Believe it or Not, Schools Teach Beliefs
“I don’t have to respect your beliefs. If you believe in God you’ve been brainwashed. For some of you it’s already too late.” This was the message heard by freshman biological science majors at the University of Minnesota’s “Nature of Life” course last summer.
The professor teaching the class told the students he was going to teach them about critical thinking. He talked about causation and correlation. He talked about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. He told the students that he wanted to destroy any notion they had of God because that would make them better thinkers and better scientists.
How ironic! Under the disguise of teaching the students how to think, this professor’s was preaching what he wanted the students to believe.
Make no mistake, he wasn’t setting them on the path to critical thinking so they could think and assess and evaluate for themselves. The professor was exposing his agenda to undo their beliefs and replace them with his beliefs.
Although he was more aggressive than many educators in teaching students what he wanted them to believe, this professor is not alone in abandoning the very purpose of education; teaching students how to think for themselves.
Capable university professors are expected to be “outside-the-box” thinkers, and college-age students are old enough to examine what they are told and not necessarily be swayed by a professor’s proclaimed personal beliefs. But is this type of exchange, where a teacher tries to impart beliefs to the students, limited to university campuses?
In 2008 a project called The Story of Stuff was launched by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace employee. The project features a 20-minute video about the human use of natural resources in our economy, and it paints a picture of American consumption destroying our planet.
Today, with over 15 million views online and thousands of DVD sales to schools, churches and others, The Story of Stuff has become a popular classroom resource in schools across the country. Hundreds of teachers have reportedly written to Ms. Leonard to say they have assigned students to view the movie on the internet.
Right from the opening, this aggressively anti-wealth, anti-capitalist movie portrays a distorted picture. As the narrator, Ms. Leonard tells us, “… more than 50% of our federal tax money is now going to the military.” The government puts this figure at 20-25%. In the movie’s written script, Ms. Leonard cites the War Resisters League as the source for her data.
As part of the explanation for how they calculate their elevated military spending figures, the War Resisters League notes that they include as “military spending” 80% of the interest on the national debt, “because we believe if there had been no military spending most (if not all) of the national debt would have been eliminated.”
Did you catch that? Ms. Leonard’s Story of Stuff educational video uses data from a source that openly says they calculate their figures based on a made-up scenario that they choose to believe because it “makes sense” to them! Does that make sense to you? Is that the level of intellectual depth that should be the basis for teaching materials used in our classrooms?
The irony in this is that The Story of Stuff website points out the importance of engaging children in critical thinking.
In addition to portraying deceptive information as factual, The Story of Stuff promotes a narrow, one-sided view of a large and complex topic – the interactions between people, the economy, the government, businesses, resources, the environment, the media, advertising, and the motivations for human behavior.
One quote from the video states, “We’ll start with extraction, which is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet. What this looks like is we chop down the trees, we blow up mountains to get the metals inside, we use up all the water and we wipe out the animals.”
Corporations in The Story of Stuff are portrayed as a bloated guy in a big, black top hat with a dollar sign on his front. A submissive government employee comes and shines his shoes.
The message? Overconsumption in the United States is ruining our planet and using all the resources; we’re mindlessly using too much stuff and the businesses that produce the stuff are the bad guys.
Today there is worldwide awareness of the importance of managing our forests properly. Across the U.S. there are forestry laws that require harvested trees be replanted,   and there are programs like the Billion Tree Program that has planted over 12 billion trees in 193 countries since 2006. There is also ongoing research looking in detail at forestry practices and the maintenance of forest and wildlife health. Our forest management strategies have gotten better over time, and today the amount of timber grown is greater than the amount harvested.
Was this side of the story told during the story of our stuff? No. The broader story of forestry management was ignored to strengthen the position that we’re “trashing our planet.”
In addition to the bias, another core flaw in the video is that the concept of true capitalism has been muddled with the corrupted system of government exchanging favors to businesses in order to secure the political support of the businesses and their friends. This is Washington Inc.; it is not capitalism.
True capitalism is an economic system in which all the trading partners believe they get something of equal or greater value than what they gave up in the trade. There are no unmerited favors given out in true capitalism!
For students who are being taught this Story of Stuff, there is yet another very serious flaw; a narrow point of view, driven by a powerful set of beliefs, is presented as if it tells a complete story.
There is no information about how economies actually work. There is no discussion about trade, or the fact that trading goods and services in a community is instinctive and has played an enormous role in our very survival. There is no hint of an understanding of true capitalism. Nothing. Just the message that consuming goods is bad, and our stuff will kill us if we don’t stop.
In this light, The Story of Stuff fails completely as a teaching tool and is really nothing more than propaganda; a tool for preaching to students what to believe!
Unfortunately there are teachers, as well as groups who advise teachers on curriculum choices, who are missing the difference between teaching real critical thinking and simply imparting beliefs. Thinking critically involves thoroughly assessing problems, checking assumptions, digging deeply into the evidence, and evaluating sources of information.
What do you want for your children and for our nation’s children? Do you want them learning from materials that distort truth and profess beliefs? Or do you expect that in school they will learn the valuable skill of thinking clearly to accurately assess problems and evaluate solutions?
A strong, prosperous America is dependent on self-reliant thinkers and problem solvers. Educate yourself about how your kids are being educated. Get active in the political process. Hold your politicians accountable for changing the destructive path being inflicted on your children.
A school system that indoctrinates students with beliefs fails not only our children, but will ultimately fail our nation. Don’t remain silent.
 Interview with a student who attended the University of Minnesota, College of Biological Sciences, Nature of Life course, summer 2011.
 New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/education/11stuff.html?_r=2
 Internal Revenue Service http://www.irs.gov/app/understandingTaxes/whys/thm01/les01/ac3_thm01_les01.jsp
 The Story of Stuff Project http://www.storyofstuff.org/2011/03/14/story-of-stuff/
 War Resisters League http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm
 New Jersey DEP http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/forest/community/No_Net_Loss.htm
 Oregon Forest Resources Institute http://oregonforests.org/assets/flow/forests/reforc.htm
 United Nations Environment Program, Press Releases http://www.unep.org/billiontreecampaign/Home/tabid/51624/Default.aspx
 TAPPI, Are We Running out of Trees? http://www.tappi.org/Bookstore/Public-Outreach/Earth-Answers.aspx
 New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/11/education/11stuff.html?_r=2