Tag Archives: Education

Animals are Little People

Like many, I opine quite a bit about the harms caused by social media. Let’s be clear; those harms are real and profound. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge all the good it does. Social media has many well-acknowledged benefits as related to social networking and support, I’d like to point out two less obvious benefits, namely as they relate to science and animals.

For some quick background, I always heard that people spend lots of time watching video clips online. I assumed they must be endlessly entertained by “guy gets hit in balls” videos. But my son sent me some links to clips on the “InterestingAsFuck” subreddit (see here). They were really engaging and gradually I started to watch them more and more. Now, my wife and I ravenously consume the clips daily and can’t ever seem to get enough.

The first great thing is how many of the video clips involve science. These clips tend to demonstrate science principles and phenomena in incredibly engaging and inspiring ways. Some are certainly presented by scientists, but most of the presentations feel accessible, home grown, like real magic that you could be doing too. I have to think that this tone and style of presenting science has a tremendously underappreciated benefit in advancing or at least popularizing science and innovation.

The second benefit of these videos is their effect on how we relate to animals. Throughout history, we have seen ourselves as separate and above animals. While we might acknowledge theoretically that we are animals too, we still view them as relatively primitive creatures. We have zoos that are intended to help us to appreciate animals, but while they offer some exposure and appreciation, they generally just make us feel like we are in a museum, watching uninteresting stuffed figures behind bars and glass required to keep us safely away from their dangerous animal natures.

But then we go to InterestingAsFuck, and we see video after video of animals relating to humans and other animals in compellingly “human” ways. We see animals playing, teasing, problem-solving, sad, fearful, happy, proud, generous, and yes, sometimes selfish and even vindictive. And not just dogs and cats. We see videos that focus on behaviors of and interactions with the full spectrum of animal life on our planet, from eagles to microbes. They all demonstrate profoundly “human” behaviors.

We see videos of animals helping other animals, even ones that are traditional enemies or prey. It is incredibly gratifying that humans are included in this. We see videos of humans helping animals and animals helping humans. In fact, we see almost entirely positive interactions between humans and our animal cousins.

You could visit a hundred zoos or spend your entire life on a farm, and not be exposed to the tiniest fraction of incredible animal interactions captured in these videos. But once you watch enough of them, I find it hard to imagine how people could not be changed by them. It is hard to imagine how, having seen so many extraordinary examples, one could continue to dismiss animal behavior as just “mimicking humans.”

I hope, perhaps I am naïve, but I hope that after exposure to positive social media like this, most people will come away understanding that humans did not just suddenly appear on Earth; that all of our behaviors and emotions evolved and can be seen in our animal cousins. Animals are more like little people, like toddlers on the evolutionary ladder. As such, they deserve far more respect and appreciation than has traditionally been afforded to them.

If you don’t agree, follow InterestingAsFuck for a while, and see if you can still continue to dismiss any due recognition of animal feelings and emotions as mere projection.

Perhaps, just perhaps, social media can inspire us to engage with science, and with the real world around us, in ways that documentaries, and safaris, and zoos, and college courses have never been able to achieve.

Religion in Public Schools

The teaching of religion in public schools is a topic that stimulates a great deal of honest debate on all sides of the issue. Should religion be taught at all? And if so, what religions? Even well-meaning atheists might feel that religion should be taught, as long as all religions – and atheistic perspectives as well – are taught equally and fairly without bias.

That sounds laudable and enlightened in theory. However, many plans that sound great in theory inevitably turn out to be disastrous when put into practice. Teaching religion in public schools is one such example.

I have personal experience with this. While serving in the Peace Corps in South Africa, I worked for their Department of Education. The South African Constitution requires that all religions be treated equally. In order to comply with the spirit of their Constitution, the Department of Education has adopted a policy that all religions should be taught fairly and equally in the public schools.

Sounds great right? The trouble is that teachers, particularly rural teachers, do not know all religions and do not care to know all religions – let alone teach them fairly. At the point where lofty policies touch the students. all that this accomplishes is to give teachers cover to preach and proselytize their own religious views in the classroom and to misrepresent and disparage all other religions – and atheism is demonized most of all.

The problem of state sanctioned religious instruction is not merely a matter of the recruiting and training and monitoring of teachers. False even-handedness spills over into teaching materials as well. Science texts typically enumerate a long list of native creation myths as legitimate. In at least one science text, after describing the monkey myth, and the milk myth, and many others, it concluded with what was almost an obligatory footnote that said “and some scientists believe that the world was created by natural means and human beings evolved.”

This sort of false balance, not unlike giving equal deference to climate change deniers, is an almost inevitable consequence of a misguided and ill-fated attempt to be fair and inclusive with regard to the teaching of religion.

