Tag Archives: politics

Links: 30 million words, U.S. customs, etc.

1. A project to make sure children hear more words. A “study in the 1990s found that a child born into poverty hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than a child born to well-off parents, creating a gap in literacy preparation.”

2. “Earlier this month, On The Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman, her family, and her friends were detained for hours by US Customs and Border Protection on their way home from Canada. Everyone being held was a US citizen, and no one received an explanation.” More here.

3. James Fallows describes the Republicans’ recent obstruction: “Compromise itself is as much their stated enemy as is Obamacare.” And from a commenter to Fallows’s blog:

The Republicans don’t simply reject health care reform, they reject the legitimacy of the elected President, and, even more important, the legitimacy of the voters, along with their elected representatives, who rejected their positions in the last election.

4. In order for there to be civil discourse, there has to be an agreement on the rules of discourse, or as Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo wrote this weekend, “the state requires for it to function a penumbra of norms surrounding the formal mechanisms of government.”

5. The U.S. government shutdown, as if it were a political situation in another country. A sample:

While the factions have come close to such a shutdown before, opponents of President Barack Obama’s embattled regime now appear prepared to allow the government to be shuttered over opposition to a controversial plan intended to bring the nation’s health care system in line with international standards.

6. Matthew Yglesias: “Why Obama Can’t Compromise on the Debt Ceiling. Jonathan Chait’s take is here.

7.When A&E used to be about arts and entertainment.

8. Fonts that can’t be read by computers.

9. Punctuation history.

10. Someone who quit Teach for America.

11. Medium’s new homepage.

12. Teaching quality: Tenured professors, full-time non-tenured profs, adjuncts.

13. Auden.

14. Free will and science.

15. One of the recent MacArthur winners is — Robin Fleming, a medieval historian at Boston College who’s written extensively on the lives of common people in Britain in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire. A review of her book is here.

Links: Kindred Britain, Assad social media, etc.

1. This cool site — Kindred Britain — shows familial relations between thousands of famous Brits (and some others). It’s a little tricky to navigate, but very interesting for geneaology and history buffs.

2. The Assad family’s Instagram.

3. An argument that grandparents helped further civilization by using their hard-earned wisdom to help younger generations. (I wonder if this entirely holds true though when societies change and things that used to be commonly held beliefs now sound ignorant, or worse?)

4. How the N.S.A. weakens encryption schemes for much of online security. Sorta incredible, really.

5. Via The Dish, don’t write what you know.

6. Also via The Dish, a study suggests that one’s political passions undermine one’s ability to think logically.

7. Half of the U.S. population lives in these few counties.

Link: Making teaching into a game

An interesting point here about how the discussion of educators fabricating test scores reflects a degraded societal/political concept of what teachers do:

We have reached a point where we can only talk about the ethics of the profession in terms of cheating or not cheating, as if teachers’ main ethical duty is to make sure that scantron bubbles get filled in correctly. Teachers, like journalists, should have a commitment to truth; like doctors, they have a duty of care. Translating those commitments and duties into a bureaucratized measure of cheating-or-not-cheating diminishes ethics; it turns it into a game. For teachers it is, literally, demoralizing. It severs the moral experience of teaching from the moral evaluation of teaching, which makes it almost impossible for good teachers (in all the senses of “good”) to stay in the system.

It’s a bad thing for teachers to cheat on tests. But the fact that badness for teachers has come to be defined in large part as cheating on tests is even worse. If we want better schools, we don’t just need more ethical teachers. We need better ethics for teachers — ethics that treat them as adults and professionals, not like children playing games.

Nonfic: Unreliable narrators: When we talk, we say things

blog_snowconfusionWe make sounds that correspond to certain patterns we recognize as words and then we might be able to interpret from these words a meaning, and so we communicate. (Same goes for writing, only we go from visuals to meanings.)  But these meanings don’t necessarily have any connection to, well, anything, including reality. I find it useful (and I find usefulness a better standard for evaluating a statement than truth) to consider statements not as true or false, but simply the product of the statement-maker’s mind at the time the statement was made. As such, the statements characterize the statement-maker, but the statements themselves can be held by audience members without being evaluated; this way the audience member keeps an open mind and does not mistakenly privilege a statement as a “true” statement.

