some persistent errors in educational thinking
Robin Barrow, Dean and Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6, has published 21 books and numerous articles in classics, philosophy and education. His most recent book is Language, Intelligence and Thought (Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 1993). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1996.
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The British prime minister Harold Macmillan once reported one of his tutors in the classical languages and humanities as saying: Nothing you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life &endash; save only this &endash; that if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education (Kenny, 1997: 20). In quoting this statement, the philosopher Anthony Kenny, a recent Master of Balliol College, Oxford University, adds that Russell Meiggs, another distinguished classicist, pre-eminently gave his students this ability: an ability to see through what he called the higher nonsense. (Essentially comparable is Ernest Hemingway's notion of an internal crap-detector, subsequently taken over by Postman and Weingartner  in their Teaching as a Subversive Activity; so this is by no means the exclusive concern of Oxford classicists!)
I, too, believe this to be at the heart of education. Unfortunately, not only are educational systems in Canada and many other countries failing to nurture this ability; they are themselves rapidly becoming repositories of the higher nonsense. In what follows, I shall attempt to locate seven, to some extent interrelated, errors in thinking that contribute directly to the dearth, not to say death, of education in society.
First is a preoccupation with relevance. This issue, like so many, comes and goes. It saddens me that all the routine but compelling work philosophers did on this concept in the 1960s and 1970s might as well never have been &endash; though that fact adds weight to a point I want to make later about originality.
There has always been a tension between the intellectual and the banausic, by which I mean what is appropriate to a mechanical art or a craftsman or artisan, as opposed to the exercise and development of mind. There has always been this tension in Western culture, not least because thats the way it was set up by Plato. There is no reason why there should not continue to be considerable and serious argument about how real the distinction is, or needs to be, and about the relative importance or value of either one. Educators certainly do not have to buy, without argument, the apparent view of Plato and other leisured, intellectual Athenians that banausic activity is really rather beneath a gentlemans calling (Cornford 1941).
But, while readily admitting that point, I contend, first, that developing banausic skills, although it may be very worthwhile (and can be sophisticated), is not in itself education; second, that the emphasis on the banausic and other related things such as so-called life skills and economic imperatives at the expense of the life of the mind, is far too great in school systems; and, third, that one of the reasons for this trend &endash; namely, the common argument that schooling must be relevant &endash; is not an argument at all.
This is how it seems to work: the normative overtones of relevant are naturally seductive. As educators, we all agree that we want relevant schooling and relevant university courses, rather than irrelevant ones. The questions we should next ask are obviously Relevant to whom? to what? and in what way? But we do not seriously pursue these questions at all. We assume &endash; no doubt influenced by the general ethos of the sound-bite society &endash; that it is the contemporary, the here and now, the local, the in-your-face, the vivid, the immediate that is relevant, rather than things that have indirect or long-term consequences perhaps, and rather than things that are traditional, distant, complex, and foreign. In other words, a relational term is somehow transubstantiated into a substantive term, without pause for thought. Suddenly, relevant is more or less a synonym for down to earth. So relevant studies are presumed to be things that are skill-based, practical, professional and labour-related. Before one can blink, 10-year-olds are studying career plans rather than poetry; social studies are reduced to what can be modelled or graphed; history is confined to the study of a town hall; literature is local; and on a broader level the federation of labour increasingly influences curriculum design, to the point where even universities can be fairly accused of training people rather than educating them. (Presently, in the UK, in Ontario, Canada, and elsewhere, the design of curriculum has been put out to tender.) Some of these practices might be defended &endash; but not on the grounds that it has been shown to be relevant in any meaningful sense.
The relevance that an educational curriculum should have is to the aims of education. What is relevant in an argument is what contributes to sound argument. What is relevant in a football match is what is appropriate to successful football. What is relevant in a trial is what is pertinent to establishing the truth. What is relevant in schools and universities is what is relevant to a successful education.
Nor should the relevance of a subject or topic be confused with perceptions as to its relevance. A subject may have strong relevance, even while the student does not see the relevance at the time, and, of course, something may have huge, but at the same time indirect, or long-term, rather than immediate, relevance. All of which is to say that relevance in this context is not a property of particular subjects, but a consequence of a particular form of study being educational.
