As schools return to in-person instruction this fall during the ongoing pandemic, education is in crisis. I do not mean a crisis in learning outcomes — as in failed courses, low test scores, low completion rates. I mean education is in existential crisis. Why have schools if the graduates choose not to use their educations? There is no point to education if, in the end, facts, logic, critical thinking and reasoned debate are rejected in favor of conspiracy theories and willful ignorance.
Conspiracy theories turn educational inquiry upside down, and they should be easy for any person who went to school to identify and debunk. The defining features of conspiracy theories are assertions that can never be falsified. Conspiracy theories are founded on narratives that are asserted to be absolute truth and all evidence contradicting the narrative is deemed to originate from some nefarious, unidentified, unnamed cabal. It is impossible to challenge the narrative because anyone who does is labeled as part of the conspiracy. Conspiracy theories exist to promote group identities by telling people what they want to believe and assuring the group that they alone have an absolute monopoly on truth. But public schools and universal education exist to prevent this kind of divisive, parochial, sectarian thinking.
When conspiracy theories — COVID isn’t real, global warming is a hoax, the Earth is flat — are substituted for science, the absurdity is even more obvious. To debunk conspiratorial explanations of natural phenomena, a person only needs to grasp the fundamental reality that the laws of nature are blind to human political and religious beliefs. Nature can be neither liberal nor conservative, moral nor immoral, theistic nor atheistic, because it exists independent of human experience. In addition, the evidence for the success of science is overwhelming. None of the technology that we rely on every day — utilities, transportation, computers, communications and so on — would work if science were as wrong as many people claim. The notion that science is always correct when we want it to be correct and always wrong when we want it to be wrong is a childlike way of thinking. Clearly that is not the reality of the natural world.
Yet, many leaders, and a significant portion of the public, refuse to practice basic public health protocols during the pandemic, while they disseminate misinformation on COVID, and promote unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. People with college degrees, many from elite institutions, promulgate bizarre beliefs and engage in magical thinking. Clearly college-educated people, especially those in positions of leadership, know better. To explain their unconscionable behavior, we have turned the noun “politics” into the now ubiquitous verb “to politicize,” and described the promotion of inane irrational beliefs as “politicizing” the pandemic. This ugly verb is a misnomer that should be banished from the language. Anytime a person is “politicizing” any issue, it always means that he or she is promoting willful ignorance to advance his or her self-interest. If patriotism is the sacrifice of the self for the common good, then this behavior epitomizes anti-patriotism — the sacrifice of the common good for the self — and should be labeled as such.
Americans claim to value education and they cherish their freedom of speech as a bulwark against the ignorance that results from censorship inherent in totalitarian states. However, whether ignorance results from lack of education, from censorship, or from being freely chosen, it is in all cases ignorance and it is equally destructive. There is no need to devote vast amounts of time, money, and public resources to education if willful ignorance is the desired outcome. And freedom of speech has no meaning in a society in which people are so determined to remain ignorant that no persuasive speech can be understood and acted on. Collective ignorance destroys our ability to take collective action for the common good. Those promoting it should be careful what they wish for.