31 December 2007

Revenge and Retribution are NOT a good idea

Here's another excellent article by Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert. This time he is discussing the findings of research into our ability to attribute the intentions of others and gauge the appropriate intensity of our responses to them. What I take from this is an affirmation of the wisdom of "turning the other cheek" and preventing further opportunities for aggression.

Dan Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness Blog July 2006

Do Children Make Parents Happy?

The answer is not really. Here's a Father's Day article by Harvard Psychology Professor Dan Gilbert that explains why:
Stumbling on Happiness Blog from June 2006

11 December 2007

Is There a God? TED Theme

I responded to this theme at TED.com:

The question is ridiculous to me because that is like asking "Is There a Gravity?"

What can you possibly mean by "a gravity"? It just doesn't make any sense.

If you are asking about experiencing things falling down when they are not supported, then there is absolutely no question about the undeniable universally human reality of that phenomena.

If you are asking about different theories of gravitation and how I evaluate their claims of validity then I can't even answer the question because I have no frame of reference to judge them effectively (since I lack appropriate training in both mathematics and physics).

If you are asking about the variety of ways the we use the term "gravity" to talk about and explain the world on an everyday basis, then I think there may be some interesting discussion to be had.

So here's how I translate this line of thought to the discussion theme:

What can you possibly mean by "a God"? It just doesn't make any sense to me.

If you are asking about experiencing things in our lives that we cannot explain nor understand then there is absolutely no question about the undeniable universally human reality of that phenomena. No matter who you are or what your beliefs there are unknown and unknowable factors in the world that affect your life and you will come up with strategies for cognitively dealing with them, one of the most popular strategies is the concept of “God.”

If you are asking about different theories of how we explain particular aspects of our world, then I can't even answer the question because you have not specified what it is we are trying to explain. It is rather a slippery slope to try to talk about explaining the unknown and unknowable as if it is a single discreet phenomena (as religious communities have found out.)

If you are asking about the variety of ways that we use the term “God” to talk about and explain the world on an everyday basis, then I think there may be some interesting discussion to be had.

First of all, on an everyday basis, functionality requires that we dispense with the formalities. Human beings are not equipped to be strictly logical and coldly rational despite certain opinions to the contrary.

On an everyday basis the concept of “God” is useful. In this emergent creative universe in which we are embedded “God” is a convenient way to refer to the levels of reality that are both above and below our awareness. When I thank God for a parking spot, for my health, for the opportunity to be educated and well off I am not positing theological truths, I am simply acknowledging that I am not the only agency with a say in how my life works. And I don’t need to know all the details of why and how it does work. I am just expressing my sense of gratitude for what is.

Here is why the posited theme is silly to me. The existence of God is not in question because no one denies that there are aspects of life that are unknown and unknowable to them and no one denies that there are agencies that affect our lives that are beyond our control. The debates are about describing and naming the characteristics of these aspects and forces in our lives. Existence is not the issue.

Whenever we have the opportunity to reflect on all that we do not know nor understand then we are reflecting on an abstract concept that is very tricky to grasp. Therefore, it is very understandable to attribute to that concept more concrete characteristics that make it easier to think about. I have come to suspect that there are two key characteristics that we humans typically attribute to God in order to grasp the unknown and unknowable more easily; personality and presence. And I suspect that when they are combined in a simple array then the resulting set of four categories of concepts of God may be a fine explanation of the diversity of beliefs about both God and the lack of one.

You can read about this in more detail in my review of Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell .

07 November 2007

Beauty in Statistics?

"Nocturne, of Chopin, so beautiful music. But few people will appreciate the music if I just show them the notes. Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is.

"But often that's how we present statistics; we just show the notes we don't play the music."

Hans Roslings - OECD World Forum - Istanbul 2007

To see how this guy has worked to unveil the beauty of statistics watch these two videos from the TED conferences (he's plays with UN statistical data like a little boy who composes a drawing by telling himself the story as he draws each bit.):



His discussion of the components of ending world poverty and prioritizing them as both goals and means is very interesting! (near the end of second video)

The great visualization tools that he uses in these videos is available on-line to play with. There are also a great suite of presentations, too.


05 November 2007

Q&A Core Concepts of Learning

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

Education: Attitutor Learning Theory
Learning is automatic, unconscious and impossibe to avoid. A learning theory based on learning, not just teaching.

It was originally created for Yahoo! Answers:

What are core beliefs that are important to you when you think about learning?

posted by thmtom

Q&A Core Concepts of Teaching

from Yahoo! Answers:

What are core beliefs that are important to you when you think about teaching?

posted by thmtom

Answer Written by Don Berg, Attitutor:

Teaching is the process of assisting someone else to share in your view of the world, usually a view informed by a particular community that shares certain narrative forms and assumptions about the world. Those communities are often called subjects, disciplines, or fields of study.

Another important core belief is that students do not need teachers, but teachers need students, therefore there is an inherent imbalance of power that a good teacher will NOT attempt to compensate for. A good teacher takes advantage of the fact of the student's position of superior power in the relationship. (This is the core of my fundamental critique of mainstream classroom teaching contexts, they put teachers in a reversed power situation that is fundamentally untenable.) The leverage that a proper teacher has over students for the purposes of getting them to conform to the discipline being taught is the privileged access to the world view the student desires to experience.

Thus, there is, in fact, a balance of power in a proper student/ teacher relationship. The student does not need the teacher except for the fact that the teacher has privileged access to the narrative community that the student wants to join. The student is perfectly capable of going to other teachers or learning to access the narrative community through it's literature directly. This is especially true today through the internet. The advantage of using a real teacher, and especially a really good teacher is that the teacher can enable a student to learn much faster and with purposeful direction that leads to the heart of the field.

It is a tragic mistake that mainstream schooling has positioned teachers as dictatorial behavior managers. It is a tremendous waste of time and energy that could be much more productively directed to real learning and teaching.


My web sites:

My book:
Attitude First: A Leadership Strategy for Educational Success

I adapted this answer for my web site here.

Q&A Core Concepts of Leadership

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

Leadership: Leadership Is Not Management
Leadership is about aligning the context of an organization to meet the needs of those inside, those outside it, and other organizations. Management is just meeting the needs of the organization.

It was originally written for Yahoo! Answers:

What are core beliefs that are important to you when you think about leadership?

posted by thmtom

03 November 2007

Q&A Convincing Mom To Home School

from Yahoo! Answers:

How to convince my mom to let me get homeschooled?

I'm fifteen and a sophmore and in HS and have decent grades.. I just can't stand going to private schools anymore and she won't let me go to public.. I do go out with friends alot so I'm not worried about socialization.. What can I do to convince her this would be better for me?

Additional Details:

Thanks.. My friends wouldnt do it.. Does someone have to actually teach you or can you teach yourself in homeschooling and just get a tutor once a week to check up on you or something? What should I say to my mom to make it seem as though I'm not going to slack off or anything?

