Freedom of Speech and limits

June 7, 2016

Earlier this year, I was accused of what some folks these days are calling a microaggression(s).  I still have no clue what I was alleged to have done, because a degree of care was taken to safeguard the victims (that is a good thing by the way … if people are actually being wronged by someone with power over them, I’m not big on victims having to put themselves in jeopardy to seek protection).  When my boss and I gave the folks an opportunity to speak up anonymously, there was some pretty vile hatred spewed out, but not a single direct charge of wrong doing.  It led to a lousy year, and I still don’t know who felt vindicated over this.

Over the past few years (and before that) every year around this time there are several stories about colleges who disinvite guests who were invited to speak at their graduations because students in large (or at least vocal) numbers didn’t like them.

I’ve been a supporter of the students on that one.  My argument is that graduation is one of the few times when it is all about the graduates, and if they don’t like who is speaking, they should have a say in that.  It is their ceremony.  In particular, there was a case where Bill Maher was disinvited, and I thought it was fairly cowardly to not comment until he was back in the safety of his studio where he could bash away at students taking away his right to speak.  Bill should know that the First Amendment doesn’t really apply here since it wasn’t the government infringing his right to speak, and that this also wasn’t students turning their backs on a chance to learn, unless they earned a credit for his lecture at graduation, which I think they didn’t.

On the flip side, I’m pretty much against most cases where students would move to block a speaker coming on to campus in other situations:  to address a class, teach a class, give a speech, address a campus organization, etc.  Universities should be where speech for the sake of learning must be guarded preciously, and if it is going to be denied, there had better be under a very short list of situations.

That takes us to two weeks ago here in Chicago, specifically DePaul University.  DePaul is one of the largest Catholic universities in the country, and being Catholic, it will never be accused of being far left in its thinking, but being a Chicago urban school, it is hardly a school embraced by Opus Dei.

Two weeks ago, the College Republicans at DePaul invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus.  I’ve never heard the man speak, but I’ve heard that he is pretty far right, and very much attempts to rile up audiences (the name of his current campus tour is “Dangerous Faggot”, so that all seems to jive with his M.O.)

Given that the City of Chicago had virtually no problem moving in and shutting down a Donald Trump rally hosted by Donald Trump himself, you almost had to predict how this was going to go.  Apparently, in preparation for the talk, as is tradition on college campuses the world over, chalk signs began to appear along the lines of “Blue Lives Matter” and “Trump 2016”.  In my opinion, not that terribly inflammatory, but these were interpreted as microaggressions, and DePaul banned the use of chalk on sidewalks.  The new signs of “Trump 2016” and “Fuck Mexico” were then painted in black paint to make the point that this was not stopping anyone.  “Fuck Mexico”, IMO, crossed the line from “aggressive stance” to “hate speech”.  That was not acceptable on a college campus.

When Yiannopoulos finally arrived, it wasn’t long before protesters broke in and grabbed the microphone.  He then began inciting some of his listeners to stepping outside where a small scale riot broke out.

DePaul’s official position was to apologize to the College Republicans for not being able to hear their speaker, and chastising the protesters.

You can guess where this is headed now.

The protesters, and several members of the faculty are now railing against the administration for not acknowledging the danger they allowed by letting this guy on campus, after they were asked repeatedly not to allow him to speak.

 

Let’s take a moment and analyse this.

Going back to the beginning, should DePaul’s administration have stopped this?  Under what circumstances should they have stepped in and said “no”?

I think it is universally agreed that “unpopular”, “says bad things”, and “I disagree with them” is not grounds for denying a campus speaker.  Does a speaker have to be “educational” in some way? I would argue that this is shaky ground … we can always learn something from anybody.  Back in 2011, Northwestern University had a class in human sexuality that included a live demonstration of a sex toy. Necessary?  Educational?  Always in the eye of the beholder.

I think one argument for a ban has to do more with the actual purpose of a speaker vs simply what they stand for.  Is the speaker genuinely trying to convey some message (even an unpopular one), or is this person attempting to actually create the potential for a dangerous situation.  SCOTUS long ago set a limit on speech which is “clear and present danger”, which works well for society in general.  Incitement too can lead to restrictions.

It is very possible that this Yiannopoulos guy was not so interested in addressing the troops of Trump 2016 or discussing the cons of a welfare state.  I can’t know this for sure, but having viewed some of his videos and online articles, I get a strong feeling that he tries to get people to act out so that he can then turn around and present proof that his leftist enemies are the hate filled scumbags he professes them to be:  a scientist gathering evidence to support the hypothesis by fixing the outcome of the experiment in his favor.

