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Coffee and Conscience – Part 2

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea.” — Abraham Lincoln

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C. S. Lewis explores the demonic view of pleasure in The Screwtape Letters.  An experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, a novice demon, on the use of pleasure to ensnare a human soul.  He tells him, “You must always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure, to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable” for when dealing with any pleasure in its “healthy and normal and satisfying form we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” For Screwtape, the demonic formula for the distortion of pleasure is “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.”

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I first started drinking coffee in university.  My mother had sent me off to school with the essentials: fifteen pairs of underwear, with my name written on the band with a laundry pen, and a little, yellow, two-cup kettle to boil water.  At some point I picked up a little jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee.  My coffee consumption was strictly utilitarian: I drank it to stay sharp while writing papers and cramming for exams.  I didn’t particularly like the taste, so I drank it with lots of sugar and nondairy creamer. I might just as well have taken NoDoz.  Like a cup of coffee, one caplet contains 200 mg of caffeine, and, according to the company’s promotional material, it’s much better than coffee:  “Fewer pit stops, cheaper than a cup of coffee on the go, no awkward ordering, conveniently keep it in your pocket or purse and never gets cold.” For many drinkers,  the attraction to coffee is the caffeine.  The appeal of caffeine is three-fold.  It reduces drowsiness by blocking adenosine, a chemical created in the brain that slows down nerve cell activity.  With the increase of neural activity, the pituitary gland releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline so the subject is ready for fight, flight or even a very animated discussion on the merits or absurdity of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Caffeine also increases dopamine that activates pleasure centers in certain parts of the brain.  In short, it gives you a sparkle and jolt and an ahhhh. Father Capon is a lover of food and drink, and more foundationally he is a lover of things.  He says “things are precious, before they are contributory.”  I think he’s onto something; to reduce coffee to its function as a conveyance system for C8H10N4O2 is to commit some sort of crime against this precious thing.  True delight is a far more appropriate response.

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If it’s the caffeine you want, the most efficient coffee product to deliver the goods is instant coffee.   It requires only a spoon, a cup and some hot water.  Because the process to make instant coffee creates such a poor tasting coffee anyway, cheap, poor quality beans can be used.  Instant coffee production extracts twice the stuff from the bean as does the brewing of a regular coffee.  From the position of taste alone, the additional extracts should have been left and tossed out with the grounds.  But by squeezing out more product per pound of beans, profit margins are increased.  Unfortunately, the over-extraction of the grounds results in a bitter and aromaless product.

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I remember the commercials for Nestlé’s Sunrise instant coffee.  The advertising slogan encouraged consumers to buy this coffee because it was “mellowed with chicory.”  Chicory is an adulterant.  It is cheaper than coffee, so by adding it to the ground coffee the price can be dropped.  Chicory isn’t the only adulterant added to coffee over the years.  Mark Pendergrast offers an amazing list of adulterants.  I suppose parsnips and pea hulls aren’t so bad when one considers baked horse liver and brick dust.  But, by principle, chicory is no different than burnt rags and coal ashes or dirt and dog biscuits—the fundamental principle is the increase of profit margins.  Although this list comes from the Industrial Revolution, the motivation behind the addition of adulterants to coffee is alive and well in the big coffee producers to this day. Cheap coffee means more coffee sold and that means more profit.

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 “The best part of wakin’ up, is Folgers in your cup.” I hate waking up.  The thing that gets me out of bed is the promise of a cup of coffee.  Because I delay getting up as long as possible, my first cup is usually at work.  There we drink whatever is on sale at Costco.  We’ve had Folgers “Classic Roast” in the bright-red plastic container.  Proctor and Gamble’s promotional material says that the classic roast is a “blend of Arabica and Robusta beans for a smooth, full-bodied flavor.”  That little word “for” suggests causality, does it not? Approaches to coffee cultivation lie on a continuum between the traditional shade grown coffee and the more modern unshaded monoculture.  The first is carried out at higher elevations under a canopy of trees where there is a constant replenishment of organic material as the leaf litter decomposes.   The trees are a home to an array of beneficial insects and birds that act to control potential pests.  The unshaded monoculture, on the other hand, demands the removal of all organisms but the coffee plants.  These are set out by the thousands in rows upon rows that stretch for miles.  This method allows for efficiencies like mechanized harvesting, but it also results in environmental degradation—water pollution, soil erosion, declines in local fish populations due to sedimentation and bird populations because of loss of trees, increased soil and air temperatures, and lower amounts of moisture and microorganisms in the soil.  The problems that directly affect the coffee production are solved by the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Essentially, two varieties of coffee beans are grown.  The Arabica variety grows at high altitudes.  Its beans develop slowly and are few.  The Robusta grows at lower elevations. Its beans develop quickly and are more numerous.  When it comes to flavour, Arabica beans are superior in every way.  From a commercial perspective, Robusta beans are superior in every way: The mechanized Robusta plantation will out produce traditional Arabica shade farm by as much as four times per acre.  The result is a vastly inferior tasting cup of coffee. You can buy a three pound can of Folgers Classic Roast at Costco for $12.99 CDN.

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In an online discussion, the question was asked, “Which coffee do you liked best?”  Here’s one of the replies: “Well I love Starbucks . . . as much as the next person. The reality is, I will not pay the price for it on a daily basis, buying it in bulk for home is just as expensive. I can buy a huge container of Folgers/Maxwell House for $7 at Wal-Mart whereas the little Starbucks’ bag costs the same.” For many, price is a significant factor in what coffee one drinks.  But the questions must be asked, “If I am not paying for the coffee I drink, who is?”

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Several years ago, I watched an animation called “The Story of Stuff” narrated by Anne Leonard.  She asked a question that has haunted me since.  When stuff is so cheap, who’s paying the cost? A long chain of costs connects the coffee plant to our coffee cup here in North America: plants must be tended, fruit must be picked and transported to the processor, the pulp removed from the beans, the beans dried, and sorted and bagged, the bags transported to a warehouse to rest, the rested bags must be transported to the roaster, the roasted coffee graded and packaged, and the packaged coffee transported to retail outlets. Roasted coffee costs less than 5% of the total you pay for a Latte in a fancy coffee house.  If you brew canned coffee at home, the coffee is costing you less than 10 cents per cup. If we are paying so little for the coffee, who, then, is paying for all that goes before?  The companies that transport, roast, and package the coffee aren’t paying for it.  They are enjoying healthy profits.

