Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Unannounced cellphone confiscation in schools and other nonsensical initiatives that keep us from focusing on real educational reform

Since the NYC Department of Education announced that the School Safety Division of the NYPD would be making surprise visits to various schools to scan students for cell phones and other electronic devices, public school parents have been bemoaning the terrible fate of their children who will quite possibly have their precious cell phones confiscated. While I am sympathetic to the parents' desires to keep their children safe by providing a means of ready communication, I think that this current initiative is misguided for totally different reasons. Here they are:

1. Scanning (requiring students to go through metal detectors before they enter school in the morning) is an extremely dehumanizing process. In schools with severe disciplinary issues, scanning may be warranted in order to protect students from guns, knives, blades, etc. However, this initiative would provide for unannounced scanning at relatively safe schools for the express purpose NOT of discovering weapons but of confiscating electronic equipment.

For two years, I taught at a high school where students went through metal detectors before they entered the building each day. Scanning was justified at this school; during my two years, one student was caught with a gun, one with a taser (stun gun) and many with knives or utility blades. However, this does not change the fact that students resented scanning and thus hated their first 3-5 minutes in school every morning. They felt that scanning reflected a lack of trust and created an expectation of violence; as a student named Arthur said to me, "They already treat us like criminals, so why shouldn't we act like criminals?"

Being the 1st period teacher is tough when the experience that students have right before your class is waiting in line to be herded like cattle through roped-off lanes in order to take off boots, belts, backpacks, and jewlery and be interrogated if they forgot to remove some metal article from their clothing. Think of how annoyed you get in the airport. Would you be able to learn constructively right after that? Every day?

This is to say nothing of the students' right to privacy; both from a legal standpoint and from a psychological standpoint, teens need to feel secure and autonomous.

Why force students to go through scanning when it is not justified?

2. Empty initiatives like this that have nothing to do with the key issues in education-- quality of instruction, class size, resources available in schools, pushing for innovative and effective curriculum, reform of the nasty Department of Ed bureacracy, or school funding-- distract public attention from the real problems in education.

I certainly understand why cell phones in the classroom are bad; don't get me wrong. I've seen kids cheat with cellphones, text message each other in class, and even (only once-- the student wouldn't want to incur my wrath that way again) had a student take a phone call in the middle of class. There's no question that cellphones don't belong in the classroom. However, expending millions (and believe me, this entire campaign of moving metal detectors from school to school and using a cadre of NYPD officers will cost millions) to confiscate cellphones does not seem like a good use of our resources.

3. This is removing autonomous decision-making power from individual schools. The official DOE policy is that cell phones and electronic devices are banned in schools. However, up until now, if individual schools wanted to quietly look the other way or enforce different versions of cellphone bans, the DOE did not impose its absolute ban. In modifying the cell phone rules to fit the school community and the needs of parents and students, schools responded to their circumstances and constituencies. Again, if we were dealing with a crucial issue, I would understand the DOE's insistence on lockstep compliance. Here, I just see it as an unwelcome intrusion.
Grannies Acquitted

A shout out to the "Granny Peace Brigade," a group of . . . ahem. . . mature women who blocked the doors of the Times Square military recruiting center in October 2005 to protest the war in Iraq. (Actually, what they did was cleverer-- they demanded to be allowed to enlist.) The Grannies were on trial for disorderly conduct but were acquitted today.
A New York Times article this morning stated, "Judge Ross clearly recognizes that ruling against grandmothers. . . could be political suicide, or at the very least make him a villain to grandchildren everywhere." While I think that the grannies' defense lawyer (Norman Siegel of the NYCLU) was canny in using sympathy for grandmothers as a key element of his strategy, I wonder whether the grannies can be said to have had a fair trial-- or rather, I wonder whether conventional activist types would have been acquitted. Good for the grannies for recognizing that they have a sort of immunity granted to them due to their age, and manipulating that immunity to their advantage.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Real Story at Duke
Here's an angle on the Duke lacrosse team rape story that I haven't seen pursued in any mainstream publication: Why is being an exotic dancer the most lucrative and flexible career option our society presents to a 27 year old college student and single mother of two? It would be great if the accuser had been able to make enough money to support her family and pay her tuition bills by doing something other than exposing herself to the risks inherent in entering an unknown place and offering herself to be exploited sexually. (Yes, third wave feminists, it's possible that she is an extremely liberated woman who chose this job out of an array of possible options. But let's be real.) What does this say about the incentives our society sets up? Whatever happened that night, it's clear that it would never have happened had the accuser been able to support herself doing something other than exotic dancing.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

On Passover, William Sloane Coffin, and being an effective agent for social justice

On April 12, William Sloane Coffin died. May his memory be a blessing.

Born into privilege (a wealthy, elite New York family, education at exclusive prep schools and then at Yale), Coffin became a devotee of liberation theology and one of our country's strongest voices for justice. After becoming disenchantment with his work in the Army's military intelligence unit and the CIA, Coffin became a Protestant minister and discovered the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. As a Presbyterian and UCC minister, he fought against the Vietnam War and opposed the draft, took part in the Freedom Rides and other actions to promote civil rights, worked towards nuclear disarmament, supported the creation of the Peace Corps, championed many antipoverty measures, and even advocated equal rights for gays and lesbians years before many other progressive religious leaders were comfortable doing so. A firm believer in the power of civil disobedience, he was imprisoned several times for participating in protests and actions; he risked his position as Chaplain of Yale University in the 1960s when he protected young men avoiding the draft and as senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City when he took bold and unpopular political stances. Coffin positioned social justice centrally in his theology and his life as a person of faith.

As I read various obituaries over the past few days, what surprised me most about Coffin is that he came from a blue-blooded, wealthy, elite New England family and followed a highly conventional path for most of his first 30 years of life. Yet, something in his experience or temperament led him to question the foundations of that path and to identify with the suffering and the oppressed. Coffin's activism was not grounded in paternalistic pity or "charity" but in an identification with other people and an understanding of the interconnectedness of everyone's well-being. Although he could have chosen to lead a comfortable life, insulated from much of the suffering in the world, Coffin instead realized "you can be more alive in pain than in complacency."

At the Passover seder, we re-enact the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah tells us that "in every generation a man must see himself as if he [personally] had gone out from Egypt." As Rabbi David Stern taught this weekend, it is important to recognize that instead of selecting the 3rd-person account of the going out from Egypt from the book of Exodus for the Haggadah, the rabbis selected the 1st person recounting of the story from Deuteronomy 26. Why did the rabbis pick the less direct, less detailed version of the story, the version mediated by an additional narrator? The passage in Deuteronomy 26 is a story about identifying with the story, about retelling it in such as way as to reclaim not only the historical sense of the event but also the sense of being personally affected and personally involved.

The most frequently-cited motivation for "doing the right thing" in the Chumash is precisely this same type of identification with the oppressed and the suffering. "Do not (or do) X, Y, or Z because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The text is not asking us to do some kind of Rawlsian thought experiment and rationally determine what the best policy would be; the text is demanding that we understand ourselves as slaves and strangers in order to be effective in protecting the rights of slaves and strangers. Only empathy and an understanding of one's own oppression (not compassion, not pity, not sympathy, not a detached sense of right and wrong) will allow us to create justice in our communities.

We are often very short-sighted when it comes to remembering this. Witness the trouble we (the people of the United States) are having deciding on immigration policy when we are, ourselves, nearly all immigrants.

Here's my question for my readers: How do we cultivate this identification? How do we help ourselves understand the depth of the connection between ourselves and other human beings?

And a final word from William Sloane Coffin:

"When you see uncaring people in high places, you should be mad as hell. "