Monthly Archives: October 2010

There will always be an out-group to hate, so what do we do?

Whether we like it or not, people live and function in distinct social groups.  Often times, an individual is a member of multiple groups and thus will identify with these varying groups.  These social groups are often positive in that they provide the social support needed to help the human species survive and thrive.  However, some groups provide such a strong social identity for individuals that it is hard not to view individuals in terms of “us-them” categories.  This is when group membership has the potential to become dangerous.  Once we start to view ourselves with labels such as “us” vs. “them,” we get into a dangerous territory known by social psychologists as intergroup bias.  Intergroup bias is composed of two parts: 1) in-group favoritism, which essentially means showing preference toward one’s own in-group members, and 2) out-group derogation, which means treating out-group members poorly, especially in comparison to one’s in-group.  Often times, out-group derogation can take on the ugly form of hate, prejudice, and discrimination.

This intergroup bias exists across a multitude of groups, including gender, race, religion, and even sports teams or university affiliation.  The problem does not necessarily lie in identifying with one’s group members.  Rather, it lies in viewing those lying outside one’s own group negatively, often in order to bolster esteem among one’s own group.

Unfortunately, time demonstrates that there will always be an out-group to hate.  In America, that out-group has shifted over time from African Americans to gay men and lesbian women, and now, according to a recent article in the New York Times by Robert Wright, that out-group may be Muslims.  Despite much progress made in recent times to reduce prejudice against gay men/lesbian women, a new out-group to hate – Muslims – has emerged.

This pattern of derogating specific minority groups in America keeps repeating – African Americans were derogated, then eventually the civil rights movement helped reduce that prejudice.  Then, gay men/lesbian women were derogated, but according to Wright’s article, this prejudice has decreased dramatically in recent years.  Now on the rise (and openly accepted by some) is prejudice against Muslims, referred to as Islamophobia.

So who’s to blame?  Often, most people point their fingers at Christians, suggesting that intolerant scripture is what promotes prejudice against value-violating out-groups such as gay men and Muslims.  However, according to Wright and based off research done by Putnam and Campbell, this may not be the case.  Putnam and Campbell note that three decades ago, less than 50% of frequent churchgoers in America were fine with gay people openly expressing their views on gayness.  Today, however, that number has risen to 70%.  And no Biblical scripture has changed in the meantime.  Thus, there seems to be a cultural component to this prejudice.

What’s the cause of this reduction in homophobia?  According to Putnam and Campbell, the only way to reduce this prejudice is to build bridges between the out-group and the in-group.  As these bridges have been built over time, prejudice against gay men and lesbian women has been reduced.  This way of reducing negative attitudes toward out-groups works across a myriad of groups.  For instance, there is an often understated, overlooked prejudice against evangelical Christians.  This prejudice too can be reduced using the bridge model.  Research by Putnam and Campbell demonstrates that individuals who gained evangelical friends rated evangelicals more warmly.  So why is prejudice against Muslism so high?  It could be that the current population of Muslims in the United States is so small and in such concentrated areas that bridges are hard to build with this community.

So how do we build bridges with the Muslim community?  And if these bridges are built, will another minority rise up as a target for discrimination?  These are the questions left unanswered.  As a prejudice researcher myself, I also aim to understand what causes prejudice and how to reduce it.  But the big question is, can you ever prevent society from having a constant out-group to derogate?

Sunday poems

This post reflects what I love so much about learning and discovering.  This weekend, I was able to sneak away to a large bookstore (two huge levels FILLED with books).  It’s been a while since I’ve just spent several hours immersed in books.  It was refreshing, relaxing, exhilarating.  Naturally, I got caught up in the science section first (typical, eh?).  Then my interests meandered over to the math section.  I was intrigued by a book about prime numbers and another one about the law of randomness.  But finally I ventured into unknown, not terribly charted but always intriguing territory…

The poetry section.

I yearned to grab a wonderful book of poems off the shelf and lose myself in it, but I felt incapable of determining what would qualify as “good.”  I am uneducated on most features of poetic rules.  Although the words dance for me, I don’t think I understand or fully appreciate the dance.  It’s like how someone who has learned how hard the dance steps are can see that although the tango looks effortless, it actually requires great skill.  In the same way, a great poet makes words dance on a page in an effortless waltz or a passionate tango.  But it is that deceiving essence of effortlessness that makes the dance so beautiful.  However I, a mere scientist, cannot always appreciate the effort and skill involved in poetic dances.

As I sat there, feeling almost helpless and unsure of what I was looking for in the poetry section, I also felt hopeful.  Hopeful of still losing myself in the dance.  Hopeful of learning how the dance works.  It has been a long time since I felt that sense of awe and wonder to something so unknown, so familiar, but yet so interesting.  I remembered how intoxicating the feeling of wonderment is, and I missed how much I used to feel it.

I wanted to experience the poetry.  I want to feel it, to know the author’s rawness and truth.  And isn’t that the point of any text or art form?  To invite your reader in and say, “Go here with me.”  As I dreamed about going to magical places with the poets and authors that surrounded me, I smiled a contented smile and said to myself, “This is what Sundays are for.”

Throwing agendas out the window

Last week, I had an extraordinary class.  One of the best by far.  And perhaps ironically, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with getting me out of the way.

Let me start from the beginning.  This was for my BIC 1212 class, a sort of introduction to living an examined life while in college.  Our course pulls on the famous phrase from Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  During this particular class, we were examining how to deal with conflicts appropriately using Olsen and DeFrain’s rules and regulations for fighting fairly.  I naively went into class thinking we would discuss each rule as well as bad fighting habits to avoid in great detail, with the class giving vivid examples and pulling on their own struggles as freshmen half-way through a semester of living with a complete stranger (their dorm roommate). “They will love discussing this stuff!” I thought to myself.

I was wrong.  Moments of silence and looks of disinterest stared at me from the classroom.  With the exception of a few dominant voices, most students looked like they weren’t even sure why they were there.  I can’t blame them.  In many ways, I was going against my one philosophy of teaching, which is to actively involve my students in the learning process by making it become alive.

Inside I was disappointed and panicked.  “What should I do?  How can I make them interested?” I thought to myself.  A-ha!  Interest.  Learning.  Creativity.  Doing.  All of these things sprung to mind.  “I have to find a way to make this stuff real,” I thought.  And in a teaching whim, I asked some student volunteers to come to the front of the classroom.  I had them come up with some fictional disagreement between roommates.  They chose not taking out the recycling and letting it pile up onto the other roommate’s side as their point of contention.  Then I told them to act it out as individuals who were engaging in a variety of the poor fighting techniques we had learned about.

The audience/class went wild.  And I have to say, my students really delivered with their performance.  They made us laugh, while all the while demonstrating many of the bad fighting techniques we had learned to avoid.  Next, I asked them to act out the same disagreement (recycling issue) but using all six rules of fair fighting.  They did so brilliantly, and the class loved it.
After this “mini play,” we went on to dissect what had just happened.  Which fighting techniques were used?  At what points can you see each of the six steps of fair fighting being used?  They had brought the whole article to life, which in turn made class more engaging.

The class loved it so much that they begged me to let them stay a little bit late after class to do the next exercise I had planned.  It was a good moment as a teacher.  When learning becomes something your students are passionate about and can’t wait to get their hands on, then you know you have done your job for the day.  Sure, I did not create a formal outline of the reading and go point-by-point through every part of the reading.  I started out doing that, but everyone was bored.  Instead of repeating what they already learned (from having read the article), I made them APPLY it.  And that’s when they came alive.  And the material came alive as well.

So yes, I’m hoping for more of those days this semester.  Thank you, brilliant students, for pushing me to teach better.

What would Harvard for a day be like?

Today was one of those day where excitement and opportunity seemed just around the corner from me.  I don’t know what it was exactly that made today this way.  Maybe it’s the beautiful weather.  Maybe it’s that a terrible sick leave forced me to take a day off work and just relax in the work I am doing (to avoid another spell).  Ironically enough, relaxation allows one to work better and have more creativity and job enjoyment – who knew?

Awaiting me this opportunistic morning was an exciting email from a friend of mine who works for Harvard.  She was telling me of her wonderful adventures helping host Carlo Petrini, an Italian who started the Slow Food movement.  Briefly put, the Slow Food movement is a movement to start building local, sustainable culture for the betterment of people and society.  Petrini was in town giving a lecture at Harvard, so my friend was along for the ride.  In what is perhaps a fortuitous moment, my friend was recruited to escort Petrini to the local Starbucks for an espresso.  Imagine that – taking a real Italian foodie to get espresso at Starbucks!  But my friend, with her cultured and interesting ways, discovered that they both speak French (Petrini speaks no English so communication was sparse if non-existent prior to this point).  A little bit of French conversation and a Starbucks espresso later and my friend had just had a memorable encounter with an international celebrity of sorts.


Needing more information about Petrini’s U.S. university tour, I went to read an article discussing the details of the kick-off of his tour.  It was so exciting to see the big things that are happening on campuses like Harvard to help push forward the Slow Food movement.  But I was disappointed to see phrases like “Carlo Petrini kicked off yesterday at Tufts and Harvard, Boston’s two most important universities.”  When I checked the final line-up, it became clear to me that the only universities who would be graced by Petrini’s presence were some of the top Ivy league schools in the nation (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.).  I can’t say I blame Petrini.  If I came all the way from Italy, I’d probably hit up the nation’s top schools as well.  But in some ways I began to feel (although to a MUCH lesser degree) like those students in the documentary Waiting for “Superman.” Why are the Ivy league schools the most important universities?  Are other universities less valuable because they may not contain the best and brightest?  But perhaps this is the simple truth.  As I ruminated on this question, the excitement and opportunity of my morning began to fade.

I started to wonder, what would it be like to go to Harvard for a day?  What sorts of interesting, impactful people would I hear talk or run into?  What big, important movements might I be able to jump into?  And then I wondered, would the work I produce and the things I was involved in be qualitatively different if I went to a university like Harvard?  In some ways they would have to be which may be precisely the point.  I am not at Harvard.  I may not the best and brightest.  But am I capable of changing the world and discovering ground-breaking ideas apart from this?

The real truth is that a genius is a genius is a genius.  But I do believe one’e environment has something to do with how much potential a person achieves.  I am by no means saying I am that genius, but I have many friends who could meet that criteria.  Would they become something even greater if they were in an environment that was more forward-thinking and if they were surrounded by other geniuses?  I wonder.  The bottom line is the most resources go to those at the top, who keep climbing.  And the ones at the bottom get the fewest resources and keep dropping.  I am fortunate to be in the middle, so I have many opportunities afforded to me.  But I wonder how many lost talents are out there simply due to a lack of resources.  It’s an interesting game to play.  What would Harvard be like for a day?  A week? A year?  An education?  I guess I will never truly know.  Either way, I’m still choosing to be excited about the opportunities that can arise here.  Perhaps that’s what real geniuses do – create and discover no matter what environment they are in.  Either way, I would still love to hear Petrini’s talk.

Is learning a right?

Think about what you are today (or are becoming).  Would you be there if someone did not take interest in you?  If you did not have access to a good education?  So often I wonder how my dreams would have died out if I never got a shot at an incredible education.  And the bottom line is this: doesn’t everyone deserve a good education?  Is it fair that only some of America gets access to this?

These are the questions I was asking myself as I watched Davis Guggenheim’s latest brilliant documentary, Waiting for “Superman.” Guggenheim, Oscar-award winner for the 2006 best documentary An Inconvenient Truth, artistically and painfully brings to light the massive failures of our educational system in the U.S.  Guggenheim documents the harsh reality for so many lower class Americans, that education will only prove to be one thing for them: a failure.  Simply put, this documentary will blow your mind.

As you watch small children’s dreams get crushed of reaching higher education, or in some instances just finishing high school, your heart breaks.  One little girl dreams of being a doctor and/or veterinarian.  Sadly, she may never see that dream materialize since she will be sent to a school where over 50% of the students drop out and only every 3 in 100 will go on to college.  Astounding.  Horrifying.  Disappointing.

This film brings to life the depressing statistics of the failing American educational system by putting faces to those statistics.  Toward the end of the film, the whole theater was quietly sobbing as the film climaxed with a powerful scene of watching children hoping for a chance at a good education by waiting for their names to be drawn in a lottery for the one good school (often charter schools; for instance, KIPP).  One boy, talking about the upcoming lottery, stated, “I just want a good education” with fears of disappointment in his eyes.  He spoke of dreams of getting a good education so that he could have better for his kids and not have them living in poverty.  He was ten.  Watching young children cry because a lottery-style drawing may decide their future brings to light a dark truth: education is only serving the top portion of America’s children (and the lucky few who win the school lotteries).

I speak as someone who has been in the dark.  As an educator, I have always believed that education is the most powerful tool to combat poverty.  However, I never thought too much about the qualitative difference between the types of education that the lower class and upper class Americans have access to.  Certainly, I realized that upper class Americans had the right to some of the best schools in the country, but I did not really think too much about how terrible some of the worst schools were.

But this documentary brings hope with it.  Charter schools like KIPP are changing the way we think about education in lower income neighborhoods.  For decades, it was thought that students in poverty-sticken areas just could not be taught.  But these schools have defied the odds by showing that they can offer a college preparatory education for free in these open-enrollment schools.  Not only that, they have defied the odds even more by having students with around a 90% enrollment rate into colleges, a number that strikes above the national average.  What did they say one of the biggest differences was?  Teachers.  That’s right.  Me.  You.  It both excited me and convicted me to know that I make one of the biggest differences in my students’ lives.  It matters how I teach, which brings with it great responsibility.  The second biggest difference?  Accepting nothing than the best from everyone – no exceptions.  We have to start expecting the best from all of our students.  If we never expect the best from them, why would they rise to the occasion?  If you are an educator, this documentary is a must.  It will change your life.  Period.  It will change the way you teach and the way you view education.  If you are not an educator, you still need to watch this.  Our society needs to be made aware of the painful fact that learning is, sadly, not a right for all Americans.