Fallibilism, Pedagogy, and Power

Lecture Supplement for IDS 6937, July 15, 2004

1. Perkinson:1

8 where does knowledge come from?My answer is   that it comes from us.  Human beings create their knowledge.  We decode, or construct, or make sense of whatever we encounter.  And we do this by creating theories about, or understandings of, whatever we encounter.

8 …the growth of knowledge is a process of adaptation.  Knowledge that survives is knowledge that “fits.”

9 According to evolutionary epistemologists: “…knowledge consists of theories, or conjectures, or guesses.”

13 What is important to note is that in the growth of knowledge, as in the evolution of the species, there is no purpose.

13 Students’ knowledge will grow; students will improve it when they recognize inadequacies in what they heretofore accepted as adequate.

16 …purposes are not necessary to learning; students do not have to want to learn in order for their knowledge to grow.  Note that I do not deny that students, like all human beings, have purposes.  What I deny is that teachers must pay heed to students’ purposes in order to teach them, in order to promote the growth of their knowledge.  Indeed, it is this mistaken belief that has crippled schooling.  It has trivialized the content of education and subverted our methods of teaching.  This mistaken belief stems from the wrong-headed notion that knowledge comes to us from without.

39 With the critical approach, however, the teacher recognizes that no subject matter rests upon a solid foundation.  Knowledge is not an edifice in need of a foundation; rather, it is more like an organ, or an organism, adapted to the environment.  Like organs or organisms, knowledge is conjectural.  Since there are no foundations, there is no problem of finding the correct starting point, no problem of following the correct sequence.  The growth of knowledge, like the evolution of organs and organisms, takes place through trial-and-error elimination.

41 The antidote to authoritarianism is fallibilism—the acceptance of human fallibility.  If human beings accept their fallibility, then they will realize that they can never have perfect knowledge.  And this means that there can be no correct models of skills that students should imitate….

42 …the progressive approach starts not with the presentation of material, nor with the demonstration of a skill, but, rather, with a problem for the student to explore.  The teacher who uses the critical approach can also employ this strategy, since posing problems for students is an excellent way to elicit their present knowledge.
  Progressive educators, however, are not concerned with eliciting students’ present knowledge.  Instead they want students to discover new understandings or skills.
-Question: isn’t such a “desire,” a goal?  Isn’t he using “purposive,” or teleological, language here?
56-57 As I see these developments, both postmodern educators and post-postmodern educators have corrupted education, corrupted it far beyond the sorry state modern educators had brought it to.  At the root of this debate is the quest for justified knowledge.  The modern educators correctly believed that the growth of knowledge is conceivable only if truth exists as an ideal—growth consists in getting closer to that ideal.  They thought that we could approach truth by building upon a “solid knowledge base,” a foundation of knowledge justified as true.  But as the critics of modern education correctly maintained, we cannot justify knowledge as true; we can only justify it as meaningful.  However, when postmodern educators abandoned truth and replaced it with meaning, they made the growth of knowledge impossible.  For if, as the [postmodernists claimed, justified knowledge is knowledge that has meaning to some linguistic community, then knowledge is relativized and the growth of knowledge simply cannot take place.
  The way out of this debacle is to give up all attempts to justify knowledge—but to retain the ideal of truth.  This is the solution proposed by Karl Popper.
  According to Karl Popper’s evolutionary epistemology, all of our knowledge, both our skills and our understandings are conjectural: knowledge consists of conjectures that we make.  And although we cannot demonstrate that our knowledge is true or adequate, we can, via criticism, uncover its inadequacies or falsity.  By uncovering falsities and inadequacies in our knowledge and eliminating them, our knowledge grows.  It moves closer to truth.  We can demonstrate this by showing that our latest conjectures are better than our earlier conjectures insofar as the latest ones do not contain the errors the earlier ones did.  Of course, our latest conjectures cannot be perfect, since we are fallible, and, in time, we will, via criticism, uncover and eliminate the errors these conjectures contain.  So the progress and growth of knowledge is not only possible; it is endless—endless because our ignorance if infinite.

