Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Life in an American Fourth Grade: All the Scientists Agree? And What's Most Important About American History

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By Barry Rubin

The teacher told the fourth grade class in the midst of the greatest snow storm in Washington DC history: "Just because it's snowing doesn't mean that there isn't global warming. All scientists agree that there's global warming."

My son raised his hand and said: "That's impossible. Not all scientists agree."

"Ok," said the teacher, "I meant to say that the majority of scientists agree."

Is there man-made global warming? I have no idea whatsoever, lacking the expertise to make such a judgment. But I do know this isn't the way to teach kids about the scientific method. Rather, it is the way to train them always to yield to peer pressure, that dreaded syndrome supposed to lead young people to drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Or, as summed up comically by the character Yossarian in Catch-22, "Just because everyone thinks that way how could I think anything different?"

Indeed, the teacher didn't have to say anything at all, since no child had claimed the heavy snowfall was proof that there was no global warming. They had already spent around three full sessions pounding home the idea that there wasn't any question that global warming is a huge problem on which trillions of dollars must be spent. Presumably, the class was convinced already.

Rather, the attitude evined is that they must be made to believe in this and even the possibility of any doubt existing had to be squelched.  And to ensure this the teacher told a lie, which was only retracted because there was one student there who had the knowledge and courage to question it.

This kind of "everyone agrees" argument is the stuff of indoctrination, not learning. The teacher could have spoken about how data is collected, experiments are made, hypotheses are questioned, and out of that debate--if it goes on long enough and all the facts line up--comes a consensus truth which is itself subject to further testing and constant examination.

But that isn't how most schools teach today. Rather they say--in an approach sounding like the worst "progressive" stereotype of a traditional "America is always right" old school system--This is the truth. Everyone says so. Shut up and believe it.

Whatever happened to that liberal slogan, Question Authority? Whatever happened to that liberal slogan about the free marketplace of ideas?

The same 100 percent overkill has been used to persuade students that the most important thing to know about the United States is that it has mistreated minorities and immigrants. For five months there's been pretty much nothing else taught.

No, there's still not any sign that the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln will be dealt with at all. So far only one president has been mentioned and praised in class. Can you guess which one? Write me if you figure out the answer.

But at least, finally, there is the very first mention of something else about American history. Homework for this new unit consists of three things to memorize: names and locations of the thirteen original colonies; dates and locations of Jamestown, Plymouth, and the first settlement in Maryland; and two dates about U.S. history. What are these two most important of all events once early America began? Here's what the homework assignment says:

"1619 date of the earliest recorded enslaved people (slaves) brought to the colonies. 1776 date of the Declaration of Independence when the colonies became separated from England."

I don't know whether it would be unfair to make anything of the phrase "became separated" rather than staged a revolution, but we can still see that pretty much the most important thing about America--other than the fact that it killed and dispossessed Native Americans--that students are taught is that it had slaves, not that it was established to pursue liberty, democracy, and a society in which the citizens were not slaves of the government.

In response to my request for readers to share their experiences, one recalls how his grandchild’s class held a Columbus Day trial for Christopher Columbus on charges of invading Native American territory. Another mentions how on a tour of the Constitution Center in Philadelphia the guide lectured on Thomas Jefferson being a slaveowner; Andrew Jackson, a racist oppressor of Native Americans; Franklin Roosevelt as  incarcerator of Japanese during World War Two; and Ronald Reagain was a manipulative former actor.

Of course, Jefferson did a few other things worth mentioning, aside from the fact that he opposed the slave trade and tried to abolish slavery. While Jackson was incredibly brutal toward the Native Americans, though this grew out of bloody warfare on both sides and he was a great populist who further widened democracy and stood up for the rights and respect do the common people (a most radical idea at the time). I would also argue that Roosevelt had lots of other things to his credit and that the internment was justified given what was known at the time. The remarks about Reagan were pure partisan politics and, again, left out his other achievements.

The point is not that these people shouldn’t be criticized but that only criticism was presented without highlighting their greatness or even putting their aforementioned shortcomings into historical context. Indeed, Jefferson and Jackson have been historically viewed as the founding fathers of the Democratic Party.

The reader's account continues: “The only leader whom the docent mentioned but did not report to have clay feet was Martin Luther King. When I asked her about what I thought was an unusual way of depicting America's heroes, the docent said that the policy of the museum was to show that these men were `human.’”

What’s really going on here, of course, is the presentation of past leaders and their policies as inhuman. This isn't the teaching of American history but the trashing of America, its history, the basic decency of most of its people and leaders, the genuine efforts of earlier generations to do the right thing, and the system's remarkable ability to deliver freedom, prosperity and development.

There's also a parallel between the climate issue and the history issue. In the "bad old days" of the past, people were told what to think. Then we entered a new era of freedom--of which liberalism was a great champion--when different sides were presented in a reasonably balanced manner. Now we seem to be back in the age of everyone agrees--or else--and there's no room for any different perspective.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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