Education and Politics · Philosophy of education · Progressivism

On the epistemic fallacy: a response to Tim and Martin:


I thought I would write a reply to two great blogs one by Martin Robinson and a second by Tim Taylor. Both great bloggers. I am conscious of reducing their respective opinions to one blog, which would be unfair so this is really just a contribution to the debate on the basis that their views are much more nuanced than my representation here.

I would like to argue, as an alternative to Martin’s blog, that John Dewey had little to do with what transpired in the English education system in the 1980’s. What did happen you might well ask? The argument goes that during this period the authority of the teacher was undermined and a much more child centred ideology emerged described as progressivism. Anecdotally, I would argue that it did but perhaps not to the extent suggested by some and it was not progressivism, or a consequence of progressivism, that it happened.

Michael Wilshaw often paints a picture that this cultural change happened earlier than the 80’s but far too many, I have met, who went to an English state school in the 1970’s testify to the extent of school corporal punishment during that period. Teachers regularly hit children with metre-long rulers, slippers, canes, board dusters and almost anything else that came to hand. In the 1980’s, there was a reaction and school corporal punishment was banned in 1986.

At around this time two competing, and mutually antagonistic, ideologies had come to the fore and began to assert some influence on the education system. Firstly, there was Thatcher’s liberal individualism. The education system, was governed by the Tories from 1979 until 1997 they were no more helpless in the face of the blob than Michael Gove and his much more extreme version of  21st century liberal individualism.

On the other side of the fence was the critical Marxist’s who became very influential in education most notably influenced by Freire. They argued that the individual could only exercise some kind of free will if they shook off the chains of oppression and tried to view “what is” from a critical perspective. The argument goes that the chains that shackle our views have to be broken before our views can indeed be our own views.

Interestingly these two diametrically opposed arguments came to a similar conclusion that the individual, or the agent, suffered the oppression of the structures of the state.   On the Right, the state represented the bourgeois interfering left with its collectivist ideologies and on the Left, the state represented the interests of the ruling elite. Both ideologies saw the resolution to the problem as being the emancipation of the individual from the oppression of the state.

I would also argue that both ideologies were also influenced, however unconsciously, by an anything goes relativism that had become very influential; the legacy of post modernism. Consequently, the individual’s right to do just about anything  was beginning to be seen as the norm in education. There were no balancing arguments. A purposeful learner-centred education was engulfed by a “no society”, on the right, and a “anti society”, on the left, culture.Of course, we are only talking relative to the previous norm here.

The political, and cultural, zeitgeist of the 1980’s, therefore, was more responsible for the problems that affected schools than John Dewey or progressivism. The synergy of the ideas of both Left, and Right, allowed a political opportunist like Michael Gove to successfully argue, from a Marxist perspective, that indeed his liberal individualism was emancipating the poor from the clutches of an oppressive elite whilst his party was simultaneously adopting free market policies effectively privatising the education system.

And here’s my point. Two social groups arguing from totally opposite perspectives, with totally different discourses, ideologies, knowledge practice etc etc can look at something, “the state” in this case, and see exactly the opposite.

The problem occurs because the “thing in itself”, in this case the state,  is reduced to how we think about it and how we think about it is not the same as the “thing in itself”. We have to maintain the “thing in itself” in order to be able to view it from different perspectives.

So to take this point and apply it to Martin and Tim’s blogs. Martin says this:

Where drama as a subject is of most value is when it is seen as an art form that examines what it is to be human in all its variety, politically, socially, philosophically, physically, and poetically. Where drama as a subject is of least value is when it is seen as a social and political exercise in which the teacher has already made up his/her mind as to what the outcome should be for each child, whether through bourgeois or child-centred socialisation, or revolutionary political indoctrination.

Somewhat problematically, to be human is to be indoctrinated. We cannot examine our indoctrination from some objective vantage point that allows us to escape the shackles of  our indoctrination. You cannot “examine” “what is” from the perspective of “what is”? Society remains unequal precisely because when power examines itself it finds little that is distasteful or warrants change.

Child centred socialisation or revolutionary indoctrination are “change theories”.  An argument that doesn’t account for power, the essential nature of the thing, is really an argument for tradition. There simply is not an objective, null, position from which rationale wisdom can be dispensed in isolation from “what is”.

Tim on the other hand seems to  suggest that education is one objective reality comprised of traditionalist and progressive views. Individuals can map their place on this objective reality and most are somewhere in between the two.

bell curve

Tim makes the point with a fundamentally progressive argument:

They don’t care from which camp the idea comes from; if it works they’ll use it.

Traditionalists already know what works. You can’t pick and choose from a traditionalist perspective.  Tim is a progressive he isn’t a little bit of one and a little bit of the other. The progressive looks to what works, the traditionalist already knows. You cannot already know from the perspective of the progressive. One is not the other.

In these particular blogs, though not generally, both Martin and Tim seem to commit the classic epistemic fallacy. They view the world from how we come to know it (“examination” or “what works”) rather than how it is:

The fallacy that transposes what is an ontological matter into an epistemological matter, a failure to sustain adequately the distinction between ontology and epistemology, resulting in the relative neglect of ontology (cf. Bhaskar, 1975).

Objective reality is not an ambivalent something or other. It is a hierarchical power structure, which  pre-determines  future reality. You either want to change or you don’t. It won’t necessarily change by itself particularly if you want to change imbalances of power.

A progressive fundamentally wants to change the essential nature of education because that is the only way to change society, a traditionalist does not. Both may agree on things that do not need to be changed but that is not the same as agreeing about progress or tradition.

So what is my point? I think it is this the way we look at things is not the same as the thing in itself. “Chalk and talk”, for example, is neither traditionalist nor progressive. It is brought into being by discourse and as we talk about it we imbue the activity with meaning. You cannot be both progressive and traditionalist nor a little bit one and a bit the other because the views are diametrically opposed.

Of course, you can step outside the debate and suggest that both are ideological and there is some other rationale option that remains unspecified or relies upon “examination” or “what works”. Of course that begs the question of what that other rationale option is? The problem with ideology is not ideology, as a “thing in itself”, everything is ideological even “anti ideology” is ideology. Rather the problem with ideology is when a particular ideology, or other, sees itself as the answer to every question.


In order to maintain a twitter debate this has been written very quickly. I excuse all spelling, punctuation and grammatical (SPAG) errors and a lack of coherence on that basis.



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