Language Hurdles in STEM

I had a conversation today with somebody that reminded me of one of the problems there was in my college days.  It was a problem that frequently comes up in science and engineering courses, and that problem is that your professors don’t speak English well.

I don’t mean that they have a mild accent, either.  Having a modest bit of accent adds flair and personality.  On the other hand, if you are trying to learn your vocabulary from someone who doesn’t really speak your language well, will have difficulty learning from them.  I had several classes where the professor wrote on the board and said words that nobody in class could quite understand, and we furiously copied down his numbers and examples to study on our own time.  When we fail to understand our professors, it should come from our need to grow in the field, not the inability to know what words they are saying.

This conversation came up partly because the person told me that they became so frustrated with this specific problem in engineering courses that they changed majors to accounting, where people spoke good English.

Engineering is an extremely hard curriculum.  My major at my alma mater (aerospace) has always had an extremely high failure and transfer rate (to other majors) because “Rocket Scientist” has a certain appeal as a title, but the work is extremely difficult.  The policy seemed to be “Let them all try, and they can sort themselves out”, and I am okay with that policy.  The curriculum was so challenging that the college actually implemented a policy that no course could be repeated more than three times for graduation, and it affected people.  My peers and I used to joke that every class was a weed-out class because so many students were lost each semester.  I really cannot stress the attrition rate enough; some years almost 300 people will start the major as freshmen when only 30 are graduating as seniors.  Those are grim numbers.

Compounding the extremely difficult workload with thick accents and poor English badly undermines the students’ ability to succeed.  Some of the foreign instructors speak very good English, but some of them struggled with the language.  They are brilliant, capable people; but they don’t need to be leading a lecture in a language where they cannot be understood.  I had thought it might have been a problem limited to my own University in its quest for more diversity; but after hearing from somebody from an entirely different state complain about the same problem there, I suspect that problem is more widespread.

This particular problem is straightforward: We need our teachers, especially in the STEM courses, to be speaking good English if we want our students to be successful.  There are too many new ideas to learn to cut the professors some slack on their English communication abilities.

 

Putting the Cart Before the Horse in Education

There is a major problem with education, and the way our country has chosen to structure it, economically.  The people who most need education to find work (the young and the suddenly unemployed) are the ones who are least likely to be able to afford to pay for it out of pocket.

This happens because, excepting our grade school system, the students are required to pay for the education “up front”.  The whole point of establishing the grade school system was supposed to be to help regular people compete in the job market, but the important skills are no longer being taught in grade schools.  Taking out usurious loans to pay for that education is severe exploitation of this situation – if we are going to have loans pay for education, they should at least be interest-free.

But even this is a twisted way to look at the system.  Why do most people want “education”?  So that they can get a job and gainful employment.  By putting the cost of education first, the whole system is foisting the costs of professional training onto the employees, leaving the businesses free to reap the rewards without paying any of the costs (often not even via taxes, if they have enough loop holes).

If employers want us to have a specific skill in order to work for them, then the employer should have to eat the cost of training for that specific skill.  If we treat college or other self-funded training as a requirement for getting a job, then employers have successfully transferred the cost of training from the companies to the hopeful employees, with no promise of ever recouping their losses.  The alternative is starvation wages and death, so everyone who works is forced into this gamble where someone else (someone rich) decides whether they get to live a decent life, or whether they will rot in the streets with a useless piece of paper and run away debts.

Working For Free (Or Not)

There’s a disconnect between working class and more financially secure people regarding the phrase “I can’t work for free,” and I think that needs to be cleared up, because it is undermining an important part of our national conversation about working – both working for yourself and working for other people.

When a working-class person says “I can’t work for free”, if a more monied person hears this, they usually respond “I work for free all the time!”.  The working class person is saying that they cannot live without having their basic needs met, or at least cannot work without some kind of compensation.  When you are just starting as an employee, you usually don’t have any savings to live on while you build your experience and reputation, so you need money for food and shelter.  Someone who is already financially established can get away with “working for free” to build their reputation.

