Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Historical Illiteracy and Would-be Lawyers

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."Edmund Burke
 "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."Winston Churchill
"The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again"
George Santayana quote inscribed on memorial plaque at Auschwitz

A Post-Conventional Inaugural

Yesterday in my Philosophy of Law course, I thought I would begin the class with a little application exercise. The material for the day was Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning and I had provided a reading linked to the Schedule which should have taken even the slowest reader only about 15 minutes to complete. Moral reasoning is one of the aspects of hermeneutical lens identification with which I begin virtually every course these days to try to help students become aware of what they bring to these classes and how it affects what they find there as a result.

I chose a portion from President Obama’s second inaugural speech in which he references several human rights movements in American history, movements which sought to actualize the ideals of American government of equality, liberty and justice for all. Here’s what he said:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

I had said to my husband last week that this speech will no doubt be lost on the vast majority of its hearers. Lawrence Kohlberg’s findings clearly indicated that most human beings stop developing their moral reason at the conventional level, either that of the tribe (us v. them) or the nation-state (my country, right or wrong). This speech was largely constructed at the post-conventional level (the freedom of every soul on Earth). It spoke of human rights and social contracts, ideas which surpass and critique mere law and order or the affirmation of the tribe. As such, it will be largely lost on many whose moral reasoning has never developed past conventional levels. The president will simply be speaking right over their heads.

Even so, it was a lyrical speech brimming with idealism as most inaugural speeches tend to be. But this one grounded that idealism in a particular history, a history of bloody marches and determined sit-ins, of the audacity to confront the common sense of the dominant paradigm and the desperate hope to believe it could actually change. Sadly, it is a history virtually unknown to the generation of college students who enjoy the benefits of these struggles and largely take them for granted. Inordinate senses of entitlement tend to produce such understandings.

After reading the quote, I posed the questions “What level of moral reasoning does this statement reflect and how do you know?” This, of course, would reveal whether students had actually read and understood the material for the day. I gave them five minutes which was more than enough to provide a thoughtful response to the questions for those who had actually prepared for class but not enough for those who were panicked over not having prepared for class, scrambling to read for the first time the notes that classmates had printed out and provide a response in time to get credit. I collected these papers at the end of the five minutes. About a third of the students obtained full credit.

 As in all of my face-to-face classes, I award up to five points per class for engagement through exercises like these designed to reveal preparation before class. In this class, about 40% of the grade comes from engagement.   

In theory this should prevent me from standing and delivering soliloquys every class to a passive audience whose warm body status is at times questionable. In theory it also should encourage attendance at a class which is designed to operate out of discussion mode more often than not. In fact, on this day alone, only nine of the 14 total students were present and the average absence per student is now up to 2.5 classes, nearly one of out every three classes. We are just beginning week four of the semester. I suspect some of these students will eventually drop the course once they realize that their failure to engage it will not permit them to make the A they come to class presuming they will receive.

Clueless at the Factory

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain a child always.Cicero

To begin the discussion I figured I would need to make sure everyone was on the same page and had at least a passing awareness of the historical references the president’s speech had made. I was hardly prepared for what happened next.

I guess I should have known I was in trouble when I asked them to identify the source of the reference to “all men are created equal.” After a few guesses, someone finally remembered it was Thomas Jefferson’s phrase. From what document, I followed. Silence. Then two minutes of guessing which, after the process of eliminating a number of documents including the Gettysburg Address, finally arrived at the Declaration of Independence.

Dear Lord. We’re in trouble.

As for the three S references, the students were simply clueless. They had no idea what had happened at Seneca Falls even when prompted with the cue of women’s rights. Worse yet, they had no idea what had happened at Selma. Indeed, they had no idea where Selma even was. Ironically, Stonewall at least rang some bells for a couple of them but no one was able to state its significance in the gay rights movement,  just that some big parade occurs there.

I looked over this upper division class which is about half women and about a fifth African-American,  and shook my head. I wondered how the beneficiaries of the long, bloody struggles for first class citizenship in the American experiment with democratic self-governance could be so oblivious to their own history. I observed aloud that without Seneca Falls, most of the women in the class would not be sitting there and without Selma, the African-Americans would certainly not be present.

Blank stares.

Bear in mind that these students are almost to the student coming out of majors which they have taken to prepare them to attend law school. Several are political science and pre-law majors for which these events and documents should be second nature. Of course, if one begins from the perspective of entitlement, what difference does such history make?  The beneficiaries were always entitled to it, anyway. What’s the big deal?

This was the piece of our interaction that brought me to despair. I said to my young charges, “You have no idea how troubling this is, down to the very core of my being.” For what was very clear from our exchange was not only that my students did not know their own history and its significance in their own lives, they simply did not care. They also clearly saw my efforts to rouse them from their zombie state as unwarranted, unpleasant and unreasonable.

