Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Learning Could Hurt Too Many Feelings

Often times, liberals are associated with following the sort of namby-pamby consideration for "feelings" that creates the shift from using the word "cow" to using the term "Bovine-American."  We're not just supposed to be the guys who think socialism is awesome, but we also think the laws should outlaw the use of insulting language like "Chinese" in place of "Asian"...  as if that isn't technically disregarding the differentiation between multiple distinct cultures...  oh, well.  Strangely, liberal as I may lean, I'm not one of them.

Now I'm not about to say that we should forgo foul language, but that there's a line to be drawn.  There's a difference between using the N-word when referring to black people, and saying that creationism is idiotic.  A key difference here is that in one case, you're talking about people, and in another, you're talking about an idea.  Ideas don't have feelings to be hurt in the first place, and like all liberals, I do care about fairness.  The thing is that a lot of people presume that fair treatment of all ideas means they all get equal "time" and an equal "voice" in discourse...  hence why creationist fountainheads like the so-called Discovery Institute can work in lobbying for "academic freedom" bollocks.  Well, it doesn't quite work that way.  First of all, we can't just take ideas willy-nilly.  We need to be able to differentiate between fact and opinion, at the very least.  More importantly, treating ideas fairly doesn't mean open season for all ideas -- it means putting all ideas under equal scrutiny and upheld to the same intellectual standards.

Well, the fact that people who hold ideas on faith tend to hold them emotionally and without serious thought means it creates an avenue for people to say their feelings are hurt...  as if that puts the scrutiny off limits.  People who do this define "fairness" as whatever-works-out-in-my-own-benefit.  "We can be intolerant of gays, but it's unfair for people to rebuke our intolerance...  How dare you be so cruel to speak ill of our ignorant asshattery!"  I don't buy into this kind of crap.  Bad ideas deserve to be rebuked because they're bad ideas.  If it hurts your feelings because you hold bad ideas dearly on personal faith...  well, tough luck.  You held a bad idea.  Deal with it.

Well, I don't know how strongly I can say that education should deal pretty strictly in facts.  It is not up to institutions to make judgment calls about what is or is not true.  It may not be "nice" for people to hear about the holocaust or the trail of tears or for creationists to have to own up to the fact of evolution.  Nonetheless, it is all factually true, and that is all that matters.

However, you hear some things that just make you wonder what the hell is up with the way educational standards are trying to work around people's feelings.  It wasn't that long ago that people were arguing to have the N-word removed from Tom Sawyer because it's a racist word.  The thing is that the whole reason it's in there in the first place is because the story is set in just such a time and place when such language was the rule.  The majority of the dialogue in the book is full of phonetically spelled Southern drawl language -- is that a slight against people from the South?

New York City recently proposed a ban that forbids some words from appearing in exams.  While the proposal document says that the words can be validated in some contexts, it says that they should be stricken from any use in city or statewide standardized examinations.  It sounds a bit mundane until you realize what some of the terms are which are banned and the insanely idiotic reasons why they are banned.

The main thing here is a matter of political correctness.  The reason these words are to be banned in the first place is because it touches too much on sensitive topics or it may be insulting to people based on their beliefs.  Among these sensitive topics include any references to financial class identifiers like "wealth" and "poverty."  Well, okay, I can admit that it may open up a can of worms that can get teachers and/or students riled up, but it's not healthy to ignore the matters either.  Sure, a kindergartner wouldn't be all that equipped to engage in any intelligent discussion on the matter.  However, once kids are above a certain level, it's better for their own sake that such matters ARE open to consideration.  It's also a bit of a reach as well because it doesn't merely ban the terms directly having some dictionary relation to wealth and poverty, but also reference to things which may evoke images of wealth and poverty, such as referring to homes that have swimming pools...  households living on welfare...  unemployment...  homelessness...  computers in the home (yes, seriously).  It just goes on and on.  But if I'm to be honest, that example may actually be the best among them.  Others are so immensely dumb as to make this example look quite reasonable.

For instance...  the word "dinosaur" is to be banned.  Seriously?  What is so bad about "dinosaur"?  Apparently, the worry is the emotional trauma it may inflict upon creationists.  Yes, dinosaur is apparently offensive to those who deny evolution.  Okay, there's a problem for these people.  Leaving evolution aside entirely, there is still direct physical evidence to show that dinosaurs existed at one point!  But because it connects to being among the evidence for evolution, it's supposed to be ignored?  Well, if you're going to try and leave out all evidence for evolution, then that basically means ignoring all of biology itself.  Well, I guess that's okay, isn't it?  Let's just leave an entire branch of science off the exams!  It bothers those sensitive religious nutbars who are opposed to facts.

"Birthday" references are also to be removed out of consideration for Jehovah's Witnesses who don't believe birthdays should be celebrated.  I can't recall the last time I've ever heard of a JW crazy actually being bothered by this.  While I'm aware they are opposed to the celebration of birthdays, I don't think they believe that nobody celebrates them.  Has anybody actually met a JW who actually complains that they're offended by the proposition of or invitation to birthday parties?  Nonetheless, the board believes it's offensive in the context of an exam paper.

This also applies to things like Halloween because it has a pagan history, and therefore can raise pagan religious references.  I wonder how many children are actually aware of this in the first place.  Strangely, even mentioning "dance" was apparently off limits...  and I have no clue what the reason for that was, but I can't imagine it to be sensible.  Naturally, occult topics, voodoo, and witchcraft/sorcery are not to be mentioned...  because that may bring religions into discussion which are "un-American".  Though, in reality, there is also mention of removing all references to religious holidays, and I was actually somewhat surprised that this happened to include Christmas/Easter as well, so I guess that's something.  It also just seems to generally ban any and all references to religion on tests as well, which at least indicates that it's not purely a Christian-biased measure.  It seems to be more about the fear of backlash from the families of students.  And I say it's the families they fear, not the students themselves.  Most kids are actually a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.  It's the parents who get wild, in the general impression that they have to protect their kids from any and all negative stimulus, and will fight tooth and nail to do it.  i.e. If you bring up science, the fundamentalist moms and dads will cause an uproar.  Likewise, if you bring up creationism, you'll get moms and dads with brains in a tizzy.  Better just to avoid the whole thing altogether.

I should make it clear here that it's not as if New York is alone in this.  Almost every region in the country already has such proposals in consideration, or even already in place.   The only real difference is that NYC seems to have the most expansive list of forbidden language.  Most other states and local districts have relatively small and innocuous lists, but it may not be long before others follow suit.  I would also expect certain regions of the country to be a great deal more biased depending on where you look.

Seriously, is this what is to become of education?  We cower behind the feelings of individuals?  Does this mean that in the future, we can't mention Nazi Germany because students of German descent might be bothered?  We avoid mentioning facts about science in exams because anti-science lowlives might have a problem?  We don't ask questions about macroeconomics because it might open up the Pandora's Box of tax policy?  Seriously, how do you call it a board of education if knowledge has to take a back seat to feelings?  Personally, I don't see how you can do that.  It's one thing to entitle people to their own opinions, feelings, and beliefs...  it's another thing to entitle them to their own selective filtering of facts, learning, and knowledge.  That isn't what learning is about.