When a person with money and a business says they are “working for free”, they are generating reputation and advertisement for their existing business.  When a person has multiple products already produced and ready for sale, doing a 15 minute interview that will be spread to some corner of the world that might not have heard of you is something worthwhile and valuable.  That’s not the case when you are an employee.

When you are a worker, life is very different.  You sell your labor, and once you are hired somewhere, everything you have to offer (your skill and your time) is being consumed on the job.  The companies asking for free labor are generally not charitable non-profits.  If they were, asking for freebies wouldn’t be as offensive.  No, the people who ask you to “work for free” are often major for-profit companies, and their hope is that talented but naive people who will be easily exploited for their own profits will sign up.  They offer “experience” and “reputation”, but those things don’t pay the rent and they absolutely do not pay off mounting student loans.  The empty promise is that one day, you might even get a paying job – maybe here, maybe somewhere else, but no guarantees.  When you are a multi-million dollar company, you can do better than that for a employees.  Even if a business is smaller or just starting, some kind of compensation is in order (e.g. royalties or part-ownership that might one day pay off).

There is also a substantial difference between the rightfully maligned “unpaid internship” and working as an entrepreneur.  When somebody is “working for free” as an entrepreneur, their work is self-directed and self-promoted.  They work as much or as little as they want, meet their own standards, and most importantly get to keep all the benefits of that work.  There is a big difference between doing a 15 minute interview for a website (which will then be promoted all over the country), and doing artwork for a company without compensation.

Working at an unpaid internship is very much like working at a job – set hours, directed work, and something that you are expected to be producing for an employer. The biggest differences are what you can expect to get paid for it, and how much experience they demand that you have, but anything useful you produce is still taken by the company.

If you are working for somebody else, you deserve to have at least your most basic needs met by them.  Employees and interns cannot possibly accept less than that.  When I hear “work for the experience”, I find myself asking “How valuable could the work experience be if you aren’t willing to pay me to do it?”  Somehow, our country has reached a point where, after spending thousands of dollars and multiple years in college, professionals are still expected to spend years working without pay for the benefit of somebody else, and refusing to submit to this broken system makes you “unreasonable” and “unemployable”.

 

Barriers to Entry

I think one of the problems our country faces socially is that it takes the ability to go out and “just get a job” for granted, as if there was “nothing stopping you” from being able to work for somebody else.  I think there is a great deal that is unhealthy with this perspective for many, many reasons.

There can be many barriers to the ability to work.  The most common problem we discuss is education, and I won’t pretend that lack of education can keep somebody out of a specific job.  There are more problems than that, though.

Another big one is transportation – just getting to/from work.  This is another major barrier that tends to get overlooked because the people who already have money don’t use the services which are required for “entry level” transportation like busses and trains. Even those services are not free, and since we are literally born with nothing, if somebody isn’t willing to give you a couple dollars a day to ride the bus, you can’t even get to a job – much less the interview.  When it takes two weeks to get paid, that is easily $20 or more.

Even that is ignoring the impractical reality of taking a bus (or other public transit).  I had the pleasure of using the Metro in Washington DC, and I was flabbergasted that it actually worked as billed – but this is an exception to how public transit works, especially in my area (North Carolina).  Most public transit is not on time, has very long waiting periods between pick ups, and is terribly unreliable.  It is not unusual to be able to travel a distance in 15 minutes by car that requires two hours to travel by bus.  In addition to regular traffic, you also have to deal with the constant stops for other people, routes that may not even go where you need them to, and connecting routes that can be separated by thirty minutes or more.  You cannot stick to your schedule because the bus is never, ever on time, and that works against you in two ways. First, because you are required to plan extra time for waiting for the dang thing to arrive in the first place; but also because a late bus can cause you to miss your planned connection, forcing you to wait up to an hour for the next connecting bus (scheduled thirty minutes later, but running badly behind schedule).

That cuts into the rest of the time you have to do anything at all in life, and the practicality of doing it.  How many groceries would you buy if you had to carry them a half a mile from the bus stop home, if it took three hours to get from where you live to the nearest grocery store one way?  That requires that you spend your entire day just buying groceries, and prevents you from being able to do anything else productive with your time – but also forces you to limit how much you can buy to how much you can possibly carry.  Walking even a quarter mile with a full week’s worth of food on your back is very difficult.  I hope you didn’t buy anything that requires refrigeration.

