To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

Votes for rats!

Votes for rats!

Rediscovering Humanity

In his book on educational research, Teacher Proof, Tom Bennett encourages teachers to use their experience first and foremost, and always resist trendy theories when they contradict that experience. But what is this experience? It is what we have learned about human nature, both by reading the works of those who have traditional wisdom (which excludes many modern authors as they tend not to believe in humanity – see below), and by our own observations of human behaviour.

What do we know about human behaviour from traditional wisdom? Firstly, we know that human beings have free will. Free will undermines every theoretical calculation. It upsets managers, bureaucrats, statisticians, but most of all, proponents of the social ‘sciences’ who claim to be able to measure and predict humanity as though people were so many ounces of a chemical in a laboratory test tube.

In Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, his narrator rails against the socialists who claim that human society can be ordered according to their utilitarian theories. He contends that freedom will have its revenge, whatever system is imposed:

I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity, a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”

Moreover, this freedom cannot be destroyed, and its stubborn survival spells the doom of any theoretical system imposed upon human society, however well intentioned and apparently beneficial:

One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy — is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.

The failure to acknowledge free will is perhaps the greatest among many examples of hubris in educational research. Free will is one of the key reasons why it is simply impossible for any sample of humanity to be replicated in a control. Every single one of the human beings in the control sample is a different individual from every single one of the human beings in the sample being investigated. And every single one of those human beings has their own free will. Tom Bennett makes similar points powerfully in Teacher Proof, as he argues against the aura of scientific certainty with which educational researchers have cloaked themselves, without any valid justification.

Appeal to Reason First, and Research Last

Given the doubtful nature of research data, is it impossible to know anything about the effect of different teaching methods? Of course not, but our first appeal should not be to dubious ‘scientific’ analyses, but to reason, and to what is traditionally known about human nature. For example, every moral tradition has known for countless centuries that human beings are inclined to be lazy and take the line of least resistance. They need to be trained in diligence and dutiful behaviour. Letting them ‘discover themselves’ in the classroom is therefore a recipe for disaster. Permissive discipline leads to chaotic classrooms. No sane and reasonable teacher needs an educational researcher to tell them that.

We only need to appeal to reason to justify strict discipline.

Likewise, it is a reasonable proposition that a teacher knows more about a subject than their pupils do. Therefore, wasting large amounts of class time while pupils ‘share their ideas’ is going to leave them relatively ignorant, compared to spending that time explaining subject knowledge and demonstrating subject skills, and insisting that they master the material that has been explained or demonstrated. Skills are mastered through repeated practice to achieve automaticity; knowledge is mastered through the hard work of memorisation.

We only need to appeal to reason to justify direct instruction.

Traditional methods can be justified without research. It is those who attack traditional methods who need to justify their irrational claims by appealing to supposedly ‘scientific’ data.

Educational research often tells teachers things which contradict reason and human nature, in which case it should be rejected, or it tells them things they already knew by using their reason and observing human nature. An example of the latter case would be the research of cognitive scientists into the importance of knowledge for understanding. Did we really need a cognitive scientist to tell us that you can’t understand an historical or literary text properly without a lot of background knowledge? I would suggest that every reasonable teacher of history knew that long before it was ‘proven’ in laboratory experiments.

The Anti-Humanities Departments

When academics see human beings as clumps of cells determined by social, psychological, political, economic (and on and on and on . . .) factors, then they can believe in their ‘findings’ which supposedly explain and predict human behaviour using their pet determinant. And when politicians and bureaucrats see human beings in this way, they are easy prey for the academics touting whatever theory they invented yesterday.

As part of my degree in English literature, I had to take a course in my first year which explained how the latest theories showed that there was no such thing as humanity. My fellow English graduates will probably remember Cultural Materialism, which explicitly denies the existence of any universal human nature, claiming that human behaviour is culturally determined. University humanities departments are no longer aptly named, as their main theoretical underpinning consists in the annihilation of humanity, traditionally understood. The rot has since spread into the A-level English curriculum, with box-ticking exercises designed to chip away at pupils’ belief in the existence of humanity and literature through small but potentially lethal doses of academic theory.

