Eunomia · education

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As I was looking at Casting Stones, I came across this post that had some interesting information on an important Michigan endorsement for Romney.  Apparently, Marlene Elwell, an old Christian Coalition hand and one-time Pat Robertson backer, has been working hard to stop Huckabee, and here is one of her reasons:

Though she says the Huckabee camp repeatedly tried to sign her during 2007, Elwell calls the former Arkansas governor a liberal on non-hot button social issues like education.

What this means in the real world is that one of the few candidates actively supported by a large network of homeschooling families and one of the strongest defenders of homeschooling in the race is “liberal” on education because he doesn’t support school vouchers.  This takes crazy litmus-test politics to a new level, or a new low, depending on how you want to look at it.  The principled reason to support vouchers is that you support the right of parents to choose where their children can go to school, so it is preposterous to say that a leading defender of homeschooling is simply a “liberal” on education without any qualification.  If you don’t like his position on vouchers, fine, but let’s be honest about what the real objection is.  Vouchers are a debatable policy, and they are unusually unpopular with the actual suburban middle-class voters whose schools would be affected by these policies (or who fear that these policies might affect their schools).  How vouchers went from being a slightly oddball, Jack Kemp-esque initiative proposal in the ’90s to the end-all, be-all of education reform on the right is one of those mysteries that someone else will have to solve.

Unleash weapons of mass instruction. ~Mike Huckabee

You have to be kidding me.  No wonder he received the New Hampshire NEA endorsement

Via Ross and Franke-Ruta, here is a CBN profile of Mike Huckabee.  According to the report, he does support the teaching of creationism (not ID) “alongside evolution,” which came as something of a surprise to me.  Intelligent Design is custom-made as the pseudo-scientific alternative that a pol can invoke without bringing down quite the same measure of criticism on himself.  Even McCain (whose campaign is apparently now going to have “faith” as its theme!) has hied himself to the Discovery Institute to pay homage to the latest fad.  ID is, of course, quite different from “creationism” and “creation science,” in that ID assumes that much of evolutionary theory and cosmology is correct, but holds that modern theory fails to account for the presence of orderliness and intelligence in the universe.  (ID does not so much account for these things as it asserts them and waves its hands melodramatically as it asks, ”Why, oh, why will the oppressive scientific community not heed our arguments?”) 

“Creationism,” on the other hand, holds that more or less literal accounts of Biblical creation are entirely, “factually” true and creation science is founded on the notion that the claims are empirically verifiable.  The thinking here seems to be that if archaeology can verify many historical references in the Old Testament, ”creation science” should be able to do the same for prehistoric times.  If there is geological evidence of the event that the Bible (and the Epic of Gilgamesh, stories about Manu, etc.) records as the Flood (at the end of the last ice age), that is apparently not supposed to be taken as evidence that modern geology and paleontology are reasonably reliable and accurate fields of science, but rather as proof that 95% of what geologists and paleontologists say about the age of the earth and the history of life on earth is wrong or badly distorted.  Hence you have such travesties as the Creation Museum.   

As you may remember, the governor was one of three candidates who raised his hand in response to the question about who didn’t believe in evolution.  In the following debate, given a chance to elaborate on this, Huckabee gave his somewhat famous “I’m not running to write eighth grade science textbooks” line.  In the past, however, he has made this sort of statement:

But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution. And I think that what I’d be concerned with is that it should be taught as one of the views that’s held by people. But it’s not the only view that’s held. And any time you teach one thing as that it’s the only thing, then I think that has a real problem to it.  

Indeed!  The kids have been deprived without having a proper education in the four humours and epicycles in addition to modern biology and heliocentrism.  After all, who can really say how, or even whether, the planets orbit the sun?  How unfair to privilege one view over another!  That is effectively what the governor was saying.  This is ridiculous. 

