What Americans Know by Andrew Gumbel, 2003-09-08
With his six-year-old son enrolled in Californian state school,
Andrew Gumbel finds its roots in a conformist education system
ill at ease with dissent or critical thought.
Sooner or later, anyone who lives abroad reaches a defining moment when the desire to understand and fit into the foreign culture hits a brick wall of absolute resistance. In my case, living in California, it came a few weeks ago at my son's elementary school open house. The first-grade classroom was transformed into a showcase of art projects, spelling bees and mini-science workshops on the life cycle of insects. So far, so good. But then the children of Room 63 started to sing, and my internal refusal mechanism went haywire. In unison, they launched into "America I Love You":
It's your land, it's my land,
A great do or die land,
And that's just why I sing:
America, I love you!
From all sorts of places,
They welcomed all the races
To settle on their shore.
They didn't care which one,
The poor or the rich one,
They still had room for more.
To give them protection
By popular election,
A set of laws they chose.
They're your laws and my laws,
For your cause and my cause.
That's why this country rose.
Granted, I'm not a big fan of patriotic sentiment in any context. But this got my goat in ways I just couldn't shake. First, there was the niggly matter of historical accuracy. (What are black, Asian or Native Americans supposed to make of that line about welcoming all the races?) One also had to question the dubious taste of singing about a "do or die land" in the wake of a controversial war in Iraq that many parents in our liberal corner of Santa Monica had passionately opposed. What really riled me, though, was that the song had absolutely nothing to do with education. The words were lousy, and the music wasn't a lot better. It bore no relation to the rest of the classwork on display. So what was it doing there? I might have understood better if my son's teacher were some raving flag-waving patriot, but she isn't. She, and the other parents, beamed proudly and generally acted as if the song were a normal part of the American school experience.
Which, as I quickly discovered, it is. Patriotic songs are sung up and down classrooms at Grant Elementary, just as they are at every other school in the land. Mostly, they go without challenge or critical examination. In third grade, for example, the daughter of a friend of mine merrily sang her way through "It's a Grand Old Flag", which includes the lines: "Every heart beats true/'neath the Red, White and Blue, /Where there's never a boast or brag ..." Her father, an old Sixties radical who doesn't like to keep quiet about these things, gently asked her when they got home whether the whole song wasn't in fact a boast and a brag. His daughter went very quiet as she thought through the implications of his question. Challenging received wisdom in this way is something she never encounters in the classroom.
Even after five years in the United States, I continue to be surprised by the omnipresence of patriotic conformism. This phenomenon long predates 11 September. When my son started playing baseball this year, he and his friends were made to recite the Little League pledge which begins: "I trust in God. I love my country and respect its laws." What has that got to do with sportsmanship? When, a few weeks later, he and I went to see our first ball game at Dodger Stadium, I was flabbergasted all over again when the crowd rose to sing the national anthem. This was just a routine game, not an international fixture. So what was with all the flag-waving?
With my son's education at stake, I can't help but ponder the link between what is fed to children as young as six and what American adults end up understanding about the wider world. There is much that is admirable in the unique brand of idealism that drives American society, with its unshakable belief in the constitutional principles of freedom and limitless opportunity. Too often, though, the idealism becomes a smokescreen concealing the uglier realities of the United States and the way it throws its economic, political and military weight around the globe. Children are recruited from the very start of their school careers to believe in Team America, whose oft-repeated mantra is: We're the good guys, we always strive to do the right thing, we live in the greatest country in the world. No other point of view, no other cultural mindset, is ever seriously contemplated. Schoolroom maps of North America detail city names, roads and rivers within the continental United States, but invariably leave the areas within Canada and Mexico blank, as though reality itself stopped at the national border.
People love to beat up on Americans for their ignorance of the wider world, and there is no lack of evidence to back them up. Every now and again, a gob-smacking poll will reveal that most of the population can't place the Middle East on the map, or think that Africa is part of Asia, or some similar nonsense. Ignorance is not, of course, an exclusively American vice, but there is something goofily compelling about its expression in so deeply insular a country as the United States. I spent the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany reporting for an international news agency; nine months into the year-long assignment, I learned that most US newspaper readers had no notion that East and West Germany had ever been divided.
