Why I Am a Humanist (Or, Why I Am Not a Christian, pt. 2)

Some would argue that what makes America America is some sort of enduring quality, or behavior—something like the American character. But, truth be told, that quality or behavior changes with time, and currently, if not the only thing, wallowing in false equivalence is at least a defining characteristic of America.

Proximity in time proves again and again to be too much for mainstream media and so-called public opinion. Consider that the Supreme Court ruled that a bakery could refuse on religious grounds to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, and then, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant based on the moral convictions of the workers.

A same-sex couple on top of a wedding cake at Rossmoor Bakery which operates in Signal Hill. The bakery specializes in custom wedding cakes and creates cakes for same-sex weddings. The LGBT has added them to their directory of friendly businesses for same sex weddings.Photo by Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer

Dear Republicans: You can’t deny your cake and eat where you want too. (credit)

At one level, the cake ruling certainly may set a precedent for business owners to make almost any sorting mechanism for customers as long as they link the sorting to religious convictions.

But at a very important level, these two events are simply not equal since one is about religious dogma and the other about moral or ethical values.

Religious texts and beliefs have been used to justify slavery, beating children, and misogyny. The roots of laws in the U.S.—a so-called free country—that have refused to protect women from marital rape cannot be disassociated from Christian theology that framed women as a lesser copy of men and then the possession of men.

Identifying sex and love between consenting adults who happen to be the same sex as a sin is a manufactured consequence of religion, not an ethical or moral argument.

Religion (especially as it becomes dogma) and philosophy (the exploration of what proves to be moral or ethical) share the problem of objectivity and certainty being elusive; however, religion as dogma often forces Truth and Law while philosophy seeks ways to negotiate between tentative but stabilizing acknowledgements of truth while always appreciating we can and likely will change those truths in some ways.

Something as sacred as life, for the religious even, is never protected under a simplistic dictum; “thou shalt not kill” may be waved during rallies against abortion rights, but those same folk lobby for the death penalty and rush to praise the troops in our never-ending culture of war.

Religion becomes far more dangerous than philosophy, then, because it carries a claim about the Word of God—a threat or a promise that can never be proven or disproven, but carries an ominous weight nonetheless.

A vivid and horrible example in my life time was how many in the conservative religious community framed AIDS as God punishing homosexuality, a distinct narrative during the 1980s when I was teaching high school.

Young people heard this message; it terrified many. The already palpable antagonism toward homosexuality in the South was intensified, scarring, I am sure, many wonderful and kind young people who happened to know they were gay.

This sort of gross and unwarranted Hand-of-God approach to the world was also on display after Hurricane Katrina, when religious leaders again claimed God was punishing sinners.

Human folly is awful enough without the added weight of God.

In fact, given enough time and then allowing enough human voice to be heard, humans can collectively come to positions that are mostly enduring ethical and moral behavior.

Across the U.S., and notably in the South, again with the Bible lurking in the background, people of different races were not allowed to marry—a slap in the face of “freedom” and an inept misunderstanding of race as a social, not biological, construct.

The Supreme Court striking down bans on interracial marriages should never be forgotten as this was a shining moment of hearing the voices of those speaking for the ethical and moral: The Lovings made a very simple plea that as consenting adults they deserved the freedom to love and marry.

When the lawyers were preparing to make their case before the Supreme Court, Richard Loving did not want to speak, but when asked what he wanted the lawyers to say on his behalf, he replied quite emphatically to tell the court he loved his wife.

Writing in A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut explains:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

It is no easy thing to be a human; it is a goddamn overwhelming thing to be a moral, ethical human.

But it isn’t impossible.

The strong must not take advantage of the weak, and if you must invoke God or your religion to hurt the weak, you have made a truly horrible mistake.

You probably should be shunned in public, asked to find your meal somewhere else in fact.

That isn’t discrimination; that’s a community trying its best to behave decently.

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“We’ve Done It, Or We’re Doing It, Or We Could Start Doing It Tomorrow”

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Trump rightwing women

(From upper-left to lower-right) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (credit), Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter (credit), Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (credit), and Kellyanne Conway (credit).

Some often muse whether life imitates art or if art imitates life.

For Margaret Atwood, the debate is more nuanced and about genre: “The Handmaid’s Tale…is set in the future,” Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia.” “This conned some people into believing it is science fiction, which, to my mind, it is not.”

