Google Isn’t to Blame

CompassA recent article in The Guardian pointed out how easily those searching on the internet could be led astray. The suggestions offered by Google when one began typing a question about Jews quickly led one to a large number of antisemitic websites which appeared to offer convincing evidence. Without a good grounding in objective knowledge, one could begin to believe the poisonous lies offered by these sources of ‘information’. Michael Fordham has recently written eloquently on the same theme, offering two examples of historical misinformation, and asking us whether we would be able to judge their reliability without relevant background knowledge.

It seems that Google is leading people astray. Because their search algorithms are based upon what people previously searched for, and because their results are based on what people previously clicked following that search, the information we find through Google is not sifted according to reliability, but according to popularity. Thus lies and misinformation can quickly assume an air of respectability, as long as sufficient numbers of people are willing to countenance them.

But Google is not to blame for this tendency to believe popular opinions, which has been leading people astray since time immemorial. We all tend to believe in things when we are surrounded by those who also do so. The internet simply provides a new arena in which lies can become popular and widely believed. It does not fundamentally change the challenge for all of us, which is the challenge of seeking truth rather than simply conforming to popular opinion.

We should not blame Google for leading people astray. We should look much deeper at the relativist philosophy which makes it possible for people to believe in the websites which they discover after a quick fifteen minute search. This is prevalent in our education system, where pupils are encouraged to express themselves without regard for objective truth or reality. If their teachers have been congratulating them on the forceful expression of ill-informed views throughout their youth, can we be surprised that so many people think they are able to become experts in a topic at the click of a button?

Along with relativism, there is the widespread idea that acquiring knowledge should be effortless and painless. Like the detergents which promise they will magically clean without the need for scrubbing and polishing, progressive ideas promise that knowledge will enter the mind without struggles or frustrations. And like the promises of these magical products, this can never actually be true. But if young people hear day after day that learning should be fun, why should they bother to make the effort to acquire in depth knowledge about a topic, when they could just google it?

We are preparing young people to be duped when we tell them that their ill-informed opinions are valid, or that learning should be fun. We are preparing them to believe in lies and misinformation. The only antidote to the age-old tendency to conform to popular opinion is to rediscover the traditional concept of education as what G K Chesterton called ‘truth in the state of transmission’.

Learning to Love Literature

That hotel, which is pure surface, apparently.

In Seven Myths, Daisy Christodoulou rightly identifies the philosophy underlying progressivism as postmodernism, because of its rejection of truth, which then leads to a refusal to pass on definite knowledge, seeing in this merely the imposition of one person’s beliefs upon another. Thus the central purpose of education, which as Chesterton points out, is only ‘truth in a state of transmission’, is lost.

But there is another aspect of postmodernism which poisons education: the declaration that there is no depth, only surface, as in Fredric Jameson’s famous analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Staying on the surface means gazing at the forms of literature, and declining to enter into its deeper meaning. Indeed, English undergraduates are taught to reject the whole concept of deeper meaning which can appeal across ages and generations as a humanist myth that has been disproved by the more advanced thinking of the cultural materialists. Materialism denies the soul, and therefore denies the existence of any transhistorical human nature to which great writers could appeal across the centuries. We are left only with shifting surfaces, supplemented by reductionist sociological readings that turn literature into a mere historical artefact, and usually one which supports the evil oppressors.

Thus the very existence of a deeper content to literature is systematically attacked by university English departments, and we are left with two things: form, and sub-Marxist historical context. Two boxes which GCSE and A level examiners are endlessly ticking. There isn’t any message. Or if there is, the medium is the message. Or the message is the same message over and over again: that everything is written to support the powerful and crush the poor.

How excruciatingly dull and lifeless.

All my teaching career, I’ve battled with the expectation to place form and context so prominently, when what I really want to talk about is content. Does anyone read anything because they want to admire its form or comment on how it relates to economic arrangements? Or do we read things because we’re interested in their subject – I mean their human subject? Of course there is a connection between the form, context and content, and for the fullest understanding of meaning, we need a sensitivity to the forms of literature as well as its living, human context, but the form is never an end in itself and the artwork can never be reduced to historical documentation. The form is merely a means by which the artist communicates. The artist wishes to communicate something to the reader. He is an artist because he is highly skilled at shaping language to communicate. What he communicates can have multiple meanings, layers of meaning, certainly, but meaning there is, and meaning is what the reader is looking for.

