The progressive addiction to educational bullshit


You’re at a dinner party and the topic of education comes up. Everyone near you is white, college educated, and has 2.5 children. They are on the vanguard of gentrification and appreciate cosmetic diversity. Over the past year they have made a contribution to either Hillary or Bernie. You know schools are complex and can't be expressed through shorthand. Congratulations on being a thinking person, but that won’t work in this circle.

Let me help you. Say this….

“We have to stop these Neoliberal corporate reformers from using standardized testing to test and punish our students (and teachers) so that hedge fund billionaires can privatize education by turning a public good into a profitable market.”

Now, you’re brilliant. Everyone shakes their head in agreement because you sound educated.

Except, it’s all bullshit. The number of errors in that trope should make you a subject for psychiatry, not praise.

If you’ve engaged about education on social media this type of bullshit is posted each minute. It's like a recurring business card for shortcut thinking and middle-class preciousness.

As an example, today I posted a story about how Minnesota’s charter school opponents are using the state's integration rule to attack schools with a culturally affirming curriculum (Afrocentric, Hmong, or Latino heritage). The outcome could be bring punishment from the state if these schools do not spend more money to attract white students.

That illiberal war against reason is bullshit, but not bigger than the bullshit I’m about to tell you about.

Shortly after I posted that story a doctoral student from one Northeastern university or another responded with this:

This is a propaganda piece, brought to you by corporate America and Hedge Fund investors who want one thing only: financial profits. They care as much about the growth and development of kids living in poverty as they did about all the subprime mortgages they sold to families knowing that it would collapse the world economy in 2008. They DO NOT CARE about anything but money. Period. The truth is beginning to come out about the charter "industry" and the massive profits that have been gained by investors, all at the expense of our most vulnerable children. 74 million is an organization that is led by former CNN journalist Campbell Brown, who is married to a billionaire Hedge Fund Manager. We know that fixing our schools begins with addressing barriers to education that kids living in poverty face: hunger, homelessness, lack of resources, medical care, joblessness etc. How about starting there, instead of finding ways to help the billionaire class pad their fat wallets. This piece is written to sell a product - a product that makes them rich and our impoverished kids a commodity. Beware of anything put out by 74 million.

Nothing there about the actual content of the article. When I asked if she had read the actual piece she said it wasn't necessary, but then relented.

She said:

Well, since I AM in the process of getting a PhD from a respectable University, maybe I will actually read this. It goes against my policy to not waste any time reading complete propaganda, but since I'm on winter break right now, I can make an exception. I'll think of it as a challenge - can I get through it without screaming, throwing my computer, or just breaking down and sobbing? I'll read it and then I'll let you know. Unless, or course, I've thrown the computer.

I shudder at the proposition that any degree granting institution would bestow the word “doctor” upon anyone so talented in the pervasive arts of bullshit. To pursue education by carefully avoiding any ideology counter to your own predicts your future as a bullshitologist (or a doctor of bullshitology).

None of this would have made sense to me had I not read a uncommonly good blog post by an English teacher, James Theobold, who blogs at Othmar’s Trombone.

His post "I Was A Teengae Progressive: Defense of The Debate" explained how those in education can get stuck in an ideology without seeing it.

You see, I was once what you might consider a progressive teacher. I believed in progressive aims of education, and my approaches in the classroom reflected this. But – and this is important – I didn’t actually know that my philosophy was progressive. I thought I was just teaching and that the beliefs I had and approaches I undertook were entirely neutral in their ideology. They were just what was handed to me by my entirely impartial and objective teacher training.

And then I got involved in social media. I saw people like Andrew Old arguing against some of the things that I believed in. I argued against Andrew. He was obviously wrong and was tied to some ideology. I made it clear that what I was doing was free from ideology, it was just common sense in teaching. Andrew very patiently argued his case clearly and coherently. It was frustrating. Infuriating, even.

And I watched others argue against Andrew. And like Seb with his new age thinkers, I started to see how what they were doing didn’t stand up to the arguments Andrew made against them. Andrew was patient. He wouldn’t deviate from his argument. His arguments were logical. I noticed that the arguments against him were often fallacious and the behavior of his interlocutors often didn’t match up with what they were saying – here were people arguing for group work, social interaction, critical thinking, individuality, etc., and yet they were displaying behavior that seemed antithetical to this. What’s more, and this is hard to admit: I was one of these people behaving this way.

I've wondered aloud often about what kind of Manchurian groupthink happens in higher education, particularly for students of education, that produces such a marvelously uniform legion of meat puppets seemly incapable of original thought, desperately vacant of an independent vocabulary to explain life.

Doctoral students on Twitter and Facebook raise that question for me more than anyone else, but teachers do too.

Theobold's post links to a great study called "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit" that helps with that question.

Here is the abstract:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

So, next time you're at that dinner party surrounded by Hillary and Bernie types, and someone strings together an impressive sounding array of words (starting with "Neoliberal" and ending with "privatization"), take a sip of the Costco Chardonnay, smile, and tell that truth.

Say, "that's bullshit."