Veritas Omnia Vincit, indeed


Canada watched, torn between the comedy and the horror of good intentions turned to viciousness at Wilfrid Laurier University last month.


Lindsay Shepherd, a 22-year-old M.A. student was at teaching assistant for an undergraduate Communications class. She prepared a seminar on the politics of gendered language/pronoun usage/binary concepts. In what appears to be an act of unexceptional diligence, she showed 3 minutes of a “debate” that had recently aired on public television (TVO). I’m not sure which 3 minutes Shepherd showed, but the full 9-minute clip looks like this.

In the clip we see (in)famous psychology professor Jordan Peterson squeeze in a few words about his views on gendered pronouns. Taking the offensive is Nicholas Matte, from the University of Toronto’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity studies. There isn’t much of a debate here. But perhaps there is enough material to stimulate some interesting discussion. What are the issues? Where are the divisions?

Apparently, a student in the class took exception to the clip, complaining that giving Peterson air time is tantamount to giving legitimacy to his position.

So far, so what? Another boring day of right vs left, conservative vs reformer, freedom of speech vs security of psyche. But of course, things are never so simple. Shepherd was called into a meeting with her supervisor, the program chair, the manager of the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Office. Not a very psychologically safe place, if you ask me. The power is entirely on the side of the university, and it’s 3-against-1. Further, the three have tenure, and Shepherd is a 22-year-old graduate student with very little infrastructure to support her.

Predictably, Shepherd was told that she should not have shown the clip and—believe it or not—was told that playing Peterson’s views was little different from giving a platform to Nazism.

Fortunately, Shepherd was wise enough to audiotape the entire ordeal. To her credit, she went to the press with her story, but said that she did not wish to release the recording unless it became absolutely necessary. Of course it became necessary.

CBC article with audio

So what is all this doing on a blog about publicly-funded K-12 education? First, any high school teacher could play that panel discussion with impunity, at least in my jurisdiction. Nobody has any doubt that 15-18 year olds can separate the signal from the noise, sort through the issues and makes some sense of what’s going on. It is patently absurd for a university to assume that undergraduates cannot do the same. And if they can’t, shame on the university and the high schools that feed it.

Second, it’s crucial that we remember why the post-Enlightenment world values freedom of speech so highly. There are many well-known arguments, but let me just focus on two ideas.

  1. Human beings are fallible. We struggle with the contingencies of our experiences, with the historical realities of ourselves, our cultures and our institutions. There are damned few things about which we are so certain that there is no point in hearing alternatives. This is not to say that a reasonable person should treat all alternatives as equally worthy of our time. But it is to say that we should be humble and recognize that the potentates of old were simply wrong to silence the other.
  2. People need to have the right to learn. I do not have all the same values, beliefs and knowledge that I had 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. I have changed. And I have changed for many reasons. I understand some things more deeply now than in the past. I have new information, new theories, new means of analysis. I have new experiences. The world has changed around me, and I have had to negotiate my way through this change. And this is true of everyone. The deep questions is: how can I learn if I am held to pre-ordained “truths” that I cannot question? Whatever I believe about gender expression today, it certainly is not what I believed in 1980, and it is highly unlikely to be what I believe in 2030. Why should a single point along this journey—say, 2017—be privileged above every other point of change? Why would we say, “this year, we have the TRUTH so you can stop thinking now”? To even suggest such a thing is to deny a person the right to learn.

As a teacher I must protect each student’s right to learn. Whatever they believe today, it must be open to reflection, to challenge, to reform. As a teacher, it is my obligation to question, to encourage the student to recognize both the justifications but also the implications of each belief. And perhaps most important of all, to recognize that intelligent, sincere people can disagree with us. The only way forward is through openness, not through bludgeoning our beliefs into others.

Wilfrid Laurier University’s motto is Veritas Omnia Vincit: Truth Conquers All. The irony is still hot.

Dr. Nathan Rambukkana, the supervisor who initiated the meeting (and who made the absolutely absurd comparison to Nazism) has issued a lukewarm apology in the form of an open letter. He does himself no credit.

Open letter from Nathan Rambukkana to Lindsay Shepherd

The President of Wilfrid Laurier has also apologized.

Apology from Laurier President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy

The university has shamed itself. A young woman’s career has been put in jeopardy. It’s a truly pathetic tale.

If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.–Noam Chomsky

Let’s give Lindsay Shepherd the final word.


No power. No Wifi

The power was out at school this morning. My classroom was lit only by natural light. I didn’t have email to check or electronic attendance to take.

Students didn’t have Wifi. Some have data plans, but most were temporarily offline.

They’re not supposed to be on their phones during class, but you can feel their strain as the siren call of social media enters their minds. They can only stay bound to the mast for so long. I let them check periodically.

But today the sirens were silent.

Class was just a bit calmer than usual. Slightly more focused.

It was glorious.