Meaning at its highest level is significance: philosophical significance, moral significance, human significance. The meanings of great literature are endless and inexhaustible. That’s why people keep reading it generation after generation. They don’t keep reading it so they can say, “Wow, look how he used personification there” or make erudite comments on how the base has shaped the superstructure. They read it for meaning, deep meaning which changes their lives.

That’s where the love of reading comes from. And that’s why we so often kill it in schools. David Didau has written about this recently, inspired by a controversial lecture from the ever interesting Frank Furedi. One of the points David considered was whether we do not think enough about what pupils are reading, because we are too concerned about how they learn to read. This is so crucial. In every area of the curriculum, but especially in the arts and humanities, the how has replaced the what. Form has replaced content: this is the skills agenda. It is one of the progressive mantras, and it is thoroughly postmodern. It doesn’t matter what you read. What matters is that you develop skills of literary and contextual analysis, and you can do that with any material, so the argument goes.

It’s certainly true that you can analyse anything, even the most trivial products of popular culture. George Orwell was one of the first to do this, with his essays on seaside postcards. These artefacts have an interest for their cultural meaning. But they are not of interest in themselves. They do not have the intrinsic interest of great literature. They do not have a meaning which can appeal across the generations, because it is deep enough to speak to any human soul. When we favour form over content, analysis over meaning, context over artwork, we take the power out of the hands of the artist and place it in the hands of the scholar and the critic. Thus does literature crumble into dust; thus does it turn into a dead butterfly pinned to the page.

The life of literature is in its meaning. That’s why we love it, if we love it at all. Everyone who has fallen in love with literature will say that it has changed their life. And they’ll never say it changed their life because of the subtle use of a concluding couplet or the skilful deployment of metaphor. Those techniques may have helped it to have the impact it did. But it was never the artist’s intention that we should stop at the surface and never enter the depth.

How are we to lead our pupils into these depths, so that they can discover the joy of reading? Firstly, we need to do a lot of reading great stories out loud, from a young age. Right from the start, children can start meeting Goldilocks and Robin Hood and St George and King Arthur and Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and Ebenezer Scrooge. Exposure to a wide range of great stories from a young age will open their minds to all the wonderful experiences of literature. They should be listening to stories that are well beyond their ability to read, because it gives them a glimpse of the exciting territory that lies ahead once they have mastered that skill.

Secondly, we need to do a lot of memorisation, and this can begin even before children can read. Memorisation can be done entirely orally, and it gives possession of beautiful and meaningful words to the child. They can own them, and turn them around in their heads, speak them loud and soft, taste them in a way that cannot be achieved without this ancient, wise practice of committing to heart.

There it is. Simple. At primary school, alongside thorough training in the skills of decoding, lots of reading out loud and lots of memorising. And there’s no reason not to continue sharing stories and committing poetry to heart at secondary school.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, Or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

(Image from Wikimedia).

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.

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).

Applying the Direct Instruction Model

Checkbox_1.svgWhen I tweet or blog about the problems with discovery learning – that it is time consuming, uncertain, inappropriate for novices – I often get the response that no-one really uses discovery learning in any case. Teachers, so I am told, use their professional judgement and combine some exploratory work with some explicit instruction.

Of course, this is true. Pure discovery learning would entail demolishing the school and firing all the teachers, so it’s not likely to go down well. The philosophy of discovery learning, otherwise known as constructivism, or the project method, or a million other names, does not take over completely, but it does pollute lessons sufficiently to make them largely ineffective for making changes in long term memory.

There are two parts to this philosophy. The first is that pupils need to find things out for themselves. Telling them the answer is a violation of their intellectual independence. It’s a form of intellectual abuse. The second is that there are no definite answers anyway. The individual creates their own truth, and giving definite answers is evil, fascist indoctrination. This relativist piety is a strong moral reinforcement for constructivist theory. Without the evangelical zeal provided by dogmatic moral relativism, constructivist notions would have struggled to make their way out of the lecture halls of universities.

Because of this philosophy, which is particularly influential where teachers do not even realise that they are following it, the typical lesson will contain multiple opportunities for pupils to develop confusions and misapprehensions, and if they are given any degree of clarity, it will tend to be towards the end, after they have had lots of time to think about the wrong answers. Sometimes pupils plead with the teacher just to be given the answers and released from uncertainty, and sometimes he caves in, all the while feeling a sense of guilt, as though he were violating some sacred taboo.

A fundamental principle of cognitive science is that pupils remember what they think about. If we actually care about making definite changes in pupils’ long term memories, it is therefore our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that they spend as little time as possible thinking about the wrong thing. Allowing most of the lesson to be spent wandering, guessing, and generating incorrect answers is not only a criminal waste of precious lesson time; it is a guarantee that pupils will only retain correct answers in the haziest and most muddled fashion, if at all.

