Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Power of Epistemology II: Institutionalized Education

Some authorities are warning that Obama's plan to lengthen school days could possibly lead to increased stress in children. In fact, some are even going so far, such as Mavis Brown in the article, as to suggest that kids should be kept in school year-round.

While some may be grading the plan "A plus", the truth is that there is no pen red enough to write an F upon it. Mr. Obama not only ignores what is causing the epistemological crisis in children, he intensifies the causes.

Now where have we seen this type of mentality before? If you will recall, a few months ago I wrote an article titled The Power of Epistemology: The Fat Controversy where I examined the controversy about the objective nutritional value of fat and cholesterol, about how it was corrupted by a single scientist who refused to acknowledge (i.e. he evaded) contrary or refuting evidence. As a result of one man's bad epistemology, suffering and death has been hoisted upon millions for following false nutritional guidelines.

I must add emphasis to this: Because one man practiced bad epistemology, millions paid the price in death and suffering. Confronted with contrary data or conclusions, Keys and his disciples would ignore them, and when reality would show that their theory is wrong they would merely deny it and calls would be made for an intensification of the practice of their theory.

Here again we have the misfortune of seeing the same mentality and responses recurring in another branch of practical science: educational theory. Confronted with the reality that children and (college) adults are emerging from their schools less and less educated, the policy-makers ask not for a reexamination of their methodology, but instead for an intensification of the application of it. In other words, like Ancel Keys, they are evading the evidence reality is providing them and trudging forth. Only, this time we have a higher price to pay. As evil as Keys was, there is already significant amounts of educational resources on why his theory is wrong and what guidelines the evidence favors, and prestigious spokesmen, such as Gary Taubes or Tom Naughton, being active advocates for such views. If government funding of scientific research were to be pulled out of the picture, then Keys's theory could perish in a matter of a handful of years.

It is otherwise, however, for education. There is widespread ignorance that the problem with education is epistemological at root rather than a matter of concrete problems, such as whether a teacher should teach mathematics or have his students teach each other (I believe it is called "Whole Math"). In truth I can only summon into mind one school that recognizes the problem and pursues to remedy it: Vandamme Academy. With so much ignorance and disputes over concretes, educational reform is surely to move in a direction only for the worse.

And what price do we have to pay? Everything. If you abandon or destroy the mind then you lose the products of the mind. Children are born in the state that of savages, and it is horrifying to think that the incredible failure of governmental education has brought us adults that go through life with the unformed epistemology of a child. If the whole culture is brought down to that epistemological level then we could have a coming of another Dark Age.

Knowing what we have to lose, now we have to ask: What exactly is the nature of the problem, and how do we solve it? Well, I am not an educational theorist nor have I done any extensive study on such a field, so I can only make observations based on my personal experiences and what little reading I have done. While my observations may be correct, I must make sure my readers know that my range is limited. For a more thorough analysis, I would suggest partaking in the various articles on education available at The Objective Standard (one article is free, others can be previewed for free and then purchased for a few dollars. I recommend "The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education" the most) and of other writings available by the authors on that page.

As for my own experiences and knowledge, I think the problem breaks down into two parts: motivation and hierarchy.
* * * * *
1. Motivation: Children not only have to face the difficulty of properly learning a subject, but also of maintaining the constant motivation to continuously exert effort in that endeavor, now and throughout the entirety of their lifetime. Many things in school work to undermine this. For one, kids are often not told or even denied answers when asking questions as to why they should learn the subject at hand or how they will apply such knowledge in practical life. The end result is that kids forget what they "learned", begin to become averse to, and even detest "learning" (which is really brute memorization in this case); or both. I myself have had my respect for institutionalized education crushed by a math teacher who was unable to answer my question as to how the concept of factoring applies to concrete reality, but ordered me to sit down and "learn it" anyway.

But a greater killer of motivation would be methodology. An absolutely false theory of epistemology is worse than useless not in that it does not facilitate actual learning, but in that it prevents and may make impossible actual learning. What is a greater way to kill motivation than to exert months and months worth of effort in a class only to lose a majority of the information within weeks of being out of it?

2. Hierarchy: The human mind has a certain nature, and so must have a method of learning of a certain nature as well. One of the crucial aspects of proper learning is hierarchy, the order in which things are to be learned. No greater example can be had than from mathematics: first one must learn to count, then to add and subtract, then to multiply and divide, and so on. It would be absolutely absurd, and impossible, to teach a child mathematics by first starting with calculus then skipping to arithmetic and then skipping to fractions, all before he has learned to count. And yet this is exactly what happens in other subjects.

