There was an article in Quillette yesterday by Lawrence Krauss: Tales From the Gulag . Everyone should read it. This essay is an attempt to cover the ways in which the progressive model in education has shaped and contributed to the current paradigm. It may only be of interest as a historical footnote, an explanation of how we got here- and I know that there are many other reasons for our collective insanity, not the least of which are social media and the elevation of politics to the extent that it displaces so many other once common passive activities in our minds, such as watching sports- but I haven’t seen much on the role of child-centred education in this debacle.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, it is an aspect of progressive education, contrasted with the more traditional teach-led classroom. You will no doubt have seen classrooms laid out with groups of desks, rather than facing the teacher. Although the teacher still provides a basic framework for the class, most of the learning is meant to be accomplished by the children examining source materials and exploring knowledge for themselves. Quite apart from it being an inefficient process which inevitably means that progress through the curriculum occurs at a snails pace and teachers have to rush in the final semester/term (with the inevitable result that they complain about teaching for tests), it is a sign of just how thoroughly postmodernism has corrupted the educational field.
The thinking goes that if children discover knowledge for themselves through exploration, it will necessarily be less corrupted by oppressive Western Patriarchal Whiteness. Nevermind that it makes knowledge-rich K-12 education all but impossible. Nevermind that it increases social stratification, income inequality and racial disparities in educational attainment- because inevitably affluent, highly educated and more often white two parent families are best able to compensate for the damage inflicted by poorly calibrated progressive education. Nevermind that it often results in the feckless and atrocious comment by teachers that ‘I learn more from my kids, than they learn from me’ (here’s hint- if that’s your experience, you are doing it wrong and should probably leave the profession!)
But perhaps the worst effect is that it fails to inculcate the message through repetition and osmosis that some people are possessed of superior knowledge, wisdom and experience and others should by instinct shut up and try to learn from them. Worse still, it imparts the repeated lesson that everything in life is effortless and easy, and that if others judge your efforts to be wanting, you have somehow been cheated of your rightful due. As though becoming a scientist were as easy as donning a lab coat, or becoming an able advocate in a courtroom could be judged by your ability to spar on Twitter.
Recently, I was listening to a rather nice sounding young woman phone into one of the better podcast radio shows in the UK. To her credit she had done a little bit of due diligence. Whatever the subject matter at hand, she had obviously read a few Grauniad and Independent articles and had even taken the time to find one study which best encapsulated her viewpoint. But when the host challenged her position she became quite distraught. She explained that she had done her research and she didn’t understand why he was being so mean to her. Quite gently and with a degree of kindness, he explained that one study was only one study, and that there were countless studies on the subject matter, many of which had conclusion which contradicted hers (quite apart from the lack of viewpoint diversity in the social sciences).
It may seem as though I exaggerate the problem with progressive education, but Claire Fox Director of Academy of Ideas, an organisation which promotes a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint, and author of the books I Find That Offensive! and I Still Find That Offensive!, recently highlighted the fact that British university lecturers were being advised by their professional body to not give lectures with uninterrupted periods of lecture longer than 11 minutes (one imagines power points and surveying the audience, both count as means of breaking up the monotony).
Think about the implications in terms of the learning kids have been habituated towards earlier in their education. I know it’s easy to blame the attention grabbing power of children’s TV and colourful tablet content, but this means that they haven’t spent significant amounts of time simply sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher impart knowledge. Think of the damage to attention span which results. Plus, it’s not by accident that the Dunning-Kruger Effect seems to be getting worse. Some industry experts have observed that starting with millennials it appears that subsequent generations may have more than one peak of overconfidence in relation to Dunning-Kruger. A major in this phenomenon is doubtless learning style as well as the overemphasis on self-esteem and confidence in education, which is tantamount to setting kids up for a very big fall once they enter the world of work. This is the best graphic depiction I could find of the two peak scenario, but would stipulate that the first peak in the grown-up mountain leads to a far greater dip than illustrated.
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But an even worse aspect of this exploratory method of education, is that it allows for the insertion of biased source materials which far surpass any biases which a teacher would normally state if they were teaching a class. The downstream consequences can be quite catastrophic. A couple of years back, I was researching the topic of soil sequestration in relation to climate change. Some may groan when I mention YouTube in the same sentence as research, but believe it or not, if you have trained your algorithm to select for topics like engineering, climate, agriculture, genetics or chronic physical aggression there is a world of rarely viewed highly technical content which can be used as signposts for further research on Google or DuckDuckGo! At least so far, YouTube seems to have escaped much of the curation, de-ranking and burying under an avalanche of Left-leaning white noise which is typical of Google’s heavier handed curation- at least in most technical realms other than politics or culture.
Anyway, I was researching and I came across a video designed for children which looked at soil sequestration, specifically in terms of ‘traditional’ farming in Africa. For those who are more informed on the subject, either through personal experience or by reading high quality source material, they will know that young people in Africa have been fleeing subsistence farming in Africa for decades. Although the cities don’t always deliver on their promise, they do at least afford a slightly better life as a baseline, if for no better reason than your children can study under streetlamps. But quite often, a job in a factory or industrialised nursery, can lead to a life which is immeasurably better than the one they left behind.
