Sunday, October 12, 2014

Defeating Bigotry

A 17-year-old Pakistani, along with a 60-year-old Indian activist named Kailash Satyarthi, has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yousafzai was honored for her death-defying stand against the regressive and fanatical Taliban and for demanding her rights to modern education and a life of freedom from fear. Her story has given hope to millions of girls like her, not just in Pakistan but around the world. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said of her: “The terrorists showed what frightens them most: a girl with a book.”

Malali’s Nobel should gladden the hearts of most Muslims, particularly in the wake of the fierce debate on Islam and Muslims viewers witnessed on Bill Maher’s "Last Word" TV show on HBO on October 6. Prominent Islamophobes Maher and Sam Harris attacked Islam, essentially declaring that Islam and its adherents were the root of all evil in our times. “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas,” asserted Mr. Harris. An unbelieving Ben Affleck could only exclaim, “Jesus, it’s an ugly thing to say!”

Thank God for Ben Affleck, the protagonist and director of Argo, the 2012 political thriller about the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis. Affleck provided the most spark in the debate with his logic and clarity and for challenging bigotry. He called the views of Maher and Harris on Islam and Muslims “gross” and “racist.” As Harris nonchalantly continued his attack on Islam, Affleck challenged Harris: “Are you the person who understands the officially-codified document of Islam?” Mr. Harris replied, “I am actually well-educated in Islam.”

Well, let’s see. In an interview with Pat Morrison of Los Angeles Times on September 24, Harris was asked what he thought about the “the latest, distressing religion-related headlines … by Islamic State, posing as believers.”
Harris replied, “They're not posing as believers; they are true believers. They truly believe in the letter of the scripture. Everything we see ISIS doing is spelled out in the Koran and the Hadith. The problem is not how to correct the lies of religious extremists; we have to figure out how to divorce Islam from its actual doctrines. Cutting off people's heads is there in the Koran. If it said, "Cut off their legs," we would see ISIS cutting off legs. This is paint-by-number Islam.”
The “well-educated in Islam” neurosurgeon and in-your-face atheist has concluded that the solution to the world’s problems lies in “divorcing Islam from its actual doctrines.” In other words, a good Muslim is, according to Harris, an atheist Muslim, whatever that means.

Forget the breathtaking arrogance of that statement for a moment. But for Harris to claim that he understands Islam, while ignoring the fact that ISIS victims are mostly Muslims, that Muslim nations have joined America in the fight against the terrorists, and that ordinary Muslims and scholars have condemned these killers, is prejudice of the worst sort.
Incidentally, the reason for the interview with LA Times was the publication of Harris’s book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” The title is certainly intriguing, until the reader realizes that Harris found his special brand of spirituality through the drug Ecstasy.

Why, this expert on Islam wants to know, would anyone seek morality and spirituality based on a religion when she or he can so easily get it with just a few tablets of Ecstasy a day? Hence his anger at the government: “The idea that something like Ecstasy is illegal is a travesty.”
Sam Harris probably considers himself the Samuel Taylor Coleridge of our times, a ‘poet’ who discovered his very own Xanadu through a newer edition of opium.
The religious scholar Reza Aslan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, has had his share of dealing with ignoramuses and bigots on TV. His interviews with FOX News, CNN and Bill Maher, all of which went viral on the Web, have been revealing. His take on Harris is incisive: “With Harris, we are confronted with a completely different issue, which is the idea that anyone can simply become a recognized expert in religion simply by spouting these overly simplistic criticisms of it. Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don’t go around writing books about neuroscience.”
Equally apt is Reza's conclusion about Maher: “Bill Maher’s usual critique of religion in general has morphed into a real crusade against one religion in particular, Islam, which he has on repeated occasion said is worse than the other religions and not like other religions; other religions are bad, but Islam is far, far worse. And I would say that the other thing that’s a little bit different is that the criticism of Islam has really crossed the line into what can only be described as frank bigotry.”
Coming back to Malala’s Nobel: If Islam is the source of violence, one has to wonder how the Mahers and the Harrises of the world reacted when they heard that a Muslim was recognized with the highest peace award in the world for standing up to the Taliban and blazing a new trail for oppressed adolescent girls everywhere. They probably denounced the award, or rationalized it away by saying the Nobel peace prize was, after all, a political award, or that there were probably a few good Muslims (you can count them on your fingers!) among the 1.6 billion of them, and she just happened to be one who succeeded in divorcing her faith “from its actual doctrines.”
For those of us rejoicing at Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize, which must surely include most of the world’s population, we need to remember that Malala did not happen in a vacuum. Before her, there was a young woman named Mukhtar Mai, also of Pakistan, who was brutally gang-raped by Muslim men in 2002. In the face of death threats, she testified against her attackers, won in the courts and used her settlement money to start schools for girls in remote Pakistani villages. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, also a guest with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher's HBO show, has been a tireless champion of Mukhtar Mai and did much to bring her inspiring story to the rest of the world.
In towns and villages across the world, there are brave souls, most of them girls, who break free of the cruel practices of patriarchal societies and point the way to a life of freedom and dignity. They are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and yes, Muslims, who often have to make the ultimate sacrifice to open the door for others. A few celebrities like Angelina Jolie take up their causes and succeed in shining the spotlight on the plight of the oppressed and the vulnerable. We wouldn’t know it by listening to the Mahers and the Harrises of the world, people who only know how to deal with the currency of bigotry. Far better it would be to join ranks with those who are making a difference in the lives of others and support them in whatever way we can.
No matter how you look at it, it is clear that in terms of benefiting humanity, one Malala is worth more than a million pairs of Bill Maher and Sam Harris.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why Do Teachers Teach?

George Bernard Shaw offered the most damning argument against teachers and the profession of teaching. In Man and Superman (1903), the Irish playwright declared through his protagonist: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

Comedian Woody Allen clarified the idea further for us: “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

A snider version is available on the Internet (author unknown): “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”

Is there any truth to these prickly sayings? Does the teaching profession attract only those who have failed at everything else?

Of course not. Teaching is a calling just like physics, literature, law, music or mathematics. In countries like Finland and South Korea, teachers are revered. They are considered the pillar of society. Their remunerations reflect their standing and status.

It is a different story in the United States. Whether in income or status, teachers are, on the whole, at the bottom of the heap. Politicians pay lip service to the importance of teachers in shaping minds and then dutifully kowtow to the demands of Big Business and Wall Street honchos. Colleges and Universities are now run by CEOs who cut their teeth running corporations (often running them to the ground) and who, in cahoots with the textbook industry, see no distinction between an educational institution and a company selling, say, toothpaste. It’s all about market, free enterprise and academic capitalism, their argument goes. Besides, isn’t education a dream of a product to sell to anxious customers, that is, students, the perennial cash cows?

Compounding this problem is the rise in the number of part-time and adjunct teachers. Currently, over 75% of college professors in the United States are adjunct. The dictionary defines ‘adjunct’ as ‘a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.’ And that’s exactly how adjuncts are treated: ‘things’ that earn minimum wage salary if you count all the hours they have to toil without pay (grading, counseling, and so on, without any office space) and of course, without any benefit or security. Yet they teach the bulk of the courses in our colleges and universities, saving untold millions that mostly go into building expensive gyms and cafeterias and hiring yet more administrators.

So why do teachers teach, even as adjuncts? Has this breed completely lost its sense of self-respect, its dignity?

The truth is more complicated. There are bad teachers, good teachers and a few great teachers, just like in any other profession. But whereas a middling cubicle-dweller at a
high-flying startup can earn in his first year fifty times the salary of a teacher who has been toiling at his craft for over a decade, there is a crucial difference. A teacher, full-time or part-time, is the master of his domain, that is, of his class. She is the one who decides what will be taught, how it will be taught, and how her charges will be graded. Yes, there have been major shifts in pedagogy: the importance of student-centered learning, about teachers being “not sage on the stage but guide on the side,” about ‘it’s not what we teach, it’s what they learn.”

Still, even if a teacher is not the sage on the stage, she still commands the most attention in her class as a guide. Whether she wants to or not, she is still her class’s focal point. Given her dismal financial status and her utter anonymity outside the classroom, this ‘looking up to’ feeling, this temporary sense of indispensability, when combined with the passion for shaping minds, can be priceless.

Yet, this same feeling can undermine a teacher’s noble intentions. As Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bazar point out in their book, Methods That Matter, Teachers probably wouldn't have originally chosen their vocation if they didn't crave the spotlight on some deep psychological level. The hunger to 'really teach something' has probably derailed more student-centered innovations than administrative cowardice and textbook company co-option combined.”

Why do teachers teach? Other than a few academic superstars and Nobel laureates, teaching cannot surely be about money in America, since the pay is relatively so little. Even with passion and nebulous talks about calling, there are teachers who destroy the curiosity and the motivations of their students through mindless drill and uninspiring style. But there are also teachers who try to do their best by their students, day in and day out. There is something ineffable about their ways and methods, some x factor that cannot be reduced to algorithmic analysis. It is important for these teachers, however, to acknowledge the lure of the spotlight ‘at some deep psychological level.’ As long as they maintain the proper perspective about it and focus on what their students are learning, rather than what they are teaching, teaching will continue to be its own reward.