Sometimes people object to medicine’s being used as an analogy for education. They point out that there are many differences and many ways in which the two areas of policy are not comparable. It is always possible to attack an analogy in this way, simply because analogy works by comparing two things that are alike in some ways, but different in others. Those who wish to understand and appreciate the analogy focus on similarities, while those who wish to undermine it focus on the differences. To complain that the analogy doesn’t work because there are important differences between its component parts, is to to complain that it doesn’t work because it is an analogy. Unless analogy is completely avoided as a method of reasoning, there will always be tensions which can be exploited by opponents.
Medical analogies have many uses when examining education. They serve a corrective purpose. Our culture tends to be far more doctrinaire in physical than in rational matters. To put dangerous substances into the body is universally condemned, and you won’t find a single doctor recommending it. But to read books that are poorly reasoned, badly written, or just plain inaccurate, is not so widely frowned upon. Many who would be very careful about reading the ingredients on a packet of food take no such precautions before diving into a book, and even swallowing its contents whole. The health of the body and the health of the mind both need to be considered, but the latter currently gets very little attention, at least at the level of preventative medicine.
Medical analogies help to correct ideas about authority. When dealing with an illness, we would not go to the internet to look up our symptoms, diagnose ourselves and then buy medicine from Ebay. We do not consider ourselves to be sufficiently expert to distinguish between good information and bad, and when our health is at stake, we want advice from someone with knowledge and authority. Again, it is clear that we are not so careful when it comes to the health of the mind. Many consider it quite acceptable, and even to be encouraged, that we should fill our minds with suspect information from uncertain sources, and attempt to make a ‘diagnosis’ about topics as diverse as science, history and politics, when we lack the knowledge or the expertise to do so.
Medical research can be compared to educational research. Would a drug be trialled on just one small group of patients, without a control sample, before being unleashed on the general public with government approval and large amounts of government funding? This is what has happened repeatedly in education, but whatever the disputes over medical treatments, such laxity would be considered malpractice, worthy of removing the culprits from the profession. Once again, we see how physical health is treated with much greater care and professionalism than the health of the mind.
Malpractice is a very serious issue in any profession, but considering it in medicine does help to clarify our thinking. A poor doctor could just be a bit lazy and disorganised. That could be enough to kill a few patients each year. Would that be acceptable? This can help us clarify our own responsibility as teachers. Are we really convinced that we know enough about our subject, that we are organised enough and consistent enough in our approach? This is not about making unreasonable demands on teachers. On the contrary, we need to be convinced that the responsibilities we have are not excessively demanding, because if they are, we will not carry them out effectively. No-one would want to be operated upon by an exhausted surgeon. Why should children have their minds operated upon by exhausted teachers?
There are many other ways in which medicine and education can be compared, but the key message is about seriousness and responsibility. Young minds are even more important than young bodies. It is possible to lead a fulfilled and useful life without perfect physical health, but with an ignorant and arrogant mind, can anyone live a truly human life, let alone a good one?