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Although they have risen in the last year or two, world coffee prices are volatile and, for the last decades, have been very low.  Low coffee prices had a lot to do with a large surplus of Robusta and poor quality Arabica being produced by huge coffee plantations in Vietnam and Brazil.  When prices are as low as they have been, farmers get less for their coffee than the cost of its production.  Consequently, throughout the coffee-growing world, desperate farmers abandon their trees to look for work elsewhere while their families live under plastic tarps by the roadside.  Some daughters resort to prostitution to support their families.  Other farmers have burned their coffee plants and replaced them with drug crops like coca or qat.

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Historically, American consumers have insisted on a low price for coffee.  Cheap coffee has been so important that when the price of coffee rose sharply, Congressional hearings were held to investigate the reason behind the increases.  Some were blaming the producers of taking advantage of the defenseless coffee drinker. The documentary Black Coffee records a speech made by Congressional witness, Andrés Uribe*, when prices spiked in 1950.  He explained the sudden price rise was because of a shortage of coffee.  He pointed out that most of the money Americans paid for their coffee did not go to Latin American producers, but to U.S. roasters, retailers, and restaurants.   Uribe said, Gentlemen, when you are dealing with coffee, you not dealing only with a commodity, a convenience. You are dealing with the lives of millions of people.  We in Latin America have a task before us which is staggering to the imagination—illiteracy to be eliminated, disease to be wiped out, good health to be re- stored, a sound program of nutrition to be worked out for millions of people. The key to all of this . . . is an equitable price for coffee. Other-wise, you cast these millions of persons loose to drift in a perilous sea of poverty and privation, subject to every chilling wind, every subversive blast. His words had no effect.

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The real enemy of coffee growers, the environment and the consumer is the big coffee companies.  They provide a market for Robusta beans, the production of which is not environmentally sustainable, and thus, driving down the global price of coffee.  This threatens the viability of producing the quality Arabica coffees.



* the New York representative of Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and chairman of the Pan American Coffee Bureau

Coffee and Conscience — Part 1

On the eighth day God created coffee — Zazzle Mug from zazzle.com

At the farm, coffee time never varied.  I’m not sure why I recall coffee time at Grandma’s with such reverence and affection.  Perhaps it was grace—inclusion in a ritual when I was too young to partake in the eponymous element. To a child, it wasn’t about the coffee, but the cookies—the same cookies: home-made chocolate chip and store bought chocolate-covered, marshmallow-puffs with a drip of raspberry filling.  I occasionally used to buy a box of those marshmallow cookies out of nostalgia, but they were never as good as their memory, and not nearly as good as the homemade ones.

Coffee time was a regular and holy mystery—the conversation was as incomprehensible to me as the black stuff the adults drank.  In something as quotidian as coffee time, I experienced what priest, writer and gourmet chef, Robert Capon, calls the “unutterable weight of glory.”  But at the time, I had no idea; I’m sure that I had to be prompted to say thank you before I raced outside.

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The coffee plant is particular as to where it grows, for it desires heat.  It climbs up the equatorial mountains where it hides in the oppressive humidity of the world’s jungles.  And it likes rain—lots of rain.  The earth and air flavour the fruit.  In Africa, the seeds absorb essences drawn from rich black soil, evening fog and very hot days.  In Central and South America, mountain vistas and heavy humidity suffuse the beans with both light and depth.  Coffee grown on the slopes of the Pacific Islands is imbued with the vastness and verve of the surrounding ocean.

Because of its capacity to absorb its environment, coffee offers some of the most complex and varied flavours of anything that we put into our mouth.  Furthermore, all the flavour of a particular bean is present at the time of its picking.  Nothing will be added, but without due care, much can be lost.

*

I sit watching an episode of How It’s Made. First, the frenetic assembling of pencils; then an exposition on the processing of scrap metal, and then comes coffee.  The narrator explains that coffee “boasts over eight hundred flavor characteristics; at least double those of wine.”  The human senses can discern all these complex flavours.  And poetic language is necessary to even come close to celebrate them.   Kenneth Davids’ is a coffee aficionado and reviewer.  His reviews approach poetry.    With a few omission and some restructuring, a poem is created:

Kenya Karatu AA” by Caféa Rotisserie

 

Aroma

Sonorously bright

Lush yet delicate:

Flowers, orange, nut, fresh-cut fir

 

Flavor

A rounding hint of milk chocolate.

Silkily smooth.

 

Finish

Sweet but crisp,

Orangy chocolate.

*

The flavor is extracted from the extraordinary beans by various methods.  The most common in coffee houses is the espresso, brewed by forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water under pressure through finely ground coffee.  Then the human creator fulfills his mandate to innovate.

The variations to the making of an espresso include lungo with more water and ristretto with less.  You can add water to make an Americano, steamed milk to make a Latte, lots of steamed milk to make a Macchiato and equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk to make a Cappuccino.  Each of these has vintages has variations, as well.  For instance, a Cappuccino can be dry with less frothed milk and no steamed milk at all.  It can be Mocha with chocolate syrup and Breva if made with half-and-half, instead of whole milk.  All of the above can be upgraded to a Double: two espresso shots rather than one.  Further, a plethora of syrups, flavorings, and spices can be added.  Chocolate is the most common, either sprinkled on top or added in syrup form. Other favorites include cinnamon, nutmeg, and Italian syrups and nearly any alcoholic beverage.  And it need not be hot, had warmed or even iced.

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Starbucks has over 170,000 beverage possibilities.

I was standing in line to order an Americano.  In front of me was a young man casually dressed only in black and white.  His track pants were black with white stripes, and his jacket was black with white sleeves.  His backpack was black with white detailing, and his shoes, white with black detailing; bracelet, black; ear buds, white.

From his position in the line of customers, he was writing on the side of a Starbucks’ cup (white) with a pen (black).  With the flourish of a calligrapher, he wrote something in every one of the instruction boxes, except the one labeled “Decaf.” He passed the inscribed cup to the barista.

“They let you do that?” I asked.

“I work here,” he explained.

“It looks complicated.”

“May I help you,” the barista asked me?

“16 ounce Americano, please.”

“Would you like room for cream?”

“No thanks.”

I took my coffee and the guy in black and white was still waiting for his.  Such extravagance takes time.  I asked him if he could write his recipe on my cup.   He did so gladly.

Shots:              1 Aff, 1 Ris

Syrup:              4pV

Milk:                S

Custom:           140° x C Driz

Drink:              CM

And then with the pride of the artist, he signed his masterpiece, “Scott Hancock.”

