Monday, March 09, 2015

Why won’t we tell students that Kant is better than the Koran?

The problem on campus isn’t hate preaching — it’s academic cowardice

Following the unmasking of Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, a London-raised computer-studies graduate of the University of Westminster, there’s been a lot of media heat over the problem of campus radicalism. How did universities become breeding grounds for beheaders, ask startled observers, allegedly turning students into aspiring martyrs dreaming of spilling infidel blood and getting it on with 72 virgins? Universities are supposed to enlighten youngsters, not turn them into medieval decapitators. The Uni-panickers, including David Cameron, are now suggesting that we should ban from campuses so-called hate preachers, those finger-wagging dispensers of Islamist dimwittery, in order to prevent impressionable minds from being twisted beyond repair.

But amid all this heat, there’s also been a moment of light. It came in a Washington Post piece by Avinash Tharoor, who studied international relations at Westminster, Jihadi John’s alma mater. Tharoor describes a seminar discussion of Immanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory in which something shocking happened. A student in a niqab scoffed at Kant and said: ‘As a Muslim, I don’t believe in democracy.’ Even more shocking was the response. ‘Our instructor seemed astonished but did not question the basis of her argument’, says Tharoor. ‘Why hadn’t the instructor challenged her?’, he asks, perplexed, especially considering that her Kant-bashing views, her sniffiness about this top dog of Enlightenment, were not rare but rather were ‘prevalent within the institution’.

This snapshot is important because it reveals a side to the Islamism-at-Uni problem that’s too often overlooked: the failure of academic institutions themselves to confront radical Islamist students and tell them they’re talking crap, and more fundamentally their failure to defend rational knowledge and the Enlightenment itself. The current obsession with hate preachers, and the notion that they’re stealing through the academy and corrupting minds, dodges the far bigger problem of intellectual and moral corrosion within the academy itself, the emergence over the past 30 years of a relativistic, ‘safe’ climate that actively discourages the elevation of any way of thinking over any other and calls into question the value of knowledge itself. If, as Tharoor says, some students ‘feel comfortable advocating dangerous and discriminatory beliefs’, it will be because they’ve sussed that they won’t be corrected; they know they’ll never be told: Kant is better than the Koran.

There’s undoubtedly an Islamist problem on campus. I have given numerous talks for Islamic Societies in universities, and I have been pretty disturbed by what I have seen and heard. I’ve seen row after row of British-born kids trying to look as foreign as possible, the men in smocks (their Nike trainers sticking out the bottom), and the women in fashion-conscious veils, the really edgy ones covering up everything but their eyes. It’s fashion as fuck-you, where the aim is to appear as ostentatiously non-Western as possible, so that your very presence becomes a challenge to any speaker who was thinking of asserting his secular beliefs over your religious ones. And I’ve heard these Brits-in-desert-dress argue that freedom is overrated: a packed hall of them laughed when I cited John Stuart Mill on how freedom of choice is the only thing that allows us to assume moral responsibility for our lives.

At a debate on Israel, one Muslim student referred to Jews as pigs. The response was amazing: many students said nothing, while others referred to the hate-speech manual in search of the right warning to give him. I just called him an ‘anti-Semitic shit’, and everyone was taken aback, including the anti-Semite, who, judging by his demeanour, had never been so explicitly called out on his backwardness.

My impression of these students who flirt with Islamism is not that they are spectacularly dangerous — certainly very, very few will become executioners for ISIS — but rather that they are trying their hand, seeing how far they can go in dissing what they see as Western ideas and texts and the old, apparently fake ideals of freedom and rationalism. Their arguments are actually flimsy, and easily laid to waste in debate, but they hold on to them because there’s very little pushing back against them.

There is no longer a vibrant, confident culture on campus devoted to slaying bad arguments and upholding good ones, to celebrating reason and Enlightened thought, and it is this dearth of Kantian daring, this refusal to assert the academy’s own intellectual superiority, which acts as an invitation to students to embrace other ways of thinking, secure in the knowledge that they won’t be rebuffed.