Thanks sooo much! I'm deffinatly going to start looking into different programs and hopefully by Christmas I'll be able to convince her that I can do it.. She works full time and I don't have a dad so the assignments in the morning might be good.. As for my friends.. They wouldn't want to be homeschooled but they wouldn't care if I was.. Private school kids especially at the all girls school I go to are horrible and my mom just doesn't understand.

posted by: Steph P

Best Answer - Chosen by Voters (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

Great idea!

First, do your homework. ;-)

You should approach your Mom with a well thought out case for not only why you want to do it, but several options for how to do it.

Check out the local laws via the HSLDA site (I'm assuming you are in the USA) so that you know exactly how to obey the laws.

And as an additional resource for planning your escape from school I recommend the Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get Real Life and Education.

Good luck!


Teenage Liberation Handbook

Home School Legal Defense Association

02 November 2007

Q&A Which attitude is correct?

from Yahoo! Answers:

Which attitude is correct?

I was a person who took the responsibility of each and everything. When a person hurt me or block my path, I always thought in his favour, that he is not wrong if behaving like this, he is forced to do that as he can't resist that. And then I go on continue my work. But there is someone who had been so adamant in blocking my path that finally I started to blame her as I was bearing her for 4 or 5 years. Now I couldn't control My anger.But one day when I started to blame her in front of a friend, he said, "Upto when you will do like this,blaming others for your condition. You and no one is responsible for your own condition.But at times, you would have got emotional while you just had to keep your eye at your goal." and so on. Actually, he was meeting me after so many years and did'nt know about me at all. I later understood that he meant that we should fight with those people. That way,I agree, the goal would be achieved. But would not we abusing them ? That too, when she is mother.

posted by anuragsrawat

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

The attitude that is correct is the attitude that leads to well being for both you and those around you.

Your initial attitude of taking responsibility for everything seemed correct, except that when the situation got worse you succumbed to your humanity by getting angry but you did not have the ability to control it.

Your initial attitude was flawed. Instead of dealing positively with the natural feelings of resentment that follow from being abused by others, you denied those feelings. Then, when those feelings finally broke through your denial you were out of control.

Your initial attitude was an illusion of responsibility, not the real thing. True responsibility is being able to deal with reality through creative responses to what is actually happening. Your initial version of responsibility denied the reality of your feelings about what was happening to you and so you have suffered the consequences of your lack of responsibility through uncontrollable anger.

If you want to be truly responsible for everything that happens to you, which is a very good idea, then you have to find ways to acknowledge the reality of both the events that happen to you and all your thoughts and feelings about those events. Denying your feelings, even "negative" feelings, is a denial of what is really happening. Although it is usually wise not to express them wantonly and in situations that will cause strife. Gossip is not helpful.

What you need is a trusted confidante. Someone, or better yet a group of people, who would accept your thoughts and feelings and help you deal with them without betraying them to others. For me that is mostly my girlfriend and my Mom. I have a religious community that I can trust, too.

The right attitude is the attitude that leads to well-being for all. That means that you acknowledge the abuse you receive and then find creative ways to express the negative feelings that will, inevitably, result from being abused. If you simply attack your abuser then you may enter a cycle of retribution, each of you taking revenge for the attacks of the other. And retribution cycles are not constructive, nor creative avenues for increasing well-being since they tend to spread to other people who are forced to take sides in the battle.

By all means take responsibility, but also remember to be respectful. Respect yourself by finding ways to safely express your feelings in private. Respect your community by finding ways to prevent abuse from spreading and eventually stop it, if possible. If you cannot stop the abuse, then see if you can escape the situation where the abuse happens.

My web sites:

Q&A Do you know any self teaching Singing tips?

from Yahoo! Answers:

Do you know any self teaching Singing tips?

Or an approximate cost of singing lessons?

posted by sylv_chick

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

If you don't have any training at all then I suggest you start with Singing Coach Unlimited Software. It's basically going to help you get the basics of matching pitch and begin to get you familiar with singing basics.

From my own first experience with singing lessons (before I got the software) it helps to get familiar with a keyboard enough to pluck out your practice pieces, so I also recommend Piano Wizard. It's a fun game environment for learning piano easily and naturally. If you get good at the game then it will eventually teach you to read musical notation, too. (I am having trouble getting both hands to work together on the basic game so it will be awhile before I get to the reading music phase.)

If you are an experienced singer, then you should look for live coaching to get beyond the basics. I don't have any idea about costs, but you should make sure that your teacher is someone you trust. Talk with them about their methods and philosophy. You won't necessarily understand everything they say, but if you are still comfortable with them then give it a try. Pay attention to your discomfort if they dismiss any of your questions or talk down to you in any way. Don't bother with someone who can't be sympathetic to your concerns and treat you with dignity.

Church choirs are a very good resources for doing some singing, getting instruction and asking around for good coaches.

Singing Coach Unlimited Site [No longer available, sorry :-(]

Piano Wizard Site
for a discount use this code: DBERG-11DON

Asker's Rating:
5 out of 5
Asker's Comment:
Great Help. Thank you.

30 October 2007

Q&A Is wanting to learn and just being smart the same thing?

from Yahoo! Answers:

Is wanting to learn and just being smart the same thing?

My dad is talking to my sister about her grades, and started dragging in other people. I'm an A student, and he was talking, sort of, about people who want to learn and all.
I am smart, ok, booksmarts, whatever.
But does that mean i want to learn?
I hate class, I hate school in general, I only like magic in my books, am i some kind of freak?

posted by arch_angeleo

Best Answer - Chosen by Voters (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

They are not the same thing and you are not a freak.

In my view being educated means that you can perceive accurately, think clearly and act effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations. What classroom schooling does, in general, is inhibit accurate perception, muddle thinking and impose goals and aspirations (effectively inhibiting the self-selection option.) Of course, you might occasionally run into a teacher who is inspired and inspires you to overcome those limitations, but it's a rare occurrence.

I also have to point out in all fairness that many people succeed in achieving an education, in spite of their schooling. But that is because they somehow tapped into their innate learning potential and figured out how to extract what they needed from the system, not because of any property of the system itself.

The reason that classroom schooling is prone to these flaws is primarily because of the flawed assumption that there is some objective quality of certain activities that makes them educational. The truth is that what makes anything educational is the quality of attention that the learner puts on it.

It sounds to me as though the quality of attention you put on school work is basically “I’ll jump through their hoops because it keeps them off my back.” The real lesson they are teaching is that they have the power and you don’t, so you should just get along until you get an opportunity to do something better. (The problem is that they have trained you to wait for them to give you the opportunities.)

I breezed through school with a minimum of fuss but didn’t get grades as good as yours. I went right on to college because I didn’t know what else to do. Then, when I realized in college that I couldn’t fake it any more (and that I had both a talent and passion for working with kids) I left formal schooling behind. It took me a few years to recover from my schooling, but eventually I re-discovered the sheer joy of learning. That healing process informs my teaching and what I write about education, learning and teaching on my web site.