You have to enjoy Huckabee’s standard refrain of ”it’s a theory, not a fact!”  As I have said before regarding ID:

That theories are constantly revised does not make theoretical knowledge less certain or less reliable than the “factual”–there is, or should be, the awareness that no theory ever has the final word, but that it is the best word available to us to date. Indeed, without theoretical frameworks to structure it, factual “knowledge” is often just a jumble of unrelated information. What ID proposes to do is to say, “The theory of evolution has not, as of yet, accounted for all of the complexities of biological phenomena, and therefore we declare it simply insufficient and propose to fill in the ‘gaps’ with a non-empirical, non-scientific explanation.”   

Our knowledge of the world, like the knowledge of the past or any other subject of study, is always limited and provisional, but clearly some answers and some theories are more valid than others.  Huckabee’s view on teaching both creationism and evolution is effectively a rejection of the idea that it is possible for reasoning people to discern between theories that are more consistent with empirical evidence and those that are less so or entirely inconsistent.  Instead, Huckabee thinks we should be “fair” to all of the views “held by the people.”  This is taking the right’s flirting with an anti-diversity love of “intellectual diversity” a bit far, wouldn’t you say?* 

I take Huckabee’s point that such cultural fights over education policy really are not relevant to being President, or at least they shouldn’t be since education ought to remain a strictly local and state matter, but the argument that Huckabee is making in the statement above is actually a very strange one for a conservative to make.  What he is saying is that there are many equally valid truths, truth is not one, and to privilege the best or most coherent explanations of phenomena is to stifle or shut out a free and fair exchange of ideas.  Presumably Huckabee does not believe this when it comes to moral and spiritual truths about the obligations men owe each other or about the nature of man or the existence of God.  Cultural conservatives do not think we should actually be “fair” to all views “held by the people” on matters of abortion and marriage when it comes to setting public policy and passing laws, but rather insist quite strongly (and, to my mind, rightly) that there are right answers that rule out the alternatives as unacceptable and false. 

I suppose the complaint Huckabee is making here is that science, or any kind of scholarly research, is not democratic.  By democratic here, I mean not only that anyone can have his own ideas about science, which is less worrisome, but that everyone’s views are entitled to equal respect and public affirmation.  Obviously, everyone’s views are not so entitled, and certainly not when it comes to specialised fields of study. 

Having said all that, I think the Genesis account of creation ought to be taught in those schools where the parents want it taught, along with an education in the cultural inheritance of the Christian civilisation to whose last remnants they belong, but not in science class.  The establishment clause has nothing to do with this, and this is not a First Amendment issue.  It is a matter of good education and common sense.  The fundamental objection that so many Christians have to the teaching of evolution is the significance that is attached to the theory in the name of evolutionism, which secularists push to deny the existence of God and reject the authority of the Bible.  If there were not the notion that their religion and everything they are teaching their children to believe were being openly derided and denied through the teaching of evolution, there would be a great deal less resistance.  Encouraging that resistance to the teaching of evolution, rather than mobilising the same people against the courts’ hostility to religion in the public square and public schools, is self-defeating.       

The secular West has already done away with any hierarchy of religious truth some time ago.  More’s the pity.  Indeed, religious truth as something real and binding is not taken very seriously in our culture, though there are many individuals who accept that it is.  Christians have to plead for some minimal acknowledgement of their own beliefs in schools that they fund with their taxes, and even here they are usually unsuccessful.  In effect, religious claims have been reduced to the level of “private” opinion, and every effort to drag them out of this prison is met with powerful hostility. 

We allow for pluralism regarding ideas and things that our culture already acknowledges to be irrelevant to the organisation and running of social and political life.  You can always tell what a culture values most highly by how much control those in authority attempt to exercise over its particular sphere.  People generally permit the widest scope of “freedom” in those things that do not concern them and do not really matter to them.        

