8 bad arguments used in the education debate

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.


9 thoughts on “8 bad arguments used in the education debate

  1. “Consider the source”

    Yeah, okay — as long as you don’t dismiss the substance on that basis alone. Deal with the substance.

    “You’re speaking in binaries”

    Um … if you’re talking to a computer whiz that’s a compliment.

    Besides, there’s only two choices. Either you speak in binaries … or you don’t. There’s nothing in between!

    “That’s a tired old argument”

    Old, perhaps. So? Are you saying it’s been disproven? Explain. In what sense is it “tired”? Do you only mean that *you* are tired of it? What has that to do with it’s validity?

    “You can’t invalidate my experience”

    No, but you can’t impose your experience on me if mine is different. And in any case I can examine your claimed experience in light of the preponderance of evidence, and ask you to discuss any ostensible discrepancies with me. Perhaps your experience is some miraculous singularity. Or an illusion, invention or inaccurate memory. If it is substantiated solely on the basis of your subjective experience, how can you expect it to apply outside that realm?

  2. 1. An argument commonly resorted to by ‘the scouting party’ too.

    2. ‘You are a progressive’ also used by the scouting party.

    3. Since when were play and literacy mutually exclusive? And although I’d agree that most people in education probably do care about children, some might be in it because children are a lot easier to boss about than adults.

    4. The scouting party is as prone as anyone else to dismissing evidence it doesn’t agree with.

    5. What exactly is outside the scope of the scientific method?

    6. Unfortunately, in order to understand it is sometimes necessary to read expensive and obscure books. Higher education does a lot of that.

    7. Supporting evidence alone isn’t enough. The evidence, pro and con, needs to be evaluated.

    8. Evidence varies in quality. If it’s from a reputable academic who’s successfully jumped through funding body hoops and is peer-reviewed, it’s likely to be more valid and reliable than evidence from think-tanks who can essentially write whatever they want. You’re right that the ideas are more important than the sources, but the sources are not irrelevant.

    1. 1. I see little evidence of this
      2. Unlike ‘neotraditionalist’, progressive education is well defined. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/progressive-education/
      3. Not an argument worth having IMO
      4. That seems unrelated to my point about argument from authority
      5. Moral judgements, things that are hard to test
      6. In the middle of a discussion on Twitter?
      7. I didn’t suggest otherwise.
      8. So you agree, it’s still better to evaluate the actual point being made.

      1. 1. Of course you don’t. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

        2. Being well-defined by A Kohn doesn’t mean the person being called a progressive is a progressive by that definition. Conversely, I can’t see a problem with calling someone a neo-traditionalist if they are going round saying they’re a traditionalist but it’s the 21st century.

        3. But some of the scouting party are having that argument.

        4. Your post criticises fallacious arguments in terms of reactions to your ‘noise’. I’m pointing out that the ‘noisy brigade’ use the same fallacious arguments, a point you seem to overlook.

        5. You can’t evaluate them by their outcomes?

        6. Of course not. Doesn’t follow that the Twitter discussion wouldn’t be better informed if participants did more reading.

        7. You referred to ‘direct, unambiguous evidence of something.’ That’s often where people stop.

        8. Yes. But I say again the source is important. You talked about think-tank regulation.

      2. No. It’s nothing like that. Progressive education is well defined and has a strong lineage. If you can explain what neotraditionalist means then perhaps it might add something to the debate.

    2. Unfortunately, in order to understand it is sometimes necessary to read expensive and obscure books. Higher education does a lot of that.

      Higher education does this a lot for all the wrong reasons in many cases. “You need to read Foucault” is not the answer of a person who wants you to read Foucault, but one who wants you to bugger off. Plebs are kept out of a discussion because only a tenured academic can read all the relevant tomes.

      In education if an idea is so complex that it cannot be boiled down to a few paragraphs, then it is an idea not worth having. The proof and the elaborations might take a book, but the general concept should not.

      There are fields where a book might be required to get a concept — the catalytic uses of chromium ions in acidic solutions, say. Or in history where the order and meaning of lots of individual details is the point, not a sideshow.

      Furthermore, in a field as popular as education, any book that is expensive and obscure is pretty much certain to be of little value. If it was of value it would be easy to locate and cheap to buy in a later edition.

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