An anti-knowledge fundamentalist political agenda has infected the bloodstream of American politics- slowly seizing the power of government to wantonly redefine science and history.
As an educator and a scientist, my involvement in public policy, outreach for STEM education, and adult scientific literacy brings me directly to the intersection of how information and facts, history and science, is accessed and used to teach our progeny, and the policies, standards, and regulations around education.
“Elites” “Academics”- These words are used to disparage and deride education, philosophy, literature, art, music, and science by conservative media, thought, and political leaders. The modern conservative movement has directly lead to the rise of authoritarian Donald Trump, and has been built around opposition to the “liberal elite” and higher education. This sharp divide between academic liberals and nonacademic conservatives impacts disparate aspects of education.
Anti-knowledge tides rise and fall in a recurrent pattern with fundamentalist revivalism and political and socio-economic upheaval. Before all else, the Third Reich (Nazi Germany) and Soviet Russia moved to control and reform the educational and scientific research systems in order to control information, and indoctrinate and train students. Education was essentially eliminated and in its place physical fitness, political and ideological training and public service. In present day Turkey, we’ve recently seen the purge of tens of thousands of teachers and university deans after a period of political unrest.
Anti-knowledge political leadership (George Bush, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly), publicly present themselves as champions of the common folk. Their breed of anti-intellectualism is strong and hostility, mistrust, and political persecution (or State repression) of intellectuals and education, history and science grows daily under their constant barrage of nonsense.
A few recent examples include:
- More than 9,000 scientists (including 49 Nobel laureates and 63 National Medal of Science recipients) critiqued the Bush administration, because when scientific knowledge was found to be in conflict with the administration’s political goals they placed people who were professionally unqualified or who had clear conflicts of interest in official posts and on scientific advisory committees; disbanded existing advisory committees; and censored and suppressed reports by the government’s own scientists.
- The Virginia government harassed with subpoenas a University of Virginia Climate Scientist whose academic views contradicted Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli political agenda.
- Numerous states like Louisiana now mandate public schools teach the “controversy” about evolution.
- A school textbook in Texas redefined the causes of the American Civil War by referring to chattel slaves as “workers”.
- NASA’s 2016-2017 Earth science budget was cut by the GOP in retaliation for their findings on Global Climate Change, (to $1.45 billion in fiscal 2016, from $1.77 billion previously― a cut of $323 million, or nearly 20%).
- One-time Republican Presidential candidate and extreme fundamentalist Ben Carson, suggested the Department of Education could become useful by “monitoring our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.” The mechanism to bring these heretics to the government’s attention should be denunciations from students, a technique once used in the communist Soviet Russia.
- In response to Michelle Obama’s remarks about slaves building the White House, Bill O’Reilly claimed those slaves were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
“Education should not aim at a dead awareness of static facts, but at an activity directed towards the world that our efforts are to create.” Bertrand Russell.
For this reason, perhaps more than any other, education is politicized.
Every society has a social class of people who play a leadership role in the complex mental labor which guides, critiques, and shapes a society’s culture and politics.
Throughout history and time, intellectuals and bodies of knowledge have been attacked by political regimes in times of upheaval and change, because these are precisely the people- the artists, school teachers, academics, writers, journalists, and other ‘hommes de lettres’, tasked with the development and progress of modern society.
The currently adopted Republican Party Platform lays out the case against education and for action against elite and educated “liberals,” in just five very disconcerting paragraphs (emphasis below is mine). I will address each one of these stances point-by-point.
- “Parents have a right to direct their children’s education, care, and upbringing. We support a constitutional amendment to protect that right from interference by states, the federal government, or international bodies such as the United Nations. We reject a onesize fits all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level. We likewise repeat our longstanding opposition to the imposition of national standards and assessments, encourage the parents and educators who are implementing alternatives to Common Core, and congratulate the states which have successfully repealed it.”
