The ‘progressive’ addiction to educational bullshit
January 5, 2016
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You’re at a dinner party and the topic of education comes up. Everyone near you is white, college educated, and has 2.5 children. They are on the vanguard of gentrification and appreciate cosmetic diversity. Over the past year they have made a contribution to either Hillary or Bernie.

You know schools are complex and can’t be expressed through shorthand. Congratulations on being a thinking person, but that won’t work in this circle.

Let me help you. Say this….

“We have to stop these Neoliberal corporate reformers from using standardized testing to test and punish our students (and teachers) so that hedge fund billionaires can privatize education by turning a public good into a profitable market.”

Now, you’re brilliant. Everyone shakes their head in agreement because you sound educated.

Except, it’s all bullshit. The number of errors in that trope should make you a subject for psychiatry, not praise.

If you’ve engaged about education on social media this type of bullshit is posted each minute. It’s like a recurring business card for shortcut thinking and middle-class preciousness.

As an example, today I posted a story about how Minnesota’s charter school opponents are using the state’s integration rule to attack schools with a culturally affirming curriculum (Afrocentric, Hmong, or Latino heritage). The outcome could bring punishment from the state if these schools do not spend more money to attract white students.

That illiberal war against reason is bullshit, but not bigger than the bullshit I’m about to tell you about.

Shortly after I posted that story a doctoral student from one Northeastern university or another responded with this:

This is a propaganda piece, brought to you by corporate America and Hedge Fund investors who want one thing only: financial profits. They care as much about the growth and development of kids living in poverty as they did about all the subprime mortgages they sold to families knowing that it would collapse the world economy in 2008. They DO NOT CARE about anything but money. Period. The truth is beginning to come out about the charter “industry” and the massive profits that have been gained by investors, all at the expense of our most vulnerable children. 74 million is an organization that is led by former CNN journalist Campbell Brown, who is married to a billionaire Hedge Fund Manager. We know that fixing our schools begins with addressing barriers to education that kids living in poverty face: hunger, homelessness, lack of resources, medical care, joblessness etc. How about starting there, instead of finding ways to help the billionaire class pad their fat wallets. This piece is written to sell a product – a product that makes them rich and our impoverished kids a commodity. Beware of anything put out by 74 million.

Nothing there about the actual content of the article. When I asked if she had read the actual piece she said it wasn’t necessary, but then relented.

She said:

Well, since I AM in the process of getting a PhD from a respectable University, maybe I will actually read this. It goes against my policy to not waste any time reading complete propaganda, but since I’m on winter break right now, I can make an exception. I’ll think of it as a challenge – can I get through it without screaming, throwing my computer, or just breaking down and sobbing? I’ll read it and then I’ll let you know. Unless, or course, I’ve thrown the computer.

I shudder at the proposition that any degree granting institution would bestow the word “doctor” upon anyone so talented in the pervasive arts of bullshit. To pursue education by carefully avoiding any ideology counter to your own predicts your future as a bullshitologist (or a doctor of bullshitology).

None of this would have made sense to me had I not read an uncommonly good blog post by an English teacher, James Theobold, who blogs at Othmar’s Trombone.

His post “I Was A Teenage Progressive: Defense of The Debate” explained how those in education can get stuck in an ideology without seeing it.

You see, I was once what you might consider a progressive teacher. I believed in progressive aims of education, and my approaches in the classroom reflected this. But – and this is important – I didn’t actually know that my philosophy was progressive. I thought I was just teaching and that the beliefs I had and approaches I undertook were entirely neutral in their ideology. They were just what was handed to me by my entirely impartial and objective teacher training.

And then I got involved in social media. I saw people like Andrew Old arguing against some of the things that I believed in. I argued against Andrew. He was obviously wrong and was tied to some ideology. I made it clear that what I was doing was free from ideology, it was just common sense in teaching. Andrew very patiently argued his case clearly and coherently. It was frustrating. Infuriating, even.

And I watched others argue against Andrew. And like Seb with his new age thinkers, I started to see how what they were doing didn’t stand up to the arguments Andrew made against them. Andrew was patient. He wouldn’t deviate from his argument. His arguments were logical. I noticed that the arguments against him were often fallacious and the behavior of his interlocutors often didn’t match up with what they were saying – here were people arguing for group work, social interaction, critical thinking, individuality, etc., and yet they were displaying behavior that seemed antithetical to this. What’s more, and this is hard to admit: I was one of these people behaving this way.

I’ve wondered aloud often about what kind of Manchurian groupthink happens in higher education, particularly for students of education, that produces such a marvelously uniform legion of meat puppets seemly incapable of original thought, desperately vacant of an independent vocabulary to explain life.

