Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 51

Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 50
Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 52

One of the most difficult problems associated with the aim of renewing reason in education —and hence with issues for the P E R Group— is how to harmonise the mindstyle of the humanities with the mindstyle of the STEM subjects. Craig Ross did an impressive presentation about this to the P E R Group in October.  

The prevailing mindstyle in schools in both these areas (humanities & STEM) is in disarray.  The behaviourist take-over of education in the 1980s guaranteed that a poverty of aspiration would obtain in both. That a bunch of behaviourists should have been allowed to manage education, was anyway, a massive blunder: they were placed in charge of energising the minds of the youthful generations —in spite of the fact that they did not believe that ‘the human mind’ existed!  It is not going to be easy to activate something that doesn’t exist.

Their case was that Arnoldist and Progressivist recipes for education had failed.   They, by comparison, were in the business of making sure that students could show —by actually doing things (publicly verifiable “behaviours”)— that they had learnt something. The only trouble was that the kind of “showing” they prescribed was much too crude.  It was like a government sacking all the dentists, and putting carpenters in charge of a population’s dental health.  Yes, carpenters use drills, glues and plastic components skilfully, but not with the care, sensitivity or hygiene essential in a patient’s mouth. Putting behaviourists in charge of education was a not only a blunder of the first degree: it was also a blunder with a high level of irreversibility. (Once in place, it would take on the status of an almost irremoveable status quo: neither teachers nor parents are ever likely to support a radical change in education, because —when their views become known— they will de-motivate the children presently in school.) 

Behaviourism was commonly regarded in academia in the 1980s as a substandard discipline, because its exponents had moved-on —without blinking an eyelid— from studies in training animals to methods of conditioning humans. Their methods ought never to have been contemplated as suitable paradigms for schools.

That this blunder was made in the 1980s is a jaw-dropping comment on the perceptivity of some former mandarins of Great Smith Street. 

But the perceptivity of subsequent mandarins doesn’t look much better, because in spite of the fact that the behaviouristic revolution has failed on every count —in terms of a skills’ crisis, a mental health crisis, a competence crisis and a responsibility crisis— they do not appear to have even tried to contest the suitability of behaviouristic methods in schools. They are probably all too aware of the intense conservatism which saturates the school system… they have probably encountered the mountain of inertia it represents… and given up. 

But their colleagues, further up the pyramid of power, have not shown much critical-mindedness either.  They seem to have simply gone with the flow, and wearily accepted the hopeless dysfunctionality of the school system, treating it as a fact of life.

This can only tell us something about the Westminster Bubble —that no one in the corridors of power (whether Left or Right) has bothered to ask themselves how such a charade should have been allowed to happen. No one, it seems, has raised an eyebrow questioning this wretched behaviourist status quo.   

Behaviourist methods originally sprang from Pavlov’s early 20th century work on training dogs. Later Watson, Skinner and others successfully extended this methodology into commercial training for humans. But as a school of so-called “psychologists”, they were generally regarded in academia as an aberration: because they espoused a simplistic positivism, and refused to admit that human beings had minds.  For hundreds of years education had been valued as a process of drawing-out the human mind, and encouraging each individual to acquire an authentic, un-coerced, autonomous judgment. Only pretty insensitive people are likely to fail to see this obvious truth.

These behaviourists, however, had, by 1980, managed to thrive in the cut-throat environment of US business circles —by developing training methods which successfully prepared salespeople for selling soap. This gave them confidence in their methods.  Their take-over of education in the UK probably came about because the alternative looked feeble: there had been an almost total collapse of confidence in intellectuality.   

Behaviourist training methods involve exposing learners to information and assuming that it will stick, Demonstrations of methods are given and it is assumed that the students will follow suit. Education is being equated to imitation. These blinkered, diehard behaviourists seem to be unaware that it will only stick if the youngsters are first captivated by it.

They are naïve.  Education (=life-long learning) can only begin to happen when students feel the thrill of knowing unexpected, remarkable things, for example, fascinating narratives. They need to feel the thrill of finally understanding something which had seemed previously intensely baffling. (This understanding, incidentally, can take time to gel.)

Genuine teachers and educationalists look for the tell-tale signs of inner satisfaction… confidence and understanding.  Education is all about getting youth to relish mental satisfaction, to be enthralled by mental curiosity… to be “philosophical” (confident) about stoppages, and hence not to be thrown by temporary setbacks.  In other words… to be able to acquire the habits of a genuine, positive, constructive life.  It also furnishes learners with mental resources which are capable of helping them get through boring periods in their later careers.

Let’s hope that someone in the Westminster Bubble will wake up, and see the situation straight.  Let’s hope that they will begin to set changes in motion… on the long trail back towards commonsense and fully inhabited education.    

CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st December 2023