Loony academics, and the loonies who criticise them

7 December, 2006

In reaction to the extreme ideas of a few education academics, right-wingers like to say that you can’t fuck up a child. Here are some points:

  • “the college racket, a vast money-swollen credentialing machine for lower-middle-class worker bees” – okay, I agree with this, although a good tertiary education can enrich one’s life through exposure to the higher cultural and intellectual world.
  • ” “KIPP” is an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program … KIPP schools have long hours (typically 7:30am to 5:00pm)” – that’s a cruel and unusual violation of human rights right there!
  • “educationalists … ignore the understanding of human nature that the modern human sciences are gradually attaining, and cling doggedly to long-exploded theories about how human beings develop from infancy to adulthood.” Here we get to the core of his thesis: nature eternally triumphant over nurture.
  • “parenting style makes very little difference to life outcomes. (Though parental decisions influencing the non-shared environment—e.g. where parents choose to live—may make a great deal of difference.)” Hmm. Isn’t the decision of where to live part of the “parenting style”? Wouldn’t the balance of parents vs. “non-shared environment” depend on the parent? Wouldn’t you react differently to your environment differently, depending on whether you received daily harangues from your evangelical dad, or had to sleep between paperbark sheets thanks to your wholefood mother?

    Are these extreme examples? Sure. In my experience, few childhoods aren’t extreme in one way or another. Mr. Derbyshire might need to get out a little more.

    And if parents and schools have such a negligible effect, why are right-wingers always going on about the importance of teaching “values”? Does it make sense that you do have to teach your child that homos are filthy and wrong, but you don’t need to teach your child the rudiments of academic self-discipline?

Look, of course there are some whack-jobs in academia with crazy, insupportable ideas. Some of them pontificate about education. Others make nice livings writing papers for far-right think tanks. That isn’t the problem here. The problem is academia having a direct effect on real world decisions. For example, Leo Strauss wrote some interesting books, but they’re not really useful as a blueprint for practical politics. Academia is a place for trying on ideas. The real world should not be its laboratory.

For most teachers, theory gets in the way of the work of teaching. Most teachers aren’t loony lefties – and perhaps they’re entitled to their long holidays, given that their work often resembles that of a prison warden, except that prisoners’ parents are unlikely to demand that you be fired if you teach evolution to the cons.

* * *

Philip Larkin said it best.

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