On Moral Politics

Originally posted on George Lakoff:  This is an important book by Dr. Lakoff. I highly recommend it. You will many articles in my blog that reference George Lakoff’s work, and in the age of The Authoritarian, it critical to share Lakoff’s views with many.

George Lakoff writes:

Two decades ago, in 1996, I published a book explaining how the various views of conservatives hung together. For example: What being against abortion has to do with owning guns, being against environmental regulation, being for the flat tax, etc. I did the corresponding analysis of liberal positions, showing that both have to do with opposite moral theories arising from opposite models of family life.

The third edition of “Moral Politics” has now been published by the University of Chicago Press, and the 2016 election has resulted in brisk sales. The reason is that it explains the logic behind all of Trump’s policies — and his cabinet appointments.

If you want to see the plan behind what Trump is doing, why people with certain moral values voted for him despite the lies, and how his views differ from yours, go to Amazon, Powell’s, or Diesel, and order Moral Politics, Third…

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Countering the Authoritarian Reform Agenda

I am going to argue in this post that progressive values should set the ideals of teaching and learning in American society.  These values are rooted in democratic ideals and citizen action.  Unfortunately the cloud of authoritarianism looms over education, making it difficult to design curriculum and instruction around progressive values.

This post is a counter to the  conservative world-view has taken hold of education in the U.S. and a continuation of the last post on this blog in which the nature of the conservative view was explored and used to explain the testing scandal that appears to extend beyond Atlanta.

elephantsAs Kendrick Smith states in his new book, Who Stole the American Dream?, there has been a rebellion in this country and it has been led by corporations, Washington lobbyists (who outnumber the members of the House and Senate by 130 – 1!), rightist “think tanks” and organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  According to Smith, this movement had its origins in the Carter Administration.  It was under Carter’s administration that power shifted in favor of pro-business.  Smith explains that in 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Smith writes about this about Powell’s memo (referred to now as Powell’s Manifesto).

In a tone of exasperation, he chided America’s corporate leaders for bowing to mainstream middle-of-the-road policies and for adopting a strategy of “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.” The time has come, he insisted, for Corporate America to adopt “a more aggressive attitude” and to change Washington’s policies through “confrontation politics.”  (Smith, Hedrick (2012-09-11). Who Stole the American Dream? (Kindle Locations 375-378). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Powell’s memo, according to Smith, set in motion a momentous shift in the political balance of power in Washington in favor of business and conservative views.  One of the major recommendations in the Powell Manifesto was to counter what he viewed as a university campus assault on the “enterprise” system, and to do that he suggested that the Chamber of Commerce should assemble a staff of highly skilled scholars in the social sciences who “believe in the system,” and have the reputation to confront the likes of Ralph Nader, William Kunstler, and Charles Reich.

Shock and Awe

Bill Moyers referred to the Powell Memo as a Call to Arms for Corporations. Moyers explained that Powell’s message was:

to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

In Moyers terms, the counterattack that grew out of the Powell memo was a “domestic version of Shock and Awe.

Hendrick Smith states that the memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. According to Smith, “their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.”

Thus began the recruitment of scholars and ex-politicians in the social science and law who “believed in the system.”

In the 1990s and through the first decade of the 21st century, the middle class began to shrink, and the wealth gap increased to the extent that Smith characterized the new economy as “the economy of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.   Even beginning in the mid-sixties, Smith documents the rise of the radical right, and how extremism took over the Republican Party.  The drive to attack Social Security, Medicare, and constant insistence of lower taxes (especially for the rich).

In the introduction to his book, Smith talks about the “gross inequality of income and wealth in America, and suggests that it the “gravest challenge in our society.  As Smith acknowledges, if the extremes (of wealth and education) become too great, then equal opportunity is undermined, and our economy is at risk.

Although Smith does not talk about it directly, education has been subjected to the radical right’s dream to privatize public education by using public monies to fund national charter organizations to run local schools under the false banner of choice.  For decades, the right has pushed the idea of vouchers as another “choice” parents can make to educate their children.  It’s really not choice, because the idea is to channel kids into private schools, or charters.

One of the organizations that has underwritten much of the legislation that has been cropping up in state legislatures around the country is our old friend, ALEC.  ALEC has been exposed as  a right-wing “bill-mill” that writes legislation at the their headquarters in D.C., invites Republican state legislators to a lavish multi-day conference at which ALEC dispenses actions in the form of “model legislation or bills” that can be easily converted into local and state legislatures.

If you take a look at these model bills, it is clear that ALEC is in the business privatizing schools, and undermining teachers. As I wrote in an earlier post, there is a clear attempt to commercialize education and exploit children and schooling further undoing the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.

Pushing Back:  Progressivism as Activism

In this post, I am going to explore another movement that has historically played a role to oppose corporate, authoritarian, un-democratic, and right-wing policies and beliefs, and that is the work and desire of progressives, who have played a role in American history, starting with the American revolution.