Widespread Historical Illiteracy

Of course, I am hardly the only person to observe this state of affairs. In an address to Utah Valley University last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough said “I think we're swindling students with the feeling that they are educated, and they're not. It's regrettable, it's unfair and it isn't necessary."
In an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes last fall McCullough said:
We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?" I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. (60 Minutes Nov. 11, 2012)

Moreover, our students are not alone in that illiteracy. The American Civic Literacy Program operated by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute administered tests to American college students in 2006 and 2007. The 60 question tests taken by 14,000 Freshmen and Seniors at 50 colleges and universities nationwide were designed to assess respondents’ “knowledge of America’s founding principles and texts, core history, and enduring institutions.”  The average freshman scored 51.7% the first year and 51.4% the next. The average senior scored 53.2%, then 54.2%. While these are not longitudinal studies measuring the same students over time, it is troubling that the results of seniors with four years of college completed would be essentially the same as entering freshmen, still at a failing level.

What is more troubling, however, is that when the same test was administered to a wider cross-section of 2058 Americans outside of universities in 2011, a full 71% of them failed to attain a passing score on the test. Indeed, less than half could even correctly identify the three branches of government, a basic for understanding American government.

Interestingly, 164 of those 2058 respondents in the random sample reported having held elective office during their lifetimes. When their responses were compared to the average citizen’s, the non-politicians scored higher than these elected officials on every single question with four exceptions. Not surprisingly two of them were from political history, with elected officials more familiar with substance of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Gettysburg Address than the average citizen. The remaining two areas were key features of current public policy debate – the distinction of public v. private goods and the use of economic stimuli as a tool of financial policy.  Politicians get this more often than non-politicians. Given the almost inevitably distorted rhetoric surrounding libertarian v. liberal economic constructions of politics today, this is probably not surprising.

Of course, a passing score by even 29% of the respondents is better than the 0 my future lawyers appeared headed for. And American citizens as a whole seem to recognize the Declaration of Independence 89% of the time unlike my would-be lawyers. David McCullough argues that college professors are not solely responsible for this historical illiteracy. To a certain point, I would agree. I would also add that public school educators should not be mindlessly scapegoated either as they so frequently are in discourse over public education. But as McCullough notes, all of us are responsible for this dearth of knowledge and the decline of valuing of who we are as a people. Indeed, unless our general public sees this as a value, why would our children not reflect that?

I would also argue that it is unfair to hold our students solely responsible for their own lack of knowledge. Twelve years of Pavlovian training through the failed experiment of the No Child Left Behind approach to public education has created a group of students who are well-trained players in the game of minimal expectations and reductionist assessments. They have readily absorbed the metalesson of this pedagogy which is quite simple: If it’s not on the test, it’s not worth learning. Expecting them to value and act otherwise is probably not reasonable.

A Colonized Lifeworld

They have also learned the roles that a society dominated by a largely unregulated free market fundamentalism has instilled in them. In such a society one's primary role is to become a provider of goods and services, largely governed by an ever increasing hierarchy of technocrats and scandalously overpaid executives. Alternatively, we serve as consumers of those goods and services. But in either role, notions of citizenship, which the Institute is measuring and whose absence McCullough is lamenting, have little place in such a society.

In my research for a journal article on which I’m currently working, I dug up the work of some of the thinkers I had considered in my own graduate studies. I came across the work of Talcott Parsons with his four quadrant system of what he called the “lifeworld” as well as Jurgen Habermas’ concerns about the colonization of the same. I read these ideas 15 years ago in grad school, thinking even then that they well described what I was observing in America of the mid 1990s.

In retrospect, they appear prescient.

[Rachel McLean, David W. Wainwright, (2009) "Social networks, football fans, fantasy and reality: How corporate and media interests are invading our lifeworld", Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 7 Iss: 1, pp.54 - 71]


Beginning with Max Weber’s observations of the rationalization and routinization of modern societies, Parsons saw technical-industrial societies as having engendered two spheres of socio-cultural endeavor. The quantitative sphere employs an instrumental, technical rationality whose goals are measured primarily by empirical data. Think dollars and numbers. The two quadrants in this sphere are the Adaptive (economic) and Goal Attainment (power), in short, business and government. Parsons saw these two quadrants as competitive and mutually checking on their tendencies to encroach upon each other and the remainder of the lifeworld.

The qualitative sphere employs a practical rationality which ultimately determines the legitimacy of the quantitative sphere, i.e., whether our business and government spheres ultimately serve the purpose of their customers and citizens.  The qualitative sphere consists of a quadrant of Integration (social institutions, affiliations) and a Latent quadrant (values, traditions, culture). Habermas argued that the degree to which the quantitative sphere (business and government) serves the interests of the qualitative sphere (society and culture) ultimately determines the sense of legitimacy the public affords to the quantitative sphere.