Below are links to a book called the Teenage Liberation Handbook. I recommend it as a beginning resource for exploring alternatives to what the mainstream of our society teaches about schools and schooling. You or your sister might find it interesting even if you are still stuck in school. What’s most important is that you realize that you are not alone, you are not a freak. There are lots of people who think and feel the same way.

I am also going to include a link to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), so that you can find other options as well. Hopefully you can find some supportive resources to help you make the difficult choices about what to do about it now that you know options exist.


Teenage Liberation Handbook on Amazon

Teenage Liberation Handbook Site

Alternative Education Resource Organization

My Web Site

Q&A Should I teach?

from Yahoo! Answers:
Should I teach? I love kids but hate politics?

I recently obtained a master's degree in Creative Writing, and had always imagined that I would teach and write. But, this past year I worked as an Instructional Aide and saw so many negative things about teaching that I feel very turned off. Here's my deal:

I actually LOVED the kids that I worked with, but found it very hard disciplining them. They don't respect or listen to me, and though I was terrific working one-on-one, I couldn't hold their interest at all when I was in front of the class. I also saw a lot of disenchanted teachers who seemed to hate their job and complain all day about the kids. I saw evil office politics, bizarre administration rules, and ridiculous educational policies overwhelming the teachers.

Please give me some insight about this problem. I have this idealistic dream of what teaching is, but I don't like the reality.

posted by rugger_betty25

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

It sounds to me like you are thinking that in order to teach you have to teach in a school. Consider teaching in an environment that does not require you to submit to the evil, bizarre, and ridiculous stuff that you experienced in that school.

Consider teaching through other kinds of programs. There is a non-profit teen cafe in my town that hosts writing groups. Maybe you could find a similar kind of organization that would allow you to offer classes or facilitate writing groups. Consider tutoring. Consider working with alternative schools, private schools, home schoolers, and/or youth oriented service organizations.

If you have the passion to teach you should teach, but don't sacrifice your sanity in the process. Do not settle for a crazy making organization, it's not worth it. You might have to be creative and innovative to make it work, but what better use can you make of your life than expressing your talents in service of educating youth?


Debunking the Myth That School is a Classroom

Alternative Education Resource Organization

29 October 2007

Q&A Home Schooling One Child But Not The Other

from Yahoo! Answers:
Is it wrong if you home-school one child and not the other?

One is easy to deal with acedemically while the other does not listen just plays around. nothing seems to get his attention, so i figure why not send him to school. Do you think I am being unfair to him? Or is it that I know my child and I know what is best for them. Desperatly need feedback on this.

Posted by soomuchluv

My Answer:

It is not wrong to meet your children's needs according to your best judgment, that's your job as a parent.

You say that one is easy to deal with "academically" and this has me suggest that you might take a deeper look at what you consider to be educational about the activities you are expecting your children to participate in. Because children have different dispositions, personalities and learning needs you may need to be more flexible to accommodate them.

Many schools are notoriously inflexible about being able to accommodate the needs of challenging kids, whereas some schools or specific teachers are really great at discovering what will engage children with different learning needs.

So, the real question is who has the flexibility to meet your child's needs, you or the school? No matter which path you choose you should monitor the results and make sure that your child gets what he needs. If it's not working then try to learn more and adjust again.


My web site

Q&A Capital or Lower Case Letters First

from Yahoo! Answers:

A question for parents who home school pre-k or kindergarten.

I have just started homeschooling my 5 year old son. Along with two other 4 year old boys. I have lots of different books/workbooks that were given to me before we started. Some say to teach capital letters first, then learn lower case. Others say to teach them at the same time. Any parents that have dealt with this, and opinions on which way is better. I would really appreciate it. Thank you.


My Answer:

I home schooled other people's kids (mostly 5-12 year olds) for about 5 years and preferred to take an informal approach to reading and writing.

Think about it this way, did you teach your child to speak vowels first or consonants?

Of course, you didn't "teach" your child to speak consonants and vowels they simply learned them. The way they learned them was by being completely immersed in spoken language.

I recommend teaching reading and writing in the same way. Make sure that you read and write as part of your everyday activities when you are with the kids.

Let me give you an example of how I did this with two my students one day. I was teaching two 7 or 8 year old boys who decided that they wanted to order pizza to be delivered for lunch. I said that was a great idea and handed them a phone book.

Now neither of these kids were readers yet, so this presented a significant challenge. They needed to know the alphabet and how to look up "pizza" and then the phone etiquette for getting the necessary information about how much it would cost. Then they had to figure out if we could afford it with the budget that we had for each day.

I do not think we even had pizza that day, but based on their enthusiasm for the idea they learned about the alphabet, etiquette, math and probably more than that.

I helped when asked and to the extent that they requested. Their learning was driven by the fact that much of what they needed to do to accomplish their own goals required literacy skills. Therefore they learned a variety of literacy skills because that was what they needed to accomplish their goals.

My web site

Q&A: Components of Attitude

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

Attitude Simplified
Attitude is how you arrange the mental furniture of your body/mind re-creational vehicle as you explore the world of your experiences.

It was originally written for Yahoo! Answers:

What are the key components of attitude?

Posted by: james_jass

25 October 2007

Food for Thought from Around The World

I don't mean metaphorical food I mean literally thinking about food from around the world. Peter Menzel and his wife, Faith D'Aluisio, traveled the world to find out what people actually eat every week and created a book called The Hungry Planet. They took pictures of each family surrounded by a week's worth of food and those pictures have been making the rounds by e-mail and blog posts like this one.

Here's are two examples,

the Aboubakar family from a refugee camp in Chad who spend under $2 (which is subsidized by relief organizations to cover the other $22 in cost)


the Melander family from Germany who spend just over $500.

Here's links to find out more:
The Book

NPR Story

Time Magazine Story- Part I - Part II

Map of 20 of the families

19 October 2007

Conservatives are Strict

This is a copy of a Letter to the Editor of The Leader I submitted last week. (Since they have not published it yet, I do not think they will. It was probably not sufficiently local and timely.)

Does it surprise you that President Bush vetoed a bill to continue supporting a successful program for children’s health care? It shouldn’t, because it is consistent with his strict moral view. This is a prime example of conservative morality in which the government acts like a strict authoritarian parent; this veto is their idea of “tough love.” Since they have judged some of the potential recipients of this program to be undeserving, they choose to deny many more children health care by withdrawing funds for the program.

The progressive or liberal moral world view holds that parents (and by metaphorical extension governments) are supposed to nurture their children and help them develop empathy and compassion as a guide to their behavior. Nurturing parents provide unconditional love and support for their children within a set of strong boundaries that teaches the child appropriate behavior. Nurturing parents know that children will misbehave, but the remedy is more support, not less.

Everyone along the moral continuum between conservative and progressive agree that the fundamental values of moral strength and moral nurturance are both important. The distinction between them is which value has priority.

Conservative morality puts moral strength on top. They show strength through “tough love” and then “nurture” according to their judgment of who deserves (or has earned) support.

