Following a debate on Twitter and the recent BLOG by @ , about the concept of truth and knowledge in education, I thought I would add my contribution to the debate. Just to clarify, you might call the truth, in the context of this BLOG, as educational research truths.
I place this in the context of how traditionalist educators ascertain the truth. This is oft debated on Twitter. In my last BLOG I suggested that traditionalist educators have adopted a position that I describe as edu-positivism. This conforms to two basic views; that social science is less rigorous than the scientific method, and that the only way of ascertaining the truth is by using evidence to verify the truth of a proposition.
Positivism is essentially an epistemic perspective, however it has now become somewhat of an insult amongst edu-bloggers. The question I pose, is that if someone or other feels that most, if not all, social research does not ascertain the truth, then how do you account for the truth in education?
It seems like a reasonable question. I would make it clear though that this is not aimed at any particular blogger. The arguments are established for the purpose of furthering debate. Edu-positivism is a discursive device, a position, not a representation of someone or others view. That is true, not least because over a period of time, ascertaining individual views on the issue has proven somewhat difficult, possibly as a consequence that the forum of debate is TWITTER, with all its limitations.
A general trawl of BLOG sites and Oxford dictionaries seem to conform to this definition:
Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal the quality or state of being true.
The truth therefore is a social construct that measures a proposition against it’s existence in some notional form of reality. So, in educational research terms, the “truth” is really a discussion about the assertion of something, or other, and a subsequent discussion or investigation into the existence of that something, or other, in some notion of reality whether it be realist, constructivist, relativist etc etc.
You could break down a search for the truth in 3 ways;
- the epistemic assumptions implicit to the proposition
- the ontological assumptions (reality) against which that proposition is measured
- whether the proposition has any relationship with reality as framed by the ontological assumptions of the proposer
The ten minute thought game on truths
I was pondering this whilst sat in Costa in Tesco tinkering with my iPhone and fondling a £5 note waiting for a friend who was buying a coffee. I envisaged that my friend would return and hand me the coffee, and I would say something like, “here’s a £5” note give me my coffee.
So my question is: what are the conditions required to make that statement, “here’s a £5 note”, true. Here are some basic categories I came up with.
Manifestation in the rational human mind
A £5 note is, at its most basic, a product of the human rationale; without a human mind there is no £5 note. Think Descartes and the rationalists, Cogito ergo sum. You think it, therefore it is true. In other words the £5 note cannot be brought into existence until a human mind has thought of it.
Social construct in the mind of more than one person
However sadly I had to conclude that “I think therefore I am” doesn’t actually translate into, “I think of a £5 note therefore it is, and I can buy a cup of coffee with it”, just because the human mind can think of the concept of a £5 it doesn’t necessarily explain the truth of a £5 note, or in this case buy me a coffee.
If I present a £5 note to my friend, and its existence is purely as a consequence of my mind, I am unlikely to get a coffee in return. A £5 note is only true, external to the knowing of the individual rationale mind. It has to be understood objectively in the social world, at least by my friend, for me to get my coffee.
Stable physical properties in the natural world
However simply because something is held to be true in society doesn’t establish the truth of a £5 note. If I present evidence that a £5 note exists objectively in the minds of more than one individual it still won’t buy me a coffee. I have a social construct, I also have a discursive construct but I don’t have a cup of coffee.
The £5 note has a physical manifestation. It is true, in Costa, at least that a £5 note only exists because there is a relationship between the £5 note in my hand, and the cup of coffee in the hand of my friend. The paper note exists as a physical symbol of the conditions of the £5 notes existence in the social world.
Unless of course I’m in France, where a £5 exists as a rational and a social construct but has no meaning as a tool of monetary exchange. There is no relationship between my £5, and a cup of coffee at Costa in France.
It also has to have stable properties in the natural world. A fiver that combusts when in contact with oxygen could prove problematic.
Legitimation by hierarchical power structures
At this point we have the basic conditions of a £5 note however a sociologist might say, “hang on a sec'” there is an awful lot more to a £5 note than just those three conditions. Someone has to legitimise it, in other words someone has to give it some credibility in the social world. The Queens head doesn’t appear on it for no reason. The concept of the £5 note is, as a consequence of a hierarchical power structure that legitimises the construct and underpins it’s credibility; promising to pay the bearer.
If my £5 note bore the face of Russell Brand rather than the Queen, my friend would simply not accept it as a £5 note.
Conclusion (of sorts)
So my conclusion is that, although a £5 note has a physical representation in the natural world, there is no aspect of it that can be understood solely from it’s physical properties without knowing the socio-cultural and historical circumstances of its existence.
It is a social construct, that consists of (at least), the following four conditions:
- a manifestation in the rational human mind
- a social construct objectively understood in the mind of more than one person
- physical properties in the natural world
- legitimation by hierarchical power structures
And that is the problem of any approach to educational research that considers social research to be largely irrelevant. My view is that without social research you can know something of the properties of the £5 note but know little of the properties that make it true, in any truth seeking proposition in the social world.