Saturday, May 22, 2010

The TBOE and two definitions of "authority"

Perhaps the best-known speech from one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays is this one by Ulysses in Act I, scene iii of Troilus and Cressida:
O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Clearly, ol’ Ulysses is upset about something, here, but, Gentle Reader, you might not be quite able to figure out exactly what it is that’s bothering him. The fact that I can help you out a little is in fact somewhat related to what I want to talk about in this essay. Let’s start with what the passage means, then move on to what I mean.

“Degree,” here, can be interpreted roughly as “respect for authority.” In this specific application, Ulysses is talking about the power of military commanders to have their orders obeyed without question—hence the observation on SparkNotes that “The speech is a perfect encapsulation of conservative politics.” But there are more things in degree and authority, Ulysses, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

We start by recognizing that there is no one definition of “authority”: lists 13. Several of these specific meanings become relevant to the discussion, but what is most important to me is that they are all related. “The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine,” then, is etymologically linked to “an accepted source of information, advice, etc.,” to “an expert on a subject,” and to “right to respect or acceptance of one's word, command, thought, etc.” The clear (and optimistic) implication here is that “authority” in the sense of power is derived from “authority” in the sense of expertise.

Thus, the notion of degree, central to Renaissance humanist philosophy, may mean “knowing your place,” but such a construction simultaneously recognizes that skill comes in many forms. The “Renaissance man (or woman),” moreover, is not a person who has achieved mastery in many fields, but rather who is competent or better across a spectrum of pursuits. Indeed, the Renaissance prince was warned by the likes of Erasmus and Castiglione not to become too accomplished at ancillary occupations: one could not be a successful courtier without having basic skills in the arts, for example, but to develop into as good a painter as a professional artist would inherently mean taking time away from learning the more important, or at least more relevant, skills of statecraft. The English Renaissance playwright John Lyly, the subject of my MA thesis, provides numerous examples of this phenomenon in action: characters who attempt to learn something outside their intended role in society always come across as misguided (Alexander the Great in Campaspe) or even silly (Raffe the page in Gallathea).

We see examples of this in our world all the time. I can help you understand that Shakespeare passage because that’s what I’m trained to do: and I received that training at least in part because I demonstrated a pre-existing aptitude for the work. It helps me that I know something of history and philosophy, even that I have a basic understanding of scientific method. But that young woman from the Chemistry Department who presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference a few weeks ago left me in the dust beginning at about her second sentence. And that’s a good thing. To use an example from a different discipline: while I’d love to have a better understanding of derivatives and credit default swaps and all that other stuff that brought the world economy to the brink, the fact remains that there’s a opportunity cost involved: time I spend doing that is time I don’t spend preparing for my next class, next production, or next article.

In the purely practical world, I can fill my own gas-tank, change a tire, and replace a battery, but don’t ask me what’s wrong when your car makes that funny noise. But—and here’s the part that matters—the same mechanic who can diagnose and fix whatever’s wrong with my vehicle while I stand by helplessly might well struggle in the most elementary course I teach. In an advanced society, we have different skills. One might almost say that such distribution of work—jobs matched to workers on the basis of specific competencies—is the foundation of a modern economic system.

All this, then, can be taken as a paean to one kind of authority, the kind defined by expertise. It is not necessarily specifically not an endorsement of the other kind of authority, the kind defined by power. And that distinction, it seems to me, is what has come to define the political divide between the hard right and everyone else. The folks at Palin-R-Us are all about power—their own, at least—but not so much about that other kind of authority, the one having to do with mastery. And those of us cloistered in the ivory-towered, chablis-sipping, tweed-jacket-with-leather-elbows world of the (shudder when you say it) intellectual tend not to respond terribly well to the other form of authority: the one that presumes legitimacy based on the position of the individual concerned rather than on his/her actual credentials. (Think Heckuvajob Brownie.) The first time I ever heard the term “herding cats,” it was used by a Stanford dean to describe trying to manage the faculty at that institution. I would like to think that I, too, am roughly as herdable as the average feline.

