Disputation and Debate in Education

Disputes and controversies and disagreements abound in every sphere of human knowledge and activity. That is the very nature of human discourse. The world would be a dreadful, boring place if we all agreed with each other all of the time on everything (some people, strangely, would define their heaven in just those terms). A little less disagreement here and there might avoid wars and bloodshed and pointless death and destruction, but that possibility does not appear to be a universal likelihood any time soon.

Disputation and debate differ in kind though from one sphere of activity to another. We can, for example, contrast the kinds of disputes that scientists might have with disputes between religious ‘scholars’: the former might arise out of differing interpretations of evidence whilst the latter are more likely to be debates characterized not only by a complete lack of evidence but often by a contempt for same.

My own principal sphere of activity, education, is an intense and constant battleground of crossed swords, conflict and contention, and it falls, I would attest, somewhere between those polarities of scientific and religious debate. The vigour of the manifold disputes in education is a function of its intrinsic nature as one of the humanities, as an activity arising out of the human condition.

As one of the humanities, there is simply no absolute right or absolute wrong in education. We make judgements and take positions based on our reasoning, of course, but also based on our values and principles, philosophies and ideologies, interests and self-interests, prejudices and, indeed, bigotries. There are, oddly, very many people — teachers, writers, philosophers, politicians, thinkers and non-thinkers alike — who will tell you, categorically, that their standpoint on any particular aspect of education is unequivocally right, and therefore that any differing take on the same issue is plainly wrong. Sometimes, these same people will point to ‘evidence’ that ‘proves’ their standpoint, all the while forgetting that undertaking research on education is a billion light years away from undertaking research on particle physics (for example). Educational research is in the same league as research in philosophy or sociology or anthropology: outcomes are heavily dependent upon the questions asked and the positions taken by the researchers. Evidence is useful, of course, but it will rarely if ever constitute ‘proof’ of anything in education — it gives us a starting point, if we are lucky, but never absolute validation.

Those who understand this distinction understand therefore that they can never claim any absolute validity for their views on education, since they recognise that their perspective on any or all education questions is inextricably bound up in the values they hold, in the political ideology to which they ascribe, in the psychology of their own learning experiences throughout their lives, in their (or their family’s, or their community’s) self-interest, whether conscious or unconscious, and in so many other imponderables in their lives.

Such people understand that they must argue and debate their standpoint constantly, and that they must be prepared to listen to other’s views, to learn from others and to change their own views through debate with others. Equally we are perfectly justified in seeking to explain and affirm our own philosophies in education, and even to seek to persuade others to see learning and teaching and pedagogy and all aspects of education as we happen to see them.

Don’t mistake my argument as one that endorses unalloyed relativism: we must always be willing to make critical judgements on the basis of our experience and, yes, on the basis of whatever evidence we can lay our hands on (going far beyond just the outcomes of academic research). But we use experience and intellectual argument and evidence to substantiate and support our own judgements, not to ‘prove’ that we are absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. We must continue to judge, to evaluate, to distinguish between good and bad logic. Education, as a humanity, has to be based upon rigorous intellectual analysis and reasoning, as well as on moral and ethical considerations.

It is in that flux of ideas and conflicting opinions generated, maintained and developed by thoughtful, autonomous and rational minds that the beauty of coherent educational debate lies. We need not respect others’ views, but, mostly, we do need to tolerate them (I am with Frank Furedi when he decries the modern tendency to equate tolerance with acceptance and respect, and even the trend towards devaluing the meaning of respect itself). The caveat to such tolerance, of course, will be the extent to which we feel that others’ views on education are actually physically or emotionally harmful to children, to young people, or to learners generally.

And that is a whole other debate in itself.