Saturday, September 19, 2015

Kim Davis and Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a political tactic that has been used in some of the great liberation struggles, including the Civil Rights Movement. Civil disobedience is typically used by people on the political left. In fact, it is one of the tactics that was taught by Saul Alinsky. However, civil disobedience can also be used by someone with a right-wing agenda. One example is Kim Davis, the county clerk who was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to allow her office to issue marriage licenses. Her goal was to take a public stand against same-sex marriage. What is civil disobedience, and what does it mean when a right-winger like Kim Davis uses a tactic from Saul Alinsky's playbook? It means that the left is winning.

In civil disobedience, a person openly breaks a law or refuses to obey a command of government and then willingly accepts the legal consequences for his or her actions. The classical illustration was from the play Antigone, by Sophocles. King Creon had forbidden Antigone to bury her traitorous brother Polyneices, who had died on the battlefield. Nevertheless, Antigone fulfills her religious obligation to bury her brother's body. Then, she allows herself to be buried alive in punishment. In other words, Antigone obeyed divine law, then she allowed herself to be punished in accordance with man's law. In Sophocles's version of the story, Antigone hangs herself in the tomb and Creon is then punished by the death of his wife Eurydice and his son Haemon. The moral of the story was twofold: a heroic person does what is right and then bravely accepts the consequences, whereas an unwise ruler can destroy his own happiness by imposing unjust laws. In contrast, the playwright Euripides gave the story a Hollywood ending: Antigone is saved by the god Dionysus and marries Haemon.

The purpose of civil disobedience is to show respect for the principle of the rule of law while protesting that a particular law is unjust. An act of civil disobedience is often a crime, in that it involves breaking a law. However, civil disobedience is different from ordinary crime. Ordinary criminals generally expect to benefit in some way from breaking the law. In contrast, acts of civil disobedience serve the public, often at great cost to the person who performed the act. Criminals often carry out their offenses secretly, and they attempt to avoid punishment. In contrast, acts of civil disobedience are performed in public as political theater, and the performers willingly submit themselves for punishment.

Civil disobedience is based on the idea that a law can violate a higher moral principle, such as a religious principle. In many ancient civilizations, there was no practical difference between civil law and religious law: kings and emperors were considered to be gods or at least demigods. Acts of civil disobedience would make sense only to people who understand that they are being governed by other human beings, as opposed to being ruled by divinities or prophets.

When Kim Davis refused to issue marriage licenses for marriages that would not be recognized as valid in her church, she claimed that she was acting under God's authority. However, because of the separation of church and state, as required by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, government officials are not permitted to impose the rules of their religion on the public.

As a public official, Kim Davis presumably took an oath of office, in which she swore or affirmed that she would uphold the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the state of Kentucky. As a member of the executive branch of government, she must carry out (execute) the laws that were passed by the legislature and signed into law by the chief executive, unless those laws have been overturned by the judicial branch of government as unconstitutional.

State legislatures can pass any law that they wish. Yet if the judiciary decides that a state law violates the state's constitution or the U.S. Constitution, that law no longer has the force of law. For example, a state legislature can pass a law that specifies that a marriage can only be between one man and one woman. Yet on Jun 26, 2015, the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Obergefell v Hodges, that laws against same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. In that decision, the Supreme Court held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Thus, the Supreme Court overruled all state laws against same-sex marriage. Because of this decision, same-sex marriages have equal legal standing with opposite-sex marriages in federal and state courts. A priest may still refuse to perform a same-sex wedding (or the wedding of a divorced person), but county clerks can no longer refuse to issue a marriage license to a couple simply because both members of the couple are the same sex.

Under Kentucky state law, marriage licenses are issued by the county clerk's office. However, Kim Davis decided that her office would not issue any marriage licenses to gay couples. In an attempt to get around the Equal Protection Clause, she declared that her office would stop issuing marriage licenses to any couples, gay or straight. In response, four couples brought a federal lawsuit (Miller v Davis). A federal judge then ordered Davis to issue marriage licenses. The appeals court and the Supreme Court refused to issue a stay of that order. When Davis still refused to allow anyone in her office to issue marriage licenses, the judge then ordered Davis to be jailed for contempt of court. Davis then spent five nights in jail.