“Did you invent this drink?” I asked.  He nodded proudly.

Three days later, I tried Scott’s masterpiece.  How could I not?

I will stick to my simple Americano.

It was good, but I will likely not order it again.  It came up on my bill as a Macchiato.  I like my coffee very hot but this one was served at only 140°.  It was also too sweet for a guy that drinks his coffee black.  I don’t ever take milk, let alone soy milk.  I think it was the soy that offered an aftertaste that I didn’t like.  I momentarily tasted the espresso, but it was distant and quickly subdued by the milk.

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Cultural expressions of coffee add to the variety—Madras filter coffee from southern India is very different from the Kopi Tubruk from Indonesia.  Oliang from Thailand is distinct from Turkish and Vietnamese style coffees—all exceptional, and all brewed and drank with unique cultural differences.

The celebration of friendship and family is central to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  In a process that takes hours, the coffee is always prepared and served by a woman or a girl wearing a traditional white dress.  After she has arranged a tray holding the cups, she will roast the carefully cleaned coffee beans over an open fire.  A nutty aroma fills the room as the stirred beans rattle against the metal of the long handled pan.  The heat coaxes out the oils making the beans shiny and black.  When they start to crackle, the woman removes the pan from the heat and walks around the room so the smell of freshly roasted coffee fills the air.

Using a wooden pestle and mortar, she grinds the roasted coffee and then stirs it into a black earthen coffee pot.  The pot is left for a moment while the grinds settle to the bottom and the flavours permeate the hot water.  The pouring of the coffee requires grace and skill.  To further diffuse the aroma through the room, the woman pours the coffee in one continuous stream from over a foot above the small handleless cups.  It falls to the youngest child to announce that the coffee is ready and to serve it, starting with the eldest member of those who will partake.  The coffee is drunk with plenty of sugar. The woman is lavishly praised for her efforts in producing the coffee.

Three rounds of coffee are served with stories and conversation.  The last cup is called, “Baraka”—the cup of blessing.  It is possible to come as a visitor to a simple peasant hut in Ethiopia and be treated to this Yirgacheffe, which is, according to coffee experts, one of the best coffees in the world.

*

 “HEY! Coffee time”

Don, our boss, almost always barked, “Hey!” before he said anything. I think he liked to see us jump.  If we were shoveling, he’d yell, “Hey!” and sternly and impatiently show us the most efficient way to move dirt.  And if you called it dirt, he’d snap, “Hey! Dirt is what’s under your fingernails; this is soil.”  Until I got used to his manner, and I never really did, I always had the sense that I did nothing right.

He knew we were on edge and he seemed to derive some pleasure from it.  Twice a day he’d come up behind us and bark, “Hey!” followed by a much softer, “Coffee time.”

When we sat down for coffee, everything changed.  He told us stories about the Vietnam War and laughed at our stories about college life.  The breaks were supposed to be just fifteen minutes long, but if the mood struck, he’d sit there much longer.  We never checked our watches; we just enjoyed the company of those who worked hard together and enjoyed the grace of a few minutes of holding a coffee instead of a shovel.

A Negative Times a Negative Equals a Positive?

I never really understood math.

Apparently I could do it, because I got Bs in my math classes, but doing it and understanding it was not the same thing.  My strategy was to look at the pattern in the sample question and repeat the pattern in the exercises.  The trick on the test was just to apply the right pattern.

Now, over 30 years later, I understand one of the great mathematical mysteries—mysterious, that is, for all students who excel only in the humanities.

How does multiplying a negative by a negative give you positive?

I have known this to be true for a long time, but I never understood how it’s possible; it’s counterintuitive as far as I was concerned—a special knowledge reserved for great mathematical shaman like Mr. Stauffer, my high school math teacher.

But recently I caught a glimpse into how this could be possible.

In my English class we are talking about being discerning when we watch movies and read novels.  Given that any novel or movie will have elements that are “good” as well as elements that are “bad,” (for more, read “Dog poop in the Brownies”) discerning viewers and readers need to be able to identify what’s what.  Fearing that these categories would be over simplified, I said that a movie could have “bad” things in it, but not be a “bad” movie.  I was talking about Groundhog Day and Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, was doing bad things like driving drunk.  It is not discerning to identify this as an example of that which is false, evil or perverse because the movie is critical of his behaviour.  The movie’s attitude toward this behaviour is negative, making this aspect of the movie something that is good, true and beautiful.

Exercise 1 – reduce the following equation (show your work):

Phil Connors is drunk driving. Groundhog Day is critical of this behaviour.  Groundhog Day is saying something true.

  1.  Phil is doing a bad thing.  The movie says it’s bad.  This is good.
  2. A negative (is shown to be) negative is a positive.

This works for the other ones too.

If a movie has a bad thing in it, but calls it good, it’s bad.

A negative (is shown to be) positive is a negative.

and, a positive times a negative is a negative.

and, a positive times a positive is a positive.

The key, then, to assessing the good, true and beautiful in a movie involves discerning the movies stance toward the false, evil and perverse in a film.

It’s more than adding up the # of objectionable words/phrases, etc.

Failure to understand the implicit attitude toward these things in a movie, places the following movies in the same category.

Parental Advisory #1

  • Sex/Nudity: sexually related dialogue and gestures
  • Drugs/Alcohol: drinking, marijuana is used; mention of other drugs
  • Violence/Scariness: people are killed; gunfire; fighting
  • Objectionable Words/Phrases: 295

Parental Advisory #2

  • Sex/Nudity: sexually related dialogue
  • Drugs/Alcohol: drinking, smoking
  • Violence/Scariness: fatal shooting, beating up, intimidation of others
  • Objectionable Words/Phrases: 140

The first is Pineapple Express, the second, Gran Torino.  Don’t see the first; don’t miss the second.

 

The Demonic and the Stupid

I went to see Looper on opening night.

There’s plenty to talk about in this movie, but too many people haven’t seen it yet and I don’t want to spoil it for them.   But my experience in the theatre that night had me thinking that two more points should be added to the list that I started in the last post (Read “. . . Will We Watch?”).   There, I suggested that we might consider having two standards regarding Language, violence and sexual content in movies.   Movies that explore what it means to be human can have greater latitude for including this adult content; a film that is just for entertainment, less so.

The principle is: language, violence and sexual content can be a means to an end, but not an end in themselves.  To these I’d like to add the demonic and the stupid.

