Archive for category Education

Childlike Thinking

I saw this cartoon today that depicts two little girls standing next to a scale. One warns the other, “Don’t step on it. . .  It makes you cry.” It’s also here: http://roses-are-read.blogspot.com/2008/06/don-step-on-itit-makes-you-cry.html

It started me thinking about how children often view the world differently from the way adults do. I thought of a similar cartoon one could make with more of a political lesson. Imagine Barack Obama delivering a speech where two ittle boys are in the audience. One says to the other, “I think people don’t like him because his ears are too big.”

The irony is that the truth is more bizarre than this cute fiction. Why do people really hate Obama? Because he’s a Muslim intent on remaking the U.S. as an Islamic theocracy? Because he’s a socialist who wants to destroy every business? Because he wasn’t actually born in this country so he doesn’t deserve to be its president? Because he wants to drive every medical doctor into the poorhouse? Because he’s not white enough? Because he’s not black enough? Now stop and reflect on the ideas you have just considered. Are these ideas objectively better than hating a person because he has big ears? At least the assertion that he has big ears can likely be verified as true. I think it’s worse to hate someone for something that he isn’t than to hate him for something he is.

So many people in the punditocracy are so set in their ways that it seems they haven’t changed their ideas about ANYTHING in the last 15 years. And that scares me. It should scare more of us. Especially when you realize that fifteen years ago it was 1996. If you wore a shirt from 1996, people would snicker. If you carried around a cell phone from 1996, people would really start laughing. Why do we give people a pass for spouting ideas from 1996?

I guess I’m a liberal although the more I listen to Lewis Black the more I think I should get my head examined if I even dream of identifying with either the left or the right. But being a liberal, if that’s what I am, doesn’t mean I believe change is always good. Certainly there are ideas that can stand the test of time. For instance, the idea that a woman should get a college education. Or the idea that no one should be turned away from a hospital because he cannot pay the bill.

Often we assume that people are maturing when really they are just aging. Aging is certain. You cannot avoid becoming older. But maturing implies growth and development. And honestly, when I listen to what some people are saying or what some writers are typing, I see a marked lack of growth.

To bring this post back to where it started, I think I need to take young children as my role models. Not the tantrums or the lack of impulse control, but the freshness of perspective and the flexibility to learn. I love that a 5-year old girl will tell me what she dreamed about last night. I love that a child can repeat a foreign word with pitch-perfect accuracy. I cherish the spirit of the Kindergartener who can embrace a new friend  with total trust and a complete lack of suspicion. And that is childlike thinking.

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Poem Analysis – “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” William Shakespeare

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

[Shakespeare praises his beloved as more beautiful than a summer’s day. He says she is more “temperate” than a summer day. While a summer day might be excessively hot or humid, he claims his beloved (and I’m going to assume that’s a she because it’s less creepy for me) is mild and easygoing.]

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

[Hey Shakespeare – get a calendar! May is in the spring not the summer. Yet seeing as he is the Father of English Literature, I am willing to cut him some slack. It is true that some summer days are too windy, especially in Tornado Alley. He also shows a clever turn of phrase when he says summer has a short lease. I love the idea of comparing a season to a cheap apartment.]


Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

[The “eye of heaven” is the sun. He is basically whining about how some days are too hot and some are overcast.]

And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

[Everything beautiful tends to lose its beauty over time. “Fair” here means “beautiful” not just or proper.]

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

[He expresses a naïve hope that his beloved will never lose her beauty. A few lines earlier, he was saying “every fair . . .sometime declines.” Note that “sometime” here is different from “sometimes.” He does not mean that beauty sometimes declines. He means that for every beautiful person or thing, there is a certain time at which it loses its beauty.]


Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

[The poet expresses hope that this poem will have great longevity. He hopes that his verses will last until the end of humanity – “so long as men can breathe.” When Shakespeare penned these lines, it might have seemed quite arrogant to presume such endurance for a poem. Yet now, as we read this poem about four hundred years since its origin, it seems unthinkable that this poem would be lost.]


