No, YOU’RE the Weirdo

Do you have a smartphone? Does everyone you know have one? If so, that puts you in a small minority, even though you feel like you’re part of a vast majority. And that sort of presumption of normality has a lot to say about our continuing educational culture wars.

I came across the statistic in this week’s Economist. It seems over 1.7 billion people use smartphones. That’s a lot, but it leaves 80% of the human population phone-less.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

So what? We might notice this as more fuel for the WEIRD fire.  As in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argued a few years back that too many subjects of psychological tests came from this relatively restricted background.  The results of those tests, they argued, should really only be claimed to apply to people of similar backgrounds.

But I also think this is a good example of the culture-war dangers of what we might call “majority myopia.” The things to which we are accustomed sometimes seem as if they are common to everybody. With smartphones, for example, it might seem like an eccentricity these days to go without one.* But despite our perceptions, actually a vast majority of people share that “eccentricity.”

When it comes to public schooling, we see this sort of myopia time and again. When it comes to teaching evolution, for example, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that the most important question to ask–after teachers’ personal beliefs–is what the community believes about evolution. If the community tilts toward creationism, then teachers will, too.

As they put it,

traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.

In other words, there are some ideas that seem universally shared. Why? Because everyone we know agrees on them. With science teachers, they may certainly feel as if they are teaching the ideas that everybody agrees to be true. They are teaching the ideas that everyone in their community seems to share.

This spreads wider than evolution, of course. Back in the late 1960s, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond set out to investigate the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp ruling. In that ruling, an eight-to-one court decided that reciting the Lord’s Prayer and devotional reading of the Bible could not Constitutionally be part of a public-school day.

Dolbeare and Hammond journeyed into four municipalities in an unnamed Midwestern state. They found to their surprise that the Schempp decision had had virtually no effect. In schools that had prayed before, students and teachers still prayed. In schools that hadn’t, they still didn’t.

Most puzzling at all to the political scientists, none of this raised any whisper of controversy in any of the towns. For those who lived there, it simply seemed as if the vast majority of people must share their views about school prayer. Even if they knew what the Supreme Court had decided, their “majority myopia” made them see their own praying public schools as the norm.

I’m sure there are other cases out there. For some religious schools, I’m guessing it must seem as if everyone agrees on doctrines such as a young earth. And at some progressive schools, like the ones I attended as a kid, it certainly seemed as if everyone agreed on the basic principles of secularism and left-leaning social justice.

But as this smartphone statistic shows, even those things that seem most universal can really be part of a very small minority.

*Full disclosure: I’m smart-phone-less myself. Don’t judge me.

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In the News: Dancing the Rights Away

The New York Times reports this morning on a strange crackdown in Cranston, Rhode Island.  Seems a father-daughter dance tradition had been taking place despite a state law and district policy against it.  In addition, Federal Title IX rules forbid any gender-discriminatory activities.  In this case, a single mother of a daughter objected to the dance.  Though the school had also organized a mother-son baseball game, the two events were ruled to be not similar enough to avoid charges of sex discrimination.

In the big scheme of things, this tempest on a dance floor seems like no big deal.  The mother attended the dance with her daughter, and the school district reminded dance organizers of their ban on gender-specific events.

But the story serves as an illustration of a few items of perennial interest to those trying to understand the conservative impulse in American education.  First of all, we see again that school policy does not always match school practice.  Most memorably, when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading violated students’ First Amendment rights, many schools continued to sponsor prayers and Bible-reading regardless.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found in their 1971 study, many towns and schools continued to pray and read the Bible without eliciting a whisper of controversy.

Even the district in Cranston, Rhode Island, had hung a “prayer banner” in its high school, according to the New York Times.

As in many other cases, we see in this disco scuffle the ways conservatives embrace such seeming government overreach as a culture-war cause.  In this case, Sean Gately, a candidate for State Senate, along with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, have come out strongly in favor of father-daughter dances. Such politicians have publicized the ban and tried to associate it with their Democratic opponents.  As Gately told the NYT, “Having those little father-daughter dances and seeing her all dressed up in her pretty dress — it’s a very special moment.”  Gately said the ban “offended me as a father and a husband.”   In the end, Gately insisted, “Nobody is being hurt by a father-daughter dance.”   Fox News condemned the “political-correctness police” of the American Civil Liberties Union for stirring up controversy where none existed.  The ACLU, according to Fox, had objected to the dance tradition as perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes: fancy dances for girls, baseball games for boys.  Gately told Fox this was a case of the “local ACLU kind of bullying our school system.”

From the ACLU’s perspective, local school officials just don’t “get it yet,” as state ACLU director Steven Brown told the New York Times.  Gately would likely respond that Brown simply does not “get” that most Cranstonites have no problem with reinforcing gender stereotypes for their children.

Perhaps most important, this dance debate demonstrates the way schools are more often guided by tradition than by explicit policy.  According to the NYT, the district had banned this father-daughter dance years ago.  However, no one on the current Parent-Teacher Organization was aware of that policy.  They organized the “Me and My Guy” dance simply because they had done so in the past.

In dancing as in much else, these kinds of traditions tend to be more powerful than any policy, whether in Cranston, Rhode Island, or from the US Supreme Court.