What may seem like a trivial distinction—something merely academic—is incredibly important to Atwood, and to anyone reading this novel (or more recently, viewing the Hulu series):

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that it is not already doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia….

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don’t pull up our socks. (pp. 93, 94)

What might these dire warnings entail in 2018 Trumplandia? At least two come to mind: The manipulation of women to control women and the threat of theocracy to a democracy.

“Puritan New England was a theocracy, not a democracy;” Atwood explains, “and the future society proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots” (p. 97).

These words should be echoing in the background each time we hear or read “Make America Great Again” since Atwood warns, “But true dictatorships do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone—anyone—who can take control and promise them better times” (p. 98).

Two aspects of Atwood’s speculative Republic of Gilead should give us pause in fact: “biblical justification” and:

Woman’s place, in the Republic of Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is strictly in the home….How do you get women back in the home, now that they are running around outside the home, having jobs and generally flinging themselves around? Simple. You just close your eyes and take several giant steps back, into the not-so-very-distant past—the nineteenth century, to be exact—deprive them of the right to vote, own property, or hold jobs, and prohibit public prostitution in the bargain, to keep them from hanging out on the street corners, and presto, there they are, back in the home. (p. 99)

And, as Atwood’s dystopia dramatizes, create a hierarchy of women so that they become consumed with controlling and resisting each other—while failing to see the higher hands of men controlling the entire puppet show.

Dire warning?

Like the legitimate and illegitimate women of Gilead, enter the women of Trumplandia: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway—quoting scripture, invoking the sacred nature of Law, and routinely lying with well-manicured hair and the sort of make up rendered illegal in Atwood’s dystopia.

“At the front of The Handmaid’s Tale there are two dedications,” Atwood notes, detailing:

[T]he American Puritans did not come to North America in search of religious toleration, or not what we mean by it. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion, but they were not particularly keen on anyone else practice his or hers. Among their noteworthy achievements were the banishing of so-called heretics, the hanging of Quakers, and the well-known witchcraft trials. I get to say these bad things about them because they are my ancestors—in a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is my book about my ancestors—and the second dedication, to Mary Webster, is indeed to one of these very same ancestors. (pp. 96, 97)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is Atwood’s poetic recreation of Webster’s monologue throughout her being hanged as a witch, an act that, remarkable, ended with her surviving: “Under the law of double jeopardy,” Atwood adds, “you couldn’t execute a person twice for the same crime, so she lived for another fourteen years” (p. 97).

In the poem, Webster narrates:

I was hanged for living alone,
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a sure-fire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.

And then about her hanging:

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turning inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

The men shouting the authority of God attempt to execute Webster—a woman, and poor—while “The bonnets come to stare,/ the dark skirts also.”

Yet Webster implores:

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

Does life imitate art, or art, life? And as Atwood suggests, when art is drawn from life, why do we resist the dire warnings?

Biblical justification and the sacred rule of law by a people shouting “Make America Great Again” over the cries of children behind chain-linked fences after being pulled from their parents’ arms.

Dire warnings we either cannot see or will not see: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

See Also

There’s no reason to believe that women like Kirstjen Nielsen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are more empathetic by virtue of being women, Jessie Daniels

Please. Don’t. Stop.

My formative years included a literary heritage that may seem rather low-brow—collecting, reading, and drawing from Marvel comics as well as reading (consuming) every issue of National Lampoon.

Although the Internet has been surprisingly unhelpful for me to verify this, I recall very vividly a Foto Funnies in one issue in which a young woman is being physically propositioned by a young man: Images of him reaching for her, touching her, or forcefully kissing her in a sequence in which she rejects him with “Please!” and then “Don’t!” followed by “Stop!”

The final picture, however, is the couple in the throes of passion, I seem to recall him on top of her and her legs wildly raised, but the key is she is shouting enthusiastically: “Please don’t stop!”

In my adolescence, I found the word play brilliant—a key element of the humor I relished in the magazine each month. But this comic is also another lesson, one taught directly and indirectly to men and women: Men, just wear women down when it comes to sex because women really want it too but must put up the proper resistance at first to protect their reputation.

As I have witnessed the growing #MeToo movement—especially in the many brilliant and disturbing pieces written by women confronting how the male world is all too often misogynistic and rapacious—I have thought more and more about the dynamic captured in the National Lampoon comic and echoed in Richard Dreyfuss’s retort (one shared by many men confronted with their coercive behavior, such as Aziz Ansari) to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.'”

