Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Prioritize Public Schools!” – How Martin Niemöller would advise Bertrand Russell’s chicken.

"Why are they feeding us this?"
I want to tell you a different kind of chicken joke, followed by a more traditional chicken joke.

Joke the First
The first chicken joke expands on an analogy drawn by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. In chapter six of The Problems of Philosophy he discusses inductive reasoning—the idea that future events will continue a pattern we have observed in the past.

For example, because the sun has appeared each of the past 20,000+ mornings, I assume that it will appear yet again tomorrow. But however sure I am of that fact, Russell points out that there are limitations, even tragic limitations to my assumptions.

Bertrand Russell laughing at some joke or other.
To show these limitations he offers the observations of a particular chicken—about which I am about to make a rather gruesome joke, with apologies and the appropriate trigger-warnings to my chicken-raising sister, Dr. Rebecca Linger.

Our friend the chicken knows two things to be universally true. First, that every morning, the farmer appears and scatters feed before the assembled chickens. Second, that from time to time the farmer also appears again in the late afternoon and, from among the assembled chickens, she selects one, chops off its head, and eventually consumes its lifeless body.

But here is where our chicken friend’s inductive reasoning fails, according the Russell. The chicken’s observation each day of her life has been this: the farmer always selects some other chicken besides me. That has been true. And it will continue to be true…until the day on which it is no longer true.

Bertrand Russell’s chicken could use some advice from Pastor Martin Niemöller.

Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and held by Nazi officials in a series of prisons and concentration camps until 1945. Nevertheless, he is often criticized for having been slow to recognize the dangers posed to some of his fellow-citizens, then to his country, to the rest of Europe and, eventually, the nations engulfed in World War II. Yet, in retrospect, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum prominently quotes this version of his famous poem:
            First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Socialist.
            Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
            Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
                        Because I was not a Jew.
            Then they came for me—
                        and there was no one left to speak for me.

Now that you know these things, let me tell you the joke.

What would Martin Niemöller say to Bertrand Russell’s chicken? “Ask yourself, ‘How many chickens does the farmer have left before she gets to you?’”

Why Joke the First matters:
Do we find this first joke funny? Probably not. And if not, what does that say about who and where we are in the chicken’s story?

Martin Niemoller, laughing,
probably at some other joke.
For Russell (and Niemöller), the joke is clearly on the chicken (and Niemöller)—fat and happy until the hatchet falls. Russell’s chicken and Niemöller’s advice combine to represent a mindset I am observing among the opponents of public education, primarily in the immediate context of our local community. (A similar attack is being mounted at the highest levels of our federal government, and the publicity surrounding those efforts certainly emboldens the efforts here. But so long as public education remains largely controlled by local school boards, I intend to focus on the children of the Fall River Joint Unified School District.)

Why I Am This Passionate:
Let me digress for a moment to make full disclosure of my passions in this matter.

My family has been involved in public education since long before my birth. I have been involved as a volunteer and donor in many aspects of public education throughout my life. I am married to a public school teacher. I count many public school teachers among my friends. Even so, my wife and I considered carefully the expectations of some within our faith tradition that we would be educating our children in private, Christian institutions, if not homeschooling them. I have frequently considered what have been offered as the “options” and “alternatives” to public schools. These “choices” are routinely offered in opposition to perceived (and, I admit, actual) failings in our public schools. But after more than three decades of involvement in this dialogue, my hackles are raised by every advocate for homeschooling, every “alternative educational opportunity” that is offered, and even the ignorant denial of truancy’s detrimental effects on our children—both the individual truant and those children whose educational resources are diminished as a result of these others’ absence. (Schools are paid on the basis of their average daily attendance. Each child’s every absence literally costs the school money that otherwise would be invested in local public education.)

So, as some recommend that we further diminish the enrollment of our public schools, and with that lower enrollment comes the lower funding for even the most essential elements of education, I object and will oppose their efforts. They may be sufficiently funded and organized, and possibly even competent to focus on their own family to the exclusion of others’. But on behalf of those outside the small number who might reap better benefits from others’ costs, I would ask that we instead apply Niemoller’s lesson. Ask yourself, “How many more students can be subtracted from our public schools before there are not enough resources available to educate those who remain?”

Our past observations, that every day of our lives there has been public education, do not support the assumption that, no matter what we do to damage it, there will always be public education. In fact, there has not always been public education. In many places, there currently is not public education. But I am not only asking that we consider the survival of public education. I am asking that we turn our attentions away from the options and alternatives that diminish the education received by the majority of our community’s children. Instead, let us turn toward the improvements and support, or at least encouragements deserved by those whose lives are committed to providing the best possible public schools we can.

Tim Madigan, St John Fisher College
Joke the Second
Tim Madigan of St. John Fisher College wrote “Mr. Russell’s Chicken: A New Symbol for Philosophy” for The Bertrand Russell Society Bulletin. After considering various other philosophers’ probable responses, Madigan imagines that Dr. Russell is asked the most famous of chicken-joke questions. I am choosing to clean up the language for my audience. (Who knew that philosophers were allowed to cuss?!) But according to Madigan, to the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Russell would answer, “Because he finally understood induction, and got…away from the farmer!”

There is a reason that we chickens get to make decisions, locally and directly, about how we want to educate our children…together. As a community, do we need to invest in one another’s children in order to enhance our public schools? Yes, of course. But I would take it a step further.

Special Bonus: Joke the Third
Even those of us who have no school-aged children need to recognize the benefits we all receive by means of our public education system, especially through our local public schools. More than merely recognizing those benefits, we need to invest ourselves in making our schools the best they can possibly be. This means volunteering, donating, and fund-raising. But it also means supporting and encouraging those who chose a career in public education.

"Who built this road across my path?"
That decision to be professional educators means that they receive far lesser returns than others would, given the same investment in college and graduate school education. It has been said that no sane person enters a career in public education with expectations of lucrative salaries. Some teachers respond to that statement with this joke: “No sane person enters a career in public education. Period.” The fact is, sadly, that some have been so wounded in the opposition’s constant attacks on public education that their initial passion is a distant memory. Yet even for the most tired, jaded, and discouraged of my acquaintances, there clearly remains a love for and devotion to the children they serve. These educators deserve our support and encouragement. These children deserve our involvement and assistance.

Let’s Try This:
Rather than imagining the alternatives and options (which some of us may, in fact, be sufficiently privileged to pursue), what if we imagined—and acted upon—a vision of what our public schools could be, if we the public—fellow members of our local community—were to invest ourselves in all our community’s children?

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