Hard Work (and cheating)

October 7, 2006

Good and careful consideration of cheating in school, especially with regard to different disciplines in college, in a post at Aude Sapere*. That post is well written, very thought provoking, and well worth the time one might spend on it. The figures are depressing, generally, but reflect a general view we hear from students too often — in an era when top government officials cheat to get what they want (think: why did we invade Iraq?), students often test to see whether we can detect their cheating, and to see what we’ll do about it.

The grand mystery to me is this: It’s generally more time consuming, and more difficult, to try to cheat, than it would be to learn the material well enough to pass my exams; why bother to cheat? The day that light dawns on a student is always a good day.

I am hopeful that part of the rise in confessed cheating is due to an increased sense of just what cheating is. Borrowing quote cards from a debate colleague is considered required sharing; using those same quote cards to put together a paper for another class — is that over the line? (I don’t regard it as cheating, but I’d be interested in hearing if you do.) Do today’s students consider that forbidden? Are today’s students more moral?

Short essays are a good way to get around most cheating, but short essays create grading nightmares that grow exponentially with the number of students.

What’s the solution?

Another blog takes a look at Florida legislation which, to me, is part of the cheating problem. Tony Whitson at AAACS Matters! calls for action against the Florida law which aims to avoid “interpretation” in teaching history, but which also dabbles in changing the facts of nature for biology study, and generally tends to politicize public school curriculum.

It seems to me that the Florida legislature is doing the same thing high school cheaters hope to do — when the facts are difficult or troubling, change them. High school kids can’t change certain facts of history that they do not want to bother to learn, but legislatures, with a great finger in the eye of history, learning and democracy, can try.

And, if presidents and state legislators can play fast and loose with the facts, why shouldn’t a high school student at least try to do the same? If our kids watch what we do, and not what we say, we may be in for several years of increased cheating.

    . .

* Aude sapere is Latin, a line from Kant; it means “dare to know.” I posted it over my classroom door for three years; only a few students ever asked about it. Each of them subsequently took up Kant’s challenge, either continuing their quest for knowledge in history or economics, or more often, taking up such a quest for the first time.

Evangelism vs. scholarship: Bible study in public schools

September 15, 2006

Last year the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) published a revealing study showing that most curricula for Bible study in public schools promote Christian faith more than they study the Bible. The study was done by a witty and amusing professor of religion from Southern Methodist University, Dr. Mark Chancey.

This week they followed up that study with a detailed look at Bible studies courses in Texas public schools, as they are actually presented to students. It’s not pretty.

In their press release, TFN said:

Clergy, Parents Voice Concerns About Public School Bible Classes

New Report Reveals Poor Quality, Bias, Religious Agendas in Texas Courses

September 13, 2006

AUSTIN – Clergy and parents are voicing serious concerns that Bible classes in Texas public schools are of poor quality and promote religious views that discriminate against children from a variety of faith backgrounds.

“The study of the Bible deserves the same respect as the study of Huck Finn, Shakespeare and the Constitution,” said the Rev. Dr. Roger Paynter, pastor of First Baptist Church of Austin. “But in some public schools, Bible courses are being used to promote an agenda rather than to enrich the education of our schoolchildren.”

Dr. Chancey is a solid scholar of the Bible. His criticisms are detailed and often understated, in a business where criticism is generally more hyperbole than substance. Especially if you live in Texas, you should read the report.

In the original study, Chancey noted that some nationally-promoted curricula for Bible studies had plagiarized some of their most important materials, in one case including the entire section on honesty as defined by the Ten Commandments. Dr. Chancey does not write drily — he really does a great job turning words. Both studies are well worth the reading.

First Amendment charlatans are fond of quoting the Supreme Court’s decisions in school-and-religion cases since World War II, in which the Court urges critical studies of scripture, saying such studies are legal and good. Then the charlatans go on to advocate Bible studies that are devotional, confusing a Sunday school class-style of scripture study with the critical literature study the Court actually urged. These reports leave little room for squirming by those advocates.

Last time around, TFN held a meeting here in Dallas featuring Dr. Chancey talking about the report and the reaction to it from the religious right (they were stunned into saying many really stupid things). It was a fun night, and I hope TFN will do it again.

Other coverage of the report:

If you see a particularly good story on the study, will you please send me a link?

Patriots and Christians don’t let children take crappy Bible studies courses:

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Twisting history still: D. James Kennedy

August 23, 2006

Voodoo history just will not die.

Several years ago I caught the tail end of a television program featuring the Rev. D. James Kennedy railing against evolution and especially Charles Darwin.  What caught my aural attention was a rant claiming that Darwin somehow bore responsibility for Stalin’s manifold evils perpetrated in the old Soviet Union.

