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People are funny creatures. At a time when the right wing is warning us that we need to keep vigilant lest we find ourselves wearing burqas here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, it is apparently failing to take a peek at itself in the mirror. It just might find a teenage girl who has embraced the “modesty” movement and has officially “devoted her virginity” to her father before God and her peers.

During the Cold War, the United States inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The idea was that we wanted to show the world that it was our national spirit, not our bombs, that made us an invincible nation. A godly nation. We needed to prove to the Soviet Union that our people had superior moral and spiritual fortitude, that our hearts and minds were united and pure. We wanted to look, feel and behave differently, to make a moral case for ourselves in our quest to come out as the government truly by the people, for the people. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was doing basically the exact same thing.

Since our focus has shifted to the Middle East, we hear daily reports of human rights abuses in the Muslim world. Young girls being murdered by their brothers, uncles and fathers in honor killings. Women being tortured and killed for allegedly not wearing their burqas correctly, or for being in the presence of an unrelated male. Even in India we hear about bride killings, where a new wife dies in a mysterious house fire, leaving the husband free to remarry and obtain a second dowry. And anywhere male sons are prized (because they are their parents’ retirement plan, whereas daughters are a financial and social liability), female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses remain a tragic human rights failure. The World Health Organization estimates that about three million girls, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, are subjected to genital mutilation each year. There is one cultural tenet that unites all of these practices: women’s bodies are not their own. They are property.

Now there is a new and growing trend in America. Christian teenage girls and their fathers are attending “Purity Dances,” which look and sound a lot like wedding ceremonies. Father and daughter walk down an aisle, daughter vows to remain chaste until marriage and father vows to “protect” his daughter’s virginity. Father gives daughter a ring. Daughter gives father a key (the key to her vagina, apparently), and father keeps the key until daughter’s wedding day, when he hands it over to the groom. According to the Chicago Tribune, one in six teen girls are signing virginity pledges. Also according to the Tribune, 88% of them will wind up having premarital sex.

American Christians are also embracing a move toward more modest dress. This I can truly get behind, as long as it is voluntary and falls into the parameters of what I would consider reasonable. Butt cracks and exposed pierced navels just aren’t what I’d consider to be attractive, and I think that women and girls (and men, for that matter) who don’t leave a single thing to the imagination are doing themselves a disservice. However, the advertising can go the other way. Girls are now announcing their chastity, with t-shirts that read “Abstinence Ave. Exit When Married,” and, even more creepy, underwear that states, “Notice: No trespassing on this property. My father is watching.” Whose property is it? The daughter’s or the father’s?

The idea of a father “owning” his daughter’s virginity is fraught with problems. What does this say about the relationship in terms of sexuality? What happens when daughters break their vows (as, apparently, 88% of them do)? Do they tell their fathers and face the possibility of being disowned? Or do they feel guilty and ashamed, in silent anguish when their fathers fork over their virginity key to their new husband, who is not their first lover? Do they feel they betrayed God and their fathers when, at as young an age as ten, they were asked to promise to remain virgins until their wedding night? Is this a fair thing to ask of such young girls? Would we even dream of asking boys to do the same?

Back to my original thoughts. We are told we have a new enemy now, an enemy that doesn’t treat its women so well. An enemy that holds double (and triple) standards, where girls are property but boys will be boys (with girls held responsible for their irresistibility). An enemy that condemns our fast and easy western lifestyle, yet when the cat’s away will often attempt to emulate it with a singular fervor.

So the Christians are buckling down and waging their reactionary cultural war. They are dressing more modestly, covering themselves up more, if you will. They are advertising their virginity with as much zeal as a prostitute advertises her lack thereof. They are conducting ceremonies wherein daughters embrace their status as sexual property in a patriarchal religious system. They are beginning to exhibit a similar world view to the very people they feel most threatened by, and they are too myopic to even realize it. Different war, same old human nature.

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The short answer is that I didn’t know why, exactly. It did not begin as some sort of ideological stand, and it didn’t have to do with the ‘God’ thing, at least not directly.

