E-Pluribus | October 10, 2023
Why teachers can't teach; recognizing our opponents' inherent dignity; what exactly is the "right to exist"?
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Jessica Grose: Teachers Can’t Hold Students Accountable. It’s Making the Job Miserable.
Many of the recent disputes about public schools have centered on what is being taught. But many educators are concerned because they’re not permitted to teach effectively at all. For her New York Times newsletter, Jessica Grose solicited responses from teachers about the shrinking pool of future instructors, and the inability to hold students accountable appears to be a large factor in teacher frustration and burnout.
The current teachers quoted in this newsletter asked not to go on the record with their full names in order to avoid potential repercussions in their workplaces. A typical response came from Russell, a public high school teacher on the East Coast. He said that when a big chunk of the graduating class “has a 4.0, grades are meaningless,” adding: “Failure is a bad word — and the kids know it. It takes way more work to hold a student accountable than to simply pass him/her. Even if a kid does nothing all year, we are encouraged to find a way to pass him/her. And then, of course, when a student does not perform, parents often want to know what we are going to do about it — not what their child can do.”
Part of the issue is grade inflation. As Chalkbeat reported last year, “Even as students have taken higher-level courses, their G.P.A.s have steadily risen — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009 and 3.11 in 2019.” At the same time, test scores on national exams have dropped or remained unchanged, which suggests that students aren’t actually better prepared in math, English or science than they were 20 years ago. The lack of basic skills has been evident for a while: Many two- and four-year colleges devote significant resources to remedial education.
This overall state of play has become more alarming since 2020, given how far behind schoolchildren are now. What’s not helping? The policies many school districts are adopting that make it nearly impossible for low-performing students to fail — they have a grading floor under them, they know it, and that allows them to game the system.
Several teachers whom I spoke with or who responded to my questionnaire mentioned policies stating that students cannot get lower than a 50 percent on any assignment, even if the work was never done, in some cases. A teacher from Chapel Hill, N.C., who filled in the questionnaire’s “name” field with “No, no, no,” said the 50 percent floor and “NO attendance enforcement” leads to a scenario where “we get students who skip over 100 days, have a 50 percent, complete a couple of assignments to tip over into 59.5 percent and then pass.”
[. . .]
Just passing students on without ensuring that they’ve learned what they need to learn is obviously not just demoralizing for teachers, but potentially has devastating consequences for our society.
Read the whole thing.
Daniel M. Rothschild: Reducing Political Polarization by Respecting Human Dignity
The Golden Rule — do to others what you would have them do to you — could diminish the polarization so prevalent in our society, particularly in politics. Writing at Discourse Magazine, Daniel Rothschild reviews Alexandra Hudson’s new book, “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.” Hudson argues that, beyond mere politeness, elevating the basic human dignity of others above winning an argument could dramatically improve our public discourse.
While political polarization is increasing around the world, the peculiar fact of American polarization is that our variety is primarily negative in nature. That is, Americans are increasingly sorting into political teams not because they like what their team stands for, but because they disdain—or even outright hate—the other team.
[. . .]
Civility is the kind of concept that many of us know but can’t exactly define; we know it by its absence and opposites. Hudson defines it in contradistinction to politeness. “Civility,” she writes, “is a disposition, a way of seeing others as beings endowed with dignity and inherently valuable. Politeness, by contrast, is a technique: it is decorum, mores, and etiquette.” Politeness is easy to fake, and it’s quite possible to be civil without being polite (or vice versa).
In general, we’re doing OK as a society with politeness. This is especially true, Hudson notes, in transactional environments such as Washington, D.C., where politeness is just another way to control and dominate people (that is, to exercise our libido dominandi, a phrase she uses throughout the book). It’s civility—where relations are built on genuine mutuality and respect—where we’re experiencing a deficit.
Hudson’s fundamental insight is that the virtues and values associated with a free and prosperous society rest on an irreplaceable foundation of civility, which is the expression and habit of seeing one another as people deserving of respect and made in the image of God. While this is a concept most frequently expressed in the West in Abrahamic theological contexts, Hudson shows how similar conceptions have existed, in both religious and secular expression, for millennia. She draws a line line from the Hebrew Scriptures through the classical world and into medieval, early modern and Enlightenment thinking.
[. . .]
Small steps make a difference, and a few people choosing to be more civil in their lives can create a virtuous cycle affecting those around them. Here Hudson finds wisdom in the Stoics: We can’t control others, but we can control our responses to their actions. And choosing to act with civility is the only way to bring about a more civil world—and therefore a freer and more prosperous one.
Read it all.
Holly Lawford-Smith: Trans Identity and the Right to Exist
Radical transgender activists often complain that their opponents threaten their very right to exist. At Quillette, Holly Lawford-Smith closely examines what those activists might mean, how it relates to the concept of “rights,” and how those apocalyptic claims fall short of reality.
Obviously, the phrase “right to exist” can’t be meant literally, for, just as a smile needs a face, rights need rights-bearers. For example, there can be no human right to freedom of association without individual humans who have that right. Something that doesn’t exist can’t bear rights. (Though those who believe in souls may be able to make sense of the idea of a right to exist: it would mean something like each soul has the right to be attached to a material body.) Perhaps the phrase is shorthand for “right to continue to exist,” but no one is threatening that right, at least not as ordinarily understood.
So, what are all these commentators trying to get at? Damian provides a clue when he talks about debates that threaten “your existence—the way that you see yourself.” He treats these those concepts as synonymous, but he’s actually only talking about the latter: a man seeing himself as a woman, or a woman seeing herself as a man. He’s calling that “existence,” but the more accurate and neutral term for that would be “identity” or perhaps “self-perception.” It doesn’t pack nearly as much punch, though, to say that it’s harmful when your self-perception is contradicted, because it’s obvious that people can have wildly inaccurate self-perceptions, and that denying the validity of those self-perceptions or correcting them would not constitute harm. Using the more neutral term would make it impossible to claim “That’s more violent than violence” with a straight face.
[. . .]
Activists have only to present transgenderism as a “culture,” and then they can argue that trans people have a “right not to be subjected to forced assimilation” (into “cisnormativity,” presumably); and a right to be protected against the “destruction of their culture.” Indeed, they can claim that the state owes them redress for any attempts to deprive them of their distinct “cultural values or … identities.”
[. . .]
[T]rans activists still need to give us some reason to accept that transness is an essential property of persons. If it’s merely an accidental property (a property that an individual happens to have, but could have lacked), then it’s like John’s temperature—you can change his temperature and his essential substance will persist. In that case, there’s no recourse to the claim that “existence” has been threatened.
Read it all here.
Around Twitter (X)
Via Yascha Mounk, a comparison of German and American press reporting on Israel this weekend:
Without questioning their right to free speech, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers rebuffs a statement from student groups holding Israel “entirely” responsible for the weekend terror attack. Summers is equally appalled by the school’s lack of response:
And finally, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) encourages pro-abortion counter-protesters to use their freedom of speech to respond with words rather than **checks tweet** eating parts of the pro-life group’s display: