Post-truth; emerging dangers in education and the wider world. 

Carole Cadwalladr writing in the Guardian draws our attention to the far right’s gaming of the Internet. Her article is intriguing and worth a read in its own right, because it assists growing the awareness of why the internet can’t be the main way we find out stuff. As one of the commentators on the article makes clear “Google search is the canary, not the coal mine”, and whilst we can suggest a conspiracy theory around the far right’s dominant position as the oligarchs in charge of the Internet, I suspect that theory needs a bit more work to be proven.

What the article does help expose though is the  danger we now face as a society preferring to read news stories from the internet rather than from the paper press.  I am sure I am not the only one who enjoy a night time recreation read of the news, to find myself distracted by ‘clickbait’, which is to say the least distracting.

clickbait

What the American elections have shown us, if the Brexit vote hadn’t already, is that politicians can now tell bare faced lies and still get elected. ‘Post-truth’ was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries last month, and frankly, I am getting more than a little troubled about living as a moral person in which I value above all Integrity when all around me in positions of power are prepared to make it all up as they go along. Here’s what the editors at the Oxford Dictionaries wrote:

“After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. “

They have also produced an excellent video as well, which explains in much more depth what ‘post-truth’ is about, as well as the other finalists in the year, including alt-right, chatbot and glass cliff.   The dangers in education are growing clearer by the day, with the rapidly growing rise of the use of appeals to emotion and personal belief rather than evidence-based knowledge and ‘facts’.

I have just finished Claires Court’s submission to the government’s Green Paper, entitled ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’.  Now I have quite a lot of staff within Claires Court that take umbrage at such poor use of capitalisation by the DfE, but that’s not my gripe. The core of this Green Paper is the basic premise that the Department for Education believes that the answer for our Society’s needs for more school places is ‘grammar schools’. If you don’t believe me, you can read their proposals here – https://goo.gl/ideGxm. Within my school’s catchment area sit some 18 or so selective free grammar schools, and many of them are the most famous of their kind in the land, and I absolutely sympathise with the notion that if a child can gain entry to them, their future academic prosperity is assured. The trouble is, that growing up as a young teacher in Maidenhead, I watched Maidenhead shut down its 2 grammar schools and 3 secondary moderns in order to create 5 large comprehensives that permitted choice, excellence and diversity for all, not just those who were selected for the grammars; Maidenhead’s secondary modern schools were not recognised in the same breath!

Herein I need to ensure I write with due diligence and show a  duty of candour.  The vast majority of children in selective education areas don’t get selected for grammar school, even if they have attended private school for their junior years. In many ways this is because the assessments tests used are biased to find circa 20% of the population who are the most able. As this area fills with more capable families because of the vibrant economy and the proximity to London’s highest salaries, survival of the fittest comes in to play. The local average IQ is nearer 107 than 100 (meant to the the 50% centile), so actually it is even harder for children to make the grade because…only 20% can get through the cut. For years, the local tutor economy in East Berks and Bucks demands that children need 2 years of tutoring from year 4. As a school, we get under pressure because the IQ test in English and Maths covers concepts that extend up to Y7 and 8 ideas. If only we could cover them by the start of Year 4, it would make the tutor job so much easier.

The trouble is, you can’t map a curriculum across an IQ test! Not only that, even if you could, no teacher in their right mind would teach to it, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate would shut you down if you did. Here’s Edmund Holmes, who became Chief Inspector of Elementary Schools in 1905 writing on his retirement 6 years later in 1911 about paying by results, a system he describes as “the most fatuous and most pernicious educational system that the mind of man ever devised”. His retirement treatise was called “What is and what might be”, and its a ponderous, but he shines a light on the ‘Post-truth’ of education speak even then: “The implicit assumption that the real results of education are ponderable and measurable is a deadly fallacy which has now the force and the authority of an axiom”.  Holmes chooses to criticise Civil Servants as well as teachers: “… imposing a curriculum “binding on all schools alike. In doing this they put a bit in the mouth of the teacher and drove him, at their pleasure, in this direction and that. And what they did to him they compelled him to do to the child”.

I call Holmes to mind because Sir Michael Wilshaw, the current Chief Inspector is shortly to retire, and he is  more than vexed by the current obsession of the Prime Minister over grammar schools, saying “more grammar schools will “reduce standards for the great majority of children”, undo much of the progress of recent years, and be socially divisive. Condemning the policy as a retrograde step, Wilshaw went on to state  that ministers should focus instead on promoting specialist, technical subjects in schools, and new technology colleges for 14-19-year-olds, so future generations have the skills necessary to drive the post-Brexit economy. “If you’re going to make a success of Brexit, this is number one. It should be the number one government priority – not grammar schools,” he says in an interview with the Observer.

And right across the piece from almost every quarter those who trouble themselves with the research base highlight that we are much better off with an inclusive system than one that divides and rules. The local view within the RBWM conservative group is that they want to bring their emigre grammar school children home, and they can do that they believe by opening a new grammar school in Maidenhead. Its immediate effect to those that oppose it will quickly lead to the other 5 schools in the area becoming second class because they lose their most able children, and therein lies the rub.  Look around at the nearby secondary modern schools in Slough and South Bucks, and most are either ‘requiring improvement’ or in ‘special measures’. That’s the evidence that Wilshaw spots in 2016 that Holmes did in his pomp; the ‘Great schools were as bad as the elementary state schools’ consigned to a doom of chasing results rather than growing healthy minds that could collaborate effectively with all.

In the wider world, we see a growing intolerance of reason in a just society, where rights are called for at the expense of responsibilities. It’s no surprise to me that Dictionary.com’s word of the year is not a new one entering our vocabulary, but one that we have seen march before and caused much dread across both Europe and the Far east.

xonpphobia

At at time when schools are charged with preventing radicalisation and ensuring that the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 are recognised and supported, it’s particularly tough when politicians either side of the pond are using a fear of foreigners to win election. During the Brexit campaign, Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in the street by Thomas Mair in the streets  of Birstall, Yorkshire shooting her in the head with a sawn off rifle and then stabbing her 15 times. Mair was everything that the Nazis stood for 60 years or so ago, as Mr Justice Wilkie made clear in his sentence: “It is evident from your internet searches that your inspiration is not love of country or your fellow citizens, it is an admiration for Nazis and similar anti-democratic white supremacist creeds,” Wilkie said. “Our parents’ generation made huge sacrifices to defeat those ideas and values in the second world war. What you did … betrays those sacrifices.”

It’s clear from the Police evidence that Mair found it easy to fill his mind with hate and loathing, that the internet provided him with access to the worst of ideas and mechanisms to murder. Of course all of such material is available through other sources, and I am not suggesting for one moment that Mrs Cox was murdered because of the Internet. What I am saying is that we ill served by our political elite if they don’t use an evidence base to promote what works best. And I am sadder still that fine young principled politicians can lose their lives simply by standing up against those that spout hate.  Here’s Jo Cox’s husband, Brendan, speaking from the witness box after the verdict had been announced . “The killing of Jo was in my view a political act, an act of terrorism,” he told the court. “But in the history of such acts it was perhaps the most incompetent and self-defeating. An act driven by hatred, which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it.

“Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on. For the rest of our lives we will not lament how unlucky we were to have her taken from us, but how unbelievably lucky we were to have her in our lives for so long.”

Thomas Mair goes to prison for the whole of the rest of his life  for this murder; a man whose personal views were inspired by white supremacism – and that certainly is one of the worst of the post-truth emotional pulls very much alive today on the eve of 2017, one we must really worry about as President Trump comes to power in the USA.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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