I would say that if DePaul’s administration vetted this guy (and I think they definitely should have), and it creeped into their minds that this  guy is more about creating conflict than discussing it, then I think DePaul should have nixed this idea.  From a strictly neutral standpoint, it is a bit shocking that the College Republicans would bring this guy in in the first place, because I don’t think he was winning over any fence sitting hearts and minds (if they all really agree with this guy, then I suppose they wanted good theater for the evening, and they got what they wanted).

These days it is far from easy.  I think (and hindsight is 20/20), that colleges need to be more careful about looking into which campus visitors are more about connecting to students with a message or a story or whatever, vs visitors who are more about themselves, and the creation of violence as their own performance art.


The Thinking Man’s Champion

June 4, 2016

When I was in elementary school in a very Caucasian suburb of Chicago, a young lady named Sonia Hassan started going to school (maybe around 3rd or 4th grade, I cannot remember).  She was not Caucasian.  I don’t recall that she was harassed.  I didn’t hang out with her (35 years later I still haven’t figured girls out).  However for some reason or other, it became learned and became a thing that Sonia’s dad was a boxing trainer, and was in fact one of the trainers who worked for The Champ.

I didn’t follow boxing, but everyone knew who was being talked about when you said “The Champ”.  Boxing has had many champions, but only one “Champ”.  Keep in mind that Muhammad Ali was still boxing at the time.  In fact, he had a huge fight that was coming up against Leon Spinks.  Leading up to the fight, I can remember our school receiving form Sonia’s dad an autographed picture, which was displayed prominently for years.  A few weeks after the Spinks fight, the last boxing match the man would ever win, he actually called our school, and our principal had the telephone held up to the intercom so Ali could address the school.  At the time, it could be argued that he was the most famous man (and far less arguably the most famous athlete) on Earth … and he was talking to all of us.

==========================================================================

To give you a sense of history, after winning the Gold Medal in Rome at the 1960 Olympics, Ali had his first professional fight in October 1960.  He was 29-0 when, in 1967, he was suspended from fighting because he refused to step forward when his name was called to be inducted into the US Army (I think it was telling that he actually had the guts to appear at the induction site and physically refuse to move when called forward, making it easier to be arrested).  He had to have gone through hell!  How can a man claim to be a conscientious objector and physically beat men into submission as a calling in life?  Today, I think most people understand the seeming dichotomy, but for many people it took someone like Ali to force contemplation.  There is some evidence that it was because of Ali that Martin Luther King, Jr. started risking the support of LBJ by finally speaking out against Vietnam.  Consider that … if this is true, Muhammad Ali inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.  That’s pretty amazing!

It didn’t end there.  between the time he refused induction, and his conviction on that crime, Ali convened a meeting of African-American leaders in Cleveland, specifically bringing together some great athletes.  That meeting took place 49 years ago today (4 June 1967).

Ali_summit

At the table from left to right is Bill Russell, who probably did more than anything to bring racial understanding to Boston by leading the Celtics to 11 NBA Championships, Ali (at the large microphone), next to Ali is Jim Brown the running back who was as outspoken about civil rights and racism as any athlete had been to that point.  At the end of the table was a college kid who had just won the College Player of the Year Award, and was still about two years away from a pro career.  His name at the time was Lew Alcindor, but like Ali, he too would convert to Islam and change his name (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).  Willie Davis the Hall-of-Fame defensive end is in that picture as is Carl Stokes who in a few months would be elected mayor of Cleveland, becoming the first African-American tot be elected mayor of a major (population over 100,000) city in the U.S.  Brown had helped put this together and arranged for the press, but it was Ali who was on trial before the public.  There was tremendous animosity directed toward Ali who was not bearing the label of “un-American” and “un-Patriotic” which still gets thrown around by those who insist on conformity to one definition of those words.  Ali faced the press who dished out on him, and he dished back.

Ali eventually got out of prison, and filed suit to be recognized as a conscientious objector, something that culminated in an unanimous (though apparently contentious) ruling by the Supreme Court in his favor (Clay vs. United States).

After returning to the ring in 1970, Ali went 27-5 for the remainder of his career.  These included some of his most famous matches

  • His first lost to Joe Frazier (The Fight of the Century)
  • The rematch (Ali-Frazier II), which Ali won
  • The Rumble in the Jungle (Ali defeats George Foreman)
  • And for the Filippino followers, the immortal Thrilla in Manilla (Ali defeats Frazier for the second time in three tries).

