Sunday, June 6, 2010
First: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train
The LA School District this week announced that the Arizona Show Your Papers law would become part of the civics curriculum. Although the passed provison was facially neutral - commentary by the school board President suggested that the Arizona law was "anti-American" - and in the linked piece, law professor Jonathan Turley expressed concern that the way it might be presented in class might be slanted:
I have long supported schools incorporating such public issues into civics discussion to tie foundational principles to contemporary examples. Arizona’s law could make for some interesting debate and thought-provoking questions. However, only if it is taught in a neutral way and elicits discussion on both perspectives — not just opposition to the law. The message from the board appears to be that the classes should characterize the law as akin to racism and anti-Semitism. That would seem more like indoctrination than education.
This is, let me suggest, trickier than Turley presents.
Should every issue be presented in a neutral way? Is it possible to do so?
Understandably, we want to lurch toward an idea of fairness - ideas aren't math problems, there isn't a "correct" answer to the question "is the show your papers law anti-American" in the way that we know 2+2=4 (or in the way we know that evolution is true; which adds another plank to this discussion; "teach the controversy" has become the creationist mantra for the past couple of decades - it was the position taken by Bush 43, that "both sides" of the evolution "debate" should be taught - as if the two possibilities of human existence were (1) the best analysis of the facts as currently knowable to us or (2) Genesis. Oh...just briefly, the reason Christians really, and I mean really don't want that "controversy" taught - is we'd have to apply the same standard of rigor in evaluating evidence to creationism as we do toward actual science - and that would be a bit of a massacre. No one really argues that 2+2=7 or that Thursday comes before Wednesday should receive equal time; we could collectively decide that "facts do not exist" in a post-Foucaldian fashion should be a greater element of public school education - but it would make it kinda difficult to grade papers. Certainly would have helped my Chemistry grade junior year:
The atomic weights of oxygen and of carbon are 16.0 and 12.0, respectively. How much heavier is the oxygen atom in relation to carbon?
Correct Solution: Atomic weights represent the relative masses of different kinds of atoms. This means that the atom of oxygen has a mass that is 16/12 = 4/3 ≈ 1.33 as great as the mass of a carbon atom.
My Answer: 4
But if my answer is motivated by my sincerely held belief that Avogadro's number is merely a secular theory designed to strip me of my religious heritage; one that would later lead to the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust, then clearly I should have gotten credit; otherwise I am being denied my religious liberty. Sort of like the recent argument from military chaplains that repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell would be infringing upon their free exercise right to discriminate against gays.)
Which sort of gets us to the right spot.
We can agree, you and I and Professor Turley, that a math teacher should teach that 1+1=2 without room for much interpretation.
Let's put that on one end. I'd suggest to you gravity, the heliocentric universe and evolution are pretty near that end.
On the extreme other end, there are some matters that we can largely agree are matters solely of taste. Cake is better than pie. Vanilla is better than chocolate. Unlikely we want to teach those things as matters which are knowable.
Where's the Holocaust on that scale? Not "did it happen" - but "what does it mean"?
Or slavery? Is the role of the instructor to look to have a balanced discussion about the merits of genocide?
Turley, even as he's saying that a condemnation of the Show Your Papers law would be an inappropriate use of the classroom puts that law in contrast with racism and anti Semitism; by clear implication, Turley is saying that racism isn't a matter of opinion, that it is a clear wrong, should be taught as a clear wrong - that racism looks more like math than like dessert preference.
Once we move from a position that the job of the instructor is total neutrality about matters not factual we open the door to interpretation. If Professor Turley takes for himself the ability to say the Holocaust was an atrocity - or that the conception of slavery, placing one man in a legally subordinate position to another man based solely on race, was "anti-American", given the stated comittment in our founding documents to the principle of all men being created equal - then presumably ideas are not all to be presented neutrally - ideas are presented in the manner in which they are most reasonably understood.
I'd argue that the most reasonable way to view Show Your Papers is that it's anti-American; that the essence of our criminal justice system is we place a burden not to prove innocence - but to prove guilt. The reason we have a 4th Amendment is to make the government demonstrate good cause before accusing us of crimes; if the government wants to come into my house to investigate me, it needs something more than just suspicion; it needs probable cause. We don't like in a country where the police pull your car over just to do. We don't live in a country where, if you're walking down the street, you'd better have an ID at the ready.
Or at least we didn't used to. This is the slippery slope in action. Twenty years ago, we had a debate about drug testing in high school sports. The government decided that, despite the language of the 4th Amendment, high school athletes could have their bodies searched, even if there were no suspicion at all of illegal activity.
I'd suggest to you this is anti-American. I don't need to prove myself innocent.
Ten years ago, after 9-11, there were checkpoints placed in subways, there were patdowns in front of football stadiums. The government argued that, despite the language of the 4th Amendment, the threat of terrorism required that we could have our property searched, even if there were no suspicion at all of illegal activity.
I'd suggest to you this is anti-American. I don't need to prove myself innocent.
I shouldn't be allowed to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater, despite first amendment language. It poses an immediate threat to life. Okay. Fair exception.
I shouldn't be allowed to walk onto an airplane without going through a metal detector, despite fourth amendment language. It poses an immediate threat to life. Okay. Fair exception.
Show Your Papers isn't that. We can have a debate about the level of "crisis" that undocumented immigration possesses - I'd argue it's fairly small in the universe of current American problems - but there's not a reasonable argument that it's the functional equivalent of getting on an airplane.
And that's not really the point, I recognize - the point is, as an instructor, what is my role - once we open the door and are willing to acknowledge a non-neutrality on ideas like "racism and anti-Semitism" - to what does that lead?
I don't have a good answer. When it's the Texas School Board officially casting doubt on the separation of church and state, I think it's contrary to the manifest weight of historical evidence, but I get that pretty quickly we hit a whose ox is being gored place.
The problem is, as Howard Zinn observed, "you can't stay neutral on a moving train" - the idea of instructor as neutral arbiter doesn't exist; we can offer rigorous analysis and offer that analysis from multiple perspectives - but just because multiple views exist, that doesn't mean they are all equally valid. The ministers linked above are arguing that homosexuality is harmful and sinful - how much class time should that view get? Should that view be presented neutrally? Not much more than two generations ago a state like Virginia had a law against interracial marriage. Would a Los Angeles high school teacher have been out of line by branding it un-American? 90 years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the forced sterilization of those judged mentally incompetent was constitutionally permissible. What was the level of neutrality required when considering that? Or Japanese internment? Or Indian removal?
I get that it's hard; no, I don't have a good place to draw the line - ideas are complicated; if the LA School District had actually taken an official position that the meaning of the Show Your Papers law was anti-American and students should be instructed of such (this didn't happen, as Turley points out) I'd be opposed. But if an instructor were to argue such, if he were to argue that the slow diminishment of the 4th Amendment over the past 30 years has been anti-American - if he were to point out that Show Your Papers occurs in the same racially charged environment that produced the lightening of the faces in a public school mural:
City Councilman Steve Blair spearheaded a public campaign on his talk show at Prescott radio station KYCA-AM (1490) to remove the mural.
In a broadcast last month, according to the Daily Courier in Prescott, Blair mistakenly complained that the most prominent child in the painting is African-American, saying: "To depict the biggest picture on the building as a Black person, I would have to ask the question: Why?"
I think that's not only a reasonable argument - I think it's the most reasonable way to view the evidence.
I think, I'd guess, that a professor should have something to profess. That's what I think.
After the jump, the rest of the Tendown (I'll take the offsides penalty, only need 5 this week)