[Paleopsych] CHE: Misunderstood Concepts

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Misunderstood Concepts
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.11

    We asked four scholars to discuss the most misunderstood concepts in
    their fields.


    Kent Greenawalt, a professor of law at Columbia University School of
    Law and author of Does God Belong in Public Schools? (Princeton
    University Press, 2005):

    The most misunderstood, and manipulated, concepts in discussion of the
    free-exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment are
    religion itself and teaching religion. One problem is that saying just
    what makes something religious is very hard. The best one can do is
    look for features that characterize major religions -- such as belief
    in a spiritual domain, a comprehensive view of the world and human
    purposes, ritual acts of worship, the use of sacred texts, and
    corporate aspects of religious practice -- and ask how closely debated
    instances resemble the undisputed religions.

    Another problem with the legal concept of religion is how it should
    relate to nonlegal understanding. What counts as religious for
    constitutional purposes need not be exactly the same as what a
    philosopher, a theologian, or an anthropologist would consider
    religious. But a legal approach to religion should connect fairly
    closely to its ordinary meanings.

    These genuine perplexities cannot explain, or excuse, blatant misuses
    of the concept of religion. Evolution is not religion, teaching it is
    not religion. The theory of evolution does conflict with some
    religious views, but it is based on scientific data. Science is an
    independent field of inquiry that does not even address most major
    questions that concern religions.

    When other subjects, such as history and government, are treated
    without reference to religion, teachers are not propounding "the
    religion of secular humanism." Few American public-school teachers
    tell students that God does not exist, and that human beings are the
    measure of all things. (And, in any event, the ideas of secular
    humanism are not themselves a religion.) Religion is not everything
    about which people care deeply. One may contrast these various
    expansive notions of religion with ideas that are much too narrow
    -- for example, that religion in law should be limited to belief in a
    supreme being.

    Developing a constitutional approach to the concept of religion is
    difficult, but we could think more clearly about that problem if
    people restrained themselves from putting forward whatever labels will
    serve the immediate practical consequences they seek.



    John S. Rigden, an adjunct professor of physics at Washington
    University in St. Louis and author of Einstein 1905: The Standard of
    Greatness (Harvard University Press, 2005):

    Anumber of physics concepts are misunderstood by both students and the
    general public. The spooky "field" concept is an example: A field
    exists where there appears to be nothing. However, the concept of
    inertia is so contrary to our experiences and common sense that I
    would put it right up there at the top.

    The concept of inertia equates what seem to be opposites:
    motionlessness and motion. Standing still and moving uniformly (with
    no acceleration) are physically equivalent. Since moving and standing
    still are equivalent, once an object is moving, it would, according to
    the dictates of inertia, have no reason to stop and would continue
    moving forever. However, our environment is replete with a variety of
    forces that conspire to bring moving objects to rest. Thus endless
    motion is foreign to our experience.

    A ride on a roller coaster thrills our senses as the rider is
    subjected to a variety of stomach-wrenching accelerations. By
    contrast, our much faster ride on planet Earth, as it simultaneously
    orbits the Sun and spins on its axis, provides no thrill at all
    because this motion is almost acceleration-free, and thus we think we
    are at rest. Inertia underlies an understanding of motion and, since
    it violates common sense, is often the source of confusion.



    Mica Pollock, an assistant professor of education in human development
    and psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author
    of Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School (Princeton
    University Press, 2004):

    I think that in education (a field made up of many intersecting
    disciplines -- mine is anthropology), race is the most misunderstood
    concept. More precisely, it's the fuzziest concept, the vaguest, the
    most broadly used, and the least openly wrestled with, though it is a
    concept that we in education must (and do) use daily.

    The number of researchers who believe in biological differences
    between races is thankfully dwindling. We understand increasingly that
    race categories are social realities built upon biological fictions
    -- that race categories have been constructed and thus organize our
    daily experiences and life trajectories. But too few of us study how
    race categories are rebuilt daily in American life.

    Particularly in education, we tend to treat racial identities as if
    they are fixed rather than in flux. We also often treat the racially
    inequitable opportunity system surrounding students as static, rather
    than as a living structure of opportunity-denial that Americans
    reproduce and allow on a daily basis. We also tend too often to treat
    race as a topic that we can simply go ask research subjects about and
    so get easy answers to our questions, when Americans actually struggle
    quite actively with both talking and not talking about race.

    Many educational researchers are particularly concerned with racial
    patterns of achievement, but often oversimplify the concept of race.
    First, they often use race in research comparisons as a kind of simple
    difference, as if different "kinds" of kids have fundamentally
    different ways of talking and acting and thinking about school, and
    that if we can just compare each group's behaviors, we'll understand
    the "achievement gap."

    Relatedly, too few of us examine racial achievement patterns as orders
    produced jointly by intertwined adult and young players both inside
    and outside of schools. Finally, in examining racial inequality, some
    of us treat race as if it can be neatly delinked from other variables,
    like class, when class itself is racially organized in the United
    States, and race involves class dynamics.

    I think that openly struggling over such complexities of race analysis
    is essential for producing good research and helping children.



    Robert J. Norrell, a professor of history at the University of
    Tennessee at Knoxville and author of The House I Live In: Race in the
    American Century (Oxford University Press, 2005):

    The most misunderstood concept
    in history is objectivity. I entered the academic world in the
    aftermath of 1960s idealism with the faith that the truth would set
    me, and society, free. I thought, "Let's study the past, identify the
    wrongs done, and correct them" -- an idea that presumed confidence in
    both human authority in the world and our ability to objectively
    establish what was wrong in society.

    Objectivity as an ideal for historians, however, soon lost favor. In
    the 1970s, historians began a quest to include those who had been left
    out of our typical narratives: blacks, women, the working class.
    Influenced by the countercultural influences of the 60s, those
    practicing this "new history" often dismissed old history as biased in
    favor of white, male elites in the West, and tended to celebrate those
    forgotten people without subjecting them to the same tough-minded
    criticism that they were applying to the old elites.

    Postmodernist thought in the 80s continued to undermine historians'
    notions of objectivity, and for many younger historians, the pursuit
    of truth held about the same importance as looking for the Loch Ness
    monster. They presumed instead that all reality is constructed
    according to internal or group perspective, mainly by class, race, or
    gender. With reality so fractured by our limited perspectives, they
    felt, it is therefore impossible to determine an objective truth
    -- and is, in fact, misguided to even try.

    The problem was that the academy's dismissal of objectivity set us
    against the larger public that likes to read history and think
    historically. The average nonacademic person believes that historical
    truth can be established, or at least approximated, and that the value
    of history is its ability to teach us actually what our experience has
    been. This divide between academic history and what the public
    understands about the past has resulted from the intellectuals'
    too-casual dismissal of the human capacity to seek truth, which has
    undermined our ability to shape understandings of the past outside the

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