Ideology vs. education
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.
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republic (it is actually both), and the somewhat tarnished term “capitalism” (see recent Wall Street shenanigans) has been replaced by the more optimistic and certainly more patriotic sounding “free enterprise system.”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.
Steven E. Levingston
June 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Blogger | Tags: bogus science; texas school board;
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