Dogmatic Relativism versus Objective Truth


Could we learn something from this man?

The barriers to embracing traditional, direct approaches to teaching are philosophical much more than they are practical. In fact, simple, direct methods are far less costly as well as being more effective. Those who do finally admit this experience a reduction in workload and an increase in effectiveness, and they find themselves wondering why there is so much resistance to approaches that are tried and tested, simple and straightforward.

The resistance is in the realm of ideas. E D Hirsch is anxious to point this out in The Schools We Need. He is emphatically not attacking the teachers who have been led astray by bad ideas; he pities them, along with the pupils whom they teach:

‘this book is emphatically not an indictment of teachers. They have been as ill-served as our students by the inadequate ideas and impoverished subject-matter instruction that they have been compelled to absorb in order to receive certification.’ (p15)

One of the key ideas which prevents a traditional approach is the widespread belief that objective truth does not exist. I was recently labelled a ‘moron’ on Twitter for daring to suggest that there was such a thing as objective truth. Everyone who studies the arts and humanities at university has it drilled into them by their professors that there are only multiple interpretations of reality informed by vastly different cultural circumstances. The grand narratives are over; now there are only many different competing narratives with no unifying theme.

This is all very clever and serves the professors well. It produces undergraduate essays that have a veneer of intellectualism about them, and it allows the professors to pose as liberating their benighted students from the naive assumptions which they absorbed from their more traditional parents and home communities. Admittedly, that pose is getting rather harder to sustain, as Allan Bloom points out, writing in 1987, that the education system has been geared to generating relativism for some time:

‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending.’ (The Closing of the American Mind, p25)

Through the education system, then, the belief in relativism has become so widespread as to constitute an assumption that underlies much of our contemporary culture. Those who deny objective truth do not, however, do so consistently. The first and most obvious contradiction in the dogmatic assertion of relativism is that it is dogmatic. There is no objective truth apart from the objective truth that there is no objective truth. The assertion is so dogmatic that those who oppose it are made to feel like heretics. When they are not simply being dismissed as ‘morons, they are labelled as ‘bigoted’ and ‘intolerant’. Relativism is, in fact, a dogmatic religion, with its own orthodoxy and its witch hunts aimed at those who dare to question that orthodoxy.

There are other, more specific ways in which relativism is not consistently applied. These relate to the pet causes of the liberals who espouse it most strongly. For example, most liberals would pride themselves on eschewing any kind of racial prejudice. As part of this, they would be horrified by anyone who denied that the Holocaust had taken place. They are right to be angry at Holocaust deniers, of course. But they do not appear to realise that this undermines their relativist faith. The insistence on the truth of the Holocaust is important. It is a specific case of the importance of objective truth, and the moral bankruptcy of relativism.

Another example can be found in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were seeking the truth about what had taken place during the Apartheid years. They were not seeking multiple competing narratives that would be treated as equally valid. They wanted to know the truth so that there could be repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. For some reason they didn’t call it the ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Reconciliation Commission’.

When something evil has been done, we seek the truth about who is culpable. We may not know everything about the act, and indeed we cannot see into men’s souls and judge their intentions, but we can be convinced, objectively, about the events that took place. How many dogmatic relativists would maintain their faith if, God forbid, a terrible crime were committed against a loved one? They would abandon it, and wholeheartedly seek the truth, if there was a shred of humanity left underneath their intellectual posturing.

It is clear to anyone who contemplates these multiple contradictions that relativism is not a sustainable position, rationally or morally. It is a modern form of sophistry, because it is only used by its proponents when it suits them, and dropped when it becomes inconvenient. In returning to sophistry, we have retreated to pre-Socratic times. We are living in the darkness of myth, not the light of reason.


Progressive Education and Political Culture

Snake_oil_old_bottleProgressive educational ideas constitute an attack on truth and authority. Traditionally, education consists of passing on to the next generation a body of knowledge, handing on to them the precious inheritance of human wisdom and thought which has built up through the generations. The teacher has authority because he has already mastered this knowledge, and has been chosen for the important role of passing it on to the next generation. But progressive ideas reverse all of this, placing the child on a pedestal, and asking the child what he wishes to learn. In making education child-centred rather than knowledge centred, progressive educators pass on this key dogma: there is no objective truth; there is only subjective experience, and to know more of this relativist ‘truth’, we must look within, not without.

