WHY DOES TRUTH MATTER? SURVIVING VERIPHOBIA

WHY DOES TRUTH MATTER? SURVIVING VERIPHOBIA

‘There are no universal truth to which our construction is a more or less good approximation’. (Egon Guba and Yvonne Lincoln, 1989)

‘What counts for truth in physical education? Whose truth is it anyway? and Why do they hold it as true?’ (Doune Macdonald and Richard Tinning, 2003)

'Leisure spaces (heterotopias) for women provide spaces for rewriting the script of what it is to be a woman, beyond definitions provided by powerful males and the discourses propagated as truth in contemporary societies'. (Betsy Wearing)


These quotations provide examples of a growing condition affecting educational and sports research: a general aversion to talking about truth and its associates, such as fact, knowledge and evidence. This aversion is so widespread in some settings that it is taken for granted. I’ve learned from first hand experience that questioning the assumption that truth is a big con leads to looks of disorientated alarm.

In one of those rare articles that people actually talk about occasionally I called this position ‘veriphobia’, or fear of truth. I’ve since learned from colleagues better educated than me that I’ve managed to compound Greek and Latin words, which apparently is a linguistic crime. But I still think it is a neat word!

In my earlier paper, I defined Veriphobia as ‘a denial of the merit, or even the possibility, of truth’. It expresses itself in numerous ways, such as the rejection of traditional research concepts and values, and excessive use of plurals, speech marks, parentheses and word-processing effects – realities, “truth”, (re)search, facts.

Veriphobic thinkers come from across the academy, but predominate among the social sciences. They go by many names, such as postmodernists, social constructivists, pragmatists and eco-afro-feminists, but they are characterised by a shared denial of the traditional goals of research and enquiry, including the pursuit of truth, objectivity and the growth of knowledge. In the words of one group of concerned on-lookers, ‘a fluid scepticism now covers the intellectual landscape, encroaching upon one body of thought after another. We are told by Guba and Lincoln that ‘there is no universal truth’, by Scott and Usher that ‘instead of only one truth, there are many’, and by St Pierre that, if it makes any sense at all to talk of truth, we ought to recognise that it is ‘multiple, historical, contextual, contingent, political and bound up in power relations’. We are also warned of the dangers of tolerating those who resist the lure of veriphobia, although the severity with which they should be judged is a matter for debate. So, some writers like Richard Rorty feel pity for these poor souls, describing them affectionately as ‘prigs’, or dismissed as living under an ‘illusion’ of an objective reality. Others are more harsh: the ‘anarchist philosopher’ Paul Feyerabend denounced truth-seekers as ‘conceited, ignorant, superficial, incomplete and dishonest’.

In case the reader assumes that these are merely embittered rejections of the mainstream from those at its edges, it ought to be noted that each of the cited authors are well-established figures within the academic world. Veriphobia is no longer an alternative to the mainstream; in many different parts of the academy, including the social sciences of sport and education, it is the mainstream.


VERIPHOBIA ONLY AFFECTS OTHER PEOPLE
An interesting feature of veriphobic writing is a failure to recognise that the logic (for want of a better word) of its critique undermines its own position. That is to say, if veriphobia’s claims were accepted, they would also have to be rejected.

Consider an example from the philosopher of education, Wilfred Carr. Following an extended critique of the ‘Enlightenment’ distinction between the ‘knowing subject’ and the ‘objective world’, he goes on to suggest that, ‘the subject’s knowledge of the world is always preinterpreted: it is always situated in a conceptual scheme … knowledge is never “disinterested” or “objective”’. But surely there is some difficulty with this line of argument. On the one hand, Carr is making a claim about how things really are, and on the other hand, he is explicitly denying that it is ever possible to make such claims.

Thomas Nagel refers to this situation as the ‘impossibility of thinking from the outside’. Sociological insights into the practice of research serve a valuable role in raising our awareness of the context of our work, and may even lead us to change our practice. But such insights lose their force if stretched too far. It is useful to be reminded that our education, our background and our cultural origins all influence the way we approach the world, but it is nonsense to assume that just because our knowledge of the world is situated in a conceptual scheme that these things do not exist. The difficulty that veriphobes face time and again is that truth is difficulty to banish from our discussions of the world, as it is presupposed in such discussions, even of to the claim that there is no truth.

So, when writers such as Michel Foucault assert that claims of truth merely represent regimes of power and domination, they are making, whether they like it or not, make claims of truth. In the same way, Rorty’s reduction of truth to agreement does not only derive from his upbringing or position, but from his belief that he is stating something that he believes to be the case, that is, true. And, this problem is not solved when they claim that they are not offering us a ‘theory’, but only an ‘interpretation’ of event. Why should we listen to them and their claims of inequality and unfairness, at all, unless they are supposed to represent the way things really are?

