Tuesday, September 16, 2014

School Board Bans Chapstick: Gateway Drug to What ... Maybe Burt's Bees Lip Balm?

The extent of idiotic zero-tolerance policies in public schools is almost unbelievable. Now comes this new example from Augusta County schools in Virginia - banning chapstick. As the News Virginian reports:

    "An 11-year-old Stuarts Draft Elementary School student has collected petition signatures and officially asked the county school board to allow elementary students to use Chapstick.

    Stuarts Draft fifth-grader Grace Karaffa appeared before the school board Thursday night, saying she had requested the substance while on the playground after suffering chapped lips.

    "I was told I couldn't use it. Then later that day they (lips) started to bleed so I asked for Chapstick again and I was told that it was against the school policy for elementary kids to have Chapstick,'' Grace said.

    Grace asked the school board to change its policy. "Chapstick allows the human body to heal the lips themselves and protects them in any weather from drying out,'' she said. She concluded her speech by saying, "Please school board, allow us to have Chapstick."

The response?

    "George Earhart, the assistant superintendent for administration with the Augusta County Schools, said Chapstick is considered an over-the-counter medication by the school board. The board has a policy regarding such medicines. He said Chapstick could be allowed if a physician asked for a student to use it, and it was administered by a school nurse.

    Earhart said one of the reasons for the policy is concerns about elementary students sharing medications. He said the student's request was taken under advisement by the school board."

The whole school board must devote a second's thought to this "issue"? Amazing. Lesson of the day: Bureaucracy turns adults into Epsilon-minus Semi-Morons.


Welcome to College—Now Please Stop Thinking

When freshmen first arrived at Canada’s University of Western Ontario a few weeks ago, they were introduced not to cutting-edge research or “the best which has been thought and said” (in Matthew Arnold’s magisterial phrasing), but to a brazen, petty, and all-too-common act of censorship that infantilizes young adults even as it chills free speech and open communication among students and faculty alike.

A student publication at the university, The Gazette, published an irreverent special issue for incoming freshmen. Among the articles was a clearly satirical piece titled, “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” It included such tips as, “Do your research. Facebook stalk and get to know your TA. Drop in on his or her tutorials, and if you’re not in that class — make it happen…. Ask your own smart questions, answer others’ dumb questions, and make yourself known in the class. Better yet, stand out as a pupil of interest.”

If any hard-of-humor students didn’t understand the ironic nature of the advice, there was this: “Know when to give up. At the end of the day, TAs are there to guide you through the curriculum – so there’s a good chance you have to be okay with that and only that. They may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain.”

The piece immediately set off “a furor,” with the union representing T.A.s calling for the piece to be taken down for promoting sexual harassment and the university provost publicly castigating the paper for being “disrespectful.” The offending material was quickly pulled off from the paper’s website and the editors wrote a groveling, ritualistic apology, promising to report “on these issues in a more serious manner in the future.”

This episode represents what pedagogues like to call a “teachable moment,” but the lesson being learned has nothing to do with the higher-level thinking or analysis you’re supposed to learn at college. It has to do with straitjacketing students (and faculty, too) into a rigid, narrow, and altogether inhuman mode of expression in which the overriding principle is to never give offense, real or imagined.

The Western Ontario case might have happened anywhere. Indeed, to get a sense of how thin-skinned colleges have become, check out the long and always-growing case list of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which pushes for freedom of expression on campuses.

One of FIRE’s recent cases involved a female University of Oregon student who was initially disciplined for yelling the sexual innuendo “I hit it first!” at a couple she didn’t know (the school backed down after FIRE intervened). Not all cases involve sexually suggestive language: FIRE is also suing a number of schools for unconstitutionally restricting specifically political speech. Among the cases: California’s Citrus College threatened to remove a student who was gathering signatures on a petition critical of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans.

Why are we treating the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, and citizens as hot-house flowers that cannot for one second be discomfited by what they see, hear, or read? Isn’t one of the main reasons to go to college precisely to be pulled out of the world in which you grew up? It is not particularly difficult to espouse free expression for all without endorsing everything that gets said in the marketplace of ideas. It’s exactly in the conversations among those with whom we disagree that old ideas get made better and new ideas flourish. But suppression of speech, whether done by the medieval Church, anti-sex crusaders in the 19th century, or contemporary campus commisars, leads nowhere good.

