Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Republican ignorance agenda

By Robin Lakoff

Conservative Republicans have been very busy lately making inroads into teaching and learning at all levels — a curious program, especially at a time when more serious voices have been urging America to strengthen its investment in science and technology in order to remain globally competitive in the twenty-first century. One wonders what their oppositionism is really about.

Let me summarize a bit of this interesting record:

Congressional Republicans have fought to reduce pre-kindergarten (Head Start) funding.

Conservatives in various arenas have been whittling away at the prestige, authority and autonomy of elementary and high school teachers. The denial of the right to collective bargaining, the destruction of security of employment, demands to take classroom decisions out of teachers' hands and create a national curriculum, forcing teachers to teach to tests whose subject matter bears no relation to what future generations of Americans will need to know, allowing school buildings to deteriorate in the interests of "no new taxes," carrying banners at rallies identifying teachers as "glorified babysitters" — all these work to encourage contempt for those who teach in those who need to learn, and to make mediocrity the norm. (Does anyone believe that "the best and the brightest" will want to become teachers under these working conditions?)

At the university level, we have seen many disquieting moves over the last several years. After 9/11, Lynne Cheney's ACTA (the American Council of Trustees and Alumni) tarred as "treasonous" any academic who had dared to suggest that the U.S. bore any responsibility for the acts of terrorism. Several conservative organizations have placed "student" spies in the classrooms of professors suspected of liberal sympathies to report on them and cause them embarrassment and, ideally, loss of employment. Tenure has come under attack at this level as well as at the primary and secondary levels.

There have been demands for national uniformity of curricula in many or all fields, as well as exit exams to be taken by undergraduates, a means of depriving professors of autonomy and dignity in the classroom. And most recently, e-mail accounts of academics have been broken into on what must be considered frivolous — or, better, dubious — grounds. In one well-known case, climate scholars' e-mails were hacked and the results published to cast doubt on climate change; more recently, the distinguished University of Wisconsin professor (and Republican) William Cronon, who had dared to question the Republican agenda, had his e-mails made public under the Freedom of Information Act, by the conservative Mackinac Center.

In 1929, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed the State Department bureau of cryptanalysis saying that "gentlemen don't read each other's mail." Well, maybe faux populists aren't gentlemen.

Scholarship at all levels has been devalued and impugned by the deep thinkers of the Right. Conservatives have cast doubt on science — from evolution to climate change — on no rational basis at all other than that it isn't in the Bible or they just plain don't like it. Their inability to grasp the ideas of postmodernism has proven no deterrent to their making fun of its questioning of the absolute certainty of all scientific claims (does anyone detect an irony here?). Generally, the conservatives' aim seems to be to reassure their constituencies that you don't have to know anything to be an expert. All you have to do is yell louder than anyone else.

The above is certainly depressing. But is it just a list of the desperate flailings of a party confused about how to respond to the situation in Libya and fragmented by the Tea Partiers in their midst? Are the proponents of all of the above just a bunch of fogeys (old and young) terrified of losing ground in 2012 once voters realize they were snookered in 2010? Is each of the items independent of the others, each a response to some vague, inchoate fear? Or does that list represent something planned, deliberate, and coherent?

Perhaps conservatives realize that their attractiveness is dependent on ignorance at many levels and of many kinds: ignorance of the Constitution; ignorance of the benefits that unionization has brought to so many people; ignorance of the importance of science and technology in the modern world; ignorance of their own ignorance.

If education is respected and strong, if teachers are autonomous, authoritative, and respected, ignorance cannot survive. If ignorance cannot survive, groups that thrive on it will not do well.

Do the math.

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.