But you wouldn’t know all this from the video on soil sequestration for children I watched. Quite apart from the fact that modern intensive farming practices are better for the climate than either organic or subsistence farming, because their much higher yields allow huge tracts of land to be put back to fallow, through wilding and the regrowing of forests. Of course, it is possible in isolation to create more traditional models which have similar yields, but forcing 30% of any industrialised societies working population back to the fields, when 1% or 2% is the current norm, is likely to have major implications, not least in terms of food prices for the poor. But more generally this exploration method of education is giving kids a picture of the world which lets them imagine this:
When I more accurate picture would be this:
It even appears that there may be an ongoing effort to rewrite history in this regard. Many will have heard mention of climate refugees, and to be fair there are people who have been displaced from their local regions because of weather changes and changes in climate. But the overwhelming majority of people who have left the land for the cities in Africa (and other places) have done so because they are fleeing the overly romanticised traditional farming which many in the West might laud, but a more accurate picture would assess in many cases to be subsistence farming and a life of unrelenting poverty. I noticed it particularly in this video from The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like .
To be fair, it does say that climate change is ‘one of the reasons’ why people are moving to the cities- but framing of the video makes it seem like the main reason- when the lure of economic opportunity, paired with escaping what is in most instances subsistence poverty, is obviously far more compelling. One wonders whether this will be a growing narrative in the decade to come- as the media desperately tries to supress the fact that people in the Developing World desperately want more capitalism, not less of it.
And perhaps the area where this exploratory approach to learning is most apparent is in the absolute despair and hopelessness young people feel in relation to climate change. Inviting children to explore media and source materials is perhaps the worst thing one could do if the mental health of children and teenagers were your chief consideration. Don’t get me wrong, although many will disagree, as far as my research has shown climate change is a serious long-term problem which requires we shift to more sustainable means of mass consumption, but it neither a threat to the continued existence of the human species, nor a threat to human civilisation.
The problem is that even climate scientists are prone to quoting the worst case scenarios of RCP & SSP 8.5 (because they are more interesting for the purposes of science and effect), when the overwhelming majority of climate scientists would admit that these scenarios strain credulity. To quote Substack’s own The Honest Broker, acknowledged climate expert Roger Pielke: ‘The extreme scenarios RCP8.5 and SSP5-8.5 account for more than 40% of all scenario mentions across the 3,000+ page report. Add in the extreme scenario SSP3-7.0 and the total gets to over 50%.
The phrase “extreme scenario” might be a little difficult to understand in the abstract. So let me explain what an extreme scenario looks like, and why it is obviously, undeniably implausible. All of RCP8.5, SSP5-8.5 and SSP3-7.0 assume that the world is going to massively increase consumption of coal in the future. The scenarios project that we will replace natural gas with coal, we will replace nuclear with coal, we will replace wind and solar, we will even chose to abandon gasoline for cars and use coal-to-liquid as fuel. If that sound ridiculous — it is!’
Yet these are the scenarios schoolchildren will be asked to confront when they are asked to investigate climate change in the classroom, and more than likely they will encounter them through either the irresponsibly alarmist and catastrophised lens presented by prestige media- or by sourcing dark green environmentalist websites which are convinced we are heading towards Climate Armageddon unless we revert to some form of superficially pastoral and idyllic style of living, which masks the sheer brutality of the poverty imposed by devolving to ‘traditional’ subsistence farming.
Plus, its not as though children or teenagers are schooled in the often callous disregard for personal feeling which is inherent to the Scientific Method. The disconfirmation which refutes and disputes faulty methodology and conclusions does not come naturally. If anything, the classroom is likely to lead to a collaborate method of information sharing which is counterproductive to the search for high quality knowledge. It is little wonder that millennial and later generations are so prone to two peaks of Dunning-Kruger when they have been presented with a view of the acquisition of expertise and knowledge which is as fallacious as it is misinformative.
Ironically, the one area where this approach to education has led to conflict, highly charged debate and contention is in the realms of politics and culture. But this too is a function of the exploratory approach to education. Because if, from day one, you have been taught to find your own knowledge- never once substantially criticised for falling far short of the mark, with only the occasional gentle chiding for drawing incorrect or erroneous conclusions- then it is going to make you cocksure full of yourself when you research politics for yourself and draw entirely the wrong conclusions with a degree of certitude which is astounding. Worse still, the apparent obstinacy of your opponents may lead you to falsely believe that is not so much that they have bad ideas, but rather that they must be bad people.
Liberal, progressives and conservatives all make valid points on occasions. Losing the ability to debate and discuss problems with a broad range of viewpoints not only restricts the range of ideas you can choose from, but also makes you less able to persuade- because it robs one of the generosity which comes from having the humility to concede to the occasional point, to which people naturally tend to respond. Our education system has done a cruel disservice to our younger people. It’s one the key reasons why, as they continue to populate DEI bureaucracies, they feel entitled to dismiss, castigate and cancel professors with a great deal more expertise and knowledge than they possess, for the simple reason that the exploratory approach to education can inculcate the illusion that one is always right- or that the benefits of expelling dissenting viewpoints outweighs the costs. Nothing could be further from the truth- as we can clearly see with the abject and almost complete degradation of the fields of the humanities, education and social sciences.
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