Monday, November 23, 2015

"College-Ready Seventh Graders"

So, a funny thing happened in Ohio higher education. I don't blog about things that happen at my university, but this decision didn't happen at my university. It happened in the State Legislature, with a new law that affects every public college in the state. And of course, decisions about this law weren't made by people who actually teach college. Obviously, we are too biased, and probably too corrupt, to help make wise decisions about educating young people. That needs to be left to politicians.

We have had, for longer than I have lived in Ohio, a program that allows some high-school juniors and seniors to take some classes at local colleges, counting those courses toward their high school diploma and but also banking them for college later. The idea is that they'll start college with several credits already. I have never heard complaints about this program, and I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence for its success. So far, so good.

Since this program is successful, the lawmakers in Columbus reasoned, why not expand it? Why not have more high school students take more college classes, and get more credits? Our Governor, John Kasich, has bragged in one of the Republican Presidential debates (the one on October 28), that Ohio students would soon be graduating high school with a full year of college credits, because of this brilliant new law. What is the brilliant part? First, the law opens up the high-school/college program to younger students: to all high school students, in fact. And even better, the law requires colleges to accept "college-ready seventh and eighth graders."

Now, I have not personally met many college-ready seventh or eighth graders, but that is probably because teaching at an actual college biases me somehow.

Now, you may have noticed that I said the law requires colleges to accept college-ready seventh (and eighth) graders. It does not simply allow public colleges and universities to accept those students. Public colleges in Ohio are not allowed to refuse college-ready seventh-graders, however many of them there may be. And, because colleges can be tricky, the law wisely forbids colleges and universities from deciding what "college-ready" means themselves. Public colleges are not allowed to set admissions standards for high-school or middle-school students. Instead, the law tells them what the standard should be, so that lazy professors don't throw up pointless obstacles.

That standard, under the law, is that a seventh grader's GPA count's the same as a high school senior's GPA. No, I am not making that up. All public colleges and universities in Ohio are required to let in seventh graders if they meet the GPA requirement for regular students. If you're trying to keep standards very high, and turn away applicants with anything below a B+ average, then a twelve-year-old with a B+ average in middle school also qualifies. If you're trying to give students who've struggled a chance to succeed, so that you let in students who got Cs in their senior year of high school, then a seventh-grader's Cs are also good enough. Columbus says so.

Of course, pointy-headed academics will try to throw up all kinds of road blocks if you let them, and claim that somehow a B in 7th grade and a B in 12th grade are different things. But who's going to believe that? A B is a B, right? Otherwise, we would use a different letter. And letting educators put up these artificial obstacles about things like "preparation" and "class content" just mean more obstacles to people getting degrees.The point is to give people college degrees, and the professors are an obstacle to that.

Obviously, someone doing seventh grade math, what with the long division and all, is just as ready for college as someone doing calculus or trigonometry in twelfth grade. It's all math, right? And someone pulling an A in seventh-grade English, where the writing assignments are literally dozens of words long, should be all ready for first-year college English, where the papers are hundreds or thousands of words long. Good writing is good writing, yes? If your child is a good writer, and has been told so in middle school, then her essay about what she did on summer vacation should certainly be worth college credit. Most of the punctuation is exactly where it should be.

But then, you shouldn't ask me. I'm just a college professor. What do I know?

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

America Needs More Refugees

The cheap fear-mongering about Syrian refugees loses sight of some basic facts. The United States has taken in refugees before, and that decision has worked out really, really well for us. In fact, taking in refugees has been great for America, and we should take in more whenever we get a chance.

More than two-thirds of Americans were opposed to allowing refugees fleeing Hitler into the United States. But we eventually, grudgingly, mostly, did the right thing, and the influx of refugees into our country was wonderful for us. The United States got a huge infusion of European scientists, artists, and intellectuals, and an even larger group of bright, skilled professionals, tradesmen, business people, students, and workers. Those refugees helped us win the war, and they helped build America's postwar boom. They enriched America culturally and intellectually. They enriched America scientifically, in our universities and labs. And they straight-up enriched America, beginning new businesses and starting new careers.