Progressive morality puts nurturance on top. We show strength by finding ways to be compassionate while holding firm boundaries that ensure everyone gets mutual respect and shoulders a fair amount of social responsibility.

If you believe that all children deserve our unconditional support within a strong set of boundaries for appropriate behavior, then you should be thinking about the moral world view of the candidates you vote for.

07 October 2007

Brilliantly Funny Summary of Education Today

Here is a brief talk by Sir Ken Robinson, only about 20 minutes, that gives a synopsis of the need for a new way of thinking about education:

Notable Quotes:

"...the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance."

"'Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn't sick she's a dancer. Take her to a dance school.' ... she did. ... She is responsible for some of the most successful musical theater dance in history ... she has given pleasure to millions. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down."


01 October 2007

Response to Unplugged Schools by Lowell Monke

Orion Magazine Sept/Oct 2007 Issue

I agree with the attitude of caution about technology in this article, but there is one fundamental contradiction in Mr. Monke’s presentation:
“Of course, symbol manipulation—reading, writing, mathematics—is the unavoidable nuts and bolts of schooling.”

The contradiction occurs on two levels; the surface imagery and the deeper concept. If there are “unavoidable nuts and bolts,” as he claims, then he envisions a machine that is constructed from those fundamental parts and is inherently mechanical. But, he is thus contradicting his argument against having schools that reflect mechanical thinking. We can give Mr. Monke the benefit of the doubt by calling this a metaphoric faux pas but, of even greater concern is the deeper conceptual foundation for schooling that he simply assumes as a given.

Whatever you create will, in some way, reflect the most basic materials you use to create it. In creating an education system, if you take symbol manipulation as the most basic element, then you will generate a system that is entirely limited by the nature of symbol manipulation. By invoking the image of “unavoidable nuts and bolts” Mr. Monke gives the impression that symbol manipulation is the most fundamental part of the machine, the basic part from which everything else in the machine is made. I argue that symbol manipulation is not basic and that a system of schooling that makes this mistake is (and will always be) incapable of consistently producing the kinds of good results Mr. Monke desires. I propose that the true foundation of good education is optimal states of mind and, therefore, a good school system must use this as it’s conceptual foundation in order to consistently produce good results.

Optimal states of mind are more basic than symbol manipulation.

To read the rest of this piece on our education system click here.

29 September 2007

Q&A Requirements to be a good teacher?

from Yahoo! Answers:
What are the requirements to be a good teacher?

posted by Kika

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

1. Passion for teaching and
2. a school or other teaching environment that supports you to express your passion for teaching.

The passion for teaching can take two forms, a passion for helping students OR a passion for living from the perspective of your subject. If you have both, then you are twice blessed.

If your passion is for the students, then you should play to that strength and structure your teaching as a process of following their interests as much as possible. That way you maximize their connection to learning process and their investment in success.

If your passion is centered on your subject, then you should play to that strength and structure your teaching as a process of discovering what the world looks like from the perspective. Every subject or field of study is a way of viewing the world, not just a bunch of information. As a view of the world there are things worth paying attention to and other things that are a waste of attention. If you were teaching biology, for instance, you would pay attention to which experimental animals are mating with other animals in the experiment, but you would ignore which experimenters were mating with other experimenters in the department. (Unless, of course, you applied the same experimental method and collected data to make a useful comparison of mating behaviors.)

The school or other teaching environment (in case you are home schooling or a "trainer" in a non-school setting) will be a very large factor in your experience of teaching. If you are passionate about the students and expect to be a warm fuzzy nurturing kind of teacher, but your school is all about strict adherence to government standards and teaching to get arbitrary test scores, then you will get severely disillusioned and burn-out.

Make sure that you get real solid information about any place you are expecting to teach. Figure out what your values are and then devise strategies for finding out what the real values of the school are, too. You would do well to make personal connections with current staff to make sure you can see through their marketing rhetoric to find out what really goes on.

There are, of course, exceptionally good teachers who bucked the system. John Taylor Gatto and Jaime Escalante are just two notable examples. But John Taylor Gatto did not even set out to be a teacher, let alone a maverick teacher who skirted the domination of the powers that be in the New York City Public Schools. According to what I have heard him say and have read he sort of backed into teaching and then stuck with it. In the process he became disillusioned, but had very strong values and some lucky breaks that allowed him to succeed.

Do yourself a favor and make your choices more deliberately than that so you can spend the next 20-30 years doing it right the first time, instead of figuring it out from scratch.

John Taylor Gatto's web site

Wikipedia on Jaime Escalante

17 September 2007

Q&A Disciplining A 5-year Old Biter

from Yahoo! Answers:
Disciplining 5 year old for biting?

I just got a call from my 5 year old's kindergarten principal telling me that he is misbehaving and biting kids on the bus. He is giving all the teachers attitude and doesn't listen. I can take his playstation away but how do I keep him busy as a punishment? Obviously, he can't read books yet. Any suggestions?
Posted by Cus

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

I have over 15 years experience leading kids of all ages and I have to say in response to other answers-

Doing violence to your child in response to his violence teaches that violence is O.K. but only for people who are bigger and stronger. I certainly hope that you are not trying to teach that lesson (if you are don't bother reading the rest of this.)

Do not bite him, he is not capable of understanding the connection between his biting other kids and your biting him. If you bite him it is simply a violation of his inherent trust in you as his parent. The same goes for spanking, you only teach him that you can get away with doing violence and he can't.

In regards to actually doing something useful-

You need to find out what disciplinary procedures the kindergarten is using in response to this behavior. If they aren't doing anything and relying on you to solve the problem then they are not helping the situation.

The most important thing to do is make sure that he is clear about the connection between whatever actions you take and the actions he took (biting) that made those consequences necessary.

Make sure that you help him to remember exactly what happened when he bit the other kids and then help him imagine how he would feel if he was in the other kid's position. You do not need to actually demonstrate the violence, he is perfectly capable of imagining it, though he may need some help putting the story together.

Try to help him imagine a realistic scene to answer each of the following questions:
1. What would it feel like to be bitten by another kid?
2. Is hurting people a bad thing or a good thing?
3. How do you think your friend felt when you bit them?
4. Sometimes people lose control of themselves and do things that hurt their friends even if they didn't really mean to hurt them, what should be the consequence of hurting someone else?

I recommend that if you can help him imagine answers to each of the question then you ask him what he thinks an appropriate consequence should be for him when he bites other kids.

Ask him about his opinion of what they do as a consequence at kindergarten. Does he think they treat him fairly? If not, what would he prefer they do?

Think carefully about whatever he suggests as his punishment. Discuss what you think is reasonable and fair, then make a decision about what the consequences will be from then on.

Write down exactly what you decide is the appropriate consequences and have him "sign" that he agrees to it (even though he doesn't read or write this will make an impression that this is really important.) I do not recommend you invoke it for the offense that prompted the discussion unless he thinks that is fair. Making this big a deal out of it should have gotten his attention.