In the recent build-up to the war in Iraq, a majority of Americans had no problem accepting two fallacious contentions put forward by the Bush administration, that Iraq had a hand in 11 September, and that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al-Qa'ida. Many lefty anti-war protesters saw this as evidence of a sinister manipulation by the White House, a glaring instance of the Big Lie theory of propaganda: that if governments aided and abetted by a pliant, uncritical media say something often enough and loud enough, people will believe it.
But I heard an even more pessimistic explanation from Hussein Ibish of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Americans, he said, have been so ground down by decades of negative imagery from films and television depicting Middle Easterners as religious extremists and terrorists that they are simply unable to make distinctions. In their eyes, Saddam Hussein is Osama bin Laden. All Palestinians are suicide bombers. The demonisation was the same when the Vietnamese were tarred as "gooks" a generation ago; in America, there is nothing difficult about peddling stereotypical distortions of the enemy of the moment.
The United States is far from a monolith, though, and it has no lack of bright, inquisitive, well-read, well-travelled people who know their Slovakia from their Slovenia, who care deeply about the United States' image around the world and like to think they help improve it. Even this super-educated group, however, is not immune to the Team America ethic. If US voters largely fell in line over the Iraq war despite widespread disquiet at the lack of UN support, despite alarm at the new doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, despite suspicions that the administration was exaggerating or fabricating claims about Saddam's weapons programmes it was in part because too many people with the knowledge and intelligence to ask tough questions chose to roll over, drop their criticisms, ignore the evidence before their eyes and cheer on the home team.
Two examples. On 19 March, the day the war with Iraq began, two experts in child psychology appeared on a highly regarded radio show in southern California to talk about the best way parents should explain world events to their impressionable offspring. Betsy Brown Braun, a child development specialist, acknowledged the difficulty of justifying the morality of warfare to children forever being told to resolve their differences without resorting to violence. But her solution was simply to defer to the official line. Parents, she said, should explain that "we tried to talk to people in Iraq", but that this is "a dangerous situation that has to be stopped". "Think what you will about President Bush," she went on, "it is our job to let our children know that President Bush's number one concern is that everyone who lives in this United States is safe, that we're not trying to hurt anybody, that we want to keep all the people in the world safe."
The other guest on the show, clinical psychologist Richard Sherman, concurred. "We all need to be united," he said. "I think it's important that children in the families are supportive of what is going on. It avoids confusion for the child and additional worry and nightmares and so forth if everyone is working as a team." Was this sound professional advice, or grandstanding for the White House? Astonishingly, when challenged by irate listeners in the call-in segment of the programme, both experts expressed their personal opposition to the war and agreed, contrary to the message they were urging parents to give children, that non-military options had not in fact been exhausted. In other words, they thought it better to lie and pretend everything was dandy rather than entertain the possibility that the US government was making bad choices for its citizens and the world.
Example number two cropped up in The New Yorker, in a review of post-11 September literature by the well-regarded author and historian Louis Menand. Among the geopolitical interpretations he considered was Noam Chomsky's as ignored by mainstream US opinion as it is revered on university campuses at home and abroad in which US foreign policy is seen not as a force for global democratisation but as a blunt instrument of neo-imperialist conquest and corporate expansionism. It was possible, Menand allowed, that "Chomsky's interpretation will be the standard one among historians a hundred years from now". But then his argument took on an almost surreal twist. Chomsky's views, he said, were "a good reason never to worry about what future historians will think of us: they'll despise us no matter what. It's what we think of us that we need to be concerned about." I had to read that last sentence twice to be sure I had understood it right. But there it was: it's better to live in collective self-delusion, in Menand's view, than to face up to reality. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut slyly pointed out in Breakfast of Champions, written in the midst of the neo-imperialist folly in Vietnam: "It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, 'In nonsense is strength'."
