8 bad arguments used in the education debatePosted: March 4, 2016
There are those of us who take a fairly sober view of education. We recognise its critical importance. It is, after all, the tool with which we perpetuate our civilisation and civilisation is by no means inevitable. For most of human existence, the ability to transfer knowledge down through the generations has been severely limited and certain knowledge has often been restricted to cultural elites. Mass education is a powerful invention.
We also know that the education systems that we have, like any of our social systems, could be improved. Yet we are sceptical of those who promise miracle cures or agitate for revolutions. History teaches us that these quick fixes throw out much that is good. So instead, we look for small gains, incremental improvements. We are interested in cognitive psychology and educational research but we view these fields with a critical eye.
I suggest that we are the scouting party for the bulk of pragmatic teachers. Despite claims to the contrary, we probably represent the centre-ground. We may well be the ones who are active on social media and who can quote a few sources to support our views but that is all. We are the noisy brigade of the ordinary teachers.
However, our noise inevitably provokes a reaction from those whose views have previously gone unchallenged. Some of these reactions are valid but rather too many are fallacious. Here are some of the bad arguments that you might have come across.
1. You disagreed with me so you are a troll/bully
A reasonable argument against a position that someone has publicly articulated is treated as a personal attack, often accompanied by lots of grandstanding about blocking the person on Twitter.
If a person states a view in a public forum like a blog then it is fine for others to disagree with it. It does not undermine the standing of the profession. This is hyperbole deployed in an attempt to get people to self-censor.
2. You are a neotraditionalist
What is that? It just sounds like someone stuck the sinister prefix ‘neo’ – think neonazis, neoliberalism, neoconservative – on the front of ‘traditionalist’. Yeah, that’s what they did. Just that.
3. You hate children
You hate children because you want to ban play!
No, you hate children because you want them to be illiterate!
This is a fruitless discussion. I suspect that most people involved in education care about children otherwise they would be doing something else.
4. You don’t have my level of experience / authority
So what? Professors can be wrong and ordinary people can be right. State your argument. Show me your evidence. It may be shocking to those who are used to being taken extremely seriously in their professional life but social media is a great leveller.
5. You are a positivist / you are guilty of scientism
Virtually no teacher who is accused of these things actually subscribes to such views. This would mean extending the empirical, scientific method to decisions about issues that are outside its scope. I don’t base my view that corporal punishment is wrong on any experimental data. However, where there is empirical data that does provide strong evidence for something then it seems perverse to ignore it.
6. You don’t understand. Go away and read this expensive and obscure book.
This is clearly an attempt to shut down an argument by someone who knows that they are starting to sound silly. These are often the folks who place their faith in theories that they cannot clearly articulate and which the sceptic might conclude that they don’t really understand.
7. Direct evidence is dismissed as cherry-picked or out-of-context
So you find direct, unambiguous evidence of something. This is not enough because you’ve misunderstood it, misrepresented it or taken it out of context. The proper context is, of course, never explained.
8. Your ideas come from a dubious source / you are a dubious source
This is the ad hominem fallacy and, weirdly, it is alive and well in academia. We are supposed to mistrust think-tanks, for instance, not because they are wrong or have bad ideas but because they influence government policy and don’t disclose their sources of funding (which are, presumably, shadowy elites). You might find yourself nodding along with this until you wonder what the alternatives might be. Should think-tanks be regulated or given a permit to operate? Should donors be on a public register? Hmmm… I’m reminded of the status of N.G.O.s in Russia.
I disagree with lots of reports from think-tanks. For instance, I think this report by the Grattan Institute is a least partially misconceived. But I disagree on the basis of the ideas expounded. If a source is influential then I think it makes it even more valuable to engage with the actual ideas that they are promoting because, otherwise, they might make it into government policy unchallenged.