Monday, May 22, 2017

Education's Existential Crisis

No, it's not the possibility that Betsy DeVos's DeVoucher program may gut public education with the goal of replacing it with privatized school by and for the People Who Matter. Nor is it the policy goal held by some that the whole concept of "school" can be replaced with an array of modules geared to different competencies that can be accessed and completed on line at the time and place of the student's choosing. It's not even the steady clamping shut of the pipeline that provides actual trained professional teachers, without whom a school is difficult to put together.

No, the biggest existential threat strikes at the very foundation of education, the foundation of knowledge itself.

Plenty of bytes have been burned discussing a post-fact society, a culture where truth no longer matters. And that nibbles at the edges of what we're talking about.

This Vox piece by David Roberts (Vox's climate and science reporter) is long and thorough, but here's the key idea. He sets it up by recapping a classic Rush Limbaugh rant from 2009, in which Limbaugh claims that we live in two universe, and one is a universe of lies (he was talking about climate science, but at this point, it could be just about anything):

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

"Epistomology" seems like a scary word, but it's actually pretty simple-- what does it mean to know something, and how does that knowing something happen?

Over the course of human history, we've had many different answers for how we know things. Because the approved priests told us so. By way of divine revelation. Because some currently-dead guys once wrote it down. We don't all know things, because only people with power and money are entitled to know things at all. Or even, we don't, we just make shit up.

But eventually we arrived at some collective standards, some shared agreements that pieces of knowledge would be written down and presented as Known Things once they had been tested and certified. New knowledge would be gleaned by some version of a scientific method, bolstered by some agreed-upon techniques of proof.

It hasn't been perfect, but it has worked pretty well for a while. And we teachers and our schools had our place in that, working at the job of passing on a solid core of widely accepted Truths on to young humans. And public education added the notion that all citizens should be given access, early and often, to the same shared body of knowledge.

But if we submit to tribal epistemology-- if we slide into a world where people are, Daniel Patrick Moynahan notwithstanding, entitled not only to their own opinions, but only to those facts that their tribal leaders certify, then what job is there for public education or teachers?

If the only thing that's true is what my Beloved Leader says is true (and only what he says is true today, because the past carries no weight in such a system), then what is there for a teacher to do except pass on the latest reports from the Truth Bureau? Well, there would be one other task-- to help students erase the sharp edges of their own intellects that want to perk up and say, "Hey, wait a minute---"

Another effect-- and this one you've probably already noticed-- is that when the world runs on tribal epistemology, everything-- everything-- is political.

If Beloved Leader and the tribe say that the sky is green, then making an observation about the color of the sky is a challenge to Beloved Leader, a political act. If Beloved Leader says that we ate soup yesterday, then digging through the trash to find yesterday's lunch scraps is a political act. If Beloved Leader and tribal elders define truth in all matters great and small, then any attempt to search out truth on your own, great or small, is a political act. And teaching, which we've come to see as apolitical, an act where it's "inappropriate" to impose your own political views on your students-- in the land of tribal epistemology, teaching is the most political act of all. Like many teachers, I have always avoided being overtly political in my classroom, and yet that seems increasingly impossible.

What is the role of teachers and education in a society that does not know how to know, a society led by a man who, as George Will put it, "does not know what it is to know something."

The most useful thing I learned in college (and what many of my professors  explicitly copped to teaching) was how to teach myself, how to learn things. But in times of tribal epistemology, the very act of believing that one can construct meaning and understanding using impersonal, objective standards and techniques-- well, that's just crazy radical stuff.

This is the most existential crisis we face. It may not be the most immediate, and I can certainly see many opportunities to turn back the tide. But we are living intermixed with a great tribe of people who think all wisdom is received from Beloved Leader and not by inspection, reflection, logic, reason, or just plain using your brain to consider evidence. Human beings are sloppy enough about this stuff as it is-- we do not need to have the prevailing winds shift against knowing. So, no-- I don't worry that this is going to wipe us out tomorrow, or the next day. But it is still a terrible thing to contemplate-- a world in which a "teacher" has no job but to pass on the tribal "facts" of the day, and squelch all independent inquiry and thought.

It's not that we've been perfect on this issue, but we have at least maintained the means of finding better paths. Maintaining, building, nurturing and supporting such means of finding one's own way to a truer understanding is then most important job of a teacher, and the mission we must defend at all costs


  1. John 18:38

    Pontius Pilate to Jesus:

    "What is truth?"

    submitted by Leila
    (and you know, I do not want my tax dollars to go to teach children that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. I think that separation of Church and State is what the Founders wanted.So please no replies in that vein.
    Thank You.

  2. Who knew that Knowledge and truth were so complicated and such hard work? Maybe every serious, well educated, curious, and passionate human who knows that the work involved matters.

    As a science teacher I have concluded that for many ignorant people, their preferred "cartoon" view of the world is just easier and maybe even more interesting and fun. Ghosts, aliens, chem-trails, trickle-down economics, walls, and fake news are easy, cheap, and make for great conversation - especially between true believers. The sad part of ignorance - as I tell my students - is that fact is way more interesting than fiction - and the difference really matters.

  3. With vast respect to the teachers who do it differently, way too much teaching is about mastering Approved Facts and way too little is about "How do we know what we know?" or "How do we learn what we want to learn?" Why would a naive student not wish to champion their Tribal Facts against the Approved Facts of (apparently) another tribe? And how will you ever move them past that if you don't engage them in thinking about knowledge itself? BS Tests & overstuffed required curricula are of course not helping.

  4. But science is theory, or theories, not truth. Should we accept theory as truth when science says it is, or only when "science" says so. Evolution is a theory, but it's a pretty good theory compared to other theories.
    All men (women included) are created equal is not a theory, it is a statement of belief, and the word "fact" is relatively useless.

    May 23, 2017 at 5:44 PM

    1. In science there are facts, and there are theories to explain those facts. No scientist would say that theories are truth. Only facts are truth. All theories are working theories. The best theory is the one that explains the facts with the fewest loose ends. If more facts become known, the theory is re-evaluated.

      Right, "All men are created equal" is not science, and it's not a theory or a fact or truth. It's a statement that needs more elaboration. In context, it doesn't mean that all men are equally strong or have the same talents, abilities, or aptitudes; it's a philosophical or moral belief that all people have the same worth just because they're human beings.

  5. I keep getting "Anonymous" and it seems to delete my comment??????

    1. I have to moderate my comments section (both because I assume my readers aren't that interested in coding school in India or male enhancement products, and because I prefer to keep trolling to a minimum) so your comments don't appear until I check them in.

  6. What you say, IS the terrifyingly true thing.