Why does truth matter in teaching?

Consider the following propositions, all of which are ones that pupils in school are likely to encounter in their futures:

(1) Homeopathy is an effective treatment for a range of illnesses

(2) The number of people killed in the Holocaust has been vastly exaggerated

(3) There is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism

(4) Dinosaurs and humans co-existed in the past

Each of these statements is not true, and they can be shown not to be true through appropriate academic disciplines. Medical trials and hard stats shows us that (1) and (3) are not true, while sources available from the 1940s can show historians that (2) is not true (indeed this is one of the few matters of history to have passed a legal burden of proof!) Palaeontology, anthropology, geology and some radio-carbon dating can all show us that (4) is not true.

Now why does this matter?

For years now it has been popular and fashionable to challenge the very idea that something can be ‘true’. Philosophers have a long tradition of exploring what truth is, but a particular strand of this debate became popular in the later twentieth century under a broad banner that might be called ‘postmodernism’. This is hardly a coherent school of thought, but its adherents tend to start from the position that truth is relative and knowledge subjective. I simplify terribly, though, it must be said, many supporters of postmodernism in education (particularly the field of curriculum theory) tend not to get much further than ‘truth is relative’ and ‘knowledge is subjective’.

The consequences of this position for education are troubling. If truth is relative to context, then we have no grounds on which to base what we teach pupils in school. With no yardstick of truth, there is no reason for a pupil to accept anything that a teacher might say: it is all just a matter of opinion. There are no right or wrong answers on this line of argument: only subjective opinions.

But is it simply a matter of opinion whether or not the Holocaust happened or not? If a pupil comes to me, as a history teacher, am I supposed to say to that pupil ‘well, that’s one point of view’. What if a pupil goes to her science teacher and says ‘dinosaurs and humans coexisted in the past’: should the science teacher say ‘yes, that’s one possible conclusion’?

The answer in both cases, I hope, would be ‘no, that is not true’. I do not want pupils in my school entertaining Holocaust denial or human-dinosaur coexistence: these things are simply not true. We hear a great deal that we want pupils to be ‘critical thinkers’, but if we have pupils think that truth is relative and knowledge subjective, then we actually make it impossible for them to challenge propositions such as this in the future: all they can say is ‘well that’s one possible point of view’.

This is not to say that everything is simply ‘true’ or ‘false’. Statements (1) to (4) above are all clearly false, but consider the following:

(5) The First World War was caused by the internal political situation in Germany

Now this is an interpretation most famously advanced by Fischer: the so-called ‘Fischer Thesis’ on the primacy of domestic politics. The interpretation has some merit, but has also been extensively challenged. As a history teacher, I would expect pupils to consider such an interpretation, to weigh up its strengths and its weaknesses and to compare it with other possible interpretations.

But what is the basis on which they can do this? How do we identify whether an interpretation is ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. We can challenge it on its consistency: an interpretation that is contradictory is likely to be weak. It is, however, a notion of truth that we need to be operating with in order to decide whether or not an interpretation is strong or not. If I lose sight of my mission as a historian to say something ‘truthful’ about the past, then I am left in a position where pretty much any interpretation goes.

Truth is a complex philosophical idea: it is not easy, and if it were this very discussion would not exist. But the fact that the idea of truth presents problems does not mean that we should discard it: to do so leaves us with logical contradictions (see below) and an inability to progress our knowledge of the world further. For those at the cutting edge of research, it is perhaps right that the notion of truth is questioned. For children in school classrooms, who are being prepared to face a world in which they are bombarded with statements like (1) to (4), the notion of truth is indispensible.

The logical problem

Historians famously make bad philosophers, but here is my go at summarising the logical problem inherent in relativism.

Consider the proposition ‘truth is relative’. It follows from this that the truth of any particular proposition depends on context. If, as this proposition claims, truth is relative, then the proposition ‘truth is relative’ is itself not necessarily true. But if the proposition ‘truth is relative’ is itself not necessarily true, then we have no reason for thinking that truth is relative in the first place.