Our gigantic economic expansion after World War Two also benefited from a big, free bonus helping of educated workers, educated on other countries' dimes. Our classic Hollywood movies are filled with refugee actors, written by refugee screenwriters, and directed by refugee directors. And refugee scientists helped win America win the war, not least the race for the atomic bomb, because we could count on Hitler and Mussolini for regular shipments of world-class physicists. Does the name "Fermi" ring a bell? Or perhaps some of you might remember this fellow:

The European intellectual migration of the 1930s and 1940s was unprecedented and historic, because the upheaval in Europe was unprecedented. But America has been harboring refugees since before it was the United States of America, and those refugees have made enormous contributions to our society and particularly to our economy. All those people who didn't want to accept European refugees in 1938, those people who looked at all those Jewish doctors, scientists, filmmakers, and engineers and just saw some stereotypical rabble of ghetto urchins without shoes, were not just being un-American bigots, which they were, but also (like most bigots) they were being suckers. They were being given an enormous gift, a migrating flock of golden geese, and they could only see their own racist fantasies.

Refugee populations, now as then, include large numbers of people whom you could ordinarily never induce to leave their own countries for yours, including people who under ordinary circumstances would stay put because they were so successful in the old country. People with high degrees of skill and education, whom you could never manage to recruit otherwise, are forced to start over. Immigrants are a huge boost to the economy, period, but refugee groups include a heavy share of super-immigrants whom you're only getting because of historical disruptions. Their hard luck becomes our good luck. We should grab as many of those people as we can.

The Syrian refugees are also people who would not be going anywhere in the normal course of things. They are disproportionately educated, middle-class types who were comfortable and successful before the civil war tore their country apart. (And they are also typically more secular or cosmopolitan; these are the people "ISIS"/Daesh hates.) They are, in short, super-immigrants, with a much higher percentage of doctors, scientists and engineers than you see in standard immigrant populations. We should grab them. We should grab them now. These are people who could make our country grow. We would be stupid not to grab this chance when we can. And I never want to hear Americans kvetching about a shortage of math teachers again, ever.

I can accept that many of our politicians and our talking heads don't want to do the right thing. I've gotten used to that. I also accept, with my routine disappointment, that those people don't want to do the American thing. (But I will note how many Bible-thumping politicians are hellbent against doing the Christian thing.) But could we at least not do the stupid thing? Could we not be enormous suckers? Only a sucker would let a chance like this through our fingers. We have made it more than obvious over the past few days that we don't deserve good luck like this, but we should at least have the good sense to take it.

Is there a short-term cost to taking in refugees who need to start over? Sure. But that short-term cost has enormous long-term benefits, and will reach the break-even point pretty soon. Taking on short-term costs for long-term gain, or what people call "investing," is what capitalism is. And the United States is uniquely situated to make that small investment. Last time I checked, the US had the largest economy in the world, and next time I check that will still be true. Do you know how we got to have the largest economy in the world? Taking in refugees. It is our national business. It is our edge. It is what got us where we are, and we should stick to it. We would be idiots not to.

We have been building our country on refugees' industry, ingenuity, and prior education since before we called ourselves a country. I have particularly warm feelings for one group of refugees, fleeing religious persecution and political turmoil, who settled in my own native Massachusetts. Perhaps you might have heard of them yourself:

And with that, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Profiles in Cowardice

My thoughts are with Paris today, and with Beirut. We were in the airport, waiting for a delayed flight, when the news broke Friday evening, and so the Paris new broke to us through cable TV and the Beirut news did not reach us at all. There is too much to say about these crimes. For now I can only say that the United States has, at this point, precisely the news media that terrorism wishes us to have.

CNN was on the TV above us. And we added a bunch of French new sources to our twitter feeds. Not so shockingly, the death toll reported in France (and by the other European news outlets on our feeds) was always significantly lower than the numbers being thrown around on CNN. I woke on Saturday in the weird position of being both sickened by how many lives were lost and queasily grateful that the number is lower than American media first said. No matter how bad things seem, Wolf Blitzer can always make them seem worse.

In fact, making things seem even worse is American TV's primary job. Profiting from fear is TV news's main business strategy, from your local station at 11 pm to the 24-hour networks. TV news will literally ask us, in its commercials "Should you be worried?" Listen, and you will hear that phrase coming back over and over again. They want their audience as frightened as possible. For a group dedicated to spreading terror, they are perfect.

Long before anything was clear in the reports from Paris. CNN was asking who else should be worried. Should Germany be worried about an attack, since they have so many refugees? Will there be attacks on the United States? Is New York tightening its security? These questions are not just idle and irresponsible. These questions amplify terrorists' signal. The terrorists spent their resources, probably a healthy share of their resources, trying to terrify the people of Paris, and then CNN deliberately terrifies people thousands of miles away for them, for free.