The RNC is disingenuously ignores the fact that state legislatures individually approved the Common Core, and only state legislatures can decide to change or drop the standards and the standardized tests aligned to them.
In many spheres, there is vicious debate about the new standards for K - 12 education: the “Common Core” for language arts and mathematics, and the “Next Generation Science Standards” for science, engineering and technology. These guidelines do not, contrary to popular belief, force teachers to use a standard curriculum. Teachers now, as always, choose the best way to teach their own students. The new standards simply say “Pupils must know X information by Y time.” Mindless memorization of tables and formulas is passe. It is now required for children to understand how the table was built, where the formulas come from. Students are asked to think critically again, not just to regurgitate information on tests.
Our generation (Gen X-Y, I assume you, dear reader, are like me) learned math through a set of defined algorithms, which merely allows us to make a neat performance of math, without deeply understanding the concepts. We did not necessarily learn the principle of multiplication, but simply rather memorized the “times table.” Likewise, in chemistry for example, we memorized the Periodic table of Elements, but did not understand the way each square, each column was laid out. This has lead many to hate chemistry when it comes time to combine those elements into the metallic, ionic, and nonionic bonds of compounds.
Education “reform” is one of the most hotly contested issues of our time, and our politicians have seized on it. They manipulate the public’s emotional response for their own election-cycle agendas. The new standards were designed by a broad coalition of educators and childhood learning experts. The truth about the birth of these standards is a far cry from what the Right would have you believe- these standards were produced out of thin air and the “Federal” government forces teachers use a specific, and, the implication is “brainwashing,” curriculum.
“The scientific method,” Thomas Henry Huxley once wrote, “is nothing but the normal working of the human mind.” That is to say, when the mind is working; that is to say further, when it is engaged in correcting its mistakes. Taking this point of view, we may conclude that science is not physics, biology, or chemistry―is not even a “subject”―but a moral imperative drawn from a larger narrative whose purpose is to give perspective, balance, and humility to learning.” Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
Conservatives have proposed lesson plans which present many scientific topics as allegedly controversial, including; global warming, cloning and stem cell research and evolution. All four topics are widely accepted by the majority of the scientific community as legitimate science, and all four are areas where US political conservatives and parents have been known to be hostile to the scientific consensus.
We are already raising thousands who are scientifically illiterate supported by their own “overlapping and mutually reinforcing right-wing media-entertainment-“educational” complex.”
Hundreds of boutique publishing houses produce books, magazines, videos and curricula used by thousands of homeschoolers as “curriculum”. Of course, these publishers do not align themselves with the new education standards. Below is a quote from one of their websites.
“Unfortunately, some of Common Core goes beyond content and moves into the realm of teaching methodology. Since many of these techniques do not align with our traditional Christian approach, we have purposefully chosen not to add them.”
Common Core mathematics and Language Arts integrated with Next Generation Science standards strengthen the understanding of the content of both of the subjects. Evidence-based reasoning is the foundation of good scientific practice.
The Next Generation Science Standards incorporate language arts and mathematics to help students master all three disciplines. You can’t have new, advanced, scientific education without advancing the math and language that support it.
- “A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools.”
The First Amendment mandates the separation of church and state. This principle means government institutions, including public schools, are prohibited from promoting religion or religious beliefs. For this simple reason, and because beliefs are not scientific theories based on observation, experiment, and evidence- religious explanations of creation cannot be part of the public school science curriculum. The Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes.
Many fundamentalists believe the Bible is a book of history, the universe is only 6,000 years old, and evolution is wrong and is leading to our moral downfall. It is the stated overall goal of the christian fundamentalist movement “to defeat scientific materialism” and “to replace [it] with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”
A 2006 article in Science, said the reason that among the thirty-four developed countries surveyed, the U.S. ranks second from last in the number of adults who accept the theory of evolution: “The acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or Europe, largely because of widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States.”
Holy Texts can support the understanding and interpretation of art, culture or literature, and certainly should be allowed to be taught from, at the discretion of teachers as they pertain to a curriculum. Singling out the Christian Bible is a deliberate measure to tacitly legitimize its historical narrative and narrow religious perspective over all others.
The Talmud, the Qur’an, Buddhist sutras, the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and the Tao te Ching all have literary aspects and cultural contexts essential to understand culture, cultural tension, art, history, and literature.
- “We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception and believe that federal funds should not be used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio-emotional screening programs.”
Accurate, balanced sex education and mental health programs are a basic human right of our youth. There is massive empirical evidence for this education reducing the risk of negative life outcomes, enhancing the quality of their relationships, and helping them to develop decision-making skills. Not only are these basic human rights, but they are also core public health principles. All mainstream medical associations, public health, and educational organizations support measures like these.
About 15 million children in America have clinical emotional or behavioral health disorders, and less than 25 percent of children in the US who need mental health services receive them. Children in elementary school with mental health problems are more likely to miss school than their peers. Children in elementary school with mental health problems are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers. Almost 50 percent of adolescents in high school with mental health problems drop out of school. This is the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
To deny these health initiatives only encourages the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk youth, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Racial minorities and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Additionally, mental illness is a strong risk factor for suicide. Firearms were the instrument of death in 88 percent of teen homicides and 41 percent of teen suicides in 2014. The national firearm suicide rate has climbed by 13 percent since 2007 and suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults.
Our nation’s youth deserve to have their basic human rights tended while in the institutions that house them for much of their childhood.
- Referring to Universities- “Their excellence is undermined by an ideological bias deeply entrenched within the current university system. Whatever the solution may be in private institutions, in state schools the trustees have a responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination.”
In theory, a good liberal-arts education is a strong antidote to authoritarianism. What we have seen out of the GOP is the rise of the ultimate Authoritarian. Ideally, a liberal-arts education would help produce the sort of citizen that can contribute meaningfully to our nation’s political discourse. The governors of Florida, Texas, and North Carolina have all pledged they will not spend taxpayer money to subsidize the liberal arts.
Our advanced technological society’s economy can only grow by means of “recruiting” from among the working class. Its produce, i.e., the produce of its now ‘intellectual” rather than manual labor, is ordered and paid for by the “exploiter class”- the GOP, the party of business and industry. Many conservatives have slyly and convincingly tried to reduce higher ed “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees to a trade-school level set of courses. Software companies are the new American factories. Instead of manufacturing Fords we manufacture lines of code. However, STEM degrees are often traditionally housed in liberal arts colleges. A great way to make people terrified to get a University- level education, is to first make it horrifically expensive to obtain one, and then to ruin the economy. A bad job market is an insufficient reason to discourage the study of liberal arts, but a steady paycheck straight out of college is a compelling argument. Eliminating the liberal arts core will severely limit the world-view of those who receive that “education”. These students memorize large volumes of information and test well, but they are incapable of crafting a cohesive and comprehensive analysis about complex subject matter. This renders them incapable of contributing meaningfully to a society’s culture and politics.
The point of higher education is not just to hone a trade and become an expert, but to become a well rounded, thinking, and critical citizen. To develop yourself for the WORLD, not “you for yourself.” In fact, technology changes so fast what is truly important is the ability to think creativity (and laterally), to design, communicate, tell a story and, more than anything, the ability to continually learn something new. A vocational- trade school like education falls short in these areas, for the immediate goal of a steady paycheck!!
I believe the fundamentalist conservative agenda is endeavoring to create an educated but unintelligent class of workers to manufacture the products of the new technological and information age.
- Referring to Title IX- “That same provision of law is now being used by bureaucrats — and by the current President of the United States — to impose a social and cultural revolution upon the American people by wrongly redefining sex discrimination to include sexual orientation or other categories. Their agenda has nothing to do with individual rights; it has everything to do with power. They are determined to reshape our schools — and our entire society — to fit the mold of an ideology alien to America’s history and traditions. Their edict to the states concerning restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities is at once illegal, dangerous, and ignores privacy issues.”
The mission of the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces, among other statutes, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
If there is one thing Republicans hate, it is equal opportunity for all. Every republican presidential candidate, including the nominee, Donald Trump, has pledged to eliminate or severely curtail the Department of Education.
The Department of Education plays a very important role in civil rights enforcement in our country. Our national education law is enforced by the DOE provides (a longstanding) commitment to equal opportunity for all students. In our nation, we have a clear goal, to fully prepare all students for success in college and careers. One of the DOE’s goals is to serve student populations facing discrimination and the advocates and institutions promoting systemic solutions to civil rights problems. This is a very important function!
The United States also has a unique education funding system in which local property and income taxes (personal and corporate) play a significant role. This leads to vast local inequities from district to district. Poverty rates correlate to test scores, and the United States has one of the top child poverty rates in the developed world. So therefore, we have a national standard for equality, which often conflicts with the local condition of per pupil funding- which is directly related to tax rates. Nowhere more than in “red” (ie. low-tax rate states) do you see an enormous conflict between the expectations of the national standards and the implementation of equal education on the ground.
Many “red” States point to poor implementations of the Common Core and NGSS standards as reasons to disavow them entirely. Teachers (understandably) revolt, because they have not been provided enough supportive professional development (and remember, the teachers learned this stuff the old way, just like you and me). In some cases, (i’m looking at you Utah) they have not even been provided with new materials, books, or worksheets to teach with. Many moving pieces need to be coordinated to make large scale changes like these:
- Cohorts of children, as curriculum is a multi-year process. (If your 7th grader started in a particular middle school curriculum, which changes some pieces around between 6th and 8th grade, they might miss out on a topic entirely, or have something doubled.)
- New training and development for teachers who are brand new and those who have taught for twenty or more years.
- All new materials and book, worksheets, homework assignments and tests and assessments.
These poor implementations tend to happen in states with the lowest per pupil funding, the least number of teacher professional days, and the least resources dedicated to education.
States where the Boards of Education are continuously cast into the light of doubt publicly by local politicians.
States where School Superintendent turnover is high.
States where public sentiment runs rampantly AGAINST public education in favor of home-school education or expensive privatization.
This is the typical “red” state model. Defund public services to the point of catastrophe and then privatize them.
For me personally, elevating the human condition right here at home means relentlessly fighting the current wave of anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-biotech, anti-vaccine and the rise of pseudoscience industries. It is our job, as stewards of the economy in which we live to be concerned with the bigger picture, to make sure the US remains a technologically advanced nation.
It is our imperative, as a first world country, to be the tide that lifts all boats, and to use our great power to elevate the human condition worldwide. However, this demands and requires a curiosity and a desire to ask serious and complex questions. I don’t know many in our society who have the desire or interest to do so anymore amid the abundant cacophony of low-grade entertainment, the Burning Mans and Coachellas, the Taylor Swifts and Justin Beibers, the Pokémon Go and Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
I’m convinced. Some states don’t want an educated and critically thinking populace that can read and evaluate evidence for themselves. Such a populace might start to think:
- Humans can cause changes in the environment, and those changes can be global. Pollution is bad for the environment and for human health.
- The needle can move on public health indicators, such as suicide rate, STD rate, accidental pregnancy, and depression, with appropriate access to health care and sexual health education.
- School to prison pipelines, racial tensions, and firearm related suicides can be reduced and mostly prevented.
Science, the arts, and humanities have been replaced by entertainment, spectacle, voyeurism, self-righteous shouting, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility, the artificial events of celebrity life and reality TV.
“The spirit of a culture in which all public discourse takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.” Neil Postman
Anti-knowledge has established itself in the US and is propelled by our declining education system. A system under constant threat of further erosion by the Republican Party.