As the title, implies, Traditionalist Teacher is going to be rather more philosophical than usual. This bit of philosophy is especially relevant to teachers, because the philosophical question represented by the word “truth” lies at the core of much that is wrong with modern American education.
Basically, the question that this entry centers around is, “What is truth?”
Before you think that Traditionalist Teacher is going off on a philosophical tangent, give yourself a moment to think about the question – because there are a lot of ways to look at truth. To keep things relatively simple, TT will deal here with the two most popular conceptions of truth – universal and relative.
Universal truth says that anything that was ever true is still true today and will always be true.
Some people say that universal truth denies the idea of progress. “If things change,” they may say, “how can there be universal truth?” That question is based on an inaccurate notion of what it means for something to always be true.
To use a simple example, people in 1500 would have said “There is no such thing as a machine that can move itself.” Those of us born since 1900 know that there are a number a machines – cars, airplanes, locomotives – that do move themselves. The believer in universal truth would respond that it was true that there were no machines that could move themselves in 1500; and that will ALWAYS be true. That did not change because people eventually figured out how to build machines that were able to move themselves.
Universal truth is an obstacle to those who want to use the schools to remake society, because it recognizes that a just and effective plan for change must recognize that there is an authority beyond that of the self-styled modern intellectual. It is an affront to the pseudo-dominance of modern and popular lies.
One does not need to be religious to believe in universal truth. We are applying it when we understand that we are going to get soaked if we stand out in a driving rain without an umbrella. It is just true. No amount of argument will change it.
Relative truth says that truth is an individual concept.
“Truth changes,” says the relativist, “because people change as they relate to their changing world.” Since our reactions differ, the relativist might posit, truth will be different for different people. Some relativists view the differences as so great that they will argue that truth, itself, does not exist.
It is not the role of this blog to definitively answer such questions. By this time, Traditionalist Teacher assumes, the reader will have figured out if he/she is believes in universal truth, relative truth, or is somewhere in the middle.
Traditionalist Teacher’s goal is to apply these concepts to the current state of American education.
Since much in American educational theory and practice is based on the teachings of John Dewey, it makes sense to figure out how he saw truth.
Dewey’s rowed his oar in the relativist pool. Dewey was a specific kind of relativist called a pragmatist. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”
Basically, pragmatism boils down to this – if it works, it’s true. If it used to work, it was true then. If it doesn’t work anymore, it isn’t true anymore. If it works for me and doesn’t for you, then it is true for me but not true for you.
Understanding pragmatism gives one an insight into the doctrines of “progressive” education. Most of us would use the words fact and truth as largely the same thing. Dewey’s philosophy of education sees the process of discovery as more important than the retention of fact. That makes perfect sense, if you don’t believe that there is any such thing as universal truth. Fact becomes fungible, something to be examined and manipulated so that the student discovers “their” truth. The process of thinking through a problem becomes more important than figuring out the right answer. If that sounds like some of the things that you have heard from your own teachers, your colleagues and/or your administrators, that is not an accident. It is the result of buying into a philosophy that leads one to those conclusions.
So, even though many teachers might have trouble explaining pragmatism, they are, effectively, pragmatists. This is even true of teachers who live their own personal lives as people who believe in absolute truth, like those who are devoutly religious or deeply embrace some other system of morality.
In the last fifty years, we have seen an assault on facts. Memorization is seen as a useless accumulation of material that the student does not understand. Bloom’s taxonomy holds that recall of facts and basic concepts is the lowest form of thinking. Teachers who concentrate on transmitting factual information are criticized because their classroom atmosphere does not promote “critical thinking”. Administrators evaluating those teachers are fond of saying things like, “they [the students] can always took that up.” The teaching of mathematics has long since abandoned the idea that its most important function is getting the right answer. In fact, the whole idea that there is a “right” answer is often held up to derision.
Traditionalist Teacher would like to posit that, if you believe in the importance of universal truth, pragmatism is the enemy. If truth is abandoned, our students become fodder for any politician who appeals to their emotions. One cannot recognize lies if one does not possess the truth.