Belief Culture: “We Don’t Need No Education”

“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. [1]

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….”

[1] Posted at Truthout 26 January 2011

See Related Posts

Time as Capital: The Rise of the Frantic Class

Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: Allegory of Privilege

Zombies, “Scarcity,” and Understanding Poverty

Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse

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Thank You, Ken Lindblom (and Others)

I met Ken Lindblom at a national convention, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) meeting in San Francisco 2003, if I recall correctly.

My relationship with NCTE has been complex because the people and opportunities NCTE has brought to me have been many and wonderful, but the organization itself has often failed what I believe are key commitments.

Nonetheless, I have served as a column editor under Ken’s brilliant tenure as editor of English Journal. His work has been stellar, and I am honored to have been a very small part of this work.

My last piece for this column, Adventures with Text and Beyond, pulls together my argument about the need to recognize and celebrate a wider context for what counts as text. But it also acknowledges the work of Adam Bessie, Dan Archer, and the spectacular graphic scholarship of Nick Sousanis.

For all his support and inspiring work, I want to thank Ken for being the sort of colleague every scholar should experience. I also want to thank Adam, Dan, and Nick for their brilliant work—work that pushes me to seek out the heights they have attained.

Finally, I want to thank Julie and David Gorlewski, incoming editors at EJ because, like Ken, they have become supportive friends/colleagues who have allowed me to remain a column editor at EJ—Speaking Truth to Power.

It is because of this community of educators, scholars, and artists that I hold onto my hope that some day we fulfill the promises of universal public education and democracy for which these good friends work each day.

Clarifying Common Core Compromise (part 2)

My initial Common Core compromise was intentionally brief—in part to make it accessible and, ultimately, as a concession that it details elements unlikely to be embraced by the political and corporate leaders driving CC-mania.

While I remain north of skeptical, able to see clearly cynicism, about the possibility that my compromise will be embraced, I did receive enough response—and many important concerns—to justify a follow up, clarifying a few key concepts behind my compromise.

First, the foundational motivation for the compromise is to highlight that both CC (and the entire accountability movement) and the USDOE are, as currently functioning, deeply flawed structures, each working to ruin universal public education. The flaws at the root of CC and the USDOE are related to bureaucracy, political/partisan corruption (a redundancy, I realize), and predatory corporations (the private feeding on public funds).

Next, the elements in my compromise are designed to re-imagine CC as a genuine mechanism of change—to end the current accountability era and spur a new era of authentic commitments to social and educational equity and opportunity and to end the USDOE as a political/partisan bureaucratic nightmare and re-invision the USDOE as a centralized and professional ministry of education that serves the public good and the people.

So here are a few clarifications directed at the concerns raised so far:

  • Ending high-stakes testing accomplishes a few key reforms: (a) ending the disaster capitalism of Pearson and other corporations that benefit from crisis discourse about schooling, feeding on precious public funds, (b) ending a historically bankrupt tradition of linking test scores to individual students, teachers, and schools (using NAEP, random sampling, and broad data sets), and thus, addressing privacy concerns (NAEP data not linked to individual students but creating longitudinal data bases by states), ending high-stakes accountability, and stemming the tide of value-added methods designed to de-professionalize teachers.
  • Transforming the USDOE to a centralized, professional, and responsive ministry of education does not mean I am calling for standardization or “government control of schools.” In fact, I am calling for the exact opposite of those concerns. Centralized does not mean standardized. Currently, the US has a public workforce composed of public school teachers and publicly funded university professors that includes all the expertise and knowledge needed to create the resources every public school in the US needs. As I detailed, the USDOE centralizes all materials, resources, and assessments (NAEP), but  centralized must not mandate for any schools. Instead, each school will base needs on the populations of students being served, and then the USDOE becomes a centralized (thus creating an equity of opportunity) resource to serve the needs expressed by each school. Education must begin with each student and work outward.
  • Although I didn’t directly note this before, I also envision once we end high-stakes testing and move to NAEP-like data sets (similar to what Finland does), we must then expand dramatically the evidence used to monitor and reform further our schools.

Is it possible for educators, scholars, researchers, and community members who believe in public education and the essential nature of the Commons for a free people to take the tool of oppression (Common Core) and turn it against the very people who created it?

I wonder, yes, I wonder.

And when I wonder, I think about—despite all its flaws—the film Gandhi, and the spirit found in key scenes of a people coming to embrace their own freedom:

Brigadier: You don’t think we’re just going to walk out of India!

Gandhi: Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.

Can a spirit of non-cooperation grow from a solidarity around CC as a true mechanism of reform?

Nehru: Bapuji, the whole country is moving.

Gandhi: Yes. but in what direction?

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Few people could have imagined the acceleration of corporate influence that has occurred in the last two years despite the economic downturn associated with those corporations and the election of Barak Obama, who was repeatedly demonized as a socialist. *

More shocking, possibly, has been the corporate influence on the public discourse about universal public education, driven by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and promoted through celebrity tours by billionaire Bill Gates, ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and “Superman” Geoffrey Canada.

Adam Bessie has speculated about the logical progression of the current accountability era built on tests and destined to hold teachers accountable for their students’ test scores (despite the evidence that teachers account for only about 10-20% of achievement)—hologram teachers. And Krashen believes that the corporate takeover of schools is at the center of the new reformers’ misinformation tour. For Anthony Cody, the future is a disturbing dystopia.

