Agonism, Antagonism, and Attitudes About Certainty

Agonism, Antagonism, and Attitudes About Certainty June 28, 2014

I think PEG really hit one nail on the head in his last post of our ongoing discussion on education. He understands, and sympathizes, that social scientific research used to bolster policy and curriculum for schooling today is, mostly, garbage. This fact, he rightly intuits, forces me into a defensive attitude about any unqualified appeal to science. He goes on to present his most careful and thorough to date explanation of what he means by ‘science’ and shows that there is a tradition of science that need not slip into scientivism or philistinism.

He’s right, of course, although I am not entirely sure that all the risks of the rhetoric (which is to respect the conceptual distance he has now put between Baconian science and shoddy social science) of science can be avoided by simply knowing what one is talking about. Appeals to science today are common and it is important to be able to tell what is what in a popular or public conversation.

Let me also clear the air about one other major worry that accompanies the dire state of so-called “science” in educational research today: behaviourism. Yes, it is true, double-barrelled Skinnerian behaviorism has been replaced by neurological and cognitive approaches and the dominant orientation today is post-positivism, but, in practice, there is a very slippery slope that collapses quickly into behavioural engineering. Add to that the very real social engineering experiments that common school reformers in Prussia and the US used to invent the compulsory schooling system in the 19th century and I will remain wary and resistant to a view that explicitly calls itself engineering. Yes, this is at a certain point purely semantic, but this sort of language can be quickly abused. I trust PEG on these points, I really really do, but I do not trust the next person removed from it.

And, of course, that I trust PEG is not to say that I don’t still think that all the traditional and well-known limits to his well laid out approach to science are not applicable, but I will address that, where I feel it applies, later.


Before I lay out some differences, that are now becoming much more of a division of labor than anything, let me make a few more remarks about the conversation itself.

I suspect very few of you are reading this from start to finish and that is okay. There is a reason why exchanges of several thousand words every couple of days, for a duration of more than a news cycle, are rare. For me this is an absolute treat and I cannot thank PEG enough for his willingness to do it.

Besides the obvious time it takes to follow through with an extended debate, temperaments these days seems to run too irritable and petty to have a serious disagreement, especially when the distinctions are not black and white, when part of the exercise is to think through an idea or test a point.

To have an agonistic exchange is not the same thing as to be antagonistic. But this is never a clean line. The point, I think, is to always return to the agonistic and never let the antagonistic rule the day. I saw this on the rugby pitch very clearly as a coach: the love of the sport and the drive to play well often turned competition into chippy play, with outright confrontations. This was a good sign, all things considered, and most of the players themselves knew that by the evening they would be in friendly form. This was a hard thing to learn for some players though. Some cowered and folded under the routine, others became outrightly hostile and aggressive. Those who stayed long enough to get a sense of the fragile dance of rucking over someone with all the violent power two hips can muster one hour and the next being friends understood something very real and useful well beyond the pitch. I don’t often compliment lawyers, but the best ones tend to show similar qualities.

As I said in one of the first posts, this dialogue is already educational in itself, as are all serious inquiries about education and its related set of ideas and forms.


PEG and I agree about art and science, I think, and I see no reason to quibble over proportions or degree of what we both recognize as necessary. We also agree about this brilliant passage, from his last post:

A social “science” of education is impossible for reasons that should be immediately obvious if you’ve been paying attention: a properly-designed experiment isolates variables that are not the one you want to test; but the causal density of a social science environment is so high that this is impossible to do non-experimentally. To say it in English: let’s say you have a finding “kids age 6 who took curriculum X read better than other kids age 6″. Does this prove something about your curriculum? Or does it mean that the kids who took curriculum X were somehow different than the other kids, perhaps in terms of socioeconomic background or culture or even the very fact that a new curriculum was tested on them. (And if you’re a social scientist ready to type into the comments that you can manage that problem with controls and regressions–no, sorry, you can’t.)

I wish we could go into more details about why these studies are so spectacularly useless and how they are getting published, and used to justify things like Common Core and more, and the whole racket. The point here that is so important to make is that PEG’s incisive critique is also because of another side of the coin: the person.

What PEG rightly points to in his post is how the external contextual factors introduce complexities that cannot be controlled (I use the term in both senses here). There is another side to this, which only add to PEG’s point: the internal life of the person is also too vast to be controlled in a precise way, with any causal sense of order. I think where PEG and differ is in these two different points of emphasis, which I am not willing to surrender (because I also think there is more to the external story to be accounted for; I wrote about this with regard to study in this essay) but am also not incapable of appreciating it for what is true about it from my own side of the coin.


If I understand PEG correctly, and this time around I think I do, then, his real allegiance is not primarily with Montessori. He is a Baconian first. I think there may even be some room, for someone who is more fluent in this than I am, to press PEG’s argument by applying Bacon against Montessori. Nevertheless, I am much more persuaded by PEG’s defence of Bacon than Montessori.

For one, there seem to be real generalizable claims that emerge from the Baconian thesis he advances that do not immediately lead me to consider counterfactuals in the way that the claims about Montessori, and education more generally, do. To put it in a less edgy way, I think the Baconian tenor of PEG’s case for Montessori rings in a way that doesn’t make demands with such heavy burdens.

