16 March 2006

Debating Intelligent Design in US Public Schools

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Intelligent design theory asserts that there is evidence that the presence of an intelligent designer best explains various features of the world, such as biological diversity. This theory competes against evolution, which involves the idea that the impersonal forces of nature produced biological diversity. Across the country, a number of school districts have proposed incorporating discussion of intelligent design theory into their biology classes. The way in which educators, scientists, and intellectuals have treated these claims shows that they don’t know how a free society works.

When an educational institution is taxpayer funded and places a heavy burden on parents who don’t want to send their children there, the institution should not, except under extraordinary circumstances, teach their children ideas that conflict with the parents’ fundamental religious beliefs. In teaching evolution alone, this is precisely what is done. Public schools are obviously taxpayer funded. The government puts a heavy burden on parents who don’t want to send their children there. Such parents must either pay for sending their children to a private school or teach their children at home. Both options are made more difficult by the fact that these parents are made to pay through the nose for the public schools even if they don’t use them.

Christianity and evolution conflict. Christianity asserts that God exists and is all-good. Hence, he couldn’t have made it so that human beings who do evil (for example, rape and murder) had to do these things. Christians instead hold that human beings are responsible for such acts. That is, to explain evil, Christians claim that human beings have free will, that is, their actions are not determined by things outside their control.

In contrast, the proponents of evolution must hold that human beings don’t have free will. The idea is that an individual’s mind is his brain and that what goes on in his mind is determined by things outside his control. Biologists hold that the mind is the brain because they hold that the mind is acted on by genetics and the environment and only physical things like the brain can be so affected. The proponents must then accept that a person’s thoughts and decisions are determined by things outside his control since they are just changes in the brain, where these changes are, roughly, dictated by genetics and the environment.

This fundamental conflict between Christianity and evolution and the impossibility of finding a suitable middle ground in the classroom is yet another reason to favor vouchers over the current educational system. The failure of educators and other parents to recognize the legitimate concern of Christians is yet another failure on this score, similar to their failure in introducing a leftist agenda with regard to homosexuality, sex education, and the environment. When added to the dismal performance of the public schools and their outrageous costs (roughly $14,000 per student per year in Dunkirk), the case against public schools strengthens considerably.


The Constructivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The intelligent design (ID) movement is in deep trouble today--and for good reason. In his landmark December 2005 decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones held that the Dover, PA, school board’s attempt to introduce ID in a science classroom violates both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions. But never fear, ID fans, the Objectivist, with his libertarian defense of ID, is here to show you the light. Before you begin thanking a certain Intelligent Designer formerly known as God for creating him, though, you’d better examine the design of his arguments.

When the Objectivist claims that “Christianity and evolution conflict,” he doesn’t just inspire jokes like “Who died and made you Pope?” (see Catholic Online 30 January 2006). He also repeats as fact the very “contrived dualism” between evolution and creationism that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently rejected. But rather than trying to prove that ID is a legitimate scientific theory (a fallacy rightly exposed both by Judge Jones and contributors to The Panda’s Thumb, among many others), he is out to cast opponents of evolution as defenders of free will.

When the Objectivist claims that “the proponents of evolution must hold that human beings don’t have free will,” he doesn’t just inspire jokes like “Who died and made you God?” He also misrepresents the actual diversity of beliefs among biologists and tries to set up his discipline as the arbiter of evolution’s ultimate meaning. Don’t get me wrong: I fully support philosophies, histories, and cultural studies of science. But since the Objectivist does not work in these fields, such sweeping claims as his should be regarded with as much suspicion as NYU physics professor Alan Sokal’s infamous claim in Social Text that findings in physics validate Marxism (a claim he later exposed as a hoax).

I doubt the Objectivist’s column is a hoax. Instead, the “fundamental conflict” he fabricates between a libertarian Christianity and a determinist evolution is more likely a product of his desire to build a bridge between the libertarian and evangelical wings of the Republican Party. This is a bridge, however, that would take us all back to the dark ages.

