On educational anti-intellectualism: a reply to Steve Wheeler
Suppose a student arrived at the age of 18 not knowing anything significant about World War II or almost any other war, barely able to do arithmetic, ignorant of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, and most other great writers, and wholly unschooled in the hard sciences (apart from some experiments and projects which made a few random facts stick). Now, we can charitably concede that such a person could know his way around a computer, the Internet, and other technology very well. He might have any number of vocational skills and have a job. We can also imagine that such a person even writes and speaks reasonably well (although this seems unlikely). Finally, we can imagine such a person being happy with himself and his “education.” This is all easy to imagine, because such students are being minted with appalling frequency these days in the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the U.K.
Let us try to put aside our differences about educational philosophy for a moment; surely we can agree that, objectively speaking, this student is ignorant. He lacks an adequate amount of–to employ some jargon used by epistemologists, and by Steve Wheeler in a recent blog post that I responded to–“declarative knowledge.”
So next, let’s suppose that an education professor (whether this corresponds to Wheeler remains to be discussed) were to maintain that (1) our schools should be teaching even less declarative knowledge than they have been, (2) such traditional subjects as literature, history, geography, science, and French had become unimportant, or at least much less important, particularly now that Google supplies instant answers, and (3) we should not teach individual subjects such as those just listed, but instead mix various subjects together in projects that display how holistic and interrelated the world is. Now, whatever else he might believe or say, it is reasonable to conclude that these recommendations, if followed by schools, would contribute to ignorance of the sort described above.
Now, I do not claim to have an interesting theory of anti-intellectualism. But I do think that we can identify a theorist as anti-intellectual if his theories, when implemented on a large scale, would obviously and directly lead to widespread ignorance. This isn’t a definition; it’s merely a sufficient condition. (Forgive me for not refining this formula further, but I think it will do well enough.) I could say more plainly that such a theorist supports ignorance over knowledge, but of course most people will deny supporting that. So–to use some other philosophical jargon–I only ascribe the view to him de re, not de dicto.
This is not necessarily “anti-intellectual” in some more derivative senses, which have a lot of play in the media today. For example, an anti-intellectual according to my test might also be an academic and staunchly in support of universities and academic work; he might support a technocratic government of experts; he might support science against faith-based criticisms. But these are, I maintain, derivative senses of “anti-intellectual,” because universities, experts, and science are each bastions of knowledge. Knowledge is the main thing. So in a more basic sense, to be intellectual is to be a devoted adherent of knowledge, and particularly of abstract or general knowledge. I don’t intend this as a theory of anti-intellectualism, but more of a general, rough sketch.
Someone who recommends (or whose theories entail) that students should gain much less knowledge than they otherwise would seems to me a better example of an anti-intellectual than, say, a creationist or a climate change denier. This is because the ignorance permitted is not limited to a particular topic, but is thoroughgoing–and deliberate. The (perhaps fictional) education professor I described earlier is opposed to students getting more declarative knowledge, per se, than they get right now. Whatever their problems, you can’t say that of the creationist or the climate change denier; at worst, their positions make them hostile to particular examples of knowledge, not to knowledge per se. Which do you think is worse?
In his recent post, Steve Wheeler defends himself against my charge of “anti-intellectualism.” Now, I hope it’s very clear that my posts are not only about Steve Wheeler. He’s just one example of a whole class of education theorist. He has merely stated the position of educational anti-intellectualism with admirable clarity and brevity, making it especially easy for me identify and dissect the phenomenon. Wheeler cites another Brit, Sir Ken Robinson, as someone who shares his views. I’m sure he will not be surprised to learn that I have, in fact, responded similarly to Robinson (though I forebore to apply the label “anti-intellectual” in that case–I came close). I also responded to another theorist Wheeler mentioned, John Seely-Brown, in this paper.
In his defense, Wheeler archly, with great irony, claims to be “gratified that someone with such a standing in the academic community had taken the time to read my post and respond so comprehensively” and “My list of peer reviewed publications and the frequency of my invited speeches around the world will not compare with his.” In case you have any doubt, let’s just say that I am pretty sure Prof. Wheeler took the time to look at my site and gauge my meager academic and speaking credentials. That would be the first thing that most academics would do. So of course Wheeler knows that, in fact, I don’t have much standing in the academic community at all; I have very few peer reviewed publications, and my speeches, most of which were not for an academic audience, are not as “frequent” as his. He has me hopelessly outclassed in these areas, and he knows it. He’s the academic and the intellectual, and I’m the outsider–or so he seems to convey.
But his deliberate irony backfires, I find. It is very easy for a distinguished academic, like Wheeler, to be hostile to knowledge, or science, or reason, or the prerogatives of experts. Otherwise perfectly “intellectual” people have been justly called “anti-intellectual” because of their hostility to the products, power, or institutions of the mind. “Anti-intellectual intellectual” is no more a contradiction than “anti-Semitic Jew” or “anti-American American.” So this defense is incorrect: “It seems a contradiction that he can view me as a ‘serious theorist’ and then spend the majority of his post trying to convince his readers that I am ‘anti-intellectual’. Surely the two cannot be compatible?” Surely they can–and in our twisted and ironic age, all too often are. So, while I have respect for Wheeler’s work, it doesn’t defend him from charges of anti-intellectualism. He would conscientiously, on principle, deny our students just the sort of knowledge that he benefited from in his life and career–though he questions whether he needed them later in life, and says that his schooling “didn’t make that much sense to me,” and questions the worth of various subjects and facts that a liberally educated person, such as he himself, might pick up.
