Being Muslim on Campus


Even before the Paris Attacks, Muslims on American college campuses were often the targets of hatred or violence. In November, Virginia Tech responded to a threat that claimed “I will kill all Muslims,” and Islamophobic posters were hung at American University. And it’s only gotten worse since.

“People are a little more careful traveling alone, going out at night, walking to their cars,” Adeel Zeb, the Muslim Chaplain and director of Muslim life at Duke University, told me. And that reality plays an important role in the everyday lives of students.

Campus Politics

Power, identity, and speech in the new American university
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Across the country right now, students are walking out of classes, demanding administrators’ resignations, and staging protests to draw attention to prejudice on campus—and to press for greater inclusion. Most of their focus, though, has been on race. Where does pushback against Islamophobia fit in?

Many Americans, including some presidential candidates, draw little distinction between the violent ideologies of extremist groups and mainstream Islam. As a result, there is often an anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of attacks, despite overwhelming condemnation of terrorism and the use of the Quran to justify mass murder among practicing Muslims. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf points out:

Hate crimes against American Muslims spiked tremendously after 9/11. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased too. In Britain, hate crimes soared after the London bombing. And after the attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, The Independent reported that “twenty-six mosques around France have been subject to attack by firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades as Muslims are targeted with violence.

The university atmosphere acts as a social laboratory of sorts, a model written into the mission statements and strategic plans of many schools. That’s why, like many other cultural groups, Muslim organizations use resources—in the form of student activity fees or membership dues—to stimulate intercultural interaction. Zeb explained that Muslims are among the most active participants in the university’s interfaith community. A principal goal is to foster understanding and respect among people who may have never been exposed to significantly different beliefs and practices.

For Muslim groups, the uncomfortable reality is that the starting point is often showing that their values are rooted in love and kindness—that they’re “not terrorists.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that, because of international events, a lot of young Muslim students are looked upon to answer questions about these types of things—as if they have a Ph.D. and a 20-year tenure of answering these questions—when they’re simply just trying to get past organic chemistry so they can get into medical school,” Zeb said. “They happen to be Muslim and perhaps a terrorist happened to be Muslim as well, so there’s somehow a correlation, and an onus to condemn the terrorism—or you’re assumed to be complicit in it and I don’t think that’s very fair.

Fatima Koli, a student at Columbia University, told me that this burden puts her in a difficult place. “No matter what we do, we are always left in the weaker position, always reacting instead of paving our own way,” said Koli, who is also the president of the Muslim Student Association at Columbia. “Why do we always have to wait to have our hurt acknowledged? Why do we always have to step back and accept that our lives aren’t valued in this world?” she asked me. “Muslims are always at the back of the line for that compassion.”

Koli rejects the notion that she bears a personal responsibility to take an active role in combatting prejudice against peaceful Muslims. “While I highly respect individuals and organizations that do the work of dispelling misconceptions, I can’t do that kind of work,” she said. “We need to cultivate our own spaces and have productive and meaningful discussions within our own community, and the work of educating the ignorant can take a step back for once.”

But those who do choose to take an active role on that front say that it usually just takes a simple, positive interaction. “Until a Muslim from within the community speaks up to reaffirm these beliefs, many of my student peers are not as confident about explaining such misconceptions of Islam to others or confronting those who are perpetrating hateful speech,” Afrad Khan, a student at New York University, told me.

The most violent instances of backlash haunt many Muslims. Zeb referenced the murders at the University of North Carolina in February during our conversation; Koli recalled a woman in London who was pushed into the path of a train. But Islamophobia manifests in nonviolent ways, too. Yik Yak on campuses is often inundated with vitriolic anti-Muslim slurs, and xenophobic distaste commonly manifests in subtle ways—as microaggressions against “visibly Muslim” people.

And sometimes, the hostility comes from professors. Khan told the stories of a student who heard a professor say in class that the Prophet Muhammad hallucinated on fumes in a cave—causing him to believe he had talked to God—and of another student who was told that she is “too pretty to be wearing a hijab.”

An exceptional case—where Islamophobia and campus free-speech concerns are colliding—has been unfolding this year at my alma mater. In January, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a Vanderbilt law professor, Carol Swain, wrote that “Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children” in an op-ed for the Tennessean, adding that “Islam is not just another religion to be accorded the respect given to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha’i and other world religions.” Student activists of all faiths (and of none) denounced Swain’s words and organized protests and other events to push back. When some activists began to call for Swain to be sanctioned or fired, a debate about free-expression and safe spaces ensued (to much the same tune as the recent conflicts at Yale and Mizzou). Last week, a student-drafted petition to suspend Swain reached over 1500 signatures. The chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, released a statement pointing out that Swain’s views are not consistent with the university’s, but affirming the school’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

Days later, terrorists struck Paris, and Swain took to Facebook to reaffirm her stance: “I rest my case,” she posted, later adding:

I am astonished by the timing. My “controversial” essay about Islam was published after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The second massive attack in Paris occurs in the midst of the turmoil at Vanderbilt which accuses me of hate speech for an essay published in January that pointed out a problem with Islam. It’s Ironic that some people see Christianity as a threat. I am afraid we have made it easier for terrorists to attack us.

It’s an exceptional circumstance; not many tenured professors around the country espouse views (at least not publicly) that marginalize an entire faith. But the response Swain provoked at Vanderbilt illustrates that student activism doesn’t stop at Black Lives Matter, and that battling Islamophobia is part of the growing demand for inclusivity at colleges and universities.

That movement for inclusivity, though gaining steam, faces uncertain prospects. At the tensest moments—when genuine breakthroughs seem possible—the core demands made by activists have often been overshadowed by concerns about the methods they employ. In the short term, the headlines about intolerant activists and the suppression of free speech may garner the most attention. But those activists are trying to expose deep-seated prejudices that matter far more in the long term. And for Muslim students, that task now seems particularly urgent.

Forcing Colleges to Involve Police in Sexual-Assault Investigations?

Prospects for a bill that would limit the ability of colleges to investigate claims of sexual violence dimmed this week as umbrella organizations for fraternities and sororities became the latest groups to cut ties with the legislation.

Despite months of effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbying over the last few months, the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) and the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) withdrew support from the Safe Campus Act. If passed, it would prevent colleges and universities from investigating such claims unless the victim also reports the incident to law enforcement. In separate statements, the groups recognized that the most important aspect of the battle against campus sexual assault is unity—and the Safe Campus Act sharply divided its supporters from nearly every major advocacy group.

The Laws Targeting Campus Rape Culture


“If there was a mandatory requirement to report to law enforcement, few survivors would report. And fewer would get the support they need on campus,” Katie Hanna, a board member with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told me when I originally reported on the legislation seeking to address the issue. The NPC and NIC, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), were among the bill’s most notable backers. FIRE maintains its support, claiming that without law-enforcement involvement, schools have too much power and often deprive students of due-process protections. But the Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill of and Kirstin Gillibrand—who’ve introduced their own campus sexual-violence bill—hailed the NPC and NIC’s decision to pull back from the Safe Campus Act as a major victory: “We want to commend these groups—who are critical voices in this national dialogue—for reexamining their approach to helping curb sexual assaults on our college campuses.”

