The dangers of teaching American exceptionalism

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

I believe that the United States is an exceptional country. Not only are we #1 in several key metrics like the world’s largest economy (for now), the largest military, and countries with manned landings on the Moon (#1 and only!), but we are also historically responsible for modern republican democracy itself. We, along with the subsequent French revolution, changed the course of history by pioneering a new form of government that had only ever been hinted at back during the classical era, and proved its superiority with our resounding success. Anyone who tries to downplay the importance of the United States on modern world history simply isn’t paying attention.

But I’m not here to brag on American exceptionalism, and god do I even hate that phrase. Outside of a historical context, even emphasizing it accomplishes little good. This is why I’m dismayed at a recent law proposed by Rep. Peter King that was passed in Oklahoma that bans Advanced Placement History classes due to quibbles over their curriculum for insufficiently whitewashing American history. It’s terrible for all the smart kids in Oklahoma that will not be able to take excellent classes and then get credit for them in college, but there’s something even worse at play.

You cannot teach a perverted version of history. You will be doomed to repeat past mistakes and atrocities if you do. The United States may be exceptional, but we also have a good share of blemishes as well, including slavery, lack of civil rights for non straight white land-owning men, our conquest and subjugation of the native population, and many others. We’re not worse than a lot of other countries in this regard, but we certainly aren’t better, and rejecting a curriculum because it has an even-tempered approach toward history instead of a rah-rah go-America boosting one is negligently short-sighted.

Everyone knows what happens when you spoil kids and tell them they can do no wrong: they turn into monsters with no ability to self-reflect and no compunction against committing evil. Similarly, and this is an issue very close to me personally, everyone knows what happens when you praise kids for being very smart, and emphasize the importance of innate intelligence over diligent study and hard work. So why should it come as a surprise to anyone that when you drill American exceptionalism into kids’ heads over and over again, they come out of it with the belief that America can do no wrong? It’s easy to minimize any historical wrongdoing when you fervently and uncritically know that your country is number one, because really, how bad can slavery be if we did it, and it was part of getting us to where we are now, on top?

We need a more measured sense of introspection than that. Not everything that we did in the history of our country to get to this point was necessary or justifiable. The point is to learn from those mistakes and make damn sure that they never happen again, an attitude which is impossible to adopt if you never learn about those past abuses at all, or are taught exceptional rationalization skills from a young age to paper them over. The bad parts in American history need to be especially emphasized, not ignored, so that particular importance is placed on avoiding repeats. It’s easy to justify any wrongdoing going forward if you don’t recognize those wrongdoings of the past and thus make no effort to be any better in the future.

It’s no accident that the people most fervently pushing a white-washed version of history are the same ones supporting our most egregious ongoing abuses and inequalities, including unjustifiable wars, torture of prisoners, discrimination against homosexuals, removal of the voting rights of black Americans, uncritical support of the police even in cases of extreme unnecessary force, encroachment by religion on secular matters of the state, support of draconian drug policies that lock up millions of Americans for non-violent drug offenses to no purpose, and an unwillingness to help the members of society that are less well-off even though doing so makes everyone better off in the long run. But if you study history, and see what these kinds of policies led to in the past, it’s much harder to support them in the present. Avoiding this is where the movement to teach (dare I say brainwash) American exceptionalism in schools has its ultimate roots. That is why I can never support it.

Decrying publicly funded Islamic education in Minnesota

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

An investigative reporter out in Minnesota has uncovered a publicly funded Muslim charter school that is promoting the religion of Islam on the publics dime. The charter school is collocated with a mosque, and all students go over for “voluntary” prayer and Islamic education immediately after school, after the ritual washing of hands and feet, of course. As if all this didn’t make the religious nature of the school obvious enough, the building the school is located in is also the headquarters of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, whose mission is to “establish Islam in Minnesota.”

This is a clear violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. No public funds should be going towards promoting any particular religion, especially not to a captive child audience. It doesn’t matter that attending the school is entirely voluntary (for the parents, anyway; the children likely have no say in the matter). It’s entirely unconstitutional. Minnesota hasn’t been doing a good job of regulating this school, having only visited it thrice in the past five years. All manner of illegal things have been going on right under their noses.