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Some Thoughts on the Evolution of Life

Today I read a Newsweek article discussing “18 Dumb Things Americans Believe.” It probably comes as little surprise that Number 1 is the belief that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. Number 2 is the idea that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is untrue. I felt angry that the author, David Graham, put disbelief in evolution in the same category as the idea that Obama is a Muslim. There’s about as much objective evidence to believe President Obama is a Muslim as there is evidence to belief that Pope Benedict is not a Catholic. However, several credible scientists, distinguished with Ph.D’s and published research, reject the Darwinian Theory of Evolution.

My ideas about evolution have developed over the years in response to what I have read, what I have seen, and what I have heard. While I am by no means a professor of biology, I am in a better position to discuss the topic than many who express passionate opinions about it. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I have read a number of books on the subject. I have discussed it with many people and I have even taught the subject at the high school level.

As a result of my study of biology, my position on evolution is complex and nuanced. Yet if I were to summarize it in a sound-bite I would say, evolution is a useful framework but it leaves several significant questions unanswered.

Discussions of evolution suffer, primarily because of the emotional investment clouding reason, but also because of a lack of a universal definition of evolution.

One paradigm suggests that mutation + selection = evolution. Under this paradigm, an organism experiences a genetic change, natural forces in the environment favor or disfavor that change and then the progeny of the organism differ from its ancestors – and we call this process evolution.

Another paradigm suggests that at some point in time, a non-sentient monkey mutated and became a sentient human, genetically identical to a modern human – and we call this concept evolution.

A third paradigm suggests that evolution is a broad term that encompasses various ideas about the history of life on Earth. This model says the theory of evolution is itself evolving. Fundamentally, this model is about gradual change in life over time. The theory does not require a Creator but neither does it reject the existence of one.

The first paradigm is what Evolutionists believe. The second paradigm is the version of evolution that Creationists reject. The third paradigm is more or less what I believe.

There are several significant challenges to evolution, and not just to Darwinian theory but even the modern version of the theory espoused in scientific journals in the 21st century. For the sake of brevity, I will treat only three challenges.

One – how did the eukaryotic cell originate? The eukaryotic or “true nucleus” cell is the cell of multi-cellular organisms. It is exquisite in complexity and profoundly well-organized. Evolutionists have yet to fully explain the origins of the cell.

Two – why are all organic amino acids left-handed? This may seem like a minor issue, but it is actually quite significant. It is hard to convey this issue to lay readers, but I will try. Proteins are made up of chemical components called amino acids. In nature, one can find plentiful amounts of two kinds of amino acids – left and right. However the twenty amino acids found in organisms are all of the left variety. The likelihood of this happening by chance are equivalent to flipping a fair coin heads twenty times in a row. It does not make sense and the attempts to answer the conundrum are unsatisfying.

Three – how did the system by which DNA codes for protein emerge from a trial-and-error process? The central dogma (yes, they really call it that) of biology says that organisms use DNA as a template for RNA which codes for protein. It is a sophisticated system for storing vast amounts of information that has been likened to human language but is several orders more complex. Numerous experiments have tried to show how this process might have began but the puzzle remains largely unsolved. Unlike many aspects of biology that exist in several different forms throughout the spectrum of life, the central dogma is universal and really has no intermediate forms. It is as if life always operated this way and never any other way.

Those are some of my thoughts. They may strike you as intelligent, they may strike you as stupid. I would like to know how you feel either way. But please, let’s keep this civil and focus on arguments and evidence, not slander and propaganda.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Takabbur (Arrogance)?

I need to begin this post with some disclaimers. I cannot claim to have purified my own heart of arrogance. I am struggling with it, but I want to help others who are struggling with it. Beware the person who claims to be humble because that very act is an act of pride.

First, why should anyone be concerned with arrogance? Isn’t a little pride a good thing?

Allah, Subhana wa Ta’ala, (Glorified and Most High) says in The Holy Quran, “And do not turn your cheek away from people, and do not walk on the earth haughtily. Surely, Allah does not like anyone who is arrogant, proud;” (31:18).

If you want to turn Allah against you, be arrogant. Now what did Rasululah (S) say about arrogance?

” ’Abdullaah Ibn Mas’ood (R) said that the Prophet (S) said,

“No one will enter Paradise who has an atom’s weight of pride in his heart.” A man said, “What if a man likes his clothes to look good and his shoes to look good?” He said, “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Pride means denying the truth and looking down on people.”