That is bogus history of the first order, of course.  Stalin banned the teaching of evolution, and he banned research even based on evolution

Soviet genetics, top of the world in the early 1920s, was set back decades (and still has not recovered).  Some top scientists were fired; some were imprisoned; some were sent to Siberia in hopes they would die (and some did); a few disappeared, perhaps after being shot.  Soviet anti-Darwinian science contributed to the massive crop failures of the 1950s that led to the starvation of more than 4 million people.  Claiming that Stalin loved Darwinian theory is bad history revisionism of first order.  (If you’re Googling, look for the story of Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s henchman against biology.)

Kennedy is at it again.  The past couple of weeks have featured new rants against Darwin, leading up to a promised climax this weekend in which Kennedy will claim Darwin was responsible for Hitler and Nazi atrocities — again a fantastic claim, since Hitler directly repudiated Darwin, never expressed support for the idea of evolution, and since anti-Darwin quackery led to any number of stupid science moves in Nazi Germany, such as a ban on blood banks for fear that soldiers would get Jewish blood and turn Jewish (no, you can’t make that stuff up — see Ashley Montague’s essay in his 1959 book, Human Genetics).

Unfortunately for Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Ministries (CRM), his advance flackery got the attention of biologists like P. Z. Myers and others, like the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

There is much bogus history to deal with there, and so little time.  Check out the links.  More to come from here, I hope.

A plagiarism how-to

August 16, 2006

Back in May, Alex Halavais at A Thaumaturgical Compendium offered advice on how to plagiarize to avoid detection.  Of course, it also lets the cat out of the bag on how to detect such plagiarism, which was his tongue-in-cheek intention all along.  Halavais has some other stuff worth reading, and a very impressive resume.  Any teacher grading essays should read the plagiarism post.

(Tip of the backscrub brush to but she’s a girl . . .)

Textbook plagiarism

July 29, 2006

Ouch! One of the major textbook publishers has a minor embarrassment over a case of self-plagiarism. According to the once-formidable, now reduced United Press International:

Textbook similarities an ‘aberration’

UPPER SADDLE RIVER, N.J., July 13 (UPI) — The makers of two textbooks published by Pearson Prentice Hall of Upper Saddle River, N.J., have said near-identical passages in the books are accidental.

A spokeswoman for the company, Wendy Spiegel, said the similarities between “A History of the United States” and “America: Pathways to the Present” are “absolutely an aberration,” The New York Times reported Thursday.

Spiegel said the relevant passages, dealing with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, were added hurriedly by editors and outside writers after the events occurred.

No serious issue, except that the addition of the passages smokes out another problem with history texts: Sometimes what the book contains is not material the authors listed on the cover wrote, or even approve of.

“They were not my words,” said “Pathways” co-author Allan Winkler, a historian at Miami University of Ohio. “It’s embarrassing. It’s inexcusable.”

Former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin is the chief author listed for A History of the United States.

Worse for the publisher: The problems were caught by a major critic of the teaching of history in public schools.

The similarities were discovered by James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” while researching an update of his book.

Bad quotes = suspect scholarship (Ann Coulter . . .)

July 8, 2006

Partly because I spent so many years debating competitively in high school and college, I cringe when someone misattributes a quote (it’s rather a sin to do that in debate). Worse are those “quotes” that get passed around, often attributed to some famous person, which are complete fabrications.

Then there are quotes that are partly fabrication, and partly accurate. Most often, in my experience, this is done by people on the right of any issue, but it is occasionally a sin of someone on the left as well. The Right Honorable Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars shows wisdom in calling to task someone with whose point he agrees, but who quoted Thomas Jefferson incorrectly. Go see Brayton’s post here, “False Founding Father Quotes From Our Side.”

Jefferson from MemeGenerator.com

Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot, but recorded almost all of it. Easy to check whether Jefferson actually said what is attributed to him — but too often, not even a rudimentary check is done.  Jefferson didn’t say this, by the way.  Image from MemeGenerator.com

Thomas Jefferson is one of a handful of people to whom made up quotes are regularly attributed. Abraham Lincoln is a popular misattributee, too, as are Mark Twain and Albert Einstein (no, Einstein never said anything about ‘compound interest being the best invention of the 20th century’). One would be wise to refrain from repeating anything any speaker attributes to these people, at least until one checks it out to be sure it is accurately attributed.

Two circumstances make for “honest” misattributions. I confuse Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein comments, inexplicably, so often that I have learned to consult the books before saying who said it, if either one springs to my mind. I am sure that more than once in speaking I have misattributed something to one of these ladies, and I know other speakers do it, too. The second circumstance is when someone hears that misattribution and repeats it — the old line about some one “who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad” is often still attributed to W. C. Fields, though it was originally said by Leo Rosten, in an introduction for W. C. Fields, according to Rosten. Generally people will cheerfully correct such misattributions.