All the actual evidence suggests that global warming is a real and serious phenomenon, and climatologists, geologists, meteorologists, and similar people who actually know what they’re talking about are virtually unanimous about the situation’s gravity, causes, and potential solutions. Evolution is accepted as the best available explanation of observed phenomena by an overwhelming majority of biologists, geneticists, et al. Every study conducted by qualified sociologists and similar professionals shows that abstinence-only sex education programs not only don’t work, but are often even counter-productive. The list goes on and on. And the right continues to pretend that their ability to drum up contention on Fox News qualifies as an actual challenge to this science. There was a point in time when the right was as accepting of evidence as the left was. The debate, and it was vigorous and authentic, was not over the facts but over the interpretation of those facts. But that was before the Jimmy Swaggerts and Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons found they could achieve personal wealth and power by preaching willful ignorance and often outright lies to their acritical flocks.

Be it noted: 1). I do not think science has all the answers, 2). I’m all in favor of skepticism, and 3). I recognize that minority opinions are valuable and often accurate (I hold a number of them, politically and professionally). That said, I do think biologists know more about biology than televangelists or right-wing think-tankers do. I am all in favor of questioning both methodologies and conclusions, but not of denying facts. And while minority opinions are useful challenges to conventional wisdom, minority fact-sets are generally just fabrications.

All of this brings us—at last (you were waiting, weren’t you?)—to one of the leading news stories of the week: the decision by the Texas Board of Education to radically revise curriculum standards for social studies courses throughout the state. I’ve already commented, in the initial posting of this particular chapter of my blogging life (it’s essentially the second half of that essay), on what I think of these changes. If you didn’t read that piece, you can probably guess my attitude, either through knowing me personally or by reading the above paragraphs.

As I said in the earlier piece, some of the objections to the TBOE actions are a bit over-the-top. I really don’t give a damn if Dolores Huerta is included in the 3rd-grade list of good citizens or Henry Cisneros is included on the 4th-grade list of notable Texans. But in terms of both content and process, the Board deserves plenty of derision.

According to a report in that socialist mouthpiece the Wall Street Journal, here’s one example of what happened in January: “The previous standards [for 1st-graders], a decade old, defined good citizenship as ‘a belief in justice, truth, equality and responsibility for the common good.’ The new standards talk about respect for others, personal responsibility, and the importance of voting and of ‘holding public officials to their word.’ Board member Don McLeroy, who leads the most conservative bloc on the board, said that ‘responsibility for the common good’ does not belong in the standards because it is ‘a liberal notion’ that edges toward communist philosophy.” Snorted the Texas Freedom Network live-blogger in response, “McLeroy must be really unhappy with the folks who write Marxist claptrap like ‘promote the general Welfare.’”

Well, actually, yes, he is. Neither he nor his far-right cohorts do, in fact, care much for the Deist Gouverneur Morris, who is widely credited with writing those words from the Preamble to the Constitution, and still less for James Madison, crafter of the First Amendment… he thought there should be separation of Church and State, after all. Here’s one of many articulations of that fact, this one from an 1822 letter: “An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against.” Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence? Nope: devalue him. He invented the term, after all. (To be fair, Jefferson was ultimately added back into the curriculum; Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, wasn’t so lucky.)

In other news… The Board now lists “sectionalism” (whatever the hell that is) as the principal cause of the Civil War. Slavery? Third in line, behind states’ rights. The Venona papers, which prove basically that some of the people whose lives were ruined by HUAC and/or Joseph McCarthy were in fact guilty, are now credited with “confirm[ing]” HUAC “findings.” The conservative faction, generally all about required lists, shifted ground when Sonia Sotomayor was added to a standard on women’s contributions to American history… all of a sudden, that list is merely “suggested.”

Here’s a selection of the live-blogging done by a representative of the Texas Freedom Network:

• “In January the board deleted Bill Martin, author of the popular children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, from the third-grade standards. Based on a simple Internet search by a board colleague, board members mistakenly confused Martin with another Bill Martin who wrote a book about Marxism. After an avalanche of derision, in March the board put the Brown Bear, Brown Bear author back in the standards. One wonders how these board members can still say with a straight face that they don’t need experts advising them as they rip through the standards, offering numerous revisions based on little more than their limited personal knowledge and opinions.”