Related by Muslim (no. 131)

So if you want to go to Hell, put pride in your heart and look down on people. Note the distinction between loving goodness and having pride. Allah does not ask us to roll around in the mud and stop combing our hair.

What does pride do? Pride makes us think we are great and others are small. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf presents evidence that Allah will punish the arrogant by turning them into atoms and then letting everyone else trample them. This reverses their perception that they were big and others were small. The Shaykh goes on to remind his audience, “We are all little people.”

Pride is at the heart of bigotry. The person who thinks he is superior and another is inferior has arrogance within. Thinking your race, your language, your family is better than others is arrogance.

What are the remedies for takabbur (arrogance)?

One is dhikr, remembrance of Allah. Say Astaghfirullah (Forgive me, Allah), Alhamdulillah (All praise to Allah), Subhanallah (Glory to Allah), Allahu Akbar (Allah is the Greatest), La ilaha il Allah (There is no god but Allah), or some other dhikr. Reminding our hearts that Allah is the source of all goodness will purge them of pride.

Another is durood, invoking blessings upon Rasululah. Reciting the ending of the prayer, “Allahuma salla allahu Muhammad . . .” is one way to do this. As we praise the Prophet (S), we should seek to make ourselves more like him.

Next, we should seek out people who are truly humble. We should spend time in their company. We should strive to emulate them.

Finally, we should turn away from people and actions that are full of pride. We know people and places that are only about showing off. We will receive reward for avoiding these people and places.

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Conjecture About Words

Lately I’ve been listening to quite a few sets of lectures on CD. The last one I finished was “Religion, Violence & the Modern World (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf) UK Tour 2004.” In this set of lectures, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf talks a great deal about history, education, and language as they relate to dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a great series and I highly recommend it. Available here: http://www.onlineislamicstore.com/a4316.html.

Sometimes, like many other great orators, Shaykh Hamza goes off on tangents. He particularly seems to enjoy talking about words. In this, he is a kindred spirit to me. He engages in some conjecture about the origin of words.

“Conjecture” itself is a word worth talking about. Speakers often use it derisively or dismissively. “He has wonderful ideas, but they are mere conjecture.” The Quran itself at one point insults conjecture, saying, “Surely those who believe not in the Hereafter name the angels with female names. And they have no knowledge of it. They follow but conjecture, and surely conjecture avails naught against Truth.” (53:27-28, trans. Muhammad Ali). Allah criticizes people who base their religion on ideas they have made up themselves. But conjecture isn’t always bad. Conjecture allows one to put forth ideas so that they can later be refined and also so they can be studied with research. Conjecture is a big part of the Scientific Method – it’s the part that allows people to come up with hypotheses. In fact, quite often people who say they have “theories” about something are really engaging in conjecture. A theory, by definition, has the weight of research and/or experimentation behind it. Conjecture can just be an idea that came to you in your sleep.

I will share with you some conjecture about four words in the English language – bug, icky, macabre, and shirk. The first two hypotheses come from Shaykh Hamza while the third and fourth are my own.

Shaykh Hamza opines that “bug” comes from an Arabic word, “buq,” meaning “pest.” Normally, the q sound in Arabic is like a k from the back of the throat. But in Yemen, people pronounce the q or qaf like an English hard g. So there is an Arabic word that sounds like “bug” and means “pest.” I’m convinced, are you? Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says for the etymology (origin) of bug, “origin unknown.”

He also suggests, this time a bit more facetiously, that “icky” comes from the Arabic “iqi.” Now this is a little nutty, but I am not making this up, “iqi” has two meanings in Arabic, one is “pure gold,” and the other is  “meconium (the first stool that a newborn baby makes).” He explains that in Arabic, wealth is associated with feces. To prove his point, he says that the word for “miser” (as in a person who hoards wealth) comes from the word for “constipated.” Use your imagination. Webster says the etymology of icky is “perhaps baby talk alteration of sticky,” which I read as, “We don’t have a clue.”

Macabre is not exactly a common English word, but it is slightly elegant. Can’t you see the Frenchness of it? Macabre refers to something related to death or something horrific. The “Saw” film franchise comes to mind. Webster says the word comes from “danse de Macabre,” a medieval French dance of death. But I feel they have stopped short here. Where did the name for the dance come from? Wikipedia is helpful and explains that it is a dance that originated in Europe around the time of the Black Death. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_macabre. The same article suggests, as I have long believed, that macabre comes from the Arabic “al maqabira,” as in the second ayah of Surah Takathur “hatta zurtumu almaqabira,” (“Until you visit the graves.”).

