Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another Weird Appointment

How many bizzare appointments must the Obama administration make before the media starts to catch on that there's something very wrong with the way these people see the world?

You might remember Mark Foley the Republican congressman from Florida who sent salacious emails to House pages and subsequently resigned his office, his reputation in tatters, even though he had evidently broken no laws. No less than 1400 news stories were written about his sleazy behavior, and it was universally agreed that such people have no place in our government.

Well, I say universally agreed, but it's not clear where the Obama administration stands on such behavior. No doubt they would be glad to see Foley discredited, because he was, after all, a Republican, but their opinion of the behaviour that Foley actually engaged in is more ambiguous.

I say this because Mr. Obama has appointed as his "safe school czar" a man named Kevin Jennings who makes Mark Foley look like the picture of moral rectitude. Mr. Jennings is a gay activist who wants schools to actively promote and affirm the gay lifestyle. He relates an incident that occurred when he was teaching at a private boarding academy in Massachussetts that is disturbing in what it reveals about his own attitudes toward gay sex. Jennings tells the story of a 15 year-old homosexual student named "Brewster" who confided to Jennings about an encounter he had had with a man in a Boston bus station rest room. Human Events provides the sordid details:

Jennings quotes the boy and then comments: "'I met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.' High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people."

Did Jennings report this high-risk behavior to the authorities? To the school? To the boy's parents? No -- he just told the boy, "I hope you knew to use a condom." Sex between an adult and a young person below the "age of consent" (which varies from state to state) is a crime known as statutory rape, and some states mandate that people in certain professions report such abuse.

So, here we have a teacher of children who refrained from advising this boy to stay away from strange men in toilet stalls, impressing upon him only the importance of donning a prophylactic in such encounters. He's a man who apparently thinks that sex between boys and men is no big deal even if it's against the law, and even if it exploits and dehumanizes the boy. Yet in the eyes of this White House such a man is deemed qualified to be put in charge of the safety of our nation's schoolchildren.

What's the difference between Kevin Jennings and Mark Foley? Fourteen hundred news stories.


Out of the Body Experience

An article by Anil Ananthaswamy at New Scientist probes the phenomenon of out of the body experiences. These events appear to be generated by a particular part of the brain called the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), but exactly what is going on in these experiences, which researchers don't doubt are genuine, remains a mystery.

Ananthaswamy seems to assume a dualistic view of the body and the self with the self somehow tied to the body unless released by certain triggers. Here's an account of one such episode that he cites as an introduction to his article:

The young man woke feeling dizzy. He got up and turned around, only to see himself still lying in bed. He shouted at his sleeping body, shook it, and jumped on it. The next thing he knew he was lying down again, but now seeing himself standing by the bed and shaking his sleeping body. Stricken with fear, he jumped out of the window. His room was on the third floor. He was found later, badly injured.

What this 21-year-old had just experienced was an out-of-body experience, one of the most peculiar states of consciousness. It was probably triggered by his epilepsy. "He didn't want to commit suicide," says Peter Brugger, the young man's neuropsychologist at University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland. "He jumped to find a match between body and self. He must have been having a seizure."

In the 15 years since that dramatic incident, Brugger and others have come a long way towards understanding out-of-body experiences. They have narrowed down the cause to malfunctions in a specific brain area and are now working out how these lead to the almost supernatural experience of leaving your own body and observing it from afar. They are also using out-of-body experiences to tackle a long-standing problem: how we create and maintain a sense of self.

Dramatised to great effect by such authors as Dostoevsky, Wilde, de Maupassant and Poe - some of whom wrote from first-hand knowledge - out-of-body experiences are usually associated with epilepsy, migraines, strokes, brain tumors, drug use and even near-death experiences. It is clear, though, that people with no obvious neurological disorders can have an out-of-body experience. By some estimates, about 5 per cent of healthy people have one at some point in their lives.

So what exactly is an out-of-body experience? A definition has recently emerged that involves a set of increasingly bizarre perceptions. The least severe of these is a doppelg�nger experience: you sense the presence of or see a person you know to be yourself, though you remain rooted in your own body. This often progresses to stage 2, where your sense of self moves back and forth between your real body and your doppelg�nger. This was what Brugger's young patient experienced. Finally, your self leaves your body altogether and observes it from outside, often an elevated position such as the ceiling. "This split is the most striking feature of an out-of-body experience," says Olaf Blanke, a neurologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

All this raises several questions: What exactly is it that's "outside" the body? Is it really outside the body or is the outsideness an illusion? If it is illusory how does it perceive things from an "outside" perspective? Is there something about us that's immaterial and yet can still perceive and move? How does it do this if it has no sense organs and no locomotive system? Can both the "outside" self and the body have simultaneous cognitive experience, i.e. can the mind be split between the two?

