Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Faith-Based Policies

We've spent six years belittling our president for believing things based on faith, or at least his "gut," rather than relying on facts or data. But I think it's time to look in the mirror and realize that he is no weirdo or anomaly. He is ours. He is us.

I toil in the vineyards of Education. If ever there was a field where people believe what they want to believe, it's Education. Which is funny. Or sad. Or maybe both.

Educational research is always tricky. You can't do truly double-blind, scientifically controlled experiments to measure the effectiveness of this teaching strategy or that instructional material (though everyone claims to), because the object upon which you are testing the strategy or material is an entire human being, in all its complexity. You can take two fifth-grade classes with comparable grades, cultural backgrounds, and so on, and make one into a control group--but that group is made up of 20-30 unique individuals. And test scores or family income don't exactly tell you everything you need to know about any particular person. So it's hard, and results can be viewed with skepticism by anyone who wishes to view them that way.

On the other hand, we've been educating our young in one fashion or another for a few thousand years, so there's a good historical record of what works and what doesn't. What I find alarming is when educators or educrats or grad students looking for a book to publish decide for spurious reasons to trash the historical record and claim that something we've been doing for hundreds of years with a decent rate of success is radically wrong, completely ineffective, and must be changed.

Grammar, for example. We're told pretty consistently by The Field that grammar simply cannot be taught in a traditional manner anymore. No sentence diagramming, no memorization, no worksheets. It Must Go.

God knows, we should always be looking for ways to vary and enrich our instruction. But they claim that these practices simply Do Not Work. And more--that they are evil and destructive. They run research studies to prove that grammar need not be taught explicitly. Never mind that grammar has been taught explicitly in pretty much every culture with a written alphabet--and English and Latin grammar in England and then America since at least the Middle Ages (to those who were educated at all). If the writings of Shakespeare, Milton. Chaucer, the Bronte sisters, Franklin, Jefferson, Thoreau, and a hundred other authors are any example, the traditional system of education did a fairly good job of producing competent and effective writers. It may not have been wildly fun, but it did the job.

And before you object--okay: forget about Big Authors for a second. Go read the letters or diaries of regular, ordinary folks. Read some battlefield letters from the Civil War. Ordinary people could write. So let's stop deluding ourselves that education in this country finally Got it Right after, say 1972--because the quality and sophistication of the writing from ordinary Americans a hundred years ago beats the quality and sophistication of many of our best educated people today, hands down. It just does. Sorry.

I'm not saying it's all due to teaching grammar. That's absurd. I'm just isolating that one element of language instruction. Writing in general is taught badly, if at all. But our education professionals tells us it's not necessary anymore. That it stifles creativity, and so on.

I suspect the truth is that the teachers simply don't want to teach grammar, because it's boring and not Fun (and learning must always always always be Fun), and are therefore looking for any evidence to support what they want to do anyway. I suspect that quite a lot of educational research is like this. We believe X is correct because we wish it to be correct. Now let's go try to prove it somehow, so we can feel good about ourselves.

That may not be science, but it sure sounds a lot like what the present Administration did in Iraq.

How about outside of Education? I read a report four or five years ago about the results of a longitudinal study of children of divorce. The theory back in the 70s was that divorce need not have to harm the children. We believed that because we wanted to believe it--because easy divorce was good for Self Actualization and Self Esteem and all those other 70s things. It made the grown-ups happy, so we needed to try to prove that it didn't hurt the kids, so we could keep doing it.

Except it turned out not to be true. It does hurt the kids--seriously and across the board. The results were pretty categorical and damning. Now, obviously we're not going to outlaw divorce, or anything like that. But perhaps, when kids are involved, we should be taking it a lot more seriously. Perhaps we should put the needs of our children before the desires of the grown-ups, on occasion. But I don't exactly see that happening. I don't see any shift in our cultural attitudes based on real data.

Do you? Honestly? If hard-core data came out tomorrow proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that watching television was profoundly harmful to teenagers, how many parents would do the hard and unpleasant work of denying TV to their teenagers? And how many would do the slightly easier and pleasanter work of finding a justification for continuing on as before?

We keep on doing what we want to do because it makes us happy, and nobody--nobody--is more important than us. So we find rationalizations and justifications to make the collateral damage seem less severe, if not invisible.

Again, sound familiar?

I don't want to blame the baby boomers exclusively, but I think they've definitely led the charge, generationally. Their desires are normal not because they're normal (maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but that's not the point), but because they're theirs; their beliefs are correct not because they're correct, but because they're theirs; their actions are moral not because they're moral, but because they're theirs. As a group, they have always been dangerously self-absorbed, and it seeps into every aspect of their life, and ours. The mine-ness of any desire or idea is its own justification: "I must be a good person; I'm me."

So I'm sorry, but Truthiness didn't come into our lives with George W. Bush. It's been there for a long time. And it's not going away just because there's an election coming up next year.

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