Texas Education's Giant Tent

The Texas Board of Education's debates on pre-college texts and curricula have overshadowed a more significant, even a voter-approved, constitutional amendment to upgrade its higher education system.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (subscription required but available through many libraries):


As esteemed public universities in California and other states have faced major budget cuts, resulting in layoffs, furloughs, and enrollment caps, Texas is setting aside hundreds of millions of new dollars to bolster the research and prestige of its universities.

While higher-education officials in some states struggle to win support from state residents and politicians for more money, the Texas endeavor has the backing of voters, who in November approved a nearly half-billion-dollar endowment to increase research capacity at several universities in the state. The thinking goes that by creating more elite research institutions, Texas will lay the foundation for a lasting knowledge economy, attracting high-technology businesses seeking to form partnerships with universities and hire their graduates.

Of course the constitutional amendment authorizing this wasn't such a hard sell; as the newspaper of the University of Texas at Arlington pointed out, it imposed no new taxes. But it highlights a paradox of Texan and American higher education. The elementary and secondary curricula have always had a strong populist side, while scientific and scholarly elites have usually guided college and university studies.

The same taxpayers whose representatives have mandated teaching the influence of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on the U.S. Constitution also support the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg at the University of Texas at Austin, who has written a defense of atheism all the more moving for its modesty about the limits of science in finding ultimate truth:

[W]e know that we will never get to the bottom of things, because whatever theory unifies all observed particles and forces, we will never know why it is that that theory describes the real world and not some other theory.

Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson.

When Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the "separate magisteria" of theology and science, he might have also have been talking about the American division between most public secondary and tertiary schooling. College professors may roll their eyes at some of the new dictates, but I suspect many are not entirely unhappy with the standoff. It can be fun to question cherished beliefs. Some law school professors, like Texas' Sanford Levinson, are even willing to challenge the wisdom of the Constitution itself.

A sidelight: for the first time to my knowledge, an education body has explicitly required teaching about unintended consequences. Hear, hear! I wonder, though, if the Board ever stopped to reflect about possible unforeseen results of its own policies.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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