Bullsh*t detectors are the answer

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
9 December, 2022

Many students … intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance … to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

So opens Deschooling Society, a provocative 1971 book on education by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. 

Illich’s analysis of the confusion of “process and substance” was insightful. Fifty years on, it can help us understand the rot that has set into New Zealand’s education system.

A third of our young people emerge from school barely able to read. Could that be because we confuse teaching – or, at least, the appearance thereof – with learning?

NCEA pass rates are rising while New Zealand’s performance in international tests like PISA continues to tank. Perhaps that’s because we confuse grade advancement with education.

Our public service is packed to the gunwales with university graduates. Yet our public systems – heath, immigration, not to mention education itself – seem to be falling apart. Maybe that’s because we confuse diplomas and degrees with competence.

Illich advocated a decentralisation of schooling, towards a system of informal “educational webs”, run at the community level. Whatever one might think of his radical prescription, Illich was onto something with his diagnosis.

It boils down to what he called “the institutionalisation of values”. We have, he thought, come to rely too heavily on the state to do our thinking and moral reasoning for us.

It’s no wonder. Thinking is hard. But the future of open society depends on citizens who can think independently and take responsibility for their moral decisions.

The last two decades have seen an appalling decline in educational standards. Equally concerning is a decline in independent mindedness.

Education, which Illich identified as the source of institutionalised values, could also be the antidote.

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, published in 1969, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote that the most important job of schools was to install “bullsh*t detectors” in young minds.

Some of our politicians worry about the perils of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ emanating from dubious online sources. They would like to regulate online content. But events in the last week or so suggest that some of those same politicians are part of the problem.

I’m with Postman and Weingartener. If we equip young people with bullsh*t detectors, they won’t have to rely on the government to be the arbiter of truth.

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