autotelic, autistic, assonance-hole©.

Critical thinking; educational discourse

The following, results of online coursework in a critical thinking class, seems relevant enough and expounds well enough for me to place it here. The context of the discussion is an example of something from one’s life in which moral and logical reasoning were brought to bear and how the application thereof affected outcomes. Subsequent exchange on the nature of valuation using ethics, morals, and logic followed. Pasting these in order of conversation to maintain continuity, but commentary from my professor is not included for obvious reasons. Suffice to say, he considered the work substantative and marked it as such.

When I think of a situation in which moral values influenced the way I responded to an issue, I think of the continuous challenge/issue of raising my daughter. Born in 1988, my daughter came into the world at a time when I held a view that common culture and societal morals were gaining momentum in a shift from the traditional to the progressive. This was, of course, my own moral reasoning in light of a number of societal and cultural strides in areas like equal pay, sexual orientation, and racial equanimity. At the same time, however, the popular culture’s obsession with gender objectification and related socio-cultural roles continued to clash in many ways; a distinctly obvious clash when looking at things using my logical reasoning process.

I noticed most clearly that my logical reasoning processes relating to dealing with my daughter’s adventures in pre-school and elementary school often conflicted with my moral reasoning processes; this occurred most noticeably when situations arose in which the perspectives and judgments of others resulted in a need to assess and respond on her behalf.  The example I will use to demonstrate this is a true story of an incident that happened when my daughter was in the second grade. I received a call from the principal’s office asking me to come to the school. When I arrived, I was informed that my daughter had been in a fight with a little boy. I asked what had happened and it was explained to me that she had pushed the boy down. They told me that she was going to be suspended.

I took my daughter aside and asked her to explain what had happened. She told me that they were sharing a computer in the lab; they were supposed to take turns working on the problem and, when finished, step aside and allow their “buddy” to do the next problem. Apparently, the little boy had decided that my daughter was taking too long to finish the problem, so he pushed her out of the way and took over use of the machine. My daughter moved away, and told him not to push her. The boy finished his turn and stepped aside. But, as previously, he would not wait for my daughter to finish her turn; pushing her away again and taking position in front of the screen. When my daughter said that she was going to tell the teacher. As she turned to look for the teacher, he pushed her harder still, attempting to make her fall down. At this point, she swung back and pushed him away from her. As a result, he fell onto his rear. Naturally, it was at this point that the teacher entered the room and took them both to the principal’s office.

I asked the boy if she was telling the truth. He did not like admitting it, but he was truthful and said that yes, that was a correct account of the story. At this point, the two children went to sit in the hallway for the adults to discuss things.  My first question to the teacher was simple — why were you not in the room? The teacher became flustered and the principal intervened saying she had stepped out to converse with another teacher. I pointed out that the entire situation would likely have not happened had the teacher been there to oversee the children. I further pointed out that, even had it started, the teacher’s presence would have stopped it before the point at which my daughter felt compelled to defend herself. At this point, the principal became a bit flustered. I realized that both of them were feeling guilty about this area of things, so I left it for the moment to speak instead about the morality of the situation.

I explained to both of them that my daughter has received significant mentoring and instruction in relation to violence, social interactions, and her rights as a human being to exist in reasonable expectation of personal sovereignty. I further explained to them that my daughter has received explicit instruction from me to avoid violent reaction, make use of appropriate channels of authority, and to defend herself only as a last resort. At this point, I shifted to logical reasoning to explain things as I saw them:

(1) It is a well known, documented, and disseminated policy of public schools that violent behavior is unacceptable.
(2) My daughter was inappropriately accosted by the other student.
(3) This physical act very probably would not have occurred had the teacher been in the classroom.
(4) The teacher, both by policy and by reasonable expectation, is to be in the classroom at all times and, when this is impossible, to arrange for another adult/authority to be present.
(5) The purpose of this policy is precisely to avoid the kind of thing that has happened.
(6) Due to the absence of the authority figure, this situation escalated into a situation where both students behaved inappropriately.

I noted to the teacher and the principal that it seemed the other child’s parent was not present. The principal informed me that they had decided that the fault rested with my daughter thus, the other parent had not yet been notified. They intended to resolve this matter and then, contact the other parent with the report of the incident as well as statements that things were resolved. I realized several things at once; first and foremost, that it was the intent of the principal and teacher to punish my daughter for defending herself. I further realized that the consequences and outcomes of their decision would reflect poorly on my daughter’s school record, that the other child (who had initiated this behavior) was not being punished at all, and further, that both the teacher and the principal were actively seeking to avoid any level of responsibility for the situation. Equally, I realized that my decision of what to do and how to react would largely determine how successfully any of the above would progress.