It began with a conference with a family before the start of the school year. Their daughter had been homeschooled, but she was expressing interest in attending public school for third grade. They came to see my classroom, to get a feel for me and what my teaching style might be, and to find out how accepting and accommodating I would be of their religion. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mother explained, and did I plan on on reciting the Pledge, and singing the National Anthem each day? I have quite a bit of firsthand knowledge regarding that particular faith (maybe someday I’ll explain), so I already understood that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not recite the Pledge, sing patriotic songs, or celebrate holidays or birthdays. If I had truly planned on reciting the Pledge each day, I would have said so. But I had been thinking about it, and I wasn’t sure. I explained this to the mother, and, thinking on my feet, said that I didn’t have any plans to, but I would reassess that if I had students or parents who requested otherwise. The mom seemed satisfied and enrolled her daughter in my class.

So the year began and we established our classroom routines. We had our quiet work period first thing in the morning and then began our lessons. Surprisingly, after four or five years in the public school system, none of my students asked me why we didn’t recite the Pledge, the National Anthem, or the school song. It was a total non-issue. Then toward the end of the year, with the sounds of the Pledge wafting in from the next door classroom, one of my “why” students asked me. I told him that we just get busy doing other things, but did he want us to start? He just shrugged indifferently and went back to his work.

Despite the fact that my class did not do it on a daily basis, I don’t mind reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (although I do think it’s a little weird to pledge allegiance to an inanimate object and then to the actual country it represents), and I actually enjoy singing the National Anthem. I like hearing it at the ballpark and at school assemblies. But I don’t like doing either every single day. It just sounds so, well, institutionalized when it is recited each day without fail. It sounds robotic, unemotional and uninspiring. I think that when it is reserved for special events such as assemblies, it takes on more meaning – it becomes special to recite the Pledge, and special to sing our National Anthem. Besides schools, I can’t think of any institution that recites either or both on a daily basis.

I’ve never been comfortable with conformity, and as a teacher I tried to celebrate (or, on bad days, at least tolerate) my students’ quirks and oddities and different ways of learning. I tried to limit the amount of time that we all spent doing the same thing. Even though as Americans we pride ourselves on our relative freedom, a classroom full of children, hands on hearts and reciting a patriotic oath, looks to me too much like indoctrination. How easy would it be to get them to raise a hand (as one did while reciting the Pledge until WWII) and pledge allegiance to a different sort of flag?

Maybe it’s a silly thing. Maybe I look too deeply into one of the standard ingredients of an American childhood. But I’d like to think that my former students, now that they are a year older and undoubtedly reciting the Pledge every day, might actually wonder, or even ask aloud, why. That, after all, is an exercise in freedom.

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Did you know that there is a washing machine out there that can actually supply drinking water? I didn’t think so either until I saw this advertisement in the Chicago Tribune:

“A Bosch washer could supply a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people.”

This kind of advertising drives me nuts. It is more than a little insulting that the marketing people at Bosch think that American citizens consumers are too ignorant to know the difference between water supply and water consumption. A washing machine does not supply water. A washing machine uses water. What they could have said was, “A Bosch washer could save a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people compared to less efficient models.”

Of course the ad was all in the context of touting the company’s environmental friendliness, and that is my larger point. Manufactured products are not generally “environmentally friendly.” Products that are efficient compared to other products are less environmentally damaging, but they still have an impact – they are still using nonrenewable resources, both in their manufacture and in their operation. Now that it is cool to be “green” I’ve noticed a lot of false and misleading advertising that basically wants the consumer to believe that their product is not just more efficient, but is in fact friendly to the environment. I like my washing machine as much as the next person, but I’m not going to fool myself into believing that dumping in a load of dirty laundry and a capful of detergent, and turning on a machine that uses hot water and electricity (and then dumps the used detergent and dirty water down the drain), is friendly to the environment. Even the energy star washers still work in the same way, even if they use a little less of everything.

Companies will naturally take any marketing angle and run with it, including jumping on the “green” bandwagon. But wild claims of machines actually being suppliers of natural resources? That’s low.

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Several months ago the National Geographic featured a picture from photographer Edward Burtynsky’s project titled, succinctly enough, “China.” It was of the inside of a poultry processing plant – hundreds of workers, all in pink scrubs, blue aprons, shower caps, plastic gloves and masks, each working over a plastic tub of chicken parts. At the time I felt a little guilty about all the times I ever felt sorry for myself – even though I didn’t like my job, or my car was on the fritz, at least I didn’t have to do that for a living. For some reason the image has stayed with me, and I’ve often consoled myself with the thought, “at least you’re not a Chinese poultry worker.”

Then the other day I was reading a little blurb in the November/December Orion magazine about the typical journey of a Chinook salmon, from the cold north Atlantic waters to your dinner plate. When the salmon is caught, it is frozen and loaded onto a ship waiting in a Norwegian harbor. The ship then sails, er, motors, to either Rotterdam or Hamburg where the fish is loaded onto a huge international container ship, which then sets off for China. About a month later, the frozen salmon arrives in China, most likely the northeast coast, home to most of China’s fish processing plants. The fish is trucked to one of these plants, is defrosted and on a large industrial floor, is skinned, boned, filleted and refrozen. Then it is loaded back onto a ship, destined for a U.S. or European supermarket. “Fresh” salmon, anyone?

The reason for this very long, very circuitous route is this: salmon have tiny little bones, called “pin bones” that the big filleting machines miss. They have to be plucked by hand using pliers or tweezers. Apparently labor costs make this too expensive/not profitable enough in the U.S. and Europe, so we ship the fish to China, where labor is cheap and productivity is high.

While I was reading this story, the first image that popped into my mind was the photograph of the Chinese poultry workers (you can see it here). The Orion article described the fish workers in basically the same way:

“In a large, neon-lit industrial space are ranks of tables, each with dozens of brightly colored plastic trays on top of them. Standing at the tables, dressed in white coats and caps and wearing latex gloves and cotton masks, are hundreds of factory workers – most of them young women from rural villages.”

If you were to tell this story to someone who was unfamiliar with the concept of global economies, he’d probably shake his head in disbelief. I mean, it just sounds so incredibly inefficient. How on earth can it be cheaper to send a fish around the world to have its bones plucked, when for a few dollars more an hour, you can have somebody do it right here? Or, conversely, how much can the Chinese factory workers possibly be making if it is cheaper to send it around the world than to do it ourselves? A dollar an hour? A dollar a day?

Give me a salmon fillet with pin bones, please. I will happily fetch my little pair of pliers (to hell with the apron and gloves) and pluck them out myself. For free.

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After posting about the school prayer issue in Illinois, my sister mentioned to me that her attorney friend was a little skeptical about my argument. He noted that the establishment clause simply prohibits the official establishment of any particular religion over another (B, let me know if I’ve got this wrong). I appreciate all reasoned comments and questions, because they cause me to continually rethink and evaluate my opinions (as they should).

At any rate, I think this is a common point with respect to school prayer, and to religious expression in general in the United States. And it is precisely one of the reasons why I don’t support mandating school prayer in public schools. Mandating “moments of silence” or other thinly veiled, similarly worded directives is, in my mind, basically saying, “we won’t tell you which religion you should be, but you ought to be some religion. A religion that involves praying to a god or higher power.”

No, no, no, the proponents say. You can meditate. You can reflect on your life. You can send good wishes to your aunt in Tulsa. You can work on that chunk of dry skin on your lower lip while scheming up ways to get back at your little brother.

Feh. What is the point, then? Why are some state legislators so adamant about enacting these laws if the time can be spent in sheer idleness? It is certainly not to protect a child’s right to let his mind wander aimlessly – that clearly isn’t the goal of institutionalized education – and in institutionalized education today, kids usually have more than enough opportunity during the day to take a mental vacation or two. It isn’t about giving kids a break – they get that at lunch, recess and study hall. That narrows it down to…could it be? An agenda to inject religion into public schools?

Oh, it is all so silly (and more than a little scary) and unnecessary anyway – unnecessary because all public schoolchildren already have the right to pray, and the government doesn’t have the right to tell them to, or not to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It doesn’t say “an establishment of a religion” (a particular religion over another). There is no article. It may certainly be implied (i.e. we don’t want a Church of America), but still – mandating prayer in public schools is an establishment of religion – not of one denomination over another, but just religion, period. It is mandating that administrators and teachers set aside time for religious practice in a public school.

A few quotes to chew on:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (from the Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous vote in 1797)

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (James Madison)

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“[I am] denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” (Ethan Allen)

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion…has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…” (Benjamin Franklin)

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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While the Illinois legislature could have been doing other things like, I don’t know, BALANCING THE BUDGET, two weeks ago it passed a law mandating a moment of silence in all public schools. As a person who has been in the trenches of the public school system, I can say unequivocally that silence can be a good thing. That’s why I, and most teachers I know, start off the day with just that – a brief period in the morning when students have some quiet time to do independent work (often called “Bell work”). For example, I gave my students a grammar exercise (written on the board) and a math review sheet. This gave me time to take attendance and to collect homework and lunch money. It was a time to focus, to center and to prepare for the day. This “moment of silence” lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, and at any time, any student who so wished could use a moment of this time to reflect, to mentally focus, or to pray.

Similarly, at lunch time, I dismissed students to get their lunches (we ate in the classroom) based on the noise level in the room. Hungry students are quiet students, if that is what the teacher requires. Same thing for dismissal at the end of the day. Students who want to go home are quiet students, if that is the expectation. My point is that students usually have several “moments of silence” built into their school day, not because is it legally mandated, but because teachers recognize the importance of establishing certain times that are calm, quiet and focused. For religious families who wish that their children take a moment to pray silently during the day, all they have to do is ask their children, or the teacher if they say they don’t know, if there are any such times during the day when this would be possible. Teachers, by the nature of their profession, need to be accommodating.

Over the course of the past two weeks, the op-ed pages have been chock-filled with opinions on the issue. The assumption, of course, is that this “moment of silence” is code-speak for “mandated prayer.” When I was in grammar school in the early eighties, my school instituted a moment of silence. After the principal made the announcements for the day, she presided via intercom over “sixty seconds of silence,” and a little beep let us know it was over. Ever the inquisitive one, I asked my fourth grade teacher what it was all about (she just loved me, by the way). She said, “So you can pray.” Then she caught herself and added, “or whatever.” Because, you know, she apparently remembered that our Constitution has this little detail about prohibiting the establishment of religion.

When I heard about the new law (vetoed by Governor Blagojevich and overruled), I just rolled my eyes and figured, well, there are bigger issues out there to get all worked up about. Like global warming, pollution, crime, poverty, immigration, terrorism and a few minor skirmishes in the Middle East. But yesterday I stared open-mouthed at an article in the Chicago Tribune that cited the official title of this bill: the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Come again? There is no assuming about it. This is about mandating prayer. It does not say “Silent Reflection OR Student Prayer.” It does in the body of the act, but not in the title. Notice also that the “reflection” part comes first in the title. Pretty sneaky, eh? It’s first about reflection and then about prayer. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

For someone who wavers between agnosticism and a sense that there must be some kind of universal intelligence, I have mixed feelings about the role that organized religion has played in our history. OK, some of those feelings aren’t so mixed. But I’m absolutely opposed to anybody telling me or my children, “you have to be silent right now to pray. Or whatever.” This is death by a thousand cuts to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the “or whatever” is just a politically correct add-on. That’s why I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, in response to a suit brought to him by an Arlington Heights parent, decided that the law is “too vague and ‘likely unconstitutional.'” I hope this isn’t the first such ruling. I’m going to go have myself a moment of silence to thank God for people who care about one of our most fundamental freedoms. Or whatever.

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James Howard Kunstler is my favorite curmudgeon. When I discovered him, I was elated to find a kindred spirit in terms of how I view the modern world. His writing, for better or worse, plays right into my deepest suspicions that the human species is headed for unprecedented peril in the coming years. He also shares my dismay about what has been going on in the building industry since the end of WWII. Things are ugly out there. Strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, big box retail chains…welcome to the new American landscape.

When I was ten my family moved from a big, old rented house in an urban suburb (closer to the edge of the city) to a tiny little cape cod in a WWII neighborhood that, at the time, was in a more far-flung suburb that abutted wide swaths of open space and farmland. Once I had my driver’s license, one of my favorite things to do was to go for a solitary ride on a summer twilight, out past civilization and into what felt, to me anyway, like the middle of nowhere. Enter the Housing Boom about five years later. It happened so fast that coming home from a two week vacation was disorienting. New strip malls, new housing developments, even new streets, were sprouting up overnight. I hate overusing the word “literally,” but I mean literally overnight.