And that’s on a good day.  I recall having problems getting around Raleigh any time that public transit was disrupted.  Because public transit is such a low priority and not held as “sacred”, it gets disrupted by even minor events with no relevance to the city at large.  NC State used to hold a “Krispy Kreme Challenge” where students would run from campus to a nearby doughnut shop, eat a dozen doughnuts, and then run back to campus – and if you puke you are disqualified.  That is a small, stupid event to shut down all the bus traffic flowing down Hillsborough street, one of the main thoroughfares for the area.  Public transit cannot be disrupted so easily when people who have jobs depend on it to get to work, and having to call out “because some idiots are eating doughnuts and running in the street” is ridiculous and will get you fired.

And that is assuming you can even get into a job in the first place.  We talk about the barriers that come with lack of education, but even after getting educated you are often required to get an expensive license, even to work for somebody else.  There are some people who get into the nice, cozy jobs that pay for your licenses for you – often because they have some kind of family connection – and those people will never understand the agony of having to cough up $50 for a license just to be able to work at a low wage, part-time, seasonal job for a few months.  If you are starting from zero, you cannot overcome those barriers on your own, and it is unreasonable to expect it to happen.

And all of that is within a major city, one of the two largest in the state of North Carolina.  Heaven forbid that you live in the countryside – there’s probably no bus system at all.

It is painful when you try to discuss these problems with people whose family paid for their transportation (car, car insurance, licensing fee, and all the costs of practicing driving to be able to pass the driving test), who allowed them to keep their entire paychecks to reinvest into themselves, who cannot understand what all the fuss is about.  “Just get a job and go to work”.  They take getting the job and getting to work for granted.

There are enough legitimate barriers to employment (like skill and dependability) without adding extra barriers of transportation and licensing fees.  The barriers that keep people from being able to get started are the worst of them all, because they cannot always be overcome by yourself (which is often by design).  In a country where some people talk about “privilege”, being able to get a job and make something of yourself should not itself be a privilege.

If I could, I’d make public transportation paid for by taxes, and let it be available to all persons without a point-of-use cost.  I am convinced that public transportation is a public good, and should not be viewed the same way that private transportation is.  It also needs to be kept on a more accurate schedule (i.e. better planning), and it should not be allowed to be disrupted by “public events” the same way that a side street only used by private vehicles that can easily detour might be.

And can we please remove the costs from licenses that are required to get jobs?  If the government wants to stop decent people from being able to work, they need to eat the cost of it instead of forcing the public to do it.  Those licensing fees only exist to limit business opportunities to rich people.

Maybe the problem is just that the people affected most are poor, and because of this system always will be.

“Fake News” is not that Dangerous

I have been seeing a lot of articles on the Internet about “Fake News” and how it “swung the election”, and it seems to center around a few different ideas, none of which seem right and most of them go against the principles of our government’s foundation, specifically of free speech vs censorship of free speech.

“Fake News” seems to fall into one of two types, satire or misinformation.

The first examples of “Fake News” come from satire sites, which are sites which public parodies of news.  They usually do this by being about fake people and fake events, or public figures and fake events.  These are the kinds of “fake news” that lead to moderate embarrassment as people share satire that they mistakenly thought was real news (An article about an $8 billion “abortionplex” being built in Alabama was taken seriously?).   I think this is a problem easily solved the same way we “solved” the problems with tobacco use – putting a big warning on it so that nobody is misinformed about the nature of the product.  If there’s a notice on works of satire that clearly identify them as satire, then present and future generations will be spared the embarrassment of citing this brand of “fake news” as a source.

Of course, that’s the least controversial part of Fake News, because the whole point of that satire is that it is fake.

There are also some articles which seem to be deliberately misinformative, such as a couple different articles stating the Pope had endorsed a candidate, and another reporting on primary election violence that never happened.  This version of “fake news” seems much more malevolent, since it tries to sway people by deliberately misinforming them.

