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Ideology vs. education

Guest Blogger

Massimo Pigliucci goes to war against public ignorance of science in his new book "Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk,” recently released by the University of Chicago Press. He analyzes how the belief in bunk science occurs, looking into how scientists work and spread their knowledge and how the culture absorbs it. Here, Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, turns his sights on a related issue: the way ideology worms its way into public education and elbows aside serious scholarship. His case in point: Texas.

By Massimo Pigliucci

After years of attempting to dilute the teaching of science, the Texas Board of Education has at least temporarily succeeded in rewriting history itself to its liking. According to the newly approved standards in social studies, the United States of America is not a democracy anymore, it’s a constitutional republic (it is actually both), and the somewhat tarnished term “capitalism” (see recent Wall Street shenanigans) has been replaced by the more optimistic and certainly more patriotic sounding “free enterprise system.”

Other changes that Texas students will be exposed to include less emphasis on the civil rights movement and more on the Confederacy, and of course the “truth” that the United Nations is a questionable institution whose main effect is to undermine American sovereignty.

None of this, naturally, originates from recent scholarship in history, economics or political science, just like no serious criticism of evolution or boost for creationism -- another workhorse of past efforts by the Texas Board of Education -- has ever originated from scientific scholarship.

Rather, this is the latest disturbing result of a long and sustained effort by right wing fundamentalists to undermine public education. Of course, part of the problem is the very existence of school boards themselves, organs made up of people who often have no background in education -- let alone in science or history -- and who nonetheless end up dictating what millions of children will learn over the next several years (the Texas decision will likely affect the entire textbook industry in the United States, given how many books are sold in the Lone Star state).

Take for instance Texas School Board member Cynthia Dunbar, who is on record as saying that sending children to public schooling is like “throwing them in to the enemy's flames.” Accordingly, she home schooled her own children, but then one wonders what business does she have in ruining the education of millions of other children nationwide.

The answer comes from an article in the Guardian, where she provides a lucid, if frightful, explanation: “In Texas we have certain statutory obligations to promote patriotism and to promote the free enterprise system. There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections.” One can hardly ask for a more forthright admission of bias.

But it is the broader context of decisions like the Texas Board of Education’s that needs to be examined and understood. This is just the latest in a long history of culture wars between supporters of liberal arts education and conservative Christians whose positions are rooted in the sort of anti-intellectualism that has always pervaded American life and that has been so well characterized by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter.

The irony of this rear-guard action by conservatives is that they have learned the right sort of politically correct language, talking about uprooting the allegedly left-imposed “ideological bias” of public education, or about “teaching the controversy” (concerning creation-evolution) so that students can “freely” make up their minds about the supposed inconsistencies of evolutionary theory.

They even appropriated the phrase “critical thinking,” which could not possibly sound more oxymoronic when used to dismiss all modern scientific knowledge in favor of a 3,000-year old mythology invented by people who thought the earth was flat and the center of the universe.

Why do so many Americans fall for this sort of thinly veiled attack on science and reason? Part of the answer lies in the really bad job done by both scholars and the media at educating the public. Most academics will simply not take the time to write for the general public or talk to the media -- it won’t help them publish the technical papers and get the grants that will secure their tenure. And the media seem obsessed with controversy for its own sake.

Other than the always fashionable creation-evolution wars, recent examples include the ostensible connection between vaccines and autism (there is none), and of course the denial of planetary climate change. These are all issues about which there is a strong consensus within the relevant community of experts (biologists, medical researchers, and climate scientists, respectively), but you wouldn’t know it from the way the issues are presented by the media, or from the polls indicating between 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans reject the best findings of science.

Science itself, of course, is far from infallible. Even the best currently accepted theories, such as quantum mechanics and general relativity, may turn out to be at least partially wrong. This is inherent in the very nature of scientific research: the findings are always tentative, always open to revision because of new empirical data or new theoretical insights. It’s what makes science so fascinating and effective at what it does, discover better and better truths about how the world works.

But it is also what is difficult to convey to the public, especially when we consider the corrosive cocktail produced by mixing distrust of intellectual activities, appetite for controversy, and ideological certitude that the experts must be wrong because what they say undermines the American way of life, whatever that may mean.

Science education in the United States was at a peak during the Cold War, when the National Science Foundation designed a national science curriculum to insure that American students would no longer fall behind in science, engineering and math when compared to the rest of the world -- particularly the countries of the communist block. That effort was so successful that NSF’s curriculum was adopted in many other nations in the world, and helped science literacy on a planetary scale.

Today there is no cold war, but the fundamental reason for having an educated public remains the same: the very existence of democracy depends on it. I suggest that we need not just a national science and math curriculum, but a national curriculum of the humanities, which must include the study of philosophy, ethics, logic, and critical thinking (the latter three are really branches of the former).