Graduates from anti-humanities departments have been easy prey for the theorists who have catechised them in vulgarised Romanticism during their PGCE. The Nazis may have been defeated, but their idea that human beings are no more than ‘blood and dirt’ is alive and well, and very fashionable indeed. Until we confront that idea, we will continue to be vulnerable to whatever form of determinism the trendy social scientists decide to foist upon us next, and the crazy educational theories that go along with it.

The existence of human freedom, reason and conscience cannot be proven in the way that scientific hypotheses can, because human freedom, reason and conscience are not material objects subject to laboratory experimentation. To disbelieve in their existence for that reason is to disbelieve in the existence of humanity.

If we continue to treat human beings as purely material, we will never restore wise and effective practices to education.

We must regain our human dignity before we can regain our educational sanity.


17 thoughts on “To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

  1. In my experience as both a teacher and a student, there are two factors that affected my ability to deeply engage in my learning:
    1) The expertise and passion of my teacher
    2) Knowing that they cared about my achievement and about me as a person.

    No other fancy theory or program has ever changed that. As a teacher, I care deeply about my students’ well-being and learning. I don’t particularly care if they like me — as far as I’m concerned, my care is enough. I invest deeply in their writing and push them to write better and better successive drafts of their composition, which, in my experience as a writer, is the only way to better your writing.

    I told a new teacher this year my piece of advice: Balanced literacy, project based learning, any other new fad you can think of — at the end of the day the most important thing is who is up in front of the class.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The role of research was at the heart of one of the Battle of Ideas debates at Wellington on Friday and is an area I (perhaps like many others) cannot resolve in my own mind.
    Yes, humanity exists – hurrah! Yes, free will is central to humanity. However, in teaching we rely on the fact children will generally repond in the same way to instruction – or classroom teaching would be a hopeless endeavour. This means research can be helpful, if only to refute dangerous ideas and teaching methods. The enormous research into reading allows us to refute the ineffective mixed methods approach. In this blog I make an argument from tradition for scepticism of reductionist approaches but I think I can’t go as far as you. Lots of food for thought!


    • Research certainly has helped with refutation of dangerous ideas in recent years – see E D Hirsch and Daniel Willingham for example. But I accept Hirsch’s arguments primarily because they are reasonable. If he offered no research, I would still accept them. And he argues for a return to what is in fact traditional: the centrality of content. In these insane times we do sometimes need a ‘science bit’ to remind people of what everyone knew until recently.


  3. I do agree with much of what you say; however, I think you have gone a philosophical “bridge too far”. I see no innate contradiction between methodological materialism and much of what you argue for. As a matter of fact, it probably provides a more secure foundation for what you propose.


      • Evidence suggests that ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’ and other mental processes are products of human brain activity. I honestly do not see anything ‘anti-human’ about accepting such statements as working premises.


      • To say they are products of human brain activity doesn’t explain what they are. It’s like saying Shakespeare’s plays are the product of human pen activity. It doesn’t actually say anything.


      • I think it does. “Shakespeare’s plays as a product of human pen activity” is an ingenious rhetorical counter but I am not saying that (continuing the analogy) that his plays are ONLY pen scratchings. “Shakespeare’s plays” describes a complex phenomenon which includes the impact of dramatic performances as well as cultural references, so of course it sounds ridiculous to reduce them to “human pen activity”. No doubt a number of Shakespearean scholars would give their eye teeth to investigate the original “pen scratchings” in Shakespeare’s hand that began the phenomenon. Likewise with “human brain activity” — there begins the complex (and still poorly understood) phenomenon we call consciousness.


      • My point is that it wasn’t the pen scratchings which started it, but a human being called William Shakespeare, who was moving the pen. You’re still stuck in the reductively material realm with your talk of cultural references, still avoiding or negating the existence of a free human person with reason and conscience. Shakespeare will remain poorly understood if we treat him as a collection of historical and cultural influences. Sadly this is how he tends to be treated by university academics nowadays, as they peddle their pet theories.


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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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