Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Gun Control and Coping with Death

I've been reading way too many articles about the Sandy Hook massacre followed by an unbelievable number of inane and hurtful comments:  "Cars kill more people than guns, and cars pollute too.  So we should ban cars before we ban guns."  "If God were allowed in the schools, He would have been there to protect the children."  "If we ban guns, then only criminals will have them, and we won't be able to protect ourselves!"

You get the idea.

Until a few days ago, it was legal to carry a concealed weapon in all but two areas of the U.S.  But then, by a two to one vote just last week, it was deemed unconstitutional to ban people from carrying a concealed weapon in Illinois.  Now the only place so restrained is Washington, D.C..  Curious.  But state to state, there are still different levels of restrictions on guns, and different types of guns that can be bought and sold, and, according to one study, that has a clear link to the safety of that state.

Monday, December 10, 2012

You Say You Want a Revolution...

I'm in the midst of marking a pile of essays, but some thoughts are gnawing at me.  It makes it difficult to concentrate, so I'll purge before continuing a late-night marking spree.

Students are having a day of protest tomorrow (today) to rally against the burgeoning loss of extracurriculars in Ontario high-schools.  I love a good protest, and I'm behind their energy and drive in spades!  But I'm afraid this bit of activism will be less provocative than desired.  I hope I'm wrong.  I hope Broten comes to town and apologizes for everything, and we all go back to normal.  But, for that to happen, or anything really, a protest requires a little more....


The students want to protest, yet stay neutral.  They're not taking sides.  Their slogan is, "Let Us Play."  They're hoping for 1,000 people to attend, and that would be cool.  But what will they do with them?  Without a stand, what's the plan of action?  They don't want their lives affected, and some students have likened this experience to having mommy and daddy arguing with the children in the middle.  Except they're not little any more.  And this isn't mere bickering.  If students want to get involved in this pivotal argument, they can't just beg for the arguing to stop because it's interfering with their fun.  If they actually want to take an active part in making a different, they have to pay attention to what's being said and choose a side.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the Importance of Workers' Rights

Disclaimer:  I'm not speaking for my school or union or for teachers in general.  The following is my personal view of the situation as a high-school teacher with three kids in school.

Last Thursday, Luisa D'Amato wrote a scathing article about boneheaded teacher action that, in effect, prevents some kids from going on a field trip or two.  Her solution to our turmoil is for everyone to join the Liberal party so we can better influence their decisions.  I responded to her by e-mail, but I'll share it here. Her article in full is at the bottom.

It's an interesting one because our sons were both going to go on a Federal/Provincial simulation game together that was kiboshed by the board's response to sanctions.  So, as moms, we're in the same boat - but sitting at opposite ends.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

On Environmental Intentions

A week ago, The Globe and Mail published an "essay" on the Facts & Arguments page about a woman who has chosen to retire from being an ecowarrior.  (Remember about twenty years ago when that page actually had essays on it - rigorously argued claims of interest instead of personal anecdotes??  Anyway...)   I can't link to articles from The Globe anymore because I don't pay for the on-line service - but I did get the photo attached.  You'll just have to trust my quotations are accurate.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

GMOs: Knowledge Roulette

A new documentary on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is travelling the cybersphere right now.  It's a compelling exploration that suggests GMOs could be causing the increase in intestinal disorders, autism, skin disorders (the three often go together - I know firsthand), cancers, and other health problems.  A red flag for me, though was the number of individual farmer and mom testimonials of the miracle that happened as soon as they took their animals/kids off GMOs, and, at the end, a story of a puppy that preferred to eat non-GM food over GM food.  Hmmm....

The documentary has been rigorously criticized point by point at Academics Review, and, after some hunting (because it's not clear on the site), it seems the criticism originated from which is chalk full of good news about GMOs.  The authors are all scientifically educated, but I wonder if their bias is subsidized.

On the Academics Review site, they describe Jeffrey Smith as
"once nearly as well known for his swing-dancing lessons as his “expertise” in biotech agriculture. Still, Smith, who has also enjoyed longtime ties to Fairfield’s Maharishi religious group and the state’s Natural Law political party, travels the world reading excerpts from his two self-published books on genetic engineering."  
At Biofortified, the authors and editors list their own favourite produce.  I'm not fond of attempts to ingratiate me with cuteness, and ad hominem arguments also raise red flags.  It doesn't follow that, because he can swing dance, he can't also be an expert on GMOs.