Progressive and conservative approaches to education have competed with each other in America for more than a century. The conservative view has dominated American education, but we’ll also find that the progressive view has impacted American education in powerful ways at different times during this period. We’ll examine the foundations of the progressive view and then apply our findings to the nature of education, including teaching, learning, and curriculum development.

In an earlier post I used the theory developed by George Lakoff to explain the nature of the conservative world-view.  In this post I’ll use the theory to explain progressive education.

In Lakoff’s research, the nation-as-family conceptual metaphor can be used to help us understand our political worldview, and in my argument, this will also enable us to explain how progressive values differ from conservative values, and how they affect education in America.

In Lakoff’s research he has shown that this conceptual metaphor produces two very different models of families: a “strict father” family and a “nurturant parent” family. In his view this creates two fundamentally different ideologies about how the nation should be governed. I am suggesting that these two views can teach us about how education in America should be organized and “governed.”

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

If we apply the nurturing parent model to politics, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy. The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:

  • Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
  • Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others. (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)

In research on person or client centered theory by Carl Rogers many decades ago, he explained that empathy was one of core conditions for facilitative (counseling and teaching) practice. Realness of the teacher, and prizing, accepting, and trust were two additional core conditions. We will see later, that these core conditions will be important to consider as attributes of progressive educators.

In his book, Thinking Points, Lakoff identifies the following as characteristics of the Nurturant Parent Family:

  • A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one
  • The parents share household responsibilities (Egalitarian)
  • Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial
  • Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes a significant part of the parents attention
  • The principle goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives
  • When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring for their parents.

In the progressive family, boundaries are set but in the context of building a caring environment with emphasis on building strong, open relationships. According to Lakoff, children develop best through positive relationships with others. Lakoff says that in this context, however, the parent (or teacher) can be authoritative but not authoritarian.

There are added values that emerge from the nurturing parent family and these include, protection, fulfillment in life, freedom, opportunity, fairness, equality, prosperity, and community.

Nurturing Family World View—->Progressive Principles in Politics and Education

There is a direct connection between the nation-as-family conceptual metaphor and the nurturing family which leads to key principles that emerge from progressive values. These will be fundamental not only in politics, but in education as well.

From Lakoff’s theory of nation-as-family conceptual metaphor, these four principles form the context for progressive morality. Here are summarized from Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Location 846). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

  • The Common Good Principle–Citizens bring together their common wealth to build infrastructures that benefit all, and also contributes to individual goals.
  • The Expansion of Freedom Principle–Progressives demand the expansion of fundamental forms of freedom, including voting rights, worker’s rights, public education, public health, civil rights.
  • The Human Dignity Principle–Empathy requires the recognition of basic human dignity and responsibility requires us to act to uphold it.
  • The Diversity Principle–Empathy involves identifying with and connecting socially and emotionally with all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation. Ethic of diversity in our communities, schools, workplaces.

The progressive political view based on Lakoff’s theory in my view is applicable to education. Here I will make a few comments about progressivism in American education, and then explore three issues that face educators today: accountability, Atlanta Cheating Scandal, and VAM Scores & the Bad Teacher.

Progressivism in American education

The Progressive Education Movement provided an alternative approach to traditional school. It emerged at the end of the 19th Century and reached its peak in the 1930s. Influenced by the writings of John Dewey, and other theorists, progressivism promoted the idea that students should be encouraged to be creative and independent thinkers allowed to act upon their interests. Progressive educational programs were learner-centered, and encouraged intellectual participation in all spheres of life. Dewey suggested that the Progressive Education Movement appealed to many educators because it was more closely aligned with America’s democratic ideals. Dewey put it this way:

One may safely assume, I suppose, that one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it seems more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is committed than do the procedures of the traditional school, since the latter have so much of the autocratic about them. Another thing which has contributed to its favorable reception is that its methods are humane in comparison with the harshness so often attending the policies of the traditional school. (John Dewey. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1938). pp. 33-34.)

Dewey’s analysis highlights the difference between the progressive and the conservative views of education.

In 1896, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago opened it doors under the directorship of Professor John Dewey. It is still open. Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation. The school was learner-centered, and the curriculum was organized as an interdisciplinary approach to education. Teachers designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and the activities engaged students in self-development and mutual respect. Dewey advocated the idea that thinking was an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. He also espoused the idea that the school had a political role as an instrument for social change.

Two aspects of the Progressive Education Movement that affected all of education were the movement’s notion of the child-centered curriculum, and the project method. Both of these ideas exist today, and have been given different degrees of emphasis. For example, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the child-centered curriculum was represented in the Humanistic Education movement (sometimes known as affective education). The humanistic ideas of the present day were similar to the progressive ideals of the 1930s.

