I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come.— Abraham Lincoln
The Comstock Act of 1873 made it illegal to send obscene, lewd or lascivious, immoral, or indecent publications through the mail.
Education and Academic Freedom
My HS, shocked by Sputnik, adopted a new math curriculum. Instead of computing the sides and angles of triangles by adding seven-digit logarithms, we studied functions and proved identities. It wasn’t radically new math, but it was a start. I don’t know if parents objected; since it was a HS class, most probably were unaware of the change.
In “Either Or,” Elif Batuman wrote her friend Lakshmi at Harvard liked to take basic courses and got all As; Selin (Elif) liked to take hard courses that she didn’t didn’t understand, hoping she would learn something interesting. I liked to take hard courses, hoping I would learn something interesting. Sometimes I did.
The University of Michigan had computers in 1960; you could watch the tape reels turn through windows at the Computer Center. You could leave a deck of cards and come back the next day to find out what you had done wrong, maybe a stray punch in column seven. We learned how computers worked in theory, but I didn’t get close to one.
As a graduate student at Wayne State University I took a course in Numerical Methods in Computing. There were two in the class who aspired to be computer programmers. They demanded to know why they had to take a math course when they only wanted to program computers. The professor patiently and futilely explained that they wouldn’t be good at it without understanding the science behind it. The main point of the course was, if you weren’t careful, the computed result might be wrong.
The Engineering School had a donated computer that we could use. We had instructions for running one particular program. You started the program and came back later to see what had happened. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I still didn’t know anything much about computers, but could see it was important for an engineer to understand them.
Just out of HS, the woman I later married had a job as a cashier at a department store. She added up the day’s receipts by hand. Her boss checked her results with a calculator. She wasn’t allowed to use the calculator.
My employer hired a summer student, who had the job of adding up many sets of numbers, the impedance of wires. It was expected to take months, but he borrowed a Friden Calculator and finished the job in a much shorter time. His supervisor was disgusted with him; after that, he had little to do except wait to go back to school.
At my first job, we used slide rules. My 12 inch slide rule was a source of ridicule; the senior engineers had longer, fancier ones with more scales. Mine didn’t have a loglog scale, so in the remote possibility that I needed that, it would have taken me two steps rather than one. Engineers, at least juniors, couldn’t use the computer; it didn’t have enough memory we were told.
On my second job I wrote a program to compute something. We didn’t have a computer, so the program was submitted by Teletype and ran elsewhere. If we didn’t like the results we ran it again, getting a different answer no better than the first. We knew it was futile, but kept trying.
On my third job, I finally got my hands on a computer and learned in great detail how it worked. In Elementary School, my daughter said she learned: “Control G rings the bell.”
Today, I open the paper, the Elmira Star-Gazette, and find two front page articles on education of great interest. The first concerns exams students will take. Author Gary Stern tells us new math tests are coming soon. He writes:
When the state Education Department introduced tougher tests in mid-2010s, tied to the new Common Core learning standards and new teacher evaluations, many parents protested and over 20% of student opted out from the tests.
I volunteered in a third grade classroom during that time. Mathematics had changed from the 1950s, most likely for the better. The students no longer carried and borrowed, but regrouped–the third graders explained it to me. I could see why parents had trouble helping with homework. Teachers had been exposed to the new methods, but parents had not.
Stern explains that interpreting test scores is difficult. How many correct answers determine proficiency, what does it take to make the cut? As with other computations, a small change in the input could make a big change in the output–a few students missing a few questions could cost the district, upset parents, and mischaracterize student performance.
In a second article, I read that politicians are attacking diversity in higher education. Author David A. Lieb explains that legislators, spurred by conservative think-tanks, have introduced dozens of bills to limit what can be taught.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) is used to describe policies and programs that promote the representation and participation of different groups of individuals, including people of different ages, races and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, genders, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations. Lieb writes:
During a recent Missouri House debate, Republican Rep. Doug Richey put forth a series of budget amendments prohibiting state funding for DEI initiatives in government agencies and higher education. He asserted the offices espouse “racist policies” and “Marxist ideology that is trying to strip away from us the concepts of the nuclear family, of merit, of character and of being judged by what you are capable of.”
University of Missouri medical students have lobbied against the legislation, asserting it could jeopardize the school’s accreditation and prevent doctors from learning about unique circumstances affecting the health of people from various ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds.
It feels like an attack on my identity,” said Sameeha Rizvi, a university senior who said she has benefitted from DEI initiatives as a Muslim woman of color with a disability. “It is exceptionally hurtful and tiring to see this very hateful rhetoric being employed by legislators.”
Michelle Goldberg, in an article in The New York Times on the 1873 Comstock Act, an attempt to legislate morality, tells us:
As if inspired by Comstock’s horror of “literary poison” and “evil reading,” states are outdoing one another in draconian censorship. In March, Oklahoma’s Senate passed a bill that, among other things, bans from public libraries all content with a “predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.” Amy Werbel, the author of “Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock,” described how Comstock tried to suppress photographs of cross-dressing women. More than a century later, Tennessee has banned drag performances on public property, with more states likely to follow.
Goldberg fears the spirit of The Comstock Act is making a comeback; she concludes:
There is something head-spinning about how quickly Comstock’s spirit of punitive repression has settled on a country where, not long ago, social liberalism seemed largely triumphant, with the rapid acceptance of gay marriage, the growing visibility of trans people and over-the-counter access to emergency contraception.
Legislatures ban books, judges overrule laws, Disney struggles with a notorious governor of Florida over diversity; Corning Inc., which relies on technology, celebrates diversity as vital to its success. America is again in turmoil, and education and academic freedom are at the center of it.