Book Review – Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

In his 2011 book, Shawn Lawrence Otto lays out the evidence of a theory for the origin of scientific illiteracy in the United States. Fool Me Twice begins with a discussion on what democracy really means and how it remains effective. He quotes Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Otto’s argument is essentially that the American people are no longer well-informed. Through a series of examples and statistics, he lays out the ways in which the American government has become dominated by those who, by their lack of scientific education, either disregard science or actively attack it.

Otto’s first discussion pertains to the silence on scientific subjects in politics. As a combination of both political candidates’ avoidance of the subject and the media’s separation of science and politics, people rarely get to hear what candidates have to say about the big scientific debates. In both print and video news media, reporting on science issues has seen a precipitous decline over the past three decades. This drop seems to coincide with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Otto presents a compelling argument that this relationship is causal. With a dearth of science in mainstream media, only those who actively seek out science news are actually following it. This situation allows politicians to sidestep the issues they themselves do not understand. Former U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) states that of the 435 members of Congress, 420 know little about science and do not care to learn. His statement is based on the fact that only nine congressmen of the 113th Congress came from careers in science or engineering.[1] Otto points to the dangers because of funding cuts to major research that arose as a congressman’s failure to understand the importance of the research. Otto shows that the scientific illiteracy extends to the White House, most notably with President George W. Bush, whose appointees altered and withheld scientific reports that did not fit preconceived beliefs. Otto cites a number of incidents in which NASA research was discredited and medical research was disregarded because of their contention with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists. There exists a clear link between the power of the religious right in the Republican party, but Otto shows the impotence of the Democratic party to help the issue. Even after the election of President Barack Obama, who openly advocated for the revitalization of scientific education and research, the political atmosphere became so volatile that many of his ideas were dead on arrival.

As many scientifically-minded people like to think, science should not be political. Science deals with facts whereas politics tends to deal with opinion. Otto claims that this type of thinking has been the death of science and that, in fact, science is inherently political. Otto defines a two-dimensional political theory as an extension of the one-dimensional left vs. right system we think of today. Instead, he claims that there are four wings (top, bottom, left, and right). On the left and right axis, we have the conventional progressive vs. conservative debate, those who want change against those who want constancy. On the vertical axis, we have authoritarianism at the top and antiauthoritarianism at the bottom. He shows that we can have authoritarian regimes on either side of the left-right debate: Maoist China was highly progressive and Nazi Germany was highly conservative, but they were both authoritarian autocracies. By considering only left and right, the United States has reached a point in which liberty-loving Republicans have become the party of increasing government spending, restricting individual freedoms, and defying human liberties in an attempt to appease conservative voters. This authoritarian position depends upon the beneficial actions of its leaders. Science, on the other hand, finds itself at the very top of the spectrum at the antiauthoritarian extreme. Neither conservative nor progressive, science aims only to establish the facts. In that way, it does not bow to any authority figure. From this understanding, Otto aims to show that science is inherently political and that a scientific society is the freest.

Chapters three and four strike out to show that science and religion are more interrelated that someone watching current American political debates might think. In fact, modern science was born out of Puritanical beliefs that claimed reason was God’s natural law. By understanding the world through logic and reason, true believers could understand the greatness of God even better. Going back to Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, Otto shows that the birth of Protestantism was the acceptance of science as the antiauthoritarian movement within the Christian church. Only a year later, Christopher St. Germain’s The Teacher and the Student, which established English common law’s moral basis, showed that God does not contradict reason. Puritans, born out of the protest against the authority of the Catholic church and later the Anglican church, became one of the largest immigrant groups to early colonial America. In America and in Europe, Puritans made up most of the seventeenth century’s “natural philosophers” as they were called before the term “scientist” took hold in the nineteenth century. Science held great influence in America through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the founding fathers of this nation had dabbled in science and invention. Jefferson, a mental progeny of the natural law thinkers John Locke, Renee Decartes, and Jean Jacque Rousseau, with the help of the wise Benjamin Franklin crafted what is perhaps this country’s most defining document, The Declaration of Independence, not with an appeal to religious authority but an argument of logical evidence.

