Saga of the Jasonite

The continuing adventures of that eternal man of mystery…

Does education make us politically dumber? Unexpected data and an interesting conclusion

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Seemed appropriate

Seemed appropriate

So I’ve recently finished reading James W. Loewen’s book “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” This book is about the version of American history we are taught in high schools and the subsequent de-programming professors have to do when they get freshman history students in college. It’s written by a retired university professor who fills the book with great stories of American history that should be included in textbooks, reviews of more than a dozen prominent history textbooks and shows you what the message is and why they would want to deliver such a message to young teenagers. It’s an utterly fascinating book, and my post is something taken from the last chapter, wherein he discusses the results of history being taught the way it is–which includes most students thinking it is boring, how it’s disempowering to any students who are minorities, how whitewashing American history hurts those who learn it that way and importantly how it cripples us today when thinking about how it can apply to our present. I recommend it to everyone. What I want to give here is just an excerpt from a chapter about an experiment he did with over a thousand students and several hundred others that he calls “the Vietnam exercise.” It presented something to me that had never occurred to me before and I thought others would find interesting too.

Loewen states that throughout the Vietnam War polls were constantly asking Americans whether they wanted to bring our troops home. At first, only a small fraction did but toward the end of the war a large majority wanted us to pull out. The polls inquired about background variables like gender, education, religion, etc so they could discover what kind of folks were most hawkish (pro-war) and most dovish. In 1971 there was a big national survey on the war, and by then the national mood was overwhelmingly dove: 73% wanted us to get out. The question they were answering was “would you like to have your congressman vote for or against a proposal to bring home all US troops before the end of the year?” Since 73% were in favor of this, that leaves us with 27% who were against it. Here’s the experiment: if we broke up the demographic to those people who had a college education, those who had a high school education and those who had a grade school education, what proportion in each category voted for which? What is being asked of you is, if for example grade school-educated adults were more dovish (supported more than 73%), some other group must be less dovish so that overall the percentage was 73%. Right? So which group was most in favor of coming home, which group was less, and which group was the least?

Loewen found that typically by an almost 10-to-1 margin audiences believed that college-educated persons were more dovish. He gave as a typical response from students the following: 90% of those with college educations supported the bill to pull out, 75% of those with high school educations and only 60% of grade-school educated people did. Then he said okay, if your estimates are correct give some reasonable hypotheses to explain the results. Here are the three most commonly cited:

1) Educated people are more informed and critical, more able to sift through misinformation and conclude that Vietnam was not in our best interests, politically or morally.

2) Educated people are more tolerant. There was some racism and ethnocentrism in how we conducted the war; educated people are less likely to accept such prejudice.

3) Less-educated people were more likely to be employed in a war-related industry or in the military themselves, so had a self-interest in being pro-war.

The truth though, is actually the opposite of the students’ predictions. The actual outcome of the poll was the following: only 60% of those with college educations favored the pull-out, while 75 and 80% of those with high school or grade school educations did, respectively. This wasn’t some isolated phenomenon either; similar results came up in multiple surveys. Even in 1965 when only 24% of the nation thought the US made a mistake in sending troops to Vietnam, 28 percent of grade school-educated folks thought so. Later on when less than half favored pullout, among grade school-educated 61 percent did favor it. The grade-schoolers were always the most dovish, the college-educated always the most hawkish.

Today most Americans agree that the Vietnam War was a mistake, politically and morally. Even folks like Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford agree, and they were the ones who waged the war. If we agree with this position then we must concede that the more educated a person was, the more likely s/he was to be wrong about the war. Why? Loewen’s students usually came up with something relating to how working-class men bore the real cost of the war, so ‘naturally’ they and their families opposed it. That seems reasonable, but it reduces the working class to a crude cost-benefit analysis, denying that the less educated might take society as a whole into consideration. It actually diminishes the position of the working class–which let’s remember, were the ones that were right all along. Research shows the opposite of that hypothesis to be true. People of whatever education level who expect to go to war tend to support the war, because people rarely don’t believe in something they plan to do. If you know you are likely to be drafted, or if you enlist you know you can’t change whether you are going to Vietnam or not, but you can at least change your attitude about it. That cognitive dissonance explains why more younger men supported the war than older men, and also why men did more than women.

