Category Archives: Education

A Rational Abortion Argument?

As an English teacher I became so frustrated with students for being unable to offer a rational abortion argument on either side that I ultimately refused to let them deliver an argumentative speech on any aspect of the issue.

Abortion was the only topic, among a host of complicated issues, which I ever banned when I taught public speaking.  But I didn’t know what else to do.

I told my students when they were choosing topics that they should either avoid topics they couldn’t do justice to in five minutes, or they should narrow the speech to a single aspect of a topic. Most students followed my advice.

One passionate student, however, decided that her view was worth the risk to her grade and decided to tackle the whole of the abortion issue in spite my cautions.  She defied the time limit and argued passionately but irrationally for nearly ten minutes, and at the end of the speech, nearly every student in the class was angry.  Those who disagreed with her arguments were furious.  Those who agreed wanted a class discussion to continue the debate.  And the moderates and rule-followers in class were indignant that I hadn’t stopped the speech at the five-minute mark. Ultimately, that speech convinced no one of anything.

Though I didn’t ban abortion from arguments in writing classes, I did caution my students, as I did about all topics, that when I evaluated arguments, I would read their papers as though I disagreed, whatever their stance, and I promised them I would be as objective as I possibly could in reading their arguments.  This wasn’t always easy, and the top students always wondered how I could give two papers on the same topic an A when they had such divergent views.  I told them that the A arguments were always the ones that showed some recognition of the nuances of the topic.

This wasn’t always easy for me as a teacher, but I felt a responsibility to encourage students to consider all aspects of a topic, using sound sources, and then to allow them the freedom to draw their own conclusions without forcing my own views on them.

But on the abortion issue, I had no good answers for students then, and I have no good answers now for how we can have a civil, intelligent discussion of the nuances that are crucial to this discussion.

Here are two views that I’ve actually heard former students (and adults) at the two extremes say:

  • “Life begins at conception, and all abortion is murder. It should always be illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.”
  • “As long as a fetus is still attached to a woman’s body, it’s a parasite. And if a woman chooses to abort it, that’s her right and nobody else’s business.”

Most Americans don’t espouse either of these views. In survey after survey, a significant majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, even though most of us couldn’t tell you exactly what the opinion says.  The complete transcript of the majority opinion isn’t easily available online, and many don’t realize that the decision in 1973 seemed to be based on the doctor’s right to privacy, without mention of the rights of women.  In the decision for the 7-2 majority, Justice Blackmun wrote:

The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment up to the points where important state interests provide compelling justifications for intervention. Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.

In the years since, some aspects of the decision have been struck down, including the original guidelines for the trimesters at which abortions can be performed.  Yet we continue to discuss this issue in the public arena as if only the two extremes matter.  (A guide to the key aspects of decisions related to abortion can be found at the Chicago—Kent College of Law’s Body Politic Project.)

We live in a country where the majority is supposed to rule, even though recent presidential elections where the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled for the minority have called that principle into question.

Surveys of citizens’ attitudes about abortion consistently reveal widespread majority support for Roe v. Wade.  In January of this year, before the current uproar about the Supreme Court vacancy, Pew Research reported that 57% of Americans support legal access to abortion, including a wide variety of religious groups. Even among some evangelical denominations, over half of members felt that the law should allow access to some abortions, even if they personally opposed it.

This week, after the announcement of another Supreme Court vacancy, a number of polls are showing even more widespread support for Roe v. Wade.  A Kaiser Foundation poll showed 67% support for the law, including 43% of Republicans.  A Quinnipiac University poll on a variety of issues showed 63% support of the ruling overall, with virtually no gender gap in the results.

So why are we Americans being held hostage to the wishes of a small minority at the extremes of our culture?

In a more perfect union, where the majority does rule, the rights of the minority should be honored.  But since we don’t live in a utopian state where consensus is always possible, where does that leave us?

I never felt good about banning abortion from class discussions.  But I sometimes want to do the same thing in the discussions that are taking place in the public arena.  Even though the people at the extremes are in a small minority, they seem to have the loudest voices, and because they get their information from the most biased media sites, the cacophony they create takes me back to the day a single student with a loud voice held my class hostage for ten minutes.

Right now Roe v. Wade is the best we have.  I was a junior in high school when that decision was made.  I remember well, in the years before, the stories of girls my age who were mutilated or who died at the hands of abortion providers who took their money and destroyed their bodies.