There is nothing new in this response to veriphobia. Indeed, its origins can be traced back to Plato, who was the first to show the difficulty of throwing truth out with the sociological bathwater. Truth keeps coming back.

In practice, both consensus and domination veriphobia leads to a bind. The medicine, science and technology that each of us takes for granted as we make our ways around the world are premised on a conception of truth that it is not merely a matter of time, place or personality, but that is objective and universal. Richard Dawkins captured the flavour of this difficulty for the veriphobes when he wrote: ‘Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I will show you a hypocrite!’


VERIPHOBIA IS FATAL
If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out (poet Tim Minchin)


It is a peculiar irony of the current popularity of veriphobia among educational and sport researchers that the condition is so harmful for research. Research is inherently related to truth, and a denial of that connection leads to the sorts of contradictions that litter the work of veriphobes.

The consequences of veriphobia for researchers can be profound. Truth offers a sense of direction and purpose to enquiry, and without these, research becomes a decorative activity, filling the time of academics, but making no contribution to society or its understand of the world. In the words of great American philosopher, C.S. Pierce, ‘man loses his conception of truth and reason … (and comes) to look about reasoning as mainly decorative. The result … is, of course, a rapid deterioration of intellectual vigour.’ Although he was writing before the emergence of contemporary styles of veriphobia (and apparently before the invention of women), Pierce has spotted a pattern in much such writing. Indeed, one of the founding fathers and heroes of postmodernism, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard held his hands up and admitted: ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I’d never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s a bit of a parody’.

So, veriphobia too easily descends into trivia. But, there can also be sinister consequences of the abandonment of the pursuit of truth. Veriphobic theorists present their ideas as radical or progressive, but their denial of truth leads them to consequences that are fundamentally reactionary. The casual manner in which some writers denounce traditional forms of enquiry, like science, as inescapably sexist, racist and classist (such as Sandra Harding), if accepted, immediately creates a barrier for the participation among marginalised groups, warning them that they are destined to fail. Aside from the dishonesty of this approach, it is also deeply offensive to those groups. By denying the vital distinction between truth and falsity, fact and fiction, veriphobia disempowers the very people it claims to represent.

Truth is the only salvation for the minority view. Without it as a clear and unapologetic goal of enquiry, the lies and deception of the tyrants, the liars and sometimes the majority will remain forever unexposed. Researchers can and should be should troublemakers in the realm of ideas, and their most potent weapon in this context is the ability to stand up with authority, and say: ‘That is not true!’
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WHY SHOULD THE TEACHER / COACH BOTHER WITH PHILOSOPHY?

One of the more common observations that academics make when they learn that I am professionally interested in sport and philosophy goes something like this: “Oh, that is an unusual combination”. I used to leap immediately to the defensive, starting listing the numerous fascinating philosophical issues that can be stimulated by sport: questions of ethics (Is doping fair? What’s wrong with cheating?), of politics (Should the taxpayer fund elite sport? Is talent development socially just?), and of knowledge (What type of knowing does a player have?). Nowadays, I simply feign surprise, and ask ‘What do you mean?’ This is a much more effective strategy as my questioner invariably starts stuttering and then changes the subject. Why? Because behind this initial statement is a very common prejudice, which it would be too rude to say out-loud: philosophy is for very clever people; sport isn’t.

I’ve reached that stage in my life where I no longer feel the urge to punch such inquisitors in the face. But it does seem to me a shame that such people are denying themselves a group of genuinely interesting and challenging philosophical problems, because of their apparent inability to abandon a lazy stereotype.

Therapy session over. The rest of this entry is adapted from my introduction to a new book on the Philosophy of Education. It’s aim is to present, in short form, a case for the relevance of philosophy for teachers. Personally, I think the argument works equally for a much larger group: human beings.

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Here is a very old story:

A famous philosopher had to move house from one part of the city to another. His wife, knowing that her husband was extremely absent-minded, decided to train the philosopher in preparation for the move. So for weeks in advance, she reminded him that they would shortly be moving house, and that he would need to take a different bus home from the University, and get off at a different stop. She even wrote down the new address on a piece of paper and put it in his pocket. On the day of the move the philosopher forgot his training, and took his usual bus home. The house was empty, of course, as his family had moved. Then he remembered the piece of paper and found his new address. After a very indirect series of bus journeys, the philosopher finally found himself on his correct bus, and he got off at the right stop. Then he realised that he had absolutely no idea where his street was, or even what his new house looked like. He wandered around for an hour, until he saw a little girl playing in the street. “Excuse me, young lady, would you happen to know where this house is?” he asked, showing her the piece of paper. The child took his hand, and said, “Don’t worry Daddy, I’ll take you home.”

This story represents the stereotypical image of philosophers. Some people, especially in my experience those with a background in the sciences, criticise philosophy for being a never-ending series of discussions and arguments. They are, as Bertrand Russell put it, “inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible”.

The real world for many readers of this blog is likely to be the world of the classroom or the gym, and it is reasonable to ask ‘what can philosophy offer here?’

Philosophy (from the Greek for the love of knowledge or wisdom) requires thinkers to think for themselves. This is why the great philosopher Kant asserted that it is not possible to learn philosophy; it is only possible to learn how to philosophise. This does not mean that the philosopher ought to live a life of solitary contemplation (although some have done just that), but it does mean that the philosopher is compelled to think for him or herself. This is perhaps why philosophical conversations often seem characterised by ambiguity and perplexity. Important questions are rarely resolved with simple answers unless, of course, we choose to borrow uncritically the dogmas and doctrines of others. For Russell, the person who does decide to live so uncritically “goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason".

We might pause for a moment to consider Russell’s use of masculine pronouns as generic terms referring to all humans. This was common usage when he wrote, but has increasingly become replaced by gender-neutral language (his/her, abandoning pronouns, pluralising, etc.) following claims that gendered language is misleading, inappropriate or simply sexist. Is this a reasonable evolution of language use or ‘political correctness run mad’? As soon as we start to reflect on these questions we are engaging in philosophy.

It is possible to think and act without philosophising. It is certainly possible to teach without giving a moment’s thought to philosophy. But it is not possible to think for ourselves, especially to think about matters of value, without philosophising in some way. Education is a subject rich in philosophical issues:
• What should we teach?
• What experiences are most valuable / relevant / necessary for students?
• Who should pay for schooling?
• Are some ways of organising or presenting the curriculum inappropriate?
• Should schooling be compulsory?
• Should all students be taught together, or grouped according to their ability?
• Should schools prepare their students for the world of work?
• Is the ideal outcome of schooling a happy / rational / spiritual / good person?
• What type of person should teachers aim to develop?
• What should the values and ethos of the school be?
We might turn to sociology or psychology to help us gather evidence for our enquiries. For example, psychology might help us understand how children’s minds develop. But psychology can never tell the psychologist which forms of development are worth supporting. Questions of value are questions of philosophy.

There is a lot to learn from reading the works of the great thinkers. But it would be a mistake, however, to presume that memorising their words amounts to philosophising. Kant warned us that these philosophers “should not be a model of judgement, but simply an opportunity to make a judgement of them, even against them”.

If you read these works of philosophy – or even listen in to a conversation on a philosophical theme - you will note substantial disagreements. This is the life-blood of philosophy. By choosing to engage with these discussions, you are choosing to philosophise.


More articles and blog entries are available from: www. richardbailey.net.
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Lessons of the Great Outdoors

We live in a world in which more and more things are viewed as risky: food, drink, trains, aeroplanes, roads, sex, other people. And nowhere is this culture of fear more evident than in schools.

As a frequent visitor to schools, I am routinely confronted with security cameras, swipe cards and intercoms before even entering the building. Once inside, I find that many trainee and newly qualified teachers are so overcome with anxiety at potential risks that they adapt their lessons or even seek to avoid whole areas of the curriculum; gymnastics, design/technology, science, outdoor activities, all cause apoplexy. Many, given the choice, would steer clear of all of these activities. The children might not learn very much, and they might be bored to tears, but at least they would be safe.

Of course, schools are bound by law to be concerned with children’s safety. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s motto, ‘That which does not kill me makes me strong’, is catchy, but it makes poor childcare advice. But the culture of fear has rarely resulted in reasonable policies and accurate information. In fact, reactions are likely to prove more harmful to children’s development and education than the risk from which they are being protected.

For example, in the early 1980s the TV programme That’s Life ran a series of stories on the risks of school playground surfaces causing head injuries, showing films of china plates smashing on the floor. But children’s heads have little in common with china plates, and serious head injuries from falls do not appear at all in the statistics on playground injuries.

When a 15-year-old boy tragically drowned in a pond in 2000, a national newspaper launched a campaign, backed by politicians and other public figures, urging parents to fill in their garden ponds. It is indeed true, as TV presenter Esther Rantzen solemnly put it, that ‘toddlers can die in the shallowest of water’. But should one accident lead us to abolish water from children’s experiences?

Meanwhile, UK's ex-chief inspector of schools David Bell caused fury when he claimed that children are missing out on potentially life-changing activities because of schools’ concerns that they will end up in court if things go wrong. Outdoor and adventurous activities, part of the physical education curriculum, are disappearing from schools across the country.

Some schools point to disasters like that which occurred at Stainforth Beck in Yorkshire a few years ago, when two young people died. Teaching unions claimed that the public outcry following the incident was another case of ‘blame culture’ gone mad, and one union has advised its members not to participate in future outdoor trips. But what is overlooked is that, in this specific case, the expedition leaders made fundamental mistakes. Schoolchildren should not have been led into a fast-running stream. Outdoor activities were not responsible for the turn of events - error of judgement was.

Writing shortly after the incident, London Times journalist Libby Purves suggested that events at Stainforth Beck might actually strengthen the case for quality outdoor and adventurous activities:

‘Enough came out of the inquest to make onlookers feel angry at the sheer geographical illiteracy displayed by the party leaders. If future action makes it clear, publicly, that this is an aberration from what is normal and expected of schools and teachers, then there is a better chance that parents in the future will allow their children on outdoor adventures…. If there is blame it must be placed on the right shoulders, if only to underline the value and dignity of the many, many teachers and instructors who do know what they are doing.’

Researchers and policymakers are only just beginning to recognise the damaging consequences of the culture of fear on the quality of children’s lives. For fear of possible dangers from an unpredictable and hostile world, parents restrict their children’s freedom to be outdoors, to play without adult supervision, and to do the sorts of things that many of us took for granted as we were growing up. A report published by the Children’s Play Council claimed that children had become virtual prisoners in their own homes.

There is mounting evidence that increasing numbers of children are being denied the freedom to move around their local environment. For example, 30 years ago, almost all schoolchildren were free to walk to school unaccompanied; now, most are not. There has also been a reduction in the proportion of children of all ages allowed by their parents to cross roads, cycle, go out after dark, and access leisure facilities by themselves. Even in the years between 1990 and 1998, there has been a significant reduction in 10- and 11-year olds who walk to school, and an increase in those who are driven (despite the fact that these are primary school pupils who usually live close to their school).

Evidence suggests that a major contributory factor is parental fears. And these fears transfer to their children, who come to view the outside world, and especially other people, as menacing and best avoided. ‘I feel safe when I’m sitting in my house at night by the fire with my family’, said one 10-year-old girl from Scotland. Another 13-year-old boy said: ‘The further away you are, like, there’s a lot more things that could happen to you, like, on the way…. But if you’re local, just around the estate and you get hurt you can just go along to your home.’

There is a danger that adult preoccupation with risk can remove experiences that are important in children’s social and psychological development. Research carried out in Scotland showed that children’s playtime has been reduced by an hour each day. It is during play that children learn to test their limits, make decisions, play different roles and imagine different possibilities. Children are much more creative when adults are not interfering or monitoring their behaviour. One study found that adult participation reduced children’s experimentation and willingness to make mistakes.

An overcautious approach makes for dull environments. Such environments present too little challenge for children, and some children respond by looking for other opportunities for adventure, sometimes with much greater risk of personal injury.

No environment will ever be completely safe and risk-free, and even well-supervised children manage to hurt themselves. But by speculating on what can possibly go wrong rather than on what children might learn from experiences, we are in danger of creating anxiety in some children and recklessness in others. Children who are fearful will not be able to learn, and those who are overconfident will be unable to make sensible judgements about risk, because their learning environment has become sanitised and over-managed.

This is why the threat to outdoor and adventure activities is so disturbing. Aside from the obvious benefits of taking children into the countryside - the greater awareness of the natural world and our place within it - outdoor and adventurous activities are ideal vehicles for many of the types of challenges and learning opportunities that are necessary for their development. These activities are physically active, and depend upon shared understanding, cooperation and trust. They also force children to draw upon their inner resources to address real problems, presenting children with challenges and perceived risks, and providing a framework for coming to terms with them.

Anxieties over children’s safety and wellbeing are understandable, and it is only right that parents and teachers are mindful of potential dangers. But children need to be able to take acceptable risks in an environment that allows them to extend their abilities and confidence. If children are deprived of these experiences they will not learn to handle the risks that they are certain to meet as they make their way through life.

The Harrogate coroner presiding over the Stainforth Beck case spoke of the ‘exhilarating experiences’ of outdoor adventure, and of the need for all children, especially those from cities, to encounter and learn from the outdoors. Much the same could be said for risk experiences in general.
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