If he bites again then the consequences should occur as soon as possible and with only enough discussion to establish that he understands that he bit someone and therefore the consequences are exactly what you both discussed and wrote down. If he doesn't think it's fair anymore then AFTER the consequences have been completed you can re-negotiate the consequences.

The most important things are to make it clear that
1. he is not allowed to bite people,
2. your job as a parent is
a. to be compassionate for his struggle to master self-control, and
b. to enforce the consequences that you both think will encourage him to find a different way to express himself rather than biting.

If you find that you are still dealing with biting behaviors after administering a couple of consequences then focus on helping him discover how he is feeling just before he bites people and work on imagining different ways to express those feelings.

Good luck, below are resources that follow along the general lines that I have outlined. Don't be surprised if you have to take these steps over several days. Preventing this behavior is worth the investment of time at his age.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish- Parenting Experts

Parenting with Love and Logic Site

Q&A Education or Attitude

I have discovered the joy of Yahoo! Answers:

In your own opinion What is your key to success Education or Attitude?

Our class just had a debate regarding this topic.... and wheww... that was an interesting argument......
(posted by lizaray)

Best Answer - Chosen by Asker (written by Don Berg, Attitutor)

In order for the question to make sense you have to assume that education and attitude are distinct and separate aspects of success, which I do not believe to be true. To me education is fundamentally more about the development of attitudes than it is about the delivery of units of knowledge, skills and information. Therefore my answer to the question as it was asked is both, but a more interesting question is which is more important knowledge, skills and information or attitude.

I put attitude before the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and information because with the appropriate attitude you can always acquire more knowledge, skills, and information. On the other hand just having knowledge, skills, and information does absolutely no good if your attitude is one that prevents you from dealing effectively with reality.

For example take the dogmatic approaches to religion and science that are on opposite extremes of the creationism versus the big bang debate over the origins of the universe. Both sides are mired in attitudes that prevent them from acting with respect for the other people's point of view. The reality is that no one alive today can ever have any direct proof of anything that occurred that long ago, therefore it is ridiculous to destroy your own reputation and possibly the reputations of your opponents through nasty debates over something that no one can answer definitively one way or another.

For me, it's attitude first, always. Once you get your attitude straight then you can always get whatever you need to succeed after that.

My website: www.teach-kids-attitude-1st.com

05 September 2007

Fun with the English Language

The following is not my creation, it is an anonymous e-mail meme that infected me.

These are why English is hard to learn:

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.

2) The farm was used to produce produce.

3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

4) We must polish the Polish furniture.

5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.

6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

10) I did not object to the object.

11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row

13) They were too close to the door to close it.

14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.

15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France .

Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

Quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

Writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham.

If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?

Isn't odd that you can make amends but not one amend?

If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

Your house can burn up as it burns down.

You fill in a form by filling it out.

An alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are not visible.

Why doesn't "Buick" rhyme with "quick?"

on UP

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is "UP."

It's easy to understand UP , meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP?

At a meeting, why does a topic come UP?

Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report ?

We call UP our friends.

And we can brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver, we warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen.

We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car.

At other times the little word has real special meaning.

People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses. To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed UP is special .

A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.

We open UP a store in the morning and we close it UP at night.

To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions. If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP.

When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP .

When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things UP.

When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry UP.

One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP , for now my time is UP , so.......... it is time to shut UP ....!

03 September 2007

Political Thinking Illustrated

In response to this post suggesting a graphic explanation of how people actually think about politics based on George Lakoff's work, I created the following:

We are wired as humans to use our direct experiences to understand more complex things in the world and complex ideas about the world. The mechanism of that leap from experiences to concepts is made possible by metaphors.

Every complex idea about the world, including religion, science and mathematics, is based on metaphoric conceptions of the world. In politics, which is certainly complex, we all understand the metaphor of the nation as a family, which implies that the proper role of the government is to act as a parental figure for it's citizens.

The question of where you stand on a particular political issue is likely to be determined by whether you think that the government should act like a strict parent or a nurturant parent in how it acts on that issue.

In political discussion we all use metaphoric language to explain our opinions and whichever metaphors are spoken activate those metaphors in the listener. This is the basis for understanding each others ideas. Even if we disagree, those metaphors must activate in order for understanding to occur.

What some people, the political purists amongst us, do is to reject one set of metaphors as bad policy. Because there are only two parenting philosophies that have any broad respect this gives the illusion of a linear spectrum of views stretching from one pole of strict parenting metaphors (politically conservative thought)to another pole of nurturant parent metaphors (politically progressive thought). At the end I will show why the bi-polar concept of politics is an illusion.

If you are already speaking to purists who agree with you then you will, at best, simply reinforce their already existing sense of what counts as a good idea.

On the other hand, if you are speaking to purists who disagree with you, then you are probably wasting your time.

The people that make the difference in elections and who are the most valuable to convince are called bi-conceptuals by George Lakoff. These are people who understand the arguments of both sides but do not have a pre-disposition to reject one or the other based on the implied philosophy of the metaphors they use. What research discovered about how people actually choose presidential candidates is that identification with the candidate is more important than agreeing with them. From Thinking Points Chapter 1
"Richard Wirthlin, chief strategist for former president Ronald
Reagan, made a discovery in 1980 that profoundly changed
American politics. As a pollster, he was taught that people vote
for candidates on the basis of the candidates’ positions on issues.
But his initial polls for Reagan revealed something fascinating:
Voters who didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues still wanted to
vote for him. Mystified, Wirthlin studied the matter further. He
discovered just what made people want to vote for Reagan.

"Reagan talked about values rather than issues. Communicating
values mattered more than specific policy positions. Reagan
connected with people; he communicated well. Reagan also appeared
authentic—he seemed to believe what he said. And because
he talked about his values, connected with people, and
appeared authentic, they felt they could trust him.

"For these four reasons—values, connection, authenticity, and
trust—voters identified with Reagan; they felt he was one of
them. It was not because all of his values matched theirs exactly.
It was not because he was from their socioeconomic class or
subculture. It was because they believed in the integrity of his
connection with them as well as the connection between his
worldview and his actions."

The bi-polar linear political spectrum that is commonly understood through the terms Left, Right and Center assume that people are either conservative, liberal, or standing neatly on a line in between those two extremes. The truth is that while there are effectively only two political philosophies they can be mixed and matched at random in an individual mind, depending on how that person thinks about each issue or situation at different times and under different influences. This inherent complexity of individual political thought makes the linear scale between only two extremes untenable.

Mapping the political landscape is probably more like mapping the population of an area that contains two large cities. While population is concentrated around each of the city centers and along the direct connections between them, there are also a variety of small towns and rural burgs throughout the area. The same is true of the political landscape. There are people who concentrate themselves around the purists and along the direct routes between them, but there are also people scattered widely around the entire area. The political parties are concentrations of population and the organizations who focus on specific issues are arrayed around them like small towns. Some people are well settled into their neighborhood and others move around regularly.

