Ideas, Politics, and Factualists — New-Wave Common Ground for Conservatives and Liberals

Nov 1, 2011 by

By Robert Oliphant –

My name is Bob and I am a recovering ideologue. This is to say I was saturated with the History of Ideas in college, including the classic split between liberals and conservatives. It also means that although I read George Orwell and S.I Hayakawa, I felt they were pop cult figures, not serious thinkers. Interesting ideas were what I sniffed out and took seriously for years — up until a few days ago.

Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962). His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980),

What changed my mind was a sudden realization that my editor (a conservative bloke) and I both shared a just-the-facts attitude, as they used to say in Dragnet. Even worse was the eerie feeling that there aren’t many of us “factualists” around these days, as opposed to scads of slick politicians who zap the public with slogans and jokes that somehow manage to exclude any statement whose factual accuracy can be checked on the internet by the average citizen.

Educationally considered, for instance, most Americans are already familiar with our current range of yearly tuition costs, e.g., $13,200 a year for the University of California, $6,521 for the California State University system, and $1,119 for the California community college system (all cited in LA Times, 10/27/11). Going further, thanks to our National Center for Education Statistics, Americans can also get specific information regarding a particular university like UCLA regarding its number of entering freshmen (4,500 in 2106), their 4-year graduation rate (36%), and the actual number of their bachelor’s degrees four years later (7,500 in 2010).

Now that I’m a factualist, I have to steer clear of speculations regarding where many of those 7,500 baccalaureates came from: (China? South Korea? other 4-year colleges? 2-year community colleges?). Nor am I entitled to speculate regarding the motivations of professional educators who are reluctant to share this information, especially at a time when university tuition and fees have risen “five times as fast as inflation during the last 30 years” (Economist, 7/9/11).

All I can do, frankly, is to search out other factualists and invite their speculations regarding causality (always risky) and motivation (usually cynical). It was Kant, after all, who chastened us with the reminder that “concepts without percepts are blind; percepts without concepts are  meaningless.” Like it or not, we still need catchy ideas and slogans to push us into action.

Beyond that this shy modesty, I feel impelled to remind my fellow American factualists — conservative and liberal — that our nation’s attitude toward language is crucially important at a time when Spoken Professional American Dictionary English (SPADE) is conquering the planet. Today our GRE’s computer-adaptive test now shares its format and employability power (not just grad school) with India’s Aspiring Minds Computer Adaptive Test (AMCAT — also an acronym for “American Course Achievement Test). So we have more reason to take our factualism seriously than might have been true as recently as five years ago.

By way of illustration, let’s consider a GRE-style question asking the test taker to choose the most appropriate generalization (out of the following three) based upon the factual statements made earlier: A: College students need more help in paying their tuition; B: Community colleges should increase their tuition; C: High school students should start their college education by taking at least 120 freshman-sophomore units at a neighboring community college and then transferring to a high-status university.

As with the GRE, the “correct” answer (C) is a matter of opinion regarding logical generalizations, not factual accuracy. Consequently, even middle schoolers should become familiar with the GRE style early on, including its subject tests on psychology, mathematics, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, and literature in English. Remember, in the international competition, the GRE/AMCAT is the only employability test that counts. So why shouldn’t why should concerned parents recognize and attack this learning target on their own?

The best thing that can be said about Factualism is that it focuses upon learning (including mistakes) more than education, which deals primarily with money. My enthusiasm for it is a recent visitor. But I hope it stays in my head, especially as the years continue to push me and my fellow Americans toward confusion and ill-temperedness.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR. . . . Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962). His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), A Reader’s Digest worldwide selection whose film version won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis and is still viewed worldwide. A U.S. Army veteran (air corps), he now writes a column for EducationViews.org.

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