And, like all fear-mongers, cable news (and some right-wing political figures) turned swiftly to a weak, powerless scapegoat for their fears. Friday night, that meant scapegoating Syrian refugees, refugees from Daesh, for violence committed by Daesh. Before the identity of even one terrorist attacker was confirmed, even before the attacks themselves were over, cable news was proceeding as if it were a confirmed fact that the terrorists were refugees. Of course, the investigation so far is finding French and Belgian nationals. Closing the borders to refugees will not keep out Daesh; Daesh already recruits in Paris itself, and in London, and in Chicago. Instead of going after the funding that allows terrorism to flourish, our native fear-mongers demonize the tired, the hungry, and the poor, the tattered refugees struggling to be free. And that, too, is exactly what Daesh wants. Because Daesh does not want those people to escape them.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brett Foster Goes Out Singing

I was blogging today about art, especially about poetry and about grief, but that post was interrupted by the news of an old friend's death. My own thoughts about grief can wait. I will still be thinking them tomorrow. Today I give way to the beautiful, kind-hearted poet and scholar Brett Foster, who has passed out of this world. He was a better man than I have ever been, and I will miss him.

I will leave the best words to Brett himself, and to his poem "Tongue Is the Pen," written during his illness, which is more eloquent than I could ever manage. His poem begins with a citation to Isiah 43, and opens:

I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth ...

I cannot tell you how beautiful a friend Brett was, or how much I treasured him. I can only leave you to read his own words. But I will close with the end of Brett's poem:

And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Joseph's Pyramids and American Popular History

Yes, Ben Carson, who is officially running for President, is happily telling people that the pyramids are not actually pharaohs' tombs, but grain storage built by Joseph from the Book of Genesis. Never mind that there are (for example) sarcophagi in the pyramids. And never mind that the Bible doesn't actually say anything about Joseph building pyramids or in fact building anything (Genesis Ch. 41). Ben Carson isn't worried about archaeology or facts. He sees the rival theory that, yes, aliens from outer space built the pyramids as the main intellectual threat to his position.  I'm not here to discuss how ridiculous Carson's position is. The real problem is that large numbers of Americans believe things almost as stupid as this. Carson is only one outlier in our country's deep and rich tradition of historical ignorance.

We pay lots of attention to Biblical literalists' attacks on science, especially on the science of evolution and therefore on the disciplines of biology and geology. But we politely overlook the pervasive religious attacks on history. As a country, we shy away from public contradiction of the Bible's historical claims. If anything, secular American culture amplifies the historical misinformation found in the Bible.

Let me say, before I go any further, that I am a believing and practicing Christian. I am not writing this because I am opposed to Christianity or to Judaism. I went to Bible study last night. But being honest in my faith means being honest about the things in my own tradition's sacred writings that are not credible as accounts of literal events, the things that I would never accept as reliable in someone else's religious scriptures. Faith is a way of making sense of the world around us, not a way to distort or deny the world. A belief system that has to defend itself against facts is not an expression of faith, but of fear.

I am fortunate that I almost never run into the problem of religious pseudo-history in my classroom. But occasionally, when I teach a survey course on English literature before 1800, I run into a student who has picked up some misinformation from the modern neo-Pagan movement (although these students are not always self-identified pagans or Wiccans). These students will take for granted that in, say, 1400 AD there was a secret but organized and flourishing practice of Celtic paganism in Britain. This is not even close to the truth. Modern paganism was invented over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, over a thousand years after the pre-Christian Celtic religions died out. (Many odd, disjointed bits of pre-Christian culture and folklore did survive, but certainly nobody was worshiping Medb or Belinus for all that time.) While the students might have come by that misinformation from a religious source, deference to their religion does not (and really cannot) extend to allowing them to assert imaginary facts. A Wiccan student doesn't get a free pass to claim that there were Druids running around Chestershire during the period of the Crusades, because that didn't happen.

It would be a different story if we uncovered physical evidence of pagan worship in late-medieval Chester. Fifteen hundred years of an ongoing religious practice across the British Isles would inevitably leave traces behind for archaeologists to uncover. But none of that stuff is there. And there would also be documented references, sooner or later. (The ancient Greeks had a whole bunch of secret, initiates-only religious practices, but they still documented that they had them. Even when a culture doesn't write all of its secrets down, it still writes things like "Never write down the secrets.") And when my studies lead to read myths or legends from extinct religions, I don't take those texts at their word if archaeological evidence contradicts them. Ancient Irish legend is full of warrior heroes driving chariots, but archaeology in Ireland never turns up any chariots. The obvious conclusion is that pre-Christian Irish warriors did not have chariots. (Maybe these legends have been influenced by cultural contact with Greek and Roman epic; I don't know enough to test that theory.) Likewise, the Romans have their beloved Aeneas story, in which their nation was founded by a courageous band of Trojan refugees who sailed to Italy, but the archaeological evidence tells a different story. The digs show Rome growing out of one small Latin tribe, ethnically similar to the other Latin tribes in its area. They weren't from somewhere else.

