Moron Watch 10-23-15 — the textbook edition *UPDATED*

Dunce capLately, I keep finding the word “moron” on my lips. I know I’m not the smartest person out there but it seems that, with ever greater frequency, I find myself swimming in a sea of other people’s stupidity.

Unsurprisingly given my ideological bent, I’m more aware of the stupidity on the Left — but it’s out there everywhere. Being a moron is not the same as supporting what I consider to be a bad ideology. Instead, being a moron means that people get their facts wrong, their conclusions wrong, or their methodology wrong, no matter what ideology drives them.

Today’s example of moron thinking comes from a New York Times op-ed shrilly accusing Texas textbooks of advancing a racist narrative at the behest of evil Texas conservatives. The Left has been in high dudgeon about the fact that the Texas history book states that despite their horrible circumstances Africans enslaved in America were able to find joy in their lives and create a rich culture, often connected with their adopting Christianity.  This is true, of course, and speaks will of the indomitable human spirit.

The problem for the Left is that these facts run counter to the Leftist narrative that America wasn’t just a nation in the grip of bad ideas at certain time, but was and is irredeemably evil and must therefore be destroyed. Teaching that blacks triumphed over adversity doesn’t advance that narrative as well as having them painted as anguished, weak victims who could do nothing to alleviate their circumstances.

The Leftist position is ideologically reasonable, though, so I’m not going to castigate the Leftists as morons on this one.  I disagree with their goal — America’s downfall — but they are intelligently pursuing that end.  Instead, the specific “moron” moment for me is the way in which the textbook publisher went about things, setting itself up for precisely this kind of attack:

But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.

The problem with the textbook — call it the “moron factor” — is that you can’t have facts existing in a vacuum that’s free of principles. It’s entirely possible that the appropriate lead-in principle did exist in the textbook, and that the Lefties ignored it for purposes of raising a ruckus, but I doubt it. I’ve looked at my children’s textbooks over the years, and they are invariably packed with so many facts you can barely see the white of the paper for the black of the text.  What they just as invariably leave out are overarching principles that would place all these endless facts in context.

With respect to slavery, the lead-in principle (not a fact, but a value) is that we as a society are agreed that slavery is wrong. It is wrong at all times, in all places, and with regard to all people. No human being should ever own another human being, depriving the latter entirely (or as much as possible) of his right to exercise free will and control his own destiny.

Leading with that principle allows a publisher to write an accurate history that takes all the facts and makes them part of a coherent whole.  When it comes to America and slavery, the history says that, when Europeans began settling America, they brought with them the practice of slavery, which was common throughout the known world and had been in place throughout history. The American settlers originally tried to use Irish slaves, but the Irish died so quickly in bondage that they were considered a bad investment. The colonists therefore switched to African slaves who were better able to handle the extreme heat and the malaria in the American South. The institution of slavery was so prevalent in the American South that everyone engaged in it — including American blacks, some of whom became the largest slave owners in the region.

As the centuries went by, some slave owners, either because of the promptings of their own consciences or as a defense against the growing abolitionist movement, insisted that their slaves were treated well, seemed to enjoy their daily lives, and were actually elevated because they had become Christians. While this may have been true as to certain individual slaves and slaveholders, these facts were then, as they must always be, irrelevant: The overriding principle is that it is morally wrong, and therefore a great evil, for one person to claim ownership over another and, to that end, to control and effectively imprison that person.

In other words, once you’ve staked out the principle, it becomes obvious that the defenses are weak. You don’t need to ignore those defenses (some of which, as I noted, were factually true); you need to contextualize them.

As is known to those who have followed my blog for years, or who read my ebook about parenting (and I want to thank all ten of you from the bottom of my heart), I’m a believer in teaching overarching principles first and facts second. Facts are like the detailed instructions your friend hands you telling you how to get to her house: “Make a left on Main street; then go two blocks and make a right on Pine Street; stay on Pine for a mile and then, at the fork in the road, make a slight left….” No matter how accurate these factual statements, if you deviate from them even once, you may find yourself lost and you won’t have any way to find your way back. The instructions are so fact specific they don’t allow for a situation based upon different facts.

Your situation will be very different if you have a map, which allows you to address all possible factual scenarios within the framework of the map. Armed with that map, you can always find your way safely back to your destination.

The same is true when teaching children. All those rules and facts we force into them are very limited. The kids don’t always know when to pull them out or, worse, don’t have specific facts or rules to face all of the situations in which they find themselves.

Big principles, however, adapt to situations. The Ten Commandments are big principles which, if applied ensure a better functioning society — and this is true whether or not one believes they are God’s words or just the collected wisdom of ancient men. “Slavery is evil” is another big principle, and would, if routinely practiced, assure a better functioning society across the Muslim and African worlds, both of which have practiced slavery since time immemorial (they made the European and American slave trade possible) and both of which continue to practice slavery.

So getting back to that nit-picky, paranoid op-ed, I’ll repeat what I think is the moron factor: If the moronic textbook publisher had led with the principle that slavery is morally wrong and can never be defended, any facts mentioned — whether the brutality that some slaveholders showed, the kindness that others tried to extend, or the triumph of the human spirit that slaves showed by finding joy in life despite the inhumanity of their circumstances — would have rounded out the lesson highlighted the weakness of those apologists who tried to excuse slavery because it wasn’t uniformly horrific.

UPDATE: More accurately, this is a clarification. I wasn’t saying that I approve of the hard-Left, racist ideology that the op-ed writer is pushing. I was just saying that her argument is intellectually coherent within her (bad) ideological framework , while the book publisher opened itself up to the moron charge because it made a fundamental error in the way it presented its premise.