By Duane Swacker
Fidelity to Truth in Educational Discourse
‘We do not err because truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. We err because the lie is more comfortable.’ Solzhenitzyn
In his book “Truth: A Guide” Simon Blackburn, editor of the “Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,” concisely states that truth is “the control of belief by fact.” Seems quite simple! But in his book Blackburn outlines the many battles fought over what truth is over the course of at least the last two millennia by many philosophers, thinkers and writers. Almost all the well-known names of the Western canon—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hume, Descartes, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein to name just a few, can be sorted into differing alethiological camps. Anyone who has studied the subject soon understands that determining a final answer to the question “What is truth” more likely than not realizes that it is quite difficult to firmly answer (not counting those of a faith belief tradition who claim to have “The Truth”) and that perhaps the best way to address the subject is to just leave it alone (a minimalist position).
But just leaving truth alone is not feasible for a study such as this. Far too many believe that they have truth, however they determine it, on their side. At the same time many mistake expediency for truth. What happens when it is shown that their truths are actually falsehoods and their conclusions are invalid and that the results of their false beliefs and practices are unjust and harm the most innocent of society, the children?
Yes, truth matters!
Realizing that all truths are contextual not only in time, space and experience this study is limited to examining the veracity of claims of truth and validity (for how can something be truthful if it is not valid?) for the fundamental positions upon which educational practices of today are based. The educational practices examined—grading, educational standards and standardized testing–in this study are found overall to be riddled with error therefore lacking in validity and truth.
The flip side of truth is error. Truth implies that something is without error. How does the concept of error play into the discussion of truth? Noel Wilson elaborates: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.” In other words all the logical errors involved in the aforementioned educational practices render any conclusions invalid.
Now, let’s delve into Comte-Sponville’s concept of “fidelity to truth.” What is meant by fidelity to truth, that of being faithful/true to truth? Preliminarily and primarily, Comte-Sponville states “All fidelity is—whether to a value or to a person—is fidelity to love and through love.” Since he considers love to be the greatest and hardest to achieve virtue that statement rightly precedes all his other thoughts on the subject. We can follow that up with the consideration that fidelity is the “will to remember” truthfully and that fidelity “resists forgetfulness, changing fashions and interests, the charms of the moment, the seductions of power.” Fidelity to truth means “refusing to change one’s ideas in the absence of strong, valid reasons, and. . . it means holding as true. . . ideas whose truth has clearly and solidly established.” At the same time fidelity to truth means rejecting discourse that has been shown to have errors, falsehoods and invalidities. However, “Being faithful to one’s thoughts more than to truth would mean being unfaithful to thought and condemning oneself to sophistry.” To be unfaithful to truth, to be in error, then is to reject that which makes honest communications, policies and practices cogent and a human good, a virtue.
The characteristics of truth in public educational discourse can be understood as encompassing fidelity to truth in the following:
- Speech and/or writing accurately describes policies, practices and outcomes (discourse).
- Using the correct/intended meaning of a word in light of the context.
- Discourse serves to enlighten and not obscure meaning.
- Discourse is free of contradictions, error and falsehoods.
- The “control of belief by fact” (S. Blackburn).
- Discourse is based in skeptical rationo-logical thought processes in which a “scientific attitude” holds sway.
- Discourse based on/in faith conventions is eschewed and rejected outright due to separation of church and state constitutional concerns.
- Discourse of expediency based on the rationalizations of “Everyone is doing this”, “It is dictated by the State Department of Education” or “NCLB mandates that we have to do this” is firmly and rightly rejected.
In rejecting expediency over truth as a guide to or rationale of instituting practices that are based on fundamental errors and falsehoods resulting in invalid conclusions that many times harm students, we should keep in mind Hanna Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” She concluded that the Holocaust did not occur because of the monstrosity, the evil of the people involved but by the small everyday functioning of ordinary people, perhaps at best not knowing of or at worst of turning a willing blind eye to the results of their daily task along with the daily work of others that compounded into the atrocities of the Holocaust. The vast majority of “Good Germans”, including Eichmann, believed that they were just following orders as they had been brought up (educated) to do. Eichmann even believed that he was “saving” as many Jews as he could by instituting certain procedures.
Now, I am not suggesting that some of our current public education laws, policies and practices are the equivalent of the Holocaust. What I am pointing out is that in order for everyday banal evils to occur, as with some public education practices that cause harm to innocents and that do not allow for students to enjoy their constitutional mandated benefits and rights in utilizing public education, are made possible by teachers, administrators, boards of education, state departments of education, the federal department of education, etc., many have to and have put expediency over truth. And in putting expediency, especially expediency of self-interest, over truth we regrettably allow unjust practices to flourish and cause untold harm and psychological violence to be perpetrated against the students who have little means to refute and reject such malpractices.
As Comte-Sponville puts it: “Should we therefore forgo our self-interest? Of course not. But it [self-interest] must be subordinate to justice, not the other way around. . . . To take advantage of a child’s naivete . . . in order to extract from them something [test scores, personal information] that is contrary to their interests, or intentions, without their knowledge [or consent of parents] or through coercion [state mandated testing], is always and everywhere unjust even if in some places and under certain circumstances it is not illegal. . . . Justice is superior to and more valuable than well-being or efficiency; it cannot be sacrificed to them, not even for the happiness of the greatest number [quoting Rawls]. To what could justice legitimately be sacrificed, since without justice there would be no legitimacy or illegitimacy? And in the name of what, since without justice even humanity, happiness and love could have no absolute value? . . . Without justice, values would be nothing more than (self) interests or motives; they would cease to be values or would become values without worth.” [my additions]
And in speaking of justice one must consider its various meanings and aspects and how it plays out in examining educational malpractices. Which I shall begin in the following chapter.