It is well documented that these ideas took a powerful hold of state education in Britain from the sixties onwards, although their dominance was stronger in primary schools at first, and many bastions of traditionalism continued, particularly in the grammar schools that survived. While Harold Wilson had hoped for a traditional academic education to be made available to everyone – ‘grammar schools for all’ – the comprehensivisation of secondary schools in the seventies in fact ushered in ever more radical progressive experiments, as discipline was relaxed and traditional academic subjects either dropped or hollowed out to the point of meaninglessness. Read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, for more detail on this.

The dominance of progressive ideas in education from the sixties onwards has been part of a larger cultural shift away from received wisdom, traditional morality and objective truth towards a relativist, subjectivist view of human society, and of humanity itself.

What we have seen is an abandonment of the final cause: the fourth of Aristotle’s four causes, and the most important one. Aristotle considered it to be the strongest argument for the existence of God, as the final cause of the universe, and he also considered it to be indispensable for a proper understanding of any phenomenon. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to understand anything properly. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to make meaningful judgements. If I want to judge whether a pen is ‘good’, I must know its purpose. Once I know that its purpose is to write, then I can see if it writes well. If it does, I say it is a good pen. If I misunderstand its purpose, and decide to use it as a can opener, I will not achieve my goal – I will not open the can – and I will also destroy the pen.

This is what has happened in education. The final cause has been lost, and education has been used to achieve all kinds of goals for which it was not intended. And just like the unwise man who tries to open a can with a pen, we have tried to do all sorts of foolish things with education and in the process we have destroyed education.

The collapse of authority and traditional wisdom in state education is so widespread that it is now hardly noticed by most people. It has become normal. Generations have experienced schools where teachers are treated without respect, where history is hollowed out to subjective responses and ‘source analysis’, where English involves the arrogant dismissal of the writers of the past as benighted bigots.

Now we have a political class entering the highest offices of government that has experienced this kind of schooling. They are more likely than ever to see morality in terms of conformity to social norms rather than submission to any objective standard. They are more likely to see the population as in need of management and manipulation rather than as having possession of reason and free will. They will have experienced, in their formative years, a system dedicated to the ideological whims of the experts (seventies and eighties) or to fulfilling bureaucratic criteria (nineties and noughties) rather than to handing on the wisdom of the centuries to the young. So it would be natural for them to consider the role of government in a similar manner. Instead of government serving the people, the people must meet the critieria of government. Instead of government being limited to the maintenance of peace and the rule of law, government must interfere in every area of life, to ensure that ‘standards’ are being met. Government becomes one huge, overweening inspection regime.

That’s why I don’t find it reassuring that ever more government ministers are state educated.

Could the Myth of Parental Choice Be Made a Reality?

You can have any school you like, as long it’s approved by the bureaucrats.

At a discussion about the inspection regime recently, the most interesting idea was that more genuine accountability would develop if schools were much more open to visits by parents during the working day. Many tax-funded schools make it simply impossible for tax-paying parents to see them in action, only allowing parental visits at well orchestrated open evenings, where everything can be controlled and the most well behaved pupils can be paraded, along with glossy Powerpoint presentations and brochures. We all know how accurate such a vision of the school is likely to be.

If parents are not being permitted to see what is being done to their children day in, day out, what choice do they really have? They cannot choose between schools if they do not really know what is going on in schools.

If state schools are unwilling to allow parents to visit during the working day, we have to ask ourselves why this is. Of course it does entail a certain amount of administration, but that could soon be overcome, as long as management do not overdo child protection to the point of paranoia. One wonders, in fact, whether the increasingly hysterical attitude to child protection is part of the bureaucratic drive to undermine parental authority and dignity. It certainly promotes the idea that children are only to be trusted with state certified officials, and this category does not, of course, include their parents.

