All Commentary
Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fatalism Should Have No Place in Education

Teaching kids that life is unfair is necessary, but so, too, is teaching them that their skin color or cultural background does not predestine their fate in this life.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

The inculcation of progressive ideology in K-12 schools is no longer a conservative conspiracy theory but rather an expectation. Using what I learned in teacher training, for the first years of my career, I took part. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird, my students discussed the disparity in incarcerations in modern-day America. I focalized Romeo and Juliet through the lens of gang violence to make it “culturally relevant.” Young adult fiction with progressive ideas took precedence over the classics. I taught them about what the Urban Institute describes as the barriers and constraints that structural or systemic racism places on minority individuals.

Responses to Discrimination

In Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance comments on the consequences of the views the education system instills, writing that “what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives.” He goes on, “if you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?”

Central to what I taught them was the idea that the system is rigged against certain demographics by way of biases and policies with disparate impacts. With Vance in mind, I asked myself what use the knowledge of systemic racism had for my student who walked to the United States from Mexico by himself. What good was it to tell another from a single mother home, already caught up in selling drugs, that the system was against him?

If discrimination is built into Western society, then its recognition is necessary.

To some extent, it depends on the real nature of the system. If discrimination is built into Western society, then its recognition is necessary. While in the classrooms of mediocre teachers, I’ve observed students, convinced their inability to master a concept was their own fault, who developed a self-loathing attitude despite the teacher’s culpability. Similarly, if minority students are at a societal disadvantage, then they should know that they’re not responsible for all of their failures.

However, if there isn’t discrimination inherent to the system, then my teaching them about these barriers and constraints risked setting a pessimistic expectation, leading students to ask, like Vance, “Why try at all?”

How Pervasive Is Discrimination?

There are myriad facts and historical anecdotes to back the reality of systemic racism: In my own state of Wisconsin, approximately 92.7 percent of whites graduate high school compared to 67 percent of blacks, black households make, on average, less than white households, and minorities are denied housing mortgages at far higher rates than whites. Be it from a collection of personal biases or policy, the argument runs that these examples stand as evidence of systemic discrimination.

In his book Discrimination and Disparities, economist Thomas Sowell calls this narrative into question with a litany of counterexamples and facts: In 2016, the poverty rate for whites was 11 percent but only 7.5 percent for black married couples. Sowell suggests that in reality, there are so many factors at play that it’s impossible to determine one single cause of disparities.Black households with library cards and access to print sources had similar incomes to white households. Charter systems like KIPP create educational results with minority students that far exceed even affluent, suburban schools. His rejoinder doesn’t negate the narrative that progressives champion, but it does call into question the unilateral assertion that any disparity in outcome is a result of discrimination alone.

Sowell suggests that in reality, there are so many factors at play that it’s impossible to determine one single cause of disparities. Discrimination is one but so are geography, birth order, the average age of demographic, cultural preferences, and personal choices, among others. Thus, regarding the reality of in-built bias, it’s safe to assume that minorities are at some disadvantage through no fault of their own, but I worry that the rhetoric of barrier or constraint implies more insurmountability than is actually present in our society.

A Belief in Free Will Encourages Moral Behavior

If discrimination isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, then teaching the progressive belief espoused by the Urban Institute and others that it is pervasive and has a notable impact is a disservice. Such a curriculum has the effect of teaching students “learned helplessness,” which in Hillbilly Elegy Vance describes as when “a person believes… that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.”

One anecdote will suffice to demonstrate the nature of learned helplessness. Last year, I was assisting a student with an essay. I covered the expectations, talked through his ideas, and asked if he had any questions. The next day, he had accomplished nothing. He hadn’t looked at it, read the directions, or glanced at the outline. When I inquired as to why, he said he knew he’d be unable to complete the assignment so he didn’t even try to finish it. His predetermined sense of failure left him unwilling to act.

There’s more at work than a pedagogical buzzword like “learned helplessness,” though. In 2008, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler of the Universities of Minnesota and British Columbia, respectively, carried out a study in which participants read texts that either endorsed free will or determinism. Progressivism advances a sort of fatalism, a belief that the future is predetermined and our actions have no effect upon it.They were then given tests or tasks in which seemingly unplanned opportunities for cheating arose. Those who had read deterministic texts were far more likely to cheat and misrepresent their results. The researchers concluded that a fatalistic or deterministic outlook encouraged bad behavior. It’s the philosophical belief behind learned helplessness. If someone knows they’re predetermined to success or failure, why change behavior patterns? Perhaps more importantly, why choose a more moral but also more difficult path if the end result is the same?