And here's Jeffrey Smith's rebuttal on the point by point opposition.

And the burning question is, how can we know who's the honest, unbiased, reporter here?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Finding Meaning Through Love

At the end of Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought or Learning to Live: A User's Manual (same thing), he suggests that we can get salvation and transcendence outside any religious belief system by being elevated through a singular love.  The rest of the book is a chronology of philosophy epochs, and I might think more on that later, but I'm mainly interested in his own ideas about love saving the day.

Luc Ferry was the Minister of Education in France for a few years, and I looked him up to see how that went.  A philosopher in government - how Platonic!  I tried to find out what policies he implemented or proposed, but could only find scandals about him working at a university but never teaching and then refusing to refund his salary when they asked.  Apparently his response to this was to sue accusers for libel.  And then, to make his case about the importance of privacy, he told TV reporters about a former minister who sexually abused some children, and he refused to tell the public his name because personal privacy is that important (or maybe because libel laws are so strong suggesting they're a bad thing, but then why would he sue for libel himself?).  Something like that.

I don't think personal privacy trumps the safety of children.  Just sayin'.  But from all the reports, I don't entirely understand his full intentions when he threw that out there on national television.

Monday, August 27, 2012

On Addictive Pleasures and the Fear of Death

I recently read Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, a book about the hiding and finding of the 1st century poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, which is a tribute to  Epicurus and his philosophy.  Lucretius writes of Epicurus, "When 'human life lay groveling ignominously in the dust, crushed beneath the grinding weight of superstition' one supremely brave man arose and became 'the first who ventured to confront it boldly'" (72).  I'm not sure the poem ushered in the modern world when it was unearthed in the 15th century, as Greenblatt suggests, but the book is quite provocative nonetheless.  And then I read Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought - a trip through the major western philosophies, which almost completely ignores Epicurus.  Curious.  I'll get to Ferry's book another day.

Epicurus' philosophy was developed about 300 BCE, and a few centuries later people attempted to destroy it as it was totally incompatible with the Christian way of life - particularly the bits about all things being made of atoms (adopted from Democritus).  If everything's made of atoms, then nothing is better than anything else, so the entire hierarchy of the church is a problem as is our insistence that human beings are superior to all other creatures.  Also, it means we don't stay together as one being when we die, so the possibility of an afterlife falls apart (and the hopeful justice measured out in rewards and punishments to be found there).  And choosing a life of pleasure over pain?  That's just going way too far for many old school Christians .

I had a couple stop-and-think-about-it-for-a-few-days episodes reading The Swerve (these are off the beaten path from his general thesis):

Monday, August 6, 2012

On Young Feminists

This has been making its way around facebook recently:  Why are young women so afraid to call themselves feminists?

I still regularly hear students say, "I'm not a feminist, but...."  They know intuitively there's still an injustice here, but they're loathe to openly address it.

It makes me think of a study done with a group of people waiting in a room to have a test administered as part of an experiment.  The first subject was taken, secretly an actor, and pretended to have trouble with the test.  She was subsequently given increasing electric shocks by the administrator.  The real experiment, of course, was about the subjects listening and reacting to the experience from the waiting room.  At first, they all felt badly for the woman, but, after a short time, powerless to help, they began to denigrate her. "The more the victim suffered, the lower their opinion of her became" (p.211-12). By the end of the test, they despised her as she yelped at each pretend jolt of electricity.  The researcher's conclusion:  we have an unconscious bias against those who come out at the bottom.

Suffer Not the God-Fearing LGBTQ

The Chick-fil-A issue in California is a good reminder that we're not done.  That hundreds of people filled the restaurants in support of CEO Dan Cathy's admission that he supports "the biblical definition of the family unit" while a few LGBTQ supporters had kiss-ins, is a wake-up call that we can't be complacent about human rights.  They waver.  Just when we think we've got everyone convinced to be  accepting of harmless differences, we hit a backlash.