The last man Ali ever fought (in the not so memorable “Drama in the Bahamas”) was Jamaican boxer Trevor Berbick.  Five years after that 1981 fight, Berbick would win the WBC Heavyweight Title … and lose it just 8 months later to a 20 year old who had been fighting professionally for only 20 months … “Iron” Mike Tyson. There is only that one small degree of separation from the end of Ali’s career and the rise of Tyson.  That too is pretty amazing.

Ali’s life has been an amazing thing to look at.  Putting aside his athletic accomplishments, he forced people to contemplate race in America (can you embrace Ali, and still hate Blacks?).  He also created a maelstrom around religion in America when he converted to Islam, and while there were people who turned their back on him, the way he led his life made it easy for people to understand that Muslim was not synonymous with the devil (a lesson that, sadly, seems to be needed again in this day and age).  To some, he was arrogant (he did practically invent modern trash talking, and some of his antics would be considered way over the top by modern standards).

But for a guy whose IQ was once measured at 78, Ali was a thinker, and he did not allow himself to be pushed around.  In addition to the US Army, he was also careful to not let the Nation of Islam use him too much, retaining an independence from the organization, and eventually leaving it altogether.  Ali was a real master at psychological manipulation, but also knew enough to not use it.  Ali was on a news show leading up to the 1976 election, and when asked who he would vote for, he refused to answer, saying he didn’t know enough about the candidates, and that he didn’t want to influence others.  Could you fathom anyone taking that stance today?

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  It slowed him little, and while many public figures will shield themselves as the disease worsens (I have a great uncle dealing with this now), Ali still made public appearances, and his lighting of the Olympic Cauldron at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was pretty inspiring.  A lot of people forget that in 2012, the London Olympics afforded him the rare honor of carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium (generally reserved for citizens of the host nation or very high ranking Olympic officials).  He couldn’t do it, but he sat in a special chair near the flag pole, and then briefly touched the flag before it was raised.  I think a lot of us in that condition would have wanted to be out of public view.  Not this guy.

A lot of the reading I did showed that Ali was quietly very charitable.  It seemed to fit with who he was, and it seems that many of his charitable acts were done without cameras around.  In 2006, Cold Spring Harbor, which is a fairly prestigious research lab, began giving out the “Double Helix” prize as part of a fundraising effort to spur money towards biomedical research.  The awards were given for actual scientific work, for corporate work (funding and other support), and for general humanitarian work.  The first recipient that year for humanitarian work was Ali.  Keep in mind that Ali was a devout Muslim, but still was a strong supporter of science and scientific research (something else that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has done).

Before wrapping up, it is important to note that Ali was a human being capable of all the weaknesses of a human.  His second marriage ended because he was having an affair, and in a 1970 article he called for any men and women involved in interracial relations to be killed.  I have no idea how those thoughts changed over time, but it shows that even guys who were kind and charitable in many ways could harbor some problems that got swept under the carpet elsewhere.

Long after becoming the face of those who calmly questioned policy in Vietnam and long after becoming the public face in America of non-violent Muslims, he became the public face of Parkinson’s Disease.  Given the choice of comfort or living by his own standards, he often chose a more difficult path, even if it was the more honest one.

Not exactly an easy life, but one worthy of high respect.


Rushing into things … always the best solution

June 3, 2016

Our school has had one goal recently:  change.  All three of our schools have been award winning schools, and while two of our schools had seen some demographic shift in the past 20 years, this hadn’t been ignored, and all three schools posted metrics that were above the state and national average.  Still, we got a new superintendent, and he started gutting the place and establishing his vision of the schools.

One of the things I learned going through leadership is the contrast between being a custodian and creating a legacy.  Good administrators are custodians.  They realize that they are in their leadership position for only a certain time, and that their department/school/district is not their personal property.  They do want to be people of vision who identify and fix problems.  People who create legacies are people who look at their department/school/district as their personal property to be shaped as they see fit with little or no concern for the future beyond their personal reputation (many retired superintendents do go into academia and “I created change” is a great resumé starter).  We were advised to be the former and not the latter.  Right now we have a superintendent that is the latter.  Change for the sake of change … he speaks of data driven education, but then ignores data when it is convenient.  Before making change, he is careful to consult with none of the people involved to make sure that he is looking at all of the facets of the problem.  It is classic poor leadership.  Since May 1, we have lost 4 math teachers and 3 science teachers, something that marks an unheard of migration from our district in the 20 years I have been there.