With the liberties the United States afforded its citizens and the rise of its economic might at the end of the nineteenth century, America became a bastion of scientific progress. Massive funding from private donors like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller incited a boom in American science through the early twentieth century. However, this rapid advance in progress of both technology and understanding along with the liberalism of the 1920s spurred reactions from religious conservatives like Aimee Semple McPherson who led the charge against moral sins like alcohol use and the teaching of evolution. By the mid-1920s, several states had already banned the teaching of evolution. In the climactic “Scope’s Monkey Trial,” Clarence Darrow, in his arguments against fundamentalist and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, successfully vindicated the teaching of evolution in public schools. It was a great success for science, but the debate had already begun, and it showed no signs of stopping. Controversy over the nature of humanity and origins of the universe continued to pit science against religion for the next several decades, but science took on a whole new image at the close of the Second World War.

In August of 1945, American warplanes delivered payloads in two sorties over Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan that would change the nature of warfare forever. The development of atomic technology for destructive purposes launched the world into an uncertain future. With development of atomic weapons in Soviet Russia and the beginning of the “space race,” science became more than just a tool for exploring the world, it became America’s key to survival. Otto draws some  connections between the dispersion of cities into the suburbs and the threat of nuclear attack on cities as well as massive initiatives to expand science education and research. The 1950s became characterized by the preparation for a nuclear attack. It was the scientists who advocated these protections, and the people listened. However, over first couple decades of the Cold War, a war in which politicians innately recognized the necessity of strong science, scientists retreated to their labs content with their federal funding. Public sentiment began to turn against the science community, who they saw as cold, valueless, and arrogant. Their evaluation was not unexpected and not wholly undeserved. Scientists, wholly focused on their own research, worked within a system that rewarded publication and punished public outreach. Even the great science educator, Carl Sagan, was denied admission to the National Academy of Sciences and failed to achieve tenure at Harvard in what were retributive moves by his peers who saw his public engagement as a sign of his scientific ineptitude. This occurred despite Sagan’s extensive body of peer-reviewed publications and the later determination that scientists who engage the public tend to be better scientists.

While scientists were running from the public, religious fundamentalists were reaching out. With the rise of Billy Graham and other fundamentalist preachers following his lead, the American people began to turn toward this message of hope in a world of uncertainty and fear. This movement refined and perfected its ability to preach emotional and inspiring sales pitches to the world while scientists were becoming more socially inept. As much as current science supporters vilify religion for its condemnation of reason, irrational thought began to spread in the secular world as well. Supported by the ideas of philosophers like Thomas Kuhn, post-modern relativism began to take hold across the country. Although many accepted these ideas as a form of tolerance, they led to the natural conclusion that there was no objective reality, a core tenant of scientific thought and a fact that can be easily observed. The combination of the flood of Americans toward religious conservatism and the rise of the idea that science is only one way of knowing anything spelled the end of the respected status of the scientist in the white lab coat.

All of these phenomena coalesced just in time for the federal impetus of continuing to support science came to a close with the fall of the Soviet Union. Now with science seen as just another way to frame an opinion and the pool of candidates of political leaders comprised almost entirely of businessmen and lawyers, the government had no reason to dump such funding into the science world. In 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed for the dismantling of the Office of Technology Assessment, the last link Congress had to scientific engagement. Congressman Holt termed this move “a lobotomy” for the government, which would no longer have a connection to its rational, critical brain. Free market Republicans wanted to see the “marketplace of ideas” take over and allow the debate to settle the issues. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Instead, the United States saw the rise of propaganda, fed by those with the deepest pockets instead of those with the scientific knowledge, determining the direction of public opinion.

