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October 9, 2004

The Randomness of Life

To be honest, I hadn't expected much more from today's professional development gathering for Catholic-school teachers in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, than a welcome break from actually dealing with the kids. As a lover of fog, I enjoyed the drive up to Bishop Feehan high school, during which — don't tell my wife — I managed to make some rough notes for a piece suggesting that our culture has sunk so far into philosophical mire that dark subversives are having to rediscover Good so that there can be such a thing as Evil.

With such thoughts in mind, I sat in the auditorium with the ladies from my school and let my thoughts wander. We all participated in a relatively long prayer, the teacher of the year received his recognition, and the scheduled speaker, when he started, immediately elicited a sigh of relief: he would be humorous and interesting. One could tell, throughout the day, that the audience was truly engaged; I highly recommend considering him for any presentations on technology and education.

Alan November explained to that large group of underpaid teachers — most of whom must make do with what technology they can manage to find and connect in classrooms that, if they're like mine, have a single electrical outlet each — that they simply had to adjust to the new methods of learning that students will force them to address, and that many of the basics require little advanced knowledge. The first step, for example, is to teach the kids how to research on the Internet, simply extending notions of credibility and source validation from print to virtual.

When Mr. November mentioned blogs, I thought it might be worthwhile to chat with him. I've long thought that blogging is only one of many technological innovations that will tend to teach children the very skills that they'll need when they're older — the communication, the confidence, the networking, and the daring to pursue each. And when a name came up that I certainly didn't expect to hear positively uttered in a Catholic school auditorium, a name that I recalled typing in an early entry of Dust in the Light, it struck me how revolutionary and pervasive the concepts and beneifts of blogging are.

November told the story of Kate Stafford, who at the age of sixteen developed a Web site to explore the topic of a particular professor's book. In the process, she convinced two students from Russia to help her with the page, which became a 2000 finalist for an Oracle ThinkQuest award. After she'd admitted that she hadn't submitted her project to any teachers (so as not to lose "social capital"), Ms. Stafford apparently told Alan November that her goal was to get into Harvard, which she has since managed to do.

She certainly picked the right subject matter — and the right side of the debate — to achieve the Ivy League nod. The Web site deals with the work of, and has attracted a compliment from, Oxford's Richard Dawkins. The name rang a bell, as that of the man who wrote this:

Sexual abuse is disgusting, but it's not as harmful as the grievous mental harm of bringing children up Catholic in the first place.

The teachable moment, here, I suppose, is that the underlying skills and necessity for critical thinking haven't changed much at all. Despite bells and whistles, sources must be considered, and the Internet offers a chance to consider such sources as Dawkins in greater detail, and from more angles, than has ever before been possible. Catholic children, in particular, could stand to develop such skills.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 9, 2004 2:03 AM

It's sad that anyone listens to Dawkins about anything besides biology. He's very good at explaining evolution, but anytime he speaks or writes on something else, he is totally uninteresting (when he is not being outrageous, as in the quote Justin provides).
Stephen Barr reviews his latest book here:

Posted by: Mike S. at October 9, 2004 6:02 PM