Further, I have grown less comfortable with how we manage consent, a complicated concept that isn’t being investigated as fully or well as it deserves, notably in terms of the dynamic between Bill Clinton (resisting his #MeToo culpability) and Monica Lewinsky, who now has reconsidered if she was capable of consent in the relationship with Clinton.

Bill Clinton as one of many powerful men in the long procession that has brought the U.S. to Donald Trump as president and the most disturbing Teflon celebrity—this is a reckoning about much more than sexual harassment and rape culture.

It is reckoning about men as conditioned sexual predators and women as conditioned sexual prey.

Recreational sex—sex for physical pleasure without romantic intent—has profoundly different consequences for men and women; it is often positive social capital for men and nearly always negative social and personal capital for women.

Sex also remains strongly associated with physical and moral cleanliness—almost entirely as the expense of women who are either clean (sexless) or dirty (sexual).

Professional and personal taboos lend themselves to further eroding healthy relationships and interactions between men and women along the spectrum of platonic to intimate.

In many ways, the response by men—hyperbolic—that they do not know what they can say or do around women in the workplace is ridiculous and disingenuous, but there are real problems being unmasked by the #MeToo movement that these disingenuous responses cannot be allowed to derail.

Intimate relationships must begin at some point, being initiated in some way between people who have to risk asking about what the relationship is, where it may go, and how both people feel. When the context of that risk includes extenuating circumstances—think about the imbalance of power and age between Clinton and Lewinsky, for example—then the margins for those risks, how people interact, become narrower, more precarious, especially for the person with less power (often the woman).

Here, I am most concerned about not just consent, and all the problems with consent such as time and power, but what behaviors and characteristics of men that we reject as well as give a pass.

To many people, I think, Clinton and Ansari are qualitatively different than Harvey Weinstein (charges against whom include violent sexual assault and aggression); Clinton also viewed not as crass as Trump.

Where these distinctions fail, I fear, is not recognizing the ethical failure of men as dishonest sexual predators—the real-world manifestation of the National Lampoon cartoon.

Men who prey on women for sexual pleasure, not seeking romance or relationship, while cloaking their behavior otherwise—here is the behavior needing greater inspection: There is a misogyny and objectification in men who are sexual predators that is just as repulsive as men who commit the more immediate rape or sexual assault.

To extrapolate an analogy from Kurt Vonnegut who wrote that smoking was a socially acceptable form of suicide, sexual predators who wear women down to garner consent are socially acceptable rapists.

And that is why the National Lampoon cartoon haunts me; these are lessons taught to men and women about how we should conduct our sexual lives, our intimacies.

I have been listening very hard to women, coming almost daily to recognize the inordinate weight of being a woman constantly aware of her fragility in a man’s world that seems mostly not to acknowledge any woman’s full humanity.

The existential burden of gender for women parallels the existential burden of being black in the U.S.; these conditions are about existing always in a state of awareness and threat.

Talking with a young woman last night, we were standing on a side walk up the street from a bar. Three young men stumbled by, one guy was big and muscular; they were loud, drunk, and motioning toward us for high-fives.

We quietly stepped aside, and at least one of the guys paused and motioned as if he was offended we were ignoring them. The situation was relatively brief, and we didn’t say anything, but we both knew the event was terrifying for the young woman in a way it could never be for me.

They crossed the street to the hotel; I walked her to her car while watching the three drunk men. We needed them to move on, disappear.

This moment will now rest in a topic we have discussed often: The dilemma women face when guys approach them at bars, offering to buy drinks. For women, even when they genuinely are not out looking for any sort of socializing with these men, refusing the free drinks can be more dangerous than just playing along and trying to extricate themselves later.

We have created a culture in which men physically approaching women must be viewed as predatory, intimidating. We have created a culture in which women are responsible for managing that the world is threatening.

We still haven’t begun to fully hold men responsible for changing that culture, even as we are not demanding that some men take culpability for being sexual predators—such as Clinton.

#MeToo, I think, cannot be about turning our gaze even more intently on the victims and cannot be about rape culture only as a way not to investigate the normalized acceptance of men as sexual predators and demonizing of women who are sexual (consider the standard posing of Stormy Daniels as “porn star” versus Trump still never being held accountable).

