Posts Tagged ‘school’

Not being Americish (Americese? Americian? I forget what the right adjective is) myself, I sometimes forget quite what a big deal many of Americaland’s inhabitants make out of the national flag, and allegiance pledged thereto.

I mean, they’re making serious efforts to pass a national law against “desecrating” the flag in any form, even if it’s something you own and you’re not doing anything to it that would be remotely controversial if there were any other pattern on it. Nothing to do with safety, they just think burning the flag is a bad thing and you shouldn’t do it – and, more to the point, they think they should be able to force you not to do it. A majority of US politicians seem to want this to happen.

And something that’s already on the lawbooks is a requirement for students to “show proper respect” to the flag. Schools regularly make children stand and recite a mantra of dogmatic subservience to the very concept of the flag – and, by extension, anyone claiming to represent what the flag stands for.

They used to get them to do something called a “Bellamy salute” in the flag’s direction as well, but for some unknown reason this fell out of fashion in the early 1940s.



Anyway, as per the above-linked Friendly Atheist article, a 19-year-old student recently fought a legal battle for the right not to have to stand up and make a promise she doesn’t sincerely mean.

It sounds like, in this particular case, things were resolved for the sane without much hassle. The superintendent decided she was right, and the code of conduct that requires everyone to stand for the pledge may well be altered in the near future.

But why the hell was this even a legal battle in the first place? Of all the rules schools might be expected to have in place to try and make sure students behave appropriately and the teachers can actually get some teaching done, why is acting out an arcane ritual to “show proper respect” to a flag something they insist is required by New Jersey law?

Laws are serious things. There’s a social agreement that, if you break a law, those charged with running the country get to infringe on your rights in ways they wouldn’t normally be allowed to. Often, this means you get put in prison. It’s highly unlikely it’d come to that in a case like this, of course, but even in the case of a less severe penalty, like the levying of a fine, you’re obliged to go along with it if you don’t want the punishment to escalate. If you don’t pay a fine, they’ll chase you for it. If you resist, you really will get thrown in jail.

They didn’t stand up and make empty promises to a flag when you think they ought to have?

Funny reason to think you’re entitled to lock someone in a cage.

Given my burgeoning interest in social justice and the increasing extremism of my libertarian stance on social issues, I can see that line becoming something of a catchphrase round here.


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2009-2010 (Before new approach)
* 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 50 expulsions
* 600 written referrals

2010-2011 (After new approach)
* 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 30 expulsions
* 320 written referrals

Wow, this school in Washington saw some real improvements with whatever this new policy is that they were trying. 30 expulsions in a year might still sound like a lot, but this is an “alternative” school that particularly seems to deal with troubled kids – some of the students themselves describe the place as a “dumping ground” for kids nobody really cares about.

But this new thing the principal’s doing seems to be doing a great job of keeping them in line. I guess really cracking down on these over-confident, disrespectful teens and their unacceptable behaviour started getting through to them. If you’re stern enough, and make it clear who’s in charge and what kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated, they’ll stop acting like they can get away with anything, and you’ll have far fewer disciplinary problems once the majority have been subdued into meek subservience.

Oh, wait, no. The complete opposite of that.

It turns out, bizarrely enough, that if someone’s angry and frustrated with their situation, and has been dealt a crappy hand by life in general, and they express their anger in a burst of shouting and swearing, and you try to make them stop acting that way by shouting even louder, hurling invective back at them, and punishing them at the first sign of insurrection… then you’re not so likely to win them over to your way of seeing things. Chances are you’ll just piss them off even more and make them keep shouting at you.

And this fairly basic fact of human psychology isn’t magically different just because that person isn’t 18 years old yet.

A lot of this comes back to the fundamental attribution error, and a tragically widespread neglect of compassion as a virtue even in circumstances where it might be a bit difficult. It might be less challenging to respond to some uppity kid swearing and raging by taking a dislike to him, putting him down as a bad sort. But very few among us has never had an experience of losing their temper, and we all know that when it happened to us, there was some understandable reason for it. It might not have been a good reason, and we might not be proud now of the way we acted, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people just because we got a bit angry that one time. Maybe we were just frustrated by things going on in our lives, and we didn’t deal with it very well.

