Monday, May 30, 2011

Are There Natural Human Rights?

In a post on the Opinionator blog yesterday, philosophy professor Michael Boylan asks, Are There Natural Human Rights? He rightfully claims that this question is more than academic, as much international policy is built upon the the position that there are universal, natural human rights:
International policy would cease to be able to advocate universally for certain fundamental rights—such as those set out in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights or the United States’ Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence or Liu Xiaobo’s "Charter08." And of course, the idea that NATO, France, the United States or any other country should intervene in Libya would have never arisen. Instead, each nation would be free to treat its citizens as it chooses, subject only to the rule of power.  Hitler would not have been wrong in carrying out the Holocaust, but only weak because he lost the war. The logical result of such a position is a radical moral relativism vis-à-vis various cultural anthropologies.
Boylan reviews the history of conflicting responses to this question. Some people argue that the entire notation of natural human rights was created during the European Enlightenment, that what we consider natural human rights are merely social constructs. Others counter by arguing (1) that thinkers before the Enlightenment did discuss human rights even if they didn't use the terms we use today or (2) that there is a logical basis for proving the existence of natural human rights—a basis that transcends the history of writings about rights. Boylan goes on to offer a scholarly examination of these positions that draws on philosophy and history.

At the end of his post, Boylan suggests that our position on this question colors how we understand world events—such as the Arab Spring uprisings. He offers a thought experiment for his readers to help them determine their position on the question:
I have a thought experiment that might help the reader decide what he or she thinks is the correct position: imagine living in a society in which the majority hurts some minority group (here called “the other”). The reason for this oppression is that “the other” are thought to be bothersome and irritating or that they can be used for social profit. Are you fine with that?  Now imagine that you are the bothersome irritant and the society wants to squash you for speaking your mind in trying to improve the community. Are you fine with that? These are really the same case. Write down your reasons. If your reasons are situational and rooted in a particular cultural context (such as adhering to socially accepted conventions, like female foot binding or denying women the right to drive), then you may cast your vote with Hart, Austin and Confucius. In this case there are no natural human rights. If your reasons refer to higher principles (such as the Golden Rule), then you cast your vote with the universalists: natural human rights exist.  This is an important exercise. Perform this exercise with everyone you are close to—today—and tell me what you think.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Language and Gender: Kate Swift

As I mentioned in a post last month, the Sapir-Whorf theory holds that the words we know and use impact how we conceptualize our world and, perhaps, act in it. I was reminded of this after reading the obituary of Kate Swift earlier this month. Swift, a feminist wordsmith and writer, spent much of her professional life, along with her long-deceased partner Casey Miller, shedding light on gender assumptions in language.

Swift and Miller were awakened to gender bias in language when they were asked to copy-edit a sexual education textbook in the 1970s. Describing their awakening, Swift and Miller noted in the introduction to one of their later books, "everything we read, heard on the radio and television, or worked on professionally confirmed our new awareness that the way English is used to make the simplest points can either acknowledge women’s full humanity or relegate the female half of the species to secondary status." They found, for example, that many authors assumed all police officers are men or refereed to women by the color of their hair.

The obituary notes that Swift and Miller had a profound yet limited impact:
Some of the authors’ proposals gained traction. Many newspapers, textbooks and public speakers avoid “fireman” and “stewardess” nowadays. Other ideas fell by the wayside, notably “genkind” as a replacement for “mankind,” or “tey,” “ter” and “tem” as sex-neutral substitutes for “he/she,” “his/her” and “him/her.”
Swift and Miller's work demonstrates the ability we have—as individuals and as societies—to reflect upon and change the words we use.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

To Lie is Human?

Is lying always wrong? If not, when is it right? Julian Baggini considers these questions—and many others—in his review of Ian Leslie's new book Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit, not yet available, it seems, in the United States.

Baggini begins his exploration by examining the simple maxim "always tell the truth," which we are told as children to obey. We soon discover, however, that telling the truth can be dangerous and that telling the "whole truth" is almost always impossible.  Baggini explains how defining "the truth" is a complex epistemological problem:
The problem with telling “the truth” starts with the definite article, because there is always more than one way to give a true account or description. If you and I were to each describe the view of Lake Buttermere, for example, our accounts might be different but both contain nothing but true statements. You might coldly describe the topography and list the vegetation while I might paint more of a verbal picture. That is not to say there is more than one truth in some hand-washing, relativistic sense. If you were to start talking about the cluster of high-rise apartment blocks on the southern shore, you wouldn’t be describing “what’s true for you,” you’d be lying or hallucinating.