Davis had clearly performed an act of civil disobedience. She disobeyed the law, and she even disobeyed a federal court order. She claimed that she was acting under God's authority. Then, she allowed herself to be jailed. She was released after the deputy clerks issued marriage licenses to the plaintiffs. Because of this act of civil disobedience, some right-wing commentators have compared her to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet King was standing up for extending basic human rights to all Americans, while Davis refused a court order to treat everyone fairly.

Now that there is such broad acceptance of same-sex marriage, many Americans feel that it was cruel and unfair for Davis to refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. An opinion poll showed that 56% of Americans approved of the judge's decision to send her to jail. Even most of the Republicans respondents felt that Davis should resign her post as county clerk.

An act of civil disobedience is a way to assert moral superiority. Thus, for an act of civil disobedience to be effective as political theater, it must be performed by someone whom the public respects as a teacher of righteousness. Otherwise, it is farce, not tragedy. Davis claims that gay marriage is against her Christian religion. However, many commentators have argued that Davis is a hypocrite. In the Bible, Christ never mentions homosexuality but specifically condemns hypocrisy and divorce. Davis is currently in her fourth marriage, her first three having ended in divorce. She also bore two children out of wedlock.

It is unusual to see someone with right-wing politics use civil disobedience. The reason is simple. The people on the right are usually taking the side of the people who have the power to make or change the law. The concept of left-wing and right-wing arose during the French Revolution. In the National Assembly of 1789, the king's supporters sat to the President's right and the supporters of the revolution sat to his left. Thus, leftists support common people and stand up for the underdog. In contrast, rightists are either powerful people or those who serve the powerful. Powerful people can use their power to shape the law to serve their interests. Thus, they have no need to use civil disobedience. In fact, it would serve their interests to discourage anyone from performing civil disobedience. For that reason, civil disobedience has traditionally been used by people on the political left, to encourage the public to demand change.

Civil disobedience is political theater. For an act of civil disobedience to be effective, it must also have an audience. For that reason, it is unusual for someone who performs acts of civil disobedience to get broad coverage in the media. The people who own the major media can give favorable coverage to the political candidates who support their agenda. In return, those elected officials support the agenda of the people who brought them to power. If they want to keep dancing, they dance with the people who brought them to the dance. Thus, civil disobedience is usually performed by people who don't have the power to make law: people whose political agenda runs counter to the interests of the major media. Kim Davis is now a household name, but Sister Megan Rice is not. Sister Megan Rice is a Roman Catholic nun, a Religious Sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She is also a member of the Plowshares movement, which is a Christian movement against nuclear weapons. It was founded by Daniel and Phillip Berrigan and six others (the Plowshares Eight). Their name was inspired by a verse from the book of Isaiah in the Bible:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Sister Megan has been arrested more than three dozen times and jailed three times for acts of civil disobedience to protest nuclear weaponry.

In July 2012, Sister Megan and two other members of the Plowshares organization broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They cut through the barbed wire fences and made their way to a bunker that stored nuclear weapons and support material. They hung banners and crime-scene tape. They painted messages such as "The fruit of justice is peace." They splashed human blood on the outside of the bunker. Although they set off alarms, it took two hours before guards found them. When the guards arrived, the activists offered to break bread with them.

Sister Megan went on trial for the absurdly inflated charge of sabotage. In her closing statement, she said,
Please have no leniency with me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.

Civil disobedience is an act of political theater. For it to be effective, the actors must be well cast. Kim Davis is a serial divorcée who bore two children out of wedlock and now presents herself as an arbiter of who can and cannot get legally married. Sister Megan is a Roman Catholic nun who is willing to spend the rest of her life in federal prison as a way to protest the immorality of preparations for nuclear war.

Kim Davis became a household name because her act of civil disobedience was an insult and a nuisance to a handful of gay and straight couples who wanted to get married. In contrast, Sister Megan represents a movement that would bring about major changes in how the federal government spends our money. After the death of Stalin, President Eisenhower said the following words in a speech intended to bring an end to the Cold War:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road. the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Of course, the people who owned the major media outlets at the time also owned the companies that were making weapons, including nuclear weapons. As a result, the United States continued on that deadly road.