Well, the principal and teachers at this school have been running with the radical idea that young people, too, are human beings with complex feelings and reasons for their behaviours, who may also have frustrating shit to deal with and be ill equipped to handle it appropriately all the time. And it’s working. The kids are learning perhaps the most important thing school can teach them. They’re being given a chance to experience other ways of interacting with people, and finding out that, if you can control your anger, think things through that are bothering you, and trust people who have the chance to help you, it can work.

Complex trauma ain’t pretty.

It’s when your dad’s in prison AND your mom’s a meth addict AND she’s too drugged out to move in the mornings, so you’ve got to take care of your little brother, get him fed and off to school, AND you’re despairing about being evicted for the third time because she hasn’t paid the rent and the landlord’s screaming at you to do something.

Or your dad’s a raging alcoholic AND he beat the crap out of your mom again last night AND the cops came and took him away at 2 a.m. AND the EMTs took your mom to the hospital and you hardly slept a wink and you’re frantic with worry because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to stay cool or otherwise you’ll have a complete meltdown.

Or your fat step-dad’s sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night AND you’re too terrified to move because he says if you say anything he’ll kill you and your sister and your mom, who’s depressed AND doesn’t talk much anyway.

Teens who live with complex trauma are walking post-traumatic stress time bombs, says Turner. They teeter through their days. The smallest incident can push them into a full-blown meltdown. Some kids run away. Some explode in rage. Some just mentally check out.

So, yeah. You could treat people who’ve been through stuff like that with zero tolerance and shout back at them to do what they’re told right now or you’ll throw them out and it’ll be their own fault.

Or you could try and help.

(And don’t even get me fucking started on prisons.)

(h/t BoingBoing)

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There was an edition of the BBC’s discussion programme The Big Questions recently which covered the topic: “Is religion good/bad for children?” (I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was about children and religion, broadly speaking, and a good part of the conversation focused on faith schools.)

Most of the guests invited to talk were religious figures, but they all fell on different points of the sliding scales of fundamentalism, reasonableness, and over-enjoyment of shouting, so there was generally at least some modicum of sanity being expressed, even before Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association put in an excellent defense of a non-religious approach to life.

One thing that struck me about the show was how much the religious guests enjoyed explaining what secular humanists believe and how they think, and how little they were diverted from this course by the one secular humanist among them repeatedly explaining where they were going wrong. No, he said, humanists don’t just think that morality is arbitrary and we should teach kids to behave however they like. We actually have a reality-based system of ethics founded on caring for other people, on good for goodness’s sake. No humanist I’ve ever met actually holds the views you’re describing.

Another recurring point was the confusion over what humanists want when it comes to religious teaching in schools. The idea keeps coming up that secularists don’t want God or gods ever to be mentioned in an educational environment, or that we want some kind of ban on prayer or religious activity. Which, again, is a misunderstanding that can only plausibly be a result of either never talking to any humanists, or not listening when they talk to you.

Of course we want kids to learn about religions in schools. The more they know about the variety of religious belief in the world today, and the origins and histories of religions that have come and gone, as well as those still prevalent, the better. I was reminded of a poster that recently appeared on an American university campus, put up by a freethinkers’ group, and featured on The Friendly Atheist, which neatly explains why humanists feel this way:



For the graphically impaired, it reads:

Study one religion,
and you’ll be hooked for life.

Study two religions,

Slightly over-simplified, perhaps, but it makes a good point.

The original “Big Question” was about whether religion was good for children – whether it was healthy or unhealthy to bring them up teaching them to adhere to a faith, the proven benefits that come from being a member of a church, and so on. What didn’t seem to come up was the value of teaching kids things that are true.

And, well, maybe I’m just being pedagogically old-fashioned, but that’s basically the trump card for me. We should be teaching kids things that are true. We should be teaching them how we come to know what’s true, how we can measure our levels of certainty about what we believe to be true, and how to think so that we’re likely to believe more true things than false ones in the future, rejecting old ideas in favour of new ones as necessary.

So, sure, let’s not hide from them the fact that around two billion people on the planet adhere to some form of Christianity. It’s not like we’re hoping they don’t notice. But let’s not leave out any other part of the factual context surrounding religious claims for the sake of maintaining our own biases, either.

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Well, this weekend and I are getting on just fine so far. Just a quick post tonight, because I’ve been at the movies and am far too lazy to get anything useful typed up with the rest of my day now.

First, go see the new X-Men film. It’s great. I know they kinda went downhill in the past, but they actually got talented people to make this one, rather than just cashing in quickly while the interest was hot, which is what I understand was much of the motivation behind the previous film in the series (full disclosure: I didn’t see that Wolverine spin-off movie and I enjoy judging things unfairly).

Secondly – and I honestly didn’t realise that these were somewhat a propos until I started typing this paragraph – Hayley Stevens posted an open letter recently about not fitting in, which is worth reading. I should try and write about the thoughts it induces in me at greater length sometime. You may understand if you read it, and some of the comments, why it’s the sort of subject that might inspire strong feelings.

Anyway. If you’re reading this as it goes up, you’re missing Doctor Who, and it’s one of Moffat’s episodes this week so it might actually be worth catching. Off you go.

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There are some things it’s just not appropriate for a teacher to say in a classroom full of young, impressionable students under his or her care.

Things like: “Kids, don’t do drugs, unless you talk to me first so that I can put you in touch with this guy I know, or you’ll just way get way overcharged.”

Or: “The force exerted by one body on another is proportional to its mass, as I discovered last night when I let Jenkins’s mum go on top.”

Or even: “What do you think the author of these lyrics is trying to convey? What do you think of that message?”


Yeah, apparently discussing the lyrics of a song and asking your students to write up their thoughts on the matter is something that can get you suspended these days.

If it’s a song about God, at least.

Oh, and if it’s a song with lyrics that suggest a disbelief in a particular God.

If it was a song, or a book, or a poem, that’s all about God, nobody would be noticing this, because it happens all the damn time, and it’s obviously not a problem. The Bible’s a thing well worth studying in schools. It’s hugely important to modern culture and contains a great deal of fascinating literature.

But the one special case of atheism – not being pushed as the truth, not being forced on anyone, not even being asserted in any way, simply appearing in the form of a text to examine – is utterly intolerable to some people.

And it does seem to be only religious people who ever become this intolerant. There’s no other field in which this happens. I’ve never heard of anyone complaining to a school board, or getting a teacher suspended, because their children learned about people who don’t vote Republican, or who don’t like ice cream, or who just couldn’t get into The Wire.

The kid’s mother is quoted as saying:

The whole thing, start to finish, is just wrong on six or seven levels.

Really? Name three.

The press picture of the disgruntled mother and daughter shows the latter holding up her assignment, and you can clearly see the massive letters she used on the first three words of her sentence “I HATE THIS because I believe in God and always will”.

This 12-year-old girl is apparently experiencing genuine fury, simply because she read about someone having a different opinion than her own. She hasn’t suffered any negative effects because of her own opinions, or witnessed any atrocities taking place as a result of some distorted worldview with a twisted alternate morality. She’s just read something by someone who might disagree with her, and she HATES it.

This is a horrible, horrible way to approach the world.

Look, it doesn’t even matter what the belief in question is. If your response when someone asks you to elaborate on your reasons for believing something is to cry and complain about how offensive you find the question, then your upbringing has been profoundly deficient in important ways, and there should be serious questions over whether whoever raised you has done an adequate job of preparing you for the real world.

(h/t Friendly Atheist)

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Sometimes, religious problems that seem to be about atheism really aren’t.

A comment from an Islamic spokesperson recently is a good example of something which, on the face of it, seems like simple anti-atheist bias, but actually might indicate something deeper and less specific.

Some schools in Lancashire have recently decided to include humanism in their religious education syllabus. This means that, while learning about the various religious faiths that people around the world might adhere to, students will also be taught that some people find meaning and morality in the world themselves, without being inspired by belief in a higher power.

This is the sort of information which might be very useful to somebody hoping to understand the world around them and the people in it, and as such it obviously has no place whatsoever in our education system.