The Objectivist’s core principle that public schools should not “teach children ideas that conflict with the[ir] parents’ fundamental religious beliefs” reveals his own lack of understanding of “how a free society works.” His call to let a thousand mullahs and inquisitors bloom--to subject all the teaching and learning in every public school in the nation to the dogmas of majorities in each school district--goes far beyond the parochial debate over ID’s lack of scientific standing (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, for a much-needed alternative). His principle threatens not only to inflame sectarian conflicts within Christianity, but to balkanize American society along religious lines, as well. Should it become recognized as the law of the land, religious minorities, to preserve their own belief systems from majorities, would either have to abandon the public schools where they live, move to a school district where they could form a majority, or move where they could be sheltered by a majority that refuses to subject teaching and learning in public schools to theological litmus tests.

Judge Jones’s decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover points the way to the precise “suitable middle ground in the classroom” that the Objectivist rejects out of hand as an “impossibility.” While the decision makes it “unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom,” it points out that ID may “continue to be studied, debated, and discussed” (137). If proponents of ID, justification by design, or religious freedom really want to improve American public schools, perhaps it’s time for them to support bringing high school curricula closer to the disciplinary organization of higher education by replacing “Social Studies” with a more rigorous mix of history, anthropology, and philosophy. Within this framework, students and teachers could explore the belief systems of various world religions in comparative perspective rather than for purposes of indoctrination or conversion. ID-supporting parents who don’t wish their children to be exposed to such robust religious pluralism in American public schools shouldn’t expect the rest of us to finance their separatism.


The Constructivist said...

Hey Objectivist, check out one of your many blogging namesakes who's anti-ID, and, while you're at it, a critique of a well-known constructivist who supports ID by a mathematican from Rutgers. What gives? Have we switched hats this column without realizing it?

The Objectivist said...

The argument that classroom content is coercive can be seen in the following way.

CASE #1: Mandatory Public School
Imagine that the state required every child in the U.S. to attend a particularly designated public school (it doesn’t matter for my purposes how it is designated) on pain of the child’s parents being fined or jailed. Then imagine that it required the teaching of something that specifically conflicted with the religion of the majority of the people. E.g., the school required that students accept that the trinity is not just false but incoherent, abortion is permissible, or that the bible shouldn’t be interpreted literally because it was written by fallible human beings.

This would obviously be coercive and an infringement on persons’ freedom of religion. How is it different for parents who cannot afford private school and are unable to home school? They are subject to criminal penalties if they don’t educate their children and are thus coerced into sending their children to public school. This is not the sort of thing that a free society tolerates.

For those who disagree with me, I would like to hear what they have to say about CASE #1. Specifically, is it morally wrong to teach these lessons and, if so, how teaching evolution in public schools is different?

Bruce Simon and others argue that intelligent design should be taught in social studies or some other such discipline. Why? Are they not real fields? Teachers in those fields are less able to assess the conflict between Christianity and evolution any more than could biology teachers. This is a refusal to take seriously what goes on in social studies or related fields. In any case, the same objections to mixing government schools and religion apply to these classes.

The anti-religious elements in our society can use the public schools as a club to assault the beliefs of religious parents and communities, but in doing so they should be clear that they are sacrificing liberty for other goals. This may be good for a society that emphasizes scientific progress, efficiency, or equality, but not one whose primary value is liberty.

The Constructivist said...

Thanks for your response, Objectivist; glad to see the technology is finally treating you fairly. Your Case #1 interests me greatly, for its portrayal of a kind of double coercion: a) mandatory attendance; b) indoctrination. Generously ignoring the tautology in the way you set up in your first line, I'll use it to clarify my position and show how it not only differs from yours but is better than it, as well.

