May 20, 2010

Texas and reality

Despite what I promised a few hours ago, this entry is not about coeducation, but current events in Texas are pushing my thoughts away from the value of college, at least for now. The rolling disaster that is the lame-duck-infested Texas Board of Education is both agonizing and fascinating, or one step above the formerly-creationist Kansas Board of Education (when the majority was in favor of teaching creation myth as part of science). Reading and listening to the more conservative board members leads me to conclude tentatively that while they will not say so explicitly, they really would like a curriculum that is based on a providential understanding of historical cause: America (and Texas) is blessed, and history shows how God has favored us, especially when we have been Godly.

That desire for providential history in public schools is wrong for two reasons. First, public schools in the United States should not be teaching religion as truth. (Teaching about religious beliefs and organizations as an important part of history is different. Teaching about religious beliefs as part of the cultural background for literature, myth, etc. is likewise different and perfectly acceptable.) The majority of the Texas board obviously disagrees with my interpretation of the First Amendment, but there's a second reason to avoid providential explanations of history: it is incompatible with the type of historical argumentation that is professionally acceptable to historians.

There are all sorts of historical explanations, metanarrative structures, and assumptions about human nature that professional historians would find plausible or at least acceptable to discuss as part of historical writings. But history as practiced today is about human nature and observable events, not providential explanations. That's as true of historians who have deeply-held religious views as it is for nonbelievers who write history. We just don't write deus ex machina history.

I know: we've been down this road before with debates over creationism and its close cousins: evolutionary biology is not a religion, and neither is standard history. But there's something that we can learn by thinking about history rather than science: the type of incommensurable perspectives that exist in the evolution/creationism divide is not there just because we're talking about fossils rather than human beings. That's close to the type of distinction that some refer to as mind-independent vs. mind-dependent phenomena. And I understand the appeal of that distinction.

But I have a different way of looking at the detritus of poststructuralism, and perhaps it's because I knew in writing Creating the Dropout that the bit about the construction of dropping out was sloppy in terms of handling the idea of social construction. I was focused on writing the story as detailed as was appropriate in an historical sense: when did "dropout" become the dominant term for adults who didn't have a high school diploma, what was the description that became associated with that, what did the choices at the time foreclose, etc. But as an historian who is generally more focused on the details than the meta-meta-level assumptions, I didn't do much more in talking about the construction of social problems than wave at Hilgartner and Bosk and go about my work. Did I mean that the stereotype associated with the term dropout was one of those paralinguistic structures that foreclosed alternatives, or that would spread and become an overturned irony over time? Was it part of a growing hegemony about the value of education? I apologize to anyone who was disappointed, but I was not up to the meta-para-hypertheoretical work that might have been involved. And no one really called me on that gap: reviewers generally acknowledged the story in the first few chapters and poked holes (some real and some virtual) in other pieces.

That doesn't mean that I am unread in relevant literature. I took my first-year proseminar with Lynn Hunt, and she walked us through Foucault, White, and a number of others who fall in the poststructuralist/deconstructionist canon (irony intended). But the question of whether language in the abstract performs the type of cultural work that some attribute to it paled in comparison with what people actually said about high school attrition in the 1950s, 1960s, and since. Given what Lynn's written since that year in criticizing the extreme forms of historiographical deconstruction, I think I may have made the right choice in how to spend my time, at least when it came to my first major research project.

But there is a larger question here of how to handle the fuzzy and malleable categorizations of (what we think of as) reality. Do we make choices about how to frame reality? Yes, of course, but in a relatively mundane sense of having to make some choice in how we investigate or describe the world. We can't avoid that choice, and for the moment I'll be agnostic on whether investigation is with scientific instruments or textual analysis (or something else), or whether communication is with language, mathematical symbols, or whatnot. Once the choice is made, that creates some structure about how we view reality, and it imposes at least a minimal cost on looking at things in a different way.

At this mundane forced-choice level, I'm essentially arguing that intellectual work is like the policy options for a country choosing whether you drive on the right or left side of the road. If you want most people to get anywhere on the road quickly and safely, you have to make a choice. We can debate whether the choice is political, economic, rational, irrational, etc., but a choice has to be made to get both quickly and safely, and there are consequences that flow from the choice, including signage, standard car equipment, and so forth. Note that this analogy doesn't touch issues such as correspondence with any underlying reality: It would be silly to claim that the choice of left or right has correspondence to Reality or Truth.

Instead, let me focus on the question of whether the choice at one time for the convention of driving on the left forecloses changing the convention, and what's required for such a change. At one level, the choice is mutually exclusive: a country cannot pick both rules and expect anything other than carnage when people drive faster than 5 mph. But at another level, the choice is resource-dependent: it's possible for England to change its rule so everyone drives on the right. It just would be a royal pain in the tuches.

So you can measure the rigidity of a convention in one sense by asking how expensive it would be to change it. Changing the side of a road for driving is expensive but possible. But you could imagine setting a rule that is impossible to change in the defined context. Unless you are driving on the Autobahn, most jurisdictions limit your speed to under the escape velocity of the planet. I don't think we could reverse that and require people to drive on the surface of this planet at greater than 7 miles per second.

Let's move away from driving conventions and back to how we talk about the universe. In both physical sciences and humanities, there are ways of classifying our fields that are nonexclusive and can be mixed; there are categories and ways of describing objects of interest that are exclusive but that can be switched from one to the other with some cost (i.e., exclusive but resource-dependent intellectual choices); and there are some choices that cannot be changed within that context (i.e., exclusive choices that you can't undo in the context you've created). Race, class, gender, disability, national origin, politics, language, etc., are all classification systems that can be mixed in the same context. No big deal there: we may choose to define categories of interest in different ways, but even if you call your categorization by the term class, and I call my different categorization class, we can just say they're different notions of class (or, as Ira Katznelson says in City Trenches, different layers of class). For the mathematically or notationally inclined, we could even index them as Class1, Class2, Class3, etc.

As I wrote at the top of this entry, I think there are exclusive choices that you can't undo in a specific context. If you're an academic historian, your arguments are going to eschew providential explanations of events. You can't undo that and still be in the field of history as I understand it. Regardless of whether the surface disagreements between me and some Texas education board members appear to be political or pedagogical or something else, I think the deep difference is that a number of them truly think public schooling should be teaching providential history or the "intelligent history design" equivalent (i.e., papered over). Again, that does not mean that historians or history teachers have to be agnostic or atheist, just that what they write or teach as historians isn't providential. (My high school history teacher Mr. Knowlton was one such person, a conservative evangelical who taught American history using primary sources and definitely non-providential arguments, though I know from conversations with him outside class that he clearly had providential beliefs outside his professional role.)

What I haven't talked about are examples in history (or other disciplines) of the exclusive but resource-dependent ways of categorizing reality. I'd be tempted to draw from physics (designing experiments to observe electrons as either particles or waves, but not both at the same time), but that's cheap. I will admit that it is late, I am tired, this entry is long as is, and maybe leaving this open-ended will draw interesting comments or enough suspense to keep you reading my blog. But please chime in on comments: am I all wet, on track, and can I be both at the same time without the universe exploding?

Update: The prayer at the start of today's meeting confirms my tentative conclusions about at least the member saying the prayer.

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Posted in Education policy on May 20, 2010 10:40 PM |