I hope this is a helpful and reasonably accurate portrayal. I am not an artist, so I am hoping that someone with some more artistic talent could create a better visual presentation. I have the graphics in a single page .pdf file if someone is interested.

Below is a one-page sized version of the graphics (click on it to see it full sized):

30 August 2007

A Reply to Not My Father's Religion

In Doug Muder’s portrait of the class issue in UU churches (Not My Father’s Religion, UUWorld Fall 2007) he paints a picture of opposition between the “working-class” values of self-control for one chance at redemption in a harsh world-maze and “professional” values of inspired living through indulgent forgiveness from a bird’s eye view of the world-maze. I suspect that this portrait condemns us to failure before we even start by emphasizing the false idea that we have an inherently superior perspective over people of “lower” classes and conservative theology.

It is fundamental to our faith that no one has a privileged view of the ultimate playing field, although everyone’s views of it are different. The vertical metaphor of “higher” and “lower” classes is one of the fundamental foundations of the problem and by repeating this metaphor that implies class advantages are inherent we will continue to entrench the problem.

We all travel the same world-maze making decisions about how to fulfill our moral responsibilities to our selves, our families and our communities. Self-control is a key to success no matter what your situation.

What distinguishes the moral visions of conservative and liberal religion is emphasis on either fearfully conserving the status quo or positively progressing towards improving ourselves and the world.

Conservative religion seems to value stopping negative forces, controlling vices, and confronting evil. The conservative moral challenge is having enough self-control to control or eliminate their evil impulses and the evil in the world, even if that sometimes means becoming indifferent to pain and suffering in themselves or others.

Liberal religion is concerned with enhancing positive forces, encouraging virtues and creatively expressing goodness, truth, beauty, joy and unity. Our liberal moral challenge is having enough self-control to keep ourselves open to the suffering and pain of the world even as we work in the world to alleviate and prevent it.

The moral question for our faith is whether we have truly heard the concerns of those who do not respond to our invitations to join us. The answer is to regain our moral grounding in empathy and compassion for their experience of the world. Then, help them see how their suffering is not merely a personal journey to, or through, hell, but can become a strategic approach to helping others gracefully navigate the maze. Let’s call them to the possibilities that we can honor their suffering and help them contribute to eliminating the systemic need to force some people into it in the future. That is what Muder’s dad accomplished by living true to his moral values, persistently fending off immanent moral disaster by working at the factory, and taking the time to nurture his son by playing ball. The abundant opportunities his son has obviously had are ample testaments to his ultimate success.

06 July 2007

Access to Power: Re-reading Man’s Search for Meaning, Part 2

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

Re-reading Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search For Meaning: Access To Power
Viktor Frankl wrote his famous words about attitude in the 1940's, but we've come a long way since then. Learn how attitude gives access to power.

28 June 2007

Writing In Spite of My Schooling: Re-reading Man’s Search For Meaning, Part 1

This post has been converted to a page on my site:

Re-reading Viktor Frankl's Man’s Search For Meaning: Writing In Spite of My Schooling
Starting with Viktor Frankl's quote about attitude learn how the stories we are told, and tell ourselves, create who we are.

27 June 2007

Review of Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Powell’s Book Store is not what most people think of as exciting entertainment for kids. I was recently at the Unitarian-Universalist Association’s Annual General Meeting in Portland, Oregon, and volunteered three mornings during the week with the Young Fun Camp for 8-14 year olds. On my first morning as I helped get the early registrants settled in I inquired about what activities were being planned and the director mentioned a variety of things including that she had brought up Powell’s Bookstore as a possibility. Apparently the counselors did not think the kids would be interested, so it was not on the list. So, I mentioned that my friend Rachel, an 8 year old who was going to be attending, loves Powell’s and that they should include it. The director put it back on the schedule because it was something she was personally interested in, as well.

It turned out to be the single most popular activity of all! With the enthusiasm of the kids generating three separate trips to accommodate the demand (and Rachel, who did not sign-up in time to make it into either of the first two trips that I went on, may have even missed out.)

At Powell’s there was only one book that really caught my attention, probably because I was paying more attention to kids than to books: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin, 2006) . I had taken a boy to the bathroom then after doing my business was waiting for him outside where it just so happens that the philosophy and atheism sections are located. I saw Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion, but do not have much respect for his public image as an anti-religion fanatic and radical iconoclast of fundamentalist scientism. Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, is a first rate philosopher in my experience, which means that while he may be taking an obvious position in regards to the issue he will make a worthy exploration of the conceptual territory as he leads you along the path to his opinion. While I first saw the book on Friday with the first group, I bought the book on Saturday when I was with the second group, and found it such a compelling read that I finished the book by Monday evening. It helped that I had lots of time on Sunday in Portland and spent nearly all of Monday on the train, a ferry and several busses. I found the philosophical journey of Dennett’s exploration of religion to be very engaging and worthwhile. Although I do have two key critical remarks, the overall approach and Dennett’s style of consideration made it a compelling read.

Dennett does a fantastic job of laying a solid groundwork for treating religion as a valid topic for scientific inquiry. His exploration of and critical insights into the strengths and weaknesses of relevant scientific studies is very valuable. What is even more valuable for the over-all enterprise he is proposing is how he has posed key questions that need to be answered in order for real progress to be achieved. My critical remarks stem from differences in my way of understanding how the different concepts of God relate to each other and what constitutes religion (obviously influenced by my Unitarian-Universalist faith). Thus, my remarks are directed more to the premises that he built his arguments upon, rather than the arguments themselves. Although I don’t think my shift in premises alters his arguments or conclusions very much, I believe if my points are true then the results will provide a much stronger foundation for broader understanding.

First of all, I understand all ideas of God as human ways of comprehending and dealing with the unknown and the unknowable. Since there are always forces and effects in the world that we suspect but cannot verify, cannot directly experience or in some cases can not experience at all, then we have a problem. The problem is that these are categories that we have concepts about but cannot deal with in any concrete literal sense. I am drawing on my understading of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and It’s Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999) to assert that these categories are inevitable parts of all human experience due to the grounding of all our shared understanding in language and the inherent limitations of language. The unknowable is all possible experiences or phenomena that cannot be expressed in language, thus they cannot in any way be shared and, more importantly, cannot be verified. The unknown are all experiences and phenomena which may be expressed in language but have not yet been explored or accepted as relevant by the person or people who are thinking and reasoning about a situation. If we take God as a convenient label for these bizarre categories then this means that the exact boundaries of God are different for different people at different times depending on their life history and the history of their groups, but they are all dealing with essentially the same conceptual category, the unknown-and-unknowable. Since, there is no way around the fact that we cannot deal concretely and specifically with what we do not know and cannot know, then asking religious people, or anyone else, to define God in any more precise terms than this is a fools errand.