The nonsense is instilled from an early age, by a school system that both reflects and reinforces the United States' societal desire to see itself in terms of what it should or could be, not in terms of what it is. Subjects constituting knowledge of the wider world history, geography, economics, comparative religion, and so on are clumped together and termed "social studies", an area of education with a distinct and rather peculiar cultural connotation. Which is to say it is a bit of a joke, an easy option for school sports coaches who need some back-up skill to carry out their classroom duties. In elementary and middle school, there is no requirement for specialist qualifications; history and geography are taught by general class teachers, so it is pure luck whether students actually learn something or just doze their way through the assigned textbooks. In high school there are dedicated history and geography teachers, some of whom do indeed give off sparks of genuine passion and commitment. Too often, though, social studies are used as a dumping ground. Students end up either with the basketball coach or else with some spare administrator kicked into the classroom to fill a bureaucratic hole. No wonder high school seniors consistently score worse in history than in any other subject.
The curriculum itself displays a similar lack of seriousness. In California, for example, no history or geography is introduced until the fourth grade (that is, age 9), and there is no exposure to the contemporary world outside the United States until high school. Even in the upper grades, most students will focus on 20th century US history, economics and US government institutions. So it is entirely possible to graduate from the school system, perhaps even excel academically, while barely knowing that the rest of the world exists.
The problem is not only with what is taught, but also how. In a hair-raising recent book called The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, a seasoned education specialist and sometime presidential adviser called Diane Ravitch chronicles how the censorial impulses of both the right and left conspire to bleed the content, and the life, out of school textbooks. Because the US textbook market is dominated by just four companies Pearson, Vivendi, Reed Elsevier and McGraw Hill and because they are terrified of having their titles dropped over some tiny unnoticed tidbit that some buyer somewhere deems to be offensive, the whole educational system is effectively hijacked by fundamentalist Christians at one end of the spectrum, and by politically correct left-liberals at the other. It might seem impossible to keep both of these happy at the same time, but that is exactly what the various "bias review" committees of the publishing houses set out to do, with crazy consequences. Out go references to dinosaurs (which might be considered an implicit recognition of Darwinian evolutionary theory); out go descriptions of extramarital sexual attraction, nudity, drinking, gambling, smoking and all mention of God, Satan or the occult; out go descriptions of black people who are petty criminals or on food stamps, or of Asian Americans who work hard (all of which would pander to racial stereotype); out go depictions of old people who are frail, or women who stay home to raise their children (gender stereotyping); out goes any suggestion that physical disability could be a noticeable hindrance of any kind.
As Ravitch argues, the right is interested in censoring topics, while the left wants to control language and images. For both, the intention is to try to engineer social behaviour by creating a hermetic bubble around the learning environment. The right believes that avoiding descriptions of bad behaviour on the page will led to more moral behaviour in real life; the left believes that describing an ideal society without prejudice or poverty will help bring it about. Either way, the purpose of education is betrayed because children are simply denied access to reality. And the students don't buy it; they are simply bored to tears.
Nowhere is the conflict-free approach more absurd than in the teaching of history. Since religion is a hot potato that nobody wants to confront head on, the great religious wars of the past are explained away as though they were about something else entirely. Thus, the Crusades come off primarily as a European grab for the jewellery and spices of Asia. Modern notions of acceptable language and behaviour are, more generally, allowed to intrude into the retelling of the past in absurd ways, as Ravitch discovered when she served on a committee compiling standardised test exams. One passage they considered, about class differences in ancient Egypt, was expunged on the grounds that any discussion of class difference, past or present, was "elitist". Another, about a School for Negro Girls in early 20th century Florida, was rejected because the word "negro", although perfectly acceptable in the context, is no longer considered PC. In fact all but the most recent texts are usually considered unacceptable because, as the president of one publishing company told Ravitch: "Everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased." If the system does not like the historical record, it has no hesitation in simply rewriting it.
The manipulation of education is more subtle and, arguably, more insidious than it was 50 years ago at the height of the Cold War and the great Red Scare. Then, the battle for hearts and minds was about the straightforward exclusion of certain books and topics in pursuit of a political agenda. Groups like the Minute Women lobbied ceaselessly against communism, socialism, socialised medicine and racial integration, arguing that schoolchildren were being brainwashed into believing in them.
These days, the issue is no longer banning books, even if that still goes on in parts of the heartland dominated by the Christian right, but rather systemic conformism. It used to be that an inspiring teacher could overcome the shortcomings of bland textbooks and blinkered administrative madness. But with the curriculum now much more closely defined and homogenised, textbooks designed for an ever wider audience and standardised testing on the increase, teachers are finding their leeway severely restricted. To a great degree, they have to teach to the test. And, since the test takes the form of multiple-choice questions, not essays, they are effectively forced into complicity with the textbook pretence that every historical struggle has now been settled and can be summarised in a few soothing lines of near-meaningless analytical blancmange.
None of this is cheery news to people in the education business. "The system we have is not one of enlightenment, but one of indoctrination," I was told by Daniel O'Connor, a specialist in the politics of education and chair of the department of liberal studies at the Long Beach campus of California State University. "Development of inquisitive minds is not what they are after. Where is the room for inquisitiveness on the part of the student when what is required is to get the answer right? Inquisitiveness is about questions, not answers." It is not just the school system which conspires to dampen the students' curiosity about the wider world, O'Connor suggested. Parents, especially middle-class parents, are increasingly concerned about shielding their offspring from what they see as pernicious or disturbing influences at school anything from drugs on the playground to uncomfortable concepts being bandied around the classroom.
Just sending children off to school in the first place is a traumatic decision in a society where the pressure, increasingly, is to hold them back as long as possible to spare them any unnecessary stress. Parents are much more involved in the classroom than they used to be partly the result of cuts in education, partly the result of the trend toward over-protectiveness and so keep an eye on teachers to ensure they do nothing untoward or upsetting to their loved ones. In conservative parts of the country, this can lead to teachers being sued for saying anything too outspoken about politics or Darwinian evolution, or for assigning novels whose content is deemed to be unpatriotic, socially subversive or obscene. Even in liberal towns like Santa Monica, the constant surveillance has its effect. The emphasis in education is no longer on training children to be adults; it is, as O'Connor put it, about keeping students in a "child-like" state of blessed ignorance.
To find out how much a typical high school graduate actually knew, I talked to Charles Noble, the head of Cal State Long Beach's political science department who has been teaching first-year classes for years. Clearly, we are not talking Harvard or Stanford here. But these are still students enrolled at a four-year college course, putting them in the top 30 per cent of Californian school-leavers. One might also think taking political science classes would indicate an inherent interest. If the interest is there, however, it is pushed far into the shadows by blank fear. "They are so intimidated by political discourse, they feel certain they don't understand anything," Noble said. "If you ask them for an opinion, most of the time they won't tell you what they think. Even if they do, they almost apologise for having a view. On the rare occasion that a student is actually passionate, the others in class will roll their eyes."
Students, Noble said, complain that politics is too hard to understand, to which he retorts that if they can master the intricacies of baseball they shouldn't have too much trouble with the rules of elections, law-making and executive office. "I spend a lot of time convincing them that it is comprehensible," he said. "They sometimes look at us as if our role as teachers was to make them feel bad. Usually, at the start of the year, I just put it on the table and say, 'You don't know anything about this subject and you think I'm going to spend 15 weeks making you feel foolish about your ignorance.'" That usually gets their attention, at which point he can begin to explain how something as ordinary as membership of the Automobile Association affects political decisions on road construction, vehicle tax rates and so on.
College is traditionally the time of life when Americans get politicised. Among my well-educated, well-travelled, liberal-minded neighbours in Santa Monica, many have described the scales falling from their eyes as they came to understand, after years of listening to pap about freedom and apple pie, how American power really operated in the world. That politicisation is still alive and well on more prestigious campuses where both the pro-Bush right and the dissenting left have been re-energised in the wake of 11 September. The evidence of Cal State Long Beach, however, suggests that further down, in the state universities and community colleges, young people are growing more apolitical. Noble said that a few years ago there were usually one or two environmental activists in his classes; these days, the only signs of political life come from religious anti-abortion advocates. The essential problem, in Noble's view, is a society that has lost touch with its own system of government. "How do you talk politically," he asks, "in a country that has no political culture?"
