Disengaged Students, Part 11: The Irrationality of Modern Politics

In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

The anti-intellectualist tendencies in K-12 education in America have not arisen in a vacuum.  Schools have always been profoundly affected by the fears and political divisions of the broader culture.   This was true during the 1950s and early 1960s when elementary students regularly cowered underneath their desks during mandated bomb drills. It was true when metal detectors first started appearing following high-profile incidents of school violence in the 1980s. It is true today as students are more connected than ever through use of mobile technology in the classroom, blurring the boundaries between school hours and leisure time. Schools cannot teach in isolation; they must recognize the impact of outside forces on the learning experience in order to have any hope of reaching students.

But a vital question remains: How much should educators alter their teaching to adjust to cultural forces, and how much should they hold fast to their preferred teaching methods in spite of those cultural forces, in this time when cultural perceptions are changing and worldviews evolving with unprecedented rapidity? Is academic disengagement actually fueled by the influence of modern society?

Tea Party Politics and the Self-Made Man Fallacy

Certain popular political movements profoundly influence the worldview and characters of today’s students. Take the founding of the contemporary Tea Party movement around the time of the 2008 Presidential election. At its core, the Tea Party calls for less ‘government interference’ in the form of taxes, health care reform or other initiatives meant to serve the “greater good”. At the risk of oversimplifying, Tea Party members believe in self-made Americans who make their own money, keep their own money and should not be required to share any of that money with their fellow countrymen.

The problem with Tea Party philosophy, on an intellectual level, is that no American is fully self-made. The successful businessman who built an empire after growing up in conditions of poverty did that with at least some help from other Americans. Even if he never took advantage of any federal grant money for college, or any tax breaks when he was building his small business (unlikely in both cases, but certainly possible), that businessman enjoys his success in part because of the unique freedoms which America offers to its citizens. If this same hypothetical person and his business were set in another region of the world, say Ethiopia or Turkey, would he be as successful?

Without the privileges of American society, all earned by the sacrifices of other people, would that businessman have a shingle to hang at all?

Conservative Politics Versus Scientific Theory

It is not just government control that the Tea Party opposes.  Their base appears to believe that proven scientific facts are just another government-created scheme against religion and individual rights. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, has repeatedly spoken out against the scientific theory of evolution and has also dismissed global warming facts as “fraudulent.” Mitt Romney expressed concern about manmade climate change when he was the governor of Massachusetts, but when he made his presidential run he rejected the notion that human actions could be behind the rise in global temperatures.

This change seems to have been made in order to appeal to Tea Party and other conservative constituents. A push by Newt Gingrich and fellow Republicans to eliminate the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress was successful during the term of George W. Bush, along with censorship of government-led scientific research (Mazo, 2011). Research Fellow for the International Institute for Strategic Studies Jeffrey Mazo sums up Republican-led rejection of scientific theory with this faulty syllogism:

If the scientists are correct, it means certain actions should be taken. Those actions should not be taken; therefore, the scientists are not correct.

Those who completely reject scientific theory on philosophical or religious grounds act as though they do not need to have a different, better explanation for the observed and proven facts. They simply believe what they believe and refuse to ask certain questions. This closed-off acceptance of non-truths damages the entire American mindset and is a danger to the intellectual growth of children. Even secular public schools feel the pressure of parents who have ethical objections to what is taught in accepted textbooks.

How Politics Influence K-12 Learners

When children come into the classroom with a warning from home regarding the inaccuracy of the lesson at hand, it undercuts the rest of what is taught too. How can students be academically engaged with material that they believe is at odds with their own upbringing?

Of course, The Tea Party is not the only group to blame for academic disengagement and cultural anti-intellectualism. It is merely one influential source that manages to penetrate the walls of K-12 classrooms, encouraging students to question the validity of facts. If people are free to openly doubt accepted theory as adults, then children should have that same right. Or so goes the belief.

Openly and strongly expressed political convictions, liberal or conservative, are easy to notice and criticize, but what about more subtle aspects of American thought and behavior? Kids’ attitudes often reflect the small, mundane details of their everyday lives. A political protest is a dramatic sight, and certainly it could stand out in the memory of a child, potentially influencing their belief system. But the behaviors and attitudes children see in their homes and learn about in their own communities day after day, the assumptions that are taken for granted rather than dramatized, exert an influence that is all the more potent because it so often goes unexamined.


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