On b), I think your phrasing "the school required that students accept...," to the extent that it happens anywhere, applies more to religious schools than public schools. (This is a debate-able position--the recent Academe features a similar debate in the context of academic freedom and religious colleges--but of course I think I'm right.) Your proposal to turn public schools into religious schools would increase indoctrination, not reduce it. Indoctrination is wrong, period, whether it's done in the name of (your version of) God or in the service of some abstraction (say the infallibility of your favored political leaders). What schools should do is present students with claims, have them evaluate the evidence and arguments for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. If you believe that training students in the use of reasoning skills is an anti-religious assault on education, I can see why you're opposed to my proposal to bring more philosophical rigor into New York high schools. But I don't understand why you chose philosophy as your profession.

On a), you had me going there for a minute--I thought you were going to make an argument that the state has a responsibility to supply a free education to everyone, regardless of what or where or how they are taught. But then I realized you were making a much more ridiculous argument: in a free society, we should value people's right to ignorance and stop criminalizing those parents who want their children to be free from education. As I see it, you think Jefferson was wrong to create a public school system and to argue that an educated citizenry is crucial to the survival of American democracy. People should be allowed to be as stupid as they wanna be in the gospel according to The Objectivist, eh? It certainly would make your arguments easier to swallow!

So, yes, I think the combination of a) and b) in your Case #1--mandatory attendance at state-sponsored indoctrination centers--is morally wrong, but I don't agree with your attempt to suggest that the teaching of evolution in a public school science classroom is equivalent to Case #1. (And why is it that the ID movement is obsessed with biology? When are they going to set their sights on physics?) Public schools should be teaching the scientific method, not indoctrinating students, and I believe they by and large are. Attendance at public schools is not mandatory, as there exist many private schools and a large support network for home schooling. Rather than attempting to take over public schools, proponents of religious freedom should be giving generously to private schools of their choice, so that they can provide financial aid to those who want to attend but can't afford it. Why the state has an obligation to bail out private schools is beyond me!

So I believe Case #1 actually helps me support my argument better than it helps you support yours.

Next, The Objectivist complains incoherently that my suggestion to improve public education with a robust and comparative religious pluralism in a more-rigorous version of Social Studies a) belittles the social sciences (huh?!--I'm placing a great deal of importance on philosophical, historical, and anthropological approaches to understanding world religions), b) depends on the perspectives of disciplines less able to assess the relationship between Christianity and evolution than biology (now who's belittling social scientists?!), and c) remains an unconstitutional mixture of religion and public education.

On a) and b), I'd like to see some evidence that the "refusal to take seriously what goes on in social studies or related fields" is more my problem than yours. On c), you're the lawyer, Objectivist: what specifically is unconstitutional about my proposal?

Finally, The Objectivist closes with a ringing call for us to value liberty over "scientific progress, efficiency, or equality," but not surprisingly leaves truth out of the equation. The primary justification for education is that it helps people discover truths and assess the validity of truth claims. We don't teach astrology in astronomy classes; we don't teach Holocaust denial in history classes; we don't teach creationism in biology classes (and Judge Jones's decision rightly equates ID with creationism). People are free to believe in these things--and many do--but that does not create a responsibility for any school to allow this individual liberty to trump its primary "pursuit of truths" mission. Since the state does not ban religious institutions that choose to substitute "indoctrination in" for "pursuit of," proponents of religious freedom who can't take exposing their children to other points of view (which entails potentially hearing critical perspectives on their own views) should exercise their right to leave the public school system and either join or create what is in their view a better alternative to it. Using "liberty" to justify making what is taught in science classrooms subject to the will of the majority not only harms minorities but represents a troubling concession to popular opinion over the pursuit of truth. This is why I characterize it as an anti-democratic bridge to the dark ages. I stand by this claim.

The Constructivist said...

While I'm adding Michael Berube links to the site to thank him for sending a little bit o' non-family traffic this way, I thought I'd share the following thoughts on cultural studies of science guy Steve Fuller, a constructivist who endorses some aspects of ID: Steve Fuller Replies and its sequel In which I finally reply to Steve Fuller.

Oh, and I should add that I qualify my Objectivist-Sokal link (with a column that's supposed to be 500 words but never really is but should at least sometimes come close, I have to cut too many rhetorical corners) by pointing out Berube's recent analysis is a sensible one; for those interested in the mid-'90s dustup, check out Sokal and Social Text.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

Your argument is that the schools should emphasize truth in general and knowledge as it relates to citizenship.

I strongly suspect that you accept the following claims and think that they are supported by evidence.

(1) Homosexuality is equally valid with heterosexuality.

(2) Gays who adopt children often make good parents and so it is wrong to prevent them from doing so.

(3) Contraception is a valuable form of birth control and here is how one puts on a condom, gets birth control pills, etc.

(4) There aren't distinct races with significant differences in genetically influenced intelligence.

Should all of these be taught in public schools?

The Objectivist said...

Also, the argument for evolution screening out free will is the following.

(1) The best explanation for how evoluation interacts with the human mind is that it did so by shaping the design of the brain. Hence, the mind is probably the brain.

(2) The brain is a physical object.

(3) Physical objects are determined.

Leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, the pattern of change within a physical object is a function of the particles that comprise it, properties, and the way interaction between them. These are all subject to deterministic changes.

(4) Determinism rules out free will in the sense needed by theists.

Theists need human beings to have free will in the sense that given all the events that preceded a choice (e.g., whether to rob a liquor store), they still could had options with regard to what to do and the existence of these options in part explains why they are morally responsible for their actions.

I claim that this argument is sound and that the best work in this area has been done by metaphysicians (e.g., Robert Kane, Harry Frankfurt, and John Martin Fischer), not philosophy of science or one of the sciences.

This means that if you're one of those persons who walks around saying that you believe in both evolution and God, you are sitting with contradictory beliefs and need to choose.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, Objectivist, it's too early in the morning to do anything more with your latest comment than quote Rush (the band, not the blowhard) at you: "I will choose free will!"

Again, you're acting as if an argument among metaphysicians on such essentially contested issues as brain/mind, materialism/idealism, determinism/free will, and theism/atheism accurately describes (in a sociological sense) the beliefs of working biologists. And as if one's acceptance of evolution as a scientific theory somehow determines your beliefs on the metaphysical issues. Somehow I doubt that the metaphysicians you cite would support your claim that proponents of evolution "must be" heathen heretics with an axe to grind against God. But that's just me.

Have you written on this topic professionally? Would you care to post any scholarly work you've done on this topic so that we may evaluate your chain of reasoning in more depth?

On your earlier comment, I have not yet figured out a way to incorporate demonstration of the proper use of a condom into a single one of my literature classes, but I will take up your challenge and try to be more creative in my course design and pedagogy. Here's hoping our three readers out there will help me out on this one.

Your question to me again elides the distinction between the subjects taught and the methods by which they are taught. What I actually emphasized in my earlier post was the "pursuit of truths," which to my mind is all about asking good questions and coming up with good answers (while attending to debates over how to define "good" in both endeavors). I don't think public schools should just be teaching rote memorization of conclusions, that is, but teaching kids how to generate and evaluate questions, how to generate and evaluate various ways of answering them, and how to examine, relate, and pursue the implications of the various answers so generated, which should include the ability to generate new questions. In this model, what the teacher believes on various hot-button topics is immaterial, because the emphasis is on student learning.

I'm trying to imagine in what circumstances the 4 claims you ascribe to me might legitimately arise in a public school setting. It would make a difference whether they were taught in a Social Studies class that focuses on the history of civil rights and civil liberties in the U.S., in a Health class that focuses on a range of public-health-related topics, or in a Biology class that focuses on various forms of life. Context is crucial--grade level, subject, etc.--because any research, reading, or writing I'd assign would have to support the goals of the course, which must themselves derive from NYS Regents standards.

