Public Reason and the Treatment of Knowledge

Sounds like a book title, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the previous post is important by itself, but it brings us to a larger issue of public reason and the way decisions that affect government policy are made.

Certainly, as a first principle, decisions about textbooks and anything like them should, by any means necessary not be left in the hands of politicians who have a vested interest in getting their point of view across, evidence be damned. This is dangerous if we care at all about our children, their education, and in general the route that knowledge takes to get through this country. Knowledge is valuable, it is a gift, and it should be treated with reverence. We need to be sure that we are teaching the best we have available, along with the appropriate critical thinking skills that will allow the next generation to improve on what we have.

One way to do both of these things is to teach several sides, which will not only expand on the knowledge we are imparting to students, but also allow them to see how many sides there really are, and how they are all important and inform what might be mistaken for a coherent body of knowledge without dispute or dissent.

If you want to teach the controversy, teach something that’s actually instructively controversial, like the validity of evolutionary psychology as a field, or FDR’s reactionary attitudes towards immigration, or the value in having both militant and diplomatic groups within any political movement in order to shift debate. These things are interesting, instructive and important, and set the stage for vastly more inclusive studies and approaches to learning. Also, keeping the decision making within the field allows experts to take over. Because at the end of the day, there are people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of knowledge, and their expertise, in a given field as well as in the instruction of knowledge generally should be brought to bear.

Basically, my rationalism leads me to the obvious conclusion that once goal-related decisions are made, the path should be charted essentially by the experts. The goals are difficult to ascertain, true, but that’s not the issue at hand. Depending on the topic, they might be decided by the people, derived from first principles or empirically obtained. At that point, however, consequentialist ethics demand that the best way to attain the decided-upon goals must be put into place, and in cases like this, experts are definitely called for. What do I mean by ‘cases like this’? Well, it regards facts (in this case historical) that are studied and ascertained by experts. The disputes within the field must be analyzed and a conclusion arrived at by experts who well understand the arguments for and against any particular analysis of history. The right mix of experts, too, can ensure a diversity of approach and opinion. Political stances certainly come into play even in expert analysis, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that for another post. Nonetheless, any difference of opinion can be treated as an academic exercise and thus analyzed properly, within its directed field. Any assertions must be backed up with sufficient evidence and be subject to criticism from the academic community.
The same applies, not only to the subject at hand, but to the subject of education generally. People who work in education and who understand cognitive development and neurobiology probably ought to be in on this. They have the best, most up-to-date knowledge on how children learn, what methods might be the most effective in getting across the information, and where the line might be drawn between instruction and indoctrination. We may worry that children will be taught only one side, or that no matter how many sides we try to teach we will still not be teaching what it means to go after the truth, wholeheartedly, with an open mind and the tools of rationality required. These are valid concerns. However, while it might be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to discuss these topics in a casual setting, when the time comes for real decisions to be made, the only people who ought to be at the table are people who actually know what they’re talking about. They might be able to add to the debate instructively, informing the masses, for example, at what age children can begin to be taught abstraction rather than fact, or which should come first at all.

This is important in history, where children must be taught to understand that objective truth may be difficult or impossible to ascertain, in science, where they must be taught to understand that the scientific process is an arduous one characteristically marked by a great deal of failure, in math, where abstractions are as important as formulas and any other subject that might come up in a textbook.

These are actually really important discussions, of the type that most people, even those who enjoy entering philosophical or intellectual debates, might never realize are the most crucial. And at this level, once the goals are enumerated, it really needs to be left to the experts in the relevant fields. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Which fields are included, who is asked to join, how those individuals happen to interact – these are all variables that range from needing to be tested by the most rudimentary method of try-and-see to the generally unforeseeable. It also might be the case that eventually you just have too many people at the table, and that creates problems in and of itself.
Nonetheless, we have to try. Firstly, because that will give us knowledge of its own kind, and secondly, because it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

And we fight, because knowledge, the way we treat it and the way we pass it on – these things are that important.

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