The child or student-centered approach is a major paradigm implying beliefs about the nature of learning, the goals of education, and the organization of the curriculum. Emphasis on student-centeredness has waxed and waned historically as educators evaluated its merits relative to the “Back to Basics” and “Structure of the (subject matter) Disciplines” paradigms.

The progressive education movement represents the earliest efforts to advocate a student-interest-centered instruction. John Dewey in particular wrote extensively of his work in the Chicago school to reconcile the dualism between traditional and progressive education. (Teachers still find writings of Dewey to be relevant to current reform efforts and practical dilemmas of teaching. Among hundreds of publications by Dewey, some classical works to consider include How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education (1916), Experience and Education (1938). In these you can find Dewey’s perspective on reflective thinking, learning as growth, and the theory of educative experience.)

The progressive education movement sparked the development of a number of experimental schools, which embodied the philosophy of the progressive educators. Teaching in the progressive schools was an opportunity to involve students directly with nature, hands-on experiences with real phenomena, and to relate learning to not only the emotional and physical well-being of the child, but to the curriculum as a whole. There is rich literature on this movement describing innovative child-centered programs such as Dewey’s Schools of To-Morrow, the Gary (Indiana) plan, and The Parker School (Cremin, The Transformation of the School).

Progressive Teachers Today

Progressivism is an important aspect of the present education scene.

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view. The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles. In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is seen as a community.

The progressive teacher’s beliefs about teaching are formulated by many factors, but two that stand out are empathy and responsibility.

The progressive teacher would be a highly qualified and certified professional who not only has a strong background in content and pedagogy, but has a range of experiences with youth enabling them to understand students and treat people through the eyes of progressive morality.

Progressive educators would be research oriented. That is, they would tend to experiment with new approaches to teaching and would also do action research in their own classrooms to improve the teaching/learning environment.

Progressive educators would ask lots of questions.

  • Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
  • Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
  • Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
  • Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

Progressive teachers would strike, as the teachers in Chicago did last year;  they would refuse to administer a high-stakes test that they believe is not relevant to their work or their student’s learning; and they would raise questions about the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Progressive teachers would look at accountability, the testing scandals, and teacher evaluation in very different ways.

Issues Seen Through Progressive Educator Lens

Conservatives has created an authoritarian system of accountability, including the use of high-stakes tests to measure student learning and to test teachers and schools.  Progressive educators would look at this issue in a very different way.


Progressive teachers are accountable to themselves, their students and parents, and school officials. However, progressive teachers reject the high-stakes model of accountability, and suggest that the research actually supports assessment methods that are truer to the real work that students do in school. Progressive teachers know intrinsically that a two-hour test in April simply does not tell us much, if anything, about what students learned.
The progressive teacher would deal with accountability from the moral values of empathy and responsibility. The progressive teacher behaves in such a way that students know that he/she tries to understand each student in such a way that they build trust not only for the teacher, but because of the teacher’s commitment to community, students build a trust for other students. And this is not an easy task.
The progressive teachers would work earnestly to move their school in a direction that is away from single high-stakes testing and toward a more realistic approach that would involve a range of assessment methods including the use of diagnostic tools to find out what ideas students already have, to using formative assessment (which does influence student achievement, if that is of interest to you), and summative methods. These methods can entail interviews, questioning, paper and pencil tests, projects, artifact presentations, portfolios, journals or notebooks, lab reports, final exams, and on and on.
Accountability in the progressive world-view does derive from the authority of the district, but the real carrying out of accountability measures in the hands of professional teachers, who are board certified, and qualified, just as my doctors are responsible to test, diagnose and prescribe a path to better health for my family. Teachers have comparable attitudes as doctors, which include empathetic and an ethic of caring.
This is the kind of accountability that is student-centered, because above all else, our goals ought to be in the service of students and their parents.

Atlanta Cheating Scandal

In the Atlanta test erasure scandal, nearly 200 teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and many of these teachers lost their jobs, were fired, or forced to resign.  Thirty-five Atlanta Public School educators were accused by a grand jury of racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.
Would cheating have occurred if the progressive world-view of education dominated the Georgia Department of Education and the Atlanta Public Schools? I have no idea. Perhaps. Maybe not.
But here is the deal. According to the Georgia Governor’s three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.” That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.
According to the investigative report of the Governor of Georgia, bubble sheets were changed, perhaps as the Governor suggested, the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation led to this scandal.
It is possible that none of this would have happened is schools were organized using the nurturing parent family model. Why do I think this might be so?
In the present conservative model of education, all the power for curriculum (standards) and high-stakes testing rests in the hands of state education officials. This decision was not made by teachers, or administrators in their district. Instead, the conservative agenda of placing all the emphasis on improving student test scores has become the major goal of education. I have shown on this blog that this is a misguided decision, and that no matter what we do, student scores will not be influenced by new standards, or more rigorous tests.
The Atlanta Test Erasure debacle, which has been repeated in many other cities, was the direct result of the failed policy of organizing learning around authoritarian standards and high-stakes tests. John Merrow has recently reported on Frontline  that there probably was widespread cheating or test erasures under Michelle Rhee’s tenure.  No doubt a failed policy existed in Washington under Rhee’s administration.  Authority for education can stay at the department of education, BUT they have to change the policies that hold classroom teachers and school principals from fulfilling their professional abilities. The authoritarianism that makes schools beholden to conservative policies needs to change.

Teacher Evaluation

The evaluation of a teacher’s performance is an important aspect of the progressive world-view. The teacher is the responsible adult in the classroom, and this implies that their work as a teacher must be evaluated.

The question is what kind of evaluation should be used to assess teacher performance?

There is a powerful force of government policy makers including governors and legislative representatives that have put into place policies that hold teachers accountable for changes in student test scores. The idea is to use the test scores of students to predict the value that a teacher adds to his or her students’ performance. This idea is called Value Added Modeling (VAM). Not only does VAM not have the support of researchers at major universities, but using such a system will destroy the central character of teaching from a progressive world-view, and that is empathy and responsibility. Even the National Academy of Science informed the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that VAM data should not be used to make high-stake decisions about teachers. This advice, in the form of letter to Secretary Duncan, was totally ignored by ED, and indeed, all states that received Race to the Top funding are instituting VAM as part of teacher evaluation, and in some cases VAM scores will represent 60% of the teacher’s evaluation.

In my own view, evaluating teachers using Value-Added Modeling is shameful and degrading, not only because VAM is unscientific and a fraud, but because it does an enormous disservice to professional teachers and their students.

Donna McKenna, an ESL teacher wrote a post that questioned how officials in her state could determine the value she adds to her class. She asked how they can look at her skills and talents and attribute worth to them without knowing her, her class, or her curriculum.

Then she added, “tell me how and I will tell you:

  • How all of my students come from different countries, different levels of prior education and literacy, and how there is no “research-based” elementary curriculum created to support schools or teachers to specifically meet their needs.
  • How the year for which you have data was the year my fifth graders first learned about gangs, the Internet, and their sexual identities.
  • How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students were so wracked by fear of deportation, depression and sleep deprivation from nightmares, that they could barely sit still and often fought with other students. How they became best of friends by year-end. How one of them still visits me every September.
  • How that year most of my students worked harder than ever, (despite often being called “the low class” or “lower level” within earshot of them), inspiring me and the teachers around us, despite the fact that many of these same students believed they could never go to college because of their immigration status.

Please follow this link to Donna McKenna’s blog, No Sleep ’til Summer to read the full post her view of the value added idea.

Progressive teachers, such as Donna McKenna, offer all us a view of teaching that is inspiring.

Next Steps

The progressive world-view has had a long history in American education, and progressive educators continue to question the current conservative world-view that is shaping schooling in America.

Do you think the progressive world-view of teaching can make inroads into the conservative world-view of authoritative standards and high-stakes testing? 





Education Secretary Duncan on the TIMSS Results: We’re Being Out-Educated & Out-Competed

If you go over to the U.S. Department of Education website, you will find the Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement on the release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessment.  You can read it online here, and I’ve copied it and posted it below.  Highlighted (my own) words describe the essence of Mr. Duncan’s view of American science and mathematics education.

Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments
Statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Release of the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments

Reading the letter that Mr. Duncan wrote in the context of Ed Johnson’s letter which was published on this blog yesterday, I can only say here that Mr. Duncan continues appears to be out-of-touch with our society, and the way children and youth could be educated, respected, and valued.

The letter that Mr. Johnson wrote was first sent to President Obama.  Yesterday, the letter was sent to Mr. Duncan.  Ed Johnson’s letter  was a reaction to the Newtown shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Mr. Johnson asks us to consider the larger context of our culture, and wonder if the mass shootings that we have seen for more than a decade are related in anyway to the erosion of “civility and democratic ideas” in the service to the common or public good.

He has been an activist for years in Atlanta, and his letter is a powerful statement about how we need to come to grips with the way we are educating our youth.  Competition seems to rule in the way we educate students.  Perhaps we should reconsider this.  Read what happened to Ed Johnson in a school context.

Mr. Johnson describes a transformative moment after being a judge in a Social Science Fair Contest.  Here is what he recalled:

Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to check the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.

Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?

Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.

That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.

Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.

Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.

We’ve turned education and learning into a colossal competition that beginning in early childhood, and through competitive testing have wired schools and society to accept a behaviorist-competitive model of learning.  Ed Johnson came to grips with this when he participated in a school social studies fair.  In the context of a competitive fair, there had to be a first, second and third place winner, followed by a long list of losers.  Behaviorist theory suggests that students should be rewarded for the correct answer, or in this case of the “best” social science fair project.  Much of curriculum has been reduced to a common set of statements (behaviors to learn) that trivialize learning.  From childhood through high school students are taught and tested on a set of common standards that are behavioral in nature.