So, yes, I suppose I can imagine situations in which it would be valid to teach the subject matter of sexualities, adoption rights, birth control methods, and human genetics. As to what goals and methods would be best suited to teaching the subjects, my own personal preference in a Social Studies class would be to pose questions and raise issues, so that rather than teach my own views on gay adoption, for instance, I'd focus the class's inquiries on what limitations on adoption are legitimate (in a moral/ethical and legal/Constitutional sense) and why. The point would be to use specific examples to illuminate general principles, so that my students can practice key skills and I can assess their performance as objectively as possible.

The Constructivist said...

Yo, Objectivist, what would Calvin say on your "theists need free will" claim? Isn't there a determinist strain in just about every world religion (think Buddhism, for instance)?

Do you really endorse the position that God is the author of human free will? Are there no other grounds for free will that you would accept as valid?

Why do you insist so strongly on fabricating your own dualism between evolution and Christianity, when it seems just as shaky and potentially more incendiary than the "contrived dualism" between evolution and creationism that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently rejected as spurious?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivists:

I have only one article only two articles on moral responsibility. One has been published (“Moral Responsibility in a Maximally Great Being,” Philo 7 (2004): 97-113), the other has not been accepted by any journal.

However, the specific argument I need, namely materialism about the mind conflicts with libertarian (counter-causal) free will is fairly widespread in the literature. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for thinking that persons are essentially immaterial minds is to allow for free will.

I should not that two of the biggest free will theorists disagree, but I find their arguments rather unpersuasive.

Also, I doubt biologists have anything of value to add to this debate. The concepts of materialism, responsibility, and the problem of evil are not what they teach or research on.

You ask why I'm confident about the dualism about free will and materialism about the mind. I guess I see the arguments clearly leading to their being in conflict. Again, how is it that physical object can act outside of the chain of necessitating causes? It's hard to see how this is even possible. After all, it seems very implausible to asser that a how physical object have the power to transcend internal and external physical forces.

Note that forms of Christianity and Judaism that allow for determinism and yet assert that God is perfect have a severe problem explaining who is responsible for evil. This in part explains why many of the best academic Christians today accept both libertarian free will and dualism about the mind.

The Constructivist said...

O, thanks for the perspective on your perspective. Have you talked to any physicists lately about causality? They are on some weird shit, from what I can tell. Are there any metaphysicians regularly in dialogue with physicists you know of? They ought to be--sometimes I wonder whether the best work in metaphysics today is being done in theoretical physics.

What about recent work on brain biochemistry? Some people are theorizing about quantum effects, from what I've read in the popular science overviews. Way outside my areas of specialty, though, so check it out for yourself.

From your comment, I assume libertarians would prefer any metaphysical system where the mind is not reducible to the physical aspects of the brain (or where the physical aspects are non-determined, should such exist), not necessarily only theistic ones. True?

My specialty is pre-Civil War American literature, especially the 1820-1865 period. You may be interested in Kris Fresonke's West of Emerson, which looks closely at how Emerson and Thoreau dealt with the argument by design and ideas of American manifest destiny in their writings. Also of interest may be Eduardo Cadava's Emerson and the Climates of History, which (among many other things) has a brilliant reading of "Fate," a late Emerson essay quite relevant to our discussion. When you add Michael Colacurcio's Doctrine and Difference, I think you'll see that at that time and place there was some pretty sophisticated wrestling with problems of materialism/idealism, fate/free will, responsibility, etc., going on, but that theists came to all kinds of conclusions. Hawthorne, for instance, whose theology scholars are still arguing over, tended to go for the limitations of human understanding argument to solve the problem of evil (even going so far as to suggest to abolitionists that Divine Providence would eventually turn the evil of slavery into a larger good in due time). So your larger argument that theists need free will may be sociologically true of some theologians today, but clearly is not a settled consensus in the philosophical and theological communities today or in the past. And why should it be settled? Isn't this one of those essentially contested debates?

