June 1995

Being a Teacher

One of the worst ways to show our kids what they are worth is with a grade on a report card. Please don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to succeed. I want them to make good grades, have proficient study habits, and do their homework. Poor teachers stop there, I want more. There isn’t enough room on a report card to fit all the things I want to teach my kids.

For example, one year my 6th graders studying current events became aware of a blood shortage in our area. There was a report of a 4-year old boy named Matthew who had used more than 200 transfusions before he was two months old. Matthew’s picture was on a Blood Donor Poster; he still needed regular transfusions. My students were touched by his little face. They had a million questions about what was wrong with him and what they could do to help. They wanted to know all about Blood Drives and how they work. I didn’t have all the answers so I selected some kids to form a committee, handed them a phone book and sent them to the office to call the blood bank and get all the information. They returned, shared all that they had learned, and calmly announced that they had scheduled our school for a blood drive and volunteered me to be in charge–little Dickens! I called back and somewhat reluctantly set up what I was told was the first blood drive ever sponsored by an elementary school.

You cannot believe how motivated children can be at the prospect of seeing their teachers bleed. I captured that enthusiasm and assigned an all out marketing and advertising campaign to every kid in the school. They were told of the importance of signing up parents and teachers for our blood drive that was coming to the Media Center. They went in committees from room to room with information about health risks, procedures for donating blood and how the blood would be used. They role played various methods of intimidation and begging techniques that could be used should their parents try to “just say no.”

One teacher believed that he could get AIDS from giving blood. Another, who has the rarest blood type, had never given blood because she believed that since it is so rare, no one ever needed it. (She is now called every eight weeks and will never forgive us.) One little 2nd grader believed that like a heart or liver donor, a blood donor had to die before giving blood. She was a little worried about even taking a pledge from her mom or dad, however, she had no problem getting a promise from her older brother. Apparently he was someone she could spare in a pinch!

We had our blood drive in the Media Center. We all dressed up as Vampires and acted as escorts, receptionists, baby sitters and passed out refreshments. At the end of the day, 98 people had come in to donate. At 6 or 7 in the evening, some of the students had stayed behind to help me cleanup our room that had served as the child care center for parents facing the needle. One of my students–a young man known for being totally unremarkable, quite average and certainly nothing special–came up to me and changed my life and the way I assess the success of my kids. “Mrs. Eskelsen,” he said, “how many lives do you think we saved today?”

I had to step out into the hall, because I knew I was going to cry. I was totally ashamed of myself, I had always judged this “average, nothing special kid with poor study habits” on his academic performance. He has a much higher, more correct estimation of his worth. He is someone who saves lives. He is someone important. I promised myself that I would never again short change one of my students in that way. It is a perk of my profession that teachers sometimes become better people because of the lessons we learn from our students, from our boys and girls.

If we are wise enough to learn the lessons, our children will show us what to teach them. Consider the little boy pestering his dad who only wanted to read the newspaper. The boy kept asking questions and bothering his father. Dad looked down at the coffee table and saw a National Geographic magazine opened to a map of the world. He ripped out the map and tore it into little pieces. “Let’s play a game,” he said to his son, “you take this puzzle and tape it back together, and you can’t talk until it is all done.”

The father settled back to enjoy his couple of hours of peace and quiet when, in a remarkably short time, the boy returned with the map restored perfectly. The astonished parent said, “How in the world did you get that done so fast?” The young man replied, “See, there is a picture of a kid on the back and if you put the kid together just right, the world just takes care of itself!”

Teach kids their power and their duty and we will raise a generation that understands and accepts that power and duty and yes, the world will take care of itself!

–Lily Eskelsen

AHA Conference Report

“We should start thinking and acting like a mass movement rather than a fringe group,” is the wise advice of the secretary of the AHA Board of directors, Carol Wintermute. Her sage observation was made at the semi-annual board meeting in Phoenix May 18 during a discussion of the growing public acceptance and practice of basic Humanist philosophy. The board was preparing a response to the Christian Coalition “Contract with the American Family” that had been released with much fanfare in the nation’s capitol the preceding day.

The AHA responded with a document that calls this ‘contract’ a full-blown assault on the American constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It will divide Americans along religious lines and will intrude government into the business of the family and religious institutions. If adopted by Congress, it will undermine our rights of conscience and weaken our democratic public school systems. The AHA board-approved document recognizes our country’s rich pluralism and that students have never lost their right to engage in voluntary personal private prayer, and calls for the continued respect of religious neutrality in our public schools.

In response to other points of the Christian Coalition Contract, the AHA board urges that public funding of education be limited to secular public schools; continued respect for Roe vs. Wade; the support of a family environment that is nurturing and nonabusive; and the continued federal support of the arts, humanities and public broadcasting.

The AHA statement was released to leading media sources. Discussion during preparation of the response statement revealed that many of the goals of Humanist Manifestos 1 & 2 have become public policy during the past 50-years, leading Wintermute to make her observation that we are no longer engaged in a fringe group but rather a mass movement.

Membership meeting participants of the 54th Annual conference learned that AHA membership increased by 215 the past year while circulation of The Humanist increased by 3,884. A study indicates the greatest source of new members is The Humanist read in public libraries so AHA is concentrating on getting our magazine in the reading racks of several more libraries.

Finances continue to be a challenge. The loss of $45,000, resulting from the death of a major donor, will force budget restraints and creative fund raising. The editor of The Humanist reports continuing efforts to modernize the format to make it more attractive and to improve the contents to make it more relevant to the humanist lifestyle.

The membership unanimously approved a resolution establishing a blue-ribbon committee to develop a statement deploring genital mutilation.

–Flo Wineriter

The Right Hand of God

The cover story of the May 15, 1995 issue of Time Magazine, “The Right Hand of God,” detailed the success of Ralph Reed in his Christian Coalition crusade to dominate the GOP and take over U.S. politics.

The “Christian Coalition” effort to control the Republican Party and the U.S. Congress is a frightening warning of the insidious movement to establish a ‘theocracy’ in this nation. Apparently Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Cal Thomas are using youthful Ralph Reed to ‘establish the Kingdom of God on this the American continent.’ Their crusade to ‘restore family values’ is really sloganeering for ‘establishing religious values’ to replace the ‘human values’ of our constitutional democracy. Citizens who support this theocratic movement should review that great era of the Holy Roman Empire when Christianity ruled with inquisitions and religious crusades. They should also review the repressive Christian government of Spain that killed every Jew that refused to convert to Christianity. To balance the historical picture, study the history of nations that repressed religious freedom such as the 75-years of human suffering in the U.S.S.R.

The great strength of the United States is the separation of religion and politics. Religions have the responsibility of influencing voluntary individual moral and ethical values. Our political structure is responsible for creating the mandatory legal values of society. Religion and politics are influential competitors but neither have the right to interfere with the internal operations of the other. This competition promotes the growth of human freedom from both religious and secular oppression. Domination by either restricts freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

Imagine the protests that would arise from the right-hand-of-god-organizations if political parties tried to influence religion with the same intensity religions are infiltrating our body politic! Our political leaders should make it clear, as did Barry Goldwater, that religious involvement with partisan politics is reprehensible.

–Flo Wineriter

Corliss Lamont

1902 – 1995

In Memoriam

Corliss Lamont, age 93, died peacefully at his Ossining, NY home the afternoon of April 26, 1995. A humanist funeral, conducted by AHA Executive Director Fred Edwords, was held for close family and friends in New York City April 29.

Lamont wrote sixteen books, hundreds of pamphlets and thousands of letters to newspapers on significant social issues during his life long campaign for peace and civil rights. His most famous book is probably The Philosophy of Humanism, which is considered the definitive study of the humanist philosophy. His other book of importance to Humanism is The Illusion of Immortality. He also published intimate portraits of such luminaries as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and Katherine Hepburn.

In addition to his leadership role in the AHA, he served as director of the ACLU for 22 years, and taught philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, and the New School for Social Research.

A memorial for the renowned humanist was held at the AHA annual conference in Scottsdale, Arizona May 19, 1995

Shifting Paradigms

Nancy’s Corner

I especially remember “Bridge on the River Kwai.” Alec Guinness played a strict British colonel who surrendered with his regiment to the Japanese in Burma in 1943. Guinness is given the responsibility to build an elaborate railroad bridge. He orders his regiment to work, and drives them relentlessly in the belief that the sense of purpose it gives them is essential to their morale.

Guinness becomes so caught up in building a superior British bridge that he loses sight of the Japanese purpose for building it-to move enemy troops and supplies. The project has become his only reality, as he and his men become oblivious to the war.

Unbeknownst to him, British paratroopers have planned to blow up the bridge just as the first enemy train crosses it. On the day of the detonation, Guinness proudly moves across his structure inspecting it with obvious satisfaction. He spots a wire leading from the bridge, so he quickly follows it and discovers a British soldier with a detonator. He struggles with the soldier to prevent him from setting off the charge. He is wounded and the British soldier is killed by an enemy bullet. Guinness suddenly regains his senses, sees the whole picture, and realizes he has aided the enemy. “My God, what have I done?” he asks himself.

This movie gives us a good example of a person making a paradigm shift. When Guinness was solely focused on building a splendid bridge, he lost sight of the larger picture, until new information came to him. His first reaction was to preserve his bridge because that’s what he was living for. But when he suddenly saw reality, he made a quick paradigm shift, even at the expense of destroying the structure that had given him a purpose for living.

Most of us are raised in the same paradigm as our parents. From early childhood on, our brain has been fed information, and as a result, constructs ideas about the world, and then uses these ideas to make sense of things. Conflict arises when we learn and grow, and realize that our paradigms don’t make sense to us any longer. So we begin to ask hard questions. On the one hand it can result in anguish because we find ourselves going against the sacred beliefs of our parents, friends, and relatives. But on the other hand, it can be exhilarating and liberating because we are discovering more of ourselves and expanding our prospects.

To grow into mature, well-balanced human beings, we must recognize that our paradigms are subjective, and may not be actual representations of reality, which means they could be incomplete or at worst, wrong. Then we must ask ourselves the question, “Now that I’ve been told all of these so-called truths, what really makes sense to me?” This is heavy thinking, and to stay with it takes faith, perseverance, critical thinking and a support system. And if we consistently give ourselves permission to think, to question, and trust in our inherent ability to make our decisions, our paradigms will become increasingly accurate, and consequently, we will make wiser decisions, and perhaps become happier human beings.

There also are fears associated with paradigm shifting because we are stepping into new territory where there are no clear-cut directions, nor authority figures to tell us what to do. We must rely on ourselves and not give into our irrational fears that tell us to return to the old ways. Returning to Plato’s metaphorical cave will only result in living life in the shadows of reality.

There is also danger in pursuing a new quest. It’s what Erich Fromm referred to as “escaping from freedom.” It happens when people, freed from their old authoritarian rule, step into a new paradigm of authoritarian rule where they become dependent and submissive again. Rather than advance to the positive freedoms based upon our uniqueness and individuality, they succumb to philosophies that chain their minds to doctrine and dogma again. The cults, patriarchal religions and fascism are good examples of philosophies that facilitate “escaping from freedom.”

In the vulnerable transition stage from one paradigm to another, it helps to realize that there will be times when we feel isolated and powerless, and might even say to ourselves, “My god, what have I done?” But if supportive friends are with us, then we will not fall prey to the paradigms that rob us of our individuality and autonomy. That’s why the Humanist paradigm of “Believe in Yourself” is so attractive. It encourages self-actualization and responsibility without an authoritarian power structure. Humanism doesn’t claim to have all the answers, it essentially tells us to find our own. And it promotes the idea that it’s okay to live with the ambiguities of life. Actually, the Humanist paradigm makes life more exciting and energizing.

–Nancy Moore

Do Humans Have an Innate Moral Sense?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Since they were first published, newspapers have been filled with accounts of murder and mayhem, political terror and human atrocities. Differences in religious belief, color of skin, and lineage have precipitated riots, repression, and genocide. Almost any boundary drawn on the earth can become a cause for war. Warlords fight for booty while children starve.

Contemplating this litany of tragedy, one might become persuaded to Thomas Hobbes’ opinion that in their natural state, human beings engage in a war of all against all, being worse than beasts. They are not content, like beasts, with only sufficient food and sex, but strive to outdo each other in every aspect of life, seeking power and wealth, pride and fame, beyond reasonable measure.

In his book The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson rejects this Hobbesian view, as well as that of most modern great philosophical theories of human behavior, which give little weight to the possibility that humans are endowed with a moral sense. Commonly two errors are made in understanding the human condition: assuming that culture is everything and assuming that it is nothing.

“People,” Wilson argues, “have a natural moral sense…formed out of the interaction of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences.” People from an early age judge themselves and often try to live by the judgments they make. Children often discuss concepts such as fairness. Most of us do not break the law most of the time, not simply for fear of being caught, but also because our conscience forbids our doing wrong. We honor promises, play games by the rules, respect the rights and claims of others, work at our jobs even when the boss isn’t looking, wait our turn in line, cooperate with others to achieve a common goal, are courteous to strangers, leave tips for waitresses, help people in distress, and join campaigns that benefit others but not ourselves, partially out of fear of retribution but also out of a sense of duty, a desire to please, a belief in fairness, and sympathy. Children, no matter how burdensome, are not abandoned in large numbers. Incest is universally tabooed. Although infanticide, cannibalism, and killing the aged has been practiced, these customs have been readily abandoned by every primitive people to whom colonial governments have offered improved technology, modern medicine, and communal peace enforced by disinterested constables.

In fact, when people act fairly or sympathetically, it is rarely because they have engaged in much systematic reasoning (that society will be better off as a consequence). Much of the time our inclination towards fair play or our sympathy for the plight of others are immediate and instinctive, a reflex of our emotions more than an act of our intellect, and in those cases in which we do deliberate, our deliberation begins, not with philosophical premises, but with feelings–in short, with a moral sense.

There is, however, often a war within the individual between his or her moral sense and more selfish inclinations, and although some individuals allow the latter to predominate, most frequently demonstrate the former in their behavior.

The human inclination towards a moral sense encourages a family and community loyalty that has served to ensure the survival of the species during the process of organic evolution.

The Study Group Discussion dealt with evidence from other sources, some of which seem to support Wilson’s hypothesis. It was observed that Japan, with its low crime rate and finely honed sense of personal courtesy in interpersonal relationships, serves as a living refutation of Christian Fundamentalist claims that a nation must be Christian in order to be decent.