Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Belief Culture" @ truthout

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% of the US populace accept evolution without any hand of God involved.

The US 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 US and the associated impacts visible in our disdain for not only education, but also the well-educated, the informed: The US is a belief culture.

And by "belief," I am not attacking genuine religious faith. This discussion is about a belief culture that is secular, political, and ultimately ideological, even when that 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 US, we are apt to misuse belief and ignore (or misunderstand) science when we need it most.

While unlike the Western world concerning evolution, the US as a belief culture may reflect ironically what science is discovering about the power of belief over fact as a part of human nature:

The US 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: 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 laughs with Joey (who is apparently uneducated), and at Ross (who has a PhD, who 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, who doesn't value evidence).

This is the America of belief. We cherish stubborn doctrine and clever rhetoric even at the expense of fact—and we speak often 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 we are proud of it) - yet another controversy 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, of being first 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 (evidence-based) argument about secession or the flag issue in the South and you are apt to be the Ross to the multitudes of Phoebes.

South Carolina is not alone, as secession balls are planned throughout the South, where the calls for tradition and state's rights drown out any concerns about slavery. Again, as with 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 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 Keohane writes about the findings regarding the power of belief over facts,

Belief = 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," and this equation of education and thought control is at the heart of the anti-intellectualism supported by the belief culture of the US that 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."

Jefferson, many decades before the rise of critical pedagogy, 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 PISA scores from 2009:

Duncan gives a brief nod to education as an "equalizer," but he repeatedly connects education to competitiveness, a strong workforce, and reinforcing our "knowledge economy."

These differences are significant as they feed into our belief culture that values 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.

And 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 twenty-first 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 is within a show connected with the evolution controversy—the Big Bang—and four university scientists. (But scientific theory is just a theory we are reminded by the masses.)

We are not Ralph Waldo Emerson's America, one 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"("Self-Reliance," 1841).

We are a people clinging to belief, and a belief that is tied to a certain kind of authority that speaks to that belief but can never challenge it. We believe any authority who voices back to us what we already believe.

Duncan's comments above are messages designed to trigger what people already believe about our schools and international competitiveness. But let's also look at how the media plays a role here that parallels 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): pubic schools are failing. But when you read the very first paragraph, you can find something that should be shocking:

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 (as the headline states). Few readers will notice, and few will challenge the headline, however, because the claim of the headline is something we already believe - just as equating education with readiness for the military appears perfectly appropriate for most Americans (although quite different than Jefferson's charge). 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. Yong Zhao notes:

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 that message: 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 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 twenty-first 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, too often eager to hear what they already believe.

Keohane explains that the power of belief threatens the promise of democracy:

And we have a belief culture mesmerized by celebrity authority that perpetuates the marginalization of education and of being educated, being informed.

At the center of this false political dichotomy and celebrity leadership, we have universal public education reduced to 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 electorate eager to score well on multiple-choice testing.

Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first 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 Secretary Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and Bill 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 draw 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, for human agency trapped in an old song: "We don't need no education/ We don't need no thought control. . ."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Living in Dialogue post

Anthony Cody refers to a comment of mine on a previous blog, and links to my OpEdNews commentary on Vonnegut's Player Piano.

Follow the discussion about computer-graded writing here:

Should we Trust Low-Paid Teachers to Score Student Work?

10 January 2011 The Daily Censored Commentary

Thomas, P. L. (2011, January 10). Supermen or kryptonite?—Legend of the fall, pt. V. The Daily Censored.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

8 January Op-Ed at The Greenville News

Thomas, P. L. (2011, January 8). Spend energy on S.C. students, not on more tests. The Greenville News.

Historian and education scholar, Diane Ravitch recently made a bold claim on her EdWeek blog with Deborah Meier, "Bridging Differences":

"The reading and math scores for 12th grade students on the National Assessment of Education (NAEP) were just released, and they are unimpressive. Scores are no better than they were in the early 1990s. The achievement gap is unchanged. I can hear the gnashing of teeth, the cries for more accountability, more charters, more this or more that. But not to worry. In fact, the 12th grade scores don't mean much. They probably mean nothing at all."

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed about the most recent HSAP scores in upstate schools. I made a similar comment to Ravitch's—that test scores don't really mean much. But I have found that few people respond well to such claims.

Since A Nation at Risk in 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, the US and SC have invested a great deal of time and money in identifying standards, testing students, and labeling schools. In SC, where we were early and committed to the accountability era, we have participated in most of the reform initiatives championed today:

• SC has historically characterized itself and been characterized from the outside as ranking last, or near the bottom, of education throughout the nation. Part of that ranking rests on the flawed practice of ranking states by SAT averages. As a result of the charges of "last in education," SC has pursued three decades of accountability, standards, and testing (begun nearly two decades before No Child Left Behind) along with implementing education policy and funding that support increasing the number of students taking the SAT and providing in the schools extensive SAT preparation coursework and technology/software.

• SC has also stood at the leading edge in terms of teacher quality with several phases of state-wide teacher assessment/evaluation programs and one of the most aggressive campaigns for teachers to achieve National Board Certification, including the state providing fee reimbursement for the board certification process and rewarding board certified teachers with a yearly supplement of $7500.

• As reflected in a court case and resulting documentary, Corridor of Shame, SC has wrestled with pockets of poverty impacting negatively schools across the state, particularly along the I-95 corridor. Again, SC has been proactive by creating several programs offering teachers incentives to teach in high poverty schools; concurrently, the state has implemented an aggressive accountability system, identifying schools quality through report cards and intervening where reform appeared ineffective.

• While SC has resisted powerful efforts to bring school choice to the state, SC's largest school district has practiced public school choice for many years, presenting a snapshot of choice dynamics, which resulted in greater stratification, pockets of affluence and poverty.

• And SC has experimented with a number of reforms being championed today: charter schools, single-gender education, on-line schools.

Since I have been a public school teacher (eighteen years) and teacher educator (nine years) in SC for almost three decades, I can attest that the people leading these policies and reforms have overwhelmingly been sincere, and while education reform has often been contentious throughout the past thirty years, many bright and dedicated people have worked tirelessly to improve the schools of SC.

So as we stand at the end of 2010, what has been the result of three decades of high accountability?

We continue to lament low SAT scores, and we are faced each testing season with scores that do not attain the goals we have set for ourselves. In fact, in the most recent election season, both major parties portrayed our schools, once again, as failures.

It is time that we all set aside our preoccupation with test scores. We should not bemoan scores that are too low, and we must not praise scores that appear successful.

Instead of standards and tests, our energy should be spent on children, students who are much more than any test scores. And our focus on these children in the care of our schools must not be just inside school walls.

The great irony is that test scores do not mean what we claim (the quality of learning in our schools), but they are a mirror to something worth noticing, something that we continue to ignore—the fact of many children's lives outside of school.

Test scores are yet one more marker of the inequities of our society, and while not one more second or dollar should be spent chasing higher test scores, we should find the courage to face and address the plight of poverty that makes learning impossible for children struggling to live.

8 January 2011 Op-Ed at OpEd News

Thomas, P. L.(2011, January 8). Defending the status quo?--False dichotomies and the education reform debate. OpEdNews.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011