jasonbwatson

May 30, 2013

Intended to be fun?

Earlier this month, in a post titled “How Do You Feel?”, I addressed my concern over a growing movement around the country to provide “gender identity counseling” to young children in order to help them determine whether they feel like they are a boy or a girl, and to then provide services necessary to help them achieve that identity, even when that involves hormones and other changes to the body.

Now, just last week, a school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin asked its elementary students to dress as members of the opposite sex for a day as part of a week of special activities at the school. Tippecanoe School for the Arts and Humanities originally dubbed the day “Gender Bender Day,” though it changed the name to “Switch It Up Day” after a flurry of opposition and criticism from parents. Changing the name of the day was about the only concession that was made, though; one school board member basically dismissed parental concerns, accusing parents of “using the kids for political purposes.”

A number of parents ended up keeping their children home from school for the day, and I commend them for doing so. According to MyChristianDaily, one parent described the day’s theme as “ridiculous” and “creepy,” though the principal of the school said it was all meant to be in fun and was, in fact, a suggestion from members of the school’s student council. Student councils are a great idea; providing students with the opportunity to make suggestions to school leaders and to contemplate how different decisions and activities can impact the school is a valuable exercise. But–as unpopular as it may be to say–there is such a thing as a bad idea, and it is the responsibility of the adults involved to tactfully say no when students suggest them. Even if the original idea did come from the students, the decision ultimately had to be made by the principal, and I find it unimpressive to say the least that he would pass the buck to the students.

The area’s local FOX affiliate, WITI, reported that when the day came it was unable to find many students actually participating–but found faculty and staffers who were doing so. Indeed, WorldNet Daily posted a photo of two male staffers dressed in female attire. Perhaps even more troubling is that the attire they were wearing would not have been appropriate for a school setting even if they were female. This would surely have been confusing and troubling for young children who saw male adults dressed that way, even if the children themselves were dressed normally. (In fact, The Daily Caller reported, “In a pretty massive letdown after all the hubbub, WITI reported that it couldn’t find a single cross-dressing student at the elementary school. Only some teachers and staffers were caught up in the transvestite spirit of Switch It Up Day.” If that is true it does cause one to wonder how there were no students who chose to participate in an idea that supposedly originated with students).

The Education Action Group, a conservative group in Michigan which runs a news site at EAGnews.org, quoted a parent saying, “They might as well call it ‘Transgender Day.'” EAG shared this opinion on the story: “We are concerned about student comfort. There are undoubtedly children at the school who felt like they had two bad choices today: either dress up as the opposite sex, which might make them feel uncomfortable, or dress normally and be out of place with the rest of the school, which might also make them feel uncomfortable.” Of course there was also a third choice, which was to stay home from school, but students should not be put in a position where they either go to school and feel uncomfortable and are therefore unlikely to be able to focus on learning, or stay home and miss a day of learning.

Now, I should say that I am inclined to believe the school’s principal when he says the idea came from the student council, and therefore I am not suggesting that the dress-up day was some devious design of the LGBT movement to make elementary students comfortable with crossdressing and blurred gender identities. I am also not suggesting that Tippecanoe was the first school to ever have such a day as part of its spirit week activities; I am sure it was not. Neither of these things, however, make the facts any less disturbing.

Perhaps the most astute observations on this event that I have found come in an article posted on Catholic Online, which I feel worthy to quote at length:

There does not seem to be any specific evidence that the day represents a deliberate effort by agents of the homosexual equivalency movement or the gender identity movement to undermine the concept of gender as a given within the minds of impressionable children.

Rather this appears to be the innocent design of enthusiastic, fun-loving school kids, supported by their school’s administration.

Yet, this is a troubling sign of a growing problem. When children conceive of “Gender Bender Day” as a normal part of their planning routine for spirit week, and responsible adults think so little as to rubber-stamp the event, shrugging and saying “it’s not illegal,” then we see just how far the problem has gone.

There is a Gender Identity or Gender Expression Movement which is actively seeking recognition in law of some new right to choose one’s gender. Already, the homosexual equivalency movement and the gender identity movement have gone so far in their efforts to change the culture that nobody thinks twice about cross-dressing children as part of school-sponsored activity.

We need to maintain vigilance in our parental oversight of the schools we send our children to.

I don’t think my Catholic friends will mind if I say “Amen” to that.