The go-to solution seems to be censorship of that material, but censorship carries its own problems.  The problem with censoring this brand of “fake” is that it can be difficult to sort lies from truth, especially when the truth is not clear.  While there are a few cases where something is clearly and factually wrong (like the aforementioned endorsements), I am concerned at the thought that some ideas might not have the opportunity to be expressed and considered – and corrected if they are wrong.  It is also almost impossible to know that something is false, even with firsthand knowledge, and I would not trust “respected authorities” to see the “truth” the same way that their opponents do.  I worry that opposition and minority voices would be silenced if we start allowing censorship, and I worry on behalf of both liberal and conservative minorities.

I also think a substantial part of this problem comes from where the responsibility is being placed.  Almost all of the solutions suggested are top-down, where the government or some corporation (like Google or Facebook) imposes limitations.  For example, certain content creators may have their kind of work removed from advertising on those sites.  Some part of the blame definitely lay at the feet of people who deliberately or accidentally create false news stories, but it is also partly our own responsibility to keep ourselves reasonably informed and avoid spreading lies as best we can.  We can improve this with critical thinking in our education, but that requires that we tolerate and engage the occasional “trouble maker” with a contrarian viewpoint.

I don’t have a perfect solution, but I think that satire should at least carry an obvious warning label to identify it, so nobody will mistake it for “real news”.  That way, it will be easier to sort the lies from the jokes.  I suspect part of the rise in recent news sites is the fact that journalistic integrity is no longer expected from the major corporate sources, which often have a deliberate, obvious bias in their coverage.  Then we can focus on debunking false statements in open conversation.  I would not support censorship, not even of outright lies.  In free conversations, lies can be unraveled, but suppressing ugly truths becomes too easy with censorship.

Supporting Links:

Satire

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/29/fooled-by-the-onion-8-most-embarrassing-fails.html

http://www.theonion.com/article/planned-parenthood-opens-8-billion-abortionplex-20476

“Chair Throwing” incident at the Nevada Caucus this year: http://www.snopes.com/did-sanders-supporters-throw-chairs-at-nevada-democratic-convention/

Why Individual Health Insurance Premiums Skyrocketed

It seems like everyone who buys their own insurance wants to know why health insurance premiums are up so very much since the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was passed.  I’ve heard some people asking “Am I paying for someone else’s healthcare?” and the short answer is “Yes; that’s how insurance works”, but long and detailed answer is a bit more complicated.

In order to understand the issue completely, it’s important to have a basic understand of how insurance works.  Insurance started in farming to protect farmers, and examples from farming are easy to understand and less emotionally charged, so it makes a good place to explain how insurance works.  (I’m writing in broad strokes here, but the important parts to understand are all there).

Insurance is designed to protect people from financial losses by spreading the costs around to many people.  As a group, people are able to bear larger financial hardship than they can as individuals.  With insurance, everyone pays into one purse; then they take from it according to their need.  Normally, only a very few people suffer big losses, so insurance is a little like a lottery where many people buy a ticket but only a few might “win” big.

Farmers have a constant worry that their crops might fail before they can be harvested – there could be a drought, or a storm, or wandering cows or something else that destroys their field of crops.  If a farm loses all its crops for a year, the farm will probably not be able to meet its financial obligations and be lost.  Because the consequences of that failure are so harsh, farmers buy insurance on their fields to protect themselves financially in case something turns their livelihoods to ash.

It is important that the farmer not be in control of these losses in order for them to be insurable – that the loss must come from something beyond the farmer’s control that happens by chance.  The protection purchased should also never be greater than the loss – you cannot buy a $1,000,000 insurance policy on a field that only has $1,000 worth of crops in it.  There should never be a hope of gaining from the insurance; it exists only to soften the blow if there is a loss.

Equally important is the fact that insurance must be bought before anything bad happens.  If a farmer could wait until after his field was lost to buy the insurance, he would just wait until then to buy into the policy.  If that were allowed, though, there would never be enough money in the purse to cover the losses, since nobody would pay premiums in, but everyone would sign up when they have losses.  That would deplete the insurance company of all its money, so people are required to sign up in advance, or get left out when they suffer a loss.

