Part three of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, discusses Thomas Kuhn and the relativism espoused by many modern educationalists
Parts two and three of my series are looking into why educationalists commonly use “logical positivism” as a “generalized term of abuse”, thereby justifying their widespread hostility to “evidence based practice” and demonstrating a sort of fuzzy relativism based on untestable, private intuition. After discussing what is often seen as the coup de grace for positivism, the work of Thomas Kuhn, I return to the central issue, which is the measurability of our educational objectives, with reference to the question I put at the end of part one to Professor Gert Biesta.
The conclusion most generally drawn from the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, written by Thomas Kuhn in 1962, is that the empirical evidence on which the verification principle depends is itself value-laden. Scientists’ confidence in their own objectivity is misplaced because the justifications that they offer for their theories are circular. For example, the Open University’s course Engaging with education research states that:
The assumptions of positivism have been challenged within science as misrepresenting its nature and the way that scientific thinking and knowledge develops (Kuhn, 1970).
Kuhn argued that in practice, scientists depend on a set of interdependent assumptions called a “paradigm”, each paradigm being “incommensurable” with any other because it identifies different problems as being worth solving and accepts different standards of evidence for solving them. Only when a paradigm has become established can a start be made on “normal science”, in which the good scientist becomes whoever “proves himself an expert puzzle-solver” (p.36), as judged by the rules of the enabling paradigm.
It is a short jump to assert that the choice of paradigm is essentially a subjective, value-laden exercise. Such is the assumption made by Gert Biesta, who argues that educationalists should spend less time on “technical research”, trying to identify the “means, strategies and techniques to achieve different ends” (p.44) and more time on “cultural research…providing different interpretations, different ways of understanding and imagining social reality”. Instead of working within it, educationalists should be shifting the paradigm by influencing the subjective values on which it is founded.
This is not what was originally meant by Kuhn, for whom paradigms are always single, not multiple, and become established because “they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute” (p.23) and not (as my colour-swatch illustration suggests) primarily because they fit our personal inclinations or values. Even if the selection of problems might may be driven by a sense of subjective value, the ability to solve those problems is based on objective, empirical evidence.
When the community eventually undergoes a “paradigm-shift”, it is because “the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice” (p.6). These anomalies originate in empirical observation, not in the subjective selection of new values. This point is expressed in a thoughtful comment on Amazon:
The sense in which one’s paradigm may influence one’s experience of the world cannot be so strong as to guarantee that one’s experience will always accord with one’s theories, else the need to revise theories would never arise
Kuhn is NOT arguing [for all] that silly socio-psychobabble that all science is colored by personal perspective, and therefore faulty.
Kuhn’s theory of paradigms does not refute the theories of verificationism and falsificationism that lie at the heart of logical positivism: it merely proposes that in practice, the progress of science does not proceed in such a linear, efficient manner as the purist theory might be taken to imply. Scientific assumptions herd together to create a position that is hard to overthrow in a single attack. Scientific progress is not smooth and gradual but lumpy and episodic. The basic mechanism by which paradigms are overthrown nevertheless remains the same as by which individual assertions are refuted: objective evidence, not subjective preference.
Without founding their views about the world in empirical evidence, it is difficult to distinguish the anti-positivist position from relativism, against which there are two powerful arguments, one a priori (i.e. logical) and one a posteriori (i.e. based on experience).
The a priori refutation of relativism is that it is self-contradictory, for reasons given by St Thomas Aquinas:
whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth. (Article 1, objection 3).
The a posteriori refutation is that we very commonly make statements that demonstrate strong predictive reliability, such as “e=mc2” or “the sun will rise tomorrow morning”. If there is no objective truth, then the accuracy of these predictions must be put down to chance. The accumulation of coincidences would be so improbable that you would be better to submit yourself to the Total Perspective Vortex than try to work out the odds that the apparent predictability of the world was just a fluke.
It is certainly true that logical positivism has its flaws. The argument between Popper’s falsificationism and Ayer’s verificationism centred on the fact that synthetic statements cannot be verified with certainty, but only falsified. The fact that an experiment works once does not mean that it will necessarily work the next time, although science assumes that the process of repetition progressively increases the probability of it working next time, to the point at which it can be taken as certain for all practical purposes. This is why one should be very cautious about over-stating the weakness of positive verification, as do educationalists like Professor Biesta when they incorrectly assert that
research can only indicate what has worked, not…what will work. (p.44)
The case against strict positivism is stronger when it questions the position that only synthetic statements had any significant meaning and that statements based on a priori, logical justifications, were therefore not possible. This would mean that the principle of verificationism was itself meaningless.
These sorts of considerations led A J Ayer, who as a young man was the most influential advocate of positivism in the UK, to joke in a later interview that
I suppose the greatest defect [in logical positivism] is that nearly all of it was false
…quickly adding that …
perhaps that’s being too harsh on it…the attitude was right. But if one goes for the details…the verification principle never got itself properly formulated
…and finishing by demanding that we still…
asked for the cash value of statements. I think this is very important…The early positivists went wrong in thinking that we could still maintain the gold standard…there isn’t enough gold and too many notes. But nevertheless, there must be some backing to the currency. If someone makes an assertion…its important to ask, how you would set about testing it, what observations are relevant. This, I think, still holds good.
Such a position explains how a sophisticated positivism is more tightly aligned to Kuhn than might at first appear: certainly, more tightly aligned than the relativism that is asserted today by so many educationalists. It may not be possible to cash in each individual statement for evidential gold but the overall system, the currency, the paradigm, still needs to be founded in empirical evidence. When I suggest to Gert Biesta that his proposal for the purpose of education, that “every pupil should fulfil his or her potential”, was an objective whose attainment it is impossible to ascertain, I am suggesting that he is advocating an educational paradigm founded on sand, a currency which lacks any cash value.
The technical problems that Ayer admits explain why the philosophy of science has moved on from positivism to scientific realism. But this essay is not about philosophy: it is about education, which still clings to positivism as its favourite bogeyman, using it to justify its rejection of what still remain the basic premises of modern science.
It is precisely because values are an important part of education and because those values are expressed in the way that we frame our descriptions of purpose, that the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s investigation into the purpose of education could play such an important part in questioning these assumptions. Maybe it could even help driving forwards what we now need in education theory, which is nothing short of our own paradigm shift—one that would enable us to start taking a more scientific and technological approach to specifying and attaining our educational objectives.
That brings us back to the purpose of education, the subject of the UK House of Commons Education Select Committee’s investigation, and Professor Biesta’s answer to my question, which I shall discuss in part four of this essay, Professor Biesta and the chicken.