Tuesday, September 08, 2020

On the complexity of liberal education; Or, Is BLM "radical"?

 (Note: this post was written in response to something that someone wrote to me in a private discussion about what it means to be "liberal." That person is a Trump supporter, who generally thinks that liberals are wrong-headed in political perspectives and also revealed as not "really" liberal in the educational sense by so-called "Cancel Culture" and the apparent unwillingness of so many contemporary students to listen to ideas that are different from what they have been taught. I'm keeping that person's identity confidential, simply because the "personal" aspect of my relationship with them could be hurt by a public airing of this disagreement. However, the disagreement has "public" relevance.)

Let's talk about "cancel culture." You used this as an example of how "formal education" does not necessarily open one's mind or make people liberal in their thinking.

"Formal education" is a very broad set of activities and practices, not all of which are actually educational. (As you know, I prefer to talk about "schooling" separate from "education.") A lot of "formal education" (i.e. schooling) isn't at all about opening of one's mind. (I'm assuming you meant "liberal in your thinking" as "not closed minded." I agree.) Indeed, the "liberal arts," which are the part of schooling that does aim to open one's mind to new ways of thinking, has been under attack for decades. It's never been fully embraced, because in the population as a whole, "dogma" (i.e. "thinking rightly," according to a particular set of beliefs and values) is widespread in almost every society (including in the US). Dogma is especially powerful when a population believes it is under threat from external or internal enemies. 

Common among conservatives (although I think it's found among liberals as well) is a fear that society is going to fall apart because of "free thinkers," otherwise known as "the opposition," or "radicals," or "hippies," or even "anarchists." This was the fear (as you know) in the late 1960s, when drug use and sexual experimentation (and anti-war fervor) scared many Americans, leading them to get behind Nixon and his "law and order" message. (I'm not saying "getting behind Nixon" was bad, although it certainly didn't pan out the way some hoped). The dogma ("orthodoxy") of "law and order" leads many to label others in the society as "enemies of the people" or "commies" or worse. You and I probably disagree about how much of a threat these "radicals" really are, or even how radical they really are.

But GOOD education should cause people to question "received wisdom," or "conventional thinking" about "radicals" and the threat that they pose. History includes lots of examples of so-called radicals pushing for societal change that, in retrospect, looks good even to conservatives. The American Revolution is a perfect example. To the Tories, American revolutionaries were "radical" "agitators" who would destroy society with their "liberal" beliefs.

One needs to question contemporary efforts to label elements of our society as "radicals" or "agitators." 200 years from now, will these people seem as radical as they do today? Will we look back on 2020 as a year in which society IMPROVED its treatment of Black people? (I certainly hope and believe so.) A good education would at least open the minds of people to the possible good that can come from the current "agitation." (I, for one, decry the rioters and the violence, but totally support the BLM protests and will defend their basic demands.)

"BLM" is a perfect example of a divider in society, with some claiming in response that "all lives matter" or "blue lives matter," as if "black lives matter" is at all controversial. Many who attack BLM are, to my mind, racists; that is, they believe that black lives DON'T matter as much as white lives, or they believe that it's appropriate for the police to treat black people differently than white people or they believe that there is no difference between "black lives" and "all lives" and that it's BLM itself that is racist.

I know you like to believe that we live (or ought to pretend that we live) in a "color-blind" society that offers equal opportunity to all, regardless of skin color. This is certain central to the "Dream" of MLK, Jr. But MLK didn't believe we had reached this "promised land," and "agitated" to get white people to pay attention to the plight of black people. (The fact that the civil rights movement and the 1960s sex and drug "revolutions" happened at the same time made it hard for many white Americans (and black conservatives) to distinguish the "radicals" from those calling for "civil rights.")

A "liberal" education should, in my judgment, cause the student to question whether the distinctions made "conventionally" or even by the majority are distinctions that ought to be made, or whether it is better to examine the similarities between "radicals" and "civil rights advocates" and figure out whether society as a whole has some re-thinking to do in terms of fairness, opportunity, etc.

Look again at the American Revolution. Some "agitators" were true radicals, in that they believed that the monarchy was an enemy of freedom and opportunity and that a democracy (or "republic") would open up society to innovation and improvement. (History has borne out this view: practically no one in the US or even England believes that a monarchy is better than a democracy. The "radicals" proved to be "right" in their thinking.)

But also among the revolutionaries were many (especially in the South) who were more afraid that the monarchy would destroy their way of life, because in England in the 1760s and 1770s was becoming an anti-slave society, and southern colonists were worried that the monarchy would take away the "right" to have slaves. So they supported the "radical" views of the northern revolutionaries not because they actually accepted the "radical" aspects of those views, but because it was clearly in their self-interest (economically at least) to separate from England. The debates that followed the revolution centered on "states rights," because many in the south feared that the northerners would come after their slaves. (The north did eventually do this, as we know.) But even the Civil War didn't resolve the questions involved; we are STILL to this day debating whether states have the "right" to have laws or practices that discriminate. Indeed, now we have a lot of white people complaining about "reverse discrimination," which is, without a doubt, a "reaction" to policies like affirmative action that are designed to increase equity. There is ALWAYS a REACTION to social change. Always.

Which leads to the inevitable need for citizens to differentiate in their minds between the moral authority of the desired change and the moral authority of those reacting to it. This differentiation, as described above, often appears different from the standpoint of people living in the future than it does to people living in the present. Some (in the present) will, like the southern slave owners, put their self-interest above the interests of everyone, but won't even necessarily be aware that they are doing this. Apologists for slavery, for example, argued (some still believe) that slavery was "good" for African-Americans, because they lacked the "civilization" that freedom requires.

Similarly, I'd argue, many who, at the present time, believe that Black Lives Matter is "hate speech" (I'm thinking of a particular US president that YOU support) are most likely not applying moral principles at all, but are merely expressing their personal self-interest, although often in language that appears to be principled, but is actually just selfishness.

How do we differentiate in our own minds between selfishness and principled behavior? THIS, I'd argue is the very essence of good education in the liberal arts.

Being well educated in the liberal arts does NOT mean that the person accepts all points of view, regardless of the motivations underlying that point of view. A "liberally-educated" person takes stands against points of view that are biased, racist, classist, etc. Taking such a stand may lead, in some cases, to civil disobedience, thus offering more conservative people the opportunity to call them out as "radicals" or "agitators," or even "Marxists." (How that word finds its way into the discussion is itself worthy of deeper study, i.e. good liberal education; but that's a topic for another conversation.)

Back to "cancel culture." As I understand this phrase, it's typically used by conservative people to complain about those who would "cancel" beliefs, people, actions, symbols, etc. that are anti-liberal. I'm quite sure that your use of it in your post was intended in that sense. You believe that "cancel culture" is a bad thing, and a sign of a lack of "open-mindedness" among liberals.

I think the dispute over the Confederate flag is a great example of how "cancel culture" is used. Conservatives complain about NASCAR banning the flag at its events. They claim the "right" to display the flag and go on and on about how it really isn't a racist symbol, but a symbol of southern "heritage." They say that NASCAR has fallen "victim" to "cancel culture" because they chose to ally themselves with more liberal elements of society calling for the flag to be "cancelled."

I don't know how you feel about the NASCAR thing, but there are other examples. Liberals call for people like Tucker Carlson to be removed from his position as a Fox host. For liberals (including me), Tucker is a white supremacist racist with vile opinions that should be banned from public discourse, whether by fiat or by public consensus. (I personally have no doubt that Tucker WILL be fired; it's only a matter of when.) If the public shifts in its values, over time, such that Tucker is no longer tolerated, even by conservatives, will those who continue to support him scream about being "cancelled" by the "liberal elite."? Probably. But who is morally right?

I don't think this is an easy question to answer. Indeed, it's a perfect scenario upon which to base a lesson in the liberal arts. However, if a professor at an "elite" university chooses to focus a lesson on Tucker today, that professor will be condemned by conservatives as yet another example of "cancel culture," EVEN if the professor believes that what's most important is to have students think about the issue from various points of view, and even if the professor has no personal opinion about Tucker. (I can't imagine a professor of the liberal arts who DOESN'T have an opinion!)

Because of the inevitable controversies that would erupt if Tucker were made the subject of a liberal arts lesson today, a wise professor would probably choose a less controversial example. I'm thinking the somewhat less controversial example of the issue of eugenics. Most people (even conservatives) have accepted that eugenics is not a good idea because it can lead to vile choices and it augments evil beliefs about one person, or group, being superior "genetically." (I just want to mention that Trump thinks a reason for his success is his "superior genes." I find that scary, but again, a topic for another day.)

Eugenics is an example of an idea that was WIDELY popular 150 years ago, but which, for a variety of historical and intellectual reasons, is now considered archaic and superseded by less racist ideas. Because it is now generally considered out-of-date, it offers a great opportunity to build a liberal arts lesson relevant to "cancel culture."

As I consider this, I am thinking of a book that came out 30 years ago or so called The Bell Curve. You probably remember it. A Harvard professor and an MIT professor wrote it. It argues that the "bell curve" (otherwise known as a "normal distribution") provides evidence that some people are genetically superior to other people, and offers the suggestion that intelligence tests can and should be used to decide who gets access to resources in higher education and who is, instead, guided to choose a career that doesn't require a four-year degree. When you think about The Bell Curve as offering a way to decide who gets access to higher education resources, it doesn't seem all that controversial. (Indeed, the SAT is used like this.) In fact, you can easily make an argument that not only is it in society's interest to make good decisions about the allocation of educational resources, it's also in each individual's interest. Letting a kid who will not do well into an elite educational institution hurts the institution AND ALSO hurts the kid, because coming out of college with a C- average is not especially good for job prospects, but coming out of a vocational school with a certification as, say, an electrician, offers a solid opportunity for economic advancement and security.

But see how a very controversial idea--eugenics--has, under the scrutiny of two very smart people (the authors of The Bell Curve), been transformed from a vile idea into a practical one? Who's to argue with the practical suggestions in The Bell Curve? Why was the book so controversial?

As an erstwhile professor of education, I thinking reading The Bell Curve, along with some historical readings about human genetics and eugenics as well as some other contemporary approaches to how to handle admissions to an elite school, would make a great lesson in the liberal arts. But I'm immediately forced to ask myself, okay, but for which students? Would such a lesson be appropriate for middle school students? high school students? so-called "average" or "remedial students"? How do you decide questions like this?

Personally, given the state of American schooling today, I would be VERY hesitant to use this lesson with younger students, or even most students at the college level. I MIGHT use it for "honors" students at the undergrad level, and I certainly WOULD use it for graduate students. But aren't I doing EXACTLY what "The Bell Curve" argues for? Aren't I making decisions about "access" to resources based on claims I'm making about the intellectual abilities of different groups of students? Aren't I, myself, being "elitist" in a way that belies my claim to being a "liberal"?

You wrote about the "unwillingness for students to listen to ideas that are opposed to what they're taught." I agree with you: this is a problem. I wouldn't want to use the lesson I just described with a group of students who had been taught that the intellectual differences among students should ALWAYS be used to make educational decisions. And that, unfortunately, applies to the vast majority of American students, who have gone to high schools where students are routinely separated into different "ability groups" based upon prior grades and, often, test scores. For the typical American student, those who are selected for "honors" classes DESERVE to be in those classes because they have "earned" it through being extra intelligent or extra good in academics, and students who are placed into "remedial classes" DESERVE to be in those classes because they haven't shown intellectual ability or academic discipline. And, what's more, many will argue, the remedial classes are BETTER for those students, because they can be taught in a manner that is better for them, along with other students who won't make fun of them for their lack of knowledge or ability. Putting a bad student in an honors class is a terrible thing to do to that students' self-esteem, etc. etc.

Who's right? I'm not entirely sure. There are strong arguments on both sides. These arguments range from moral considerations (what's the right thing to do) to practical considerations (what works "best") to even what I'd call "conventional" considerations (what have schools been doing historically).

The reason I said that I would only probably use this lesson with honors undergraduates or graduate students is because I'm fairly sure that those students either HAVE experienced opportunities to consider such complicated questions or have the MOTIVATION to struggle with them. (I'm thinking here about graduate education students, who wanted to pass my philosophy of education class so they can get a teaching certificate; they are motivated. However, in my long experience, such a lesson will be very difficult to pull off EVEN among the graduate education students because, frankly, most of them haven't gotten very good educations themselves.)

Indeed, I found, in my years of teaching education students (i.e. those who wanted to go into teaching), that it is very difficult to know what will "go over" with students and what, instead, will lead them to rebel (or, more likely complain, whether immediately or on course evaluations). Education students are deeply conflicted, as a group and often individually, about what topics should be discussed in their teacher education classes, and subsequently what topics should be taught once they have their own preK-12 classes. Most teachers learn, after a while, to stay away from truly controversial topics and to stick to more conventional topics/content. (An example is above, when I said I probably wouldn't conduct a lesson these days  about Tucker Carlson.) In the United States, especially, with so-called "local control" of schooling, it's quite dangerous for a beginning teacher to attract controversy before they are tenured, and the system works hard to "conventionalize" teachers during their probationary period. It's a rare teacher who GETS tenure in an American public school who will implement controversial lessons. Whether a teacher can get away with attracting controversial depends on many things, especially the overall qualities of the parent population, because school administrators aim, for the most part, to avoid parental complaints. (Parents of students in "honors" classes might be less likely to complain about difficult or controversial topics. Some parents might really want teachers to focus on "basic skills" rather than "liberal arts," or might believe that teachers have no "right" to offer opportunities for students to have political ideas different from the parents' own. Like I have said, this is very complex.)

Okay, enough for now. Next topic: whether "spreading money around" can solve social problems.

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