Now, more than any time in the recent past, it seems as if America is a polarized nation. In regards to countless issues, there seems to be an ever growing, bifurcated chasm between opposing sides: Republicans vs. Democrats, pro-lifers vs. pro-murderers (I mean pro-choicers), pro-Brexiters vs. anti Brexiters, and this list could go on and on ad nauseam. At the moment, this divide is most viscerally felt in the area of race relations.
We have on one side a group of people in the Black Lives Matter camp who obviously feel disenfranchised and think that America at large, and the police force in particular, do not treat Black Americans fairly based on the color of their skin. On the other side of the aisle there is a group of people who are privy to the same data and yet conclude that there is no systemic racism in the police force.
I believe there to be some pretty damning statistical evidence (although slightly nuanced) that places the blind hand of justice and truth clearly on one side of the divide. But that is not the purpose of this short diatribe. I want rather, to quickly examine a philosophical issue that this dichotomy of opinion has shone a blinding light on, if only we would look. That is the issue of education and the myth of pure objectivity.
One of the many myths of modernity, although it has been widely proven to be a falsehood, that still holds sway today, is the idea of pure objectivity. Modernity (I am speaking of the time from Descartes to Nietzsche) taught us that one could, through pure reason and careful empirical research, approach, collect and gather the truth as it is. Many are still under the spell of this mythology that truth is this thing that can be had and held if we just threw off all of our biases and with white lab coats just examine objective reality.
One of the great benefits of studying postmodern philosophy is realizing that the enlightenment project was nothing more than a house of cards. Postmodern philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Wittgenstein) have taught us that it is impossible to achieve pure objectivity. That is beyond the human condition. That is to say one cannot view the world without viewing it through a worldview. The world is a text that is interpreted through lenses and we all have different lenses. These lenses include things like the community in which you were brought up, the books you have read or haven’t read, the lessons your parents taught you or failed to teach you, and the whole of your individual experience.
Philosopher James K.A. Smith often uses a scene from the Little Mermaid to explain this lack of pure objectivity, which is fundamental to the human experience. In the movie, Ariel (a mermaid) has never been on dry land. She has a seagull friend (Scuttle) who brings her trinkets from the human world. He brings her this shiny, pronged, metal object (a fork). She has never seen this object before and enquires what it is. He tells her it is a “dinglehoffer” and that humans use it to twirl their hair. Later in the movie, Ariel is transformed into a human and is on land having dinner. She is handed this shiny, metal, pronged object (dinglehoffer/ fork) and begins to twirl her hair with it. The humans are quite taken back by this. Based on Ariel’s experience, she sees the object (or text) and interprets it to be a dinglehoffer. What the humans and the scoffing viewing audience fail to realize is that they ARE ALSO INTERPRETTING the shiny, metal, pronged object. Our past experience tells us that this object is a fork and it is something used to eat with. The interpretation happens so fast that we don’t realize we are interpreting the text/ object and rather think we are just objectively approaching it. But this is a myth. Pure objectivity is a myth. Your past experience and cultural context form the way that you see and understand EVERYTHING!
We need to be careful here to not slip into pure relativism. Just because everything is a text that needs to be interpreted does not mean all interpretations are equal (they most certainly are not) or even that one cannot have a true interpretation (one certainly can). But the point remains that everyone is always involved in a process of subjective interpretation of data, facts, events, texts.
Current events, the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, make this painfully clear. We interpret all events with some level of subjectivity. Even in the moment, as history is happening all around us, there is not a consensus of what exactly is going on. There are multiple interpretations (once again some are good and some are bad, but interpretations they are nonetheless). If this is obviously true of the history in which we are living, how much more so must subjectivity play a role in the history that we can only read about? If history is open to and even trapped inside the bounds of interpretation (which it is), isn’t it dangerous to have an entire country, state, or even local community, forcibly taught a singular state or federally mandated INTERPRETATION? That is what forced public education is (and yes it is forced, because even if you opt out of it you have to pay for it, and pay WAY too much, at least in NY).
History is not content neutral. In fact nothing is content neutral. Literature, philosophy, religious studies, all the humanities, even the so call “hard sciences” are subjective endeavors. This being the case makes the monopolization of education something that is beyond intellectually criminal. It is deceitful, dishonest, anti-capitalistic and un-American.
Recent events highlight the need for education to be open to free market competition and ideas. Our current system is axiomatically anti-intellectual and its structure has fostered a culture whose voice lulls dullards into its profession with its sweet socialistic siren song. Bright, ambitious individuals tend not to go into public education.
Education majors, on average have a lower combined SAT score than those who majors in: physical sciences, mathematics, statistics, English, literature, foreign languages, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, liberal arts, general studies, humanities, philosophy, religious studies, library science, computer and information science, ethnic and gender studies, history, natural resources and conservation, pre-law, communication, journalism, business, architecture, visual and performing arts and psychology. On the bright side, education majors do score higher on their SATs than those that major in park and recreational studies and I think those that major in underwater basket weaving. Smart, young, driven, and most importantly intellectually curious individuals look at the monolithic, one-sided education system and say, “no thanks.”
As divided as we all may be, my hope would be that we could realize that free market education matters, because intellectual and academic curiosity matters, having a plurality of voices and choices matters, our children matter, but my guess is that we will sooner see everyone combing their hair with dinglehoffers