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Social Engineering and the Politics of Ignorance

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One of my Facebook friends is a wonderful guy who sometimes lambasts my public criticism of trends in American society. Most recently, he didn't like the fact that I thought that the trains in Germany, which I rode in April, were fast, clean and on-time whereas the trains in the US, which I take regularly, are slow, dirty and late. He wondered if I ever had anything good to say about America. In another exchange, he called President Obama a communist.

I asked my friend, whom I like and respect, if he had taken a train lately.

No response.

I also pointed out to him that Marx's writings were mostly about how societies change (and not communist revolution) and that there has never been a truly "communist" society. I suggested that it's really hard to find communists these days, unless you go to France or Italy, and even there they are few and far between.

No response.

My friend, in short, had little if any empirical evidence for his statements. He may have read Marx, but didn't say so. He may have taken a train, but remained silent on that matter.

Like millions of Americans these days, he might have "heard" that President Obama is a communist. In the same vein, he, like millions of Americans, might have "heard" that Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya. Contrary to overwhelming evidence, most of the folks who have "heard" about these things have an unyielding belief that they are true.

There are other whacky beliefs that have slipped into the American imaginary.

--In Louisiana children are being taught that the so-called "presence" of the Loch Ness monster, which only seems to appear if you've have consumed the entire contents of a particularly powerful bottle of Single Malt Scotch, proves that dinosaurs co-exist with humans. Contrary to more than 100 years of rigorous science that upholds Darwin's ideas, the "Nessy" evidence suggests that evolutionary theory is not "settled."

--In Texas, the GOP Party platform has come out against "critical thinking skills," suggesting that such thinking subverts traditional values. Here's the text from the platform document.

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Backtracking, a bit, the Texas GOP said that this carefully phrased part of the platform was a "mistake," which is hard to believe. Even so, it remains part of the official Texas GOP Party platform.

--In Tennessee, the Governor Bill Haslam allowed a bill to become law that allows the teaching of creationism in the state's classrooms.

How can so many people be so arrogantly ignorant?

From my vantage as an educator and an anthropologist, I'd say there are two interrelated factors that account for this sobering phenomenon: a widespread and sharp decline in reading and thinking capacities; and an attempt to return to the Gilded Age through what Newt Gingrich, of all people, called "social engineering."

The data on American reading and thinking patterns are disturbing.

Based on investigative journalist Brian Ross's reporting, here's a sample of the findings of a broad survey on American Adult Literacy conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • 21-23% of adult Americans demonstrated the lowest level of skills, performing simple, routine tasks involving brief and uncomplicated texts and documents. They could total an entry on a deposit slip, locate the time or place of a meeting on a form, and identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article. Many in this level of the survey were unable to perform most or all of the tasks, and some had such limited skills that they were unable to respond to much of the survey.
  • 25-28% of adult Americans demonstrated skills in the next higher level of proficiency (Level 2) although their ability to grasp complex information was still quite limited. They were generally able to locate information in text, to make low-level inferences using printed materials, and to integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.
  • The approximately 90 million American adults who performed in Levels 1 and 2 did not necessarily perceive themselves as being nearly functionally illiterate.

Mr. Ross's conclusions are eye opening. Among American adults, a mere 20% have the capacity to understand the nuances of politics and public policy. More than half the population of American adults cannot make sense of the complex information patterns that shape public policy. These findings may not matter, because, as Mr. Ross states, most Americans get their information from "from TV, or conversations with friends and co-workers." They "hear" things and consider those things to be true.

Given the impoverished state of American literacy, is it any wonder that negative political ads, so filled with half-truths, misleading statements and boldface lies, have had such an impact on millions of adults who vote for propositions and candidates whose ideas and agendas are bound to make their lives more difficult, if not painful.

Enter the second factor -- the attempt to return American Society to the extreme social inequality and social divisions of The Gilded Age, in which everyone knew his or her place. If you have a viable middle class, such a return is impossible. And so the GOP, which indirectly advocates such a position, has been promoting policies (slashing education funding, opposing critical thinking skills, undermining labor unions, cutting social services) that shrink the middle class and make it more and more difficult to achieve the American Dream. The GOP has garnered support for these policies and the politicians who promote them by spending lavishly on aforementioned negative political ads. Such advertising convinces struggling people to be against health care initiatives that would improve their lives; it compels them to vote for candidates whose agendas would undermine their social well being. Propaganda works best when its audience is uninformed.

If we allow the politics of ignorance to solidify its hold on the political imagination, we condemn ourselves to a dark future. If we get all the news we need from the weather report, as Simon and Garfunkel say in their remarkably prophetic song, there will be many stormy days ahead.

This post has been updated since its original publication.