The congressional landscape on the issue of campus rape can get very confusing very fast. As a quick recap:

  • The Safe Campus Act, which was introduced by three Republican representatives in the House, seeks to better align the campus-adjudication process with the standards applied in the criminal-justice system by doing away with the preponderance-of-evidence threshold that the federal government currently directs schools to adopt, and allowing both parties to hire lawyers to be present during hearings and have access to all evidence being used. Because of criticism for its law-enforcement mandate, the bill has been quickly hemorrhaging support over the last month.

  • The Fair Campus Act is almost identical to the Safe Campus Act and continues to have the support of the Greek organizations; the key difference with this bill is that it excludes the law-enforcement mandate. It was introduced in the House by Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas.

  • The Campus SaVE Act is a law, backed overwhelmingly by Democrats, that was passed as part of the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and fully went into effect this year. It requires all schools to offer prevention and awareness programs, publish specific data about dating- and sexual-violence claims, and adopt some minimum standards for campus judicial proceedings. Many colleges around the country were already in compliance with the requirements now codified by the law, but it is forcing those lagging behind to catch up.

  • The Campus Accountability and Safety Act is McCaskill and Gillibrand’s Senate bill and would require colleges to adhere to a uniform process for disciplinary proceedings, work more closely with local law enforcement, and strengthen training requirements for on-campus response personnel. Over a third of the Senate now co-sponsors the bill, which McCaskill and Gillibrand introduced along with a cohort of bipartisan senators. The legislation has garnered the support of some of the leading national advocacy groups, including RAINN and SAFER, though the Greek organizations haven’t taken a position on it.

If the names of the bills on the table don’t speak for themselves, it’s clear that legislators share the ultimate goal of making campuses “safe” and “fair” for students. As it stands, however, the problem lies in getting advocates, university leaders, law enforcement, and Congress on the same page amid a complicated, ongoing debate that involves questions about rights of the accused, how to best support survivors, and holding colleges accountable. Ultimately, the reality is that national legislation—while effective in forcing schools to take steps towards recognizing and addressing issues—won’t be a cure-all to a problem that originates between peers on campuses far removed from the halls of Capitol Hill.

What’s the Best Way to Teach Kids About Tragedy?


We were at Barnes & Noble browsing one Sunday afternoon, when my 8-year-old son ran up waving a chapter book that he wanted to buy. The title of the book: I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001. Upon seeing the cover, I flinched, as did the friend whom I was with. We took one look at the jacket’s illustration—which shows a boy from behind, staring up at the Twin Towers as they burn—and blurted, “No!”

Growing up in Brooklyn, my son had long been aware that the two tall towers once stood across the river. But some months before stumbling upon the book, he’d arrived home from school wide-eyed and said, “I didn’t realize that bad guys made the buildings come down.” “That’s true,” I replied. But because he didn’t ask any questions, I said nothing more, figuring he’d broach the subject again when he was ready.

It’s not uncommon for parents to struggle with how to speak to their children about difficult, complicated, and inherently frightening topics. The question feels urgent in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks: Recent days have seen a profusion of articles counseling parents and teachers on how to talk about the events. The attacks of 9/11 happened before today’s grade schoolers were alive but have in many ways shaped the world into which they were born.

Organizations like the 9/11 Memorial and the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility recommend a gentle, honest, and straightforward approach. A number of 9/11-themed books have been written to help young readers begin to grasp the unimaginable; some get at the topic symbolically, while others bring to mind Mr. Rogers’ famous suggestion to “look for the helpers” following a tragedy. Maira Kalman’s picture book Fireboat tells of a restored 1930s fireboat that was called into action the day of the attacks; The Survivor Tree recounts the story of a pear tree that was pulled from the World Trade Center rubble and eventually replanted on the 9/11 Memorial’s plaza; 14 Cows for America describes a gift from the people of a remote Kenyan village to the United States after the attacks.

I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001, on the other hand, places a young protagonist at the center of the devastation. The book is the sixth entry in a New York Times best-selling series that launched in 2010 and now has more than 13.8 million copies total in print in the U.S. alone. The I Survived series, published by Scholastic and written by Lauren Tarshis and now being marketed as Common Core-aligned, was originally conceived to focus on natural disasters that happened long ago. Other titles—which, like the 9/11 entry, feature a fictional young character thrown by circumstance into the heart of an unfolding catastrophe—are set around events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the destruction of Pompeii, the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916, and the sinking of the Titanic. As the books grew in popularity, though, Tarshis says young fans began to contact her to suggest topics, and in response she has written about recent disasters that elementary school-aged children today may have caught glimpses of on the news or become aware of from overhearing adult conversation: the 2011 Joplin Tornado, for example, and the Japanese Tsunami that happened that same year. But Tarshis’s biggest shift has involved expanding her focus to include far thornier acts of man on top of natural phenomena—and not just 9/11, but events such as the Holocaust as well.

The I Survived series is recommended for kids in grades two through five; at the lower end of that scale, readers who encounter the books might find themselves learning details of 9/11 and the Holocaust for the first time. Children, of course, eventually become conscious of the danger and cruelty in the world—but when and how should these lessons be imparted?  

Tarshis, who at first found the idea of tackling the Holocaust in the series “ridiculous” and described herself as “terrified” while writing the 9/11 book, has given much thought to these questions. “I had never considered doing something like 9/11 in the series,” she said, noting that she completely rewrote the 9/11 book twice before feeling that she’d gotten it right. “I became almost deluged with emails from kids, I mean daily, daily—five, 10 emails a day—asking for that topic. I didn’t consider it. I thought, ‘No, this is not something I feel like I should take on.’ But then I started getting communications from teachers and librarians about it, the fact that many kids are very curious about it, and they did not have a safe way of exploring that topic with their kids.”

largest publisher of children’s books, has a presence in 90 percent of America’s schools, through book fairs, take-home book order forms, and the sale of materials directly to teachers and librarians. My son has read most of the I Survived series by borrowing books from his classroom and school libraries. The 9/11 edition, like the rest in the series, is intended to hook reluctant readers and thus opens at the moment of greatest suspense before going back in time to explain how the protagonist arrived there and how he—it’s always a he—survived. In this case, the opening pages find 11-year-old Lucas in lower Manhattan as the first jet crashes into the North Tower: “With one last ferocious roar, the jet plunged into the side of one of the towers. There was a thundering explosion. People all around Lucas screamed. And then the bright blue sky filled with black smoke and fire.”

