching the Bible in public school is a great idea. But if we don't do it, I certainly hope the "best argument" isn't that some of your fellow citizens would like it. That may be the most effective argument, but it's not the best.

TenaciousK said...

There are atheist ministers? [Besides Unitarians, I mean]. That is so cool!

Arch - they don't get elective credit, they get checked out of school for a class period per day. If they got credit, the school would have to work out a financial arrangement between themselves and the LDS seminary program that would have to itself be a violation of separation.

Now, you see, if you taught my kids' bible classes, that'd be fine in much the same way I think an atheist minister is a lovely creature who I would like to hear speak. Balance.

But you know that's not who'd be teaching the class, so as far as that goes, I've gotta' agree with you.

The University of Utah has(d?) a series of classes called "Intellectual Traditions of the West". I took the one covering the period from about 0 to the renaissance (Tertullian, Origen, Augusting, Aquinas etc.). That's a class I'd wholeheartedly support being taught (as an elective), even in high school.

Hardly a bible class, however, and some of the subject matter would undoubtedly make literalist Christians very uncomfortable.

I guess that's what it's all about - I'm willing to tolerate some discomfort regarding my beliefs, so long as people of opposing viewpoints are willing to reciprocate. The bible school teacher is unlikely, though, isn't he? And that's where it falls apart.

TenaciousK said...

Oh lordy - Augustine! Augustine!

[Is that the shadow of anonymous creeping over my shoulder? Aaargh!]

TenaciousK said...

… I certainly hope the "best argument" isn't that some of your fellow citizens would like it.

John, isn’t it interesting how quickly people tend to polarize? I mean, do you really think this is what Arch is saying? Because I never got that at all.

Look, there are scads of arguments that’ve been beaten deep into the ground by now (what about – Jewish/Hindu/atheist/pagan/everybody non-Christian – do they get their fair shot at converting America’s youth? Would you feel ok about a Scientologist teaching a class on Hubbardism? FSMism? You know, all of those).

But Arch’s point is very interesting, to me. Are conspiracy theories helpful? Not usually, but what about when you discover there really is a conspiracy? How would you respond if a “Blanket” document were found, which outlined a concerted an organized effort for atheists to remove all mention of the word “God” from government, schools, and media through specific tactics in the areas of lobbying, litigation, intimidation and economic coercion? Would it put your back up?

It reframes the entire response as capitulating to the enemy, instead of achieving a compromise on a debatable issue. Were you defensive because you felt like Arch was making unwarranted assumptions about people who believe in the bible? That’s the way it seemed, and your dismissive response seems less likely to further debate than to alienate the opposing side (perhaps in a similar vein to which you felt alienated by his statements?)

What are your thoughts about the “wedge” document?

JohnMcG said...

My thought about the wedge document is that it is not directly germane to the question. Another thought is that so long as the means being used are constitutional means, e.g. electing officials sympathetic to their point of view vs. violent overthrow of the government, then it should not disqualify them from public discourse.

The point I got from Arch's final paragraphs is that the best reason not to teach the Bible in public schools is that people like Stetson are behind it, and Stetson's bad news. I still believe that's a fair reading of the post.

I am quite sure that many people opposed to teaching the Bible in schools also have wider agendas that I would find as distasteful as you find creationism. For instance, I would not be surprised to discover that they would favor distributing condoms in schools, or presenting different family structures on equal footing as married parents. I would be equally unsurprised to discover that they had an organized plan for achieving these goals. That doesn't make them wrong that teaching the Bible in public schools is a bad idea, or that we should do it anyway so as not to embolden them.

But I suppose that's the state of the game nowadays. Find the most distasteful advocate for the opposing point of view, and then frame a "yes" to this question as a "yes" to his agenda.

And I think that's part of how we got to the war. Bloggers like Reynolds and Sullivan trumpeted the most extreme elements of opposition to the war, and cast them as typical of the movement, and I admit I bought some of it, and I regret it.

I suppose it's also a shorthand if we don't have the time or energy to study up on an issue. I don't know the ins and outs of Terri Schiavo's condition, and there's no way I can really find out for sure, but Tom DeLay is making a big fuss that the tube should remain, so obviously it must come out.

Maybe this is good enough for us to settle on a default position on these issue. But I maintain that presenting this as the "best argument" drags down our discourse, and encourages us to form our opinions based on emotional reactions to individuals rather than analysis of the issue.