So to say the least I'm still not convinced by your "Christianity and evolution conflict" proposition. Your attempt to map that relationship onto a free will vs. determinism conflict still seems strained to me. And even if it were not, what you seem to be arguing in your column and these comments is that people whose fundamental commitments incline them toward belief in free will, idealism, or dualism should be free from having to become aware of or think about evidence and arguments that may conflict with those beliefs. I thought libertarianism was all about individual choice. Why shouldn't kids be exposed to evidence and decide for themselves? And how does teaching ID as if it were a valid scientific theory (you know, one that leads to testable hypotheses)--when it's clearly not--work to balance the scales in a biology course? By your own logic, wouldn't the closing proposal in my column be a better solution?

Let's face it, much scientific evidence and many scientific theories have made it difficult to accept the Bible (and many other sacred texts and origin stories) as literally true or as stories whose truth claims are primarily referential. Yet according to many polls, many Americans choose to read the Bible literally while reading the world metaphorically. Is it fair to those living in districts where such people form the majority of voters for their children to lose time studying real science out of deference to the metaphysical and epistemological preferences of the majority?

The reason I alluded to the Inquisition in my column should be obvious, but it bears repeating: if certain Christians monopolize the power to define truth and gain the political authority to punish anyone who doesn't acknowledge their power, that system of society is a theocracy, not a democracy. (Recall also that Inquisitors concentrated above all on Jews and Moors whose conversions to Catholicism they suspected.) Western commentators today worry and wonder over whether Islam, which doesn't on its face seem friendly to the kind of church/state separation that helped resolve centuries of intra-Christian warfare, influences a culture and civil society in such a way as to be compatible with democracy. (As you know, many Enlightenment thinkers shared the same worries over Christianity in their times and places.) If such worries are well-founded, why would you try to use the ID debate to provide a much broader mandate for aspiring theocrats here today? How does that advance the long-term interests of libertarians?

Still trying to understand the grounds of our argument and why you feel it's an argument worth making in the first place....

The Constructivist said...

Those interested in reading further on these issues might want to check out the Republican war on science? seminar over at Crooked Timber.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

Other than reading Steven Pinker, I haven't read too much on brain design or chemistry.

I think the debate is important because it illustrates an important principle, namely that expanded government comes at the expense of liberty. This is not just true because government takes so much of our money and tax and regulate everything under the sun (e.g., marijuana usage and TV content). Controlling what students learn against the wishes of parents is one of these infringements. I think this argument is an important one for two reasons. First, it illustrates the government vs. liberty theme. Second, it is a strong reason to give vouchers a larger role in education.

Also, in discussing gay adoption you claimed that in a social studies class you would avoid giving out your view but would use it to illustrate how to reason, plausible general principles, and look at different perspectives. However, I suspect this will more of a value-laden enterprise than you suggest. For example, how would you grade an essay (with proper grammar and structure) that argued that homosexuality is wrong because God says so in the Bible and everything the bible says is true.

The Constructivist said...

On the grading question, I don't think I'd do anything different from any other professor. I'd use my stated criteria, which I always give out with my assignment. They're fitted to each assignment, but are fairly consistent, mving from most important to least important:

(1) how well the paper addresses the requirements and expectations of the assignment (did the student understand the question? did the student's paper stay on topic?);

(2) how well the paper's argument is developed and supported (did the student understand what it takes to answer the question well? did the student consider evidence fairly [using relevant evidence, addressing counterevidence, anticipating and forestalling counterarguments]? did the student make an effort to persuade an open-minded but skeptical reader?);

(3) how well the paper's structure/organization contributes to the development and support of the argument (did the student just fit the argument to a prearranged form such as the standard five-paragraph essay or did the student fit the form to the argument? did the student handle paragraphing well? [one main idea per paragraph, good beginnings and ends of paragraphs, thoughtful ordering of paragraphs]);

(4) how well-written the paper is, in terms of sentence-level prose (did the prose ever interfere with the meaning or distract from the argument? did the student demonstrate command of grammar and syntax? did the student develop a distinctive voice? did the student have any particularly memorable turns of phrase [good or bad]?);

(5) how well-formatted the paper is, in terms of punctuation, correct use of proper citation and bibliographical style, margins, font sizes, spacing, and header/title page.

