But Seriously, Folks: Pineapples and Standardized Tests

The absurd talking pineapple story found in an 8th grade standardized test is not a new phenomenon--it’s been sighted on tests in several states in the past seven years and has been the subject of much discussion online since at least 2007.

It’s only in the past few days, however, that the story’s real problems have come to light. Education Week has some good thoughts here about the unquestioned power of the companies that draft your child’s standardized tests:

I do not know what the teachers in New York can do to prepare their students for the pineapple story – perhaps have them watch some episodes of Monty Python.

Teachers who give standardized tests are required to sign affidavits swearing they will not copy the tests, or divulge their contents. Thus teachers are forbidden from airing concerns they might have about the contents of the tests.

The tests have become the ultimate authorities in our schools, and the test publishers are virtually unquestionable.

The standardized testing technocracy has convinced our policy makers that the only way we will be competitive in the world is if everyone learns the same information, and has that learning measured in ever-finer increments. We are not supposed to look behind the curtain to see the way this data is arrived at.

We are promised that any problems in the system will be fixed by the next generation, the Common Core, the computers that can score tests as well as the current system of warehouses of poorly paid readers now used for that purpose.

The truth is that sensitive formative assessment is the proper domain of a well-trained, intelligent teacher, capable of seeing the individual strengths and weaknesses of children, and guiding their learning. Standardized tests are useful when used as an annual check on that learning, but that is all. Once heavy consequences are attached to them, all the learning in a classroom is re-oriented to focus on pleasing that master, that almighty unquestionable arbiter of what has been learned.

Read more here.

Image by Flickr


Your Christmas Viewing Guide

Wondering how best to wile away those hours of vacation time this Christmas? Hoping for some good family activities to help you all slow down and enjoy one another’s company? Look no further. The Examined Life’s Lindsay Marshall has some holiday movie tips, complete with suggested questions for group discussion:

I guess I have to call myself a true Californian if my Christmas doesn’t feel complete without a trip to Disneyland to see the fireworks.  When I was at Biola, my two best friends were my roommate Becca and my boyfriend (now my husband) Nate, and our favorite tradition was our first trip to see the Christmas fireworks on Main Street.  They used instrumental versions of hymns, the show was spectacular, and we just couldn’t help loving the “snow” that fell on Main Street to the strains of a soulful White Christmas.  Unfortunately, the whole thing was bookended by some pop star wailing an original song called “Remember the Magic.”  We used to laugh at the song’s vapidity, but there was always something sad about the empty sentimentality of what Disney clearly thought (and many people standing around us confirmed) could be a meaningful experience.

Upon further reflection, this empty sentiment is, in a small way, encouraging.  In a country that has taken the commercialization of Christmas to a level that would make even poor Linus despair, there’s still something about the holiday that affects people.  Beneath the toys, food, lights, and family gatherings, there’s something real about that day that we can’t drown out with shallow celebration.  Disney calls it magic, and that’s not too far off the mark.  C.S. Lewis called it Deep Magic in his Narnia chronicles, and there’s something mystical about the power of the hope the Incarnation can have, even on those who deny its existence.  In that sense, it was wrong of the three of us to laugh at Disney’s inadequate expression of that hope.  It’s easy to write it off as mere emotional manipulation, but there’s something of the groaning of Creation for her Savior in those hollow lyrics.  Our response should be to encourage a deeper pursuit of the Mystery, not to mock it.

To atone for years of failing to do that, Nate and I have compiled a list of classic and not-so-classic Christmas films for your viewing pleasure this season.  We hope that they lead you to a deeper contemplation of the Incarnation and its power to reach all those beings created in the Image of God.

Read the rest here, and let us know which movies you’d like to see added to this list.

(Image is from Flickr)

All the Married Ladies: A Response to Kate Bolick

Ever wonder how Conservative women compare with their feminist counterparts?

My latest piece is up at the newly launched politicalistas.com today: a response to The Atlantic’s November cover article.

