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Some Fallacies of Modern Education or How to Lose While Winning

When I first started my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Education, the great rage at the time was the ‘Moral Education Project’.  A psychologist at Harvard had come up with a theory of moral development whereby as a result of answering a series of questions, an individual could be categorized as being in one of ten moral development stages.  Some came to believe that if the educational curriculum could be so modified so as to promote answering these questions in an appropriate manner, a higher ranking could be achieved.  In this way, it was believed that moral development could be taught and encouraged.  There was immense excitement around this project and great optimism expressed as to the possible outcomes.  However, shortly after an abortive launch, it was brought to an abrupt stop and not only passed out of memory but also out of history.

From the outset, a collective enthusiasm surrounded this project and not getting on the band wagon implied that you were not being a team player.   As in other movements that were to follow, each new orthodoxy marginalized non adherents.  These attitudes have tended towards the creation of a professional climate in education whereby criticism or dissent are not only unwelcome but aggressively dismissed. This monolithic and unquestioning approach to educational beliefs could be said to preclude any use of the term ‘philosophy’ of education in favour of another term such as educational ‘fashion’.   Just as fashions eventually fade into dismissal and possible later ridicule, recent approaches to education describe much the same fate. Being more a matter of taste than intellect, they spread through a desire to conform to the latest approach and use of catch phrases.  Adherents like to view themselves and to be seen as part of the new wave of modern reform.  If pale blue is the new spring colour, it simply ‘is’ the new spring colour by mutual consent.  It is a process conspicuous in the absence of thinking or intellect and characterized by a kind of ‘ good taste’.

Needless to say, it is invariably beneficial to look critically at any set of ideas or approaches to problems in terms of their coherency, practicality and ultimately, if applied, if they work.  By looking carefully at ideas before implementing them, it is possible that mistakes can be either prevented or minimized.  Moreover, if claims are being made, then there should be some measure by which results can be assessed rather than acting in the blind faith that positive results must necessarily follow.  This approach if applied to the moral education initiative would have encouraged questioning along at least two different lines of thought, the one being theoretical soundness and the other being practical applicability. 

Regarding the former, it was never readily apparent that there was any necessary relationship between how a person verbally answered a question about a hypothetical situation involving a moral choice and how they would actually act in the real circumstances.  Most human beings ‘know’ what they should do.  The difficulty is in getting themselves to do it.  Moreover, many ‘know’ what they should do but have no intention of acting in this manner unless it is to their immediate or long term advantage.  Finally, there are those who will respond in accordance to what they perceive the expectations of the response are.   Considerations of appearance often outweigh issues of substance. 

Regarding the latter, it was and remains as less than obvious that morality could be taught or that from a political point of view there were those who would want morality taught within a secular setting.  Indeed, in the final analysis it was the unanticipated political consequences that brought about the end of this initiative.  Religious organizations were virtually unanimous in their adamant opposition to what they felt was an inappropriate incursion into what was their unique area of influence and expertise.  Atheists and agnostics were equally resistant to the idea of a public or government operated educational system taking on the role of moralist. 

Aside from these political considerations, there remained the practical question of whether morality could be meaningfully ‘taught’ in the classroom or indeed even from the pulpit through either reasoned argument or indoctrination.  Moralists from all backgrounds have invariably invited the cynical observation that whereas they may talk the talk they invariably did not always walk the walk.  In the final analysis then, it may be said that morality has more to do with actions than words.  That being said, there is the final issue to be raised which would be that of the possible verifiability of the theories put forward.  In the context of moral choices this would involve witnessing individuals in real life situations to see if the choices actually made corresponded with what they said that they would do.  Given the fact that this would not be possible, the theories involved become unverifiable and as such unaccountable in any real sense.

The point to be made therefore is that a careful review of issues and sober reflection before hand might have saved a great deal of time, money and effort.   However, the Moral Education Project was somewhat unique in that it died a quick natural death.   Other educational initiatives that have come and gone have been more akin to General MacArthur’s speech that old soldiers never die but simply fade away.  Most waves of reform fade into each other and with time fade further away having never been accountable with respect to their claims either in terms of success or failure to achieve their objectives.

