Education: confronting the confusion of tongues

I’m sure that my Christian and Jewish friends see it differently, but from my secular and humanist perspective, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is an interesting one, since it seems to be a tale of a god who feared human knowledge so much that he visited a confusion of tongues on the people of Earth to ensure that they could not understand each other. He or she or it did not seem to like the idea of humanity knowing ‘too much’. Nor, it seems, did he, she or it know that one day Google Translate would spring from human intelligence and ingenuity.

As I have watched events unfold in the political sphere in the UK and USA in particular over the past few months, I can’t help but think we are experiencing a real and surging confusion of tongues. While across both countries we share a supposed common language of discourse, people might as well be speaking a profusion of mutually-incomprehensible tongues for all the shared understanding we seem to enjoy. Today words seem to carry simultaneously an infinite range of meanings and none. And while here I point my gaze at the specific cases of the UK and USA, it is a truly global problem, and little or nothing to do with the actual languages spoken.

The post-truth era, some have called it, but that is to give the phenomenon a gloss it does not deserve, one that lays a glib veneer over crude mendacity, one that accepts a willingness to listen to the lies, know they are lies, and yet simply ignore them, laugh them off even. A wave of irrationality is promoting a general air of befuddlement and discord in people, one that results in an unwillingness to question obvious absurdities, an inclination to absorb self-evident untruths without recrimination.

From Donald Trump’s proto-fascistic belligerence and his breathtaking lack of basic humanity, to the range of exaggerations and self-evident untruths that were peddled by both sides of the Brexit argument, we seem to have populations that are no longer willing, or able, to reflect on and analyze the torrent of absurdity, fabrication, embellishment and hyperbole that has disgraced, and continues to disgrace, the sphere of public discourse over the past few months in both countries. Most disturbing has been the willingness of so many people in both countries to accept and condone outpourings of racist bile, too many examples in which politicians have preached fear, hostility and intolerance in relation to the ‘other’.

The defence against ignorance is, of course, education. (It is also, it has to be said, a defence against reliance on an arbitrary and spiteful god, but that is another issue.)

Given the place we seem to have found ourselves in, socially and politically, and given that education in its broadest sense – personal, familial, institutional, cultural, ethical – is the bulwark against ignorance and false argument, how should those in the formal structures of education – teachers, schools, universities, administrators, policy-makers, etc – those at least who value truth, knowledge and enlightenment, respond to the situation? The young people we are teaching today will be the voters, the politicians, the government officials, the parents, of tomorrow, and it is surely part of our responsibility to strive to give our students the intellectual tools and the personal strength of character to recognize and question the assertions of politicians.

I fear in this age, in which too many parts of formal education are too intent on promulgating targets and testing and measurement of the un-measurable, we are shifting our collective gaze away from what is truly important for our children and young people. We are trying to build workers for the global economy when we should be nurturing a love of truth and a willingness to question authority in all its guises, whether well-meant or malevolent.

The late Jerome Bruner wrote:

Pedagogical theory is not only technical but cultural, ideological and political. If it is to have any impact, it must be self-consciously all of these.

He was so right! Today, we need to recognize Bruner’s truth and act on it, without flinching and without compromise.

Our young people, and our futures, depend on it.