There's a debate among philosophers whether minds actually exist as a substance separate from material bodies and brains. Materialists usually hold that minds have no actual existence. For them mind is just a word we use to describe the function of the brain much like we use the word digestion to describe the function of the stomach. Dualists, on the other hand, believe that minds are an altogether different kind of "substance," an immaterial substance, from material bodies. No doubt materialists will try to explain out of body experiences in terms of purely physical mechanisms giving rise to illusory experience, but I don't see how the weight of the evidence doesn't at least offer prima facie support to mind/body dualism.

Read the rest of the article and see what you think.


Early Graduation

We recently did a post on extending the school year which I closed by saying that this would be of special benefit to the better students. There was quite a lot of response to this post and a number of readers asked why I added that last sentence. They wondered why it wouldn't also benefit the weaker students to have a longer school year.

Well, I'm not convinced that it would. In fact, I've long felt that we overschool weaker students, particularly those in the bottom fifth of their class. Indeed, I've advocated, not that anyone has paid any heed, that the state institute a two-tiered graduation that would allow students who feel unsuited to an academic setting to graduate after their sophomore year in high school. Here's why:

Research has shown that students in the lowest ranks of their class who persevere through their senior year learn no more than similar students who drop out after tenth grade. The additional two years of schooling turned out to be of almost no academic benefit to those who opted for them.

This finding will come as no surprise whatsoever to teachers who wear themselves out daily trying to motivate these particular students, but it does raise a question:

If these youngsters are unlikely to add significantly to their knowledge base in their last two years of school, and if it is the case, as some observers suggest, that many, perhaps most, of the jobs of the future are going to require unskilled workers, why do we expend so much effort and treasure trying to keep these kids in school for twelve years as if there was something magical about the number twelve?

Part of the answer, of course, is that a diploma generally opens more opportunities than are available to a high school drop-out, but if so, it might be much more to the benefit of these youngsters if schools offered two kinds of diploma.

Students who elect to remain in school through their senior year, perhaps 85% of an incoming freshman class, would be eligible for one type of diploma while students who choose to graduate after the successful completion of tenth grade would receive another.

A two-tiered graduation, similar to those found in some European countries, has a number of advantages:

1) Apathetic ninth-graders who often harbor a dread of having to endure four more years of schooling might be motivated to work a little harder if they knew that by so doing they can receive a diploma after less than two more years of effort.

Indeed, it's not inconceivable that the prospect of early graduation might spur some of these students to improve their academic work, their attitude, and their attendance during their freshman and sophomore years thus helping them to draw more benefit from these two terms alone than they would get were they to just hang on until they either drop out or eke out a traditional diploma.

2) Students who wish to attend a post-secondary trade or technical school but who would likely be defeated by two additional years of academic courses would be able to bypass these and get on with the vocational education that will eventually be of most use to them. Public schools might even wish to restructure their tech-ed programs to accommodate these graduates.

3) Kids who remain in school but who don't really want to be there are usually the most disruptive. The prospect of a tenth grade graduation gives them an incentive to improve their conduct while simultaneously providing a means of easing the frustrations that often lead to undesirable behavior.

4) Schools which are caught between the desperate need for additional space on the one hand and tight budgets on the other would obtain some measure of relief if every year a percentage of the sophomore class - and perhaps even some juniors - were to choose to graduate.

5) Those who might otherwise choose to drop out of school with nothing to show for the time they spent there would now have hope of obtaining a diploma which would reflect a modicum of achievement and confer some measure of dignity.

And, of course, some students who take advantage of early graduation might wish later to acquire a regular diploma. They could be allowed to return to school, motivated, perhaps, by an enhanced appreciation of the value of, and a new desire for, an academic education.

Early graduation could be immensely helpful for precisely those students who invariably benefit the least from traditional education. If keeping them in school until twelfth grade doesn't really help them, let's do something for them which might.