And the houses. Commonly referred to as McMansions (my grandmother calls them “Big Uglies”), they are like giant behemoths rising from the prairie, their faces blank and expressionless. They are located in subdivisions with names like “Fox Run Estates,” “Huntington Grove,” “Lake View Manor,” and “Deer Path Village.” Never mind the fact that a fox, a grove of trees (they were all cut down), a lake (it’s a flood retention pond) or a deer would never be seen by the residents of the so-named developments. In these developments, there are maybe four housing styles (“The Tudor,” “The Windsor,” “The Edwardian,” etc.), but they all essentially look the same. They smell like drywall, like the VOCs radiating from the nylon wall-to-wall carpeting, like contractor-grade latex paint. They have hollow core doors and fake brass fixtures. They start falling apart before the ink dries on the closing documents.

I’ve always wanted to live in a really old house. Really old. As old as possible. I am even sometimes disappointed that I didn’t grow up in New England, where I might possibly live in a house built in the 18th century. Here in Chicago, the oldest house was built around 1836, and it would be next to impossible to find anything anywhere near that vintage on the market. I like the spicy, hardwood smell of old houses; I like the way the floorboards creak and groan. I like the wavy leaded glass windowpanes, and the fireplaces that kept ladies with petticoats and hoop skirts warm on cold winter evenings. I like the impenetrable plaster walls, the graceful archways and the possibility of finding an ancient relic in a long-forgotten corner of the attic.

My great-great grandfather built such a house. Out of stone. With his bare hands. It still stands today (albeit with an unfortunate 3-car garage added on by the current owners). It is graceful, solid and strong. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The windowsills are 24 inches deep, a perfect spot for my great-grandfather, as a boy, to gaze outside or take a nap. It sits amid the flat farmland on the upper tip of “The Thumb” in Michigan, a somewhat overlooked part of the state, where my relatives were among the first European settlers. I can hardly imagine living in a world where people built their own houses, houses that were as unique as their owners, with their very own idiosyncrasies etched into the stone, timber, mortar and brick. These houses have history. These houses are alive.

Which one would you choose?

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I’ve been mulling this over in my mind, the idea of a military surge in Iraq. Does anybody really know the odds? Does anybody really know whether or not an additional 20,000+ troops will somehow be able to turn a civil (conflict, war, squabble, unrest, fill-in-the-blank-here) situation around? Probably not. But I hesitantly support the idea of a surge, for a couple of reasons:

1) If we examine the basic options, we really only have a couple of choices: get out (however gradually – how long does the dog need to retreat with its tail between its legs?), or escalate in a last ditch effort. I’m not normally a black-or-white type of person, but really…the options are relatively limited.

2) Like many percieved lost causes, like many games that have been won after the TVs have been turned off in disgust, only to discover by the water cooler the next A.M. that the home team prevailed in a stunning turnaround, I believe that there is a slim glimmer of a chance that this ship can turn around at the eleventh hour, if we need it to badly enough.

3) Although I think it may be beyond hope, if we don’t “surge,” there will always be that possibility hanging in the air, the what-if syndrome, if we begin withdrawal now or soon. If, or rather when, the shit goes down, Democrats will be rightly blamed for blocking or not supporting the one last hope, the last ditch effort to turn the tide. It will be seen as a passed-up opportunity, an unopened door, an unexplored and foregone possibility.

Iraq will go down in history as a great Pandora’s box, the beginning of something that started out as a grand (but misguided) project to impose the illusion of western democracy on a country that has no concept, let alone plan, to make the idea a reality. The Iraqi George Washingtons may well have been executed, but our own man was in peril and survived to help build a nation. If Saddam Hussein successfully silenced all potential revolutionaries, then the timing was not right. Revolution must come from within, and we did ourselves and the Iraqi people a grave disservice by acting on the notion that it could come and succeed from without. What rubbish to say that the Iraqis need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take responsibility for themselves. They couldn’t, didn’t or wouldn’t do it under the thumb of tyranny. What makes them so capable now that we are in the position of trying to save them from themselves?

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“The only way to be sure of whether or not every child is learning is to test regularly…”

– George W. Bush

I respect the intentions of the No Child Left Behind act. In no way should a school, through lack of organization, lack of will or lack of resources, ignore the needs of any of its students. All students should have an equal opportunity to succeed.

However, success is a very subjective idea – my definition of success for myself is probably different from your personal criteria.

That said, the vast majority of us are average. Yup. Ho-hum, Joe Lunchbucket average. We are mostly average athletes, average earners, average-looking and of average intelligence. Most of us are private material.