This is all fine, because no one worships Jupiter or claims to be descended from Aeneas these days. But the Book of Exodus also tells a story of a tribe traveling from a foreign land to their destined home. And there is no archaeological evidence to back that story up. This is generally considered impolite to say, and you can go a long, long time in this country without hearing it mentioned in the mass media. But it is the truth. There is no factual evidence for the Bible's story about a the nation of Israel living as slaves in Egypt, or of an Israelite migration out of Egypt. (My best understanding of the current evidence, which is a long way from my field, is that archaeologists can see the early Jews emerging among settlements of ethnically-similar groups and gradually becoming a separate people. I'm told that part of how you can trace their emergence is that some settlements no longer have any pig bones.) If I am going to be truthful with myself, I need to read the Book of Exodus as symbolism rather than history, because there is no more historical evidence for my faith's story about Moses than there is for the Romans' story about Aeneas.

Most Americans know pretty clearly that the description of the creation in the Book of Genesis and the story of Noah's flood are not backed by modern science. Relatively few Americans know that the description of the Israelites fleeing Egypt is not backed by modern history. I don't simply mean that the miracles in Exodus, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, are not literally true. I mean that there is no reason to believe that the Jews came from Egypt, or had been in Egypt at all. This certainly includes the patriarch Joseph from the Book of Genesis. But to mention that in the United States is to risk giving offense.

In fact, you can routinely see Biblical accounts of history presented as fact on allegedly educational cable channels, This was true long before those channels sank to the levels of reality-show dreck where the free market has currently consigned them, and it certainly hasn't gotten better. I have watched self-described historical documentaries show the "informational" map showing the Jews' path out of Egypt. And certainly, no one even hinted that there were any serious historians or archaeologists who doubted the accuracy of the Exodus narrative, let alone that most or all serious scholars doubt it. There was no percentage in that. You could only offend viewers (of at least two major religions) who don't want to hear that the Biblical story isn't true.

Let me suggest, in passing, that one of the greatest moral lessons in the Book of Exodus is that faith means heeding exactly the message that you least want to hear. If Moses didn't listen to things he did not want to hear, he would have just turned away from that burning bush and kept walking, because it Exodus makes it very clear that Moses does not want any of what the bush is selling. But the uncomfortable truths are the ones we most need to face. If I turned away from the unwelcome truth that the Book of Exodus is symbolic rather than historically accurate, I would be turning away from one of Exodus's most crucial moral lessons. Using Exodus as a guide to history but turning away from it as a guide to morals strikes me as the worst possible way to read that book.

So here we are in an America where we teach very little history and, worse still, where we indulge our fellow Americans' inaccurate beliefs about history if they got their bad information from a religious text. All of this is done in the service of protecting believers from better knowledge of their own scriptures, of allowing them to read rich, complex religious texts naively and without reflection. And our secular, commercial, profit-driven media actively participates in those religious fictions, because you can make great profits changing money in the temple. The next time you hear complaints that Christians are persecuted by America's "secular culture," and those complaints are due as soon as someone puts up the first "Happy Holidays" sign, remember that America's secular culture promotes Christians' pseudo-history as fact on TV.

It's not just that Ben Carson has an extra-scriptural fantasy about Joseph building the pyramids. It's that many educated, secular Americans don't realize that Joseph was never in Egypt at all. At the other extreme, there are self-described secularists who dismiss everything in the Bible as a fantasy and cannot distinguish historical figures like David or Ahab from legendary figures like Isaac or Joseph. (This is like treating Henry VIII and King Arthur, or Paul Revere and Paul Bunyan, as equally real.)

And in our willful common ignorance, other forms of ignorance flourish: the unending fantasy archaeology of North America, seeking for lost white American ancestors, the pseudo-historical origin myths promoted by people like Elijah Muhammed or Joseph Smith, the inane quest for "ancient astronauts." It promotes sectarian fantasies, like the attempt to rewrite the Founders' religious positions to align them with Christian sects that had not yet been founded, and secular  fantasies: the conspiracy theories about Freemasons and the search for Sasquatch. Ben Carson is ridiculous, but our society has actively and consistently promoted bogus history for a very long time. Carson is just a quicker student than the rest of us.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog