Monday, 15 September 2014

Experimentally Seeking Progress

Lifelong learning is indispensable because no one can reach the point where there is nothing more to know or understand. Learning is an on-going journey where we continuously discover more ways to dispel myths and misconceptions, and find new ideas and insights to improve the way we live.

But this quest is made all the more difficult because, at one end of the political spectrum, there are people who want to see all thoughts frozen at just where they would like them to be. For the sake of traditions, stability, prosperity, or any other totem they can point to, they consider critical exploration of prevailing beliefs and institutions as unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous. Education for them is all about passive acceptance of pre-fabricated ‘facts’.

At the opposite end we have those who are not so much interested in learning as in revelling in a state of permanent iconoclasm. They dismiss every idea as untenable. They reject every attempt to share knowledge as indoctrination. For them, the excitement of fermenting ‘anything-goes’ chaos outweighs all drawbacks of ignorance and irrationality. Any form of teaching, except their own, is to be shunned as authoritarian.

To steer through these two extremes we need to follow the path of didactic experimentalism. What is to be believed should not be fixed at some arbitrary point, nor randomly denied for no good reason. Our views on nature and society ought to be adjusted in the light of informed experimentation that sifts out errors over time and builds on findings that add clarity and coherence to our shared understanding.

One may assume that this is the natural path people would take, but history tells us differently. For thousands of years down to the early 17th century, the Chinese philosopher, Mo Tze (5th century BC), stood out as one of the few thinkers in pre-modern times to have advocated the experimentalist approach – linking his teachings and proposals to what best met the test of experience. Even now, his ideas are eclipsed by the traditionalist Confucians and the ‘free-for-all’ Taoists.

In the 17th century, even as Francis Bacon was mapping out how experimentalist learning could lead to the incremental advancement of testable and revisable knowledge, it was the rise of ‘we’ll give you certainty-for-all-time’ infallibilism and ‘I doubt there’s-any-truth-to-be-learnt’ scepticism that stole the limelight. Bacon’s contributions have remained overlooked in educational and general history alike.

And despite the depth and breadth of the experimentalist teachings put forward by 19th/20th century thinkers such as J. S. Mill and John Dewey, all too many conservative-minded education funders and policy makers still regard those ideas as unsuited to the steady ‘transmission’ of knowledge, while there are radicals who distrust them for not throwing everything overboard.

Perhaps extremes will always carry a forceful appeal. But for all their uncompromising stance and flamboyant postures, they lead to a dead-end. When it comes to learning to improve our understanding of the world and how it can be made better, progress is more likely if we follow the trail blazed by the experimentalist pioneers.

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