One of the films previewed before the feature presentation was Sinister.  The preview scared me spitless.  I cannot declare with certainty that this movie even has a demon in it, nor can I say with certainty that that this movie is using the demonic as entertainment.  But, I think, based on the trailer, it’s likely.

Even if it’s not, I know that this type of movie is not good for me to see.  This is a bit tangential, but an important point when it comes to movie viewing.  Not everyone can view everything.  For some, sexual content needs to be avoided as a matter of course.  For others, this isn’t an issue, but violence is.  For me, it’s the demonic.

Even though the demonic in The Exorcist is a means to an end, this type of content is something I avoid.  Dicerning movie viewer need to know themselves.

The Exocist (1973) is such a film in that it deals with important themes and in many ways it affirms Christian understanding of reality.   The presentation of the demonic was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  This is more than can be said of the flood of “supernatural thrillers” that followed.  Like sex, and violence, the demonic is not to be glorified or celebrated or simply exploited for entertainment purposes.

Nor is the stupid.  I was reminded of this by Jeff Daniels.

Jeff Daniels plays the role of Abe in Looper.   He also played Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber (1994).   I admit some parts were pretty funny and a little clever.  This is probably one of the best in the genre—but it spawned a long string of movies that celebrate utter stupidity.   Most fall far short of clever and don’t have the same level of talent (Daniel’s co-star was Jim Carrey).  These movies compensate for their lack of cleverness and comedic talent, with more stupidity and crudity.   I’m not sure if it’s even possible to have stupidity as a means to an end.  Maybe that’s why most of these movies are simply stupid, and because we can’t send them to their room for misbehaving, we can only ignore them and hope, that without an audience, they will stop.

Language, Sex, and Violence — Will We Watch?

“If it’s not appropriate for children, it’s not appropriate for anyone.”

I’ve always had trouble with this idea, because if I took that approach, I’d no longer be able to read my Bible.

I have been told by those who can read the original languages in which the Bible has been written that some of the language is pretty course, especially in the prophets. And you don’t need to read the original language to find sexual content both the beautiful stuff, like The Song of Songs, and the repellant, the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:30-36) comes to mind. There’s also plenty of violence. When I was young, my imagination played the tent peg story (Judges 4:21) and the murder of Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) clearly on the screen of my mind.

The good folks down at the Skeptics Annotated Bible give the following, tongue in cheek, review of the Bible using the same categories that some concerned Christian groups give to movies:

• Sex/Nudity: 197
• Drugs/Alcohol: no information
• Violence/Scariness: 957
• Objectionable Words/Phrases: 180

Their jibe does make a point.

Rather than using the MPAA rating system (Read Post “R Rated Movies”) or a misunderstanding of Philippians 4:8 (Read “Dog Poop in the Brownies”), I would like to suggest a new standard by which discerning parents, can determine what movies to watch with their older children or patronize themselves.

It is not the language, sexual content and violence in and of themselves that should keep us from reading the Bible. It is not the presence of Sex/Nudity, Drugs/Alcohol, Violence/Scariness or Objectionable words/Phrases that should prevent us from going to movies.

It is how they treat these things. If they treat them as the Bible does, then we can watch them. Or even OUGHT to watch them? You see, I’m not just looking for a loophole to get away with watching whatever movie I want. I believe that by encountering this art form makes us better neighbours.

Art—and movies are art—is a dialogue about what it means to be human. It explores the good and beautiful; it also explores the evil and sin; and it explores the need and longing for redemption. Experiencing art broadens and deepens our experience and, therefore our understanding of our neighbours. Understanding the language of film, and how to talk about it, makes us better able to attend to, and even contribute to, the dialogue and, thus, be more effective servants to God and neighbour as we partake in Christ’s redemption of creation.

Art has this serious purpose, but it can also be fun. This distinction is important when we talk about movies and some of the more adult content they often contain.

Movies have two functions that occupy points on a continuum. On one side are movies which are made to provide consumers with pleasure or entertainment. Commercial success is the primary goal so these movies are designed to help large numbers of people to escape the tedium or stress of their ordinary lives. This is not in itself a bad thing. Because they want to attract as many viewers as possible, they have to provide a good product, and they need a PG rating, so they don’t have strong language, nudity, or realistic violence.—if successful, everybody wins. I would classify The Avengers (2012) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as a film that occupies this end of the spectrum.

On the other end are movies that are made in the hopes that it may broaden, deepen or sharpen our awareness of the human experience; these bring us into reality, rather than provide an escape from reality. These have a more artistic purpose and they demand more from us in that they attempt to bring us more deeply into life’s joys and struggles, while they and often produce empathy in the audience. Precious (2009) or Ordinary People (1980) perhaps fit into this category.

Because this is a continuum, movies usually occupy some point between the two ends of the spectrum. Some lean toward the entertainment side, but still tell us something about life—Finding Nemo. Others tell us something serious about live, but while they do it, they entertain—Little Miss Sunshine.

How much language, sexual content and violence we are willing to tolerate in a film has something to do with where it is on the continuum. Movies that are on the entertainment side of the continuum ought to have a minimum of language, sexual content and realistic violence. These things are a means to an end, and they ought not to be an end in themselves. If they are presented as such, discerning viewers will avoid them.

But because language, sexuality and violence are a part of the human experience, they can be in the sorts of films that bring us into reality. Context matters a great deal here. The nudity presented in Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List (1993) is much different than the nudity presented in American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006). The first shows the humiliation and abuse of women in a very dark time in human history, and the other objectifies women for the viewing pleasure of its male audience.

I have never been impacted by a scene of violence as much as the opening scenes of A Time to Kill (1993). 10-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked by two rednecks. These two white racists are caught boasting about what they did to Tonya. Her father, played by Samuel L. Jackson is understandably distraught and, recalling an incident a year previous when four white men were acquitted after raping an African-American girl in a nearby town. He is determined that justice will be done. So he shoots and kills the smirking rednecks as they leave the arraignment.

The violence of the initial attack is intense, but it was necessary for us to share some of the horror and violation of the act, so that we could empathize with the distraught father who killed the men who attacked his daughter. The rest of the film involves his trial for murder. There is no doubt that he is guilty, but we understand his actions because we watched the event that motivated his decision to kill. Had you read this story in the newspaper, you’d likely be able to offer a flippant opinion about who’s right in this case, but by your participation in the violence, the issue is at least more complicated and your empathy makes you a better neighbour.

The violence in this movie is not the end, it is the means to an end, and that end is the honest exploration of the human condition.