Though I was deep in the throes of giving birth, I couldn’t help smiling at the nurse’s shocked face. She’d noticed my wedding ring. “You’re married?” She paused, and I watched her count backward on her fingers. “This baby wasn’t conceived until after we were married” I gasped, as another contraction took hold. The look on her face made me laugh out loud, despite the pain. “You waited?” She was shocked. “I deliver babies every day and I never see married couples in here!”

I suppose her reaction shouldn’t have surprised me. I gave birth in a prosperous neighborhood, at a well-respected for-profit hospital. Even so, my story, which a generation ago would have been commonplace, now defies modern conventions across all economic levels. Women with lives like mine will only become more unusual as cultural attitudes toward marriage and parenthood continue to shift—and if The Atlantic’s November cover story is any indication, that’s bad news for all of us.

Read the whole article here.

Image from Flickr.


Earthen Vessels: Matt Anderson, Meet Bob.

A friend of mine once named his own body. He called it Bob, joking that, as it was separate from his soul, it deserved a name of its own. If he didn’t want to do something, he could ‘tell Bob to do it’ for him.

This may have helped him clean his apartment more regularly, and it surely gave his friends a few laughs. But it didn’t help him understand what the relationship between body and soul is actually like—in fact, it revealed that he didn’t understand his own makeup very well.

It’s no wonder. We in the twenty-first century, despite our unprecedented medical knowledge, understand the interactions between body and soul little better than our oldest ancestors did. While many of us have benefitted from Pope John Paul II’s invaluable Theology of the Body, and while philosophers like J.P. Moreland have written on the state and nature of the soul, Protestants have done relatively little to work out just how the soul relates to the physical body. Matt Anderson tries to unpack such interactions in his new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.

Moderns, argues Anderson, tend to envision the body as a sort of soul-filled machine—an image that may be traced back, to among other things, a misreading of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, a misunderstanding of some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching, and the unfortunate Gnostic leanings of some strains of Evangelicalism. Though the machine image leaves much to be desired, Protestants in particular have done little to refine and replace it with a more accurate understanding of the way body and soul work together.

Worse, some have actually described the body as a prison for the soul—John Calvin, for instance, uses the unfortunate description several times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, though his overall teachings about the body are quite orthodox.

Such images are particularly unhelpful to the physically handicapped, especially those people whose bodily limitations have dramatically shaped the way they think about, experience, and react to the world around them. Anderson uses his own grandfather as an example of this—though childhood disease left the man with the use of only one of his arms, he learned to approach the world with a strength and determination not easily found among the untested. “What the body is”—argues Anderson—“shapes what the body does.” And as the body does, the person does:

As human persons, we live, communicate, and move in the flesh and bones that we indwell. Our bodies are not instruments for us to operate, as though we were driving them about like captains of a ship. They are not tools for us to communicate with others, or pieces of property to dispose of as we wish.

Sometimes, Anderson points out, God changes a person by working directly with his soul. Those whose sins Jesus forgave in the Biblical accounts fit in this category. Other times, Jesus chose to reach the soul by means of the body:

The same God who forgives sins shapes and reshapes human bodies. In Matthew 9, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic, and the scribes and Pharisees grumble. In response, Jesus reveals the fullness of authority: “ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home’” (v. 6). Jesus does not associate paralysis with sinning, nor should we. But his authority to forgive sins in connected to his authority over our human bodies.

Anderson’s book is necessarily limited. At 255 pages, Earthen Vessels is an all-too-brief introduction to the problem at hand, and Anderson raises more questions than he answers. That’s not a bad thing. The questions raised in this book would take scores of volumes to answer. Anderson makes it clear that, rather than offering a definitive treatment of the issue himself, he hopes to draw others into a conversation about the proper role of the body in life, in worship, and in culture.

He means that literally. If you’d like to join the conversation yourself, ask Matt Anderson to join your reading group–but hurry, his time is limited.

It’s a conversation worth joining—just ask my friend Bob.


NaNoWriMo in Space?

