Monday, February 1, 2021

An Educational Disservice, However Small

Publication date edited to reflect date of writing. Posted here much later on June 24, 2022

I’ve been watching a lot of things happen over the past few years with my kids and the education system. Let me first point out with full transparency I am NOT the most involved parent in my kids’ schooling–though I’m probably somewhere north of the median point, there are people way more knowledgable and involved than I when it comes to district politics, budgets, curricula, etc (which is not to say I don’t have opinions about every one of them, just not superlatively informed opinions). I mean, I’ve done stuff - I sat on and at one point presided over the SSC, I’ve been on the PTA, and I’ve built a pretty long list of carnival games for various fairs and festivals. I am however no authority when it comes to education as it is organized and carried out in our district, much less our country.

I want to share this one experience, from my own growing up. It was sometime in elementary school, fairly early on though I can’t remember exactly which grade. We were given a quiz on the difference between “fact” and “opinion” in which we were given a bunch of statements like “Chocolate is better than strawberry ice cream” (opinion) and 
“Chickens lay eggs” (fact). You probably encountered something like this at some point (though maybe you wouldn’t know if it came up in the educational experience of some of our political leaders but that’s not the point today). Moving on…

One of the statements on this quiz was “There are a million stars in the sky.” Growing up as I did in a post Carl Sagan world, I KNEW there were WAY more than a million stars (possibly depending on your definition of “the sky” including just what you can see from your particular position on Earth, and “stars” meaning just those that you can see as a point of light…but again, not the point).

This one bugged my little pre-adolescent self, because it was neither - it wasn’t an opinion, or a fact! An “opinion” in the context of the discussion we had all participated in was defined as something you or someone else thought, that someone else might disagree with, and neither of you is technically right or wrong - it’s just your opinion based on what you like, dislike, value, etc (e.g. “baseball is fun”). But there were only two choices, and I had to answer the question…so I decided that classifying it as an “incorrect fact” made more sense than calling it an “opinion” - since you could prove that there either were or were not “one million stars in the sky” by some objective process, however impractical. So I chose fact. The teacher’s response - almost certainly from the back of the teachers’ edition of the workbook from which the quiz was taken, was “incorrect.” 

I am still kind of angry about this, especially in the context of the current era of "alternate facts" in which we live. "The Election was Stolen" is not an opinion, it is either true, or untrue. People are entitled to differing opinions, after all - but the truth or falsehood of an objective, external reality is not something we can just choose on preference. "Pi equals 4" is also not an opinion - it's just wrong.

Somewhere back there in the Department of Education, someone made a bad choice for a rudimentary lesson in Epistemics, and dammit, I still feel cheated.

And people wonder why we're losing our abilities in critical thinking.
Back to my original point - I think it's high time we started actually valuing Philosophy in education, in all grades. We're raising kids who can execute knowledge tasks, but who cannot examine their lives or the world they live in. They believe things because they were told them, and were rewarded for remembering them - but they don't know how to evaluate what it means to actually KNOW something, or how to think about WHY ethical decisions matter and how they are made.  No, it won't get you a better salary (in our current society). No, it won't always get you happy looks and approval. But if all we raise our kids to do is produce, repeat, and obey... I worry that we're headed to an unpleasant future. 
By the way - the unpleasantness of such a future is indeed an opinion. Whether or not it happens that way will be a fact that we just don't have yet.