It is the state’s duty to provide a secular education. Any promotion of religion should not take place in public schools. I wonder what in the world Minnesota was thinking when they established a separate public school just for Muslims; how is this justified or appropriate?! America has always been a melting pot. Our strategy is to assimilate immigrants into our culture, and schools are the best way to do that. So establishing a separate school to prevent that assimilation, and then promote religion on top of that, is absurd. Just like we have no public schools that promote Christianity, there should be none that promote any other religion.

I think we’re heading down the very dangerous road of the British and the French who, in the name of “cultural diversity”, are allowing large segments of their population to remain isolated and cut off. In Britain they even allow Muslim men with multiple wives to get government benefits for each wife — so long as he married them before immigrating! And this is even though bigamy is illegal for all other British citizens. The results of this kind of appeasement of immigrants are devastating: witness the large Muslim immigrant riots in the banlieues of Paris in recent years, leaving thousands of cars torched, hundreds of police officers injured, and millions in damages. Or look at the extremist imams in Britain who actively preach hate and condone violence against “heathens”, providing the breeding grounds for such plots as the July 7 London bombings.

So far, America has done much better. We don’t have the problem of home-grown terrorists like the United Kingdom because we’ve purposefully liberalized and integrated our immigrants into our culture. Children who receive a secular modern education generally do not grow up to be extremists. So we shouldn’t be shooting ourselves in the foot here and using taxpayer money to subsidize non-secular education that only serves to actively prevent assimilation and could potentially foster more extremism down the line. Our current strategy is working; don’t deviate from it! Get rid of all public schools that segregate out children by religion. There’s absolutely no place for it in America.

Less money, more problems at University of Maryland

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is my sixteenth published opinion column, Less money, more problems, originally published March 16, 2007.

As each week goes by, we hear even more negative financial news regarding this university’s public funding. This year, the University System of Maryland is being underfunded to the tune of many millions of dollars by the General Assembly. Gov. Martin O’Malley has not yet reneged on his promise of a tuition freeze, but the promise is looking impossible to keep. In the wake of budget cuts, how else will the university be able to raise the necessary funding if not by extracting it from the pockets of its students?

We’re already facing the effects of this budget crunch. The construction of the new journalism building is being delayed by two months, a delay which could extend to much longer as the full extent of the budget deficit becomes clear. Construction of a new, desperately needed highrise dorm on North Campus has been delayed indefinitely, a travesty I wrote about in one of my previous columns. The Physics Building is old, decrepit and proving to be a huge liability to the department’s attempts to attract top-notch professors to the university. University libraries do not have enough funding to keep up subscriptions to many journals, a problem that is harshly affecting undergraduate students, graduate students and professors alike.

Unfortunately, there is precious little that can be done in the face of looming funding cuts by the General Assembly. The university has a lot of private sector deals in the works and is currently in the midst of a record fundraising campaign, but neither of these will provide the necessary immediate monetary relief. If the cost of tuition does not go up, the university will have to start cutting all sorts of programs and services. It is hard to say which is worse.

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How best to read Wikipedia

Saturday, August 11th, 2007

This is a tutorial on how best to read Wikipedia. Now when I say “read”, I’m using it in the same sense that one might read a novel or a textbook. If you’re just looking up a single thing, you don’t need the tutorial; just go to the relevant article, read it, and by done with it. But if you want to read lots of different articles and learn all sorts of new things, then this tutorial is for you. When I’m bored I end up reading Wikipedia, sometimes for hours on end. Here’s what I’ve found is the best, most efficient way to read it.

1. Use a modern browser. You’re going to need Mozilla Firefox, or if you really have no other option, version 7 of Internet Explorer or later. Internet Explorer versions 6 and prior simply won’t do, because tabbed browsing is essential for properly reading Wikipedia, and they lack it. I still highly recommend Firefox over Internet Explorer, though, because Firefox has integrated browsing recovery, meaning that if your system crashes (or your battery runs out or whatever) while you have a bunch of tabs open in Firefox, you can restore the session upon rebooting your computer and recover everything you were looking at. It’s very convenient because reading Wikipedia can become a long endeavor that spans many days with many sessions, and you don’t want to lose what you were reading.

