The Un-Proximate Cause

The direct cause of the Q-Anon/Far Right assault on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday is not in dispute, at least not to anyone who can think and is in command of his or her faculties and who understands facts. That direct and proximate cause was Donald J. Trump, who planned a rally for that morning and who incited fanatical supporters to march on the Capitol and to disrupt the certification of the results of November’s Presidential election, a certification that is largely ceremonial, given that the states control the vote count and the electors.

That mass assault occurred and succeeded in overwhelming the Capitol Police Force for a very different reason. Trump and other extremist groups – largely but not exclusively right wing – have succeeded in effectively brain-washing 25%-35% of the American public because public education has largely failed the majority of students in U.S. schools. The result is that far too many people cannot or will not think and will accept whatever ideology they feel comfortable with… even if every fact behind it is incorrect or flat wrong.

Trump has filled his followers with four years of falsehoods and lies… and those in that mob swallowed them whole and without thinking… and attacked the Capitol.

The Capitol Police failed to prepare for the descent of the mob on the Capitol for much the same reason. They’ve been conditioned to think of BLM movements or even women equality protesters as “dangerous,” but not alt-right white supremacists – even though the FBI has been pointing out that the most dangerous extremists are white supremacists. In short, the leadership of the Capitol Police didn’t think or prepare, even though Trump made no secret of the rally.

And one of the reasons for these occurrences is, put bluntly, that the majority of students don’t know how to think, to analyze, or even to read effectively. They believe that knowing facts is irrelevant and that they can “Google” any fact they need to know… and this is true of college students as well. There are a number of factors behind this development, but one of the most important is the turn of education away from learning “facts.” Now, I’m the last person who would support mere memorization of facts as education – that’s a waste of brainpower and time – but there are certain core bases of knowledge that citizens need to absolutely “know” in their mind and hearts, and the same is true of all professionals in their field, whether that field is electrical work, plumbing, landscaping, law, medicine, engineering, or politics.

One of the reasons why two Boeing 737 Max aircraft crashed was Boeing’s failure to install multiple sensors for airspeed, but the other was the failure to understand that emergency procedures cannot just be put on paper. They have to be not only understood, but practiced – a lot. There weren’t just the two crashes that made the headlines. There were several other instances where sensor malfunctions caused the autopilot to override the pilot, but in those other instances, highly trained pilots knew what to do. One of the FAA requirements for the return of the 737 Max is more pilot training on those systems.

Right now, at least half of all Americans don’t understand the Constitution and how our government works [or is supposed to work]… but they think they do, and they’re absolutely convinced that their understanding is correct. Why? Because they never really learned the facts and the systems, largely because public education never really insisted on that. “It’s just history, and it’s old stuff that students don’t have to learn.” Most of the young women that my wife teaches honestly don’t know, for example, that U.S. women have only had the right to vote for a century… or that women still only make on average 60-80% [depending on the state] of what men do for the same position and hours worked. Many of those young women unfortunately, not only don’t know, but don’t care, even though statistics show that more than 60% of them will be the primary breadwinner at some point in their lives.

The mob that descended on the U.S. Capitol had literally no understanding of why there couldn’t have been vote fraud on the scale they were told and believed. They didn’t understand that elections are run on a state and local basis, and that roughly two-thirds of the states are currently controlled by Republicans, and at present, fairly conservative Republicans at that, and that Republicans aren’t about to allow Democrats to get away with voter fraud.

That mob also didn’t understand or care that Republican lawmakers who were contesting the validity of the Presidential vote weren’t contesting the validity of the election as far as their own re-election went, which, I submit, is a considerable failure in thinking things through.

No… those in the mob haven’t been forced to think, because our society no longer requires it, and there’s a growing culture that believes that whatever news and information appears that appeals to them must be correct… because it feels “right.”

True thinking and learning requires confronting the uncomfortable, testing one’s own beliefs against hard verified facts, and learning to discern what comfortable beliefs may in fact be wrong or not based in reality and what beliefs need modifying.

And U.S. education, for the most part, is failing in getting students to understand the importance of and the relation between facts and thinking… which was demonstrated by how many in that mob were comparatively young.

15 thoughts on “The Un-Proximate Cause”

  1. Tom says:

    There is poll support, 31 December 2020 – 3 January 2021, for most if not all your comments.

    https://thehill.com/hilltv/what-americas-thinking/497435-poll-trump-approval-ticks-up-to-51-percent

    HHX0: Do you approve or disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing as President of the United States?

  2. Jeff says:

    I don’t think it is all a failure of education. I learned that a high school student who was a part of the debate program with me was there. She certainly knew the basics of the constitution and does condemn those who were there, but still thinks the election was stolen. As a Pastor, I have avoided using Trump’s name (even in public prayers, I have always prayed for the “President” for “President so-and-so”. I still think that is the right thing to do, but I also want to jump up and tell people to listen and to see what’s happening. Even the piece I published yesterday in my blog, where I just dealt with the rhetoric and with the misuse of religion got push back. I am afraid of what’s ahead. We all need to figure out what we can do to challenge the misinformation and to end the demonization of others.

