Confine Post-truth Education into the Dustbin of History

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Two arguments have been prevalent in education discourse for a number of years: one, that the content of the curriculum is just a reflection of power relations and two, that all truth is relative. The arguments are often expressed as questions: ‘whose truth?’ And ‘whose knowledge?’ These ideas are then used to back up the idea that the curriculum should be personalised and that everyone is entitled to an opinion as all opinions are valid, so what we teach is less important than how we teach it.

The challenge to such thinking in education comes with two changes that occurred during 2016: our relationship with ‘Europe’ and the oft repeated claim that now live in a post truth age.

Whose knowledge? Imagine a curriculum that celebrated the importance of European culture, had explored the work of Beethoven, Goethe, and Dante, in which all children had been taught about classical civilisation, the languages of ancient Greek and Latin, they had been imbued with the philosophy of Hegel, of Machiavelli, of Descartes, and had tried to understand Kant, had felt the passion of Puccini, the splendour of Wagner and the brilliance of Mozart… and Napoleon… imagine a curriculum where children were now looking at Putin through the eyes of children who had been introduced to Tsarist Russia through the words of Tolstoy.

In education we have for too many years not given enough credence to cultural, artistic, philosophical and political understanding of our European home. Isn’t it a shame the referendum debate lacked a position on the cultural history of our continent, our place within it, its Christian history, as well as Jewish, Muslim and Pagan, its architecture and geography…? Instead these things have been frowned upon for years by a significant number of educationalists. Much of our shared European culture has been seen in our schools as a colonialist history, full of white male domination including, of course,  Hitler. Instead of some sort of communal European identity and feeling, our place as Europeans is absorbed as problematic. And whether you were for Brexit or not, Europe is a part of all our lives. Especially as our island story has an uneasy relationship with the continent, we should teach for a better cultural understanding of our shared and different histories.

Now we hear about how disgraceful it is that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age from the same mouths who have for many years asked but ‘whose truth?’ and stated that: ‘there is no truth…’ How they can suddenly believe that we have lost something they thought we never had is beyond me. Derrida and Foucault, dead European men both, have infected the discourse in the arts and humanities for too long.

It is precisely in the Arts and the Humanities that we should regain a sense of truth, of truths, of the need for a pursuit of truth and some sense of a common history. Education  should reaffirm its purpose of introducing the cultural and philosophical conversations through time to children, we can use education as a way of bringing us back together through all our differences to at least understand that, in the words of Jo Cox MP, “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

If the arts and culture are merely taught in terms of reflecting privilege and power and all is relative so there is no truth, we will struggle to raise children who can see a value in the arts, apart from an X Factor money making and fame generating opportunity. If the arts and humanities abandon the pursuit of truth and leave that noble aim to science and maths, we will struggle to understand!

This means stop pursuing ‘personalisation’, everyone is different, tailor-made approaches in which children are merely customers exercising consumer choice. Instead it means teaching the great works, thoughts, and ideas of the past, restoring a sense that some things are better than others. It means we should teach about our cultural history, the agreements and the clashes of civilisations and ideals, the wars and the peace, but ensure, into our great tradition, we include a wide range of voices, including the dissenting ones to enable new voices to feel that they have a stake in continuing the conversation.

Value the tradition and value the pursuit of wisdom and truth. Confine the wrecking questions of whose truth? and whose knowledge? to the dustbin of history.

 

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18 thoughts on “Confine Post-truth Education into the Dustbin of History

    1. Chester Draws

      “We lost”?

      I think you’ll find that the majority won. That’s pretty much how a referendum works.

      You’ll not understand why “we” lost until you get a grip on the fact that there were more people are on the other side and that “we” didn’t lose.

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  1. Adam

    Martin my heart thoroughly agrees with you. Allowing all our students access to the greatest of what has been thought and said strikes a deep chord within me. But I still do not think you (or I) have provided an adequate answer to the question “why?”

    Is it just a root, foundational belief? Is it utilitarian position? I don’t know. The romance carries me away but the hard logical justification, which as a scientist I know intimately, does not seem to be present. The “truth-value” of culture surely is different to that of maths and science (Hume etc notwithstanding)

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  2. Fernando Leanme

    I’m an engineer, born in Cuba, educated in a USA university before they degenerated in the early 21st century, and to be honest most of this post goes over my head. Nowadays I live in Europe, I like the climate, and the low crime (I find its like a different planet after living in Venezuela).

    So I’m not sure who most of those guys are. I study history, but I focus more on the broad sweep of things, the wars, the way the maps changed, how populations changed over the centuries as territories were conquered and ethnic cleansing took place.

    I don’t know what a “philosophical conversation” is about. I know that conversing with a committed Marxist or a religious extremist (of any religion) is fairly useless. Lately I’ve been debating myself as to whether this universe is like this because it’s one of many, and we simply evolved to adapt to what was available, or whether we are in a computer simulation with a faulty source code.

