Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Why I Voted for the Stem Cell Initiative: Supersimple Ethics

Opponents of stem cell research would like the rest of us to believe that their objections to the burgeoning field are purely scientific. "Embryonic stem cells have not created a single useful human therapy," they protest. It looks like that tired excuse is on its last legs. A researcher at the Christopher Reeve Research Center at UC-Irvine has made paralyzed rats walk by injecting human stem cells into their crushed spinal cords. Human trials are expected in 2006. Considering researchers have only been working with these cells since 1998, I think this qualifies as excellent progress.

Obviously, the fight against the use of human stem cells is not about science, but rather about the issue of aborting early-stage human embryos, an issue of morals and ethics. A long discussion on this issue with my great uncle, a priest and monsignor in the Catholic Church, on Christmas has made me want to clarify my position on this issue a bit more. But first, a little background on personal experiences that have brought me to where I am.

In the spring of 2002, six members of my residential life team from USC were in a brutal car accident on the Santa Monica Freeway. Stalled in the fast lane behind a car out of gas, they were rearended at high speed. Injuries in the car ranged from bumps and minor fractures to punctured lungs and torn spleens. My good friend R. was paralyzed from the chest down. I spent an interminable, delirious, and nightmarish night in Cedars-Sinai Hospital watching one of the greatest givers of joy and sunshine in my life, a model of goodness and humor, lie motionless on an ER examining table. I watched heavy-handed neurologist prick her sides, checking for feeling. "Feel that? Feel that? Feel that?" "Ow!" Then he marked her with a sharpie. I cried in the waiting room.

When I voted for the California Stem Cell Initiative, I voted for my friend, R. I voted for therapies that might help her walk again. Maybe I left some potential people -- those embryos harvested for research -- out in the cold. Those little balls of cells don't enter into my moral calculus, though.

This was a case where I tried to use the supersimple basis of all ethics: the golden rule. I chose to use the "strong" version of the rule -- not "Treat others as you wish to be treated" but "Treat others as they wish to be treated." The corollary of the strong golden rule is that one should be able to trade places with the person affected by an action one takes. I couldn't trade places with R. if I had voted "No." I couldn't cut off a promising avenue of research because of our cultural hangups about abortion. I wouldn't want to trade places with her if my vote helped defeat an initiative that might cure her/my paralysis.

On the other hand, trading places with an undeveloped embryo is logically impossible. I have an independent mind-body embedded in an environment of friends and work and sights and sounds. An embryo has no sense organs, no mind, and no existence independent of its mother. It's basically an organ of the mother. I can't put myself in an embryo's shoes because it has no shoes.

We must pursue all types of stem cell research -- embryonic, adult, umbilical, etc. -- simultaneously. We must cure my friend R. and hundreds of thousands like her.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Rocking the Education System

The way we organize and perform education in this country is broken. Generations of rules and habits have split knowledge up into little bits. We examine pebbles instead of rocky beach landscapes. Words on a page put real-lived-life into cozy genealogical compartments. Human touch is taxonomized into a dim gray cloud of abstractions.

Now when our teaching methods crush our natural learning instincts only a radical departure, a complete reorganization of the institutions can equip our young and old learners with the tools they need to remake the world and earn a living in a competitive world. And I think it can happen. My solution? Just walk away and let the dinosaurs die. Build up an alternative educational infrastructure and let the old wither away. Home schoolers are doing it and indie consultant-entrepreneurs too. It's time we let the kids go.

Smash the strangling grip of teachers unions. Give kids and their parents universal education vouchers and the right to choose so that schools join the modern innovation economy. Refocus on modern rhetoric: the business plan, the scientific paper, the flash animation, the google search, the cold call, and the op-ed. Chase goals and projects like figuring out how a car works by building one. Let students learn about cities by designing and gaining approvals for a mock real estate development.

In the movie School of Rock, a group of prep school kids joins a washed up slacker rock musician (the hilarious Jack Black) to put together a rock band. For four weeks that's all they do. Social studies is replaced with the complicated cultural history of rock music's development. Figures like Hendrix, Marley, and Johnny Ramone are recognized as the heroes they are in the modern epic struggles against colonial oppression, warmongering, and the rest of society's reactionary squares. After studying the complicated family tree of psychedelic rock to punk, the kids spend the rest of the day playing and writing music. Kids that can't sing or play an instrument get security detail or take over management and promotion duties. No one fails this class because it's impossible. Each child gets to play on their own strengths.

This is an integrated method of education where the bodily skills of singing and dancing and playing are not divorced from the intellectual requirements of understanding the flow of history or the logistical acumen of producing entertainment for consumption. This can work with any subject. Let's return to my mention of a mock real estate development for another example.

The class could design and develop an apartment building over shops or a public library with an attached skate park. They'd have to go through all the approvals, fill out the bureaucratic forms for building permits, and understand the importance of how contracts govern business relationships. Daily debates could examine how we should balance local ecology, wildlife habitat, and farmland with new homes, auto malls, and big box stores. Kids are natural dreamers that can help us develop integral visions of pomo-prosperity that harmonize human2human and human2earth interactions. With the NIMBY's locked in ugly battles with the evil black-suited real estate developers, I think kids can help break the logjam of how we can build human settlements -- i.e. we can drink 3 minute lattes and still have safe spawning grounds for salmon.

Kids are given schizophrenia by splitting the school work day indiscriminately -- 40 minutes here, half hour for lunch, and another 90 minutes there. Hustling them about in hallways, burdening them with piles of meaningless textbooks, we deprive them of the natural process of discovery. Big brained mammals like us learn automatically. We learn language and how to tie our shoes from imitation and adaptation without the slightest effort while subjects like mathematics come with fatal difficulties -- mostly because its teaching is utterly divorced from the natural-sensate world.

Project- and team-based education that concentrates on a single enterprise like a battle of the bands or a real estate development can help stop the unnecessary atomization of knowledge. Projects return the pleasures of craft and vocation to complex knowledge domains like entertainment and city building. The webworld prizes connections and integration, it's time our education system did the same.

Inspired by 21st Century College: An Outline, the ideas of Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, and many long conversations with Ket.

UPDATE: I thought this list of the top 1,000 things to know from marketing guru Seth Godin was pretty cool. We've got some good overlap.