The religious argument about biblical definitions slays me because it completely misses the point of the Christian bit of the Bible - you know, where Jesus tells everyone to be nice to one another.  Specifically, we're not to judge anyone at all because that's God's job (Matthew7:1-5).  If you start judging your neighbour, then you're trying to act like God, and that's not cool at all.  It lifts quite a burden to stop policing one another like children do.  Don't worry about what other people are doing (unless they're causing you direct harm) because God will deal with them later.  The world is just and fair, just not right here on Earth.  All we have to do is love everyone.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On Putting the Brakes on Car Culture

I love biking and walking everywhere, but Waterloo Region - and many other places - sucks for cyclists and pedestrians.  I lived in Ottawa for a year, and it totally ruined me for any other city.  They have off-road bike lanes so cyclists don't have to dodge storm drains, garbage, parked cars, and the ever-feared, sudden and deadly driver-side-door-openings.  And when that wasn't feasible, at the very least they had barriers between bikes and cars (see photo - sweet, eh?).  A recent editorial in the G&M suggests that's most important:
"Designing bike lanes physically separated from other traffic – like those now popping up in Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across Canada – is the key to shifting commuters out of cars or buses and on to bicycles."
But if we can't do that, because we're running out of room on the streets as it is, all it would take to make our city less car-centric is to enforce some existing laws and guidelines that have been forgotten along the way and to stop building multi-lane roundabouts.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Nuclear Power

The only safe nuclear reactor is 93-million miles away, the sun -  Daniel Hirsch

We've got record temperatures, and lots of truly frightening climate change data, just in time for a regional by-election.  The Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) is working to make nuclear power an issue this election.  It seems to me that if we want to wean ourselves off nuclear, we all have to vote NDP.

We don't have any recent movies like Silkwood (a true story) or The China Syndrome (in theatres 12 days before the 3-Mile Island accident) to scare the bejesus out of people anymore.

We just have real life.  But some still believe that nuclear is the way to get us out of this greenhouse gas mess we're in.

On Sex and Perversions

I want to revisit one of Freud's ideas further in light of a few news articles from yesterday's paper.  He said,
"The demand for a uniform sexual life for all, which is proclaimed in all these prohibitions, disregards all the disparities, innate and acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings, thereby depriving fairly large numbers of sexual enjoyment and becoming a source of grave injustice" (C&D 53).
He goes on to discuss not just S&M and, what's old hat now, LGBTQ and "non-genital" sexual experiences, but also our practice of monogamy.  He opens the question of why civilization, it seems, necessarily restricts sexual practices in a way that doesn't happen with most other mammals, but he's at a loss to answer it.  In a previous post, I suggested the following:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Work and Love

I’ve been trying to write every day for the 21 days my youngest is at camp, but I missed Friday because it was finally cool enough to do some necessary yard work. But it gave me a chance to further contemplate Freud’s idea that work, not love, is a key to happiness.

My family of four typically produces one milk bag’s worth of garbage each week. How cool is that! I’m careful about what I buy, and I recycle and use the green bin for meat and dairy. And, I think most importantly, I compost. Sure you can put everything in the green bin, then drive to the dump to get compost for your garden, but I like to take out the middleman. It makes sense to compost and use your own garden waste on your gardens. If everyone did it, it would save the city tons of money and energy carting our leaves and orange peels across the city.  Plus, I don’t trust that someone in the region isn’t "green binning" hardy weed seeds or diseased plants or “biodegradable” plastics, which really just decompose into tiny bits and add petroleum to your carrot patch. Bletch.  So, the work...

On Aggression: About Those Shootings

While a tragedy, of course, statistically we're still doing really well compared to others compared by geography or time.  It's frightening when violence strikes so close, but we're still living in a relatively very safe time and place.  BUT, if we want to ensure it stays that way, we feel we have to do something even if it's only to be productive in the face of adversity.  But can we actually create a society where people aren't violent with one another?