Japanese tsunami book, a particularly grueling entry in the series that features an 11-year-old Japanese American boy whose father has recently died getting separated from his mother and brother and swept away by the tsunami while visiting Japan. (“Ben and his family thought they could race away from the wave in a car. But the water caught them. And suddenly, Ben was all by himself. The wave grabbed Ben and sucked him under.”) Fox, whose daughter began reading the series in the third grade after encountering the books at school, said, “I still think about the image of the boy seeing an arm sticking out of the mud.”

I brought several I Survived books to Leona Jaglom, a child psychologist in Brooklyn who’s been in clinical practice for nearly three decades. “The fear, the raw emotion, that’s in these books is so palpable,” she said after reading them. “I think these books can be very useful for educating some kids. But the point that I would make is to proceed with caution.”

Jaglom’s concern is that the books might contain information that some children are not yet prepared to process. “We have an anxiety epidemic going on in kids right now,” she said, comparing the I Survived series to genres such as fairy tales. “If you go back to Grimm’s fairy tales, they’re grim! Bad things happen. In Bambi, the mother is killed. The psychological thinking is that they help children master very difficult subjects, help them process the emotions. But fairy tales are not real. They’re symbolic, so they’re a step removed from real life. The difference with these books is that they depict real life. These things really happened.”

“Some kids have the ability to keep it at a distance,” she continued. “The operative term is differentiation. They’re able to differentiate, to say this isn’t me, this isn’t my world. But there are kids who have a much harder time with that, who personalize things, who identify very deeply with people’s circumstances, and who are more aware of the fact that this actually can happen in real life.”

accompany the books. That makes some sense when the topics are natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes, which are relevant to the science curriculum. The complexities of introducing some of the series’ more sensitive topics in a school setting, however, are dramatized by the ill-conceived lesson plan that accompanies the 9/11 book. A word-comprehension exercise has students choose from a list of vocabulary words to complete sentences: “With one last [ferocious] roar, the jet [plunged] into the side of one of the towers.” A math exercise asks students to calculate the elapsed time between the major events of the day. For many adults who lived through 9/11, the prospect of children honing math skills by figuring out how many minutes went by between the crashes of the four jets and the collapse of the towers is distasteful at best.

Zschunke, the librarian, however, argued that today’s children see events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina (the topic of another series entry) very differently than do today’s adults. “We don’t feel attached to the people who lived near Mount Vesuvius, but for these situations that are more recent, as adults they feel so much closer to us,” she said. “But to the kids they’re still very historic events, not current ones.”

Now that she’s tackled subjects that she once thought she’d never cover, I asked Tarshis whether she gets requests to cover topics she still wouldn’t consider. “Sometimes when we learn about a topic we can understand it better and it makes it somehow less terrifying, less overwhelming, but some of them we just need to put out of our minds completely,” she says, citing the response she gives when people ask her to write about school shootings like Sandy Hook.

“The other topic that I’m really getting deluged with that I don’t imagine I would do anytime soon is the Boston Marathon bombing,” Tarshis continued. “Within a couple hours [of the marathon], I’d gotten maybe 100 emails from I Survived readers. I get emails from these 8- and 9-year-old kids asking for these topics … It’s baffling to me.”

Zschunke thinks she understands. “They know by virtue of the title of the series that the character will survive,” the librarian said. “As adults we know not everyone does.”

‘Sacrificed on an Altar of Heated Rhetoric,’ Cont’d

Many fields have moved away from a materialist view of the world and toward a seemingly obsessive focus on discourse as the most important explanation for social problems like income inequality, racism, sexism, etc. The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.


In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented.  Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.


Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.”  This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”


Also, I suspect, the debate is over because of the frustrating inefficacy of a conversation in which disagreement is construed as oppression or violence. It’s simply easier for the many professors who do not share the research priorities of the cultural turn—for example, a sociologist studying the reasons for poor health conditions in Indian slums instead of the language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum—to simply defer to their discourse-focused colleagues on most issues rather than risk career-damaging accusations of “silencing” or “marginalizing” or “epistemological violence.”


Perfectly apt and inoffensive words like “native” are considered too retrograde for public use owing to their perceived, oppressive connotations. That word is replaced by longer, Latinate synonyms like “indigenous,” which are in turn rotated out for even longer, clumsier alternatives (“autochthonous”).  It is in this triviality-addicted academic environment that intellectually-engaged students begin to discover the world around them and to grapple with its many injustices.


A student concerned about the plight of Central American immigrants living illegally in the U.S., for example, learns that the first and most important steps to alleviating this problem are to change the language he or she uses to talk about the issue.  They are not “illegal immigrants”; they are “undocumented,” or preferably just “immigrants.” One should be wary about referring to them as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” as this may reify harmful, generalized stereotypes.  Referring to them as “refugees” rather than “immigrants” may call much-needed attention to the role of the U.S.’s drug policies in fomenting societal unrest in their countries of origin, but on the other hand it may reinforce negative perceptions of Central American nations as violent, backwards “banana republics.”  


Perhaps the student should avoid using any labels at all and allow individuals from the marginalized community identify themselves?  The stakes here are very high. While none of this, of course, has any effect on the living conditions of undocumented immigrants, change must begin somewhere.


Is it any wonder then, that within this academic zeitgeist, where terminology is considered the foundation of social change and language itself contains the capacity to inflict violence and heap misery upon millions of people, that politically-active students have begun to demand administrative action to control speech and other forms of expression on campus?  A blonde-haired, Anglo-American student dressed in a Villa-esque costume with bandoliers and a large sombrero is not just having fun with a pop-culture archetype on Halloween. She is mocking and degrading Mexican-American students on campus by appealing to clichés of Mexican lawlessness, and in so doing she makes campus an oppressive, potentially violent and unsafe space for other students of Mexican ancestry.


We know this because scholarship has been telling us this for decades. Decades of research on the role of language and representation in processes of oppression and marginalization has led to an academia where the free expression of ideas is tightly-controlled and the proponents of language-policing believe, with the kind of certainty that comes only from religion or theory, that they are engaged in a war against the forces of injustice.  


In order to move beyond the kind of campus environment where students feel threatened by their peers’ poor taste in costumes—or by an email written by a professor suggesting that their fellow students may be entitled to their poor taste—there must also be a change in the priorities and attitudes of professors themselves. It is up to the next generation of scholars entering the academy to find a way forward, out of this unpleasant and deeply trivial intellectual quagmire.  Based on the worldviews expressed by the current generation of students leading the “P.C.” charge, I am not optimistic.

Disagree with that assessment or simply have a different view to share? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll air the strongest dissenting views. Update from a reader:

I am a graduate student in the humanities at UC Berkeley, and though my name/position are clear from my signature and email address, I would ask that I remain anonymous if my words should ever see the light of day. The second email you posted, from the graduate student at the midwestern research university, is illuminating in its anonymity. The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.


The reader’s fear is that the next generation of faculty—that is, the current graduate students—are training and learning in an intellectual environment detached from reality, all gripped by the fear that reckless talk about “reality” will make it real. Further, we are to fear that, if we describe reality as it is, we will be complicit in its ills. And thus we add successive layers of insulating language until we are engaging in nothing but semantics, a realm that people of our skill set can comfortably dominate.


As your first reader suggested, the tendency is inherently authoritarian, and like any authoritarian system, it is prone to internecine conflict. Sealed from the outside world behind this growing intellectual barrier, the near enemy is the only one near enough to throttle—thus the reason for the reader’s anonymity, and mine. The whole worldview leads inexorably to purges, and graduate students (and, increasingly, non-tenured faculty) are the most vulnerable targets.


In a roundabout way, though, I think the graduate student’s email is reason for hope, if indeed we hope for a revival of free speech and room for dissenting views. A fractious ideology like this one makes more enemies than friends, and although its proponents are quite loud, they are not necessarily preponderant in numbers.  Those who are skeptical of the entire edifice, and wise enough to keep their mouths shut, might very well comprise a silent majority—the term’s historical and cultural connotations be damned.

To Be Black and Transgender in Junior High

To be a black student in America’s public schools is to know stunning discrimination from an early age. To be a transgender or gender non-conforming student is to face staggering bias and intolerance from peers and teachers. To embody both of these lived experiences is to be Larry King, a 15-year-old who was brutally killed in February 2008 while working on a research paper in the computer lab at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California. The assailant: his classmate, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney.

The victim was black, living in foster care, questioning his sexuality, and experimenting with cross-dressing. The accused was white; raised in a violent, dysfunctional home; and dabbling in white-supremacist propaganda. The murder gained national attention and garnered magazine covers—a child killing another child is particularly tragic and horrific—as it revealed an undercurrent of race, class, and sexuality. Like pulling a Band-Aid off a festering wound, all of these aspects were crudely exposed in McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder.

Ken Corbett, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has studied and written on gender identity and boyhood, was immediately drawn to the details of the case and traveled to California to attend the trial; he wanted to examine the many facets of King’s and McInerney’s lives that intersected and led to a gruesome end. His new book, A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, is a story told through the prism of parents, friends, teachers, lawyers, and those like Corbett enveloped by this tragedy. He recently spoke to me about his search for answers. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.



Melinda D. Anderson: Central to this story and the legal strategy adopted by the prosecution and defense to opposing degrees is Larry’s gender non-conforming identity. Yet over two weeks into the trial, as you write, the word “transgender” had only been mentioned once. Talk about the intentionality in this case to camouflage what is clearly a pivotal fact. 



Ken Corbett: Consciously, the prosecution did not, at first, speak of Larry as transgender out of concern that the jury would respond via phobia and prejudice. On the other hand, the defense also did not speak of Larry as transgender because they conflated gender and sexuality, framing Larry as a sexually harassing bully.

Clearly, the reasoning that the defense proffered had an impact on the jury. But as I saw it, the unconscious gender panic that seeped daily into the courtroom likely had the biggest influence. Perhaps the best example of this panic was [witness testimony regarding how] Larry had begun in the last few days of his life to refer to himself as Leticia. In the same way that this [name] had been denied at E.O. Green, it was not spoken in the courtroom. [Leticia] was edited and absented … her character, her way of being was closeted, hushed, or pushed away with intent and force. She was not only corporeally gone, she was never psychologically met.

The K-12 Binary


Anderson: The widespread efforts to cast Brandon’s aggressive and bullying behavior as “boys will be boys” came fairly effortlessly from friends, teachers, neighbors, and correctional officers and was normalized to a startling degree. The message that boys are socialized to be tough, violent, unemotional was powerful and disturbing. Looking at schools as a microcosm of society, what can educators do to dismantle this mindset?

Corbett: That puts me in mind of something that Susan Crowley, Larry’s seventh-grade special-resource teacher said: “All of that looking at Larry, and we missed the bigger problem [referring to Brandon].” Ms. Crowley’s statement raises the question of: What exactly is the bigger problem? As I see it, both of these kids were failed by gender norms, as [those norms] negate the ways in which few of us actually live in accord with the lockstep ideals that we routinely promote about boys and girls. Thankfully, I do think that there is some questioning about these norms that has found its way into some schools. But most often that work is directed at girls (think, for example, about Title IX, or the ways in which feminism has found its way into some history books).

Boyhood, like whiteness, is an unmarked, unremarkable category. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were school curriculums that set about to examine the category of masculinity and the beliefs that prop it up? Those curriculums could include examining how hate and violence are constitutive of masculinity. Or how hate is the currency upon which norms and bullies silence the other. Or how gender divides men and women, and pits them against one another, often—too often—to the point of violence and death.

Anderson: During the course of the trial, for a brief respite, you traveled to Santa Barbara. There you struck up an acquaintance with Alex Ramirez, a pool assistant, which resulted in some of the most revealing one-on-one exchanges in the book. How did your conversations with this young man inform your thinking about this case and its conclusion?

Corbett: I immediately think of one of the first things that Alex said to me when I asked him about the murder: “Sad, hate.” No one has been more succinct. Alex helped me to think through the ways in which racism was being lived in the court, and he also helped me to think about the complex terrain that is adolescence. But I think that Alex helped me most through the ways in which I could hold out hope for him. The trial brought me into a realm where children had been murderously neglected and abused. Alex helped me to see what it was that I was fighting for, when there were days when it seemed that “sad, hate” was our destiny. I must confess that I harbor the wish that someone will read this book and say, “Read it and weep. Then, get off your ass and make this world a better place for children to grow up.”   

‘Look From the Heart—at the Action, Not the Race’

Many fields have moved away from a materialist view of the world and toward a seemingly obsessive focus on discourse as the most important explanation for social problems like income inequality, racism, sexism, etc. The idea, to put it simply, is that the way we represent people, places, and things is as important—if not more important—than reality itself.


In fact, reality is actually itself shaped by the way it is represented.  Thus, making use of clichés and stereotypes, using a word that contains certain connotations, or even simply speaking at all without the proper qualifications (primarily based on gender/race/class identity) may not just be questions of taste but, instead, potentially grave acts of violence.


Some may remember that in the 1990s, this formed the basis for a broad debate in academia over the merits of what was generally referred to as “postmodernism.”  This debate is pretty much over, partially due to the turnover of older professors trained in materialist methodologies retiring and being replaced by younger scholars who enthusiastically embrace the priorities of the “cultural turn.”


Also, I suspect, the debate is over because of the frustrating inefficacy of a conversation in which disagreement is construed as oppression or violence. It’s simply easier for the many professors who do not share the research priorities of the cultural turn—for example, a sociologist studying the reasons for poor health conditions in Indian slums instead of the language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum—to simply defer to their discourse-focused colleagues on most issues rather than risk career-damaging accusations of “silencing” or “marginalizing” or “epistemological violence.”


Perfectly apt and inoffensive words like “native” are considered too retrograde for public use owing to their perceived, oppressive connotations. That word is replaced by longer, Latinate synonyms like “indigenous,” which are in turn rotated out for even longer, clumsier alternatives (“autochthonous”).  It is in this triviality-addicted academic environment that intellectually-engaged students begin to discover the world around them and to grapple with its many injustices.


A student concerned about the plight of Central American immigrants living illegally in the U.S., for example, learns that the first and most important steps to alleviating this problem are to change the language he or she uses to talk about the issue.  They are not “illegal immigrants”; they are “undocumented,” or preferably just “immigrants.” One should be wary about referring to them as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” as this may reify harmful, generalized stereotypes.  Referring to them as “refugees” rather than “immigrants” may call much-needed attention to the role of the U.S.’s drug policies in fomenting societal unrest in their countries of origin, but on the other hand it may reinforce negative perceptions of Central American nations as violent, backwards “banana republics.”  


Perhaps the student should avoid using any labels at all and allow individuals from the marginalized community identify themselves?  The stakes here are very high. While none of this, of course, has any effect on the living conditions of undocumented immigrants, change must begin somewhere.


Is it any wonder then, that within this academic zeitgeist, where terminology is considered the foundation of social change and language itself contains the capacity to inflict violence and heap misery upon millions of people, that politically-active students have begun to demand administrative action to control speech and other forms of expression on campus?  A blonde-haired, Anglo-American student dressed in a Villa-esque costume with bandoliers and a large sombrero is not just having fun with a pop-culture archetype on Halloween. She is mocking and degrading Mexican-American students on campus by appealing to clichés of Mexican lawlessness, and in so doing she makes campus an oppressive, potentially violent and unsafe space for other students of Mexican ancestry.


We know this because scholarship has been telling us this for decades. Decades of research on the role of language and representation in processes of oppression and marginalization has led to an academia where the free expression of ideas is tightly-controlled and the proponents of language-policing believe, with the kind of certainty that comes only from religion or theory, that they are engaged in a war against the forces of injustice.  


In order to move beyond the kind of campus environment where students feel threatened by their peers’ poor taste in costumes—or by an email written by a professor suggesting that their fellow students may be entitled to their poor taste—there must also be a change in the priorities and attitudes of professors themselves. It is up to the next generation of scholars entering the academy to find a way forward, out of this unpleasant and deeply trivial intellectual quagmire.  Based on the worldviews expressed by the current generation of students leading the “P.C.” charge, I am not optimistic.

Disagree with that assessment or simply have a different view to share? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll air the strongest dissenting views. Update from a reader:

I am a graduate student in the humanities at UC Berkeley, and though my name/position are clear from my signature and email address, I would ask that I remain anonymous if my words should ever see the light of day. The second email you posted, from the graduate student at the midwestern research university, is illuminating in its anonymity. The position that the student takes, which I believe to be well-founded and fair, cannot really be taken with one’s name attached to it, especially if the speaker is a graduate student.


The reader’s fear is that the next generation of faculty—that is, the current graduate students—are training and learning in an intellectual environment detached from reality, all gripped by the fear that reckless talk about “reality” will make it real. Further, we are to fear that, if we describe reality as it is, we will be complicit in its ills. And thus we add successive layers of insulating language until we are engaging in nothing but semantics, a realm that people of our skill set can comfortably dominate.


As your first reader suggested, the tendency is inherently authoritarian, and like any authoritarian system, it is prone to internecine conflict. Sealed from the outside world behind this growing intellectual barrier, the near enemy is the only one near enough to throttle—thus the reason for the reader’s anonymity, and mine. The whole worldview leads inexorably to purges, and graduate students (and, increasingly, non-tenured faculty) are the most vulnerable targets.


In a roundabout way, though, I think the graduate student’s email is reason for hope, if indeed we hope for a revival of free speech and room for dissenting views. A fractious ideology like this one makes more enemies than friends, and although its proponents are quite loud, they are not necessarily preponderant in numbers.  Those who are skeptical of the entire edifice, and wise enough to keep their mouths shut, might very well comprise a silent majority—the term’s historical and cultural connotations be damned.

The Reality of the Philosophers vs. Welders Debate

There was plenty of levity on Twitter in the wake of Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s declaration that “we need more welders, less philosophers.”(This English major would have preferred he said “fewer” welders, by the way.)

Consider this inspired mashup from ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis:

In fact, there are strong arguments to be made that welders and philosophers both fill vital roles in a well-rounded society, rather than cancel each other out. Ideally all students would have opportunities to pursue work that interests them—whether it involves Plato or a plasma cutter.

Rubio’s larger point—that the nation has significant vacancies in the skilled trades—is a fair one. And it’s an important part of the larger debate over whether preparing all students for college is a reasonable, or even desirable, goal.

Education Writers Association


As college-and-career-readiness advocates will tell you, the larger goal is to give more students choices after high school, rather than letting assumptions adults make about them as they enter high school force them into either a vocational or college-prep path that determines their futures. (Tracking and ability grouping remain highly contentious issues.)

Inside Higher Ed points out that this isn’t the first time Rubio has come down hard on philosophy majors—or the more traditional college paths, for that matter. And among many fact-checkers to challenge Rubio’s claims that welding is a more lucrative field than philosophy were Politifact, Vox, and the Washington Post. To be sure, there is not a clear winner. As the Boston Globe columnist Mark Pothier notes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ pay scales for those professions encompass several different types of jobs that vary widely by location. That being said, you’ll certainly find more job openings listed nationally for welders than those demanding philosophy degrees.

But the gold medal goes to the New York Times for actually finding a philosopher-turned-welder who has written a book extolling the virtues of his overlapping fields. Matthew B. Crawford found work at a think tank after graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy, the New York Times reports. But he was unhappy, and later became a welder and author. From the Times:

One of his books, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” is devoted to debunking the notion that manual trades are mindless. “The division between knowledge work and manual work is kind of dubious, because there is so much thinking that goes on in skilled trades,” Mr. Crawford said. As for the payoff, Mr. Crawford rejects the idea that philosophers cannot figure out how to earn a living.


“It’s obviously kind of a reductive approach to think of your course of study in college as merely a means to a paycheck,” Mr. Crawford said, suggesting the study of things like happiness can be enriching in ways that are hard to measure. “And nobody goes into philosophy because they think it’s going to make them rich.”

Writing for the Washington Post earlier this fall, Jeff Selingo dug into a Gallup Poll of 30,000 college graduates. Just 38 percent of individuals who graduated within the past 10 years “strongly agreed” that college had been worth the money. The numbers were even lower for graduates with student-loan debt. But as Selingo reported, that’s not surprising given the brutal hit the recent recession put on the nation’s job market:

For many of those with newly minted bachelor’s degrees, the job market is still not what it was for their counterparts a decade ago. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates has remained stuck around 9 percent. And nearly half of college graduates in their 20s are underemployed, meaning the jobs they have don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

The question of whether students should be prepared for college or careers isn’t a new debate. It’s one that surfaces periodically—typically during times of economic downturns. The higher-education community is continually struggling with how to prepare students for the jobs that await them, a particularly tricky task in fast-changing fields like science and engineering. High schools, as well, are rethinking career and technical education, which increasingly is replacing traditional vocational programs.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the push to prepare more students for postsecondary education doesn’t always mean sending them off to a four-year college. In fact, a study by Georgetown University predicted that by five years from now, 65 percent of jobs will require some form of advanced education beyond high school—including certification, and both two-year and four-year degrees.

What does this tell us? For one thing, examining the relative merits of college requires a more complicated conversation than a one-liner in a debate or candidate’s stump speech can fully address. As Mikhail Zinshteyn wrote recently, “one aspect of higher education that has been overlooked is the recipe required to transform a college education into a set of skills that prepares students for the workspace. As it turns out, neither colleges nor employers have a firm grasp on what flavor that special sauce should have.”

So what’s the solution? Zinshteyn’s piece outlines some innovative ideas from Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando (a school that’s recognized as a national model for its approach to career preparation).

The traditional formula, in which college students get their prerequisite courses out of the way in the first two years before moving on to their “major” area of concentration, requires them to “defer [their] gratification long enough and stay in school long enough” before moving on to what they really want to learn, Shugart said. Instead, the students should have opportunities for work experience earlier in their college careers.

“No class will ever replace work as a place of learning,” Shugart said. “And we still haven’t mastered that in our education model.”


This post appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.

What’s the Recipe for an Effective Anti-Bullying Policy?

At her Moraga, California, junior high school, Rachel Jackson was a safe-school ambassador (SSA), part of a program that trains student volunteers to intervene in bullying situations among their peers.

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SSA runs throughout the school year and requires students and teachers to work together, two elements of effective anti-bullying programs, experts say. But in practice, Jackson remembers, student apathy eroded some of the potential.

“About half of the SSAs took the program seriously,” says Jackson, now 16. “However, the majority of students … didn’t exactly see it as an opportunity to really make a change.”

Getting students—particularly junior high schoolers—to take bullying seriously is a daunting task for teachers, administrators, and school counselors. But a study published this month in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that anti-bullying efforts, including laws many states have passed in the past five years, appear to be helping the 20 percent of kids in the U.S. who say they’ve been bullied in the past 12 months.

Researchers at Columbia University analyzed responses from more than 62,000 high-school students in 25 states who participated in a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. (States with anti-bullying laws passed before 2010 were excluded.) Those who attended schools in states with anti-bullying legislation that included at least one of the DOE-recommended key components were 24 percent less likely to report that they’d been bullied in the last year, and 20 percent less likely to say they’d been cyberbullied.

CityLab


Three components stood out as particularly effective: Laws should include a statement of scope; have a clear description of prohibited behaviors; and require school districts to develop and implement policies at the local level, says lead author Mark Hatzenbuehler, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“Anti-bullying programs vary a lot, so we can’t say yet what is the gold standard,” Hatzenbuehler notes.

On a basic level, state anti-bullying laws outline procedures for receiving, recording, and responding to complaints of bullying by students. But they vary tremendously. New Jersey has what are considered the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country, whereas Montana, the 50th state to enact a law, provides a definition of bullying and that’s about it. (Montana also had one of the highest rates of reported bullying in Hatzenbuehler’s study.)

Surrounded by state lawmakers and the families of students who were victims of bullying, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signs an anti-bullying bill into law in May. (Cathleen Allison / AP)

Many laws were hastily enacted as a response to bullying-related tragedies, so they weren’t drafted as collaboratively as they could’ve been, Hatzenbuehler says.

James Hanks, an attorney in Des Moines, Iowa, and the author of School Bullying: How Long Is the Arm of the Law?, agrees. “People are trying to deal with a problem, so there’s a rush to get a lot of these statutes adopted,” he says. “I don’t think there was a lot of concern about how sufficiently specific we needed to be to know what conduct and communication won’t be tolerated.”

Although the new research shows an encouraging correlation between well-defined policies and reduced rates of bullying, understanding which programs work and why is more complex.

“There are signs all over the school to stop bullying,” says Sebastian Hudak, a 12-year-old who attends a public middle school in Webster, New York. “The problem is, most bullying happens on the bus or at lunch where there are no teachers. [And] there isn’t really a system for reporting bullies, as that’s ‘tattling,’ according to most teachers.”

Policies about how students can report bullying, and to whom, are often not well communicated. Experts are also beginning to suspect that zero-tolerance policies and brief awareness campaigns are not very effective.

San Francisco public schools use a progressive approach called restorative practices to resolve conflicts and bullying situations. A type of mediation in which the bullied child, an adult, and the bully discuss the incident together, restorative practices is an alternative to the report-investigate-punish model used in some schools. Rather than determining what rule has been broken, mediators ask kids, “What happened?” and “What do we need to do to move forward?”

“If someone hurts someone, he or she has to make amends to the victim, usually an apology at the elementary-school level,” explains Laura, an elementary-school teacher in the city. (Laura asked that her full name not be published out of concern for her job.)

It can work if the victim is willing to face the bully and the person who did the mean thing is willing to listen, but the program has drawbacks. In addition to requiring the bullied kid to engage in a face-to-face discussion with his or her bully, Laura says that she often mediates the same conversation with the same kids over and over with little lasting change.

To focus on the number of reports of bullying in a school is too simplistic, says Hanks. “We need to know whether the incidents of bullying led to any difference in the school environment,” he says. “Has the bully learned anything, other than, ‘I got caught?’”

Today, cyberbullying presents a rich opportunity for interpersonal torment—and potential legal issues.

There are two problems in trying to limit cyberbullying, according to Hanks: getting proof of bullying behavior without violating privacy, and the fact that it mostly takes place off campus, where schools don’t have the right to regulate student behavior.

A lot of bullying is now done via cell phone, and cell phones have different implications for privacy than backpacks. Citing a 2014 Supreme Court rulingthat police can’t search the contents of a cell phone without a warrant, Hanks says, “That decision shows the mindset of the Supreme Court in regard to cell phones, so we shouldn’t expect a much different result if police want to search a student’s phone in a bullying case.”

Despite the imperfections of many anti-bullying laws and programs, most agree that we need them.

“Prevention and intervention aren’t a single person or group’s responsibility. Bullying programs need to include students and parents,” says Robin Kowalski, a bullying expert and professor of psychology at Clemson University. “And they should be incorporated into [the] school curriculum and revisited on a regular basis if they’re going to be successful.”

Jackson agrees that students need to be involved and says newer, innovative methods are needed.