JohnMcG said...

And yes, I suppose I do get particularly defensive when this tactic is applied to religious groups there seems to be a growing currency to the idea that if an policy has religious motivations, then that is reason enough to disqualify it, because mixing faith and politics is inherently dangerous.

Obviously, in many cases this my own oxe being gored, so maybe I am quicker to say ouch in this particular instance, but I also think that such a stance would stifle many sound policies.

So, I do find myself confronting this notion when I come across it.

JohnMcG said...

If I may be indulged a third consecutive post...

I think it is perfectly acceptable and right to say, "Your arguments are based on your religion; I do not share your religious faith, and thus find them unconvincing. If you wish to convince me, you must make your arguments on secular ground." We are a plurality, arguments based on religious faith should not carry the day, or even merit the respect of non-believers.

What gets my hackles up is when I see things like, "Sure, your argument for X may be reasonable, but those who argue for X also believe in angels and want to turn the United States into a Christian nation, and teach creationism, so I must nevertheless oppose you on it."

TenaciousK said...

John, if the question reads, “Is teaching bible studies in public schools a good idea?” then the wedge document may not be Germane. It may be entirely germane, however, if the question is “What would a public school course in bible studies look like?” And nobody’s saying creationists should be disqualified from public discourse, just that they should be honest about their arguments.

The distrust here mirrors the distrust people feel about the proposed course. If someone were really teaching such a class in an impartial manner, consistent with the rationale for providing it, I wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. But I distrust the people most motivated to teach such classes. Arch’s link supports that distrust.

“This is a nice idea in a theoretical sort of way, but in reality, people come down in one of two camps where the Bible is concerned. They either believe it is the inspired Word of God—or they don’t. If a teacher believes that the Bible is God’s word, there is absolutely no way he can teach it impartially. If he doesn’t believe it, his teaching is sure to arouse enormous amounts of controversy.”

This is really the core of his argument. Arch also points out that two of the justifications (Bible as influential, and Bible as source of wisdom) are not really very compelling reasons to teach it. I question the influential argument, due to the pervasive impact it’s had on modern and historical philosophy and events. A quick perusal of the Old Testament, however, quickly puts the other to rest.

One of the philosophical ideals of Western science, and education, is that ideas should be allowed to freely compete. This is one of the arguments forwarded in support of teaching biblical beliefs. The difficulty is, however, they can’t really be debated (limited ability to have rational arguments when one side relies as it’s core basis belief without, or even contradicted by, direct evidence). Teaching a bible studies class to educate students about the origins of modern philosophy etc. circumvents this objection, but only to the extent that this is the perspective from which the class would actually be taught.

But of course I’m falling into the same trap you did in your response: treating a heterogeneous group as though they are homogenous – this always seems to interfere with rational debate. It’s also a necessary aspect of the debate tactic you criticize (invalidating an argument on the basis of an extreme position). Yes, this did contribute to our getting into the war, IMO. In that case, it appears discourse was violated by the presence of a conspiracy of sorts (or at least a massive collusion) and ulterior motives. I find it depressing and ironic that the conspiracy theorists I so despise are turning out to be more correct in their reasoning than I was.

[I don’t think people really formed opinions on the Schiavo issue purely to counter DeLay’s. Do you really think this happened?]

I agree with some of what you’re saying, however: "Sure, your argument for X may be reasonable, but those who argue for X also believe in abortion and want to turn the United States into an atheist nation, and teach liberal values, so I must nevertheless oppose you on it." This is as aggravating for me as it is for you – disqualification of my argument for reasons unrelated to it. I do think conservatives have difficulty at times formulating responses to rational arguments, but that doesn’t make them wrong. I’m afraid, however, that too often they resort to the default position of “faith”, rather than find more compelling empirical reasons to discourage broadening social definitions of morality on issues like birth control, or family structures, etc.

You know – beams, motes, and all that.

Claude Scales said...

Schad: Actually, it's part of the Sixth commandment of Auden's Hermetic Decalogue (from "Under Which Lyre? A Reactionary Tract For Our Times"). The relevant verse is as follows:

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

august said...

So much to say; so little of interest to add.

I guess I think if morons are running the school systems, then they are just as able to do damage in History classes as in a Bible class. My issue is with the morons, not the religious (recognize that the two not mutally exclusive, but do not think that being religious is sufficient cause to think somebody is a moron).

