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The Right to an Education

 article about The Right to an Education

This article belongs to BUSINESS MONTH: Education theme.

The business community has a vested interest in the preparation of future employees, including not merely their academic development but also their ethics.

I have taught full and part time university and college Anthropology classes for 17 years, from 1969 to the present. Over that time I have seen variations in higher education come and go; among them, "No Grade" elimination of the F as a means of pretending a student did not fail, "Grade Inflation" the upward creep of grades in an environment of intensifying diversity and increasing litigation, and lax application of accreditation standards in cases of certain classes of institutions. These and other trends ebb and flow, although grade inflation is still very much with us.

Particularly in the Evangelical era, beginning largely with the merging of the Falwell empire and the Reagan White House, and gaining great strength in the G. W. Bush administrations, we have seen a large increase in the proportions of students who, while taking science classes, reject the foundations of science. Proudly vocal and increasingly aggressive under their banner of divine "revealed wisdom", they employ religious web site based tactics for ambushing high school biology teachers, an echelon which is typically composed of people who, rightly, have learned more about how to teach science than how to do science. An examination of the web sites cited by these students, and/or the local clerics whose pronouncements they value, discloses that the web sites are filled with erroneous "facts" supported by spurious evidence and impossibly primitive logic. The clerics, in the same analysis, are neither theological scholars nor are they usually even conversant in the latest scholarship; they are teachers of the official line in the same echelon (in all fairness) as high school biology teachers. Yet, carrying their erstwhile successful tactics with them from the high schools, these students enter college science classes.

Anthropology is, among many other things, the study of the origins and development of Mankind. As such, it very heavily employs: an understanding of evolutionary processes; the processes of gathering evidence; the nature of evidence; and, the interpretation of evidence. Properly presented, it lays out the parameters of science, particularly in the milieu of belief systems, common or otherwise. And, while some two year colleges admit as instructors those who have only satisfied certain degree requirements, without a day's worth of actual scientific practice, many of us have decades of experience in the practice of the disciplines we teach.

Never comfortable with the slogan that college teaching is an "opportunity to change minds", I have always striven by my own slogan, "What you believe is your business; what you know is mine". Yet, although I have not recently received the death threats and home and car vandalism I used to, I am increasingly encountering students in my science classes who make certain points clear. Specifically, they reject the foundations of science if, in their very narrow interpretation of theology and/or Biblical/Qu'ranic scholarship, they feel they detect a conflict. And, they make it clear that any perceived disagreement with their preconceived positions will be taken as an insult warranting civil legal action. In short, litigation has moved beyond grade disputes, and is now in the realm of content disputes.

I recently presented this development to three classes as an example of culturally induced cognitive dissonance and its sequelae. Citing an archetypical religiously based student in a State college science class, I noted that, in classes such as mine, the student obtains a seat under false pretenses; they have no interest in science, no respect for science, and no intention of ever using it or its principles. The student, who claims to honor honesty as a virtue and dishonesty as a sin, is engaged in a direct conflict. Not only is this enrollment fundamentally dishonest, it locks out other students for whom the class is closed due to admission caps. And, many of these religiously based students are attending classes on scholarships that are funded by State lottery proceeds; itself a behavior which is morally repugnant to the religious systems since it is gambling.

The rejoinders included such claims as, "The course is required". Herein, then, lies yet another conundrum for the anathema averse student: Getting the degree (the End) justifies the means (the dishonesty inherent in taking the science class, gambling money or no gambling money). As I pointed this out, the grumbling faded to silence. Not mistaking silence for agreement, I proceeded with the day's material. Yet, a wealth of experience lies behind my periodic pulse checks of the academic community. I have too often heard the default position of the non-thinker versus the thinker; "Logic is the tool of the Silver Tongued Devil, seeking to lead the flock astray."

Multiple indicators clearly portray American scientific and business capacities (as measured by the quality of the thinkers in each arena) as dropping precipitously behind the rest of the Post-Industrial world. Indeed, the scientific community and the business community increasingly overlap. Yet, until such time as these communities cease to view colleges and universities as mere feed lots providing the next season of livestock from which they can pick, and begin to work in concert to participate in the academic and ethical quality of the classroom experience, we will continue to see this decline.

I have sometimes come close to suggesting to such students that they should enroll in the patently Fundamentalist "universities" and see how well prepared they would be to enter the work force with a curriculum based strictly on the Bible or the Qu'ran. But, the eight years worth of G.W. Bush's staggeringly ignorant federal appointees (from such schools) I saw during my career with the Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention remind me that, without due diligence, society can turn down that path again.

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