Wednesday, September 27, 2006


A moral society

There is a moral concept I first encountered in explicit form in Frank Herbert's Dune. I don't have the exact quote handy, so I'll have to paraphrase on my own.

A society, and by extension the members of that society who are present for local, individual incidents, is responsible for the care and protection of its members who are socially incompetent.

This description is intended without prejudice. It includes those who are not yet competent (children, immigrants) and those who will never be competent (mentally ill, developmentally deficient). This moral concept prompts two logical outcomes.

1) When a social incompetent commits a crime, punishment should be that which corrects the incompetence, and removal from any further opportunity to commit that crime in order to protect the rest of society.

2) A socially competent person who commits a crime falls under two general categories: sie made a mistake (crime of passion, ignorance of the law); sie made a deliberate decision to take the action that constitutes a crime. We may not need to punish differently in each case, but we do need to acknowledge that distinction, and treat the willful criminal as sie deserves: no longer welcome in our society, period.

A hallmark of civilization is, using this moral concept as a starting point and in my not so humble opinion, the effort made to acknowledge the nuances of this morality and to permit case-by-case application of that morality. Thus, blanket approaches, laws that exclude leeway or flexibility in their enforcement, and the more general existence of bigotry, all of that I would consider immoral.

For example, a society that claims to be civilized will acknowledge the breaking of a law with the intention of pointing out its immorality. The segregation laws that were abolished by the civil rights movement fall into this category. Civil disobedience in service to the moral protection of those who cannot protect themselves is of the highest moral attainment.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


One POV on public education

I entered kindergarten in 1961, graduated from high school in 1974; my eldest child graduated from HS in 2001, my youngest is in 8th grade. All of that is public schooling.

And no, it didn't happen in some idyllic, wealthy gated community in the mythical heartland. I grew up right outside Philadelphia in a mostly blue-collar community. My children all attend/ed Philadelphia public schools.

40 years ago, there were certain things taken for granted. Parents met their children's teachers, in person, three or four times per year just while everything was going okay. Children were expected to behave (and not behave) in certain ways, to offer the teacher the same respect and acceptance of authority as they offered their parents; the concept was called in loco parentis (which has long since become obsolete).

In the workplace, a parent was expected to drop everything and go to a school in an urgent or emergency situation; the supervisor or manager automatically provided coverage, or had a standing agreement about making up lost time or charging it to personal, sick or vacation time. (There were, of course, significant exceptions to that last part that lead to the passage of the Family Leave Act.)

At some point, I don't know when or how long the transition lasted, a shift occured. Parents became less involved, and more inclined to put schools in charge of their children that contradicted in loco parentis. A good part of that can be blamed on a changing workplace, on changes in expectations of parents and their work-life balance. Many teachers will tell you that there was a significant drop off in the number of parents they actually met face-to-face, and this drop off excluded only those whose children either had special needs or were at the high end of the performance curve already.

Then a new population of special needs kids arrived: children of single mothers, children of drug addicts, children who float between two or more homes within the family unit and sometimes out of it. There are other descriptors I'm not listing, but many of these children had endemic problems that required more than any mainstream classroom with 33 kids could possibly offer; and there were enough of them that full-time professional people needed to be in the school to give them the help they needed to just learn the basics.

Aside: you cannot possibly grasp the difficulty a special ed teacher has when her students lack impulse control of any sort (due in equal parts to upbringing and medical conditions), have damaged or non-existant skills like short-term memory, pattern recognition or fine motor skills needed for writing. You cannot further imagine what it's like when (as has been true for about 10 years) these various types of needs are thrown together into one classroom, when even mainstream teachers with no academic exposure to special ed can tell you that they all need different approaches besides the increased one-to-one time.

Here's the personal statement that I am leading to: don't you dare blame the teachers and administrators who've spent multiple lifetimes successfully helping the majority of special needs children. They were doing it, as mandated by law, well before any Catholic or private school even considered opening its rolls to anyone but the best behaved and best conforming of children. I was there, in the classroom, with kids expelled from the Catholic school three blocks away, because they were either behavior problems or couldn't keep up academically. And it's still true, at least here in PA, that public schools still deliver special ed services (disabilities and gifted) to parochial students at no expense to the parochial schools, including busing.

My experience of archdiocesan schools in my corner of PA is and always has been positive. They do an excellent job of delivering basic education. What I cannot tolerate is the easy throwaway rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge that the public schools do as good of a job in most cases, and do a hell of alot more that no other schools do.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


What 9/11 means.

I am very much not on the beaten track when it comes to certain things, like patriotism. So, unless you wish to run the risk of getting very pissed off with me, I suggest you skip this one. In any event, I wouldn't post this if I didn't want to see responses, so if you are so inclined, have at it.

What 9/11 means, to everyone.

It means that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, living in a free and open society means being vulnerable to the events of five years ago. It means that as soon as we step back from the precepts of and commitments to a free and open society, we damage all that went before us and begin to lose the ability and the time to repair that damage.

A free and open society is based on trust. That we can be hurt by that trust is not a reason to move away from a free and open society. Indeed, such incidents should bolster our resolve, should cause us to renew our commitments, because we are in fact the enemies of those who perpetrated these acts, not because we choose to be their enemies, but because they choose to be our enemies.

