Monday, March 30, 2015

Don't hate Indiana in the name of love....

by Libby Sternberg

Before I begin, a few premises:

I am not a "social conservative." I support gay marriage. It took me a while to get here.

Nonetheless, I have much sympathy for social conservatives and think they have a great deal of unfair scorn and mockery heaped on them.

I have a son who married his partner.

Now, on to discussing the recent passage of Indiana's religious freedom law. Gay activists are upset because such laws would allow businesses to refuse to offer products or services to gay weddings. Such laws do not allow people or businesses to deny services or products because the customer is gay. If a gay individual goes into a bakery and wants to buy a cake, the bakery owner can't say, "I won't serve you because you're gay." But if the gay customer asks for a wedding cake for his or her union, then this law allows the bakery owner to say, no, I can't do that because I oppose gay marriage due to my understanding of Scripture and my faith.

Okay, go ahead and mock and laugh about the Scripture part, the "faith" part of that proposition. If you don't share that owner's faith, it's easy to make fun of it, or to even hatefully dismiss it. Yes, hatefully. Hate isn't a feeling owned by only one side of an argument.

In fact, it's very difficult to understand an opponent's point of view if you have nothing but derision for that view. Try, instead, to think of circumstances where you would be in sympathy with a business owner refusing to serve a customer due to the customer's request. How about...

A Muslim of Palestinian origin who owns a bakery and is asked by a Jewish family to bake a cake to celebrate the birth of Israel. Let's add to this tale a detail -- say, the baker's family had years ago been kicked off their land before moving to America when the new state was formed.

Wouldn't you sympathize with the Palestinian baker in that case? Wouldn't you think, c'mon, why ask them to bake that cake? Isn't it hurtful? If you felt that way, it doesn't make you anti-Semitic not to sympathize more with the Jewish customer, whose family history is probably filled with pain, too, and who has every right to celebrate the birth of the Jewish state.

I know this analogy is not perfect. It doesn't even deal with the religious belief part of the Indiana law. But the underlying sentiments are there: The baker has in some way experienced pain for his beliefs, right or wrong. The customer is not only ignoring that pain but exacerbating it.

When my gay son was married, we threw a party for him. When I called vendors -- caterers, for example -- I asked about services but first told them it was a gay wedding, and if they would prefer not to provide services, I would not judge. From a purely practical standpoint, I wanted vendors who were enthusiastic about providing the services, not reluctant. And, even though it would have hurt to get a rejection on that basis from a vendor, I realized that gay marriage is still new to many people, and it will do me no harm to be patient with those who've yet to walk the path I walked toward acceptance.

No vendor, by the way, said they would have a problem with serving a gay marriage. The caterer, in fact, was excited to serve one.

The battle for gay marriage has essentially been won. More and more states allow it. Social conservatives have lost.  Stop hating them. Don't threaten them with boycotts. Don't threaten them with fines if they won't participate in a gay wedding.  Be patient. Be kind. Be loving...even toward those who don't love your celebration of love.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This is only a test

by Libby Sternberg

I had my eyes checked recently. Near-sighted since forever, I've worn glasses from fourth grade on. When I was younger, eye tests used to create anxiety in me. I felt I was failing when I couldn't read the lines on the chart.

Now I'm calmer and don't fear failing the test. I do, however, get anxious about accurately assessing whether option A is clearer than option B, etc. as the doctor tries to figure out precisely what lens will work best for me. What if I'm only thinking it's clearer? What if I get it wrong? Then my eyeglass prescription will be off and...headaches, bad vision, light-headedness will ensue. Fortunately for me, my eye doctor was excellent at drawing out of me a precise assessment of which lens strength worked the best. She was patient and kind. Her goal was the same as mine-- to make sure my vision was corrected adequately.

The point is that even the simplest tests can create anxiety, even after years of testing has given you a comfort level with the assessment. But if the tests have a worthy goal, you soldier through the unease and get to the good results.

Standardized testing?!!!
These are my thoughts as I hear complaints about testing in school. The way some educators and school leaders talk, you would think standardized testing was a new thing foisted on them unawares, that it takes up enormous amounts of school time and creates tremendous anxiety in students that is bad for their health and ultimate learning abilities.

For those with no historical memory, here's a quick flashback: Tests were always with us. At least, for baby boomers, tests were usually a part of school life, even if you went to a private school as I did. And I'm not talking about the regular ole end-of-lesson testing teachers themselves came up with. I'm talking about nationalized tests.

Chances are, if you're a baby boomer, you took one of four tests on the national market at your schools: Terra Nova, Stanford, California Achievement, or Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Teachers would pass out the tests. You'd take them. And...things went back to normal. Before the ruckus over current testing, I remember a presentation at my children's middle school where the principal talked to parents about Terra Nova scores, how they'd identified a problem in reading instruction because of the results, fixed the problem, and scores went up. No fuss, no muss.

So, what's changed? Well, attention, for one. When the four tests listed above were administered, chances are the only people who knew the results for the classes involved were the teachers and administrators. Now, newspapers and other media regularly report on scores from schools, focusing attention (negative, if scores are bad) on what's going on in those institutions.

