More Light?

OPHELIA: The king rises!

HAMLET: What? Frighted with false fire?

CLAUDIUS: Give me some light! Away!

– Hamlet

 In Act Three of Hamlet, the troubled prince hatches a plan to prove the king’s guilt. He stages a play re-enacting the circumstances of the murder he believes his uncle to have committed. The king’s reaction goes well beyond Hamlet’s expectations. Abruptly, Claudius gets up and rushes out of the makeshift theatre. “Light!” he cries. “Give me some light!”

The irony is impossible to miss. Crying for light, the guilty king runs for the embrace of the darkness that, until now, has sheltered him.

The same is true of life. Often, cries for ‘more light’ are accompanied by a flight into darkness.

One application of this idea is: how we engage in a discussion shows at least as much about us as the ideas we claim to endorse.

The recent attacks on Greg Ashman are an example. Having challenged (with evidence) the perpetuation of learning styles in Australian ITT, Ashman was alleged to have been denigrating women, promoting himself, making baseless allegations, and of being an incompetent researcher with incompetent supervisors. Quite a reaction, and that is just a selection.

The attacks against Ashman were off-topic, personal, focused on his integrity and competence, and betraying an indignation far out of proportion to the issue he had raised. Surely, if his questions were so trivial, it would have been a matter of posting a concise dismissal and moving on?

Likewise, when Tom Bennett questioned the tendency of ITT provision to over-emphasise certain theorists instead of equipping people to evaluate evidence (citing Mark Seidenberg’s book, Reading at the Speed of Sight) he was accused of attempting to tarnish all ITT providers, failing to cite evidence, and then of posturing and self-promotion. The echoes of the attacks on Greg Ashman were apparent, and just as empty. Calls for light accompanied by behaviour consistent with darkness do not provide illumination.

Returning to our play: it is the king’s reaction itself that establishes his guilt. Hamlet never again has to doubt his course of action; the king’s behaviour provides the evidence that he cannot face the scene before him.

I had my own taste of this sort of reaction recently, after co-presenting at a ResearchED conference in Oxford on rates of illiteracy in the UK. We gradually became aware of discussions on Twitter which developed into challenges to our truthfulness, integrity, and competence. We were, supposedly, ‘cherry-picking’ reports for the data that suited our ‘agenda’, ‘reprehensibly’ ‘frightening’ people into following that agenda, and using out-of-date and contradictory research to provide an overly specific and unjustified conclusion. These claims were made on the basis of seeing photos of a slide posted on Twitter, and later (perhaps) after viewing slides from the session. It was curious that none of those making these allegations were in the session. None of them had heard what we said about the sources we referred to: the qualifications, connections, comparisons, differences, or definitions. No one asked us; presumably this would have complicated the argument too much. One tweet even claimed that the presentation was an attack on primary teachers – the exact opposite of what had happened in the session, where much of their work was praised, and primary teachers themselves had raised concerns about their desire for more training.

Given that the criticisms came from people who were in no position to make them, I eventually reflected that our presentation must have been perceived as challenging someone’s status quo. Sometimes what people are protecting is their sense of ‘territory’, despite protestations for ‘more light’.

I learned long ago in teaching that making sensible suggestions about how we might change things for the better will quickly be seen by some colleagues as a threat. For them, their comfort zones are sacred, and they will engage in what they see as counter-attacks with surprising speed and ferocity. In school, I have been verbally abused, lied about to my superiors, and even challenged to a physical fight by another teacher. (The latter prompted by me suggesting (politely) that numeracy was not just a buzzword.) Where do such intense reactions come from?

One of the claims made in recent times is that ‘trads’ and ‘pseudo-trads’ are trying to impose a right-wing agenda that diminishes the voice of the poor, ignores individual differences, and creates unquestioning automatons instead of thinking students. I can see how such a claim can be arrived at. If one first takes the view that progressive education is the antidote to such outcomes, then an approach antipathetic to progressivism must be promoting them.

The error is two-fold. First, progressive education has manifestly failed to achieve greater equality, social and economic advantage, and civic participation for the poorest. It isn’t working. Secondly, the aims of those promoting a more evidence-based approach are very much in agreement with those that progressive educators want. Assuming the opposite is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that belies a desire to stay in charge, and a resentment of being questioned. Progressives are at least as prone to such behaviour as anyone else.

I was recently speaking to a friend in New Zealand whose school is being re-built based on progressive principles: few walls, open-plan; teaching spaces for 120, lots of seats dotted randomly around the building; social spaces prioritised over classrooms. It is incumbent upon schools to accept this kind of design from the Ministry of Education if they want new buildings. Requests to the contrary are denied. My friend tells me that while many teachers dread moving into the new buildings, “no one is willing to put their job at risk by putting their head above the parapet”. It is (once again) ironic that in a ‘progressive’ environment, a heavy hand of coercion is required to make sure everyone toes the liberal line.

When a comment or question stirs up a hornet’s nest, remember that the hornets are trying to protect something they value – not because they deserve sympathy, but because hornets will hurt you if they can, so that they can keep their nest undisturbed. Don’t be impressed by calls for “more evidence”. Look at what has been rejected, ignored, or misrepresented; and look at what has been alleged, and whether there is substance or evidence to back it up, or whether it is simply a personal attack.

The cries of the social justice warrior ring hollow when accompanied by personal attacks. Making personal attacks not only calls into question the attacker’s motives, it also weakens their argument. Demanding evidence from someone while personally attacking them is still personal attack. Such behaviour does not support constructive debate; in fact it hinders it, and undermines one’s own credibility. Such attacks can have only one goal, at least with respect to education policy and practice, and that is to silence people whose views, thoughts or questions are unwelcome.

Personal attacks undermine professional discourse. They should themselves be met with stony silence. Perhaps here, too, Hamlet’s thoughts are apposite: “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument . . . ”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”


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4 Responses to More Light?

  1. teachwell says:

    I had a long conversation with someone who declared that Greg was not a reliable source as he attracted criticism! As you point out the nature of criticism matters. The idea that one can be personally attacked and there are people in education who use this to mean something is pretty poor.

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 28th April – Friday 5th May – Douglas Wise

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