Now, of course, whether society actually does care about education is a further question that now &endash; rather urgently &endash; arises. Perhaps it doesnt. Perhaps nations truly are not very interested in educating people, but are determined instead to train a viable workforce and to fit everyone to the economy. But let us, as citizens, have that argument openly, if we have to, rather than bypassing it clandestinely, as we are currently doing by hiding behind words such as relevant.
The world is not substantially changed by one word alone. But it is by language overall, and relevance is not alone. Another word which currently serves to increase our misperception of how the world, specifically how people, actually are, is skill. When I first came to North America 20 years ago, I was amazed at the ubiquity of the word skill and its seeming misuse &endash; to the extent that I wondered whether it was merely a New World synonym for ability. To some extent the answer may be yes. In general, people are not precise in their use of language, and no doubt often people refer to skills when they mean abilities. But whatever was or is going on, there is no doubt that there is an important distinction here that educators are in danger of failing or forgetting how to recognize. Ability is a general word: abilities are many and, more importantly, of many different kinds: there are, for example, physical, mental and emotional abilities; there are specific and general abilities; there are inherent and acquired, natural and trainable abilities; one might talk of moral abilities, and certainly of aesthetic, mechanical, perhaps psychic abilities. Only some abilities are discrete, specific, physical and trainable, as, for example, the ability to dribble a soccer ball, to wiggle one's ears or stand on one's head. And it is only abilities of this kind that I would call skills. Thus the conjurer palming a card exercises a skill; a person who is able to get on well with most people in most situations does not.
I am not interested in making a verbal point about correct use of the word skill. My point is, whatever words are used, the business of palming a card is dramatically different in kind, in all sorts of way, from the business of getting on with people. And these differences have enormous implication for the different conditions under which, and in some respects for whether, either ability can be exercised, cultivated, developed, and so forth (Barrow 1990).
The serious consequence of everybody calling everything indiscriminately a skill is that they are losing the ability to note the differences. Whether their casual use of language led them to fail to discriminate, or a failure to discriminate led them to abandon specific terminology, is a question I will not pursue. What seems plain is that there is a widespread tendency both to call everything a skill and, an appalling error, to see everything on the model of a specific, discrete, physical, trainable behaviour. Thus people go from systematic practice with palming cards to become a conjurer to systematic practice at getting on with people seminars. The apotheosis of this comes with crude behaviourism and 10-step programmes to better marriage. In education it has led inexorably to a preponderance of inappropriate research based on the experimental science model, which suits physical matter, but not humans (and more generally and indirectly to a curriculum of performance &endash; where nobody ever considers questions such as how does one get people to appreciate art or understand the concept of Stalinism, because even a sloppy use of the word skill will not cover these cases.)
3. The generic fallacy
Seeing human interactions, and education in particular in terms of relevant skills, when that tends to mean contemporary and fashionable observable skills and performances, is already getting educators into trouble &endash; either ignoring or distorting vast areas of human experience and activity. It already, to keep the examples simple and obvious, leads to time spent on how to write the business letter rather than on how to write the poem. But it gets worse when educators add what I call the generic fallacy. This is the view not only that human beings can be adequately described in terms of skills, but also that these skills are generic, in the sense that, if you have them, you can exercise them in any context. Thus people talk about developing the skill of critical thinking, without reference to any particular context such as science, philosophy or ethics, as if one could devise a course to make somebody a good critical thinker regardless of what there is to be thought about. This is really akin to imagining that one might cultivate the skill of dribbling, so that an individual could dribble any object &endash; ball, chair, rabbit or book &endash; in any context under any conditions.
