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Can a school discipline a student for behaviour outside of school?

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on March 28, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Home and schoolApparently not.

Riley Stratton from Minnesota won her lawsuit against her school claiming that they violated her constitutional rights of free speech and privacy.

She was forced to reveal her Facebook password to her school.

When she was 12 she typed some things on Facebook expressing her dislike/hatred for a hall monitor named Kathy.  A few days later the school received a complaint that she was talking about sex with a boy.  Consequently, she was asked by the school for her password, which she surrendered because she feared a detention.  Apparently the school officials searched her Facebook account.  Importantly, she did not use a school computer.  I think it is also important that her parents weren’t consulted.

She sued the school and won a $70,000 settlement.

It boils down to the question: Does the school have any right to discipline a student for something they do outside of school?

On the one hand, students ought to enjoy freedom of speech and privacy that we enjoy as adults.

My concern here is that, although we talk about various aspects of students, schools must deal with and educate whole persons.

  • Some schools have breakfast programs because students can’t learn when they are hungry.
  • Schools have counselors to help students deal with a wide variety of issues.  Everything from the loss of a loved one the death of a family pet, from relationships with friends to bullying.
  • Schools are very concerned, not just with a student bringing drugs to school, but in using drugs at all.
  • Some schools exist just because they recognize the importance of spirituality in the life of all people.
  • Family income, cultural or religious heritage, level of parents education, etc. are all part of who the student is as a whole person.

Although it is possible to make a distinction between life-at-school and life-not-at-school, it isn’t realistic.  The school has to nurture, educate, stimulate, and, yes, discipline, whole persons.  Parents, school, church (if applicable), community, etc. are all interested in the flourishing of each individual student.  Each deals with the individual as a whole entity, albeit with different aspects.

Therefore, it is conceivable that the school would, for her sake, be interested in the ways that Riley is using her Facebook account.  The integrated whole, that is Riley, might have been best served by being forced her to surrender her password and helped, with the involvement of her parents, to understand her responsibilities to others and appropriate boundaries regarding talking with boys about sex online.

Riley says she no longer trusts adults.

I’m sure she no longer trusts them not to invade her privacy, but this is not the same thing as not trusting them to look out for her best interests?

Riley has learned a lot through this experience, I am sure, but I worry that with this precedent students will learn a lot more about their personal rights and freedoms, and very little about their responsibility for how they treat others and how they use the powerful tools of social media.

It’s not a simple issue.  What do you think?

The Cosmos

In Books, Movies and Television on March 24, 2014 at 9:52 pm

CosmosCarl Sagan’s The Cosmos was one of my favourite television shows of all time.  It wasn’t just that it was intellectually stimulating, there was also an emotional or even spiritual dimension that drew me in.  I was in awe of the beauty and complexity of the cosmos and caught the thrill of being a part of it.

The show has been rebooted, this time hosted by Sagan admirer, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  After watching the first few episodes, I can see already it’s got the same intellectual and emotional appeal as did its predecessor.  But this time I’m finding myself trying to understand what story it’s trying to tell.

Perhaps the title, The Cosmos, offers some clue.

The ancients saw the divine where ever they looked.  The divine was in everything.  The Greeks called this everything the cosmos (κόσμος).  To the ancients, the cosmos was animate, aware and intelligent.  This animating principle was the divine–the logos (λόγος).

This idea of the cosmos was transformed by Christianity where the divine is no longer located within the cosmos, but outside of it.  This is obviously a huge change from the ancient understanding , but not as great as the shift to the modern conception of the universe.

The modern view is quite different than both the ancient and the Christian ideas of all that is.  Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the terms “universe” and “cosmos” to distinguish the post-Christian outlook from that of the pre-Christian/Christian view in which the order of the cosmos “was a humanly meaningful one” (60).  In the ordered whole of the cosmos, all things found meaning because all things were grounded in a higher reality:  human beings are “embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (152).

Unlike the cosmos, the universe is an infinite, cold and anonymous space governed by “exceptionless natural laws” (60).  In the universe, humans “are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time” (327).

But the makers of the TV show The Cosmos are not despairing.  They seem to be rejecting the idea that humanity is adrift in the “dark abyss of time” in the cold, vast universe.  As if in response to the inadequacy of modern materialism to explain our encounters with the cosmos Sagan said,

Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Episode 1 pretty clearly shows us how small and insignificant we really are in context of the universe.  If there is any meaning, it’s up to us to generate it.  Clearly, one of the ways we might do this is to make a television show that celebrates the human ability to comprehend of the vastness of the universe and be inspired by its beauty.

