Facts, Not Negotiable, but Not Everything

Facts, Not Negotiable, but Not Everything February 17, 2022

Facts are not negotiable.

Mom’s decisions could be. Our children learned that if they could make us laugh, they might (might!) avoid all punishment for whatever naughtiness had been committed. Facts might not be negotiable, but outcomes in life sometimes are.

Science can give us facts, including the fact of what will happen if we act certain ways, based on those facts. They cannot just tell us what we should do. All the facts in the world piled high together will not give one “ought” by themselves.

There is an odd trend in education where some are demanding that teachers only present “facts” and teach practical skills (reading, math facts, science skills). These are “neutral” and so fit for education.

There is great value in knowing facts. They are the data needed for good conclusions. Practical skills are called practical for a reason! We need to be able to tie our shoes, read instructions, calculate, and know how to make things.

Yet there is a simple problem with this demand: there is a philosophy assumed by the demand! Can one consistently pry apart “facts” from “values?” Our choices will be determined by what we think most important, needed, or practical. If we should know the past, what parts of the past? Who will decide?

Hours a day spent learning “job skills” without wisdom is a philosophic choice, but one that is hard to defend. What makes a civilized, educated person? Is it work? What kinds of work? What skills are conducive to wisdom? Can wisdom be taught? If wisdom can be taught, then shouldn’t schools strive to teach wisdom?

These questions might be frustrating. “I just want the basics. Surely we all agree on those.”

An inconvenient fact is that we do not all agree about the basics. Why? Our philosophy informs what seems basic to us! Should everyone learn to write well enough to produce a five paragraph essay? Why? To what end? What about learning cursive handwriting? That was once nearly a universal skill that is falling into disuse. Should it? Answering that question might intrude into whether we should learn the fine arts and physical education. Shouldn’t we learn on the playground or the playing fields? Can a person be civilized without knowing how to make or appreciate music? What sports? What music?

Values undergird all these decisions.

Adversarial relationships cannot produce good education. Trust, good faith, and respect is needed. Every book, every discussion, every question cannot be screened, because humans are not so predictable. The simplest discussion, about a fact of science, can see a student ask a value laden question. “Why should we wear or not wear masks?” If we avoid those questions, then we are teaching a value by avoiding the question.

Values will drive all college choices: right down to the color palate used in the classroom decorating. Should there be artificial very bright colors used? Would there be value in using more subdued “natural” tones? What about screens? When should be they be used as tools? If you believe that beauty is just in the eye of the beholder, you might poll what is most popular to answer questions about design. If you see beauty as objective, real, then you might think experts like artists should guide the design of learning spaces.

The compulsion to reduce education to the “non-controversial” comes from a lack of shared values. Usury in higher education is bad enough, but being forced to borrow money for an education you think nonsense or even wicked is an insult with a payment book.

A society that cannot find enough shared values cannot have one standard school for everyone. Nor can we just turn to “experts” in a subject to tell us what to teach, because they too have shared assumptions in a guild. Many of these assumptions might be correct or they may be the result of monoculture that stifles dissent about unexamined assumptions.

That has happened in human history!

Every perspective cannot be taught. Some assumptions will prevail if there is any coherence to an education at all. To pretend that one can just speak as “historian” or “scientist” or “philosopher” is just another fairly dubious assumption. One is speaking as a scholar of this time, this place, with this set of philosophic assumption and values. The expertise matters and cannot be dismissed, but neither can it be a simple last word.

Facts are not negotiable, but mercy on each other as we find a common good, truth, and beauty to teach can be, must be, negotiated.



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