Learning without Questioning in America
by John Kozy
Global Research (January 08 2014)
Clinging to one’s opinion is the best proof of stupidity.
— Michel de Montaigne
Every teacher who has tired to teach students an unconventional truth has met
an obstinate student, the student to whom the conventional truth he
matriculated with is the conventional truth he graduates with. Everyone who has
tried to teach Ted Cruz knows what I’m talking about. Some claim that the
hardest minds to change are religious. I don’t know how to amass any evidence
for that but I suspect that there’s a kernel of truth in the claim. Such minds
are hard to change because of the way they develop.
In many homes in America’s Bible Belt, children are nurtured in constrained
intellectual environments. The only recognized book is the Bible, and children
are told from early ages on that it contains the revealed word of God himself
which not only is never questioned but is never even questionable. These
children go or are taken to church three or more times a week where they are
enrolled in Bible school and hear stories, often as outrageous as the parting
of the Red Sea, that are never questionable. No one ever asks, or is even ever
allowed to ask, How can that be true?
Much of early childhood education lends itself to this type of learning.
Readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic don’t occasion much questioning. But history,
for instance, is another matter! Mostly it is learned by rote. No one questions
whether anyone was massacred in the Boston Massacre. The Sons of Liberty are
never considered to have been a terrorist organization. Lincoln’s sincerity in
the Gettysburg Address is rarely questioned. Knowing that Lincoln delivered the
address on Thursday, November 19 1863 and being able to recite it mean nothing.
Knowing if Lincoln was sincere when he included the phrase “government of
the people, by the people, for the people” or if that phrase was a mere
rhetorical flourish makes a world of difference. Learning history can be
likened to learning Bible verses if questioning is excluded from the process.
Why have there been several wars after the War to End all Wars was won? No one
ever asks. When books that raise questions are found in school libraries, they
re often unceremoniously removed. Nothing even remotely like “a search for
truth” ever takes place. School is Bible school all over again only
without the Bible (whose absence is often lamented).
This kind of learning without questioning is carried over to our colleges and
universities where the problem becomes really severe. Questionable courses like
economics, for instance, are taught like Bible verses except the verses are now
referred to as models. Subjects are taught as if they were comprised of
revealed truths. Hardly anyone ever questions them because questioning them is
discouraged. So we end up with people who graduate with degrees under their
arms who are no wiser than they were on the days they matriculated as freshmen.
They can be likened to cans being filled with trash. No new idea ever enters
their heads. In this society, people who are learned are not educated. They are
little different from hurdy gurdy monkeys, but we elect them to office. No new
idea has entered the halls of Congress in more than a hundred years; yet we
wonder why nothing essential has changed. What fools we be!
Conventional wisdom is not wise. If it were, human beings would be solving
problems rather than perpetuating them. People used to say the proof is in the
pudding; if the pudding tastes three hundred years old, it is!
No subject is itself unworthy of study, but how it’s taught matters. Different
subjects need to be taught differently. Learning is more than the conveyance of
information. Penmanship cannot be taught like reading. Reading cannot be taught
like multiplication. Multiplication cannot be taught like literature.
Literature cannot be taught like chemistry. Some subjects are taught to provide
students with techniques; students learn how to do things; other subjects are
taught to develop minds. Americans, perhaps people elsewhere too, have never
understood this and don’t understand it today. Some people in Ancient Athens
developed excellent minds; few today have minds that match them. These
Athenians did not study a core curriculum or take standardized tests. Neither
did Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Wagner, Madam Curie, Newton, Harvey, Einstein, and
numerous others. Some “reformers” ought to have learned something from
that! The “reformers” themselves did not study a core curriculum or
take standardized tests. Why don’t they ask themselves, How did we possibly learn anything
without having done so? But no, questioning is not an American intellectual
Even subjects like geometry can be questioned. If no mathematician had ever
questioned Euclid’s geometry, non-Euclidean geometry would never have been
The Europeans who settled America were not interested in developing anyone’s
mind. They had the good fortune of having come to America knowing everything.
They wanted their children to learn what and only what they, themselves,
already knew. Many still hold that view today. For instance, the Republican
Party of Texas in 2012 included in its Platform the following paragraph:
We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values
clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a
relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on
behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed
beliefs and undermining parental authority.
So the colonists established school systems overseen by local people, that is,
themselves. They did not then, and many do not now, want anyone telling them
what their children need to know. Teach about man-made global warming? Not in
our schools. Teach about evolution? Not in our schools. Teach about racial
equality? Not in our schools. Teach the Decalogue? Yeah! You bet! So we’re back
to Bible school! When the Puritans established Harvard College, they did so not
to develop minds but only to create a place where preachers could be
theologically trained. No search for scientific truth there! What about now?
