Tom Bennett

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Dogmatic debate in education only means everyone loses

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I sometimes despair of the way we debate. One of my bugbears is the tendency we have to polarise discussions into simple for/ against propositions. Watch any parley, however nuanced, between two people and see how long it gets before their position, however tentative initially, becomes entrenched; before a view that they might have only held as lightly as a a JCB holding an egg, becomes as fixed and firm as the Pillars of Hercules.

This is humanity; we define ourselves by the things we value; those things we value, we become. An attack on something we value becomes an act of simultaneous intimacy and violence. It is this transaction, this sublimation of opinion with identity, that ruins the measure of many discussions.

I think we also polarise debate into simple dichotomies because it is easier to do so, because our frail minds, engines of self-justified righteousness, need clear, clean lines along which to navigate. A cartoon or caricature of someone’s views, that flat, two-dimensional mockery of the mind that inspires it, is far easier to sketch, and then scorn, than the infinitely varied and personal honeycomb of the human condition. My enemies, we stoop to presume, are beasts and morons. My allies are paragons and prefects of Platonic idealism.

But this reduction, this transubstantiation of gold into lead (however base the gold might be to begin with), is the death of reason. Few people really effectively caricature the embodiment of idiocy or villainy that we imagine. This error takes many shapes in debate:

1. To presume that if my opponent holds opinion X then he must hold opinion Y

This is the curse of ideology. In Britain it is exemplified by the sometimes childish exchanges between the left and the right. ‘If you believe in a welfare state,’ runs the logic, ‘Then you must be for learned helplessness in the poor.’ Or to mirror this, ‘If you value the liberty of the individual, then you must desire that companies pay no tax.’ These are common mis-positions. A cursory glance at the variety of denominational philosophy that can be held within the churches of socialism, conservatism, liberalism or any other ism you fancy will quickly show that no ideology exists in a finished form; that while there are many orthodoxies, there are also many beliefs that can be both halal and haram under the same umbrella.

When a man calls himself a Tory, or a New Labourite, or banker, or a boxer, I resist the temptation to think him a scourge of immigrants, a warmonger, a parasite or a belligerent brute, because the boxes into which we force people aren’t fit for their dignity, until they’ve proven it. We wouldn’t countenance, in polite tea rooms, the vicious dogma of the anti-semite or the white supremacist, that demands that all members of subset A have characteristic B, so why do we move so easily from uncertainty to prophetic omniscience about a man’s opinions?

2. To argue that because I dislike the general views of opponent X, all his views, specifically, must also be disliked.

The temptation to universalise from a specific is perhaps natural to the human mind. A dog bites me, and I recoil from all future jaws. So far, so Darwinian, so utilitarian. But this shorthand way to find one’s conceptual position- by defining oneself in opposition or attraction to a view because someone I already embrace or revile holds it, is slavish, and lazy. This is why we should never meet our idols; they inevitably fall short of the plinth upon which they are placed. I admire Sinatra’s tone, but cannot conjoin with his approach to domestic violence; I find solace in the philosophy of David Hume, while rejecting his rejection of identity; I laugh along with the Krankies, but would rarely accept an invitation to a midnight fondue from them.
This is a blog about Gove’s reforms, that emerged like the Chest Burster from Scott’s Alien films (only the Daily Mail will serve as Harry Dean Stanton, here), and yet it is not a blog about that. I’ll deal with the implications of Gove’s nuclear detonation for GCSEs, the National Curriculum, the exam boards etc, another time.

I write this in response to the routine, ossified response, the catalysed, calcified effect that interminably follows cause, that passes for political debate at times. Here, I’m talking about the education sector, but I tip my hat to all fields of enquiry in general. I am not a Tory; nor do I support Labour. The only reason I say this is because of the syndromes I have already described. Frankly, you can keep the lot of them; my opinion of many of those engaged in politics ranges from the patronising to the emetic. You don’t need to hear a parable from me on the inequities, frailties and inadequacies of the often half-formed troglodytes, parasites and unemployables that pass for our representatives, across the political spectrum; the detritus of society; the narcissists, the self-entitled, the craven, the career polticos fit to do nothing else in the world other than rule.

But for once- for ONCE- I wish that a policy could be announced without the submissive tarts of the press and edu-sphere thrusting their fleshy flanks skyward, or the angry army of denialists and militant naysayers springing into their Jungian Archetypes like Batman sliding down a pole, ready for combat.

There’s a lot to analyse about what was announced today; in fact, there’s always a lot to analyse, to meditate, to reflect upon, to discuss and to dissect. Some of it is undoubtedly good; some of it bad; some of it unclear. In fact, a LOT of it is unclear. So let’s do something unconventional, radical, and truly progressive.