I am sure Dennett is not entirely averse to what I have suggested so far based on this quote:

In religion … the experts are not exaggerating for effect when they say they don’t understand what they are talking about. The fundamental incomprehensibility of God is insisted upon as a central tenet of faith, and the propositions in question are themselves declared to be systematically elusive to everybody. Although we can go along with the experts when they advise us which sentences to say we believe, they also insist that they themselves cannot use their expertise to prove—even to one another—that they know what they are talking about. These matters are mysterious to everybody, experts and laypeople alike.
[p. 220, italics in original]

On the other hand, critics of religion, such as Dennett, are right to criticize those who abuse the roles of social authority that have developed to help people to deal with the unknown-and-unknowable. This puts religion in a distinctly different category of endeavor than science. Religion will always be the appropriate institution to deal with the inevitability of mortality, what is the ultimate cause of all that is, and all the other true Mysteries of existence. Science deals with what we can know and is the best method for discerning what is verifiably true in human experience.

Given this view of the categorical distinction between science and religion then they should work hand in hand to provide people with appropriate information and experiences to assist in the process of living and dying gracefully. Religion is the keeper of the Mysteries; responsible for taking best advantage of the human proclivities revealed by science in order to keep the Mysteries in moral perspective for living according to the dictates of Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Joy and Unity. Religion is the proper place to deal with ineffable experiences that cannot be truly shared. Science is the keeper of knowledge and investigator of mysteries; responsible for informing Religion of the most effective methods of doing their job and helping to assess how successfully we facilitate the well-being of individuals, groups, societies and ecologies.

It is important to distinguish the concepts of God that are used in everyday thinking and reasoning about the unknown-and-unknowable from the social concepts and institutions that we use to mutually support our moral choices of action.

The concepts we use to think and reason individually on an everyday basis about the unknown-and-unknowable naturally fall into a simple matrix of 4 distinct conceptual modes. As we think and reason we have to remember or assign qualities to anything that we wish to consider. If we are considering a child’s building block, a literal physical object, we simply recall our perceptions of it’s hardness, color, texture, and other qualities and then based on our understanding of those experiences we think accordingly. If we are attempting to deal with the unknown-and-unknowable then we obviously have to assign qualities and then reason using the qualities assigned in the hopes that we have assigned particular qualities that are sufficiently accurate that the actions we choose then result in the achievement of our goals.

In regards to the unknown-and-unknowable there are two key assumptions that lead to distinct and useful categories:

  1. Does it have qualities that are human-like, or not; is God personal or impersonal?
  2. Is it a force in the world or beyond the world; is God immanent or transcendent?

Based on assigning these qualities we can easily and usefully classify a number of theological concepts. When the unknown-and-unknowable is assumed to have human qualities and is a force in the world then the resulting concepts are Theistic. When you assume that the unknown-and-unknowable is impersonal and beyond the world then your concept is Humanistic. The combination of human qualities that are beyond this world gives us Naturalism and the opposite gives us Mysticism. (This framework is based on Rev. Bruce Bode’s Four Faiths in the Modern World sermon series from August 2006 .)

Dennett is a Humanist attacking Theists for immoral activities that they justify based on their theology rather than actual concrete benefits to the well-being of society. Dennett mostly skirts around the Mystics and the Naturalists though his ideas of folk religion and spirituality may be close.

I believe Dennett’s exploration would benefit from taking on this framework as a premise because it is immanently testable and would provide him with a useful continuum for putting his own views in perspective with the other views that he may not agree with, but concedes are likely to be benign if not beneficial.

The challenge that he ultimately poses, which is at the heart of all human activities not just religious ones, is the morality of the actions we choose. He proposes that everyone of a particular religious faith should take responsibility for the actions of those who profess that faith. Thus, he believes that all Christians are effectively responsible for the actions of the radical elements of Christianity that bomb abortion clinics and that all Muslims are effectively responsible for the radical elements of Islam that encourage suicide bombers. This is problematic because of these faiths are not singular monolithic organizations that can be controlled or held accountable, they are a vast pluralism of different organizations.

Morality is fundamentally about creating and maintaining well-being for us. The variations in moral values are based on having different ideas of who is “us” and how we should go about achieving well-being for our group. There is no question that everyone is trying to behave morally, but there is wide divergence about what constitutes the proper moral assessment of the success of our various actions, especially in the actions we take as a group via agents who are supposed to act on our behalf.

So the question is, How do we make a proper assessment of our own and others actions with regard to well-being? There are two primary approaches that I am familiar with, literal application of explicit rules and the imaginative application of principles. The literal application of explicit rules has been generally assumed to be correct. The Ten Commandments, as a iconic example, are most often taken to be literal rules for living. However, as anyone who puts more than a passing effort into moral philosophy finds out, there is an immense amount of difficulty that quickly arises.

More recently in the cognitive sciences, according to Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh, they have found that human brains are simply not wired to make effective use of the literal application of explicit rules. The way we are wired to think is more consistent with the imaginative application of broad principles. This is known as virtues ethics and we can take the same set of Commandments and treat them as principles to be applied according to our good judgment of the details of each situation. (See Mark Johnson’s Moral Imagination, The University of Chicago Press, 1993) Beyond the moral deliberation of individuals in their own minds the key to morality in society is participating in moral discussions to discern how principles are best applied under changing circumstances.

Here’s what Dennett has to say about participating in the moral discussion (although he was talking more specifically about the immorality of unquestioning acceptance of the proscriptions of religious leaders):

… adopt[ing] the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question, because—to put it simply—it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority) … should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing them from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further consideration.
[p. 295-6 italics in original]

Dennett has drawn a clear moral distinction between those who are willing to engage in the moral discussion and those who are not. He is clear that our moral views must be “conscientiously maintained” not just settled once and for all. Regardless of the morality of the resulting action, if you are not willing to enter into the moral discussion then you have abdicated your moral responsibility. He continues:

The argument for this is straightforward. Suppose I have a friend, Fred, who is (in my carefully considered opinion) always right. If I tell you I’m against stem-cell research because “my friend Fred says it’s wrong and that’s all there is to it,” you will just look at me as if I was missing the point of the discussion. This is supposed to be a consideration of reasons, and I have not given you a reason that I in good faith could expect you to appreciate. Suppose you believe that stem-cell research wrong because that is what God has told you. Even if you are right—that is, even if God does indeed exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong—you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept this as a reason. You are being unreasonable in taking your stand. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can’t) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate. And if you reply that you can but you won’t consider reasons for and against your conviction (because it is God’s word, and it would be sacrilegious even to consider whether it might be in error), you avow your willful refusal to abide be the minimal conditions of rational discussion. Either way, your declaration of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.

Notice that this stand involves no disrespect and no prejudging of the possibility that God has told you. If God has told you, then part of your problem is convincing others, to whom God has not (yet) spoken, that this is what we ought to believe. If you refuse or are unable to attempt this, you are actually letting your God down, in the guise of demonstrating your helpless love. You can withdraw from the discussion if you must—that is your right—but then don’t expect us to give your view any particular weight that we cannot discover by other means—and don’t blame us if we don’t “get it.”
[p. 296-7 italics in original]

This brings me to a key question that I have been asking lately, how do we assist people to understand that participation is the key to moral behavior? Where do they get to practice the process of moral discussion?

