I’ve had something resembling a rant about public school systems percolating in my mind, and, as if on cue, a philosopher at the NY Times gives me another reason to loathe them:
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled “fact vs. opinion.” The definitions I found online were substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.
So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?
First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed. We then had this conversation:
Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”
Him: “It’s a fact.”
Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”
Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”
Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”
The blank stare on his face said it all.
In short, the Common Core standards in the States are pushing a sort of logical positivism that has been reheated in the microwave a few too many times. Lacking taste and solidity, the Powers That Be have evidently decided that it would make excellent baby food without bothering to check the ingredients.
Things weren’t that bad when I was still growing up, but it is a development of the same tendency towards small mindedness I saw.
Insofar as my own public school system taught me basic reading and writing skills, a basic grasp of mathematics and other sciences, it deserves my thanks. Many in the world do not have that privilege. Beyond that, however, I find it committed to a programme of closing minds and producing vapid, joyless adults.
This can especially be seen in how English is handled.
The typical raison d’etre given for the continued existence of English classes is that virtually every career in the modern world requires literacy, and that the primary purpose of English is to make kids literate enough to be able to get by. Secondarily, the hat is tipped to this thing called “culture” which is something that most people agree is a good thing to have, so the curriculum will have to include someone like Shakespeare, even if it can’t quite be articulated as to why he should be read.
This justification contains some truth (regarding the need to be literate), but it is otherwise BS because it puts reading and writing at the sole service of careers and the economy. The idea that reading and writing is a good to be nourished for its own sake is barely present in it.
The Soviets believed that all art should serve the purposes of communism, but were aware that it could be used otherwise, and so took care to censure those artists who didn’t go along. Your modern school system seems simply unaware that literature can serve much of a purpose beyond serving the modern state or modern capitalism, or to instill in them a fashionable moral message.
The one science fiction novel I was assigned to read in high school was John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, and it is not hard to see why: there’s a fairly easy moral about nuclear war, and about accepting people who are different to be drawn from it. Reading and analyzing the novel is just about learning to locate the moral, so it’s no wonder that students find the exercise to be pointless and preachy.
The result, then, isn’t just an association of reading with work and puritanism; it is a stifling of the imagination. Literature – especially the good stuff: fairy tales, mystery, science fiction, poetry, fantasy, etc – is one of the primary ways of expanding your sense of reality beyond whatever options the status quo offers you. It is difficult to see this when it is instrumentalized for the sake of that same status quo, and is not taught as if there were not something intrinsically ennobling to storytelling as such. Contempt for literature promotes a diminished ability to be able to imagine other possibilities for your life.
But it is perfect, if your desire is to produce soulless husks who will mindlessly pursue wealth and pleasure until they die.
I am perhaps being over-the-top and sensationalist. But do note that the article referenced above indicates that some school systems have now moved onto actively teaching kids bad logic. The assault isn’t just against the imagination – it’s against basic reasoning skills. The result will be more adults who may be technically proficient regarding this or that profession, but who will otherwise not have the resources to make good judgments about what to believe and what to do with themselves. Again, if we ask the question of what kind of adult all this is supposed to be laying the grounds for, the obvious answer is: a tool.
All this, often from the same sorts of minds who would tell me that Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church, was historically the closed-minded enemy of human reason and creativity.
It should go without saying that there are many good teachers in the trenches who actually care about giving their students a good education. They are commendable people. But the system, for the most part, works against that
I can only recommend public school as a last resort for your kids: if private school or homeschooling are simply not feasible, and you have no real choice. Real life often means compromises. Just make sure you arm your kids to the teeth. Or at least give them a copy of The Last Unicorn.
(via Rod Dreher, as usual)