Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Audacity of Educators

Originally written on Valentines Day, 2009.

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Yesterday was the 200th birthdays of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both are men identified with kinds of liberation, be that physical liberation from slavery or ideological freedom not bound by tradition and authority. Yesterday I spent the day celebrating Darwin Day with professors of science. Naturally, evolution in the classroom was a topic, which was little more than an inevitability. Playing the gadfly, I attempted a dialectic that might reveal a solution to our problem. Our problem, of course, is the merit or merits of -- I would argue forced -- teaching of evolution in public schools. It was already axiomatically understood there are two opposing sides to the issue and it appears to be a zero-sum prospect: If we teach evolution as true, and don't give credence to alternative views of the origins of life, theists will be unrepresented. On the other hand, to not teach evolution as true would undermine the overwhelming convergence of opinion by experts in the field. My solution to the problem was received with the incredulity of a wet-nurse reading A Modest Proposal.

My plan was simple: privatize education and let parents decide. If there is such political disagreement on the matter, why, in this matter, should one group hold sway over the whole? I know where I stand on the issue, but just as I wish not to impose my views on others, I see it as quid pro quo that others should do the same. Perhaps we can call it radical freedom, a liberty whose foundation is on ground that says if we don't have to take power or money from others to maintain a stable society (which sometimes must occur), we don't. At the heart of my thoughts lay the belief that we should tailor society not to its political winners, but vie for a system we can all be satisfied with. In this regard, I am a advocate of Rawlsian's Veil of Ignorance liberalism.

To not set up a strawman, I must admit several of their reasons were quite meritorious and worthy of thoughtful response. I will lay out their arguments, my response to them, and hopefully convince my readers why my views are the best. The arguments they made were against privatized education and did not really address the secondary issue that inspired it which was evolution in education.

1. The education of the poor. If education was privatized, the poor would likely not have access to education or sub-standard education. Here I will simply cede the point that I am in favor of having education for all and that even the poorest should be educated at the expense of the tax-payer.

2. Types of education. One of the interlocutors noted that the students most likely to have the highest scholastic achievement in things like spellings bees are often homeschooled. He went on to say that the majority do not homeschool for this reason, but strongly implied it was for religious reasons. Even though the statistics don't pan out with that conclusion (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/homeschool/TableDisplay.asp?TablePath=TablesHTML/table_4.asp), let's assume they do. Who is anyone to say that's not legitimate? I'm no great champion of religion, but if a family feels a child grows up healthier and happier in the presence of a spiritual community, as long as their children are being well-educated in all other forms (assuming they aren't learning evolution), I think it best if people who have no personal investment (the state and society) remain neutral on the issue; or, put more bluntly, stay out.

The attitude that parents are unsuited to make good decisions is distressing. The group noted, for instance, parents putting a high premium on athletics. From this followed the notion that if given the choice parents would send their children to institutions that emphasized sports. Again, while no great proponent of physical achievement in youth, my previous argument still seems to hold, that is, as long as they are not deficient academically sports is hardly a vice in society.

One person said, and I'm paraphrasing, that all these parents care about is getting their child through school so they can go work in a factory and start making money as soon as possible. First, I don't know if I've ever met a parent who wants their child to aspire to this, though some may come to this conclusion after accessing their child's abilities. Personally, I believe many children are overeducated for most of the jobs available for them. But, isn't it part of the American ethos that every child can be a doctor or a lawyer if they want to be (a profoundly cruel lie we tell far too many)? As if the point of life is to obtain a doctorate; as if the only satisfying lives are lived by those with graduate degrees.

Over and over, I was struck with the intellectual nausea that a group of self-appointed people would find it so casual a notion that they knew the best way to raise not only their own children (a fair notion for a parent) or the best way to teach a subject in their own field (a fair notion for an educator), but the best way to raise other people's children and that their academic priorities should be forced upon all. It smells of a soft totalitarianism. And to think we were celebrating a man who ostensibly stood against academic authoritarianism.

3. Diversity. The subject we spent the most time discussing was at once pertinent but reguarly slipped its own argument in as a red herring. The argument went as such: if given the opportunity, the freedom of academic choice would inevitably lead to racial and ideological segregation. In full disclosure, I am not very sympathetic to the notion that a diverse society is automatically good for both individuals and society, and I'm even less sympathetic to the idea that the goal of diversity (which is itself a problematic, loaded and shibboleth-styled term) is so infinitely valuable that it should come at any cost to personal freedom.

I doubt here that any of my arguments will be a slam dunk and be especially ineffective against those who are in fact believers that diversity is the crown jewel of public education. I attempted, and failed, to try and steer the conversation at this point to examine the purpose of formal education. At this point, I think it imperative to have a thoughtful understanding of what education is meant to accomplish. To argue that public education should be the norm so that diversity and understanding be provoked and encouraged seems to assume certain principles, all of which I have varied measures of disagreement on. It assumes:

A. Every school has the ability to teach diversity by having a diverse student body (teaching by having a multi-racial, multi-gender-minded population is assumed in this, for we are discussing the students themselves, and not, for instance, teaching methods). Many times, they can't, for at least two reasons: the student population is usually representative of its location; and, students tend to form cliques or social groups of people like themselves. True diversity, and appreciation of those unlike ourselves, can, under reasonable scenarios, only be encouraged, not enforced.

B. That school is the best, or only, place this kind of education can be acquired.

C. That this is a necessary life-skill in all places. It may not be a societal necessity for an ideologically and racially homogenous group of people to exert great effort in trying to cope with xenophobia. Perhaps the greater concerns of a multi-racial, poly-idealogical city are not the same as those found in rural communities.

D. A government beauracracy like the education system is best equipped to do the job.

For me, I assume none of these things. Yesterday, I found it insulting and elitist to assume that most parents are bigoted, simple-minded Puritans that only want their own perspective taught to children and it would be ruin to give the most fundamental of rights: the right to self-governance. I know of no parents who are so glib and flippant about their children's education. Typically, who is more interested in education than a parent? Who wants success of youth than those that sire and raise their own? And all discussed on the 200th birthday of an (mostly) uneducated Kentucky-born hick that went on to be one of our best presidents.

Speaking for myself, it was disheartening: they are brilliant people who champion the importance of diversity of ideas and academic freedom, but wish to withold it from others when their ideas differed from their own. I find it an insult to treat parents like children; it's insulting to give people the freedom to choose which flavors of ice cream to pick from (you have 31 choices people!), but when it comes to really important matters, we hand that over to people who tell us they know better. 1 school, 2 presidential candidates, 3 kinds of gasoline, and 500 stations on cable.

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