One School System

One of the triumphs of the human race was the invention of public schools.  With the spread of public school systems around the world, no longer would the children of farmers and blacksmiths receive only the training their parents could provide or afford to hire.  No longer would learning for learning’s sake be firmly closed to those without independent wealth or unexpected patronage.  The lot of all people was no longer simply to learn a trade and be content with that much knowledge.  The expectation arose that people would enter adulthood with a basic understanding of art, literature, music, mathematics, history, and many experimental sciences.  Later revisions and additions would make it possible for children to complete schooling with a basic familiarity with classical Western philosophy and levels of math and science that would previously have required connections in august institutions like Oxford University.

A lot of societal changes presaged this shift in human society.  In the west in particular, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization made the propagation of farmhands and apprentices far less necessary, created a middle class that expected more for its offspring, and created a demand for educated professionals that could not be fulfilled in other ways.  The history here is massive and convoluted enough that almost anything can be linked to this social revolution with enough effort, but that history is not at issue here.

This revolution also had a dramatic effect on the role of religion in society.  Religious organizations have a long history as the core of educational systems.  In societies lacking public schools, it is usually not secular charities and benefactors that fill the gap and provide basic learning to the masses, but clergy.  In countries where public systems exist in urban areas but have not yet penetrated into less developed regions, churches and mosques often fill the gap.  In places where ethnic minorities have separate infrastructure, church and school functions are often deeply intertwined as part of what makes these groups distinct from the surrounding society.  This has given and continues to give religious institutions enormous power to shape each succeeding generation of students…dramatically reduced in societies that have managed to implement secular public school systems.  Secularism, when it works, cuts religion out of the system; socialism makes the system available to anyone, preventing religious organizations from keeping their niche by being more easily accessible.

This has enabled the public school system to become much more than it was.  As a shared time of growth and experience for the majority of a country’s youth, school became where people acquired their sense of what it means to be a citizen of their country and the heritor of its culture.  It also became the primary means by which people would learn how our world functions.  School serves many purposes, depending on the priorities of those running them and the pundit consulted: babysitting to make the workforce possible, training future workers for basic jobs, breeding moral and upright citizens, or even conferring advantages not shared by those outside the system.  But that function—bringing to the next generation an understanding of our place in the universe, how our universe functions, and how to gain further understanding—is incredibly important, and becomes more so as more and more available futures demand such understanding.

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One School System

Plural Enemies

Religious pluralism is a strange ideal.  It’s a beautiful ideal, envisioning a world where people of dozens of creeds can function peacefully alongside each other.  It’s a fine practice, bringing massive benefits to societies as diverse as Poland, the United States, Lebanon, and India by calling in the dispossessed and unwanted from miles around.  It’s an intriguing intellectual event, forcing very different perspectives to achieve at least a superficial understanding of one another.
It’s also borderline incoherent, because religions do not get along.

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Plural Enemies


As our About Us page mentions, I’m a Ph.D. student in biology, specializing in environmental toxicology.  Since I’m at the University of Ottawa and I didn’t have the requisite UOttawa Student Who Doesn’t Work With Fish human sacrifice, my model organisms are fish.  When I’m not blogging or cleaning aquaria, I’m pursuing that degree: reading scientific papers, trading Emails with the aquatic facility regarding space and fish, injecting fish with things, collecting fish tissues, and otherwise living the demanding life of a soon-to-be Doctor of Philosophy.  This isn’t an unusual life for an atheist blogger. Dozens of us are involved in education, science, or both, and I can name several relatively big names who are working on their graduate degrees at present.  This experience, and the background required to get this far, has colored my perspective as a writer and thinker on issues surrounding atheism and continues to inform my approach to many of my creative endeavors.
So why don’t I talk about it more?
A lot of it has to do with Jen McCreight.  Once upon a time she wrote several posts addressing this very same question, and most of those situations apply to me as well.  I blog under my own name, more-or-less, and I’ve made no particular effort (other than not using my last name very often) to create a wall of plausible deniability between this blog and the rest of my life.  Ania’s and my business cards have both of our full names on them; we refer to our personal affairs regularly; I even mention every now and then what university will eventually be on my diploma.   So, my commentary here may end up reflecting on me either as a potential hire someday or as part of some review of my relationship to my university.  I cannot afford to vent my occasional frustrations with my professional relationships in a public forum under my own name, even more than someone like PZ Myers who is already in a tenure-track position.  I take enough risks with the above; I go no further.
Another problematic aspect is the nature of my research.  Part of the requirement for Ph.D. work is originality, which means that a Ph.D. has to represent a body of new pieces of scientific information not previously known.  Where a master’s degree, depending on the institution, might permit the bulk of one’s work to be confirmatory or otherwise not entirely new, I do not have that option.  Every similar project that someone else is doing, at whatever stage in their career, is potentially a threat to mine.  If someone else publishes something that answers one of the questions I’m asking, it’s likely I will have to dramatically reevaluate one of my planned experiments and one of the chapters of my future thesis, at substantial cost in time (both sunk and about-to-be-sunk), resources, and the goodwill of my supervisor.  Worse, since I’ve already hit snags with other experiments and had to go with backup plans that otherwise might never have seen the light of day, I currently skate on a particularly thin layer of newness atop substantial bodies of older work defining my fields.  So, it’s not in my interest to publicize my unpublished work any more than being a scientist absolutely requires.  I presented a poster this week at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Valencia, Spain, which was an intensely informative and helpful experience in addition to being in fracking Valencia.  But dispersing my ideas further than that just yet, before they’re published and unambiguously mine, is not a great plan.  If I get scooped, I might not get my degree.
There’s also a simpler reason why my work doesn’t impinge on this blog very much: It’s my work.  This is my hobby.  This is one of the things I do to get away from what I have to do.  As much as I enjoy being a Ph.D. student, part of what makes that intense job liveable is being able to step away from it.  Getting to think more broadly and about things other than the minutiae of my very specific future contribution to the world’s knowledge is absolutely vital to my sanity, and I maintain that by keeping my professional and blogging subjects at least that separate.
When I have some published results to celebrate, we’ll hear more about my Ph.D. research, and I’ll render a delectable expose about how it, like everything else in science, makes more sense in a world without fairies and devils than with them.  Until then, not so much.
But there is one aspect of my degree that merits more commentary now, and that’s the teaching requirement.

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