So why do educated Americans tend to be more hawkish? Loewen has two conclusions, both tied to social processes and schooling. The first is allegiance. Educated adults tend to be successful and earn high incomes. This is partly because education leads to better jobs, but mainly because high parental incomes lead to more education in their children. Also, parents directly transmit affluence and education to their kids. In America we don’t like to lay success at our parents’ doorstep; we’d rather say our success is the result of our hard work. If we have achieved our own success, other folks must be getting their just desserts. Educated folks identify more with our society and its policies. Educated successful people have a vested interest in believing that since American society helped them be educated and successful that it must be fair. Thus the upper third educationally and income-wise are more likely to show allegiance to society, while the lowest third are more likely to be critical of it.

The second is a result of socialization. Schools are important socializing agents in any society. It’s not even primarily cognitive…for example we aren’t persuaded rationally not to pee in the living room, we are required not to. We internalize and obey this rule even when there aren’t any authority figures around to enforce it. Education as socialization tells people what to think and how to act and requires them to conform. Education as socialization influences students simply to accept the rightness of our society. American history textbooks overtly tell us to be proud of America. The more schooling, the more socialization, the more likely the individual will conclude that America is good.

Public opinion polls show how people don’t think. In Spring of ’66 just before the US began bombing Hanoi and other villages in Vietnam, the US was split 50-50 as to whether we should bomb or not. After we did, 85% were in favor of it. This shift was the result–not the cause–of the government’s decision to bomb. These same processes operated again when policy changed in the opposite direction. In 1968, enthusiasm for war was waning but half of Americans opposed a bombing halt, partly because we were still bombing North Vietnam. A month later, after President Johnson stopped bombing 71% favored the halt. Hmm. This kind of swaying influences attitudes on everything from the space program to environmental policy.

Education encourages students not to think about society but merely to trust that it is good, Loewen asserts. This is why folks like Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-Tung vastly extended schooling in their respective countries. We like to think of education as a mix of thoughtful learning processes, Loewen says. Allegiance and socialization are always present during the schooling process, however. He says that to the degree American history is celebratory, it offers no way to understand any problem that has historical roots. These problems include war, poverty, inequality, changing sex roles, international haves and have-nots, etc. Therefore we would expect that the more traditional schooling Americans have the less they will understand Vietnam. This is why educated people were more hawkish on the Vietnam War.

Some folks argued with Loewen, saying Vietnam was an idiosyncrasy. That it was a Republican war for six years, and Republicans are on average more educated than Democrats and this accounts for the survey results. There are several problems with this. More than any other war in American history, Vietnam was a bipartisan war. Jack Kennedy sent in the first troops, and Lyndon Johnson sent in the most–both Democrats. Also, more-educated Americans were pro-war when those Democratic administrations waged it compared to those less-educated Americans. Finally, it wasn’t just the Vietnam War that showed more support by the educated. During the Iraq War surveys by the Pew Trust found the same pattern.

In 2005 a research center found that 62% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” About 27% of Democrats also agreed. Loewen asserts that responses like that only come from people who have neither had a conversation with a poor person nor imagined their economic and social reality, yet somehow imagine they know enough to hold an opinion. Contrary to what I personally would believe, educated people are more likely to venture ill-informed opinions. He says this educational effect doesn’t hold with math, English, foreign language or virtually any other subject. Only in history is stupidity the result of more, not less, schooling. It seems to me simultaneously funny and sad. Please remember that Dr. Loewen isn’t saying anything about political parties then or now, but rather that those with more extensive education tend to have more allegiance and socialization-driven ideologies, and a decreased ability to question or explore social issues.

He concludes with a broader point that members of upper and middle-upper classes are comforted by a view of society that views schooling as the solution to intolerance, poverty and war. If they believe this, they don’t have to think about making major changes in other institutions. To the degree this view permeates our society, students automatically think well of education and expect the educated to have seen through the Vietnam War, for example. As we’ve seen, this is an incorrect conclusion. Working-class and lower-class citizens also tend to buy into this viewpoint, which tends to result in working-class adults in dead-end jobs blaming themselves, focusing on their own earlier failure to excel in school and feel they are inferior in some way. Americans who aren’t poor find American individualism a satisfying way to think because it explains their success in life by laying it at their own feet, he points out. Crediting success to their position in social structure threatens those good feelings. He ends by talking about our need to change the educational process relating to history.

The rest is interesting but beyond the scope of this post. I just thought it was pretty mind-blowing, and had never considered that particular relationship between education and political views as well as governmental loyalty. I always enjoy things that make me consider matters from a different perspective. Thought-provoking, isn’t it?


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