The Purpose of Education: Theory of Knowledge

For twenty years now, in an attempt to make schools accountable, we have focused entirely on a very narrow set of skills (standards) built by committees, which have then been measured by narrowing them even further and translating them into a very narrow, easy to score format (standardized tests). There are unintended consequences to such an act of narrowing the cognition taking place in our schools. We are training students to think in binary, right/wrong answers when the world is full of nuance. We are training students, and their teachers to a large extent, to be obedient to a system – to not question the validity of the system, to not think differently than the system asks them to think. We are training students to not go beyond the narrow set of skills the standards committees have set forth. We strongly encourage, to the point of enforcement, teachers to only teach these narrow skills in hopes of raising those narrow test scores. 

The systems controlling our schools are training, really, one habit of mind only- figure out what someone else wants you to think. To a certain extent, we are training them to puzzle-solve, which is not bad in and of itself – unless multiple choice puzzle-thinking is, in and of itself, the only type of thinking we are teaching. 

Perhaps instead of these easy-to-measure skills, we should instead be teaching habits of mind, ways of thinking and dealing with the world, with other people, and even our own thoughts, which are much harder to measure. 

It becomes more and more apparent to me with every passing day that our lives, our society, our democracy rely on these thinking skills, and that they are being actively undermined by much of what takes place in schools.

The closest our current standards come to a real habit of mind is when they state something about students “evaluating the validity of sources.” This is, in itself, extremely important, and it seems like a simple skill. But it is not a simple skill. Evaluating the validity of sources not only comes loaded with whole subsets of skills – like different ways of evaluating information; different ideas of what validity means and where validity derives from; knowing to look for the source of the information you just read, much less having the curiosity to do so if the information already matches what you already think. But “evaluating the validity of sources” is only the beginning of the habits of mind we should be promoting in school – and amongst our citizenry. Quite frankly, when I look at what many of my fellow adults post online, when I look at what I catch myself almost falling for, I am terrified that our grasp of reality becomes more tattered day by day. 

I have never taught it, but the International Baccalaureate program has as part of its roster of required courses a class called Theory of Knowledge. It’s a class that provides “an opportunity for students to reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we claim to know.”

I’m coming to the conclusion that it should be a required course for citizenship.

I find myself online less and less often, and when I am online, I am more and more distressed by what I see. 

Look at the issue of masks in the covid-19 crisis. What science you believe has become a partisan issue. I don’t think science should be partisan, but somehow it has become so. 

Take any issue. Look at the discourse online. We are not tending to argue, but to fight. As Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You For Arguing says, “In a fight, a warrior tries to defeat an opponent. But in an argument, a rhetorician is really trying to win over an audience. It’s important to distinguish between arguing and fighting—arguing is as much about avoiding conflict as it is about facing conflict head-on.” We tend to fight online – joining in pileups of internet shaming. I have my students read the article “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” and discuss it and write about it. It makes you think – what are we trying to accomplish online? 

I said evaluation of sources is just the beginning of thinking. But for many of us, evaluating sources involves checking to make sure the sources are ideologically in tune with our beliefs. Early this year I played Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at a local theater. Vanya has a four and a half page monologue near the end of the play, a rant about how the world used to be a better place – only to realize that maybe it wasn’t, actually. He says of cable television, “You can watch the new report that matches what you already think.” Exactly. 

Of course Vanya also says of the past that “there were no child stars who grew up to be drug addicts like Lindsey Lohan.” But late in the monologue he tells the tale of his favorite star of what he calls The Mickey Mouse Show (it was actually a Club), Tommy Kirk, who Walt Disney fired after finding out he was gay. Vanya then admits that Tommy was on drugs for a while – completely contradicting his earlier claim. We need to be aware of our breathtaking ability to contradict ourselves and hold contradictory ideas without being aware of it. Wearing masks in school during a pandemic should be up the parents, but the draconian dress code shall continue? God will protect me from the virus, but I’m still carrying an AK-47? I’m a movie star speaking out against gun violence while promoting my latest blood stained film? 

But here’s where it gets difficult again. Is every set of contradictory ideas an example of hypocrisy? Light is a wave and a particle. American democracy was designed for individual happiness and the well-being of the whole of society. If we want to be tolerant, how do we tolerate intolerant people? 

As M. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a firstrate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

There are times where absolute certainty may be called for in life, but there are many more times when our certainties cloud our thinking. We need to be able to hold our ideas about the world lightly instead of clutching them.

How do we know what is true? How do we know what we know? We need to be capable of questioning our own viewpoints, our own easy answers, our own certainties. One of the very encouraging things I have seen online lately is people asking honest questions, making it clear that their minds are not made up, weighing the evidence and resources that people share with them, and coming to a reasonable conclusion. This is the opposite of shouting at each other. 

We need to give ourselves time to think things through, and we need to admit when we don’t know. It’s a cliche of modern life that in the age of instant communication, we want instantaneous response, instant gratification, but the cliche is true. Thinking through difficult issues takes time. We tend to go with the knee-jerk reaction. 

We need to have some standards for who we listen to and who we trust. We need to beware the person or group that tells us exactly what we want to hear. That’s usually a sign we are being manipulated. We need to be aware of our tendency to like and connect more easily with people who agree with us. We need to be aware of how this tendency is reinforced by “internet filter bubbles” that show us the ideas we most want to see instead of exposing us to any ideas that might contradict our certainties. We need to be aware of how easy it is to be fooled by technology – fake videos, one-sided journalism, ideas and memes designed to divide us. 

We need to be willing to listen, and able to be extremely careful about when to hold fast to our ideas and when to change them. 

There are more habits of mind, but I think you are getting the idea. But thinking is hard. Nuance is hard. Simplistic jingoism and bandwagon-hopping is easy. It’s easy to think I’m right about everything, to revel in my own easily-won certainties, to reduce complex ideas into memes, to think in binary, to stereotype other people, to try to shout people down and feel like you’ve won. Dealing with the paradoxes and difficulties of real thought, which almost always involves uncertainty, is difficult.

One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons of all time involves Snoopy sitting atop his dog house typing on his typewriter. He is writing a book of theology. The title? “Has It Ever Occured To You That You Might Be Wrong?” 

I’d read that book. 

A meme I’ve seen several times on Facebook shows two men: one is obviously meant to be a loser and his description reads that he was a philosophy major and has student debt and now can’t find a job; the other is a lineman who went to trade school to be an electrician and is now unhooking the philosophy major’s electricity.

Binary thinking again. Why can’t we have electrical workers who also know some philosophy? And why are we denigrating philosophers? Weren’t the founding fathers philosophers with bigger things on their minds than trade school? (Yes, I know a lot of them probably didn’t have to work, but I’ll save that issue for another time.)

Our focus on college and careers, our continued diminution of the humanities as impractical fluff, is leading us to an impoverished view of what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be human. When the best we can do for students is prepare them to be employees and consumers and taxpayers, we diminish not only the students themselves, but our society. Our mission for public schools, as others have said, should be to create a public – a self-reflective, skeptical, thoughtful, reasonable, self-aware public. 

Our democracy and our individual happiness depend on it.