    I am looking forward to reading your recent book. I was afraid I’d lost it as we were parking up back in Sept, then I found it last week in a book of stuff that hadn’t been unboxed.

    1. Jeff,

      The fact that a student who “knows the basics of the Constitution” cannot sort out verified facts from falsehoods, at least to me, says that education failed. Education isn’t just “knowing things.” That’s just the beginning. You have to build on what you know and analyze the facts. The fact that this student took falsehoods for truth says she cannot analyze or think, and I say that’s a failure of education.

      1. Rosemarie says:

        As a graduate student of mathematics in the early 1970s, I was expected to teach Algebra. Not knowing how good a teacher I might be and there being 13 Fridays in my class, I started the semester saying there would be a short quiz every Friday, but that I would only be counting their top 10 scores (allowing them the choice to skip 3 Fridays…) and using that for 1/3rd of their grade with 1/3rd contributed from a mid-term exam and 1/3rd from the final.

        In one of the quizzes, I gave an equation for them to solve that had NO POSSIBLE ANSWER. In other words, if they worked the equation out, the answer had to be both a negative AND a positive number – clearly impossible. They could have seen that just from reading the equation, not even trying to solve it. Most did not get it. I used a similar question in the mid-term, thinking it was a “gift” question. They still didn’t get it. Nor did they get it on the final – again provided as a “gift” question. I would have given full credit if they simply said “there is no answer.” or if they said “this answer cannot be correct, but I cannot find where I made a mistake.”

        Now, maybe the problem was my teaching, but I would have thought that by the 3rd time they would have caught on. So it appears to me that thinking was no longer being taught in either grade or high school over 50 years ago! Implying that we have at least 2 full generations who have not been taught critical thinking.

        1. Matthew David Runyon says:

          The problem with that is that practically every class I had beat into me that there was a correct answer, I just had to find it. Even when I could *prove* that the answer in the back of the book was wrong, or that the question had been constructed incorrectly, there was still one “correct” answer that we had to find.

          I essentially gave up partway through middle school trying to fight this, and just tried to figure out what type of teacher I had and roll with their foibles. There were occasional exceptions, which I treasure to this day, but this basically continued all the way through almost the entirety of university, and once I started my career I then had to relearn the critical thinking I’d last had to seriously use in elementary school.

          It is *definitely* the education system.

  3. MRE says:

    I come at this from a different academic background, one centered on political science and economics. Among students of American politics, two major trends appear relevant to today’s issues. (1) Party ID and parents’ party affiliation are far and away the most powerful independent variables in most regression analyses predicting political behavior in the US. People typically stick with their party or their parents’ party NO MATTER WHAT, and (2) Social network analysis suggests that with the massive burst of information overload in the internet age, people are relying increasingly on friend and family social networks to make political decisions. This reminds me a lot of how religion was treated before liberal and enlightenment ideas gained traction.

    (1) and (2) don’t preclude bad education, but I do think that there are incentives people are responding to that shouldn’t be overlooked. With the unprecedented increase in information and ideas floating around, people are using cognitive shortcuts to make their decisions, and these shortcuts are leading to clumping around truly idiotic ideas. I only hope that the next administration can raise the cost to citizens of uncritically employing these cognitive shortcuts (hopefully in a way that isn’t morally repugnant or counterproductive). Because at this point, accepting these ideas without engaging the critical thinking parts of the brain, is starting to have dangerous consequences for everyone.

  4. Lars-Åke Frykholm says:

    The idea was to take the Congress hostage (cable band) and then loser Trump would announce a state of emergency and new elections after about six months and continue as interim president until the emergency was over. The only thing that was missing was a clearer organized planning. In fact, we were very close to a coup in the United States

  5. Christopher Robin says:

    I am a public school history teacher and I agree with the majority of your points. However, it is important to keep in mind that education is just as much cultural as it is institutional. Public schools are required to provide far more than just education now and they can only go so far since parents and families have a far greater influence on a child’s value of education.

    It is also frustrating as a teacher to see former students eschew the knowledge and skills they demonstrated at a high level. All too often I see them swept up by the cultural habit to not think for themselves. The impact of social media and the “pick your own truth” mindset are having devastating consequences in our society. The younger generations no longer believe in capital “T” truth, but rather a system that enables you to find any truth you desire. Recent events have shown all too well how even science is not immune to this.

    1. Tom says:

      Since; Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis contrasted heteronomy with autonomy by noting that while all societies create their own institutions (laws, traditions and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies (hetero = others) attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (e.g., God, the state, ancestors, historical necessity, etc.).

      Therefor; here we are in an anti-systemicism oriented world but we confuse the desire for sovereignty of the individual with the reality of autonomy in society. This points to culture having the upper hand over education (and over street smarts as well).

