The Rise of the Dogmatic Scholar: “A Cult of Ignorance” pt. 2

By oft repeating an untruth, men come to believe it themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Melish, Jan. 13, 1812

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.
Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thompson, 1787

—–

My university sits in the socially and politically conservative South, and our students tend toward a conservative political and world view as well. The most powerful student organizations are self-identified as conservative as well as being awash in power and funding, some from outside the university.

One conservative student organization, supported and funded by a network of such organizations spreading throughout campuses across the U.S., has for years dominated the Cultural Life Program of the university, a series of events students must attend as part of graduation requirements.

Several years ago, this organization brought Ann Coulter to campus, and when I mentioned my own concerns about her credibility during class, a student quickly defended Coulter by saying, “But she has footnotes in her book.”

Coulter’s confrontational conservatism speaks to the world views of many of our students and the greater public of SC, and thus seems credible even without footnotes. That student’s defense highlights a key element in the rise of the dogmatic scholar that has its roots in the 1980s, a period identified by Isaac Asimov as “a cult of ignorance” guided by a new ethic, “Don’t trust the experts.”

April of 2013 is the thirty-year anniversary of A Nation at Risk, a political and popular turning point for America’s perception of not only public education but also education reform as well as the discourse surrounding both. John Holton (2003) and Gerald Bracey (2003) have since then detailed that the report was also, in Bracey’s words a decade ago on the cusp of No Child Left Behind, “false”:

It has been 20 years, though, since A Nation at Risk appeared. It is clear that it was false then and is false now. Today, the laments are old and tired – and still false. “Test Scores Lag as School Spending Soars” trumpeted the headline of a 2002 press release from the American Legislative Exchange Council. Ho hum. The various special interest groups in education need an other treatise to rally round. And now they have one. It’s called No Child Left Behind. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.

What was “false” about A Nation at Risk?

First, Holton, as an insider, exposed that Ronald Reagan himself directed the commission to insure his agenda for public schools:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don’t ask to waste more federal money on education – “we have put in more only to wind up with less.” Just discover excellent schools to serve as models for all the others. As we left, I detected no visible dismay in our group. I wondered if we were all equally stunned.

Second, Bracey noted that despite the report depending on research and data, only one trend line out of nine suggested anything negative—and that the commission focused on that one trend line in order to comply with the political pressure aimed at the committee.

And third, A Nation at Risk as a political document parading as scholarship received not only a pass from the media but also a rush to benefit from the bad news by many stakeholders, as Bracey explained:

Alas, nothing else is new and, indeed, we must recognize that good news about public schools serves no one’s reform agenda – even if it does make teachers, students, parents, and administrators feel a little better. Conservatives want vouchers and tuition tax credits; liberals want more resources for schools; free marketers want to privatize the schools and make money; fundamentalists want to teach religion and not worry about the First Amendment; Catholic schools want to stanch their student hemorrhage; home schooling advocates want just that; and various groups no doubt just want to be with “their own kind.” All groups believe that they will improve their chances of getting what they want if they pummel the publics.

A Nation at Risk, the process involved to create the report, the uncritical media endorsement of the report, and the public and academic embracing of the claims represent a seminal moment in the rise of the dogmatic scholar, one foreshadowed by Asimov and personified by Coulter.

Recently, a debate between Diane Ravitch and Patrick Wolf highlights how the dogmatic scholar looks today. Mercedes Schneider examines that debate by first addressing Wolf’s credentials, Endowed Chair in School Choice, Education Reform, University of Arkansas.

Both Schneider and Ravitch raise concerns about the conflict of interests when a scholar holds a chair in a department that is heavily funded by school choice advocates, as Schneider explains about Wolf’s complaint that Ravitch attacked him personally:

Whereas she does not personally attack Wolf, Ravich certainly clearly exposes Wolf’s conflict of interest in evaluating a program obviously supported by his funders.

I agree with Ravitch that this conflict of interest is noteworthy for its undeniable potential in “shaping” study reporting and outcomes.

At the root of this debate is the unmasking of the dogmatic scholar and the concurrent rise of conservative advocacy taking on the appearance of scholarship despite the historical claims among conservatives that pointy-headed intellectuals shouldn’t be trusted (again, read Asimov).

Coulter’s book has footnotes to appear scholarly, and free market think tanks have increasingly embraced a formula that is both deeply deceiving and powerfully effective: (1) Hire fellows with advanced degrees, preferably PhDs, (2) generate reports that include a great deal of data, statistics, and charts/graphs, (3) create scholarly but attractive PDFs of the reports accessible for free through the think tank web sites, (4) aggressively promote the reports through press releases, and (5) circumvent entirely the peer-review process (in fact, conservative think tanks are actively demonizing the peer-review process).

The dogmatic scholar differs from the traditional university-based scholar in a few important ways. The university-based scholar and the promise of academia rest on some basic concepts, including the wall between undue influence and independent thought that tenure affords combined with the self-policing effect of peer-review.

While traditional scholarship, tenure, and peer-review are not without problems, this essential paradigm does allow for (although it cannot guarantee) rich and vibrant knowledge bases to evolve for the sake of knowledge absent the allure of profit or the influence of inexpert authority (tenure stands between university boards of trustees and faculty to insure academic freedom, for example).

As a critical educator and scholar, however, I do reject the traditional view that scholars must be apolitical, must assume some objective stance. In fact, I believe that scholars must be activists.

Therefore, my concern about the rise of the dogmatic scholar is not the activism or advocacy but two key failures found among dogmatic scholarship: (1) masking advocacy as objective (typically behind the use of statistics and charts/graphs), and (2) committing to an ideology despite the weight of evidence to the contrary.