With public policy makers determining education policy, the effects began to fester in the public school system. Studies in the first decade of the new millennium showed that misplaced funding, poor prioritization, and scientific illiteracy were pulling American students down in the rankings of international competitiveness. In 2012 the Programme for International Student Assessment, which evaluates the education levels of 15-year-olds in 34 OECD countries put the United States 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science.[2] Of the 45 OECD regions, the U.S. aggregate score came in at 35th, just behind the Slovak Republic and the Russian Federation. Otto used the data from 2006, which had the U.S. at 29th, so the problem has only worsened since his book’s publication. Based on Otto’s development of the political atmosphere over the past half-century, he claims that American scientists must regain their role as trusted advisers to the public, not only in providing the correct information, but in providing an understanding of the scientific method. It has become a simple strategy of misinformation to paralyze the country because the public does not understand why scientists understand what they do.

Otto spends over fifty pages on what is probably the most pressing science problem facing both the U.S. and the world: climate change. Although the debate has only been in full swing for a couple decades, the science of climate change is quite old. The relationship between carbon dioxide (CO2) and increasing global temperature was first recognized by Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius. In the 1950s, geochemical researcher Charles Keeling began measuring the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. His readings have been continued, and today we have a “Keeling curve” that shows that the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are rising at an increasing rate. Not only that, but measurement of the isotopes of CO2 (those that occur naturally and those created through the combustion of fossil fuels) show that human activity is having a marked impact on these levels. Thousands of researchers around the world have used sound science and objective research to try to disprove Arrhenius’ correlation of CO2 and global warming. They have all been unsuccessful. The Earth is warming, and human activity is exacerbating the trend.

These findings, however, are not politically palatable. The world economy runs on fossil fuels, and those who are making fortunes on it want to preserve the status quo. Through their efforts, the American public and American politicians have been duped into believing that there is a legitimate debate on the issue. Otto lays out a 5-prong method for achieving this end.

1. Promulgate phony science.

2. Feed canned stories to the mainstream media.

3. Allow partisan talk radio and cable news to pick up on the debate.

4. Have government allies propose a corrective response.

5. Reluctantly plead a case as a victim, gaining political and public support.

Otto uses a series of examples to show how this method has been implemented. Even with a Democrat in the White House, sympathetic to the calls of the science community, public sentiment against a response to climate change has left the American government immobilized on the issue. Otto holds out hope though. He, and others in the science community, believe that with continual outreach from the science community, the facts will come out, and the American people will see the truth.

Unfortunately, the problem is often not that Americans do not understand the problems, but that they refuse to believe them. Otto shows startling statistics showing that most Americans know what the science says about evolution and climate change, but they refuse to believe that scientists are correct. It will take not only a preponderance of information, but it will take a change in the way Americans think. This is going to take a resurgence of scientific outreach to the general public. Scientists must share their method for understanding that there are objective truths. Ideally, some of these scientists would achieve the star status of many politicians and perhaps replace them. Only with a healthy rational debate among American leadership will the United States retain its place on the forefront of scientific and technological advancement.

Otto closes the book with a chapter on how to fix the current situation. His ideas center around reinvigorating the sentiments of hope and wonder through science. As science was once the way in which humans understood God’s creation, so it again should be the way in which we make a more beautiful and peaceful world. Through the liberation of the American mind from the propaganda of the corporate machine and the nonsense of the political pundits, the United States may be able to take back control of its government. As Jefferson claimed, only an informed citizenry can be trusted with its own governance. It will take the return of science in America to again build a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

[1] Manning, J.E. (Sept. 24, 2014). “Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile”. Congressional Research Service.

[2] “Snapshot of Performance in Mathematics, Reading, and Science.” Organization of Economic and Co-operative Development, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2015. .

[3] “Programme for International Student Assessment Country Note: United States.” Organization of Economic and Co-operative Development, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2015. .

A Response: Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core – Part 5

This is part 5 of 5 regarding the popular editorial post Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core by Amy Pullman. I am providing opposing arguments and rationality in defense of the Common Core. I do not believe the new standards or their implementation have been anywhere near perfect, but we need to have legitimate debate if we’re going to improve them.