John - in general, I agree that arguments about religion get rather screwed up. In this particular case, Arch is perhaps more justified because the Bible class is being presented (so I understand) as an alternative to Intelligent Design? So the argument about the class already has a certain baggage. It's being offered as an armistice in a culture war.

I assume the point of the original article was that creationism and evolution are different kinds of knowledge. They make different kinds of claims using different standards of evidence, and thus belong in different settings. I just don't see how you can legislate such a thing. First, because the point of ID is to pretend that it is the same kind of knowledge as evolution, and second because whatever policy you come up with will only be as good as the people who implement it.

Again, I really wish the thing we were debating was: millions of high school graduates are morons. What can we do about it?

Archaeopteryx said...

Mcg: I think it's pretty interesting that most mainstream religions don't feel any need to try to push Bible study into the schools. I feel quite sure most of them feel the way that you indicated in your first post--"We absolutely don't want secular humanists tearing apart our sacred books." In fact, if I remember correctly, the Mormon church was adamant about not teaching creationism in Utah schools--they thought their kids were going to get the version they wanted at church. Seems to me that most folks that are really interested in learning about the Bible do it just fine without having a course on it in high school--I know I certainly did.

Yeah, the people pushing this idea are suspect, and that makes the whole idea suspect. Of course, that's not the entire argument, and in fact, I had written most of the post before it dawned on me who the Wilberforce Forum was. I think teaching the Bible in public schools is impossible to do without violating the separation of church and state, and that separation is there to protect both.

TK: You said what I was thinking, just better than I would have.

Gregor Samsa said...

A very uncomfortable fact we often refuse to face squarely is that basic education is really a form of brain washing. It is the process by which society builds a mental conformity among its citizens which is deemed necessary for its cohesive functioning. The stock of human ideas is too vast for our individual capacities to rationally process, so we all enter adulthood as highly indoctrinated individuals. Therefore, anything which is taught at any length in schools carries the implication that it is an approved (if not a consensual) view. Critical discussion of contested truths and values are reserved for adult forums, like universities and the press. We teach arithmetic, language and patriotic mythology in schools, not supply side economics, liberal philosophy, controversial literature or hunting skills. If relevance to American culture and politics were reason enough for inclusion, there should have been detailed courses on communism, Islam, sexual practices or alternative medicine. There would be a hue and cry if these topics were treated beyond the cursory in classrooms, because everyone would know what we rarely acknowledge: by giving them significant airtime, we are sending positive cues to the kids.

So the apparent paradox raised by John’s comment (“We absolutely don't want secular humanists tearing apart our sacred books”) is easily resolved. Exegesis is bait, the real switcheroo is symbolic validation, the establishment of a de facto state religion by planting its lingo firmly within the state’s indoctrination apparatus. Those who care about their kids learning biblical substance are already providing it profusely at home, in churches and Sunday schools. There exists no gap for a high school elective course to bridge.

Archaeopteryx said...

Gregor: I wasn't quoting John in that post, I was quoting hypothetical religious folks, and I did a piss-poor job of making that clear. Otherwise, your post is spot on.

Gregor Samsa said...

Arch: Let's split the blame on the misquote. I recall John saying something to that effect further up, so probably not too bad as a paraphrase. Not being patronizing, but I think it is the rational and honorable sentiment, as opposed to the greed for billboard space at all cost. The Time writer was probably just elevating what he does for a living. If he were a veterinarian, he would have advocated classroom experiments on horse manure. We are rarely humble about our specializations.

Dawn Coyote said...

So, ID and the History of the Bible is like New Coke and Coca-Cola Classic? Foot-in-the-door, or bait-and-switch, or whatever?

Gregor Samsa said...

Dawn: Ask social conservatives why they’re against sex and contraceptive education in schools. Because you can preface it as much as you want saying “you shouldn’t be needing this, but just in case”, but the very fact that you are compelled to teach it becomes implicit endorsement of promiscuity. Maybe you’re not serious when you urge them to keep their pants on, maybe you’re resigned to the fact that they won’t anyway. Either way, it sends the signal that a little hanky panky isn’t too serious to be avoided. The mere introduction of the topic of unsafe sex becomes an endorsement of sex, by implication.

The same with critical study of the Bible, and the Bible.

I am not against sex education, of course, but that's because I don't share the view that sex (even casual sex) should be stigmatized. In fact, its association with guilt, imparted by our religious heritage, ought to be removed. Of course I am imposing my political views on education, but my meta point was that it is irreducibly political. We like to maintain a fiction that there is some objective, rational core of what is "good for the kids", while we are talking about what values to put into the heads of future generations. What can be more political than that?

TenaciousK said...

Nice commentary. “Brainwashing” is such a pejorative term, though – I prefer “socialization” myself, though I suppose even “indoctrination” seems a little less damning. People aren’t supposed to have to learn the justification for everything, nor are animals (thinking imprinting and modeling). Important for kids to figure some of it out eventually, however – moral moratorium is an awfully weak position from which to be facing unanticipated dilemmas. [Christians take note – teen rebellion / differentiation is a good and important thing, not a bad thing.]

Interesting conversation on Schad’s blog today with the home educator. I was mentioning to someone that home education isn’t a problem per se. Sending your kids to school does dilute your influence over them, however, which for many people is a very good thing indeed (mitigates the impact of parental pathology).

You miss a point on the teaching of sex/contraceptive education, though. While I agree that “You shouldn’t be needing this, but just in case” becomes an implicit endorsement, you don’t acknowledge the degree to which “You shouldn’t do this, at the cost of your immortal soul” elevates the importance of the behavior, and creates an increasingly bimodal distribution in population propensity to “sin.” In order to prohibit a behavior, you first have to evoke the concept, and then disallow it. From a psychological perspective, this makes as much sense as “try as hard as you can not to think of a white bear”, or a having a dieter think of not eating chocolate cake all day. [Or letting the tobacco companies off the hook by allowing them to advertise in elementary schools as part of an antismoking campaign.] Which do you think encourages more promiscuity – the implicit “a little hanky panky isn’t too serious” or “this is the forbidden fruit – a wonderful, exalted thing that I can have, and immoral people can have, but you can’t”? Endorsement of sex by implication is one thing, but elevating its status by prohibition is hardly the opposite.

You can have anything you want, anything at all - but that cookie! Don’t eat that frosted, chocolate cookie with the light sugary glaze, the little sparkly sprinkles, and the light dusting of powdered sugar on top. It might look delicious, but that cookie is evil, verboten.

Until you’re married (but you’re not allowed to taste. Cookies aren’t for tasting, only swallowing).

Dawn Coyote said...

I don't know how a country founded on religious freedom can be at such great pains to eradicate it.

Gregor, I agree with you that it's political, but what can a tolerant society do but prepare kids to protect themselves from exploitation by teaching them to think for themselves? Critical thinking, marketing tactics and contract negotiation skills (for the internet porn) would go a lot farther toward indoctrination/exploitation-proofing kids than trying to keep them away from porn and religion.

I was working with the young guy I'm mentoring in fiction writing last weekend, and he was having some trouble fleshing out the villain in his story. We were looking at various bad guys, and it came to me—Swearingen!—Swearingen (of Deadwood) is the perfect model for his antagonist, but not very appropriate to show a just 13-year old boy. Still, when his mom came to get him, I mentioned it to her. "It's very profane," I said. "VERY profane." She laughed. "Go ahead and show it to him," she said. "He's got good filters."

I'll avoid the nudity, but I believe she's right - he has good filters. The kid can think.

I'm in favor of a more enlightened sex ed, too. Shame is a big motivator for keeping secrets, and secrets keep people from protecting themselves as fully as they otherwise might. Rather than sheltering them from all possible harm, I'm in favor of teaching kids to think for themselves, to protect themselves when there's no one around protect them *. I recall reading some years ago, as Oprah was doing some show on how to protect your child from being abducted, that one in every 40,000(ish) kids will be abducted, but 39,000(ish) will be afraid of it. It's not worth it.

I love marketing tactics. Your parallel made me think of a scenario like this:

X and Y are on a first date. Halfway through the evening...

X: So, should we have sex on our second or our third date?
Y: Huh?
X: I don't like to rush, but if you'd rather just get it over with, we could do it tonight. Do you have condoms?
Y: Condoms? No, I—
X: It's okay. I have some in the car.

august said...


One of my favorite lectures is to tell the class that the august institution they attend clearly thinks they are morons. The powers that be clearly designed the lecture hall with a model of education in which the wise old professor slowly transmits into the minds of students -- egad -- knowledge! The students should drink daily of this nectar, and never ever say anything.

I'm not sure if your claim about high school vs. college is meant to be normative or merely descriptive. My feeling is that we teach students as if they are fucking idiots, and so we get fucking idiots. See, e.g., the Fray.

You are of course right that states and groups attempt (and often fail) to naturalize power by communicating certain ideas as truths.

I have a friend who teaches in the Bronx. I've linked to him before, and he's done pieces for Slate (Tom Moore). His students are convinced that Martin Luther freed the slaves. The incessant hagiography of Martin Luther King thus has some effect on them, but not in the way its proponents wish. Every student knows that Martin Luther King
a. Had a dream
b. Freed the slaves
c. Lived in the sixteenth century.

The reason Intelligent Design is able to make such headway in science classes is not merely because it is granted authority by the various treatments of Christianity as normative (eg. "Judeo-Christian tradition" -- long a staple of history classes). It's also because students don't have the basic skills necessary to pick apart an argument. Often they don't have the skills to recognize an argument. The costs of this silliness show up in a million ways.

Shirley Tighlman (microbiologist) once gave an example of her method for teaching. She gave each student some fruit flies, and told the students their job was to get the fruit flies to mate. The students were to record what factors influenced mating, being as precise as possible. Go. It was a kind of teaching that emphasized the pleasure of finding things out. Different students would of course get different answers, and this could lead to discussion about the standards one might use to verify certain conclusions.

Compare to my high school, where "labs" consisted of fiddling with shit until I got a pre-ordained result. I never took chemistry. I took physics but it was entirely plug and chug. All for no good reason. There's really nothing so magic about high school that you couldn't do the fruit fly thing there as well.

There's a hidden classroom in Tighlman's lab as well. Maybe the equivalent in your porn class would be students making home movies to see who can be most titilating, and then comparing their results. If a group of are into the Bible, and want to try to convince a group of sceptics that it is true, then interesting discussion might result. Anything to make high school less depressing -- performing Shakespeare instead of reading, confronting relativity instead of worshipping Einstein. Sure, read Lolita. Compare it to the Scarlet Letter (which might encourage folks to know a little something about the Bible). High school is stultifying. It seems to me that any consideration of its capacity to indoctrinate should begin with the particular form of indoctination that encourages passive, mute stupidity.

Schadenfreude said...



twiffer said...

if sex education "implies" that sex is okay, then do gun safety course imply that shooting people is okay? in drivers ed, they teach out how to recover from spin-out; does this imply one that purposefully pulling donuts in the snow is acceptable?

JohnMcG said...

if sex education "implies" that sex is okay, then do gun safety course imply that shooting people is okay?

Um no. The gun safety course does imply that there are circumstances where guns could be used. I don't think this is a controversial idea. That casual sex is OK is controversial.

drivers ed, they teach out how to recover from spin-out; does this imply one that purposefully pulling donuts in the snow is acceptable?

No, it's teaching how to handle a situation one may get into by accident. Having sex is a conscious decision in a way that spinning out a car is not. Except in the case of rape, in which case the advice is not useful.

In driver's ed, they don't teach you how to handle a car at 100 MPH.


I teach 7th grade PSR (CCD on the East Coast), which is Catholic education for public school kids.

In presenting the Church's teachings on chastity, I try to spend more times on the whys than the whats. This is the type of life the Church wants for you. The Church has developed these teachings not out of a desire to take away your fun, but because 2000 years of wisdom have shown us this is the path of light. And I can honestly hold myself up as a model.

Obviously, this only makes sense in the religious setting, which is why I'm not enthusiastic about bringing Christianity into the public schools, and sanding it down for public consumption.


Even in college at a Top 20 University, physics and especially chemistry "labs" were about repeating the experiment until one reached the determined result.

I suppose this was more about teaching us how a lab works and how to execute basic procedures than it was about discovery. If I don't know that my flask needs to be absolutely clean, what I "discover" isn't going to be valid, and I'm going to face a pretty stark realization when the world doesn't share my enthusiasm.


I think one of the problems is that "good" students are disposed to uncrtically accept whatever teachers tell them. This is useful at the beginning, and help things move along. At some point, we want them to see their teachers/professors as having a valuable, though perhaps not autoritative perspective.

I don't think there's agreement on when that switch should be flipped, and it's probably different for different students.

In the meantime, while our students are uncrtically accepting what their teachers tell them, we don't want them to be taught on a controversial subject by someone on the other side.

So, it seems we have two choices:

-- Eschew controversial subjects altogether, or withhold them until college.
-- Segregate based on these viewpoints.

Archaeopteryx said...

See, John, you have what I would consider a reasonable and correct approach. There are subjects that are best left until college, when students will presumably be mature enough to begin sorting things out for themselves.

Although, unfortunately, the whole physical process of sex kicks in long before kids have the emotional ability to deal with it. It doesn't seem that bad of an idea to leave the mechanics of it to teachers and the spiritual aspects to clergy.

Keifus said...

Hell of a conversation up there, y'all.

I don't know about you, twiffer, but upon learning how to recover from a spin-out, that was one of the first things I went out and tried to do. On the other hand, nothing--nothing!--I learned in sex ed helped me to get laid.

As for the rest, it usually comes down to a matter of teaching something vs. teaching about something. Kids pretty well need to know about religion in our this jolly fucked-up world of ours. I admit that I only skimmed the Time article yesterday (in self-defense: I found it tendentious). A relevant question to the author would be why must it be "bible study" as opposed to "religious studies" or "comparative religion" or something like that?

August, I'm a little biased (by anecdote) against inquiry-based educational methods, but I hear your shout. What works varies with the student and instructor both. Wouldn't it be great to have an array of alternatives? Not that instructors are paid enough to dig so deep, not that they have enough time even if they were, and it's not as though student assessments can afford to be so good.

It's a worthwhile coversation to discuss what we want education to achieve. Would teaching marketing make for the sorts of consumers we want to have in this country? (And for which "we"?)

TenaciousK said...

A number of thoughts.

Twif: we’re dealing with populations, not individuals. Does gun education imply that shooting people is ok? Probably for a very few. Children in martial arts classes are almost always taught about the importance of self-control and the responsibility associated with having a greater degree of latitude. This is one of the reasons why many kids with anger problems do well in a martial arts class. There are a few, however, that only become more dangerous (and get discontinued from the class by responsible instructors).

One of the things taught in gun education classes is the “coolness” of firearms. This aspect of learning (relative importance) is more resistant to change than more peripheral attributions (guns are good, guns are bad, guns are only good for hunting, etc.). By focusing on spin-outs in driver’s ed, the concept of a spinout becomes important. What some kids will do with this is go to the parking lot after a snowstorm (I certainly did). Others will seek to avoid them (we could have a whole conversation about personality impact on exploration of a problem field).

I'm ignoring for the moment the manner in which such lessons are conveyed (which is a big deal). Drug prevention classes can (but too often don't) discourage drug use. The delivery impacts whether the effect conveyed will be primarily innoculation, or infection.

John, you talk about segregating versus avoidance. This is precisely the gripe I referred to above thread. If chastity is a virtue that works better for people than the alternatives, then that is something that can be empirically demonstrated, and non-religious justifications found. Religious commandments (assuming divine validity) are shorthand rules designed to keep you safe without having to think something through, right? They don’t have to be shorthand.

Abdicating a secular approach to morality and retreating from the dilemma of diverse beliefs only serves to broaden the social divide. It's not necessary; the secular approach to morality falls under the umbrella of the social sciences. It’s ok to teach students about issues like emotional well-being and relationship skills without talking about divine prohibitions.

It’s the refusal to look at secular/empirical evidence that contradicts religious prohibition that galls us secular humanists. Note, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong (this is science, remember?), only that you haven’t made your case. It’s a challenge that religious folks retreat from all too often - perhaps (cynical interp) because they’re afraid, deep down, they might be wrong.

twiffer said...

my point was the idea that teaching about contraception, condoms, etc. "implies" sex is okay. i find it a bullshit argument. moreover, this idea was offered as a reason to not make the new vaccine developed for cervical cancer mandatory. the argument against it (mandatory innoculations) was not based on effectiveness of the vaccine or that cervical cancer isn't always caused by HPV; no it was based on the idea that vaccinating girls would send a "subtle" message that pre-marital sex was okay. ridiculous.

as far as the idea that just assuming teens will have sex being some sort of capitulation, well...there is a reason people have been pontificating on the evils of fornication for millenia. think about this. the success of absitnence only sex education hinges on teenagers listening to, and obeying, their teachers and parents.

TenaciousK said...

