Education and Science Are Political… and That is A Good Thing

My social media feeds recently have been filled with calls that “you” not be political. I am included in the “you” because I am an educator (retired from almost 30 years in K-12 and continuing to teach and support teachers in community colleges). I am also included in the “you” as I have a background in science and participate (marginally) in research communities. Specifically, my feeds have been filled with references to:

  • Parents and community members suggesting that teachers are being political, and that they should “stick to teaching the facts” and leave politics out of their classrooms. Clearly, educators should not campaign in the classroom. It is inappropriate for educators to encourage students to vote for certain candidates or ballot items. This arises from the fat that educators are largely public employees and the tax dollars paying their salaries should not be spent on campaigns.
  • Scientific American has (for the first time in the 175-year history of the periodical) endorsed a candidate for president of the United States. This has been met with criticism because “science should not be political.”

The calls that education and science should not be political are based on a too simplistic definition of political. While educators should not encourage specific votes, it is appropriate for the editors of magazines (even those that report science) to take a stand in elections when there is evidence that the field they value and promote is being ignored and even rejected by the candidates.

As I observe the discussions on these situations, I am led to the conclusion the root cause of the disagreement is facts and the validation of facts. In political campaigns, one is under no obligation to be correct. We hear politicians (and their lackeys) lie, deceive, evade the truth, and interpret words, deeds, and data in any manner they believe will benefit them at any moment. Politicians need not be consistent, critical, nor need their claims be confirmed or them to accomplish their goals.

Science and education are fields in which confirmation, criticality, and consistency are valued and prompted. In science, we confirm our claims by observing objectively (at least that is what we strive to do) and we are very critical of how the data is collected and analyzed to confirm our claims. Because we are consistent in what we do and how we do it, others can verify our claims as well. In education, we attempt to teach students to understand systems and functions within them. Because of this, criticality—the ability to judge the adequacy of our systems and our understanding of the systems and to respond by improving both—is a key goal of educational systems. All of this is grounded in the same work to confirm and consistency of approach that characterizes science.

When individuals become educated and when they adopt science-like approaches, they do reject certain ideas and they promote others. These decisions are based to the degree to which the ideas can be confirmed when consistently and critically analyzed. I do recognize both education and science are institutions with dubious histories and they should be criticized. When education and science are well-done they converge on the ideas of educators like Paulo Friere (as in Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (as in the Mismeaure of Man); they also lead us to the realization that we are never finished and we must be inclusive as we improve out systems.

These decisions do have political implications. They will influence the choices students make when they vote and when they make other decisions that affect public life. I am of the opinion that well-educated and science-informed individuals will make better decisions than those who are not. (I do not claim that all educated and science-informed individuals make good decisions—I’ve seen many exceptions to this rule).

Both education and science are political. Good public policy depends on educated individuals who are informed by science. I am hopeful that we continue to value education and science and that we have more who are both making public decisions.