9. The Arrogance.

The argument here is essentially that the establishment is ridiculing those in opposition to the change. On this point, I concur that our legislators should not be making such condescending attacks against citizens. They are not helping forward the debate, and they are hurting the cause of education reform. However, I would like to address the last paragraph that Pullman uses to try to undermine the authority of experts supporting the CCSS. Pullman writes, “And then parents have to endure a litany of pompous, sickeningly well-paid experts all over the airwaves telling us it’s a) good for them that our babies are crying at the kitchen table or b) not really Common Core’s fault or 3) they don’t really get what’s going on because this newfangled way of adding 8 + 6 is so far above the average parent’s ability to understand.”

For her first point, she links to a Washington Post article that presents the opinion of a reading specialist and curriculum director, Russ Walsh. Walsh does not, in fact, support “babies crying at the kitchen table.” What Walsh supports is what the evidence supports: learning to read should include easy reading for enjoyment, on-level reading for refinement, and frustration reading for improvement. A healthy mix of these with continual support from teachers and parents leads to the best results. Yes, the CCSS suggests higher level reading comprehension at lower grades, but this does not mean that teachers should do away with all other readings. Our final point will address this further, but CCSS opponents complain that the standards are lower than they some current standards. If we want to raise standards, we need to raise difficulty. This only presents a greater challenge for parents and educators to bring children up to their full potential.

The second point we have discussed in detail over the past few posts, and Pullman does not provide any links.

The third point leads readers to a fantastic logical and argument for the new math standards. In this opinion piece by Boston College mathematics department chair, Solomon Friedberg, we get a run down of how the current system of teaching math depends on a complex system of rules to memorize and methods to try to keep straight. This system, as should be obvious to any adult who has recently tried long division, is not effective. Professor Friedberg supports the new standards, which require that students understand why we manipulate numbers in the way we do to solve problems. The combination of being able to compute with true comprehension of the reasons behind the computation, in Friedberg’s opinion, develops students who have the flexibility to use a variety of problem-solving methods. He emboldens his arguments with support from the heads of major mathematical societies. The standards are not just better, they are completely different. For this reason, Friedberg calls on parents to be there to support their children throughout the learning process, much as we discussed last post. Unfortunately, this leads right into Pullman’s point: the math is above what the average parent is going to understand. If we want to improve our educational system, the natural result is a generation that is smarter than their parents. It is a tragedy that we have found ourselves in a situation in which we have more than one generation of people who have not effectively learned mathematics, but children outpacing their parents is an inevitable consequence of making such a drastic change. The change is necessary though. Most parents will not understand what their children are learning at first glance. They will need to learn along with them. Perhaps this will be an opportunity for parents to bond with their children as they explore the new methods together. Perhaps they will need to find ways to depend on their community to ensure that their children are getting the help that they need. Perhaps, we can collectively face this challenge of becoming more mathematically literate.

10. The Collectivism.

In this final point, Pullman argues that the standards are lower than many of the state standards already in place. If this is in fact the case, this whole thing may be an unnecessary time of painful transition. Pullman fails to cite any research on the subject, but my own digging has not been heartening. James Milgram of Stanford University found that the standards are far and above 85 or 90 percent of previous standards, but a Fordham Institute study found that the standards only outpace both ELA and math in two-thirds of the states. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute even admits that some states like Massachusetts should have passed on the CCSS because they were already doing so well with their current standards. Other studies find improvements in some areas and reductions in others. Many states (Virginia and Nebraska here) have commissioned studies to determine the differences, good or bad.

I’m not an expert in education, nor do I have the time to perform my own analysis, but in my opinion all of these “better” and “worse” findings are rather subjective. The question is whether or not they will prepare students for life beyond high school. Having uniformity throughout the country increases our ability to collaborate so that we may improve beyond where we are now. We can compare to the current standards, we can try to compare to international standards, and we should of course consider these things, but there are always factors that we cannot control. We will not know if the new standards are truly better until we give them a try. Hundreds of experts have weighed in on the development of the standards, and this is the knowledge that they believe our students need to succeed. I understand the desire for democratic control of processes and the independent heritage here in the United States. However, we are not a democracy. We are a republic. We elect people to speak for us in making decisions of public policy. A discussion on the state of the American republic is for another time, but for now, I want to trust the experts on these issues. From what I have seen, the CCSS pushes American public education in the right direction. Specious claims about federal takeover of curriculum, about corporate conversion of children, or of uninformed math curricula are unfounded calls to distract people from the issue at hand. The fact is that the United States is on the verge of losing its position at the top in many regards. Indeed, it has already slid to the middle of the pack by many measures. We will need to change if we expect our children’s generation to have a better nation than we did.

