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Educating Divided Minds for an Illiberal State

Adam Elkus had well-constructed argument about the Thomas Friedman-Andrew Exum exchange:

Education and Security

Andrew Exum’s has a useful critique of Thomas Friedman’s recent piece. In a nutshell, Friedman makes the old argument that the US could buy friendship and allegiance by giving Middle Easterners more education and scholarship opportunities. To this, Exum has a rather terrific rejoinder:

“I am a proud graduate of the American University of Beirut, but do you know who else counted the AUB as their alma mater? The two most innovative terrorists in modern history, George Habbash and Imad Mughniyeh. U.S. universities and scholarship programs are nice things to do and sometimes forge important ties between peoples and future leaders, but they can also go horribly wrong and do not necessarily serve U.S. interests. There is certainly no guarantee a U.S.-style education leads to greater tolerance or gender and social equality.”

Habbash and Mughniyeh are hardly alone. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog famously observed an distinct overrepresentation of scientists, engineers, and other highly educated professionals in both violent and nonviolent groups with illiberal ideologies. Gambetta and Hertog make an argument that the black-and-white mindset of certain technical groups correlate well with extremist ideologies, but I am unfamiliar with how this has been academically received so I won’t endorse their claims. To be sure, a look at 20th century history would also reveal a significant confluence of intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences being involved in either state or non-state illiberal movements. 

Indeed, the problem here may be the imbalance of educational systems that produce divided minds, where lopsided cultures of thought interact with enough disturbed individuals with a will to power. Stalin demonstrated what Communism looked like when a former Orthodox seminarian presided over a police state run by engineers; Mao one-upped him with Communism as the mystical rule of an all-powerful poet.

One of the more unfortunate trends among many bad ideas currently advertised as “education reform” is the denigration of the humanities and the reduction or elimination of the arts and history in public schools in favor of excessive standardized testing of rote skills and reasoning at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, mostly due to Federal coercion. That this has become particularly popular with GOP politicians (though many elitist Democrats echo them) would have appalled erudite conservatives like William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk or old school libertarians who would have seen nationalization of k-12 education policy as worse than the status quo.

In an effort to appear genuinely interested in improving education, some politicians couple this position with advocacy for STEM, as the teaching of science has also been undermined by the NCLB regime and a grassroots jihad by religious rights activists against the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes. While STEM in and of itself is a good thing and better science instruction is badly needed, STEM is no more a substitute for teaching the humanities well than your left hand is a substitute for your right foot.

The modes of thinking produced by quantitative-linear- closed system-analytical reductionist reasoning and qualitative-synthesizing-alinear-imaginative -extrapolative are complementary and synergistic. Students and citizens need both. Mass education that develops one while crippling the other yields a population sharing a deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating lacunae, hostile and suspicious of ideas and concepts that challenge the veracity of their insular mental models. This is an education that tills the soil for intolerance and authoritarianism to take root and grow

Education should be for a whole mind and a free man.

15 Responses to “Educating Divided Minds for an Illiberal State”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    A big part of the problem is that no one trusts humanities and social sciences teachers. They are trained to do ideological indoctrination. Those fields have been stripped of intellectual seriousness for at least two generations now. In the humanities we see the barbarians grunting and spitting amidst the ruins they created intentionally. The restoration of humanistic thinking and discipline will first require the elimination of the Potemkin village that has replaced these once valuable fields.

  2. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Lex,
    Sadly, you hit the nail on the head. 

  3. zen Says:

    hi Gents,
    I don’t think we can throw up our hands and say it is a choice between ideologues teaching badly or history and the humanities not being taught at all. The downstream effects of generations deliberately not being instructed in, for example, the Bill of Rights will be poor. That there is inept instruction of history in many places is true. The same can be said of science and even for mathematics but we are not contemplating eliminating algebra or chemistry from the curriculum.
    The answer is stepping up and deciding a) what to teach and b) how it is to be taught and then hiring ppl who have degrees in the subjects they are hired to teach. Yes, there is a huge problem at the university level, where some of these problems emanate but that requires a different solution set than k-12. Fundamentals need to be fixed first and ed reform deliberately has punted on curriculum and methodology 

  4. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Not sure I’d throw up my hands, but we did take our daughter out of public schools for the reason Lex mentioned. The standards were practically non-existent — in the entire curriculum. We’re in Fairfax County, VA, one of the top school districts in the Republic. We asked around, and found other parents who saw what we saw. We engaged her teachers, and they responded by saying, in essence, their focus was on self-esteem first…as it was clear they weren’t focused on academics. For instance, our daughter brought home a test where she missed almost half the questions, yet the teacher wrote “excellent work” across the top. We asked our daughter if she thought the work was excellent, and she replied, “no.” That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and we left the public school system. Several of her friends from the public school remain friends, and they are behind her academically, but they feel good about themselves.
    Public education could use the same medicine professional military education could use: rigor and seriousness—-and your second paragraph would be a good start.  

  5. Bruce Kesler Says:

    Online teaching may be an answer.
    But, first, the hard sciences are not suffering the degradation of substance as are the humanities in our schools, from grade to college, because 2+2=4 is not subject to ideology.
    Back to online, read David Brooks’ column in today’s NYT. He points out that transmitting knowledge benefits from engaging teachers, the best, which can be made available through online teaching. (Certainly better than hundreds of colleges’ lecture halls stuffed with hundreds of students listening to an adjunct.) Then, in class discussion adds flavor. — The latter may suffer many of today’s ills, but at least the discussion will get started from a more solid base.
    Every school cannot have an excellent music, arts or history teacher, but a curriculum that is focused on asking the right questions for discussion following a quality presentation is an improvement.
    Consider how museums have changed toward interactive displays and programs, versus stale, dusty exhibits.
    Students respond to the interesting presentation and discussion, not to rote, especially when they are made cynical by exposure to the fuller story as they are exposed to more outside the classroom.

  6. Bruce Kesler Says:

    I might add, the extensive use of online learning will go far toward alleviating many of the economic problems facing many schools. We simply will not need as many teachers and admin. At my sons’ grade school, 87% of the budget is personnel costs. In a time of constricted funding, the only path being considered is larger classrooms and dropping of non-standardized testing courses. Meanwhile, iPads are being distributed to students, but with little curriculum content and inadequate teacher guidance. The answer is in front of the students, and many are taking advantage of it, but the teachers are still on their same old track.  At least, until they wake up to students and their parents pass them in pegagogy. Then what a profession shaking surprise they are in for.

  7. larrydunbar Says:

    “They are trained to do ideological indoctrination.” Then one could ask why they are trained that way. It could be because, as the embedded clip says, the right brain has no voice, so you have to induce, induct, or indoctrinate it to speak. Of course those that are not indoctrinated are too busy to teach, because they are, presumably, making shit-bags full of money 🙂 Or in other words, they are doing as our culture wants, instead of being as needed, humanities and social sciences teachers. Does this mean the market has spoken, there is no need there?

  8. zen Says:

    Self-esteem based ed is rubbish and larger governance models (county, state) make it harder and more expensive to escape bad decisions except by exiting the public school system entirely. This may may be an anecdotal observation but bad public ed policies seem to intensify in a) big cities and b) the coasts.
    Math is very hard to subject to ideology, though science has suffered at the margins. It suffers more from lost instructional time, lack of rigor and the emerging move to teach science as “literature/reading” (to justify having unqualified English teachers doing k-6 and 7-12 science sections.
    Regarding online it is going to come and be utilized in the aspects where schooling is more “training” , more remediation, introductory or independent learning saving salaries for more advanced or more intense programs (the difference between lecture hall and the research lab or grad seminar)
    more later….. 

  9. Greyhawk Says:

    Imagine a world where teachers are people who’ve been out in the “real world” for a while, and experienced success, failure, and all points in between. Maybe even retired “old” folks, desiring to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Not sure that could be a one hundred percent solution to various problems, but it’s a thought I’ve had from time to time.
    The problem addressed by that approach is that society expects schools to prepare youth for the “real world” that follows, but hands that task off to those whose experience in that world (though not knowledge of it) is minimal. Consider most “schoolhouse” military training as a model; it’s conducted largely by practitioners of the various career fields, who at different points in their careers rotate into those teaching positions.

  10. Greyhawk Says:

    To curriculum, and even whether or not teachers are “trained to do ideological indoctrination,” another explanation might be found in Richard Feynman’s account of his experiences on a textbook selection committee.
    That episode was in 1964 – so consider that some of the students who “learned” from those textbooks went on to teach the children who grew up to be teachers today.

  11. zen Says:

    Hi Greyhawk,
    There’s always been a percentage of private sector people in the classroom, but the salary scale for teaching has traditionally been a major obstacle in getting talented people to make the transition. Unless they have made a pile of scratch, it is tough in mid-career with a family and a mortgage to drop from making $65k, $85k $100K to $32 -$42k.  A notable exception have been military retirees who offer many valuable skills and leadership experience and have a pension easing the change, and whose numbers are likely to increase via Troops to Teachers as the Army and Marines draw down. Col. Paul Yingling’s recent high-profile announcement that he was becoming a teacher was very helpful in that regard (and I know Paul is going to be superb in the classroom).
    I’ve seen three private sector transitions to teaching firsthand. A research scientist, an entrepreneur and a salesman, all of whom had been successful in their fields. The scientist became a golden apple and state teacher of the year finalist, the entrepreneur became first an excellent teacher then a principal and the salesman was a disaster of epochal proportions and is not teaching.

  12. Greyhawk Says:

    Wow – I’d missed that announcement from Col Yingling. Exactly what I was talking about, and a step I’m considering myself. (I should add I’m not saying “first, fire all the teachers.”)
    There are many local professionals involved in the community college systems around the country, too, people teaching “part time,” others who transition to full time. You won’t see them published in scholarly journals, but I sure benefited from those folks in my well-traveled earlier years.
    One doesn’t have to retire to become involved in the local school system. The opportunities are there. But from my experience, the same small core group of folks (parents/grandparents) will be found at the PTA meetings, coaching youth sports, and running local youth organizations (Scouts, etc.) while an endless supply of others will be available to complain about what they haven’t accomplished.
    That’s related to your point. In many ways we get the education system we deserve. I’m a proponent of an old-school liberal education myself – art and science both being critical components of that. If it’s truly in decline, the more recent products of that system aren’t likely to make it better some time down the road. So who will?

  13. Ken B. Says:

    I live in rural Maine. My grandmother, my mother and my sister were all teachers. At one time,  teachers were considered to have  high status. My sister tells me this is largely no longer the case, that people with high income have replaced teachers in that regard and that high earners now frequently hold teachers in contempt.

    I have enjoyed a relatively  high income for several years now but when I meet my children’s public school teachers I am deferential towards them and   I treat them with the respect I think they deserve based upon my background.
    My comment is that the people who made the remarks above either must encounter a very different situation then I with regards to  teachers or their perceptions are very different, perhaps both.

  14. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Mixed impression here. There is indeed a lot of crap taught at schools – but there always was.  They are much better now, popular rhetoric be damned.  Commenters on a site such as this one are not a representative sample, and our collective anecdotes will deceive us entirely.  We have the best schools in the world.  Measurably, but we don’t like the implications.  Asian-Americans outscore all Asians (Shanghai and a province of China ie us); our white students outscore all European and Anglosphere countries (Finland may tie); our Hispanics far outscore all Latina American nations, our blacks far, far outscore all all African and Caribbean nations.  In aggregate, we sometimes look worse but it is a statistical illusion.  As 20-25% of our schools are dangerous nightmares, it must be that the remainder are even better than that.
    I have had sons in both public and private schools, the fifth one now in 10th grade.  I was a humanities major and approve of their inclusion, but let’s not pretend that students can move up in higher-level thinking until well along in their schooling.  It’s basic Piaget, and pretending that even our brightest students can abstract well before high school is self-deception.  We absolutely should be teaching to lowest levels of Bloom – because that is appropriate.  
    The teaching of ID or 6D creationism or whatever doesn’t do much damage.  Don’t waste the calories on worrying about it.  Plenty of children so taught go on to do quite well in sciences – it’s a symbolic, who’s-controlling-the-culture argument, not an education argument.
    Your argument for (popularly) left brain right brain balance in teaching sounds reasonable, but I don’t think there is any evidence that favoring one over the other results in increased intolerance or dissonance.

  15. zen Says:

    Hi Assistant Village Idiot (a great handle BTW),
    Excellent comments – here are my responses in no particular order:
    You are correct that this forum (and america as a whole) is wildly unrepresentational.
     Having taught the gifted and profoundly gifted as well as the extremely challenged in special programs as well as the mass and both children and adults, I have to differ with you on Piaget. As you look at aggregate mean development you’re generally correct but individuals do not line up well with aggregate means of their age cohorts. it is quite possible to have developmental swings of 5-8 years sitting in adjacent desks. The problem of uneven social/emotional/intellectual/motor development is especially acute in grades 4 -9. There are students who exhibit critical reasoning very early, with or without modeling and others find that it does not “click” until college.
    The damage in creationism is not that it converts kids to thinking ppl were running around with dinosaurs – I agree, like most propaganda it never really sinks in – it’s that it wastes instructional time better used for something else. You are spot on though that it is a cultural-control issue.
    One example, the Navy has started to worry that they have gone overboard with STEM in their PME curriculum as the overload of engineers is creating a situation where we have a Naval officer corps who know very little about the history of their own Navy, still less general military history in general http://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/f1881012-d24c-42bc-b39c-3f5b44322d67/VEGO-TECHNOLOGICAL-SUPERIORITY-IS-NOT-A-PANACE-(1)

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