Sources: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and Trial

November 28, 2009

More than just as tribute to the victims, more than just a disaster story, the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, and the following events including the trial of the company owners, lay out issues students can see clearly.  I think the event is extremely well documented and adapted for student projects.  In general classroom use, however, the event lays a foundation for student understanding.

A couple of good websites crossed my browser recently, and I hope you know of them.

Cartoon about 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, New York Evening Journal, March 31

1911 cartoon from a New York paper shows the owners dressed in dollar bills, holding shut the door that barred the safe exit of so many women during the fire. Courtesy UMKC Famous Trials site; New York Evening Journal, March 31, 1911

Events around the fire illuminate so much of American history, and of government (which Texas students take in their senior year):

  • Labor issues are obvious to us; the incident provides a dramatic backdrop for the explanation of what unions sought, why workers joined unions, and a sterling example of a company’s clumsy and destructive resistance to resolving the workers’ issues.
  • How many Progressive Era principles were advanced as a result of the aftermath of the fire, and the trial?
  • Effective municipal government, responsive to voters and public opinion, can be discerned in the actions of the City of New York in new fire codes, and action of other governments is clear in the changes to labor laws that resulted.
  • The case provides a dramatic introduction to the workings and, sometimes, misfirings of the justice system.
  • With the writings from the Cornell site, students can climb into the events and put themselves on the site, in the courtroom, and in the minds of the people involved.
  • Newspaper clippings from the period demonstrate the lurid nature of stories, used to sell newspapers — a working example of yellow journalism.
  • Newspapers also provide a glimpse into the workings of the Muckrakers, in the editorial calls for reform.
  • Overall, the stories, the photos, the cartoons, demonstrate the workings of the mass culture mechanisms of the time.

Use the sites in good education, and good health.


David Barton: Mediocre scientists who are Christian, good; great scientists, bad

July 9, 2009

I’m reviewing the reviews of Texas social studies curricula offered by the six people appointed by the Texas State Board of Education.  David Barton, a harsh partisan politician, religious bigot, pseudo-historian and questionable pedagogue, offers up this whopper, about fifth grade standards.:

In Grade 5 (b)(24)(A), there are certainly many more notable scientists than Carl Sagan – such as Wernher von Braun, Matthew Maury, Joseph Henry, Maria Mitchell, David Rittenhouse, etc.

Say what?  “More notable scientists than Carl Sagan . . . ?”  What is this about?

It’s about David Barton’s unholy bias against science, and in particular, good and great scientists like Carl Sagan who professed atheism, or any faith other than David Barton’s anti-science brand of fundamentalism.

David Barton doesn’t want any Texas child to grow up to be a great astronomer like Carl Sagan, if there is any chance that child will also be atheist, like Carl Sagan.  Given a choice between great science from an atheist, or mediocre science from a fundamentalist Christian, Barton chooses mediocrity.

Currently the fifth grade standards for social studies require students to appreciate the contributions of scientists.  Here is the standard Barton complains about:

(24) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of science and technology on life in the United States. The student is expected to:

(A) describe the contributions of famous inventors and scientists such as Neil Armstrong, John J. Audubon, Benjamin Banneker, Clarence Birdseye, George Washington Carver, Thomas Edison, and Carl Sagan;
(B) identify how scientific discoveries and technological innovations such as the transcontinental railroad, the discovery of oil, and the rapid growth of technology industries have advanced the economic development of the United States;
(C) explain how scientific discoveries and technological innovations in the fields of medicine, communication, and transportation have benefited individuals and society in the United States;
(D) analyze environmental changes brought about by scientific discoveries and technological innovations such as air conditioning and fertilizers; and
(E) predict how future scientific discoveries and technological innovations could affect life in the United States.

Why doesn’t Barton like Carl Sagan?  In addition to Sagan’s being a great astronomer, he was a grand populizer of science, especially with his series for PBS, Cosmos.

But offensive to Barton was Sagain’s atheism.  Sagan wasn’t militant about it, but he did honestly answer people who asked that he found no evidence for the efficacy or truth of religion, nor for the existence of supernatural gods.

More than that, Sagan defended evolution theory.  Plus, he was Jewish.

