For the true fundamentalist, political life is extremely simple. Fundamentalist politics demands that the truths handed down by revelation or "nature" be applied consistently to govern all citizens. How could they not be? For the fundamentalist, there is no secular truth independent of religious truth, and there is no greater imperative than saving souls. If there is an inevitable disjunction between the demands of Heaven and the brokenness of Earth, the role of politics is to narrow that gap as far as possible. It is conjoin ultimate meaning with the monopoly of force.
Andrew Sullivan wrote that about politics in his recent book. It is my contention that he has provided us with the lens through which we can finally understand NCLB.
in The Conservative Soul: How we Lost It, How to Get It Back Sullivan attempts to dissect the fundamentalist mindset, and explain why he finds it alien to true conservatism. My wife bought his book because she views him as somewhat more sane that most conservatives, and we have both experienced his responding to emails we have sent him. I am less interested in what he has to say about how this applies to political processes per se as I am to try to apply it to an understanding of what is happening to our nation’s educational system.
That first blockquote was from page 119. Let me offer a few more before I begin my excursus.
From p. 95:
Fundamentalists assert a central core idea and then contort or distort reality in order to make it fit their model. They take the ideal and insist that it be universal. . . . They see exceptions to their rule not as invitations to explore more about the complexity of human and natural life, but as a way to condemn and exclude any activity that doesn’t fit that ideal
and from p. 150:
What you see in the mind-set of President Bush is an absolute commitment to certain, often laudable goals - helping the poor or lost, protecting the country from harm, preventing evil domestic and foreign - with a commensurate lack of interest in the means of making good on such commitment. What matters to the fundamentalist is the purity of his motives, not the messy weighing of outcomes, the adherence to cumbersome procedures, the worry about unintended consequences, the irritating follow-up of initiatives launched in a blizzard of optimism and rhetoric.
Sullivan writes especially about how this plays out in issues of sexual morality. I would argue that all of his arguments are equally applicable to educational policy. Certainly the surface optimism of leaving no child behind can easily be seen. To anyone who has paid close attention, things like the distortion of reality have been essential in NCLB, beginning with the unreality of the supposed Texas miracle, which was in fact nonexistent - our national educational policy was sold on the basis of "facts" that did not exist, much as was our national policy of intervention in Iraq and the parallel national policy of abandoning historic commitments to human rights at home and abroad.
But, you might ask, how is this related to fundamentalism? How about an unwillingness to accept any possible interpretation than that espoused by the designated authorities, those to whom is vouchsafed the only legitimate interpretation? In a religious context, it is interpretation of received religious texts. I’m not sure how to make an exact parallel, but clearly the role of authority that is not to be challenged on interpretation, whether that authority is US Dept. of Education or groups like the folks from Aspen , serve as some level of equivalence. That the only measure at which this people will look - giving that measure the equivalence of Biblical command - are tests that are narrow in what they measure, flawed in what and how they measure, often biased as to class, race and gender, and yet are to be relied upon as if Writ from on high indicates something of a fundamentalist mindset.
As usual, I had not intended to write a diary today - I know I keep writing that, and yet I keep posting these annoying diaries. And probably not that many of you will read this. So let me be clear why I posted this. I am trying to help people understand the destruction that NCLB does, and how we can view what is happening to education as like the canary that warns coal miners of the possibly lethal or explosive build up of gases.
We can see further elements of the fundamentalist mindset with respect to education in other ways, not directly related to NCLB, but a part of the larger picture. The insistence upon recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, attempts ot reinsert formal prayer as much as is possible, the attempts to control curricular decisions on the basis of religion (biology and cosmology) and political ideology (and Maryland requires teaching capitalism as the best economic system even though we in fact have a very mixed economic system and many of our largest corporations would not survive in a true free market environment).
It is my contention that if we lose the battle over public education, it will be that much harder to prevent a fundamentalist takeover of our nation. That fundamentalism may not be specifically religious - in fact many of those driving the process may well use religious terminology as a cover for far more selfish motives, although there are indubitably those who seek to hasten the final parousia - in this our religious fundamentalists have much more in common with certain strands of Islamic thought than they do with most of historical Christianity.
What is clear is the unwillingness to allow in education alternative interpretations of reality, of "truth" whatever that might be. The very idea of of a child-focused approach to education, of invoking the natural interest of the child is abhorrent to many driving our educational policy. For some this abhorrence IS religious - the natural interests are seen as sinful and need to be driven out by competent (religious) authority. It is also seen in terms of the unwillingness to value individual differences, that is, students whose ability to demonstrate understanding and learning is not easily measured on convergent thinking multiple choice items. It is further seen in the understanding (or lack thereof) of the role of teacher. For all the rhetoric about highly qualified, or in the terms used by the Aspen Commission of highly qualified EFFECTIVE (as measured by student test scores) teachers, we see a narrowing of what is measured, and a restriction of teachers to stray in instruction from that which is specifically measured. Remember that in Kansas the state school board was not going to prohibit teaching evolution, merely remove it from the testable content in the hopes of using the tests to drive (control) what was actually taught (an effective approach where there are punitive sanctions, whether for students, teachers and/or schools based on results of those tests).
It is legitimate to discuss whether there should be some core level of learning we wish all of our students to have (although since we do not impose those standards on non-public schools and those who argue for religious and/or homeschooling often argue on the basis of a right to a different approach to learning), but this core level should not be so extensive as to exclude the ability of teachers to develop the interests and skills of all of their students.
I would be interested in a discussion of how others see the issue of fundamentalisms (please note the plural) in how we approach educational policy, most especially with respect to NCLB. If you disagree with me, please tell me why. If you can further develop this paradigm, I am interested in reading your ideas.
I apologize that this is not a fully develop or coherent set of ideas. As I read Sullivan this afternoon, I realized the applicability of his model as a lens for understanding the nature of the battle over reauthorization of NCLB. Even though I knew the model could use a great deal more development, I thought it worthwhile to offer for discussion, so I have.
What say you?