Now, federal regulations (from No Child Left Behind mostly) require schools to use standardized testing (that states can configure on their own) to assess progress and identify areas that need fixing. The tests are supposed to be used precisely as my eye test is -- to identify where help is needed, where the job isn't getting done. And while fixes are made, children in schools with regular failing grades should be able to access tutoring and even other schools if necessary.

Let's think about this for a bit, shall we? The tests are given out to help teachers and administrators identify problem areas. Just as they always were when we took the four mentioned above back in the day. But now, the problem areas are more on display as media attention has focused on them.

Okay, I get that this attention is painful to teachers who work awfully hard dealing with many challenges. I really, really get that. But the tests are helping them identify some of those challenges. If, for example, you have year after year of first grade scores where only, say, a third of your kids are scoring in the proficient range in a gateway skill like reading...maybe it's time to rethink how you approach teaching reading, right? Maybe it's time to switch up the teachers in those grades or do some professional development work. Maybe it's time to stop pointing the finger at societal problems and ask: Even with all the stuff going on in these kids' lives, how can I make sure every one of them learns to read before they leave my classroom?

That's a painful bit of self-examination, to be sure. But it's necessary. So, here's some advice to school leaders: Take the time you now spend complaining about testing and put it into fixing problems the tests identify. The scrutiny of schools is unlikely to fade. But, trust me, your test anxiety will fade over time.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Je suis Charlie, Je suis Abdul Muhammad, Je suis Hobby Lobby

by Libby Sternberg

The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday, in Holt v Hobbs, that Abdul Muhammad, a prisoner in Arkansas, can grow a beard according to his Muslim religion's dictates. Does that decision make you uncomfortable, given that men and women who adhere to Mr. Muhammad's faith have been involved in massacring others who don't share their beliefs?

If so, welcome to the uncomfortable world of religious freedom and freedom of expression.

This is what religious freedom and freedom of expression really mean: letting people act on their beliefs when their actions don't trigger a compelling state interest to intercede. Religious freedom, in particular, can be summed up in this phrase: the right to be wrong (the apt title of a book on First Amendment rights by Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty). 

Freedom of expression means the cartoonists at the satiric publication Charlie Hebdo should have the right to mock Muslims, Jews, Christians and all peoples of faith, no matter how wrongly offensive their drawings are. 

Free exercise of religion means that Arkansas prisoner Abdul Muhammad has the right to grow a beard in accordance with his faith, no matter how wrong the authorities think he is, nor how angry we are at those who share his faith and use it to slaughter innocents.

And, yes, it also means that the Greens, the devout owners of the Hobby Lobby craft stores, have the right to exclude what they believe to be abortifacients from the health care they offer employees, even if many liberals, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, think they are egregiously wrong-minded.

Let me repeat: We all have the right…to be wrong. And the only time the state, in the form of any government, should infringe upon that right is when it has a compelling interest to do so. A compelling interest.

Why bring this up now? First, because some who celebrate and agree with the Abdul Muhammad decision wailed over the Hobby Lobby one. And some who are eager to utter Je suis Charlie to stand with free artistic expression against Islamic extremism balk at agreeing with the Holt v Hobbs ruling or the Burwell v Hobby Lobby one. 

Such was the case, in fact, with Justice Ginsburg. She voted with the unanimous court in the Abdul Muhammad opinion that said Muhammad, an Arkansas prisoner, had a right to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith, despite the prison's rule against beards more than 1/4 inch in length. The state had no compelling interest in enforcing that rule. 

Ginsburg, perhaps realizing the potentially contradictory ground she was headed into, penned a one-paragraph concurrence that said, in essence, that Holt v Hobbs was different from Burwell v Hobby Lobby because Muhammad's actions "would not detrimentally affect others" who don't share his beliefs. (It's on p. 20 of the opinion.)

But in the Hobby Lobby case, the owners' actions didn't "detrimentally" affect others, either. The Green family, as has been pointed out numerous times, wasn't forbidding employees from using abortifacients. The family simply wasn't going to pay for them. The state had no compelling interest in forcing the Greens to go against their faith -- not when employees still had other contraceptives covered and could easily access the uncovered ones elsewhere (or the government, if it felt the need for these items so compelling, could have provided them, rather than forcing the Greens to do so).

Justice Ginsburg, though, faced the problem that many people face when thinking of protections of religion and free expression rights. She had to confront her own biases, her own dislikes and discomforts.

I'll be honest about mine, at least. I probably would have looked for ways to justify the beard ban in the Holt v Hobbs case because I would have wondered if Mr Muhammad was truly a devout practitioner of faith or merely a cynical prisoner trying to stick his finger in the eye of the system. I would have been troubled by the idea of giving aid and comfort to a man espousing a religion which has been used to justify massacres and terror. 

But that speculation and discomfort doesn't trump religious freedom. He has the right to be cynical or devout, the right to embrace a religion I find troubling because of how it's been used. The right to be wrong.

You can't pick and choose favorites when ensuring that right is protected. You can't embrace freedom for folks whose ideas you embrace, yet want to take it away from others when you disagree with the faith in question.

Je suis Charlie. 
Je suis Abdul Muhammad.
Je suis Hobby Lobby.

Cringe, if you must, when saying any one of those. But they all embrace something we should recognize as a fundamental right, to be proclaimed proudly, vigorously and often: the right to religious freedom, the right, sometimes, to be wrong.