Educational movements or fashions include a reliance upon feel good rhetoric that embodies and embraces resonant assumptions together with the free usage of important terms not accurately defined.  Words like ‘morality’, ‘freedom’, ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ are used daily by people as if their meaning is self-explanatory.  However, when pressed to define the terms, it is surprisingly difficult to accurately state what is meant and it invariably arises that the same word can be used despite the fact that assumed meanings are quite different.  Such is the case with the current stress in education on the importance of success.  Unless terms such as ‘success’ are carefully defined from the outset, their inherent ambiguity leads to profound differences in interpretation and meaning.  Indeed, they may lead eventually to the conclusion that the discussion is rendered nonsensical given that there is no common ground of agreement.

The current fashion of stressing success and eliminating failure from the educational vocabulary has emerged as a kind of logical progression from the previous movement emphasizing self-esteem.  Self-esteem came to be simplistically defined as feeling good or happy about yourself.  Furthermore, feeling good about yourself was presented as a desired state of mind in and of itself irrespective of issues of worthiness or context.  Clearly there is a difference between being happy about passing a math test and being happy about getting away with a murder. 

The view that everyone has a right to be happy provided a platform to the further claim that everyone has a right to be successful since happiness and being successful were presented as being interchangeable.  These assumptions have helped to shape current educational practices and as usual have been presented as being cutting edge and progressive.   This latest educational fashion has like its predecessors required compliance.  In so doing, it has undermined and discouraged critical thinking as to its meaning, logical coherency and verifiability.

It is a consistent feature of every ‘current’ practice that it is always presented and seen as an improvement upon what came before. Equally, what came immediately before is never discarded as having been wrong, flawed or in error but rather as being less evolved or less ‘perfect’.  However, as you go back far enough,  the more unacceptable those practices are when viewed through the lens of modernity.   Regardless of how they were regarded at the time, they can be discarded or ignored now with little consideration as unacceptable or even absurd.  So there seems to be something implicit in the here and now that assumes progress and increased sophistication based solely upon the passing of time.  Unfortunately such an attitude also ignores the fact that at any period in time, the same can be said of contemporary attitudes towards those views now being discredited. 

With regard to the current prevailing educational movement stressing success, this shift in focus has also involved a shift in language from the development of particular skill sets to the achievement of specific outcomes.  This was  coupled with a resistance to any attempt to measure success in terms of standardized testing unless such testing allowed for a shifting in the ground rules to adjust the outcomes or to bell curve results to create desired results.  From the point of view of standardized testing, such measures rendered it as being far from standardized.  Raw standardized testing not only presents a means whereby to measure student learning by making them accountable to a set of universal standards but also implicates teachers in that process by involving teachers within that process of accountability.  This shift to a focus upon outcomes while adjusting the methods, means and accommodations in place to secure them can be seen as being derived from a number of sources.  Some of these are political in the sense of trying to make clients happy or to minimize criticisms and others are motivated by a push to avoid accountability for all stake holders. However, it is clear that if the means can be adjusted to secure the ends then the outcomes themselves become questionable.

There is also a more insidious aspect of the movement stemming from an underlying set of beliefs that equates equality with making everyone the same as opposed to treating everyone equally.  The arguments presently used to support this inherently political position are not political but psychological.  Lack of success is presented as being psychologically damaging to the individual student.  Therefore, it is important to modify the process wherever possible in order to secure the outcome to make them happy and avoid sadness.  Sadness, it is maintained, is psychologically damaging and will lead to depression, withdrawal and a disengagement from the educational process.  Therefore the word ‘failure’ is to be removed from the educational vocabulary and all comments about student performance should stress positives and avoid any criticism or negativity.  However, if the objective is to  ensure that everyone is successful, in the final analysis the emphasis upon successful outcomes can be seen as being secondary to the ultimate quest for equality of outcomes.

Greek mythology tells us of the story of Procrustes otherwise know as “the stretcher”.  He was a bandit and rogue blacksmith from Attica who lured travellers and then murdered them by either stretching them to fit the size of an iron bed he had constructed or cutting off limbs to achieve the same purpose.  Procrustes was eventually killed by the Greek hero Theseus who subjected him to his own iron bed with predictable results.  This early example of ‘same size fits all’, underscores the perils of stretching or shortening the person to fit an arbitrarily imposed size or standard both for the subjects of the operations as well as for the practitioner.  In the case of modern American and Canadian educational approaches, that arbitrary standard is the achievement of ‘success’.  To secure this objective, modifications of curriculum, approach, expectations and standards are shifted to achieve it.  As such, ‘success’ is not a concrete thing or entity but a moving target adjusting in relationship to the individual but nevertheless assuming a standard of fixed comparative meaning relative to anyone else.   For example if individual archers were to have targets moved closer to ensure hitting the bullseye in accordance with their skill level, it would make little sense to claim that they were each equally successful in hitting the bullseye despite the fact that the statement is strictly accurate.  Clearly how the successful hitting of the bullseye is viewed must be contingent with the terms and conditions whereby this is achieved.