In her excellent reflection on John Hughes, Molly Ringwald also turns to National Lampoon, where she confronts the contradictions she feels about Hughes:

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

Ringwald’s looking back and unpacking a “different time” speaks to our own need to admit that very little is different in terms of the dynamics that matter between men as sexual predators and misogynists and women as prey, dehumanized.

I think in most ways I survived the horrible lessons about men, women, and consent—such as the cartoon I once found funny and now find deeply uncomfortable. I was also able to cast off eventually the racism I was taught growing up.

A different world will mean that we all refuse these lessons, of course, but an even better different world will be when we no longer allow the lessons to begin with.

There is nothing funny about a man coercing a woman into consent. There was never anything funny about that.

Why I Am Not a Christian

She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Born and raised in the Bible Belt, I have almost six decades of experience with the social anxiety associated with confessing that I am not a Christian.

The paradox of this anxiety, I suppose, is that the particular type of Christianity I have lived among in South Carolina is strongly grounded in witnessing and being very cheerfully public about one’s faith. “Let us pray” not as invitation but as directive.

As a public school teacher for 18 years, I was under the added weight of fearing that I would be outed in ways that threatened me socially and professionally. But when I moved to higher education, I really felt no more comfort in expressing my lack of faith—even as I was often directly asked by students, even though it was a professionally safe place to be honest.

In fact, it has always been far easier to share with students my communist/socialist/Marxist leanings than to say simply, “I am an atheist.”

The personal recognition wasn’t an easy journey, but during college, including reading and re-reading Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian” and a significant amount of existential philosophy, I came to terms with ethical and moral groundings as well as being entirely comfortable with those ideals being in no way connected to God or organized religion.

Since my college years overlapped with the rise of the Moral Majority and Religious Right, that disconnect wasn’t even complicated. The most passionately Christian people of my community growing up and then the most vocal Christians in the public and political spheres of the Reagan era confirmed for me that I had zero interest in such anger, hatred, and most of all, hypocrisy.

I have taken comfort instead throughout my adult life in literature—works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which directly interrogate all the ways I find religion, and Christianity, more apt to be a bludgeoning device than a balm.

Religious text as a tool for authority, religion as the opiate of the masses—as Emily Dickson wrote as a contemporary of Karl Marx:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

In 2018, with Donald Trump courting and maintaining the passionate support of the religious right, specifically evangelicals across the South, and with the South Carolina summer primaries in which Republicans run aggressive TV ads shouting “100% pro-life” and images of candidates in front of NRA rallies and holding (even shooting) guns, I have never been more confident in why I am not a Christian.

During this time of Trumplandia, as well, one of the most devout and moral people I know happens to be a Muslim—whose faith is routinely and grossly demonized by Trump and his Christian base.

Christianity is rarely about love and charity, but often about tribalism and the calculated use of higher authority to maintain or gain power.

The narrator in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night argues:

“There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.

“It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.”

As I grow older, it becomes more and more imperative that I seek a moral and ethical life—something I equally recognize as incredibly hard to achieve as a mere human among humanity, as we are all so flawed, so fragile, so unwilling to sacrifice and risk in the name of the hypothetical Other, the faceless and nameless human we choose either to treat as our brother/sister or to leave mostly ignored in the basement closet.

Christianity, I fear, too often allows the worst in us to thrive instead of inspiring us to be the loving community we are capable of being.

Love, community, and holding sacred all humans’ dignity—these are what matter to me, and why I am not a Christian.

Adventures in Social Media: Privileged Edition

Social media platforms are microcosms of our broader society, and as a result, those platforms are often toxic for women.

This is my story of social media, a story of privilege that in no ways ignores or endorses the misogyny found routinely on social media.

My experiences are in many ways an inverse reality to how women are marginalized, mansplained, and harassed—while also reflecting the good, the bad, and the ugly of virtual experiences.

I was very hesitant about joining Twitter and Facebook until I recognized how many scholars and creators used these platforms in ways that are more professional than social. I had no interest in the “social” of social media.

Boosted by venturing into my own blogging platform with WordPress at the very end of 2012, my Twitter adventures began in early 2011 as a way to join the scholarly and creative communities I value as well as a way to amplify my writing, to build an audience.