Joi Weaver shares some thoughts on why you should consider writing a novel next month–and why you should be excited about space travel:

It’s always tempting, when talking of influencing culture, to buy into the “magic bullet” theory, the idea that a single cultural item will change the course of the society. “Oh,” we might say, “if only someone would make the perfect movie about space exploration, or write the perfect novel, or create the perfect painting, then everyone would understand!”

Of course, these “magic bullets” never actually work. You may get millions to see a movie like Apollo 13, but only a small percentage will become fans of space exploration because of it. Books like Roving Mars will convince a few of the need for further exploration, but only a few.

Influencing culture turns out to be more like creating a stalagmite than hitting a target. Trillions of drops of water, over thousands of years, slowly form a beautiful, lasting pillar inside a cave. In the same way, thousands of stories, in every medium, over decades and centuries, will slowly build up an idea in a culture, the picture of space as our playground, our backyard, our home.

The stories that will inspire the human race to reach for the stars cannot come only from the experts and the big-budget movie makers. The stories that will change the world have to come from us, the stories we tell our friends and neighbors as we point out the ISS in the night sky, the stories we dream up as teenagers and scribble into notebooks in college.

In this case, even a poor story may be better than no story at all. The poorest space story is still another drop of water, another point of data, another element in the construction of the narrative.

So what are you waiting for?

Read the rest here.

Image is from Flickr


Welcome Home, Gilad Shalit.

Gilad Shalit was welcomed home today after five long years in the Hamas prison system. (The Telegraph is live-blogging his homecoming for those interested.)

The 477 Palestinian prisoners who were freed today in exchange for Shalit are also celebrating their own homecoming, albeit under different circumstances. (The remaining 550 prisoners will be released in two months.) Though Israel hopes the terms of Shalit’s release will lead to renewed peace efforts, Gazans have already greeted their released compatriots with demands for more kidnapping and violence:

“The people want a new Gilad!” the crowd chanted, suggesting the abductions of Israeli soldiers would mean freedom for thousands more Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

…most of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with “blood on their hands”…

In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as “freedom fighters.”

He suggested that his method of negotiations was also bearing fruit, saying that “there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes.”

His comments marked the first time he referred to an additional prisoner release, and there was no immediate Israeli comment.

The Boston Globe has some sobering (and gruesome) details about several specific Palestinian soldiers and the reasons they had been imprisoned. JTA has more here.

Even so, polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Israelis supported the terms of the exchange–likely because universal conscription means nearly all Israelis can strongly identify with the desire to leave no soldier behind.

Curiously, polls also indicate that 66% of Israelis have little hope for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflicts. 67% of those polled last month also said that President Netanyahu did not believe peace with the Palestinians is possible.

It’s as if Israelis are desperate for an end to the conflict, but have all but given up hope that an agreement will ever be reached. No doubt Palestinian families feel the same way, though many of their leaders seem bent on continuing the conflict at all costs.

Netanyahu noted this morning that “On this day, we are all united in both joy and pain.” That may be the best, most universally applicable summary of this situation yet uttered. And as Palestinians welcome home their loved ones today, no less loved for having blood on their hands, it’s hard to imagine a time when the pain and the joy will not be thus co-mingled.

Photo courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces


What if Spock Was Right: Gilad Shalit, the Many, and the One

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas announced yesterday that Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006, will be released.

In exchange for Shalit’s freedom, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of them convicted terrorists, will also be released.

The lopsided nature of this one-for one thousand exchange has not gone unnoticed, especially since similar past exchanges have not worked out well for Israel. It’s generally agreed that Hamas is set to be the winner in this instance, and though many believe Israel ought to be commended for a renewed commitment to life and hope, it seems probable that the freeing of these hundreds of convicted terrorists will bring an end to many, many more lives in both Israel and Palestine.

Has Israel made the right decision? It’s hard to know.

Perhaps it’s trite, but I can’t help thinking here of two exchanges between Spock and Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies.

As Spock sacrifices himself at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he tells Kirk,

Spock:“Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”

Kirk: “The needs of the few.”

