How do humans know the world? That answer is very complex, of course, but each of us begins understanding the world through our senses.
At the most basic level, we can explain “knowing the world” as an on-going interaction between our genetics and the experiences we gather from that world through our senses. As we mature, particularly as our brain develops, and thus our ability to use cognition (thinking), we are more able to think through our sensory perceptions (slow down and even change our responses) than merely react.
This dynamic is incredibly important as we try to understand the distinction between correlation and cause. Humans, however, are hostages to ancient evolutionary impulses that often contributed to our survival; in other words, in the earliest years of human existence, making abrupt causal assumptions (which may have often been mere correlation) were preferable to making more deliberate decisions because of the primary need simply to survive.
Contemporary humans not currently in dire environments or under the stress of poverty, oppression, or disease (for example) have the privilege of cognitive deliberation: Many of us in relatively stable and safe lives can (and should) be more careful about drawing causal or correlational conclusions, and thus, we should be far more deliberate about “knowing the world” based on more than our personal experiences and grounded in robust evidence while also resisting the allure of knowing the world through mere ideology.
In many of my courses, I ask students to consider all that by one simple thought experiment grounded in our sense of smell, “closely linked with memory.” I ask students to recall a first visit to a friend’s home and having the realization that other people’s houses smell different.
Many, if not most, students begin to nod and even smile, recalling the experience. I then ask them to interrogate how they reacted to the house smelling different, and we conclude that our urge is to think of the different smell as bad or wrong.
Here, I think, is a powerful example of how human experience, cognition, and ideology conspire to derail human potential.
Recently on Twitter, I joined a discussion about charter schools, specifically contentious debates about the charter chain KIPP:
Better distinction: Is ideology driving advocacy or is evidence + expertise driving advocacy? KIPP/ charter mania is the former. https://t.co/O4xa0T8Gh5
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) January 6, 2019
Stepping back from the topic of charter schools itself and looking broadly at the nature of the advocacy for charter schools is a microcosm of the problem I noted above. Charter schools (6855) are a very small fraction of public schools (91, 422) in the U.S., and only 5.7% of students attend charter schools (see data here).
At one level, then, the public and political debate and discourse about charter schools are both disproportionate and distorted by advocacy driven by ideology and not evidence and expertise.
That dynamic is driven by a belief that charter and private schools are outperforming public schools, which have suffered under a very long history of being characterized as failing. Yet, research has shown time and again that type of schooling has no real causal relationship with so-called school quality; in short, charter, private, and public schools all have about the same outcomes when conditions of that schooling are constant.
When charter schools boast of superior outcomes, the truth lies in many factors—such as underserving significant populations of students or the ability to choose or “counsel out” students—that make a comparison with public schools misleading at best and false at worst.
The charter school phenomenon represents the problem with ideology driving public policy at the expense of evidence and expertise.
Now, as I noted, charter schools and students attending charter schools are relatively small populations, and thus in the grand scheme of funding and public policy, my discussion here may seem as disproportionate as the debate itself.
My concern is that the charter school dynamic is just one aspect of a much more insidious problem with the U.S. persisting as a belief culture, particularly in terms of the political and public faith in equity, equal opportunity, and our having reached some sort of post-racial (and post-racist) society.
If we dig deeper in the charter school debate and the persistent antagonism toward public schools, we see a powerful racial element. U.S. public schools now serve a majority-minority population of students (white students constitute 48.9%), and what we can say about charter, private, and public schools is that all types of schooling have witnessed an increase in segregation.
Beliefs about school quality must not be disentangled from beliefs about race.
Let’s place the charter school debate in how the public perceives racial equity. Blacks and whites grossly mischaracterize both historical racial inequity and current racial inequity.
As an interview with Michael Kraus details:
For instance, one question in the study asked: “For every $100 earned by an average white family, how much do you think was earned by an average black family in 2013?” The average respondent guessed $85.59, meaning they thought black families make $14.41 less than average white families. The real answer, based on the Current Population Survey, was $57.30, a gap of $42.70. Study participants were off by almost 30 points.
The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.
If we allow public policy to be driven by belief, we find no political motivation for that policy addressing the realities of racial inequity:
Michael Kraus argues that these misperceptions fit conveniently with the idea of the American dream—that every individual, regardless of background, can succeed with talent and hard work. “Those beliefs can lead us astray, can lead us to not see the world for what it is. There’s a lot of work that still needs doing if our economic reality is going to match up with our narratives of opportunity.”
The irony is that believing the American Dream already exists prevents the U.S. from attaining the American Dream of racial equity.
As an educator for almost four decades now, I must share a final thought on evidence. Despite my best efforts—for example when we try to examine evolution and how the U.S. compares with international acceptance of evolution—students remain themselves resistant to setting aside their beliefs and then embracing a more accurate understanding of the world based on evidence and expertise.
From corporal punishment, to school safety, and to grade retention, when I engage students or the public, most people remain committed to their beliefs and refuse to engage with evidence while often discounting expertise.
So the really sobering reality about how we know the world is that too many of us are failing the evolutionary curve toward knowing the world based on evidence and expertise instead of imposing our ideologies onto that world.
The consequences of this are dire, especially to the most vulnerable among us.
Unlearning the Lessons of Hillbilly Elegy, Stanley Greenberg