Now Huckabee would ironically have us abandon standards of truth in at least one area of secular study in the name of religion, or rather in the name of “representing” the views of religious citizens in the classroom.  “Let’s be fair!” the man says.  As I thought conservatives used to argue whenever the latest multiculti fad was sweeping through the schools, schools do not exist for the purpose of “representing” the diversity of society (and attempts to make them do this are generally a waste of time, when they are not efforts at ideological indoctrination).  Schools exist for educating children in those fundamental subjects and abilities of analysis and reasoning that will make them more humane and more capable to take up their duties as citizens.  (Yes, I know how old-fashioned that sounds given the state of things, but there it is.)  It seems blindingly obvious to me that instructing children in the religious heritage of their own country and civilisation is an essential part of a proper education, if only to make them culturally literate human beings who are not cut off from the riches of Western art and literature.  Both are incomprehensible without a grounding in the history and teachings of Christianity, and it is no coincidence that I learned virtually nothing of those things in my formative education, receiving cant about diversity instead.  A proper education in Western culture and religion, however, has nothing to do with talking about Genesis in biology class.  Without the former, creationist school boards might triumph everywhere and achieve nothing of lasting significance. 

*Having been subjected to idiotic propagandising in middle and high school about the glories of Diversity and multiculturalism, I recognised the shallowness and vapidity of both a long, long time ago.  I also noticed early on that a diversity of ideas and particularly political ideas was not welcomed.  I am very familiar with and in favour of this kind of criticism of the diversity cult.  However, an enthusiasm for intellectual diversity (which, I would add, many on the right do not have when it comes to certain intramural policy debates) is not a license for dressing up willful ignorance or anti-intellectualism as a legitimate alternative to a prevailing view. 

This is the strangest thing I have seen in a long time (via Crooked Timber and Yglesias):

A case in point is the following. The GSS folk actually made the mistake of asking the following question as part of their science module:

Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Here we go. Now what follows is real social science data folks. No joking around:

Earth around sun 73.6%
Sun around earth 18.3%
Don’t Know 8.0%
Refused 0.1%


Among those who were up to date with seventeenth-century Galilean basic science, they actually dared to ask the follow-up question: 

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

One day 19.0%
One month 1.1%
One year 71.2%
Other time period 0.1%
Don’t Know 8.5%
Refused 0.1%

I suppose the ignorance here shouldn’t really surprise me.  The historical ignorance of the average American is proverbial, so why should anyone be shocked that a fifth of the population displays such ignorance here?  I would agree that this is the kind of basic knowledge that one learns in, oh, elementary school, but, if high school graduates don’t necessarily know when the Civil War happened or where America is on a map, why should 25% being clueless about heliocentrism strike us as being all that remarkable? 

But where does this come from?  Where do these people live?  Have they never seen a diorama of the solar system?  Have they never read about the formation of planets?  Did no one ever tell them about Kepler and elliptical orbits? 

The new conservative media infrastructure is ideally suited to rapid-response punditry and rallying the base, but it’s not really an alternative to the major cultural institutions—the big dailies, networks, universities, and Hollywood studios. Talk-show hosts and bloggers criticize the mainstream media’s excesses, but rarely do any reporting of their own. Conservative think tanks provide a corrective to Ivy League liberalism, but aren’t in the business of actually educating undergraduates and churning out Ph.D.s [bold mine-DL]. The O’Reilly Factor can give a right-leaning movie a much-needed boost, but aside from a few outliers like The Passion of the Christ, it isn’t clear that Hollywood has become any more hospitable to conservative values and themes in the last decade or so. ~Ross Douthat

This is from a review of South Park Conservatives Ross wrote a few weeks ago last year.  His conversation with Henry Farrell pointed me to it, and this quote in particular struck me as being very right.  A few weeks ago I had made some similar remarks:

If anyone wants an explanation for why the academy is dominated by the left and why the youngest cohort of voters has gone even more overwhelmingly for the Democrats than usual, you need look no further than precisely this sort of professional cop-out, giving up on educating the next generation for the sake of the easy, cheap and ephemeral victories of politics.  Every conservative out there complains about the declining standards of education, the ruin of the academy, the politicisation of the classroom and on and on, but what happens when it comes time to step up and do some of the educating themselves?  They go to law school to get a “useful” degree, or go into politics or some other field where the “prospects” for the future are better, and then wonder how the media, academia, the arts and cinema have all been taken over by people who loathe everything they believe.   

The creation of these parallel institutions, such as they are, has had the somewhat predictable effect of reducing incentives for conservatives to persevere in the various hearts of cultural darkness and also has tended to make sure that conservatives are less relevant to much of the discourse today in any number of fields that were ceded and abandoned decades ago.  Were modern conservatives such great “theocrats” as some parts of the left accuse them of being, you would think that they would dominate the seminaries and divinity schools around the nation, but the opposite is usually the case.  Were conservatives in fact as medieval as their progressive adversaries believe them to be, you might think that they would dominate medieval history, but the opposite is usually the case.  History departments were once redoubts of reaction, and nowadays almost the opposite extreme is true.  This is perplexing, since you might think conservative-minded people would be very keen to learn about their history and traditions and so pass them down and reproduce them, but with baffling regularity they entrust the keeping of the faith and the preservation of memory to those who are less inclined to venerate traditional forms and those who may be more interested in subverting and debunking than understanding.  There has been a recent flurry of arguments in favour of reviving the study of military history, which is a very good idea, but even when that study revives there will not be many conservatives doing the scholarship, because the academy has already been deemed enemy territory.

At bloggingheads, Ezra Klein and Will Wilkinson have an amusing discussion of the evils of post-graduate school in the context of the flaws of neoliberalism.  (Quoth Wilkinson: “Take that, Mickey Kaus!”)  I particularly liked Wilkinson’s description of people reaching tenure as being “beaten down.”  That certainly can be true, but I think it is probably more true of people who specialise in philosophy, which is just about the worst academic field for someone who actually wants to get a job.  The second worst is probably Byzantine history.

Why do so few scholars and their students regularly read and engage with The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and the handful of other periodicals devoted to fostering informed debate, discussion, and thinking on a range of topics, both political and literary? ~Damon Linker

On behalf of academics, I would have to say that for most of us, most of the time, there is less and less time to engage with these things on a regular basis as research, dissertation-writing, article-writing, coursework and teaching take over.  This summer I have enjoyed a respite from a lot of that after getting a good deal of work done on my dissertation, but the days of maniacal hyper-posting are coming to a close, as they must during the school year.  I intend to remain involved in regular blogging and attuned to the political scene, but I believe that I am actually unusual in the degree to which I take interest in political questions anyway.  People I know here at Chicago and at other graduate schools, who are undoubtedly better scholars than I am because they clearly work harder at it, are often amazed at my familiarity with current events and the political debates of the day, to which they dedicate only a small portion of their time.  In the end, they do not take an interest because, well, there is so little that is actually intellectually interesting about these topics.  Who needs the NYRB when you have dozens of specialist journals with their own particular sets of reviews and articles to digest?  Those are the reviews you are interested in reading as an academic.  Of course there are politically active academics and those who do make time to involve themselves in these discussions, but this is very much rooted in the quirks and character of the academics in question.  For some people, there really are limitations on their time that prevent them from following the contemporary debates, but for others it is simply not the way they want to spend their free time.  I would say that this is normal for most academics and most graduate students. 

By the time all of that work is done, there are relatively few who want to start delving into the problems of the latest political debates.  Academics will stay informed of things in the news, but they are hardly going to throw themselves into the fray–especially those who do not yet have tenured positions.  Academics probably think that they have plenty of informed discussion going on in their midst (perhaps they are right, perhaps not) and do not need to go to TNR, the Review of Books or anywhere else in the printed press for engaging with political and literary topics.  Besides, in the highly specialised world of modern academia what is the incentive for most academics to take an interest in the commentary of generalists, who are unlikely to tell them anything in the area with which they are unfamiliar?  Hyperspecialisation is a real problem for academics, and it is something that I hope to never fall into, if I haven’t already, but it is what our academic institutions are geared towards creating. 