The parent who suggested the day might as well be called Transgender Day, Deidre Hernandez, also stated that she had never before complained about a school event, even though, “Every time something is bothering a liberal or an atheist, they come forward to complain. And somebody always has a problem with Easter or Christmas.” Ms. Hernandez certainly has a point there; those in the ACLU and on the liberal wing of the political spectrum seem to be all about protecting anyone from feeling uncomfortable at the sight of a Bible or the utterance of a prayer, but apparently there is no concern about encouraging elementary students to dress as the opposite gender or exposing them to adult males doing so very explicitly. My fellow WordPress blog katenews2day opined, “America is experiencing a double whammy – its public schools are not only producing illiterate graduates and drop-outs in massive number every year, its public schools are becoming boot camps in turning Americans into either gay or confused gender in the future.” She may have a point.

February 6, 2013

An Atheist Chaplain

Stanford University, that veritable institution of higher education in California, has recognized an atheist chaplain. John Figdor, the “chaplain,” is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and while he is officially employed by Stanford’s Humanist Community, the university has recognized him as a chaplain under the school’s Office of Religious Life.

Figdor was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as explaining that “atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students–deaths or illnesses on the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc.–and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to.” Ignoring the fact that there was probably no shortage of “nontheists” around Stanford before Figdor arrived, I wonder what Figdor tells these students? When someone is struggling to make sense of an unexpected death or a serious illness or some tragedy that occurs, how could you even attempt to explain it or offer hope through it with the backdrop of “there is no God”? I cannot imagine trying…and I cannot much encouragement is readily forthcoming in that setting.

Among Figdor’s recent projects? Leading students through what he called “The Heathen’s Guide to the Holidays,” which included such heartwarming and inspirational suggestions as singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and celebrating “Festivus,” the holiday “for the rest of us” made famous on the hit television sitcom Seinfeld.

The San Francisco Chronicle described Figdor as “one of a growing number of faith-free chaplains at universities, in the military and in the community who believe that nonbelievers can benefit from just about everything religion offers except God.” The article quoted Figdor describing his vision for “creat[ing] a vibrant, humanist community here in Silicon Valley, where people can find babysitters for their kids and young people can meet each other.” That sounds like a social club…and there are plenty of those around. So what moves Figdor to the level of chaplain? Figdor says, “we emphasize the values of compassion and empathy alongside reason and science. Humanism is about using science and technology to solve human problems. But it’s also the belief that we should ask if something will create suffering or ameliorate it.” He also stated that it is not necessary to believe in a supreme being in order to be a moral person. Of course, without a supreme being and any absolute right and wrong, “morality” is an ever-changing target, fluctuating with the whims, opinions, habits and desires of the individual–because if there is supreme being and no absolute, you cannot tell me if my behavior is moral or not. You can try, but if I deny your standard, what can you do about it? Nothing. The perk for me is then I get to accuse you of trying to force your morality on me…and in this instance it really would be your morality, since it is based purely on what you think, want and prefer.

I am poking a bit of fun at Figdor and at Stanford and at the idea of an atheist chaplain, of course, but in reality this story serves to illustrate the reality that so many in our country have tried so vehemently to deny, and that is that there is no such thing as religious neutrality. Atheism is just as much a “religion” as is evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.

And why does that matter? It matters because, despite what American United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union and black-robe-wearing judges across the land have tried to assert for decades now, when the government tries to ban “religion” from the public sphere it is in fact violating the Constitution, the First Amendment of which begins with this statement: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” So as laughable as the idea of an atheist chaplain seems at face value, Stanford is right…atheism is a religion. Perhaps Mr. Figdor and his brothers and sisters in the atheist and humanist chaplaincy can convince the rest of the country of that fact, and then we can begin to reverse the tide we have been on since the 1960s. If they can accomplish that I will be perfectly happy to recognize atheist chaplains…even if their greatest accomplishment to date might be a good deal on movie tickets.

Stanford graduate student Armand Rundquist is the president of AHA!, the campus group of atheists, humanists and agnostics, and the Chronicle quoted him saying that many atheists at the school were not interested in having a chaplain…until they realized the potential perks. Said Rundquist, “He got us some discount tickets to the atheist film festival in San Francisco.”

Funny; Figdor failed to mention that among the problems both believing and unbelieving students share is overpriced movie tickets….

