Superman vs. Zombies in the Classroom

The highly acclaimed documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ released Friday, brings human drama to the failure of the public school system.  Directed by Davis Guggenheim (who also directed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), the film cites grim statistics: Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.

Public schools earn a failing grade, however, for more than just technical incompetence. An even more serious flaw is the relentless secularization of the curriculum.

Public education grants secular worldviews an exclusive monopoly in the classroom. This ideological intolerance rules out of bounds the worldview that inspired the American Founders when they maintained that human rights are “endowed” by the Creator.

Yet secularism fails to provide an adequate alternative basis for a free society.

Visit a typical science classroom and you will discover far more than empirical facts being taught. The dominant worldview among scientific intellectuals is evolutionary naturalism, which holds that humans are essentially biochemical machines.

The implication is that your thoughts are merely byproducts of neurons firing in your brain. Moral choice is an illusion. Philosopher Michael Ruse writes, “Morality is a collective illusion of humankind put in place by our genes in order to make us good cooperators” to improve group survival rates.

If humans are machines, then consciousness itself is a “collective illusion.” Steven Pinker of Harvard suggests that humans are essentially zombies, akin to the movie monster “who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything.” The self has been dissolved into a nexus of mindless material forces.

Schools ought to teach students to challenge secular ideologies masquerading as science in the classroom. (For example, why should we trust the thinking of radical reductionists who say there’s no such thing as thinking?) But asking questions requires critical distance from secularism itself, which government education discourages.

Walk down the hallway to the English classroom and you encounter a postmodern worldview that is equally dehumanizing. Whereas evolutionary naturalism reduces the self to a product of mindless natural forces, postmodernism reduces the self to social forces—race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

The humanities have become hotbeds of political correctness. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, an English professor said his goal is to make students decide “which side of the world-historical class struggle they take: the side of the owners of the means of production, or the side of the workers. This and only this is the real question in textual literacy.”

Classic Marxism has been discredited in economics, but neo-Marxist knock-offs are alive and well in the humanities.

Postmodern theories impose their own politically correct vocabulary. In the Los Angeles Times, a father confessed that he could not understand his daughter’s textbook in film studies—even though he was a professional film critic. The book was packed with terms like heterogeneity and symptomology.

Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University jokes that eventually students reading Romeo and Juliet will not be allowed to say, “They fell in love and got married.” Instead they might say, “Privileging each other as objects of heterosexual desire, they signified their withdrawal from the sexual marketplace by valorizing the marital contract as an instrument of bourgeois hegemony.”

Literary theory has become a parody of science, generating its own arcane jargon.
In the process, tragically, it discourages love of literature for its own sake. Frank Lentricchia, so radical that he was dubbed the Dirty Harry of literary theory, grew disenchanted when his own students began judging authors as racist or sexist or capitalist or imperialist or homophobic before even reading their works.

In dismay, Lentricchia said, “Tell me your [literary] theory, and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven’t read.”

Politically correct classrooms are turning students into cadres of self-absorbed reactionaries ready to take orders from the faddish theorist of the moment.

This means that even if public schools find ways to instill academic skills and revive test scores, they may succeed only in producing highly educated barbarians. The problem with the tyrants of the 20th Century was not that they were unable to conjugate a verb or identify Cicero. It was that they operated by worldviews that devalue human life.

As a homeschooling parent, I applaud Waiting for ‘Superman’ for recommending alternatives to the public school system. Breaking the government monopoly on education, however, should aim at breaking the ideological monopoly of dehumanizing secular worldviews in the classroom.

Classrooms should be seedbeds of genuine critical thinking, where students are encouraged to engage with all ideas and worldviews—including the worldview enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which respects the Creator and has produced a society with the greatest freedom the world has ever known.

This is the fourth in a series based on Mrs. Pearcey’s just-published book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning.