Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Six: The Reduction of the Nature of Teenagers to Their Brains

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that Neil MacNeil, the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

The relevance of the issue has to do with division of labour between intellectual labour and manual labour. Typically in schools, there is an emphasis on “academic learning”–which means purely intellectual pursuits at the expense of the use of the body as an essential aspect of the learning process. To ignore such issues is to ignore a cleavage in our society that needs to be repaired through the creation of a socialist society that eliminates such a division of labour.

I must emphasize that such work is necessary despite the possible negative repercussions by management. If we are afraid to question management and employers in our own workplace, how can we expect others to challenger their particular employer? How can we expect to unite to challenge the class of employers generally if we fail to challenge our own particular employer?

It is much easier to criticize other employers than one’s own–just as it is easier to criticize other nations than one’s own.

Such criticism is also necessary since the class power of employers is supported in various ways, including ideological means. To fail to challenge the power of the class of employers in diverse domains makes it all the more difficult to challenge them at the economic and political level. This is a typical weakness of social-democratic or reformist approaches to challenging the class power of employers. They idealize one or more domains (such as the public sector or education or law) without engaging in inquiry into the real nature of these domains (see, for example, Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Two).

Hello everyone,

Attached is another article sent to the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following summary and commentary:

The author of the following article, “The Gift and the Trap: Working the `Teenage Brain’ into our Concept of Youth,” (Howard Sercombe) argues that Michael Males’ criticisms of most of the research on youth’s so-called risk-taking behaviour, as reductionist and unscientific is justified. Most of the research ignores social environmental conditions that influence behaviour; the conclusions derived from such “brain research” should therefore be treated with suspicion. Youth, like all human beings, should be seen as a conjunction of biology, social environment and agency (self-determination). Youth, like all human beings, is irreducible to “brain states.”

Sercombe calls for research that unites the biological approach, the sociological approach and the role of agency (human beings as persons who make decisions). However, he argues that we lack a model that incorporates all three. Hence we need to focus on both the biological approach and the sociological approach in succession, with the one balancing the other until a new synthesis may arise.
Sercombe concurs with Males’ earlier view that, when sociological factors are taken into account (such as comparable levels of poverty between teenagers and adults), then the level of risk-taking is comparable.

The author points out that the issue of whether youth have inherent characteristics or have characteristics that are accidental (dependent on social circumstances) has had a long history, dating back at least to Aristotle. Hence, the issue has divided theoreticians for a long time.

What is new is the use of recent “brain research” to claim that teenagers have tendencies towards risk-taking when compared to adults. Such a view claims to be scientific but in fact expresses a prejudice by adults against teenagers. In other words, it is stereotyping in the form of alleged scientific inquiry.

Sercombe, by contrast, claims that modern brain research actually tells a different story. Brain research shows that the neural structure of the brain is subject to modification due to experience. Therefore, neural anatomy and physiology are functions of both maturational processes and environmental processes. The emergence of certain behaviours is a function of genes and the environment. If environmental conditions are not present, then the neural connections may not be established despite appropriate genetic timing. Conversely, if genetic conditions are not present, then the neural connections may not be established despite appropriate environmental conditions. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are two sides of the same coin; they both need to be present for certain neural structures to emerge.

There is (contrary to such authors as David Dobb, in his article “Beautiful Brains”) no one-to-one correspondence between genetics and human behaviour.

Recent brain imaging shows that different connections between neurons are established as experiences differ. Furthermore, human beings, as agents, persons or subjects of their own lives make decisions which, in turn, influence both the environment and the neural structure of their brains (and those of other people).

Sercombe then provides some facts from the U.K. that question the so-called nature of adolescents for risk-taking. He points out that the recent financial meltdown was hardly due to teenagers but rather to adults. Such a meltdown has had much more devastating consequences than the so-called risk-taking behaviour of youth.

Sercombe calls for humility among researchers who favour nature over nurture, or nurture over nature. We do not, at present, he claims, have a model that integrates both in any consistent manner.

He only takes issue with Males’ apparent rejection of the tendential distinctiveness of adolescence as a transition towards adulthood as revealed in brain imagery.

He does criticize Males for apparently rejecting modern brain research and what it tells us about teenagers. The structure of modern teenage brains share certain commonalities with the structure of the brains of adults (since both share a common environment in, for instance, experiencing similar school structures), but there are distinctive aspects to the structure of the brains of teenagers. There is a change in the ratio of grey brain matter to white brain matter from the onset of puberty until the early 20s. Myelination occurs, making the brain more efficient as certain neural structures are selected for use(a function of genetics, environment and agency and not just genetics, as the reductionists claims), whereas synaptic pruning results in the elimination of connections and hence structures that are not used. The teenage years do bear witness to an evident restructuring that makes the neural structures more nearly approximate the more rigid structures of adult brains. By the age of 14, more or less, teenage brains are similar in structure to the structure of adult brains, but they need to be edited and organized into more efficient structures.

The author considers differences between the structure of the brains of teenagers and the brains of adults to be significant only in terms of tendencies. If certain environmental conditions are present (including specific kinds of agents), then there may be certain tendencies to act in certain ways. The specific environmental conditions will have a say in whether adolescents will act differently from their adult counterparts to any great extent.

Sercombe, like Males, points out just how bias the research is against youth. Interpretations of the data from brain research invariably treat youth as deficient when compared to adults. Sercombe queries why research never emphasizes the positive aspects of teenagers as exemplified in the data. (Although he does not specify, it can be inferred that such a characteristic as greater flexibility in rule rejection and reconstruction may be something which adults would do well to cherish.) The discourse on youth (by, of course, mainly adults) presupposes that youth are defective in some manner so that such discourse infects research as well. Such a view leads to the slippery slope of treating youth as pathological and in need of strict control by adults.

Although the author’s approach is noteworthy in the much needed attempt to take into consideration the biological and the sociological (and psychological) aspects of the problem, he seems to be unaware that such a synthetic approach to all three was proposed by John Dewey a long time ago. Sercombe’s view that we need to balance research that excludes sociology and psychology from biology (or vice versa) by referring to research that emphasizes sociology and psychology will never result in a synthesis. What is needed is a synthetic approach that incorporates all three from the beginning, even if implicitly—as does Dewey’s theory.

Dewey begins with human beings who are dependent on each other and on the world of which they are a part—a social, biological and physical-chemical environment. Emphasis on the biological, the sociological or the psychological assumes a functional character: we emphasize one or the other for particular purposes. At a lived level, though, there is no distinction. Human experience is never purely physical-chemical, or purely biological, or purely social. It is all of them together in an inseparable unity. Emphasizing the biological may be required to ascertain certain aspects of our experience, but it never exhausts it.

Educators would do well to study more carefully Dewey’s philosophy in general and his philosophy of education in particular. They may then avoid the reductionism characteristic of biological approaches to human beings or, for that matter, the reductionism characteristic of sociological (and psychological) approaches to human beings and the education process. They may also avoid pandering to prejudices against youth based on pseudo-science (such as that presented in David Dobb’s article, “Beautiful Brain”).

Educators, however, are adults, and as adults they tend to consider their standards to be sacrosanct. They may well avoid engaging with Dewey’s theory since Dewey long ago argued that, although children (and adolescents) need in some ways to become like adults, adults need to become more like children (and adolescents):

“With respect to the development of powers devoted to coping with specific scientific and economic problems we may say the child [and adolescents] should be growing in manhood. With respect to sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind, we may say that the adult should be growing in childlikeness. One statement is as true as the other.” (Democracy and Education, 1916, p. 55)

A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Four

This is a continuation of a previous post that illustrates how politically biased the capitalist government or state and its representatives (such as social-democratic social workers) are when it comes to determining real situations–especially when a person self-declares as a Marxist.

