“Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago.” This December 2010 poll also includes the finding that a scant 16 percent of the U.S. populace accepts evolution without any hand of God involved. 
The U.S. is unique compared to the rest of Western world, which tends to accept evolution, but the comparison is less significant than the inference we can draw about the U.S. and the associated impacts visible in our disdain for not only education, but also the well-educated, the informed: the predominant culture in the US is a belief culture.
By “belief,” I do not refer to religious faith per se. This discussion is about a belief culture that is secular, political and, ultimately, ideological, even when belief is connected to religious traditions and stances.
As Einstein offered, both belief and science have value, even as complements to each other: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” – especially as faith informs our ethics. But in the U.S., we are apt to misuse belief and ignore (or misunderstand) science when we need it most.
While it is unlike the rest of the Western world with regard to its take on evolution, the belief culture does reflect what new science is discovering about the power of belief over fact as a part of some humans’ nature:
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
The U.S. appears, on the surface, to be a scientific society – we consume the newest and best technology dutifully and with voracity; however, US citizens are largely opposed to scientific ways of knowing and understanding the world, to drawing conclusions about the world based on the weight of evidence while reserving a fixed conclusion if contradictory evidence reveals itself in the future. Our split personality about science is, in fact, not contradictory; we love to consume ever-changing technology, but that insatiable appetite is about the consumption, not the science.
Pop Culture and Blind Tradition
Consider the pop culture we also consume endlessly. How have we portrayed intellectuals and who do we love in our entertainment?
From Marlon Brando and James Dean to the Fonz on “Happy Days,” we have adored the uneducated, who prove themselves to be better and even smarter than the educated. In fact, if you look carefully at “Friends,” you see an interesting evolution of that narrative.
Both Joey and Ross are often portrayed as clueless and bumbling, tapping into our love of those who are not smart. But look closer. The audience, as well as the other characters, laugh with Joey (who is apparently uneducated) and at Ross (who has a PhD and is a scientist – a paleontologist, in fact). Look carefully at the episode in which Ross and Phoebe argue about evolution; Ross is shown to be foolish by the cleverer Phoebe, who doesn’t embrace evolution or value evidence.
This is the America of belief. We cherish stubborn doctrine and clever rhetoric even at the expense of fact and we often speak about tradition.
Recently, in my home state of South Carolina – which sits solidly in the Deep South that William Faulkner captured precisely in the macabre “A Rose for Emily” (yes, in the South we cling to the corpse of tradition, and are proud of it) – yet another controversy has recently erupted around the celebration of secession. Just as South Carolina has clung to the Confederate flag, the state is proud of being first to secede and to honor state’s rights (usually omitting that those state’s rights included slavery). “This is not about slavery, but tradition!” is the refrain.
Try to make a reasoned (that is, evidence-based) argument about secession or the flag issue in the South and you are apt to play Ross to the multitudes of Phoebes.
South Carolina is not alone. Secession balls are planned throughout the South, where the calls for tradition and state’s rights drown out any concerns about slavery. Again, just like those who cling to creationism, many in the South are not swayed by evidence – unless it confirms what they already believe.
The truth is that many people in the US are committed to belief over evidence and are simultaneously devoted to consumerism – creating a perfect storm for the political and corporate elites, but also sounding a death knell for the promise of universal public education established by our founders, who happened to be men of reason (although the belief among many Americans is that they were Christian men all; again, don’t bother with the evidence).
As Joe Keohane writes in the Boston Globe about the findings regarding the power of belief over facts:
In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts – inference, intuition, and so forth – to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.
Belief Equals Anti-Intellectualism
The line from the Pink Floyd song providing my subtitle, “We don’t need no education,” is followed by, “We don’t need no thought-control.” This equation of education and thought-control is at the heart of the anti-intellectualism supported by the belief culture of the US, which has failed the promise of universal public education for a thriving democracy.
Let’s compare Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:
In a letter to John Tyler, Jefferson made this argument in 1810:
I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.
Many decades before the rise of critical pedagogy, Jefferson recognized the important relationship between access to education for everyone and education’s role in individual empowerment. Writing to George Wythe in 1786, Jefferson addressed tax support for education:
I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness…. The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.
Taxation to support universal education, then, was tied, for Jefferson, to freedom and happiness, but education was also a bulwark against the rise of an elite class – what today we witness as a corporate elite ruling both corporate and political America.
Now compare Jefferson’s comments to Secretary Duncan’s conclusions about Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores from 2009:
Here in the United States, we have looked forward eagerly to the 2009 PISA results. But the findings, I’m sorry to report, show that the United States needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. The United States has a long way to go before it lives up to the American dream and the promise of education as the great equalizer. Every three years, PISA assesses the reading, mathematics, and scientific literacy of 15-year-old students. It provides crucial information about how well our students are prepared to do the sorts of reading, mathematics, and science that will be demanded of them in postsecondary education or the job market, and as young adults in modern society. Unfortunately, the 2009 PISA results show that American students are poorly prepared to compete in today’s knowledge economy.
Duncan gives a brief nod to education as an “equalizer,” but he repeatedly connects education to competitiveness, a strong workforce and as reinforcing our “knowledge economy.”
These differences are significant because they feed into our belief culture and its value of compliance and authority over evidence and skepticism. Jefferson’s hope that universal public education would empower the poor against the oppression of the wealthy has been lost in the tidal wave of education for competitiveness and a world-class workforce.
Instead of experts speaking to the public based on evidence, we have a belief culture guided by celebrity based on wealth (Bill Gates and Oprah) and self-promotion (Michelle Rhee) who speak to our cultural assumptions instead of to the evidence from our society and our schools.