The Common Core is far from perfect, but it is only the first step in a long journey to improve ourselves as families, as a community, and as a nation.

A Response: Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core – Part 4

This is part 4 of 5 regarding the popular editorial post Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core by Amy Pullman. I am providing opposing arguments and rationality in defense of the Common Core. I do not believe the new standards or their implementation have been anywhere near perfect, but we need to have legitimate debate if we’re going to improve them.

7. Distancing Parents and Children.

This argument seems to have wandered over from a similar article entitled Top Ten Things the Common Core Hates About Parents. Pullman’s argument here is basically that parents are resisting the change, and it is making everyone more cynical. Yes, parents need to be an integral part in a child’s education. Yes, schools should be encouraging parent participation. Yes, getting in the way causes problems for everyone. But no, doing away with the CCSS will not fix this problem. Pullman cites a study that found that parents are less involved and more cynical in states with more high-stakes testing. We have already discussed that this high stakes testing is probably not the best method for education, but Pullman’s extrapolation of this claim to the CCSS is unfounded. This important caveat is from the researcher who conducted the study: “My analysis predates the implementation of Common Core, so some caution in applying my conclusions is warranted” (Sides, 2014). We should not jump to conclusions about the effects of the CCSS before they have even had a chance to work. Most states are still in the process of getting the standards implemented, and there are a lot of things that still need fixing in the assessments.

I believe in creating systems that encourage participation and support, but parents have a responsibility here. That responsibility is not to whine and complain that things are changing in order to revert to a broken system. That responsibility is to support and guide our children through this transition. The government is not out to get you or to steal your child’s brain. A group of concerned experts, educators, and legislators came together to create what they believed to be the first step in improving American public education. The government had to step in because parents are shirking their responsibilities by refusing even to try to work with necessary changes.

8. Making Little Kids Cry.

Pullman gives two anecdotes of children crying in frustration over their homework, even going for the heartstrings with a little cancer survivor trying her damnedest to conquer this piece of paper. I’m not sure I should even dignify this with a response, but I will. First off, let’s not pretend that kids crying in frustration during the struggle to comprehend a concept is something new. It’s not. Secondly, if there is any increase in this tragedy, it is due to teachers being unable to effectively communicate information to students and parents being unwilling or unable to help their child at home. This is a product of parents and teachers lacking effective skills and their needing to learn new methods. We have already established that change is necessary. I never said it would be easy. The new math that has found its way into CCSS-based curricula is very different from what teachers are used to. It is going to take time for the teachers both to understand the new methods and to discover ways to teach those methods effectively. Common Core or no, kids are going to cry over homework. We, as parents and educators, take the responsibility of supporting our children through the learning process, not complaining because it’s too hard.

to be continued…

Sides, John. “Is School Testing Driving Parents Away from Their Child’s School?” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. <;.

A Response: Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core – Part 3

This is part 3 of 5 regarding the popular editorial post Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core by Amy Pullman. I am providing opposing arguments and rationality in defense of the Common Core. I do not believe the new standards or their implementation have been anywhere near perfect, but we need to have legitimate debate if we’re going to improve them.

5. Turning Kids Into Corporate Cogs.

Given that I just finished a book in which I made the argument that our employment-based economic model is unsustainable, I understand Pullman’s frustration in the CCSS’s focus on getting kids ready for the workplace. However, we still live in a world in which productivity is livelihood, and if we want our kids to have a chance at a future, they’re going to need to be ready to participate as productive members of the economy. Pullman’s issue that the standards aim to get children “college and career ready” claiming that this approach makes them mindless cogs in the corporate system. What she overlooks is that most high school graduates these days will need to be “college ready” more than “career ready” (“Back to School Statistics). In college, students are learning much more than how to be corporate cogs; they are learning how to be productive members of society (at least we hope). Most people these days don’t end up in a job that their college education specifically trained them for (“Majority of STEM College Graduates”). So what are students learning? They’re learning how to learn. They are learning professional and ethical skills that apply to being a citizen, regardless of occupation. For those who do not go on to college, they will need skills to support themselves because getting a good job without a college degree is very difficult. Indeed, our students should be college and career ready because not having a useful education in this world is not having a livelihood.

