Tag Archives: education

“Protecting” Indiana’s Children

When Hoosier legislators talk about “protecting children,” they are rarely taking aim at tangible harms. Quite the contrary: in many cases, they are  the harm. (Just this session, Dennis Kruse has authored S.B. 34; it would deny appropriate medical and psychological services to gay youngsters.)

Indiana’s legislature is filled with culture warriors eager to appeal to the GOP’s increasingly  racist base, so I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked when legislators with absolutely no background or expertise in education take it upon themselves to prescribe what shall be taught– and how.

GOP pooh-bas are constantly complaining that reasonable efforts to protect public health are government “overreach”–yet the measure introduced by Representative Scott Baldwin is an absolute monument to overreach–much of it too vague to enforce properly, all of it likely to empower a subset of angry and uninformed parents, and–if passed– likely to drive teachers out of Indiana.

The bill was obviously motivated by the GOP’s trumped-up hysteria over Critical Race Theory (which none of its opponents can define, and which has never been taught in public schools). What opponents of CRT are really against is teaching anything suggesting that racism is bad. Obviously, when proponents of these “anti-CRT” bills accidentally admit that, it causes a bit of an uproar. So Baldwin has had to “walk back” a previous statement.

An Indiana state senator who is facing criticism for saying teachers must be impartial when discussing Nazism is walking back his remarks.

Indiana state Sen. Scott Baldwin said he wasn’t clear when he said a bill he filed at the Indiana Statehouse would require teachers to be impartial in their teaching of all subjects, including during lessons about Nazism, Marxism and fascism.

Baldwin evidently believes that discussions of Nazism, Marxism and fascism should be “fair and balanced.” Like Fox “News.”

During a committee hearing Wednesday about Senate Bill 167, a wide-ranging bill inspired by the national discourse over critical race theory, history teacher Matt Bockenfeld raised concerns about what the bill would require of teachers. He gave what he thought was an extreme example.

“For example, it’s the second semester of U.S. history, so we’re learning about the rise of fascism and the rise of Nazism right now,” Bockenfeld said. “And I’m just not neutral on the political ideology of fascism. We condemn it, and we condemn it in full, and I tell my students the purpose, in a democracy, of understanding the traits of fascism is so that we can recognize it and we can combat it.”

Baldwin’s response was instructive (pun intended):

“I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those isms,” he said. “I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position on those isms …  We need to be impartial.”

Baldwin said that even though he is with Bockenfeld “on those particular isms,” teachers should “just provide the facts.”

“I’m not sure it’s right for us to determine how that child should think and that’s where I’m trying to provide the guardrails,” Baldwin said.

There is much more that is dangerous–not to mention stupid and offensive–in Baldwin’s bill. (It is discussed in more detail at this link ). The bill is being described as an effort at “transparency,” which is wildly misleading. It would require teachers to post their syllabi and materials so that parents can access (nitpick) them; not only would such a rule be an extra burden on teachers who already have plenty to do, not only would it impose rigidity on what might otherwise be organic discussions (as teachers at the hearing pointed out), it is totally unnecessary.

Transparency already exists.

Parents who supervise their children’s homework, who visit their children’s schools, who show up for parent-teacher conferences, already have access to this information. Those parents, however, aren’t found among the angry anti-CRT, anti-mask activists who’ve descended on some school board meetings. (In several cases, it’s turned out that people in  those groups didn’t even have children in that school system.)

In my experience both as a long-ago high-school teacher and as a parent, teachers are absolutely delighted to share information with parents who are genuinely involved with their children’s education.

I know that today’s Republicans hate “elitists”–defined as people who actually know what they’re doing. The GOP is at war with climate science, dismissive of epidemiologists and medical experts, and convinced that anyone capable of reproducing knows more than classroom teachers who have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in education.

It’s Indiana’s great misfortune to have a legislature populated with so many walking, talking examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

 

 

Rokita Again

I really try to ignore Indiana’s Attorney General, Todd Rokita, and his pathetically obvious ploys for attention–part of his persistent effort to position himself for a gubernatorial run. But it’s hard.

I have previously posted about his (mis)behavior as a Congressperson, about his improper private employment while holding elective office, and about episodes in his constant pandering to the GOP’s right wing. I’ve ignored his anti-vaccine rants, since I really thought  my previous posts would be enough to give readers an accurate picture of this sorry little man.

But he continues to bait me….

Rokita has evidently watched the recent governor’s race in Virginia, and is trying to adopt a strategy that worked for Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who won that contest. Youngkin, as you may recall, made Critical Race Theory and “inappropriate books” (i.e., written by Black people) a centerpiece of his successful campaign. Rokita–who never met a dog-whistle he didn’t like–immediately latched on.

As an article in the Northwest Indiana Times reported:

Attorney General Todd Rokita is taking his unprovoked battle with Indiana’s local school boards and the state education establishment to the next level.

The Republican, originally from Munster, recently issued a second, expanded edition of his “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that in 54 pages goes well beyond his initial 16-page screed over Critical Race Theory (CRT) and other “Marxist ideologies” that he originally claimed are “consistently being backdoored into Indiana classrooms.”

Rokita’s new handbook practically is a call to arms for Hoosier parents to swarm school board meetings, school administrator offices, teacher classrooms and the Indiana Statehouse demanding answers about everything their child may potentially encounter in a school building on any given day.

You may wonder–as I do–why the Attorney General is sticking his nose in an arena that is very clearly under the jurisdiction of Indiana’s Department of Education, especially since Indiana citizens no longer choose the head of that department. (When a prior, elected Secretary of Education proved unwilling to follow the party line down various rabbit-holes, the post was made appointive; presumably, occupants of the position are now more obedient.) But then, as my previous posts have demonstrated, Rokita consistently shows little or no interest in the enumerated duties of the Attorney General’s office unless those duties offer him a PR opportunity.

In this latest screed, he writes

“Having your child’s school and its employees work against you as you raise your family according to your Hoosier values shouldn’t be allowed.”

And what are those “Hoosier values”? Whatever they are, they are evidently under attack. Rokita enumerates a series of GOP wedge issues that parents should be particularly be concerned about because–or so he tells them– they have a “polarizing effect on education instruction.”

Those “polarizing” topics include: Critical Race Theory, Critical Theory, Critical Gender Theory, “Teaching for Tolerance,” “Learning for Justice” and gender fluidity.

Rokita also observes that, unlike other states, Hoosier lawmakers have not taken steps to prohibit instruction on these topics in Indiana classrooms, and he reminds parents they have a right to petition the Republican-controlled General Assembly to take such action….

Rokita’s guide also delves into the rights of parents to make health care decisions on behalf of their minor children, advises parents how to complain about school face mask requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic and discusses the abstinence-only foundation of Indiana’s human sexuality instruction.

“It should be noted that schools are prohibited from asking students about their gender identity or sexual behaviors or attitudes in sex education classes, or any other classes,” Rokita said.

The entire “Parents Bill of Rights” is a “look at me–I’m with you” message to the angry and misinformed parents who have descended on school board meetings to demand a curriculum with which they can feel comfortable. I will refrain from characterizing their desired curriculum, except to note that historical accuracy and civics education–especially study of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Separation of Church and State and the Equal Protection clause)– are not what they are demanding.

If we’re looking for the causes of “polarization,” we need look no farther than Rokita, the lawmakers who agree with him, and the parents that they and the other Republican culture warriors are gleefully manipulating.

I would love to believe that the transparency of Rokita’s pandering, along with his other off-putting behaviors, will repel Indiana voters and dash his gubernatorial ambitions. He is, after all, held in considerable disdain among Hoosier politicos– very much including Republican ones.

But this is Indiana.

 

 

Close Encounters Of The Irrational Kind

No matter what subject I raise in one of these daily posts, the ensuing discussion is likely to contain a lament about the absence of critical thinking. That really isn’t surprising–as an essay on “America’s Cognitive Crisis” put it:

What is the great lesson of 2020? A pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people and ravaged economies while people disagreed on basic facts. Conspiracy beliefs ran amok. Unscientific racism surged on social media. Medical quackery enjoyed a boom year. What was the common thread that ran through all of it? What should we have learned from such an extraordinarily eventful year?

The crucial ever-present factor in 2020 was critical thinking. Those who thought well were less likely to tumble into the rabbit holes of thinking QAnon is true, COVID-19 is a hoax, 5G towers help spread the virus, racism is scientific, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, demon sperm is a problem, tracking devices are in vaccines, there is mass election fraud, etc. The ability and willingness to lean toward evidence and logic rather than side with blind trust and emotion was the key metric behind the madness. We may view the current year, 2021, as the test to see if we were paying attention in 2020. So far, it doesn’t look good.

Granted, America has always had plenty of gullible folks–ready, willing and able to purchase the latest snake oil remedy or dunk the recently accused witch. But as the author of the essay notes, it’s no longer necessary to be a charismatic apocalyptic preacher or a well-funded, self-aggrandizing politician to pollute receptive minds. “Today anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account has the potential power to ignite wildfires of public lunacy.”

Unfortunately, it is only likely to get worse. The development and increasing use of deepfakes, which are nearly impossible to identify as false, poses a threat for which we clearly aren’t prepared.

Our present course may be unsustainable. The synergy of increasingly sophisticated deception aimed at unthinking masses promises more crippling confusion, disruption, and chaos, perhaps more than America can endure. Every minute worrying about nefarious microchips in vaccines is time not spent intelligently evaluating risk and assessing evidence. Every day sacrificed at the altar of a conspiracy belief or at the feet of a hollow demagogue is another day lost to possible social and political progress for all.

So–once again– I pose “the” question: what can we–what should we–do?

The author spends considerable time illustrating the extent of mass delusions and rampant disinformation, and concludes that much of it is attributable to the fact that too many American minds are incapable of handling close encounters of the irrational kind.

The key problem is that America is a nation of believers more than a nation of thinkers. Therefore, our primary target should not be the few who sell lies and fantasies but the many who so eagerly buy them.

Easier said than done, of course. The author says the only plausible “fix” is to make education for rational, critical thinking a norm of national curricula, and he includes a helpful explanation of the elements of that pedagogy. As he argues,

There is no quick fix available. But there is a preventive treatment. Most won’t like it because it’s slow and involves a lot of work. But it is a solution, perhaps the only one with a fair chance of success. Playing the long game of critical thinking education is the only way to deny the irrational-belief beast and the steady supply of victims it depends on….

The U.S. government cannot outlaw the inclination to believe nonsense. Regulations won’t purge the internet of every lie. Our brains are not going to suddenly evolve beyond their natural tendencies to lead us astray when it comes to perceiving and calculating reality. The answer lies with us. Teach our children thinking skills so that they can be their own editors and fact checkers. Children who grow up in this century must be their own guardians of truth. But they will fall short unless someone cares enough to teach them how.

I just hope we (1) heed the advice; and (2) last long enough to implement it.

 

Our Non- Industrial Revolution

Not long after the 2016 election, The Atlantic published an article investigating the cultural effects of higher education, or more accurately, how the financial benefits attributable to a college education were contributing to the growing urban/rural cultural divide.

The article began by describing two individuals from Indiana–a small-town resident with a high school education (80% of rural Americans lack a college degree) and an Indianapolis resident with a degree.

The article used the very different lives and prospects of those individuals to illustrate what it termed the  “diverging fates of two parts of America in the past two decades.”

Half a century ago, economic opportunity and upward mobility were available to many white Americans, regardless of where they lived and what kind of education they had. They could graduate from high school and find a job at a local factory and make a good wage, or graduate from college and sit behind a desk and make a slightly better wage. About 90 percent of kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents did, according to work by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. But beginning in the 1980s, the returns on a college education started growing, and more of the benefits of economic growth started accruing to only those with an education, as those without an education saw their opportunities shrink.

