Education 101

Years ago, when I taught at Ohio State, a colleague from the English department recounted his experience with an irate parent who objected to "immoral" selections in his freshman daughter's English textbook. The professor defended the stories and essays, saying that they were not primarily moral teachings, but were intended to "stretch the minds" of the students. To this the father angrily retorted: "You teach her English and leave her mind alone."

Last year the MSM and many blogs circulated a story about a student at University of Northern Colorado who filed a complaint alleging that she got an "F" on a criminal justice exam because when asked to "explain why George W. Bush is a war criminal," she submitted an essay on why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal. The story was used to establish that liberal -- nay, treasonable -- beliefs were being forced on students by subversive academics.

However, even David Horowitz, who at first insisted the story was true, had to back down when the only part of the story that proved to be true was that the student had filed a complaint. Her poor grade was based on failure to meet a length requirement, but it was not "F". The exam question hadn't asked anything about Bush, and it was an optional question. Also, the professor was a Republican. (

As students return to classrooms this week, we should reflect on the purpose of education. Is education (A) to train young minds in the facts, rules and precepts of English, math and science, and program them according to certain moralities, truths, or ideologies of our society? Or is it (B) to develop student's minds -- their mental and moral intelligence -- and give them the skills to question and discuss ideas and beliefs so that they can participate with their neighbors in seeking truth and understanding that will help them make good decisions for themselves and their communities?

The irate father had a point. English is not only our common language, it is what our minds use to make sense of the world -- the words, ideas and stories with which we think and negotiate meanings with other minds. What a student reads in her English textbook may indeed change her mind, and help her think for herself.

And, as David Horowitz demonstrated, albeit inadvertently, there are "moral entrepreneurs" abroad in the world today who are engineering morality and truth, along with public opinion.

Stephen Carter argued for (A) in The Dissent of the Governed (1998) saying that parents and "communities of meaning" (sectarian religious groups) should have the right to secure their "narratives" (stories reflecting meanings and moral values) to the next generation by having total control over what their children learn.

That's not unreasonable, but in the context of the larger society, it begs the question of shared moral values and the common good. What if these "narratives" include white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, or female circumcision? What if the facts of these stories are tweaked to induce moral panic, as in the story of the complaining student, or are downright fabrications?

There's more trouble with (A). If we want our children to believe all our truths and obey all our laws, rules and moral codes, we will have to specify them for every possible event, condition or contingency. In today's world, that's a pretty big order.

Also there is the question of fostering the ability to cope in a complex world -- what we commonly call "intelligence". In "Black Children, White Children: Competence, Socialization and Social Structure" (1981) Zena Smith Blau showed that when mothers belonging to fundamentalist authoritarian religious sects imposed strict rules and controlled their children's thoughts and activities, the children's IQs went down. vThis suggests that if we want citizens who are mentally and morally self-reliant, resourceful and responsible to one another we should be very cautious about promoting laws or schooling that impose specific moral codes or submission to authority. As Agnes Ernst Meyer observed: "No human being can blindly accept authority in one area of life and become self-reliant in day-to-day decisions in the field of morals, politics and economics. ..."

But (B ) is much harder. If we aren't going to prescribe everything our young people should think and believe, we then must give them knowledge, skills and tools to think for themselves, defend their ideas and respect the ideas of others and reach consensus about what's right and good and honorable. We must seek to understand how our own moral beliefs and received truths are shaped, and recognize the political and ideological forces that influence them.

(B) is much harder, too, because it is a process, not a body of knowledge. It can't be compressed into a book of rules, but must be a continuous work-in-progress among family, teachers, colleagues and neighbors.

So what do we want? To teach each new generation to pass tests in English, math and morals and submit to authority -- without touching their minds? Or do we want to develop their minds so that they can not only read, reason, and calculate, but also have the moral intelligence to become responsible, civic-minded members of society who can work with their neighbors for the common good, for liberty and justice -- for all?

TAKE-HOME QUIZ:. Answer any three questions:

1. Can English be taught without touching student minds? Defend your position.

2. Discuss authoritarian parenting and IQ.

3. What is the purpose of education?

4. Cite three recent examples of moral entrepreneurs invoking fears to induce moral panic.

Class dismissed.