Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pure Hearts in Lost Souls

Throughout the years, I have struggled with my relationship with a higher being and the following that has convened in the name of that entity. I have battled with the corruption of the very foundation of religions as the roots of belief systems have been torn from the ground and implanted in a pot of carefully manipulated lumps of soil, nourished with tainted holy water.

I cannot, with a clear conscience, completely banish the idea of God from my mind. Perhaps it’s the fear of the unknown, the possibility of some dark retribution awaiting me in the flickering shadows of a fiery afterlife. Perhaps it’s simply the wiping away of an ideology that has been deeply ingrained into my mind since I was a small child that I find impossible. Or, perhaps it’s the simple comfort He provides, an omniscient guardian to keep us safe.

A host of questions arise, with answers upon which one can only postulate. What would become of a society that has no basis for moral values or beliefs? Who would we become without the looming threat of eternal damnation, or the glorious promise of paradise after death? Would people still be generally good without being morally accountable to anyone but themselves? Such inquires send the mind hurdling back to the ultimate question of human nature: are humans inherently good or evil? Without the social influence of theology, would we grow to become saints or swine? Or would we simply exist, driven by biological forces of survival rather than of greed or just rewards?

Having a host of friends who are active atheists, I have many times had this discussion with them, debating the existence of God and the purpose and benefits of believing on pure blind faith alone. Being a lover of science and the knowledge it has provided me, I’ve struggled with the notion of blind faith and am usually left questioning, always questioning, with no answer given. I remember as a small child in Sunday school our teacher was arguing against the Big Bang Theory, stating “someone had to create the Earth, you can’t say that it was ‘just there’”. I raised my hand, in innocent curiosity, and asked “Well if God created the Earth, who created God?” My teacher fumbled briefly for an answer before sputtering out, “well…he was just there”. And as I sat back in my chair, I knew the answer was not satisfactory, but my religious education continued on. We moved to a new church and for a moment, the experience was fulfilling. I became a diehard Christian, bumping Christian rock music, joining the Christians on Campus club, doodling crosses and crucified hands on my notebook, preaching and recruiting to anyone who would listen. I loved my faith and my church, before we merged with an upscale church from the hills where snobbery and presumption was not in short supply. The hypocrisy of Sunday do-gooders drove me mad; you know the types, those Christians who do God’s thing on Sunday and do their own thing every other day of the week. Jaded by superficiality and morning preaching of religious superiority, coupled with a deepening crippling depression, issues with my sexuality, and dwindling faith, I finally threw in the towel and left the church before my 14th birthday.

Though I had given up on believing that God actually gave a damn about me, I could never quite bring myself to believe he wasn’t there at all, and in spite of walking away from the church, I never walked away from aspiring to be the best human being I could be. As a 13 year old, I used my miniscule allowance to support a starving child in South America. Throughout my high school years, I donated to various causes and participated in charities, rejecting the extra credit my fellow students needed to be motivated with to take part. During my college years, I worked with foster children and emotionally disturbed teens, I volunteered at an after school program, and I started a cancer fund raising over $2,300 for cancer research. Post graduation, I became an advocate of tolerance, specifically for the Muslim community after 9/11, and I became a therapist, working at a non-profit organization for autistic children.

Now, am I providing this repertoire of activity in some vain attempt to secure my status as a pompous ass? Not so much as to demonstrate that one doesn’t have to be perched on a pew, singing some poorly adapted verse, keeling over a man-written document in search of a purpose and an explanation to be a good human being. Having an understanding of our shared humanity, being an active global citizen, taking care of one another and trying to have the most positive impact on the world around us that we’re capable of makes us good human beings. In fact, getting away from the church and out into the world is probably more beneficial to anyone’s spiritual journey. Where God fits into this, and how much, is dependent upon the practicing individual. For me, he’s there, and I’m here, and we acknowledge each other’s presence. I do what I feel I need to do to sleep at night, hoping I’ve done the best I could, and if it’s in agreement with him, great, if not, maybe next time. I do believe we can be an ethical and moral community without accountability to a higher being. Likewise, I don’t believe the immediate presence of that being automatically makes one ethical, moral, or accountable.

