[Paleopsych] CHE: Misunderstood Concepts
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Fri Apr 15 20:30:19 UTC 2005
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.11
We asked four scholars to discuss the most misunderstood concepts in
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
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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