So while it is not possible to give “the truth” about Lake Buttermere, it is possible to offer any number of accounts that only contain true statements. To do that, however, is not enough to achieve what people want from truth. It is rather a prescription for what we might call “estate agent truth.” The art of describing a home for sale or let is only to say true things, while leaving out the crucial additional information that would put the truth in its ugly context. In other words, no “false statement made with the intention to deceive”—St Augustine’s still unbeatable definition of a lie—but plenty of economy with the truth.
Baggini goes on to categorize two ways of thinking about the truth: moral and legalistic. To speak truthfully in a legalistic sense is to say nothing that is a (known) lie. When Bill Clinton said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," he was, in a legalistic sense, telling the truth. He felt no burden to reveal anything more. On the other hand, to speak truthfully in a moral sense requires us to speak honestly, sincerely, and accurately. Moral truthfulness, Baggini writes, borrowing the ideas of the philosopher Bernard Williams, "requires more than just true things being said, while acknowledging that there really is no such thing as 'the whole truth' anyway."

Baggini then goes on to explore the question: Does the truth always trump other virtues? He considers the merits of several arguments against the contention that truth telling—in the moral sense—is the greatest virtue:

Feelings. We may choose not to tell people how we feel about something in order to spare their feelings. "Little white lies" allow us to get along well with others, right? Baggini argues that we must tread carefully when adopting this rationale. He writes, "There is a risk of second guessing what is best for people or what we think they are able to deal with. Normally, it is better to allow people to make up their own minds on the basis of facts. Withholding truth for someone’s own benefit is sometimes justified but often it simply diminishes their autonomy. This is what Kant got right when he claimed that lying violates the dignity of man."

Personal Dignity and Privacy. We may choose to withhold information in order to protect our dignity. Arguably, this may have been what Clinton sought when he delivered his aforementioned statement about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. On this account, Baggini asks, "If what you did is nobody else’s business, aren’t you entitled to lie to preserve your privacy?"

Hysteria. We often wish that our political leaders would speak simply and tell us the truth. We often feel that politicians are lying to us because, in so many cases, we find out that they are. Baggini suggests, however, that we may not appreciate the value of politicians limiting their expression. "Would it really be wise for a prime minister to announce, when a crisis breaks, that no one really knows what’s going on yet or has a clue what to do next?" he asks. "Leadership in a crisis may require projecting more calm and control than one really has behind closed doors. More honesty in politics would certainly be a good thing; complete honesty most probably disastrous."

Greater Good. We need not say what we truly believe so long as we are working toward the establishment of truth in the long run. Sociologist Steve Fuller, Baggini notes, contends that intellectuals must, at times, conceal their deepest convictions in order to further debate. Fuller, who has argued that scientists should not reject intelligent design theory out of hand, plays the devil's advocate. He withholds the truth in order to require his colleagues to think critically about evolution.

Baggini does not dismiss these four arguments against the truth. But, he argues, telling the truth does matter. "You could concoct a hypothetical situation in which we had to choose between lying or creating misery for all humankind," he writes, "but until and unless we ever come against such scenarios, most of us value truth, even to the detriment of some happiness. That is why we should develop the habit of telling truth, and distaste for lies. Truth should be the default; lying an exception that requires a special justification."

Still, Baggini concludes the article by arguing that "lying is deeply connected to what makes us human," an argument Leslie makes in Born Liars. Baggini writes:
We may not be the only creatures who have a “theory of mind”— the ability to see the world from the point of view of others—but we are certainly the species in which that capacity is most developed. It is precisely because of this that the possibility of lying emerges. We can lie only because we understand that others can be made to see the world other than as we know it to be.
So perhaps, as the title of Leslie's book suggestions, we are born liars—at least in some sense of the word.

Monday, May 23, 2011

You know what tag questions are, right?

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe's Erin McKean, founder of, presented a fascinating examination of tag questions, "those little questioning upticks, usually found at the end of a sentence." As speakers, we use tag questions unconsciously; as listeners, we rarely realize when someone is asking us one. Nonetheless, tag questions, small waves in the vast ocean of spoken language, play an important part in communication.