August 6, 2012

The Right to Read

In an attempt to force a unique application of an obscure law in Michigan, the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Michigan and a school district in Detroit, claiming that the state and the district have not educated the students in the district schools at an adequate level, and have therefore violated the students’ “right to learn to read.” According to the lawsuit, there are hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District that are “functionally illiterate.”

Quoted in an article in the Washington Post, Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said, “None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs.” Moss alleged that the Highland Park district–a district consisting of only three schools–is one of the lowest performing districts in the nation.

The lawsuit is attempting to apply a 1993 Michigan law requiring that students receive special assistance if they are not proficient in reading according to standardized tests given in grades 4 and 7. The “special assistance” in question is supposed to bring the less-than-proficient students up to grade level reading proficiency within one year.

While there are samples of the writing efforts of several students provided in the story in The Washington Post, one getting the bulk of the attention in that article is a young man named Quentin. Quentin just finished seventh grade, but according to ACLU experts reads at only a first grade level. Students were asked to write a letter to Michigan governor Rick Snyder with suggestions for improving their schools. Quentin’s effort reads: ““My name is Quemtin [last name blacked out] and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.” (There is a link in the article on washingtonpost.com where other examples of student letetrs can be viewed).

Quentin’s writing sample is both disheartening and frustrating. According to the WP article, 65 percent of fourth-graders and 75 percent of seventh-graders in Highland Park are not proficient in reading according to scores on their most recent tests.

The Highland Park district also faces a crushing debt and a severely-decreased enrollment over the past several years as a result of Chrysler no longer employing people in the area.

All of the above, at least according to the ACLU suit and the WP article, are the facts. And while I will be curious to see how this suit proceeds in the courts, several questions come to my mind.

One, what is the home situation of the students in Highland Park? While schools and teachers are responsible for educating their students, they do not bear this responsibility alone; rather, they share the responsibility with the parents of their students. Well, according to Highland Park’s own web site, the number of single-parent families outnumber the number of two-parent families nearly three to one. Obviously not all students from two-parent families succeed and not all children from single-parent families struggle or fail, but there is significant research that indicates that students from two-parent families tend to do significantly better in school.

Second (and I realize this relates, in many ways, to the first question) what accountability is there outside of the school for the students to do their part in learning? When I first started teaching I took students’ failing grades personally. I felt that if a student received an F on a test or quiz, I certainly must not have taught effectively. And while less-than-adequate student performance may be an indicator that the teacher is incapable or not fulfilling his or her responsibility, is does not necessarily mean this. Even the best teachers will from time to time have students who fail, either because they do not care, because they do not apply themselves, and/or because the student has not been appropriately placed (i.e., he or she is in a grade requiring skills he or she does not yet possess). Based on the information in the WP article–specifically the high number of students testing below proficiency in reading–it seems that the teachers/schools may bear a significant portion of the blame, but this is a legitimate question nonetheless.

Third, how is that even with laws like the one at the heart of this case in Michigan and the No Child Left Behind act mandating highly qualified teachers and adequate yearly progress, there are still students–and entire school districts–failing to meet the established standards?

One answer has to be the teacher’s unions, and the manner in which they fight tooth and nail against any kind of meaningful evaluation and accountability within the public school system. One need look no further than the way in which Michelle Rhee was treated when she attempted to transform the public schools in Washington, D.C.

Another part of the answer has to be the way in which the public school system works, if not perhaps the very continued existence of a public school system. The federal government has demonstrated an inability to effectively manage most of the things it tries to do (see the Post Office as Exhibit A), and yet the federal bureaucracy involved in education at the state and local level spends millions and billions of dollars, yet continues to produce (among successes, granted) school districts like Highland Park. The truth is that the public school system in the U.S. is nothing more than government subsidy of education. If true competition existed within the educational sphere in America I am convinced that we would see a drastic improvement in the scores of American students within a very short period of time. School choice and school vouchers programs have proven incredibly effective wherever they have been given the opportunity to be tried fairly. As I have argued here before, true competition will produce better results than any alternative every time.

What it comes down to at the end of the day, though, is that Quentin and his fellow students are the ones are suffering, and will continue to suffer. They are the victims of one or more of the following: adults who parent children and fail to fulfill their responsibilities as parents; teachers who fail to teach students and ensure that they are really learning; administrators who fail (or are unable) to remove ineffective teachers; teachers’ unions that look out more for the good of their members than for the good of the students; bureaucrats that are more concerned about the implementation of various laws than about the success of students; and politicians who continue to think that the government is more capable of making decisions than the people are.

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