As Noam Chomsky aptly put it: “citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course in intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for a more meaningful democracy.” The actions of the Texas Board of Education go into the diametrically opposite direction, and need to be reversed immediately.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: bogus science; texas school board;  
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I learned a long time ago that much of what I was taught in school had been manipulated and distorted.
Both the left and the right influence how information is filtered out. This selective editing has been going on since history itself has been recorded. You have to read broadly to really understand history or any other subject because there is almost always an agenda that’s being pushed. Even Science is affected by this. (just look at the debate on climate change)
For a great read on how educational materials are developed, warped and influenced in this country read:
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong – James Loewen
The book is written from a slightly left of center point of view but the patterns of information distortion ring true.

Posted by: motslots | June 14, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Quoting Norm Chomsky a known America hater really shows what side of the debate you are on the - the left - you are just mad that the right has stolen your playbook and now you want the federal gov to make the standards now that you are losing out on the state level.

Posted by: fuobama | June 14, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Let's start with this quote from Dunbar "There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God." No, many of us appreciate the patriotic ideology and love what Thomas Jefferson fought so hard for. When the FF created a secular Constitution with no mention of god,jesus or the bible it was noted and appreciated by us "true" patriots to this day. The current US motto was not the one the FF had, theirs was E Pluribus Unum but has now been changed by the far right to one nation under god. The FF were believers but thanks to the Enlightenment Era they were Deists and Unitarians mostly. To say the Texas educational books are biased to the left is a lie. For many years one of the biggest influences on what was acceptable in Texas schoolbooks was determined by Mel Gabler who was a far right xian. Now they've gone even farther right claiming David Barton is a history expert.

Posted by: TXatheist | June 14, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

We should let Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina secede from the Union. These states are net negative on our tax base and our culture.

Posted by: kschur1 | June 14, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Texas Has the 11th Largest Economy in the World. In the next decade or so, we'll have the largest population in the U.S.

Texas created more jobs in its own state than the rest of the other 49 states combined. Your "negative tax base" math is flawed/wrong.

The United States will default without Texas.

The facts are clear on Texas social studies. Media reports are terrible on this issue because of the strong liberal bias in the media, and you know it. has the real story from someone who attended all the Texas hearings.

Posted by: TexasTejano | June 14, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

California has the 8th largest economy in the world. California has 37 M folks and Texas has 24M and both are trending upwards about the same amount. In April, OH created 37k jobs and TX created 32k. Texas does borrow more than it pays in federal taxes compared to other new england states. Ex. NJ pays $1.00 in federal taxes and gets $.61 back in federal dollars. TX people pay $1.00 in federal taxes and TX gets back $.94 in federal the point on negative tax base is right. Texas could be given back to Mexico and would not be missed contrary to the typical texas ego. Secession is not plausible. I do not agree there is a strong liberal media bias.

Posted by: TXatheist | June 14, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

You can also see the far right fought to keep some of the things the way they wanted but had to concede to get to the level they are at that website...

Posted by: TXatheist | June 14, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem, as well, is that the MSM has actually covered "teach the controversy", and feel that giving these people equal time to academics, education experts and scientist is the fair thing to do.

Except that the willfully ignorant go by dogma, which requires no explanation. They say stuff like "God Said, I Believe It, That Settles It." Where academics, education experts and scientists need a lot more time and don't provide any cool, memorable quotes. So people are left with an image of someone with utter conviction vs. someone who is trying to bore them to death.

There's also the issue that no matter what a scientist says, there's ALWAYS a fundamentalist argument that refutes it, no matter how illogical. If the scientist - fairly and reasonably - tries to argue, the fundamentalist will scream at the top of their lungs about religious tolerance. Again, makes great video and soundbites.

Until the MSM stops thinking it's the fair thing to do to give equal airtime to these people who spout outright lies, the downward spiral is going to continue.

I'm not anti-religion, mind you - I'm anti willful-ignorance. I've known plenty of scientists and educators with sophisticated and deep faith and they are deeply respectful of those who don't share their faith. These right-wing conservatives don't share that trait.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | June 16, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Everyone that uses the term BookWorm will love this Man (Richard Mitchell)
The Underground Grammarian
Geo. Will called him a "clensing fire"
And Mitchell's quote in The Graves of Acadamie got this Texan headed in the right way of education, ie, to consider the other side of the story, seek clarity, (read Noam) and question everything.
in the Graves of Acadamie Mitchell writes:

It is possible, of course, to keep educated people unfree in a state of
civilization, but it’s much easier to keep ignorant people unfree in a state of civilization. And it is easiest of all if you can convince the ignorant that
they are educated, for you can thus make them collaborators in your disposition of their liberty and property. That is the institutionally assigned task, for all that it may be invisible to those who
perform it, of American public education.

'nuff said.

Posted by: LAWSON2K | June 17, 2010 2:20 AM | Report abuse

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