Last Wednesday, Margaret Wente suggested that all this gun violence is largely because of single-parent homes: "The evidence is plain that children born to unmarried women – of whatever race – do much worse than children with two married parents."  As a single mom, I'm dubious.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On How to be Happy

At 74, after the roaring twenties came to an end, and the depression was just beginning to settle in a while, Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents. This was a few years before the Nazis would allow him to leave the country but only after forcing him to sign a statement saying he was not mistreated.  He sarcastically asked if he could add, “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”  This is something to remember:  He was a ballsy guy.  To write the books he wrote at the time he wrote them, took courage. He also famously noted, “What progress we are making.  In the Middle Ages they would have burned me.  Now, they are content with burning my books.”  The following year, after a long struggle with cancer, his doctor helped him die with an overdose of morphine.  He missed all the burning the Nazis did.  This book explores how to be happy in the face of misery, and he espouses a surprisingly open view of sexuality near the end.  (This very well may be the longest post in all the land!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

An Impressive Stupidity: On Sartre and Syria

I don't have a background in English literature, yet I just spent a semester teaching it - poorly.  And it struck me why I love philosophy and hated English.  During my semester I had many instances of doubt in my understanding of certain texts, and I didn't hesitate to ask colleagues for help.  The palm-to-forehead reactions at my ignorance was a set-back. It was insisted that either I DO understand it - surely I must by this point- but somehow I just don't recognize that understanding, or I should ignore this line of questioning completely and focus on the issues in the plot-line.  And I realized that if in studying English I suggest that I don't really grasp the symbolism or the connections in a simpler Shakespearian comedy, it's embarrassing, but if in studying philosophy I'm not entirely solid on Sartre's phenomenology, it's a much more impressive stupidity.  And because of that, I think, we're more free to discuss it at length and really get to the bottom of some understanding of it allowing for the possibility that we might not entirely understand - or I might not.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On A/C and Cars: Luxuries or Necessities?

"If we keep doing what we are now doing, we are screwed. This we know now."  - David Roberts

It's going up to 42 today!  That's really hot.  So far my house is a reasonable 28.  I don't have A/C.   I open the windows only when the temperature outside is cooler than inside; otherwise, I keep them closed.  I keep all the lights off almost all the time, and I avoid cooking.  These three things really help.  

When we were kids and we whined for an air conditioner, my dad insisted that it was his duty as a good father to ensure we were raised to tolerate the temperature extremes of our part of the world so we could learn to adapt to them.  If we were raised with air conditioning, his theory went, we'd grow up intolerant of the heat and then, he assured us, we'd be no good to anybody.  We were allowed to have heat in the winter however (20 max) because even strong healthy people die of the cold, but if you're healthy and fit, you should be able to tolerate whatever heat waves Southern Ontario can deliver.

Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Ethics of Wealth

"There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." - Thoreau

Tony Shin sent me this info-graphic and asked if I'd add it to my blog.   Of course I have a few things to say about the 1% first.

Paul Feldman did a study in the 80s with bagels being sold on each floor of an office building using an honesty jar and price list.  He tracked who paid the right price for the bagels.  The people in the lowest floor - the mail room - paid about 95%, but as they went up the floors, and up the corporate ladder, the sales were worse and worse.  The richest people paid the least.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Fallen Breadwinner

Oh, boys and girls, women and men, and everything in between.  It's so tricky working together, isn't it?  Please excuse the heteronormitivity (and middle-classness) of the following - especially on this most colourful of weekends - but I want to talk about issues of male/female power dynamics here in a long round-about way.

Several things I've read and arguments I've mediated lately have to do with gender.  Which one wins?  How do we prop up the losers?  Why do we even care about helping the losers?  That sort of thing.

Most popular is the article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic:  "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."  It suggests men are winning in boardrooms and politics because dads don't do enough at home.  When push comes to shove, women have to step back from their careers to care for their little ones - and not-so-little ones as the author took a breather to get her teenager back on track.  This is not a new idea.  But it's one that just isn't substantially budging!  To fix the problem, men have to step up, but also our entire culture has to change to be geared towards helping women work by, basically, taking a greater hand in helping us raise our kids.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

On Roommates

I've lived with many people over the years.  I think about 30.  There were a few housefuls of friends in the mix, and many more pairings.  I think everyone should spend a year or two in a crowded house with people you loved at the start of it all.  It's a valuable learning experience to discover your own needs and desires.  I also think everyone should live completely alone for a year or two.  Then you can find out what messes likely were yours after all.