Finally, the word “shirk” is sort of a case of the right hand not talking to the left. When I say shirk to most Muslims, they know what I’m talking about. Shirk is idol-worship, or more technically, associating partners with Allah. But there is also an English word “shirk,” meaning, “to evade the performance of an obligation” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shirk (Incidentally, the Webster site is a gold mine for students, teachers and word-lovers of all stripes.) Speakers of English say “shirk” and speakers of Arabic say “shirk,” but no one seems to see the connection. You might have heard someone speaking of “shirking his duties.” There is a common thread between the English and Arabic words “shirk” beyond their common phonetics. When a person commits shirk, he or she evades obligations to Allah. Webster again gives the vapid etymology, “origin unknown.”

Shaykh Hamza and I agree on the reason for these seemingly simple unsolved mysteries. English etymologists and lexicographers (experts on word origins and dictionary-writers) typically don’t study Arabic. Indeed, in most American universities, if a student wants to understand the origins of English, the faculty will advise him or her to study Latin, Greek, German, and Old English. Arabic is not on that list. Speaking of lists, there is a long list of Arabic words that come from English, excluding the ones I have just mentioned. The list includes: alcohol, candy, check, cotton, giraffe, hazard, kismet, and many more (http://www.zompist.com/arabic.html). Yet Europeans studied Arabic for centuries as the best thinkers in a diverse array of subjects wrote in Arabic. Also, as my mother is fond of saying, the Mediterranean is just a pond. Links between England, Spain, France, Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt have been strong for a long, long time.

To make a long story short, Mr. Webster, I say to you, Assalam Alaikum.

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Song Analysis “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” Dinah Shore


Folks are dumb where I come from,
They ain’t had any learning.
Still they’re happy as can be
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally).

[Irving Berlin wrote this song for the musical, “Annie Get Your Gun,” about the life of Annie Oakley. Annie Oakley was a talented sharpshooter from Ohio. Her parents were Quakers and had six children together. In the musical, Annie sings “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” to explain her simple backwoods ways.

The speaker criticizes people from her town, stating in a matter-of-fact way that they are stupid. Ironically, she uses the pseudo-contraction “ain’t,” reflecting her own lack of education. She seems convinced that ignorance is bliss, that people with less intelligence are happier than people with more intelligence.]

Folks like us could never fuss
With schools and books and learning.
Still we’ve gone from A to Z,
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally)

[She argues that people like her could not “fuss” with schools. She implies that schools are a hassle. Others might argue that school, with its demands on time and money, is a beneficial investment. Also, notice how she conflates “schools, books, and learning” as if they are all essentially the same. Yet I have taught students who loved books and disliked school. In addition, I know of many opportunities to learn outside of school like travel, employment, and volunteering. But to the speaker, “learning” means formal education. She asserts that a person “doin’ what comes naturally” has no need of education. In the next section she will elaborate on what she means by this phrase.]


You don’t have to know how to read or write
When you’re out with a feller in the pale moonlight.
You don’t have to look in a book to find out
What he thinks of the moon and what is on his mind.
That comes naturally (that comes naturally).

[In simple, plain language, the speaker conveys one of the key problems of modern education. She is saying that education does not prepare us for relationships. Most people know how to behave around the opposite sex, not because of education, but because of instinct, experience, and culture. Instinct tells people how to use body language and nonverbal communication to express love. Experience guides people to do things that are pleasing to others and to avoid things that are not. Culture teaches us what is taboo and what is accepted among people like us. It’s not that this same information cannot be conveyed in books; it’s that most people learn it and learn it more effectively from observation and conversation.]

My uncle out in Texas can’t even write his name.
He signs his checks with “x’s”
But they cash them just the same.

[The speaker pokes fun at her unlettered uncle. Taking her point to an absurd extreme, she shows that even the most basic elements of literacy are not as vital as we might think. But is the speaker really saying that education is useless? I doubt it. Perhaps she wants to remind educated people not to look down on those who are uneducated. Uneducated is not the same as stupid. In fact, there are numerous examples of people with amazing knowledge but little education – the agile sherpas of Nepal, the fakirs of India, and even the cabbies of New York.]

