Scopes Monkey Trial

Originally posted Monday, October 25, 2004:As a youngster, I was impressed by the motion picture Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the 1925 “Monkey Trial” in which the state of Tennessee charged high school biology teacher John Scopes with illegally teaching the doctrine of evolution.

Later, when I was a high school teacher myself, I screened the stage play for possible production and saw another school’s production of the play. It’s a terrific story, which probably explains why it’s been remade for TV three times. For me, it’s always been a little more than just a story, perhaps because academic freedom and the intersection of faith and science are topics that mean a lot to me.

Although there have always been questions about the specific mechanisms of natural selection, I don’t remember ever hearing any serious question about the general validity of the theory of evolution: not in school, not in church, nowhere. From kindergarten through graduate school, I attended nothing but Catholic schools; but Catholicism isn’t a fundamentalist religion, and in 1998, even John Paul II–generally thought of as a fairly conservative Pope–made it clear to any who were still in doubt that the Catholic church does not oppose evolution as an explanation of God’s mechanism for creation.

And so for years, I thought of the play as a period piece, reflecting a quaint period in our history before society had reached a consensus about the theory of evolution.

Imagine my shock when, a few years back, and seventy years after the Scopes trial, some fundamentalist Christians began campaigning for the removal of evolution from science curriculum–not in some Bible Belt bastion of fundamentalist Christianity, but here in Ohio, which likes to think of itself as a diverse and progressive state. Their mechanism, here and in other places, is a theory called “intelligent design,” which argues that creation is so complex it must have required a Supreme Being to pull it off. Since they’ve been unsuccessful in getting evolution removed from science curriculum, the idea is to introduce intelligent design, or “creation science,” into the curriculum and to insist that it receive equal time.

As a religious doctrine, intelligent design isn’t a problem. Thomas Aquinas used a similar argument as one of his proofs for the existence of God; but he was a theologian, not a scientist. Creationists tout intelligent design as a scientific theory, which it clearly is not. And while the Biblical creation account is read in many public school literature classes, the creationists’ goal is to have it taught in science classes, where it clearly doesn’t belong.

Here in Ohio, creationists have tried to mask their specious theory as an academic-freedom issue. They argue that some people, including some teachers, believe the theory to be true; therefore, those teachers should be free to teach creationism. This is a distortion of the term “academic freedom.” There are relatively few things that we teach in schools on which there is absolute unanimity of thought; teachers can acknowledge the existence of minority theories, but they’re obligated to teach the best that our present state of knowledge says. Teaching every crackpot theory as if it were established fact isn’t academic freedom, it’s academic malpractice.

Even now, in 2004, there are people who argue that the holocaust didn’t happen; are we to teach in our history classes that there is serious doubt about the holocaust? A few people believe that Neil Armstrong’s 1969 lunar landing was a faked media event; are we to teach in our science classes that there is serious doubt about that landing? And of course, there are all sorts of people who believe that women are inferior to men or that blacks are inferior to whites; should we shoehorn their views into the curriculum as well? What’s next–flat Earth theory? Alchemy?

So, what’s the relevance of this question to the current Presidential campaign? First, according to an article on CNN’s Web site covering the Republican primary campaigns back in 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush believed that both evolution and creationism are valid educational subjects for science classes. “He believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught,” a spokeswoman said.

The truly scary thing about President Bush’s belief on evolution is that it is just one example of his Presidency’s tenuous grasp on reality. We went to war in Iraq not because of what the intelligence actually said, but because of what the administration’s idealogues wanted the intelligence to say. We went to war prematurely because some of his advisors insisted on jumping in with a leaner force which proved inadequate to winning the peace (ignoring the Powell Doctrine, which calls for amassing overwhelming force). Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Vice President Cheney continues to profess belief in the presence of WMD in Iraq and a link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

The administration’s denials of reality and scientific evidence don’t end with Iraq. The U.S. refuses to sign the Global Warming Treaty because the administration doubts the scientific evidence of global warming. Embryonic stem-cell research goes to other countries because the administration is convinced, against virtually all scientific testimony, that it’s not necessary. The administration pushes an education agenda based on statistics from the Houston School System, later found to have been distorted by then-Superintendent (now Secretary of Education) Rod Paige.

