Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What Public Schools Can Learn from Homeschool Parents

In March, dozens of families attended the Greater Saint Louis Home Educators Expo. The discussions led by parents, former educators, and homeschool alumni were an echo of what public school teachers have rallied for since the establishment of standardized testing—more creativity in education.

Much like public school teachers, parents must ensure children receive a well-rounded education, but the difference is that parents are able to spend more time exploring their children’s interests.

“I want to help you love this,” Diana Waring explained to her children about her approach to educating at home.  Waring relayed her friend Beverly’s story.

"Beverly was a mother who homeschooled her two boys. Lacking a college degree, she was afraid she would not be able to properly educate her children. One day, Beverly took her sons to the public library to pick out books that interested them. The boys gravitated toward cartoons. At home, they spent time creating their own drawings using homemade equipment. They caught the attention of a Disney cartoonist, who was amazed at what the boys were able to do on their own. Chris and Allan Miller are now professional graphic artists."

If the Miller brothers had been educated in a traditional school, certainly they would have been taught by a teacher with a college degree or higher, but would their creative interests have been fostered?

In Missouri, homeschool parents are directed to keep records of their children’s studies, much like the plan books teachers keep, but unless there is an issue—the state does not actively regulate what occurs inside the home environment. This freedom allows parents to teach in a stress-free atmosphere.

Often, homeschoolers are viewed with suspicion by traditional educators, but they shouldn’t be. Instead, officials should be looking for ways to provide a customized educational experience, like the homeschool experience of Chris and Allan Miller, for every child. We could start by creating an Education Savings Account program and empowering students with access to course choice.


Students unsure whether anatomical models are appropriate at Johns Hopkins

For three decades, the North Baltimore Pro-Life Study Group has set up a display of anatomical models of fetal development as part of Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU’s) annual Spring Fair. This year, however, JHU’s Arts and Crafts Committee decided to disallow the display because it “contains triggering and disturbing images and content.” Thankfully, after pushback from student Andrew Guernsey, president of the student group Voice for Life, the Committee reversed its decision. But as Guernsey points out in emails to the student government, speakers on campus may still be subject to policies that can be used to censor a broad range of speech—despite JHU’s written commitments to free expression.

Although JHU is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, its written policies give students a reasonable expectation that expression will not be censored on campus just because someone may find it “disturbing.” JHU provides, for example, that “[a]cceptance of membership in the University community carries with it an obligation on the part of each individual to respect the rights of others, to protect the University as a forum for the free expression of ideas, and to obey the law.” Johns Hopkins also declares on its website that “[t]he University encourages and promotes the free exchange of ideas on campus.” The Student Government Association’s (SGA’s) Constitution states: “Students have a right to free speech in all matters relating to the SGA. The spirit of this sentiment shall be extended to all student activities on the Homewood [main] campus.” These broad statements strongly suggest that neither administrators nor students may engage in censorship on campus.

The Arts and Crafts Committee is a group of students tasked with organizing the Spring Fair, during which approximately 80 vendors of crafts and nonprofit advocacy groups gather on the university’s campus to share their products or messages with students. According to LifeSiteNews, the Committee decided last year to require that “any images a vendor plans to display at his/her booth must be pre-approved by the Arts and Crafts Committee.” In addition, the Committee claims “the right to reject illegal, vulgar, triggering, or otherwise disturbing images.”

It is not at all clear from the Committee’s policy what constitutes “disturbing” images. Indeed, it is even more unclear considering that non-graphic anatomical models of fetuses (i.e., one can easily tell what it being shown, but there is no blood or realistic viscera depicted) apparently fit the bill. As Guernsey asked in objecting to the policy, “Will gay and lesbian groups be banned from Spring Fair because some religious people find homosexual activity ‘disturbing’?”

The Committee’s enactment of this policy and its initial choice to censor the display demonstrate a worrying eagerness to interfere with the expression of others at the behest of those who disagree with the viewpoint being expressed. In an email to Sheila Wharam, who normally presents the display at the Spring Fair, the Committee explained that these steps were taken “due to feedback [it] received identifying [her] fetus models as triggering to students on campus.” The Committee wrote, “We hope you understand that our intention is not to restrict your freedom of speech or expression, but rather to create an inclusive and respectful environment for all.”

But if “inclusive and respectful” means that no student will ever be made uncomfortable, then it is simply impossible to create that kind of environment without significantly restricting freedom of expression—or even shutting down discussions on controversial topics completely. Given that the Spring Fair aims, in part, to help groups “spread awareness for various causes,” it would be counterproductive to apply this standard to the event.