Here is the single lesson I took away from that time:  Wealthy people will take their daughters out of the state or the country to get a safe and legal abortion.  Poor women or girls who are too ashamed to seek help will find a way to have an abortion, even if it may maim or kill them.

Many of the people who protest in front of abortion facilities weren’t born yet when the Supreme Court issued that decision on Roe v. Wade.  A few of them weren’t even an egg in their mothers’ ovaries or a sperm in their fathers’ testicles yet because even their parents hadn’t been born.

Perhaps only when their sisters and daughters and friends die after an abortion in a dirty and dark room will they realize the folly of not having a sensible abortion law.

Letter to High School Seniors on Gun Control

Dear High School Seniors:

Census.gov’s report on voting by age from 1980 to 2016

Do you want to see an end to school shootings?

If so, are you eligible to vote? If you are eligible, have you registered to vote?

If you’ve ever felt frightened or sad or angry in the wake of tragedies like the mass shooting yesterday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, please know that you have tremendous power right at your fingertips.

If every high school senior in America who feels as you do goes into a voting booth during the 2018 mid-term elections and pulls the lever for a candidate who advocates for sensible gun control laws, you can fight this insanity. Continue reading Letter to High School Seniors on Gun Control

Want Unbiased News?

NAMLE’s parent guide to media literacy offers great questions we should all ask.

Want unbiased news? If so, you’re in good company. According to a Pew Research survey released in January, 78% of Americans believe it is never acceptable for news media to favor a political party in reporting current events.

Why is it, then, that so many of us get our news from biased sites that align with our views?

In the same survey, when asked how much they trust media reports on political issues, only 47% of Americans responded that media’s coverage is fair and balanced. Given the current political climate, this should surprise no one.

What is surprising about this study, though, is this finding:

On the question of whether their news media cover political issues fairly, for example, partisan differences appear in 20 of the 38 countries surveyed. In five countries, the gap is at least 20 percentage points, with the largest by far in the U.S. at 34 percentage points….

The U.S. is also one of only a few countries where governing party supporters are less satisfied with their news media than are nonsupporters.

Interestingly, the survey also revealed that those who are less educated want unbiased news just as much as those who are more educated. [See this chart.] This may come as a surprise to my liberal friends who are quick to label those who support the Trump administration as ignorant and uneducated. But only 21% of Republican Party supporters—no matter their level of education—are satisfied with media coverage. And even among Democratic Party supporters, only slightly more than half are satisfied.

The results of this survey seem to suggest that, in the absence of an easy way to detect bias in our news coverage, we tend to assume that the biases that align with our own are more objective. As the political divide widens, the danger to our democracy if we continue down this path cannot be understated.

For objective journalism outlets to thrive, they must have readers and viewers. The more consumers flock to media outlets that cater to their views and confirm their biases, the greater the danger becomes that the most objective sources of our news will flail and fold. And the more we read only sources that confirm our views, the more insular and less informed we become.

What can we do about this? As I’ve said before in this blog, as teachers we must do a better job of helping our students recognize media bias. Those teachers who foist their own views on students do more harm than good. We must teach our students to question the arguments they like just as vigorously as those they dislike. We must teach them to seek out the original sources of their news rather than relying on sound-bites or click-bait. We must teach them to distinguish fact from opinion.

And what about those of us who have long since finished our educations? We don’t always do these things either. As individuals we must challenge ourselves to go to the most objective sites first, and we must reward those sites with our loyalty and support. Periodically, we should read or view a source that challenges our own thinking.

Digital and media literacy sites for teachers have some excellent suggestions for students that adults might also find valuable. Here are just two that I’ve found helpful:

  • ISTE’s Top 10 sites to help students check their facts. At the top of their list is AllSides, a site that offers views from the left, right, and center in three adjacent columns that allows readers to compare coverage.
  • The National Association for Media Literacy Education offers a guide in three languages for parents to help their children question what they see in media. We adults would do well to ask these questions ourselves.

We can’t afford to procrastinate or to dig in our heels and entrench ourselves any more deeply on opposite sides. I had conversations recently with two friends, one a liberal and one a conservative. Both admitted to me that they had almost no close friends who didn’t share their political views. That is just as dangerous as having no friends of other races. I have other friends who tell me they hate holiday dinners because they can’t have a civil conversation about politics even with family members they love.

We must find ways to bridge this divide, just as we want our lawmakers to do. And if we can’t do it face-to-face, we can at least start by changing our habits in the media we consume.