But Habermas was warning in the 1980s in his Theory of Communicative Action that it is the nature of the business and governmental imperatives to aggressively seek to dominate the entire lifeworld. Habermas’ fears find literary expression in the dystopian novels of the WWII era with the colonizing power of government the focus of George Orwell’s 1984 and the colonizing economic power of the business interests the dominant force in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In retrospect, it appears that Huxley may have been the better prognosticator of western civilization.

What has occurred since WWII is the gradual encroachment of the business quadrant on first the governmental sphere and thereafter into the spheres of social institutions and cultural values. Habermas warned of this possibility should the economic sphere successfully neutralize the check of government regulation. The colonization of the entire lifeworld would follow, he said.

In such a colonized lifeworld, the social institutions of the Integrative quadrant like public education would adapt the instrumentalities of the business world. Operations would be determined by bottom line analyses of cost/benefit  measured solely in economic terms and efficiency measured by reductionist assessments like FCATs which produce empirical data. Moreover, cultural values of the Latent quadrant including human self-understanding would be increasingly driven by business imperatives – labor forces composed of well trained workers who see their ultimate existence – and value - in terms of income and consumerism.

There is little room in such a world for citizens who know and value their own history. In a colonized lifeworld, governments, social institutions and cultural value systems serve economic imperatives. In such a world, historical illiteracy is actually an asset, a means of system integration, indeed, a systemic defense mechanism. There is little room in an economic quadrant colonized lifeworld for citizens who value equality and liberties that come with responsibilities to others, much less human beings working to fully develop their humanity.  

Raising the white flag?

So, is it time to surrender? A dear old friend of mine whom I will designate as Heraclitus, the melancholy-prone “weeping philosopher,” constantly says to me that when it comes to public education, “It’s all over.” There will be a dwindling handful of institutions that actually encourage – require? – their attendees, actual students, to become educated human beings during their time on campus. The rest, he says, are more than happy to devolve into mass producers of intellectual mediocrity, credit hour facilitators for degree completers who produce obedient, minimally trained workers suitable to meet the “labor force demands” of the businesses which state university systems like ours here in Florida now openly acknowledge as their suzerains.

What’s more, adds Heraclitus, the vast majority of the people involved from consumer/students to the businessmen/technocrats running our systems are more than happy with the way things are going. The business boys are making money, the technocrats are assured of full employment - if not an enlarged sense of self-importance - and the consumer/students face increasingly minimal demand for maximal credits provided they pay their fees on time and graduate within four years. Corporations enjoy ever decreasing social responsibilities through ever lower tax liabilities needed as universities are  steadily defunded. In turn corporate suzerains feel empowered to make ever increasing demands on the vocational factories once called universities. As for those of us whose jobs used to be to teach at those universities, if we have not found a solipsistic niche in research to which we can retreat for endless rounds of intellectual masturbation, we’re screwed. 

That's right, 

As for an educated public, no one cares about that anymore, says Heraclitus. And as for those few of us who bemoan the colonization of the lifeworld with its increasingly mediocritizing effects on what used to be higher education, we grow fewer every year. For true educators, our annihilating meteor has already arrived. We are the dying dinosaurs.

"Are you beginning to get the picture?" Heraclitus asks. 

The writer of the Proverbs may be correct that “Without a vision the people perish.” But there is little market for vision in a lifeworld colonized by economic bottom lines and consumerist instant gratification. Indeed, it’s a liability. 

Maybe Heraclitus is right. Maybe it’s time to raise the white flag and retreat to the garden with Candide.

But you can never win if you never play

This morning I opened my email to find a note from a group of people discussing the notion of heaven. In one of the responses, the notion of hope in the face of uncertainty was raised citing an essay entitled “The Optimism of Uncertainty” by the late historian Howard Zinn. In the essay, Zinn says the following:

In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy? I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning.

Of course, Zinn is right. You can never win if you never play. And you must face the odds that you will lose if you do play. In short, those of us who still actually care about higher education don’t have Pilate’s luxury of washing our hands of the world. Even when it seems clear that the nation in which we live seems hell-bent on devolving into a mediocrity of spirit and being, having long since lost sight of our capacity for greatness, we who still have consciences must live with them.

I think of how heavy Zinn’s heart must have been so many times during his own lifetime. No doubt this was a man who knew heartbreak on a first name basis. And while that does not make me feel a whole lot better this morning after my latest encounter with the “I don’t know and I don’t care” entitlement of consumers at the factory which once envisioned itself as an institution of higher learning, I do have the comfort of knowing that I am not alone in my concerns. 

Even if Heraclitus is right and those who care about public education are graying and going the way of the dinosaurs, until this dinosaur dies I know that I will never be completely off the hook. I often quote two following statements from the world religions I teach to my students. They so readily speak to their callings as well as my own:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” – Rabbi Hillel

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” – Jesus of Nazareth


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

No comments: