Saturday, December 10, 2022

Michael Johnston: Bullsh*t detectors are the answer

Many students … intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance … to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

So opens Deschooling Society, a provocative 1971 book on education by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich.

Illich’s analysis of the confusion of “process and substance” was insightful. Fifty years on, it can help us understand the rot that has set into New Zealand’s education system.

A third of our young people emerge from school barely able to read. Could that be because we confuse teaching – or, at least, the appearance thereof – with learning?

NCEA pass rates are rising while New Zealand’s performance in international tests like PISA continues to tank. Perhaps that’s because we confuse grade advancement with education.

Our public service is packed to the gunwales with university graduates. Yet our public systems – heath, immigration, not to mention education itself – seem to be falling apart. Maybe that’s because we confuse diplomas and degrees with competence.

Illich advocated a decentralisation of schooling, towards a system of informal “educational webs”, run at the community level. Whatever one might think of his radical prescription, Illich was onto something with his diagnosis.

It boils down to what he called “the institutionalisation of values”. We have, he thought, come to rely too heavily on the state to do our thinking and moral reasoning for us.

It’s no wonder. Thinking is hard. But the future of open society depends on citizens who can think independently and take responsibility for their moral decisions.

The last two decades have seen an appalling decline in educational standards. Equally concerning is a decline in independent mindedness.

Education, which Illich identified as the source of institutionalised values, could also be the antidote.

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, published in 1969, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote that the most important job of schools was to install “bullsh*t detectors” in young minds.

Some of our politicians worry about the perils of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ emanating from dubious online sources. They would like to regulate online content. But events in the last week or so suggest that some of those same politicians are part of the problem.

I’m with Postman and Weingartener. If we equip young people with bullsh*t detectors, they won’t have to rely on the government to be the arbiter of truth.

Dr Michael Johnston has held academic positions at Victoria University of Wellington for the past ten years. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. This article was originally published HERE


Anonymous said...

Thanks Michael, I agree. My siblings and I (13 in number) all were provided with a good BS detector. We had a standard NZ education during the 1960's-70's and I don't think it came from there. Our father was a cynic and in the habit of commenting on current affairs. Our dear sweet mother had a nuggety side and a healthy suspicion about anything outside her immediate sphere.
So I encourage all parents of young children to discuss aspects of life with your children and ask them what they think of certain things. It will get them thinking. But you mustn't expect to hear what you want to hear. Just listen and keep asking/listening. They are little people forming an opinion of the world and they will need a BS detector.

Anonymous said...

Great article Michael. Possibly the inquiry into our covid response may touch upon the issue of independent thinking. (Yeah, right!) In the face of a global pandemic there were obvious things which needed government action, such as tighter control of the borders, but did the rest of our government's reactions, encourage independent thought? Build resilience of individual citizens or individual communities in the face of potential calamity? Or did they adopt an attitude suggesting citizens didn't need to think, simply follow instructions? Did they suggest government would look after all financial distress or did they encourage individual prudence?
In my view the biggest lingering problem of this Government's covid response is that it promoted dependence, in both thought and action. What sought of society were they trying to encourage? (Yes, I think we know the answer to that!)
I also agree with anon. about the need to focus education on b.s. detection, but a vital first step I suggest is to know the precise meaning of scepticism versus cynicism.