The more that genuine parental choice, and the dignity that comes with it, is promoted, the more of a healthy and open relationship parents and teachers can have. Thankfully, there is still a recognition in English law that parents have the right to educate their own children. This is the ideal starting point for parental involvement. They should have the awareness that they have chosen school, in a general sense, over home education. Then they should have a conscious awareness of choosing a particular school, and making that choice based on real knowledge of how the school operates and whether that is in accord with the way in which they wish their child to be educated.

Giving parents real choice would give them back the dignity and authority which is naturally theirs, and would lead to their taking a greater practical interest in education. When educational choice is taken away from most parents in any meaningful sense, it is no wonder that many are ignorant about education, or apathetic about it. They have been told that the professionals always know better. The state has removed their authority and their dignity from them. We’ve seen this attitude illustrated strongly in the way ordinary people have been treated as stupid and incapable of making informed choices in the EU referendum campaign and its aftermath. In fact, people respond when they are given genuine choice. My wife, for example, had always found politics dull and remained fairly unengaged until the EU referendum. But when she realised that this was a moment where she actually had a significant choice to make, she began reading about politics with interest. Those who have real choices naturally want to make informed choices.

Once a healthy relationship between schools and parents, based on their authority and their genuine choice, is established, then schools should not need to fear parental involvement. They should be able to be open with parents about what they can and can’t provide. Parents can then make informed choices, firstly about whether they wish their child to attend school at all, and secondly about which school they wish them to attend.

True choice for parents and accountability to parents would also involve making it easier for parents to set up their own schools. When I first heard about the free school programme, I thought that it would genuinely make it possible for parents to establish schools according to their own vision for education. But it quickly became clear that the level of bureaucratic oversight made it possible only for professionals and bureaucrats working together to set up so called ‘free’ schools. The state apparatus seems to be allergic to allowing genuine freedom and autonomy for ordinary people. They must always be managed. They cannot be trusted.

For all its strengths, the free school programme did not put real agency for parents on the table. This is simply not possible as long as the bureaucratic mentality prevails, the mindset which dictates that the professionals always know better than the laypeople who fork out the taxes that pay the professionals’ salaries. It is this bureaucratic mentality which makes Ofsted such a crippling burden on state education, but before they point the finger at inspectors, teachers need to examine some of their own assumptions about whether ordinary people should be allowed any genuine authority over their own children’s education, or whether parents really should just do as they are told by state officials.

(Image from Wikimedia).


Growing Up Is Great

Is life an upward or a downward slope?

‘These are the best years of your life’: it’s so often said to children and to teenagers. Adults think they are encouraging young people to make the most of their opportunities, to live life to the full.

But it’s a terrible message to give. It’s dangerous and damaging in so many ways.

The idea that childhood and youth are the best years of your life is based on the Romantic myth of inherent human goodness. Following Rousseau’s lead, Romantics such as Wordsworth saw childhood as sacred, and lamented the corruption and artifice imposed by adult society. They believed in the noble savage. In doing so, they inaugurated an anti-intellectual, naturalistic ideology which has done incalculable harm over the last two centuries.

The traditional view is that children are working towards adulthood. They are developing the virtues and acquiring the knowledge that they will need in order to live fruitful and happy lives. It is an upward path towards greater happiness and freedom. The struggle to overcome one’s selfish whims and the effort to acquire important knowledge both lead to ever greater abilities to think and act rationally. The child becomes ever more human as he climbs the steep and rugged path upwards towards adulthood.

This traditional view is serious, positive and realistic. Instead of placing the child on a pedestal, it presents adulthood as a worthy and noble goal towards which the child must struggle. It gives adults their proper dignity and authority in the eyes of children, who do, in fact, wish to emulate them, unless they are educated out of this natural tendency.

We are raising adults, not children. But if we repeatedly tell them that childhood is better, that they are currently experiencing ‘the best years of their lives’, they will end up believing us, and lose the motivation to struggle upwards towards the happiness and freedom that comes with fruitful, responsible adulthood.

(Image from Wikimedia).