The gulf between those with a degree and those without has led to a politically consequential divergence between Americans who live in cities and those who populate the country’s struggling rural regions.

For a century leading up to 1980, poorer regions were catching up to richer regions of the country in terms of wages, as an oversupply of workers in richer regions drove wages down, while an undersupply in poorer regions drove wages up. But this “convergence,” as economists call it, petered out with the rise of computers.

Ever since the 1980s, computers have made some people more productive and others economically obsolete. The data shows that healthy regions with educated workers began to do better and better. ( Remember Richard Florida’s The Creative Class?) This divergence  had geographic implications: people with college degrees are more likely to move to metropolitan regions, attracted not just by better job opportunities, but by the presence of other people like them.

Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Enrico Moretti, an economist at Berkeley. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

One of the striking consequences of increasing educational and economic separation is that the winners are becoming more and more different from the losers. One scholar who studies this phenomenon calls it the “Great Divergence.” “

The consequences for small towns and rural regions are dramatic–and dire. Those consequences include high unemployment rates,  skyrocketing numbers of poor mental health days, the Opiod epidemic, increasing numbers of suicides, and shorter life expectancies.

The Industrial revolution–also disruptive–introduced manufacturing jobs that didn’t require advanced training and education. The current “revolution” is focused on innovation and knowledge, rather than on the production of physical goods. As the author notes, companies that produce physical goods today can send those jobs overseas or automate them, a reality that has further depleted job opportunities for high school graduates.

The most pressing problems created by urban/rural economic disparities are political and cultural. The data shows that Trump’s base is largely located in areas where jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. He  “performed well among voters without a college degree, and in places where full-time employees don’t earn very much.” Democrats, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supported by those who live in urban areas and increasingly by inhabitants of suburbia. Extreme gerrymandering has given rural voters an edge, despite the fact that they are numerically a minority. How long that will last is uncertain.

What isn’t uncertain is the cultural gulf between those two Americas.

Our “bubbles” aren’t all digital. They are also geographic. And I have no idea how to answer the most important question posed by this situation: what should we do to ameliorate it?

Circles Of Belonging

David Brooks is one of those columnists who vacillates between truly thoughtful essays and self-referential, self-important cant. Just when I want to tell him to get over himself, he comes up with a thought-provoking and undeniably accurate assessment.

One of those was a column, some months back, about Scandanavian education. Here’s his lede:

Almost everybody admires the Nordic model. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have high economic productivity, high social equality, high social trust and high levels of personal happiness.

Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.

But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.

Brooks attributes the social and economic success of Scandinavian countries to their  successful “folk schools”–deliberately fashioned for the least educated among them, and focused upon making lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

The core difference between the American concept of education, according to Brooks, and “Bildung”–the approach in Scandinavia–is the very definition of “education.”

Today, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets — can the student read, do math, recite the facts of biology. Bildung is devised to change the way students see the world. It is devised to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.

In other words, the idea of Bildung was to introduce students to connection; to a sense of their place in ever wider circles of belonging — from family to town to nation — and to emphasize the students shared responsibility for each “circle of belonging.” According to Brooks, the results of that emphasis, of that approach to educating the whole person, is largely responsible for the Scandinavian balance between individuality and social responsibility.

That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. Whether in Stockholm or Minneapolis, Scandinavians have a tendency to joke about the way their sense of responsibility is always nagging at them. They have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.

In the U.S., at least before Betsy DeVos and her assault on the very idea of public eduction, fights over education policy have been between those who see schools essentially as providers of consumer goods– skills their children can use in the marketplace–and those who see them as guarantors of democracy, as places where, in addition to those skills, children learn how to learn, how to understand their government, and how to relate to other Americans who may not look or worship as they do.

The public schools are the single most important integrative institution in most countries. Scandinavian countries understand that, and have developed a “whole person” approach to education that has strengthened their societies.

In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.