It is probably a truism to say that these days there is extreme partisanship and division between the different political camps in the US. There are broad ideological differences regarding the right way to govern the country. But sometimes, things happen that seem to go way beyond mere disagreement on a particular policy matter.
The full section reads as follows:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
Higher Order Thinking Skills, based on the works of educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom (1956), are a taxonomy that establish a pyramid of thinking skills, from basic to advanced levels:
I fully admit that I am not familiar with the minute details of the educational system(s) in the US, but I was truly amazed that something I had assumed would be valued by most people regardless of their politics, would be so overtly attacked by one of the major political parties, if only on a state level.
Indeed, a student armed with critical thinking skills will ask many questions. And it is possible that, when presented with facts and the mental tools to evaluate them, students may arrive at different conclusions than their parents regarding any given issue at some point in the future. But such is the price of education. Is it not a good thing to be able to make up one’s mind independently?
The Argument From Authority and Democracy
As the Fallacy Files blog explains, the appeal to authority, also known as argumentum ad verecundiam (argument from respect/modesty (Latin)) is a logical fallacy structured in the following way:
Authority A believes that P is true. Therefore, P is true.
Note that the authority is not required to present any good reasons for its position.
I assume that the Texas GOP, perhaps instinctively, correctly understands that a citizenry trained in critical thinking will be less susceptible to arguments from authority. In the beginning, these arguments are necessarily coming from parents, but later in life the crowd of authority figures widens to include other public figures, such as the local clergy, news anchors, or politicians. Certainly, this makes it more difficult for authorities to defend the state of affairs, be it social or political. If the targets of their messages ask “Why do you think this?,” then the authority in question is forced to justify their position. “Do as I tell you, because!” becomes increasingly unconvincing.
That might be an unpleasant annoyance for those without good arguments, but it is necessary in a free and open society.
For a democratic society, an uncritical citizenry poses a fundamental problem. If citizens do not develop the mental capabilities to evaluate statements or actions by public figures, then their ability to hold elected representatives or any other authorities accountable diminishes.
The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.
Dewey also notes that education in a democracy is a prerequisite of social mobility. Preventing the education of the broader population, on the other hand, works towards establishing a hierarchical, static, class-based society, and is thus intrinsically undemocratic:
A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements. A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.
A 2011 study1 by Georgetown University seems to confirm this notion from a century ago for the near future, as far as predictions of the future based on current trends go. According to its findings, by 2018 almost two thirds of all occupations in the United States will require a college degree. On the face of it, Higher Order Thinking Skills as conceptualized by Bloom are essential to mastering college. Reading fairly complex texts and extracting concepts and ideas are going to be extremely difficult without some form of prior training. But as Dewey’s argument illustrates, the ability to think critically has implications far beyond mere personal future economic prospects.
Anti-Intellectualism in the 2012 Presidential Primaries
During the 2012 Republican Primary, Rick Santorum lambasted President Obama as a snob for wanting to enable more Americans to get easier access to some form of higher education. Pushing for this would be an elitist endeavor and out of touch with the average American. He also claimed that college education would lead to religious students losing their faith,2 which he, as an ultra-conservative Catholic, disapproves of.
But expanding higher education to larger parts of the population rather than limiting it to a tinier part is, by definition, neither snobbish nor elitist. What can be observed in this piece of political theater is an anti-intellectual populist gesture promoting the antagonistic image of an overeducated (liberal) elite in order to mobilize the resentment of blue-collar voters.
On a closer look, it becomes quite clear that for many of the the major players in the GOP, by whom, for the purpose of this argument, I just mean potential presidential candidates, agitating against higher education is but a political prop.
The hypocrisy on the part of Santorum, most of all, is that he himself holds several college degrees (a B.A. in political science, an M.B.A., and a law degree). In fact, most major Republican contenders at the time held advanced college degrees. Ron Paul has an M.D., Newt Gingrich has a Ph.D., and the victor of the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, Mitt Romney, has an M.B.A. and J.D. from Harvard. 3
How serious can you take a person who tries to discourage you from pursuing higher education because only sinister elites would be interested in such a thing, only to tell you the next moment that they themself are heading for the ivory tower? Not very much, in my opinion.
Even the most famous Texas politicians are no strangers to higher education. POTUS #43, George W. Bush, who was, on the one hand, depicted by his opponents as intellectually challenged, but on the other hand also forged his own public image as anti-intellectual, down-to-earth Texas cowboy, holds an M.B.A. from Harvard and a B.A. in history from Yale. It does not get much more ivy league than this.
The idea that democracy’s prospects are not bright when education is held in low regard is not new. Today’s Texas GOP might revisit the advice of POTUS #3, Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826):
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
- http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/05/us-education-earnings-idUSTRE7746CW20110805 ↩
- USA Today fact-checked Santorum’s claim examining studies on the effects of higher education on religious views here: http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-02-27/fact-check-santorum-college-faith/53274624/1 ↩
- http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/03/09/santorums-views-and-history-higher-education ↩