2. Register an account. You should register an account and remain logged in while reading Wikipedia because doing this will give you access to many features (some of which will be explained in the steps below) that make reading Wikipedia much better.

3. Install Navigation Popups. Now that you’re registered and logged in, you’re going to want to install Lupin’s Navigation Popups extension for Wikipedia. This is a JavaScript extension that must be installed for each individual user account. To install it, paste Special:Mypage/monobook.js into the Search box in the sidebar on Wikipedia, hit “Go”, click the edit tab at the top of the window, paste {{subst:navpop}} into the large text box, and hit “Save Page”. Now you need to bypass your cache while reloading; to do this, press Shift-Ctrl-R in Mozilla Firefox or Ctrl-F5 in Internet Explorer. Now Popups is installed.

Popups is a very useful extension that gives you a brief summary about the subject of an article simply by hovering your mouse over it. For instance, let’s say I’m reading the article on Evolution and I come across the linked word “Prokaryote” that I’m not familiar with. I can simply hover my cursor over the link and Navigation Popups automatically gets the introductory paragraph and the first image from the article, and displays them in the form of a popup. Oftentimes, this is enough information to explain a concept without having to click through and read another whole article. Here’s what Popups looks like in action:

Navigation popups on the Evolution article

Use Navigation Popups to screen the articles that you end up reading. If you see everything you need to know about a subject in the Popups window, or if it’s just not interesting to you, skip the full article. Popups saves you time.

4. Use tabs. Open up new articles that you want to read as tabs. This way, you will get to them later without interrupting the article that you are currently reading. In Firefox, holding Ctrl while clicking on a link will open it in a new tab, or, if your mouse has three buttons, pressing the third button may often open in a new tab as well. Even if you have a scroll wheel mouse, it’s likely that the wheel can be pressed in and used as a third button. You may need to slightly configure Firefox by selecting the Tools menu, selecting Options, clicking the Tabs tab, and specify that “New pages should be opened in: a new tab” and turn off the option for “When I open a link in a new tab, switch to it immediately”. This way you can open up new tabs in the background, as many as you want, for each interesting link you find in the current article that you are reading. And you won’t be interrupting your reading.

When I’m reading Wikipedia I tend to simply follow whatever links interest me, which results in a rapid divergence of subject area. Recently I started by reading the article on the golden age of animation and ended up reading articles on various squatter collectives and nomad peoples. That’s the awesomeness of Wikipedia: it covers every conceivable subject matter. Because articles tend to have lots of links on them, I usually end up opening up more than one article for each article that I read, resulting in an increasing number of tabs across the screen of things I’m trying to get to reading. This can basically go on indefinitely, with my “to read” queue growing exponentially. I try to keep the number of tabs manageable by only opening up the really interesting articles once my number of open tabs exceeds thirty.

5. Add pages you read to your watchlist. See the tab labeled “Watch” at the top of every article? That adds the article you are reading to your watchlist. After reading each article I add it to my watchlist. You should too. It helps to keep track of everything you’ve read, and after you’ve been reading and learning from Wikipedia for awhile, you’ll end up with quite the impressive list of subjects you’ve read about on your watchlist. You can view recent edits to articles on your watchlist by clicking the “my watchlist” link in the upper right part of the page, and from there, you can click through to see every page that’s on your watchlist. If you end up becoming a frequent editor, your watchlist will help you to track changes that are made to the articles you’ve read, changes that you might be interested in looking at, especially if they’ve increased the depth of coverage of the article.

6. Edit! Remember, Wikipedia is written by volunteers, people just like you and me. One of the ways you can help pay back the huge fount of information you’re receiving for free is by editing Wikipedia to improve it and help it grow. Every little fix matters and could potentially benefit thousands of people (on the more well-read articles). Start off by just fixing the little errors that you see, like spelling and grammar errors. As you get more comfortable with it, start making larger changes; if you happen to know something about a subject that isn’t in the article, go ahead and add it. Over time you’ll get more experience with all of the idiosyncrasies of Wikipedia editing, and who knows, after spending enough time reading and editing, you may eventually become an administrator like me.