What I find in the UU faith is a place to participate in moral discussions. The Uncommon Denomination, as we are becoming known as, is the place where we are pioneering the participatory methods of democratic religion. Ours is a participatory religion that facilitates the discussion in which we all have the opportunity to participate rather than writing a script to be performed on command. We do not have a common creed, we have common principles and a multitude of sources that we draw upon to make our decisions to act in the world. What I found at the General Assembly of the Unitarian-Universalist Association was a forum for moral discussions in which we are holding ourselves accountable for not just inviting all people to participate, but trying to discover how to make participation welcoming and enjoyable as well. We are taking the lead on creating a world that works for all beings, not just some. We identify ourselves with all of creation, not just the parts we like.

By coincidence I found Daniel Dennett’s book in the midst of this particular event. The fact is that there were a confluence of circumstances that lead to this coincidence, but I will not pretend to know or understand how those circumstances occurred. It does not matter how I attribute the action of the unknown and unknowable forces at work in this one instance, I will simply take this series of moments as a blessing from God. There is no doubt that the events occurred and that if we exerted enough effort we could explain it all. But, that would be a waste of time and energy so it is easier to invoke a simple term like God to enable us to turn our attention to more important matters that have far greater moral import. In this way God is a very useful concept and, while it is not a scientifically valid approach to explaining the situation, it is a morally valid approach.

25 June 2007

Naïveté and Expertise

When I read Enrst Mayr’s book “What Is Evolution?” I found that he had very helpful synthesis of the philosophical, and therefore conceptual, problems with the creationist position with regard to explaining the unified yet diverse nature of living things. To summarize, I think that he is saying that essentially the creationist questions are aiming in the wrong direction for studying biology, therefore the answers are correspondingly off target.

The strength of the scientific community is the ability to progressively transform not only the answers they give to questions but to also progressively transform the questions that are asked. In the example of evolution the naïve question is, “How can individual organisms of one type beget organisms of a different type some generations later?” The question itself is pointing us in the direction of looking for clues to the mystery of species diversity in an individual or in the type of individual that we have chosen to put under consideration.

The conceptual mapping of the question itself has implied the scope and nature of the answers that would be relevant, but the genius of more current evolutionary theories is framing the question in terms of the populations, not individuals and dispensing with the notion of types by acknowledging that all “types” are arbitrary constructs within our minds not in the world. This is a completely underwhelming observation to those of us who are naïve about populations and the problems of types because we will automatically conceive of the population as a meta-individual with the same kinds of properties and qualities that we expect of a single individual and types as natural qualities of the world. The problem is the difficulty of breaking the habit of conceiving of something in our usual default way. Even if you understood what I just said, there is no reason to believe that you can actually change how you think from only one isolated explanation, therefore your naïve concepts will continue to mislead you. Thus we arrive at the central problem of being an expert versus being naïve.

The evolutionary idea may be conceptually great for biology, but it is next to useless for those who do not have the ability to shift their conceptual tools for understanding at will. In fact, I have fallen into a naïve trap in the last sentence by referring to an singular “evolutionary idea” when the reality is that what I am considering as “an idea” is the complex emergent result of a cacophony of contributions by a diverse population rather than a singular monolithic item. While I will continue to refer to it in the singular for convenience, I also know that in reality there is no such thing. The same is true of referring to a generic idea of “creationism,” there is no singular idea, only a dynamic plurality of ideas that are complex and difficult to comprehend entirely.

An expert perceives accurately, thinks clearly and makes appropriate decisions based on their chosen purpose, meaning that they are consistently good decision makers. The naïve person tends to fail at one or more of these tasks. I say “tends to” because of what most people refer to as beginner’s luck. Sometimes, despite their own limitations, a novice will turn in a performance that seems utterly brilliant. The difference is in their consistency, the expert is consistently able to make good decisions, whereas the beginner is just lucky.

For example, if you want to understand biology you have to be able to see the difference between the naïve view of a divine creation metaphor and the more expert view of an evolutionary metaphor for explaining biological phenomena. It is not necessary for me to posit the truth of either of these views because that is irrelevant here. They are both metaphoric conceptual structures that have varying degrees of useful application within the phenomenal world of biology. Creationism does not contribute to biological understanding or meaningful predictions of biological phenomena plus it is a view that children easily comprehend, therefore it is naïve. The evolutionary view is in the expert category because this view has made the most substantial contribution to the ability of biologists to make meaningful predictions and continue to conduct substantial inquiries that contribute to the improvement of our understanding of the phenomena of life and the reality of how living things exist.

Creationism and evolution are both true to some degree, but the question is whether each is useful under a particular set of circumstances. For parents explaining the forms of plants and animals to young children it is perfectly true to say, “God made them that way.” For a biologist to say that to her colleagues is absurd but is still perfectly useful even to the biologist who is also a parent. Of course, the biologist parent should also share some appropriate level enthusiasm for the scientific style of inquiry that helps to discern how God continues to achieve such magnificent artistry.

Which brings us to the question of expertise and naïveté in education: I believe that defining education as the delivery of knowledge, skills, and information is naïve. The biologist parent would be wasting time if she simply delivered accepted biological dogma to her child. The creationist parent is equally wasting time if they simply deliver the accepted creationist dogma. Both parents would be negligent of they did not also delve into the reasons why their particular view helps them to be a better person, either a better biologist or a better follower of the creationist religion. The delivery of the information will be useless data until there is some context of meaningful relationships into which the data can be inserted in order to become useful.

I propose cognitive cartography as a more useful metaphor for developing expert understanding of education. The biologist parent has highly developed methods of relating to the world through the field of biology. The field provides a way of relating to certain kinds of experiences in order to make predictions and extend the stories of explanation about the phenomena that the field takes into consideration. In each person who has some expertise in biology is a conceptual structure in their mind that helps them to navigate both the phenomenal world of living things and the field of biological inquiry itself. What makes biology both useful and intellectually satisfying are the rich relationships that it helps to develop. The data of biological studies are merely the most obvious manifestations of those complex relationships and it is relationships that are useful and provide satisfaction, not the data alone. What would be educational for the biologist’s child is experiencing the passionate relationship the parent has to the biological stories that make sense of the wondrous phenomena that the child experiences. It is only within a rich set of physical, emotional and spiritual experiences that the mental data from biology can become useful. It is how the field enriches the life of the whole person that is important to convey to the child, not just the obvious data that it generates.

The same educational point is true for a creationist parent. It is not the data contained in religious texts and ideas that make it a useful pursuit. It is how the religious community enriches the whole person that makes it useful and highly valued. (It is just a crying shame that the religious community and the field of biology are so misguided about how they each interpret data differently to believe that there is a conflict between them. They are simply expressing different and inconsistent values about how to relate to apparently similar data.)

Both cognitive cartography and the delivery of knowledge, skills and information are metaphoric conceptions, but I believe the former has much richer possibilities for developing meaningful predictions and conducting more substantial inquiries into appropriate educational practice.