Speaking truth to power

I awoke this morning to see that Cambridge Professor Mary Beard had been in an argument on Twitter with UKIP donor Arron Banks. Banks had claimed that immigration into western Europe had brought down the Roman Empire; Beard responded to challenge the argument, and what ensued was a typical Twitter onslaught in which supporters of Beard criticised Banks for not respecting the authority of one of the world’s leading classicists, and supporters of Banks criticised Beard for being an arrogant, liberal, feminist expert.

The whole exchange quickly descended into a series of ad hominem attacks, where the status of the person was being used to try to undermine the quality and truth of the argument they presented. We ended up with conclusions such as

“She would say that – she’s a liberal”

“She would say that – she’s a feminist”

“He would say that – he’s against immigration”

As with all logical fallacies, however, these ad hominem arguments add little to a debate, and instead detract away from a focus on whether or not the conclusions being reached are true. This is the grim reality of a ‘post-truth’ debate, which is most certainly not an innovation of 2016. When we decide that truth is not important, all we are left with is the status of the person making the case, and ad hominem thus becomes the principal means of debate.

And yet some commentators, particularly those who focus on ‘twenty-first-century skills’, are encouraging us to do just this in the classroom.

As I have written about before, talking about the truth of what we teach can quickly result in sharp intakes of breath through teeth, or responses that begin with “yes, but…” There are some who hold more extreme positions (and admittedly these tend not to be practising teachers) who turn round and say ‘we should not teach facts’. Yet I and I am sure many others (particularly in subjects such as history and English) have uttered the phrase “there is no right or wrong answer – it’s about your opinion”.

But all we are doing here is feeding the beast.

When we say that there are no right or wrong answers, and that our conclusions are opinions, we leave ourselves no where to go in a debate. Once truth is taken out of the equation, ad hominem responses are really the only resort we have. If our conclusions are but opinions, then all that can be challenged is the stance from which I offer my opinion, and if you agree with my stance you will agree with my conclusion, and if you disagree with my stance you will disagree with my conclusion.

A number of history teachers have written about this problem in recent years, and we have moved on some way from the days of the 1990s and 2000s where some of the more extreme versions of this problem could be found in textbooks and exam papers. History teachers these days are far more likely to talk about interpretations rather than opinions, and to teach children explicitly that, although there might legitimately be multiple interpretations of the past, not all interpretations are equal, and some have significantly more explanatory power than others.

The past has always been used as a political tool to score points about the present, and historians have a responsibility to speak truth to power.

For without truth, the only means we have of challenging the powerful are futile ad hominem arguments.

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3 Comments on Speaking truth to power

  1. I am always disturbed when I see history teachers or school history websites announcing that they are teaching pupils to develop their ‘opinions’, when they actually mean teaching them to build historical arguments and/or to engage in the analysis of others’ interpretations. I know what they mean, but it is a very sloppy use of the word. It leads both to profound curricular confusions within history and it can promote the muddled thinking and attendant damage you rightly decry here. Basic to a good history ITT course is ensuring that trainee teachers know the full history of how ‘Interpretations’ of the past gained curricular meaning in the early 1990s, what it was designed to combat, how it is different from (and complementary to and derivative of) the teaching of evidential thinking and source analysis that preceded it, the mess the examination boards first made of it in the late 1990s (largely because they did not study the early Key Stage 3 work, and what was learned from it) and the important ways in which history teachers debated and developed its teaching from 2000 onwards.

  2. This tendency to revert from the content of an argument to the nature of the messenger is as old as the hills but it became a fixture in public discourse when there developed a tendency of certain worldviews to answer a reference to factual or analytic content that contrasted with that worldview with the snide dismissal “consider the source!” As if facts and validity of arguments depended upon who is speaking. It has become so reflexive you see many nowadays who seem to think “consider the source” is a definitive rebuttal of this or that.

    In point of fact, on some level EVERY source ought to be under scrutiny. Some more than others. But all (serious) sources are potential channels for truth. One requires critical reasoning skills to discern that truth and determine where it lies, and in what measure.

    Now you’re hearing just the latest version of this dismissal in the new refrain: “Fake News!”. It is only one more rubric for the age-old tactic of ruling certain voices in societal discourse out of bounds — not an effort to win the argument … but to ensure that it does not happen.

    This also happens in the classroom. And when it does it is even more repugnant, for a teacher ought to become a wrangler on one side of the debate, looking to win converts. Even when the teacher has strong views and believes … KNOWS … they are right. It is simply an abuse of a position of privilege and authority to arrogate the role of arbiter of what can be taken as true or valid.

    I’m a strong believer in the power of truth to win over in open debate, and in the wisdom of free discourse in a marketplace of ideas. Those who engage in such powerplays are only revealing that they do not believe their own ideas strong enough to win the day on an even playing field.

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