Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Defense of Education

Authoritarianism does not work for educated people. When the leader says something absurd, people who are able to judge for themselves remain unpersuaded. This is the simplest political fact there is.

The educational system works from bottom to top to produce experts -- individuals who are knowledgeable in their field, who know not only the subject matter but the research methods that produced that knowledge, alternative theories, the history of the topic and ideas that have been tested and discarded. These experts know when to trust a fact and when to doubt it even if it is supported by some evidence or arguments. Their opinion is not based on confident-sounding assertions of truth, but on the actual fact that they know what they are talking about. Experts can disagree among themselves and they can be wrong, they are typically constantly adjusting their beliefs in response to new information. An authority is a person with power, whether it is deserved or not. Non-expert authorities can appeal to faith or common sense arguments, metaphors and analogies, and they can be right sometimes, but there is no system behind them for validating and providing the most erudite and up-to-date knowledge of the time.

The consequence of course is that dictators oppose education everywhere around the world. The universities come under attack, teachers and professors come under attack, as well as artists, activists, scientists, and innovators; people are mocked for using "ten-cent words," and the value of an education is literally measured in terms of the dollars that it adds to a student's lifetime earnings.

Job-training programs are worthwhile but they are not education.

By defining the value of knowledge within an economical frame, authoritarians are able to steer students away from intellectual pursuits such as philosophy, literature, and basic theoretical scientific research, and towards majors that will help them find a place in the ongoing corporate system of business. The goal is to reduce intelligent human beings to consumers and producers, unquestioning participants in an economy where wealth continues to flow toward the already-rich. Discouraging the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself is a way to keep the population ignorant and dependent on authoritarian leaders who can say "Only I can solve these problems."

It appears that Republicans are gearing up to make education the wedge issue of choice for the next election cycle. In the recent race for the governorship of Virginia, the tide turned when Youngkin attacked McAuliffe for saying that he trusted teachers more than parents to educate kids. Republicans treated this as some kind of attack on the family, but it was really an opportunity for them to further undermine the institution of education. School boards are being threatened across the country, rightwing radicals are demanding that books be banned and even burned, they want public schools to support white Christian values, and that's all.

Here ya go: we'll pick a parent each day to teach a lesson in the classroom. Monday, Mrs. Jones will teach the kids how to solve quadratic equations; Tuesday, Mr. Smith will walk the kids through the battles and shifting alliances of the French and Indian War. Wednesday, Mr. Jackson will explain the Bernoulli effect and how airplanes fly. No, come on, parents are not qualified to educate children, that's why we have schools. Teachers have a prepared lesson plan, and even if you don't solve quadratic equations in your adult life it is important to know how mathematics works at that level, that there are things you can do with symbol manipulation and the laws of logic that give correct results. It's important to work it out on paper, to grasp the fact that logic works, that the world makes sense if you know the facts and the logic that connects them. Even if you forget how the Bernoulli effect works, it's good know that there is a physical reason that airplanes fly, and it isn't just angels holding them up there.

The idea that parents should decide what is taught in school is ridiculous. We saw it in our county with sex education, where noisy rightwingers demanded that absolutely nutty ideas should be taught in the public schools, and today we are literally seeing prize-winning books being banned, book-burning advocated, as school boards try to dumb down to parents' demands on matters of sexual identity, race, immigration, and other topics that require careful critical examination.

We already have fragmented, personalized knowledge. The Internet quickly figured out how to give end-users information that is tailored to their personal preferences. If you search for a term on Google on your computer, and I search for the same term on mine, we will get different results. If you are conservative, you will get conservative results, and I will get liberal results. And if authoritarians have their way, people will send their kids to schools that, following economic principles, "give the customer what they want." If you don't think quadratic equations are important, then you could send your kids to a school that doesn't bother with that stuff. Black people can send their kids to Afrocentric schools, white people's kids can learn history with no mention of slavery, Christian kids can study creationist biology, and over time knowledge will become even more fragmented and unreliable than it is now. We will be more dependent on authoritarian leadership to guide us confidently but wrongly through the confusing mess of actual reality.

Historically, white Americans literally sailed ships to Africa and kidnapped people who were living their ordinary lives there, brought them to this land and forced them to work without pay or any rights. The entire Southern half of the country depended on that forced labor to develop industry and wealth, and it was not unknown in the North. Today a significant proportion of the country's population is descended from those African people, and any history that avoids or whitewashes that episode of our past is ... just wrong. Of course it doesn't sound real good to say that white people kidnapped Black people and held them as slaves, but it happened, and the consequences of that activity are part of our daily life now -- you simply cannot understand American culture without knowing about slavery, the Civil War, the Reformation, segregation, lynching, Jim Crow -- ragtime, boogie-woogie, jazz, blues, hip-hop... None of it makes any sense if you don't know what happened.

Note that understanding history does not directly help you find a better job; there are not a lot of jobs out there for historians. If we define our educational standards in terms of production and consumption -- skill learning -- then it is not necessary to teach history accurately. But if we treat knowledge and critical thinking as being inherently valuable, then we can cultivate a society that makes well-informed, intelligent decisions that pave the way toward a history that future Americans will not have to sweep under the rug. Democracy, rule by "we the people," requires accurate knowledge and good skeptical critical thinking. And, by the way, a well-educated person will be qualified for the best-paying jobs.

An educated public will be resistant to authoritarianism. You can't just toss out slogans like "death panels," or "communist," or "critical race theory" and tell people these are important forces in the real world, because educated people have the intellectual confidence to distinguish what's real. This month a Republican politician literally accused Big Bird of being a communist -- do you think people who understand communism believe that? Or even people who know that Big Bird is a person in a costume? It is embarrassing that anyone would even think of this, never mind the millions of people who hear the statement and believe it. Knowledge and logic -- education undermines the effectiveness of this kind of absurd communication.

I am not optimistic about this. Neither political party seems to have any desire to shift away from a view of citizens as consumers-and-producers, neither party seems to be ready to advocate for knowledge and critical thinking as ends in themselves. Ivy-League-graduate Republican congressmen mock the Ivy League elite and their voters are too stupid to notice the hypocrisy, while Democratic politicians always describe the value of education in terms of employment and wages -- producing and consuming. Sometimes it is important to know things just to know things, so that when someone tells a falsehood or presents invalid logic you have the mental ability to identify the errors and not be persuaded by them. Dictators always go after the intellectuals, and there is a reason for that.