Not philosophically but sociologically so, progressivism advances a sort of fatalism, a belief that the future is predetermined and our actions have no effect upon it. By this, I mean that my pedagogical decisions did not instill some metaphysical disbelief in free will, but they did instill a worldview wherein the actions of some students were shown as less likely to lead to success in this society. A belief in these barriers and constraints beyond their control could ruin a sense of power and self-agency.

If individuals with certain cultural names are less likely to get callbacks for jobs, why make the decision to apply? If some demographics are less likely to get a mortgage, why try to buy instead of rent? If standardized tests are culturally biased against you, why put forth any effort? While it’s not a philosophical worldview, these assumptions nonetheless create a fatalistic approach to society. There are many who have and will make the moral decision regardless of the outcome, but the research shows that fatalism challenges this decision.

Social Implications

Toward the end of his book, Sowell outlines the many deleterious effects of major cultural shifts since the 1960s. Namely, he argues that the philosophical shift rooted in Marxism—that failure stems from poverty and institutional discrimination, not a lack of effort—combined with the welfare state together created a sense of entitlement in the populace.

He writes,

Among the dire consequences for society as a whole are widespread resentments, bitterness, disorder and violence on the part of those who have been told incessantly that they are “entitled” to a demographically defined ‘fair share’ of what is produced.

With this resentment and entitlement came an uptick in pathologies that had formerly been in decline, like teen pregnancy and homicide rates. Again, prior to the 1960s, forgotten wallets returned with money inside, and self-service food carts based on an honor system were common fare in many cities. Sowell believes that blaming poverty for failure led to a loss of personal personality and, thus, societal decay.

Going beyond Sowell, a loss of self-agency—a belief in both free will and that our choices affect our future—is also behind this decay. If someone believes they will fail no matter what, can we be surprised that for many teachers, students leave their schools teetering “on the verge of chaos”? Why would my drug-dealing student turn from his crime when he’s told that the path to legal employment is riddled with discriminatory roadblocks? What use does passing an irrelevant test on Romeo and Juliet have for a student who fears they are destined for prison?

If Vohs’s and Schooler’s study is taken in this context, it seems the progressive vision and its sociological fatalism could share the blame for many of the trends Sowell outlines.

What Instead?

Teaching the truth is preferable to political narratives. As previously noted, there are disparities in our society that should be taught, but with their ever lessening severity, we cannot end there. There must be an addendum to bring our curriculum in line with reality.

Sowell’s book outlines a few steps any student can take, which we could teach to increase their likelihood of success. Elsewhere, it has been called the “success sequence”: Teaching kids that life is unfair is necessary, but so, too, is teaching them that their skin color or cultural background does not predestine their fate in this life.Finish high school, work full-time, and only have kids within marriage. It’s not perfect, and even those who follow it can find themselves at the bottom of statistical outcomes, but these three steps increase chances. Emphasizing these realities replaces fatalism with self-agency, turns a pessimistic view that some are doomed to failure into a warning with practical steps to avoid it, and replaces an insurmountable barrier with a roadblock and directions to avoid it.

On a policy level, we must lean into any institutions like KIPP that are having success with minority students rather than condemning them to a moratorium in policy platforms.

In Plato’s Republic, behind every discussion is the question “What should we teach our children?” Teaching them that life is unfair is necessary, as it is, but so, too, is teaching them that their skin color or cultural background does not predestine their fate in this life. Rather than the pessimistic fatalism lurking in discussions of systemic oppression, an empowering message is necessary, reminding kids that hard work and wise decisions more often than not lead to success. In essence, instead of defeatist narratives about our culture and society, we need to advance the reality that our meritocracy, while imperfect, is still alive.

  • Daniel Buck is a public school teacher in Wisconsin with a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. On the side, he writes regular commentary about education and literature for publications like The Foundation for Economic Education, The Federalist, and Quillette. He is also the head columnist at Lone Conservative, a website dedicated to mentoring and publishing college-aged conservatives.