Even though most educators understand cognitive and social psychology, the structure of schooling reinforces (sorry) a behavioral-competitive approach to learning and teaching.

And this is unfortunate

Wired for Empathy and Cooperation

As human beings, our brains are wired for empathy and coöperation.  I written about empathy in teacher education, and how Carl Rogers, decades ago, established empathy as one of the core conditions of facilitating the learning of others.  In nature, coöperation is considered by many naturalists as being as important is not more so than competition in sustainable environments.  

We need to recognize that this is a more enlightened way to learn and teach, a way that at its roots seeks a sacred or humanistic consciousness.  George Lakoff, in his book The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, explores the differences between progressive and conservative moral philosophies.  Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at U.C. Berkeley, and In Lakoff’s theory, our democracy (and thus our education system) was founded by the politics of empathy and responsibility.  Although the role of the government in the context of progressive ideas is equality, freedom, fairness and opportunity, it has taken hundreds of years of social change to move toward this reality.  I have written on this blog on Lakoff’s research and how it can be applied to education and learning.

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view. The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles. In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one. The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is a community.

Empathy by the teacher, and coöperation among learners would be important hallmarks of the enlightened classroom.  Lakoff speaks to the connection of empathy and coöperation to the “wiring” of our brain.  He writes:

We begin with the biology of empathy. Our mirror neuron circuitry and related pathways are activated when we act or when we see someone else performing the same action. They fire even more strongly when we coördinate actions with others—when we coöperate. Mirror neuron circuitry is connected to the emotional regions of our brains. Our emotions are expressed in our bodies, in our muscles and posture, so that mirror neurons can pick up visual information about the feelings of others….In other words, they give the biological basis of empathy, coöperation, and community. We are born to empathize and coöperate.

As Ed Johnson realized and has eloquently written,

Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.

What do you think?  Is the Secretary of Education out of touch with a more enlightened way that schools should be fostering learning for and among students?  Does Ed Johnson describe a more enlightened way to educate youth?




Babel from The Right: Truth, Justice, & Which Way

There are millions of people who deny the scientific truth that the Earth is 4.55 Billion years old.   They insist that it no more than 10,000 years old.  In poll of U.S. adults, 40% did not accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on earth.  Instead they believe in creation myths, or intelligent design.  Many people claim that climate change is a hoax.  Others reject the link between HIV and AIDS.  Still many others spread fear that vaccinations with harm their children.  And there are others who believe the Holocaust did not happen. And, still there are millions who think President Obama’s birth hospital is not in Hawaii.

Jon Huntsman sent a Tweet while running in the Republican Primary for President that many people heard, loud and clear.  He Tweeted:

For a Republican running for President, this was like saying he agreed with President Obama.  For Hunstman, this was a reflection on his character and courage to go against the grain of his political party.  Most Republicans, when asked about the topics I mentioned above (age of earth, evolution, global warming etc.) would NOT accept and trust the work of scientists.  In their public appearances, they do their best to spread doubt, claim outright denial of the scientific facts, and reject the methods that scientists use to do science.  See this paper by Joshua Rosenau, of the National Center for Science Education.

Why can’t we simply tell these people that they have their facts wrong?  Why can’t they just be told the truth?  It’s  not that simple as we will see ahead in this post.

The Effect of Correction on “Truth”

In a study that I reported on here, entitled When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, Brendan Nyhan, University of Michigan, and Jason Reifler, Georgia State University  suggest that beliefs about controversial factual questions are closely linked to one’s ideological preferences or partisan beliefs.  The study is important at several levels.  For those of us who are teachers, their study might be disheartening.  Even after providing “corrective” information on a contemporary problem, subjects in their study didn’t necessarily change their views, opinions or concepts.  In some cases it hardened their belief.  For those who are trying to figure out why so many people deny the facts of science, as well as historical and current events, read on.

In their study, three hypotheses were investigated about how the effectiveness of corrections will vary by participant ideology (liberal, centrist, conservative):

Hypothesis 1: An ideological interaction
The effect of corrections on misperceptions will be moderated by ideology.
Hypothesis 2a: Resistance to corrections
Corrections will fail to reduce misperceptions among the ideological subgroup that is likely to hold the misperception.
Hypothesis 2b: Correction backfire
In some cases, the interaction between corrections and ideology will be so strong that misperceptions will increase for the ideological subgroup in question.

The researchers investigated three areas from contemporary politics: the war in Iraq, tax cuts, and stem cell research). This brought more realism to the study and not using hypothetical situations and questions. The war in Iraq focused on the risk associated with Saddam Hussein passing weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks. Subjects read a news article that included remarks made by President George Bush that defended the Iraq war, and that there was a real risk that Saddam would pass on weapons or information. Some respondents were given correction which discusses the Duelfer Report, which documents the lack of Iraqi WMD or active production program prior to the U.S. invasion.

