Category Archives: Education / Youth

How Ignorant Are We?

Some years ago, Newsweek’s cover story was “How Ignorant Are We?” The article reported on results of citizenship surveys–the sorts of data I share regularly (probably too regularly) on this blog. The surveys focused on knowledge of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the structures of our government, basic elements of the legal environment we share.

A recent episode in Lafayette, Indiana–home of Purdue University–illustrated yet another area of civic ignorance. As reported in the local paper, a Purdue University engineering student was denied the purchase of an over-the-counter cold medicine because employees of the local CVS pharmacy “looked at his Puerto Rican driver’s license and told him he needed a valid U.S. ID, before pressing him about his immigration status.”

They didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, and didn’t believe him when he told them he was a citizen. And it wasn’t simply one clerk. After the initial encounter (during which he showed her his passport!), the young man left; he came back later to see whether a shift supervisor or manager could help, but he received the same line about corporate policy and his “immigration status.”

The student’s mother posted about the incident, attributing the question and the disbelief to racism.

What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?” Payano Burgos wrote in a Facebook post that was still gathering steam this weekend in West Lafayette and Purdue circles. “Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today.”

I’m unwilling to entirely discount racism, but I think the more likely explanation is–again–civic ignorance. There have been reported incidents in which people have assumed that New Mexico is a foreign country, or a part of Mexico. (And as we know, the President was building his wall on the border between Colorado and New Mexico…)

In a recent speech to Indiana’s Library Federation, I shared the following statistics:

In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. In 2017, only 24% could. Surveys have found that fewer than half of 12th graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and that only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. In a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,” and just under half (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.)

We can add to that enumeration the widespread (if not statistically determined) lack of knowledge about American geography.

I guess the answer to Newsweek’s question is: very.

 

Why I Harp On Civic Literacy

In yesterday’s post, I listed elements of necessary political reform, beginning with reinvigorated civics instruction in the public schools.

I would understand if regular readers of this blog shrugged and attributed that particular item in the list to my abiding preoccupation with the importance of what I call “civic literacy.” Civic literacy isn’t civic engagement–important as that is. It is knowledge of America’s history, philosophy and basic legal structure.

When civic ignorance is rampant, Donald Trump can dismiss the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause as “phony” without losing the support of his base. He can repeatedly act in ways that are inconsistent with the Constitution and rule of law, and be defended by Congressmen who are confident that their constituents don’t know any better.

But civic ignorance has consequences that go well beyond Trump. I harp on the importance of basic civic knowledge because I believe it is connected to everything else that ails us–especially the growth of “identity politics,” or tribalism. I addressed that relationship in my recent book; the following paragraphs are what I wrote there, and may explain why I continue to be preoccupied with the issue.

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One of the most overlooked connections, and one that makes sensible reforms so difficult, is between low levels of civic literacy and tribalism.  American citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. In some precincts, citizens don’t even speak the same language. In the absence of cultural and linguistic ties, societies require what Robert Bellah called a “civil religion” through which to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and the governing philosophy they embody, what I have elsewhere called “The American Idea.”

The tribalism fed by inequality and social media grows more pronounced in the absence of civic literacy. When Americans are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of their constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity. The absence of a common “civic religion” translates into widespread neglect of an important civic obligation, the duty to be sufficiently informed to evaluate government’s conduct of the people’s business.

Public accountability requires that those in power be forthright and detailed about laws they have enacted and other actions they have taken; it requires journalists who can adequately and accurately convey that information to the general public; and it requires citizens able to compare those laws and activities to the standards prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The ability to discharge all of these tasks depends upon a basic familiarity with the nation’s history, philosophy and legal framework.

The widespread deficit of civic knowledge is not simply an impediment to personal efficacy and participation in the democratic process; it is evidence of a fundamental failure of public education. Civic ignorance impedes communication between Americans, and between Americans and their policymakers. It facilitates susceptibility to spin and propaganda. The loss of civic literacy is not confined to the voting public; American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly genuflect to the Constitution, and just as constantly disclose a lack of genuine (or often, even superficial) familiarity with it, let alone the two hundred plus years of jurisprudence applying its principles to ever-changing “facts on the ground.” The result is a lack of a common frame of reference that makes productive political action impossible.

 

Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.

This Is Ominous

A few days ago, I posted a blog about the Chinese mainland’s negative response to “liberal” education in Hong Kong. I pointed out that the Chinese approach to education is more accurately described as indoctrination.

It would be satisfying if, as Americans, we could say “tsk tsk” and take comfort in our longstanding commitment to academic freedom. But of course, this is the Age of Trump, and we can’t–because this administration agrees with the Chinese.

On September 19th, the New York Times reported that the Department of Education had issued an ultimatum to two distinguished universities: Duke and the University of North Carolina–teach what we tell you or lose financial support.

The Education Department has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake the Middle East studies program run jointly by the two schools after concluding that it was offering students a biased curriculum that, among other complaints, did not present enough “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region.

In a rare instance of federal intervention in college course content, the department asserted that the universities’ Middle East program violated the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies and foreign language programs. The inquiry was part of a far-reaching investigation into the program by the department, which under Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, has become increasingly aggressive in going after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.

DeVos, like Pence, is a fundamentalist Christian; apparently, she is also one of the Christian Zionists whose support for Israel is far less nuanced than that of  America’s Jewish community. Christian Zionists believe that the Rapture they await won’t occur until all Jews are gathered back in Israel. They also believe that only the Jews who then accept Jesus will be Raptured Up with them; the rest of us will burn in hell.

