Archive for November, 2012

On Having it All

woman juggling to "Have it all"

This woman “has it all” and it doesn’t look like very much fun. And oh, hey, where’s dad?

I am really not sure why the inability to have it all is supposed to be some kind of strike against feminism. I don’t think feminism ever suggested that women could “have it all,” or should desire to “have it all” (whatever that even means). But some people seem to think that because women have to choose between being high-powered career-oriented persons and being full-time parents, this somehow means that feminism betrayed women and we should return to the old ways with a male bread-winner and a female stay-at-home partner. But here it might be worth noting that if the goal is to “have it all” the old way is no better than the straw-feminist way, because the “traditional 1950s family” still does not involve a woman who “has it all.” Instead, it merely results in women who don’t have it all and also cannot choose which way they would like to have it.

We should admit that the situation is completely unlike the one described by Venker in her terrible “The War on Men” piece for Fox news, and it is also completely unlike her “apology” for that piece:

Rather, Venker said, it is that, “women, once they have children would prefer to work part-time or not at all when their children are young. Their career trajectory will be different than that of men. Feminists don’t like that. They want everybody to want the same thing, career trajectories to be the same. Women may say I really want to exercise or hang out with my friends and have coffee or go shopping and have a cushier life, and your guy will be happy to do that, and go to the office all year long for 40 years to allow you to do that. Men don’t have that option. And there is nothing wrong with having different road maps.” (Source: The Daily Beast)

Actually, feminists have never claimed that everyone should want the same things. That is precisely why feminists have argued that women should be able to choose whether they want careers rather than being forced to be a stay-at-home parent, though feminists also accept that women should be able to choose to be a full-time parent if that is possible for them and what they desire. It is Venker who is making essentialist and universalizing statements about what “women” want once they have children. Venker also completely ignores that many men also want to be home with their children. She says that “Men don’t have that option” to stay home. But feminism has precisely been arguing that both sexes should have these options. Just as feminists think women should be allowed to choose work, so too, they think men should be able to choose to stay at home, if that is what suits them. It is Venker, not feminists, who are limiting what people are supposed to want.

Then, to make matters worse, Venker paints an unrealistic portrait of what it is like to be a stay-at-home parent. It seems, on her world-view that stay-at-home mothers spend their time exercising, hanging out with friends, shopping and having coffee, a “cushier” life, as she describes it. Venker thinks that a man will be happy to work in order to allow his wife this “cushy” life. But many stay-at-home moms describe their days as difficult and full of work (laundry, getting the kids from here to there, feeding the kids, etc. etc.) it is precisely this stereotype of the stay-at-home life as “cushy” that often feeds resentment among both spouses: among men because they see their life as full of toil and placating bosses in order to afford their wives this “cushy” life, and among women because they resent that their husbands see their lives as “cushy” when in fact it is full of nearly-unrelenting Sisyphean work (work that once done, must then be redone). And let us not forget that the working world can also involve its fair share of “cushy” activities if one is in the upper-classes. It is true that blue-collar jobs are not so cushy, but as someone who works full-time in a upper-middle-class job, I can tell you that a fair amount of my time is spent having coffee-or-dinner-or-lunch-meetings, exercising with friends (if golf counts as exercise) and so forth.

We should admit that no one can have it all. Both mothers and fathers often want to spend more time with their families and less time at work. So what needs to change is work expectations. We could, for example, divide some jobs among more people to make those jobs more flexible. But we should dispense entirely with the myth that feminism falsely promised women they could have it all, when having it all was really what the traditional family offered women. Neither feminism nor the traditional family offers anyone the chance to have it all.