There are some movies that seem to say something significant about life and human experience, but are really presenting sentimental and over simplistic views of life. One such movie is Remember the Titans, which the filmmakers would have you believe is a realistic representation of how a football team overcame issues of racism and hatred to win the state championship. Although, based on a true story, racism in the real world is not so easily dealt with and movies that tell us that it is are not doing us any good.

The following analogy might be helpful.
• The movies which are just for entertainment are like home-made apple pie with a scoop of good quality ice cream a la mode; they are really good, but you oughtn’t have a steady diet of the stuff.
• The artistic film that bring us into reality is like a well-balanced meal—I’m thinking turkey dinner here—they are good for the soul.
• Then there’s the TV-dinner type movies that pretend to be saying something about life, they got turkey and vegetables, but they are really giving us such a simplified version of reality that we’re better off eating the pie.
• The ones that are full of sex, violence, or base humour are analogous to chocolate covered dog poop—they might look good in the trailers, but you won’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth.

Does movie violence affect the viewer?

Does movie media violence desensitize?

I heard this question asked the other night.  I didn’t think so.  The reason is that I have been exposed to a lot of media violence.  I have played Counter Strike and Call of Duty for over 10 years and have watched a lot of movie violence.  Even after all that, when I see an actual act of violence, I have an instant significant emotional, even physical, reaction to it.  The 1968 execution of Captain Bảy Lốp is one example.  I saw it once.  It affected me profoundly and I will not willingly see it again.

Based on this evidence, I would suggest that all my exposure to violence has not desensitized me to actual violence.

The person to whom this question was addressed claimed there is no doubt that movie violence affects the viewer.

In one sense this is certainly true—one of the purposes of film, indeed all art, is to affect the viewer.  I think, though, that behind the statement was the tacit assumption that movie violence has significant negative effect.

I wouldn’t have been too worried about this claim except that it wasn’t about the violence in Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, or No Country for Old Men.  It was about the action sequences in the Avengers.  I wasn’t so sure about that.

James Potter brings together many studies on the effects of violence in On Media Violence.  Ted Turnau summarizes his findings in his book, Popologetics.

The data suggests that media violence can have an effect of viewers, “but the kinds of effects and the depth of those effects vary greatly depending on the individual viewer and his or her contexts.”

Those who are most affected media violence are:

  • those who watch a lot of television;
  • those who cannot differentiate between types of violence (small children or the mentally disabled);
  • those who already have an aggressive personality;
  • those who are already emotionally upset or angry when they see an episode of violence.

According to the research, “Family background seems to play an important role as well.  Children who come from strong families that teach children that violence is not acceptable do not act out aggressively after seeing media violence.”

There is also a significant difference in how violence is portrayed.  How it is portrayed makes a significant difference as to how much it will affect a viewer.

Violence seems to have more of an effect:

when the violence is portrayed realistically;

  • when violence is seen by the viewer as justified;
  • when the violent act seems to have no consequences;
  • when the violent act goes unpunished;
  • when the violence is done by an attractive person or a person who is demographically similar to the viewer;
  • when violence in linked to erotic content.

Violence seems to have little or no effect on the viewer:

when the violence is portrayed in a humourous fashion;

  • when violence is seen as having specific negative effects, such as pain to the victim, or when the perpetrator is punished;
  • when violence is done without malice or a revenge motive by a professional, such as a policeman or a soldier in a war movie.

The research seems to suggest that violence does, in fact, affect the viewers.  But it matters a great deal who the viewer is and the nature of the violence presented.

 

 

“R” Rated Movies

It happened again today. I sometimes show clips from movies to illustrate the tools we use for literature can be pulled out of the tool box for engaging movies as well.  Today’s lesson was Allusion.  I had just hit play on the movie There Will Be Blood (2007) and the big “R” shines on the screen.  From some dark corner in the room a student gasps and says, “My mother won’t be happy I’m watching this.”

It suits my educational purposes to show only the first 10 minutes of the film, until Daniel Day Lewis holds up his oil covered hand in Macbethian fashion and my point is made.  We never get to any of the R-rated content.

An R rating is given by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to a film if the language, sexuality or violence is considered inappropriate for children under 12 years of age and it recommends parental guidance for those under 17.

The student comment was a joke, but it indicates the reality that the MPAA rating system is being used by parents, even Canadian parents, to decide what movies they will allow their children to see.

This makes some sense, since the purpose of the rating system is to give parents some idea as to the level of language, sexuality and violence in the film.  And we ought to be concerned about these things.  Harsh language, sexuality and violence are unsuitable for children.

The problem here is that it assumes that language, sexuality and violence are all we should be concerned about.  However, by relying too heavily on the rating system, some movies that are rated “G” or “PG” are watched, without supervision, that shouldn’t be.  Further, when adults restrict their own viewing, or that of their older children, using the MPAA rating system, some movies that are rated “R” are not being watched that should be.

Let me illustrate what I mean using two movies: Remember the Titans, rated “PG” and Crash, rated R for language, sexual content and violence.  Both of these movies seem to explore themes related to racism.

Dove Foundation reviewers have no problem recommending Remember the Titans to families.

“Well hurray for Hollywood! At last – here’s a story about overcoming bigotry told without profanity, exploitive sex or excessive violence. What’s more, it’s downright entertaining. . . .  If a film is done right, no one is going to leave the theater let down by its wholesomeness.”

One of the things the reviewer got right is that it certainly is an entertaining.  And if they are saying that we ought not indulge in movies where profanity is pointless, sex exploitive and violence excessive, I also agree with them.  But, I would object if they were suggesting that profanity in a movie is inherently wrong, that all sex is exploitive and that any violence is excessive.  They go on:

“[W]e approve of [Remember the Titans] because it represents a concerted effort to tell an uplifting story without the usual ratio of obscene and profane material. If that sounds like a Hallmark card commercial, well, what’s wrong with leaving the theater feeling hopeful and satisfied? Isn’t that the purpose of art – to uplift the spirit of man?”

 Actually, it’s not the purpose of art.  There are two limited understandings of the role of art.  One is that it must contain some moral instruction and the second, it must be beautiful.  Art may be beautiful, and it will, on occasion uplift the spirit of man, but it ought never do so at the expense of the truth.  If it does it will legitimately be labeled “bad” art.

