Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

November 26, 2007

Discovering Truth Through Arguing

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 6:25 am

Linda O’Connor, a librarian at Great Meadows Middle School put up signs saying: “Just Say ‘No’ to Wikipedia.” I can only imagine how Ms. O’Connor feels about the Dewey Decimal System. Educators are correct that Wikipedia is not an authoritative source. To my knowledge, Wikipedia has never claimed to be perfect, or the world’s most authoritative encyclopedia. In fact, there are all sorts of warnings, advertising problems with particular articles.

If Ms. O’Connor’s point is to highlight problems with any one source that is perfectly fine. If her point is to say no with Wikipedia because it is currently the most popular, that is fine also. However, the underlying point needs to be that no one should just trust one source, and authority is one of the worst foundations for any argument. If the children’s takeaway from O’Connor’s message is simply: don’t use Wikipedia, then I feel a great educational opportunity has been lost.

In my mind, the strength of experts or authorities is that they should be able to make really convincing arguments, not just what they say is automatically gospel. It is unfortunate but a practical necessity to summarize main points or conclusions from certain works. For example, arguments for the theory of evolution rest on a huge body of evidence. In fact, some of the most conclusive evidence supporting evolution wasn’t discovered until well after Darwin’s death, DNA being one example. The salient point is that the theory of evolution is as true as any other theory in science can be. This notion of scientific truth is essential to get children to understand.

As a counterpoint, Newton was unquestionably a smart individual. However, he believed in a “Luminiferous Aether Wind” which was the universal propagation medium of light. One of the great tragedies of modern education is its emphasis on the “right” answer with little to no attention paid to the wrong tracks people have gone down. The most important aspect of education is the journey, not the destination. More can be learned by going down few wrongs paths than many right ones.

This brings me to arguing and the Internet. The Internet is an egalitarian battleground of ideas. Among, the greatest ills of the Internet is the inability for people to properly argue. “A Rulebook for Arguments” by Anthony Weston is a good example of what every child should be ingrained with since the beginning of their education. It not only presents how to make arguments, but also numerous logical fallacies (although finding online sources of logical fallacies is not too difficult either). As Weston states in the introduction, “some people thing that arguing is simply stating their prejudices in a new form.” As long as arguing is seen in this light, then any vetting of knowledge on the Internet is hopeless. However, arguing doesn’t have to be this way. Arguing should be about, “offer[ing] the reasons and evidence that convinced you. It is not a mistake to have strong views. The mistake is to have nothing else.”

A central point of education should be get children to agree on correct answers among themselves, not to reproduce the answer that agrees with the teacher’s. If the class produces the wrong answer, that is also a wonderful teaching opportunity for students to examine what went wrong. If we do not teach children to question authority, we are not safeguarding democracy. The Internet can be a grand teaching device to that end. A true test of a good education is not how faithfully a student can reproduce information, but rather how well they can identify the bad.

November 14, 2007

On Education

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:44 am

There is a meme that education is a type of enforced ignorance, especially in America. There are two separate areas of the problem 1) what are the goals of education and 2) what is the best system to put in place to achieve those goals.

I agree with Noam Chomsky that the goal of education is to “provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; it can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore, in his own way.” The opposing view is that the goal of education is to fill people with certain basic facts. The larger context is whether we want people to believe or do we want people to think.

Belief ultimately means accepting authority, thinking means constantly questioning authority. What we are actually discussing is the foundation of our society, should it be authoritarian, democratic, or something in between?

If we go the democratic route, the most important aspects of an education is how does one go about achieving voluntary consensus? This means exploring why and how disagreements arise, rating of arguments, debating, collecting evidence and experimentation. Topics such as those in “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” would be covered a central part of education. The point is not to just argue and debate, but rather build a consensus based on evidence and discussion. Although individual achievement is important, interacting with peers to share knowledge and reach agreement is just as essential. We want individuals to participate in their own and their peer’s education, and the fact that traditional bandwidth is limited between teacher and pupil is a primary inefficiency. Students must be taught how to recognize and correct bad information on their own. Education is a life-long experience, and students need to know more about logical fallacies than the date of the Battle of New Orleans.

Given that these are the goals, what system should we put in place to achieve those goals? I believe everyone in a democracy should have an education. It follows that it would be publicly funded and progressively taxed. I don’t see a fundamental shift in an organization of the school system, but rather the methods used inside the classroom. However, there needs to be a corresponding cultural shift in understanding: one does not get an education by going to school, but rather, one goes to school to get an education. There is a key distinction between the two scenarios which is the active participation and expectation of the pupil. Until the consumerist philosophy of “one gets an education by going to school” is changed America will continue to be mediocre in international academic rankings and democracy will continue to weaken.

(Note: A brief overview of Chomsky’s view on education is here.)

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