For a good summary, this is well worth a look:


19 Comments on Why does truth matter in teaching?

  1. Truth is a clear proposition, but more slippery in the particular. I personally think that objective truth exists, but it is often very difficult to arrive at it without significant associated uncertainty. This is true in Science (the area I am most familiar with), and I guess in History, too. At the school level, though, there is a lot that can be said with a high level of certainty (although caveats are often applicable). I think you are right to stress evidence, in this regard. It is the weighing of evidence that is required in academic study, and also often in life, generally.

  2. I’m no relativist and I certainly believe we should teach children when things are untrue (such as the four statements above), however, as much as we might wish it not so, truth is a slippery bugger and teaching children otherwise would be just as unacceptable as telling them humans shared the world with dinosaurs.

    We have an obligation to be honest with our students about when we are telling them a fact and when we are giving them an opinion. We need to discuss the differences with them and we need to give them opportunities to explore alternative points of view and other ways of looking at the world. People see the world differently, they interpret evidence differently, and they believe their views are right and just.

    To my mind, this is a fundamental aim of education. As fundamental as any list of facts. And it takes time to develop. It can’t be tacked on at the end of the curriculum, it has to built in from the start. Truth and opinion, memory and reasoning, rote learning and critical thinking, transmission and dialogue. All are important.

  3. I think there are few who would deny that causal relations exist or that simple factual representations of reality can be true.

    There are some radical constructivists who argue that no aspect of reality is entirely free from how humans construct or try to interpret it.

    The issue, and it is one Simon Blackburn tries to address unconvincingly, is whether the truth can be derived epistemically without some recourse to the context in which it is generated. I think that is the nub of relativism.

    I think the notion that relativism just means everything has equal value, as Simon Blackburn, tries to state is simply a classic straw man. None of the people he quotes; Foucault, Derrida ever said that or if they did I would be interested in a quote.

    I also note that you do not resolve the issue of interpretation. The problem is that you either resolve the issue of interpretation, which involves some method as to ascertaining the context that the truth was constructed (or evidence) or simply have a curriculum full of simple facts.

    It is the issue we all wrestle with and one that you allude to and then ignore in favour of debunking a straw man.

    Saying that I think this debate is valuable and you have made an interesting contribution. So thanks for that.

    • I can’t say if this fair comment or not, but I cannot resist sharing it. It would seem that Derrida is not a relativist in the Einsteinian sense either:

      ‘A further sense of Derrida’s eagerness to claim familiarity with deep scientific matters can be obtained from the following quotation, which also gives one some sense of how seriously to take such claims: “The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, not a center. It is the very concept of variability—it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of some thing—of a center from which an observer could master the field—but the very concept of the game.” The “Einsteinian constant” is, of course, c, the speed of light in vacuo, roughly 300 million meters per second. Physicists, we can say with confidence, are not likely to be impressed by such verbiage, and are hardly apt to revise their thinking about the constancy of c. Rather, it is probable that they will develop a certain disdain for scholars, however eminent, who talk this way, and a corresponding disdain for other scholars who propose to take such stuff seriously. Fortunately for Derrida, few scientists trouble to read him, while those academics who do are, for the most part, so poorly versed in science that they have a hard time telling the real thing from sheer bluff.’

      Gross and Levitt Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Kindle Locations 1788-1796). (Derrida quotation from Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy, pp. 247–72)

    • You are, of course, correct that it is a quote — I cited the source at the bottom of the reply. Having read Sokal, Bricmont et al, I cannot help but approach postmodernism with an extremely large dollop of scepticism. I shall read the rebuttal suggested with interest, but I suspect it will take me some time. Epistemology and education is a fraught field, to be sure:https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2014/01/04/the-myth-of-pedagogy/

      • I enjoyed you article on philosophy although I am sceptical that an epistemic approach such as methodological naturalism can offer a view on anything other than causal or correlational relations in the natural world.