Why is this movie “uplifting”?  It’s quite simple.  The movie begins with a few “good” people and a whole bunch of “bad” people.  The good people are not prejudiced and the bad people are.  The audience, very early on, is led to identify with the good people.  Through the course of the movie we shake our heads at the close-mindedness and cruelty of those racist people, but feel uplifted as more and more characters see the light and join our team of the generous and open-minded non-racists.  This movie reinforces our simplistic preconceptions of the world in general, and racism in particular.  Worse, it reinforces, rather than challenges our simplistic preconceptions of ourselves as “good.”

. . . crossing the line between evil and “good”

This movie draws too clean a line between good and evil which is not representative of reality.  It suggests racism is simple and easily overcome.  It denies the reality every human being is a racist.  Granted, there are degrees of racism, but to claim one is without any prejudgment on the basis of race, is like claiming one is without sin.  Remember the Titans tells us that there are many people who aren’t racist—most particularly the movie’s audience.  This movie allows the audience to sit comfortably in the knowledge that they are good and open minded citizens of the world and if the world were full of people like themselves, there would be no racism (and perhaps no sin) in the world.  Certainly an uplifiting message.

Sure, one function of art is to “lift up the spirit of man,” but it ought never to do so by lying.  If you are going to take Philippians 4:8 at its word, you are not going to allow your children to watch this movie alone without someone to help them see where this very entertaining movie falls short of the truth—even though there is almost no language, sexual content or violence in the film.

Another of art’s aims is to challenge our faulty preconceptions of the world and ourselves.  Crash (2004) won the academy award for best picture in 2005.  Like Remember the Titans, this film deals with racism.  Although commending this film for its acting and cinematography, a reviewer at the Dove Foundation criticizes it because it “generates a very negative perception of America and its inter-racial relationships.”   In other words, Crash does not present a view of the world (or of America) consistent with that of the reviewer.  In this case, this fact ought to commend the movie rather than earn the critic’s castigation.

The Dove Foundation website gives a detailed description of all the sexual content, both shown and talked about, and it describes the acts of violence in the film.  Then it itemizes the language: 87 F, 17 S, 11 A, 10 N, 8 H, 3 B, 2 J, 3 C, 7 G/GD, 1 D, 2 OMG, 4 P.  I’m not even sure what all of these things mean, but I think it would be a sin for me to sit and try to figure them all out.   For all these reasons, the film does not earn Dove Foundation Approval Rating. Granted, this rating is based on suitability for families.

Now, I want to be clear, this movie is completely inappropriate for younger children.  But, I recommend this movie to any adult who can see past the content.  Why?  Because it’s “excellent” and “praiseworthy”—it’s very well crafted—but also because it’s “true.”  It gives us a picture of the world in that we see good and evil, not clearly embodied in individual characters, but all mixed together.  The characters I initially judged as “good” do bad things and “bad” people, good things—eventually the categories don’t work anymore.  When you get to this point, you have taken some important steps away from racism.  I come away from this movie convinced that racism isn’t simple, nor is it a problem only out there somewhere, but resides in every human heart, most significantly in mine.

This movie doesn’t uplift the viewer, but challenges his assumptions—his prejudices.  It’s not a pleasant experience, but it is honest and good.

And true.

There are many movies out there that ought not to be viewed by anyone, let alone children—some of them are rated G.  It is likely that more of them are rated “R,” and ought to be avoided for their treatment of language, sexuality and violence.  But there are also those that are not only well crafted, but tell us the truth about ourselves; sometimes the content that earns it the “R” rating, actually helps it to deliver this truth in a meaningful way that changes us for the better.

Dog Poop in the Brownies: How to read Philippians 4:8

I attended a youth event when I was in high school.  The speaker was a youngish, cool youth pastor and he challenged us to get rid of all our secular music.  He said it had to be destroyed; selling it or giving it away would just spread the evil.  He mocked the counter arguments leveled at him by those who loved the pagan lyrics and musical brilliance of Led Zeppelin and The Who.  One argument I remember, perhaps because it was mine, was that, although there is some “bad” content in it, there was much that was good in the songs of my favorite artists – especially Pink Floyd.

His response to this argument was the “dog poop in the brownies” analogy.  It went something like this: “If I offered you a plate of brownies and I told you that I mixed a tablespoon of doggy do-do in the batter, would you still eat it?”

I didn’t like this analogy.  For one thing, it seemed pretty convincing and I didn’t want to be convinced.

But, I also sensed there was something inherently wrong with this analogy.  I knew that Pink Floyd’s songs were artistically beautiful, which is more than could be said of most Christian Contemporary Music of the day.  What’s more, some of what the secular artists said was true.  I had a hard time reconciling the truth and beauty with the analogy.

I wasn’t so clever to reframe and ask, “Would he eat a plate of tofu and cod liver oil just because it had no dog poop in it?”

I still encounter this issue in my personal and professional life.  My musical tastes are now acceptable to most people except, possibly, my children.  Nowadays, I find myself in conversations around literature and movies like Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter; Shawshank Redemption and Hunger Games.   Those who question whether Christians should read/watch these often use an argument similar to the dog-poop analogy and they do so by invoking Philippians 4:8.

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I am almost certain the youth pastor who wanted us to burn our secular music used this verse as his scriptural back up.

After all these years, I can now declare confidently that I agree with Philippians 4:8; I can also declare that I don’t agree with the dog poop analogy.

Foundational to the analogy is the notion that there are things in this world that are purely good, and true and beautiful (chocolate brownies), and other things that are thoroughly evil, false and ugly (dog poop.)

. . . crossing the line between the sacred and the secular

This is a false dichotomy; not only logically, but also biblically.

All things were created by God and he declared it all, very good.  Later, with the Fall, the same “all things” were distorted by sin.  If this is true, then we don’t live in a world full of clearly evil things and clearly good things.  We live in a world where everything is fundamentally good and also profoundly distorted by sin; in other words, everything and everyone, is both good and evil.  When Paul tells us to think about things that are true and noble and right, we are going to be doing that in a world where it’s all mixed together.  And it’s not simply that one song on the album is good and true and beautiful, and the other is not; the blending happens within the same song.

This complicates life, but complicated is good in this case.  We can end up doing a lot of harm when we make things far simpler than they actually are.

I think the speaker of my youth was wrong when he suggested the Christian life meant burning all my secular music.  If he had understood Philippians 4: 8 in the light of Genesis 1-3, he would have told us to burn some of our “secular” albums, (and we knew which ones) and then he’d tell us to listen to our Christian music and burn all the trite, simplistic and sentimental gunk that was far from true, excellent and admirable.

Finding Nemo and The Belly of the Whale

My students use the word epic to describe anything that is really awesome.  You might be surprised to know that Finding Nemo has a lot in common with some of the stories which are legitimate epics.   Like the Aeneid and Odyssey, Finding Nemo is about a hero on a journey.  Maybe calling it epic is a misnomer, but I will certainly call this story mythic.

SPOILER ALERT:

Toward the end of the movie, Marlin finds himself in the belly of a whale.  What happens to Marlin there is an archetypical event.  Archetypical in that it is a type of event that turns up again and again in stories across a broad range times and cultures.  One of the most familiar, of course, is the biblical Jonah.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell identifies the “belly of the whale” experience as one of the stages of the hero’s journey which he describes in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  He says that this sort of event can occur just as well in a temple as a whale, but wherever it occurs, it is a necessary step in the hero’s journey to complete his mythic quest.

The “belly of the w hale” experience is one where the hero does not conquer, that comes later, but is instead swallowed into the unknown.  Here he contends not with external enemy, but part of himself, and in this encounter, something must die; it is “a form of self-annihilation” (Campbell).  This is a painful, but necessary process, for if the hero encounters his enemy or attempts his great task before this he has dealt with himself, the quest would end in failure.

Before his adventure began, Marlin could not venture away from the safety of the reef.  Not since his mate, Coral, and all his offspring, except Nemo, were killed by a predatory fish.  This tragic event shapes his entire life and he believes that world beyond the reef was hostile, even evil.  His worldview profoundly affects his parenting and Nemo is beginning to strain against his father’s over-protectiveness.

Marlin’s paranoia precipitats an uncharacteristic act of defiance by Nemo which results in his capture by divers.  He is taken away to far off Sydney.  Marlin goes after him.  He leaves the reef because there is only one thing he fears more than the open water—losing Nemo.

But just because he leaves the reef, doesn’t mean that he’s found any kind of courage or changes his mind about the dangers of the ocean.  He’s still at the beginning of his adventures.  Marlin enters the phase of the hero’s journey that Campbell calls “The Road of Trials.”  World literature is full of these tests and ordeals.  Often with a supernatural helper, the hero begins to understand that “there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage” (Campbell).  Of course there is, it’s called the screenwriter, but do you ever get the sense that your life is a sort of hero’s journey?  (Donald Miller explores this idea in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and a program called Storyline, which will be released the day before Finding Nemo 3D).

Although Dori isn’t necessarily supernatural, somehow Marlin has a helper which couldn’t be better suited to guide him.  Dori is Marlin’s opposite.  She has what Marlin lacks.  Their difference is symbolically represented in colour.  Marlin is white and orange; Dori is black and blue (blue is opposite orange on the colour wheel).  More importantly, Dori has no short term memory.  Dori can’t remember; Marlin can’t forget.

On the perilous road of trials the hero learns a great deal.  And Marlin has a lot to learn.

Marlin’s world is simple—too simple.  He sees the world in the simple terms of safe and dangerous—good and evil, if you will.  The ocean beyond the drop off is simply very dangerous place and evil and you just don’t go there.

On the road of trials, Marlin learns that his worldview is not adequate and that the world is more complex than he always believed.

His first lesson is that what appears dangerous isn’t necessarily so.  The three sharks are actually very nice fellows.  But they do have some very dangerous weaknesses.  This encounter seriously challenges Marlin’s binary thinking.

The next encounter on the watery road of trials is with the mindless malevolence of the abyssal angler fish.  This encounter, although confirming Marlin’s paranoid worldview, shows Marlin that evil can be overcome.  Not only does he overcome evil, he actually uses it against itself when he employs the fatal lure to shed light on Dori’s reading of the Sydney address on the ski mask.  He had to overcome evil in order to acquire essential information for the completion of his quest.

Then next trial follows the conversation with a school of fish that teases Marlin.  Felling slighted he wants to move on as quickly as possible.   Because he’s not in the mood to listen, he misses vital information.  Dori hears, but, of course, forgets the warning the time they get to the rock.  She doesn’t know why, but she thinks that they should go through a cleft, and not over the rock.  Marlin ignores Dori’s input and chooses the latter route based only on appearances—the cleft looks more perilous, but again, appearances deceive.

Because of his impatience and arrogance, he is forced to deal with the jellyfish—evil here is passive.  It is Marlin’s foolishness that is the agent in this episode—he’s responsible for this one.

The road of trials has problematized Marlin’s worldview.  Good and evil are not nearly as simple as before—he learned that what looks evil might not be, what seems good might be dangerous; he learned that good isn’t the same thing as safe.  He also discovered that sometimes we are a bigger problem that what we call evil.

Marlin and Dori have earned a rest and they find it on the EAC with a bunch of sea turtles.  This is actually a time of preparation that often precedes the greatest trial the hero faces on his mythic journey.

The most important part of this preparation is instruction on parenting from Crush, the turtle, who functions as mentor.  Marlin observes Crush’s parenting in action.  Squirt, Crush’s son, accidently drops out of the current.  Marlin is alarmed and ready to solve the problem for the young turtle.  Crush stops him saying, “Let us see what Squirt does flying solo.”

The young fellow regains the current on his own and is ecstatic. “Whoa, that was so cool! Hey Dad, did you see that?  Did you see me!?  Did you see what I did?”  This is the feeling of accomplishment that can only come with facing and overcoming difficulty.  This is something that Nemo has never experienced, and likely won’t unless something changes.

On the journey the lessons have been taught, and this last piece of wisdom imparted by Crush applies all the lessons to an act of parenting.  Marlin now has the knowledge, but this knowledge has not been internalized.  Marlin still hasn’t really leaned—knowing is not the same thing as doing.  Before Marlin can rescue Nemo, let alone be the father that Nemo needs, the fear resulting from the death of Coral and family must die.  This happens in the belly of the whale.

Marlin bashes his head against the baleen wall.  He can’t get out. He blames Dori.  He has no hope.  The quest is doomed and he will not be able to tell him how old sea turtles are.  He laments, “I promised him I’d never let anything happen to him.”

Dori says, “That’s a funny thing to promise.” She explains, “You can’t never let anything happen to him then nothing would ever happen to him.” This is essentially what Crush told him, but his fear will not allow him to live it.

The whale stops and the water begins to drop.  Dori trusts her partial understanding of the whale’s instructions go to the back his throat.  Marlin has a lot more difficulty trust.  He is convinced the whale is eating them.

