Tag: intelligent design

Curricula with an Agenda? It Ain’t Just Big Coal

Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan “The United States of Energy.” Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.

Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.

In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if “consensus” were synonymous with “absolute truth.” What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.

Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don’t just fail, they hurt everyone.

Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.

It’s All In How You Define ‘Community’

Every week, the National Journal’s Education Expert blog tackles a different issue, and from hereon out I’ll be weighing in on many of them, crossposting at Cato@Liberty. I sent in my first entry today, which appears as a “guest response” while they set me up to appear as a regular. It’s on my favorite topic – education and social cohesion – so hopefully I’ve started with a bang.

Enjoy, and thanks to the National Journal for bringing a libertarian perspective on board:

Looking at the evidence suggests that school choice is the best educational system to build strong communities. A lot, though, depends on how you define “community.”

Diane Ravitch essentially defines a community as a “neighborhood,” and certainly neighborhoods can be a form of community. But neighborhoods are hardly close to the only type of community, and to the extent that neighborhoods – or, given education reality these days, school districts, states, and the federal government – often include people with very diverse backgrounds, desires, and norms, public schools can be very destructive to social cohesion.

Start with simple logic: If diverse people are required to support a single system of schools, is it more likely to result in unity or conflict? The answer, of course, is conflict. If people cannot agree on what math curriculum to use, they have to fight it out politically. If they cannot agree on whether or not there should be school uniforms, they have to fight that out. Indeed, any disagreement has to be resolved in a political arena, and the term “arena” certainly does not connote cohesion.

We see this forced conflict manifested constantly in education. States and communities are regularly inflamed over the teaching of human origins, whether we’re talking Scopes Monkey or Intelligent Design. We have disputes of which religious groups will get their holidays off from school. And then there’s the ever contentious teaching of U.S. history.

And conflict is only one manifestation of the division caused by trying to bring diverse people under a single government umbrella. Renowned social capital theorist Robert Putnam has found that where there is significant diversity there is also major atomization – people “pull in like a turtle” – quite possibly because they have few recognized, shared norms to hold onto. So not only don’t you have cohesive – but separated – groups, you have seriously compromised intra-group cohesion as well. Communities of all types are weak.

How do you overcome these very real problems through the education system? Let people choose schools – especially private schools – with the money that currently all goes to public schools. Then, not only can you phase out the inherently adversarial system that is public schooling, you can empower people to choose schools based on their shared norms and values.

But won’t this “balkanize” Americans? Maybe, in that many people will choose to attend schools with people like themselves. That, though, is certainly preferable to forcing us at each others’ throats. Moreover, there is evidence that allowing people to choose schools helps to meaningfully overcome serious divisions. Research by Jay Greene and Nicole Mellow, for instance, found that lunch tables – where students sit by true, voluntary choice – at private schools were better integrated by race than those at public institutions. Why? There could be many explanations, but a very reasonable one is that the ties that bind kids at private schools – common religious values, perhaps shared interest in a particular curriculum – help to overcome divisions such as race.

Does more work need to be done to prove that choice is crucial to building communities? Absolutely. Unfortunately, for the most part we haven’t even considered that government schooling might be more divisive than unifying, despite the very real – and painful – evidence that that could indeed be the case. Well, we need to seriously consider the possibility that choice is better mortar for building communities than government schooling because, respect for “neighborhood schools” notwithstanding, the evidence in favor of choice – and against government schooling – is both real and mounting.

I Said Believe!

Since its beginning, one of the primary drivers behind public schooling – government schooling – has been a desire to compel belief, whether in “American” values, God, the primacy of science, or myriad other things that some people have thought it essential for all people to accept. The result has been constant conflict that, rather than uniting diverse people – a companion goal of public schooling – has divided them.  And not only have crusades to force belief created ongoing conflicts, there’s generally been little evidence they’ve actually changed the targeted beliefs. So we’ve gotten all the downside of trying to force alterations to hearts and minds without actually changing them.

Case in point, the seemingly endless war over the teaching of human origins. 

Despite decades of keeping religion out of the public schools, the latest polling shows that 40 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form about 10,000 years ago, while only 16 percent think that human beings evolved without the participation of God. 

New research from a couple of Penn State political scientists elucidates one reason – besides simple, honest disagreement – that this is the case. While law can prohibit the teaching in public schools of such alternatives to evolution as creationism and intelligent design, it cannot actually make biology instructors teach evolution. And, it turns out, a major reason many teachers tiptoe around evolution is that they fear the backlash that would come from forcing a singular view on diverse people.

According to Michael Berkman and Eric Pultzer, roughly 60 percent of respondents in the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers reported that they either steer clear of evolution or dance around it not necessarily because they reject the theory, but because they don’t want trouble. “Our data show that these teachers understandably want to avoid controversy,” the researchers said. It’s a finding that confirms an anecdotal New York Times report from a few years ago, and that fits with other analyses of public schooling that conclude that often the easiest thing for public schools to do is simply avoid any disputed topic.

So what do we do?

For starters, stop making education policy based on the notion that some things are so important all people must be forced to believe in them. You simply cannot compel belief – at best, you’ll get the parroting back of what you want to hear, not true acceptance. Worse, you’ll very likely create a situation where no one gets what they want and everyone ends up with empty, incoherent, compromised curricula.

The ultimate solution is to let parents choose options for their children without first having to pay for the “one, best system,” and to let educators provide schooling tailored to the values and needs of whomever they wish to serve. Then everyone will be be able to access coherent curricula rather than being saddled with educational mush.

Of course, many people will choose to have their children learn things with which neither you nor I agree. We can make that clear to them by selecting different options for our own children and openly debating conflicting opinions. What we cannot do is continue to try to impose our beliefs on them: not only is it incompatible with a free nation and antithetical to social unity, it often ends up keeping everyone from getting what they believe is best for their children.