61 Thus, modern education has always been a process of preparing students to accept and subscribe to existing policies, practices, and procedures in the existing society—a process of molding, shaping, transforming children to fit into what is: the existing society, the existing polity, and the existing economic system.
  Such a construction of education is authoritarian.

62 The argument against construing education as socialization—whether of the modern or postmodern kind—is that it ignores human fallibility.  Those who attempt to socialize students presume to know what a good society is….No one of us knows what a good society is.  A second argument against construing education as socialization is that it denies agency to students.  It imposes a predetermined set of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors on them.  Finally, such a conception of education does not facilitate growth—of the society, of the polity, or of the economic arrangements.
-Question: here, again, it may appear that Perkinson has some goals/purposes: to accommodate/recognize fallibility, agency, and growth!

Part Three: Beyond Postmodernism:

75-76 As Hirsch and Adler,2 and others, have argued, our society, any society, needs a common curriculum to provide a bond among people—a set of commonly held beliefs, ideas, understandings, values, and attitudes.  Without such social bonds, will not the society become fractionalized and end up in anarchy?
  This argument must be heeded.  Yet although I agree that there must be a bond that holds people together in society, I am not convinced that such a bond must consist of substantive knowledge taught by schools.  This was true of the age of tribalism, but it is no longer possible, nor desirable, in our free, pluralist societyOur society is increasingly an abstract one.  Unlike a tribal society, we have little or no face-to-face contact with most of the members of our society.  And even with those we do—say, fellow pedestrians on the street or fellow riders on the subway train—we have, as a rule, no personal relation with them.  In such a society, we do not share—or do not know…or care, if we do share—the same substantive beliefs, understandings, theories, and value.  So I suspect that in this pluralist society, we cannot agree on what’s worth knowing.  Nor should we agree if we want to preserve our free, pluralist society.
  Yet we can agree, and I suspect most of us do agree, on how whatever is taught ought to be taught….
  The approach I have presented in this book, the critical approach, does provide an approach that is not impositional, not indoctrination, not propaganda.  With the critical approach, all understandings and skills are exposed to maximum criticism in order to eliminate as much error and inadequacy as possible.

76-77 It is this critical approach that I suggest will create a social bond within the society.  Instead of possessing shared bits and pieces of knowledge, people who are taught this way will have a common outlook toward all knowledge.  They will recognize and accept human fallibility and thereby realize that all knowledge is conjectural—never final, never complete—but continually improvable, through criticism, through the uncovering and elimination of errors.  They not only will be ready to hold all received and new knowledge open to criticism, but will be prepared and able to participate in the critical conversation through which knowledge and culture grows and evolves.

2. Criticism of Perkinson:

A. Does he have a goal/purpose?  One could construe his orientation, and Poppers, as (a) endeavoring to be “epistemologically optimistic” while avoiding authoritarianism; (b) the previous passage could be read as indicating that Perkinson’s goal is to provide a social bond through adherence to a Popperian strategy; and (c) it seems that Perkinson might we charged with advancing a “teleology of equilibration:”

38 Because they do not seek to get the students to learn some predetermined knowledge, do not try to get students to receive and accept what they present, teachers who use the critical approach eliminate the problem of motivation.  Since there is no substantive knowledge that the critical teacher wants the students to learn, there is no necessity to motivate them.  In the critical classroom, the concern is to help students improve their present knowledge.  Students will do this when they uncover inadequacies in their present knowledge—because they, like all organisms, have a built-in aversion to disequilibration, and when they uncover inadequacies in what they had thought was adequate knowledge, they experience disequilibration.  If the environment is sufficiently supportive, this disequilibration will not make them anxious or angry, but instead lead them to modify (improve) the present knowledge.
-It may appear that Perkinson’s goal is to provide a “social bond” which avoids the problems of both modernism and post-modernism while incorporating the Popperian perspective, and that he attributes to students the purpose of avoiding disequilibration while growing their knowledge!