Activist scholars such as Howard Zinn represent the power of taking a public intellectual stance that is both ideologically grounded (social justice) and informed by scholarship, Zinn’s own careful and detailed work as a historian.

Dogmatic scholarship typically found in think tanks but increasingly occurring in externally funded schools, departments, and institutes within universities and colleges (such as Wolf’s role at the University of Arkansas) is represented by a school choice report funded by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), which is explicitly a free market advocacy think tank.

Fixing the Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform, by David Dodenhoff, PhD, was released by WPRI in 2007 with George Lightbourn, representing the institute, lamenting: “The report you are reading did not yield the results I had hoped for.”

Further, despite the evidence of the research commissioned by WPRI, Lightbourn issued a commentary and explained:

So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice.  School choice is working and should be improved and expanded.  School choice is good for Milwaukee’s children.

While Lightbourn’s commentary raises some concerns about the data, the key message is “evidence be damned, WPRI remains committed to school choice!”

The problem, then, with the rise of the dogmatic scholar is that several contradictions lie underneath the movement.

Conservative America has persistently marginalized and demonized the Left as biased while embracing not only the possibility of objectivity but also the necessity for objectivity, especially among educators, scholars, and researchers (consider the uproar over climate change science).

Yet, conservatives are the base of dogmatic scholars and those who embrace dogmatic scholars (or popular versions such as Coulter)—despite dogmatic scholars being themselves advocates masquerading as objective and academic.

Further, the dogmatic scholar is failing in the exact ways some traditional scholarship fails—allowing the influence of funding and profit to skew the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, since dogmatic scholarship is often driven by market ideology, the influence of funding and profit is common.

The impact of dogmatic scholarship on education reform has been staggering, resulting in a common pattern found among researchers and think tanks committed to reviewing educational research such as Bruce Baker, Matthew Di Carlo, and the National Education Policy Center: The reports coming from dogmatic scholars produce impressive data sets but misleading, incomplete, or contradictory claims and recommendations (see, for example, Baker on the highly publicized Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff study).

The reports coming from dogmatic scholars, notably the school choice research, tends to replicate the comments coming from WPRI about Milwaukee school choice: The claims and recommendations are decided before and in spite of the evidence of the data.

In fact, school choice research has revealed a pattern of making a series of ever-changing claims simply to keep the debate alive and thus the choice agenda vibrant. In the popular and enduring evolution debate, for example, Intelligent Design as a faux science endorses “teach the debate” to lend credibility to their claims and to gain equal footing with the scientific process without actually conforming to that process.

Do Ravitch and Wolf, then, have the right to debate? Of course. Their debate is likely a potentially powerful mechanism for examining education reform.

Does Wolf have a right to advocate for school choice? Again, I believe he does.

The problem, however, with both Wolf’s agenda and the debate is that Wolf wants to hide behind a mask of objectivity and has taken a “holier than thou” stance to marginalize Ravitch’s credible concerns about school choice research.

In the end, the dogmatic scholar fails for the same reason dogma does—because neither can be questioned.

All credible scholarship is rendered more valuable by the light of questions so I will end with a simple solution offered by Julian Vasquez Heilig, Ph.D. at Wolf’s complaint:

Dr. Patrick, Please hurry and de-identify the data you used in your papers and provide it to independent researchers. I have the ability to critique the methodological rigor and quality of your actual research. I am very very much looking forward to it.

Among researchers, no claim is any more credible than the data the claim rests on. As long as dogmatic scholars ignore the data and hide the data, their work will be questioned in ways that also include their motives.

The job of the scholar is not to be objective, but to be transparent—admitting evidence-based stances providing context for claims and recommendations. Dogmatic scholars refuse to be transparent, and their weakness is that entrenched dishonesty.

In short, all scholars likely should heed the opening comments from Jefferson.

References

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.

Howard Zinn and the Failure of Standards Movements in Education

The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.’”*

The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.

Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates

Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.

Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.

And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.

A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.

Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.

CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.

Like the “‘remarkable apparatus’” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.

Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:

The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.

The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”

While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.

Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.

In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.

For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”

In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….

Students troop out of the gym to start their day. (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)

“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.

And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:

The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, “the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.”

No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: "National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country."]

Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint” by Peter Dreier:

In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system.  He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement.  He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.  He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.

Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?

And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.

“I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)

*Updated in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington and Howard Zinn’s birth date, August 24. Please visit and read:

howardzinn.org

Zinn Education Project

Remembering Howard Zinn by Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure?

Daily Kos: Passive Radicals: The Manufactured Myth

Daily Kos: Passive Radicals: The Manufactured Myth

With the annual and somewhat functional recognition of certain versions of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. behind us in 2013, let me ask this: What do Jesus, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and King have in common?

I admit the answers could be many: Significant historical voices and lives, shared messages of peace and harmony, tragic assassinations, and more.

And while these are all credible answers, I suggest the most important commonality among Jesus, Gandhi, and King is how their legacies have been manipulated by the privileged in order to create a mythology of the passive radical.

Consider Jose Vilson’s framing of how King serves other people’s purposes:

“For some revisionists, MLK Jr. was either one of two things: a staunch conservative who lived patriotically, owned guns, and worked towards self-help, or he was a such a commercial pacifist whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment. Then, there are those who, after having recognized MLK’s full history, still want to use his name for things he would never entertain, like breaking unions and limiting opportunity to a full education to only the ‘good’ kids, whatever that means.”

It is at Vilson’s second point—framing radicals as “commercial pacifist[s] whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment”—I want to pause for a moment.

continue reading at Daily Kos