I came away from my experience in South Africa more convinced than ever that our American system of simply keeping religion out of our public schools is on balance the best, most practical system of fairness. There is no shortage of alternate venues where people can preach and teach religion as much as they wish. Therefore, there is no compelling need being met by including religion in public schools, that warrants the certain risk of abuse and unintended consequences.

Assiduously keeping religion out of our public schools is in fact the more fair, the more enlightened, and the more realistic policy position.

Aspirational Advertising

angieHave you seen the latest Angie’s List commercial called “gutter?” Of course you have. Jeff is the inept husband who cannot even clean out his gutters because apparently he’s got a debilitating fear of ladders and an overwhelming aversion to touching yucky gutter gunk. His wise and sensible wife calls Angie’s List to hire a contractor to clean out the gutters for hubby. Jeff hugs her with joy and relief for saving him from the horror of gutter-cleaning. Another happy family thanks to Angie’s List. Nice good-natured humor, right?

Well first let me point out that this pro gutter cleaner obviously isn’t all that pro. Sure, he came equipped with the requisite work gloves, but then he set his muck-bucket on top of a slanting roof, reaching up over the edge to toss in the leaf-rot. The pro technique would be to safely hang the bucket from a rung. It would have been hilarious if he had tipped the bucket and it came sliding down in comically slow motion to dump the muck onto Jeff’s head.

But I’m not here today just to make fun of the Angie’s List pro gutter-cleaner guy, rather to illustrate a much bigger problem. Here’s the reality. It is overwhelmingly females who make most purchase decisions and most purchases. So naturally companies craft most of their marketing to influence women. Their typical formula to accomplish this has long been to depict men as big dumb babies and their wives as the smart, wise, and sensible ones who of course demonstrate their competence by choosing their product. This Angie’s List commercial just follows this tried and true marketing approach for consumer advertising – the stupid, incompetent guy and the smart, competent woman. Not picking on Angie’s List here. This ad merely follows the industry norm and is far from the most egregious example.

Is it any wonder that so many American women have the view that men are children who need a mother? One could argue that advertising doesn’t create culture, it just reflects it. But we all know that is a simple-minded cop out. Advertising amplifies and normalizes the cultural hot-buttons that they press over and over to instill the attitudes that become our culture.

Imagine the reverse. Image if Swanson had a campaign that essentially said, buy our frozen dinners because your wife is a cute airhead who can’t cook crappy Salisbury steak!

And I’m not merely defensive about the way advertisers portray men. I also get equally worked up by their typical caricature of elderly people and other groups. I’ve railed since my youth as a teacher about how advertisers contribute to our terrible anti-education culture here in America. Think back a moment. Think of all the famous ads targeting kids. Most of them sell their products by communicating anti-education messages. School is boring. Teachers are dumb. Bueller… Bueller… I’ve got the back to school blues. Quick get to Six Flags before your fun summer ends!

There is no reason that these companies could not sell their products in a socially conscious and responsible way that does not engrain negative cultural images through catchy jingles. Angie’s List could come up with plenty of good reasons to market their services without making men look like idiots. Lifeline could sell their emergency beepers without making the elderly look pathetic. Levi’s could sell jeans without making school look like a gulag. How about showing how well you’ll be able to focus on your great teacher while wearing those comfee new loose crotch jeans at your desk? I’ve occasionally seen a few companies like McDonalds sell their products through positive messages about education, but even they are sporadic.

So why do they all do it? Because it’s easy and it works. If advertisers can leverage the widespread feeling that men are idiots, that old people are pathetic, and that school is stupid, then they can then count on those campaigns working every time. But it amazes me that they do work so well. Do women really like to think of their man as such a pansy that he cannot even climb up seven rungs and pick a few leaves out of a gutter?  And do we really want to see our beloved father as a zombified husk? Do we really want our kids to see going back to school as some kind of cruel joke on them?

Apparently most do and advertising has spent decades reinforcing these memes to ensure that they will move product every time. But advertisers could do so much better as an industry, we could do much better as a society, and each of us could do much better as consumers. Advertising should be aspirational, emphasizing and reinforcing the most noble of cultural attitudes. I think it would sell product just as well, even better.

All we need to do is motivate them to change. We need to start rejecting cheap stereotypes that pit groups against each other and demand more positive, aspirational advertising campaigns. More fact-based arguments and fewer emotional ones. We should start by boycotting any company that sells their products to kids by reinforcing negative feelings about education. That is the most important priority.

Advertising both reflects and shapes our culture. But we can shape advertising too. If only a few more of us stop responding to these stereotypes, even start to actively boycott the offending products, companies and advertisers will change. And those changes in advertising tone will in turn snowball into an avalanche of widespread cultural transformation improving our attitudes about education, about men, about the elderly, and many other important issues and groups.