This brings me to the core issue here which is that educational environments and indeed society at large should only legitimately offer equality of opportunity but should not take measures to ensure equality of performance.  To do otherwise is to undermine the concept of a meritocracy upon which any liberal democracy ultimately depends for its survival.  Arguments to secure ‘fairness’ by means of changing the playing field to specific individuals, result in undermining the theoretical foundation of any meaningful definition of success.  For example, students not performing as well as other students or possibly not performing much at all can be excused by way of a range of explanations including diagnosed learning ‘disabilities’, family environment, mental health etc.  However, in each case, the explanation implies that there are reasons for the individual’s lack of performance as a result of factors beyond that individual’s control.  The individual is merely a passenger on the ship and clearly not the captain.  As such, the individual is presented as not being ultimately responsible for their lack of performance and so the requirements and delivery must be adjusted in an attempt to secure the outcome.  In this way, the desired outcome now takes the form of a moving target referred to as ‘success’.

However, the reasons that are beyond the control of the individual for any ‘dysfunctions’ are equally valid for functional or highly functional students namely that the reasons or predetermined factors for any individual being able to achieve this state must logically dictate the outcome.  If none of us are captains of the ship, then it follows that all of us are passengers and have no control ultimately as to the direction that the ship takes.  Therefore, if a person is not ultimately responsible for their ‘dysfunctions’ they cannot ultimately be responsible for their functioning as well.  To praise both the former and the latter equally is to render praise meaningless. More poignantly perhaps, if everyone is a winner then there is no winner since losing does not exisit.  In like manner, if individuals who commit crimes are predetermined to do so as a result of factors beyond their control, then equally those who do not commit crimes are not responsible for having behaved in this manner as the conditions of their upbringing have also predetermined the outcome.  The reductio ad absurdum inherent in this line of argument becomes apparent insofar as if applied, it would result in the collapse of any concept of morality or personal responsibility.

As is the case with much language use, the term ‘success’ is not as self-explanatory as it may at first be assumed.  To begin with, used as a noun it is hard to designate any ‘thing’ associated with it.  Used as an adjective, it must be used to qualify or describe something. In short, the term is normally used to described a specific activity and outcome whereby its use means to have not failed in reaching a specific outcome or meeting a specific standard.  In general usage, the term is of indeterminate meaning often forming a value judgement such as the statement “he is a successful person”. 

To achieve success, is therefore an entirely subjective statement that is largely meaningless unless pinned down to specifics and which in common usage either implies or assumes that all parties understand the same thing when using the term.  Are people successful because they are rich, happy, drive an expensive car, have a happy marriage etc.?  Is hitting the bullseye with an arrow at a hundred yards a successful outcome and does this make someone successful in any meaningful sense.  Can you equate that successful outcome with another  person hitting the bullseye with an arrow from a distance of 5 feet?  If you then say that both cases are those of ‘success’ relative to the archer’s abilities, what meaning does being a success have?  In short, there would appear to be an inherent consideration of difficulty and a competitive standard implied in our meaningful use of the term.   If you require successful archers to form an army to win a war, is there any sense in accepting any skill level to avoid hurt feelings?

To be successful in a test, exam or subject has nothing to do with being ‘successful’ in general and to be successful in general is determined entirely by the measure against which it is compared.  It is possible to be successful in school but not in life and equally possible to be unsuccessful in school and a success in life.  The view that everyone should be able to be successful at everything is as absurd as is the view that everyone deserves to be successful in anything.  As success is an achievement that must involve the possibility of failure in order to be meaningful, then it also follows that some people must fail in order for that achievement to have meaning.

