Thursday, February 28, 2008

Evolution's Logical Conclusion

In this month's Breakpoint Worldview Magazine, Roberto Rivera has an article entitled "Playing God." In it, he discusses the recent difficulty encountered by Dr. James Watson, the Nobel prize winning scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA. Apparently Dr. Watson has encountered significant problems lately because he has clearly articulated the only logical conclusion possible for those who believe in evolution - that there is no reason to believe individuals and races are actually equal in intelligence or in worth.

The article clarifies some of what got Watson into trouble:

The furor started with an interview Watson gave to the Sunday Times (UK). Watson told the paper that he was “inherently gloomy” about the future of Africa because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” While we want to believe in human equality, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Similarly, in the book that he was promoting in the Sunday Times interview, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, Watson writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

You see, if you believe in evolution, there is no way to justify the belief that humans are of equal worth. If evolution is true, why shouldn't one person be smarter, or wiser, or "further evolved," than another? In fact, the inequality of people would seem to be a logical conclusion of evolution - of course some people are further evolved than others. This helps to explain why so many early evolutionists advocated eugenics ("the proposed improvement of the human species by encouraging or permitting reproduction of only those people with genetic characteristics judged desirable" - MSN Encarta dictionary), sterilization of those considered "unfit," and even euthanasia. Those who believe in evolution are hard pressed to explain how people are equally valuable, since the theory of evolution requires improvement over time; thus some people would naturally be of more worth than others. (Please understand: I'm not saying that all evolutionists are prejudiced; I'm saying that if they are intellectually consistent, there can be no other conclusion for them.)

If people were created by one Creator, it makes sense that we should be outraged by Dr. Watson's statements; African humans are just as human - and just as intelligent - as anyone else. But for those who believe in evolution, why shouldn't Dr. Watson be right? Why should we "anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically"? I personally find Dr. Watson's statements offensive, but I must give him credit for being intellectually consistent. He believes evolution has continually led to improvement over time; the logical conclusion that some people are better ("further evolved") than others is inescapable.

The only logical basis for concluding that all people are of equal value is the theory of special creation. If in fact, we were all created by the same Designer, and we all came from the same original human being, then we are all one kind, and we all have equal worth. Skin color, facial features, cultural preferences - all these are just superficial differences, and have nothing to do with the inherent worth created in all of us by our Creator.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

How Do We Engage the World?

Because the majority of my readers are Christian homeschoolers, I want to highlight today's Breakpoint, Charles Colson's radio program. You can read the transcript of the program here.

The question he addresses in this program relates to the issue of secularism - according to the dictionary, "the belief that religion and religious bodies should have no part in political or civic affairs or in running public institutions, especially schools; the rejection of religion or its exclusion from a philosophical or moral system." Secularism is perhaps the dominant force in our culture, and many hold to it "religiously" ("relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality; scrupulously and conscientiously faithful; fervent, zealous" - Webster's).

Here's a short quote from the Breakpoint transcript:
At a recent conference on Christian worldview, a college student asked the question: “Is there a model for engaging secularism?” The panel of well-known experts was stumped, clearly unfamiliar with the fact that 200 years ago a small group of politicians, bankers, writers, and lawyers addressed and overcame the crisis of secularism and immorality in England.

He goes on to discuss the work of William Wilberforce and his friends in early-19th-century England, as analyzed in a new book, edited by Chuck Stetson, entitled Creating the Better Hour: Lessons from William Wilberforce. Colson's program discussed one of the strategies Wilberforce used in some depth (well, as much depth as possible in a 5-minute radio program!); Stetson's book includes 10 such strategies. I'm looking forward to reading it. In the meantime, check out Colson's program - even the first taste of this model will likely help you impact your world more effectively.

Another "Are the Schools Doing Their Job?" Post

Over at Notes From a Homeschooling Mom, Ahermitt posted on Saturday about an important occurrence that hasn't hit the national news, but is tremendously relevant to anyone involved with education. (Oh, yes, and be sure to check out Ahermitt's second post as well: More on Clayton County's Accreditation Loss. It's a bit slow getting started, but she has some good points especially toward the end.) The public school system in Clayton County, Georgia, is losing its accreditation. This means NONE of Clayton County's 59 schools will be accredited - a frightening thought to the 53,000 students there, especially the 15,000 or high school students, many of whom may have been counting on that accreditation to win them state scholarships and smooth their path to college.