Of course, critical thinking courses and courses in introductory philosophy or logic are not pointless. Logical reasoning has application in any number of contexts, and there are aspects of the critical thinker, such as the disposition to think critically, which are aspects of the person, regardless of context. But the fact remains that it is both empirically evident and logically certain that people cannot develop a skill of critical thinking, which, like a skill of wiggling their ears, they can display whatever, so to speak, the occasion or the party. Nor is this a matter, as has too often been said, of one merely needing to add information before one can display ones critical thinking in a given context. That is true as far as it goes &endash; I cannot think critically about Hitlers death, if I do not know who Hitler was. But the much more fundamental point is that logic, which is clearly a large part of anybodys conception of critical thinking, is by its nature formal, which is a way of saying that the abstract rules of logic, though they apply in various contexts, take a different substantive form in those different contexts. To be logical in science requires more than sifting through scientific argument with ones knowledge of logic; it requires understanding the key organizing concepts and methods of science. Putting it at its simplest, it takes understanding of science to recognize what is contradictory in a scientific argument and where the syllogistic reasoning is valid or invalid. Thus a person cannot be a critical, thinking scientist without being a scientist, and the same goes for anything else that is an organized type of inquiry or field of endeavour with its own unique organizing concepts. This is why it is so often the case that the distinguished novelist talks idiotically about politics, or the eminent scientist does not seem to understand educational questions, and the lawyer does not understand morality. It is in turn why, if people do care about critical thinking in some broad way, the educational curriculum must be based on a wide range of important distinct types of human inquiry &endash; because they want critical thinking in respect of important matters.
For the moment my point is that this misconception that such things as critical thinking (and, similarly, caring, creativity, imagination, and intelligence itself) are generic skills, when they are neither skills nor generic, has led to a further distortion of the contemporary curriculum: specifically, one that ignores the question of content, of distinctive worthwhile subject matters.
The picture I am trying to paint is, I hope, revealing a growing rift between how humans are, and how educators presume humans are in schooling &endash; a difference between human beings who master various traditions of thought and exercise judgement and discrimination very much in the light of their understanding, and a mechanistic picture which sees them as automata that can be trained to master a number of behaviours, allegedly intellectual, moral and aesthetic, as well as physical.
Related to this is the issue of emphasizing process and the procedural. There are many aspects to this issue &endash; one of which is the process-oriented way of looking at critical thinking that I have already referred to. Another is, for example, the continual reference to such well-nigh incoherent ideas as learning how to learn, or the continued emphasis on developmental theories of the individual at the expense of consideration of the logical pattern of the development of various types of understanding. And it surely is the case that the reluctance to talk about content and value is indicated, if not caused, by educational rhetoric which is couched in terms of processes and procedures. The curriculum is predominantly seen in terms of activities and goals rather than in terms of substantive content.
I want to mention briefly here the amazing instance of justice. Justice, people might be forgiven for thinking these days, is merely procedural. Nothing can be right, if it is procedurally flawed, and anything, it seems, is alright provided one acts in accordance with procedures.
Justice is not a procedural matter. There is, of course, such a thing as procedural justice; that is to say there is the question of whether a set of procedures is just, and there is the question of whether a given set of procedures has been followed. And these are important issues. But they are logically subordinate, and certainly morally subordinate, to the question of substantive justice, which is the question of getting it right.
It is the idea of the Good that should be most urgently brought back into the debate. So bad is the situation now that the age-old distinction between law and morality is practically undetectable. Lord Irvine, the UK Lord Chancellor, observed recently that the new Human Rights bill will lead the courts to produce a decision on the morality of the conduct and not simply its compliance with the bare letter of the law (Sylvester 1998). But this kind of conflation between morality and law passes almost unquestioned in US courts and is inevitable once a society has reduced morality to procedure. It is also inevitable in societies that are currently confused about the concept of moral rights. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the English philosopher and political writer was correct in saying that talk of rights was nonsense on stilts (Bentham 1962: 501), provided that readers understand that what he meant was that any claim to a moral right has to be grounded in a moral theory (Barrow 1982), hence people who produce simply a list of moral rights merely beg the question. With our lack of moral understanding and our constitutional bill of rights, we, as Canadians, are in a mess that does not, as things are, even allow for intelligible argument.
As a prolegomenon let me say: the notion of morality is dependant on the idea of the Good. It is from a conception of the Good that people derive an idea of practices that are right (though one might believe that certain forms of right behaviour were intrinsically good); from an understanding of what is right, people derive certain determinate rights, some of which might be moral, but many of which will only be legal.