When people on the left use civil disobedience, it means that they are serious--serious enough to win. All they need is for their message to be widely heard. But when people on the right have to resort to civil disobedience, it means that they are losing. Kim Davis may choose to stand athwart history, yelling "Stop!" But there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Kim Davis will lose this battle, and she may end up losing her job. Meanwhile, the major media will continue to ignore the Plowshares movement.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Why Are So Many Parents Against Vaccines? Ask Aristotle

To persuade parents to vaccinate their children, public health authorities have been giving people facts about vaccines and the diseases that those vaccines prevent. Yet that strategy often backfires. When confronted with the fact that measles is a serious and potentially deadly or disabling disease that can be prevented by a remarkably safe and effective vaccine, many antivaccine parents dig in their heels and become even more strongly antivaccine. Public health workers are often baffled by this response. But as I explain in my upcoming book (No More Measles!), the explanation for this response can be found in the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle's students compiled the classic textbook on rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speech.

Aristotle taught that there are three basic means of persuasion. He called them logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos refers to facts and logic. Pathos is an appeal to emotion.  Ethos means character, and it refers to the reputation of a speaker.

Logos is the only means of persuasion that matters in a scientific discussion, which deals with facts and truth. But to make good choices, you need to use a combination of logos and pathos. First, you use logos to figure out what your options are. Then, you use pathos to pick the option that is likely to lead to the outcome that you want. Ethos becomes important when you don't have enough knowledge to use logos. For example, if you are a juror in a court case, you must listen to witnesses, including expert witnesses who will explain scientific issues. As a juror, you must decide whether a witness is telling the truth. You must make a judgment about the witnesses' ethos, or character.

Unfortunately, many people systematically trust the wrong sort of characters. Antivaccine parents trust faith healers instead of doctors. They trust uneducated bloggers and radio show hosts instead of real scientists. They trust millionaire alternative health entrepreneurs instead of the underpaid public health workers who are working to eradicate measles. Many people choose their authority figures as a way of establishing their social identity, such as Christian or "crunchy" or both. When you try to change their opinion about vaccines, you disparage their concept of who they want to be. The antivaccine parents are basing their opinions on their feelings about themselves and their chosen authority figures, not on facts and logic. As a result, they cannot be persuaded by facts and logic.

When you try to use facts and logic to persuade someone, you are actually paying that person a compliment. You are implying that the person is smart and rational enough to take part in a serious conversation. Yet that person may perceive an insult, instead of a compliment. Often, they feel that they deserve a higher social rank than you do. In other words, they feel contempt for you. If you try to tell them something that they do not already know, they may feel that you are challenging them for their position within the social hierarchy. As a result, they may react with narcissistic rage. To defend what they feel is their rightful social rank, they may say and do things that make you doubt their intelligence or even their sanity. Thus, they sacrifice their ethos on the altar of their pride. As a result, you lose respect for them. Yet they are not necessarily stupid or insane. They simply have poor reasoning skills and inflated self-esteem and thus cannot learn anything from you.

We are confronted with two problems that pose a serious threat to public health. One is measles. The other is irrationality: the inability or unwillingness to be persuaded by facts and logic. Fortunately, we can drive measles into extinction through a worldwide vaccination campaign. Unfortunately, we will always have to contend with irrationality.

You will never be able to persuade the antivaccination zealots in the United States to vaccinate their children. But once the wild measles virus has been driven into extinction through a worldwide measles eradication campaign, there will be no more need for the measles vaccine. Thanks to widespread use of the measles vaccine, measles had stopped circulating in the United States by the year 2000. Yet we are still having outbreaks of measles in the United States because unvaccinated travelers keep bringing it back from overseas.

Currently, the Measles and Rubella Initiative ( is working to drive measles and rubella into extinction worldwide. Measles, mumps, and rubella are caused by viruses that occur only in human beings. Today, these viruses are still circulating, mainly in poor countries. If people in the rich countries support the vaccination campaigns in the poor countries, then the viruses that cause measles, mumps, and rubella will be driven into extinction. At that point, the MMR vaccine will be dropped from the vaccination schedule, just as the smallpox vaccination was. So please give some money to the Measles and Rubella Initiative!

Measles can be eradicated, but irrationality will always be with us. Fortunately, we can work to reduce irrationality by reforming the public school curriculum. Our public schools are failing to teach the traditional disciplines that help children grow up to be wise and reasonable. As I explain in my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, most of our public grammar schools in the United States have stopped teaching much grammar. Yet grammar provides the basic skills that students need before they can begin to study logic. If people never learn logic, they will never learn how to make or understand logical arguments. Thus, they cannot use logos for figuring out the answers to scientific questions. All that's left is pathos and ethos, which explains why so many of our public discussions quickly degenerate into fear-mongering and name-calling and fail to lead to a useful result.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Can You Read This? (How Sight Words Cause Dyslexia)

If your child's school is using sight words instead of intensive phonics for teaching reading, this is how the text of even a simple children's book would look to your child. The child might be able to pick up a few words here and there. The child might figure out that the story had something to do with a farmer, a door, and a floor. If there were any pictures, the child might look to them for clues. But the child would not be able to draw any meaning from the text itself.

This paragraph is the opening paragraph of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. I put all but the commonly taught sight words in Symbol font, so that they appear in Greek letters. Here's the whole text in English letters:
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar--except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.
A child who has mastered phonics can easily read this simple paragraph. By reading it, the child may learn a few new words. For example, the child may be able to guess that lumber is wood. The child can also figure out that a cellar is like a basement, and that cyclone and whirlwind mean tornado. The child would also learn that life was hard for farming families in Kansas around 1900, when the book was written. In contrast, a child who has mastered the 220 most common sight words, plus the 100 most common nouns, but has a poor grasp of phonics would be unable to do more than pick out a few words in this text. The child's eyes will dart all over the page, looking for clues, instead of tracking from left to right. The child would have no clue that the book is about a girl named Dorothy who lived in Kansas.

The advocates of sight-word approaches to teaching reading claim that they are teaching children to read for meaning. Yet as this example shows, they are not even teaching children to read. Even the students who have managed to memorize a few hundred sight words cannot read a real book, not even a children's book.

The advocates of sight word approaches claim that they want to teach children to enjoy reading. But until children somehow figure out that letters stand for sounds, so that they can sound out words like midst and lumber and whirlwind, they cannot read real stories. Until then, any attempt to read will be a frustrating, humiliating, pointless ordeal.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Most Violent People on Earth!

Who are the most violent people on Earth? Think carefully before you answer. The correct answer is two-year-olds: people in their "terrible twos." Toddlers hit. They bite. They pinch. They scratch. (My sister has a barely visible scar on her cheek from a particularly vicious fellow toddler in her Sunday school nursery.) Toddlers also throw screaming tantrums when they do not get what they want. Sometimes, they throw tantrums when they do not even know what they want.

Fortunately, two-year-olds are generally too small and weak to inflict much damage (as long as you keep their fingernails trimmed). Even more fortunately, human beings tend to become less and less prone to violent outbursts as they grow. To study aggression in toddlers, you count the number of violent acts per hour. To study aggression in teenagers, you count violent acts per week. To study aggression in adults, you count violent acts per year. If we want a peaceful society, we must figure out how to get teenagers and adults to stop behaving like toddlers.

Toddlers are violent because they don't know any better. Toddlers are like tiny drunks. They lack the serenity to accept the things they cannot change. Toddlers lack the verbal skills to get other people to change the things that can be changed. Toddlers lack the self-control to hold up their end of a bargain. As children develop those skills, they become less violent. Adults can help children by teaching them rules, such as no hitting, no biting, no pinching or scratching, no screaming. These rules have to be taught and learned. When adults neglect to teach these rules at the proper time in a child's development, we say that the child is spoiled. Robert Fulghum summed up the importance of these rules in his poem All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The poem spells out the rules that little children should learn: Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. And so on.

It's shocking that so many older children and even grownups violate the rules that they should have learned in kindergarten. School bullying and crime boil down to a failure to follow the rules that Fulghum spelled out. People do need to learn those rules from kindergarten. But to become a responsible adult, they must learn a great deal more. They must learn a set of lessons that the ancient Greeks put together 24 centuries ago. The ancient Greeks developed a curriculum of seven subjects that provide a well-rounded education. Their word for it gave rise to our word encyclopedia.