The hypocrisy I’ve previously mentioned is rampant in all organized religion. Many people, especially as of late, pick and choose which parts of the Bible they wish to enforce and which they wish to sweep beneath the rug. They utilize their religions as a vehicle to further personal agendas and cite their holy books as justification for discrimination and hatred. In the process of writing this blog, I was compelled to track down my old youth pastor, and found a site pushing religious superiority and a video of a panel he participated in arguing against homosexuality and equal rights. Many just don't practice even the most basic of principles that they preach. Last week I was set in a Christian school awaiting a lecture from my boss, and found myself in the throes of a mini-sermon, discussing Bible passages of delighting in the Lord and praying before my boss took center stage. I made a conscience effort to keep an open mind before a slight cutting comment towards Jews was made, then I shut down. But the tone of the room was one of devotion, love, and kindness, a tone which quickly changed once my boss, there to lecture on teaching techniques and brain functionality, began her speech. Met with criticism, snide remarks, and constant argument, a level of unexpected, unexplained hostility slowly rose through the three and a half hour presentation. It ended with a verbal battle between entities, one I did not witness because I left out of frustration and anxiety. The tension in the room was overwhelming and the difficulty of seeing a colleague and a mentor being attacked was too much to handle with quiet grace and decorum. While it would be unfair to overgeneralize this experience to all Christians, I think it’s fair to say, given this situation and numerous others, that the presence of God in one’s life does not guarantee that individual to be moral, ethical, accountable, or even to have an ounce of integrity.

I still struggle from time to time with my relationship with this God, but I figure at this point, I will continue to do my best and hope it’s enough. If God’s there in Heaven, I’m sure he’s watching, and if he’s not, well I’ve still done my duty as a human being and helped someone here on Earth to have a slightly easier existence than before. And in the end, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiroshima: Lessons Unlearned

Einstein envisioned it. Oppenheimer created it. Truman deployed it. Little Boy, the first ever weapon of mass destruction, was nestled snugly in the belly of a B-29 fighter jet and sent sailing over the town of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The explosion left the world both horrified and awestruck, and left a large bloody stain in U.S. history books. It also began the race and opened the flood gates for the development of more powerful artillery. And in the continuing wake of international turmoil, throughout the years our awareness of this clear and present danger has bred a very real fear into daily life.

With the second World War hinging on its fourth year for the U.S. and Japan still clinging by a thread, common sense and humanity gave way to frustration and impatience. Just a few years earlier, Albert Einstein had written a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt noting that a bomb of mass destruction must be built in order to definitively end the war. A top secret assembly of scientists and engineers gathered under what would be called the Manhattan Project with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the helm. Soon, the atomic bomb was born.

Though it seemed that Roosevelt had no intention of utilizing the bomb, as Europe seemed to be losing power and Japan was slipping along with them, after his untimely death in April 1945, Vice President Truman took over. Once victory was achieved in Europe, Japan had little to lean on and ran dangerously low on artillery, planes, and manpower. Despite the fact that the Japanese seemed to be on the verge of raising the white flag, Truman saw an opportunity for the gross demonstration of power the U.S. had suddenly come to wield with this bomb, and ordered it be dropped.

On August 6, 1945, at 8:15AM, Little Boy was released over Hiroshima. Nearly 2,000 feet in the air, the bomb detonated, and a radiant white flash lit the morning sky. Waves of heat exceeding 7,000 degrees raced through the town. Everything within a one mile radius of the explosion was incinerated; within 5 miles, the city was completely destroyed and everyone killed; within 10 miles, a severe risk of exposure to radiation that injured and killed thousands more weeks, months, and even years after, but not before putting them through the agonizing pain of radiation poisoning, burns, and cancers. The casualties topped 150,000. Three days later, in Nagasaki, we dropped a second bomb that killed another 80,000.

