Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Indoctrination and Education

Kyle has a pair of posts on a California bill mandating that students in the state learn that gay, lesbian, and transgendered people exist and have made noteworthy contributions to the country. It's not exactly clear whether Kyle is in favor of the bill and the text book/instruction differences likely to result, but it is fairly clear that Kyle is put off by people who are objecting to the bill as an example of moral and political indoctrination by the public schools.

My first (and perhaps lowest) inclination in situations such as this is to take the knocking-the-dust-from-my-sandals approach which comes naturally in one who was a homeschooled in California before it was fashionable and say that anyone who sends their children off to the California public schools should know that what little their kids learn probably won't be correct anyway, but that's an instinct which is neither helpful nor apropos. However, I do find myself wanting to address Kyle's approach to this, which in some ways strikes me as being an example of the kind of knee-jerk open-mindedness which is depressingly common these days.

In his first post, Kyle argues that rather than objecting to bills such as this, we should focus on teaching children to think critically, assuming that they will at various times be taught things which are contrary to what we believe to be true.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that public education really does involve indoctrination. If that’s the case, what’s to be done? Change public education policy, sure, but that’s a daunting, long, arduous road. And there’s little guarantee that traversing this path will bring change one can believe in. What options does a concerned parent have in the meantime?

Now I say the following as someone who believes in a handful of doctrines: If you’re a parent fearful of indoctrination at your school system, teach your child/children to see through indoctrination. Teach the boys and girls to think—critically and with a healthy dose of suspicion. Most kids already have the interrogative foundation for critical thought: they ask “Why?” and “How come?” to every statement some supposedly learned person makes.
Whatever the content of my children’s education (of course, I want it to be good), my primary educational goal will be that my children learn in time how to think—how to understand and not just repeat. I intend to work with them as they learn the ways of the world and what unfortunately passes for the ways of the world. When my children hear a lesson that contradicts what I’ve taught them (or plan to teach them), I don’t want them to raise their hands and just repeat what I’ve told them or sit quietly thinking my Dad would disagree with this. I want them to learn how to weigh evidence and assess the soundness of arguments. I want accurate thinkers, not repeaters. Heck, I’d prefer them to be mediocre thinkers to outstanding repeaters.
This is reasonable enough -- surely one is not going to say that children should not be taught to think critically and assess truth for themselves. However, it's not really a successful objection to the question of whether to teach any given topic or to teach a topic in a given way. Although Kyle is eagerly teaching his son to think critically, I'm assuming that he would not thus be indifferent if he heard that his son's school was going to be teaching that torture is an essential and virtuous may to each with recalcitrant suspects, or that white people are inherently superior to other races. The fact that we want our children to think critically about what they are taught does not mean that we want them to be actively taught things that are untrue. (Nor does critical thinking protect one from having one's view of the world twisted if one is consistently fed incomplete or inaccurate accounts of it.)

In the second post, Kyle deals more directly with what the bill actually requires. He responds to some criticism of his stand against those against the bill thusly:
Regarding the Fair Education Act, from which I had segued into this discussion of indoctrination, I confess to being baffled by Elena's take on the bill. She writes:
What the Fair Education Act is really about is exposing children to squalid information about the private lives of adults. It is information that they do not need to have in order to appreciate the life work of outstanding historical characters especially since it is material mostly based upon rumor and hearsay. When the classroom becomes filled with too much unnecessary and confusing knowledge then a genuine opening of the mind is hindered rather than fostered.
I fail to see any evidence for this reading, at least in the bill itself, and I'm having a hard time imagining teachers using this legislation as an excuse to discuss squalid details of private lives or textbooks beginning to include juicy tidbits, anecdotes, and speculation about gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans. Maybe I'll change my mind after a few years of having a child in the public education system. In the meantime, I'm inclined to agree with Frank M's take in the comments at Vox Nova: "What it attempts to do is de-legitimize the marginalization of social “undesirables” in school textbooks ... the legislation does not make any requirement about discussing homosexual behavior or expression; it only relates to the existence of homosexual persons and their contributions to the state’s development."
I think Elena's point here, which I think certainly holds when dealing with the younger grades, is that focusing on the sexual activities of a historical figure as a means of identification is needlessly tawdry. Thus, when doing world history with one's second grader, one should talk about Richard the Lion Heart and John Lack Land without going into the fact that Richard was bisexual, and that this arguably may have had something to do with his not leaving a legitimate son, and thus passing the kingdom to John. That Richard often preferred to sleep with boys rather than women is not really the stuff of elementary school text books.