Any one of those items might earn the David Barton Stamp of Snooty-nosed Disapproval, but together, they are about fatal.

Do the scientists Barton suggests in Sagan’s stead measure up? Barton named four:

Wernher von Braun, Matthew Maury, Joseph Henry, Maria Mitchell, David Rittenhouse

In the category of “Sagan Caliber,” only von Braun might stake a claim.  Wernher von Braun, you may recall, was the guy who ran the Nazi’s rocketry program.  After the war, it was considered a coup that the U.S. snagged him to work, first for the Air Force, and then for NASA.  Excuse me for worrying, but I wonder whether Barton likes von Braun for his rocketry, for his accommodation of anti-evolution views, or for his Nazi-supporting roots.  (No, I don’t trust Barton as far as I can hurl the Texas Republican Party Platform, which bore Barton’s fould stamp while he was vice chair of the group.)

So, apart from the fact that von Braun was largely an engineer, and Sagan was a brilliant astronomer with major contributions to our understanding of the cosmos, what about the chops of the other four people?  Why would Barton suggest lesser knowns and unknowns?

Matthew Maury once headed the U.S. Naval Observatory, in the 19th century.  He was famous for studying ocean currents, piggy-backing on the work of Ben Franklin and others.  Do a Google search, though, and you’ll begin to undrstand:  Maury is a favorite of creationists, a scientist who claimed to subjugate his science to the Bible.  Maury claimed his work on ocean currents was inspired at least in part by a verse in Psalms 8 which referred to “paths in the sea.”  Maury is not of the stature or achievement of Sagan, but Maury is politically correct to Barton.

Joseph Henry is too ignored, the first head of the Smithsonian Institution. Henry made his mark in research on magnetism and electricity.  But it’s not Henry’s science Barton recognizes.  Henry, as a largely unknown scientist today, is a mainstay of creationists’ list of scientists who made contributions to science despite their being creationists.  What?  Oh, this is inside baseball in the war to keep evolution in science texts.  In response to the (accurate) claim that creationists have not contributed anything of scientific value to biology since about William Paley in 1802, Barton and his fellow creationists will trot out a lengthy list of scientists who were at least nominally Christian, and claim that they were creationists, and that they made contributions to science.  The list misses the point that Henry, to pick one example, didn’t work in biology nor make a contribution to biology, nor is there much evidence that Henry was a creationist in the modern sense of denying science.  Henry is obscure enough that Barton can claim he was politically correct, to Barton’s taste, to be studied by school children without challenging Barton’s creationist ideas.

Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer, the second woman to discover a comet. While she was a Unitarian and a campaigner for women’s rights, or more accurately, because of that, I can’t figure how she passes muster as politically correct to David Barton.  Surely she deserves to be studied more in American history than she is — perhaps with field trips to the Maria Mitchell House National Historic LandmarkIt may be that Barton has mistaken Mitchell for another creationist scientist. While Mitchell’s life deseves more attention — her name would be an excellent addition to the list of woman scientists Texas children should study — she is not of the stature of Sagan.

David Rittenhouse, a surveyor and astronomer, and the first head of the U.S. Mint, is similarly confusing as part of Barton’s list.  Rittenhouse deserves more study, for his role in extending the Mason-Dixon line, if nothing else, but it is difficult to make a case that his contributions to science approach those of Carl Sagan.  Why is Rittenhouse listed by Barton?  If nothing else, it shows the level of contempt Barton holds for Sagan as “just another scientist.”  Barton urges the study of other scientists, any other scientists, rather than study of Sagan.

Barton just doesn’t like Sagan.  Why?  Other religionists give us the common dominionist or radical religionist view of Sagan:

Just what is the Secular Humanist worldview? First and foremost Secular Humanists are naturalists. A naturalist believes that nature is all that exists. “The Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” This was the late Carl Sagan’s opening line on the television series “Cosmos.” Sagan was a noted astronomer and a proud secular humanist. Sagan maintained that the God of the Bible was nonexistent. (Imagine Sagan’s astonishment when he came face to face with his Maker.)

