Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Search for Truth

Truth will out.

There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths.

Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.

If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain

These are just a few of the hundreds of quotes about truth. My favorite is perhaps one with many attributions – my version: There is no truth; just perceptions of the “truth.” Mark Twains is the one I’m planning to write about today.

If you don’t read a newspaper, news on the Internet, listen to television news or interviews, you will remain uninformed; but if you do all of those things, you are very apt to be misinformed. I have found that it takes real work to come close to being informed. It’s ironic that if you can watch only one-half hour of television in search of the truth about what’s going on in the world today, your best bet is Jon Stewart, who professes to be a only a comedian, but whose sense of irony probably gets you closest to the truth.

Rush Limbaugh’s recent diatribe about President Obama’s authorization for using whatever force necessary to secure the safe release of the sea captain hostage of the pirates off the coast of Somalia is a perfect example. “Now we’re killing children!” Prior to the release, of course, his invectives against the President included, “Why isn’t he doing something?” One has to know that another scenario of an unhappier outcome would have led to a tirade about this liberal anti-military President being soft on terrorism. A no-win situation! No truth anywhere to be found, yet this man speaks for many in our country – and they believe his words to be true

Countdown with Keith Olbermann or The Rachel Maddow show are a shade better, but then that’s probably because of my liberal point of view. You still have to do a bit of sorting and weighing to come near the truth. I even listen closely to the interviews of Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers, although I am addicted to both.

Recently I watched Bill Moyers interview with Arne Duncan, President Obama’s new Secretary of Education, and found myself quite impressed with the choice. His merit-pay and incentive based learning ideas sounded really good – at first blush – but then I got to wondering just how they plan to go about judging the “merit.” Thus far measuring student’s learning has tended to be ephemeral, with teachers teaching to the test, cramming stuff into kids’ heads – mostly forgotten even days later. How much of what you memorized in high school do you remember now? Better measures of student learning would have to include evaluation of portfolios, exhibits, presentations, etc. to give credibility. A standardized test is only an abstract slice of the pie. And that doesn’t even bring up the subject of how political merit pay could become.

High school has become, in many communities – especially in the inner cities – more about controlling teens and teaching to the test, not opening minds and stimulating excitement about learning. Universities have to remedy that, and it takes time and effort. And it doesn't always work. This is a huge distraction, eating up a lot of resources, as well as undermining the value of a four-year degree. We all agree we really need to fix our K-12 system.

As a part of that “controlling teens”, according to a recent article by Andy Kroll in the Tom Dispatch, is a big part of Duncan’s Chicago school system, “…the most militarized in the country, boasts five military academies, nearly three dozen smaller Junior Reserve Office Training Corps programs within existing high schools, and numerous middle school Junior ROTC programs…. Nearly all are located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This merging of military training and education naturally raises concerns about whether such academies will be not just education centers, but recruitment centers, as well.

I’m reminded of the day I read of the graduation of one of my former students from Davis's Independent Studies Program. Extremely dyslexic twin brothers, had been referred by their DSIS advisor when they were just twelve years old. Their mother, who had recently died of breast cancer, had been homeschooling them for several years, even taking them to a special reading program in the Bay Area, but they had yet to learn to read even on a consistent first grade level. In fact, perhaps because of emotional turmoil during their mother's last illness and death, they had probably regressed.

We had worked diligently with a program I had just learned about, as well as with Lindamood-Bell techniques, and within the year, I had them reading at a level DSIS thought would give them some success at a modified program in junior high in Woodland, where they lived.

One of the boys had a degree of success, but the other, thoroughly miserable and the victim of cruel junior high harassing, asked to be returned to my tutoring room for independent studies. We worked for three hours every day for the remainder of that year and through the summer on social studies, math, and writing, eventually achieving a reading level that would permit him to work independently the next year with some support from a neighbor.

Some time later, I was elated to read of his graduation from high school. I immediately called to congratulate him, asking of his future plans. He told me he planned to go to Yolo Community College for one year and then join the Marines. When I asked him what had brought him to that decision, he replied, “The Marines are an elite corps…and I want to be elite.”

Although the words came from his mouth, I knew they were not his words. He had been recruited. I wept. Recruiters prey on just this type of young man – one without the grades to get into a four-year college, one who would probably struggle with even a City College. This boy, who had worked so tirelessly and with remarkable motivation to be the best that he could be, would eventually join up and become Iraq fodder. This from the militarization of our public schools as they now are!

According to the article I just read about Arne Duncan’s Chicago charter school/military academies; this is what he may have in mind for cities across the country. This did not come out in the interview with Bill Moyers. There had been no mention of militarization, although he had praised the Charter Schools of Chicago.

Higher education offers its challenges, too, as it becomes more expensive each year. Does every student – even the prepared ones - need four years of study at facilities that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct, run, and maintain to learn the curriculum of a course of study that could be accomplished via methodical independent study. Tests could be offered that would confer the equivalent of a college degree.

Educators and parents urge their children to get a college degree, but can you take a four-year degree and go teach? No, I’m afraid not. You have not learned what you need to know. You have to now get a teaching certificate and preferable a Master’s.

How about Business College? Are you ready to open a business? I think you would find there is a steep learning curve, and that your business education at the University of California didn’t prepare you for it.

What about a degree in English? Could you earn a living writing? Not likely. If you’re lucky, you will find an internship or entry-level job somewhere on one of the few remaining newspapers that haven’t yet folded at a salary less than you could earn asking, “Ya want fries with that?” If you want the skills of a pro, you won’t find them in a four year college. You’ve got to practice, practice, practice…or you can write a blog.

I wish Secretary Duncan well, but I’ll be keeping an eye on him and his ideas. I’m looking forward to learning more. And it will take reading Truthout, Huffington Post, TomDispatch, as well as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, listening to Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers Interviews, Jim Lehrer’s News, and Jon Stewart, plus reading many of the non-fiction books recommended…and still, I’m guessing, there is no truth, only perceptions of the truth.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bill Moyers' Journal - a must see!

Oh, if you didn't see Bill Moyers' Journal last night, it's a must see!

And after you've watched it, don't miss reading some of the comments about last night's show on the blog. There are 'pats and pans' - something for everyone! I'd love to know what you think.

The Black interview's veracity may be debatable, given the confusion over the law related to "taking over the banks" vs. bankruptcy, etc., but the discussion about the state of journalism in this country is, in my opinion, right on target. It is difficult to find a newscast or interviews, such as Meet the Press, etc. that doesn't contribute in the dissemination of the current propaganda with very little true journalism. Bill Moyers Journal and Fareed Zakaria being two exceptions, I think...and maybe Jim Lehrer's and Charlie Rose, although they don't seem to be willing to be too confrontational either. As these two guests mentioned, it is ironic that Jon Stewart, viewed as a comedian, is our main source showing the hypocrisy and, indeed, malfeasance of the media...particularly cable news.

I loved Tim Russert for his willingness to confront his guests and show their inconsistencies, etc., but remember being horrified when he said that he only relayed to his listeners things he gleaned from the administration only if they released it - this during the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame debacle. Where are the muckrakers when we need them? I care little about what the First Lady is wearing to meet the Queen, but I certainly care that Larry Summers, our President's senior economic advisor, received millions in fees from the very financial firms being bailed out, on his advice, by our government. A definite conflict of interest! The foxes appear to be guarding the hen house!

Meet the Press today, instead of calling Larry Summers to task today, interviewed the new CEO of General Motors, asking him time after time how he planned to get the company back on track and whether he is preparing the company for bankruptcy. Give the man time to get the work done...he's only five days into his 60 day deadline. Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, however, have some answering to do, it seems to me, and not just about the TARP program, but about their relationships to the recipients.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Dichotomy of Religion

I remember the day not quite as if it were yesterday, but I do remember it. I was in fifth grade, ten years old, maybe nearly eleven. Father Ryan had come into our classroom at my parochial elementary school in Hoquiam, Washington, to talk about our catechism lesson, as he did regularly. At some point, we had learned about original sin, baptism, and one "fact" that caught my attention: if babies died before being baptized they would end up in a limbo-like state in purgatory, since they had not been absolved of mortal sin through baptism and therefore could not enter heaven.

I’d been struggling with faith for some time, as I was a child who had to have logical reasons for everything. (Nothing much has changed in the ensuing sixty-seven years!) At my first opportunity, I questioned Father Ryan. I don’t remember the exact wording, of course, but it was probably something like this: “If a mother goes to heaven when she dies, how could she ever be happy knowing she would never be joined by her baby, who is in purgatory?” “If God is looking after us, looking down on us at all times, why does he let bad things happen to people?” “If God exists, it would seem that either he doesn’t care or he can’t do anything to stop these things from happening – like the war. So that would mean he’s not all-knowing and all-powerful, wouldn't it?” “There must be a lot of people praying for the war to be over and for their sons to be home safe. Why isn’t he answering all of those prayers?”

