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    Archive for "Dec 02 2011"

    Keep Austin somewhat less weird

    Lucky LaRue, Altoids That Bite, 2009. At the South Austin Popular Culture Center. This is the kind of weirdness we like. There are kinds not so likeable. Used with permission of the artist. Image source: redbubble.com

    it hurts a bit that I’ve never been to weird Austin, Republic of Texas. Alas for me: Everyone I know who’s been there says it’s a fine weird town. But perhaps some in Austin should work to make it a bit less weird. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for weirdness. I would even call myself pro-weird. But there is a class of weirdness that doesn’t belong anywhere, even in Austin: creationist weirdness.

    Texas has hard a tough time with creationist forces, with teachers who want to “teach the controversy” where there is none; with a governor who denies evolution, calling it a theory that’s “out there”; with a state school board that tries to tell science publishers how science works. They’ve had their battles, and so far they’ve turned out well. In fact, they thought it was over: In August, the Texas Freedom Network declared “A Final Victory for Science” in light of the adoption of first-rate supplemental materials for science educators.

    Now it appears that science education in Texas may be in trouble again. According to a post published Monday by the National Center for Science Education, “At its most recent meeting, the Texas state board of education considered a proposed schedule on which new science textbooks would be adopted in 2013, in time for classroom use in 2014.”

    What does this mean? According to the TFN, it means Texas could soon be dragged “back into the textbook wars over evolution.”

    The fear is warranted. Earlier this year, when the relatively small-scale process of choosing supplementary materials was being conducted, concerted efforts were made to “correct” the adopted materials by a creationist on the review panel. Happily, the effort was stymied and the citizens of Texas retained their hold on real science education.

    Or at least they retained their hold on real science textbooks. Good textbooks are a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful education of any kind. Also required are teachers who are not afraid to teach. And that is a far more difficult problem, and more widespread.

    According to a study published by Science in January, only 28% of all biology teachers consistently teach evolution, 13% consistently teach creationism (intelligent design), and 60% waffle around in the middle somewhere, consistently failing to present evolution as the fully-established scientific theory it is. Among the 60% are those who “teach the controversy,” fooling kids into thinking that what is not science, is science; that science and opinion are interchangeable; and that there is scientific disagreement about evolution, when in fact there is none.

    Bad textbooks are sometimes a problem. Teachers who do not understand science or are themselves creationists or are simply afraid are a deeper problem. Where does all of this start?

    I’ll tell you: In our churches. Many churches are responsible for perpetuating the lie that evolution is scientifically controversial; many are responsible for painting science as intrinsically godless; many actively work against science education. But many more sit by in silence, not asking questions about evolution, thinking it doesn’t matter or being afraid of the answers.

    Now for a little good news: earlier this year, the John Templeton Foundation put nearly one million of its dollars into local churches, with the goal of bringing science inside the church by empowering parishioners — mostly science professionals — who have personally reconciled the claims of science and their religious commitments. These churchgoers will be leading classes on evolution in their churches, advising church staffs on how to incorporate science into curriculum at all levels of instruction, holding forums in churches on a range of scientific topics, and generally bringing the excitement of modern science to congregations everywhere.

    Including, I presume, Texas. Here’s to all those in Austin and in less weird cities across the country who are working on legislatures, on school boards, on faculties, and yes, even in churches, to end the tiresome war between science and religion.

    Death is interesting: retail edition

    The deadest mall in America: Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois. Nice video tours here. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

    Disclaimer This post doesn’t quite fit with the religion-n-science emphasis of psnt.net, but I’ve decided to put it up because dead malls are a seasonally-appropriate metaphor for this week’s theme — end times — and because I haven’t been able to get the specter of Dixie Square out of my mind this week. Maybe this will exorcise it and help me get on with the regularly scheduled program.

    I live between two malls.