Adjusting the length of the school year

Monday, July 9th, 2007

It occurs to me that we’re still dealing with an archaic tradition that has persisted despite lots of technology. I’m talking about the school year. Many decades ago, having a three or four month interruption in schooling during the summer made sense. Most Americans lived in rural areas, and many were farmers. The farmers needed all the help they could get during the busy summer harvest season, so of course they needed the assistance of their kids. Even my dad spent a summer or two at his uncle’s farm in Oklahoma, putting up fences, handling cattle, driving a tractor to till the fields, etc. But the times have changed.

More than half of all Americans now live in cities and towns, and the number of people who are actually involved in rudimentary farming are vanishingly small. Technology has also come a long ways, making farms much more mechanized, and requiring the use of less labor. Also, consider the changing American societal attitudes of child labor. Children don’t help out at the farm to the extent that they used to, and they really are no longer needed. So why do they need so many months off in the summer? They don’t.

It would be better for society in general if the school year was radically reshaped. Current school years (in the United States, anyway) have just 180 to 182 school days in them — that’s slightly less than half of the year! Think of all of the extra educational benefit we would get from increasing that number to, say, 70%. Simply eliminate the summer vacation and add more one week vacations, like Spring Break, throughout the year.

Now I’m not saying that summer fun should be eliminated, not at all. I went to a lot of educational summer camps when I was younger and I had a blast. But I also went to a fair number of leisure camps that, although they were fun, didn’t much educate me along the way to my adult life. Summer school should be a bit different than winter school. Kids would go on a lot more field trips. It’d almost be like an educational summer camp, except that it would be paid for and controlled by the state, which would do wonders for kids living in poverty whose parents cannot afford to send them to camp.

Looking back at my life, at the current age of 21, I can say there was a good amount of wasted time. It shouldn’t take so many years to get the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in knowledge. If the antiquated summer break were simply phased out, children would be getting much more instructional time each year, would learn more, would be smarter, and would be able to productively contribute to society at a younger age. One of the big problems we’re currently facing in America is stupidity. Increased schooling would fix that.

A Day in the Bay

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

These past four years I’ve been in the Gemstone Program at the University of Maryland. It’s a four-year undergraduate research program. We’ve finished up, having completed the project, our final presentation, and thesis paper. Our project was to design and make an educational computer game to teach ecology to fourth and fifth graders using the Chesapeake Bay as a model ecosystem. Our final product is called A Day in the Bay, and it is available for download from SourceForge. I put it up on SourceForge so that it continues to be accessible following our graduation, and in case there is anyone out there who would like to continue development.

Maryland does well in computer science degrees

Monday, February 12th, 2007

A professor in the CS department here at University of Maryland, College Park pointed me to a very interesting bulletin from the Computer Research Association. It ranks universities by how many CS degrees they are granting per year. After factoring out the meaningless online schools like University of Phoenix, DeVry, and Strayer College, Maryland schools take the top three positions! Seriously! It goes in the order of University of Maryland University College (UMUC), University of Maryland College Park (UMCP), and University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). UMUC is a college aimed at “working adults”, meaning most of its classes are at night. Its campus is adjacent to UMCP, so I’m driving by it all the time on the way to classes at UMCP. Unlike UMCP, UMUC is strictly educational-for-profit and doesn’t do any research.

UMCP and UMBC, however, are both legitimate research institutions. I’m about to complete the CS program at UMCP and I have friends who are about to complete the CS program at UMBC, and I can without qualification that these are serious computer science programs. They’re not like the “We’ll teach you Word and HTML and call it computer science” programs that Strayer and DeVry have, for instance. I’m very impressed to see Maryland schools ranked so highly and I never would have guessed it, but there it is. Maryland is definitely one of the places to go for anyone looking for education in computer science.

I’ve included the rankings chart below the fold.

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