Sagan’s science, in Barton’s view, doesn’t leave enough room for Barton’s religion.  Sagan was outspoken about his opposition to superstition.  Sagan urged reason and the active use of his “Baloney-Detection Kit.” One of Sagan’s later popular books was titled Demon-haunted World:  Science as a candle in the dark.  Sagan argued for the use of reason and science to learn about our world, to use to build a framework for solving the world’s problems.

Barton prefers the dark to any light shed by Sagan, it appears.

More resources on the State Board of Education review of social studies curricula



Vintage film on Japanese internment during World War II

May 20, 2009

“A Challenge to Democracy,” by the War Relocation Board.  This film defends the relocation of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

“These people are not under suspicion,” the narrator says.  “They are not prisoners, they are not internees.  They are merely dislocated people, the unwounded casualties of war.”

According to the Internet Archive, the film is a 1944 production.  That site has the film available for download in several formats.  The film is collected in the Prelinger Archives.  On my computer, some of the Internet Archive versions offer  better quality than the Google Video version above.

I originally found the film at a school site in Washington, Mr. Talmadge’s Wikispace site, apparently for his classes in the history of the State of Washington.  That site has a very useful series of links to good sites on the internet for information about the Japanese internment.  There are several other topics noted there, too, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Whitman Massacre in Oregon, and the Nez Perce Retreat.  I’d love to see Mr. Talmadge’s plan for the year.

What do your students do to display their work on the internet?


Dear President-elect Obama

November 24, 2008

Good execution of a lesson plan here, at one of my favorite blogs, The Living Classroom — with a lot of possibilities for follow-up.

A citizens plea to President-elect Obama

A citizen's plea to President-elect Obama

This may be the only elementary level classroom in the nation with its own lobbyist.

Never underestimate the power of students united to do good works.

In the Boy Scouts’ merit badge series on citizenship, Scouts are required to write letters to public officials.  This is a good exercise.  Not all students get the full value, but on the chance that answers actually come to the letters, this is a good classroom activity.

Hmmm.  I should use it more.


Evolution, other science on trial – today, in Austin, Texas

November 19, 2008

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) hearings on proposals for new science standards kick off today — and will probably run long into the night.

You can probably still sneak comments in.  You can listen to the hearings in streaming audio, live.  You can read the live blog reports from Texas Citizens for Science (TCS) President Steve Schafersman.

Texas science teacher Joe Lapp (a member of TCS) will give the board some good advice — will they listen?

Lapp will say:

My name is Joe Lapp, but I go by Spider Joe. I teach children about spiders, about the biology and physics of a spider’s world. My mission is to stoke passion for science in children and to empower children to think like scientists. I like to think that I’m launching these children into productive future careers as scientists, and indirectly, through them, contributing to solving some of mankind’s most serious challenges.

I’m watching what is going on here in the State Board of Education. You’re vying over what to teach about science and about evolution in particular. Some of you say, “teach the weaknesses with evolution.” Some of you say, “the ‘weaknesses’ are phony, don’t teach them.” You argue over whether science includes the supernatural or is restricted to just natural phenomena.

I ask you, how many of you grew up to be scientists? How many of you make a living teaching science to children? In a world full of people who dedicate their lives to science or science education, how many of you on the board are one of these specialized experts?

I’m suggesting that you recognize that you yourselves don’t have the answers.

We all come to the table with preferences and biases, but we’re talking about our children’s education and their future lives. When a scientist approaches a question, she may have a preferred answer, one that might win her the Nobel prize. When Pons and Fleischmann performed their cold fusion experiment, they wanted to see more energy output than input. Their bias blinded them to the truth, and rather than winning the Nobel Prize they became laughing stocks. If a scientist wants to know the truth, she must design an experiment that might show her desired outcome wrong; she must delegate her answer to the outcome of an experiment that ignores her biases.

The State Board of Education has a choice. One option is to play politics with our children’s future and vote your bias, regardless of the truth. The other option is to delegate your answer to the outcome of an experiment that ignores your biases, so that the answer better reflects the truth.

Fortunately for you, you have already performed the experiment. You delegated answers to your questions about science and evolution to experts in science and science education. They answered in the form of your September TEKS drafts. I urge you not to suffer the embarrassing fate of Pons and Fleischmann and to accept your experimental results. I suspect that politics introduced biases into the November drafts. Don’t fudge your results.