Private material? Ok, I’ll explain. The first standardized test, or at least the one that would look most familiar to us, was schemed up during World War I, when the military was looking for a quick and efficient way of finding potential officers among the sea of privates. (My grandmother knows about this. When we were discussing this very topic, she said, “Oh, your great-grandfather took that test. He had just finished his officer training when they sent him home. The war had ended.” This is clearly a gratuitous aside, but hey, it’s my blog. I can be proud of my officer material great-grandfather.) It was a test of intellect, of inherent cognitive ability, not of academic achievement. It was specifically designed to rank people, much like the military’s use of a hierarchical ranking system as its basic structure. It seems to work for them. The problem, though, is that educating children is different from developing a well-trained, robust military.

Here is the astonishing thing (I say that only ever so sarcastically), given the structure and stated purpose of modern education: standardized achievement tests are still used in the same way – to rank people. “Achievement” is a misnomer. The tests are structurally, by intent and design, used to rank students into the familiar bell curve, with the vast majority of students falling within the realm of “average.”

Now, I’m no statistician, but there seems to be a problem here. Public schools need to state certain goals (primarily for federal funding purposes), stating what percentage of their students should be at X percentile by year X. For example, ABC Elementary has to have a plan like, “By the year 2008, 95 percent of our students will score at or above the 55th percentile on the Acme Test of Student Achievement.”

Here’s the problem: it is statistically impossible for 100 percent, or even 95 percent of all students, to score at or above the 55th percentile. The nature of the tests simply does not allow that outcome. 50 percent of students within the testing population will fall at or below the 50th percentile and 50 percent will fall at or above the 50th percentile. That’s just how it works.

This is one way that happens: Standardized tests are examined and reviewed question-by-question each year. If, say, 60 percent of students got question X correct, the review panel will generally toss the question in favor of a “harder” one, because question X was “too easy.” But wait! If 60 percent or more of students know the correct answer to the question, doesn’t that mean that TEACHERS ARE DOING THEIR JOBS BY EFFECTIVELY TEACHING THAT CONCEPT!? You’d think. In practice, though, if the kids know it, it’s too easy. Since the test is designed to rank students, a question that is too easy must be scrapped in favor of a harder one.

Hence the opening quote – whenever somebody says, “the only way to achieve X goal is to…,” I get suspicious. Nothing gets under my skin more than black-and-white thinking. That said, sure, I’ll accept Bush’s judgment that we have to have some sort of method for evaluating student learning. Let’s call this method “testing.” But let’s design a test that truly does measure learning, not one that is inherently designed to show that, unlike in Lake Wobegone, your kid is probably…average.

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Something has been nagging me ever since Condoleeza Rice categorized the recent violence between Hezbollah and Israel as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” I like the language of the analogy, but it set me thinking. We are seeing changes in the Middle East, for sure, and the Middle East in a hundred years will most likely be a greatly changed region. My question is, how will it be different? It seems like the Middle East is approaching some kind of tipping point, but which way will it go? In the last episode of the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen muses that “announcing your plans is a good way to hear god laugh,” and I think the same could be said for making predictions. However, what we can do is take another look at things and reevaluate where we are, and be willing to change course based on a deeper understanding of the issue.

The other day I was watching the News Hour, and the discussion was about Bush’s statement that “failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to U.S. security.” My first question to Bush would have been to ask him to define “failed states,” so as to clarify any ambiguity. Does he mean “failed democratic states,” or “states that have descended into anarchy,” or “states that are ruled by terrorists,” or “states in the throes of civil war”? It seems to me that the level, nature and cause of the failure would be an important factor in assessing threat to the United States.

One of the guests, Ralph Peters (retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of the book, “Never Quit the Fight”) had this to say:

…I draw on the definition of failed states…as far as Iraq goes, it hasn’t failed yet. We need to remember that. The odds may only be 50-50. But if it does fail, the president’s assumption that it’s a direct threat to us may not prove right. A failed Iraq with Sunni and Shia going at each other may be al-Qaida’s Vietnam.

You know what, failed states, and certainly in the Middle East as well as elsewhere, tend to concentrate on their internal problems. They don’t generate terrorists. The terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 and elsewhere came from stable states, I would argue other kinds of failed states in the Middle East.

