Saturday, July 7, 2012

DUMBING DOWN DEMOCRACY

The educational-corporate-political complex is giving much attention to the skill, not the substance, of reading; and to mathematics and science as if all three subjects constitute the be-all and end-all of education. Missing: the humanities (history, literature, philosophy) and social sciences (civics/government, economics). Only those with a cash-and-carry value system and large voids in their education deprecate the humanities, especially with the wit and wisdom of adolescents. (Have you noticed that almost every movie character either incompetent or unemployed majored in English, as if knowledge of Shakespeare or skill in writing precludes knowledge of, or skill in, all else?)

In the context of all K-12 academic subjects, consider the Affordable Care Act. Its most controversial issue has been its individual mandate, said to be an unprecedented extension of government authority into individual lives and thus an infringement of their freedom. The question has been whether the federal government can require individuals who do not voluntarily purchase health insurance to purchase it or pay a penalty or a tax (what is the difference?) for not doing so. Opinion has been divided and remains so after the Supreme Court rendered its decision.

Now ask mathematicians to get on their computers and scientists to get into their laboratories to answer that question. The request is absurd, of course, and intended to show the absurdity of the excessive emphasis on mathematics and science. For this question before the electorate, like many questions before it, has to do with issues of political philosophy, political economy, and American history. The facts of mathematics and science matter, but they do not provide the principles and values for judgment and decision.

Two articles recently appearing in The Daily Beast address these issues. Michael Tomasky’s column “Did Liberals Screw Obamacare?” (29 March) recalls the writings of John Stuart Mill, a mid-nineteenth-century English philosopher. Mills wrote, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Whether Mill is right about the “only purpose” of governmental power, he is right that one legitimate purpose is the prevention or punishment of harm done to others—a purpose which, in fact, underlies most of our laws. If we do not include in high-school civics and history classes some background reading of or about the political philosophies which have shaped our political and legal system, we shall lack relevant knowledge and be unable to bring it to bear on contemporary issues. Both subjects would teach that imposing costs on others by “free-riding” is one way of doing harm to them.

Einer Elhauge’s column “Don’t Blame Verrilli for Supreme Court Health-Care Stumble” (28 March) retrieves some pointedly relevant historical facts. Responding to the claim that the individual mandate is without precedent, Elhauge writes, “In 1790, the very first Congress (which included 20 framers of the Constitution, in case Justices Thomas and Scalia are counting), enacted a law requiring shipowners to buy medical insurance for seamen. The law was signed by another notable framer: President George Washington. Congress followed this with a 1792 law requiring all able-bodied citizens to buy a firearm, and a 1798 law requiring seamen to buy hospital insurance for themselves. Today, there is a host of affirmative federal duties to buy things. For example, federal law requires corporations to hire independent auditors, and requires unions to buy insurance bonds in case their officers engage in fraud.”

So historical precedents abound. What I note about them is that they apply directly both to individuals (firearms) and to some businesses and unions (if some, why not all?). Even with a better knowledge of history, we may not know these particular historical facts or, in other cases, even the pertinent facts. But we can teach enough history in high school so that students know that there is wisdom in consulting the past and considering its relevance to current issues. As a famous Southern writer put it, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And we all know the adage about the learning the lessons of history to avoid its mistakes; or, I add, to learn what works.

Education is the societal transmission of knowledge and skills, attitudes and values, from one generation to another. So the curriculum changes as society changes. It has always had, and has rightly had, an important vocational purpose, thus today’s emphasis on mathematics and science as subjects increasingly important to individuals’ employment and country’s economy.

However, as debates over health care, an array of economic and political issues, and “culture war” or social “hot-button” controversies suggest, knowledge of the humanities and social sciences is indispensable to informed decisions by the electorate. If people do not understand the problems confronting the Constitutional Congress, they cannot understand the politics and principles which, according to the Constitution, shaped government, its components, and their powers. If people do not understand the basics of economics, they cannot understand issues about markets, regulation, taxation, or the role of government in relation to the economy.

Unfortunately, educational institutions, by focusing on and emphasizing technical subjects, are subverting the subjects which people need to make sensible decisions in the matters which matter most to them. Proficiency in mathematics and science is good for employment in many fields; competence in the humanities and social sciences is good for democratic citizenship by all people. My broad and continuing education, and my varied experience in policy analysis in technical fields persuade me that technical proficiency matters less than humanistic competence in deciding important issues.

Narrowing education to job training undermines democracy. Everywhere, business-affiliated organizations are pressuring politicians and educators to advance business interests and adopt business methods in education. At the local level, the common such mechanism is the school-business partnership. Invariably highly touted, it promotes a narrow, vocational view of the curriculum and supports programs and budget items for work and life-long employment. (Thus, for example, science labs and voc-ed facilities are more current in their equipment than classrooms in English and history are in textbooks.) However, such a vocation-oriented education does not comprehend all which matters to individuals and communities, and which affects their ability to make informed decisions as citizens in a democracy.

Indeed, such partnerships, by operating undemocratically, further undermine the larger public interest. By definition, they cannot represent the community as a whole and are unaccountable to it. Leading business and school officials thus act the autocrats in privatizing important decision-making and thus subvert democracy.

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