One of my favourite houses was a place I lived in the summer of '84.  I had been living in a cockroach-infested apartment with a friend, and we got evicted for having a party.  We wouldn't have been, but the landlord lived in the basement apartment, and one of our guests made the foolish decision to pee on his window.  And it was open.  They gave me a day to get out - which is illegal - but I left for a friend's couch anyway.  Then, later in the month, five of my buddies and I found a sublet to rent for the summer.  There were holes in the walls, but that was fine by us.  One of the guys wanted the place clean, but we soon convinced him to let loose for maybe the last time.  I turned 19 there.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

On Mother's Day

I generally dislike talking about or even thinking about parenting.  It's more than just boring; it's a painful reminder of the tediousness of the experience.  To talk about what a tedious time people are having just adds to the grating irritation of all those repetitive tasks.  Even funny mom-stories aren't usually funny to me.

But I feel like talking about Mother's Day today to weigh in on some books newly released.  Two reviews were in the New York Times this morning.  I have no intention of reading the books, so the reviews will have to suffice.  And I want to think a bit about the day - not in a Hallmark-bashing way, but as a day to contemplate motherhood.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Prensky's Natives and Immigrants

I just finished reading Teaching Digital Natives.  It's being read by the teachers and administrators of the new type of course that I've been on about lately.  I wish I had been given it last summer.  After a year of trying to piece together the main ideas of the program from snippets of philosophy and examples of projects, it seems to me this book may be a bible of sorts.

Where to begin?

Let's start with the Urban Dictionary's entry for Digial Nativism:
Mistaken belief that young folks who were born immersed in things digital are somehow in a state of grace and older folks are cursed by their age and lack of digital conditioning.  Arrogant and insulting division of generations into different camps first proposed by Marc Prensky but unfounded on any survey data.  With an insulting tone worthy of the original American nativists who hated immigrants (especially Catholic ones), Marc Prensky speaks of pre-iPod humans (digital immigrants) contemptuously.  This is simply digital nativism, a kind of generational prejudice that is ill founded and unsubstantiated.

Wow.  I think Prensky hit a nerve.  Let's see how mistaken this belief really is.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Clubs: Developing Community or Provoking Conformity

In the new-fangled course I'm teaching that allows teachers from fourteen schools to collaborate, we have a book club or literacy circle that can offer students a choice of fourteen different books to study.  It's all online on different types of discussion forum sites that any student can read and follow and add to during class or from home.  Each teacher just hosts one site.  Here's mine.  It's not nearly as impressive as some of the others, but it gets 'er done.

We've been trying to get students to connect in a variety of ways for the past two months, and this seems to be something that really works to develop community between teenagers across school divides.  Students each can pick any of the books based on their own taste in literature, and I think that is the key to the success of this activity.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On Educational Reform

I'm teaching a "new" type of program call the Futures Forward Project.  It joins three grade ten subjects for the morning with one teacher.  The idea is that if students have one teacher all morning, with three subjects, their education can become more flexible and therefore more student-directed as they individually decide every day what kinds of projects to do and when.

The idea has been around for centuries.  It started with Rousseau, then Montessori, and more recently with Hall-Dennis, Outcomes Based, and Mastery Learning projects.  All of these recent additions to education seem to come and go over and over under different names.  It's curious to me how we have this one main way of teaching that involves socratic teaching and some rote memorization of facts followed by testing and the practical application of skills within a typical classroom setting, and then every few years or so, we're told to throw it all out and do something radically different.  Then we revert back to the old standard again.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Community

It's not just my favourite TV show.

Every year I teach the prisoner's dilemma to social science students.  The upshot of the dilemma is, if a person can reduce his/her own problems by screwing over someone else, what will they do.  The best option collectively is for both to take care of each other, but the best option individually is for us to be selfish. And, we can never be sure that other people will take care of us in return.  That the big stopper to  many acts of kindness - a concern that the kindness will not be returned.  But with an expectation of return, that's not so much kindness as a covert bargain without a clear agreement established.  But even if there is an agreement, "I won't rip off you if you don't rip off me," sometimes people lie. And then we get burned.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On God Our Invisible Parents

A couple of years after Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud wrote Future of an Illusion to clarify why so many people believe in God and why this is a problem for society.  All through the book he's guided along by a clever imaginary critic questioning him at every turn to ensure he presents a solid argument against religion.  He has no concerns with the book harming people by suggesting God is a hoax because those with unshakable faith will remain steadfast, but he is briefly concerned that people will write off all his theories, and all of psychoanalysis, because of his atheism. It's funny that he didn’t at all foresee that people might instead write him off for his perceived obsession with sex.  His atheism didn't become as commonly known.