Humans are a programmable species, and we live inside the most ancient operating system of all — ideology.
For many years, Joscha Bach could not understand why humans flock so strongly towards religion and ideology. Having grown up in communist East Germany and seeing the people around him buy into nationalistic narratives—that were to him obviously untruthful—made no sense. It was only when the wall came down that he came to understand that people everywhere are buying into various false narratives—as of 2015, 34% of Americans still reject evolution completely. The drive to believe whatever instructions come from above you is not a cognitive error, Bach realized then, but an evolutionary feature—as powerful as it is problematic. The ability for large groups of people to follow one set of rules, to cooperate, is how Homo sapiens established agricultural societies, and is ultimately how we outcompeted other now long-gone nomadic hominin groups. We are a programmable species, says Bach, and we need to belong and conform to a larger entity to survive. As such, Bach sees the debate surrounding free will not as a question of determinism or incompatibilism, but of social conditioning. Perhaps the free will relates to decision-making over physics: are you really free to act in a way that is true, or are you bound by a social code of responsibility that runs thousands of years deep in your genetics? Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.
Can democracy remain vibrant if the public, and especially children, don't have the tools to distinguish sense from nonsense?
"You can get more information in your cell phone now than you can in any school, but you can also get more misinformation," says American-Canadian theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. And he's right: we're in an era where any human can access a previously unimaginable wealth of knowledge. This access has grown faster than our ability to process it critically, however, and what we lack is any decent filter to weed out erroneous or partisan information. Children are the most susceptible to this, and Krauss argues that teaching children how to question information—essentially, how to make children skeptics—may save humanity from a dumbing-down. Lawrence Krauss' most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous appointments is in education: Betsy DeVos. Her anti-intellectual agenda would take root in the nation's youngest minds, filtering down through descendant generations.
Richard Hofstadter is in vogue. Since Donald Trump’s ascension the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has been used endlessly, in part thanks to the President's announcement that, “I love the poorly educated.”
Hofstadter’s work is more nuanced, of course. He recognized intellectual appreciation is cyclical, dependent upon cultural forces. Obama has been derided as professorial, a quality many other Americans appreciate; journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently expressed awe over just how intelligent a mind he has. With Trump we’ve entered a new (or old) phase of the cycle.
This can be witnessed in his cabinet appointments. A secretary of state with questionable economic ties to oppressive regimes; a secretary of energy who wants to abolish that agency (if he could only remember its name); a labor secretary who disdains higher minimum wages but loves carnivorous women in bikinis; a climate change skeptic running the EPA.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous confirmations is in education. Betsy DeVos criticized Trump and even raised funds for other GOP candidates, but she fits perfectly into the ‘poorly educated’ narrative. Like other picks she wants to shrink the agency she’s being put in charge of by handing over power to state and local agencies while promoting school vouchers.
The voucher program supports free-market competition, a running theme in the coming administration. For example, Jim O’Neill, a potential pick to run the FDA, has stated that the government needs less oversight and fewer clinical trials; he claims the market will figure it out. DeVos toes a similar line in education. She plans on breaking up the “government-run monopoly” public school system in favor of private, charter, and—we can argue, especially—religious school training.
DeVos and her husband, Dick, are billionaires with a strong belief in Christianity—she once stated that school choice will “advance God’s kingdom.” They’ve argued public schools have “displaced” the church in American life. As an activist DeVos has made it her mission to undermine the system through vouchers, shepherding young minds into schools that aren’t subject to that inconvenient First Amendment.
In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter reminds readers that religion is not inherently opposed to education. In fact intellectual life flourished due to Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries—the same church DeVos was brought up in. But oh, how religions change. What happened was not purely American, Hofstadter argues, but a natural consequence of intellectual development in religious communities. A fracture between “mind and heart” started the slow dissolution of intellectual pursuits.
Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion.
As the country grew and tribes splintered the race for a pure Christianity commenced. As enthusiasm for boisterous new movements evolved the “learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position.” Rational religion, Hofstadter argues, declined as citizens relied more on their reptilian paralimbic survival mechanism: my way or no way.
Let’s consider Hofstadter’s sentiment in light of a more current understanding of neuroscience. No matter how logical a thinker one might be, our brains are designed to respond to our environment quickly and accordingly, meaning emotional reactions always occur first. There are techniques (such as meditation) that strengthen the resolve between the paralimbic system and the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning portion of the brain. This means you’re able to feel an emotional response but not immediately lash out in fear, disdain, or hatred. You’re able to see many sides of an argument without always defaulting to your own.
The problem is this process requires an education to understand. By appealing to and championing emotions over all else—by espousing a specific religious ideology, for example—people like DeVos short-circuit the slow and arduous process of critical thought necessary to differentiate between imagination and reality. They believe their way is the way. Once that happens silencing your opposition is easy. You have made yourself believe you have a divine mandate, which trumps all earthly rationality. Education becomes secondary to allegiance to that belief. And if education contradicts or stifles that belief, it must be eradicated at all costs.
That’s a dangerous mindset in an ailing public school system. American education is the most expensive in the world, yet recent results are lackluster; we currently rank fourteenth in the world. Since 90 percent of private schools are associated with a religious group, DeVos’s ‘choice’ is really not one at all. She’ll be attempting to indoctrinate broad swaths of children into a system that teaches a particular way of viewing the world, one that is more emotional, less rational, and in accordance to what she believes.
We call cities bubbles, but so are nations. America is the only developed country besides Australia with elected officials who deny climate change. Some of those same figures give credence to creationism. It’s hard to take seriously men and women spouting such ridiculous ideas, yet their prominent positions of power afford them the ability to legislate. That’s only going to get worse with the coming administration.
DeVos is right on one thing: public schools are in trouble. Not only do we need to focus more on science and math, especially as the latter discipline pertains to critical thinking in statistics (so we’ll stop believing biased polls and research, as well as fake news), we need a stronger appreciation of and education in the arts, fitness, nutrition, and sexuality. Growing legions of under-cultured brains do not make for a sound cultural mind. While it’s wonderful that six-year-olds can develop apps, learning how to treat your partner and respecting other cultures is equally if not more important in the larger scope of life.
Overlooking Betsy DeVos is dangerous. She has an agenda, one that will accomplish the worst fate of all: turning the clock back centuries on young minds through magical and biased thinking.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.