Monday, October 29, 2007

Hidden ideology

This is long and a bit rambling. You’ve been warned.

A while back, I wrote an article for, in which I argued that government education creates social disharmony because it forces people to fight over which views will be taught in the government schools. I was surprised, actually, at how little negative mail I got. I did, however, get upbraided by one reader, who remarked that she had taught in public school for a considerable length of time, and that she and her colleagues had never pushed a particular viewpoint on the children.

I have to say, first, that this certainly clashes with my own experience, in which I got the standard good government center-left view of history. (The Progressives and the New Deal saved us from the evils of laissez-faire, and so on.) Dueling anecdotes won’t get us very far, of course, though I have to say that I don’t think my experience was at all atypical. I would be very surprised if there were large numbers of public schools giving interpretations of history based on public choice theory or the work of Gabriel Kolko.

Second (and this goes to the heart of my original article),I don’t think that value-free, unbiased teaching of history is possible, except with a very basic list of names and dates, with no commentary or interpretation. Even that is likely to express a particular viewpoint or bias, since choosing which events to include and which to exclude from the account requires a judgment on which events are important and ought to influence the student’s view of the world. (In my history classes in public school, for instance, we were taught repeatedly about the Holocaust, but never heard a word about the Ukrainian terror famine or the death toll of the Great Leap Forward. Some atrocities were considered important to know; others were not.)

I am not making some sort of postmodern claim that we can never know anything objectively true about history; rather, I am saying that any historical narrative, even a very accurate one, will inevitably support some views over others. That’s why the problem described in my original article is unsolvable within public schools.

Even offering multiple interpretations does not solve the problem, because even the choice of which competing views to air is not a neutral one. Since there is a finite amount of time in the school day, you must judge which viewpoints and theories are deserving of consideration, and which are not. You must anoint some interpretations as legitimate or reasonable, and implicitly denigrate others. Even if we had school administrators and teachers who had no agenda, beliefs, or prejudices, this problem would not go away. And in practice, of course, we are quite far from that situation.

So, I doubt very strongly that what the writer said was true, because she claims the impossible. However, I also don’t think she’s willfully lying; that is, I think it very likely that she truly believes that she taught an unbiased, value-free history to her students, not based on any particular doctrine. I suspect the same is also true of journalists, to name another group that often expresses obvious pro-big government bias while claiming objectivity.

The reason is simple: I think that many people who profess the center-left/corporate liberal viewpoint that dominates public education and mainstream journalism don’t know they’re expressing a particular ideology. They’ve spent so much time surrounded by that particular viewpoint, going back to childhood, that it no longer seems like a particular viewpoint based on claims that may be questionable- it’s simply The Way Things Are.

Consider how statists of this type often talk. It is very common among “vital center” types to claim that their own views are somehow free of any sort of ideological slant. (Barack Obama is especially fond of talking about “getting past/beyond” ideology.) The views of others are based on ideology or political doctrines; their own are somehow self-evident, arising directly from the facts without any mediation by normative beliefs or philosophical views about government. One example: when smoking bans are debated, opposition to smoking bans if often painted as ideological or based on doctrinaire political philosophy, whereas support of smoking bans is purely a matter of “science”, without any ideological element. Believing that controlling smoking on private property is not a legitimate function of government is “ideological,” but believing that it is a legitimate function somehow isn’t. And in general, the belief that it is acceptable for the state to control vast swathes of people’s lives is not ideological or the expression of a particular philosophy-it’s just being pragmatic!- but principled opposition to government control in any given area is.

(There’s also conservative strain of this kind of arguing, which I’ll get to in a different post, both to keep length under control and because it takes different forms.)

To some extent, of course, this is rhetoric, a way to seem more reasonable than your opponent. But I don’t think it’s all done cynically; I think a lot of liberals and centrists really believe that their policy views are somehow ideology-free.

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1 comment:

Pitbullshark said...

You're quite right, although I think this problem must exist in all schools (private included) except perhaps for the parochial schools (where their particular perceptual position is advertised loud and clear). Regarding adults, in my experience it was always the liberal that you described who was the worst offender of having this hidden ideology yet thinking that their point of view was exactly the way it really was. Everybody else is stupid, insane, a crackpot, evil, misinformed, or unevolved. I'm sick of it and have come to view them as a clear and present danger to our entire society.