I bring this up because I was reading an article about a school that seemed to have set a course not so dissimilar from ours.  Hopefully you can read that article, but to give an idea of what they are doing:

  • Classes are not based on ability.  Each class is differentiated so that students in the same class may be earning honors credit or not based on what they choose to do.
  • The school was set up to specifically create a diverse student population within Denver’s “Choice” system.
  • All students would be taking International Baccalaureate (IB) classes.  For those not familiar, these are a not quite as popular alternative to Advanced Placement (AP) classes that have caught on more in urban settings.
  • Grades would be based more on competency than work.  The teacher sets a base level for a skill based on “mastery” and “competency”.  The student works the skill, an dis evaluated as master, competent, or needs improvement, and the student keeps working until they get the grade they want.  This is a simplified version, and different school approach this grading style slightly differently, but you get the gist of it.
  • There is no time limit on establishing competency.  The teacher may introduce a skill in October, and that student may choose to not get around to working on it until January because they were working on something else first.  In other words:  the student determines when they are assessed, and except for the end of the year, the teacher cannot set a deadline.
  • The school would start later (8:45) and stay much later to give a longer school day, and the year would also run longer.
  • While there would be a principal, the duties of secretary, guidance counselors, and assistant principal would be distributed among the teachers (staff evaluations would also be peer evaluations, meaning teachers would also need to do that).

 

On paper, this looks progressive and sounds pretty good.  In practical terms, it is problematic.  How problematic:

  • The principal was gone after two months (related to an unnamed discipline issue).
  • An assistant principal and secretary were added to take up some of the work slack from the teachers who (spoiler alert) were likely being overworked)
  • The school changed it start time to an earlier time because of transportation issues.
  • Over half of the staff left after the first year.
  • The population of enrolled Caucasian and African-American students is dropping for next year by about one-third each.

They say Utopia isn’t built in a day.  However, any competent person could have predicted much of this failure long before the school opened.  The school’s central thrust has been diversity and de-tracking students (a nightmare for teachers trying to track progress and communicate with students and parents).  What went wrong.

  1.  (Here’s the biggy): Administrators realize the weaknesses of their plan … they aren’t ignorant.  They also know that if people sit down and analyze those plans they will easily pick them apart, so the trick is to ram the changes through before people can strenuously object by presenting evidence.   Remember saying “I started this radical new school” looks wonderful when applying for an assistant professorship.  The fact that the school damn near collapsed after one year isn’t something you need to mention … and you can always blame the Board/teachers/parents in the interview.
  2. Much of the change wasn’t even planned out.  The article was clear about this:  teachers were not only expected to teach five diverse classes and advise kids and help run the place, but were also planning out how this was supposed to work.  Parents and students don’t want to hear “we are working on this as we go along” because that reeks of a fly-by-night unprofessional organization.  Why is it this way?  See #1:  if the planners had given the proper amount of time to plan everything out (at least two years), it would have been time for people to realize that this wasn’t likely as Utopian as the paper makes it sound like, and might have stopped it from getting off the ground.
  3. No level of communication can properly prepare students and parents (especially parents) for what is happening.  Schooling is one of those things that essentially we all kind of get.  Even when we improve how we teach, the idea of kids sit down and take tests or submit to practical assessments of skill and earn points and we compute a percentage are pretty universally understood.  Now enter a whole new world:  students, a large number f whom are notorious for not being able to plan time well, are in an environment where they never really have to manage their time, because they can refuse assessments as long as they want.  The meaning of grades, even on a “competency” scale start to lose meaning, and when teachers need to talk to parents about progress, more often than not the language becomes far more imprecise because the teacher has no real idea how the kid is doing (and the whole point of competency based grading is that it is supposed to be more precise).  At least part of this school’s problems  seemed to be parents who were sold a bill of goods, and part way in began complaining and demanding the school board enforce changes (which they started to do).
  4. A pint can’t hold a quart.  You simply cannot expect a human being to competently teach five classes where students are working on different levels of work that you need to plan on the fly, and then expect them to simultaneously figure out how to run the school, and then run the school.  This was a doomed proposition from the start and should never have been approved.  This is the one thing that our school district is not doing, because the superintendent is in fact micromanaging most things, and our principal is micromanaging most of the rest.  In an academic setting, you do need to allow teachers a degree of freedom to teach and experiment to find what works for students, and to learn from each other.  But while micromanaging is grossly unhealthy in an academic setting, handing the reigns to a runaway horse to the staff is not a good alternative.

Why is this being permitted?  Simply put, there are not enough people yelling “STOP!”.  In a politically charged environment where you can get 5,000 anti-Trump protesters to show up at the drop of a pin, people do not come out and check on the people lording over their children.  School boards are often trained to listen to their superintendent (In Illinois, newly elected school board members are mandated to attend training before assuming office … this training is run by (wait for it) the Illinois Superintendent’s Association, which teaches Board members to listen to one person and one person only … The only way to snap Boards out of their hypnosis on this is to have a lot of angry parents show up to Board Meetings and say “NO!”  Board members are politicians, and if enough people show up to force their hand, they will back down.

Our society needs more sane people to show up to School Board meetings and then question what is happening and sound the alarm when something bad is happening.


Shooting the monkey (ape) … an example of our fU@%ed up society

June 2, 2016

This last week, a gorilla was killed in Cincinnati.  I wasn’t there.  I do not know anything of the circumstances.  It was a tragedy … not like Syrian refugee tragedy or human trafficking tragedy, but a tragedy that a member of an endangered species had to die.  I truly love animals, and gorillas are among the most majestic of creatures on the planet.  I found it terrible that keepers who must revere these animals even more than I do had to put one down.

Social media is overwhelmingly calling for the head of the mother who allowed her child to fulfill his dare and climb passed the barriers and into the moat in the gorilla enclosure.  They want the woman dead, prosecuted, persecuted, held responsible, jailed, and fined for the loss of one silverback gorilla.  I can guarantee that most of the people doing this were not present, and are absolutely not in command of facts.  Of course, this stop no one.

Again, I have no idea what this woman or her family are like.  She might be the most irresponsible human on the planet.  She might also be a loving, caring mother who heard a child make a comment like “I’m going to jump in the (gorilla’s) water” along the lines of “I’m going to go to the moon” (sure kid, you’re going to get passed that impenetrable barrier that separates us from a 700 pound muscled ape), and when she turned to deal with another of her kids, kid #1 decided to give it a whirl.  In other words, could this be a simple accident instead of child neglect, child abuse, child endangerment, or wanton gorillacide?  A lot of the world doesn’t seem to think that way.  THEY WANT BLOOD!

I’ve reflected on this a bit from the frame of reference of what I see happening in schools and specifically what happened to me this semester.  More and more there seems to be an inability to see things from any other perspective other than our own, and a complete unwillingness to communicate with anyone who may have a different perspective.  If someone wrongs you, it can’t possibly be a mistake, or a problem with your personal point of view.  The wronging must be evil, and it must be stopped and possibly avenged at all costs.  The result has been teachers who are a lot more cautious in terms of getting close to students, and a lot more willing to simply follow rules blindly because it is the safe recourse.  You have seen this with school administrators who seem to be more willing to make poor choices based on “simply following the rules blindly”.  Even in Chicago, we see this with the police who have suddenly gotten a lot more frightened to accost minorities for fear that they get drawn into  confrontation that becomes the next viral video … at least a part of the sudden jump in crime in minority neighborhoods in Chicago is an unwillingness by the police to do anything except go in and clean up the mess when the shooting is over.

Getting back to the gorilla incident:  what is the message to parents?:  unless your children are on leashes, you had better be very careful about granting your kids a degree of freedom, because if an otherwise reasonable accident occurs, you will be the subject of the next witch hunt, replete with nationwide petitions signed by over 100,000 people (I was asked to sign one calling for the prosecution of the mother, and it did have over 100,000 signatures … the one calling for a federal investigation of the Zoo for killing an endangered animal had only about 40,000 signatures … I signed neither).  Are you allowing your kids to hike a mile to a park to play?  If they get seriously hurt, be prepared for some moral righteousness to come down on your head for daring to allow your kids to run wild in the streets.

We’ve had these messes before. I recall Richard Jewell, one of the heroes of the Atlanta Olympic bombing who was then accused of the bombing.  In an era before social media being so prevalent, the new media shellacked him.  The only good news is that he was able to get some money from several media outlets, and his role as a hero was eventually recognized (in 2006).  Going back to the early 1980s, there was the McMartin Pre-School trial when several innocent people were accused of everything from human sacrifice to sexual abuse … all based on assumption and unreliable witnesses.  All can be traced back to an inability to communicate.  I suspect the only difference between now and then is that the voice of the mob is much louder, and with politicians able to listen to those ever louder mobs, it creates an even more dangerous situation.  Hell, World War I largely started because of a lack of communication between nations.

I hope one day, we as a society will turn off social media, though I suspect it would be easier to wish for winning the lottery.  We live in an era where people are plenty angry, often times because of reasons, and the fire of the self-righteous hatred is getting fed more and more fuel.  I know that history tends to go in cycles, but I am a believer that those cycles aren’t as absolute as some historians claim them to be, and that changes in technology and the order of the world can change those cycles periodically.  I look very disappointingly at the cycle we are in now, and wonder when it will end.  When will we have a society that begins to value communication over dogma and righteousness?