  6. John Mai says:

    I have to wonder, is it truly the level of education that students are receiving, or is it that they are simply not taught critical thinking skills?
    I dropped out of high school in my first year, and largely educated myself from that point on. One lesson that I took to heart however was to examine all information from a critical, or even skeptical viewpoint.

  7. Nandu K says:

    Mr. Modesitt, I agree with everything you say about the dumbing down of education, and the dangers of “facts don’t matter”.

    I am a bit curious about your statement that “or that women still only make on average 60-80% [depending on the state] of what men do for the same position and hours worked.”

    Everything I have seen indicates that ~80% is the “raw” number, that doesn’t correct for job type or seniority. For example, I am using the numbers from the below report: https://www.payscale.com/data/gender-pay-gap

    Could you please share the source on which your assertion is based?

    1. First, I have to admit one of my figures was incorrect. It should have read “70-90%” and they do apply, as you correctly stated, not so much to a “raw” number, because it’s statistically based, but on an overall summation by state.

      The “payscale” study you cite is both statistically “generally” accurate, and also highly misleading for several reasons. First, comparing years of seniority can be extremely misleading, particularly in fields or organizations with effective glass ceilings (even if they were in the past and have since been removed or somewhat mitigated). Because historically women have been promoted more slowly than men, when they were promoted at all, they don’t have the seniority that a man does at higher levels. This compounds over time, to women’s detriment.

      Second, job classifications are often used against women. I’ve seen where the female head of a academic unit was called a coordinator, while a more junior male of a similar unit was called an assistant director, and paid more. Or where a woman was called office manager and a male with equivalent responsibilities was staff director, and paid more.

      Third, a Harvard Business School study showed that professional gender pay discrepancies decreased from 19% to 17.5% simply when firms were required to make pay scales public(and since these were professional level comparisons, that also suggests that the gender pay gap wasn’t based merely on seniority and job description).

      Fourth, often the choice of occupation results in pay discrimination that’s scarcely merited, as in the case of the pay of college deans, where I’ve observed that female deans always start with lower pay than male deans, usually because they come out of more “female-oriented” professions, such a Library Science or Performing Arts. Isn’t a dean a dean?

      I also came across an interesting study that reported that male senior employees receive more in “equity” pay, i.e., stock options and the like, than do similarly qualified female executives.

      There are quite a number of studies involved in dissecting the gender pay gap, and they don’t agree. For example, a 2017 study by Blau & Kahn found “no explanation” (i.e.. discrimination) for 38% of the wage gap. There are several studies similar to the “payscale” study that discuss/justify wage gaps on the basis of job type and seniority, but they all assume that the “reasons” for such differences offer a “rational” explanation, when, so far as I can determine, many of those factors are merely the result of years of gender discrimination.

      Here are some other studies:
      https://www.epi.org/publication/what-is-the-gender-pay-gap-and-is-it-real/
      https://www.glassdoor.com/research/app/uploads/sites/2/2016/03/Glassdoor-Gender-Pay-Gap-Study-3.pdf
      https://www.aauw.org/resources/article/gender-pay-gap-by-state/
      https://hbr.org/2019/01/research-gender-pay-gaps-shrink-when-companies-are-required-to-disclose-them
      https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200806-the-gender-pay-gap-no-one-talks-about

      P.S. The 60% number came from Utah County, Utah, which has the greatest gender pay gap in Utah, which in turn is the state with the greatest gender pay gap.

  8. Maria Plum says:

    I agree with you that students are failed by the education system, but that’s where the agreement ends. The leftist slant and bias in the public and higher-level education systems definitely stops critical thinking and harms the ability of our children to reason, gaslighting them and making them useful pawns.

    If you aren’t aware of a fascist-like push of leftism in the education system, popular media platforms, and other major institutions, to the point that they censor alternate views happily, then you are either not as politically aware as you think you are, or you are intellectually dishonest.

    I’m disappointed to come here and read a blog post like that from someone I thought was logical and grounded.

    1. I’m neither a leftist nor a believer in leftist conspiracies. After last Wednesday’s right-wing attack on the Capitol, I’m afraid that there is at least a semblance of a right-wing conspiracy, since as the old saying goes, “The proof is in the pudding.”

      While the education system has failed, in general, to teach critical thinking, I see the same unthinking and uncritical thinking patterns from the far right school systems, just possibly because I live and work in the most conservative state in the Union, where education is controlled and dominated by very conservative Republicans. Some school systems are unthinkingly liberal, some unthinkingly conservative, and very few seem able to teach critical thought.

  9. Shannon says:

    The right complains that the education system is left leaning because it teaches people to think for themselves and then they disagree with their parents’ positions. I don’t think this is a failing. In fact, more critical thinking needs to be taught. An education should leave a person open to new ideas and able to see and respect other perspectives even if they disagree. Teaching people to analyze ideas and recognize patently false narratives or refusing to promulgate ideas that are not backed by sound scholarship is not gaslighting or censorship.

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