Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The assault on reason is bipartisan

In her NY Times review of Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason," Michiko Kakutani singles out conservatives as the main political force against science and reason.  They include the Bush Administration, religious fundamentalists, and those who insist on local control and funding of public schools. The other culprits, Jacoby and Kakutani agree, are psycho-cultural: the rise of video, the internet, and a "culture of distraction"; the decline of print and attention spans; the triumph over self-education of self-improvement and self-esteem.

But within education, religious home schoolers and Creationist school boards aside, the biggest assault on science and reason comes from the political left--from the public education establishment that is one of the largest blocs of reliably Democratic voters in this country. 

It is, in part, the power-brokers within this monolith--curriculum consultants, education professors, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics--whom we can thank for the facts that, quoting Kakutani, "two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice," and "American 15-year-olds rank 24th out of those of 29 countries in mathematics literacy."  

With near unanimity, our education experts speak out against the "rote learning of facts" that underlies knowledge, and the "mindless algorithms" and "mere calculation" that underly math. What Kakutani says about conservatives--"conservatives have turned 'intellectual' into a dirty word in politics"--applies as well to the arbiters of our curricula.

Jacoby's book bemoans the absence of national education standards.  In fact we have them, especially for math:  the National Standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; the state tests, mandated by No Child Left Behind, that measure students against these standards; and the curriculum packages that enact them, designed and funded by the Directorate for Education and Human Resources of the National Science Foundation.

Jacoby laments America's insistence on local control.  But most of our public schools lie within large municipalities that have consolidated their control over education. No longer can such schools choose their textbooks and curricula; instead they must defer to superintendents and boards of education, which, in turn, defer to education experts who preach their party line.  

Compared to other countries, we in America enjoy the worst of both worlds. Localized funding, with all the self-reinforcing economic disparities it brings, and centralized control by unelected non-experts in math, science, and knowledge, accountable neither to voters nor to reason.

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