Please show your respect for children and science by making this a scientific decision and not a political one. Launch children into science by example. Envision children growing up to create new biofuels, cure cancers, eliminate AIDS, end malnutrition, reverse global warming, and save our wondrous natural resources for future generations.

Science is our children’s future.

Resources:


Faith and Freedom speaker series: Barbara Forrest at SMU, November 11

November 10, 2008

Update:  Teachers may sign up to get CEU credits for this event.  Check in at the sign-in desk before the event — certificates will be mailed from SMU later.

It will be one more meeting of scientists that Texas State Board of Education Chairman Dr. Don McLeroy will miss, though he should be there, were he diligent about his public duties.

Dr. Barbara Forrest, one of the world’s foremost experts on “intelligent design” and other creationist attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution, will speak in the Faith and Freedom Speaker Series at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.   Her evening presentation will serve as a warning to Texas: “Why Texans Shouldn’t Let Creationists Mess with Science Education.”

Dr. Forrest’s presentation is at 6:00 p.m., in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center in the Hughes-Trigg Theatre, at SMU’s Campus. The Faith and Freedom Speaker Series is sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network’s (TFN) education fund.  Joining TFN are SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, Center for Teaching Excellence, Department of Anthropology, Department of Biological Sciences, and Department of Philosophy.

Hughes-Trigg is at 3140 Dyer Street, on SMU’s campus (maps and directions available here).

Seating is limited for the lecture; TFN urges reservations be made here.

Dr. Forrest being interviewed by PBSs NOVA crew, in 2007.  Southeastern Louisiana University photo.

Dr. Forrest being interviewed by PBS's NOVA crew, in 2007. Southeastern Louisiana University photo.

From TFN:

Dr. Barbara Forrest
is Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is the co-author with Paul R. Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (2004; 2007), which details the political and religious aims of the intelligent design creationist movement.  She served as an expert witness in the first legal case involving intelligent design, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District. She is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Center for Science Education and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Widely recognized as a leading expert on intelligent design, she has appeared on Larry King Live, ABC’s Nightline, and numerous other television and radio programs.

Also see:


Quote of the moment: Nobel physicist Stephen Weinberg, on creationism

October 24, 2008

Physics Nobelist takes stand on evolution

“By the same standards that are used in the courts, I think it is your responsibility to judge that it is the theory of evolution through natural selection that has won general scientific acceptance. And therefore, it should be presented to students as the consensus view of science, without any alternatives being presented.”

–Dr. Steven Weinberg

[After the 2003 round of hearings on biology textbooks for Texas schools, I edited from the transcript of the hearings before the Texas State Board of Education the short speech made by Stephen Weinberg, who graciously joined in the fight for science, and shipped the remarks to anyone who wanted them.  The American Institute for Physics (AIP) put Dr. Weinberg's remarks up on the web -- here they are.  Something to think about now that the SBOE has stacked the science standards writing group with creationists unqualified in almost all sciences.

For the record, for your edification, for the advancement of truth in the fight for science, justice and the American Way:]

The following is a transcript of testimony to the Texas State Board of Education. Dr. Steven Weinberg, professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin and a Nobel prize winner for electroweak theory, addresses the Board.

DR. WEINBERG: Thank you. Hello. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you. I should say at the outset that I haven’t read the textbooks in question and I’m not a biologist.

Stephen Weinberg

Stephen Weinberg

My Nobel Prize is not in biology, but is in physics. But I have been a physicist for a long time. And I think I have a good sense of how science works. It doesn’t deal with certainties. We don’t register things as facts that we have to swear allegiance to.

But as mathematics and experiment progress, certain bodies of understanding become as sure as anything reasonably can be. They attract an overwhelming consensus of acceptance within the scientific community. They are what we teach our students.

And the most important thing of all, since our time is so precious to us, they are what we assume as true when we do our own work. Evolution — the theory of evolution through natural selection has certainly reached that status as a consensus.