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John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

There is a list going around Facebook recently, though the list is quite old published in 2005, of the top 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries from a conservative perspective. Many of the books listed are quite predictable, since anything that challenges capitalism or Christianity is an immediate candidate. But one book that made the top 5 kind of surprised me. There sitting at #5 is John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. I mean this book is at #5, it ranks as more harmful than Marx’s Das Kapital (#6) and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where he proclaims that God is Dead (#9). Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and The Decent of Man don’t even make the list (though they get honourable mention). What on earth could be so dangerous about Democracy and Education? Well, lets see what they say:

In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education–particularly in public schools–and helped nurture the Clinton generation. (Source: Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices)

So thinking skills are threatening? I find this passage odd because “hard knowledge” itself comes from the exercise of thinking skills. Dewey does not actually argue against teaching knowledge in Democracy and Education. Instead he argues that while teaching knowledge is important, this ought to be done in the context of examining and questioning the knowledge that is being taught so that students will learn how to create new knowledge and advance our understanding. There would be no new scientific, mathematical, engineering, or other advances in knowledge without exercising thinking skills.  If Einstein had not been curious about physics and spent his time thinking while working in the patent office, then we would still be stuck with only Newtonian physics. In fact, we wouldn’t even have Newtonian physics, since his ideas about gravity and so on were derived from his thinking about apples falling to earth. Dewey on this point:

Dewey on the relation between thinking and knowledge

Dewey notes that knowledge is subordinate to thinking because knowledge cannot progress without thinking. From Democracy and Education, page 146.

Dewey's Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Dewey’s Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Second, it is strange to admit that teaching thinking skills leads to voting democratic. Surely if one’s views were worth their salt they should be able to withstand critical scrutiny.

Third, it is frightening to see how this kind of fear of critical thinking finds its way into official Republican policy only a few years later. In the 2012 election season the Republican party of Texas included the following in their educational platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (Source: The Washington Post)

Of course, it is important to note that the undermining of parental authority does not follow from the development of critical thinking skills that challenge students’ fixed beliefs. For that to follow you would have to make explicit the premise that parental teachings are of a kind that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. If one were truly certain of the knowledge one was imparting to one’s offspring, then one would have no fear of their critical questioning, since the critical examination of true beliefs merely leads one to understand their truth more deeply.

But finally, one of the things that I find most odd about the inclusion of Democracy in Education among the top-five most harmful books is that the very distinction between knowledge and thinking that these conservative fears are based on is a distinction that they seem to be getting from the very work they are afraid of. Here is Dewey’s description of this distinction:

Dewey on Knowledge and Thinking

Dewey Describes knowledge as that which is settled and known, that which is certain, while thinking arises from doubt, questioning, and the unknown. Thinking can also expose false knowledge, according to Dewey. From Democracy and Education page 283.

It seems strange to me to invoke a distinction introduced in a philosophical work in order to describe why that work is harmful when one clearly agrees with the distinction introduced therein. One of the means of evaluating whether philosophy is good or bad as philosophy is on the basis of the distinctions introduced by the philosopher because introducing and elucidating distinctions is part of the work of philosophy. The fear of Dewey’s work seems to have a tension in it because they seem to agree that the distinction between knowledge and thinking is a worthwhile and important distinction (therefore it is good philosophy) but then think that introducing the distinction is harmful because it might encourage thinking which would challenge children to examine their beliefs to discover whether what they have taken to be knowledge (what has been ‘called knowledge’ as Dewey puts it) really deserves the label.

I guess Hannah Arendt was right when she wrote:

There are no dangerous thoughts;
Thinking itself is dangerous (See Discussion on SciForums)

And just for fun, Stephen Colbert’s take on the Texas GOP’s position against thinking: for those in the USA, you can find the clip at this link. For those of you in Canada, you cannot find the clip because the Comedy Network’s website sucks, contrary to what their commercials claim.

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The decision on Rob Ford’s conflict of interest case was announced moments ago. He’s been found guilty and in 14 days he will no longer be Toronto’s Mayor.

This has been a good week for Toronto: first the Argos won the Grey Cup, then we lost the gravy train.

There is already a Craig’s List listing for a slightly used Ford:

And just in case we had forgotten what a hilarious mayor Ford was, Vice magazine reminds us of all his goofs with this satirical piece, “Toronto Just Fired the Greatest Mayor of All Time.”

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