Schooling in America: We Need More 'Stuff'

Increasingly of late, parents all across the country seem to be getting pretty upset about how children in both public and private schools are being indoctrinated with Critical Race Theory (CRT). Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have endorsed teaching CRT at all grade levels.

Those parents who believe there may be some safe haven at independent schools in the United States should realize that even such prestigious private schools as the Dalton School, the Groton School, the Loomis Chaffee School, Phillips Academy Andover, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the Lawrenceville School (my alma mater), have all endorsed CRT.

Donna Orem, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), recently posted this broadcast announcement: "The pandemic has taken its toll, but the horrific deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have left communities reeling from trauma, despair, and anger[.] ... The NAIS Board recently adopted a new vision, mission, and values for the organization, with the goal of a more equitable world at its very core[.] ... I believe that it is through our independence and resolve that each school will find a way forward today. As you do this important work, I pledge that NAIS will be here to support you."

It's certainly understandable that Americans of every race and sex would find CRT offensive, for it contradicts the most fundamental principles guaranteed in the United States Constitution. CRT diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) principles are now even eliminating Advanced Placement courses in history, mathematics, and the sciences at all levels of our educational system.

According to Christopher Rufo's analysis in Imprimis, CRT has also infected training programs in many of our local and federal government agencies — including the Department of Defense and the Department of State. "This isn't limited to the permanent bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.," Rufo explains, "but is true as well of institutions in the states, even in red states, and it is spreading to county public health departments, small Midwestern school districts, and more. This ideology will not stop until it has devoured all of our institutions."

In a recent letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, however, veteran history teacher Gavin W. Murdoch suggests that the sudden pandemic-like spread of CRT may be symptomatic of a much bigger problem with our educational system. "I spent twenty-five years teaching my students stuff about history. Because I knew stuff and taught my students stuff, we would compare, contrast, analyze and critique things. Why? Because we knew stuff to think about and examine. Today," Murdoch concludes, "students aren't taught much stuff[.] ... Opinions and ideas are formed without rudimentary knowledge about stuff. They argue from passion, not knowledge[.] ... Without stuff we fall apart." (See "Letters to the Editor," The Wall Street Journal, September 19–20, 2020.)

What does Murdoch mean when he uses the word stuff? Essentially, he's talking about a very old-fashioned idea parents and teachers used to take for granted — the notion that you have to know the content of an academic subject before you can "form your ideas and opinions" about that content. In the case of history, you need to know the names of specific events, people, and places involved as well as the chronology and the causes and effects of those events. In the good old "golden rule" days, we used to call such stuff historical facts — things that you can prove actually happened through objective observation and research.

If you were born in 1991and had never heard about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, you might think such a 1941 event doesn't matter. Sadly, as anybody who has watched some of the street interviews on Watters World knows, there are many young Americans today who think that way. Apparently, they believe that "ignorance is bliss." But that's not a logical statement; it's just an opinion based on ignorance. As the great 18th-century British poet Alexander Pope once put it, "a little learning is a dangerous thing."

The tools we all need to learn about any subject include attention, memory, perception, imagination, and logic. That's why the Three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) were so important to our grandparents. They still are today because reading is key to the acquisition of content, writing is key to the communication of content, and logic is key to the analysis and organization of content. Nobody understood all this better than President Abraham Lincoln, who was not only a great communicator but was also an avid student of geometry — another subject many college students (as well as members of Congress) know nothing about.

Sadly, many Americans seem to have lost the ability to distinguish between subject-matter content and the tools we use to understand that content. One possible reason for that is the development of the so-called "behavioral sciences." It all began in the 1930s when a Harvard University student named Burrhus Frederick Skinner devised an experimental device that allowed him to change the behavior of laboratory animals by using varying schedules of reward (food) and punishment (electric shock). Based on his findings, Skinner hypothesized that his "Skinner box" technique could also be used to change human behavior.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s, when University of Chicago academicians Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein saw a link between Skinnerian behaviorism and economics. Over the next several years, they continued to develop this hunch into a full-blown economic theory. Then, while junior senator Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Sunstein and Thaler co-authored and published a book titled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

Like Skinner, Sunstein and Thaler believed that all human behavior is intrinsically irrational. Whether it's what we eat or how we spend money, we humans tend to make bad choices. They concluded, therefore, that all Americans can and should be trained to make "good" choices through a system of government-imposed rewards and punishments. Hence, along with a host of other social engineering innovations, we now have SNAP cards, Obamacare, CRT, and constantly changing policies on COVID-19 masking and lockdowns. This is behavioral science on steroids and is frighteningly like the world where George Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, lived in 1984.

But our world is not science fiction. There are real high-tech "ministries of love" and cancel-culture "memory holes" everywhere. Watch out, America — one is coming to your neighborhood soon.

Image via Pexels.

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