Now, I take it from Kyle's rejoinder here that the idea is that one could talk about Richard as a member of the group "bisexuals" without getting into the question of what exactly a bisexual does in bed that defines him or her as such. Thus, third graders could look up to Richard I as a sterling example for bisexuals everywhere, while remaining blissfully innocent of what exactly a bisexual is.

I think this is frankly a pretty silly idea. When dealing with historical figures, we generally have very little idea what their sexual proclivities were other than by looking at accounts of who they were reputed to be having sex with. Thus, for instance, it might be that Woodrow Wilson was was in fact a homosexual and simply pushed his proclivities so far down that he appeared happily (and indeed devotedly) married to his two wives -- but if that were the case we'd have no way of knowing it. So when dealing with historical figures, the question of sexual orientation is invariably a question of "Who did this person sleep with." As such, it's not really possible to talk about "orientation" as separate from "acts" in these situations. And I think that up until the high school level or so questions of who historical figures like to sleep with are probably not really things that need to be covered -- if schools can get kids to know when Abraham Lincoln was elected, why his election started the civil war, and what he said in Gettysburg, they'll be doing pretty well. If people desperately want to wade into the question of who Lincoln slept with, they can do that after they've mastered all the basic facts and narratives up to a high school level. (Once into high school, it seems to me that instead of doing interest group eduction it's time to get into some serious reading. Kids can learn about diverse sexuality by reading Clouds, Lysistrata, The Symposium, The Satyricon and The Golden Ass. By the time they work up to the modern world a couple years later, reading about Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing or the Stonewall Riots should be pretty tame stuff.

And this gets around to what strikes me as the big educational problem here (as opposed to the moral one -- for I think it's hard to deny that, as the commenter Kyle quotes indicates, the purpose of this legislation is to make a variety of sexual practices and orientations sound "normal" and "okay". The legislation being objected to states:
51204.5. Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.
Now the issue, as I see it, is that this means that the purpose of history instruction is not to talk about the most important or formative things that actually happened in history, but instead to make sure that we talk about at least one thing relating to each of these interest groups. Now, what if it doesn't happen to be the case that one can find an important woman Pacific Islander transsexual who was a major figure in California history? Well, in that case, you need to pick someone who was a woman Pacific Islander transsexual and pretend that she was more important than she was.

This is a lousy way to go about studying history, which is, after all, not the study of who we think is a worthwhile person, but of what happened in the past.


elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, you totally understood the point I was trying to make. As I told Kyle, who makes some great points as well, I hope he is right and I hope I am wrong.

I am also concerned about it from the point of view of historical research. In Richard the Lionheart's case, it is theorized by some historians that he may have been disposed towards boys but is nothing proven. He never adopted an outward lifestyle that we would now considered "gay," not to the degree that Edward II did (and even Edward II begot many children with his wife, contrary to Mel Gibson's version of history.) But are young people going to be taught that Richard was bisexual when there is no proof that he was? I can see a lot of people being considered gay based upon rumor and hearsay when in reality they might not have been at all. In the meantime, Richard's genuine accomplishments (or lack thereof)will be overshadowed by speculations of what he did in his tent with his page boys, especially when in the Middle Ages people often quite innocently doubled up at night with servants and family members for the sake of warmth.

Darwin said...


Fair points.

