Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ideas Have Consequences

While I was teaching a lesson last spring about how the eugenics movement led to the Nazi Holocaust, Kathy McDonald, an ed tech who worked in my classroom, called my attention to an obituary in the Conway Daily Sun for the late Walter Henry Berry, Jr. He and his wife had spent their childhood in the Laconia State School, which at the time had been run by the New Hampshire State Eugenics Movement.The obit showed a picture of white-haired, white-bearded Walter with his little dog, Goldie. Many local residents indicated on the Sun’s Facebook page that they remembered seeing them walking together on Route 16. Some of my students did too, and it made the lesson more real. Last month, they Googled the “New Hampshire Eugenics Movement” and learned that hundreds of NH citizens were forcibly sterilized at the Laconia State School. Walter’s obit didn’t say he or his wife were, but neither did it indicate they had any surviving children. My students learned also that Maine forcibly sterilized hundreds at Pineland Hospital in Gray.According to Wikipedia:

At its peak of popularity eugenics was supported by prominent people, including Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, Linus Pauling and Sidney Webb. Its most infamous proponent and practitioner was, however, Adolf Hitler who praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf and emulated Eugenic legislation for the sterilization of ‘defectives’ that had been pioneered in the United States.

In class, we studied ideas popular in America during the early 20th century and how they affected American beliefs about the beginnings of the universe, human life, and whether human life had meaning. I called student attention to correlations between Darwinism, eugenics, left-wing political movements and atheism. Most of those Wikipedia listed above were left-of-center, including Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes’ attorney, Clarence Darrow - an atheist who defended communists and anarchists. He was also one of the earliest members of the ACLU. Last month, National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg posted some excerpts from the textbook Scopes used when he taught evolution in Tennessee. According to Goldberg, the passages had been cited by prosecutor William Jennings Bryan during the famous “Monkey Trial.”

The first passage was a boilerplate summary of Darwin’s theory describing how humans evolved from lower life forms. Teaching the other passages, however, would get John Scopes or any other teacher today in big trouble. Not because they’d violate any laws against teaching evolution, but because they’re blatantly racist - declaring the so-called Caucasian Race to be the epitome of evolutionary progress. See for yourself:

The Races of Man. – At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

After a boilerplate paragraph on natural selection, the text went into a frightening new area: “Artificial Selection.”

Darwin reasoned that if nature seized upon favorable variants, then man by selecting the variants he wanted could form new varieties of plants or animals much more quickly than nature.

Then came: “Improvement of Man.”

If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.

The text then describes generations of Jukes and Kallikaks - two families cited as “parasites” because of “feeble-mindedness and immorality” which the text considers genetic. That led to this scary passage:

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

And finally, came this chilling passage called “The Remedy”:

If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.
Walter Henry Berry, Jr. and his wife were victims of the above “remedy” of “separating the sexes in asylums or other places” at the hands of the New Hampshire Eugenics Movement. The Third Reich believed it was better to “kill them off to prevent them from spreading.” At the close of World War II the world saw in the Holocaust the logical, horrible extension of the “science” of eugenics. “Prominent” people stopped advocating it, but, one - Margaret Sanger - went on to found Planned Parenthood, which performs millions of abortions with billions of US taxpayer dollars. That organization today is strongly supported by prominent left-of-center Americans too numerous to mention.

Ideas like eugenics have histories - and, they have consequences for the lives of ordinary people.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Out checking the properties I manage on Kezar Lake - my Saturday routine. No snow yet but lots of rain, then strong wind blew in some Arctic air. Water levels came way up on the Saco River and raised Kezar Lake's as well. It froze, then receded, leaving interesting formations of ice suspended above the water's surface.The sun was bright, so water and sky were very blue. I wasn't in a hurry, and I took time to look.Where a strong northwest wind blew hard on an eastern shore, ice formations got more jumbled.Nothing was amiss at the properties, so I could enjoy my perambulations and notice the beauty that's always around.Afterward, I went down to the Saco River to see if the rain had exposed any artifacts where Indians hung out for four thousand years or so. Only found a few chips from tool-making activity, but the water level had dropped even more along the Old Course of the Saco. Sun and cold acted nicely together on the ice there. Reminded me of those tasseled hats Mexican dancers wear.In one place it tipped somewhow.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Understanding Beginnings

One of the first homework assignments my students get is to ask their parents three questions: “How did everything (the universe) begin?”; “Where did humans come from?” and “Is there meaning to human life?”. For those who answered yes to the last question, there was a follow-up: “If so, can you explain that meaning in one sentence?”

Answers vary. Most are classic like “the big bang” and “God created it,” to explain how the universe began. Also classic were understandings of where humans come from such as the Darwinian: “They evolved from lower forms of life,” to the Judeo/Christian/Muslim: “God created them.”