Morally, I felt it was wrong of my daughter to behave violently, but I also hold that self defense against threat of further violence is an affirmative defense (morally justifiable). Logically, I felt that my daughter was being treated unfairly and inconsistently as the teacher had a responsibility to be present that was being overlooked and the boy had a responsibility not to behave violently that was also being overlooked. I informed the teacher and the principal of my thoughts in words very close to those I use here. I further informed them that I did not think or believe that my daughter was excessively violent in light of the circumstances, nor did I think 
the responsibility of the teacher and the other student were being adequately addressed. The teacher and principal insisted that they had “made their decision” and that my daughter was to be suspended. They presented me with paperwork to this effect and asked that I sign it, at which point I became annoyed.

I informed them that, as they were either unable or unwilling to admit and accept the shared responsibility and they were proceeding in an obviously inconsistent and unfair manner, that not only was I not going to sign the paperwork, I fully intended to contact the county Superintendent’s office to file a complaint. When this did not seem to have any effect, I proceeded to inform them that I would also make a point of contacting my attorney as well as my colleagues with [major market radio station redacted] as well as [major market network television station redacted], the network affiliate to advise them that it seems students in the DeKalb County school system cannot rely upon their teachers to be in the classroom, their principals to impartially adjudicate issues when teacher irresponsibility is involved, and to further request they investigate both this situation as well as any other that public records might indicate warranted.

At this point, it seemed the principal remembered my name from a recent ACLU and EFF challenge of the governor; further realizing this was not hyperbole, nor was it an idle threat. As expected, the notion that I was not going to sit by and allow unfairness and inconsistency to be visited upon my daughter and that I had both the means and the motivation to effect the ends I posited had a rather remarkable effect on their perspectives. In the end, it was agreed that not only was my daughter not going to be suspended, the principal would make a point of establishing a means by which to insure teacher or adult presence/supervision in the classroom at all times (in accord with policy).

The child who initiated physical violence against my daughter was to be written up, but I expressly insisted that neither child receive punishment as neither were (to my knowledge) prone to aggressive behavior and there was better learning in it to show mercy. We called both children back and I was allowed to explain to the little boy exactly why he wasn’t in trouble, nor was my daughter. I further engaged them both in conversation about why and how violent reactions were inappropriate and never helpful. Finally, I asked both of them to apologize to one another and told them that any further issue would find both of them in hot water, so I suggest they spend a little extra time talking about it between themselves during recess to ensure no hard feelings. My daughter arrived home that afternoon to tell me that she and the little boy were now friends. That made me smile. But more importantly, that friendship lasted until she and I moved to another area and that, that made me feel proud.

Follow-up question: Do you think that moral actions should always be challenged even when they appear to be what is commonly accepted? How can one tell when a moral action is in need of a challenge to a higher moral principle?

My answer: I think there can be no absolute “right” or “wrong” because the world is filled with diverse systems of morality. I also think that logical consideration often overlooks morality, usually to the detriment of all involved. I believe we have managed at least the general shape of a concept (however inconsistently applied in the world) called “natural rights” from which a basic foundation of morality might be constructed. In this construct, the position that inconsistency and unfairness should be challenged is primary. So yes, I think any action that may be demonstrated as inconsistent or unfair should be challenged. That said, I think it very likely that the purpose of the “ideal” in any realm is functionally unattainable. Fortunately, humans seem to have a real need to strive against impossibility and often, it seems we are at our best when striving against being our worst. Since we are beings limited by our senses – with any ability to conceive or perceive greater things happening almost exclusively in our minds – I think perhaps it “stands to reason” (chuckle) that we shall never more than breathe upon the polity of consistency and, therefore, should be content to strive and occasionally be close enough to convince ourselves otherwise.

Finally, I find that most instances of the appearance of “the commonly accepted” are usually more accurately defined as “commonly overlooked, unconsidered, or ignored.” In my tale, the principal didn’t have any thought other than avoiding trouble for “his school” and “his teacher”. He certainly had no concern or care for what might be ethically logical or morally sound. Presented with an explication of morality/ethic clearly aligned with his area of active concern, he (at least temporarily) considered them together and found no reason to compromise his concern to assert his vested authority. It was obvious that the other adults in the situation were not going to “learn” much more than “be more careful about trying to punish children to cover your own oversights”, but the lessons to the children were manifold and ultimately, more important; that violence is not an appropriate or acceptable response, that talking with others is the best way to develop understanding, that forgiveness/mercy is often unexpected and should never be taken for granted, and that sometimes, the rules aren’t, of themselves, important enough to outweigh a chance to make progress with one another as humans. (These, not explicitly called out in the telling here, were discussed deeply over time with my daughter as part of the parenting effort.)