The Dangers of Education

Here’s an opinion piece in WaPo from a few days ago that acknowledges that what conservatives fear is true.

Washington Post, Paul Waldman, 25 Aug 2022: Conservatives think education is a threat. They’re right.

“Reality has a liberal bias.” Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Why teachers tend to be liberal. Reality is what, even when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. And so on.

The conservative campaign against education is many things. As a political matter, it’s about intensifying the culture war so moral panic drives Republican votes. As a policy matter, its long-term goals include dismantling public education. As a personal matter, it’s often motivated by fear that the American system of education is a threat to people’s children — that the wrong ideas, even ideas themselves, are impossibly dangerous.

On that last point, conservatives are absolutely right: Education is indeed a threat to many things they believe.

Texas, Oklahoma, Texas again, Michigan. Fox News.

Now, are school teachers more likely to be liberals, even in conservative areas? You bet they are. Think about the kind of person who goes into teaching. You have to be committed to the welfare of children, be skilled at providing care, and believe in the institution of schools (most of which are public). You have to care about equality, because it’s inherent in the practice. You have to love books and learning. And you have to be willing to work incredibly hard for low pay.


Then there are all the ways that, in Stephen Colbert’s immortal words, reality has a well-known liberal bias. If you’re going to teach science, you have to teach about evolution and climate change, even if some people would prefer to tell themselves both are sinister hoaxes.

And even if you regulate public school teachers what to say and what not to say,

what if your kids go on to college? Then they’ll be exposed to all manner of new ideas as they cultivate their capacity for critical thinking. They’ll probably meet people from different parts of the country and different backgrounds. They very well could decide that their parents are small-minded, and arrive at a set of beliefs that alienates them from the people who raised them.

One answer is to send kids to religious colleges, where instructors need to swear to the inerrancy of the Bible (e.g.), and so presumably filter and edit all their teaching so as to avoid too great cognitive dissonance.

But it’s getting harder and harder (especially with the internet) to keep ’em down on the farm, so to speak.

These fears are intensified because we now live in an interconnected culture where shielding your children from ideas you don’t like has become almost impossible. If you’re 50 years old, you might have gone through school never meeting someone who was openly gay, or who wasn’t Christian, or who didn’t think the Civil War was about state’s rights. But if your kids have an internet connection, they have all kinds of exposure to different people and different ideas.

On the other hand, social media allows people to filter away different world-views and remain inside bubbles of fellow believers. Lots of people still believe all sorts of crazy things. But not from formal education.

Reality is still out there.

And the more conservative you are, the more likely it is that education will lead your kids toward experiences and beliefs that differ from yours — not because your kids are being victimized by propaganda, but just because of the nature of becoming educated.

If you’re an average consumer of Fox News and conservative media, you typically can’t do much about the things you’re told to be angry about every day; the rage is an end in itself. But in their war on education, conservatives have found a way to connect the national to the local, linking the things Tucker Carlson tells you are terribly threatening with what’s going on right down the street.

The threat is real. Conservatives can’t keep their kids from having their minds opened forever. And they know it.


My fallback has always been: The smart ones will figure it out. Backup fallback: Or if they don’t, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Because human survival doesn’t depend on understanding the nature of the real world; allegiance to local customs and religions does that better, in terms of promoting family and community and ultimately the survival of the species. I’m fine with that; let them watch their sports games and attend their church services, as the vast majority of the population does. There are still lots of people who have grown out of sports and religion, and theirs is the world I’d rather live in. Understanding the real world is a luxury, and it’s far more interesting than parroting the religions of ancient desert tribes.

A recent book I haven’t read yet offers a provocative (counterintuitive!) thesis along these lines. It’s by Justin Gregg and is called IF NIETZSCHE WERE A NARWHAL: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. The subtitle (I hope) overstates the case; from the dust jacket, the idea is that human intelligence isn’t necessary to be successful, and may even be a hindrance, considering how human intelligence has built a global society that is now destroying the planet’s biosphere.

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