If you saw my pa and ma,
You’d know they had no learning,
Still they’ve raised a family
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally)

Cousin Jack has never read an almanac on drinking
Still he’s always on the spree
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally).

[How many generations of parents raised successful, moral children without ever reading a book on parenting? Those books are not very impressive when you consider the many problems that affect children of book-parents. The speaker knows that the uneducated are not perfect, so she presents the example of Cousin Jack. Drinking is a serious addiction and it affects people regardless of education.]

Sister Sal who’s musical has never had a lesson,
Still she’s learned to sing off-key
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally).

[Again, uneducated people aren’t perfect. They might sing off-key. But if someone loves to sing and conveys that joy through music, does it really matter if it’s off-key?]

You don’t have to go a private school
Not to pick up a penny near a stubborn mule,
You don’t have to have a professor’s dome
Not to go for the honey when the bee’s not home.
That comes naturally (that comes naturally).

My tiny baby brother, who’s never read a book,
Knows one sex from the other,
All he had to do was look,

[This part has to do with understanding nature. Some people spend years studying biology in school. Others learn about nature by farming, raising animals, beekeeping, etc. Interestingly, many educational reformers support the idea of a school garden or even a school farm. The knowledge children gain from interacting with plants and animals is invaluable.]

Grandpa Bill is on the hill
With someone he just married.
There he is at ninety-three,
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally).

[Think about all the wisdom a person could gain in 90 years. How much of this wisdom would come from books and how much would come from life?]

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Ibn Sina – The Man Who Makes Einstein Look Like a Fan of WWE

It is no secret that I am an ardent admirer  of Ibn Sina, the Muslim physician/philosopher/scientist. I have often used his name as a screen name for myself online because I aspire to be like him in his mastery of a diverse array of subjects.

You can imagine how delighted I was when I stumbled across a website devoted to Islamic science that profiled some of the many noble, wonderful, and remarkable achievements of Ibn Sina. Please view it here:

http://www.shininghistory.com/2009/09/ibn-sina-avicenna.html.

Bear in mind that he lived between 980 and 1037 AD so all of these accomplishments took place in a medieval era and within a time frame shorter than sixty years.

Some of the highlights:

1. Discovered a cure for cancer

Yes, you read that correctly. He formulated an herbal drug from chicory and saffron that he found to be an effective cancer treatment. If you are thinking, “Wow, someone should patent that!,” – you are too late. The drug Hindiba, patented in 1997, was based on research of the writings of Ibn Sina. (http://www.muslimheritage.com/uploads/Hindiba.pdf)

2. Wrote a 14 volume encyclopedia of the medical knowledge of his time. ‘Al Qanun fi’l Tibb, The Canon of Medicine

The sheer size of this work is mind-boggling. It was over one million words in length. There were no co-authors. This sealed Ibn Sina’s reputation as one of the most influential physicians of all time. And you may have never heard of him before.

3. Concluded that Venus is nearer to Earth than the Sun is.

Of course, he had no telescope.

4. Stated that if the perception of light is due to the emission of some sort of particles by a luminous source, the speed of light must be finite.

Stop for a second to imagine the medieval world. This is a world without computers, without the Theory of Relativity, without even electrical power. In this world, Ibn Sina realized that light might consist of particles and if so, it must have a measurable speed.

5. Invention of refrigerated coil

If you enjoy a cold beverage, and who doesn’t, you have one Ibn Sina to thank for it. Sadly, the science of refrigeration did not advance until 1748, more than seven centuries after the Learned Persian’s death. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator)

6. Wrote the first criticisms of Aristotelian logic

This might not seem like a big deal, but it really is. For centuries, people regarded Greek philosophy as sacred. Ibn Sina helped people realize that the Greeks were human and their ideas were not all necessarily true.

7. Memorized the Quran.

Again, this might not seem like a big deal. Many people have memorized the Quran. True. But the Quran is roughly 500 pages of classical Arabic. And Ibn Sina, in a style typical of him but unlike the vast majority of us, completed it at the age of seven.

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