The danger in a failed state, as Afghanistan was briefly, is it throws up a radical movement that provides a safe haven for terrorism which then directly threatens the United States. But if Iraq comes apart, they’re going to be preoccupied with their own problems for a long time.

…we are without doubt witnessing something without precedent, the crash of a once great, still proud civilization, that of Middle Eastern Islam. And the problem is that the Middle East is not competitive in any sphere…[a]nd it’s a problem of humiliation and jealousy, but it is homegrown. Again, you know, we made mistakes in the Middle East. We made a bad problem somewhat worse.

…it’s the classic heart-breaking problem I encounter in the Middle East, where last week I was in Israel sitting down with senior Israelis. And the senior Israelis were looking at what was going wrong and criticizing themselves, their own system, “How do we make this right?”

I also sat down with a group and Saeb Erakat, who’s about as good as the Palestinians get. Erakat immediately went into, “It’s all Israeli’s fault. It’s all the United States’ fault.” And, you know, the plumbing doesn’t work, so it’s [the] CIA and Mossad.

The other guest during this discussion was Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. While he pointed to foreign occupation and meddling in the Middle East as large determining factors in the region, he nonetheless acknowledged that the Middle East had some serious preexisting problems:

But it’s true. Before the United States was involved, there were deep, profound problems in the Middle East. One of the things I talk about in this book, one of those problems was external intervention.

This is the most strategically important region in the world. This is a region which, since the British discovered oil in Iran in 1901, has most of the world’s oil reserves. The degree to which it has become a penetrated system — Britain, Russia, later on the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, and now the United States — are a large part of the problem in that region.

To say that there’s no indigenous problem would be false. Of course there are profound indigenous problems. I wouldn’t put it in the kind of stereotypical terms that Colonel Peters has. Of course there are.

I started to feel like I was onto something big – here we have two people with fairly different perspectives agreeing that there were big, even fundamental, problems within Middle Eastern civilization, independent of foreign “penetration.” This is a starting point, a premise, that clearly others have thought of long before me. To me, things start making a whole lot more sense when I frame related events with the idea that Middle Eastern, or more specifically, Arab, civilization is unraveling, and in fact has been for hundreds of years.

Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, in his article, “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization,” notes that,

on the Arab League’s website there is a paper that details all of the contributions made by Arab civilization. It is a long and impressive list, which unfortunately marks 1406 as the last year a significant contribution was made. That makes next year the 600th anniversary of the beginning of a prolonged stagnation, which began a dive into the abyss with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Final collapse has been staved off only by the cash coming in from a sea of oil and because of a few bright spots of modernity that have resisted the general failure.

Lacey goes on to outline the general condition of the Arab world, getting his statistics from the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report and the OECD, and it is very grim. Only 1.6% of Arabs, for example, have Internet access, 60 million people, mostly women, are illiterate, and GDP (after adjusting for inflation) is declining. Based on population trends, Lacey asserts that,

Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.

This statement should not be read as mere opinion. While predictions of the future are usually fraught with peril, those based on demographics are, barring some unforeseen plague or truly catastrophic war, uncannily accurate. Using even the most optimistic assumption—that fertility rates drop by fifty percent in a generation—the respected Population Resource Center, based in Princeton, New Jersey, expects Arab populations to grow from 280 million to almost 460 million by 2020 and to over 600 million a generation later. On the face of it the Arab world is staring political and economic disaster in the face. Arab governments and institutions are already failing to meet basic human needs in many Arab countries. It is hard to imagine how they will cope with the stress of such a massive population increase.

When you have a population explosion like this, you get what Lacey calls a “youth bulge,” or a large percentage of young people making up the population. We know, also, that acts of terrorism are largely executed by youth who are fueled by Islamism’s warped ideology and economies that cannot offer stable, fulfilling employment. Lacey explains that, “In socially and politically repressive societies, found throughout the Middle East, there are very few outlets for pent-up frustrations except for violence or immersion into religion—a combustible mixture.”

Taking this premise to an applicable conclusion, one that we can use to help stabilize the world while this collapse plays itself out, Lacey argues that,

By accepting that we are facing the collapse of Arab civilization we can, for the first time, create a grand strategic concept for success. We no longer have to engage in a war against terrorism, which is a method of fighting and not an enemy. Additionally, we now have a strategic explanation for what is going on that does not make Islam the culprit. Hence we do not have to fight a religious war to win.

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