I have been surprised that my blog (10,000+ followers) has attracted significantly more followers than my Twitter account (almost 6000 followers), but I also have learned some important lessons about a virtual existence through my distinctly different experiences on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media are, of course, designed to be interactive so my blog, Twitter account, and Facebook page all attract comments. Here is where I experience interesting differences.

Let me interject first that I have joined social media as a writer and (for lack of a better term) as a public intellectual mostly concerned with literacy, education, equity and social justice, and the inequities of classism, racism, and sexism. However, I have not joined social media to have discussions or debates with people who have no expertise or experience in the areas I address (keep this in mind as I discuss my experiences below).

Well before joining social media, in fact, I had rejected the idea that issues are debatable just because someone will debate; in other words, many issues simply do not have two or several credible sides. For example, I do not debate corporal punishment just as I would not debate a Holocaust denier.

Further, when an issue or topic does warrant debate, I also refuse to engage with anyone who isn’t credible because by doing so the debate stage presents those engaging as equal. This was a recurring problem when I wrote a book on school choice and was regularly asked to debate choice advocates, almost all of whom had no experience or expertise in education—were in fact simply ideological choice advocates.

As everyone has, I imagine, I have contentious and negative exchanges across all my platforms. I made mistakes, but I also have been accused of intentions and actions that I never held or enacted. Some of these experiences have been beyond my control, and others, I deeply regret being complicit even when having good intentions.

Overall, I feel more and more regret about the antagonism and nastiness that characterizes social media. In my experience, though, I witness very little of that on Twitter while I must routinely delete comments on my Facebook page—from the same people who do not meet my guidelines above but refuse to recognize they are invading, un-welcomed, another person’s social media space, a space that I use primarily as a professional record.

Twitter has been recognized as a toxic environment for women, seemingly fertile ground for trolls and misogynists. Twitter, for me, has been mostly a vibrant community among people I admire and respect—a virtual library and classroom. Few of my exchanges there are negative.

The sources of those differences, I think, are first and foremost my privileges as a white man, and then significantly the distinct differences between my Twitter and blog followers and Facebook friends. Audiences matter.

These distinct experiences have made me think very seriously about the problem with the marketplace of ideas argument, the retort from those whose comments I delete (for being false claims or simply personal attacks) that I am not engaging because I refuse to listen or entertain different ideas.

The problem with a simplistic view of the marketplace of ideas is the same as the problem with school choice—or any market.

Market outcomes are directly the result of the consumers driving that market; ideological and ill-informed consumers create outcomes unlike informed and ethical consumers.

The market, capitalism, is an amoral dynamic. The only ethic is the ethic of supply and demand, and outcomes are not right or wrong on some moral spectrum but completely at the whim of the consumers, regardless of their experiences, expertise, or moral/ethical intent.

Setting aside Henry David Thoreau’s libertarian streak, his “Civil Disobedience” makes a compelling case against the tyranny of the majority (specifically that a majority in the U.S. allowed slavery) and argues:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.

On balance, I value very much social media even as I recognize how those platforms reinforce my own confrontation of my privileges and create tensions in some spaces, tensions I fear cannot be alleviated.

My more tightly controlled (and ideologically similar) social media environments—blog and Twitter—are mostly a good experience for me, but Facebook, more representative of the general public, is not; Facebook is often frustrating and a drain on my time spent monitoring that false and offensive comments are not visible on my space.

My major take away so far in this adventure in social media is recognizing why I am on these platforms, and then remaining vigilant about the fidelity of my spaces—spaces not open to the whims of others who hide behind the tyranny of the marketplace of ideas.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

My adolescence was profoundly shaped by hours alone in my room listening to comedy albums, memorizing them—George Carlin and Richard Prior. My aunts and uncle also introduced me to the comedy group Firesign Theatre, whose Everything You Know Is Wrong may serve as the ideal message for educators.

Recently, Jessica McCrory Calarco reported in Why rich kids are so good at the marshmallow test:

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.

And from Science DailyStudy finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective:

A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that “growth mindset interventions,” or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort — and therefore improve grades and test scores — don’t work for students in most circumstances.

Also consider Will Thalheimer’s People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?:

People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible—learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations, including bastardizations of Dale’s Cone. The rest of this article offers more detail.