Back to the 80’s # 2: The Keegstra Affair

In 1981, the village of Eckville, population about 700, became home to the most notorious incident in the history of Alberta education.

Eckville, Alberta

Susan Maddox, a relative newcomer to town, read over her son’s high school social studies notes with alarm. His notes were riddled with anti-Semitism, holocaust denial, fear of the “Jewish-controlled international banking system” and supposed threats to Christianity posed by the new world order.

Her son’s teacher, James Keegstra, was not only a veteran teacher, well-liked by staff and students, he was also Eckville’s mayor. Maddox’s complaint finally led to some investigation into Keegstra’s classroom practice. The Minister of Education removed Keegstra’s teaching certification (for failing to teach the approved curriculum, interestingly), and Keegstra became a test case for Canada’s hate speech laws, taking up court time into the 1990s.)

Keegstra’s initial conviction for willing promoting hatred, 1985. Photo from The Calgary Herald

(I do not wish to give air to Keegstra’s views at this time. If you can get a hold of Robert Mason Lee’s article “Keegstra’s Children” from the May 1985 issue of Saturday Night magazine, you’ll get a fuller sense of what Keegstra taught, and what his students learned.)

My interest today is in one narrow but crucial part of Keegstra’s teaching: that the mainstream press cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

But it was far more insidious than that.

Suppose you found a book that said that the Holocaust were, indeed, an actual historical event. Keegstra had a ready-made reply: the book is fake news. Photographs: they can be faked easily. So the inquisitive mind asks the logical question: why would someone make this stuff up?

The answer, according to Keegstra (and his ilk) is simple: it’s part of a conspiracy to promote the Zionist Agenda.

You see, on this view, the texts that agree with Keegstra’s point of view are the work of honest, decent people working to bring the truth to light. The texts that disagree are the work of the conspiracy and its well-intentioned dupes. The more evidence you find to support the reality of the Holocaust or the falsity of the Conspiracy, the stronger becomes your belief that the forces of darkness are powerful. Once in, you’re in deep.

Once you buy into this conspiratorial worldview, there is no escape. All of your information is second-hand, and you have to decide who to trust. And there is no guidance for who to trust. You have two opposing views and no means of adjudication. Well, almost.

As a student, you have your teacher to trust. Who can blame the children of Eckville for trusting their teacher, a well-known Christian, and mayor of the town to boot?

Of course, this is why we have approved textbooks, controlled curricula and curated libraries for school. Right?

Ask yourself any question about anything that you are not an expert. Then turn to the internet for answers. Are humans causing global climate change? I don’t know about you, but I do not understand nearly enough about the science to have an informed opinion. I do know (thanks to my education) something about science in general, about scientific credibility, and about the simple strategy that if I have to trust, I should trust the most qualified person in the room. It’s not infallible (what is?) but it’s better than just trusting anybody.

But this is more than a bit unnerving. Think about recent accusations that the media are biased—about anything you care to consider. There is a trivial sense where this is true. Media tend to report on things that fit their business model and that fit their market research. They tend to trust authority figures, including government. And, I don’t like where this is going.

It’s not that we’re trapped in a relativistic spiral. It’s just that it feels like it.

And students are trapped even more deeply than adults are.

But you don’t have to look far to find adults—pre-internet adults, mind you—who believe the most outlandish things because they are online. During the recent US election, I thought that nobody would believe the silly fake news articles about the Clinton’s having all their enemies murdered and getting away with it. Nope. I was wrong. Once a slice of the media (and the politicians it favours) are able to cast doubt on all disagreeing parties, we’re in precisely the same spots as Keegstra’s children.

This, in my mind, is the most crucial issue facing modern education.

Everybody says we should teach “media literacy”.

Teachers think they’re teaching “media literacy”.

We are an increasingly media illiterate society.

Where next?

I’ve got a couple more stops in the 80s before I can start to build my case for an appropriate response. See you in a couple of days.

Detecting Fake News

Man I love the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On the amazing radio program As it Happens, I heard an interview with programmer Daniel Sieradski. I know the content is not available worldwide, so I’ll copy part of the interview transcript for all readers. (CBC if this is a problem, just let me know, and I’ll delete.)

Collage of Daniel Sieradski and Mark Zuckerberg

There’s a lot of fake news out there. And now there’s a new way to detect it.

Many people believe made-up stories masquerading as news influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. But, so far, Facebook has done little to stop such pages from appearing on their site.

“It doesn’t prevent you from viewing fake news. It just gives you information to warn you that you shouldn’t take everything you read on the Internet seriously.”
– Daniel Sieradski, creator of BS Detector

So one tech designer took things into his own hands. Daniel Sieradski is the creator of a plug-in called BS Detector. Here is an edited version of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins.

Dave Seglins: Mr. Sieradski, what was your inspiration for creating this fake news detector?

