Comment: Where truth has no traction

‘Newspeak’ – ambiguous, euphemistic language used chiefly in political propaganda – was a strong and disturbing element in George Orwell’s classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here Damian Ettinger, headmaster at Cokethorpe School, explores how it features in today’s educational landscape, where ‘post-truth’ is the truth of the day

DEIn the recent war of words about educational reform there came the suggestion that its greatest enemies were teachers and educationalists. There is a hint of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ about such a contradictory notion and it is an example of a form of political rhetoric that we have seen a good deal of late, not least during the Brexit debate, when some politicians were quick to disparage experts in favour, it appeared, of the power of emotion and personal belief, or ‘bellyfeel’. In the light of the presidential election in the United States this movement seems to have been taken a step further, into what is being called an era of ‘post-truth’ – recently named the Oxford dictionary word of the year. To continue the Orwellian theme, ‘post-truth’ has echoes of ‘duckspeak’ – to quack like a duck, or speak without thinking – which, we are told, can either be good or ‘ungood’, depending on who is speaking and who benefits.

The spirit of questioning

British philosophy has long favoured an empirical approach to epistemology and is suspicious of knowledge claims that defy testing. In education, this scepticism has had many positive consequences – young people are more likely to question and to favour fact over opinion and it is an approach that encourages them to demand evidence of any kind of authority, especially when putting forward doctrines that seek to hold sway over their lives. Learning has no greater friend than the spirit of questioning.

However, ‘post-truth’ should not be allowed to masquerade as scepticism; it seems, rather, a cynical device to support populist politics and replace facts with what the masses can be persuaded to believe, regardless of its truth. We know from quite recent history that rhetoric and propaganda can carry great weight, especially during times when living standards are depressed and people have become anxious, but it had seemed to be the device of would-be dictators and tyrants; we should be concerned if it starts to hold sway in the political dialogue of the world’s great democracies.

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The search for truth

Those of us charged with leadership in education have an added concern; were such an approach to gain currency, the educational endeavour would also be seriously devalued. In a world where every point of view can carry equal weight there is a denial of the value of searching for the truth; where truth has no traction the very purpose of education is called into question. What purpose can there be in studying to be a teacher or an educationalist when you are told that your ideas about education have no more value than anyone else’s? What need is there for economists or historians or even doctors? This is a world in which the only job with any purpose is that of politician and the only skill worth having the art of polemic.

On the other hand, we could take this moment as an opportunity. The insinuation into our discourse of ‘blackwhite’ – encouraging us to agree that black is white and to forget that we ever believed otherwise – is the strongest possible reminder of the value of education and of the need for sharp historical analysis and critical thinking.

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