Fight or flight

by CarlD

At Easily Distracted Tim Burke is thinking about what happens when liberal academics and conservative evangelicals meet on the ground of public school curriculum design. On the one hand a scholarly ethic of “reasoned, fair-minded, methodologically transparent, standards-driven investigation,” what Weber called the ethic of science, seems to require understanding the Other in their own terms and rule out passionate side-taking. On the other hand we eggheads do stand for some stuff, starting with knowledge that’s been reliably generated out of reasonable, fair-minded, transparent and standards-driven practices. Shall we fight for these things, shifting to what Weber called the ethic of politics? Tim captures the dilemma with pith and vigor:

But I think there’s still a complicated perspectival choice between trying to study a group of people or an institution ethnographically and engaging them as fellow citizens with whom you intensely disagree. If I set out to understand a group in their own terms, to gain an emic understanding of their rhetoric and practices, if I see the world as they see it, I achieve insight at the potential cost of having a permanently asymmetrical, insulated relationship to that group and its goals. That is, unless they take a similar interest in understanding me and my world in a similarly curious, open-minded, investigatory fashion.

There are times where I think it’s more honest and in a roundabout way more respectful to just come out with your dukes up and straightforwardly fight against initiatives or ideas from socially or ideologically distant groups that threaten your own values, no matter how much their ideas are rooted in an authentic habitus of their own. There’s a kind of equality in that struggle, an acknowledgement that you’re engaged in a fight over institutions or policies with people who have an equal right as citizens to push their beliefs.

I very much like Tim’s suggestion that fighting issues out on the common ground of citizenship is a form of respect. It may well be that a better understanding of each other enables win/win solutions, compromises, or agreements to disagree. We may find grounds to move from the narrow us to the larger we. But when that doesn’t work, the larger we yet is the one in which we take our differences to the public forum and trust democracy to do its thing. Thoughts?

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5 Comments to “Fight or flight”

  1. I recently had a blog conversation with a postmodern evangelical who’s working on his doctoral thesis in international relations. He’s big on standards-driven practices and intersubjectivity and poststructuralism, such that a community’s collective perception of reality *is* reality for that community. I was pushing empiricism as a means of getting progressively clearer glimpses of reality. Why should dialectical trials of strength or democratic consensus-building trump an epistemological method that’s premised not on conversations with one another but on looking at the world? We’re not fighting over institutions and policies and democracy; we’re fighting over Truth, dammit!

    Oh wait, you’re talking about social studies, not about science. I guess I don’t know then… never mind. But hey, maybe the same standards apply. If democratic practice in a community concludes that they are the master race and that the holocaust never happened, is that consensual interpretation deemed “real” for that community according to contemporary standards in social studies? The evangelical pomo international relations dude said “amen” to that view. I said “fuck that.” So we failed to reach consensus.

  2. I sometimes describe a ‘fact’ to my classes as something that looks the same from all perspectives, that is, regardless of things like gender, race, culture and so on. So a Baptist white man and a Muslim black woman who have just fallen off a cliff together are likely going to agree about the fact of gravity, and not because of the contingencies of community perception.

    Maybe a more interesting case is electricity. When this sort of thing is the topic I ask my classes if it makes any sense to refer to flipping on the light switch as invoking the fire gods or a miracle from God. And it may from one community to the other, but the lights come on whether one believes in fire gods or not, the reason being that when electrons have been piped in according to particular procedures, by Zoroastrians, Sikhs and animists, lights go on.

    One may interpret a blow to the head in any number of ways. But the bruise is not negotiable. Still, as you know there are problems with empiricism, which is why the community of scientists make such a point of confirming and reconfirming each others’ observations.

  3. This is social studies, so we’re not talking creationism — what then? So I’m looking at the TX board of ed liveblog that Easily Distracted linked to, trying to identify the issues on the table.

    Issue 1 — destruction of New Orleans caused by Katrina or by levee fail?
    Issue 2 — US acquisition of new territories to be called expansionism or imperialism?
    Issue 3 — did propaganda contribute to the US’s entry into WW1?
    Issue 4 — teach about the Red Scare after WW1 or not?
    Issue 5 — was McCarthyism vindicated or not by confirmed government infiltration by communists?
    Issue 6 — teach that Reagan restored national confidence or not?

    These are interesting problems to address. Some deal with facts, others with interpretations, others with suppression. It’s evident that the political conservatives want to push their POV via curriculum manipulation. I’m with you, Carl: why not duke it out in the classroom? Look at the events as recorded, then try to cultivate critical thinking among the students. But there’s nothing overtly evangelical about any of these topics, no need to invoke religious beliefs to address the issues. The fundamentalist angle seems like a red herring going up the garden path to me.

  4. Yeah, exactly. (I want the red herring on the garden path t-shirt.) Although as I mused over there in relation to my liberal friend, once you’ve got values and commitments you’ve got rich opportunity for dogmatism and fundamentalism.

    So much of these curriculum wars boil down to not trusting the teachers to teach. Everyone tries to tie their hands so they can’t screw up too badly (by whatever standard). And we’ve all seen enough bad teachers at work, and enough asymmetry in the distribution of good teachers, to understand the impulse. I had a pretty solid education overall and yet I can count in single digits the teachers, through college, who would have been able to critically unpack the questions you ask. But I don’t think we fix that (assuming fixing it is either desirable or possible) by just writing a new set of rules, which is the game as it’s currently played.

  5. I saw in the news yesterday that many of these conservative purported emendations to the curriculum are likely to pass in TX, which means changing textbooks to meet demand in a hugely populous state, which means changing textbooks nationwide. I hear that 2+2=5 got voted down as communistic.

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