What purposes does education serve? What needs of humanity does education serve? What might the product of our labours be like and how might our efforts contribute to the greater good? These are questions we have long struggled with but with but it seems that in the current times we might need to rethink how we answer these questions.
For the longest time education was all about the transfer of knowledge and skills. What was known and understood by one generation was passed on to the next. Each generation added to the pool of what was known and the scope of what must be taught grew. Those with a wanting to go beyond knowing engaged in the study of philosophy and dove into the metaphysical. Others looking to unlock the mysteries of the universe studied the sciences and for those with more aesthetic or romantic notions the arts provided a rich and diverse field for exploration. With medicine and psychology, we came to understand the inner workings of our bodies and minds. The scope of education was broad and prepared us to engage with life beyond the realms of formal education and with tools to share our deepening understandings.
If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand - Gotthold Lessing
In the information decade parts of this model came to be challenged. Knowing lost its value. So much of what was studied in school, the pearls of wisdom passed on from teacher to student became content for the rapidly growing internet. All that we could know or want to know was placed very literally at our fingertips. With this change came shifts in the nature of work and the roles we had imagined we would take on beyond school disappeared. A new order of essential skills emerged and we required an education which would allow us to be critical and creative thinkers, collaborators, communicators and compassionate members of society. Our value was determined by our capacity to learn, unlearn and relearn quickly and our dispositions for agentic action and problem finding gave us the edge.
Somewhere in the past twelve months an essential aspect of this relationship shifted. Knowledge might be everywhere but somehow ’truth’ seems to have vanished. Knowing which sources of information might be trusted has always presented a challenge and with greater access to information comes an increased possibility for errors and miscommunication. Educators dealt with this by teaching students to look for multiple sources, to use reputable sources and when possible to go to the original source. The challenge to truth today goes beyond trusting in sources, we are confronted by an outright attack on what ‘truth’ is.
The aim of science has always been to accurately describe and where possible, explain the world about us. The principles of scientific inquiry served to remove bias, remove observer error, overcome the limitations of our understanding and uncover a truth about the world. Philosophers have always viewed ‘truth’ in a different light. For the philosopher ‘truth’ is a notion to be understood and analysed. Rather than trying to find true facts, philosophy has been about uncovering an understanding of how we define, describe, and delineate 'truth'. The search for universal truths, those which are constant regardless of perspective has occupied the pages of many tomes.
Now the very ideal of ‘truth’ has been reappropriated to become a term more equitable with opinion, fabrication and falsehood. In the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternate facts’ we are confronted by an attack on our most fundamental beliefs about ‘truth’. Truths and facts have little value when they are easily traded, contradicted and ignored. When the powerful, the rich, the loud and the numerous meddle with our definition of truth the call to speak ‘truth to power’ is more prescient than ever and yet those who aim to do so are left with few weapons.
"[Ideology] always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth" Michel Foucault 'Truth & Power'
Here then lies the challenge for educators. How might we prepare our students to confront these deliberate and sustained attacks on truth? What are the dispositions they will require to confront coordinated attacks on truth?
I have on my bookshelf a book by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto titled simply “Truth”. Its back-cover claims that ‘We need a history of truth . . . We need it to test the claim that truth is just a name for opinions which suit the demands of society or the conveniences of the elite. We need to be able to tell whether truth is changeful or eternal, embedded in time or outside it, universal or varying from place to place.” It is a book written in 1997, it is one I feel compelled to read today perhaps more than ever. We need a history of truth; we need an imagining of the future of truth and we need the will to struggle to seek it out and keep it safe from those who wish to pervert it for their private causes.
by Nigel Coutts