I’ve been thinking about this since Thursday when I was in a coffeeshop and two neighboring couples started making statements — assertions about and characterizations of and predictions for  reality. At the time I overheard (and recorded — there’s something wonderful about turning real life speech into symbols on paper) some of their statements, I understood these statements as political, in that they were discussing government policies, programs, and operations.

But today I’m thinking of their conversations as a philosophical one. These people were making assertions about reality (“The culture’s headed to where we want to take care of everybody…”). They were also characterizing — making metaphors and similes, drawing analogies, comparing — real things (“She’d dress like a street person” and “That’s what happened in Germany”), and they were also making predictions based on their assertions and characterizations (“They could shut the government down and you wouldn’t even know it”).

The content of their conversation may have been philosophical — metaphysical (pertaining to ultimate truth/reality), in particular — but the conduct of the conversation was not what I’d call philosophical, in that there was very little disagreement among them, and very few arguments were made to support assertions. Perhaps these people shared many premises and values so that they could deliver their assertions in brief. This also means, of course, that nobody was really learning much from each other; there was a “preaching to the choir” aspect there.

As a teacher, or as a philosopher, or as a busybody (or all three), I felt tempted to interrupt their discussion to challenge their assertions (as not being based on even so much evidence as poll results), their characterizations (which metaphors, analogies, and comparisons are not really statements that can be judged true or false, since these things are, by definition, not literally true. However, the comparisons seemed to be supporting their assertions by means of negative connotation.), and their predictions (as being pure bullsh!t, since, as Wendell Berry pointed out in “The Unsettling of America”, the future does not exist).

I did not jump in, which interruption likely would not have been welcomed and which would have likely upset the calm of the social situation. Everyone is entitled to one’s own beliefs, of course. But if we are not at least willing to entertain some philosophical skepticism about our own beliefs and assertions about reality, we risk becoming “unreliable narrators” of our own lives, people whose statements are always asterisked, in the sense of: “Well, Matt* complained about the party — (*but you know how he tends to be).”

I don’t want my statements to be predictable, and I don’t want my statements to be qualified with an asterisk. (I originally used the plural “we” in that sentence, but I ought to speak only for myself. How can I possibly speak authentically for others?) Yet, a way to avoiding being predictably biased seems to be to consider all statements I hear and read, as well as all statements I make, to be already-asterisked (with a different asterisk, one that indicates the statement is merely a statement, truth value unknown), and to not judge any statement as true or false too quickly.

Post Script: This post was partly inspired by A.M.B.’s post about reality in fiction. While I agree that statements in fiction works ought not to be taken as true, I’d also suggest that this skepticism be applied to nonfiction works, too. While a writer shouldn’t knowingly lie in any work labeled “nonfiction,” the writer’s statements aren’t really true, either. After all, we construct the stories we tell, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction; it’s not like we can go around picking stories we find lying around. Nonfiction assertions about “what really happened” are the products of a mind describing experience, which experience doesn’t really happen in words, anyway. Just as storytellers tend to naturally, unconsciously, compress time in their narratives and relate the events in sequence, so do storytellers label particular sensory experiences (like hearing a particular sound) with generally known terms (“a bell tolled”). Research suggests this storytelling may happen even at the subconscious level, as our brains coordinate sensory inputs in ways that make the world knowable to us.

So, it may be unsettling to live in a world of (mild) skepticism toward assertions about reality, but it can perhaps keep us from falling into believing wrong ideas, having a limited concept of reality. This skepticism reminds me of the epistemologically beautiful thing about science: any scientific idea must be liable to be revised or replaced — or else science isn’t science!