Peddling Ignorance? Or Pushing Knowledge?

Okay, so here’s the question: If a teacher or textbook tries to block children from getting knowledge, is that still education? Or is it instead the deliberate promotion of ignorance?

In the case of US History, conservative textbooks deliberately set out to block children’s understanding of the kinds of historical ideas kids might hear in public school. Does that count as education? How about if the textbook and teacher sincerely believe the truth of what they’re teaching instead?

Here’s why I’m asking: I’ve spent the last couple of days debating these questions with a group of high-power historians and sociologists at the annual meeting of the Social Science Historical Association in scenic Toronto. Just next to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Our panel was convened by Winthrop University historian AJ Angulo.  It was chaired by Kim Tolley of Notre Dame de Namur University, and joined by Dan Perlstein of Berkeley and Karen Graves of Denison. Andrew Abbott of the University of Chicago offered comments. Professor Anjulo is editing a book about the historical construction of ignorance in American education. The rest of the group has contributed chapters.

My chapter, and the subject of my presentation in sunny Toronto, concerned history textbooks cranked out by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book. Both publishers come from the firmly fundamentalist side of conservative evangelicalism. And each of them has produced textbooks that tell a very different story than the one you might find in a public-school textbook.

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A Beka on where Americans came from

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The Babel argument, close up

A Beka, for example, explains the origins of humanity in the Americas as the direct result of the collapse of the Tower of Babel. When that happened, people were pushed all over the earth, including into the Americas. And the BJU Press textbook asks review questions you would never find in any public-school history book: How does the early colonial history of the British teach lessons about the biblical morality of gay marriage in today’s world? What can Deuteronomy tell us about the Puritans?

No one doubts that these textbooks tell a very different history from the ones you’d find in a public school. History, in these tellings, is the unfolding of God’s plan over time. Human activity is but a scrabbling, either towards or away from the divine.

And the makers of these books have made no secret of their desire to replace mainstream historical thinking with conservative biblical interpretations. In other words, the entire point of these textbooks is to replace the histories kids might be hearing elsewhere with a profoundly biblical story.

As the faculty of Bob Jones University argued in a 1992 book, there is a “basic difference between Christian and secularist thinking about the human past.” Whereas mainstream or secular historians might hope to teach students to question sources and consider their own biases, BJU’s goal was different. The first goal of teaching history, they wrote, was to help a student “shore up his doctrinal beliefs and reinforce his Christian view of the world.”

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The main ideas, BJU-style

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A close up: Living as a Christian Citizen

So does this count as the active construction of ignorance? Or is this, rather, simply a different version of what we usually call simply “education”? After all, kids come to public schools filled with historical knowledge, much of it bogus. Many of them get that knowledge from movies such as Forrest Gump. They think that history has been made up of Tom Hanks’ travels though time meeting famous people. Every good history teacher has to try to squeeze out those false historical notions and replace them with better ideas about history.

Activists such as Jonny Scaramanga might blast fundamentalist textbooks as near-criminal impositions of ignorance on hapless kids.  But these textbooks, we could argue, are doing the exact same thing as textbooks in public schools. They are trying to help children block out what they consider to be false knowledge with something they consider more true.

Can we call that peddling ignorance? Even if we think the history is wrong? Or do we have to admit that all education consists of an attempt to push out some kinds of knowledge to replace them with better kinds?