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January 5, 2015

Dogen and Me: Person, Perspective, Purpose and Place

Hello friends!
Seth has written another exciting blog that looks at poetry derived from Zen practice and its ability to help us connect to the world and each other. This is a great topic! Forging personal and deep connections to both the human and non-human world is a very big piece of the environmental education puzzle.

We would love to hear from you on your own thoughts about how poetry and other forms of art cultivate a sense of place and connection! Please add your comments in the comment box.

USEE Staff

Lately I've been reading some of the poems and sayings of Dōgen.

He lived from 1200 to 1253 in the modern era.  Thought to be born an illegitimate child of a noble family, he was given up to a Buddhist monastery (which acted like orphanages, back then, for unwanted children in many cases) after his mother died at 7 years old.  He was influential in establishing the Soto school of Zen in Japan after studying it under master Rujing in China.

One thing I really like about Dōgen (as well as many other Zen poets) is that he practiced extracting symbolic profundity from any place and any moment by just being aware of what was outside and inside himself, thereby dissolving the boundary between self and world until there were no distinctions.  Oftentimes, making connections between seemingly unconnected things leads to thought-provoking insights.
When my mind is free--
I listen to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
And the drops become
One with me.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Trying to observe the world and his thoughts as with a mirror, Dōgen captured the world in the art of poetry.  With just a few well-chosen words he expressed that the real world was mystical and mysterious because relationships could be found between all things, beings and times.

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Oftentimes, when I get bored with life it is because I have lost awareness of the things and beings around me and the relationships I share with them.  I have lost sight of the mysticism and mystery of just existing.  Dōgen and the Zen poets help my awareness extend beyond myself reawakening a sense of wonder that has a healing affect on my mind.  I don't know how such simple observations/insights captured in such few words can have this effect.
The migrating bird
leaves no trace behind
and needs no guide.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Robert Bly

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
It does not get wet nor can its image be broken.
Although the moon's light is wide and great,
it is even reflected in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Reawakened with a sense of place, I realize all of the amazing things in the environment around me.

"When snow falls,
a heron
uses its whiteness
to disappear."
--poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

"Do not ask where I am going,
For everywhere I step in this world,
I am home."
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Sometimes, we're so caught up in the reel of our own lives, we forget just how amazing, complex and vast the world and universe beyond really are and we forget just how many other beings on Earth and beyond are navigating their own lives in their own little bubbles.  How often do we live right pass one another?  Sometimes loneliness, fear, paranoia, hatred, and insecurity kill the realization of connectedness, interrelatedness and wonder; our perception shrinks to hardline dichotomies like self and other, good and evil, us and them.  We only see strong distinctions everywhere, our judgments become severe, we become disinterested in learning about our differences (losing opportunities to build bridges, losing the insights that come with different perspectives), we cease to believe that everyone and everything has something to teach us, we forget that we too are not perfect and have blind spots.

I won't even stop
at the valley's brook
for fear that
my shadow
might flow into the world.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator
In the spring wind
peach blossoms
begin to fall.
Doubt will not grow
branches and leaves.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

But if we can re-center ourselves and reconnect with the moment, place and beings that we are sharing existence with, perhaps the world will seem less threatening, the differences that divide seem less alien, and the potential to transform it all in a constructive way will be greater than when all seems divided, antagonistic and in disarray.

"A fool sees himself and no other.  A wise man sees others in himself and himself in others."
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Life is opportunity, but many opportunities can only be realized by seeing the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be.  Dōgen was just a human being, but his unique way of seeing and approaching the world was a great contribution to the collective perspective.  His flavor of Zen tries to connect a person with the world as it is, believing that such a connection will lead to many insights and truths.

"If you cannot find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?"
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

I do not know if Dōgen is right in any absolute sense, but knowledge does not necessarily need to settle any questions of universal significance in order to help us learn and grow.  It is amazing enough that his art, after so many centuries, has helped me and others become more aware of the connection we have with the beings, things and time surrounding. 

With this deeper awareness comes the realization that if all beings are interconnected then so are their destinies.  Therefore a sense of responsibility grows that I work to better myself so that I can make my best contribution and that I help others maximize their potential so that they can make their greatest contribution, all working together towards a mutually better world.

Dōgen, seeking to discover a sense of place and connectedness through art led me to attempt the same.  Here is my Zen poem.  I encourage you to write yours.

When the cosmic wind loses its mind in a kaleidoscope tantrum
it blows a dust storm of time across the universe.

The trees on the side of the ever rising Mountain of Life,
keep pulling themselves higher by the root.

They hold fast to the underground network that sustains them.

Each one only perceives
their will against the world.....

Their focus solely on the stars,
who seem reachable in moments of inspiration,

but hopelessly far away
when in doubt........

How close must hardship bring us before we recognize that we are not alone?

=Seth Commichaux

December 15, 2014

The Search For Intelligent Life? Let's Think About This...

Recently, I was watching a series of lectures about the search for life in the universe. It kept my attention while talking about the 800+ new-found solar systems around other stars beyond our own. It seems likely that solar systems are very common in the universe, thus the question arises does life exist in those systems or is our solar system unique?

Actual photograph of planets around a star beyond our sun

Where the series lost me was when the presenter got to the subject of searching for intelligent life in the universe. He made it seem as though us humans were the only intelligence on Earth and perhaps the only intelligence in the universe. Of course, we humans assume we are the most intelligent because we exercise a lot of power on Earth, but this isn't much different than the monarchy thinking they must be smarter than all the peasants because of the power they have over the peasants (it's funny because when I think of all of the great thinkers, artists and scientist over the ages, hardly one was a king or queen). Power doesn't necessarily equate with intelligence and there's a certain arrogance about humanity that has left a trail of disproven claims that should be remembered when ever we make great claims about our superiority. Claims such as the universe was specially created for humans, we must be at the center of the universe, must be the center of the solar system, humans must have the biggest genome with the most genes, we must have the biggest brains, the biggest brain to body ratio, the most neurons, the most brain folds, must be the only tool users, the only language users, the only species with culture, the only species that can learn, the only species that has a sense of self, the only species with emotions, the only rational/non-instinctual species, the only species with a soul. All of these claims have been disproven, but we still hang on to the idea that humans must be superior to all other living things in some way. And so we stare out into the universe looking for "intelligent" life as though, besides humans, the world was just plain full of dummies! I would contend that "intelligent" life is not as rare or elusive as we might think and our search for it in the universe need not lead us far.

What the search for "intelligent" life needs is a reformation over what "intelligent" means. Einstein might have been a brilliant physicist, but he wasn't a gifted farmer. And in order for there to be people who can spend their whole lives thinking about what happens to objects when they're travelling near the speed of light, there must be people who perfect agriculture to the point that they can grow enough produce for teachers to teach children math and science, professors to teach adults higher level math and science, researchers who do the experiments, mechanics and engineers who build the equipment to perform the experiments, and theorists to guide the direction of experimentation, etc., etc., etc. In other words, in order for scientists to perform at their most intelligent level, you need farmers to perform at their most intelligent level. By this configuration, Einstein's genius is worthless without there being genius farmers to support his thinking lifestyle. If Einstein had to grow his own food, it's unlikely he would've come up with Relativity. Thus, intelligence, too, is relative and multiple intelligences are necessary for everyone to maximize their potential.

Extrapolating this argument to the search for "intelligent" life besides humans, we must remember that most of the processes that make Earth a habitable place are not performed by humans. The production of oxygen for us to breathe, for one example, is done by plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria.

Cyanobacteria: photosynthetic bacteria.

If humans went extinct, those plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria would live on just fine without us, but if they went extinct we'd go extinct right alongside them. So what's necessary isn't for all organisms to aspire for human-like intelligence, but for each organism to become more intelligent in its own way. If the whole body was a brain it would die. The brain requires the work of the heart, lungs, immune system, digestive system, legs, arms, etc., etc., etc., in order to be specialized in receiving information, interpreting signals, and sending out commands. Thus, it isn't possible that the brain is the superior organ, for it is only as effective as the rest of the body.

Einstein's physics intelligence isn't superior to farmer's intelligence. Farmers would much more readily survive without physicists than physicists would survive without farmers. So what's really necessary is for all members of society to become more intelligent in their own way and better at what they do, so less people are forced to labor where they have the least to offer. Is the world better when everyone is forced to be a subsistence farmer or is it better when farm intelligence makes it possible for only a few to farm, and the rest are freed up to pursue other work?  Societies are not built with the intelligence of one occupation or one individual, but the collective interrelating of many kinds of intelligence.

In terms of the environment, humans can only be as effective as the rest of the beings on Earth make the environment conducive for what humans do. If bees, other insects, bats, and birds, ceased to pollinate our crops and we had to pollinate every flower ourselves to eat.....we'd starve.  If earthworms, fungi and other decomposers weren't constantly at work breaking down corpses and carcasses, the world would become a heap of bodies with no soil for plants to grow in and no free nutrients for bacteria to reintroduce in usable forms into the biosphere.

So rather than considering ourselves superior to the world, using it like a stepping stone to some fairy tale encounter with extraterrestrial "intelligent" life, condescendingly looking for "intelligent" life at great distances while ignoring all the intelligent life that surrounds us on Earth, maybe we had better realize that if humanity is to survive, it will require the collective intelligence of all beings working towards a sustainable planet. Maybe humanity is the frontal cortex of the world, but without a smart and effective rest of the body, the whole person dies.

Maybe we should be grateful that there are bacteria who are intelligent in a bacteria-kind-of-way, and plants who are intelligent with a plant-specific-intelligence, etc., because it is a diverse, collective intelligence that makes Earth a habitable planet. Humans by themselves, would be like a brain in a jar. It takes a body, with trillions of cells who know what they need to do, and trillions of cells who perform all of the essential functions of the body, in order for the brain to maximize its potential in the form of a person who works on and wonders at the world.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it takes many species, great and small, all with their own roles, and all of them striving to fulfill those roles in order for the world to be the place of learning and living that it is.  So perhaps rather than searching for "intelligent" life elsewhere, maybe we should work on recognizing and respecting the diverse kinds of intelligence that already surround us everywhere on this spaceship planet spinning through the cosmos.

-Seth Commichaux

November 19, 2014

Part I: The Evolution of Public Education in the United States

Hello USEE blog readers! We hope you enjoy this new blog from our dedicated volunteer writer, Seth Commichaux. In this post, Seth explores the origins of public education in our country. Though this is not a direct discussion on environmental education, we find this relevant to the larger discussion of education!

The founding fathers of the United States might have been progressives and intellectuals for their time, but the average American at the birth of the new nation was illiterate and few foresaw the importance and value educating the masses would come to have in the coming centuries.  As a result, education (much less a free and publicly paid for education) was never listed as a fundamental right in the constitution of the United States and as such a battle has been waged ever since over who should be educated, what should be allowed to be taught and who should be able to teach that information. 

Pre-Revolution the average person in the United States would never receive an education.  Save for living in a few progressive and large cities who mandated free education for white boys, the only real chance they had at getting a good education was by being born to wealthy and powerful parents.  Elites, realizing the power over people and access to the world (and thus to greater opportunity) that came with being able to read and write, readily had private schools with good teachers built in their towns for their children to go to or hired qualified tutors to teach their children at home, but for the average person in the United States a life of farming, manual labor or domestic labor was their only future.  In other words, realizing that knowledge was power, education was reserved by the elites for elites to preserve the status quo. 

But after the Revolutionary War, politicians began to see the necessity for building a unified culture, with national ideals, and an American story that would make the separation from Old Europe complete.  School was seen as a forum for making patriots and a new culture.  Thomas Jefferson, perhaps motivated by more of a social conscience, felt that the United States needed to lead a crusade against ignorance to fulfill its promise of freedom through democracy.  He said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be........The future of a democracy depends on the education of its people."  He felt that genius was not just a product of aristocracy and that a democracy's survival hinged upon an educated public who were free to make informed decisions on their own.  It was his belief that each American had a stake in the course of a democracy and thus each citizen should be willing to invest in the education of all of its citizens (save women and minorities, of course).  Shedding light on the nature of the times, Thomas Jefferson thrice introduced a bill that would guarantee just 3 years of free, public education and thrice it was voted down, many claiming it was too much of a tax burden.  An insightful critic noted something nearly as true then as it is today, "People have more feeling for canals and roads than for education."

It would take over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson would get his way, but in the meantime the seeds of public education were planted in the United States and it has been evolving ever since. 

Early public schools were more like local army barracks for small people rather than places of personal development and centers of knowledge for the young and growing.  Often it was nothing more than a small wood building with a dirt floor where kids aged 5-15 were brow-beaten by a single teacher into memorizing passages from the bible.  In the early 1800s, teachers were most often men and discipline, morality and hygiene were bigger topics of study than were math, science and literature.  It wasn't unusual for teachers to have as little as a 5th grade education themselves.  But, beginnings are beginnings.  At least when you start you create a baseline from which you can learn and progress.  And public education has seen a lot of progress since its birth. 

Slowly, but surely states began to better fund and create the infrastructure for public education and more children started to go to school.  In the 1840s after a series of debates in New York City over whether religious schools should be funded with public money, public education began to take a more secular path as it was realized that there wasn't enough money to go around to fund every single religion's separate school and agenda, nor was it democratic to fund institutions with public money that professed ideologies that not all taxpayers adhered to.  In addition, strong arguments resonated about the divisiveness of religion in the public sphere due to the vitriolic conflicts between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and other religious groups who felt their children shouldn't have to endure the evils of a secular education.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, on the side of secularists, made the case for a more secular morality, saying, "The heart needs something to rest upon.  And if it is not God, it will be the world." 

Around the same time, strong voices like that of Horace Mann began arguing that education was the means by which a fairer society with a leveler playing field could be created.  Education, especially a free, public education was the key to freedom, excellence, social mobility and a guard against the rise of elitism, nobility, and the bourgeoisie.  He also felt that public schools should be the place that civic virtue was taught and a sense of civic duty instilled as well as a place where people could build character if their family upbringing was lacking in such training.  Travelling to every school in the state of Massachusetts while secretary on the first ever created school board of education, he saw the great discrepancies in funds, number of teachers to students as well as level of experience and expertise, school supplies, etc.  As a result of seeing such great discrepancies in the administration of public education he called for there to be a common curriculum to better ensure that everyone was receiving a quality education.  He also called for teaching as an occupation to professionalize by requiring teachers to receive more rigorous training.  In addition, he fought for there to be a wider curriculum, better teacher pay to attract individuals of higher quality, and for better social conditions for he believed that poverty and prejudice prevented public education from being as effective as it could be.

With the coming and going of the Civil War, education became a symbol of freedom especially because denying people the right to an education was a key element in maintaining their bondage.  Important figures like Frederick Douglass articulated that it was knowledge that brought the realization of the absolute immorality of slavery upon them.  It was an education that made them aware of the in-humaneness and manipulations of others and gave them the courage to fight injustice.  Frederick Douglass, a man who ran to freedom pre-Civil War said, "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.......once you learn to read you shall forever be free."  In his autobiography he talked about the time he finally realized that education was the key to empowerment and freedom.  Ironically, it was the man who was exploiting him who revealed the power of ignorance in controlling people, "Learning would spoil the best [expletive] in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that [expletive] (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. (6.3)

With some progress made, post-Civil War,for some minority groups in America, yet another oppressed class began to find its voice......women.  Catharine Beecher and many other women and supporters of women's rights began to take on the prejudiced views that held that women were intellectually inferior to men and incapable of being employed in any serious occupation because of their fragile, emotional natures.  Beecher went to school, but was mostly taught domestic arts and manners rather than any intellectual subjects.  Undeterred she taught herself math, latin and philosophy and became determined for life that women should receive a more intellectually rigorous education.  Catharine Beecher paved the way, against great opposition, for women to gain access to an occupation traditionally held by men, teaching.   Arguing that men were too harsh and prone to corporal punishment to be effective communicators of information, and that because women were mothers they were the most qualified to be the nurturers and teachers of the next generation.  Her efforts to raise awareness for the need for educators in the frontiers, and that women could best fill those positions, led to the archetypal woman teacher arriving in some small western town to exorcise it of ignorance.  This allowed many women to escape the trap of unwanted marriages and to attain some level of autonomy and respect within their communities as single women or working women.  Additionally, the women's rights movement of the late 1800s also advocated for and won many more public dollars for the education of girls and women in public schools

In 1870, the USA had 7.6 million students enrolled in public schools and taxpayers spent $63 million a year on them.  In 1890, there were 12.7 million enrolled with a public expenditure of $141 million.  At this point America had more children in school and spent more money on education than any other country in the world (probably contributed to the rise of America's power, don't ya think?).

With the constant evolution of public education to incorporate disenfranchised groups and the greater belief in the mass's ability to be educated, the theory of public education also evolved a more powerful rationale.  Alfred Adler argued that public schools should help people overcome their backgrounds and equalize access to opportunity.  One's family, culture, sex, appearance, socioeconomic status, etc. should not be the pre-determinants of one's future.  Public education became a symbol for creating a utopian meritocracy where one's destiny was not determined by their past, but by their efforts.  It was argued that taxpayers should not just take an interest in the welfare and future of their own children, but in the welfare and future of all of society's children.

By 1900, about 50% of children aged 5-18 were in public schools and they received an average of 5 years of schooling.  It was around this time that Thomas Jefferson's wish was finally granted and compulsory, publicly-funded, primary school became law in the United States.  It coincided with the Progressive Era when sentiment was running high to abolish many forms of child labor.  In many ways, compulsory education replaced child labor.  John Dewey advocated around this time for a more child-centered education, believing that every child had talents that could make a meaningful contribution to society.  He was also a big believer in the capacity of science to enlighten and experimentally-based education to help people be more reality-based in their world outlook and approach to problems.  On education he remarked, ""education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction".  Dewey strongly felt that education should be interactive....not passive.  And that public schools should be centers for raising social awareness and letting people experiment with movements.

Because the late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great industrial development in the United States and also a time that saw great unrest and protest amongst exploited laborers, it was also a time during which there was the definite influence of the worker's movement in the curriculum.  It was thought that public education should make scholars out of workers and workers out of scholars.  It also became more common for public schools to focus more on training people to get a job rather than on educating them to more intellectual pursuits.  This correlated with the introduction en masse of intelligence tests that were often misused as ways to fast track people to their "career."  If your IQ was low, you were on the fast track to becoming a tradesman.  If your IQ was high, you were on your way to becoming an engineer.  This IQ railroading introduced an intellectual caste system where people of "high intelligence" deserved the best pay and to become doctors and lawyers, whereas those of "low intelligence" deserved low pay and to work in the more dangerous arenas of unskilled or skilled manual labor.  Such simplistic diagnostics that determined the fate of individuals so early on didn't seem to trouble enough people for attitudes to change about the legitimacy of such test results for decades to come.  And there was a definite undertone of racism about the results which tended to fast track many minorities to low pay, manual labor jobs, not because of lower intelligence, but because of language and cultural barriers as well having to start from a position of disadvantage in American society because of prejudice, socioeconomics and a general lack of opportunity, exposure and support.  It was around this time that progressive educators began to realize that factors such as low self-esteem due to the effects of social stereotypes and prejudices as well as coming from the stressful background of poverty and disempowerment could result in lower performance without necessarily having any bearing on the true intelligence of the individual.

In 1900, only 6% of people had a high school diploma.  In 1940, about 40% did.  In 1950, only 28% of people with disabilities were enrolled in school.  The slow evolution of public education continued.  It got a boost in terms of support and funding with the start of the Cold War and the Eisenhower administration's National Defense Education Act which prioritized the need for a well educated public as essential for National Defense.  But it was really the Civil Rights Movement that saw the next dramatic shift in the aims and philosophy of public education.  For too long, in a country that espoused freedom and equal opportunity as it ideals, there were great inequities in access to education and opportunity and thus freedom and quality of life enjoyed.  Public education was segregated, not equitably administered and was not the equalizing factor that it had set out to be.  The poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, minorities and women were still waiting and fighting for their chance to fulfill their potential. 

The Civil Rights Movement was a stride forward for all people in terms of quality of life, equality of treatment and access to opportunity as well as public education.  The Civil Rights Movement also changed the curriculum towards a more socially aware and culturally diverse one where people of all kinds, shapes and colors were recognized for their contributions and achievements.  In 1950, only 13.7% of African Americans received high school diplomas.  By 1980, about 51.4% did.  In 1950, only 0.0095% of medical and law degrees were awarded to women.  By 1980, 30% were.  In 1950, the average adult in the USA had 9 years of education (8th grade).  By 1980, it was 12.5 years, almost all school-aged children were enrolled and there was an 80% high school graduation rate.

The Civil Rights Movement was the culmination of a 100 years of struggle for rights since the Civil War and one of its major achievements was the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was the strongest and most sweeping legislation yet passed to promote taxpayer funded education for everyone.  It was a statement that all people in a society have a stake in the future of everyone's children because the it a well-educated public that promotes a just and fair democracy that ends up improving everyone's quality of life.  The bill established the federal government's role in funding primary and secondary education for everyone, especially the disadvantaged.  It aimed to shorten achievement gaps by providing fair and equal opportunities to achieve an exceptional education.  It provided funding for the disabled, minorities and the poor.  It provided funding for bilingual education programs which helped children who didn't speak English as their first language not get railroaded to manual labor jobs against their will.  Too often these children were considered non-intelligent and unfit for any occupation but low-wage, unskilled labor, when the real issue was the cultural and language gap......not a lack of intelligence.  Acknowledging that student achievement decreases as school poverty increases and that poverty in general leads to lower student achievement, the bill sought, through taxpayer funding, to overcome these disadvantages by allocating more funds and materials to fulfill the American promise of equal access to opportunity.

Starting with the 1980s there was a move away from public education towards homeschooling, charter schools and private schools.  The people of the world were becoming connected, motivations were becoming more business-driven/profit-driven; education began to see more pressure from the bottom line; concerns moved toward the economy and away from social progress; competition became an ideal and the marketplace was crowned king.  Due to the perceived, overriding importance of economics, the Ronald Reagan administration began to emphasize the importance of standardized testing for measuring the quality of education going on at public schools nationwide.  Such grading of public school performance by standardized testing, resulted in the federal government being able to  withhold funds if there wasn't improvement.  Of course, this gave a mixed results as schools began teaching students "to the test" so as to avoid financial hardship.  This logic was counter to that as found in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it sought to punish failing schools with more austerity rather than to provide more funding so that struggling schools could invest in better material and teachers.  Financial punishment for not performing has led to less funds, the lay off of teachers and the reduced capacity to invest in materials for many schools who would benefit from such investments. There was also the rise of the school voucher system which supported "choice" in the education market with more private schools, charter schools and homeschooling. 
In 2002, the number of students in public schools was at 47.8 million, but the percent of children enrolled in public schools had fallen to ~90%.  Today there are about 98,817 public schools, 6,187 charter schools, 7,110 catholic schools and 33,366 private schools in the United States.  There are about 3.3 million full-time, public school, primary and secondary level teachers, 72,000 charter school teachers and about 0.4 million, full-time, private school, primary and secondary level teachers.  There are about 54,876,000 students enrolled in K-12.  49,484,181 attend public schools; 1,941,831 attend charter schools; 1,508,000 are home schooled; 2,031,455 attend catholic schools; and 5,488,000 attend private schools.  The total funding of public education costs about $597,485,869,000 with the following breakdown.
  • Federal: $75.99 billion (12.7% of total)
  • State: $259.8 billion (43.5% of total)
  • Local: $261.7 billion (43.8% of total)
I hope to have shown that the public education system has greatly progressed since the illiterate pre-Revolution America.  It has not always been a perfect nor ideal evolution, but to lose faith in public education is to desecrate the enormous strides that have been made and dishonors the enormous efforts, in the face of stiff opposition, many educators have made so that ALL Americans could be better educated and thus freer, more empowered, and standing on nearer-to-equal ground to access opportunity.  The question now is where we will take this great project of public education in the future.

Soon, I hope to write another installment of this blog, talking about more modern issues and debates surrounding public education using the historical backdrop I've outlined here. 

-Seth Commichaux

Sources Cited:
School: The Story of American Public Education.  Film Series.  Films for the Humanities.  Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton.
The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.  Dana Goldstein.  2014.

October 13, 2014

How birds find their way: a blog about migration and navigation

It's amazing how many different kinds of beings there are on Earth, each with it's own life and concerns, each with some sense of what they are and where they need to be.  This time of year when I see birds, of many different kinds, heading off for their wintering grounds either individually or in formations I often wonder where they go; and even more I wonder how they know where to go and when to go.  How did migratory paths evolve in the first place?  Has it been a gradual process?  And why did some birds evolve to migrate whereas others stick around?  During the winter I sometimes see very small birds I think would die of exposure to the cold, but who stick around in the snow and survive nonetheless.  

Migratory birds aren't just running away from the cold and snow, though it might be part of the reason (during winter, resources tend to be more scarce...spring and summer bring a certain abundance that sustains far more lives), as many migratory birds leave during good weather and oftentimes pass through very nice places with great weather on their way to some far-off, unseen destination.

Year-after-year many species of bird fly between their breeding grounds and wintering grounds along the same sky-ways their ancestors took.  Some of the individuals, or even all of them, may never have migrated before and yet they will still find their way.  Extraordinary examples of migrations (and way-finding) are the Bar-Tailed Godwit who flies 8 days non-stop on a 7,000 mile journey from New Zealand to Alaska.

Bar-Tailed Godwit in Alaska

Another extreme example is the Arctic Tern who flies all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic and then from the Antarctic to the Arctic every year.  Several arctic terns tagged with GPS trackers have been recorded to fly nearly 60,000 miles on their convoluted migrations every year!  How do they find their way?
GPS track of Arctic Terns making journey to and fro the Antarctic and Arctic.
As you can see from the picture above, the Arctic Terns don't all take the same route nor do they make a bee line to their destination nor do they take the same paths going North-to-South as they do from South-to-North.  In fact, it is well recorded that there can be great differences in migratory routes between species, between populations of the same species and even between individuals of the same species.  Just as in humans, some birds seem to be anal about leaving for migration at an exact time and take the exact same route every year, both coming and going; they rest and refuel at the same stopovers and use the same breeding and wintering grounds.  All the while other individual birds have a freer sense of timing and place, leaving when it suits their fancy and taking whatever route appeals to them.  There is a genetic component to migrations as is observed for many birds who are natural migrators, but who are kept in cages; they will often beat themselves against the bars or seem agitated for weeks when they otherwise would've been migrating.  Also, their bodies seem to seasonally transition to a state ready for intense physical exertion.  But as is becoming apparent, genetics isn't all for there is also a great deal of individual choice and variation. There probably is an instinctual framework shaped by evolution, a heritable memory of their ancestor's interactions with the environment, that guides them along, but to what degree?  It can't be too automatic for the environment is dynamic.  From year-to-year conditions along the migratory route might be vastly different; there might be storms, strong winds or unseasonably warm or cool weather; fire might've ravaged a normal stopover and a new one needs to be found to refuel and rest; human activity might make a certain route impossible to travel; drought might've dried up a lake or river that was needed for food along the way; new forage patches or waters might be found; predators might be encountered; winter might come early and an early migration might have to occur; the weather at stopovers might be favorable or unfavorable leading to longer stays or hastier departures; etc., etc., etc.  Additionally, from year-to-year an individual might not feel as healthy or might have some other kind of personal problem that affects how they migrate.  The mystery of bird migrations and navigation got me intrigued about how birds find their way when they're traveling far-and-wide.  Particularly insightful to the elucidation of how birds find their way have been experiments with homing pigeons.  In these experiments pigeons are kept in a 'black box' and transported to a never-seen, unknown-to-them location, tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their home and then released.  Inexplicably, the pigeons, without knowing where they are at their release location nor how they got there, more-often-than-not, find their way back home!

If I was free to go where I wanted, I'd use a map or ask for directions or just follow the signs on the highways and byways.  If I had to get to Africa from Utah, but without maps, signs or asking for directions I don't know how I would do it.  Perhaps I would use the knowledge I had of the stars on the sun to set a course East and as I ran into different cultures, kinds of people and languages I might roughly know where I was and where I was going, but this is relying on my previous knowledge to find my way.  The intriguing thing with some bird migrations is that some individuals might never have made the migration before and might have no knowledge of what the larger world is like to use as reference for orientation.

But despite all obstacles, most migratory birds find their way.  So how do they do it?  From doing a little digging into the scientific literature I distilled out a few tools and methods the birds are using on their epic journeys to find their way.  Many interesting experiments had to be done to discover these.

The main known tools and methods by which birds find their way and the ranges over which they're probably most useful, in no particular order of importance:
-Sight (short-to-long range)
-Smell (short-to-medium range)
-Experience/Memory (short-to-long range)
-Magnetic Fields (long range)
-Astronomy (long range)
-Genetics (?)
-Culture, Teaching and Learning (short-to-long range)
-Skylight polarization (long range)
-Internal Map and Compass (short-to-long range)
-Landscape/Atmospheric Patterns and Trends (short-to-long range)
-Circadian Rhythm/Internal Clock (?)

Visual way-finding seems straightforward enough, recognize a site and fly to it, but there are many levels of complexity therein we shouldn't overlook.  When birds see their destination they can go to it, but depending on how it is approached it might take a minute for them to orient.  Ever been driving in a place you normally know, but because you drove into it from a different angle you didn't even recognize where you were?

Seeing your destination seems a sure method of finding your way, but most migratory destinations are out of sight.  Over long flights birds use their vision to follow landmarks like mountain ranges and shorelines to navigate.

Major migratory flyways over North America.  Notice the use of landmarks like the East and West coasts, the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
Birds also use their vision to watch the stars and sun.  In wind tunnels with overhead displays of stars or sun, migratory birds in the season for migration change the orientation of their flight based upon the orientation of the stars and sun.  Homing pigeons that are kept under artificial conditions where a light mimicking the sun is manipulated to be out of sync with the real sun's position and then who are released tend to home at a particular angle of orientation off of the real direction of home that correlates with the artificial sun's position.  For instance, under artificial conditions the birds might be conditioned to believe that it is 3 pm based upon the artificial sun's position and then released to home in the real world where it is actually 10 am.  The birds will treat the 10 am sun as if it was at the 3 pm position and orient themselves accordingly, thus homing at a predictable angle off from the true direction to home.  Another proof that birds use the sun came from an experiment with homing pigeons who had their circadian rhythms offset by artificial day/night cycles.  Released far from home in any direction they deviate at departure by an angle roughly corresponding to the angle between the observed sun azimuth and that expected according to their shifted timescale.  This all indicates that birds are constantly watching and keeping track of the location of the celestial bodies in order to navigate. 

Other things some birds are known to visually navigate by are patterns of wave direction and snow drift direction which is related to prevailing winds.

But how do birds navigate when there are no real landmarks to visually track, such as far from shore over a calm ocean?  or what about when the days and nights are cloudy and the sun and stars can't be seen?  When pigeons wearing frosted contact lenses, so that they can't see with any clarity, are released far from their roosts they still return within about .25 - 1.5 miles of their home, but can't get any closer, presumably because they can't see it.  This means that birds can navigate without actually seeing where they are going.  One tool the birds are believed to be using to accomplish this feat is olfaction, or the sense of smell.

A strange fact that supports olfaction as a tool for navigation in birds comes from several experiments and observations.  Homing pigeons can be born in captivity and never allowed to fly around their roost to get a sense of the area and yet when taken tens or hundreds of miles and released from a foreign location still find their way back home.  However, if the pigeons are not exposed to the open air while in their roost, they will lose their way.  Furthermore, if they are in a controlled environment where the air stream is manipulated so that they aren't exposed to natural winds, they will also not be able to home.  What's so special about open air and the wind?  The wind carries information.  If we had a better sense of smell we'd realize that a wind blowing from the North smells different than a wind blowing from the West.  The only experience I can think of for around here is that when the wind blows from the North, we can smell the Great Salt Lake in Utah County.  Each place has its own scent signature and surprisingly most birds have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell that seemingly can distinguish between the smells of different places for hundreds of miles around.  When pigeons are in their home roost they take note of the different odors that accompany winds from different directions, forming an olfactory map of their local area.  When they are taken to a location unknown to them, they seem to be able to recognize the scent of the place and to know what direction it was relative to their roost and they can home accordingly.  This method works for nearly a thousand mile radius as this is the maximum limit homing pigeons have been able to find home.  Thus, if we had better noses we might see a landscape of odors as clearly as we see the landscape with our eyes.

A cruel experiment that also supports that pigeons, starlings and other birds are using their sense of smell to home has to do with cutting the olfactory nerve so that their brains no longer receive information from their noses.  Without the ability to smell, birds have an extremely difficult time of homing from any distance greater than that from which they can see their home.  Other, less cruel experiments that involve anesthetizing the noses of birds provided similar results.  The question remains about exactly which aromatic compounds the birds are using to home.  Some seabirds have been known to use the smell of dead fish in dense fog at night to find fishing boats over 50 miles away.  Whatever molecules bird use to navigate what is clear is that experience still plays a role because some pigeons who are experienced at homing and who have no sense of smell can still find their way back home from distances greater than within-sight.  What's more, the sense of smell for practical purposes is mostly limited to a range of about 200-300 miles (which would be like living in SLC your whole life, getting dropped off in St. George and sniffing your way back to SLC!).  For longer ranges other senses seem to be needed for birds to navigate.

Such a candidate seems to be found in the magnetic sense.  As far as is known, humans have no way of detecting the Earth's magnetic field with their bodies, but birds can.  In many bird beaks are cells with deposits of magnetite, a mineral sensitive to the Earth's magnetic poles, used in compasses, that can detect magnetic north and south.

The magnetic field of Earth is created by convection currents in the core where there is an abundance of heavy metals such as iron.  The magnetic field of Earth isn't static, it changes quite rapidly over the long-term and short term, but it seems to be a reliable enough source of information that birds and another animals have evolved to be able to detect it in order to orient themselves.  Experiments such as attaching magnets to the heads of honeybees and sea turtles have found that interfering with an organism's ability to detect the Earth's magnetic field, if they can detect it, can cause them to become disoriented.  Experiments with birds have shown similar results.  In one such experiment, birds were conditioned in an artificial environment where there was a very strong magnetic field that was oriented differently than the Earth's magnetic field.  When released to home, the birds headed off in a direction offset by the angle from truth North that they had been conditioned to in their artificially created magnetic field.  Also, homing pigeon's have a harder time homing during events that affect the Earth's magnetic field such as solar flares and solar winds.  What's even stranger are experiences where the eyes of birds were covered to see if it affected their sense of Earth's magnetic field.  Oddly enough, it did have an affect.  With their right eye covered birds can no longer detect the magnetic field, but with their right eye open and their left eye closed they can sense the magnetic field again and what's more when the birds have their left eye closed and their right eye has a frosted contact lens over it they can't sense the magnetic field either.  This implies that it isn't light, but the clarity with which that they can see that helps birds detect the magnetic field of Earth.  Therefore, there might be something about the horizon which betrays the magnetic field.  No one yet knows.  These examples provides evidence that birds along with their many other senses and strategies are using the Earth's magnetic field to navigate too. 

Besides sight, smell, astronomy, magnetic fields, and landscape/wavescape patterns birds probably use their experience and memory, skylight polarization, culture, teaching, learning, an internal map and compass, perhaps their genetics, time and some other as of yet unknown tools and methods to navigate on their migrations and daily trips.

Do birds ask for directions as they travel along?  It might seem unlikely, but so did the idea that birds have culture until it was proven that songbirds of the same species have different dialects of song in different areas much like people in the USA might speak with a twang down South or with more slang in the Bronx.  It is also known that many species of birds teach their generations their flight routes, but other species seem to have no such passage of information between generations.  How do these birds find their way?  Can birds tell each other about their travel experiences?  Can they communicate across species about what birds, other beings and places are like in other parts of the world?  It is known that a crow that has a run in with a bad-tempered human can communicate to other crows for tens of miles around about this trouble person and the crows will respond by cawing angrily at the human where ever they go.  It is a mystery how crows can tell each other about the appearance of a human without actually having to see them and how they can recognize them, but somehow they can.  Perhaps they have a different kind of expression than language that they can convey information through.  We shouldn't be surprised considering that birds have a magnetic sense and an incredible sense of smell that humans can't even fathom.  Additionally, many birds can see into the ultraviolet spectrum of light.  Something else I like to consider is the circadian rhythms.  Is time a compass?  Can time be used to navigate through space?  Do birds keep track of how long they've been flying in order to give them an idea of how far they've flown?

It is truly remarkable that these feathered descendents of the dinosaurs find their way all over this Earth on some of the most epic journeys life is known to undertake.  Somehow, between their cells and molecules that make a whole organism there is a mechanism by which some, like the Arctic Tern, can literally find their way anywhere on Earth.

It seems likely to me that migratory birds use all of their senses to find their way and that there are probably senses and tools better for different ranges.  For instance, the magnetic sense is probably most useful for long range navigation while smell is best suited for medium ranges and sight probably most effective at short range navigation and orientation. 

What role does genetics play in bird migration and orientation?  Is there an internal map of the world contained within their genomes somehow?  Are there other means by which birds obtain information in order to find their way in this world?  Probably and they probably have to use every means possible in coordination with thought, memory and comparisons with previous experiences to orient.  I say that there must be quite a bit of complex thought going on in their bird brains or wherever thought goes on because having tools says nothing about how you use them.  Just because you have a saw, hammer, wood and nails doesn't mean the house is going to build itself i.e. just because birds have so many senses and methods for finding their way doesn't mean they will find their way.  Birds do get lost and can't find their way back home, thus it seems that having tools and instincts still isn't enough to survive; instinct and tools still require conscious modification in order to serve a purpose and to be effective.  So when you see the birds taking flight on their migrations take a moment to remember just how amazing those birds are and what they are doing really is.

-Seth Commichaux

1) Michael Walker, Todd Dennis, Joseph Kirschvink, 2002.  The magnetic sense and its use in long-distance navigation by animals.  Current Opinion in Neurobiology, vol. 12, pg 735-744.

2) Maria Dias, Jose Granadeiro, Paulo Catry, 2013.  Individual variability in the migratory path and stopovers of a long-distance pelagic migrant.  Animal Behavior, vol.  86, pg 359-364

3) Bird Sense: What It's Like To Be A Bird.  Tim Birkhead.  2013.

4) Hans Wallraff, 2003.  Avian olfactory navigation: its empirical foundation and conceptual state.  Animal Behavior, vol. 67, pg 189-204.