And Salim Mulla, the chair of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, agrees with my ridiculous satirical point. I don’t know much about this organisation, like to what extent they actually represent anybody or what influence they have (and their website’s currently down), so it might be a fuss over nothing, but the quote attributed to this possibly prominent Muslim spokesperson is quite remarkable all the same:

We believe it is important to have faith values whether that is Christian, Islamic or any other religion. The values are very, very important. I don’t think the non-God aspect should be introduced into the curriculum. I don’t think it is right. People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that’s how it should stay. The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them.

Yeah. When I said fool-free, I meant I wasn’t going to be playing any tricks on anyone. I didn’t mean to imply this post would be devoid of idiocy.

So, let’s look at the things and people to which the above statement displays a profound contempt:

– Non-believers, obviously.

– People of faith, including of his own. The “faith values” that it’s important to have can apparently be provided by any religion. It doesn’t matter how wrong and crazy and downright blasphemous they might be; they provide “very, very important” values which people just can’t get any other way.

– The truth, which is apparently far less important than that you just keep believing in something because that’s the way you’ve always done it. He wants everyone to just keep blindly adhering to their own dogmas – even all those other people in their false religions, apparently. Let’s maintain these arbitrary divisions at the cost of people’s right to think for themselves.

– Children. Who don’t deserve to learn about how a substantial section of the world thinks, because it might “confuse them” to learn about a variety of ideas. Wow. Kids must be idiots. Does he think they’re just going to be sitting there scratching their heads in the classroom, squinting at the blackboard and trying to puzzle it out? I can only imagine what he really means by “confused” is that their horizons might be broadened by learning about a greater variety of viewpoints, and they might be more tempted to stray from his own preferred dogma once they learn of the alternatives that exist. Either that or he just think kids are morons.

Also, you just know there’ll be some kids in these classes who identify as Christians or Muslims. That’s certainly how Salim Mulla wants it, at any rate. So why wouldn’t there be some (I don’t know what age we’re talking about) who identify as humanist, or atheist, or at least are familiar with humanist ideas even if they don’t identify with the label? I think they might feel a little confused to find themselves being completely left out of the syllabus that’s supposed to cover these things.

So yeah, this guy and everyone who doesn’t see the irony in screaming about schools indoctrinating atheism into their Christian five-year-olds can just sit quietly while the grown-ups talk.

Also, when I was googling him (just to check his gender, actually, which I admit I couldn’t tell from the name alone), I found this. Which I’ll just leave there.

(h/t to the

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Carnival of the Godless #99 is up, over at OzAtheist‘s place. Lots of good stuff there from the heathen blogosphere, including one piece of my own – apparently the entry conditions were really pretty lax this time around, because I felt like an intellectual midget up against some of the other entries catalogued here. Go read.

Also, as of tomorrow, there’ll be a law in place in Britain “allowing faith schools… to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring headteachers and support staff”. Schools that receive funding from the state will be entitled to require that people working there must belong to a particular religion.

Wow. That sounds like a really bad idea. The main worry seems to be that children of different religions are going to end up being increasingly segregated, which, no kidding. “Parents should be able to choose the type of education and ethos they want for their children,” says someone whose official title is apparently “Children’s minister”. If you apply that sentence to any other factor than religion, doesn’t it sound like the most abhorrent idea imaginable? What if people want to make sure their kids aren’t learning anywhere run by fags or coloureds? Are we going to accommodate that, too?

The idea is for school staff to be in a position to offer “pastoral support” to children, but I don’t see how specifically religious support – beyond the kind of basic care and help and advice and positive reinforcement that we should expect all schools to give to all children in their charge – is something that’s anywhere within the government’s remit to be spending taxpayer money on.

I went to a couple of private religious schools, solely because they seemed like places I’d get a really good education, which I guess I did. The religion part of those times was fairly boring, even while I was more or less going along with the whole Jesus idea, but never particularly emphatic or zealous. My impression of religion in schools in England has always been that it’s fairly muted and half-hearted, much like religion in England generally, at least compared to the US. We learned about evolution in my biology classes, and discussed the book of Genesis as scientifically inaccurate and literally untrue metaphor in Religious Studies, in these private Christian schools. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to appreciate that as anything to be grateful for.

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