Thursday, 12 January 2012

Teaching the consensus

This is just a bit of musing about consensus. It isn’t really about teaching, although that’s the vehicle I’ve used.

Suppose there is an important issue where almost everyone adopts one of two standpoints, but one standpoint is far more widely publicised than the other.
  • C is the consensus - widely publicised.
  • A is the alternative - much less widely publicised.
 If the issue is appropriate for children, would schools teach C, A or both?

I think only C would be taught because our nationalised education has become part of what we mean by consensus. For certain issues, the consensus is a consensus because that’s what we teach children. It’s a necessary but not a sufficient criterion of certain types of consensus.

Suppose C is easily shown to be invalid in that it cannot be used to make reliable predictions about the real world. Clearly C will still be taught in schools because if it wasn’t it would no longer be the consensus - it would have failed a necessary criterion.

I see this as a logical argument about consensus rather than teaching. Neither do I see it as an argument about data such as the content of a real syllabus. Once the premises are accepted, the conclusion follows, but are there any other conclusions?

Obviously, unless we say that the consensus is always valid, then at least some of what we teach children must be invalid and known to be invalid by some people, almost certainly including some teachers.

But the people who know this don’t count unless they change the consensus from C to A. Otherwise C will be perpetuated in schools, possibly until there is nobody left who understands A.

Two conclusions and a question:-
  • Some teachers some of the time know they are teaching rubbish. 
  • The consensus doesn’t have to be valid, it just has to be the consensus. 
  • Truth will out? Why? How?


Sam Vega said...

As a professional educator, I agree that much of what is taught is rubbish. But that is rarely because of the issue of invalidity, in the sense of allowing one to make more or less accurate predictions about the future. (This is a scientific argument, and very little of what you would recognise as science is taught!).

People will teach rubbish in much the same way, and for much the same reasons, that people working for Microsoft will convince themselves that Microsoft products are the best. To challenge this is to risk one's job, and it is far easier to mentally dodge the issue. Gradually, people come to develop sincere beliefs based upon their practices. Truth will out, as you put it, because the rubbish they pretend to believe will gradually become "the truth" for them.

a wonderful if rather chilling point made on the "Hearth of Mopsus" blog (C of E vicar).
" 'You don't realise that most people don't think about things philosophically', he warned me. 'You try to fit everything into some sort of rational structure. Most people just have a few phrases and ideas that they don't examine or think about, they're just enough to help them cope'."

For most people, the consensus is more important than truth because it is instrumentally more rewarding.

A K Haart said...

SV - "For most people, the consensus is more important than truth because it is instrumentally more rewarding."

I agree - there is no reason why truth should be rewarding unless linked to physical survival, but social survival is what usually matters.

James Higham said...

And if the "consensus" has been politically forced?

A K Haart said...

JH - we're stuffed, because there are deep pockets behind it.