Answers to the third question about whether life has meaning included a simple “No” for several parents. Each of these had answered the first two questions with big bang and evolution, though others who had answered thusly did believe there was meaning to human life. Some of their answers included: “Become the best person you can be”; “Live life to the fullest“; Do as much good as you can,” and “Help others.” All who believed God created the universe and humans also believed there was meaning to human life. Answers were predictable and tended to be variations on: “To do God’s will”; “To make it to heaven”; “Love one another”; etc. Afterward, I ask students to answer the questions for themselves. As expected, students’ answers reflected parental’ beliefs, but not in every case.

Ideas have consequences. How people of any culture understand the beginnings of everything affects their outlook on other things, and American thinking was constantly changing throughout the twentieth century. Darwin’s theory of evolution, Nietzsche's “superman” (Ubermensch), “will to power,” and declaration that “god is dead”; Marx’s about communism, revolution, and atheism as well as Sigmund Freud’s concepts of human psychology, all had profound influence on 20th century US History. Debate over policy between groups of Americans with differing beliefs about the above ideas follows often-predictable patterns right into the 21st century, especially about the role of government and the influence of religion upon it.

Ideas also have histories. Many thoughts in the minds of my students originated in other minds centuries and millennia before they were born. Conflict between ideas often results in conflict between individuals, between groups, and between nations. World War II, the Cold War, and today’s war with Radical Islam cannot be fully understood if not in light of such ideological conflicts.

The textbook we use: Prentice Hall’s “American Nation” was the most widely-used in America when I chose it ten years ago. It’s boring and it has has a liberal bias, but the others I had to choose from were worse. The flip side is that my lessons can seem interesting by contrast and my bias is opposite that of the book. The text contains several paragraphs about the then much-publicized Scopes Trial in 1926, during which Tennessee biology teacher John Scopes was charged and convicted of teaching evolution instead of creation. Eighty-four years later, the issue is still contentious in American public schools.

Mine are not science classes. I’m not teaching evolution or creation. My lessons are that ideas in human minds lead to behaviors which are beneficial or destructive at different times and in different ways. Ideas bring out the best and the worst in people when they’re propagated and when they’re repressed or resisted.

There was a time when I considered my thirteen and fourteen-year-old students too young to understand any of this, but I underestimated their capabilities. Not only can they comprehend classic ideological movements and conflicts, but that comprehension enhances their understanding of other aspects of history, economics and civics by providing an intellectual framework upon which to organize their understanding of disparate events in 20th-century US history. And, most like learning about them. I return to these ideas at various points in my 20th century US History curriculum.

It’s satisfying when my students offer me fresh perspectives on classic arguments. Many have been smarter than I am over the years as they grasp these concepts for the first time in their young lives. Their minds are less cluttered with bias and political correctness than those of adults and they ask very interesting questions. It’s exciting to be reminded of when I first chewed on these ideas and learned the nomenclature necessary to converse in them. The old becomes new again as I observe students jousting with one another in the arena of abstract thought.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Skin Graffiti

It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen up to that point in my life. National Geographic magazine showed people in Africa and Asia stretching out their lips and ear lobes by inserting larger and larger wooden disks into slits they’d cut into their own flesh. They believed the mutilation made them attractive and that astonished me. I couldn’t believe people would do that to themselves on purpose, but there they were.

How could they talk with those big disks in their lips, I wondered. As for the long loops in their ear lobes, I wondered if they every got them snagged while walking through thick jungle. That would hurt. So, you can imagine my surprise when I noticed some American guys at the Lovell dump last summer with stretched-out ear lobes just like I’d seen as a kid. It’s been fifty years since I read those National Geographics, but I never thought I’d see Americans doing that to themselves. If I ever did though, I’d expect I’d see them in Portland or Boston, but in Lovell, Maine? I didn’t know the guys, and maybe they were just visiting. I hope so.

So what does it mean when Americans mutilate their faces? Is it a sign of cultural devolution? The decline of western civilization? Or, am I just a right-wing bigot who refuses to celebrate diversity? I’ve been having trouble with this sort of thing ever since men started wearing ear rings, and that was when? Thirty or forty years ago? I’ve gotten used to ear rings on men since but it took a while. When I first saw them, I figured a man with an ear ring was announcing his homosexuality. Then someone gave me a slogan to help me understand: “Left is right and right is wrong,” it went, meaning if the ear ring were in the left ear the guy was straight. I pondered that, but I figured I’d just avoid all men with ear rings no matter what side they were on. To me they announced: “I’m confused.” Now I can accept that some otherwise-normal men wear ear rings. I can deal with them the same way I would if, say, they had an Obama sticker or Kerry/Edwards sticker on their car. I see them as misguided, but maybe not completely hopeless.

I suppose I should apply the same magnanimity to people who pierce themselves in their lips, tongues, nipples and other more intimate parts of their bodies which, hopefully, I’ll never see, but I can’t. For the time being, I shall continue to avoid those people. Maybe I’ll change my mind some day, but I doubt it. One thing about piercings: they can heal up. People do strange things when they’re young and foolish that they grow out of when they mature. Heck, I was a Democrat once. Stop sticking metal into your body and the holes will close.