I think it was after only one of these sessions with Father Ryan that I was assigned to go to help the altar boys practice their Latin responses during catechism class. I always wondered why, but I think I know now.

My questions have never been answered satisfactorily. The unbaptised baby going to purgatory issue was resolved, however, when the Vatican decided in 2007 that unbaptised babies can go to heaven instead of getting stuck somewhere between heaven and hell. I’m beyond this questioning now, of course,, but I wonder if there isn’t a fifth grade child somewhere who wonders, “If limbo doesn’t exist, what’s happening to everyone who supposedly has been there for years and years.”

In fact, I’ve added many more questions to my list. As a teenager, however, I finally chose to abandon trying to believe in God and the religion I found to be hypocritical rather than to blame God for abandoning people. My main concern these days is how religion has become so entwined with the politics of our country, how a candidate must profess to be a Christian in order to have a chance to be elected, and how religions continue to fracture our world.

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris, an avowed atheist, cites, Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, saying, “ ...(he) surpassed the Christian Bible in terms of morality with one sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Straightforward and to the point, no if’s ands or buts.

Just today I heard on a brief news clip that Afghani President Karzai in his quest for re-election has proclaimed that an Afghani woman may not leave her home without express permission from an adult male family member, as well as "she can no longer refuse her husband sexual relations," thus apparently condoning marital rape, and I don’t know what other assault against her humanity in the name of Islamic law.

I reread parts of Harris’ small but powerful book this week. His withering attack on Christianity in the form of an open letter is stronger than I would make. I call myself an agnostic or humanist, as I believe it impossible to know, the existence of God cannot be proved one way or another. That’s why it is called “faith,” I guess.

“According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 per cent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been “guided by God.” If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of “intelligent design” would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design….The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 per cent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect our presidents and congressmen – and many who themselves get elected – believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.” (Letters to a Christian Nation)

I find the whole religion dichotomy frightening. Religion may have served some useful purpose, and still does, in forming social groupings; churches certainly provide a place to belong and do much good work. But it is frightening to me that a significant percentage of the American population would not see a mushroom cloud over the United States as a horrific thing, but as the return of Christ – a glorious thing. It might be the prophesied single event – the Rapture. It is frightening to me that a significant percentage of the world believes on the basis of religious doctrine that suicide is not just legitimate, but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (holy war). Going into war knowing with the certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide but martyrdom, a much praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of God in Paradise.

There have over the years been several movies and books written about the
Rapture, including Daniel J. Gansle’s book, Rapture Redux: Living with Hope and Purpose in the Last Days (Infinity Publishing 2007), which tackles the contentious question of whether dispensationalist Evangelicals have gone too far in supporting war in the Middle East (Iraq in particular) in order to hasten the Rapture and the return of Christ. It provides a fictional look into the post-Rapture world, and how the Rapture doctrine is believed by some Christians today, some of whom may be or have been leading our country.

The very idea that our elected officials must profess their belief in any religion, let alone one that by extremists looks forward to the apocalypse, in order to be considered electable, I find offensive and frightening! That our candidate for the highest office of the land and one who would be leader of the free world should have to believe, that is, have faith that something is true that is beyond all logic and scientific evidence to the contrary, based on a book filled with contradiction after inconsistency, seems frightening to me, Like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, “I dare you to read this book.”

Some reviews of Letters to a Christian Nation:

“Sam Harris’s elegant little book is most refreshing and a wonderful source of ammunition for those who, like me, hold to no religious doctrine. Yet I have some sympathy also with those who might be worried by his uncompromising stance. Read it and from your own view, but do not ignore its message.” –Sir Roger Penrose, emeritus professor of mathematics, Oxford University, author of The Road to Reality“

Reading Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation was like sitting ring side, cheering the champion, yelling ‘Yes!’ at every jab. For those of us who feel depressed by this country’s ever increasing unification of church and state, and the ever decreasing support for the sciences that deliver knowledge and reduce ignorance, ... “I dare you to read this will not leave you unchanged. Read it if it is the last thing you do.” —Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion

“It’s a shame that not everyone in this country will read Sam Harris’ marvelous little book Letter to a Christian Nation. They won’t but they should.” —Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor in theoretical physics, Stanford University