Thankfully, the Committee reconsidered, and it is allowing plans to display the model to go forward this year. In a statement to, the Committee said:

    "We … were wrong in our initial decision and, upon further reflection, have decided we will not impose restrictions on the displays presented by any community groups at Spring Fair …. The committee values free speech".

This is a positive step, but concerns remain. First of all, it is absurd that members of the JHU community—overwhelmingly adults, who ostensibly are there to learn—are treated as though they are unable to confront depictions of the human body. Of course, FIRE takes no stance on the issue of reproductive rights. But to our knowledge, the debate in this case wasn’t over the factual accuracy or moral righteousness of the display (as debates on abortion often are). It was over whether models crafted to show the size and developmental stages of fetuses were so potentially harmful to students that they should be subject to censorship.

Wharam posed this question in an email that was forwarded to LifeSiteNews:

    "Does it make sense for a world class college like Hopkins allied to the third-ranked medical school in the country to refuse to allow an exhibit of a physiologically accurate depiction of human development, something students see in high school[?]"

FIRE thinks not. Like students at elite law schools who were demanding not to be taught rape law, the insistence of JHU students on being permitted to avoid information they might find uncomfortable is perplexing. In any case, Wharam’s models certainly don’t constitute any of the narrow categories of speech JHU students should expect to be prohibited from engaging in, like true threats or obscenity.

In addition, the Committee has not explicitly rescinded its right to censor other “disturbing” displays at its whim. Guernsey argued in emails to the SGA that the Committee’s policy violates the SGA Constitution’s provision on free speech. Because the Spring Fair is among the enumerated “committees and commissions” established by the SGA Constitution, content- and viewpoint-based censorship should play no part in management of the fair.

This isn’t the first time JHU students have encountered obstacles to speaking freely, nor is it the first time Guernsey has shed light on conflicting policies at JHU. Last August, for example, Guernsey spoke out in response to the SGA’s viewpoint-based reclassification of student advocacy groups in order to render them eligible for a much smaller amount of funding than they were before. And before that, Guernsey encountered significant opposition from the SGA when trying to gain recognition for Voice for Life. The group was initially rejected for blatantly viewpoint-based reasons, but SGA’s rejection was overturned after FIRE intervened.

FIRE hopes that JHU’s student government and all of its branches take Guernsey’s pleas to heart and take steps to foster a truly open environment for the expression of all viewpoints, even those with which they may personally disagree. In this case, adherence to the SGA Constitution, JHU’s written institutional policies, or common sense would have been helpful.


Patronising women won’t help bridge the STEM gender gap

Last month, Girl Geeks, a nationwide programme to encourage more women to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers, launched at the University of Newcastle and the University of Northumbria. This is just the latest in a series of new initiatives aimed at tackling the so-called STEM gender gap in academia and industry.

According to a survey last year, while women make up almost half of the UK workforce, they only account for one-fifth of the STEM industry. This, as many have claimed, is because STEM subjects have always been considered ‘male’ subjects. In order to tackle this, a range of bursaries, incentives and mentoring programmes, like Girl Geeks, have been created in order to encourage young women to study STEM subjects at university and later get a job in the STEM industry.

In terms of offering scholarships, universities have always favoured subjects like science and maths, because there is much higher demand for them in the workforce. This has only added to the perception that young female students are getting a raw deal, as women have been traditionally drawn to the arts and the humanities. However, there’s more to this story.

For a start, despite the increased number of scholarship opportunities and support offered to women in STEM subjects, women currently dominate in subjects like veterinary science and medicine. But, more crucially, this flurry of new schemes has had the effect of pushing young women in a certain direction, subtly discouraging them from choosing subjects that don’t come with as many opportunities. As well as scholarships, internships and work experience in the STEM industry are more readily advertised, leaving people outside of these fields with less support. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter what gender you are or what subject you wish to study – you should get just as much support as everyone else.

Seeing the varying STEM scholarships on offer to women, it all seems like we’ve gone a step too far. It appears as if young women need this extra support and help. All of this is offensive, unfair and patronising. What’s more, it is now getting to the point where it is disadvantaging young men in the same field, who aren’t offered the same prospects. Honestly, I don’t think there is a problem here that schemes and quotas can solve. The real Geek Girls out there are more than capable of bridging the gender gap themselves.


1 comment:

C. S. P. Schofield said...

"Often, homeschoolers are viewed with suspicion by traditional educators, but they shouldn’t be."

Say, rather, that homeschoolers are viewed with great alarm by people with Education degrees, because their successes underline just how intellectually vapid Colleges of Education are, and how superfluous. The "Traditional Educators" know that if homeschooling is allowed to go on, the status quo on which they depend could get VERY seasick.