In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, many Americans were seized by a thirst to know what was behind the destruction at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. "Here we are under devastating attack," said a participant at a teach-in I attended, one of dozens that sprang up in California alone in the first few weeks, "and we have no idea who did this thing and why." College professors and other experts eagerly came forward to initiate discussion on everything from US policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan to the wellsprings of the very ignorance that had caught the country so badly by surprise.
As time went by, however, the desire for understanding gave way to a more visceral craving for reassurance. Tell us the world won't blow up tomorrow, people thought as anthrax-laced letters hit the eastern seaboard and the now-ubiquitous phrase "weapons of mass destruction" entered the popular lexicon. Tell us US power is still worth something. Tell us our way of life is not going to come to an end. On such insecurities did the Bush administration build its War on Terror, with its imagery of good versus evil, its with-us-or-against-us attitude, and its insistence that US military might, not the old international consensus, should be the centrepiece of a new world order.
The President said 11 September happened because people who resented US freedoms wanted to prevent their spread around the world. And an unnerved country was inclined to believe him, because he cast America as a lone, heroic colossus whose sacrifices could be borne with forebearance, even joy. How much more reassuring than the possibility that the United States had in fact betrayed its own democratic principles by doing business with tyrants and monsters, and withheld from whole populations the very freedoms and elemental notions of justice it prized so much at home.
Soon, all the worst, self-deluding impulses of Team America kicked in. The mainstream media gave the White House the benefit of the doubt on just about everything, even as the administration instituted a wave of secret arrests and closed court hearings, reserved the right to remove whole categories of suspects from the civilian justice system, jacked up the military budget without establishing an adequate fund for domestic security, tore up international treaties and pushed for a whole new generation of nuclear weapons. Nobody seemed to want to believe that these things were happening, or if they were that they were really as grave as they sounded.
And the same soothing message, the same drip-feed of political Prozac, found its way quickly into the education system. Trust the President and everything will be okay. Educators sent notes home to parents on how to deal with the aftermath of 11 September, but not on how to explain why it had happened. Rather, they recommended close parental supervision of television newscasts to make sure nobody got upset. Educational books appeared, purporting to tell schoolchildren what they need to know about 11 September. But mostly they were filled with meaningless platitudes about Americans being united by patriotism and the firm belief that terrorism is a Bad Thing.
The ignorance and self-delusion have been compounded by the deep-seated anti-intellectualism of the current President. Intellectuals have never exactly been popular in US politics, but George W Bush, a C student and proud of it, is in a category of his own when it comes to disregarding or even openly campaigning against objective reality. Manipulating intelligence reports on Iraq isn't much of a stretch for an administration that ignores scientific research on global warming, or insists on a link between abortion and breast cancer, even though no such link has been found. The Christian fundamentalist agenda is so strong that AIDS researchers at the National Institutes of Health are now afraid of using words like "homosexual", "gay" or "anal sex" in their work. As one scientist advised his colleagues in an e-mail quoted by The New York Times: "Assume you are living in Stalinist Russia when communicating with the United States government."
Ignorance, self-delusion, free-floating disregard for the facts and an unswerving belief in its own infallibility: such are the hallmarks of today's America. People don't understand what their government is up to because they don't understand how government works and because the media isn't giving them any clues. Those responsible for the country's education prefer to avoid giving offence than to impart any actual information. The disconnect between the people and the rulers they elect, and between the rulers and those most directly affected by the consequences of their actions, is little short of frightening. A glimpse into history suggests empires often build up these illusory images of themselves, images that through their deceptive power eventually conspire to bring them down. It happened to the Romans, and to the Japanese, and to the Soviet empire. Could the United States be so very different?
See also Mark Morford's Why Don't Americans Care? Do you know who Halliburton is? Dick Cheney? How about Karl Rove? Alas, most Americans don't.
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