After reading the article, respondents were asked to state whether they agreed (on a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5) with the following statement:

Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program, the ability to produce these weapons, and large stockpiles of WMD, but Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived.

In this 2005 experiment, the results supported the “backfire” hypothesis. For very liberal subjects, the corrective information made them more likely to disagree that Iraq had WMD. For liberal and centrist people, the corrective information had little effect. But for those that were to the right of center (ideologically conservative), the correction backfired—that is conservatives who received the corrective information that Iraq did not have WMD were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD. One explanation was that conservatives tended to believe Bush and not the media, thus resulting in the backfire effect.

The researchers conclude that their study seems to support the idea that citizens engage in motivated reasoning. Their studies support the notion that using corrections on factual beliefs shows that responses to the corrections about controversial issues vary systematically by ideology.

As the researchers point out, their study did support the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic, but they also pointed out that liberals and Democrats also interpret factual information in ways that are consistent with their political world views.

This important study reveals that conservatives are more dogmatic than others, but we all “filter” information to fit our particular views.  But this does not explain the outright denialism that is rampant in the right-wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party.

The Republican Brain

For decades empirically based scientific theories and ideas have been deliberately denied by primarily conservative males.  A reality exists that science writer, Chris Mooney explains in his book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality.  One of the characteristics of the Republican Brain, according to Mooney, is how the science of denial has become a political force in affecting the minds of many people, especially the media on significant science related social and economic issues of the day.

The field is very young, according to Mooney, but scientists are already showing that average “liberal” and “conservative” brains differ in suggestive ways.

Mooney shows us in his research that the science of denialism is practiced by more Republican and Tea Party members than not, to the bewilderment the rest of us.  He is helpful in putting this in perspective on two issues, global warming and evolution.  He writes:

In a nationally representative survey released just as I was finishing this book—many prior surveys have found similar things—only 18 percent of Republicans and Tea Party members accepted the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by humans, and only 45 and 43 percent accepted human evolution.

In other words, political conservatives have placed themselves in direct conflict with modern scientific knowledge, which shows beyond serious question that global warming is real and caused by humans, and evolution is real and the cause of humans. If you don’t accept either claim, you cannot possibly understand the world or our place in it.

The evidence suggests that many conservatives today just don’t. (Mooney, Chris (2012-03-22). The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality (pp. 6-7). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition)

The lies, distortions, and the denials that we see and hear everyday by conservative politicians , right-wing talk show hosts, Fox News, and right-wing editorials, as Mooney says, “drive us crazy.”  In the midst of this babel of unreason has emerged an ideology in which one systematically reacts by refusing reality and truth (Didier, F., 2007).  Some of the babel includes statements about global warming from Senator James Inhofe: “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state,” or better still, Representative Paul Broun’s (Georgia) opinion that “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell” (from a published talk he gave at a church in Georgia).

As I indicated in the first section, “convictions,” especially involving feelings and attitudes, are difficult to change.  Teachers who embrace the learning science of constructivism know this.  Initial ideas or prior conceptions that students hold about ideas in math, science, social studies, literature are not changed directly, but require an environment of open inquiry and discussion, and the movement on the part of the learner that they want to learn something new or they are willing to consider ideas different from their own.  This is not an easy matter.  As teachers we bang our heads against the wall trying to come with novel ways to engage our students so that they have a chance in the game of school.

Now, I want you to think about adults who would look you in the face and deny facts presented that support the theory of global warming and its effect on climate change.  Some of them will try and dredge up one of the few scientists (typically ones who have not done research in the area of global warming), and say, “See, here’s a scientist who does not believe in global warming.  Even scientists can’t agree.  The science is not settled on global warming.  We need to hold off doing anything until all the facts are in.”  Or something like that.  You get the idea.

Even with evidence that global warming effects are getting worse as reported in a New Scientist, climate change article, deniers are teaming up to fight efforts to increase funding for renewable energy sources and projects.   Increasing renewable energy project and research is one way of reducing global warming.  According to an article on Climate Progress, the Heartland Institute (climate change denier organization) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a right-wing group of nay-sayers made up of Republican representatives) are teaming up to kill clean energy projects.

At the individual level, its the brain, as Mooney suggests, that determines our actions.  Mooney, citing modern neuroscience research, tells us that “thinking and reasoning are actually suffused with emotion or affect.”  Indeed, many of our reactions to stimuli and information are not reflective, but emotional and automatic, and set in motion prior to conscious thought.  When people who have been harboring the idea that global warming is a hoax are presented with facts and research results that show how global warming is affecting, say glaciers, the denier simply goes into automatic and selectively looks at the information, or questions it, or the authors.  No facts, no evidence will change the denier.  However, Nyhan and Reifler found that “corrective” information (facts) produced a “backfire” effect for ideologically conservative people.  That is, the new information tended to make them deny the idea even more.

Science denial appears to be a special ability practiced by Republicans, some industry CEO’s.  It has a long history in American society.  When Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, she was not only attacked at the personal level, but her research and findings were ridiculed (even up to now), especially by the chemical and pesticide industries. When health organizations began to cite research showing the link between smoking and cancer, the tobacco industry went to war against anyone who supported the scientific support of the link.  More recently the rampant denial that AIDS is caused by the virus HIV, and that vaccinations cause autism.

Although we can’t blame the Republican brain for all of these denials, the pattern of denial is there.  The pesticide, and tobacco industries poured millions of dollars into campaigns to disgrace and besmirch the research by scientists to further their own interests.  Right wing groups, to be sure, were involved in these actions.  Fundamentalists groups clearly played a role in the AIDS/HIV and vaccination denials.

In an article, Science denial: A Guide for Scientists, Joshua Rosenau suggests that its important to find out what are the underlying reasons for people denying scientific findings and theories.  He writes that:

Although science denial claims often seem absurd to scientists in relevant fields, they make sense when viewed from an insider’s perspective. For example, creationist journals run their own version of peer review, but require identity of a social group.

As Mooney points, we are not giving the snake eye to those who honestly lack information, but we must push back against those who run campaigns of misinformation.

If you listen to right-wing talk radio, or Fox News, especially after the election, the distortions and misinformation continues.  The Republican brain is active and alive.  All you have to do is switch on your radio, read Tweets from Bortz, Limbaugh, or Hannity, or watch Fox News.

Blue and Red Morality

In my view, the most relevant theoretical explanation for Mooney’s assertion that the Republican brain (read conservative) is different from the brains of progressives and liberals is the work of George Lakoff.

According to research by George Lakoff and the Rockbridge Institute, the moral world-view of either conservatives or progressives can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family. Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here). In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.

The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we look at schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:

  • Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
  • Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

The right-wing babel on any issue (global warming, evolution, school choice, AIDS/HIV, contraception, etc.) can be understood by using Lakoff’s concept of cascading, a kind of sorting that goes on in the brain.  Look at this diagram from Lakoff.  When the brain is activated by any issue, ones response is related to frames and values higher up in the hierarchy.

Lakoff explains: When you mention a specific issue, all the frames and values higher up in the hierarchy are also activated. They define the moral context of the issue. Any discussion of a specific issue activates the entire cascade, strengthening all parts of the cascade in the brains of those hearing the arguments for the specific issue.

Understanding the babel from the right (and the left) requires a deeper understanding of the brain.  Lakoff has developed a model that we think is powerful.

We end with a quote from Lakoff and Wehling.

All politics is moral.


Please refer to: Lakoff, George; Wehling, Elisabeth (2012-06-19). The Little Blue Book (p. 13). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Didier Fassin, When bodies remember: experiences and politics of AIDS in South Africa, Volume 15 of California series in public, University of California Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-520-25027-7p. 115

What do think about the concept of a Republican brain?  Do you think that we can use the work of Mooney and Lakoff to understand the babel that permeates the discussion of important issues?

Why Are We Surprised About Senator Rubio’s Concept of Geological History?

You would think that a United States Senator would have at least a rudimentary knowledge of geology.  Presumably the Senator, who is on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, must use knowledge of science to deal with some of the issues this committee tackles, especially the subcommittee of Science & Space, of which he is a member.  He is well-educated with degrees from the University of South Florida and the University of Miami (Law).

Senator Rubio no doubt had a course in earth science when he was a middle school student in Florida, and no doubt took biology courses in high school and at the University of South Florida, where he earned a B.A. degree.  And given that he received his degrees in the 1990s, there really hasn’t been enough time for him to forget everything he learned in science classes.

Yet, when he was asked about the age of earth, he said he wasn’t a scientist, and not qualified to answer.  What is the implication of that answer?  Does he mean that only “experts” like scientists can express a qualified opinion?  Does this mean that only lawyers, like himself, are qualified to give opinions about legal matters?  Here is Rubio’s complete answer:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

William Smith’s first geologic map of England, c. 1815

William ‘Strata’ Smith would beg to differ.  In truth, knowing about the history of the earth, the age and composition of rock formations changed the world economy.  Simon Winchester in his book, The Map That Changed the World, tells the story of how Smith, a English canal digger, discovered that rocks he was digging were arranged in layers; he also noted that fossils varied from one place to another, and by using fossils he could “trace” layers around England.  According to Winchester, Smith realized that he could make a map that would show the ‘hidden’ earth.  He created a hand-painted geologic map that was eight feet high by six feet wide.

According to Winchester (and most geologists would agree), the world’s coal and oil industry, its gold mining, its highway systems, and railroad routes were are derived entirely from the creation of Smith’s geologic map.  Mr. Rubio might want to know that there is a field of study called economic geology.

The answer Rubio gave might also come as surprise to some middle and high school students that had taken a few courses in science, especially earth science, biology or astronomy.  In those courses they most likely studied geological time, rocks, minerals, and fossils, and learned about methods scientists use to date things that happened long ago.

But here is something that is more important.   Geology is the study of earth (the place we all live), its history, structure, evolution of life, and the processes that moulded the Earth, and affected its inhabitants.  Don’t you think that we should expect that men and woman elected to the U.S. Congress ought to know something about the planet on which they live?

Should members of Congress pass a literacy test (link to the US Citizenship Test) that would include questions on science, political science, religion, economics, history of the U.S.?  Just to be sure they have the knowledge needed to do their job?  Teachers, physicians, pedicurists, lawyers, and electricians need to be certified by a test. Why not members of Congress?

Is the Earth Really Billions of Years Old?

Archbishop Usher of Ireland, a highly regarded churchman and scholar (1581 – 1665), established the Usher chronology by comparing written histories and Holy writ concluded that the earth was formed on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.  He then calculated the dates of other biblical events.  The “young Earth” of Usher came under criticism, especially in the 19th Century with the development of the science of geology.   Usher’s views however were not different from some famous scientists.  Johannes Kepler’s earth was 3992 BC, and Sir Isaac Newton’s was c. 4000 BC).  Their views were not nonsense.

But, today we do have people who claim that the earth is only 9,000 years old.  A 9,000 year old earth is nonsense.  I am talking about Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia who said:

You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

Phil Plait, on his Bad Astronomy blog wrote a post on Rep. Broun.  Plait suggests that Broun is another member of the Anti-Science Committee that resides in the halls of Congress.

Senator Rubio and Representative Broun might be surprised to find out who wrote the following account of the origin of earth and life on earth.  Read on….

Here is one view of the universe, its origin, and emergence and development of life on Earth:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang‘ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

Most high school students, if asked, whether they think this is a fair account of the origin of the earth and development of life, would probably agree.

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia would say the statement is straight from Hell.  The earth is only 9,000 years old.

Senator Rubio thinks that the science on the age of the earth is not settled. He ought to read Alex Knapp’s post on Forbes.  Rubio thinks there are multiple theories to explain the age of the earth.  He thinks the age of the earth is one of the great mysteries of the world.

Rubio is a Roman Catholic.  The quote that I included above was not written by a scientist.  It was written by a Catholic Cardinal in 2004.  When it was written, the author’s name was Cardinal Ratzinger.  He is now Pope Benedict XVI.  You can check the reference here: Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, plenary sessions held in Rome 2000–2002, published July 2004.

Would this information, and the knowledge that the head of the Catholic church accepts the scientific views on the history of earth, and evolution of life on the planet have any affect on Rubio’s views?

Probably not.

Say It Isn’t So

Are Rubio’s views simply fundamental religious beliefs?  Are his answers couched in politico speak?  Is he more concerned about what potential voters think of his view on such as ‘touchy’ subject?  Would his answers on evolution, global warming and climate change, and cloning lead to the same kind of conclusions?

Even though Rubio’s education and religious beliefs should not have been a conflict with the established science of the age of earth, or even evolution, he appears to be either fearful of science, or he is beholden to the conservative world view that is based on a strict father or authoritarian figure.  Is he beholden to the radical right of the Republican party when he gives anti science answers?

In George Lakoff’s view, we can understand one’s position on issues such as the “age of the earth” by understanding his research on deep framing–the moral and political principles that cut across issues and that are needed before “slogans or clever phrases” can have meaning with the public.  Lakoff, however, believes that politics is about values and how to communicate them, not necessarily about issues.  Lakoff writes in his book, Thinking Points, that

Politics is about values; it is about communication; it is about voters trusting a candidate to do what is right; it is about believing in, and identifying with, a candidate’s worldview. And it is about symbolism.

Rubio’s answer to the question the earth’s age is about the values he holds about truth and knowledge.  By saying that the age of the earth is a great mystery, he is opting for an authoritarian source of knowledge based on beliefs, and not a source of knowledge based science, reason or inquiry.  Rubio’s position is based on the Strict Father Model that Lakoff has developed that focuses on authority and control.  In the case of the age of the earth, a religious authority has a more valid answer than the field of geology.  Conservatives think that they lose control if they accept data, knowledge, concepts and principles established by science.  There is little authority in the field of science.  There is no president or moral leader of science.  For a conservative, values and resulting beliefs and attitudes flow from a moral authority–God, the president, the parents, the teacher, commanding officer, and so forth (Lakoff, Thinking Points).

For progressives, who have turned to the keyboard on their blogs and newspaper articles after Rubio’s comments, its important to point out what their values are, how it frames their positions on issues.  What values underscore why they oppose anti-science comments spread by members of Congress such as Rubio?

What are the values that move you to agree or disagree with Rubio’s view on the age of the Earth?