Saturday, March 13, 2010

Post Modernism in Texas

 Plato's Allegory of the Cave - Jan Senredam

So the Texas Board of Education has finished its latest round of rulings on what to allow and what not to allow in public school curriculum.  Every year they take up a new subject; this time it's Social Studies.  An elected panel of 15 (5 Democrats, 10 Republicans), their votes are significant because of the impact Texas has on curriculum adoption.  Textbook publishers look to Texas and California as the standards for how to craft their materials.   Conservative groups, long dismayed with the direction curriculum in general has has taken, have made great political efforts to get like-minded members elected.

It's an interesting issue. I suppose if I were conservative I would welcome the changes. And academia is overwhelmingly liberal, both in its research and faculty viewpoints. This is either because of bias or truth. Modern conservatives are at a terrible disadvantage because of the wide array of expert consensus against their views.

There's simply no way for any one person to be well enough informed to take on multiple academic disciplines. So you end up simply trusting your own ideological predispositions. This is a perfect example of that process at work. While the social sciences are certainly more subjective than the hard sciences (which the TEA and conservatives also have plenty of problems with), neither do they just make things up to fit a specific ideology.

For instance, there has actually been much debate in the past 30 years as to the underlying causes of social dysfunction, and much hard data has been collected. Ms. Cargill laments that sociologists tend to blame society for everything, preferring instead to invoke "personal responsibility". Well, there is overwhelming evidence that society actually plays an enormous role in personal behavior. Her views, while common among conservatives, represent an incredibly antiquated view of human development, and one with basically zero evidence to support it.

John Judis writes of an old progressive concept of "scientific administration":
Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly--to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-century progressives--believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision-making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure. Brandeis’s famous concept of states as “laboratories of democracy” comes out of his defense of state regulation of industry and was meant to conjure an image of states basing their regulatory activities on the scientific method.
One could certainly make the case that a sort of "tyranny of consensus" could arise, in which incorrect, yet widely accepted view is allowed to shape policy.  But this is no different than any other democratic process.  What is different however, is the implicit acceptance of the scientific, academic method, whereby papers are written, peer reviewed, and live or die by the strength of their case among fellow experts.

In many ways it harkens back to the Platonic ideal of a philosopher class which hands down directives to policy makers.  This is in many ways quite anti-populist.  But we do have a democracy, and we are allowed to ultimately judge for ourselves which leaders we choose to follow.  Coupled with a robust media in which all ideas are turned over and examined critically via multiple channels, this seems to me an excellent system.

But of course, I happen to be a progressive, and my own ideological views tend to match up quite nicely with the expert consensus.  While this might make for a convenient bias on my part, it does at least allow me to place great stock in the authority of both academics and journalists.  And in the end this is the most dangerous aspect of modern conservatism's disdain for the media and universities.  Because of their overwhelming liberalism, their very authority is held suspect.  And thus a sort of post-modern relativism takes hold in which truth is no longer verifiable through objective sources.  Rhetoric takes prominence and personal emotion and presumption takes the day.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right in that subjective opinion can take precedence over finding the truth about a subject when it comes to something as controversial as the social studies curriculum.

    In the liberal parts of the country, being "politically correct" often is more important than finding the truth. So, the idea that the Venona Papers along with evidence from the post-Soviet Russia might actually prove that there were a great many more connections between people in the US and the Soviet Union than liberals would like to believe are dismissed.

    The harm that McCarthism did to a lot of innocent people doesn't mean that the Venona Papers are just part of a right-wing conspiracy and not fact.

    At the same time, Texas conservatives are unwilling to admit that much of the Texas rebellion against Mexican authority was supported by Tejanos, Texans who came from Mexico, and not just by Texans who came from the United States and that much of the credit for making Texas an independent state goes to these Tejanos. Again, ideology takes precedence over fact.

    So, the truth often gets abandoned to subjective opinion. The people who suffer are the teachers and the students because much of what they much teach and learn is propaganda of a right or left kind rather than fact.