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Friday, 3 April 2009

The Rise and Rise of Educational Bullshit

The great philosopher Lisa Simpson once said: “After all, education is the pursuit of truth”. To which her school Principal Seymour Skinner immediately responded “No it isn't. Don't listen to her. She's out of her mind”.


I have always assumed that Lisa was right. Of course, I don’t think that all educational practices are aimed at the pursuit of truth. But I have always felt that they ought to be somehow connected, in some away or another, with truth. Or in equipping students with the skills necessary to find truth-like things out for themselves. More than that, I have always taken it for granted that one of the most valuable lessons teachers can pass on to their students is the ability to be better able to spot lies, deception and nonsense when they confront them.


Heaven knows, they will be confronted with enough of such things. I don’t think it is especially controversial to claim that we are bombarded with bullshit, and that the intensity and frequency of the assault are increasing.


A few years ago Harry Frankfurt (an actual philosopher, this time) achieved the remarkable feat of producing an academic Christmas bestseller. ‘On Bullshit’ clearly appealed to those wishing to make a pointed statement to their more opinionated loved ones. (And while on the subject, can I ask my family to stop sending me copies? After the first thirty copies, the joke wore a bit thin.)


‘On Bullshit’ is a serious and scholarly attempt to understand a contemporary phenomenon (it first appeared as an article in an academic journal, before its broader appeal was spotted). It begins like this:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. ... In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory."

Frankfurt's argument is that bullshit is characterised by speech the truth of which the speaker considers unimportant. In other words, bullshit is not lying, because lying only makes sense with reference to the truth – the liar deliberately and consciously says things that he or she knows are not true.


The bullshitter does not care if he or she is lying or telling the truth; only whether the statement advances a particular objective. The bullshitter makes claims to persuade, or sell, or convince. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant.


Frankfurt thinks that bullshitting is worse than lying because liars consider the truth to be important precisely because they have to avoid it.


Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s enlightening and terrifying account of the most gifted bullshitter of recent history is helpful because it makes the art more real for us:

“Blair isn’t a liar, not in the sense that most of us are. That is, most of us have on occasion told untruths, usually to get out of trouble of some kind or another .. but we crucially knew what we were doing ..
By contrast, Blair is something different, and far more dangerous: he s not a liar but a man with no grasp at all of the distinction between objective truth and falsehood.”


We take it for granted that politicians will peddle nonsense. Advertisers and newspapers, too. We are now witnessing bullshit pushed on school children. And it is happening with increasing frequency. Sciency sounding brain training. Miracle dietary supplements that can - somehow - boost intelligence, or attention, or motivation, or grades. Commercial reading and writing programmes that must be effective because they are so bloody boring.


It is almost impossible to go into a school these days without finding some sort of spurious nonsense presented as state-of-the-art educational science.


Wouldn’t it be nice if there was no such thing as a slow or stupid child or adult? How lovely would life be is we weren’t better or worse than others at certain key skills like reading, writing, adding up or running around, but were all just different?


Well, it turns out that if you failed at school you probably had a learning style that was different to your teachers’. Or perhaps your intelligences were simply different from those valuable by schools. It’s comforting to think this, I suppose. You can’t read or play sport, and can’t get a decent job. But at least you can take solace in knowing that it is not your fault. It is the system, which wilfully refuses to take on board the latest scientific discoveries. Many of these discoveries are so radical that even scientists don’t accept them.



A group of primary school children are seated on the floor. They are copying their teacher as she massages her collar one with one hand while holding the navel with the other hand. “This helps the brain send messages from its left side to the right side”, she tells them.


It does nothing of the sort, of course. There is no evidence that these actions have the effects claimed. The exercise is part of the ‘Brain Gym’ programme that has been adopted, at considerable cost, by thousands of schools in the UK (and many more in the USA). Despite the fact that it does not relate at all to the current understanding of neuroscience and there have been no scientific studies supporting its claims, Brain Gym is promoted by teacher trainers and local authorities as a miracle cure for countless learning problems and personal maladies.

Brain Gym is only one example of an increasingly common phenomenon that is effecting schools – the adoption of questionable practices, frequently couched in the language of science but not its methods.


Do you want to know how to improve your students’ creativity? Simple: teach them to use the right sides of their brain. Ignore for a moment that they already use the right sides of the brains all of the time, and that if they did not, they’d effectively be brain damaged. Just focus on the warm and lovely feeling that results from learning that genius will soon be in their grasp. Just attend a costly course, buy some pretty assessment charts, and take the children away from old-fashioned things like books and stuff.


If this sounds too much like hard work, forget right-brain exercises. Just take some fish oil tablets, and voila, academic success. So thought a local authority in the north of England, when they gave snake oil, I mean fish oil, to 3,000 pupils taking their GCSE examinations at 16 years old.


This is music to my ears. I’ve always thought that studying was a needlessly time-consuming and tiring way of learning. Putting the almost total lack of evidence to one side for a moment, how great would it be if we could rub or eat ourselves smart? Bring on sleep learning. Bring on subliminal learning. That way, children won’t even need to come to school.


We can put fish oil into their turkey twizzlers; hide brain gym exercises into the other forms of body rubbing with which I believe young people sometimes occupy themselves; and imbed esteem-building messages into their wikkid beats.


All we need to do is to open our minds. And just pray that our brains don’t drop out onto the floor.



Ernest Hemingway, when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, "Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector."


At a time when children are being bombarded with more bullshit than is healthy for them to endure, surely a basic function of schools is to help them learn how to distinguish bullshit from honest, good old-fashioned truth.


Instead many schools are becoming complicit in the bullshit business. They are pushing crazy ideas, when they should be helping children expose them. And in doing so are taking time away from more established, effective practices. And, let’s not forget, they are also taking money. Every time a teacher attends a neuro-pscyho-omega-behavioural training programme, money that would otherwise be spent on books, and pencils and proper professional development is handed over to the peddlers of bullshit and quackery.


How can we expect children to understand science and reason when pseudoscience is part of the curriculum? When their teachers are unable to apply even the most basic principles of the scientific method in their professional practice?


Bizarrely, some of my colleagues working in Universities, intoxicated with the pure-cut bullshit of postmodernism, think that condemning such nonsense is somehow bad form. Why can’t we all get along? Well, we can’t because money, time and resources are limited. And, dare I say it, truth matters. We have a moral obligation to aspire to truthfulness, and to teach our children to value the truth, and to detect its impostors.


Peddlers of bullshit ought not be rewarded: they should be exposed, condemned and driven out of business. No shit.