Spock: “Or the one.”

Later, when Kirk and Spock are reunited after Spock’s rescue, Spock is puzzled—why was he spared when so much was at stake?

Spock: My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.

In the Star Trek universe, Kirk found a way to save both the many and the one. Spock sacrificed himself for his shipmates, and they in turn sacrificed themselves for him. It makes for a good story—but real world struggles rarely end so neatly. In buying Gilad Shalit’s freedom at an almost impossibly high price, Israel may end up sacrificing its own people for the sake of a compelling national narrative.

It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s what the “good guys” in the movies would do. But is it wise? Perhaps not.

This tension between the needs of the one and needs of the many is, by the way, an old problem for Israel. In John 11, when the chief priests and Pharisees are discussing what to do about the man whose actions threaten their own power, Caiaphas convinces them to simply do away with Jesus:

“…You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50)

In the past, when Israel acted out of fear and favored the “many” over the “one”, Jesus died. (Of course, Gilad Shalit is not Jesus, and both stories are complicated. This is not a perfect analogy!) This time, though it’s easy to criticize the country’s desperation, they are at least moving forward boldly, and without obvious fear.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. I don’t know.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”—and pray for Gilad Shalit. That much, at least, is clear.


Grade School Mythbusters: Christopher Columbus Edition

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” but not because he wanted to defy any maniacally tyrannical flat earthers. That this falsehood still endures in countless textbooks is both remarkable and (if you’re like me) completely maddening.

You see, there were no serious flat earthers in Columbus’ time. None. Everyone with much education knew that the world was, is, and ever shall be, round. In fact, everyone had known this about the earth for ages.

It’s as simple as that.

So why is it that my daughter’s homework today read “On Columbus Day, we remember a sailor named Christopher Columbus. During his time, people thought the world was flat.”? Half the books I found in the library echoed the same refrain, despite the fact that this bit of historical fluff has been disproved over, and over, and over…

Why has such a silly idea found such remarkable staying power? The various answers to that question are nearly as infuriating as the myth itself. There are several theories.

Some believe Washington Irving’s 1828 mostly fictional biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus is at fault—with a little help from Charles Darwin. Jeffrey Burton Russell writes of this,

The silliness [of Irving’s book] would probably have faded away but for the appearance of something else no one expected: the theory of evolution. In the early 19th century, the notion of slow geological change gained strength, and by mid-century Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced the idea of biological evolution. Scientific doubts raised at the time are perfectly understandable in the context of the age. But other objections came from Christians who insisted on taking the entire Bible literally, which medieval Christians had not done. These anti-Darwinists assumed that the creation story in Genesis was supposed to be a literal, scientific, and physical account of the beginning of the world, and because they believed the Bible to be without error, they had to reject evolution. Evolution’s supporters, who apparently believed Irving’s tale, claimed that evolution’s opponents were just as stupid as medieval Europeans who allegedly thought Earth was flat. From there, the Flat Error found its way into textbooks, stories, and even a few encyclopedias, where it fit so nicely into what else we know most of it false about the Middle Ages.

Other explanations share the same theme, but vary in assigning blame. Here’s Phyllis Schlafley’s take:

The myth that people of the 15th century believed that the earth was flat was popularized by 19th century atheists in order to use science in their war against religion. What better way to discredit religion than to attribute an obviously false idea to religious people! This myth can be traced directly to two very influential 19th century books: History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper (a physician) published in 1874 and History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White (the first president of Cornell University) published in 1896. Both men used the flat-earth myth to help spread their arguments against religion. These books started the false and dangerous ideology that there is a war between science and religion, and that science is the only source of truth. The flat-earth myth did not appear in schoolbooks before 1870, but nearly all textbooks included it after 1880.

The attempt to make Columbus into a hero of the battle between science and religion is particularly ridiculous. Columbus was a deeply committed Christian whose own writings prove that his desire to carry the message of Jesus Christ to faraway lands was the primary motivation of his historic voyage to the New World.

