Education and Politics · OFSTED · Philosophy of education · Policy and Practice · Progressivism

On the value of ideas and the search for causality in the classroom

discourse of clevernessCan an idea be “real” like a light bulb or a torch? Does the text of a book contain something more than just symbols on a page? Do ideas have a causal effect measurable by empirical science?

I was pondering these questions whilst watching the world pour opprobrium on Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims. Few dispute the fact that ideas can be dangerous but just how dangerous can an idea be? Is it measurable?

Of course, an idea is not in any traditional scientific sense of the word, measurable, there are too many variables. Nonetheless, many ideas do seem to be predictable in their outcomes.

It’s quite predictable that the world would react, as it has done, when a politician running for the presidency of the worlds only super power happens to  suggest that a billion Muslims should be be banned from entering the country.

Trump had a University education. Bloggers, Old Andrew  springs to mind, argue that education’s main purpose is to make individuals cleverer. You wonder what education did for Donald Trump, if anything. Even so, if education is not making us cleverer, in some way, what is it doing?

So the question is, what does making an individual cleverer mean? It is a discourse that is in danger of sliding into infinite regress, unless,  we can place some kind of quantifiable value upon ideas who is to say what cleverer is? It surely cannot be just the same as knowing things.

Margaret Archer suggests that ideas are “real”. Arguing that “intelligibilia”, or something equating to Popper’s third world knowledge, scientific theories, stories, myths, tools, social institutions, and works of art have causal effect. We interact with the written and material culture of the past, what emerges is something new based upon something old. Just as a light bulb only has the potential for light,  ideas exist in artefacts such as books. Both are dependent upon human interaction.

It is reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectic but the question remains as to what is the empirical effect of an idea? How do you study ideas from an educational perspective and what is the value to society of a particular idea or other?

Another critical realist, Dave Elder Vass suggests that the causal moment of an idea is when it is normed by a social group. It becomes a social fact. Clearly for any idea to have significant impact it has to be more than the subjective knowing of one individual.

Whatever the answer to the question, “what is the value of an idea?”, it seems to me that the future of education will reside around a journey towards the empirical value of ideas whether for good or ill. This may seem to some, Martin Robinson is probably one, like an argument for utility that has gone too far. A poem has value as a “thing in itself”. Or does it? Who is to say, the well educated, the rich, the powerful?

The value of ideas and their causal effect is the essence of teaching but essentially a social question. Therein lies the problem, it is relatively easy to engage in the discourse of cleverness but much harder to ascertain its meaning in the “real” world.


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