What questions remain of Baconian science? Well, the technical literature is full of them, actually. But I will not try and open any cans of worms here, especially since I am only familiar with them in passing. Instead, I’d like to measure-out PEG’s rather dismissive stance towards what he calls “obvious claims.” The easy reply is that, from a Catholic point of view, the magisterium largely teaches through repetitions of claims that are in one sense “obvious,” but conceal a rigour that is every bit as demanding as something less intuitive.

So claims like this one…

The world has no need for more platitudes, and neither does the Church.

…are at best ironic (it seems like an obvious-to-PEG platitude!) and at worst very misleading.

I am willing to grant that this is outside the scope of science, but this inside/outside issue raises another, perhaps more difficult, comparison to the work of logicians and mathematicians.

Few people understand that math is not a science (i.e., a science in the way that rightly PEG describes it). The concept of proof in math is separate from the historically more recent verificationist processes of science, especially the empiricist experimentation PEG emphasizes. It may seem odd, then, that physics has in many ways become the most recognizable mathematics of today, on the back of the addition of experimentation and application. As seductive as this is, it is not really math in the purest sense. Who cares? Mostly mathematicians and logicians.


The concerns of mathematics and logic are not my quarrel. Where they begin to create a comparison to this dispute is in how conceptual work operates and how experimental work can use it productively, but cannot escape it entirely at a fundamental level. When working with physical objects or even chemical reactions, experimentation can do almost all the work, within its own notion of rigour, but when things reach outside the sensorial and into the conceptual, science turns to math for help, just as neuroscience seems to also run face first into Descartes.

One might say that education, in its most practical form, is not a purely conceptual entity and that would not be entirely untrue, but it would also be mistaken to not equally remain open to the possibility that there is conceptual work that can add to or even govern the empirical work to be done. This is why “whatever” is the wrong attitude to take towards the mysterious history of the concept of education — and even more so to its radical sense of mystery that opens the door for pedagogy to move into mystagogy.

I understand you, PEG: just as I am allergic to a certain appeal to science you are surely justified in being wary of appeals to abstract things that are not scientific. But surely we cannot cast off math and other conceptual fields of inquiry as “pre-scientific” in a purely pejorative sense. No one has to tell me twice that what I am doing is not “science,” but it does not follow from that that it is not worthwhile in regard to education, teaching, curriculum, or even schooling. The reasons why align very closely to your own astute points on why social science in education doesn’t work.


About my own work:

Phenomenology is an ugly term, so I try to use sparingly. It grows out of concerns about both math and science, yet shares many of their orientations and even, yes, methods. But the sauce isn’t right, because there is the nagging metaphysical concern about first things. Sure, this has not helped much, but it has also humbled phenomenologists today in a way that they were not so humble fifty or sixty years ago. My present work is to try and create a conceptual tool for doing a form of phenomenology that can be understood by teachers and ordinary folks and can also be useful in making sense of the earliest step of the empirical process: observation and description.

This is a very modest slice in the overall pie and, while I try to make some big claims, I would quickly add that I am not sure that I am getting very far at all. So far I think I’ve built a conceptual lens that works, in my forthcoming book, Folk Phenomenology, but I am not sure how to use it. Laughable stuff, I know.


This is one thing I admire about scientists, the good ones, and other people who inquire into things: an attitude about certainty. These are not relativists but they are working in such a way that, even when things work, there is still more to be done and settled and advanced to the point that what seems certain becomes the next place to begin looking for a problem or an issue.

Some might call this an insular academic disease, and it certainly can be that, too. But this is also, I think, the posture of a teacher and a student, both who are entangled in this web of education, for better and for worse.


PEG has been very clear and generous in leaving room for me to do my work. And I certainly don’t see why he cannot do his own work. But where we differ is not so much in taking two different banners — one deschooling, the other Montessori — but in doing our work in two very different domains, with different constraints. Philosophy, math, theology, and other conceptual fields have never enjoyed much popularity, even when compared to PEG’s frustrations with the lack of support for Baconian science, but they have lasted and retained a role in the order of things. I am all for a this arrangement until it becomes apparent that the scientist is trying to assert a claim to autarky.

I don’t think PEG is doing that, I do not find him close-minded (mainly because of his astonishing generosity of time and effort to have this debate with me), but I do think that his bottom-line empiricism could benefit from an attitude towards science and Montessorianism that shows that openness a bit more obviously so that all of us non-scientists don’t feel like we’re being dismissed out of hand. But let me be very clear that I am not of the view (that some in my field have) that without a fundamental understanding of education we cannot do anything else. No. We need people like PEG and others to do their work and defend their own ideas and force us to face the hard practical questions.


Education as a thing may be nebulous, but it certainly has room for many tools and approaches. Where I am most interested is in offering fundamental descriptions of what all of them might share in common. But I must admit that I haven’t gotten much further than this line from Miguel de Unamuno’s novella about education, Amor y Pedagogía (Love and Pedagogy):

You were able to redeem from pedagogy a man, to make a man out of a candidate for genius. May you make men, men of flesh and bone; with the companion of your life may you make them, in love, in love, in love and not in pedagogy!

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