Pope Benedict’s words in Regensburg about the university and the community of reason it represented were remarkable for how alien they would have sounded to so many people at American universities, where scientists look askance at the rest of us, social scientists look askance at the humanists, and vice versa, and the divinity, business and law students live in their own universes.  At Chicago, the division is dramatised by many of the science buildings being clearly on one side of Ellis and the rest of the University being on the other (and the scientists will refer to the rest of us as being on “the other side of the street,” which might as well mean “the other side of the planet”)–and the law school is off in its own world across the Midway.  You can tell how bad things have gotten when the buzzword of choice for everything you do is “interdisciplinarity,” which is the tired, half-hearted attempt to rebuild the shattered sense of university

Rather than being inept ideologues who want to somehow Christianize science and academe, I think Dembski and Marsden have made fatal concessions to the deeper institutional and ideological structures they purportedly wish to change. They are figureheads for two strategically similar negotiations between Evangelicals and established elites in the institutions and regimes of expertise, mainly the academic world. ID is a very hard-line, anti-positivist, anti-materialist-reductionist movement with specific agendas, but it actually makes major concessions to positivism and materialist reductionism as the necessary rules of the game to which one must adhere to get any hearing at all. Marsden represents or helped foment a soft and very loosely organized movement with a vague agenda of softening or subverting anti-religious secularism in universities. Unlike ID, no particular scholarly theory or goal is prescribed; this is simply advocacy for (surely not every instance of) “Christian scholarship” that proceeds by appealing (and thus conceding) to the the rules of “tolerance” and “inclusivity”—the “multicultural” model of “pluralism” that prevails in academe and other segments of American society today and which is rightly perceived by many as inherently an assault on Anglo-European and Judaeo-Christian history, culture, and tradition. Though similar as “wedge strategies,” Intelligent Design and “the outrageous idea of Christian scholarship” are not at all comfortably united efforts to purchase status, credibility (if not authority), and influence for certain Christians. (It is odd that Balmer does not seem to see the internal divisions and that Wilson was not moved to point them out.)

These “wedge strategies” have been concocted in order to make superficial gains—to acquire some mainstream intellectual careers for certain Christians of approximately one’s own kind. It has, predictably, become very much a game of “Who benefits?” (Marsden’s Pew-funded purse fed “Evangelical” and then broadly “Christian” scholars, including certain Catholics and others who are not necessarily Evangelicals in the usual sense and who may or may not be differently “evangelical” than Evangelicals.) The great common ground has been simply a desire for “Access” that is at times more and less disguised as a process of “cultural transformation” or “redemption.” This very Evangelical desire to be an “instrument” ends up becoming more than a means to an end but an end in itself as a pillar of identity. There is little discussion and no real answer to the question about ends. Why would it be good to have a Deistic Theism regarded as respectable and relevant in science? Why would it be good to have “Christian perspectives” regarded as respectable and relevant in all fields of research and education? Good, I mean, in results other than greater cultural prestige, access, and authority for certain religionists. ~The Japery

Let’s try this one again:

Here is another surely-radical opinion:

Kids, if you care for your souls and desire to find a different way than that which you have glimpsed out in the world today; if you find in yourself some strange hunger for beauty and meaning, although if you have grown up as I did in this culture these things are but enigmatic figures, opaque promises; if you have any wish to recover authenticity, life in its natural way; then, kids, do not go to college.  

Expect the derision of all for such a radical step that they will say will certainly prevent any economic achievement in your life on your part (the proof that this is their summum bonum).

Instead, before you shackle yourself beneath the gods of usury, choose to learn a trade and work with your hands, live with the poor or handicapped, find a tutor and some like-minded students, in a beautiful place, read Scripture and the Great Books in your leisure, otherwise play music and sing, dance and paint, be festive as you at last will be able to be, and celebrate the Divine Liturgy every day. (And if you find a place like this and it calls itself a “college” or “university”, if such a place exists, don’t worry, they are equivocating, for they certainly then cannot have anything in common with what a college or university is taken to mean today, and feel secure in going to that place.) ~Matt Fish