        I am more than happy for you to be sceptical about post modernism or those that sometimes quote post modernists.

        We have to remember though we are talking about different things and education is a social practice. From that perspective you are on my turf, not I, on yours.

        Even so, hopefully the debate will continue it will be interesting to see where it ends up.

  4. Tom Burkard // 20 July 2015 at 06:22 // Reply

    I think your choice of examples is unfortuntate. Had you restricted yourself to statements such as “In 1832 the Pariliament of Great Britain passed a Reform Act”, I would agree that there are statements which are demonstrably true. On the other hand, let’s take the statement “Placebos are effective treatments for a range of illnesses”. They are. Had you merely stated that blind trials–which eliminate the placebo effect–have not shown that homeopathy to be effective, your statement would be true. Such are the dangers of claiming truth for a proposition without teaching children enough knowledge to enable them to understand the complexities of controversial proposals.

    Even the claim that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted is problematic when we have so many reptiles living today which are biologically similar to those that became extinct long before primates (let alone humans) evolved. The number of people killed in the Holocaust may very well be exaggerated; it’s hardly unusual for governments to overstate their case, and Israeli governments have had every reason to overstate theirs. The demonstrable facts of the Nazi death camps are horrific enough without slipping into sterile debates about numbers, which can never be resolved. Claiming truth for propositions which are controversial feeds the cynics, and makes it more difficult to claim the truth for those which can be proved.

  5. Joe Smith // 22 July 2015 at 13:32 // Reply

    I agree that you do oversimplify relativism greatly. In examples 2 and 4 above, the statements can be challenged in terms of the disputed definitions of the words used. For example, modern birds are, strictly speaking, dinosaurs. Similarly, ‘the Holocaust’ may refer to the attempt to eradicate the Jewish people, or it may refer to the sum total of other groups killed in nazi euthanasia programmes. What’s more, the death toll for the holocaust was exaggerated (albeit not intentionally) in the first years after the war as reliable information was so scarce- and historians have settled on a figure of 5-6 million Jews only fairly recently. Indeed the death toll for Auschwitz alone was revised down from 4 million to 1-1.5 million. What matters in statements like ‘the death toll of the holocaust has been exaggerated’ is the intention of the speaker, is he seeking to diminish or deny the horror of the holocaust or is he making a point about the changing historiographical consensus on the estimated death toll?

    In the cases of 1 and 3, we have only overwhelming evidence that they are untrue – this is not the same as stating that they are unquestionably untrue in the same way that a statement like ‘tomorrow will be Wednesday’ can be said to be untrue. I would certainly be outraged by a school curriculum which argued for the merits of homeopathy, but then I am equally shocked that many schools treat the existence of God as a fact even though this, too, falls within the bounds of ‘less than likely’.

    All this is not to say that I believe any of the four statements you give, but it is to say that I feel you are massively oversimplifying relativism and consequently massively oversimplifying the concept of truth.

    • To be clear, my point in this post is not to say that truth is uncomplicated: as I said, it most certainly is. My point is simply that to deny truth makes it impossible to have the kind of discussion that you have advanced in your reply: we need an underlying notion of truth, however complex, in order to have meaningful discussions about knowledge.

    • Or, to be more precise, you couldn’t quibble the truth of my propositions without reference to what is true.

  6. “Truth is a complex philosophical idea:”

    I will listen to the Simon Blackburn talk you included above, but I couldn’t help thinking after listening to a recent In Our Time episode on truth (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04v59gz) that actually truth isn’t that difficult an idea. That a statement can be true, and we know what it means to be true, is an almost trivial feature of language. Most arguments I encounter about the meaning of truth are little more than sophistry, with people either suddenly switching to talking about “absolute/relative truth”, “objective/subjective” or “my/your/their truth” in order to obfuscate, or people confusing the question of how we know something to be true with what it means to be true. At the very least, when anyone denies the conventional notion of truth, we can ask them if they know what it means to lie. Remarkably few will say “no”, even though the concept makes little sense without a notion of what it means for something to be true.