Of course, all of this assumes that “college and career ready” does not include useful civic, ethical, and professional education that Pullman is demanding. Given that recommended reading lists include great works of fiction (even some including sexual material), it is pretty safe to say that college and career ready has more than just a touch of humanity to it. Perhaps the issue is that the moral and ethical subjects being taught are not what conservative parents want their children learning in school. Pullman points to an antiquated ordinance that supposedly formed the basis for education in America, which calls for the teaching of “religion, morality, and knowledge.” Knowing the prevailing attitudes of the late eighteenth century (the time of the Northwest Ordinance), I’m going to step out on a limb here to say that the religion she wants to see is Christianity, and the morality she wants taught is founded in modern Judeo-Christian norms. A document we still use today, which supersedes this Northwest Ordinance, is the U.S. Constitution, which contains the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” By promoting a religion or its moral teachings in public school, Congress, by extension, condones the establishment of that religion. If you would like to teach your children your Christian ethics and beliefs, that is your right. This is a secular country though, and we will teach secular ethics in our public schools.

6. The Data Collection and Populace Management.

First of all, I must state that I agree with the idea that there is far too much testing in the new system. However, that doesn’t seem to be the issue Pullman raises. I’ll defend the idea of “data mining.”

Let’s first discuss the scientific method (something that is far too foreign for most Americans). When we have a question about the world around us, we want to have a reliable method for discovering the answer. The scientific method is not a fixed set of steps, but it is a sound guideline for getting to a satisfactory answer to our question. When we first define our question (e.g. How do we improve teaching methods? What works in improving student readiness upon graduation?), we get a certain idea about how we want to measure these things. Given that this is about education, we will probably want to start looking at schools, students, and teachers. From here, we start making observations. From these observations, we come up with a hypothesis, an educated guess (e.g. Standardizing teaching methods improves student learning. More streamlined standards better prepare students for their future). We then set out to test our hypothesis. In order to do this, we need to collect data about the phenomenon we are studying. In many places, standardized student assessments have proven to be the most popular way to collect this data. That in itself requires examination, but this collect of data leads to one of two outcomes. First of all, it allows us to disprove our original hypothesis. If we study math scores of students learning a new math curriculum, and we see no improvement in test scores compared to a control group (a class that didn’t change math curricula), we can say that the teaching method was not effective in improving student learning. The other thing that could happen is that the data supports the hypothesis (this would happen in math scores did improve. At this point, we would want to conduct more experiments, collect more data, and have experts in our field verify that our methods, logic, and math were all sound. As more data comes to support our hypothesis, we can be more sure of its veracity. More data leads to more certainty.

Moral of the story? Data mining provides a basis for proving or disproving our hypothesis. Data mining is, in fact, the way we will show that the CCSS are good or bad. We need to collect this data (whether through standardized testing or other means) to determine if all this effort was for not. Yes, the data is being sent out for analysis by private corporations, but I thought the conservative argument was always for more privatization? If we don’t do that, we’ll need to fund a massive government organization to crunch the numbers, and I think just about everyone is on the same page about government efficiency.

to be continued…

“Back to School Statistics.” National Center for Education Statistics. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. <;.

“Majority of STEM College Graduates Do Not Work in STEM Occupations.” Majority of STEM College Graduates Do Not Work in STEM Occupations. 10 July 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. <;.

A Response: Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core – Part 2

I’m back! The first draft of the book has been submitted, and I have a little respite before revisions are due. In the meantime, I would like to get back to my picking a fight with the anti-common core crowd.