But people live in a world where all this is so mysterious that almost anybody or any groups claim to a right is left uncontested. Hence the absurd claim that deaf people have a right to be deaf. This is not a claim that is untrue; it is a claim that is meaningless.
Current views of, and approach to, relevance, generic skills, and process and procedure, are giving rise to a purely atomic view of humans and their interactions; humans are no different from atoms running about knocking into each other in ways that just need to be understood and harnessed. (This is essentially the view expressed by Lucretius  in De Rerum Natura, The Nature of the Universe. But what looked quite intriguing in Latin hexameters 2000 years ago looks less convincing in plain English today.) Something big seems to be missing.
5. Value-relativism, subjectivism, etc.
The big thing that is missing is any sense of value or worth, as distinct from price. (I follow Oscar Wilde's dictum that a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.) The view that values are not a personal matter is not fashionable; but it is essential that people get beyond all the bromides about values being relative, subjective opinion, cultural bias, etc., etc., because at the heart of any view of education, as of society generally, there has to be a staunch commitment to a set of values. It is nothing short of incredible that in the last decade or so educational research and practice have advanced without reference to serious debate on educational values. Nor is there any good reason for a fear of facing up to value questions, if fear it be, or a wanton insolence if it be that. To be sure, both historically and culturally moral values have varied. I happen to be one who thinks that this fact has been exaggerated wildly both in respect of the facts and in respect of their significance. There are, I think, values such as those of respect for persons, well-being, coherence and impartiality that one can convincingly argue are universally recognized as moral values. Second, as any first-year philosophy student should be able maintain, the fact that a culture can be found that clearly rejects a value we, as Canadians, hold dear does not in itself do anything to discredit our position. The question of whether they are correct or mistaken in their rejection is precisely the stuff of moral philosophy.
Although I think it important to make resounding noises against the todays ignorant and superficial relativism, I am not sure that it matters immediately for the purpose of my educational argument. For the fact remains that education is a value-loaded business: working out what is educationally relevant remains, on any theory (including an extreme subjectivist one), partly and crucially a matter of working out what are our educational values: What is worth studying, given what we, as human beings, value generally, and what we think it is to be human? Probably most of us do value the idea of caring and critical adults, but the important question now becomes what do we want them to care and be critical about. Only those who sincerely believe, not that different people do have many different subsidiary values, but that it does not matter what people value, can avoid this question.
I want to pick up briefly on two points I have flagged earlier. First is the issue of research in education. I can do no more than state here a view I have argued for many years (e.g. Barrow 1984, Barrow and Milburn 1990: 270-274). Part of the distortion of the current theory, and hence practice, of education is due to an inappropriate scientific model of research. Of course there are questions in education, and some important ones, that lend themselves appropriately to an experimental form of empirical research; and, of course, there are many people conducting qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, empirical research appropriate to its field of inquiry; and there are even some plugging away at humanistic types of non-empirical inquiry. The fact remains that too much is being inappropriately crammed into empirical design, as if into a Procrustean bed.
It goes without saying that one problem is that not enough attention is being paid to the conceptual and evaluative questions. As a recipe for disaster that is as important as anything, but it is less interesting to say it because it is fairly straightforward. Less obvious, but equally important, is that allegedly non-evaluative empirical research conducted without reference to educational values does not make sense: thus classroom studies about effective teaching, however they are conducted, are of no use if they are not embedded in an articulation and defence of the implicit values. Also not immediately apparent to the outsider, but equally important, is the fact that much educational research is inappropriate: that is to say the mode of inquiry, chosen perhaps because the researcher was trained in the style of research in question, is all too often logically unsuited to the object of inquiry. To cite a superficial example, I came across recently: you do not find out how racist people are simply by asking them how racist they are. That is what a recent European Commission did (Dutter 1998). Nor can you rely on observation of behaviour in any simple way. To investigate this question a researcher needs first and foremost a very full analysis of what constitutes racism. Following that the researcher needs, in this case, a wide variety of types of observation and interview. It is after all not simply a question of how people behave: it is a question of what they think they are doing, what their intentions are. Though I must admit this point is in grave danger of being lost altogether, just as offensive behaviour is now effectively defined not by any kind of behaviour, still less by any intentional act, but by reference to what somebody else takes offence at. A lot of educational research, particularly in the two central areas of intellect and morality, is dismissable, though not dismissed, because the empirical nature of the research is in violation of an acceptable conception of the intellect and the moral agent.
