Tag Archives: You Are Not So Smart

I Was a Teenage Progressive: A Defence of the Debate

I listen to a lot of podcasts and one of my favourites is David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’, in which he discusses and explores the cognitive biases and self delusions we all have as humans.

Yesterday, as Twitter responded to some prominent bloggers’ attempts to suppress the debate over progressive and traditional philosophies of education, the latest edition of YANSS hit my iPhone. It was called, ‘Bullshit’. The episode mainly discusses PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook’s excellent work on the topic of, well, bullshit (apparently it is a clearly defined concept which is marked as quite different to mere ‘lies’) – work which you can read here.

But the preamble to the podcast really reminded me of my formative years in teaching and on Twitter, and how taking part in the progressive vs. traditional debate, as well as observing it, has helped shape and develop my understanding of the differing philosophies of teaching. You should listen to the whole podcast, but I’ve transcribed the first seven or so minutes of it below.

The podcast starts off with David McRaney narrating the story of web developer, Seb Pearce, who then picks up the story himself…

David:  Seb told me that, as a teenager, he became fascinated with new age thinkers, new age writings, and new age personalities.

Seb: When I was about 19 or so, I was kind of a self-help junkie.

David: But the more he learned about new age ideas and new age personalities, the more he read books by these people and the more he connected with them and their online presences, the more he noticed something that… unsettled him.

Seb: I noticed after being involved in that stuff for a while that there were a lot of things that they were saying that didn’t really match up with what they were doing.

David: Public tantrums, egotistical behaviour, flaunting of wealth and status… you know: people stuff. It all began to take a toll on Seb’s belief and his trust in these supposedly enlightened individuals.

Seb: It all culminated in this debate I was watching on YouTube one time. It was a debate – I can’t remember where it was, but it was called ‘Does God Have a Future?’

David: ‘Does God Have a Future?’ was a debate televised on ABC in which science communicators, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, debate famous new age figures, Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston.

Seb: When questions were asked to Chopra and Houston, their answers were just kind of like the spiel that they would do on their book tours and stuff that was just… it was like selling their product. Full of buzzwords – yeh, they would throw out these words that they knew that other people didn’t understand, um, but they sounded scientific and so that kind of lended (sic) authority to them I think.

David: Here’s a sample of what Seb is talking about…

Deepak Chopra (clip from ‘Does God Have a Future?’): Science tells us that nature is a discontinuity, that is, an on-off phenomenon. That there are gaps between every two ones where you find a field of possibilities, a field of pure potentiality. Science doesn’t call it God, but what is God if not the immeasurable potential of all that was, all that is, and all that will be? Science also tells us that there’s a field of non-locality where everything is correlated with everything else.

David: Seb was so struck by what he heard as a nonsensical verbal smokescreen, that he wondered if he could write a computer programme that could replicate it. Basically, he took all the buzzwords that he could think of that felt ‘new-agey’ and fed them into a programme that was written to obey the rules of English sentence structure. And then he added code that would produce the sort of statements that use, as he explains on his blog, “language games and emotions that lure people into this stuff”.

Seb: You notice the people who think that they do understand it, like the followers… even they don’t understand it – to them understanding it just means not disagreeing with it, I think.

David: Yeh, because its purpose is to create an emotion, to create a feeling…

So Seb created the New Age Bullshit Generator, which is quite good fun. You can play with it here.

But it isn’t what Seb created that struck a chord with me, it’s his journey from self-confessed new age ‘junkie’ to skeptic that seemed very similar to my development through understanding philosophies of teaching.

You see, I was once what you might consider a progressive teacher. I believed in progressive aims of education, and my approaches in the classroom reflected this. But – and this is important – I didn’t actually know that my philosophy was progressive. I thought I was just teaching and that the beliefs I had and approaches I undertook were entirely neutral in their ideology. They were just what was handed to me by my entirely impartial and objective teacher training.

And then I got involved in social media. I saw people like Andrew Old arguing against some of the things that I believed in. I argued against Andrew. He was obviously wrong and was tied to some ideology. I made it clear that what I was doing was free from ideology, it was just common sense in teaching. Andrew very patiently argued his case clearly and coherently. It was frustrating. Infuriating, even.

And I watched others argue against Andrew. And like Seb with his new age thinkers, I started to see how what they were doing didn’t stand up to the arguments Andrew made against them. Andrew was patient. He wouldn’t deviate from his argument. His arguments were logical. I noticed that the arguments against him were often fallacious and the behaviour of his interlocutors often didn’t match up with what they were saying – here were people arguing for group work, social interaction, critical thinking, individuality, etc., and yet they were displaying behaviour that seemed antithetical to this. What’s more, and this is hard to admit: I was one of these people behaving this way.

I started to understand that there were these two movements: progressive and traditional education. As I began to understand that my philosophy came from a tradition – that of progressive education, I also began to debate what I believed. Some of my beliefs stood up and I still hold them; but many of them, under scrutiny and challenge, shifted and changed. They often didn’t change in the moment of debate, but more likely over time as I took things away from the discussion and reflected on them. I would defend the same idea against different challenges from different people and each time I was able to add light and shade to my belief: sometimes the idea stood up under challenge, and sometimes it crumbled. I would go away and seek out reading and research based on the debates I was having or witnessing.

The discussions were never framed as Progressive vs. Traditional, but the knowledge that these competing ideologies were circling around the debate was vital to understanding them.

So, like Seb, I shifted from one side of the debate to the other because of my experience of seeing the debate in action. Where Seb shifted from new age junkie to self-help skeptic, I too have swung from being knee deep in progressive education to being heavily skeptical about its claims. I even wrote about how I’d changed a while ago.

So I am thankful for the debate. I hope it continues to enlighten people as to the philosophies and ideologies of education that are often hidden from us when we train. It may not change people’s beliefs as it has mine, but it will enlighten them as to the tradition of their beliefs. It may even strengthen the beliefs that they already hold.

Like Seb, I listened carefully to the debates and it took a toll on my belief and trust in what I had been told. But, unlike Seb, I wouldn’t go as far as to call progressive education ‘bullshit’. That would be like calling a debate ‘boring’.

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