Was Columbus, as Schlafley says, really “a deeply committed Christian?” The answer to that depends on who you ask—just as the answer to nearly every question about the man seems to vary depending on the answerer. Certainly he wrote in his diaries of his faith and of his desire to share the Gospel with the native peoples he encountered. He is also thought to have been something of a greedy, genocidal kidnapper who paved the way for a lucrative and destructive slave trade—even his contemporaries found fault with him there.

I’ll part ways with Schlafley and give Columbus’ Christian sincerity a resounding “maybe”.

By the way, my library search did turn up a few non-flat-earther-myth-endorsing gems, suitable for very young children. You might take a look at the homework your child brings home this week, and then inoculate her with a few of these:

  • Christopher Columbus: Sailing the Sea of Darkness by Eric Arnold (This volume is highly rated by my Kindergartner for its depiction of sea monsters, the possibility of which was apparently the most exciting part of Columbus’ voyage.)
  • Scholastic First Biographies: Let’s Read About… Christopher Columbus by Kimberly Weinberger (Light on detail, but good for the very young. Best line in the book: Columbus never did find all of the gold he wanted. But we remember him today as a brave sailor. And we honor him for his mistake!” Well, yes, come to think of it, we do.)
  • Christopher Columbus by Rae Bains. (We didn’t get through all of this one. I guess there weren’t enough pictures of sea monsters—but it looked like a decent resource for the 8-10 year-old crowd).
  • A Book about Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross, illustrated by Syd Hoff. (This book deserves to be read simply because it was illustrated by Syd Hoff. Enough said.)
  • A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus by David A. Adler. (Not much detail, but the pictures are nice and there is a map inside. Maps are cool.)

US Support for Yousef Nadarkhani Grows as Iran Denies Its Own Apostasy Charges

In a move more reminiscent of a badly regulated nursery than of a foreign power, Iranian officials have now denied that Yousef Nadarkhani is to be executed on charges of apostasy.

Instead, the young Iranian Christian will be executed on charges of rape, treason, and Zionism. Maybe.

Or maybe not; a statement on the Iranian Embassy site in the U.K. contradicts numerous reports—including official Iranian court documents—when it claims that no verdict has been issued:

The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London renounces the published news regarding the death penalty for Mr. Yousof Nadarkhani and announces that the Court of Appeal in the Islamic Republic of Iran has not issued any verdict on his case. Accordingly, the allegations to the issue of the death penalty for the above mentioned, are unsubstantiated.

Iran’s wish to do away with Pastor Nadarkhani while maintaining an increasingly absurd semblance of legality has not received nearly the attention it deserves, especially when compared with some of the better known court cases that have crowded our news feeds. Mark Tapscott writes,

Unlike Troy Davis, for whom the evidence of his innocence was at best questionable, Nadarkhani is unequivocally innocent of wrongdoing. So why the seeming celebrity indifference to his situation and to the worldwide Muslim persecution of Christians?

Unfortunately, celebrity outrage reflects the multiculturalist mindset of our era, which places all minorities on a pedestal – unless that minority is a devout Christian. Celebrities flocked to support American Muslims’ right to religious freedom in the Ground Zero mosque controversy (a right which the mosque protesters were not even contesting). They decried the “state-sanctioned murder” of the black Troy Davis. But they can’t be bothered to take even a stand on Twitter for Pastor Nadarkhani, whose murder at the hands of an oppressive state is imminent.

Fortunately, as the expected execution is continually delayed, more and more people are beginning to take notice. Condemnations from the White House, numerous members of Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocacy groups like Amnesty International, and a few mainstream news outlets have made Iranian officials nervous enough to deny the findings of their own court system. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to save Nadarkhani’s life.

Yousef Nadarkhani’s case is particularly important because he is just one of the many Iranians suffering under increased religious persecution. No one has been executed for apostasy for Iran since 1990, but if Nadarkhani dies, many others will no doubt follow. Let’s hope that future martyrs will be enabled to keep the faith, as Nadarkhani has—and let’s hope the world will start to pay more attention.