As Tharoor says, universities can be ‘unwittingly complicit in perpetuating [Islamic] radicalism’, through ‘allow[ing] Islamist extremism to go unchallenged’. This ‘unchallenging’ is the key problem. It speaks to what spiked’s education editor Joanna Williams describes as a rise of ‘anti-Enlightenment’ thinking within the academy, where ‘academic trends such as critical theory and post-structuralism, as well as political developments within feminism and left-wing politics’, have crashed together to create a judgement-dodging climate in which the very idea that any idea is better than another is often called into question.

What’s more, students are now told they have the right to exist in a ‘safe space’, an anti-social, anti-intellectual little world in which no one may challenge their identity or beliefs, and a whole armoury of terms has been invented to shoot down anything that has the whiff of an intellectual challenge to their ‘safety’ or self-esteem. The best-known is ‘Islamophobia’, which covers, not only acts of violence against Muslims, but criticism of Islam. A recent Washington Post piece described how even campus discussions of jihad and events in the Middle East are now trigger-warned for ‘Islamophobia’.

There are similar developments here: critique the beliefs of Islamist students and see how speedily you’ll be branded with the mental-illness tag of ‘Islamophobia’. Given that their universities won’t stand up for Kant or Mill or the superiority of rationalism over superstition, and considering their identities have been ringfenced from ridicule by a whole host of censorious slurs, is it any wonder some students flirt with non-academic, non-Western ideas? The academy implicitly invites them to, by sending the message that its own values aren’t that great, and it unwittingly encourages them to hold on to their non-academic ideas by safe-spacing them from robust critique.

When Cameron and others say we must ban hate preachers, they’re missing the point, and making the problem worse. Rather than think about how we might re-fortify the academy, and breathe life back into the Enlightenment side in the battle of ideas, they avoid the battle of ideas entirely in favour of silencing those who spout Islamist rubbish. In doing so, they advertise their intellectual defensiveness, which can only further inflame those students who already think freedom is a sham and ‘the West’ is a hollow and phoney phenomenon.

We should let everyone speak, including the haters, and we should simultaneously challenge the cult of relativism on campus and strip away every slur that is now used to silence those who criticise superstition or stupidity and who uphold Enlightenment values. We should tell students that, with his call on humanity to grow up, to dare to know, and to use moral reasoning to impact on the world, Kant is worthy of close and serious study. Kant is better than the Koran. And if they cry Islamophobia? Do that thing with your fingers to signify the playing of the world’s smallest violin just for them.


A plea to Arizona legislators regarding Common Core

The Arizona House of Representatives Education Committee meeting on House Bill 2190 was strikingly similar to the landscape of American opinion on Common Core. Among the legislators and those who spoke at the meeting, there were some supporters, some starkly against Common Core, and some still on the fence.

The House bill to repeal and replace Common Core passed in a 5–2 vote on February 18 along party lines to move out of committee and onto the House floor.

According to both legislators and grassroots activists, since the committee approved the bill, the education establishment and its allies have mounted intense pressure to scrap HB 2190. The bill’s opponents say opposition to Common Core is nothing more than “a popular conservative political tack.”
All Arizona legislators should truly examine this issue and think before casting their votes. To so easily dismiss the voices of their constituents, including parents and teachers, would be a great disservice to Arizona’s students, families, and taxpayers. Here are five reasons Arizona should repeal and replace Common Core.

First, even if forfeiting state and local control of education is a good idea (and it isn’t), the standards should set the bar higher for students than Common Core does. Curriculum experts and educators across the country say the Core standards are mediocre at best.

Prominent among these critics is Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas who served as senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where she was in charge of developing the state’s renowned K–12 English language standards. Stotsky was once a member of the validation committee for Common Core, but she refused to sign off on the standards once she saw how lackluster they are. Stanford University mathematics professor James Milgram is another former Common Core validation committee member who has since lambasted the standards.

Other professors across the country have joined policy analysts such as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, Lindsey Burke of The Heritage Foundation, and Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute to identify major flaws in the standards. Those against Common Core include teachers unions, Democrats and Republicans, and parents, teachers, and taxpayers.

Second, the standards do not meet the needs of many students. Common Core largely fails to help students who are on the highest and lowest ends of the achievement scale, because it prescribes specific methods as the only way to arrive at a correct answer. For special-needs students and younger students, especially in grades K–3, the standards are widely considered developmentally inappropriate, according to educators and child psychologists.

Third, the rigidity of the Common Core standards forces many teachers to build lesson plans based on what they think will be on a standardized test rather than based on students’ needs. Standards, curricula, and assessments require different proposals, programs, and plans, although they are intrinsically interconnected.

The tests aligned with Common Core come from two consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced. The educational resources used by districts mostly come from three publishers vying for the same money. The big three publishers that sell products aligned with Common Core standards are Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw Hill. District officials purchase textbooks and other educational resources, so teachers follow standards set for them. Unless state officials select and implement different standards, the educational resources and assessments used will inevitably be aligned with Common Core. Given the extent to which standards and assessments affect curriculum development, it’s obvious teachers have no room to decide what to teach and how to teach it if the state mandates use of Common Core.

Fourth, under both the U.S. Constitution and existing federal law, the states have full authority over education and curricula. State and local control is valuable because it leads to the incorporation of community values in education, parental involvement, and accountability to local taxpayers. Scientific evidence shows education standards do not improve student achievement.

Finally, states imposed Common Core not by their own choice but because of coercion by the federal government. State officials signed up for the standards because the Obama administration offered a chance to obtain billions of federal dollars through the Race to the Top program and threatened to remove No Child Left Behind waivers. To get that carrot and avoid the stick, state officials forfeited their own authority and the rights of the taxpayers. Even if Common Core is a valuable program (and again, it isn’t), the price is far too high for its supposed benefits.

Common Core is not what its proponents promised, and lawmakers should not compound their mistake by carrying on with these bad standards. The Arizona legislature should take back control of the state’s education system by dumping Common Core and implementing better standards designed by Arizonans for Arizonans.


British schoolboy, 10, faces expulsion for taking a fake orange gun to class on bring-a-toy day

A 10-year-old boy is facing expulsion from school after teachers called the police when he brought in a fake orange gun for bring-a-toy session.  Little Jayden Taljaard took the model handgun - which does not fire or make a noise - to a regular Friday class where pupils can bring their own toys.

But staff called the police after three teachers reported feeling 'threatened' by the replica.

It emerged today that Jayden has been immediately suspended from Selwood Academy in Frome, Somerset, and has been told he could be permanently excluded.

A police officer is due to visit the youngster at home to warn him of the dangers of firearms.

But Jayden's stepfather Kevin Pleasants said the schoolboy had made a simple mistake and the issue has been 'blown out of all proportion'.

The 56-year-old construction worker said: 'We were totally unaware that a bright orange toy gun that doesn't fire anything would cause so much mayhem.  'We have a policeman coming to the house to give him a lecture on the dangers of firearms - he's 10, it's ridiculous.

'It's being blown out of all proportion. We had no idea about the school's policy on toy guns. It's a simple mistake.

'He asked his mother if he could take a toy to school. She didn't let him at first. He explained about golden time and took the gun.

'Three teachers said they felt threatened by this gun. Could they not see it was bright orange and plastic?'

Jayden's school holds the so-called 'Golden Hour' sessions for the last hour of every Friday where pupils are allowed to bring in a toy of their choice.

But Jayden was suspended after taking in the replica weapon on February 27 and told not to return until Monday 9 March.

At meeting on Wednesday evening, his mother Natasha was then told his exclusion could be made permanent.

Jayden suffers from ADHD and other learning difficulties but was making good progress at the school since joining in September, according to his parents.

Mr Pleasants, from Frome, added: 'He was supposed to go back on Monday but my partner had a meeting at the school and they said he might not be allowed back.

'He was doing fine at the school. He brought an award home for very good behaviour. I framed it and it is on his wall.'

Mr Pleasants added: 'My partner is devastated by this. She is in a state of depression. She feels like she has failed as a mother.

'I think that they can't handle Jayden and this is an excuse. We worked hard to find the right medication for him and we think we finally have. He was making progress.

'We received a letter saying he is not allowed out in public otherwise we might face prosecution because he is not in school.  'He has to stay in the house all day. It's like he is a prisoner in his own home. Natasha is an assistant nurse and she has had to take time off work.'

Headteacher Jean Hopegood said the school would be 'dealing with the matter internally'


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