The other point I wanted to return to was the issue of originality. Like relevant, words like original and creative are normative, so nobody ever questions them; but this may be a mistake. Certainly I do not want to celebrate unoriginality or lack of creativity, but it does not follow that it is always particularly important to be original or creative. (I dont want a creative dentist, for example.)
As a matter of fact, creativity has a lot in common with relevance. In the 1960s it, too, was a vogue word, and it was evident that a lot of so-called creativity tests were fallible in the sorts of way I have referred to earlier. Thus, in order to produce a test that had the semblance of an instrument that actually did measure something, the concept of creativity was grossly distorted, often becoming little more than a synonym for statistically unusual, and failing to discriminate for instance between the unusual and impressive, and the unusual and trivial, or even ridiculous.
On the question of originality, I would like to say something specifically about universities. Here I do think that, quite apart from the lack of real denotation and designation the word has (I mean how much of what professors produce is really original, and in what sense and from what perspective?), it is worth asking whether universities are right to place such emphasis on it. Of course, it would help if we, as professors, knew what we were talking about (my previous point), but even ignoring that, is it so obvious that we should all be churning out new stuff? Obviously, we do not need professors simply to churn out what somebody else, or even they themselves, churned out yesterday. But perhaps we could stop churning at all for a while. Of course, we are familiar with clichés about the explosion of knowledge, the rapid rate of change, etc., etc.; and of course, we know that there are shifts in historical perspective, paradigm shifts in science, and revolution in philosophy. But hold it a minute: how many paradigm shifts do you want? How many serious revolutions do you think there have been? Bryan Magee (1997) has made the point that as academics contemplate and argue about the respective merits of philosophers in this century one may think there were several hundred major figures to choose from. Thats curious, given that most philosophers believe that, really, after Plato, one could, if one had to, ignore everybody until Kant. Magee thinks there are only two potentially great philosophers of this century. So what are the other professors doing? Re-reading Sir Isaiah Berlin (1998), I was struck by the thought that original is about the last word that springs to mind in relation to his work. Not because he is unoriginal, but because originality is simply not the issue: he is erudite, intellectual and insightful. He is certainly one of the finest minds of the century. But originality is not the issue, because he is steeped in a cultural tradition, precisely as a truly great thinker should be.
I am not going so far as to oppose writing and research. I am raising the question &endash; because it ought to be someone who at least cannot be accused of sour grapes who does so &endash; of whether we do not seriously overweight both its ideal and even more its actual value. At any rate, public production of professors findings might perhaps be slowed down a bit.
My conclusion, my fundamental cri de cur is that the central question in educational matters is what is it to be educated?, and because this question is of a type that is out of fashion, it is not being directly addressed; and because it is not being directly assessed, it is being indirectly and incorrectly answered through a misconceived approach to particular educational issues. We have all manner of unnecessary educational theories, all manner of misguided claims, all manner of counter-productive inquiries. What we do not have is a no-nonsense facing up to the question of what it is to be educated, from which we can derive appropriate curriculum, teaching methods and research.
To be educated is, as far as we know, a peculiarly human possibility. It is to have a developed mind, which means a mind that has developed understanding such that it can discriminate between logically different kinds of question and exercise judgment, critically and creatively, in respect of important matters. It has got nothing to do with having a high I.Q., being a member of Mensa, producing books, being an artist, speaking foreign languages, being an eminent physicist, being a famous poet, having an MBA or being a teacher, or even being a Fellow of the Royal Society. 1
It has everything to do with entering the world of understanding traditions of thought we humans have so far achieved: it means understanding science in the sense of appreciating the organizing concepts, the consequent appropriate methodologies, and by extension the limits of the applicability of science. Fairly uncontentiously one would then add morality, aesthetics and mathematics as similarly sui generis and vitally important traditions of inquiry. Educated people need to appreciate each of them and the distinction between them. More controversially, but still I think plausibly, I contend that the humanities &endash; history and literature in particular, but also the arts more generally &endash; are absolutely crucial to providing understanding of what it is to be human. That is to say what it is to be a human animal, rather than merely an animal.