No, pointing out that he is a distinguished academic won’t shield Wheeler from accusations of anti-intellectualism. Only a frontal reply to my argument would do that. Does his recent post contain such a reply?
Not exactly. I am not going to do another line-by-line reply, as tempting as that might be. He does deny that he wants to remove “all knowledge…from curricula.” I didn’t think so, and my argument doesn’t attack such a straw man.
In place of the relatively clear attack on “declarative knowledge,” Wheeler’s more cautious restatement resorts to a vague, contentless call for reform:
In my post I suggested that a possible way forward would require a reappraisal of the current curricula, with more emphasis on competencies and literacies. I wish to make something clear: My remark that some knowledge was susceptible to obsolescence was not a call for all knowledge to be removed from curricula – that would indeed be ridiculous. I am not attacking knowledge, as Sanger asserts. Rather, I am calling for schools to re-examine the content of curricula and to find ways to situate this knowledge within more open, relevant and dynamic learning contexts. I am also calling for more of an emphasis on the development of skills that will prepare children to cope better in uncertain futures.
He doesn’t give many details here or later, nor does he really retract anything in particular from his earlier post. He does regret using “poor illustrations and analogies to underpin this call,” but only because it created a rhetorical opening for me. As I see it, he wants us to believe that he were merely calling for schools to add a little more discussion and reflection into an otherwise really hardcore “facts-only” curriculum.
But it would be frankly ridiculous to characterize the American educational system, at least, this way. Many teachers here are already deeply committed to the project method and skills education. Students can get through an entire 13 years without reading many classics at all. Indeed, just re-read the first paragraph of this post. That (at least the first part) describes a lot of students. Such poor results are no doubt partly because students don’t study enough, and their parents aren’t committed to school enough to get their children committed. But it’s also partly because schools simply don’t teach enough, period. I had an “honors and AP” sort of public school education in an excellent district (Anchorage, Alaska in the 1980s) and I didn’t learn nearly as much as I could or should have. This is why I’ll be homeschooling both of my sons (my first is in kindergarten at home)–because standards have declined even farther from where they were when I was a student.
Schools do, clearly, require a huge amount of work. I think we can agree there. But let’s not confuse work with sound training in the basics and the liberal arts. There’s altogether too much busywork, worksheets, low-priority but time-consuming projects, group reports, etc., and not nearly enough reading of good books and reflective discussion and writing about it. We could be requiring less but using more high-impact activities (like reading the classics and letting students go at their own pace through math texts, self-selected from a list proven to raise test scores), and students would learn more.
When Wheeler cites Ken Robinson in criticism of “old industrialised models” of education, calls for “conversation” and “self discovery,” and approvingly quotes Richard Gerver in support of a “personal and unpredictive journey,” I can stand up and cheer too. I think Wheeler might be surprised to learn this. On some issues, we might not be so far apart. I’m an advocate of home schooling, in which such things are actually possible. (As I said in my analysis of a Robinson speech, effectively opposing the “industrialized” or “factory” model of education really requires something like homeschooling en masse, which does not seem possible as long as control of education is centralized.) But we still study subjects. Our studies still have coherence and benefit from our studying conceptually related topics near to the same time. We still cover the traditional subjects like history and science–in far more detail than I ever did at this age. It’s just that we are able to take detours, choose the books we like, drop the ones we don’t, etc. The point is that you don’t have to throw out the baby (knowledge) with the bathwater (regimented, unpersonalized school curricula).
So much for Wheeler’s defense.
The question in my mind is whether his explanation has made his commitment to (1)-(3) any less clear. Should our schools be teaching even less declarative knowledge than they have been? So it seems, though now he regrets listing individual subjects and facts. (Maybe fear of being called out as I’ve done with Wheeler explains why education professors often write so vaguely.) He didn’t mention–not to support or retract–all the business about declarative knowledge being trivial to access and going out of date anyway. No retraction of the line that the availability of instant facts via Google make study of various academic subjects pointless. Should we avoid teaching individual subjects, in favor of (much less efficient) projects that display how holistic and interrelated the world is? He defended that in his latest.
Well then, my conclusion still stands: someone who believes (1)-(3) is, admit it or not, advocating for even more ignorance than we suffer from today. It seems that Wheeler supports (1)-(3), and that looks pretty anti-intellectual to me.
Applying “anti-intellectual” to Wheeler’s views is not a mere rhetorical “tactic,” as he calls it. Harsh and possibly impolite it might be, but it names an important feature of his views. If I wanted to, I could politely agree to drop the epithet. Then I would simply say that Wheeler’s recommendations would have us, deliberately, on purpose, make students more ignorant and less knowledgeable. Would that really be less damning than the epithet “anti-intellectual”?
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.