The Greeks' well-rounded education consisted of seven subjects. There were three language arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of how words are altered and combined to form meaningful sentences. Grammar helps you learn how to say exactly what you mean and to understand exactly what other people are saying. Logic is the study of how sentences are combined to form reasonable and compelling arguments. Logic deals with concepts like all, some, and none and concepts like if-then and therefore. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech. It teaches you how to use your words to get what you want. The ancient Greek curriculum also had four arts of number, space, and time: mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. Mathematics deals with numbers. Geometry deals with number and space. Music deals with number and time. Astronomy deals with number, space, and time.

The ancient Romans embraced the Greeks' well-rounded education. The Romans called these seven subjects the liberal arts: studies appropriate for free men, as opposed to slaves. Free men were expected to think for themselves and to participate in making decisions that affect themselves and others. In contrast, women and children and slaves were just supposed to do as they were told.

During the Renaissance, the wealthy families of Northern Italy expanded the well-rounded education. They added subjects that they called the humanities: philosophy, history, languages literature, and art. Like the liberal arts, the humanities served a political purpose. The liberal arts and the humanities help one learn to be rational and reasonable and to express oneself persuasively. These studies helped the members of the ruling class learn to have productive and even pleasant political conversations. As the sciences advanced, it became increasingly important for decision-makers to have a basic grasp of the sciences.

A society can be truly democratic only if everyone learns to read and gets a solid grounding in the liberal arts, the humanities, and the sciences. Unfortunately, educational policies have been put in place to undermine that kind of education. Public school teachers have been taught and often forced to use a method of reading instruction that does not work. Many children in the United States are expected to memorize whole words as shapes (sight words) instead of learning how to sound the words out. Unfortunately, children who do not learn to read cannot read to learn. Teachers have been told to stop giving formal lessons in grammar. Yet grammar is the first step in studying the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students in the United States also score below average in mathematics, when compared with students from other industrialized countries. If we want American citizens to behave like responsible adults, we need to make sure that our public schools effectively teach the subjects that are appropriate for free people.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Yes, Virginia, the Income Tax Is Constitutional

I take part in a peace vigil that is held every Friday evening. One day, a group of excited young people, all high school graduates, came up to us at vigil to tell us that the income tax is unconstitutional. Fortunately, I always carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution with me, so I was able to give them a dose of truth.

I showed them that U.S. Constitution, as originally ratified, gave the federal government the power to lay and collect taxes. (See Article I, Section 8, Clause I, which is called the Taxing and Spending Clause.) Originally, this power was limited by the Apportionment Rule (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4), which stated that the total amount of direct federal taxes (such as a tax on an individual’s property or income) from the people of any state had to be proportional to that state’s population. So if the census showed that a state accounted for 5% of the U.S. population, then the people of that state would end up paying 5% of the total income tax, regardless of whether the state was rich or poor. I showed them that the apportionment rule was dropped in 1913, with the passage of the 16th Amendment.
The apportionment rule had become a big problem. Imagine, for example, that you have a tiny handful of people, such as mine owners, who are getting fantastically rich from the work of other people, such as coal miners. The millionaires will end up living in fancy places like Boston and New York City. As a result, some people in the richer states (Massachusetts and New York) were getting rich off the work of poor people in poorer states (e.g., West Virginia and Kentucky). But because of the apportionment rule, the amount of federal income tax that you could get from the millionaires in New York or Boston would be limited by the amount of taxes that you could wring out of West Virginia and Kentucky. 

During its first few decades, the federal government was supported mainly by internal taxes, such as taxes on distilled spirits (thus sparking the Whiskey Rebellion), refined sugar, slaves, and corporate bonds. To finance the War of 1812, the federal government collected sales taxes on other luxury goods, such as gold, silverware, and watches. After 1817, Congress did away with the internal taxes and turned instead to tariffs on imported goods to finance the federal government.
The import tariffs turned out to be one of the major causes of the Civil War. By raising the costs of imports, the tariffs reduced competition for domestic manufacturers, which were mainly in the North. However, the Southern planters resented paying high prices for manufactured goods. Thus, they felt that they were being unfairly exploited by the Yankees. (Of course, the plantation owners did not think it was unfair to exploit their slaves.) The Southern states seceded from the Union for several reasons. One was to protect the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery, which had already been abolished in the Northern states (starting with Vermont, in 1777), as well as in Mexico and the British and French Empires. Another reason was to allow the Southern states to develop their own trade policy.

To finance the war, both the Union and the Confederacy imposed income tax plans that did not follow the apportionment rule. The federal income tax helped the Union finance the Civil War, but it was repealed a few years after the war ended. The income tax was revived briefly in 1894, but the Supreme Court overturned it in 1895, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it violated the Apportionment Rule. So the federal income tax really was ruled unconstitutional in 1895. However, the 16th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913, did away with the apportionment rule. Since then, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the federal income tax on individuals and corporations is constitutional.

To my surprise, the young people had heard of the 16th Amendment. They gave the usual explanations of why it was invalid. One is that the 16th Amendment “conferred no new power to tax.” (But the Taxing and Spending Clause had already given the federal government the power to tax. The 16th Amendment simply voided the Apportionment Rule.) Another argument is that there were typographical errors in the version of the amendment that was ratified by one or more of the states. The Supreme Court has rejected these objections as frivolous. The people who made those arguments in court ended up having to pay their taxes, plus penalties.

The young people were still not convinced. So I pointed out that if the income tax really were unconstitutional, rich people could simply refuse to pay. Maybe that argument persuaded them, but I doubt it.

Two things bothered me about the conversation. The first is that these young people were clearly hungry for knowledge about history, but they had somehow learned remarkably little about history in school. The second was that they were so well-versed in fake history. They “knew” that the income tax was unconstitutional. They had heard of the 16th Amendment, and they “knew” that it had never been ratified and would have made no difference if it had been ratified. These kids clearly had enough curiosity and brain-power to memorize and articulate complex statements of fact. They just hadn’t been given statements of fact that were actually true. I hope that they don’t end up in trouble with the IRS as a result of their miseducation.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Have a Musician Evaluate the Music Teachers

A friend of mine has two careers. In the evenings and on weekends, she is a professional violinist. On weekdays, she teaches music in a public primary school. Recently, she told me a distressing story about how her performance as a teacher is being evaluated.

Her supervisor, who is not a musician, criticized her for how she begins class every day for her second-grade violin students. My friend begins each class by repeating the most important lessons for a child of that age to learn about the violin: (1) the correct way to handle the violin case, (2) the correct way to take the violin out of its case, (3) the correct way to hold the violin, (4) the correct way to hold the bow. The primal importance of these lessons is obvious to any serious musician. You want to keep the child from destroying the instrument, and you want correct posture and technique to become second nature to the child. If children open the violin case wrong side up, they could end up destroying their instrument. Children who hold the instrument incorrectly will never learn to play well, and they could end up injuring themselves. Second-graders need to learn these basic lessons through tiresome repetition. Yet to my friend’s supervisor, who is not a musician, all this harping on the subject of how to pick up the instrument seemed to be a waste of time. So my friend was told to stop “wasting time” on that part of the lesson. This put my friend in an awkward situation. To be a good violin teacher, she has to ignore the well-meant advice from her supervisor.

My friend is facing a problem that many people with specialized occupations have always faced. They are hired for their special expertise. Yet they are often managed by people who lack the ability to evaluate the quality of their work. Unfortunately, the managers themselves may be unaware that they lack this kind of judgment. This problem is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that people who have poor skills in various social and intellectual domains also lack the ability to judge their level of skills in those domains. Their very lack of skill makes it impossible for them to notice their own mistakes. Thus, they end up with an awkward combination of poor judgment and overconfidence. The solution to this problem is to provide training in the skills that the person lacks. As their skills develop, their judgment improves, even as their self-confidence erodes.