“If people were to find a new way to approach bullying, rather than the same lessons that kids have learned to tune out, then maybe kids would be interested enough to learn more,” she says.


This post appears courtesy of CityLab.

Is Ithaca’s President Next?

That these activists have been able to prevail, even in the face of frequently harsh national publicity highlighting the blunt illiberalism of their methods, confirms that these incidents reflect something deeper than a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal. People on the left need to stop evading the question of political correctness — by laughing it off as college goofs, or interrogating the motives of p.c. critics, or ignoring it — and make a decision on whether they agree with it.

But Daniel Drezner at the Washington Post downplays the situation at Yale—namely the viral video of the student screaming at the faculty member and an op-ed written by another student—as basically the behavior of college goofs:

One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.


The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent. […] If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time.

Purdue University’s Freddie DeBoer, however, feels the tension on his own campus:

One part of my life, the part that engages with the broader political conversation, is filled with well-meaning liberal and left people who say “oh, there’s no illiberal attitudes among college students — that’s all a conspiracy by the conservative media.” These people, generally, are not on campus. Meanwhile, my extensive connections in the academy, and my continuing friendships with many people who are involved in the world of campus organizing, report that this tendency is true — and often justify it, arguing that this illiberalism is in fact a necessary aspect of achieving social justice.

Shifting back to the Missouri campus, Balloon Juice’s Betty Cracker succinctly sums up the problem with how the protestors pushed back the media:

This isn’t a George W. Bush rally; there are no “free speech zones.” If you want to escape reporters, it’s pretty simple — leave the public space.

Media critic Erik Wemple chronicles the actions of the non-students at that standoff:

These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead, they stood up for coercion and darkness. They should lose their jobs as a result.

The most infamous of the three, communications professor Melissa Click, just resigned her courtesy post at the journalism department, but her job is still intact. Now there’s a report that the Missouri University Police Department is monitoring speech:

[T]he MUPD asked “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions” to call the department’s general phone line “to continue to ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe.” […] In the email, MUPD readily admits that hurtful or hateful speech is not against the law. But, they write, “if the individuals identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.”

David looks more closely at the issue. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh is alarmed by the MUPD email:

[T]here’s not even any claim that they’re just trying to find evidence of crimes, or trying to answer speech with more speech. Here a university is urging students to call the police whenever they hear “hurtful speech,” precisely so the university “can take disciplinary action” against the speakers. This is the new face of the modern university.

What do you think? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll post the strongest arguments from any side of the debate. By the way, here’s a recent update to the school newspaper controversy we covered at Wesleyan University in September:

[T]he Wesleyan Student Assembly affirmed a resolution to restructure how The Argus is funded. The resolution is complicated, but it would substantially decrease The Argus’s printing budget; money saved this way would be put toward stipends for writers at various campus publications that don’t publish as frequently as The Argus. The WSA claims the purpose of the resolution is to “reduce paper waste,” by printing The Argus less frequently. The exact details haven’t been hammered out yet, but Argus editors expect their funding to be cut by $15,000 [the total budget is about $30,000].

If you’d like to highlight other controversies over campus speech across the U.S., drop me an email. Update from a reader:

This reminds me of a related controversy at Brown University last month in which their school paper published a couple of controversial op-eds. The response wasn’t to argue against what was written, but to complain that they shouldn’t have been published in the first place because of how it made some people FEEL.


As one student said, “When an institution like The Herald, the university’s oldest newspaper, posts this type of article, our comfort in this space is taken away.” I found this quote particularly shocking; she actually believes she should be made to feel comfortable when reading a newspaper! The exact opposite is true, especially of op-eds. You should be agitated and challenged and made to think, not reflexively look to stop the conversation because of your discomfort.

Explaining Your Math: Unnecessary at Best, Encumbering at Worst


At a middle school in California, the state testing in math was underway via the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam. A girl pointed to the problem on the computer screen and asked “What do I do?” The proctor read the instructions for the problem and told the student: “You need to explain how you got your answer.”

The girl threw her arms up in frustration and said, “Why can’t I just do the problem, enter the answer and be done with it?”

The answer to her question comes down to what the education establishment believes “understanding” to be, and how to measure it. K-12 mathematics instruction involves equal parts procedural skills and understanding. What “understanding” in mathematics means, however, has long been a topic of debate. One distinction popular with today’s math-reform advocates is between “knowing” and “doing.” A student, reformers argue, might be able to “do” a problem (i.e., solve it mathematically) without understanding the concepts behind the problem-solving procedure. Perhaps he or she has simply memorized the method without understanding it and is performing the steps by “rote.”

states the Common Core website. “But what does mathematical understanding look like?” And how can teachers assess it?

One way is to ask the student to justify, in a way that is appropriate to the student’s mathematical maturity, why a particular mathematical statement is true, or where a mathematical rule comes from.

The underlying assumption here is that if a student understands something, he or she can explain it—and that deficient explanation signals deficient understanding. But this raises yet another question: What constitutes a satisfactory explanation?

While the Common Core leaves this unspecified, current practices are suggestive. Consider a problem that asks how many total pencils there are if five people have three pencils each. In the eyes of some educators, explaining why the answer is 15 by stating, simply, that 5 x 3 = 15 is not satisfactory. To show they truly understand why 5 x 3 is 15, and why this computation provides the answer to the given word problem, students must do more. For example, they might draw a picture illustrating five groups of three pencils. (And in some instances, as was the case recently in a third-grade classroom, a student would be considered to not understand if he or she drew three groups of five pencils.)

Consider now a problem given in a pre-algebra course that involves percentages: “A coat has been reduced by 20 percent to sell for $160. What was the original price of the coat?”

A student may show the solution as follows:

x = original cost of coat in dollars
100% – 20% = 80%
0.8x = $160
x = $200

Clearly, the student knows the mathematical procedure necessary to solve the problem. In fact, for years students were told not to explain their answers, but to show their work, and if presented in a clear and organized manner, the math contained in this work was considered to be its own explanation. But the above demonstration might, through the prism of the Common Core standards, be considered an inadequate explanation. That is, inspired by what the standards say about understanding, one could ask “Does the student know why the subtraction operation is done to obtain the 80 percent used in the equation or is he doing it as a mechanical procedure—i.e., without understanding?”

In a middle school observed by one of us, the school’s goal was to increase student proficiency in solving math problems by requiring students to explain how they solved them. This was not required for all problems given; rather, they were expected to do this for two or three problems in class per week, which took up to 10 percent of total weekly class time. They were instructed on how to write explanations for their math solutions using a model called “Need, Know, Do.” In the problem example given above, the “Need” would be “What was the original price of the coat?”  The “Know” would be the information provided in the problem statement, here the price of the discounted coat and the discount rate. The “Do” is the process of solving the problem.

Students were instructed to use “flow maps” and diagrams to describe the thinking and steps used to solve the problem, after which they were to write a narrative summary of what was described in the flow maps and elsewhere. They were told that the “Do” (as well as the flow maps) explains what they did to solve the problem and that the narrative summary provides the why. Many students, though, had difficulty differentiating the “Do” section from the final narrative. But in order for their explanation to qualify as “high level,” they couldn’t simply state “100% – 20% = 80%”; they had to explain what that means. For example, they might say, “The discount rate subtracted from 100 percent gives the amount that I pay.”

An example of a student’s written explanation for this problem is shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Example of student explanation.

For problems at this level, the amount of work required for explanation turns a straightforward problem into a long managerial task that is concerned more with pedagogy than with content. While drawing diagrams or pictures may help some students learn how to solve problems, for others it is unnecessary and tedious. As the above example shows, the explanations may not offer the “why” of a particular procedure.

Under the rubric used at the middle school where this problem was given, explanations are ranked as “high,” “middle,” or “low.” This particular explanation would probably fall in the “middle” category since it is unlikely that the statement “You need to subtract 100- 20 to get 80” would be deemed a “purposeful, mathematically-grounded written explanation.”

How to Solve It. The “Need” and “Know” aspect of the explanatory technique at the middle school observed is a sensible one. But Polya’s book was about solving problems, not explaining or justifying how they were done. At the middle school, problem solving and explanation were intertwined, in the belief that the process of explanation leads to the solving of the problem. This conflation of problem solving and explanation arises from a complex history of educational theories. One theory holds that being aware of one’s thinking process—called  “metacognition”—is part and parcel to problem solving. Other theories that feed the conflation predate the Common Core standards and originated during the Progressive era in the early part of the 20th Century when “conceptual understanding” began to be viewed as a path to, and thus more important than, procedural fluency.

Despite the goal of solving a problem and explaining it in one fell swoop, in many cases observed at the middle school, students solved the problem first and then added the explanation in the required format and rubric.  It was not evident that the process of explanation enhanced problem solving ability. In fact, in talking with students at the school, many found the process tedious and said they would rather just “do the math” without having to write about it.

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In general, there is no more evidence of “understanding” in the explained solution, even with pictures, than there would be in mathematical solutions presented in a clear and organized way. How do we know, for example, that a student isn’t simply repeating an explanation provided by the teacher or the textbook, thus exhibiting mere “rote learning” rather than “true understanding” of a problem-solving procedure?

Math learning is a progression from concrete to abstract. The advantage to the abstract is that the various mathematical operations can be performed without the cumbersome attachments of concrete entities—entities like dollars, percentages, groupings of pencils. Once a particular word problem has been translated into a mathematical representation, the entirety of its mathematically relevant content is condensed onto abstract symbols, freeing working memory and unleashing the power of pure mathematics. That is, information and procedures that have been become automatic  frees up working memory. With working memory less burdened, the student can focus on solving the problem at hand. Thus, requiring explanations beyond the mathematics itself distracts and diverts students away from the convenience and power of abstraction. Mandatory demonstrations of “mathematical understanding,” in other words, can impede the “doing” of actual mathematics.

Advocates for math reform are reluctant to accept that delays in understanding are normal and do not signal a failure of the teaching method. Students learn to do, they learn to apply what they’ve mastered, they learn to do more, they begin to see why and eventually the light comes on. Furthermore, math reformers often fail to understand that conceptual understanding works in tandem with procedural fluency. Doing a procedure devoid of any understanding of what is being done is actually hard to accomplish with elementary math because the very learning of procedures is, itself, informative of meaning, and the repetitious use of them conveys understanding to the user.

Explaining the solution to a problem comes when students can draw on a strong foundation of content relevant to the topic currently being learned. As students find their feet and establish a larger repertoire of mastered knowledge and methods, the more articulate they can become in explanations. Children in elementary and middle school who are asked to engage in critical thinking about abstract ideas will, more often than not, respond emotionally and intuitively, not logically and with “understanding.” It is as if the purveyors of these practices are saying: “If we can just get them to do things that look like what we imagine a mathematician does, then they will be real mathematicians.”  That may be behaviorally interesting, but it is not mathematical development and it leaves them behind in the development of their fundamental skills.

The idea that students who do not demonstrate their strategies in words and pictures or by multiple methods don’t understand the underlying concepts is particularly problematic for certain vulnerable types of students. Consider students whose verbal skills lag far behind their mathematical skills—non-native English speakers or students with specific language delays or language disorders, for example. These groups include children who can easily do math in their heads and solve complex problems, but often will be unable to explain—whether orally or in written words—how they arrived at their answers.

Most exemplary are children on the autism spectrum. As the autism researcher Tony Attwood has observed, mathematics has special appeal to individuals with autism: It is, often, the school subject that best matches their cognitive strengths. Indeed, writing about Asperger’s Syndrome (a high-functioning subtype of autism), Attwood in his 2007 book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome notes that “the personalities of some of the great mathematicians include many of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome.”

And yet, Attwood added, many children on the autism spectrum, even those who are mathematically gifted, struggle when asked to explain their answers. “The child can provide the correct answer to a mathematical problem,” he observes, “but not easily translate into speech the mental processes used to solve the problem.” Back in 1944, Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who first studied the condition that now bears his name, famously cited one of his patients as saying that, “I can’t do this orally, only headily.”

Writing from Australia decades later, a few years before the Common Core took hold in America, Attwood added that it can “mystify teachers and lead to problems with tests when the person with Asperger’s syndrome is unable to explain his or her methods on the test or exam paper.” Here in Common Core America, this inability has morphed into an unprecedented liability.

Is it really the case that the non-linguistically inclined student who progresses through math with correct but unexplained answers—from multi-digit arithmetic through to multi-variable calculus—doesn’t understand the underlying math? Or that the mathematician with the Asperger’s personality, doing things headily but not orally, is advancing the frontiers of his field in a zombie-like stupor?

Or is it possible that the ability to explain one’s answers verbally, while sometimes a sufficient criterion for proving understanding, is not, in fact, a necessary one? And, to the extent that it isn’t a necessary criterion, should verbal explanation be the way to gauge comprehension?

Measuring understanding, or learning in general, isn’t easy. What testing does is measure “markers” or byproducts of learning and understanding. Explaining answers is but one possible marker.

Another, quite simply, are the answers themselves. If a student can consistently solve a variety of problems, that student likely has some level of mathematical understanding. Teachers can assess this more deeply by looking at the solutions and any work shown and asking some spontaneous follow-up questions tailored to the child’s verbal abilities. But it’s far from clear whether a general requirement to accompany all solutions with verbal explanations provides a more accurate measurement of mathematical understanding than the answers themselves and any work the student has produced along the way.  At best, verbal explanations beyond “showing the work” may be superfluous; at worst, they shortchange certain students and encumber the mathematics for everyone.

As Alfred North Whitehead famously put it about a century before the Common Core standards took hold:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism … that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.