Reconsider and Compromise: real pragmatists do not ignore disagreement

I really do understand why people get so frustrated by the idea that there exists a never-ending conflict between two broad philosophies of education, namely ‘traditionalism’ and ‘progressivism’. Some – perhaps rightly – believe that this can distract us from the day-to-day task of teaching children. Others – almost certainly correctly – comment that all is not black and white, and that any given individual teacher is likely to have a range of views which may not cohere to some ‘pure’ notion of traditionalism or progressivism.

For philosophies are necessarily generalisations. We see this all the time in politics. I define myself as a social liberal, and, in terms of party politics, I am a lifelong Liberal Democrat voter: I tend to find myself most commonly in agreement with other people who also define themselves as social liberals, and I tend to concur with the political views of other people who vote Liberal Democrat. Yet, crucially, this does not mean I agree on everything that other social liberals think, nor do I agree with all of the policies of my chosen political party.

In terms of the educational debate, one response is to call into question the disagreement. It is not difficult if you hang out on Twitter to find teachers and other educationalists argue that they are not ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’, and of course on a personal level that can be true, in the same way as you get swing voters in politics.

But, importantly, the fact that some people have mixed views does not itself mean that there is a ‘false dichotomy’ between ideas. The existence of swing voters does not collapse the disagreement between the broad churches of liberalism and conservatism (to take two commonly contrasted political philosophies), and nor does the existence of people with mixed views make it impossible for others to sit over more to one side than the other.

And it is in practice – the messy, day-to-day choices that we have to make – that this becomes clear. The vast majority of people are pragmatists (and it is important not to conflate this everyday use of the term with the philosophical idea, as can happen). What makes us pragmatists, however, is not ignoring disagreement: it is compromise.

Most people do not like conflict and seek to avoid it. I can’t stand it, and I wish people would generally just sort things out and get on with life. The easy way out, and sometimes it works, is to ignore the disagreement. We might pretend a disagreement has not happened, and avoid the subject in future. We might appeal to some higher set of common ideals, and use this to gloss over the fact that we disagree on something more specific. The problem with this approach is that it does not resolve the disagreement: we just try to ignore it. If the disagreement is over something minor or trivial than perhaps this is an acceptable outcome: often, however, we might disagree over something more fundamental, and these disagreements are unlikely to evaporate just because we have ignored them.

In any given institution there will be a range of conflicting ideas about what ought to be done. Rather than ignore those disagreements, I would suggest it is best to lay everything out on the table. Let’s not ignore our disagreements: let’s get clear about what the nature of the disagreement is. Let’s find out if we are talking cross purposes in some cases; let’s uncover where one person has misunderstood the ideas of the other; let’s establish where genuine disagreement lies.

Now out of this process, we might begin to reconsider our views. Perhaps the weight of the evidence convinces me that your argument is stronger. Perhaps I realise that my reasoning is contradictory, or that my own biases have caused me to think about something in a way that results in an incorrect conclusion. Several of my friends quite frequently challenge my political views, and on some things I have been persuaded that I ought to change my mind. Hard facts can change my mind. Where a disagreement rests on a matter of evidence, reconsidering our views might well be the best way forward.

At other times, however, our disagreements are unlikely to be resolved empirically. Perhaps we simply do not know enough to make a decision empirically, or perhaps the decision we need to make is ethical rather than empirical. Here ideas need to be allowed to clash and, on occasion, one particular set of ideas might emerge dominant. It is just as likely, however, that we end up compromising. We all compromise on a regular basis, and I can think of numerous times in my career where I have had to say “I do not agree with this, but I’ll support it so we can move on”. I won’t like it but, professionally, I’ll probably be satisfied if my ideas have had a good hearing and I feel that I have had the opportunity to present them in an open and frank discussion.

And this I think is what it means to be a good small-p pragmatist. A pragmatist is not someone who picks and chooses what they want to do: in an institution, this is quite a selfish act, particularly if it undermines colleagues. Nor is a pragmatist one who tries to collapse or ‘rise above’ the debate: this is well-meaning, but it leaves people feeling like they cannot express their views. For me, a good pragmatist is one who seeks out frank and open disagreement, who is willing to reconsider their views and who, ultimately, is able to compromise.





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