Lincoln's name gets attached to a lot of stuff he didn't say. He didn't say this, for example.

Lincoln’s name gets attached to a lot of stuff he didn’t say. He didn’t say this, for example.

Other misattributions have more larceny at heart. Novice speakers will put a quote to a name, more out of fear that their audience will believe them more if they cite an authority or celebrity than anything else.

Cottage industries built up around inventing misquotes plague two areas of public discourse. Ed Brayton is sensitive to them both, as am I. For some reason, advocates of government displays of religion (which are prohibited by 50 state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution) feel that “quotes” from “the Founders” should carry special legal and persuasive weight, if the quotes indicate that the people who established the United States thumped Bibles as hard or harder than Jerry Falwell at a rhythm-and-blues-themed revival.

For example, few weeks go by that I do not get by e-mail a diatribe against “secularism” that claims falsely that our nation’s founders were overweening Christian fundamentalists, as evidenced by the Christian images splattered all over Washington, D.C., and the Bible verses carved in all the public buildings. That is patently false, however. Christian imagery does not predominate in the public art displays in the nation’s capital, but is instead difficult to find unless one is really looking for it. Nor are Bible verses carved in many public buildings — there are perhaps a dozen verses sprinkled throughout the displays honoring knowledge at the Library of Congress, but none I know of anywhere else. These e-mails are not really new. I had heard these claims in speeches, especially at the Fourth of July and at American Legion speech contests, and when I staffed for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, my office was bombarded with such offerings — often with an invective-filled letter asking why public officials refuse to speak the truth. I often took those documents out on lunch-hour excursions to try to match the claims with the monuments: The claims are false.

Nope, Albert Einstein didn't say that, either.

Nope, Albert Einstein didn’t say that, either.

Claims continue to be made, and they grow in number and earnestness whenever there is a controversy surrounding an issue of separation of church and state. No, James Madison never said the U.S. government was based on the Ten Commandments. These quotes have great vitality — that false quote from Madison has been uttered by more than one lawyer in the heat of an argument (and no doubt, at least one judge has been unduly swayed by it). Were the quotes accurate, even, they would not change the laws that the founders wrote.

Diatribes against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution also appear to be fertile soil to grow false quotes. One hoax claims Darwin repented of his theory on his deathbed, the “Lady Hope” hoax. Despite Darwin’s children having refuted that story more than 80 years ago, it continues to circulate. Darwin wrote a lot on a variety of different topics, but almost never about religion. The one or two lines he did write about religion are repeated, and bent, numerous ways. Darwin’s assigned task on his round-the-world voyage, was to assemble the scientific data to back as accurate one of the accounts of creation in Genesis. The evidence Darwin gathered told a different story — but Darwin himself did not think that a good reason to leave the church where he had hoped to be ordained. Especially because his wife, Emma, was so devout, he was careful to avoid any confrontation with the church, and on the rolls he remained a faithful Anglican to his death. His funeral was a state occasion, and he is interred in Westminster Abbey. (We can debate whether Darwin was a “good Christian” some other time, with real evidence.) Building on his earlier belief that observing nature is one way to learn the ways of God, Darwin continued to spend his time in careful, astute and well-recorded observation. His work on the creation of coral atolls is still fundamental; his monographs on barnacles are still wonderful reads. Darwin was fascinated with insectivorous plants, and his monograph on those plants is among the first, if not the first. Darwin was patient enough to sit in his laboratory for weeks to see just how it is that vine twines its way around a pole. Darwin was the model of a truly patient scientist.

However, when any board of education starts to look at new biology books, you may expect to hear Darwin described as something of an anti-Christian monster and a terrible, sloppy, often-wrong scientist. Then to top it off, people will make rather fantastic claims that his own writings deny his case. Other testimony will make hash of the work of other scientists.

Ann Coulter manages to marry both of these worst kind of quote fabrications in her latest book (no, I won’t link to it — you shouldn’t be reading that stuff; go read Stephen Ambrose’s books on D-Day, or Lewis and Clark, instead, and get real mental nutrition.) For those of us who have been watching such things for decades, it is astounding that such slipshod work can get through an editing process and into print. It is interesting to see someone finally merge both schools of scandalous quoting, but disgusting at the same time.

As a speech writer, I felt it was important that my clients have accurate material. A politician using a bad quote can find himself quite embarrassed. As a journalist, I worked hard to assure accuracy, and we had regular processes for correcting errors we did not catch earlier. As a teacher, I think it important that we get accurate facts to determine what happened in history.

Quotations from famous people make the study of history possible, and fun. Winston Churchill said, “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more” (in his 1930 book, Roving Commission: My Early Life).

Be sure you get accurate quotes when you read them.

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