Saturday, May 29, 2010

Back to the Future

Nincompoopery is still alive and well in Texas, no thanks to our current Board of Education and its insistence that Joe McCarthy be rehabilitated and considered in a more positive light than he had been previously in the state-wide social studies curriculum.

This is, of course, the same board responsible for wanting Thomas Jefferson omitted from discussions about the philosophical grounding of the nation, primarily because he advocated erecting a wall between church and state (designed, as I remember it, to keep the state out of the church's business). Jefferson (my father's favorite founding father, and to whom I was referred for sound political advice at my father's knee--as soon as I was old enough to ask questions) was eventually reinstated, but the denial associated with Sen. McCarthy stayed in.

No sooner have I begun to absorb this latest absurdity, when newly-crowned Kentucky Republican Senatorial candidate Rand Paul admits to Rachel Maddow, God, and everybody, that even though he abhors racial discrimination himself, people seem to have a basic right (in his view, anyway) to discriminate against anybody they please.

Remember that Santayana guy? You know, the one who told us that if we forget history, we're condemned to repeat its mistakes? Remember that Orwell guy, who showed us what it would be like if rewriting history were to become national policy?

Not that anybody seems to be reading much history these days anyway, but shouldn't we be able to look back and admit that we were once stupid, and we managed to fix things and become less stupid?

We once thought it was okay (or even a right) to think that folks of a different color or religion were somehow less than human, and therefore didn't need to be treated like one of "us." But, thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for which Rand Paul's now not sure he would have voted (because it infringes on white peoples' right to discriminate?), we're required by law to treat everyone as a fellow human being, at least in public facilities.

Some people once thought that it was okay to accuse people of treason on hearsay, and to put them in jail (or otherwise ruin their lives) if they didn't agree with a very particular political view. Socialism was at very least a thought crime in this perspective, and any opinion not deemed "American" or patriotic enough got a significant number of people fired, blacklisted, or worse.

As white as I am, and as secure in my Anglo-Saxon protestant heritage, I'd be in serious trouble today with my communitarian political pronouncements and my adopted Judaism. I could be blacklisted by McCarthy and/or refused service in a bar by Paul. Of course this is a silly notion as it stands, and makes light of serious problems since I'm not really a member of an oppressed group (unless you count women, but that's a whole other rant); the implicit danger is nonetheless disturbing.

The sheer absurdity of these actions is pale comfort in times when critical thinking has given way to emotional ranting, and my inadequately prepared students struggle to be able to support an opinion with evidence or reasons.

My forays into training students to conduct effective research over the last couple of weeks have discouraged me more than I thought possible. Not only is it difficult to make them understand that curiosity is an important aspect of creativity, but they can't seem to divorce themselves from the idea of doing research is inexorably connected with a plastic notion of "research papers" as taught in high school.

Gone is the idea of essaying into a topic, a la Montaigne, posing questions, meandering through discoveries unearthed in the process of answering them, and ending up somewhere unexpected. No, the idea of "doing a research paper" is confined to coming up with a thesis and proceeding to "prove" it. Students rarely use evidence against their basic notion in their papers--even if they do manage to configure a search that locates any. Instead, they home in on statements, frequently out of context, that support what they assume, use them (usually badly quoted), slap in a few in-line citations (if we're lucky), and turn in the result.

Although this is not what my assignments ask for (I want them to use research to inform their solutions to design problems, and then write essays that describe the process involved), it's what I all too often get.

Unless educators can figure out how to stem the tide of abject irrationality that threatens to overwhelm higher education once we start enrolling the products of the absurdist theater performance going on in Austin, our jobs are only going to get tougher and tougher.

And unless adult citizens in this country start thinking again, rather than yelling and waving badly-phrased slogans decorated with tea bags, the likes of Rand Paul are going to get into office and make it easier for closet racists to claim that their inalienable rights are being violated if they're told to serve that black guy who comes in and sits down at the counter. Rachel Maddow's tuning fork analogy reminds us that when some national figure is talking about an issue, he or she is likely voicing the views of many like-minded constituents.

If everyone really wants good government (even if what they mean by "good" is "less"), better policies, wiser spending, and other measures of a sound political economy, we have to start by allowing our students to engage in thoughtful research, critical evaluation of evidence, and cogent reasoning. This can't be done if we spend all of our time screaming at one another, ignoring bad mistakes, or burning books--even if the burning is only figurative.

Looking backward, acknowledging our mistakes, correcting them, and preventing similar mistakes in the future requires a rational and reflective turn of mind. Our students deserve to know how to do this, because they're the ones who are going to have to correct the mistakes we're making right this minute.

Image credits: the McCarthy photo is from Wikimedia Commons; I messed with it.