This isn’t support for Jews or Judaism; it isn’t really even support for Israel as a country–they are just protecting what they believe is a necessary means to their heavenly end.

Be that as it may, the Department of Education disapproved of the universities’ effort to improve understanding of Islam.

The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving L.G.B.T.I.Q. youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history and language.”

The Times article was a dry recitation of the unprecedented action taken by DOE. The Guardian was more direct.

If you criticize Israeli policy, you will lose your federal funding. That is the message the Department of Education is sending with its threat to withdraw federal support for the Consortium for Middle East Studies, operated jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, if it does not alter the content of its programming.

Just three months after Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, ordered an investigation into a conference about the politics of the Gaza Strip that the consortium had sponsored – an authoritarian threat, in and of itself – the Department of Education issued a letter demanding that the Duke-UNC consortium remake its curriculum. Or else.

This is just the latest evidence of what the Guardian calls “the Orwellian grammar of the Trump era”–where the repression of liberal or progressive viewpoints is free speech, and federal intervention in university curricula is academic freedom.

The Department of Education threat against the Duke-UNC consortium is yet another example of the Trump administration’s spectacular hypocrisy and cynicism, not to mention its clash-of-civilizations-style Islamophobia – among other things, the Education Department’s letter accused the Duke-UNC program of devoting disproportionate emphasis “on understanding the positive aspects of Islam.”

This episode is part of the GOP’s antipathy to expertise, science and higher education, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to dictate what can properly be taught.

Indeed, when it comes to higher education, the Trump administration’s approach is uncharacteristically coherent, to fight its enemies – variously conceived of as liberals, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, LGBTQ people, people of color, and women – by enforcing ideological constraints, amplifying conservative viewpoints, dismantling or manipulating anti-discrimination statutes and, when possible, slashing federal funding.

When the government can dictate what scholars teach in the classroom, that’s indoctrination, not education. Academic freedom is essential to genuine education.

The First Amendment doesn’t protect free speech because the Founders thought ideas didn’t pose a threat. They knew ideas could be dangerous–but they also knew that allowing the government to determine which ideas could be exchanged would be far more dangerous.

If some schools did use lopsided curricula, that might pose a danger–but allowing government to control what universities can teach would be infinitely more dangerous.

We need to bid an unceremonious “hasta la vista” to this entire administration.

 

 

 

Effective Civic Education…In Hong Kong

What is the purpose of civic education?

I could argue–indeed, I have argued–that people who don’t understand the basic structure of their country’s government lack personal efficacy. They don’t know where to go to get their problems with officialdom solved, for one thing.

The argument focused on democratic self-government is obvious: people who don’t know how the system is supposed to work aren’t prepared to cast informed votes.

These observations are true, but incomplete. A recent article in the New York Times reminded me that civic ignorance also aids and abets autocracy. The article reported on Beijing’s belief that civics education has contributed to the uprising in Hong Kong .

HONG KONG — They are sitting in orderly rows, wearing neatly pressed uniforms. But in this class, as they debate the merits of democracy and civil rights, Hong Kong high school students are prompting Beijing to worry that they are increasingly out of control.

The mandatory civics course known here as liberal studies has been a hallmark of the curriculum in Hong Kong for years, and students and teachers say the point is to make better citizens who are more engaged with society.

But mainland Chinese officials and pro-Beijing supporters say the prominence of the city’s youth at recent mass protests is the clearest sign yet that this tradition of academic freedom has gone too far, giving rise to a generation of rebels.

It is certainly the case that both university and high-school students have been active participants in the current protests.  And according to the article, students are planning class boycotts intended to ramp up pressure on the government to enact universal suffrage and fully withdraw the contentious extradition bill that triggered the current uprisings.[Update: the government has fully withdrawn the extradition bill, so to that extent, the protests were successful.]

On the mainland, China approaches education as indoctrination.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long seen education as a crucial ideological tool for nurturing loyal citizens. Under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, the party has ramped uppatriotic education on the mainland, helping shape one of the most nationalistic generations of youth that the country has seen in years.

The U.S. has its share of “patriots” who also believe that the nation’s schools should be a venue for inculcating the “proper” perspectives and values. We have an even larger percentage of lawmakers who equate education with job training, and dismiss the importance of a liberal education and the creation of knowledgable , participating citizens.

We have far too many politicians who would enthusiastically agree with Xu Luying, who was quoted in the article:

“There is indeed a problem with the national education of Hong Kong’s youth,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, at a news conference last month. “Passionately loving the country and passionately loving the motherland should be taught in the first class in school.”

In fact, the critique of Hong Kong’s civics course sounds depressingly familiar. In recent surveys, Republicans have soured on higher education, and make similar accusations.

Many educators and democracy advocates in Hong Kong say the course teaches students to be analytical and objective, even when it comes to examining the party’s flaws. To present a distorted version of history, they argue, is to undermine the intellectual rigor of a system that has consistently ranked among the top in global education indexes.

“They want to make young people dumber and less aware,” said Hoi Wai-hang, 38, who has taught liberal studies for 10 years.

But pro-Beijing officials have accused liberal studies of stoking anti-mainland sentiment.

Some, like Mr. Tung, the former Hong Kong leader, blame the curriculum. Others, including the Hong Kong Island Chaoren Association, a community organization with pro-Beijing views, blame the teachers. The group said in July that students should not have to take liberal studies classes at school because they could be swayed by the political beliefs of their teachers.

The conflict over civics instruction in Hong Kong has highlighted what the article calls “the increasingly untenable contradiction” between academic freedom as a core value and ideological control.

That contradiction isn’t limited to China and Hong Kong.