Having all the rules set in advance helps prevent abuse of the system that normally comes from having one source of money that many people can take from.  Health insurance suffers from a system that violates both of these concerns, and the Affordable Care Act made the problems worse.

First, people can control (to some extent) whether they have health care costs or not.  You can’t control when you get sick, but you can decide whether you want to make a doctor’s visit or not.  When employers were buying insurance for their employees (and slaves before that), the decision to actually see a doctor was beyond company control.  When individuals buy insurance for themselves, they tend to see it more like an investment, and want to get “their money’s worth” out of their policy.

The second (and biggest) issue is the way the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover preexisting conditions.  While I do believe that insurance companies were too extreme in their refusal to insure people with preexisting conditions – literally anything other than perfect health made a person ineligible for any individual health insurance at all – covering all preexisting conditions leads to the opposite problem, where people who have become sick and need treatment buy into the program without paying into it.  Covering preexisting conditions has widespread popular approval, but it is part of the problem.

There is a third issue is one that doesn’t sound very nice, but it is the question of how much your health and life is worth.  Can you put a price on your health?  When we deal with financial systems like insurance, everything comes down to money – we cannot pretend that money is no object when it is literally the only object being manipulated by the insurance company.  Insurance companies used to have “lifetime limits” on insurance to avoid the situation where one person’s terrible-but-not-terminal health could bankrupt the whole company, but the Affordable Care Act also eliminated lifetime limits on most plan benefits.  That means there’s no limit to how much one person can spend on healthcare, regardless of how much they could have earned to pay for it.

There are lots of other problems with the system that we have, but these are the ones driving premiums up the most.  People who get extremely sick are forced by circumstance to see doctors, and the entire country is paying the bill without end. Insurance companies have been losing money hand over fist trying to cover the preexisting conditions, because legitimate claims for existing diseases must be paid, but the insurance companies only have limited funding to work with that come (in part) from a time before those people paid into the system.  When the purse runs out, it’s empty for everyone.

Part of the point of the “individual mandate” was to cut down the impact that “preexisting conditions” would have by pushing people to buy insurance when they are healthy to avoid the penalty, but it is not enough.  While many preexisting conditions are minor non-issues, major issues (like cancer treatment) can be monumentally expensive.  Those few cases of individual people who must make use of their insurance tend to be the ones that require the most care and expense, and use the vast majority of the insurance money.

There is a potential direct solution to this problem, which would be to have the government subsidize the insurance companies that have these ridiculous claims issues because of preexisting conditions.  Rather than having people disclose preexisting conditions in order to deny them coverage, having the government reimburse companies that suffer losses from preexisting conditions is one possible way to fix the problem.  Although insurance companies do already negotiate prices with doctors in advance, another indirect solution is to force doctors and drug companies to charge “reasonable” rates for their services – something I know our government is loath to do, but it has precedent with other important life commodities like bread.  A third option would be to offer some sort of “government insurance” program to people who would otherwise be uninsurable to insurance companies, like extending Medicare or Medicaid to everyone who has a preexisting condition.  Then, letting companies refuse to sign up those people would not be an issue and premiums could come down (Whether they would is a different question).

And of course, letting the sick die to save money is an option, but it seems clear that’s the situation we are trying to avoid.  That is exactly where we will end up if nothing changes.

What is clear to me is that if insurance companies continue to be forced to pay for all preexisting conditions, then either plan premiums must skyrocket or those insurance companies are going to be destroyed by astronomical losses.  If either of those two things happens, then the effect is that nobody will have insurance at all, since anyone who could afford the premiums won’t need insurance to pay their doctor bills.  That’s not entirely disagreeable either, since it would force people to consider the cost of their healthcare, driving prices down; but it also would mean that some people will not see doctors even when they need them, and the poor would suffer more than the rich.  Make no mistake; the rich also suffer when there are fewer doctors around to choose the “best” from.  That says nothing about how expensive care might be a thing of the past, since there is no profit in providing a service that nobody can hope to afford.

