The Google Memo Debacle Shows Us How Schools Harm Civil Society

I haven’t said much publicly about James Damore’s Google Memo because 1. other people more eloquent than myself have made all the points I would want to make; 2. those who know me well should be able to infer my opinion on the matter. After a small group discussion last night on the effects of schooling on society at large, though, I thought it could be important to throw in a point about how much of this damage can be traced back to K-12 education.

Numerous commentators on Twitter have pointed out how this debacle relates to the culture wars happening on college campuses. It’s easy to get caught up in the controversy and drama of college students shouting down speakers with whom they disagree. The videos of said drama are simultaneously entertaining and simply horrifying:

Like I said, horrifying and entertaining. It’s tempting to wave these incidents off as non-representative of college students today and as something that people grow out of. The reality is that these people eventually graduate college (I originally typed “grow up” here and felt dishonest in leaving that) and go get jobs in the real world. They get jobs at real companies that do real things and impact real people outside of the college bubble.

They get jobs at places like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which are much more than simply tech companies. These companies are the primary way that people get information. These employees have sway over how these companies filter and present this information. They can decide whom to ban and keep off their platforms and which information to mark as “fake news.”

Again, these are all points others have made more eloquently elsewhere.

The thing I have found particularly disturbing is how otherwise reasonable people are taking it as fact that this Memo was “bigoted,” or “sexist” without reading the memo for themselves. Numerous outlets have reported on the memo without directly quoting it (CNN) or by selectively quoting it and removing references and citations (Gizmodo), which should make their reporting suspect. Here’s the full text of the Memo for those curious. Decide for yourself if it is bigoted, sexist, or anti-diversity. I personally don’t read that into it and find it a stretch to do so, but before you do so, actually go ahead and do the reading.

It’s easy to get caught up and angry at people for not going and reading the primary source document themselves. How can people be so quick to jump to conclusions? How can they just take it as fact that this is a truly evil document without actually at least skimming it?

I was reminded last night in a discussion that this kind of behavior should not be surprising at all given that most people (especially those opining on the memo) have been rewarded for anywhere from 12-17 years of their life for regurgitating authority’s interpretation of source material. Those who are high-achieving, quality students are rewarded even more for kowtowing to the expected group of interpretations for source documents.

In the attempt at getting people to learn an equal amount about “mathematics,” “literature,” “history,” “science,” and “social studies,” in our K-12 educational system, schools water down primary source documents into columns in a text book or a handout summarizing Shakespeare or Milton or Darwin or the Bible or any number of significant documents. Students aren’t expected to read original source documents and are only expected to read excerpts (themselves selected by a panel of self-appointed experts) or summaries. The student who does decide to actually delve into one of these documents is considered weirdly exceptional and likely has to do so at the cost of doing something else in school.

In a perverse attempt at forcing diversity of learning at the K-12 level, students never really get acquainted with the process of investigating documents for themselves and then making up their minds against an array of popular interpretations. Time is limited in the classroom because the factory-model of compulsory schooling requires that students follow a learning schedule and plan decided upon by educrats. Students are never given the opportunity to go deep in any subject matter. Choosing to do so must be done in their own time, which is increasingly owned by the school.

This is dangerous.

Raising a generation of children and young adults who are never expected to acquaint themselves with source material begets a generation of professionals and even parents who find it acceptable to never acquaint themselves with source material. Anybody who does decide to do so is immediately suspect of having an axe to grind and a point to prove.

This makes civil discourse even harder than it already is. One of the core assumptions of a civil discussion is that both parties want the best thing possible, but if one party is already suspect of trying to prove something in particular by doing the appropriate thing and investigating the truth for themselves, this makes it that truth has an uphill battle.

An appropriate education would reward independent investigation and explication of truth. At the very least, it would not make it incredibly difficult and costly to pursue truth. It would make investigation of the truth an expectation of any reasonable person and would flip this topsy-turvy model of Cliffsnotes-for-the-truth on its head. Yes, this comes at the cost of not spending time on other topics, but perhaps our entire current approach gets things wrong. 

 

The Google Memo Debacle Shows Us How Schools Harm Civil Society