    I remember visiting Greece, looking at their statues and admiring the way the Parthenon columns slanted just right, and thinking about the thousands of slaves who worked in hell holes, to get the silver which made that architectural genius emerge as if by magic. That’s about as philosophical as I can get.

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  3. Paul W Bennett

    You have captured well why 2016 may have been a turning point of some sort. The palpable sense of loss is difficult to fathom let alone explain. It goes far deeper than Brexit, Trump, and the triumph of “reality TV.”

    We seem to be bobbing in the sea, having lost our moorings. That is chilling.

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    1. teachwell

      I think the main loss is the idea that progressivism had won and that it was simply playing out an end game.

      While I neither voted Brexit or supported Trump, I see them as necessary reality checks for those whose utopianism and narcissism has dominated the cultural debate.

      Deriding the truth as a means of exerting their own position without having to debate, take responsibility or observe the real cost of their ideas on society and the world is not a sustainable position.

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  4. disidealist

    Gosh Martin, I normally enjoy your blogs, but this one jumps several sharks in my view.

    Firstly, you’re in serious danger of suggesting that there are agreed historical “truths”. Well, there are, on a very basic level in terms of the “what” of history – when something happened, for example. But even those “whats” are disputed in many instances, with great periods of history where we simply don’t know what happened when and who was there. But leave that to one side, because the “what” of history is only the most basic level. As much use (or lack of use) as reciting a list of kings and queens – utterly pointless beyond a pub quiz. History is the study of “how” and “why”, and as soon as one goes anywhere near those questions, the idea of “truth” swiftly becomes transparently ridiculous. Practically every country, every era, has its original, revisionist, post-revisionist, modernist, neo-traditional schools of thought, as arguments and interpretations rage back and forth, win favour then decline. It’s what history is built on. That’s not “post-truth”, it’s just academic rigour and good scholarship. And it matters. To give an example : why did Thatcher win in 1983 ? Was it because of the creation of the SDP? The Falklands War? Michael Foot? The economy? There are good but conflicting arguments for all these factors. Yet the different answers to that question shape current policy 30 years later. Whose “truth” should we teach? The answer, of course, is none. We teach what happened, present the arguments and weight and argue the interpretations. There is no “truth”, and I’d be a terrible history teacher if I said “it was this.” So would anyone.

    That’s a recent example, but go back. There is a finite amount of time on a history curriculum. One can’t cover the whole of British history in detail, let alone European history. So who do we teach about? What criteria do we apply to judge which aspects some two thousand of years of written history do we deem important? There will be areas on which there is considerable agreement, and other areas where historians will passionately disagree. One can skim over the surface of a lot, or look in depth at rather less. Who decides? Because as Gove’s laughable and quickly abandoned back-of-an-envelope suggested history list showed, there is no accepted “truth” over this material. What is important to one scholarly historian is of little interest to another, and another. To speak of “truths” in such a context is to simply impose one set of value judgements on all. Nearly all schools muddle through, with a sketchy skim over a millennium during KS3. But it is impossible to study all history in any depth, so choices have to be made at GCSE, and again at A Level. So whose ‘truth’ defines those choices? Which 3 or 4 arbitrary historical studies should all GCSE and A level students be required to study? Who will make that choice?

    You seem to argue that there are “truths” in all humanities subjects. I have to tell you that any historian worth their salt, from right or left, would tell you that beyond the most superficial “listing” of historical facts, the certainties which you would have us teach would be a gross misrepresentation of what the study of history is. It would, ironically, contradict the best doubting, enquiring, interpretative, evidence-based traditions of traditional post-enlightenment history.

    I’ll leave it there, because this is long enough. But just one parting shot: I’m a fairly sharp bloke. I read philosophy in my first year at university before dropping it like a stone as it felt like tedious repetitive and pointless intellectual masturbation. I would argue absolutely that R.E.M. and Radiohead made – until their latter albums – better music than any of the classical composers you mentioned. I like looking at grand old buildings, but don’t give a stuff which type of columns they’re supported by. I hated French and German so much they were the only subjects I didn’t get an A in, and I have never studied Latin – a dead, pointless language – or Greek (as the wife speaks a bit, so can order the souvlaki when we go on holiday there). Classic literature bores the pants off me mostly, I think Terry Pratchett has more to say about the absurdity of humanity than Shakespeare, and “Ten Things I hate About You” was a better film than Taming of The Shrew was a play. You would consider me a philistine, and I wouldn’t care at all. Michael Gove, on the other hand, would almost certainly support everything you said above. So which one of Gove and I was keen to maintain our place in a European continent, not least because my study of history had made me all too aware of the dangers of politicians and nations starting to believe in their own version of what is and isn’t “true”?