The founders of the American colonies shed their blood and flesh in order to make a life here. Later, when that life was threatened, was being taken away in small increments by those who neither paid the blood price nor felt the obligation to do so, those same colonists founded the US and again paid the price of flesh and blood to win the right to found the nation, and to make sure that the nation would never again be subject to that threat and that theft.
They were volunteers. They saw the necessity, but they were under no obligation to do anything about it. They offered of themselves, freely and because they believed in the vision of the future of a free and open society.

On September 11, 2001, over 3,000 people paid that price again. They were not volunteers. No one offered them advanced notice. They could not have anticipated it in any way. But, if the stories about flight 93 are any indication, and I'm going to boldly make the assumption that they are a strong indication, then we should know and remember that they paid that price with the same integrity and intention that our founders had.

In the end, my assumption doesn't really matter. The truth is that this is the price to be paid for a free and open society. Anyone who says otherwise, anyone who claims that the price can be avoided, is a bald-faced liar. You can quote me on that.

Our free and open society is no more. Our rights and our liberties have been curtailed. They've been changed in a manner that allows no dissent, and promises no restoration in either the short-term or the long-term. That, my fellow citizens, is the true measure of success of the suicide terrorists who brought the reality of war to our soil, and their surviving cronies are celebrating their success right now, and looking for ways to increase it.

We cannot defeat them by trying to capture them. We cannot anticipate their next moves beyond an arbitrary listing of the possibilities. We will have no success in removing them from our reality by somehow bringing to them the joys and freedom of some form of democracy. No, there is only one way to approach this, and no one is going to like to see this spelled out.

The irony, btw, is that we almost did it twice, Gulf War I and Afghanistan. That we stopped short in both cases is a testament to the need to go all the way.

Here's the deal: mess with us, and you go down. No exceptions, no mitigating protective circumstances. If you make a town or city your base of operations, you will be able to use human shields exactly once, and they will fail you because we will do whatever is necessary to kill you.
Apply this directly to Iran. Take off all restrictions and threats concerning the development of peaceable use of nuclear power, and give them this simple warning: test a nuke, anywhere under any circumstances, and we will declare war on you and destroy your infrastructure, starting with whatever progress in nuclear technology you've made. Use a nuke against others, whether civilian or military, and we will destroy every soldier you have in the field. Explode a nuke on US soil, no matter how limited the yield and scope of damage, and we will turn your major cities into fused slag. It would all go for chemical and biological weapons as well.

Anyone protesting this policy can take the following response: no one has the right to use a nuke as a first-strike weapon. That is the crux of the policy. Tell the world, right now, if you agree or disagree with that statement, and we can place you in the friend column or the enemy column, and that will be that.

That last statement is intended for the global picture, not for the reactions and opinions of individuals reading this. If you disagree with the policy I've outlined, then be prepared to defend your take on it, but don't hesitate to state it in whatever terms you choose.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Schools, family and community

Not a very exciting subject line, but I've been invited to continue a discussion begun on another blog, and I'm very pleased to accept.

The gentleman involved will further identify himself as he chooses. I know him as JohnT. We join the tangent from the other thread, right where it begins...

Pressure from charter schools is making the public schools more responsive. However, they still cater to the middle or slower students. A lot of teachers are heroic in their efforts to supplement the better students. Mostly it is up to the parents to educate their children.

I find the comparisons problematic on a number of levels, the primary one being that charter schools are like private schools, and the private-public comparison is worse than apples-oranges: they're not even both fruit.

Charter schools are a response to the pressure placed on public school administrations, so I must take issue with your logic in the first statement. The rest I can cover with one response: unfunded initiatives. I must limit my further remarks to Pennsylvania, since that is the situation with which I am familiar.

Special education in PA has never been funded separately. It was made a mandate from day one, and every school district was required to comply no matter what difficulty they might have in coming up with funding. Personally, the tactic of unfunded mandates is the real reason for all the cutting of all "non-essential" curricula like art, music and academic competitions.

It should be noted that support for gifted students is part of the same mandate. Most people don't realize that (at least in PA) "special ed" includes students at both ends of the spectrum.

Again, I favor smaller schools with more of the emphasis for learning placed on the family.

I have absolutely no argument with this statement. In fact, a bit of disclosure before I go on: my wife has been a public school, special ed teacher here for over 30 years. She's seen a host of things come and go, and the one thing that has never changed is the imposition of arbitrary policies often having little to do with educational quality or integrity, by politicians who don't know the first thing about the profession of teaching. The rare exceptions, the ex-teacher turned politician, are quite thankfully rare, because they are usually taking their personal experience and projecting it on all schools in every set of circumstances.

Anyway, smaller schools and emphasis on family involvement has been the cornerstone of public education for longer than I've been alive. It comes and goes for a variety of reasons, the chief one being large egos with agendas deciding to make problems where there are none, or who think nothing of tying the hands of the people on the front lines trying to implement real solutions to real problems, then blaming them for failing.

I'm eager to see John's response, and I urge anyone reading this to post responses, too.

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