I suppose all this might make little more sense if one assumed that the majority of the "history" that will be taught will be about the period since 1950 -- but frankly, I don't see that one needs to cover something as comparatively minor in historical importance as the "gay rights" movement until high school American History, and even there it's at best a brief unit (which I would be loath to trust a California public school to cover with any discretion or objectivity.)

Kyle Cupp said...

My thanks for the links and critique. A couple thoughts:

First, my suggestion to parents that they teach their children to see through indoctrination is not a substitute for long term work to change education policy.

Second, while I support some standards at the state level and a few less (though also some) at the national level, I'm of the opinion that most decisions about education policy should be made at the level of individual schools and/or districts. (This begs more explanation than I wish to give here). If I'm right about the purpose of this California bill, it's something I might support (with some clarifications about age-appropriateness), but I'd prefer to see it issued as a district or individual school policy.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Darwin. Kyle, your suggestion for parents is great and I hope I hope you are right about everything else as well. Although I do think the gay issue should be left out altogether except maybe for high school students and then only when the topic relates to a deeper understanding of the person's major contributions, as in the case of the writer Gertrude Stein for instance.

Amber said...

One other issue here is the developmental and cognitive abilities of children - can you really teach young children, say elementary age, to truly think that critically about what they are hearing? I would suspect, based on what I've read regarding child development (and watched in my own kids) that this really isn't possible until much later. I think more likely what you can do is train a child to either not accept anything they hear or to parrot another adult's opinions as a sort of faux critical thinking. Neither of which is particularly good for a child's overall development.

And yes, it does sound like a lousy way to go about studying history - the whole selection criteria for what is important seems ripe for setting up a system where history becomes no more than a series of vignettes about people who fit in certain categories, regardless of their actual importance in the grand flow of time.

I am extremely glad that CA has the R-4 option for homeschooling and that I don't have to report anything to anyone so long as I fill out a form online once a year. But I do wonder how long this situation will last... And then what?

Gail F said...

You are ALL leaving out a very important point: Children tend to think that what they are taught in school is true. Now, parents can of course teach SOME children to take SOME things their teachers say with a grain of salt -- SOMETIMES. But in general, unless the teacher is obviously batty, children believe their teachers.

Hey, I was an honor student and when I was in high school, our advanced biology teacher was obsessed with Soviet research into ESP, which he told us about constantly. I thought he was nutty but there was probably something to it. He taught us -- in a lesson about catalysts -- that spontaneous human combustion occasionally happened, and I believed it until after I was married. I simply had no reason to talk about it again until then, when my husband and friends found it hilarious.

If that happens with scientific facts, how much more likely is it to happen with social issues?

If you are constantly telling your kids things they learn at school are wrong, odds are they will eventually roll their eyes whenever the subject comes up and think you are the one with the problem.

Darwin said...

I think Amber and Gail make a fairly key point -- I think there's a serious limit to how much critical thinking one can get out of younger kids. And, to be honest, there's a limit to how much critical thinking anyone can do when what's being messed with is their entire pool of available information.

Pretty clearly, the point of the California legislation is that kids get the general idea, "Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transexual people are nice and normal people who make important and positive contributions to our society."

That general impression is probably going to be pretty successfully conveyed (though it's also certainly possible for parents to do a better job of teaching their kids than the schools, and for kids to thus latch on to their parents' interpretive filter rather than the one they're getting in school) regardless of how much kids say, "Really?" when they're being taught things in class.

Plus -- I just don't think the, "Here are a bunch of positive role models we should admire" approach to teaching history is a good one. It leads to way too much tendency to filter out the parts of real people that we don't like. (Look, for example, at all the aspects of Helen Keller's real life opinions and activities which don't make it into the childhood hagiographies.)


FWIW, I'd tend to go even further and say there simply shouldn't be government run schools with government set school standards -- it creates too much conformity (read: dullness) and tension in a diverse society. I'd rather see the money made available in as a voucher which students could then take to any sort of school at all.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, and it was the point I was trying to make in my original post. Children cannot be expected to constantly sift truth from fiction, especially in a place where they spend many hours of each day.