Of course ther are places for value judgments to come in, but frankly, they come in for me much more in the last three criteria than the first two. In part, that's why I weight them less: someone could write an absolutely beautiful essay yet not once address the topic required (criterion 1) and so would have to get a low grade; similarly, someone else could write an absolutely ugly essay yet have a great argument (criterion 2) and so would get a higher grade than the first person (but still not a great one).

When you grade as many papers as I have in my career, you can't help but respond on an aesthetic level to the quality of the student writing. This is more like a gut feeling (ouch! ugh! oof!) than anything else, so I try to discount those feelings as much as possible in my grading and focus on helping students improve in the 3 lowest-ranked criteria. But students can't do well on the 2 highest-ranked criteria unless they've put a lot of time, effort, and thought into my papers, something I can't do for them and can only try to motivate them to do better on the next time with my grades and comments.

When I'm commenting on papers, I'm always looking for two things: (1) how to help the student improve and push the argument (top 2 criteria); and (2) how to help the student improve and push the expression of the argument (bottom 3 criteria). (Yes, I'm a practical dualist when it comes to grading and commenting, even though my reading practice is to start from the interpenetration of form and content. I try to convey to my students how the 2 are linked--how the way you organize and format your paper can either help you establish your authority or undermine it [even something as simple as knowing how to use a colon]--but I do look really hard to find even an implied argument in a paper that seems to lack one and ask the student if that's what he/she was going for.

The way I explain that even my least important criteria are still important is the resume example: if you can't avoid spelling and punctuation/formatting errors in that kind of document, much less figure out how to organize it to emphasize your fit with the job you're applying for, you can expect it to end up in the circular file within 15 seconds. HR folks read thousands of resumes, so they're even more sensitive than I to errors of carelessness. But I tell them to have perspective and be aware of where the paper is in the writing process: it doesn't make any sense to spend a half-hour lovingly crafting a sentence that in a later draft you will find hard to cut because it wasn't relevant to your argument.

So you can see that I take grading papers seriously and put a lot of time, effort, and thought into how I comment on them. Nothing pisses me off more than feeling I've put more into grading the paper than the student put into writing it, so over the years I've tried to make myself more efficient (my students can tell you I haven't succeeded).

How I would grade and comment on the student paper you mention would depend on the exact phrasing of the assignment, but in general I think I would flag the same kinds of things you would: problems in criteria 1 and 2. Normally I would write an assignment in such a way that students would have to make choices about which assigned readings and principles/issues they raise to engage. So on criterion 1, if the student wasn't at least implicitly contrasting a Bible-based position to some of the specifically relevant arguments from the course materials, he or she would not have been fulfilling the expectations for the assignment. But the biggest problems would crop up in criterion 2, specifically in the support of the argument, if the student failed to cite relevant passages from the Bible and use them to build an argument or make a case (that is, if the student simply argued by authority or assumed there's only one possible correct reading of the Bible without showing why other readings are wrong) or if the student failed to develop principles from the Biblical passages that would be convincing to anyone, regardless of their own religious beliefs or commitments (that is, if the student undermined his or her authority with audiences outside his or her particular denomination's interpretive traditions or alienated them rather than persuaded them), or if the student failed to address and counter relevant counterarguments (that is, if the student acted as if his or her saying something made it true without explaining why and justifying the statements by showing them to be superior to conflicting ones).

These, at least, would be the common errors someone making arguments of that kind tend to fall into. If the student managed to avoid all of them, he or she would get a grade in the A-range from me. If the student avoided most but not all of them, he or she would get a high B. The more he or she failed to avoid, the lower the B would be. But since the paper was clearly on topic and had an argument, was well-organized and well written, and at least made an attempt to support the argument, it would be very difficult for me to give the student anything below a C+.