Yet last year saw the mainstreaming of so-called microagressions, or “quiet, unintended slights” that perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism. According to popularizers of the concept, microaggressions often masquerade as compliments, such as when a man tells a woman she did well in math. Churlish, yes, but actionable speech?

The same sort of hyper-sensitivity is apparent with the rise of “trigger warnings,” in which professors are asked or mandated to give advance notice when engaging course materials that might offend students who have experienced traumas in the past. As a student at Rutgers put it, undergraduates shouldn’t be forced to encounter The Great Gatsby without first being told that the novel “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” Suggested language for professors in a trigger-warning guide at Oberlin runs like this: “We are reading this work in spite of the author’s racist frameworks because his work was foundational to establishing the field of anthropology.”

We’re told that college is an absolute necessity in today’s advanced society. Higher education alone can cultivate the critical thinking skills and independence of thought that drives not just economic innovation but social progress too. Yet over the past 30 or so years, college has become an irony-free zone, one in which every utterance is subjected to withering cross-examinations for any possibility of offense across a multitude of race, class, gender and other dimensions.

As the Western Ontario case demonstrates, when offense is taken, open discussion and debate is no longer the preferred method for dealing with disagreements. No, the bad words must be disappeared and the malefactors forced not simply to apologize but to admit their errors in thinking and promise not to do it again. That’s the way a cult operates, not a culture. And it’s certainly no way to help young adults learn how to engage the world that waits them after graduation


Oppose Common Core? You're Probably Some Nutjob Creationist, Says Bill Nye

Nye is actually an engineer, not a scientist

Bill Nye the Science Guy ("He's not our Science Guy!" the Reason audience retorts) has waded into the Common Core debate. Per usual, he thinks those who disagree with him are—almost by definition—anti-science.

After conceding one criticism of the national education standards—that they could shackle teachers and make learning boring—Bill Nye opines that much of the opposition to Common Core comes from Creationists who don't want evolution being taught in schools. As he says in his video:

    The concern is, and I understand this, you would keep students from having fun and getting excited about anything. But the other reason people seem to, my perception of what people don't like about Core curricula, is it forces them to learn standard stuff when they could be teaching their kids things that are inconsistent with science. I'm talking about people who want to teach Creationism instead of biology and that's just bad.

Since Bill Nye doesn't mention any of the other criticisms against Common Core, he implies by omission that this is it: Core opponents are just evolution deniers in disguise.

(To clarify, the Common Core tackles math and English, not science. The national science standards technically were published under a different title, the Next Generation Science Standards, though many of the same people were involved. NGSS has received a lukewarm response, even from some groups that vigorously support Common Core.)

Creationist hostility to evolution might be motivating some people to oppose national standards. The science standards also establish that human action is a major contributing factor to climate change, and I'm sure that (more legitimately debatable) point also fuels some Core opposition.

But there are many, many other reasons people oppose Common Core. Chiefly: There is very little evidence that these standards will improve schools. In fact, a comprehensive Brookings Institution study released earlier this year found that states were better off using standards that didn't resemble Common Core at all.

But even if the Common Core was shown to slightly boost academic achievements, it would not necessarily be worth implementing, given the massive financial cost of retraining teachers, buying new instructional materials, and upgrading schools' technological capabilities to meet standardized testing requirements.

The Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey, a critic of the standards, told me that there is plenty to dislike about national education standardization.

"For a scientist, Bill Nye provided a very unscientific analysis of core curriculum critiques," he told Reason. "There are many who have read the research and seen that centralized standards have little if any positive effect on outcomes; who are content experts and think standards like the Common Core are highly problematic; who realize that innovation requires people being able to try new and different things rather than being forced into one model; who know that different children learn things at different rates; who don’t like the politicization of education that necessarily accompanies government standards-making; and so on."

It seems to me that Bill Nye is projecting his own feud with Creationists onto a different policy debate.


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