Thursday, April 9, 2009

On Educating People Who Don't Want To Think

Two recent stories circling the 'blogosphere achieved synchronicity in my mind this morning.

The first is the brouhaha over the "Gathering Storm" ad campaign from National Organization for Marriage. Petulant at Shakesville eviscerated the ad, but there have been others who have torn it apart - sometimes with hilarity. Much of the criticism of the campaign - the part that actually checks the campaign's "facts" rather than simply denounce the outright bigotry or question why the campaign had to hire actors rather than produce the actual people cited - tears into the hyperbole and outright falsehood of the claims. Unfortunately, it takes research skills to actually identify the "oppressed" produced in the ad, since the ad doesn't name names or give the slightest specific for its test cases.

The second is a disturbing report on the uninformed nature of the US electorate. A recent study for the California Academy of Sciences highlights the relative ignorance of the populace on basic scientific knowledge. Relating to this, Space Cowboy (again at Shakesville) retells an anecdote from Southern California that, due to budget constraints, science education may actually be reduced.

There is something in the US psyche that encourages certainty. The US doesn't like ambiguity: it prefers the conviction of fact or belief. As a result, the complexity of the modern world is often suppressed in the public sphere and replaced with platitudes and simplistic statements which are frequently incorrect in part or in whole simply to assuage public angst. It is possible for an authority on a given subject to make an assertion that is demonstrably false and have it accepted simply from the certainty with which it is delivered.

Part of the CAA survey results can be explained by the pervasiveness of "young earth" philosophy in Conservative Xtianity. If, for example, one believes the Earth is 6,000 years old, then man and dinosaur would naturally exist at the same time - which would explain the 59% correct response rate for that question. The rest of the questions, however, point to an almost wilful ignorance of established science.

At the same time, the education system is increasingly focused on what policy defines as "essentials" - basic reading and mathematics. Such a narrow approach, dealing in essentially right/wrong dichotomies of calculation and syntax, while easily scored for evaluation, completely ignores the "gray area" fields of the social sciences and more complex natural sciences (chemistry, physics and biology), all of which are essential to a sound education.

I cannot posit a causality for the decreasing literacy in the US from these items. But the "Gathering Storm" campaign shines a bright spotlight on both the mindset that encourages it and the results of allowing that mindset to dictate education policy and public discourse. The more narrowly the US focuses its efforts to educate the populace, the more necessary disciplines become ignored, particularly disciplines where right and wrong are displaced by provable versus unprovable and where interpretation based on the observable becomes more integral to the subject. Equally, as the disciplines that do not encourage right/wrong dichotomies in their studied material are diminished in the education system, the notion that there are such absolutes in the natural world becomes more prevalent and acceptable.

A cultural artifact of the deemphasis on such modes of thinking is the increase in acceptance of unproven - even brazenly indefensible - positions making their way through public discourse. The "Gathering Storm" campaign is one such.

The problem with such phenomena in the scholastically challenged world of 21st century US culture is that debunking such patterns of thought require the kind of critical thinking that the US education system is increasingly unable to teach and that the US populace is seemingly increasingly disinclined to practice. Given this trend, the capacity of education to encourage critical thinking in any sense is diminished, and this decrease may be attributable in no small part to the disinclination of the public to think for itself.

Education is at once an obligation of any society and the specific privilege of the individual. Society, particularly democratic society, needs an informed populace to remain productive and functional. However, the level of education obtained is largely the choice of the individual citizen: how much or how little education an individual obtains is that individual's own option. These two conditions are largely at odds in modern US society and leave us with results such as are illustrated here.

The same society that values science in the abstract is woefully uneducated on scientific specifics as the CAA study shows, which implies that many more advanced disciplines of less perceived value are at least equally outside the grasp of those surveyed. At the same time, those disciplines, whose spheres encompass the realms of what is provable or defensible, are being held increasinly out of reach by an education system apparently unable or unwilling to present more than the absolutely but hardly exclusive essentials of basic arithmetic and everyday language. In turn, there is a predominance of public speech on increasingly complex subjects that is oversimplified to a point that it becomes substantially inaccurate, which is absorbed as accurate by a public increasinly discouraged from, and disinclined to, its own critical thinking and research.

The net result of these convergences is a populace uninformed on matters of vital import to the republic and the planet, who are unable or unwilling to expend the effort to explore beneath the surface of complex issues and sufficiently complacent with their condition to accept baldly inaccurate positions based solely on the conviction with which they are made. This might be curable with a more comprehensive approach to education, and a more rigorous and expansive curriculum at both the elementary and secondary levels, but again as indicated in the current discourse the US education system is in such dire economic straits and in such low domestic repute that the very coursework that could alleviate the problem is being sacrificed to the immediate budgetary constraints without apparent thought for the long-term consequences.

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