I’ve been through these issues not very much professionally in recent years, but I was on a panel of the National Academy of Sciences some years ago that reviewed these issues in order to prepare an amicus brief in a similar argument that was taking place in Arkansas at that time. At that time, it had reached the courts. We know that there is such a thing as inheritable variations in animals and plants. And we know that these change through mutations. And it’s mathematically certain that as given inheritable variations, that you will have evolution toward greater adaptation. So that evolution through natural selection occurs can’t be in doubt.

As I understand it, many who want to put alternative theories into our textbooks argue that, although that may be true, we don’t know that that’s all that happens, that there is not some intelligent design that also assists the process of evolution. But that’s the wrong question. We can never know that there isn’t something beyond our theories. And that’s not just true with regard to evolution. That’s true with regard to everything.

We don’t know that the theory of physics, as it’s currently understood, correctly accounts for everything in the solar system. How could we? It’s too complicated. We don’t understand the motion of every asteroid in the asteroid belts. Some of them really are doing very complicated things. Do we know that no angel tips the scales toward one asteroid moving a little but further than it otherwise would have in a certain time? No, we can never know.

What we have to do is keep comparing what we observe with our theories and keep verifying that the theories work, trying to explain more and more. That’s what’s happened with evolution and it continues to be successful. There is not one thing that is known to be inexplicable through evolution by natural selection, which is not the same as saying that everything has been explained, because it never will be. The same applies to the weather or the solar system or what have you.

But I can say this, and many of the peak scientists here will have said, I am sure, the same thing. You must be bored hearing this again and again. But how can you judge? I’m not a biologist, you’re not biologists.
There is a natural answer which is very congenial to the American spirit, I think. And that is, well, let the students judge. Why shouldn’t they have the chance to judge these issues by themselves? And that, I think, is the argument that many are making.

But judge what? Judge the correctness of evolution through natural selection? Judge the correctness of Newton’s law or the conservation of energy or the fact that the Earth is round rather than flat? Where do we draw the line between the issues that we leave open to the student’s judgment and the issues that we teach as reasonably accepted scientific facts, consensus theories?

The courts face a similar question. They often are presented with testimony or testimony is offered, for example, that someone knows that a certain crime wasn’t committed because he has psychic powers or someone sues someone in tort because he’s been injured by witchcraft. The Court does not allow — according to current doctrines, the Court does not allow those arguments to go to the jury because the Court would not be doing its job. The Court must decide that those things are not science. And the way the Court does is by asking: What — do these ideas have general scientific acceptance? Does witchcraft have general scientific acceptance? Well, clearly, it doesn’t. And those — that testimony will not be allowed to go to the jury.

How then can we allow ideas which don’t have general scientific acceptance to go to high school students, not an adult jury? If we do, we are not — or you are not doing your job of deciding what is there that is controversial. And that might be an interesting subject to be discussed, as for example the rate of evolution, the question of whether it’s smooth, punctuated by jumps or whether it’s — or whether it’s just gradual. These are interesting questions which are still controversial which could go to students and give them a chance to exercise their judgment.

But you’re not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, anymore than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury. And why this particular issue of evolution? Why not the round Earth or Newton’s theory or Copernicus, the Earth goes around the sun? Well, I think it’s rather disingenuous to say that this is simply because there’s a real scientific conflict here, because there is no more of a scientific conflict than with those issues.

I do get involved in this issue. I think it’s clear that the reason why the issue was raised with regard to evolution is because of an attempt to preserve religious beliefs against the possible impact of the theory of evolution.

I don’t think teachers have any business either preserving religious beliefs or attacking religious beliefs. I think they should teach science.

And science, as the courts understand it, in that other context, is what is generally accepted by scientists. And what is the evidence that evolution through natural selection is generally accepted through science? I don’t think — general acceptance doesn’t mean unanimity.

I know there are Ph.D. scientists who take an opposite view.

There’s not one member of the National Academy of Sciences who does.

There’s not one winner of the National Medal of Science who does.

There’s not one Nobel Laureate in biology who takes the view that there’s any question about the validity of the theory of evolution through natural selection or that there is any alternative theory that’s worth discussing.

So by the same standards that are used in the courts, I think it is your responsibility to judge that it is the theory of evolution through natural selection that has won general scientific acceptance. And therefore, it should be presented to students as the consensus view of science, without any alternatives being presented.

Thank you very much.


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