Saturday, September 24, 2011

A New Response to an Old Argument of Anti-gay Bigots

I do not throw words like "bigotry" around lightly. If someone is personally squeamish or morally against something, but keeps that to themselves, their own home, their own religious community, and doesn't advocate for laws that actively discriminate against others, I would never call him or her a bigot. Misguided, perhaps misinformed, and just plain wrong, sure. But not bigots.

Bigots are the people who want to prevent gay couples from getting legally married. Bigots are people who think it is fine when employers refuse to hire someone, or think it is fine to fire someone because they are gay. Bigots are people who want to prevent gay couples from adopting and fostering children. And sadly, surveys show that America is full of bigots.

Over the years I've encountered a number of (stupid and often cruel) arguments against equal rights for homosexuals. One that recently came up on a discussion forum I frequent was the old line about how nature (read: God) clearly "intended" a man and woman to raise children since only one man and one woman can biologically bring a child into the world. I can't say how many times I've heard/read variations of this argument over the years, some worded more crassly ("You can't fit a square peg in a round hole"), and some of which attempt to sound more philosophically profound.

They all ignore the fact that there have been numerous studies, and yet still no evidence that gay parents do a worse job than any adoptive parents (although there is evidence that their kids can be hurt by discrimination and homophobia.)

They all ignore the fact that the nuclear family is a relatively modern cultural construct, and that in most traditional societies children have been raised by a whole extended family.

They all ignore the fact that before the dawn of modern medicine, many mothers died in childbirth, meaning scores of children in history have been raised without their biological mothers.

They all ignore the fact that single women can and regularly do have children, and that without a test, paternity isn't obvious, and men can die young too, so scores of children in history have been raised without their biological fathers.

In short, to anyone with a brain and a little curiosity and compassion, arguing that gay couples shouldn't raise children just because they can't biologically produce children (with each other - obviously gay individuals have biological children using surrogacy and donor insemination, or from a previous heterosexual relationship) is a stupid and heartless argument.

That said, soon, the argument will also be just plain false. Think homosexual couples can't biologically reproduce with each other? Think again.

The last twenty years have seen incredible developments in reproductive technologies, not just for heterosexual couples, but both gay men and lesbian couples. Specifically, technologies which can be used to create female sperm and male eggs, which can then be used to conceive a child with two biological mothers or two biological fathers. The technology is far enough that young gay men and lesbians who expect to be affluent enough to pay for expensive procedures (as many well-to-do straight couples with reproductive difficulty already do) are talking up hopes and plans for their future family planning.

In a few, short years, that tired old line "gay couples can never have their own kids" will be obsolete, and people who say it as if it is something profound to base public policy on, will continue their steady march toward being seen for the bigots they truly are.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Evaluating Homeschooling Options in America

With the quality of public schools ranging widely, especially between more and less affluent communities, and rising cost of living and stagnating wages putting private schooling out of reach for many parents, the option of homeschooling has become quite attractive. After all, the Internet has made free and affordable resources for homeschooling families prevalent, and studies comparing the test scores of homeschooled kids to traditionally schooled kids show that homeschoolers may even have an edge.

Many in the Humanist community have developed concerns about homeschooling since the movement is mostly driven by fundamentalist Christian parents who seek to shield their children from the influence of secular culture. However, a significant minority of homeschoolers are highly educated liberals with secular humanist values. It is among this group that the unique subset of homeschoolers, self-dubbed "unschoolers" has arisen.

The unschooling approach is very different from structured homeschooling, which typically includes a set curriculum similar to that of traditional schools. Unschooled kids are expected to be responsible for their own education. Children decide what and how they want to learn, and parents serve as facilitators who provide a great deal of opportunity and intellectual stimulation, but never push anything on a reluctant child. Advocates of unschooling argue that traditional education stifles children's creativity, critical thinking ability, and natural desire and inclination to learn everything they need to know through everyday play and other activities. They claim that the requirements of school force children to memorize information unconnected to anything in their lives, which they promptly forget soon after testing. Even worse, children come to have an adverse reaction to any formal education. Critics of unschooling claim that without set requirements, most children will have significant gaps in their education and also give up on subjects which interest them when those subjects become difficult. Critics also have concerns that certain subjects become more difficult to learn as a child ages, and that lacking a firm foundation in early childhood puts the child at a disadvantage when they finally become interested in those subjects at an older age. Both sides make claims that sound reasonable, but which is closer to real-life outcomes?

Sadly, there isn't much hard data that measures the quality of unschooling, or homeschooling in general. This is become most of the studies that have been done involved volunteer rather than randomly selected subjects. Also, while some homeschoolers are willing to subject their children to standardized tests, many aren't, especially if their children are unschooled, and this creates further bias. Gwen Dewar has just written on her blog about a new study which attempt to eliminate some of these biases. The results were that according to standardized tests, structured homeschoolers have a bit of an advantage over public school children, while unschoolers do a bit worse. Certainly this tells us something, but it is only one study, and one must wonder how good are standardized tests an indicator of future, overall success and satisfaction in adult life?

In my own perusals of unschooling communities I have noted some consistent characteristics. In general, advocates and practitioners of unschooling include artists of various stripes and academics in the humanities or soft sciences, especially psychology. It is difficult, however, to find any scientists, engineers, or medical doctors. Is this an indication that math skills and the academic discipline necessary for certain careers is lacking among unschoolers? I can't be sure, but it is disconcerting.

Two other common characteristics found within unschooling communities just as disconcerting are the rather self-righteous tone and evangelical zeal.  The author of the blog The Chatelaine's Keys also noticed these annoying tendencies and wrote about in this post. Sharon writes:

I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers – anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny – why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education?  I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

Sharon also expresses my same concern regarding the sciences, questioning whether an older unschooled child who suddenly desires to become a rocket scientist could just quickly play catch-up on learning higher math. Indeed, given that we know that, for instance, foreign languages are much more easily learned from a very early age, it seems foolish to not take advantage of this special ability during early childhood education. We also know that certain athletic and other physical pursuits must be started at an early age if future professional goals are ever to be obtained. A four-year-old child might express an interest in ballet lessons, but will he or she actually practice enough entirely on his or her own at that age to have career potential? Of course most children will never have the potential to be a professional ballet dancer or rocket scientist just because their parents forced them to practice/study from a young age. However, it is doubtful that a child who starts ballet or higher math education at the age of sixteen could ever achieve professional status.

Of course we parents have to play a lot by ear and be careful not to force our children into hours and hours of excessive study into a subject that they never did and never will enjoy. That's just a recipe for years of resentment and therapy. But is the opposite extreme really any better? I for one am grateful for many things my parents made me do, such as practicing piano, running in track metes, and taking language and culture courses in Mexico one summer. Also, in my teens and early twenties, most of the disciplined study habits I developed - which have served me well in many aspects of my adult life - were achieved by the desire for good grades and high test scores rather than sheer love of knowledge.

As a freelance fine artist, it is a constant internal battle to maintain a regular studio practice, and it is such a weight off my shoulders when a scheduled exhibition or project provides an external deadline with external consequences and rewards. Sure we all need to be able to do some things out of personal motivation, but it is also part of life and the human condition to do some things just because others expect it. This is not a burden. We gain a great deal of satisfaction from fulfilling outside obligations and tasks. We take pride in prestigious job titles, impressive lines on our resumes, or letters after our names. To some degree we're playing a game within an artificial system, but flaws aside, things get done, and playing a role gets us outside of our own heads and connects us with the larger society.

Every parent has to decide what course is best for their children's education, taking into account their own situation, values, and abilities. We are fortunate in the United States to have a great number of options, although sometimes the wide range of choices and limited information on what will work best for our kids can be frustrating. Given what I've learned so far, and the importance I place on math, science, and multicultural awareness, whether I sent my kids to school or educate them at home, they're going to be studying age-appropriate math and foreign language, whether they want to or not. If they want to join the circus when they grow up, great! I just want to make sure they have options.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review of "How to Talk to Your New Age Relative"

I don't actually have a New Age relative. Well, at least not any that has gone so far off the deep end that they are in conflict with me or anyone else in my family. I have, however, had to deal with close friends of the family and people in community groups with beliefs that fit this guide's description of the "New Age". Also, I certainly do have certain outspoken relatives who have beliefs in conflict with my secular humanism, and much of the advice in this guide could be applied to speaking with a relative with any beliefs different from one's own. I have also had relatives who have involved themselves in financial cons and attempted to involve me or other relatives, and this guide also touches on those scenarios as they relate to New Age hucksters.

How to Talk to Your New Age Relative describes itself as "at time light-hearted and humorous", and I would agree. It is a sensibly-organized, quick read (about 25 pages) with a pleasant tone. And a light tone can be necessary when speaking about emotionally-charged issues such as how to deal with a cousin informing you that your dead mother spoke to him in a dream or that your son's cancer is merely a manifestation his inner state of mind.

There are some psychological explanations of "New Age" belief, such as trauma from childhood, that I felt were mere speculation and the guide would have been stronger without them. However, they are mentioned infrequently and as mere possible explanations for some, not all.

Most importantly, all of the advice is rather sound. Probably the best of it for people with strong opposing opinions (like us secular humanists) is the "classic switch-out" (changing the subject) since one of the dumbest thing I've certainly done with relatives and friends is get into a long, exhausting, and fruitless argument over philosophical differences.

This is the sort of common sense advice a mother or wise aunt gives because she knows how important it is for family to get along. The kind of advice that rings true, even obvious, when you consider it from a calm frame of mind, but which is easy to forget when you are taken off-guard, distressed, or pissed off. That's why it's good to have re-iterated and re-enforced, be it through a conversation with a wise friend or a guide written by a wise stranger.

Indeed, when someone we care about upsets us, it is easy to forget that how we respond can damage that relationship even more, or open it to ongoing future conflicts. This guides tells or reminds us how to diffuse and put a (hopefully) final end to conflicts as carefully as possible. And indeed it is painful to watch a loved-one venture into a worldview we do not share, and may in fact despise and deem harmful. This guide tells or reminds us that we can't change people, no matter how much we want to or how sincere our efforts. However, it also points out that we are more than our philosophical beliefs, and we can maintain healthy relationships with our New Age relatives based on what we do have in common.

In summary, I recommend this guide to anyone experiencing conflict or frustration over a relative or close friend with "New Age" beliefs, and who is seeking advice on how to cope. I think such readers will find it both useful and comforting.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Day Care Should Be Free

In honor of Labor Day, I've decided to write about an issue that has bothered me since the birth of my daughter two years ago. Although it should have bothered me long before that. The only reason it didn't is because, until I had my own child, it never occurred to me.

We should have free, public day care in the United States. Just as we have public schools and public libraries, the services of firefighters and police, day care should be free to the public and funded by tax dollars. And we should have this because it is fair and in the interest of not only parents, but our society at large.

Consider these facts:

According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the average cost of day care for a single child over one year is $11,666.

According to the 2008 Census, average household income is around $52,000. Single custodial parents (who care for 26% of America's children) are obviously earning less than that, although the majority of them still do not qualify for or take advantage of social services such as food stamps, rent subsidy, or Medicaid.

According to analysis of 2008 data by Emmanual Saez at the University of California-Berkley, the bottom 90% of American household's average income is just over $31,000.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child care workers average around $20,000 annually, with the highest paid still barely reaching $30,000. (So basically, those workers - mostly women - can't afford to send even one of their own kids to the very facility they work at caring for other peoples' kids.)

As of 2006 the average full time Walmart employee (working about 34 hours per week at just over $10. per hour) earns $17,874 per year.

The typical working parents of young children are just barely getting by financially, many in the gap where they aren't quite poor enough to qualify for aid, but also aren't earning enough to save for emergencies, retirement, or their children's college funds, much less for well-deserved and psychologically-needed vacations. They are literally on the edge of poverty, and face rapidly rising costs of medical care and insurance, food, gas, and higher education, while wages stagnate.

Obviously huge numbers of Americans simply can't afford professional child care. Even the crappy little one-room day cares loaded with crying infants, where the TV is blaring all day long, and exhausted caretakers are overworked and underpaid are too expensive for most American households. A single mother working a job making $30,000 a year simply cannot afford full time professional day care, but she must work in order to provide housing, food, and medical insurance for her family. So who exactly is taking care of the kids?

Retired and unemployed relatives and friends is one answer. And is that a good solution? I question the quality of care children receive by people who might be alone with them for 40+ hours a week, and whose only qualification may be that they happen to be around and have been pressured into it by a sense of family or friendly obligation. I also question how fair it is to older relatives, usually grandparents, who may not be in the best health, and after earning their retirement now have to go back to work full time doing the highly stressful job of caring for babies and toddlers.  

Then there are the parents who sacrifice earnings and career to care for kids. Many highly educated, productive working mothers (and some fathers) are leaving their careers or at least cutting back heavily on work to raise children, and then finding themselves at a huge disadvantage when they return to their career. Women are especially at a disadvantage if their marriage ends in divorce. Society is losing out on the benefits of these peoples' work.

There is obviously a problem here.

But if I bring this issue up to my middle class, liberal friends, they mostly just sort of shrug their shoulders and say something like, "Well, yeah, it probably should be made a little more affordable for some people."

Bullshit, I say. This is outrageous! The cost of just about everything is outpacing wages too quickly. Children are not a luxury or accessory. They are members of our society who need to be cared for until they mature, and we as a society have a responsibility to them and to the parents and guardians who raise them. Day care should be a free, public service. And it should be as simple and easy as enrolling a kid in public school.

Happy Labor Day, folks.