    • Thanks for the link – I hadn’t seen that one. Shall enjoy listening to it later. You can see quite a few examples of what you say here in the other comments!

      • I’ll read them first, then listen to that talk. Actually, I notice I missed out an important point in my comment.

        The other common variety of sophistry about truth is to confuse the concept of meaning and the concept of truth. So if the meaning of a statement is dependent on context then it is claimed that “truth is dependent on context”, rather than the trivial claim that “whether a particular statement is true is dependent on what it means”.

  7. Lindsay Gibson // 23 July 2015 at 19:09 // Reply

    The question how to assess the historical plausibility of interpretations has been an important issue that I have been considering lately, especially as it relates to ethical judgments in history (or difficult or controversial events in history). At a history education symposium at the University of Helsinki this year Andreas Körber from the University of Hamburg introduced me to Jörn Rüsen’s Concept of “Triftigkeiten” (Plausibilities) that I have found very helpful. Although I do not speak German and I do not believe it has been translated into English here are the Rüsen articles in which he discusses these points.

    Rüsen, Jörn (1983): Historische Vernunft. Grundzüge einer Historik I: Die Grundlagen der Geschichtswissenschaft. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Kleine Vandenhoeck-Reihe; 1489).

    Rüsen, Jörn (1989): “Historisch-politisches Bewußtsein — was ist das?” In: Cremer, Will; Commichau, Imke (Red.) (1989; Hg.): Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Geschichte, Bewußtsein. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Schriftenreihe; 273); S. 119-141.

    Rüsen, Jörn (1993): “‘Moderne’ und ‘Postmoderne’ als Gesichtspunkte einer Geschichte der modernen Geschichtswissenschaft.” In: Küttler, Wolfgang; Rüsen, Jörn; Schulin, Ernst (Hg.): Geschichtsdiskurs. Bd. 1: Grundlagen und Methoden der Historiographiegeschichte. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, S. 17-30.

    Rüsen, Jörn (2013): “Historik. Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft.”. Theorie der Geschichtswissenschaft. Köln: Böhlau.

    • Yes, I was there in Helsinki too! A lot of Rüsen’s work has made it into the English sphere via Peter Lee (see http://thenhier.ca/en/node/655) and there is some work in English (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Western-Historical-Thinking-Intercultural-History/dp/157181454X).

      On the whole, though, I find a few difficulties in Rüsen’s work. First, it seems to emphasise human temporality and ‘historical consciousness’ at the expense of the the ‘discipline of history’ – that is probably a little unfair, but I do tend to think that a lot of the work on historical consciousness tends to focus more on our relationship with the past as opposed to our relationship to history. On a second point, I am not convinced that the model of how the discipline of history works in Rüsen’s model is actually how history does work in practice: it seems more a case for how history ought to be, rather than how it is.

      Just some thoughts – I need to do more work on this.

  8. The_History_Man // 24 July 2015 at 16:16 // Reply

    The process of historical enquiry should enable most teachers to resolve this issue with their students, by showing that History is an active investigation of the past and not simply a passive narrative. The ‘truth’ of an historical interpretation depends on how far it is based upon a set of coherent, substantiated judgements drawn from the evidence available in a well researched collection of sources. This gives students a valuable tool which they can use to evaluate both their own work and that of others and will enable them to develop robust interpretations which can challenge and rebut the unsubstantiated opinions which pass for informed comment in many channels. Truth in teaching does matter, but truth in learning matters more.

    • I’m not sure there could ever be such a thing as a ‘passive narrative’?

      Being philosophical for a moment, if knowledge is justified true belief, then the process you describe is the ‘justification’ bit, which I would agree with. I might be justified in believing something to be true if and only if I have a disciplinary process (in this case the historical method) on which to base that belief.

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