Let’s ask, ‘Am I right?’ Let’s think about it, free from the many-tinted spectacles of dogma.


6 Comments

  1. irondanimal says:

    I agree with all but one small point about which I am utterly convinced. My enemies are morons.

  2. I agree with all but one small point about which I am utterly convinced. The Alien ChestBurster first burst from the chest of John Hurt, not Harry Dean Stanton.

  3. *Rubs eyes* literally * Rolls up sleeves* Figuratively.

    Surely, not EVERYONE defines themselves by the things they value? Maybe some i.e. me, define themselves by HOW they are valued (maybe this isn't just me…and probably not right, yes, I know).

    “..polarise debates into simple dichotomies because it is easier to do so..” YES! Religious people do this all the time – it's wearing.

    The Krankies, really? That's tragic…on both counts.

    So to summarise, you want people to 'keep an open mind'? Woo Hoo (sorry, running out of gas here ;o)

    Ok, this was fine for a bit of Brain Gym but could you please shoot for satirical in the next one; they're my favourites!

    Cheers *Drains icy Baileys flavoured water*

  4. I realised later that what I said re.values didn't make sense. Can I please clarify? On the one hand, yes, if I place my value in HOW I am valued then that must mean that I value the opinion of others – that, I get. But initially, my thinking was more…I HAVE to define myself by how God values me. I know one could then argue that in which case my value is in God but to me, to me, to say that God was something I valued would be to dishonour Him: G_D is bigger that that. Does that make ANY sense? Because it does to me.

  5. Bill Hall says:

    Well said Tom (apart from the bit about the Krankies)! Satire is a great outlet for our frustration but it doesn't necessarily change anything (consider the devastating impact that ‘alternative’ comedy and 'Spitting Image' had on Thatcher et al in the 80's).

    I agree that not everything Gove says should be rejected out of hand, although I’m left wondering what he is actually saying, and I doubt he really knows himself (the split between giving power to individual headteachers and parents, and having centralised power for himself, Ofsted, a single exam board etc. being one example of many). Also, like most ministers, he is the product of a particular route through education which, these days usually includes a ‘top’ public school (or grammar school for the older generation) and Oxbridge. Let’s be generous to them and believe that they want to offer the best opportunities for our younger generation, and many of them therefore envision that as the chance for others to achieve what they have achieved. They don’t seem to understand most of the public have no desire whatsoever to emulate their political masters. Oxbridge is not the pinnacle of everyone’s ambitions and many might prefer to run a nail bar (interestingly a recent survey found hairdressers to be the happiest occupation and I think it was lawyers who came out as the unhappiest). I’ve come to the conclusion that it is this lack of understanding which the root of the failure many of the plans which the middle and ruling classes make for this the country. So, like the ‘Lions’ of the Flanders trenches, we are constantly condemned to failure if we are led by ‘Donkeys’ who refuse to listen to the voices of the people actually on the Front Line.

    I could go on (and on ….) but now I really must get some work done! I look forward to following your blog comments on this as it develops.

    Bill

  6. Jonny M says:

    It seems to me that in a large scale democracy, public opinion of parties and politicians becomes largely an exercise in advertising. For large parties with hoards of voters who often don't spend a lot of time reconsidering their political views, it makes sense to try to keep people 'for' the party view rather than exploring alternatives. If voters all formed their own variant opinion, it would become harder to please them all – if 5 alternatives are proposed by the party and public opinion considered, you end up following the opinion of 1 group in 5 (or more!) rather than 1 group in 2.

    People make assumptions about other people all the time – and unless those assumptions are challenged successfully when they 'get to know' someone who they had incorrect preconceptions about, I think the assumptions and pigeon-holes become reinforced. Even when successfully challenged, it is easier to conclude 'oh but THEY are different, they're not like the other ones' rather than 'maybe I'm totally wrong in that assumption'.

    Overall I think stereotyping is a socially favourable model for dealing with outgroups. It's lazy, irresponsible and damaging, but may well help people garner favour with peers. Everyone can feel a sense of self-satisfaction by looking down on some group or other, and people like to have friends that given them a sense of satisfaction.

    To end this ramble, we're dealing with a part of human nature, probably somewhat hardwired by evolution ('that tribe over there… who'd want to marry one of them?! Have you SMELT their feet??' 'har har har etc'). For me, the big big hope is in the brain's inherent plasticity and children's instincts to copy behaviours. Children need to see their parents listening to other people's views and adapting their own. They need to see their parents working hard and being rewarded for it. Being humble, accepting their own failure as learning experiences. All that jazz.

    Parents have a unique opportunity to enrich or ruin their children's lives by how they themselves live.

    That's what I reckon, anyway.

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