Not only is the cold deterministic universe rejected by the show, so too is the rejection of the Christian view of the cosmos.  Sagan’s famous quote remains central and doesn’t leave any room for a transcendent God.

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I think The Cosmos attempts to dismantle both the pessimistic Modern and the fantastical Christian conceptions of the universe by resurrecting, with the power of our imagination and scientific knowledge, the ancient idea of the divine within the cosmos–transcendence within immanence.  Carl Sagan said,

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

This is a more optimistic picture of the universe than that which is offered by the materialists because it sees it as, once again, more  humanly meaningful.  Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy.”  Human meaning comes from our participation in the “great unfolding of a cosmic story.”

More optimistic still is the idea that the wholly transcendent God created the cosmos for human beings and then became physically present in it in the person of Jesus Christ.  His death and resurrection make possible a deification where, when we die, we are not just incorporated into the eternal cosmos, but where we continues on as a person in (or out of) relationship with the person of God.

Of course, the degree of optimism is not the criteria by which we decide which of these conceptions of the universe is true.  For Christians, truth comes to us, not only through imagination and scientific knowledge, but also though a personal encounter with the logos become flesh–Jesus Christ.

Queue Cutters and Moral Retardation

In Rants on March 11, 2014 at 9:20 pm

Border lineupsI live near the Canada/USA border.  At several of the crossings, there is a side street that, when border lineups are very long, can take you a long way toward the front of the line.

These occasions afford us an uncomfortable glimpse into the human soul.

It drives me crazy to see people make this simple right turn in front of me.  I have often wondered, after I finally get across the border and stop raging at my windshield, what goes through the minds of those who seem to have no problem cutting into the line in front of others who have been waiting for an hour already.

Then I found out.  I was down at a Seattle Mariners game talking to another Canadian who also drove down for the game.  He admitted that he bypassed a long border lineup by using that side street.  “You don’t have a problem with cutting in line ahead?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he answered.  “If those people are too dumb to circumvent the line, that’s their problem.”  I don’t think he used the word “circumvent” but that was the idea.

I didn’t point out that I thought he was morally retarded.

I did some more research to figure out what was going on here. According to a guy named Lawrence Kohlberg, there are six levels of morality.  If everything goes well, as you grow up, you will move up the ladder, hopefully, to the highest level, but for one reason or another, people can get stuck.

The first level is called “Obedience and Punishment” where people will simply obey the rules because you could be punished if you don’t.

The second stage is called “Individualism.”  At this stage people make moral judgements  based on self interest.

The next level of morality is based on “Interpersonal Relationships.” Here one is concerned with living up to social expectations and roles.

Some face moral choices based on a perceived duty to “maintain social order.”  This forth level begins to consider society as a whole in moral decisions, but sees the rules and laws as coming from an authority.

The fifth level is “Social Contract and Individual Rights.”  At this stage moral questions are less black and white because there is an understanding of differing moral values and opinions.  And rules and laws ought to be negotiated  with others in society.

The last level approaches moral judgements with ” Universal Principles” in mind.  These abstract principles are arrived at through moral reasoning.  Then they are internalized and followed even if they come into conflict with society’s rules and laws.

I will concede the border-cutter has achieved level one, because there is not a “rule” that says you can’t drive on a legitimate street and make a legitimate right turn.  Further,  his decision to jump the queue is definitely based on self interest, so I think we can congratulate our subject for clearly having advanced to stage two.  Everyone in the line also wishes, out of self interest, that they were further to the front.  They just resist it.  At level three, our subject would be taking into consideration how his behaviour would influence his relationship to others.  On the one hand, this appears to have no effect on his behaviour because there are a lot of people who are really unhappy with him, and who would never allow him to date their daughters.  But perhaps he has achieved this level; I don’t know if he would cut in front of his mother, for instance, because she might get mad and stop making his lunches and ironing his shirts.  Although there is no law that he has broken, I still don’t think he has achieved level four, because there is a blatant disrespect for the “authority” of society.  If everyone behaved as he did, social order would be moved toward chaos.  Because his behaviour can only work if there are a few who do it, it is, in principle, a behaviour that is immoral at this level.

The last two levels actually allow for some flexibility in ones approach to rules and laws, but, ironically, neither would accept cutting in line under these circumstances.

My diagnosis is that people who cut in lines at the border (and at the slide on your elementary school playground) are stuck in the second stage of moral development.  And that’s probably fine if you are six years old.