Someday soon, those kids will be voters. The more inclined they are to answer every assertion with “Prove it,” and the more skilled they are in evaluating competing claims, the more soundly we should all sleep at night. If instilling those habits and skills means that we can’t cover as much subject matter, that’s a tradeoff that seems worth making, at least to a point. To take two recent examples, both the Iraq war and the financial crisis seem to have resulted more from a lack of skepticism than from any insufficient mastery of traditional academic subject matter. A perfect score on your AP American History exam would have done little to inoculate you against claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or connections to the September 11 attacks.
I worry that we now think of schoolchildren more as future employees than as future voting citizens. But I also worry that, in many areas, we no longer think of citizens as having a meaningful role to play in making decisions about our society. Many issues are now seen as too challenging or esoteric for ordinary voters to understand. Policy arguments increasingly take the form of “I know more about this than you do. Trust me,” or, “Studies have shown that I’m right.” Rather than try to convince the citizen of the merits of a given argument, the speaker tries to browbeat the layperson into deferring to “experts.” The experts often come from the ranks of people whose interests are at stake (for example, “unnamed administration officials,” or representatives of the financial industry), but that never seems to deter them from insisting on their exclusive authority to opine on the issues at hand.
Recently, the president of our local teachers’ union reviewed “Waiting for Superman,” a movie that is critical of public education and of teachers’ unions, and wrote:
The bottom line is this: If [the filmmaker] is not a professional teacher -- and he isn’t -- then he should not be telling me, or anyone else, what is wrong with public education, or how to “fix” it.That sentence strikes me as not only self-serving and misguided, but as outright incoherent. Here are the follow-up questions that leap to mind:
Are you suggesting that members of the public have no business deciding what goes on in public schools? If so, in what sense would those schools be “public”? Do you think that non-teachers should not vote in Board of Education elections?There are surely some people who would benefit from living in a world made up of experts and laypeople, rather than one made up of citizens and public servants. But isn’t something important -- something crucial to self-governance -- lost in the change?
If policy decisions should be left to experts, who decides who the experts are? If the experts disagree among themselves (as they inevitably do), who should decide which ones are right?
Would you apply this principle in other areas as well? Are you opposed to civilian control of military policy? (Who are laypeople to tell those experienced generals what to do?) Should only lawyers vote on tort reform? Should only farmers vote on farm subsidies?
Suppose your experience makes you better than the layperson at predicting the consequences of choosing one policy over another. How can it tell us which consequences we should want? Can experts tell us what our values should be?
I believe in listening closely to people whose experience is likely to have given them some wisdom. And I think that teachers should have more, not less, autonomy in the classroom. But, in a democracy, it is good -- not to mention unavoidable -- that ordinary citizens be the final judges of which goals to pursue and how to pursue them. Instead of trying to shut them down, we should be trying to build them up. We could start by spending less effort training schoolchildren to defer to authority and more effort trying to instill in them the habit of intelligent skepticism.