The report from the accreditation agency says the school system is "fatally flawed" and the problems are "overwhelming and extreme." Those are some pretty serious words. The accreditation agency is claiming, among other things, that the school board misappropriated funds, altered attendance records, and was involved in other unethical conduct, including significant conflicts of interest. One member of the school board, for example, is also the executive director of the teacher's union, and according to the accrediting agency's report, "pushed the board to abandon a curriculum program two-thirds through a contract because it wasn't endorsed by the union." And this was a program that was working well, reducing the number of first-graders needing the Early Intervention Program from 50% to 12% in just two years! In addition, the Board apparently harassed administrators and other district staff, calling them names, accusing them of playing games, and generally making their lives difficult - sometimes in publicly televised reports.

As far as I can determine from reading the report, most of the problems resulting in the loss of accreditation are ethical and personal issues. There's no doubt the board of Clayton County has some incredibly serious interpersonal problems. Unfortunately for the students, the problems that are probably going to result in lack of accreditation apparently have little to do with the quality of education those kids are getting. This is not surprising, considering this is the first time in more than a decade that a school district anywhere in the country is going to lose its accreditation - it would appear a poor quality education is not a reason for loss of accreditation in America today. But these kids are going to be penalized because their district's board is fighting, and is engaging in tremendously unethical behavior, and that's too bad. They've already lost a great deal because of their board's behavior, and now they stand to lose far more.

The school district is still trying valiantly to correct the problem; unfortunately, the report makes it clear that it's unlikely they'll be able to preserve their accreditation. Beginning September 1, this entire district will be unaccredited.

So the question now becomes, what are these families going to do? Many are already leaving the district, hoping for better results in some other school district. Hopefully that will make it possible for these kids to still qualify for scholarships and get into good colleges and universities. For those whose declining property values make it impossible for them to move, though, there will be serious challenges. Here are a couple of suggestions:

1) Challenge your state government to allow you school choice. In Colorado, parents are free to choose from any school in the state that has the space. This has been tremendously beneficial and has encouraged competition between schools, improving the quality of all. With a budget of $375,000,000 (that's over $7000 per student!), Clayton County should have done better. Convince your state government to let you find a school or district that IS doing better and enroll your student there.

2) Consider carefully whether you could homeschool your children. Rather than dismiss that possibility out-of-hand, as so many do ("I could never do that"), take the time to really think about it. Contrary to popular belief, homeschoolers don't rely exclusively on our own knowledge and abilities to teach our children; instead, we use whatever resources we can find. Sometimes we find curriculum so we can learn the subject first; sometimes we rely on an online course or an outside class; sometimes we hire a tutor; sometimes we find other ways to get the need met. We also aren't always patient with our kids, and some days we don't even LIKE our kids - just like you - but we are willing to work out our personal difficulties, and we find there are many rewards in being with our kids all day, too. Do some real investigation. Read some books, check out the web, talk to people you know who are doing it. You may find your kids will end up much better prepared for college than they would in your conflict-ridden, struggling public school system.

And for those of us who do homeschool, this may be a helpful reminder that sending our kids to public school isn't necessarily going to make our lives easier. After all, we could be sending them into a situation like Clayton County's, without even realizing it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

And a Fitting Conclusion to Why Study Literature

So after all this discussion of why we ought to study literature, Dana over at Principled Discovery has this excellent post that makes my point about cultural references. (Thanks, Dana!) ;)

When you click over to it, be sure to follow the first link to the article by Katie Criss that's critical of homeschooling. (You will cringe to read it - it's full of errors - but in order to understand Dana's point, you need to see what Katie says first.) Then read Dana's post.

The better you know Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, especially the eulogy he puts in the mouth of Mark Antony, the funnier you'll find Dana's post. Here's just a taste of her parody.

Educators, parents, students, lend me your ears;
I come to bury homeschooling, not to praise it.
The evil that men do makes headlines,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with homeschoolers.

The noble Katie Criss
hath told you homeschoolers hide abusers:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath homeschoolers answered it.
Here, under leave of Katie and the rest,
For Katie did her research;
So did they all, all well-researched people-
Come I to speak in homeschooling's funeral.

It is my lifestyle, precious and full to me:
But Katie says my reasons are unwarranted,
And Katie did her research.
It has brought many families closer together
Whose work did enrich their communities.
Did this in homeschooling seem pernicious?
When the poor hath cried, homeschoolers hath organized:
Isolation should be made of lonelier stuff.

There's more, including some of the funniest lines, over at Dana's blog. I hope you'll take the time to read the whole thing.