    Your preferences and beliefs are duly noted. But don’t mistake those preferences and beliefs for universal truths.

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      1. disidealist

        Yes, really. But I don’t expect everyone else to agree. That’s the point.

        History, literature, music – these are not sciences. Subjective judgement is at their very core. And subjective judgement is not the same as untruth or post-truth or just being wrong. If I say WW2 ended in 1946, I’m wrong. That would be untrue. If I say it ended the way it did primarily because of Winston Churchill’s refusal to accept a peace offer in 1940, I’m not wrong. But if I said Churchill’s stance was irrelevant because Stalin would have won it anyway, I’m also not wrong. And if I said Hitler would have beaten Stalin AND Churchill without Roosevelt, I’m also not wrong. These are subjective judgments. Evidenced, to be sure. Some stronger than others in my considered opinion. But it is entirely possible for eminent scholars and rational people to hold to any one, two or all of those positions, and they do. There is no “truth” there.

        I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with my subjective judgements about what was more or most important. I don’t have a problem with trying to find a compromise which allows us to make a decent fist of teaching a fair degree of common material. And where objectivity and facts rule the roost, in the sciences, maths, physical geography etc, then fill your boots – those subjects are filled with ‘truths’ which are universally accepted and proven in a scientific way.

        But let’s not pretend that such a degree of proof can ever be applied to music, art, history or RS. While each may have facts as a foundation, the comparative value of different arguments, works, beliefs or compositions can never be anything other than subjective. The true art is in being able to argue persuasively and rationally for your subjective judgement. But it is wrong, completely wrong, to describe someone else’s interpretation of history, or preference for music, or appreciation of art, as “untrue”. That sort of conviction, that my “truths” render your preferences to be ‘untrue’, belongs in religious zealotry, not post-enlightenment education.

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  5. katherine23711

    Yes – I agree with almost all you say – but don’t limit it to the humanities – you should have seen my Black History month assembly on the Hindu origins of our number system – not to mention the joy of finding I had 2 Jain children in the school and could add in the Jain philosophy of different infinities. I had intended to have an assembly on Arab science, but…

    The Gove Commandments, as well as reducing the Junior School history syllabus to very little that would inform or inspire (possibly only Allende’s curriculum was more obvious in its aim to produce docile, unthinking workers) also proclaimed that Junior Schools should be judged by how many children got a L6 in KS2 English and maths. For years, I had worked on an ‘alternative curriculum’ for the brightest kids (and we had some very bright kids). But L6 meant out with Socrates, in with the correct use of semi-colons. Out with Turing and Godel, in with KS3 trigonometry,

    Out went my G&T policies of, amongst others, ‘general knowledge to inspire someone growing up in the 21st Century’ ‘how to search the internet efficiently and make a judgement on how truthful the site you have landed on is’

    I know a brick wall when I’m hitting one – I took early retirement. It feels like a cop-out, but I’m afraid it feels like a relief as well.

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  6. Adam

    Absolutely horrendous that such a word even EXISTS, never mind is the word of the year. There should never be ‘post-truth’, which surely means that it’s even harder to take anything those in say seriously.

    We are in an age where fact checking and reasoning is becoming a minority, which is fueled by social media. Social media does a lot of good, but the ease of sharing and the lack of willingness to put the effort in to verify stories by many users is scary.

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    1. Chester Draws

      We are in an age where fact checking and reasoning is becoming a minority,

      I would argue the exact reverse — we live in an age where it is all too easy to check facts and that people are coming to terms with the consequences of that. In the past people read the newspapers and listened to experts and thought they told the truth. Now we know that much of what they say is, frankly, lies. It always was, we just couldn’t check for ourselves.

      So there is a crisis of confidence in “truth” as brought by institutions. But that is no bad thing, because what we confidently thought were truths were often half-truths and lies anyway.

      This very blog is an example of this. “Truths” pronounced on high by “experts” are dissected by someone with a sharp mind — and then he is able to spread that dissection in a way that was previously not possible. That is a good thing, but there is no getting around that it increases the amount of contested positions in society.

      Social media is useless for mature discussion, and that is one reason I stay clear of it. But just as it took some decades for blogging to mature, I’m sure social media will work its way to more clarity over time.

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  7. Brian

    I have a week and a bit off work starting this wednesday and I think I will need all of it to digest the original and comments.

    Looking at the eloquance of this post and combining it with the Trivium which I thought was a lovely book, I have to have a sneaking suspicion that Martin is onto something, I am just not sure what.

    If anyone has a good read on the subjects of relativism and/or post truth please pass them on. I have a cursory knowledge of both that that isn’t going to be enough for this blogpost.

    Thanks for this one Martin. You are one of those traditional types who actully talks an endless amount of sense. I have a feeling this post will end up the same way.

    Is that post-truth?

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