Just a recap of part of the last post: I filed a complaint with the Manitoba Institute of Registered Workers against a social worker who had written a court-ordered assessment concerning my wife at the time, myself and my daughter, Francesca Alexandra Romani (ne Harris). I am using the initials S.W. for the social worker. Mr. S.W., claimed that my claim that the mother of my daughter was using a belt and a wooden stick to physically abuse her, was “somewhat ridiculous.” Mr. S.W. was much less concerned about determining the truth of this claim (which is in fact true) than with my so-called indoctrination of my daughter in my “Marxist ideology.” Since the civil trial in April 1999, my daughter complained of the following  (as of February 18, 2000): 1. Her mother was using a wooden stick on her buttocks; 2. Her mother used a belt to spank her on the same area; 3. Her mother grabbed Francesca and forced her into the apartment building; 4. Her mother had grabbed Francesca’s throat in the elevator and warned her not to tell me that her mother had hit her; 5. Her mother shoved Francesca to the floor on two separate occasions; 6. Her mother hit Francesca on the head with a book; 7. Her mother pulled Francesca’s hair; 8. Her mother scratched Francesca with a comb.

It should not be forgotten that these incidents occurred since the trial in April, 1999. There were, of course, several other incidents of physical abuse by the mother before that.

This contrasts with Mr. S.W.’s allegation, as noted in the last post, that ” Mr. Harris’ explanation for contacting the Agency [Winnipeg Child and Family Services] was somewhat ridiculous. He said that the child had made some vague indications that she may have been spanked.”

Mr. S.W. was much less concerned about the truthfulness of Mr. Harris’ claim (which is true) than with Mr. Harris’ Marxists ideas.

The extent of Mr. S.W.’s political bigotry can be seen, in addition to his absurd characterization of my genuine (and true) complaints about Francesca’s mother’s physical abuse of Francesca and his lying concerning the language issue as outlined in previous posts.

Further evidence of his political bigotry was his lack of concern about the accuracy of characterizing what occurred when Francesca’s mother took Francesca to Guatemala (Francesca’s mother was born in Guatemala).  It was (and still is) my belief that Francesca’s mother, although she did not kidnap Francesca in the sense of initially taking Francesca away to Guatemala against my will, did in fact abduct Francesca by remaining in Guatemala for three and half months past the agreed upon time for her return to Canada. I did not know whether I would ever see Francesca again. Mr. S.W. dismissed my contention that Ms. Harris had kidnapped Francesca.

From the court-ordered assessment written by Mr. S.W.

“Page 12: Mr. Harris agreed that his wife and child should accept the offer of free transportation, and Mrs. Harris left for Guatemala.”

The context was (I will provide details in another post) that we had reconciled in February, 1995 after a separation from October 16, 1994.

I agreed to have my wife take my daughter from mid-March until mid-April 1995 to Guatemala; her parents were to pay for the return flight (I was receiving  student loan at the time). My wife, however, refused to return to Canada at the agreed-upon time.

This is what Mr. S.W., the political bigot, had to say:

Page 12 of the assessment: “In April of 1995, Mr. Harris states that he received a phone call from his wife saying that she wanted to come to Winnipeg. She then asked him for money for an airline ticket home. He said he became angry at this and told her to obtain her money from her parents. Ms. Harris states that her parents could not raise the money at that time and so she was forced to remain in Guatemala.”

On page 20 of the assessment, Mr. S.W. states the following:

“Ms. Harris presented as honest and forthright.”

Why would Mr. S.W. believe Ms. Harris’ version? She herself admitted that her family was financially stable. On page 6 of the assessment, Mr. S.W. writes, and I added, in the complaint:

Page 6: “She [Ms. Harris] states that her parents earned enough money to provide for financial stability and a relatively good lifestyle.”

Not true historically, but true at a later date, certainly in 1988 when Mr. Harris went to Guatemala to meet them and also at the time of Ms. Harris going to Guatemala in 1995.”

When Ms. Harris’ mother came to Canada in 1997 (this fact was conveniently suppressed by Mr. S.W.–Mr. Harris mentioned that Ms. Harris’ mother came to Canada in 1997–another “silence” on Mr. S.W.’s part that can probably be explained by Mr. S.W.’s political bias), Ms. Harris’ mother stated that there was no economic problem.

There was plenty of evidence to contradict Ms. Harris’ version. The issue was twofold Firstly, did Ms. Harris’ parents likely have sufficient funds to pay for an airline ticket? Secondly, if they did not, would it have been reasonable for her to request that I pay for an airline ticket given our economic situation?

I already have provided some evidence that Ms. Harris’ parents evidently had sufficient funds to pay for an airline ticket. I provided further proof of their economic situation in the complaint. From pages 48-49, where I indicate:

Ms,. Harris and Mr. Harris had agreed beforehand that Ms. Harris’ parents would pay for the flight back. Why did Mr. S.W. not query the obvious contradiction between the claim that Ms. Harris’ family in Guatemala were financially secure and the supposed incapacity of her family to raise sufficient funds to send her and Francesca back to Canada? (Ms. Harris’ father and mother had visited Canada in 1993. Ms. Harris’ parents had gone on a trip to Europe a few years before that. In 1994, Ms. Harris’ mother came to Canada. in 1994. Again, in 1997 she came to Canada. Sometime in late 1997, her sister and brother-in-law–who live beside Mr. Harris’ parents–sent two of their children to Canada for a visit. The same parents sent two of their children this year–they stayed with Ms. Harris in October and November. A family in dire circumstances indeed.

I further indicate, on page 49:

Ms. Harris left Canada for Guatemala via a car. If she did not have the money, why did she not return by car? But Ms. Harris’ behaviour is never “bizarre,” only Mr. Harris’ behaviour.

As I indicated on page 46 of the complaint:

Ms. Harris–by “coincidence”–had the opportunity to go to Guatemala by car.

Mr. S.W.’s remark on pages 11-12 of the assessment and my commentary in the complaint (on page 46):

“About the same time Ms. Harris was offered a free ride to Guatemala by a church pastor whom [sic] was travelling there by car.”

It is interesting to note that Mr. S.W. neglected to mention–Mr. Harris did mention it to Mr. S.W.–that the church pastor was a Guatemalan and a cousin to Ms. Harris (Justo Orellana). An irrelevant fact, it would seem, according to Mr. S.W. since he neglected to mention it (just as he neglected to mention that Ms. Harris’ mother came to Canada in 1997). Why the omission?

Mr. S.W. characterization of Ms. Harris as honest and forthright, on the one hand, and the evidence that her family would have had sufficient money to pay for a return flight contradict each other. What explains such a contradiction? Could it because Mr. S.W. is a political bigot? That Mr. Harris self-identified as a Marxist and therefore must be the opposite of “honest and forthright?” Or that my wife at the time, since she was not a Marxist, must be “honest and forthright.”

The second issue has to do with my own economic situation at the time–something which Mr. S.W. never even considered. Why would he not consider my economic situation at the time when considering what was reasonable? Perhaps because he is a political bigot?

On page 48 of the complaint to the Manitoba Registered Institute of Social Workers (MIRSW), I wrote the following:

It is interesting to note that Mr. S.W. did not even inquire into Mr. Harris’ economic status at the time, in April 1995. Mr. Harris was a student at the Faculty of Education of College universitaire de Saint-Boniface. He had received a student loan.The student loan was from September 1994 until–April 1995. Ms. Harris knew that Mr. Harris did not have the money. Why did Mr. S.W. not (1) not query the reasonableness of Ms. Harris asking Mr. Harris for money when Mr. Harris did not have the money; (2) query the obvious contradiction between the claim that Ms. Harris’ family in Guatemala was financially secure and the supposed incapacity of her family to raise sufficient funds to send her and Francesca back to Canada?

I further wrote, on page 49:

Mr. Harris told Mr. S,W. that when Ms. Harris’ mother was in Canada in 1994, after he had an argument with her concerning who was to be the parent of Francesca, her or him, he overheard her suggest that her daughter go to Guatemala–implying in Mr. Harris’ mind that perhaps she wanted her daughter to return permanently to Guatemala

This double neglect on the part of Mr. S.W–of accurately determining the probability of Ms. Harris’ family being able to provide airfare in April and whether it would be reasonable to request that Mr. Harris provide the funds necessary to purchase airline tickets for Ms. Harris and Francesca–can probably be attributed to his political bigotry.

Needless to say, the kidnapping of Francesca caused me great emotional distress.

The issue of the kidnapping of Francesca becomes more complicated because Ms. Harris did indicate, by telephone, that she would return to Canada on May 13, 1995. She gave me both the flight number and the time, and I showed up at the Winnipeg airport, expecting to see Francesca.

From page 45 of the complaint against Mr. S.W. to the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers (MIRSW):

In early May, 1995, Ms. Harris gave Mr. Harris a flight number and the time. She had already booked her flight. She then told Mr. Harris on the phone, on May 13, that she had cancelled it because she promised her parents that she was going to have Francesca’s birthday in Guatemala (document 20, photo of Francesca on her first birthday. Mr. Harris wants the photo returned.)

Here is Mr. S.W.’s comment:

This writer [Mr. S.W.] asked Mr. Harris why he had not simply got on the phone to find out what had happened. He argued that there was no point in discussing anything with his wife.

My comment in the complaint to the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers:

There seem to be three possibilities here. Either Mr. Harris did not explain himself well enough, or Mr. S.W. did not understand what Mr. Harris had said, or Mr. S.W. distorted what Mr. Harris had said.

Mr. Harris did call his wife on May 13. Mr. Harris begged Ms. Harris to return to Canada. Ms. Harris categorically stated that she was going to have Mr. Harris’ daughter’s birthday in Guatemala, and she refused to return. Mr. Harris threatened to divorce her. She replied that Mr. Harris was always threatening to do that. Mr. Harris replied: “Alla Ud. y alla su familia.” The equivalent is, more or less: “You and your family know what you can do.” Mr. Harris never expected to see his daughter again. As for any point discussing the issue, obviously there was no point in discussing it. Ms. Harris “categorically” refused to return.

Mr. S.W. did not care about the truth. He had evidently already condemned Mr. Harris and judged his claim that Ms. Harris kidnapped Francesca to be an indication of Mr. Harris’ “insecurity” and used his Marxism as an excuse to cover up his own insecurities.

Ms. Harris refused to indicate when or if she would return. When I called again, her father answered, and stated: “Ni siquiera puedes mantener a tu propia hija.” (“You cannot even maintain your own daughter.”) Practically,  I guess it is justifiable to kidnap a child if the other parent lacks the funds necessary to “maintain” the child.

As pointed out previously, Mr. S.W.’s characterized me in the following terms (from page 21 of the court-ordered assessment written by Mr. S.W.):

Mr. Harris presented as an emotionally insecure individual who attempted to cover his insecurities through confrontation and intellectualization of his problems.

Mr. S.W. further characterized me in the following terms:

“As noted earlier, Mr. Harris tends to intellectualize and rationalize his own personal problems (within a rigid framework of Marxist ideology), and tends to see them as the inevitable result of living in a so-called bourgeois milieu.”

Ms. Harris did finally return to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada–on July 31, 1995–three and half months after the agreed-upon date of her return. When I tried to hug Francesca, she began to cry; she did not recognize me.

What lessons can be learned from the above?

  1. Do not expect anti-Marxists to accurately determine the truth.
  2. Expect sloppy inquiry (which is really sloppy thinking since thinking requires inquiry) when it comes to the Marxist’s version of the situation.
  3. Do not expect any sympathy for Marxists–regardless of what the Marxists have experienced.
  4. Expect character assassination and ridicule.
  5. When it comes to the physical abuse of a child, expect anti-Marxists to discount the Marxist’s version and to accuse the Marxist of lying.

Other lessons?