While Bessie’s, Krashen’s, and Cody’s commentaries may sound like alarmist stances–possibly even the stuff of fiction—I believe we all should have been seeing this coming for decades.

The science fiction (SF) genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly found of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s TaleOryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut spoke and wrote often about rejecting the SF label for his work (See Chapter 1 of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), but Vonnegut’s genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate American from his own experience working at GE. A review of the novel describes Vonnegut’s vision of our brave new world:

The important difference lies in the fact that Mr. Vonnegut’s oligarchs are not capitalists but engineers. In the future as he envisages it, the machines have completed their triumph, dispossessing not only the manual laborers but the white collar workers as well. Consequently the carefully selected, highly trained individuals who design and control the machines are the only people who have anything to do. Other people, the great majority, can either go into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which is devoted to boondoggling, or join the army, which has no real function in a machine-dominated world-society.

Yes, in Vonnegut’s dystopia, computers are at the center of a society run itself like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for what career he or she can pursue (although we should note that women’s roles were even more constrained than men’s, reflecting the mid-twentieth century sexism in the U.S.). Where corporations end and the government begins is difficult in this society that is simply a slightly exaggerated of the life Vonnegut had witnessed while working at GE before abandoning corporate America to be a full-time writer.

For me, however, Vonnegut’s Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system as it is a red flag about the dangers of the oligarchy that we have become.

Today, with billionaire Bill Gates speaking for not only corporate America but also for reforming public education, how far off was Vonnegut’s vision?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, how different is Vonnegut’s world to what we have today, as income inequity and the pooling of wealth accelerates?

We have witnessed where political loyalty lies during the bailouts as corporate America collapsed at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. With corporate America saved, and most Americans ignored, the next logical step is to transform public education by increasing the corporate model that has been crippling the system since the misinformation out of Ronald Reagan’s presidency grabbed headlines with the release of A Nation at Risk.

If Vonnegut had written this storyline, at least we could have been guaranteed some laughter. But this brave new world of public education is more grim—like George Orwell’s 1984.

Our artists can see and understand when many of the rest of us are simply overwhelmed by our lives. In Player Piano, we see how successfully corporate life disorients and overwhelms workers in order to keep those workers under control. And in the relationship between the main character Paul and his wife Anita, we watch the power of corporate life—and the weight of testing and reducing humans to numbers—being magnified by the rise of computers when Paul makes a plea to his wife:

“No, no. You’ve got something the tests and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” (p. 178)

In the novel, Paul’s quest and the momentary rise of a few rebels appear to be no match for corporate control. Today, I have to say I am no more optimistic than Vonnegut.

When Secretary Duncan offers misleading claims about international test scores and bemoans the state of public schools for failing to provide us with a world-class workforce, and almost no one raises a voice in protest (except those of us within the field of education, only to be demonized for protesting), I am tempted to think that we are simply getting what we deserve—like Paul at the end of Player Piano: “And that left Paul. ‘To a better world,’ he started to say, but he cut the toast short, thinking of the people of Ilium, already eager to recreate the same old nightmare” (p. 340).

* Slightly revised reposting from OpEdNews (1/3/2011)

See Also

Engineers Own The Future, And Maybe Even Us, Jamie Condliffe

Et tu, Liberal Media?

The erosion of support for the Commons is most distinct in the failure of foundational support for universal public education in favor of the more powerful interests of corporate America. Just as public schools and teachers have no political party, the so-called liberal media have also abandoned public education and America’s workers, teachers.

Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert have fallen into the corporate education reform trap by buying into and thus selling the “bad” teacher myth, the charter school scam, the Michelle Rhee self-promotion tour, and the Teach for America masquerade. NBC and MSNBC, along with CNN, have long been marginalized by the Right as shining examples of the liberal media, but all have fallen in line with the corporate education reform agenda through programming such as Education Nation—corporate reform propaganda pretending to be investigative media.

This week, PBS (certainly the gold-standard of liberal media, if we believe public perception) ran an episode of Frontline examining once again Michelle Rhee: “The Education of Michelle Rhee.”

Teachers, scholars, and education activists—including education historian Diane Ravitch—held onto the slimmest glimmer of hope that the unmasking of Rhee would finally come in the form of genuinely democratic media, free of corporate agendas.

However, the program with the tagline “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers” left educators and public school advocates saying, “Et tu, liberal media?”

On balance, PBS provided Rhee yet more media coverage, satisfying her self-promotion, but leaving a tremendous vacuum of things unsaid as well as truly accurate and confrontational responses to Rhee on the cutting room floor.

John Merrow and American journalism have once again failed the democratic purposes of public media and the promise of universal public education.

Merrow, however, has chosen to run a much more detailed and enlightening piece online, in writing, about Adelle Cothorne, leading many to wonder: Why offer the larger and more powerful TV audience Rhee propaganda-lite and bury something closer to Rhee confrontation in an online blog?

The answer is ugly.

The Commons in the form of journalism and education have been consumed by the consumer culture that feeds the Corporate Greed pooling America’s resources in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

Public education, its students, and its teachers have no political party and have no media to fight for the truths that must be revealed if democracy, and not corporate interests, is our goal.