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Are Public Education Policies Contributing to Trump’s Rise?

April 8, 2016

My sister just posted a thought provoking Vox article from early March titled “The Rise of American Authoritarianism”. Written by Amanda Taub, the article examines the research of several political scientists over the past decades to measure the presence of “authoritarianism” in individuals. Taub defines their research as an effort to develop “…the psychological profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.” She goes on to describe the kinds of ideas authoritarians support:

…authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against… fears. They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

If you were to read every word these theorists ever wrote on authoritarians, and then try to design a hypothetical candidate to match their predictions of what would appeal to authoritarian voters, the result would look a lot like Donald Trump.

The article offers a history of the study of authoritarianism and identifies the work of SUNY Stonybrook political science professor Stanley Feldman as being seminal:

Feldman developed what has since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism: four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values.

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Feldman’s test proved to be very reliable. There was now a way to identify people who fit the authoritarian profile, by prizing order and conformity, for example, and desiring the imposition of those values.

The balance of the lengthy article describes how events and political forces are making voters more and more authoritarian, but from my perspective the four questions on parenting offer evidence that public education policy is contributing mightily to the trend toward authoritarianism. The “no excuses” charter schools and “zero tolerance” discipline measures championed by many public school disciplinarians and teachers limit independence, reinforce unquestioning obedience, emphasize good behavior over courtesy, and “good manners” over curiosity. The insistence that test scores be used as the primary metric for “learning” results in a standardized curriculum that limits students’  opportunities for independent learning, diminishes self-reliance and squelches curiosity. Look at the four questions and look at any student handbook and the conclusion is undeniable: American public schools are reinforcing authoritarianism at the expense of creativity and self-reliance.

Later, Taub’s article notes the role fear plays in exacerbating natural tendencies toward authoritarian that exist in everyone to some extent. Citing the work of two political scientists, Taub writes:

(Researchers) found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.

It is here where public education is fueling the rise of authoritarianism. The presence of surveillance cameras, “good guys with guns”, and lock-downs is driving home the point to children that there is much to fear in the world and trading off liberty, independence, and freedom is worth it. Given that an entire generation has gone through schools since the Columbine incident and subsequent school shootings led to the security mentality in place in schools today it is not surprising that many voters are willing to support totalitarian ideas like requiring IDs, aggressively screening “…passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent” at airports, and allowing the government access to our phone messages. When children are conditioned to be fearful, obedient, and conformist it is not surprising to see them drawn to political movements that reinforce those ideas.

By virtue of our federal legislation we have committed ourselves to continuing the use of testing to measure “learning” and by virtue of our capital investments in cameras and our decision to integrate policemen into schools we ave committed to imposing de facto martial law into the hidden curriculum of schools. Here’s hoping that we can take a step back and examine what we are creating by virtue of these decisions and reverse course before we vote to expand these practices to our daily lives.

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