McKean notes that linguists have identified two kinds of tag questions: modal and affective. Modal tag questions seek information or confirmation: We're going to the movies on Tuesday, right? He should really change his hairdo, shouldn't he? Affective tag questions seek to soften the meaning of a statement or convey an emotional connection to an audience: This is how you change a light bulb; simple, right? That was a horrible movie, no? Linguists have not only categorized tag questions but also studied their use. McKean presents the findings from some interesting investigations: 

Culture. Modal tag questions tend to be the same across regions and cultures, while affective tags vary across regions and cultures. Consider that in the South you're likely to hear "you hear?" while in Canada you're likely to hear "eh?" at the end of the same sentence. 

Gender. Researchers used to identify tag questions with femininity, but they have since discovered that men use tag questions as frequently as—or in some cases, more frequently than—women. 

Power. "Powerful" speakers, "people who are in charge of making sure conversations go well," like teachers and doctors, tend to use tag questions more than other types of speakers.

McKean notes that tag questions are so ubiquitous because they are efficient. They help us connect quickly and avoid misunderstandings, and they "grease the conversational wheels." Interesting, right?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Memory: Collins' Forgetfulness

I recently came across Forgetfulness, a beautiful poem by Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In the short piece, Collins addresses the frailty of memory with evocative imagery. 
by Billy Collins 

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
The advertising agency JWT produced an animation to accompany a reading of the poem:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A College Degree: 55 Years Deferred

When it comes to history, many students seem to embrace the solipsistic position that the existence of any event that occured before their year of birth is unimportant at best, dubious at worst. As a history teacher, I aim to help my students understand how deeply the events of the past influence contemporary society and our place in it. As a result, whenever I come across a human interest story that sheds light on the influence of the past on people today, I must share it with my students.

This past week, the New York Times featured such a story: In 1958, Burlyce Sherrell Logan left the University of North Texas after facing intensely racist bullying. She worked and raised a family and finally, in 2006, returned to the University. This past weekend, she earned her college degree, and her grandchildren celebrated with her.

While Logan's story is simple, her determination reflects the best of the human spirit, just as her delayed graduation demonstrates the ways in which the past can touch the present and the present can transcend the past. The article serves as a reminder that history is alive—something Logan knows well. At the end of the piece, she quips, “In September, I’m going to start on my master’s in history."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Twitter in the Classroom

Several months ago, a student in one of my TOK classes investigated the ways in which Twitter has changed knowledge—its generation, its dissemination, and our relationship to it. Given the role that social media has played and will continue to play in recent world affairs, I delighted in having a student pick this topic.

During her presentation, the student asked the audience, other students, to take out their phones. Normally, phones must remain off during the school day, but I allowed the students to engage with them given the topic at hand. The student presenter then used a series of tweets to outline her presentation. Only minutes into the presentation, many other students tweeted responses to her ideas in real time. The students had begun conversing about the questions raised in the presentation via Twitter long before the presenter opened the floor to discussion.

This presentation offered me the opportunity to witness students communicating via a backchannel, an electronic conversation taking place alongside—but outside of—a real-world one. Last week, the New York Times featured a short article—Speaking Up in Class, Silently, Using Social Media—that detailed how some teachers, including some elementery school teachers, are engaging with students and gauging student interest via backchannels.

The author of the Times' article noted that "real-time digital streams allow students to comment, pose questions (answered either by one another or the teacher) and shed inhibitions about voicing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, if they are texting on-task, they are less likely to be texting about something else." I like the idea that teachers allow students to participate in discussions electronically, especially if doing so will help students engage more meaningfully in course material. At the same time, much would be lost if electronic participation were to replace face-to-face conversation. Perhaps next year, I'll explore using social media in the classroom to create backchannel conversations, so long as these exchanges add value to the educational experience.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Emotion and the Perception of Time

We have all experienced moments in life when time seems to come to a standstill—a boring lecture, for example—and when time flies. What makes some minutes feel longer than others? A recent piece in Slate's The Explainer tackles this question by providing insights into the relationship between emotion and perception, two ways of knowing that can intersect in fascinating ways.

Using a quote about time from President Obama's recent interview with 60 Minutes—the President described watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound as "the longest 40 minutes of my life"—the author of the piece, Jeremy Singer-Vine, summarizes the findings from several psychological studies. These studies suggest, not surprisingly, (1) that time seems to slow down when we experience events that elicit negative emotions, cause confusion, or are novel and (2) that time seems to speed up when we experience joyful or fun events. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow, explained nicely by Csikszentmihalyi in a 2008 TED talk, corroborates these findings and reminds us that joyful events can also be challenging ones. 

Singer-Vine then goes on to explain that psychologists have examined both how people feel about events in the moment and how they recall feeling about them after the fact. These studies into "temporal cognition," into the contrast between prospective and retrospective cognitive states, suggest that time feels slower in both prospective and retrospective terms when you're anxious, nervous, or waiting for something to happen. This helps explains why Obama both felt that time slowed down while watching the raid and remembers time having slowed down, too.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cognitive Science and Railroad Tracks

After writing last week about Dan Pink's chronicles of emotionally intelligent signage, I enjoyed reading a story in this past weekend's Boston Globe about an experiment that Indian authorities have undertaken in an attempt to reduce railroad crossing deaths in and around Mumbai. The authorities, alarmed that, on average, trains kill 10 people each day as they're crossing tracks in and near Mumbai, sought the help of Final Mile, a “behavior architecture” firm, "which uses the lessons of cognitive psychology to influence people on the brink of making decisions." By taking psychology into account in developing methods to dissuade people from crossing railroad tracks illegally—by recognizing that people usually ignore traditional "caution" signs—Final Mile has designed and implemented a number of interventions that have proven dramatically successful.

The interventions are as subtle as they are ingenious. The author of the article describes them well:
First, Final Mile painted alternate sets of railway ties in fluorescent yellow — five painted, five unpainted, and so on — to tackle what is known as the Leibowitz Hypothesis. As laid out in a 1985 issue of American Scientist by experimental psychologist Herschel W. Leibowitz, the hypothesis found that we frequently underestimate the speed at which large objects move. Leibowitz, who died earlier this year, first observed this with aircraft, and in 2003, a pair of scientists proved the hypothesis for trains. “The misperception happens because the brain has no frame of reference, no way to evaluate roughly how fast a train is moving,” said Satish Krishnamurthy, a Final Mile behavior architect. But with the new paint job, Krishnamurthy said, “the mind now has a way to gauge the train’s speed, by observing how fast it traverses these ties.”

Second, the consultants replaced the stick-figure signboards with a graphic three-part tableau, featuring in extreme close-up the horror-struck face of a man being plowed down by a locomotive. “We hired an actor,” Krishnamurthy said, smiling, “because it had to be realistic.” They were drawing on the research of Joseph LeDoux, a New York University professor of neuroscience and psychology. LeDoux studies the links between emotion and memory, and in particular the mechanism of fear. “Emotional memory is stored in the nonconscious part of your brain,” Dominic said. “If you’ve been in a car crash and, months later, you hear tires squealing, your heart rate goes up and you start to sweat. That’s because your emotional memory has been stirred up.” The new signs dispense with explanatory text and instead attempt to trigger an emotional memory of fear.

Final Mile’s third intervention required train drivers to switch from one long warning whistle to two short, sharp blasts. By way of explanation, Dominic cited a 2007 paper from the Stanford University School of Medicine, which found that brain activity — and hence alertness — peaks during short silences between two musical notes. “The silence sets up a kind of expectation in the brain,” said Vinod Menon, the paper’s senior author and a behavioral scientist working with the Stanford Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Lab. “That’s the way it works in music, and it isn’t inconceivable that it would work similarly with train whistles.”
I'm excited not only by the work that Final Mile is doing but also by the willingness of public officials to experiment in the development of public policy. The article notes that government agencies from around the world are starting to take psychology into account when creating mechanisms to communicate with—and sometimes warn—the public.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Historical Fact: Did Bin Laden Have a Gun?

The story of how elite United States military forces carried out the assassination of Osama Bin Laden has captured the attention of people the world over. I've been fascinated by the accounts and the commentary. Historians may have difficulty, however, piecing together some of the details, as numerous reports from government officials have contained contradictory data about the weapon(s) which Bin Laden may (or may not) have been holding (firing?) when US troops killed him. On a recent post on his blog, David Weigel chronicles some of these contradictory accounts.