• “Board member David Bradley wants third-grade students to study the impact of taxes and government regulations on consumer prices. In third grade? It passes.”

• “Now [Don] McLeroy offers his expected standard on global organizations: ‘evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U. S. sovereignty through the use of treaties.’ His justification is that U.S. sovereignty is threatened by cooperation with international organizations. This is typical right-wing paranoia. In fact, we’re looking for the black helicopters he must think are circling the building…. But guess what? It passes.”

Need I continue?

The problem here isn’t simply that these people are political hacks, gracelessly perverting the cause of real education for the sake of their religio-political agenda. It isn’t even the irony—not to say hypocrisy—of a right-wing attempt to impose restrictions on the individual freedoms not merely of teachers, but of principals, superintendents, and local boards of education by mandating inflexible and ultimately stultifying governmentally-defined “standards”—a paradigm which is, when one thinks about it, far more socialistic than anything the Obama administration has dreamt of, let alone attempted to enact.

No, it’s the Sarah Palin syndrome: the idea that “just folks” are who we want making our decisions. As I said in a piece on my old blog: “I [don’t] see the advantage to having someone ‘like me’ in positions of responsibility: I don't want that in my plumber, my arborist, or my dental hygienist: why should I want it in a Vice President? Worse yet, why should I be interested in someone less knowledgeable about the issues than I am? If I'm better with an axe than anyone I could hire would be, I'll chop my own damned firewood.” And most of these folks are way less qualified in any real terms to sit on a state board of education than I would be. (N.B. that doesn’t mean I think I’m qualified, just less unqualified than these people.)

The most vocal members of the conservative cabal that will influence curricula and textbook sales across the country for the next decade consist of: a businessman and executive in the state Republican party, a real estate broker, a small-town newspaper publisher, an insurance salesman, a dentist, and lawyer whose degree is from Pat Robertson’s Regent University (she’s the one who wrote a book in which she describes public education as “a subtly deceptive tool of perversion” and thinks it’s unconstitutional and “tyrannical”—just who we want on a State Board of Education, right?). Unsurprisingly, the one Republican on the TBOE who seems at all interested in educating rather than propagandizing (arguing, for example, that students should contemplate the “effects” rather than simply the “benefits” of free enterprise) is Patricia Hardy, who taught world history for thirty years. I disagree with her about a lot (it was her idea, for example, to strike Madison from an amendment that would have returned him, along with Jefferson, to the standards), but at least she’s worth listening to.

But the others scrupulously avoid coming into contact with anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about. The standards were created by a panel of teachers and scholars… then the politicos hacked them beyond recognition. Attempts by the Democrats on the board to have the standards reviewed by experts: rejected, as were the overwhelming majority of attempts by actually qualified people to address the Board during the decision-making process. Moreover, the evidence suggests that they aren’t even representing the wishes of the electorate.

According to a poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rossner Research, not only do Texans think curricular decisions should be made by “teachers and academic scholars” rather than by “an elected state school board” by an overwhelming 72-19 margin, but support for actual expertise goes up among parents (78-15) and even holds very strong among Republicans (63-24). Indeed, a majority (53%) of Republicans feel strongly that the TBOE should butt out. Similarly, belief that separation of church and state is a “key principle of our Constitution” comes in at 68-26 overall, and 59-34 even among Texas Republicans, who aren’t necessarily known for making that distinction. [N.B. the poll was conducted for the Texas Freedom Network, and pollsters are sometimes wont to provide results akin to what their client would like to see…]

If I were on the Board, I’d yield to child development experts on when certain ideas should best be introduced; I’d yield to historians and other social scientists on who’s more important than whom and what’s more important than what; I’d yield to elementary and high school teachers on what works in their classrooms. To the right-wing indoctrinators who, alas, comprise the majority of the TBOE, however, I’d yield on not one damned thing. Which, my friends, is why I have no future in politics.


GM said...

Love that speech, and all his stuff in that play. I had the great good fortune of essaying the role at LAMDA. What a meal!

SGGrossman said...

Rick, I'm glad you manage to carve out time to write, to help the rest of us think!