Is Public Education Worth Saving?

There have been a number of books published in the last year or two about the threat to public education. Books like A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (Schneider & Berkshire) and Schoolhouse Burning (Black) warn us that public education is being taken over by corporate interests, and that taxpayer support of public schools is declining. That this would lead to a world in which corporations decide who gets job training and who doesn’t, and in which no possibility of critical thought of any kind would exist. I think the authors of such books are right about this.

But I’m not sure we should be so upset about it.

Because this is already the case, and has been for decades (centuries?). The current state of public education is so dismal, that no education at all is taking place anyway. It will be impossible to defend this system against a take over by the right, which at least wants to use the school system to train competent workers for corporations.

My own education in public schools was quite bad. But it seems to me to have gotten much, much worse in recent decades. Let me start with an anecdote.

A few years ago, when I was still teaching college courses here in Connecticut, I taught a “seminar” class meant for sophomores (although all but two students in the class were actually juniors). As part of a discussion of what Robert Scholes calls “texts of power,” I decided to examine the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. I began by suggesting we had to consider the rhetorical strategy in historical context, so I offhandedly asked when this was written. None of the eighteen students in the class knew. They did not know who wrote it. When I told them, they seemed to recognize the date as having some significance, but they weren’t sure why. Then I asked who the signers of this document were declaring independence from. On this they were much more confident: the communists!

Now, these were not underprivileged kids from inner city schools. These were affluent kids from suburban school districts in Connecticut, several of them from the town I live in. This is a university that, to be frank, is a very expensive private school that accepts affluent kids who don’t have the grades or SAT scores to get into better colleges, but can afford the quarter-million dollar price tag. So, we might say that these students aren’t very representative of what public secondary education does. Sure, they aren’t. But if even the worst students do not know such basic facts about the American Revolution then the level of education required to graduate high school is dismally low.

Recently, my daughter came home from school and informed me that what she had done in her “social studies” class was listen to her teacher give a lecture that sounded like it must have come right off of Fox News, about why universal health care is bad (the reason: it gives those lazy poor people the same care as “us” hard working employed people, and surely they don’t “deserve” the same health care as “we” do). This, the teacher explained, is why socialism is bad and capitalism is the best economic system. My daughter was appalled, but apparently none of her classmates thought to question this obvious “truth”. In her Language Arts class they read a pirated copy of a comic-book version of Hamlet, then watched The Lion King because it is really “exactly the same story as Hamlet”. (No, it isn’t even remotely similar—but that’s another argument).

In Math and Science classes, all instruction is already being done online, on websites, where the students sit and click at multiple-guess questions while the teacher’s job is merely to ensure that the technology is working.

My point here is that the current school system isn’t worth defending. And we live in what is proclaimed to be one of the best school districts in the state. My daughters’ elementary school was named a national “Merit School”. From what I was told by students when I used to teach at a local state university, the education at public schools in the poorer towns is far worse.

So what do we do about this? My suggestion is that we need to invest the energy we see being directed against the defunding and privatization of education toward making our public school worth saving.

Three initial suggestions for change:

1) Stop hiring education majors to teach. At least until education departments have dropped their current mantra: “smart people don’t make good teachers.” The assumption, which I call the Spock Myth (although younger people might call it the Sheldon Myth) is that intelligent people are all emotionless and socially inept, so unable to “relate” to students. It is time to get over such nonsense, and start hiring people to teach because of their high intelligence and ability to explain things clearly—not because of some purported empathic ability. Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that a teacher who struggles with math or grammar can better teach it to students because she or he will be better able to “relate” to the difficulties the student is having. Nobody can teach something they do not themselves understand far better than their students.

2) Stop the current practice, common in all affluent areas where teachers are well-paid, of teaching jobs being inherited through the family. In a world where secure six-figure jobs with great health benefits and guaranteed pensions are rare, it is understandably tempting for parents to want to pass their jobs on to their less competent (and so less employable) children. In the district I live in, every teacher my daughters have had for the last sixteen years had a parent or other relative who worked in the school district and helped them secure the job. None of them were competent in the field they were hired to teach in. We, like many parents in the district, rely on a lot of tutoring and private lessons to educate our kids. We need a rule that if you have any relative working in the district (or even if you went to school in that district), then you cannot teach there. End nepotism, and start hiring teachers based solely on who has the highest test scores and best grades.

3) Stop counting “Arts of Teaching” master’s degrees. These are basically bullshit degrees that are money-makers for universities, and don’t teach anything at all about the content of the discipline. They assume that anything can be taught, even if you don’t know it yourself, with the right “pedagogical strategies”. These strategies usually are limited to whatever “works” in the classroom—which is to say whatever keeps students quite and in their seats. A favorite pedagogical strategy for teaching Literature is handing out crayons and having student color pictures. In many other disciplines, playing games and watching lots of YouTube videos “works” well. We need teachers who are experts in what they are teaching, not in such absurd “pedagogies.”

Okay, that’s all I have the stomach for today. I doubt I’ll find any supporters for this plan. Most people are very enthusiastic about keeping education out of the schoolroom—after all, an easy “A” is what will get your kid into that competitive college, and on their way to the job at Amazon or Google, right? Why worry about whether they have any knowledge of how the world works, or any ability to think correctly?

But the world is headed quickly to destruction. If we want our kids to have a future at all, we should put down the iPhones and get involved in demanding an actual education for them.

In closing: does anyone know of any groups anywhere actually trying to save education? I don’t mean right-wing groups trying to “save” if from supposedly “liberal” teachers (in fact, as a group, educators are the most politically conservative of the professions). I don’t mean those trying to “save” teacher salaries and protect their right to keep their job despite inability to do it. I mean any group demanding that real education takes place? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Why Most of Us Cannot Think About Truth

So what would it mean to think well about truth claims?

It seems that even scientists don’t generally do this very well.  One may be well “trained” to indoctrinate children in the current scientific dogma without at all learning to think about the alethic status of what is being taught. 

Unless we can learn to think better, there is little hope that we can stave off environmental disaster, much less overcome the rapidly growing economic oppression as fewer and fewer people own more and more wealth, and the majority of the world population is sunk into poverty and despair.  These crises are not only related, but are both related, dependent upon, the inability of most of the population to think correctly about what is true about the world.  

To explain what I mean by this, I’m going to revisit an essay I read almost thirty years ago, and which shaped my thought about this issue.  The essay is a talk, given at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, by Evelyn Fox Keller.  Keller is a scientist, and a philosopher and historian of science, who taught for many years a M.I.T.  I first encountered her writing when she published an essay in Poetics Today, a journal I read regularly in the eighties and early nineties.  Back when academic journals were printed on paper and found in the current periodical rooms of university libraries, I spent many afternoons sitting in the Melville Library reading the latest issues of a couple of dozen journals.  Keller’s essay caught my interest because it engaged what was then a fad in the discipline of English: the obsession with anything that claimed to deal with both Literature and science.  There were countless conferences, articles, books, and course titles that dealt in some way with the two. The general underlying myth supporting the craze was the idea that in some important way science was a discourse in the same way that Literature was, so English professors could teach the scientists a thing or two.  We read lots of rubbish by English professors writing about things they know nothing about, from molecular biology to quantum theory.  

Keller’s essay seemed to me to be a voice of reason in what was an increasingly shrill shouting of postmodern rubbish.  In English, it had become academic death to question relativism, and here was a philosopher of science pointing out clearly and cogently exactly what was wrong with the Foucaultian assumptions that had become absolute dogma for the humanities at the time.  In short, as Keller put it, we need to understand the “crucial difference” between discourses about human action and scientific discourse: “material things” may be “available to be called forth by the names we give them, but” they are “constrained in their responses by their own laws of behavior”.  That is to say, when we choose how we want to manipulate the world our options are limited not by the forms of our discourse, but by the extra-discursive reality that is indifferent to what we say about it. 

The essay in Poetics Today prompted me to read her book Secrets of Life/Secrets of Death: essays on language, gender and science.  Recently, I revisited the essay that was originally a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study, entitled “Critical Silences in Scientific Discourse: Problems Of Form and Re-Form”.  She begins her talk by listing what she takes to be some obvious truths  about the nature of science that she does not feel she needs to argue for.  The first of these is that “scientific theories neither mirror nor correspond to reality”; instead, they are models which serve to helps us to intervene in material reality. They are, she says, “tools” meant to “enable us to bump against, to perturb, to transform that material reality”.   In rereading this essay, I was struck by how much of what Keller argues has seemed to me quite obvious for at least the last thirty years.  So obvious, that I had forgotten having read this essay until just recently, and when I wrote my book Indispensable Goods I took as fundamentally obvious truths many of the assertions Keller makes, without even recalling when or how I came to believe these things.  (Should I ever revise that book, I would want to include Keller in my list of suggested readings to pursue the topic of what I call intentional realism).

Now, Keller is absolutely a realist. She is convinced that there are limits to what kinds of things we can do, and those limits are not in our discourses but in the nature of reality itself.  Nevertheless, she does believe that our scientific theories are socially constructed, and that even the most effective ones we have are in fact optional.  Her position on this is worth quoting at some length:

To the extent that scientific theories do in fact “work”—that is, lead to action on things and people that, in extreme cases (for example, nuclear weaponry), appear to be independent of any belief system—they must be said to possess a kind of “adequacy” in relation to a world that is not itself constituted symbolically—a world we might designate as “residual reality.”  I take this world of “residual reality” to be vastly larger than any possible representation we might construct.  Accordingly, different perspectives, different languages will lead to theories that not only attach to the real in different ways (that is, carve the world at different joints), but they will attach to different parts of the real—and perhaps even differently to the same parts.

What is at issue here is that any scientific theory of a real object could be changed, in fact must be changed, if we decide that the thing we want to do in the world is different.  A theory is only a model, and the same entity can be described in different models, which may include different or more causal factors, make reality “look” different, and so give us different tools to engage the world.  If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if the only tool you have is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, everything looks like potentially profitable technology.

The overall point here is that we have been fooled into thinking that the kind of science we study is dictated by the nature of reality.  Keller elsewhere uses the metaphor of science as an ever-expanding sphere of light—whatever we learn contributes to the growth of this sphere, until all of reality will be illuminated.  Her point is that this metaphor perpetuates a myth that is an impediment to gaining control of science.  Because we do can never include all of  “residual reality” in our model, and what we do include depends upon what we want to do.  As she says, “with sufficient interest we could develop representations of the natural phenomena adequate to the task of changing the world in different ways”, focusing, in her examples, on better rearing rather than better genetic manipulation our offspring, or on solar energy rather than nuclear power.  

What we fail to understand is that even the most basic questions of purportedly “pure” science are determined by the laws of profit.  We only seek models to do what the (increasingly small) minority of wealthy and powerful men want to see done.   Unless we begin to teach young people that this is how science really works, what it really does, they may, like my generation did, simply assume that what science tells us is the only tool in the toolbox.  And there is no choice but to become endlessly poorer, endlessly more oppressed, and resign ourselves to being at the mercy of the whims of half a dozen or so trillionairs.  

Truth claims in science aren’t all equal because they can be judged by the kind of intervention in the world they are designed to facilitate.

Truth claims in the human realm aren’t equal because some of them simply are mistaken about the reality they claim to describe, and so they cannot possibly effect the interventions they hope to.

Until we begin to teach our children to think well enough to understand these statement (which, I believe from past experience, are incomprehensible to almost all adults in America today), we have no hope of a future world our children can survive in.  A little dramatic?  Maybe, but it is simply and unfortunately the truth. 

To Save the World, Let’s Fire Some Teachers!

The New York Times has given a lot of space to the case of an elementary school teacher in California who is facing a challenge from some parents in her district because of her participation in QAnon and in the January 6 “insurrection” in Washington D.C.

The concern seems to be that even subjecting her to an “investigation” (which is all that is being sought at this point) would violate her right to free speech.

This is the kind of thinking that has left me quite distraught about the state of the world our children will have to live in. Certainly we ought to have a right to demand that those who teach our children can distinguish reality from fantasy, right? One may have the right to proclaim a belief in alien abductions, but we ought to also be entitled to say we don’t want someone so deluded to teach our children. Because teaching is certainly different from other kinds of jobs. The very job of a teacher is to aid children in learning to distinguish reality from opinion. More specifically, it ought to be the role of education to train young minds in how to evaluate truth claims, and to determine what kind of thing counts as valid evidence. Surely, someone who believe in QAnon, (or in astrology, or e.s.p., or alien abductions, as well as those who deny the holocaust or the impact of slavery in America, etc.) is demonstrably incapable of evaluating truth claims, and so incapable of teaching our children how to do this.

What I am arguing here is that this is not at all a free speech issue, but an issue of competence. That is, part of the job of teaching is teaching how to think properly, and those unable to do so certainly cannot teach others to do it. We wouldn’t allow those who cannot add and subtract to teach math. We shouldn’t (although we generally do) allow illiterates to teach high school English. And we should not allow anyone, ever, who cannot think clearly about what constitutes good evidence and a sound argument, to teach.

Maybe we need to bring back the old GRE logic test, and use it as a criteria for hiring teachers? Of course, almost all current public school teachers would lose their jobs if they had to score above 600 on the GRE logic test. But would that be a bad thing?

Only teaching our kids to think better can save our world. We ought to be giving this the very highest priority. But most people don’t seem to care.

The obvious problem we face here is that it requires some education to even know the range of possible or acceptable epistemological justifications. Most people just wouldn’t know what counts as a valid truth claim and what is beyond the pale, obviously false. Surely, we don’t want to say that anyone who opposes received opinion cannot be allowed to teach—questioning receive opinion ought to be the goal. But we want to allow only questioning that has some kind of justification beyond mere opinion, fantasy, or wish.

Related to this is the obsessive misuse of the term “bias.” In our culture, anyone who believes something because they have seen empirical evidence and heard logical arguments is accused of having a “bias.” The only “unbiased” position is one that is not influenced by anything so horribly oppressive as concrete evidence or logic. If you can believe something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you are now considered to be “unbiased.”

Perhaps it is time we return to the days when an educated person was one who changed her mind to meet the facts? I would argue this could only be done by firing any teacher who accepts QAnon as true. Or believes in astrology. Or thinks there was no holocaust. The list could go on. This is not a matter of free speech, but of competence to do the job they are getting paid for. We wouldn’t necessarily fire someone from a job as a truck driver because of a belief in e.s.p., but we ought to fire anyone from a job as a scientist who believes in such things—they have no ability to evaluate evidence, and cannot do the job they have been hired for.

When my daughter’s language arts teacher thought that prepositions were what are actually called coordinating conjunctions, and didn’t know the meaning of the word assonance, I thought she should be fired for incompetence. When my other daughter’s math teacher told her that the way to multiply 25 by 24 was to “break it down” like this: 20x20x5x4, I thought she should be fired for incompetence. In both cases, the argument was that we cannot fire teachers merely for not knowing the subject matter they are paid to teach. Is this argument convincing to other people? It seems to be.

If so, then surely my argument that teachers who have no capacity to evaluate truth claims should be fired would gain no support. I suppose we’ll just have to let them take us into the next dark age. Will any glimmer of intelligent thought survive? Where?

But such speculation is the subject of science fiction…