My friend’s supervisor has been given an impossible task. There is no practical way for an adult who is not a trained musician to learn enough about music and music pedagogy to judge the quality of a primary school’s music program. It would be like putting someone with no medical training in charge of evaluating the quality of the instruction in a residency program for brain surgeons. Laymen simply lack the specialized knowledge and skills to make useful judgments. As a result, they are unlikely to be able to provide useful guidance and are likely to make suggestions that do more harm than good. A conservatory-trained orchestra musician is an elite professional. Music pedagogy, which is the science and art of teaching music, is also a highly specialized field. If you want to get a reliable opinion about the quality of a music program, you need to seek out someone who has credentials in both fields: a professional musician who is highly respected as a music teacher.

I think that music is important, and music instruction is no less important. A school system’s music program should have several goals. One is to help a large proportion of the student body become competent amateur musicians. Another is to help even the nonmusicians develop an appreciation for classical music and jazz. Yet another is to serve as a farm team for the local conservatory, just as the school system's athletic program serves as a farm team for collegiate and professional athletics. Therefore, it makes sense to have a music professor from the local conservatory, as opposed to someone who is not even a musician, design the school system’s music program and guide and evaluate the music teachers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Should You Moderate Your Web Site Comments?

The Internet has made it possible for people from all over the world to share information and opinions. In theory, Internet forums provide an opportunity for true dialectic. In dialectic, people pool their knowledge and correct each other’s errors in reasoning in a shared effort to find truth. Unfortunately, many participants view Internet discussions as an opportunity to vie for some sort of pointless social dominance. As a result, Internet discussions too often descend into “flame wars.” To encourage true dialectic in your Internet forum, you must douse the flames. To do that, you must moderate the comments.

Unfortunately, few people have had any real training in how to moderate a discussion. Many people in the United States were brought up with the belief that it is impolite to talk about politics or religion. The supposed purpose of such a rule is to prevent people from engaging in pointless fights; yet in practice, that rule tends to derail democracy. You cannot have rule by the people unless a critical mass of the people follow the rules of civility, which are the rules for discussing sensitive topics in public. If you want to maintain civility in your Internet forum, you must spell out and enforce those rules.

The citizens of ancient Athens developed a curriculum for teaching civility. This curriculum included training in grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) as well as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). The Romans called these studies the liberal arts because they were considered to be appropriate for freeborn men, as opposed to slaves. Tragically, our educators in the “Land of the Free” have been suppressing the teaching of grammar for the past half century. Yet unless you understand some basic grammatical principles, you cannot begin to study logic. Unless you can apply the basic principles of logic, you cannot even begin to study rhetoric. Thus, you will likely be irrational and unreasonable. Our political discussions in the United States today are ugly and unproductive because few of us have been schooled in these basic disciplines.

Our public schools have also done a poor job of dealing with bullying. As a result, many people have never learned that lying and personal attacks are unacceptable. They have also never learned that ad hominem arguments, which are basically a form of name-calling, generate far more heat than light. If you allow this kind of behavior in your Internet forum, the bad discourse will drive out the good, just as bad money drives good money out of circulation (Gresham’s Law).

There are two challenges to moderating an Internet forum. One is simply finding the time to do it. The second is figuring out how to do it. If the purpose of the Internet forum is to promote productive discussions, you don’t want to suppress inconvenient truth. Instead, you want to teach people how to participate meaningfully in real dialectic.

To have a productive dialectic, you must allow people to present reliable evidence and to make reasonable critiques of that evidence. Any statements of fact backed up by citations of a credible source should always be welcome, even if those facts challenge your beliefs. In contrast, lies and personal abuse should be deleted. But how can you tell whether a statement of fact is reliable, and whether a critique is reasonable? Fortunately, the classical liberal arts were developed to help you make those decisions. An understanding of grammar helps you understand the meaning of sentences. The study of logic helps you sort out valid and strong arguments from misleading nonsense. A study of rhetoric helps you understand the importance of reputation and the proper role of emotion in decision making. Once you have mastered the basic principles of these three classical liberal arts, you will be well equipped to enforce civility in your forum.

To be fair, you should clearly spell out the rules of your forum. Comments that are clearly false or illogical (as opposed to being contrary to what you wish to be true) or that are defamatory should be deleted immediately. People who violate the rules should be gently corrected. People who persist in bad behavior should be blocked, at least temporarily.  

 Laurie Endicott Thomas is the author of Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, published by Freedom of Speech Publishing.