Doctoral students on Twitter and Facebook raise that question for me more than anyone else, but teachers do too.

Theobold’s post links to a great study called “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” that helps with that question.

Here is the abstract:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

The bottom line is we have plenty of proof that schools can be improved and the children who struggle today can do much better if we change the way we educate them. You don’t need to be a raging right-wing capitalist intoxicated by greed to believe better schools are possible.

No, it’s not neoliberalism to think we can improve test scores and life chances for students without waiting for the entire American economy to be remade so that poor people are suddenly rich and vice versa.

So, next time you’re at that dinner party surrounded by Hillary and Bernie types, and someone strings together an impressive sounding array of words (starting with “Neoliberal” and ending with “privatization”), take a sip of the Costco Chardonnay, smile, and tell that truth.

Say, “that’s bullshit.”

12 Comments

  1. John Smith

    More carefully proofreading what you write and toning down the language would strengthen the argument you are trying to make. You’d benefit from reading something on the art of rhetoric as well.

    E.g. “None of this would have made sense to me had I not read a uncommonly good blog post by an English teachers, James Theobold, who blogs at Othmar’s Trombone.”

    Reply
    • Citizen Stewart

      No doubt I could have benefited from a better education. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Reply
      • Peggy

        ‘Tis too funny, Citizen. I’ve seen 3 years worth of high stakes student writing, and I can say definitively that our society and educational institutions need to set communication standards for people that expect to work with others on projects that will change the world and develop a wholesome future. Assessing student writing, as I do for 4-5 months per year, is great insight into the canary in the coal mine with our 50’s era instructional model.

        Reply
        • Citizen Stewart

          What does “high stakes” mean. What is the consequence for failing?

          Reply
  2. Joe Nathan

    Chris, I agree that some of the comments coming from people who work at or are attending colleges and universities are contain questionable assertions similar to those you quote. Some of the most closed mind people I’ve encountered over 40+ years of working in and with schools are people working in or attending “higher education.” This goes back literally to the early 1970’s, when, for example, the University of Minnesota refused to allow students to student teach at St Paul Open School. UofM faculty told us that they said “no” because they did not feel there would be other schools similar to Open School. Of course that was not correct.
    More recently, a major Twin Cities foundation provided millions of dollars to help improve teacher preparation. I asked how many of the colleges/universities receiving these funds were working with charter, as well as district public schools. Answer was virtually none.
    Many, many examples available.
    There are some open minded people in colleges & universities. They also are some very rigid folks.

    Reply
  3. David Triche

    “We have to stop these Neoliberal corporate reformers from using standardized testing to test and punish our students (and teachers) so that hedge fund billionaires can privatize education by turning a public good into a profitable market.”
    Any one can take the most buzzword filled statement and call it bullshit. But take a deeper look and consider things a second time. Ask these questions: Is it a good use of the taxpayers money to pay leaders of small charter school networks $300-500K? Do in fact charters and reformers skim students? Do reformers spend large amounts of money lobbying politicians for preferential treatment? Are charters judged differently and held less accountable? As a career public school teacher who now teaches in a maximum security prison, I know the importance of high quality schools for poor children. However, when you select your students to hold yourself up as doing a better job that regular school. Charters are, in fact, a position option for a few, but they mostly serve a select few. Too many charter advocates further their schools by putting down regular schools.

    Reply
    • Citizen Stewart

      Not a single question there about the traditional system. That is telling.

      Reply
      • Mud

        Charters are for the lucky chosen few. They weaken the public school system by taking the best students and re$ources from the neighborhood schools. Buzzwords or not it’s not that hard to understand.

        Reply
        • Citizen Stewart

          Magnet schools are for the lucky few. Tony “public” schools in fancy neighborhoods are for the lucky few. Forgotten, neglected neighborhood schools in communities people don’t care about are for the unlucky many.

          Charter schools are just another choice for parents that want and need one. You can blame them for “taking the best students and re$sources” if it suits your argument. Put your kids in the worst school you can find in your city, then get back to me.

          Reply
      • David Triche

        Just as telling is that you don’t address the questions about charters.

        Reply
        • Citizen Stewart

          Most kids are in traditional public schools. A tiny minority in charter schools. Why the incessant analysis of the minority and not the overwhelming majority?

          Reply
  4. David Triche

    Why not analyze charter schools? What if they are less effective than the schools they draw their students from? What if their supposed success is due to selecting the better students from regular public schools and not doing a better job of educating? What if their mere existence is a result of lobbying by vested interests? Traditional public schools are also constantly analyzed.

    Reply

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