What is clear to me is that it does not make sense for an existing, established, and carefully managed business to be utterly destroyed because the government imposes a burden on it to care for people who are not really customers.  The details of the issue are a little arcane, but the root of the problem is coverage for preexisting conditions and the untenable cost of covering them, and that is what needs to be addressed directly to fix rising insurance premiums.

So to summarize:  Insurance companies collect money from everyone who pays premiums, and uses that money to pay claims.  People who are already sick will definitely use more money from the policy than they pay in.  Without any limits, forcing insurance companies to pay for care for those people will inevitably bankrupt the company.

Forcing coverage for preexisting conditions without limits or extra funding to cover them is the biggest problem with Obamacare, from an insurance perspective.  That’s why some insurance premiums for individuals cost over $1,000 a month in some places this year, and you can expect them to continue to rise.

Please Criticize Better

I don’t really like President-elect Trump, but I’m very frustrated with the ignorant opposition to him.  There are lots and lots of reasons to dislike and oppose this presidency, but all the garbage I keep seeing is not it.

For example, I saw a meme supposedly calling out Trump for talking to world leaders on an unsecured line, and claiming that “suddenly, nobody cares about security when it isn’t Clinton.”  That’s not true.  One of the major questions about Clinton was focused on her handling of classified information, not just her use of unsecured communications.  Trump talking to world leaders on an unsecured line would only be an issue if he was discussing classified information.  All the important details are missing, so the two events are not parallel at all.

And I think that’s the problem: criticism of our leadership is more focused on who they are than on the specifics of what they are doing.  There’s less careful thought and more ignorant name-calling that does not accomplish anything productive.  Worse, it drowns out the legitimate criticisms of his specific policy decisions and the direction he appears to be taking our country.  While I support freedom of speech and the right to say what you want to say, I would very much like to improve the quality of the conversation taking place.

There has been much talk about the specifics of our President-elect being “racist” and “sexist”.  I’m not going to debate whether that is true or not; I have to ask if it is a useful conversation to have at this point.  That kind of name-calling is a desperate attempt to shut down and take over the conversation, to make it about something it is not.  If we want to oppose something, voicing opposition to his “Muslim registry” and the American principles it violates (e.g. the 1st amendment) is much more compelling than abusing the overused epithets describing him.

And, possibly worst of all, I am sick and tired of being called a “Trump supporter” when I point out the weakness of the arguments being used against him (in hope that they will be replaced with good, true arguments).  People who criticize you are not automatically your enemy; and even if someone is your enemy, it does not mean that everything they ever do is wrong.  Focus on the real issues, please, or all your indignation will not be put to good use, no matter how justified it is.

Measure the Economy Better

I keep seeing people talk about increasing GDP or raising the stock market in order to “improve the economy”, but all that big talk really seems to be missing the point.

One of the things that distinguished the American economy for many years was our self-production within the home.  It was not so long ago that hand-knit sweaters were a regular Christmas gift, and the ability to make things for yourself means you don’t have to buy them.  That improves your material life dramatically, but generally is not going to show up in the GDP since you did not buy the finished product (just the raw materials).  Likewise, if a person leaves their home to earn money while paying for all the things they used to do for themselves (cooking, cleaning, etc), the result is that the GDP increases even though overall productivity and quality of life decreased.

I sincerely think one of the problems with our economy is our inability to be more self reliant, especially for our basic needs.  When the only way you can increase your worth is to work for somebody else, and you cannot produce anything for yourself, then you will be trapped forever making somebody else rich while you are left with nothing.  (While I think our schools are part of that problem, since they removed most of the practical coursework, one of the ways to fix it is to use the information available on the Internet to learn new and useful skills.  But I digress.)

I think the way we are measuring the “economy” in regular press and economics is failing to capture the individual experience of living within the economy at all levels.  Taking the aggregate production and sales for the entire country completely misses who or where that money is changing hands.  Hypothetically speaking, ten extraordinarily rich men could keep our GDP exceedingly high just exchanging money among themselves, but that is not going to do the average American any good if they don’t get anything out of it.  That sounds like an extreme example, but there are less than six hundred billionaires in our country today, and around eleven million millionaires, but over three hundred million people.  Just because things like the GDP and the stock market are easy to measure, it does not mean they are good indications of the entire economy, and it definitely does not reflect a typical experience in that economy.  Those measurements matter most to the richest among us, who are less than 4% of the population.  It should be no wonder that our economy is broken when we obsess over the fate of such a tiny part of the population when taking our measurements.

Consent of the Governed

It seems that we will be having a President Trump after all.  I read an article that was claiming that the United States has become the laughing stock of the world after the last election, and I felt like it was missing the problem with this leadership entirely.

I don’t care that we’re a “laughing stock” around the world, because I don’t think we need their approval for how we run our country.  If you let petty thugs push you around with mean words and jeers, you’ll never be an independent person, and that is just as true on the international level.

But I do worry for the future with leadership like this.  Our President needs to lead everyone, not just the part of the country that voted for him.  He’s said he wants us all to “unite behind him”, but it’s not our job to fall in line.  It is his job to inspire us to follow his lead.  Explain how this plan of yours benefits us, how it will be implemented.  This President-elect was elected on the back of some of the most divisive public positions, and offensive opinions, of anyone in recent history.  I’ve done my best to understand what is appealing about him.  It seems like he’s interested in getting the working class back to work, protecting our industry from foreign competition using unethical and unsustainable means of production, and fixing or eliminating the problems of healthcare reform and the Affordable Care Act.  Those are things I can get behind.

But this man and his administration are openly hostile to nearly everything I care about, and finding anything to appreciate about him is difficult because of his prejudices.  If it turns out he only said those horrible things to get elected, he won’t be any different than any other politician.  I do worry that the tenor of his leadership is already very aggressive, and the people he inspires are more likely to do ill than do good.

I don’t care if the rest of the world, who do not live here, do not approve of how we lead ourselves.  I do hope our leadership will be someone I can approve, or at least tolerate.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s not my job to fall in line behind you, it’s your job to convince me to follow you.  Our government was founded on the idea that our leadership rules with the consent of the governed, and there’s a whole lot this particular leader has promised that I won’t consent to.

Schools Do Not Need Prayer

I keep seeing people who push for what they generically call “prayer in schools”, claiming that it would fix all the problems if we just had our teachers leading students in prayer.  There’s a whole lot wrong with that line of thought, but it is so common I wanted to address it a little bit.  The United States is a secular government, but what would it be like if we put “prayer” back in schools?

Would Christians be comfortable having their children led in a non-Christian prayer?  Because that is exactly what will happen if you allow teachers to lead prayer, but don’t demand that they conform to a Christian religion.

Or would you require all of your teachers (which are state employees) to follow a specific religion?  Which version of Christianity would you recommend?  Catholic, since it is the largest and has centralized leadership to keep its teachings uniform?  Would you be comfortable having your children come home speaking in tongues or shaking with tremors because that’s what the teacher at school does?

I am convinced that it is better to leave the teaching of religion to families, rather than trying to have the government accommodate it in public schools.  Schools already have their hands full with the lessons that have crystal clear right and wrong answers.  Prayer is not banned from schools – teacher led prayers are banned.  Nobody can force your child to pray to another god while at school, and it’s better this way than to open the problems that come with state-instituted religion.

Furthermore, if having your children led in prayer at school is that important to you, our government still allows for the attendance of private schools where your beliefs can be taught and respected by people of your choosing.  That way, you can have your beliefs taught and respected in an academic environment, with the full support of the school authorities.

But that’s not really what “prayer in schools” is really about.  The push for prayer in schools isn’t about improving the school, it is about coercing young people into religion.  What happens to students who refuse to engage in the teacher led prayers?  Are they going to be punished by a state institution for refusing to engage in a religion that is not their own?  What happens to our first amendment of our Bill of Rights, which prohibits the establishment of a government endorsed religion, if we start punishing the upstarts who refuse to respect that religion?  Or do you imagine a school where students are harassed by their peers for a difference of belief, where the teachers tacitly overlook harassment and assault that enforces conformity to their beliefs?

Everyone who pushes for prayer in schools always imagines it will be their religion that gets taught without dissent, but that’s never quite how things turn out.