Daniel Sieradski: It was in response to Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook couldn’t really handle the problem of fake news without a massive effort requiring the development of an algorithm and all these other things. I was able to work out a solution in just about an hour that showed that that was nonsense and that this issue could be easily addressed, if they really wanted to invest their energy in it.

Seglins: Well, how does this BS Detector work?

Sieradski: Basically, it scans a given web page for the presence of links and then checks the links against a database that has been compiled of fake news sites, satire sites, conspiracy theory sites and so on and then it inserts a warning label adjacent to the link letting the user know that it is not exactly a reliable source of information.

Seglins: But how do you decide which of these sites and links to flag as not reliable? Can you give us some examples?

Sieradski: Well, it seems pretty clear that a site that claims, for example, that the Illuminati murdered Prince, as claims, isn’t a reliable news source … When it comes to other sources that may be more newsy, there are a few different criteria that we look at, such as whether the site engages in presenting information that is unsourced as though it is factual, whether they are completely distorting a story by leaving out appropriate context.

Seglins: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said, “We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.” Do you feel any discomfort at all being what he calls “an arbiter of truth”?

Sieradski: Well, Zuckerberg is in a position where, if he claims responsibility for the contents on his website, he’s going to make himself open to some kinds of lawsuits that I’m not going to be subject to … This plug-in doesn’t censor any content. It doesn’t prevent you from viewing fake news. It doesn’t stop you from visiting those web sites. It just gives you information to warn you that you shouldn’t take everything you read on the Internet seriously.

Seglins: But, ideally, shouldn’t people themselves be their own BS detectors?

Sieradski: Absolutely, but, unfortunately, media literacy isn’t something that’s gotten a lot of support in the realm of education in the United States in the last 20 years, as we can plainly see … so there has to be some kind of line drawn where we say, “Listen, there is a way that we can approach this that is reasonable and not censorious and not authoritarian, but at the same time promoting media literacy and critical thinking.”

Seglins: Now, I understand that today Facebook moved to actually block this as a plug-in. What did you think when you saw that?

Sieradski: Well, to clarify, they are blocking links to the home page for the plug-in … However, it does seem that I’ve caused them a bit of embarrassment by making this plug-in and calling them out on their statements, so maybe they are punishing me for it.

Seglins: What’s your hope for BS Detector? Are you hoping to profit from this?

Sieradski: No, it’s a free and open-source project … I’m not trying to get anything out of this other than to stop my parents from sending me nonsense articles claiming that they’re true.

The full interview is on the As It Happens site.

Get your own copy of BS Detector.

John Oliver on Charter Schools

Charter schools sound like a good idea. Have the state pay for education, while allowing parents and/or churches and/or business take care of the details.

What kind of oversight is necessary? How can we be sure that charter schools are

  • taking care of the interests of the children in their care?
  • wisely and appropriately spending public funds?
  • following the law?

None of these are insuperable problems. Oversight and regulation require resources, but they should still be possible.

Sadly, the forces that push for charter schools often

  • want to save money, and oversight is expensive, and/or
  • are ideologically committed to charter schools, and do not see the need to oversee them, and/or
  • believe that the market will sort out all the problems.

And here is the problem. Not all charter schools are formed or run wisely. (Some are.) More to the point, the market moves more slowly than children develop. It is cold comfort to parents (and children) to say, “your child just wasted a year of school, but on the upside, the market is forcing the charter school to change.”

Here’s John Oliver smashing into some of the bigger institutional problems.

Cultural Capital

By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman

Source: March 31, 2016

Ok, the gag is funny. But it lacks bite because it is implausible. Jeremy’s dad is a dentist, and Jeremy really does understand what it takes to succeed. We laugh because it’s silly.

But what about those students who really do not understand the difference between inadequate, barely adequate and successful work? There are some in almost every classroom. It’s not their fault; they simply lack the household resources (i.e. parents who understand academic success and impress this cluster of attitudes and behaviours on their children).

I’ve written before about the importance of establishing clear criteria for success in the classroom. This goes beyond task success. To get into medical school, a student needs to adopt a way of life that supports this goal. The student needs to understand the quantity and level of work required. And the student needs to have a solid strategic grasp of where the greatest rewards for study and assignment effort stand. It is not surprising that success in entering medical school (or any other professional school) runs in families. How else is a student to gain the social capital to establish this kind of success?

Yes, I know. Sometimes a kid comes from the most unlikely of backgrounds to become a mover and shaker in a field. The reason we know these stories is that they are unusual. And the press loves these stories because they fit tidily into our favoured grand narrative–everyone who works hard can be anything they want. But if that were really true, we wouldn’t have systemic gender-, or cultural-, or socio-economic under- and over-representation in the most lucrative fields, would we?

What to do? I don’t have the details for you. But coming clear about the issue is a good start. If you’re a parent or a teacher, take a good look at how your child/student is working. Take a look at those who are succeeding in ways that are important to your child/student (and you). Is there a gap? Is  there something that can or should be done about it?