The less than immediately obvious political ramifications of the stress on equality of outcome as opposed to the equality of opportunity is that it suppresses rather than fosters the concepts of freedom and responsibility at both the individual and collective level.  The American Declaration of Independence may well declare that all men are created equal but it in no way states or implies that they are all created the same in other regards including ability.  They are created equal only in the sense that they have certain inalienable rights specified as being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These rights can be seen as supporting and promoting individualism in terms of enhancing opportunities for personal fulfilment. Nowhere is it stated or inferred that the outcomes of such a process should or could be the same or that guarantees exist to ensure outcomes as rights. 

Interestingly enough, in a current political environment in which the virtues of ‘diversity’ are trumpeted, a mantle of uniformity appears to be working against any genuine respect for personal differences.  Diversity involves more than diversity of culture, race, religion or sexual preference, but also diversity of talent, ability and personality thereby inevitably leading to different and varied outcomes.  These outcomes when compared can be viewed as lesser or greater and correspondingly graded to include the notion of being above or below a given standard thereby introducing the concept of ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

The only way that one could legitimately ensure that outcomes were the same would be to make everyone the same and that would be Procrustian.

An educational philosophy that declares that every student has the right to be successful is in fact attacking the very foundations of liberal democracy which would instead determine that every individual should have the right to have the opportunity to be successful.  Respect for genuine diversity of personality and ability must imply an acceptance of different outcomes and performances.  Any effort to adjust the latter implies a denial of the former.  The acknowledgement of this is an important issue to bring attention to.  It is a discussion worth having in terms of the dangerous and implicitly anti-democratic and anti-individualistic thrust of this initiative.  Ironically, therefore, the proponents of this educational philosophy and approach are actively undermining the very principles and values that they purport to advance.  Schools are often seen and criticized for pursuing mediocracy and the lowest common denominator.  Even if this is an unintended objective, it presents itself as an accidental consequence that should be addressed before it undermines the aspirations of the very political environment that gave it birth.

So what then should be the objectives of education if not success?  Perhaps the answer is as simple as the ability to enjoy such rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The ability to thrive in such an environment is based upon an approach to education whereby the individual is given free licence to grow and develop not as they will but rather to provide them with those skills necessary to respond to and perpetuate those values.  Central to this is the formation of a foundation of knowledge necessary to make intelligent life choices as well as the development of the self-direction and self-control required to follow through with those plans, directives or decisions once made.  Political freedom can only be of benefit to the individual if he or she  is not ultimately enslaved by their own limitations which then become matters of character.  As such, personal freedom and political freedom make each other possible and must in the final analysis either perpetuate each other or embrace a natural death.

The goal of education should therefore be to provide the individual with the tools for success whereby his or her unique abilities and personality can find expression and fulfilment.  Education’s ultimate objective should then be to focus on the means rather than the ends.  Those means involve a structured and consistent educational environment and approach that will provide the basis for self-realization through self-direction.  Neither of these are possible without a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding coupled with the ability to set goals and objectives while having the self-control and strength of will to pursue them.  Such a programme necessarily involves meeting challenges and surmounting difficulties through genuine effort,  fostered and upheld by the encouragement of mentors.

The current practices of adjusting the school environment and expectations to the individual student is maladaptive to the adult world into which they must eventually enter.  Equally, the removal of negative or unpleasant consequences related to performance are equally maladaptive and will inevitably contribute to a loss of any sense of reality.  The removal of natural consequences from actions leads to a removal of the mind from its contingent circumstances. The magical thinking that will result undermines the ability to make rational choices. Once the same cause same effect rule is eliminated, the outside world is ruled by chaos.  When people live in their own world ignoring the realities of the world outside of them, they invariably will be considered insane.  Equally, those who pursue behaviours that do not yield the desired results represent a cognitive dissonance that transcends stupidity and enters the realm of mental health.

Modern therapeutic models including cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness all involve the building up of behaviours where actions are directed by thinking in addition to feeling rather than on emotions alone.   The stress upon learning outcomes is to miss the entire thrust of education which is not to produce outcomes of learning but to encourage and foster the abilities so as to produce outcomes.  An education focused upon the fixed results of thought as opposed to the quality of thought itself is an exercise in propaganda.  The ability to live a rewarding life resides in part in the growth of wisdom derived from experience as well as the ability to give and receive love.  Individualism in this sense is not equated with selfishness but rather with the currency of uniqueness which in a life well-spent benefits all.