While a few narrow-minded people regarded these attacks as sufficient reciprocity for the Pearl Harbor tragedy, bear in mind that while devastating and terrible, Pearl Harbor was an attack on armed forces preparing for war, which resulted in the deaths of 2,300 soldiers. The atomic bombs were attacks on civilian towns (Little Boy missed his target by 800 ft and exploded over a hospital), and resulted in the deaths of 230,000+ innocents who had no say in the matter of Pearl Harbor or whether they desired any part in the war at all. It goes without saying that these two matters are a dark mark on our records (but you wouldn't think some people had gotten the memo, given the petty responses that littered Facebook following the Japanese defeat of the US women's soccer team at this year's World Cup).

Nowadays, we have moved on to more deadly substances: nuclear power, and the looming threat of such power falling into the wrong hands is ever-present. The Nuclear Club, an unofficial title for the states that acknowledge they possess such warheads, consists of eight countries: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel is suspected of having nukes, but it has yet to be confirmed. The first five of the preceding list are nuclear-possessing members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an agreement which in short states that it will prevent any countries who do not have nukes from obtaining them, will allow for the use of nuclear energy without the threat of abuse, and more importantly, binds the participating countries of the treaty to gradually move towards a total disarmament and abolition of nuclear warheads. The latter pillar seems a little more difficult, given that the language of the agreement is hazy, lacking a timeline or any real obligation to succeed, and suspicions of one another leave the states acting like five criminals in a room, holding one another at gunpoint, and no one trusts the others enough to lower their firearm first.

Throughout the past 5 decades, the fear of a nuclear apocalypse rose and fell with the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, a narrow standoff between U.S. forces and Russian-backed Cuba which left John F. Kennedy sweating and the world on the verge of a miocardial infarction, brought paranoia knocking on the average American's door. Bomb shelters were built, bomb warnings were developed, bomb drills were exercised at schools and offices, and talk of the Red Menace littered daily conversations. Though the CMC ended at the last moment with Cuba turning away, the reality of a nuclear war came dangerously close. Another incident occurred much later, when the U.S. had scheduled an exercise to test a rocket model. Notifying Russian authorities that the test would take place to avoid suspicion, the message went astray. When a supposedly unannounced rocket showed up on their radar, Russian President Khrushchev was given less than a minute to respond, his finger twitching on the button that would send a nuclear warhead hurtling toward the U.S. With seconds to spare, Khrushchev decided against the move, and after clarifications were given, the near-mistake left everyone with sense of dreadful relief. Today, the daily threat of hostile countries and terrorist organizations obtaining nuclear bombs lingers at the backs of people's minds, but who do we have to blame but ourselves? The fire we started has roared out of control, beyond our power to contain it, and it may prove to be our own self-inflicted demise.

While there is always the growing threat of hostile forces gaining access to nuclear arsenals, we have made progress in international disarmament. In the time from the Cold War to the present, nuclear warheads have been reduced from 70,000 to roughly 20,350. South Africa, once a country that had developed 6 nuclear warheads, acted in good faith and dissembled all before signing the NPT. But if you're thinking that 20,000 warheads and 8 countries are still too many, you're right. All it takes is one bomb to obliterate a nation, one explosion to set off a series of explosions as state retaliations take flight. Without total disarmament and the careful watch of all nuclear sources, we as a global community will never be safe.

"Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness." -John F. Kennedy

For more information on the movement to total disarmament, watch Lucy Walker's Countdown to Zero

Leaving 'Em in the Dust

As we encroach upon a new school year, districts, schools, and teachers are gearing up to dive back into the remaining debris of our disintegrating educational system, namely the No Child Left Behind policy, George W. Bush's brain child. Copies of workbook pages and practice tests are running hot off the presses, Number 2 pencils are being freshly sharpened, and teachers take another swig off the flask before entering the prison their classrooms have become, devoid of independent thought, creative teaching styles, and fun. A backwards policy that has left students burned out, teachers exhausted, and both dreading going to school every day, No Child Left Behind practically guarantees the failure of our children, and the rippling effects of standardized test obsession are destroying any hope our future may have.