The existence of atoms, for instance, cannot be taught to a baby who has yet to learn about the entities of which are composed of atoms (e.g. inanimate objects, animals, etc.), i.e., he cannot perform a process of abstraction without having a perceptual base.

The result of ignoring such a simple fact is that children today engage in a process of memorization, not learning. To learn is to understand the relationship of a concept(s) or phenomenon with reality and to integrate it with the entire context of one's knowledge; to memorize is to simply retain something mentally. Kids today memorize while in class and then let the floating abstractions float away when they are finished.
* * * * *
Combine these two factors together and you have the makings of a potential disaster: "educated" adults emerging from their schools having learned little, if anything; with a bad and misinformed attitude towards exerting mental effort, and being put in charge of a world which demands that you use your mind to its limit, or perish.

The problem isn't that Johnny can't read. The problem isn't even that Johnny can't think. The problem is that Johnny doesn't know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.-- Thomas Sowell

Worse than stressing kids out, if Obama's plan passes it can bring us many steps closer to destroying the world.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post. Thank you for writing about the power of epistemology. That was what so captivated me when I read Taubes' book. I always try to explain to others why method is crucial. "Because one man practiced bad epistemology, millions paid the price in death and suffering." I love clarity.

Children today would be better off spending less time in school, because the schools are so damaging. I was bored every minute of high school in the late 90s, and no doubt it's worse now.

Slightly related: the college system is a joke. A degree says nothing about your ability to learn or your curiosity, yet the college diploma is the price of admittance to corporate America. Maybe you can write about how the 1970s ban on employment testing and government promotion of college has diminished the intrinsic value of college, while enshrining a huge bureaucracy that rewards the most mediocre.

Sorry, but I only have time for this superficial and cursory comment. I really just wanted to say thank you for noticing and writing about these issues.


Benpercent said...

You're welcome.

"Children today would be better off spending less time in school, because the schools are so damaging. I was bored every minute of high school in the late 90s, and no doubt it's worse now."

My ignorance of what was wrong with school was what actually saved me from being so terribly bored. I was a motivated student thorough most of the entirety of my schooling career, but then I read Leonard Peikoff's essay on what was wrong with school and then shortly afterwards heard my teacher exclaim she didn't know how to apply our teachings to reality. Then that's when I became bored and unmotivated.

Such emotions, however, can be changed with the techniques described in Edwin A. Locke's *Study Methods and Motivation*.

Edit: Oh my god that's the first time I ever wrote "your" instead of "you're." Let us keep it a secret!

pomponazzi said...

Good post. Government Interference is the reverse-Midas touch: It can turn gold into mud.
Ignoring hierarchy is all but inevitable, in that the vast majority of teachers don't have an inkiling as to what "hierarchy" denotes.

I have discussed this issue exhaustively with people who claimed to be interested in education. I went to great lengths explaining how the principle applies to different subjects, but all i was able to evoke from them was a strained smile bespeaking their Indifference.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thank you for this post. My second career was teaching and I was a high school science teacher. I have since left the classroom for the reason that I was not allowed to teach my subject matter properly.

My experience on the other side of the desk caused me to remove my son from school and teach him at home, which I did throughout most of his education. Only when he entered the high school years did he choose to return to school, knowing full well what he faced. However, we found a small charter school oriented to academics. There is still a fair amount of BS and hoop-jumping, however, he is aware of the problems and thus is able to learn in spite of them.

Students would do better to spend their time in a quality school at which the teachers understand how their subjects are best taught, and how the young mind works. If this were the case for every student, there would be no need to lengthen the school day or the school year.

As it stands, doing either of these will simply make the situation worse as students will have less of their own time in which they can actually learn.

Benpercent said...

Ms. Levin, you have stirred my curiosity. How is it that you were prohibited from teaching your subject properly? I thought it was the case that teachers could use their own teaching style, but that educational theories popular today made it so they would all use irrational styles.

Michael Gold said...

Yes, Ben, what you say in your post is generally true.

But don't forget about the LePort school:

And, while they are not schools, still don't forget to mention the rational educators:

Scott Powell:

Falling Apple Science:

Elizabeth O'Brien:


And there are others out there who tutor and teach, such as Neil Erian and Alan McKendree in math, and Jack Crawford in English. Who else could we add to this list? (I hope I didn't forget anyone I know about!!)

Another point I'd make is that Ancel Keys was able to be influential only because of bad epistemology on the part of other "scientists" and on the part of many people in society, then and now. All the others deserve some of the "credit" for our current situtation in health/nutrition, too!

Benpercent said...

Thank you for those links Mr. Gold. I know there are other rational educators out there, but I could not call their names into my mind during writing and thereby could not include them.

And I see your point about Ancel Keys. It's bad epistemology all around the table here.