Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Myth, Science, And Persuasion

I think some of us believe we live in a post-mythology world, but we couldn't be more wrong. Some time back, for instance, I wrote about the "myth of boot straps," the notion that everyone can just pull themselves up by their own if they would only apply themselves or work harder. It's part of the larger "myth of the self-made man." What people have forgotten in this neo-Calvinist framing, to pull one's self up by one's boot straps is an impossible task, an absurdity, just as is the notion of someone being self-made. Everyone needs help, no amount of boot strap pulling can extract us from the mud; asking for help is a vital life skill, but our mythology treats it as a sign of shame and weakness.

This is far from the only myth that guides our daily lives: things are not true objectively, but due to our human tendency toward confirmation bias, we repeatedly head down that tunnel with no cheese. In education, we're living through that right now as schools continue to believe, without evidence, but rather based upon the stories told by our myth-makers, that what children really need is longer school hours, more homework, and more challenging tests. The research is firmly on the side of the sort of emergent, play-based, child-lead education that schools like mine offer, yet the myth persists that we must drill-and-kill them. I can't tell you how many teachers I speak with who tell me that they are fully on board with what the science tells them, but they are stuck bending their charges noses to the grindstone because of pressure from policy makers, administrators and parents, die hard worshipers at the alter of myth.

Myths are persistent things: humans have a hard time rising above them, and those of us who do are usually labelled as misfits or radicals, when, in fact, we are the ones pointing out that we've climbed to the top of Olympus and found only snow. This isn't to say that I am not also influenced by certain mythologies. All you have to do is go back and read some of the things I was writing a decade ago on this blog to see some of the myths inside which I once lived. And this also isn't to say that myths are, on their face, bad things. They share with science the desire to explain the unexplainable, but because stories are more powerful than science for many humans, we haven't developed the scientist’s trait of tossing away old ideas when more true ones are discovered. Indeed, we live in an era in which myth seems to be acendent with more and more science doubters trusting their stories over the scientific method in all areas of life.

And I’m not saying we should never doubt what scientists tell us. Some of what passes for scientific knowledge these days is actually bought-and-paid-for industry propaganda filtered through a media that is not always unbiased, so it pays to not take everything at face value. It pays to dig deeper, but at bottom, we as a society must always chose science over myth. If we are to live in a fair and just society, we must always be prepared for our myths to be disproven just as we are with scientific theory because they are in many ways the same thing: attempts to explain how the world works. Indeed, in many ways scientific progress is the process of our old ideas, no matter how much we loved them, turning from truth into myth.

Many of us in the worldwide community of play-based educators find ourselves in the position of having moved beyond the old myths of boot straps and “academic rigor” into a world where science informs us that play is the highest use of our time, at least when it comes to educating young children. Yet, all around us is a world where old stories continue to hold their own: our administrators, our regulators, our licensers, our policy makers, and even the parents of the children we teach continue to cling to the old myths of play as a waste of time, a relief from learning rather than the mechanism by which humans most effectively and efficiently learn.

We want them to change their minds, to see the light, yet despite our best efforts they cling to their myths the way people always do, doubling down, not able to hear the manifest logic in our arguments. It frustrates us as we strive to do what is best for the children we teach even as we must continue to, in many cases, pay homage to their ancient myths, complying with their standards, administering their tests, adhering to their learning objectives, adjusting to their catrophic imaginations. We do these things for their myths even as we ourselves have moved beyond them. We do it because above all else we care for the children we teach.

No one has ever changed the mind of another person and a part of that is because myths are always “science” until they are not. No matter how much we argue, they stick to their beliefs. In the end, people must change their own minds. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to show others how wrong they are through argument. If I want someone to come toward the light, the first and most important thing I can do is simply show them how much I care; not about the science or being right, but about the children. It’s only through our caring that we can bring others to question their myths by asking why, which is the first step toward changing one’s own mind. And it is through making our caring evident that we will ultimately transform education.

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