We return to my rebuttal of Joy Pullman’s editorial Top Ten Things Parents Hate About the Common Core, an article that has been widely circulated in conservative circles. This is part two of my response. You can find Part 1 here. We left off at #3 of 10.

3. Obliterating Parents Rights

Here we have a classic case of anecdotal evidence and generalization. Pullman presents three situations in which parents faced resistance when criticizing the new standards and/or their implementation. The first example involves a disgruntled mother and an unspecified number of other disgruntled parents demanding that a school principal change from the old books. First of all, let’s understand that books are very expensive, especially math books (the ones the parents had problems with). Schools often only have the funds to purchase new books every few years. It is unreasonable to expect a principal (even of a private school) to simply be able to toss out brand new textbooks. The exasperated principal finally stated that her hands were tied because the new math would be on the new standardized assessments. We have already discussed the difficulties that have arisen in the development of the assessments as well as the fact that the standards themselves do not demand the exact methods we have seen cropping up. I will admit that I would have liked to hear a more rational argument from the principal, but I only have one line from that conversation.

Pullman then presents two videos of parents’ being forcibly removed from school board meetings. In the first, I will agree that the security officer was out of line. The other parents wanted to hear what the man had to say, and he was not disrupting the proceedings. However, in the second, the man removed spoke out of turn and continued to attack the board members despite their calm requests for him to be quiet. Yes, parents should have the ability to express their concerns, and honestly board members need to be better prepared for such questions. If we can’t give the standards a fair chance to improve the system, we’ll slide right back into mediocrity. If the people who are supposed to be enforcing the standards don’t fully understand it themselves, this whole initiative will never get off the ground.

4. Dirty Reading Assignments. Pullman mentions four books with sexually explicit content: The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison, Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia, Make Lemonade by Virginia Wolff, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. First of all, I can’t find the latter two on the suggested reading lists that I have found. Secondly, I’m going to take this moment to rant on the Puritanical prudishness of America.

If you don’t like self-indulgent, moderately explicit ranting, just skip the next paragraph.

Sex. Coitus. Copulation. Love making. Hanky panky. Fucking. It has become one of the most vulgar and unacceptable areas even to discuss in America. The “birds and the bees” discussion represents the most difficult part of parenting for many. Maybe I don’t understand it because I’m not a parent, but I have a strong feeling that if I talk to my kids about sex from the time they’re too young to have learned to be embarrassed about it, that talk won’t even need to happen because I have already taught my child to be responsible when it comes intimate encounters. Trying to shelter our children from it does not benefit them. Face it, kids are going to see what we don’t want them to see. It’s what kids do. It’s what we all did. Instead of having a mature discussion about sex, we let our kids find out about it through skillfully edited made-for-tv dramas and not-so-edited, often mysogynistic and objectifying pornography. And what is the result of parent paranoia about talking sex with their kids? Nothing good; that’s for sure. Teen pregnancy rates continue to be much higher in the U.S. than in Europe where people are much more open about sex. Time and time again abstinence programs are shown to be far less effective in preventing early/unwanted pregnancy and STD transmission than just about any other method of contraceptive/education/protection out there. What’s the solution? Stop being such prudes about the natural act of sex. It’s how we all got here, and it tends to be one of the most important parts of successful relationships.

I agree that young children have no business reading steamy erotica passages in class, but that is not what is going on here. The books that have been labelled “smut” by conservative opponents of the CCSS actually depict sex in an artful and thought-provoking manner. Yes, I do believe young adults should be thinking about sex (because they most certainly are already) and a healthy discussion of sex belongs in school. The books in question are on reading lists for 11th and 12th grade, a time by which nearly half of our children admit to having had sex (CDC). Sex is a major part of life (indeed it is the initiation of life), and our children shouldn’t have to wait for another failed and abusive relationship to start figuring out the cultural intricacies and emotional impacts surrounding the act. Keep the dirty reading list; it’s healthy.

I’ll be back tomorrow with rebuttals to points 5 and 6.

CDC. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2011. MMWR 2012;61(SS-4)

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