Over at the blog of the British Educational Research Association, Dr Pam Jarvis has been blogging on the topic of, “In pursuit of a secure base? Education commentary in times of socio-political uncertainty.” I agree that it doesn’t sound promising but bear with me.
Jarvis’s thesis is that:
“…when nations experience socio-political uncertainty, the population becomes collectively anxious and the state responds by ‘behav[ing] like the parent of an avoidant child… and tries with increasing state power to quell expressions of discontent’.” [Reference omitted]
She then identifies Trump and Brexit as responses to the 2008 global financial crisis, alongside those in education who ‘seek monolithic control’ and who embrace a ‘quest for certainty’. That doesn’t sound good! Boo! Hiss!
Jarvis then lists three isolated quotes from the journalist Toby Young, and from education bloggers David Didau and Old Andrew. She suggests that these commentators do not understand education like what she does because they ‘lack… discursive engagement with theoretical and empirical evidence.’ Finally, and rather ominously, she refers to the British Educational Research Association’s ethical guidelines on how to interact with peers, the implication being that the three who she has mentioned have fallen short in some way.
This is obvious gate-keeping. It draws from a bag of rhetorical tricks that we see increasingly used by those with traditional power in education when they engage with the burgeoning social media debate. There is no obvious connection between a disparate group of people Jarvis happens to disagree with and Trump or Brexit and so she manufactures one. To utilise a neologism, it is an attempt to smear-out the ‘toxicity’ of one group so as to corrupt our view of another.
The second tactic is what we might describe as the ‘but you haven’t read Milligan (1971)’ fallacy. It is easy and lazy to accuse your opponents of not having read things. It is easy because nobody has read everything and nobody is likely to spend their time reading lots of hogwash they disagree with. If a lack of reading leads people into error then it is a far more devastating blow to patiently explain exactly what that error is. But that is harder that just saying they haven’t read enough.
The Didau piece from which the quote is drawn is actually an extended and nuanced discussion of a live issue. The quote that Jarvis has selected (or cherry-picked) really does not do this justice. Didau is challenging the concept of dyslexia and whether it is a real condition. I know a lot of reading researchers and I would guess the consensus position is that dyslexia is a helpful label because it directs resources to children with reading difficulties. Nonetheless, it is notoriously difficult to define, interacts strongly with teaching practices and comes with the attendant issue of labeling and inappropriate responses to that labeling. In essence, the post involves Didau exploring and responding to an issue of great uncertainty, just as he did in his seminal book, What if everything you knew about teaching was wrong? It is therefore eccentric to associate Didau, as Jarvis does, with a ‘quest for certainty’.
The ‘certainty’ part is clearly a straw man. Nobody involved in education trades in certainties and yet it has become common to attack critics of the orthodoxy for holding such a position.
I would find it annoying to be quoted in such a piece, but at least we are starting to see organisations like the British Educational Research Association mounting (fallacious) arguments and showing their true colours. It is best to have this all out in the open so we can see clearly the different positions and engage critically with them. In this case, the position seems to be ‘shut up, bloggers.’ The response should be ‘this is only the beginning.’