Cognitive science also shows us that for the most part, we will naturally avoid thinking, instead relying on memory, imitation or guesswork. Thinking is very hard, and therefore needs to be done in a focused and reliable way, and in small, incremental steps. What passes for ‘thinking’ in most lessons is actually muddled guesswork, and half-remembered, garbled information from previous lessons that were also filled with guesswork, or with failing to get the answer and having to ask the teacher, or one’s neighbour, or with just giving up and staring out of the window.

Direct Instruction offers a radically different model, because it is based on a different philosophy, which is not opposed to telling pupils the answers. In fact, it favours starting with the answers, in the form of worked examples and whole class oral drill. A large amount of time is spent instilling correct answers to various model questions before allowing pupils to attempt answering any themselves. This is because it is vital that they do not wander off into confusion and guesswork. It is vital that pupils get things right, otherwise they are consolidating confusion, not learning.

Using the methods of Direct Instruction, most pupils will be right, most of the time. Those who do make mistakes will rapidly have them corrected, so that they do not remain long in the dark. This is one of the reasons that DI is not only effective for learning, it is effective for self esteem. Pupils like getting things right.

It’s such a relief not to be put through the pain of muddle and guesswork. And it’s such a relief not to be told that there is no right answer.

Extrinsic Motivation Works

Quarry Hill flats: one of many utopian fantasies imposed upon the British people. This one was demolished in 1978.

In the past, I picked up the idea that if pupils were doing something under orders, that was somehow a failure. They should be doing something just because they wanted to do it. They should not be acting under external compulsion, because if they were, they were not building up their ability to think and act independently.

This way of thinking cripples teachers. Teachers need to be able to give the orders in a classroom. They need to believe that their orders should be obeyed, whether or not the pupil wants to do what they are asking. There are always going to be pupils who have no wish to work hard, to show respect, to stay silent when necessary. These pupils need to be given orders, or they will continue to follow their own whims, and destroy their own education and that of their peers.

Practically, then, extrinsic motivation is necessary. Education simply will not work when we make it a matter of choice for young people. We have to use systems of reward to motivate, and sanctions to punish those who refuse to comply. But will these systems prevent our pupils from developing the ability to think and act independently?

The truth is that there is no contradiction between independent action and extrinsic reward. Extrinsic reward is a fact of life. It is reality. There are good reasons why I get up early each morning and go to work, which have nothing to do with whether I particularly feel like doing it. I have a duty to my family and my employer. I would be ashamed of myself if I let them down. And anyway, I’m in the habit of getting up and going to work. It would feel odd if I didn’t. None of these things depend upon whether I feel a deep sense of inner joy as I gulp my coffee down and set out to the railway station.

All kinds of extrinsic factors are in play when someone faithfully goes to work each day and does their duty. We do not therefore say that they are somehow crippled and incapable of independent thought or action. The extrinsic factors are a help towards doing the right thing. Of course they are much reduced by the existence of the welfare state. My children would not actually starve or be homeless if I decided not to bother with working, because the state would pick up the tab. The consequences of reducing extrinsic motivation for work, duty and fidelity are all too clear in the welfare-dependent underclass. Theodore Dalrymple eloquently points this out in Our Culture: What’s Left of It:

Intellectuals propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws that promoted unrestrained behaviour and created a welfare system that protected people from some of its consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature (‘The Frivolity of Evil’, p8)

Whether or not I have some inner drive to work, and whether or not I find it particularly satisfying, it is important that there are external factors which put pressure on me to keep working faithfully. Without these external factors, it is harder for me to do the right thing. I do not believe that I am so pure and good that I should be released from these external factors. I am grateful for them, and in fact, I resent their corruption by the benefits system which takes away from my dignity as breadwinner for my family.

If extrinsic factors help adults do the right thing, they are even more important for the young people in our education system. Do we really believe that it will help them do the right thing if there are no external forces placing pressure upon them to do it? Do we really think that they are essentially pure and good, and that all that is required is release from the artificial, corrupting forces of society for them to discover this inner goodness?

Unfortunately, our whole education system is indeed haunted by the spectre of the ‘noble savage’, the fantasy of Rousseau, who developed ideas about the purity of mythical children while abandoning all of his real children to the orphanage. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that there is something wrong with young people’s doing something under compulsion, we must make the effort to exorcise this particularly malignant philosophical demon. Perhaps memorising these words and saying them to ourselves each morning would help:

When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.