25 February 2011


SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH. Yesterday the U.S. space shuttle Discovery lifted off on its 39th and last mission into orbit, as the shuttle program winds down, with no replacement in sight. I've never seen a shuttle launch in person (much less been aboard a shuttle flight), and have long dreamed of doing both. For those who, like me, are limited to vicarious pleasure, check out 3 Great Ways to Watch the Last Space Shuttle Missions, via streaming video online, of course.

REVELS. According to Wikipedia, on this date in 1870 "Hiram Rhodes Revels [became] the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. Because he preceded any African American in the House, he was the first African American in the U.S. Congress as well. He represented Mississippi in 1870 and 1871 during Reconstruction. As of 2011, Revels is one of only six African Americans ever to have served in the United States Senate."

It is items like this that make me appreciate celebrations like Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March). As curious as I am about other cultures and about our collective past, as much as I've read and listened and paid attention, I'm forever learning new and fascinating and sometimes shameful things about our society. On the one hand, it seems like a minor miracle that Revels was elected from Mississippi, perhaps the most virulently racist state in the Union .... and as early as 1870. On the other hand, only six black Senators in the 146 years since the end of the Civil War? What's wrong with this picture, in a society whose population is over 12 percent black? Not to mention the underrepresentation (and the implied disenfranchisement) of Latino, Asian, and Native American citizens in the halls of national government. Very, very sad.

CHEATING. Most of us have a clear perception of our own ethical standards. Yet recent research suggests that when ideals are confronted with reality, we may not be as moral as we would like to believe. Here's the setup -- "For this study, three groups of students were given a math test of 15 questions. One group was told that a glitch in the software would cause the correct answer to show on the screen if they hit the space bar -- but only they would know they'd hit it. This group took the test; a $5 reward was promised for ten or more right answers. Another group was given a description of this moral dilemma, and was then asked to predict whether they would cheat for each question. The third group just took the test without the opportunity to cheat.

"During the trial, electrodes measured the participants' heart contractions, their heart and breathing rates, and the sweat in their palms -- all of which increase with heightened emotion. Not surprisingly, those facing the real dilemma were most emotional. Their emotions drove them to do the right thing and refrain from cheating. The students asked only to predict their actions felt calmer -- and said they'd cheat more than the test-takers actually did. Students who took the test with no opportunity to cheat were calmer as well, indicating the arousal that the students in the first group were feeling was unique to the moral dilemma.

"But emotions conflict, and that figures into decision making too. If the stakes were higher -- say, the reward was $100 -- the emotions associated with that potential gain might override the nervousness or fear associated with cheating .... The essential finding is that emotions are what drive you to do the right thing or the wrong thing."

I confess I'm not totally swayed by these results. Throughout my academic career, high school and university, I never cheated. If we are in school to learn, and if (sometimes a questionable assumption) a test or exam is intended to measure what we have learned, then what's the point of cheating? A falsely higher grade does not reflect my knowledge or understanding. I realize that the pressure for grades (to get into law school or med school, to please parents, to feel a sense of accomplishment) can be high. But personally I would rather fail with honor, than pass with dishonor. Alas, I'm apparently a minority voice.

No comments:

Post a Comment