As they attempt to write about the assassination, professional historians will have to grapple with the contradictions. They may settle on an agreement of historical fact, consensus gentium, or they may use the conflicting accounts to suggest something about the fog of war, the failure of the White House to coordinate its message, or the deficiencies of memory. In an attempt to gain clarity, they will likely seek out interviews with the men who stormed Bin Laden's compound.

Students who investigate the event online may also encounter conflicting accounts, which will likely persist even as new and perhaps more accurate accounts emerge. Sadly, some students may stop searching after finding only one account because they assume that the one they have found is historical fact. Writing an account of the past is challenging, and so is helping students develop a healthy skepticism about the sources they rely upon to understand it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Teaching Idea: Emotionally Intelligent Signs

On his blog, Daniel Pink routinely posts photos of emotionally intelligent signage—signs that not only direct but also take into account people's emotions in order to be maximally effective. His readers have sent him images from around the world—for example, no smoking notices in an Austin, TX, hotel and, earlier this week, Dutch road signs aimed a curbing road rage—that reflect innovative and creative thinking.

In schools, we (adults) often need to remind students regularly to take (or not take) certain actions, yet students often become immune to our messages. Be quiet in the hallway. Don't leave your book bag on the floor. Shut of the lights when you leave the room. Recycle your scrap paper.  Rarely do we communicate written admonitions with emotionally intelligent signage. And here's where I imagine TOK students could contribute to their school communities.

As a way to explore emotion as a way of knowing, I could imagine offering my TOK students the opportunity (in contest form, perhaps) to design emotionally intelligent signage for the school community. For example, students might be tasked with developing an emotionally intelligent sign to encourage students to be quiet during examination periods. A traditional sign might read, "Please by quiet. Testing in progress." But an emotionally intelligent sign might read, "Quiet Please! You'll be taking an exam sooner or later, too. Please respect those who are taking one now." I could envision a group of TOK students coming up with some interesting—and effective—signs.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: Relating to Adolescents

Several months ago, in an electronic newsletter published by the Klingenstein Center, I read about Relating to Adolescents: Educators in a Teenage World by Susan Eva Porter. The book sounded like a worthwhile read, so I ordered a copy from Amazon. I'm glad I did.

Dr. Porter, an experienced teacher and clinician, makes a strong case that adults in schools need to act with intentionality when dealing with adolescents—a claim that may sound obvious but which bears repeating at regular intervals. In the introduction, she reminds the reader that "teenagers need us to practice certain skills that allow us to keep our roles clear, to maintain the boundaries between us, and to keep our cool when the energy of adolescence swirls around us." To illustrate her points about adult behavior, she provides myriad case studies, which enable the reader to grasp the importance of her claims with ease.

I so enjoyed Porter's practical approach that I selected an excerpt from her text as the basis for a session of a Professional Learning Community that I led earlier this school year. In the selection, from a chapter entitled "The Eightfold Path of Adult Self-Care," Porter takes the practices of the traditional Buddhist Eightfold Path and appropriates them for the contemporary educator. For example, in explaining the importance of "Right Intention," Porter notes that "teenage thoughts and emotions are all over the map, and they spread like wildfire.... To take care of ourselves, then, we should understand not only how to track our own thoughts and moods but also how to separate our internal processes from those of our students." Shes goes on to provide case studies and questions for the reader's consideration.

The participants in the PLC and I greatly enjoyed reading and discussing the selection from Porter's book. It sparked a tremendous amount of self-reflection while affirming some common practices as well. Porter writes to the educator in a practical, clear voice, and her book makes for an excellent read.

Monday, May 2, 2011

NBC's Parks and Recreation asks: What is art?

I recently received an email from one of my former students who wrote, "TOK seems to pop up everywhere now." I was not surprised by her revelation. Once you study epistemology and become attuned to looking for knowledge issues, you realize the great extent to which questions of knowledge underpin most of what you read in journals, magazines, and news reports.

On occasion, knowledge issues also creep into popular culture. This week's episode of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, entitled "Jerry's Painting," revolves around the appropriateness of a painting for display in a city government building.

The episode raises several questions about art and art appreciation:
  • What is the proper function of art?
  • How do we know what is good art?
  • How do we evaluate the acceptability of art?
  • To what extent should art reflect the values of the institutions that make it publicly available?
The episode provides few answers to these questions—one imagines the writers never sought to do much more than get the audience to laugh—but it does suggest the complex relationship that people and institutions have with art.