Some people like getting tattooed when they’re young. “Tattoos are permanent proof of temporary insanity,” someone said once and that still makes sense to me. Another said, “Why would you put something in your skin that you wouldn’t hang on your wall?” I guess tattoos are not permanent anymore, but I’m told it costs a lot of money and some pain to remove them with lasers. Some of my father’s WWII friends had gotten tattoos overseas. It was the mid to late 1950s when I was old enough to notice and ask the men why they had done that to themselves. None were proud of them. All said they did it when they were drunk.

It was in National Geographic again that I first saw facial tattoos on Maori tribesmen in New Zealand. I’d gotten used to seeing them on the arms of my father’s veteran friends, but the facial ones threw me. I wondered why anyone would do that to himself. It wasn’t until I was visiting someone in jail that I saw facial tattoos on Americans, and I guess they’re getting fairly common in prisons. They’re off-putting to the observer and I guess that’s the point. On convicts and violent gang members, they’re definitely signs of civilizational decline.

If the tattooed don’t die young, they grow older of course. Many grow horizontally after a certain age and that distorts their tattoos. Can’t say I ever saw one I thought was attractive, but the tattooed obviously thought so when they stayed still while someone else stuck needles into them repeatedly. Tattoos get fat and wrinkly along with the rest of their bodies. After so many years, they’re just faded skin graffiti that somehow diminish the dignity of old age.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Defining Communism in Class

“What is communism?” I asked the class after writing the word on the board. “I’d like to find an unbiased definition.

One girl was looking in the glossary of her textbook for a definition. “I have one,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, nodding to her.

“‘Communism: economic system in which all property is owned by the community,’” she recited.

I thanked her, then asked the class: “Does that definition make communism sound good, bad, or neutral?”

“It makes communism sound good,” said a boy, “as if everything was equal.”

“Makes communism sound good,” I repeated. “‘An economic system in which all property is owned by the community.’ Who agrees that the textbook’s definition is biased by making communism sound good?”

About three quarters raised their hands.

“Anybody disagree?”

No hands.

“How about we try to come up with a definition with as little bias as possible?”

“Just use a dictionary,” said another girl. “They’re not biased.”

“Oh no?” I said. “Let’s check them out. Take out your laptops. Go to or whatever site you like to use.”

They pulled computers out of cases, opened their lids, and soon there were hands in the air. “‘a theory or system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state,’” said a boy.

“Okay,” I said. “Does that definition have any bias for or against communism?”

“Doesn’t sound like it to me,” said a girl. “That sounds neutral.”

“Who agrees?” I asked the whole class.

About half raised their hands.

“What about the rest of you?” I asked. My sense was they were tentative and not confident enough to offer an opinion one way or another, so I moved on. Another girl said, “a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party.”

“Well?” I said expectantly. “Any bias?” I wondered if she knew what “totalitarian” and “self-perpetuating” meant.

“I’m not sure, but it doesn’t sound good,” she said.

“Totalitarian government is one that has total control over people’s lives,” I said. “A self-perpetuating political party is one that does whatever is necessary to stay in power, in control.”

I waited a few seconds in case there were questions. “What do you think now? Does that definition sound biased?”

“Yup,” she said. “It doesn’t make communism sound good at all - kind of like it was shown in ‘Dr. Zhivago.” We had watched that movie in class for its depiction of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, and communism’s effects on the central character’s family.

“So, communism is: ‘a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party,’” I repeated. “Do you all agree that definition makes communism sound bad?”

“Definitely,” said a boy.

“Yes,” said the girl who first read the definition and wasn’t sure.

“Are any of you surprised that dictionaries can be biased when defining certain words?”

Several students nodded. “I just never thought of dictionaries that way,” said a girl.

“Well,” I said. “Communism is controversial. People to the right of center on the political spectrum tend to be hostile toward communism and socialism, but people on the left tend to think they could be good systems if applied well.” We had studied a political spectrum earlier in the year. “The people who wrote your book are like that, for example. They’re left of center.”

“Most words aren’t controversial, however. They may have different shades of meaning, but there’s little disagreement or bias when defining them.”

“So, do you think we could come up with an unbiased definition?” I asked the whole class.

Lots of blank stares and wide eyes, but no one volunteered to craft a definition.

“Awe, come on,” I said. “Nobody?”

Some scrunched their shoulders, but no one volunteered.

“Okay, how about this one,” I wrote on the board as I recited: “‘Communism - an economic system in which there is no private property and government decides who makes what and who gets what.’”

Then I turned around and asked, “What do you think? Any bias?”

“I think it’s biased against communism,” said a boy.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“It makes it seem like government is all-powerful.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Anybody else?”

“I don’t think it’s biased. That’s the way communism is,” said another boy. “Government, or ‘the party’ decides everything.”
“Okay,” I said. “Who thinks my definition is biased against communism?”

Only three hands went up.

“Who thinks it isn’t?”

Three more hands. The rest refrained from expressing an opinion.

“Well,” I said. “I am biased against communism, but I was trying to be neutral. We’re almost out of time, so we’ll let that definition stand for now.”