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…

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5 Comments

  1. Vince

     /  April 16, 2021

    First, I’d like to say that I really benefit from this blog. For me, the problem with getting rid of bad teachers would be where to draw the line. Given the low regard that so many have for the profession, the low compensation, and the low expectations, it’s not surprising that teachers are as vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking as so many others these days. There are lots of things that folks believe that I think are misguided, but I’m not sure that holding those beliefs would necessarily disqualify them from teaching (think of transubstantiation or the law of karma). Public school teachers need to have competency in their area of instruction, and need to adhere to a strict ethical code in their interactions with students. They should receive regular training and be able to show competency. They should have a living wage and a humane workload. The extent to which their public persona should impact their employment should, I think, depend on how it affects their interactions with students. This seems to be a much more complicated question, but I would think that there are established guidelines for these sorts of things. How to muster the will to fix our broken educational system in this polarized world is beyond me.

  2. Hey Vince,

    Yes, summoning the will to make this change is difficult. I do think, however, that the survival of our children depends on this as much as on doing something about global warming.

    A few points: I’m not sure I’d agree that teachers are always poorly compensated. In CT, at least, the average annual income of a public school teacher is about $75 thousand. And those teacher generally work six hour days, no more than 140 days a week after they have tenure–I know many teachers, and they are proud of the fact that due to technology they no longer do things like correct homework or grade papers or even prepare classes. They work six hours, and that’s it. Also, there are 180 school days a year, but in the district I live in their contract allows them up to 40 paid days off, and the teachers I speak to say that they make sure to take “every day they are owed.” As a result, our school district is always desperate for substitutes (who make about $9 thousand a year). Now, compare this income, for about 840 hours of work, to that of an Amazon warehouse worker who works about 2000 hours for about $30 thousand dollars. I have trouble getting too worked up about the poor compensation of school teachers, who have absolute job security and a guaranteed pension as well.

    But that aside, I think the underlying issue is what we want schooling to do. I believe “competence” in training future workers will not be enough. Education needs to teach people how to evaluate truth claims, and how to engage with reality. This is what someone is not able to do if she happens to be so deluded as to believe that a secrete cabal of satan-worshipping, cannibalistic, child molesters is running the world. Or even if he happens to believe that the last election really was “stolen” by voter fraud. (Or that there was no holocaust, or that slaves were really helped by slavery, etc.).

    I would also say that anyone who believes in the popular understanding of Karma as a magical force is not competent to teach. They are free to have that belief, and may make adequate Amazon warehouse workers, but they cannot work as teachers.

    Let me offer another analogy. I recently spoke to a psychiatrist who regularly spends her first session with her patients (at least, this is what she told me she does) explaining that their depression is not a result of their thoughts or their conditions of life, but of an imbalance of neurotransmitters in their brain. Now, the evidence is at this point overwhelming that this is in fact not the case: there is no correlation between neurotransmitter levels and depressive symptoms at all. My poison would be that a psychiatrist who remains unaware of this evidence, who ignore the science because her profit depends on prescribing medications that have a success rate about the same as placebos, is not competent to do that job, and should lose her license.

    I would say the same standard should apply to teachers. We can’t reduce their interaction with students to a code of ethics. They need to be able to teach students how to think better, and if they cannot think well themselves then they clearly will not be able to do this.

    I know, of course, that the current goal of education is in fact NOT to teach students to think better. This is in fact what education hopes to avoid. So I have no real expectation that anyone will get behind my suggestion–most people are happy with teachers who think poorly, because they will produce graduates who think poorly, and this seems to be in general the goal.

    Again, I wouldn’t have trouble with drawing the line as a score of 600 on the old logic section of the GRE exam. It’s a modest line, I think.

  3. Vince

     /  April 17, 2021

    Hi Tom,

    I share your skepticism. I imagine that if a condition for continued employment would be regular testing to assure that teachers are capable of reason, like the GRE, and that they understand the ethical guidelines, and that they are competent in their areas of instruction, teachers would comply in order to keep their cushy jobs. As I said, I think that might actually help and would support it. Sadly, there are lots of folks who can ace the GRE who also hold irrational beliefs. The problem I can see with trying to police peoples’ beliefs is that we would need e.s.p. to know if they actually believe in e.s.p. Regrettably, some sort of ethical code related to public behavior and classroom interaction may be the best we can do. Especially regrettable, because such a code would need to be developed within our dysfunctional political context. I suppose we could decide do away with a teacher’s right to privacy and monitor/regulate their browser usage to curate which ideas are most often present in their minds (each time I log into my school computer I agree to something like that). I’m not a huge fan of that option, but do think that there is clearly something wrong with the way the internet is affecting peoples’ minds that needs to be addressed. I wish we could trust those in power to make better decisions – to sort this out through honest discourse and reliance on an enlightened interpretation of the latest data, but that doesn’t seem to be working. It’s frustrating.

  4. Oh, I don’t think we need to go so far as using esp or monitoring browser usage. After all, I read a lot of crap on the web about QAnon, but I don’t believe it. Only when someone publicly declares their belief in esp does it need to be used as evidence for their incompetence.

    And I may be overly optimistic, but I believe that those who can think more logically are less likely I to believe absurd things. Not that they never will, but it is less likely. I may be wrong about this—I do know some successful scientists who believe, outside their own fields, in the most arrant nonsense.

    There may be no perfect solution to this, but to my mind that doesn’t justify leaving things as they are now. It’s like saying that since there’s no perfect cure for cancer we shouldn’t bother treating it at all…(okay, not exactly like that, but similar).

    Of course, I don’t really expect that anyone will take what I say seriously enough to do anything about any of this. As I said, I don’t think most people care at all about how young people are educated—just about how much it costs.

  5. Vince

     /  April 17, 2021

    Seems like we are in complete agreement. Too bad we aren’t in charge, but I also am committed to continuing to try.

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