Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Very Practical Post

One of my regular readers sent me these questions about yesterday's post:
I found your last post thought provoking…

But at the same time, how much time is there in the day to spend debating EVERY crank theory? 

If the coach teaching basic geology is a Flat Earther, should the one period per day be spent  listening to Bible verses about the angels holding up the four corners of the earth? 

What if the teacher has secret KKK or is a member of the Church of the Creator tendencies?  Let him start teaching from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

I’m not sure how practical your philosophy is when it comes to an organized, formal public school program.
I'm aware of the "practical" difficulties; which is why I wrote in that very same post: "There are other reasons to object to teaching the conflicts: lack of time, teachers who aren't competent to present the material, and the like."  Time limitations and teacher competence are serious constraints.  There are plenty of interest groups out there who demand that their specialties should be taught because they're vital to producing an educated citizenry.  Scientists, for example, who don't just want a nebulous Science to be taught: every student should be given a solid grounding in Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, Geography, Biology, Genetics, and so on.  Not one of these should be scanted, that's why we're falling behind the Russians, I mean the Japanese!  (Or whoever the current economic / political rival is.)  And that's not counting all the other subjects whose boosters want to give Our Children the good education they'll need to be competitive in today's globalized, changing world.  There aren't enough hours in the day to cover everything, schools and their communities must decide these things, and it won't be easy.  In addition to the time factor you must find qualified teachers who know their subjects and are willing to work in the current deteriorating public school environment, dominated by standardized testing that is not only worse than useless, it robs the school day of time that could better be used actually learning.  Lots of luck.

On a closer reading of my reader's letter, though, I noticed a curious misunderstanding.  As it happens, he's the same person who expressed reservations about my post on absolutes, and along similar lines.  Look again at this part:
If the coach teaching basic geology is a Flat Earther, should the one period per day be spent listening to Bible verses about the angels holding up the four corners of the earth?
Now, I thought it was obvious that teaching the conflicts does not mean devoting the entire period to one approach.  A teacher who taught geology using Bible verses would fail the criterion I specified of competence.  He or she would have to be able to teach Round-Earth geology as well, just as teaching the conflict about neo-Darwinism would require an ability to teach not just Creationism but Intelligent Design and the numerous varieties of Darwinian theory.  That's not a small order, I realize.  But then, as I've said before, I'm dubious about most high-school teachers' ability to teach Darwin, even when they are devout Evolutionists: are they really teaching Darwin's theory, or are they teaching Spencer?  If your kids are being taught that evolution means "survival of the fittest" and a linear, progessive ascent from simple organisms to the Crown of Creation (us), then they are being taught Spencerism and the Great Chain of Being, not Darwin.

Besides, a Flat-Earther would still have to teach some version of geology -- igneous, sedimentary, and metaphoric rocks, that sort of thing -- in a Geology class. Bible verses wouldn't cut it; if he or she got away with it, it would mean that a lot more was rotten in the District than one bad teacher.  From my own experience and reports from others, I know that students are often taught inadequate, outdated science even when theological disputes aren't involved.  As late as the 1960s, American textbooks were being published which referred to the Jukes and the Kallikaks, a scientific-racist fabrication from fifty years before, that had been -- how shall I put it? -- long before settled in scientific circles.  And then there was my high school biology teacher, who had us dissect frogs but spent many class hours regaling us with his right-wing politics.  He got away with it, too, and as far as I know retired without difficulty after decades of service, even though everyone in town must have known that he was using classroom time to proselytize his politics.  I don't know if he had any actual qualifications in biology.  But this leads to questions about who decides curriculum, textbooks, and teacher qualification, and how, which aren't really my topic here.

Speaking of Flat-Earthers, though, here's an anecdote I've wanted to quote for a long time, from D. E. Nineham's The Use and Abuse of the Bible (Harper, 1976), pages 31-2:
It might be thought, for example, that no one could doubt the approximately spherical shape of the world or the heliocentric character of the solar system. Yet it was just over twenty years ago [i.e., in the early 1950s] that a geography student at London University obtained a first-class honours degree at London University without at any point in her papers being false to her conviction, held on religious grounds, that the earth is flat. Which at least shows how difficult it is to prove that any given statement is incompatible with what a citizen of the modern world is bound to hold.
That young woman could have done a good job teaching the conflicts in a high school geography class, though she'd be overqualified for the position.

The same goes for the KKK teacher, though I wonder which class my reader imagined him teaching.  Notice too the reference to "secret KKK ... leanings": I think that secrecy about one's "leanings" would be out of place when teaching critical thinking.  But goodness knows, we have to police the "leanings" of our teachers ruthlessly: what if they have secret Communist, or Muslim, or anti-colonialist leanings?  What if they're secretly -- gay?

These are caricatures, not any kind of critique or response to my argument.  I find them mildly alarming, in fact, because they're mirror images of the caricatures that are deployed by the Right to oppose the teaching of evolution (Our children will be taught that they are animals, and that morals are relative!) or sex education (Our children will be taught how to have sex!  When they're just six years old!) or that it's wrong to bully gay students (Our children will be taught fisting! In the classroom!).

But on one point I must plead guilty.  Should the KKK teacher be allowed to teach from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? my reader demands.  Yes, I reply -- but only if he or she teaches the conflicts, which means admitting that the Protocols have been attacked as a racist forgery, and sketches out the evidence for that charge.  Teaching the conflicts does not mean turning over the class to one position; it means examining all of them, acknowledging that there is conflict and controversy, and (as much as possible) encouraging -- indeed assigning -- students to explore the controversy on their own.  That means having them report back with their findings and to subject them to examination and criticism.

In fact, if I'm not mistaken, that's what critical thinking means.  Yet quite a few people who want kids to be taught critical thinking object vehemently to teaching the conflicts, which they tend to misrepresent along the lines my reader did: as caving in completely to the cranks.  This indicates to me that "critical thinking" in this context has some other meaning, something agenda-driven, something that sounds like the opposite of its facial meaning.  Something like teaching students a different orthodoxy, and not allowing them to question it.

And that just doesn't work, not if you really favor education.  It's just not possible to teach American history, or English Lit, or Biology, as an orthodoxy.  You can probably get away with having Biology Lab and having the kids dissect cats or frogs, but that's not going to help them much if they pursue science in college, or to understand what they hear about new developments in biology in the corporate media.

Teaching orthodoxy is not a way to educate students; it more likely will have the effect of boring students and ensuring that they remember almost nothing of what they've been taught.  This applies notably to the teaching of history, where orthodox approaches lead to students hating the subject and not retaining anything from the course -- which is just as well, because what they're taught is incomplete and finally inaccurate.  Ditto for literature: The Canon is touted as the best of what human beings have created, but it changes from generation to generation, with each change bitterly attacked by the old guard for letting the barbarians take over -- forgetting that the changes they introduced were attacked in the same way.  Teaching science as orthodoxy may work if you don't care whether most students understand the subject, and view high school classes merely as a way to sort out the few who will go on to specialize in the field; but if you want a scientifically literate lay public, it's worse than useless.

How to balance the requirement of learning to think against time and budget limitations, the pressure of standardized tests, and the difficulty of finding qualified teachers is a difficult practical question, but it doesn't mean that teaching critical thinking isn't important, because it should be a factor in most if not all subjects, not a subject in itself.  It also means students should be challenged to deal with material that may be unpleasant to them.  Teaching them to run weeping away from it is a recipe for a highly orthodox society, not one which favors critical thinking or any kind of pluralism -- and it isn't education worthy of the name.