Corporate States of America: The New Big Bang Theory
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century – an era that held great promise for technology so advanced that humanity couldn’t imagine its glories – we are faced with “The Big Bang Theory” on Thursday nights. More sitcom fun focused on an objectified young woman next door who is repeatedly exposed as not very bright – but we love her; we laugh with her because she is a certain kind of pretty (consider the lineage to Marilyn Monroe). She enjoys weekly high jinks with four scientists, all of whom we laugh at like Ross, especially the self-proclaimed brightest, Sheldon.
And don’t discount that this hilarity takes place within a show connected with the evolution controversy -the Big Bang – and four university scientists. (Scientific theory is just a theory, we are reminded by the masses.)
We are not the America Ralph Waldo Emerson evoked when he wrote “Self-Reliance”; we are not a nation that is scientific in the purest sense of the word: “Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”
We are a people clinging to belief, and it is a belief that is tied to a certain kind of authority, one that speaks to that belief but can never challenge it. We believe any authority that voices back to us what we already believe.
Duncan’s comments are messages designed to trigger what people already believe about our schools and about international competitiveness, but let’s also look at how the media plays a role parallel to the role of our entertainment industry. Consider a recent headline at The Huffington Post: “SHOCKING: Nearly 1 In 4 High School Graduates Can’t Pass Military Entrance Exam.”
Ironically, this claim isn’t shocking, since it states what the public already believes (because they have been told the story for decades): public schools are failing. But when you read the very first paragraph, you find something that should be shocking: “Nearly one-fourth of the students who try to join the US Army fail its entrance exam, painting a grim picture of an education system that produces graduates who can’t answer basic math, science and reading questions, according to a new study released Tuesday.”
The opening doesn’t confirm the sensational headline. One-in-four “students who try to join the US Army” is a much different population than all high school graduates (the population the headline seems to indicate). Few readers will notice, and few will challenge the headline, because the headline’s claim is something we already believe, just as equating education with readiness for the military appears, although quite different from Jefferson’s charge, perfectly appropriate for most Americans. At the core of the American belief culture is our acceptance of education as training, education as coercion, education as normalizing.
And what about those pesky PISA rankings for the US? Again, a simplistic reporting of the ranking fulfills what we believe about schools, so the media perpetuates the distortion despite evidence from China itself that those rankings don’t warrant the crisis reaction American media and political leaders have perpetuated. As academic and blogger Yong Zhao notes:
Interestingly, this has not become big news in China, a country that loves to celebrate its international achievement. I had thought for sure China’s major media outlets would be all over the story. But to my surprise, I have not found the story covered in big newspapers or other mainstream media outlets.
While the US uses the PISA rankings to bash schools and call for standardization in order to ensure our global competitiveness, many in China are lamenting the corrosive impact of test-driven education. But that message works against our beliefs, and we are unlikely to hear it. China seems poised to recognize the failure of standardization, while the US continues to call for more and more standardization. That should be shocking. (As well, when international comparisons of test scores include considerations of poverty, a different message is revealed about the US.
The belief dynamic has allowed the corporate and political elite in the US to use universal public education to solidify the status quo of their elite positions – reversing Jefferson’s ideal. As Alfie Kohn has argued (and as we have ignored), we use schools to prepare students for a standards- and test-driven system, to perpetuate discipline and self-discipline and to squelch human agency and skepticism.
In the second decade of the 21st century, we do not have liberals and conservatives vying for the votes and minds of America; we have corporate Democrats and corporate Republicans vying through a false dichotomy for the votes and minds of American consumers who are too often eager to hear what they already believe.
Keohane explains that the power of belief threatens the promise of democracy:
This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters – the people making decisions about how the country runs – aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
And we have a belief culture mesmerized by celebrity authority that perpetuates the marginalization of education and of being educated and informed.
At the center of this false political dichotomy and celebrity leadership, we have universal public education reduced to serving as both scapegoat – “Schools are failing to maintain America’s place in the global economy!” – and the political/corporate tool of creating a compliant workforce and an electorate eager to score well on multiple-choice testing.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the faith culture in the US fully relinquished expertise to celebrity. Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh have spoken for climate change (the little cousin to the evolution debate), spurred by Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
And then Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman'” built the platform upon which Duncan, Rhee and Gates could lead the charge for education reform supported by Oprah, MSNBC and even Real Time with Bill Maher and The Colbert Report.
Watching, listening and even commenting on the cultural debates over climate change, evolution and education, I come back to the evolution debate and the cavalier discounting of evolutionary theory by the vocal members of the belief culture: evolution is just a theory, they state emphatically. “Just a theory” reveals two very important aspects of the failure of the belief culture.
First, the statement reveals that most people misunderstand the term “theory.” “Theory” is a scientific term (and, thus, a nuanced term) that is analogous to what laypeople would call fact, since a theory is the conclusion drawn from applying the scientific process to credible and extensive evidence. And that leads to the second important aspect we can draw from the statement.
By conflating “theory” with “hypothesis,” the spokespeople for the belief culture are suggesting that “theory” is no better than “belief” – that we shouldn’t accept things without evidence.
And this is the central problem with a belief culture – espousing erroneous and contradictory ideas while discounting reasonable and evidence-based information simply because that knowledge contradicts tradition.
Leaving a society trapped in the most dangerous aspect of belief: entrenched ideology.
Leaving many of us who seek education for empowerment and human agency trapped in an old song: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought-control….”
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