Yet another example is the zombie that will not die, the “word gap”—debunked again in Reexamining the Verbal Environments of Children From Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds, by Douglas E. Sperry, Linda L. Sperry, and Peggy J. Miller:

Abstract

Amid growing controversy about the oft‐cited “30‐million‐word gap,” this investigation uses language data from five American communities across the socioeconomic spectrum to test, for the first time, Hart and Risley’s (1995) claim that poor children hear 30 million fewer words than their middle‐class counterparts during the early years of life. The five studies combined ethnographic fieldwork with longitudinal home observations of 42 children (18–48 months) interacting with family members in everyday life contexts. Results do not support Hart and Risley’s claim, reveal substantial variation in vocabulary environments within each socioeconomic stratum, and suggest that definitions of verbal environments that exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately underestimate the number of words to which low‐income children are exposed.

But let’s not forget higher education: Arthur G. Jago asks Can It Really Be True That Half of Academic Papers Are Never Read?, discovering:

Frustrated, I ended my search for the bibliographic equivalent of “patient zero.” The original source of the fantastical claim that the average academic article has “about 10 readers” may never be known for sure.

So what’s going on as educators and scholars are confronting that everything you know is wrong? I think have some ideas, outlined below:

  • Teachers, notably K-12 educators, are practical to a fault. Teachers want what works in the day-to-day tasks of teaching students (a more than reasonable expectation) but often feel educational philosophy and theory are a waste of their very limited time (again, this time-crunch is a rational response to unreasonable working conditions for most K-12 teachers). The problem with a what works mentality absent a philosophical and theoretical lens is that the wrong basis for determining “works” often guides our practices. As a brief example, many classroom strategies can seem to “work” when students are quiet and complete the assignment, but those may be achieving compliance and not the larger (assumed) academic goal—actually working counter to those goals in fact.
  • Too often teaching can become almost entirely focused on implementing a program (think reading programs or International Baccalaureate) or fulfilling an ideology (think grit and growth mindset) at the exclusion of the instructional goals those programs or ideologies are supposed to achieve. This happens, I think, in part because of the concern for practicality noted above as that is impacted by the historical focus in education on efficiency—what is the easiest and most manageable ways to make this think called teaching and learning happen?
  • Programs and ideologies, however, are often flawed from the beginning because the research they are grounded in is distorted and oversimplified by publishers and advocates. Compounding these oversimplifications and distortions are the media, also complicit in framing complex research in ways that mislead the public and educators. Too often as well, the misconceptions are compelling and robust because they match social norms (stereotypes, biases, cultural myths) more so than reflecting the nuances and limitations of the research. As I have detailed, for example, academic and economic success and failure are far less about any person having or not grit or a growth mindset and more about systemic privilege and disadvantage.
  • Classrooms, teachers, and students are more likely to reflect all aspects of communities and society than to work as change agents for any person or community/society. Teaching and learning, then, become about normalizing, and thus, regardless of what research shows (especially when much of that research is counter to norms), it becomes a tool for the normalizing. One study on the “word gap” by Hart and Risley has become an unexamined fact, not because it is quality research (it isn’t) but because it reinforces cultural myths about social class, deficit ideologies that praise the wealthy and demonize the poor.
  • Teaching and learning are incredibly complex and the consequences of teaching—learning—are rarely easily linked to a single cause (a teacher, a class, a program or ideology) and may not manifest themselves until years later.
  • Too many researchers, consultants, administrators, and teachers become personally, professionally, and financially invested in programs and ideologies—at the expense of everything else, notably students.
  • From K-12 to higher education, teaching and learning are mostly corporatized; in that environment, research, nuance, and uncertainly have no real chance. K-12 schools and universities/colleges are incentivized for many outcomes other than teaching and learning.
  • Educators, the public, and the media embrace contradictory ideas about “scientific” and “research”—simultaneously idealizing and trivializing.

In the big picture, I think the problem of research and evidence as that becomes teaching practices can be better understood through the lens of what is wrong with Teach For America—an organization that very likely has good intentions and invites as well as promotes missionary zeal.

Good intentions are never enough, and missionary zeal is guaranteed to distort everything it touches.

It may well be true that everything you know is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it must stay that way. Good intentions and missionary zeal must be replaced by greater philosophical awareness and the sort of skepticism a critical lens provides.

This is not about fatalism—giving up on research—but about finding a better way forward, one that rejects programs and blanket ideologies and keeps our focus on students and learning along with the promises of formal schooling as a path to equity and justice, not test scores and compliant students.