Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Local Facts

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
—Daniel Moynihan

It takes years to develop a textbook. Five million is a lot of consumers. There are five million school children in Texas. As Texas goes, then, so goes the country—at least in terms of textbook adoption.

In her 2004 book The Language Police, Diane Ravich documented in frightening detail how political pressure groups have learned to take over local and state-level school boards so as to dictate what children learn. This year in Texas, that means extreme right-wing conservatives—ten of whom have infiltrated the 15-member state school board—are deciding what children throughout the nation will learn.

In with Jefferson Davis, out with Thomas Jefferson (who had the audacity to pen the phrase “separation of church and state”). In with Phyllis Schlafly, out with Ted Kennedy. In with creationism and the NRA, out with evolution and animal rights. Ronald Reagan saved the world, and ol’ Joe McCarthy wasn’t such a bad guy, after all.

According to the pictures, Americans are almost universally white, and a woman belongs in the kitchen (and not with a briefcase in her hand).

The problem isn’t so much that the right wing is propagandizing school books. (In fact California, the other state with the largest student population, has a tendency to skew some publishers’ textbooks to the left.) The problem is that education shouldn’t be about politics, and facts shouldn’t be subject to vote.

As the great ship of state now turns to the problem of reforming educational reform, perhaps it’s time to have a serious discussion about national curriculum standards. It’s not healthy when a handful of people with no expertise in a subject area decide how that subject will be taught to the nation’s children.

It’s time we got over the notion that “all politics are local.” Truth is not.


Six said...

I was hoping you would blog something about this topic! I was curious of your perspective as an educator. Have you seen any interviews with some of these morons in Texas who are doing this? I saw video clips of them arguing and listening to them make thier cases sounded more like a political debate with a clear agenda than it did about genuinly caring about the education of children. It is utterly shocking to me that these people who for the most part do not have any training in educating wield such influence over so much of the education system.

These people would actually have us believe (and would prefer to teach in the public schools) that the earth is only 6000 or so years old and that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah. I kid you not.

Where you and I split I am sure, is that I think children (poor children in particular) should have a choice to NOT go to one of these schools and instead go to a private school.

The Tarquin said...

"...perhaps it’s time to have a serious discussion about national curriculum standards."

Perhaps it's time to have a serious discussion about increasing access to private schools and removing the monopolies that permit this politicization to occur in the first place? I'm with Six on this: allow kids to go to private schools. The DC voucher program was wildly successful until it was killed by politicians who caved to pressure from the local union of public school teachers.

Allowing access to private schools would, amongst other benefits, provide options to both students and parents to seek out the education that they wanted and needed. This would make it almost impossible for political machinations like these and other, related, bullshit to occur.

Other than that, I agree with you: youth should be taught how to think, not what to think. Then again, I'm also all for teaching logic and critical rhetoric classes in schools. Starting probably as early as middle school.

Citizen Jane said...

Actually, I would have no objection to vouchers providing alternative educational opportunities for kids--provided that those opportunities are essentially equal in terms of reflecting objective, scientific truth and expert opinion in the various disciplines.

That brings us back to the notion of a standard national curriculum. If kids learn academic and thinking skills, as well as a broad spectrum of facts and ideas with which to build their own vision of the world, I'm fine with that. Anything "extra," however, such as religion, should be beyond and apart from the objective teaching of basic subjects.

Tarquin's remark raises another basic question when it comes to matters of education: whose "right" are we talking about--the children's right to learn, or the parents' right to have them taught exclusively what they want them to learn?

Sue said...

So whose standards should determine the national ones? Left leaning California's? Right leaning Texas's? Naturally, I want my standards to apply, but so does everyone else. And why shouldn't parents have the right to choose how their children are educated? Seems like a pretty basic right to me. So maybe we need a standardized national text that measures how well children think, not what they think (as Tarquin says) in the hopes that if they're given the tools and exposed to enough opinions and facts they will learn to differentiate between those that hold water and those that don't.

Whether this education is provided in public schools, charter schools, church-run schools, or other private schools should be irrelevant as long as the students of those schools do well on the tests. If they don't, the schools should be de-certified and not be eligible to meet the educational requirements that may be imposed at the local, state, or federal level.

Six said...

Sorry Jane, didnt quite follow you completely - were arguing in favor of or opposed to nationalized standards for all students?

My feeling has always been that the people closest to the children should be the ones deciding the education path for thier classrooms. In my opinion, it should be an individual classroom gameplan designed between the on-site administration and the teacher - and it should not be gamed around some national standard whether it NCLB or otherwise.

Citizen Jane said...

I am, indeed, recommending a national curriculum and minimum national standards, and I like Sue's suggestion to deny accreditation to schools that don't meet those standards.

Six, you suggest that "people closest to the children" should set their educational standards. What if those "people"--be they parents, members of a school board, or local politicians--are mean, ignorant, or incompetent? As a society, we all have an interest in ensuring that children are equipped with the best skills and knowledge.

In Kentucky as in California, evolution is a fact, not a "theory." It matters a great deal whether the war between the states is called the "Civil War" or the "War of Northern Aggression."

After children are taught scientifically verifiable facts, then their parents or local schools can teach any damn thing they want about the Bible. If there are contradictions, kids should be given the dignity of working them out for themselves.