B. “Critical Pedagogy and the Realities of Teaching” by Peter Airasian:

82-83 He contends that Perkinson has the goal of fostering “student self-sufficiency,” through the promotion of “critical strategies.”

84-85 He questions whether it will be possible for critical teachers not to be concerned with the students’ motivations.

85 He contends that some “factual knowledge” has to be transmitted, and the critical methodology doesn’t do this.

85-86 He contends that some “affective knowledge” will also need to be transmitted.  The critical methodology requires a specific fostering environment (respect for others, etc.).

86-92 He questions whether teachers have the time, patience, and training, etc., to practice what Perkinson preaches.

C. “Critical Pedagogy and Political Power” by Joel Spring:

94 He contends that Perkinson’s “basic framework” is right, but that he needs a clearer exposition of the relationship between power and knowledge:

94 Perkinson’s discussion of the evolution of knowledge rests on the assumption that evolution is progressive and that the survival of particular ideas is determined by their ability to adapt to the needs of society.  I would argue that evolution is not necessarily progressive and that the survival of particular ideas is a result of power relations in society.

96 The relationship between knowledge and power should also be considered in Perkinson’s advocacy of turning schools over to the forces of the marketplace.  Using an evolutionary framework, Perkinson argues, “…the competition in the market among the schools for clients would week out that knowledge that is not worth knowing.  Thus, the market would promote the evolution of the curriculum through the procedure of trial-and-error elimination.”

97-99 He claims that Perkinson is insufficiently attentive to the “political dimension” of knowledge.

-100 …achieving the type of world that both Perkinson and I would like depends on a fundamental redistribution of power in contemporary society.  In fact, the control of knowledge might be key to avoiding an evolutionary process where changes in environmental conditions result in the end of the human species.

D. “Critical Pedagogy and the Feminist Perspective” by Joan Burstyn:

101 She claims Perkinson’s views are both refreshing and passé.

100 Refreshing for his claims about goals and purposes.

100-101 At the seam time, the book is passé because Perkinson accepts weathered assumptions about the neutrality of learning environments and the equal value people give to ideas.  He thereby discounts the impact of class, race, and gender on education.  He also fails to consider how new technologies are changing people’s modes of thinking and learning.

103 I draw the reader’s attention to this because I think Perkinson’s use of the [complex biological organism] metaphor is not persuasive.  He bases it on an interpretation of Darwinism that does not take into account the discovery of DNA and its role in providing a genetic code for developing organisms….a body of knowledge depends on an external agent for its initiation, continuation, and interpretation.  Without an external agent to interact with it, whether that agent be a human or a computer, it’s impossible to envision the growth of a body of knowledge, because it does not contain within itself a genetic code that influences and constrains its development.

108 Individual children may resist the power structure, or they may adapt to it, sometimes for reasons quite different from those put forward by teachers.  Nevertheless, they do not text their theories in a neutral space.  They do not find that each skill or each understanding they express is accorded equal respect by the adults who examine them.  Perkinson seems to ignore the unequal power that exists between adult and child, teacher and student, as well as power differences based on class, race, and gender.

E. “Reply to My Critics” by Henry Perkinson:

112 …the argument goes, those species that do not survive (natural selection) are less fit than those that do.  Likewise with knowledge, those theories that do not survive (criticism) are less fit than those that do.

Thus, he would seem to have to allow, if Galileo's theories had, indeed, been successfully repressed by the Church, then the ideas supported by the inquisition would have been “more fit” than those of Galileo.  Is he really willing to allow that authoritarian ideas are “more fit” if they “survive?”


1 The citations here are from Henry Perkinson, Teachers Without Goals: Students Without Purposes (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1993).  The bold emphasis in the passages cited has been added by me.   Back

2 Perkinson refers to E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); and M. Adler, The Paideia Proposal (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1982).   Back

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