What can you commit to do?

School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?

 

According to the Winter 2017 of Education Next, public support of vouchers is in steep decline.

Amid all the chaos of the new administration, Republicans in the House have quietly introduced a bill to use government funding for school vouchers:

H.R.610 – To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.

All arguments about the worth of vouchers aside, why do our representatives continue to introduce bills that are overwhelmingly unpopular among Americans? Continue reading School Vouchers Law? To Whose Advantage?

A Culture of Domestic Violence?

South Carolina’s House chamber, where Chris Corley will continue to serve after being re-elected

No sane person would deny that domestic abuse is heartbreaking. Why, then, do rational people allow a man accused of domestic violence to continue in public office?

A teacher accused of physically abusing a student—or anyone employed in public service, for that matter—would at the very least be placed on paid administrative leave until the matter is resolved. Not so with elected officials.

According to the Charleston Post and Courier, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on domestic violence, South Carolina state representative Chris Corley stands accused of first-degree domestic violence and pointing and presenting a firearm, charges which constitute felonies. Continue reading A Culture of Domestic Violence?

Forget Great. How about Functional?

MSNBC posted this graphic based on early information from The United States Election Project.
MSNBC posted this graphic based on early information from The United States Election Project.

 

Forget making America great. We have some work to do even to make America functional.

Based on the votes counted so far, Donald Trump was elected by only about a quarter of eligible voters. Had Hillary Clinton won, the same would have been true of her. Nearly half the electorate, 44.6% as of the latest data, did not vote at all. That was the lowest since the 1996 election, which involved another Clinton who got a very different result (CNN Politics).

Even if we account for those turned away in states like Wisconsin with strict voter ID laws, the numbers are abysmal. And many of those who did not vote actually do care about our country. Continue reading Forget Great. How about Functional?

Are Trump Supporters Dumb?

 

Creche

As a native of West Virginia who took the last name of a husband of Polish descent, I’ve been subjected to my fair share of jokes about my intelligence.

Just before one of my early Christmases in Maryland, a colleague asked this question at the lunch table: “Why wasn’t the baby Jesus born in West Virginia?”

Several pairs of eyes glanced furtively at me before looking back to him. I’d earned myself a spot as an English teacher in one of the most renowned school systems in the nation—a system that, at that time, usually hired intellectual teachers from prestigious schools. Though I’d graduated both high school and college at the top of my class, I’d earned my degree from a little-known state college, and I sometimes felt out of my league in a department largely made up of intellectuals.

I sensed the punch line before he delivered it with a snort and a laugh: “Because God couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”

I frowned but said nothing.

He raised his hands in a gesture of apology and said, “Present company excepted, of course.”

Of course.

When people default to a stereotype, they seldom recognize the disconnect when they know someone who defies the stereotype. And that is precisely the problem we face in moving forward on many of the issues that face us. Continue reading Are Trump Supporters Dumb?

Is Your News Source Credible?

Go to the author's English Teacher's Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.
Go to the author’s English Teacher’s Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.

We teachers have failed to prepare our students for the digital age. After watching the most recent events of the presidential campaign unfold, I’ve reached the painful conclusion that I didn’t do enough to help my students master one of the most important skills for a literate person in today’s world: how to recognize whether a source is credible and objective.

Continue reading Is Your News Source Credible?

A Retiree’s Wish for Returning Teachers

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“Go out to lunch on teachers’ first day back. And plan a vacation so that you’ll be in some exotic place on the first day of school.” Retired teachers with toothy smiles and unfurrowed brows gave me this same advice again and again in the months leading up to my retirement from teaching English and working in the curriculum office.

While their advice was astonishing in its singularity, the comments from teachers who would be returning to school in the fall varied widely:

Continue reading A Retiree’s Wish for Returning Teachers

Is Vocational Education “Unconventional”?

Do college graduates make more money? Not always, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Do college graduates make more money? Not always, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2015, the average plumber or electrician made only about $3000 less annually than the average K-12 teacher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Electrical and electronics installers and repairers earned about the same as teachers, and aircraft mechanics and service technicians made several thousand dollars more than teachers. Captains, mates, and pilots of water vessels made tens of thousands more than the average teacher.

Given that reality, why do we continue to short-change students by cutting back on vocational education and insisting that college is the only worthy goal for high school graduates? Continue reading Is Vocational Education “Unconventional”?