More on Studying Literature

After the previous post, I received an answer from the original poster, clarifying the intent of her question. She pointed out that she wasn't asking, "Why read literature?" but rather, "Why study literature?" - referring to the struggle to analyze and understand literary terms, figurative language, symbolism, and so on. She said, "My son really hates having to pick apart the book after he has read it and understood the story."

Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.

I think this is a very good question, and it's a difficult one to answer. I also sometimes struggle with whether we really need to analyze the literature in-depth. I can think of a couple of benefits:

1) Literary terms are another part of the "common frame of reference" issue. If you have a conversation with another person about a book, it is easier to talk about it if you both understand certain terms. Terms like plot, character, and theme; conflict, climax, resolution; simile, metaphor, personalization, and even anthropomorphism, can help you explain what you did or didn't like about the book, and can enable you to discuss the book much more effectively.

2) In a similar way to your son's development of interest in the topic of Mrs. Giaconda, a grasp of literary terms can generate interest in areas he may not have been interested before. It can enrich your understanding of the story of Eros and Psyche, for example, to recognize similarities in the plot between that and C.S. Lewis' book, 'Til We Have Faces. Analyzing the similarities and differences in the plot and theme of the the two stories can also help you understand Lewis' theme much more clearly. Can you manage without knowing that? Sure! But does it enrich your life, in some small degree, to understand Lewis' theme in his story? I find that it does.

The point, of course, is not the little tiny bit of additional richness we gain from any one experience with literature (like your son's experience with Mrs. Giaconda), but rather the enormous wealth we gain from the accumulation of many such experiences over time. That's also why any one piece of literature is relatively insignificant, but a wide exposure to literature over time and across cultures is important and valuable. (I think that's why you may hear people say that if you don't like, for example, The Second Mrs. Giaconda, skip it and find something else; but don't skip literature or the study of it altogether.)

That said, I want to make it clear - I don't really think worksheets are all that significant to the process. The discussion of the literature is far more important than
filling out the worksheet. If it's more comfortable for your son, make a list of significant literary terms and features (maybe with definitions), and have him choose the ones he feels are important in this particular piece, point out examples, and/or explain why and how he feels they are important. When you find he's consistently leaving out some of them, choose a piece that contains "x" term, point it out to him, and talk about it. This of course demands more of you as the teacher, but it may be more effective for him. Or, just do the worksheet questions orally. Find a way that works for you and for him to consistently discuss the literature using literary terms. When I was using discussions in teaching literature, I always found I learned far more than my students, and I got far more meaning out of what I had read than they did. The more deeply you analyze, the better you understand the literature as a whole, and the more you usually end up appreciating it in the long run.

Finding the interesting things in literature and figuring out how to communicate that to students can be one of the most challenging things about teaching literature - but in the end it can also be one of the most rewarding.

Why Study Literature?

On one of the email groups I'm a member of, we've been having a fairly long discussion about why we ought to study literature. One of the people on the list is math/science person, and so is her late-junior-high-age son. They both dislike studying literature, and so she asked us to help her think about whether and why it's important.

Well, as a literature lover and former literature teacher, I first reacted strongly. "What do you mean, why is it important to study literature?!" But I discovered that putting my thoughts and feelings into words was more difficult. So here, in somewhat random, conversational form, is what I posted to the list.

(This first is in response to the original poster's discovery that after reading The Second Mrs. Giaconda - which he hated - her son had then been very interested in an article about whether da Vinci had used Mrs. Giaconda as a model for the Mona Lisa.)

You commented that your son was interested in the article because he had just read the "boring book." But isn't that part of the point of education - to arouse kids' interest in areas they might otherwise never have thought about much? His life is richer (if only in a very small degree), and he understands more about Leonardo da Vinci, because he read that "boring book." Sure, it was hard to do - but if he has broader interests as a result, that seems like a worthwhile investment of time and energy to me.

Another reason to study literature - and one I consider critically important - is that it gives us a common frame of reference (both with members of our current culture, and more importantly with our cultural heritage). Reading Benjamin Franklin, for example, or Thomas Jefferson, or even Mark Twain, you'll find dozens - maybe hundreds - of references to literary sources, Shakespeare being one of the primary ones. Knowing the literature helps you understand what they're talking about.

I was just looking, for example, at Shadow of the Almighty, the story of the life of Jim Elliott (the martyr who gave his life to reach headhunters in Ecuador in the 1960's). His writing is scattered with literary references, and they tremendously enrich the reader's understanding of his life (and of what motivated him to give it to Christ).

Some of the most difficult literature to read (and I put Shakespeare in this category!) is some of the most quoted and has become part of our cultural heritage. How about this one: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" (from As You Like It)? I'm racking my brain for the book I remember reading a while ago with a chapter title of "Out, Out -- " because it has a cultural reference I didn't understand at the time. In fact, the reference is to Shakespeare's Macbeth, which contains this amazingly thought-provoking section:

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

This section is even more thought-provoking if you know the Macbeth story - that it is spoken by a character who is responsible for murder, and shows the despair of someone who is caught in the grip of human depravity and can see no hope for escape. And all of this significance is built into the author's use of "Out, out -- " as a title for his chapter. Without the cultural reference, you miss part of what the author was trying to say.

I'm afraid I may have obscured my point in the quotes and illustrations. What I'm trying to communicate is that literature provides a reference point for understanding both our current and our historical culture. Even scientists use these kinds of references, almost without thinking, assuming that we all are familiar with them. They are found throughout news articles, magazines, history books - especially the rich writings of our forefathers throughout the colonial period, the 1700's, the 1800's, and even the first half of the 1900's. Only in the last 60 years or so, as our society became totally invested in the space race, did we abandon much of this heritage and turn our focus almost exclusively to science and math.

That said, understanding our cultural heritage doesn't require reading every single book on any particular reading list. Some books aren't worth the effort. What's important in high school, in my opinion, is that you get a solid grasp on a significant number of the works that have been foundational in building our culture. Shakespeare would certainly be included, but so would many other authors. Some are easier to read, some are more difficult. And some are only tolerable when you read them in a setting where you can discuss them - preferably with a group of peers.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Homework Isn't Helpful

In a study which must be a shock to the education establishment but comes as no surprise to most parents, two professors in Toronto have discovered that "Homework is of little benefit to students from junior kindergarten to Grade 6 . . . (and) it is often the source of stress and burnout in children, as well the cause of conflict – even marital stress – for many families." It's the first time the Canadians have studied homework, and much to their surprise, they've found the same kind of results we have here in America. An article in Saturday's Toronto Star highlights the findings of the study.

In their study, more than 1,000 parents were surveyed and said while they like the good work habits homework promotes, as well as how it helps parents be involved in their children's academic lives, the amount students are getting is interfering with family time, play time, causing stress and even marital troubles.

I've felt for a long time that with 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, schools ought to be able to give children the basic education they need. After all, as a homeschooling parent, my children generally get the basic subjects out of the way in 2-3 hours a day. Even my 6th-grader manages to do English, math, history, and science, along with logic, Latin, and Bible, in no more than 3-4 hours 4 days a week; the remainder of her school topics are covered in outside classes and activities and include: P.E. (swim team), music (keyboard lessons), art, band, drama, and sign language.

Unfortunately, most schools spend much of their time doing a lot more than giving children a basic education. Many schools seem to think it's their job to feed our kids, keep them off drugs, motivate them to care for the environment, provide them with s-x education, prevent them from becoming prejudiced, cure them of any religious notions, and generally counteract the careful training in values their parents are giving them at home. Little wonder, then, that they can't find time to teach them such insignificant things as reading, writing, math, and a love for learning during school hours, but have to send those things home for the parents to teach.

I have a friend who told me she started homeschooling when her son was in first grade. She found she was teaching him most of his "schoolwork" as homework at night. She finally decided if she was going to have to teach him at home, she might as well do it during his best hours, rather than in the evenings when he was exhausted and wanted nothing but to eat, play, and rest.

The study also found:
- Not only does homework cut into family time, it becomes a primary source of arguments, power struggles and is disruptive to building a strong family, including putting strain on marriages. Bruni said it even negatively affects family holidays.
- A large number of children in kindergarten are assigned homework, most of it "drill and practice."
- 28 per cent of Grade 1 students and more than 50 per cent of Grade 2 students spend more than 20 minutes on homework daily.
- More than three-quarters of parents with children in Grade 4 and under help their children with homework. But, by Grade 4, only half of parents feel they are competent enough to do so.
- Parents are unsure about the benefits of homework; by Grade 5, just 20 per cent of parents feel it has a "positive effect on achievement."
- Half of children in junior kindergarten are enthusiastic about homework; by Grade 6, it drops to just 6 per cent and by Grade 12, just 4 per cent.

The elementary-school children in our neighborhood get on the bus at 7:45 am and don't get home until close to 4:30 pm. During all of that time, they are almost completely structured. "Don't talk," "Stay in line," "Wait for the rest of the class," "Sit quietly," "Listen," "Raise your hand," the list of admonitions goes on and on. By the time they get home, they are exhausted and ready to be unstructured for a few hours. But at 4:30, how many hours do they really have? By the time they do homework (even if it's only half an hour, and for many it's a lot more than that), eat dinner, and get a bath, it's almost bedtime. When are they supposed to play, spend time with their families, or just sit and think?