Hanging onto the surface of the whale’s tongue above the abyss of the whale’s throat, Dori tells Marlin, “He says it’s time to let go.”  Literally, let go of the tongue, but also to let go of the tragedy in the past that has shaped his worlview.  This can no longer define his life, and it certainly can’t define Nemo’s.

“How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” he asks Dori.

She replies, “I don’t.”

There is nothing else to do.  He has to let go.  He releases his hold on the tongue and plummets into darkness.  The downward movement is symbolically toward death, but the fall changes into the upward movement of resurrection.  He and Dori are propelled out of the whale’s blowhole in a spray of water.

They are in Sydney.

Campbell says, “Allegorically, then, the passage . . . through the jaws of the whale [denotes], in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.”  The hero’s emergence is a rebirth.    

We know what happens next.  The hero is now ready to complete his quest and after the belly of the whale, success is virtually assured. Marlin, with some help, successfully rescues of Nemo.  This is a victory, but the real battle had already been won in the belly of the whale.

We know Marlin has truly been transformed for on the journey home, he allows Nemo to risk his own life to save many fish caught in a net.

There is a moral to the story; this movie offers some pretty good advice on parenting.  But, like all the great stories, it bears far deeper truths than this.  These are universal truths that are repeated in the world’s literature, significantly the Bible.

Here’s the beginning of a list:

  • Things in this world are usually too complex to reduce to simple categories like good and evil.
  • Although it doesn’t make sense, by opening your hands, you can gain so much more.
  • Significant transformation occurs through suffering and times of despair, and these can be followed by a profound joy.

What is the mechanism behind this these universal ideas being found in the world’s literature, and Finding Nemo?  Some say these are evolved patterns, but I’m living as if the mythic truths in all stories echo the Creator’s one story that culminates with the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.

Either way, I don’t think you can deny that this film is far more than a morality tale about over-protective parenting.

 

Zeroes in School Teach Life?

An Edmonton teacher feels so strongly about the importance of giving zeroes to students who don’t complete work, that he is putting his job on the line.  The “Hero of Zero” is 35 year veteran physics teacher, Lynden Dorval.  [Read more]  The public is behind him. The CTV news poll on the webpage carrying the story revealed that 93% of readers answered the question, “Should students who don’t complete their schoolwork be given zeros?” in the affirmative.  The reasons behind the 93% are perhaps represented in the comments.

Many felt that to not give a zero was coddling people who ought to have a good hard dose of reality.  Janet B. says, “if <sic> the prevailing attitude were education over self-esteem we’d actually have some winners joining our workforce. instead<sic> we get these snivelling<sic>, whining, self-absorbed, loathsome creatures that demand equal pay for inferior work.”  Most of the many comments assumed that to not give a zero meant giving points for work not turned in.  They thought this was absurd—and it is.  Here’s Ted: “Zero work equals Zero mark. What’s the problem? It’s so simple (almost) any idiot could figure it out.”

I don’t have all the information regarding the EPS’s no-zero policy, but I understand why we don’t give zeroes at my school. I suspect the reasons are the same.  Almost every comment on the CTV piece indicates a complete misunderstanding of the reasoning behind not giving zeroes.

Fundamentally, the no-zero policy means that students are not allowed to decide they won’t do required work.  And it means that teachers are not allowed to let children get away with deciding not to do required work.  But it’s more than that as well.

It all comes down to what the marks mean.

Do parents want the physics teacher to give a mark that tells us the percentage of assignment turned in?  It wouldn’t matter if you understood a thing, if the assignment was in you get a 100% and if you don’t turn it in you get a zero.  Only under this scheme do zeroes make sense.

This is not what marks mean and zeroes don’t make sense if you are measuring the knowledge/skills/abilities of a student in a in a specific class.  Here, the data is not the missing assignment; it is what is in the missing assignment.

The problem is that we’ve been measuring both the quantity and the quality of student work on the on the same scale.  Actually, we’ve been measuring more than just those two things.

Along with measuring knowledge/skills/abilities, marks have also included:

  • attitude (which often translates into ,
  • teacher’s-pet bonuses,
  • participation (this makes sense in some courses, but to arbitrarily reward extroverts isn’t supportable,
  • the skills and abilities of other student (remember how unfair those shared mark for “group work” were),
  • extra-credit (so we didn’t measure just what the student knows, but they get higher marks if they tell it to us more than other kids do),
  • neatness,
  • practice assignments (does it make sense to include marks for practice assignments in a final mark),
  • and of course lateness (deduction of 3% per day late) and zeroes for assignments not turned in at all.

For the mark to mean anything, all these things must be removed so that it indicates only what the student knows and what she can do at the time of the assessment.

This is not to say that turning ones work in on time (or anything else on the list) is not important, but only that it not be included in the mark.

Theoretically, zeroes can be used under the no-zero policy if it is an accurate representation of what the student knows.  But, it is highly unlikely that the student knows absolutely nothing.

The teacher is expected to assess what the student can do or what she knows.  Without data, this is impossible.  The teacher must get.  No data, no mark.  If a zero is averaged into the mark, it no longer communicates what it is supposed to communicate—it no longer measures performance.

Many of the comments scoffed at the official line that missing assignments “was a behavioural issue” rather than an academic one.  Those commenting seemed to interpret behavioural issue something which justified the missing assignments.  This isn’t the case at all.  The missing assignment is a behavioural issue.  In many cases, it is unacceptable behaviour and needs to be dealt with like all other unacceptable behaviors: like bullying, vandalism or littering.  We don’t take off marks for these behaviours.  To take marks off for late or missing assignments would amount to the same thing as deducting points for dress code violations.  These are not academic issues, but behavioural ones.

I believe this policy is more like the real world than giving zeroes.  If I’m lazy my job at the grocery store, my boss will not deduct from my wages for neglecting to stack the fruit, and then allow me to go on to try soup stacking.  He will make me do the fruit, with some additional instruction if necessary, or he will fire me!  If a student doesn’t complete the assignments I need in order to assess her learning, she receives no credit for the course.  That’s real life.  And it’s much harsher than a little old zero.

Several comments in the CTV report said that zeroes were a great motivation.  But teachers can still have those motivating conversations with students: “If you don’t do this assignment by Wednesday, you can’t receive credit for the course.  I’m going to help you finish it by keeping you in every lunch until then.”

One of the main reasons I am in favour of the no-zero policy is how it motivates students.  I have been a teacher for almost 30 years and I have never seen students more motivated that when all the things that distorted the marks were removed and student understood what the marks meant and what specifically they could do about it.

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