Ignorance: The Heart of Education

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Our educational culture wars are NOT battles between brutish conservatives who want to keep vital information out of the hands of children, on the one side, and scheming progressives on the other, progressives who want to dump information on hapless children, heedless of the moral consequences. Rather, all of us agree that schooling should promote and protect some forms of ignorance among kids. We only disagree on the details.

miseducation

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns…

Now at long last we will have a collection of scholarly essays about the history of ignorance and education. Thanks to editor AJ Angulo, a new volume will soon hit the libraries. Miseducation will be published in early 2016 with Johns Hopkins University Press.

As the publisher explains,

Ignorance, or the study of ignorance, is having a moment. Ignorance plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion, channeling our politics, and even directing scholarly research. The first collection of essays to grapple with the historical interplay between education and ignorance, Miseducation finds ignorance—and its social production through naïveté, passivity, and active agency—at the center of many pivotal historical developments. Ignorance allowed Americans to maintain the institution of slavery, Nazis to promote ideas of race that fomented genocide in the 1930s, and tobacco companies to downplay the dangers of cigarettes. Today, ignorance enables some to deny the fossil record and others to ignore climate science.

I was honored to be asked to contribute. In my chapter, I look at the publishing efforts of fundamentalist schools such as Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College. How have those textbooks, I wondered, promoted a certain form of knowledge? How have they pushed a certain form of ignorance?

Perhaps more interesting, this volume can encourage all of us to examine the ways schools have not simply distributed knowledge. Any school, any educational project, must also encourage certain forms of ignorance.

It may seem outlandish, but it’s really so obvious it can be hard to see. What would we say if a second-grade teacher showed her students a violent movie such as Saving Private Ryan? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s incredibly violent.

What would we say if a second-grade teacher traumatized her students by taking them on a field trip to a slaughterhouse? Not at all appropriate. Not because it’s not educational, but because there are some truths we want to keep from young people.

It’s obvious to most of us: Some things are not appropriate for young kids to learn in school. Not because they’re not true, but because we want children to remain ignorant of some things. We expect schools to work hard to keep them ignorant of some things.

Angulo’s collection of essays will help examine these questions in new ways. Make room on your shelves!

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Ignorance Unto Death

It is a dilemma at the heart of Christian faith: To know or to obey? The original sin of Adam & Eve, after all, was to become as gods by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This week, a state supreme court judge in Oregon faced the unenviable task of ruling whether faithful people knew by faith or by fact. Not surprisingly, she punted. Especially in schools and universities, questions of knowledge and faith will continue to bedevil us all. I’m arguing in upcoming books that religious people deserve considerable wiggle room when it comes to requiring knowledge about evolution or US history, but it’s not impossible for policy-makers to be bolder than they have been.

What did you know? And when did you know it?

What did you know? And when did you know it?

In the Oregon case, two parents from a strict religious sect were convicted in 2011 in the death of their infant son David. The boy had been born prematurely. The parents did not call for medical help but rather treated David at home. After nine hours, David died. Were the parents criminally liable for their faith-based failure to get medical help?

Oregon Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder recently said yes. Sort of.

For our purposes, the most intriguing elements of this case are the tangled web of meanings in this case surrounding faith and knowledge. If the parents “knowingly” allowed their baby to suffer from treatable ailments, according to Oregon law, then they are criminally liable. But they hoped to force the state to prove that they “knew” it. They hoped to force the government to prove that they must know something that they refused to know.

Justice Linder did not decide the big question. Instead, she noted that the parents defended their actions with a different set of knowledge claims. The parents said they did not know the baby was sick. They said he appeared healthy until the very last minute. Doctors disagreed. They said any reasonable person could have discerned that the baby was in severe medical crisis.

In other words, the parents did not claim that they “knew” their faith could save the baby. They said instead that they didn’t “know” he was so very sick. The parents DID insist that the state had to prove that they “knowingly” refused care to their baby. As Linder summarized,

At trial, defendants argued that, because they withheld medical treatment from David based on their religious beliefs, the Oregon Constitution requires the state to prove that they acted “knowingly”—that is, they knew that David would die if they relied on prayer alone and, despite that knowledge, failed to seek medical treatment for him.

Justice Linder affirmed earlier court decisions that the parents were guilty of criminal neglect for their actions. The state, she ruled, did not have to prove that they “knew” of the harm they caused. But she did not decide if the parents must have known something they refused to know.