The President of the United States has access to more intelligence sources and more experts than any other person in the world. He has a responsibility to make sure that all that information is considered honestly. Congress can mitigate a President’s potential legislative mistakes; but no Congress can make a President evaluate evidence responsibly if he chooses not to.

The evidence is that the President believes whatever he wants and ignores evidence to the contrary. In a friend or family member, that would be eccentric and faintly amusing; in the President, it’s dangerous.

Regime Change Begins at Home

Originally posted Friday, October 22, 2004:

In some fields you can identify clear experts with strong records of success. Like him or not, Bill Gates knows software. Warren Buffett knows investing. Alan Greenspan knows money. Steven Hawking knows, well, a lot. Unlike these examples, nobody really has much of a track record with national security in the past few years. Nobody has been able to pacify the Middle East, halt nuclear proliferation, or bring religious extremists into the modern world.
I’ve already stated that I believe that this campaign has overemphasized national security to the exclusion of other issues. But there’s no denying that national security is an important issue; so since, judging by results, national security is Amateur Hour, I might as well have a turn.

I. The wartime President

In the wake of 9/11, I agreed with the President that the terrorist act on the United States was an act of war. Since that time, we have seen civil rights curtailed by the administration’s use of wartime powers. But is this wartime? Article I, section 8, paragraph 11 of the Constitution says that only the Congress has the power to declare war, and Congress hasn’t done that yet. The War Powers Act of 1973 authorized the President to introduce the military into hostilities in “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” and that clearly was the case, but a declaration of war would have been worthwhile. The President should have sought it; Congress should have insisted on it.

Because this is not a war but an “introduction of armed forces into hostilities,” I find it hard to give the administration what it seems to want: an understanding that 9/11 excuses everything. If the closest parallel to 9/11 was Pearl Harbor, then the closest parallel to George W. Bush as a wartime President was Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR’s supporters used the argument that you don’t “change horses in midstream,” but he himself tried to pass off the Democratic Presidential nomination to someone else. And both in peace and in war, both in his lifetime and after, he was viciously attacked by his enemies, who typically referred to him simply as “That Man.”

Judging from their rhetoric, the Bush administration clearly believes that it should get the benefit of the doubt on all its actions, reelection in a walk, and the right to condemn critics as disloyal. (The code for this is contained in a current Bush campaign ad that says, “After September 11th, the world changed.”) If we really believe as a nation that wartime requires special rules, we should amend the Constitution to suspend Presidential elections during declared wars. Until that time–and until we have a declaration of war–the people who question the administration are patriots.

II. Respected abroad

The Kerry-Edwards campaign calls for the United States to treat foreign nations with respect. That’s easily characterized as weakness or waffling, but it just makes sense. Obviously we can’t let foreign countries dictate our foreign policy: George Washington said as much, and every President since has known it. But the Bush policy seems calculated to lose allies. If elected, Kerry may not get allies to join us in Iraq, but he might at least soften the hatred observed by many Americans as they travel around the world today. Given an American government that doesn’t insult them at every turn, foreign governments might just decide that they want to find ways to work with us.

III. Flip-flop, or just wrong?

The Bush campaign likes to find inconsistent Kerry quotes and use them against him. For some time, with its usual flair for dramatic campaign tactics, the campaign dispatched demonstrators waving flip-flops to Kerry speeches. That’s a pretty effective bit of ridicule, but it denies reality.

I’ve held some elected positions; my votes on issues changed all the time, depending on the exact language and the circumstances of proposals being considered. To simplify a candidate’s record distorts the truth. But what if Kerry’s votes have actually been inconsistent? Isn’t that better than being wrong?

Consider what almost no one questions seriously. Faced with a truly horrendous national crisis, the Bush administration selected the most extreme intelligence assessments available and overreacted to them. Outside the administration there was almost unanimous agreement that invading Iraq would make a dangerous situation more dangerous, that the peace would be harder to win than the war, and that the invaders needed to invest the resources necessary to plan the peace. The Bush administration jumped into war.