Go ahead, accuse me of grade inflation.

In my comments, I would definitely ask a lot of questions in the margins to get the student thinking about potentially relevant arguments and counterarguments. In my final comment, I would explain how the paper was evaluated, with particular attention to ways to improve the paper (I often give a rewrite option, either where I take the best grade of the two [if I'm feeling particularly generous that semester and don't have too many students to make the offer impractical], or where the second grade replaces the first [still generous but a little scary to some students], or where I average the first and second grades [not so generous, b/c students have to make significant improvements in the highest-level criteria to get more than a third of a grade increase, and few do]....

So, where have I gone wrong, O Great Objectivist?

The Constructivist said...

Long but interesting reporting on ID debates in a recent Washington Post article.

Helps me understand a bit more of people's motivations for supporting the ID movement.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

You definitely put more into grading than I do and definitely have higher standards. Note in grading the hypothetical assignment on the bible, you said you would subtract points for arguing from authority or from relying on principles that presuppose the student's beliefs or commitments.

Note that this is a value-laden judgment. Implicit in it is that priority in reasoning should be given to principles that are not specific to a particular religion or division of it.

This is precisely the sort of prioritization of secular reason over religious commitment that some Christians and Jews would not endorse. For example, many Christians would reject the claim that if they can't provide a convincing argument for God's existence or the trinity.

It seems to me that you are injecting secular standards into your class. Hence, you are influencing what and how their children think in ways they likely would not approve. Now we disagree on whether this is coercive when done in K-12 public schools, but the conflict is still a clear one.

The Constructivist said...

Given how many Christian denominations there are and varieties of Judaism, being able to articulate the reasoning behind a claim that your reading of the Bible is true is a skill even someone who expects to live only among similarly religious people for the rest of their lives ought to cultivate. I doubt the claim "X is true b/c the Bible says so" would pass muster in any theological seminary or religious college, for instance. Setting up my principle that seeking out ways to persuade audience members not predisposed to accept your appeal to authority is value-laden, but it doesn't set up a secular-religious conflict. It's abut how to make a case for your values in a world full of conflicting values.

Speaking of which, why is it that libertarians are so concerned about concentrations of state power, but not apparently that concerned about potential or actual infringements on individual liberties by non-state actors like corporations or religious authorities?

The Constructivist said...

O, what I'm trying to get at is that it doesn't have to be an either-or choice between "religious" and "secular" values. Patrick Courts, Emeritus Professor of English at SUNY Fredonia, argues in Multicultural Literacies for the notion of "code-switching" with respect to dialects and discourses; Courts, Lisa Delpit, Gloria Anzaldua, and many others argue that rather than force someone to give up their home language(s), schools and other institutions should encourage all students to become proficient at "code-switching," or matching their language to their audience/setting. I think this argument could be extended to students from religious backgrounds (no one denomination constitutes a majority in the U.S., so in effect they're all minority cultures, although this of course varies by region).

If, however, you're a proponent of English-only instruction in schools or in forcing students to assimilate to "standard" English, and hence find the notion of code-switching problematic, then why doesn't the same argument you'd marshall against non-dominant dialects/discourses apply also to religious minorities' values?

The Constructivist said...

O, according to this piece from Echidne, the Pope may be on your side on this one.

The Constructivist said...

O, in an essay devoted to criticizing Horowitz's reasoning in the ABOR (sadly not yet online in the recent issue of Academe due to AAUP's revising its we site), philosopher Kurt Smith also criticizes proponents of teaching intelligent design as if it were a science. I'd be very interested in seeing your critique of Smith's reasoning.

The Constructivist said...

O, here's an interesting discussion across several blogs on the politics of intelligent design. They talk about conservatism and libertarianism, so I thought you might be interested.

The Constructivist said...

O, you may be interested in this from Pharyngula on conservatism and science.