Oh yeah, that was a really stupid argument. One thing I find really funny about it - if the HPV innoculation is not mandatory, then wouldn't the parents choosing to innoculate their kids be more likely to feel they are implicitly condoning premarital sex? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Yeah, abstinence-only education is a crock. It's reminiscent of the "just say no" campaign, which was nefariously counterproductive enough to make me wonder, just a little, about the allegations people were making about how certain political figures actually wanted to support the drug trade (that the war on drugs was a complete sham). It makes absolutely no sense.

A related note - huffing (inhalent abuse) has made a huge comeback among teens. Why? Three reasons, I think. Foremost is drug testing; inhalents don't show up on drug tests. Second is access.

And third? Because the anti-drug messengers have lost so much credibility with a proportion of youth that they no longer give credence to anything they say - even when they're telling the absolute truth about something that really can kill you, and really will damage you.

Shame-based or punitive interventions split the distribution (helpful to a majority, but demonstrably harmful to a minority). Effective interventions shift entire distributions.

That HPV innoculation is going to be an effective intervention, so long as it's mandatory.

JohnMcG said...

Do you think there would be a strong a push for HPV vaccines absent its utility in the culture war?

In other words, if the only objection to the manadatory HPV vaccines was that would be a monetary boon to the company that produces it, would there be this desire to make it mandatory?

I think about this with regards to embryonic research at times. IMO, if embryonic research weren't so useful in making pro-lifers look like heartless hypocrites, it would have no juice. And I think this is why news that these cells can be extracted in less controversial ways is not greeted with enthusiasm.

JohnMcG said...

On the gun thing, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think gun safety is something that is taught as a matter of course in public schools, other than in, if you'll pardon the expression, an "abstinence only" type of way -- don't touch a gun, if your family has a gun, it should locked and you shouldn't have access to the key, etc.

It is taught in places like boy scout camps, which are friendlier to gun culture.


Now, I suppose a problem with this anlaogy is that there's no such groups built around more permissive attitudes about teenage sex, and if there were, such a group would likely face some social stigma. If contraceptive-based education didn't happen in public schools, where would it happen?

Keifus said...

Hey John, HPV vaccine is also effective against the most common forms of genital warts (hence the papilloma). Evidently, the lifetime chances of an adult male contracting genital warts are something like 80%. You'd think there'd be a good market.

I expect the reason that Merck is chasing the mandatory thing, is that the culture wars are a hindrance to marketing (cervical cancer is a better face than genital warts), and required vaccinations they see as easier money.


JohnMcG said...

Yeah -- I think I overreached there.

But I think Merck is getting a lot of help by putting them on one side of the culture wars.

TenaciousK said...

I disagree. Merck is pursuing mandatory innoculation because they are pursuing a program of eradication (think polio vaccine). It would actually make better long-term economic sense for them to allow the vaccine to be sporadically distributed. If they're successful in the mandatory thing, there's an outstanding chance that the number of women dying of breast cancer (there's possibilities for other cancers as well) will fall dramatically.

The culture wars are getting in the way.

Yeah, John, gun safety in the public schools is "abstinence only." You think it works?

Contraceptive-based education would probably have to occur in health class. If you don't want to encourage promiscuity, make sure it's taught by someone who looks like Roseanne Bahr, or Phyllis Diller.

Or my social and hygeine-challenged woodshop teacher from junior high. Trust me, that's an association that would go farther to discourage sexual behavior than all the prohibitive messages you could distribute.

I'm one of those people who would like to see condoms freely distributed - if not at school, then in a nearby, readily accessible location where they can be obtained without question (like, if every community had a Planned Parenthood clinic).

Nan said...

"Seems to me that most folks that are really interested in learning about the Bible do it just fine without having a course on it in high school--I know I certainly did."

This is the best sentence in this entire thread! Spot on.

I'm thoroughly enjoying these comments guys (that's a gender neutral "guys").

Thomas Paine said...

I have posted elsewhere (eg on a Slate Faith-Based thread on this topic) that I firmly believe that any educated person should have a reasonable exposure to the Bible and the Qur'an etc. BUT, and that is a huge fucking BUT!

But, first, what is it gonna replace? Is it a matter that our kids already learn too much science and math? Too much world history, are becoming too literate? Are fluent in too many foreign languages?

The second is who in Hell is gonna teach the classes? And from what perspective? If taught from a Sunday School perspective by true believers, it is patently unconstitutional, and if taught as mythology, the religious parents will be up in arms.