As homeschoolers, I feel like our kids are so incredibly blessed. They have the one thing most kids today lack - the luxury of time. No wonder so many of our society's greatest achievers were homeschooled - they are the only ones who have time to really ponder how life works. Maybe it's time for parents to rebel against the workings of the machine - to say, "No, we are not going to run our entire lives by the values of the educational establishment." There's more to life than school!

We need to give our kids back the gift of time. Homeschool is one great way to do that, but even if you can't homeschool, you can set boundaries. You can tell teachers, "This far, and no further." A single parent alone may have trouble accomplishing this, but if we band together based on the research, maybe we can make a difference.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

More on Why We Need to Vote

Continuing on the basic theme of my post yesterday, there are other reasons why conservatives ought to vote even if they dislike and disagree with the eventual nominee. The big question relating to this year's election (and I think to every year's election) is this: What are the key issues facing the nation at this point in time? I think there are several, but perhaps the two most significant ones are national defense and the appointment of Supreme Court justices.

1) National defense. The number one priority of any nation's government is the protection of its people. We are at war, whether we like it or not; keeping our people safe is our government's most important responsibility. When considering whether we ought to vote or not, we must consider whether there is a significant difference in which candidate will keep our nation safe.

2) The appointment of Supreme Court justices. Undoubtedly the new president will face vacancies on the Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens is almost 88 and is unlikely to stay in office for another four years; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is nearing 75. With so many Supreme Court decisions currently being 5-4, whoever becomes the new president will likely determine the direction of the Supreme Court, influencing public policy powerfully for maybe as long as 30 years. Even if a particular candidate is not ideal, we must ask ourselves whether there's a difference between the candidates in their likelihood of choosing justices who will uphold our values.

Today's Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on the topic entitled, "Dobson's Choice." It's not a long article, and it makes a critically important point about why we ought not to abdicate our right to be involved in choosing the next president. Here's a quote:

Mr. McCain's harshest critics argue that his judicial picks could easily be as bad as anyone tapped by Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama. This is caricature, but even if it had merit, the likes of Mr. Dobson would be trading the risk that Mr. McCain picks moderates for the court for the certainty that his opponent would appoint liberals.

Especially if you are frustrated with the status quo and considering whether you even ought to vote this November, please take the time to read the article and consider carefully the core issues involved. (This article is only accessible to non-subscribers for 7 days.)

Do we dare risk the safety of our country and the makeup of the Supreme Court for the purpose of making a point?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sitting on our Hands

Tuesday night I did something I've never done in my 40-plus years of living - I went to a caucus. I didn't even know until about two weeks ago that Colorado HAD caucuses, and I had no idea how they worked. Apparently I wasn't the only one - we had record turnout that night, and the vast majority of the people there had no idea what was going on because they'd never been to one, either.

Waiting in line to get into the caucus meeting, though, I discovered something I hadn't known before, something that really disturbed me: there were a number of people there who swore that if John McCain were the Republican candidate for president, they would simply not vote. "We have to teach the Republican establishment a lesson," seemed to be their line of reasoning. "They don't listen to our values, so they'll just have to lose." I disagreed with that reasoning, but putting into words why it was so troubling to me has turned out to be extraordinarily difficult.

So I was please to discover that Dave Burchett had an excellent blog post yesterday entitled, "Should Christians Sit This Election Out?" His answer was no, for several reasons. The whole post is well worth reading, but the best portion I think is right here:

If there are two choices I assume that one choice has to be better than the other. I will prayerfully decide which choice comes closer to my values and beliefs. And I will vote for that candidate even if he or she represents only a part of what I value. Something, in this case, is far better than nothing.

You know, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have risked death for the right to be part of helping choose their leadership, even though their leadership was certainly far from perfect. Our founding fathers also risked their lives for the privilege of voting. And our soldiers in other countries put their lives at risk every day in order to preserve our right to make these kinds of choices.

None of the candidates (in either party) has been perfect. In fact, none this year, in my opinion, has been anywhere near perfect. But as long as I have a choice, I will continue to choose the person who comes closest to my values and beliefs. The privilege of participating in electing our leaders is priceless. And if, through our own refusal to participate in the process, we end up with leadership that is dead set against what's most important to us, we have only ourselves to blame.