The complexity of the case shows yet again the durability of questions of knowledge and faith. Can the government insist that parents provide medical care for their children? In Oregon, yes. But can the government insist that parents “knew” their child needed medical care? That is a far more difficult question, and one that this ruling painstakingly sidesteps.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, nowhere do these questions of faith and knowledge clash more regularly and predictably than in the area of education. Can the government require that students “know” evolution? …that kids “know” how to prevent sexual transmitted infections? …that kids “know” how the first humans came to North America?   Also, how have private schools and universities attempted to shield young people from these sorts of knowledge?

Alas, secular progressive types like me cannot relax and claim that public schools should always promote knowledge over ignorance. After all, I agree that certain types of knowledge are not appropriate for certain groups of students. For example, we should teach all children about horrifying historical episodes, such as lynching in the USA or the Holocaust.   But we should not expose young children to gruesome images of charred corpses, sexually mutilated before being lynched. At least, I don’t think we should.

Such images are true. People should know about them. But I do not think seven-year-old children should be exposed to that sort of knowledge. I agree that schools should work to keep young children ignorant about such knowledge, even though I acknowledge that it is true and important.

The difference, in other words, is not that conservative religious people want to keep knowledge from children, while progressive secular folks want to give knowledge to children. The difference is only in what sorts of knowledge we want to shield students from, and how.

As I argue in a chapter in an upcoming book about ignorance and education, we can see these questions starkly exposed in the history of curriculum for private conservative evangelical schools. I looked at US History textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book. In each case, from the 1980s to the end of the twentieth century, publishers made claims about historical knowledge in each succeeding edition that were farther and farther afield from mainstream historical thinking.

Know this, not that.

Know this, not that.

In a later edition, for example, a history textbook from A Beka explained that humanity expanded around the globe after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Obviously, that is a very different explanation from what kids would read in a mainstream textbook. Publishers like A Beka hoped to shield students from mainstream knowledge about history by replacing it with an alternate body of knowledge. These textbooks do not simply try to create ignorance by blocking knowledge, but rather try to foster ignorance about a certain sort of knowledge by producing a convincing set of alternate knowledge.

When it comes to evolution, too, questions of knowledge and belief quickly become tangled and tricky. I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel that students in public schools must be required to “know” evolution. But too many public-school enthusiasts, we argue, have a cavalier attitude about this sort of knowledge. Yes, students must “know” and “understand” the claims of evolutionary theory. But if they choose not to believe them, that is their business.

Perhaps an easier way to make the distinction is to say that public-school students can be required to “know about” evolution. They must be able to explain it correctly. They must be able to describe accurately its main points. But if they think it would harm their religious beliefs to say they “know” that humans evolved via natural selection, then they have the right to insist that they only “know about” it.

It’s not an easy distinction. Nor was it easy for Justice Linder to decide what to say about the Oregon case. Do parents have the right to their religious beliefs? Yes. Can they not know something that everyone else knows? Yes, certainly. Do they have the right to insist on that relative ignorance if it causes palpable harm to others? Not in Oregon.

But this ruling does not decide if the parents in this case “knew” that their faith would save Baby David. It only states that parents do not have the right to insist that the government prove that they knew it.

Americans Know that We Don’t Know about Evolution

Smoking will kill you. Americans are confident about that scientific fact. But we are far less confident in the scientific truths about evolution, the Big Bang, and creation. A new Associated Press/GfK poll of just over a thousand American adults reveals some fairly predictable results. It also raises important questions about the meanings of knowledge and ignorance. As this poll shows, most Americans are not entirely confident in either our incorrect knowledge or our correct knowledge. What the poll only hints at, though, is the way most mainstream American scientists are heartily ignorant about the thinking of the majority of Americans.

Most Americans now agree that smoking is unhealthy. Just over half think that life is too complex to have happened on its own. And only minorities of adults seem to have great confidence in evolution, an ancient earth, or the Big Bang.

There Are Known Unknowns...

There Are Known Unknowns…

These poll results can tell us more than just the raw numbers, though. Perhaps most interesting, this poll did not quiz respondents about their scientific knowledge. Rather, it asked people to rate their confidence in these scientific facts. Most Americans were very or extremely confident in their knowledge that smoking causes cancer. Only a minority, however, felt the same way about evolution.

As the Associated Press commented, these results struck mainstream scientists as particularly troubling, since these questions represented “settled scientific facts.” Mainstream scientists, in other words, are extremely confident in these ideas. Overwhelmingly confident.

Clearly, there is a more complicated dynamic going on here than simple non-knowledge of science. As historian Robert Proctor argued, tobacco companies spent a good deal of time and treasure to promote a certain sort of ignorance about the connection between smoking and cancer. This poll suggests that those efforts at manufactured ignorance have been foiled by mainstream science and public-health campaigning. Americans are now confident in their knowledge about the dangers of smoking.

But in the case of evolution and creation, skepticism about mainstream science still flourishes. A slim majority of Americans are “extremely” or “very” confident that life is so complex it must have been created by a “supreme being.” Most Americans are confident about this knowledge. And most Americans lack confidence in evolution.

When Americans lack confidence in the dangers of tobacco or the truth of evolution, they are doing something very different than simply being unaware of facts. They are expressing—some of them at least—confidence in a different set of facts, a different system of knowledge. There is a vast difference, after all, between the “knowledge” tobacco executives had in the 1960s about the health dangers of smoking and the “knowledge” most Americans in the 1920s had about the health dangers of smoking. The tobacco executives carefully built their non-knowledge in the 1960s. Most Americans in the 1920s, on the other hand, were simply unaware of the health dangers.

Similar complexity swirls around Americans’ current non-knowledge about evolution. Many of the people who are most furiously opposed to mainstream evolutionary science “know” a great deal about it. But they have very little confidence in the truth of those evolutionary ideas. That is a vastly different sort of non-knowledge than when someone is simply unaware of modern evolutionary thinking.

In short, it is not that Americans simply don’t know about evolution. We know that we don’t know.

Elite scientists, on the other hand, seem simply to not know things. Most elite scientists, it seems, don’t know much about what non-elite-scientists think. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund argued in her book Science vs. Religion, elite academics tend to be woefully unaware of mainstream religious ideas. The fact that so many Americans are so radically unconfident in ideas that mainstream scientists call “settled scientific facts” underlines this cultural divide once again.

If we want to talk about ignorance, we have to do it very carefully. Scientists are ignorant about Americans. Americans are ignorant about science. But scientists seem simply not to know about the ideas most Americans feel confident about. Most Americans, on the other hand, even when we know about scientific ideas, express very little confidence in them.

 

 

You Won’t Believe What This Poll Found Out About Dumb Americans

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see a new poll: Only ¾ of Americans know that the Earth goes around the sun.  Dur.  But this sort of ignorance raises important questions about what it means to know something and, crucially, what it means to not-know.

The poll was conducted in 2012 by the National Science Foundation and apparently shared at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  [Editor’s note: we couldn’t find the original poll results themselves, but we found reports of them from sources such as National Public Radio and Phys.Org.]

According to this survey of 2,200 American adults, only 74% correctly answered that the Earth goes around the sun.  For those of us who get depressed about the great US of A, we might take some comfort that similar results have been reported from similar polls in the European Union and China.

But here’s the kicker: There are lots of ways to not-know something.  As Robert Proctor called it a few years back, there are many different meanings to agnotology, the science of not-knowing.  In the case of this survey, we see a crucial detail of great interest to all of us interested in American education and culture.

Though Americans, Europeans and Chinese displayed similar levels of what Proctor might call “native-state” ignorance about the fact that the Earth goes around the sun, Americans had much higher levels of “non-knowledge” about human evolution.  According to the NPR report, 66% of Chinese respondents thought humans had evolved from other animals.  Seventy percent of European respondents thought so.  But only 48% of Americans did.

For those of us interested in education and culture, this suggests a different sort of non-knowledge.  Americans who don’t “know” that humans evolved from animals might simply not know it.  They might be simply, naively ignorant.  But those folks will be joined by large percentages of Americans who don’t “know” humans evolved from animals because they firmly “know” that God created humanity by fiat.

So are Americans dumb?  Yes, of course we are.  But are we DUMBER than Chinese people or Europeans?  This is where it gets tricky.  When knowledge is simply absent, that’s one thing.  But when correct knowledge is knowingly replaced by counter-knowledge, we have a much more complicated situation.