#Occupyhistory 1785: “Profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice”

“The more has been learnt from such education, the more it becomes necessary to unlearn. The more has been taught in this way, of so much the more must the mind be emptied before true wisdom can enter.”

One wonders if these problems in the K-12 history curriculum are not unrelated to those in math and science: America’s sore spots according to the results of the 2009 PISA test. (See previous post.)  Interestingly, Price argued that the habits of assessing “both sides of every question” was best fostered by “the study of mathematics” because

In these sciences no one ever thinks of giving his assent to a proposition till he can clearly understand it and see it proved by a fair deduction from propositions previously understood and proved. In these sciences the mind is inured to close and patient attention, shewn the nature of just reasoning, and taught to form distinct ideas and to expect clear evidence in all cases before belief. They furnish, therefore, the best exercise for the intellectual powers and the best defence against that credulity and precipitation and confusion of ideas which are the common sources of error.”

Are students getting this in class? For now, let’s put aside the issue of the most mathematically and scientifically gifted undergraduates and graduate students eschewing K-12 teaching for engineering, finance and the university tenure track. Could it be that parents, ever prone to criticize teachers who give “absurdly difficult assignments,” are partly to blame for lax coverage of materials?

Or could it also be that teachers, intimidated by “controversy,” fail to exercise their rights as instructors—especially when addressing such topics as evolution and climate change? (Note that these are concepts that have been accepted by the vast majority of the civilized world.)  According to a poll of 60,000 teachers from the National Science Teachers Association, 82% faced skepticism about global warming from their students and 54% from parents. That probably helps explain why Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Oklahoma have variously introduced more instructional materials that either question climate change or deny it altogether. This skepticism towards climate change has–not surprisingly–also been accompanied by skepticism on evolution.  In fact, the Texas Board of Education has recently mandated that instructors cover “all sides” of the debate on evolution and climate change: no doubt much cause of pride for the president of the TBOE, who boasted that “Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution.” You betcha!

By now, it’s painfully clear that education, from history through science,  is turning into a useful tool for conservatives. Slice a bit here, add a bit there. Perhaps that’s why so many—like Rick Santorum last week—have eagerly projected their own illicit desires on those oh-so-terrible college professors,  with their proclivity for “liberal indoctrination.”  (Takes one indoctrinator to know another, right?) As Chris Mooney has astutely pointed out in his recent article, The Ugly Delusions of the Educated Conservative, “educated” Republicans and Tea Partiers are actually more resistant to empirical data than their less educated counterparts; their familiarity and ease with a range of talking points, absorbed through television, internet, and other literature, provides them with ready tools for argument. Indeed, one might hazard to guess that those who have been schooled at the very institutions associated with “liberal elites” (e.,g Ann Coulter, Cornell U; Bill O’Reilly, Harvard; Pat Robertson, Yale U) have proven particularly adept at fooling their masses. That’s why they can dazzle unsuspecting audiences with such choice zingers as “the fact is, global warming has not been proven. There is a wide range of factors that have not been taken into account.” (Without noting, of course, that three decades of data overwhelmingly supports this phenomenon.)

As such, conservatives know that it’s inconvenient for students to learn about the founding fathers, slavery or no slavery—lest they discover that this nation was really and truly founded on liberalism. They know it’s even less convenient for them to learn critical thinking skills—lest they begin dissecting and dismantling the gospel according to the GOP:

(1) The Government can’t create jobs.  (Tell that to FDR, who created four million jobs in three months.)

(2) Tax cuts reduce the deficit.  (Doesn’t it bother them that a man named “Laffer” came up with this one?)

(3) A fetus is a baby.

(4) The poor have too much money.

(5) Cutting the federal deficit will end the recession.

(6) The rich are incentivized by tax cuts, while the poor are incentivized by lower wages, no benefits, an end to the minimum wage, and unemployment.

(7) An unwanted child is God’s will.

(8) Everyone who wants health insurance has it.

(9) The problem with education is the teachers.

(10) The “free market” satisfies every human need.

(11) There is no discrimination in America anymore.

(12) The distribution of wealth and income are irrelevant.

(Credit for #1-12 on this list goes to Alan Grayson.)

(13) That Rick Santorum is not a snob. (Because seriously folks, who else but a snob actively discourages others from attaining/obtaining what he has? Santorum has a B.A., M.B.A., and J.D.)

Finally, they know it’s inconvenient to learn about global warming (to quote Al Gore), lest that get in the way of the lucrative gas and oil industries which funds the GOP. Education, let’s face it, bears far too many inconvenient truths: life must not be made any more taxing (pun intended) for those hard-working 1%ers.

Let’s return to item #9 on Grayson’s list of myths: “The problem with education is the teachers.” This is arguably at the crux of our present issues. At first glance, blame for this type of thinking would seem to fall squarely on the shoulders of Price himself, as gleaned from the following passage in Observations:

An unoccupied and simple mind is infinitely preferable to a mind warped by systems, and the entire want of learning better than a learning such as most of that is which hitherto has been sought and admired. A learning which puffs up, while in reality it is nothing but profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice.”

Was Price dissing education a la Coulter, Limbaugh, or O’Reilly? Not really. It’s important to remember that he was writing during a period when quackery abounded and English universities were notorious for lax standards (particularly when compared to Dissenting academies or Dutch and German universities); this was a time when Oxford and Cambridge had not yet embarked on a rigorous revamping of their set examinations. (Incidentally, those who proposed such measures in Price’s time were viewed as dangerous radicals–including Price’s Cambridge friend and colleague, John Jebb.)  Ironically enough, however, his skepticism towards academe and its “isms”  would soon be turned on Price himself and increasingly aimed at liberals.

It is indeed jarring to find conservatives borrowing the very skepticism and rhetoric of their dreaded 18th-century enlightenment: one best exemplified by the parents and boards of education who have no qualms about dictating school curricula despite their overall lack of advanced education in the subjects being taught and even less classroom  experience.  After all, as Price wisely opined,  “The more has been learnt from such education, the more it becomes necessary to unlearn. The more has been taught in this way, of so much the more must the mind be emptied before true wisdom can enter.”  Our task, then, is to rid ourselves of conservative misinformation and misrepresentation, or to unlearn, in Price’s words, “profounder ignorance and more inveterate prejudice.”

So what can we do?

Perhaps it’s time for teachers to put their collective foot down and demand respect from all quarters, beginning with parents.  “No, we are not going to water down our standards so Suzy can get an A. We are not going to dilute our assignments so Johnny will have more time to participate in Little League. And we are most certainly not going to forgo evolution simply because you don’t happen believe in it.” It’s also time for the rest of us to respect and compensate our teachers far more than we used to. We can agonize all we want about the poor state of K-12 instruction, but so long as teachers do not enjoy a respect commensurate with their endeavors, the best and brightest will not feel encouraged to pursue this highly (if not most) important of professions: unlike, say, in South Korea, China, and Japan where teachers are accorded far more respect and salaries comparable to those of scientists and engineers. Rather than heaping obscene compensation in the hundreds of thousands on those who don’t actually teach or have experience doing so—i.e., M.B.A. principals or superintendents-—it’s time we offered higher pay to teachers themselves.

Then–and only then–can our students can catch up again with their peers abroad and–gasp–even outperform them.

Copyright © 2012 HISTORY IS ON OUR SIDE (Frances A. Chiu)