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.