Politicians are often criticized for being “out of touch with
reality”. How “out of touch” they are is easily shown.
“Calling education a pillar of restoring the new economy, President Obama
called for a recommitment to educating scientists and engineers, people ‘who
are building and making things we can export to other countries'”.
America never had such a commitment.
Oh, yes! When the Russians put Sputnik into orbit, Americans
“reformed” the educational system and science became all the rage.
Like the rest of America’s frequent rages, it didn’t last. When Americans tried
to tell students that science was fun, telling them that scientific work was
often boring and monotonous was omitted, but students learned that for
themselves in short order. Science was never as chic as being a rock star or
star athlete. Hopefuls have never been attracted to science in numbers like
those attracted to American Idol. In America, science is a flop. Five minutes
of fame isn’t.
So how “out of touch” are America’s politicians? Look at the President’s
recommendation carefully. He has forgotten that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and
Mark Zuckerberg are not scientists, engineers, of even college graduates. Had
Steve Jobs been minimally scientific, he would likely be alive today. Has the
President forgotten that the products these entrepreneurs helped bring to the
market are mostly made in Asia and imported to America? Doesn’t the President
know that scientists don’t build products; factory workers do? Doesn’t the
President know that his view of the economy is 19th Century Sophomoric rather
that 21st Century Undergraduate? How far “out of touch” can one be?
Well, pretty far if you are an American. Reality can’t be encapsulated in pithy
Perhaps the President really believes that the scientists working at CERN are
building stuff to sell to the Prince of Denmark to be used to kill the Emir of
Kuwait. I don’t know! The foreign-trained scientists who discovered how to
build an atomic bomb for America did not then become manufacturers who built
and exported bombs to the rest of the world. American politicians did that!
Meteorologists don’t design, build, and manufacture weathervanes to sell to the
rest of the world. What about archaeologists astronomers, paleontologists, and
volcanologists? Ah, yes, volcanologists! What products do they build and make
to export to the rest of the world, Mr President? What products, indeed? If
this were not so stupid, it would be laughable! Indeed, America will not need
more scientists and engineers until it begins to listen to those it already has
like, for instance, its climatologists.
Most Americans, including Congressmen, the scions of business, and university
professors do not understand science. Science, indeed all genuine knowledge, is
characterized by the existence of irrefutable evidence; its claims can be shown
to be true. If, in the search for evidence, proof is found that the claims are
false, they are abandoned. People with unscientific minds fail to do one or the
other of these two things. In fact, false claims that are not abandoned are
associated with some jargon. Zombie claims are never abandoned by their
stubborn adherents regardless of the strength of the evidence that refutes
them. Cockroach claims are abandoned and then retrieved, often in an altered
form. The result is the same – ignorance never dies. As Adlai Stevenson said,
“Ignorance is stubborn”!
Take, for example, the claim of economists that supply and demand is a law. As
evidence for it, they cite merchants and companies that raise prices when the
supply is diminished or the demand is increased, as for instance, oil
companies. The evidence they cite is true, but countervailing evidence can
easily be found. Exxon-Mobil does often raise its prices when supply falls, but
when the line of cars at gas pumps gets long, filling station operators do not
usually run outside and raise the prices set in the pumps. So although supply
and demand may be an often used business practice, it is not a scientific law.
Many economic models are subject to the same criticism. Economics is not
science; it is full of cockroach claims.
But this characteristic of science is not restricted to factual claims. It
applies to policies too. When a policy that has a specific outcome as its goal
can be shown not to work or even to be unworkable, scientific minds abandon it.
Not political ones. In fact, political ideologies are founded on zombie ideas.
A list of such policies is easily constructed: The war on drugs, the legal
system, and American foreign policy top the list. They should have been
abandoned decades ago if not sooner. But they have not!
You see, America is a creedal nation as are most others. People are not merely
irrational, they are anti-rational and anti-scientific. So what irony lurks in
the minds of the President and those like him when they believe that this
anti-scientific nation, without changing its ways, will be saved from its
follies by scientists whom no one pays any attention to? What could be more
Such is the legacy of the Sunday School Syndrome. It yields the stubbornness of
what are essentially stillborn minds. No amount of information conveyed can
ever make a stupid person smart! So nothing fundamental will ever change until
intellectual development rather than the conveyance of information becomes the
principal goal of learning.
John Kozy is a retired professor of philosophy and logic who writes on social,
political, and economic issues. After serving in the US Army during the Korean
War, he spent twenty years as a university professor and another twenty years
working as a writer. He has published a textbook in formal logic commercially,
in academic journals and a small number of commercial magazines, and has
written a number of guest editorials for newspapers. His on-line pieces can be
found on http://www.jkozy.com/ and he can be emailed from that site’s homepage.
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