Education needs its non-conformists

In a few weeks time, I will be voting in a ridiculous postal opinion poll that has been imposed on Australians by a weak government. I will be voting because I believe that marriage is a wonderful institution and one that should not be denied to same-sex couples. This is my personal view and I respect those who may disagree.

I don’t normally discuss views that are unrelated to education because I try to keep this blog focused. However, I am doing so in order to make a point that I think is important.

The field of education – its bureaucracies and academic institutions – is dominated by a mono-culture. This mono-culture likes to tell itself that it is liberal, enlightened and left-wing. I don’t agree that this is the case. Some of the dogmas that it adheres to actively harm the most vulnerable in society and therefore have little in common with progressive politics. That is why I can be comfortable being a social liberal on the political left while also being an enemy of this mono-culture.

One academic with otherwise conformist beliefs once explained to me how difficult it is to be in favour of phonics instruction. Not only is the mono-culture absolute in its demands for conformity, it views conformity as a sign of virtue. If you dissent then you are morally compromised; a bad person.

Those who conform to the mono-culture are not quite sure how to react to teachers like me. They would rather I were a caricature from the political right. In a sense, right-wing commentators like Kevin Donnelly are their ally because the mono-culture would wish to be positioned in contrast to him and he to them.

This leads to two main reactions to those who share some of my views. The first consists of smears; attempts to link dissenters to the political far right. Smears derive their power from being difficult to defend against. Denial is seen as further evidence of complicity. You can’t defend yourself against a smear and so its probably not worth trying.

The second reaction is a curious streak of authoritarianism. Those who seek to silence reasonably held opinions are not liberal or enlightened. Instead, they are behaving as those in power have behaved throughout history by seeking to shut down dissent.

I have experienced this a number of times. Most notably, my fairly innocuous views about differentiation have been dismissed as essentially illegal: Australian law requires schools to make reasonable accommodations for students with a disability and so, in a huge leap of illogic, my suggestion that specific forms of differentiation do more harm than good are unacceptable.

We have also seen this attitude towards researchED. If you look at any researchED program you will see a diversity of views represented. I certainly find much to disagree with in some of the presentations. However, researchED places importance on empirical evidence and some of the presenters draw upon this evidence to make statements that are at odds with the mono-culture. The charge of positivism is leveled.

You would think this would be fine. There are plenty of education conferences already and researchED is a relatively small outfit driven by teachers. People have plenty of space to make their arguments. Who cares if researchED is a bit different?

Apparently, a lot of people do care. Earlier this year there was a concerted attack on the Australian researchED conference and those associated with it. Australian EduTwitter seethes with conspiracy theories about the organisation complete with feverish blogposts asking questions about funding for the shoestring operation. Now there appears to be a campaign against researchED hosting a conference in Canada.

Ultimately, the diffuse nature of the complaints against researchED suggest that people are looking for a stick to beat it with. Why? Because they don’t like it. Why don’t they like it? Because some of the speakers says things that are at odds with the mono-culture. This is a threat because the mono-culture is so weak that a tiny operation such as researchED presents it with an existential crisis.

Those of us who develop an interest in the why and how of education have a choice. We can conform to the mono-culture, accept its tenets and swear to protect it from external threats or we can be independent critical thinkers.

The group-think and extreme reactions of those in the education establishment who oppose open debate only serves to prove how much we need more non-conformists. And I think we are on the right side of history. If the haters do eventually find a stick big enough to kill researchED then I am fairly confident that something new will spring up in its place. The genie is out of the bottle. The days of the mono-culture are numbered.

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10 Comments on “Education needs its non-conformists”

  1. Mike says:

    This Canadian thing has been quite an instructive example of how corrosive social media (especially Twitter) can be in some cases, because of the necessity for oversimplification and the haughty disregard for context. It looks like there was just one screaming ideologue with an infantile attitude towards education (so much is clear just from his Twitter profile) who basically set it all off. Extremely unpleasant.

    If researchED ever comes to Sydney, I’ll be there. (I almost wrote “in solidarity”, then I thought better of it…)

  2. stan says:

    I can see respecting someone who doesn’t think same sex or opposite sex marriage is for them. But how do you respect someone who wants to impose their view on everyone else.

    • You don’t have to respect them but you should tolerate them – and argue patiently your position.

      • stan says:

        Nope. Same sex marriage has been legal across Canada for over a decade the sky did not fall. The only basis for opposing other people having access to it is extreme ignorance and bigotry. I would hope today my lack of tolerance for that would extend to social exclusion at the least, that is I would avoid spending time with them and let them know why. I expect there are unpleasant people you would not tolerate in some way too.

        Do you really believe what you are writing here? If everyone followed that there would be no satire. No one would read Swift, no political comedy, no outrage over racism. Just patient and tolerant arguments.

  3. alackof says:

    As a principal of an 11-14 school, I sympathise with this. The establishment view finds it very hard to understand how and what our school might be about and lose it completely on trying to understand how we run the place when there are measures such as progress 8. My answer is always the same. We teach the students stuff and we teach them well. It means we have to have confidence in what we do and not be in thrall to the changing external measures. Comparative assessment is vital and so is a strong commitment to getting the basics right.

  4. Thank you for this timely discussion in a very interesting time on education theory and orthodoxy. Would love to talk to you more about this.

  5. […] and he comes up with excellent points to ponder on a regular basis. He has another post on education and non-conformity and I really want to read this and look for more writing prompts based on his […]


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