    To my west: Lenox Square, that cathedral of conspicuous consumption. This is Atlanta’s mall, where you go to see people who crave being seen. From big-time rap stars to regular look-at-me’s, Lenox is the place in Atlanta for people-watching, and has been since I was a boy. Then there are the stores. Lots of them, from Bloomingdale’s to Prada to Fendi to a nice roomy Apple outlet. The place is always busy. Across the street is another high-end mall, Phipps Plaza (Tiffany, Saks, Versace, Legoland). Together they form one of the most profitable and popular retail centers in America. When you stand at the corner of Peachtree and Lenox Roads, you stand at the center of glittering capitalist success.

    To my east: North DeKalb Mall. Not so glittering. I spent some time there on Black Friday, hanging out while my son competed in a chess tournament. The tournament was held in a vacated mattress store, and the kids competed among enormous Sealy murals featuring larger-than-life and very happy sleeping women (no men). It was a little surreal. As was the rest of the mall. An empty choo-choo train, a food court dining area much too large for the two or three eateries still open, bare kiosks, and many closed storefronts greet visitors. Yet there is a Burlington Coat Factory. And a Ross and a Payless. And a decent AMC. And, inexplicably, a Macy’s (it can’t last).

    There were people too; it was Black Friday, after all. But even so there weren’t many: no wait at Wendy’s at lunchtime, plenty of open acreage for my three-year-old to run around. The people who were there were interesting, though. It was a more racially and culturally diverse crowd than what you find at Lenox, which tends to be black-and-white. Lots of Middle Eastern families, Indian families, Hispanic families. And I do mean families. These are not Buckhead singles with cash to burn. These are not look-at-me’s. These are people with work to do and mouths to feed.

    What people there were. North DeKalb’s not dead but, despite some rumblings a few years ago about Costco coming to save the day, it’s on the way down. Thanks, I’m sure, to the Recession That Won’t Go Away.

    Since that day at North DeKalb I’ve become fascinated with the idea of dead and dying malls. And guess what? I’m not alone. This is the glory of the Internet: You think you’ve got a weird fixation, then you google it and lo! — there are hundreds or thousands out there who harbor the same fascination. Thus the formation of online communities that champion everything from Waffle House to 1970’s breakfast cereals to unspeakable sexual fetishes to surprisingly particular bigotries. Then there’s deadmalls.com, established by and for folks “whose idea of a compelling weekend is to drive hundreds of miles to take the pulse of an endangered mall.”

    Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

    Apparently the deadest of dead malls is Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois. It opened for business in 1965 (same year North DeKalb opened) and closed its doors in 1979. Apart from its brief use for that spectacular car chase in the Blues Brothers, it has been closed ever since. Open for 14 years, shuttered for 32. Apparently they’ve tried to raze the thing repeatedly but have had problems doing so (for 32 years?! — unbelievable). Its multiple caved-in roofs ensure that not only are there trees pushing up through the parking lot, but through the interior flooring as well. Everything destroyable by baseball bat and crowbar has been destroyed. All things not bolted down — and some that were — have been stolen. Today Dixie Square is a crime magnet and a squatter’s paradise.

    Will North DeKalb end up like Dixie Square? No, one may say, it takes a special combination of ineptness and bad luck for any structure that big to be left empty for over 30 years. Will Lenox end up like North DeKalb? No, one may say, Atlanta’s a big city and there’s plenty of money in its bloodstream, even in today’s economy. Also, Lenox draws people from all over the southeast, especially this time of year.

    But even Lenox could one day end up a dead mall. In fact, in keeping with this week’s theme, I say: It will. We’re long-view people here at psnt.net. Lenox will be one day be bulldozed or left to rot, just like Dixie Square. Things don’t last, including our most glittering cities and even our fair planet. It sounds goofy as hell, sure. But it’s true, and every so often it’s good to meditate on impermanence.

    I’m fascinated. The folks at deadmalls.com are fascinated. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s dark comedy: seeing through the uniquely American notion of shopping as a kind of certification. Maybe it’s the obviousness of the metaphor: consumerism kills. Maybe it’s the draw of empty spaces. And maybe it’s just because death, in all its forms, is so endlessly interesting.


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