There is always someone, who, misunderstanding totally the nature and point of philosophy, says at this point: Well thats just your conception of education?, as if to say, Well, you may like tomato soup, but I dont. But no. It is not just my conception. It is the conception, as a matter of fact, which has held more or less constant in at any rate the Western tradition since the time of Plato. It is the conception that he consciously articulated and presented, in opposition to the utilitarian skills&endash;based approach to influencing people, and making the worse cause appear the better, advertised by many of the Sophists. It is a conception of education to be contrasted with Isocrates concept of training that ultimately developed into the sterile Roman school of rhetoric. 2 Such changes as there have been to the Platonic prototype have owed more to developing views on knowledge and human nature than a changing conception of education. Second, although it certainly involves value judgements, they are judgements that are not simply non-rational lunges of sentiment; they are judgements that can be, and historically have been, supported by reason. Third, it is not only created out of value judgements: it is substantially geared to reasoning about the nature of understanding, the mind and what it is to be human. But ultimately, even though it is a mistake to see this conception as in some way arbitrary or a matter of preference, the question of whose conception it is or whether it is true is simply misplaced.
The argument, if argument there is going to be, is whether people are or are not minded to value education in the sense I have outlined. My position is that currently education in this sense is not in practice being honoured to any great extent, and that this will ultimately be disastrous, not simply from the point of view of those who value the distinctively human, but also from the point of view of those who want the human race to survive. In other words, I contend that the understanding I refer to is not only intrinsically worthwhile, but that it also has considerable extrinsic value. It is not an accident that tyrannies always begin by closing or muting educational institutions &endash; they do not worry about training schools.
You do not have to be physically healthy to make others well. You do have to be educated to be able to educate others. Society is on a slippery slope in this respect as soon as it begins to entrust education to the less than well-educated; things get rapidly worse, generation by generation. Schools and universities today are to a significant degree not wholeheartedly in the education business.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the university currently sees one of its problems in terms of a debate about the relative weight to be given to research and teaching. I suggest that it should take the emphasis off both and think rather in terms of maintaining and disseminating understanding, and treat the emergence of new understanding as a contingent byproduct. The emphasis on gaining research funding seems at times a classic case of the tail wagging the dog: obviously, if professors have significant research programmes that require vast funding, they need to get the funds and deserve some congratulations if they do. Equally obviously, one would have thought, a person might conduct fruitful research for a lifetime without needing anything in the way of funding &endash; not to mention those who acquire funding for trivial purposes and greatly in excess of the real needs of the exercise (thus there no inherent virtue in gaining research funds). But, of course, to some extent all this pursuit of funding is tied up with political reality: a governments basic subsidy is down; graduate students need support so a responsible professor gets it. Well, yes, if universities are perceived as there to generate original research findings, if professors perceive their graduate students as merely doing a professional training in professing.
I do not. People should do a doctorate in history only if they have an interest in pursuing such study; and those that do have such interest and capability should be allowed to do so, funded modestly to do so, because it is good in itself that there should be such people, and it is good both in itself and for society that society should value the maintenance of the tradition of understanding that they embody. And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for other areas of study.
But to buy this argument, of course, is to deny what seems to be the current notion that schools and universities exist for job preparation (albeit including the academic career). It is to say; no &endash; they are not even supposed to be useful in any direct way. They are for getting it right and helping people to detect rot when they hear it &endash; to preserve society from the higher nonsense rather than to contribute to it. The fact that I need to spell this out tells everyone that there is much to be done.
1. This paper was originally delivered as an inaugural address on election as Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Vancouver, 14 May 1998.
2. See the introductory discussion of the Sophists and Isocrates [436-338 B.C.] in Cary et al. (1949).
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