There is a major Washington industry of helping Presidents to make decisions; presidents don’t always have people around them to tell them when they’re wrong. Good leaders seek out divergent opinions: it makes decision-making harder, but better.

I’m willing to concede that John Kerry has trouble making up his mind on complicated issues; most of us do. President Bush’s problem is that he doesn’t.

Kerry’s decision-making may have frustrated people; the President’s has gotten them killed.

The Old Deluder

Originally posted Thursday, October 21, 2004:

I’m not quite a single-issue voter; but I have to admit that of all the issues, I care the most about public education. That puts me in a distinct minority during this election, when national security is the issue of the year.
And yet really, education is a national-security issue. Americans have an almost mystical belief in education. We know that education is the key to a brighter economy. For generations, education has been the key to upward mobility for immigrants and the poor. We claim to believe that education is a good in and of itself, and not just for its economic benefits. Surveys say that Americans trust school employees, especially teachers, more than almost any other profession. A quality public education system offers hope for national prosperity, reduced crime, increased opportunity for all, and yes, national security.

Free universal public education is one of America’s gifts to the world. Public education as we know it got its start in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1647, which passed a law commonly known as the “Old Deluder Satan Act.” The Act gets its name from its famous first line: “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, . . . It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction . . . shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all . . . children . . . to write and read . . . .”

Public education today is an embattled institution. Americans have a healthy skepticism about institutions, but for the past generation the very concept of public education has been questioned by a chorus of public school critics. Since the eighties, vouchers, charter schools, education service providers, tuition tax credits, and home-schooling have all been touted as alternatives to public schools. Its proponents call it “educational choice,” and I don’t know anybody who seriously argues against school choice; but when that choice takes money away from the public schools, it amounts to the privatization and defunding of public education.

Instead of making public schools as good as they can be, tax support for private educational alternatives drains resources needed by public schools. Some ask, if the alternatives are better, what’s the problem? One problem is that while privatization rewards unaccountable boutique schools with tax dollars, it postpones the serious business of real educational improvement for all. Another, perhaps more serious, is that privatization siphons public dollars to entities that have virtually no accountability to the taxpayers.

To be fair, this divide reflects a real cultural difference. Public school advocates view education as a societal responsibility; privatization proponents view education as a commodity. Most citizens and taxpayers are neither privatizers nor advocates: they sincerely try to make difficult choices for themselves and their families. How should they make up their minds? I believe they should consider the following four points.

1. Our nation’s future will be determined largely by the quality of the education received by the majority of our children. Outstanding education for a few won’t help society much if most children aren’t well-educated.

2. Your property values are determined largely by your community’s public schools. Having great private schools won’t attract buyers if your public schools are poor.

3. Not all improvements require money; some improvements do. Suggestions that better management, administrative efficiencies, reorganization, or employee sacrifices can solve school funding problems without taxpayer support are either misguided or dishonest.

4. Public schools are, first and foremost, the public’s schools. Yet most studies indicate that today, the percentage of families with children in school is at an all-time low. The title of one recent book asks the question, “Is there a public for the public schools?” As citizens, we need to remember that our public schools are ours whether or not we have children there. If it takes a village to raise a child, all of us–not just the parents, and certainly not just the parents of public school children–must be that village.

Further into the ludicrously misnamed “No Child Left Behind” law–long after the end of the term of this President–penalties are scheduled for schools that can’t meet arbitrary standards set by people who don’t know a thing about education. The Bush platform calls for those penalties to include private school choice.

The law was passed with promises of unprecedented increases in federal funding for public schools. The federal contribution to funding public education has increased, all right–from 7% to 8% of the total cost. But the burdens imposed by federal interference constitute far more than 8% of the cost of schools doing business. The impact far outstrips federal support.

NCLB is based on misguided principles, and it consists of unfunded mandates that lead toward privatization on the sly. That’s why I support John Kerry for President: at least he recognizes that NCLB needs to be fixed and funded, while the President and his minions are convinced that it’s just fine, thank you. It’s a pity the issue isn’t getting more attention from the candidates themselves, but I can’t help that. I’m giving it all the attention I can.