Standardized tests are, at their core, an assessment of performance to determine the level of achievement each grade, school, and district can obtain, and the effectiveness of current teaching practices as they are. When I was in school, these tests were exactly that. The school year went on as it always did, we engaged in fun activities, we had projects and experiments, and we had the leisure of additional subjects such as music and art. Preparation for the annual standardized tests took all of two weeks out of the year, mostly with the focus placed on attendance for the tests. We completed the tests, usually in a week or two, then went on with our regularly scheduled curriculum.

Today, standardized tests have become less of an assessment tool and more of a formal exam that needs to be practiced for, studied for, and requiring extensive preparation with more time and efforts dedicated to these than most students probably dedicate to their SATs. In the stead of the fun, creative, active learning environments teachers had hoped to build, monotonous endless work pages are replacing most class time, boring students and reducing any chances of academic retention. But why is the drive to do well on these tests so high?

It's a given that the school, district, and state who have the best test scores gain national recognition for being just that, the best. The accolades one can obtain from having such high performance marks can be motivating enough, but let's be real here, it's all about the money. Those who receive the highest scores get the most money from the federal government, which filters down through the aforementioned branches into the schools, utilizing money as a motivational factor, a policy that ends up being more ironic than intelligent.

Most people think if one waves money in the face of superintendents, principals, and teachers, they will work harder and produce better scores; however what they fail to see is that low test scores are the result of a multitude of factors, most of which stem from a lack of money in the system. Classroom sizes are too large, school supplies such as desks, updated text books, and advancing educational technologies are missing in action, and lower socio-economic area schools pay less which brings in lower qualified teachers. So why does it make more sense to give money to schools who do better when one of the main reasons they do better is because they have more money to provide the learning environment children need to do well on the tests to begin with? Schools with lower scores should be carefully examined and it should be determined whether or not lack of funding was a direct cause of low scores, then money should be distributed as necessity dictates.

As the various facets of these systems become more and more obsessed with the green, the heat is turned up and flares down the line like a burning fuse with the teachers holding the dynamite. Ultimately, if scores are not up to par, principals and superintendents have decided, it is a direct reflection of the performance of the teacher, which can lead to a pink slip and a nice field trip to the unemployment office. Now, in spite of the glaring examples already provided regarding lack of funds and an overly-structured classroom environment that allows for little actual teaching, additional fault can and should be shouldered by the demographic of the classroom. The best example I can provide is a friend of my mother's, a first grade teacher who had 20 students: 7 of whom were recommended to repeat kindergarten but whose parents pushed them through, 5 of whom could not fluently speak English. Twelve students who really had no business being in this particular class held the fate of this teacher's career in their hands. And, faced with such a harsh reality, teachers became desperate.

In early July, it was revealed that Atlanta public schools had engaged in a city-wide scandal producing fraudulent test scores during the 2009 test period in order to receive the public notoriety and money higher scores would bring. Eighty-two educators admitted to various forms of cheating, including altering their students' test answers. Another 178 educators pleaded the Fifth Amendment, and additionally, 38 principals were charged with involvement. While many will tsk and shake their heads at the city, as we all should, we have to take into account the ridiculousness of this, the level of desperation these people must be feeling to take part not only in cheating on exams, but at such an incredibly large scale. Some driven by greed, others driven by the greedy and the desire to keep their jobs in this crumbling economy, all robbing their students and setting a poor example, to say the least.

So, with limited money where it needs to be, teachers facing undeserved punishments, and moderated teaching methodology that actually hinders learning and productivity, these standardized tests are ruining our education system. The long term effects are already being felt as high school graduates are barely passing exit exams, and the standard of education is lowered so students can move on, whether or not they're ready. This in turn will lower the standard for college entrance and then work standards of quality as well. So in short, we're crashing and burning. While the Obama Administration is set to revise the policy, change is slow, how many more failed academic years will it take before someone has the cajones to repeal this destructive policy? And how many more children will have to suffer in the meantime?