Education and democracy in crisis - opinion

In Israel, which is rife with disagreement over what might count as a good life and with those who seek to impose their concepts of the good on others, education should oppose the threat of tyranny.

Democracy, illustrative (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Democracy, illustrative
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
‘The people who have believed in absolute truth,” philosopher Karl Popper once commented, “have also believed that they have absolute truth in their pocket. This is a mistake,” he continued. “The right attitude is to say that there is absolute truth [but that] we don’t have the truth in our pocket.”
Truth is an estimate of a reality that exists “out there,” over, against and independent of individual or collective consciousness; an ideal to be pursued through rigorous inquiry and vigorous debate among alternative perspectives. The very existence of an open society, he taught, depends on the possibility of distinguishing falsehood from truth, even though, indeed precisely because we may disagree over how to make sense of that distinction.
Popper rejected what he called “the myth of the framework,” which holds that truth is relative to, as opposed to influenced by, the conceptual schemes in which it is formulated. According to this myth, we must agree on terms of discourse before we can debate one another. This is an authoritarian and incoherent idea. It requires that we must either accept a single viewpoint before we can legitimately disagree, which precludes the possibility of disagreement altogether, or all be imprisoned in inescapable frameworks incapable of communicating across difference.
If that were the case, and truth was a mere invention of our conceptual schemes, with no roots beyond human imaginings, disputes among alternative views could only be resolved by means of force.
This is why democratic societies require a plurality of perspectives to inform the debates over issues upon which citizens are called to decide. It is also why democratic citizenship requires a devotion to truth, roughly speaking, so that those decisions will be grounded in some sense of reality, not wishful thinking. If citizens mislead one another, or leaders lie to constituents, there is no peaceful basis upon which to resolve disputes, and the fragile idea of a government of, by and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln put it, will perish from the Earth.
The world witnessed the deadly consequences of this sort of deception in the recent attack on the United States Capitol, which climaxed a four-year assault on the very idea of truth. “Alternative facts” were offered to avoid uncomfortable ones, and news was considered “fake” unless it supported political interests. Certified according to state and federal laws, the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency also was repeatedly confirmed in the courts. When this outcome did not fit former president Donald Trump’s insulated framework, his supporters resorted to violence.
The attempted coup failed, thankfully. But if the possibility of communication across differences is not restored so that people can disagree peacefully, this sort of insurrection may be repeated.
Regrettably, Israel might not be far behind its great ally in this regard. Whatever one thinks of his talents and achievements, or of the alliance with Trump that brought recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the Abraham Accords, it must be acknowledged that Benjamin Netanyahu has an uneasy relationship with the truth, to put it mildly. The disingenuous coalition agreement with Benny Gantz is but one of many examples, and dovetails with other threats to Israeli democracy, such as the recurring inability to form a stable government, repeated elections within short periods of time and challenges to an independent judiciary.
What, if anything, can schools do to prevent this dissolution of democracy? They must first resist “post-truth” politics, according to which the absence of agreement over standards of truth is used to justify cherry-picking the facts one wishes to acknowledge. Although there may be no objective “Archimedean standpoint” or “view from nowhere,” there are many plausible “views from somewhere.” Education must begin by initiating students into at least one of these plausible views, on the basis of which they can distinguish falsehood from truth, according to some understanding of these terms.
However, in a world in which vast quantities of information are readily available online (true, false and everything in between), learning to make such a distinction must begin with an account of the truths that are worth knowing. Such an account provides a basis for prioritizing the issues to be considered and filling the inevitable gaps between putative truths and the evidence upon which they are based. And for something to be worthwhile, it must be embedded in a concept of the good. Strengthening a youngster’s devotion to the truth, therefore, is a form of values education.
This connection between truth and goodness does not require us to adopt the myth of the framework, however. The key difficulty with this myth is its protection of one framework from criticism on the basis of another, which is grounded in the false premise that communication between them is impossible. But the absence of common standards for truth does not preclude the possibility of communication among different schemes.
We communicate across cultures, languages and disciplines all the time, albeit awkwardly and sometimes even inaccurately. The problem for democracy arises when adherents of one framework refuse to interact with opposing perspectives. Hence, the plausible views into which we should initiate youngsters must be prepared to engage alternative orientations different from their own.
YET IF youngsters are exposed to only one such plausible view, they could easily become imprisoned in a single framework. In addition to initiation into at least one plausible “view from somewhere,” therefore, democratic education requires that students learn from and about alternative “views from elsewhere.” In that way they learn to critique, not only according to the internal standards into which they have been initiated, but also according to at least one alternative. The task of this sort of dialogue is to provide diverse populations of students with skills for living together in peaceful coexistence.
Unfortunately, the fallacy that frameworks are totally incommensurable fosters the fear that one view will seek to impose itself on others, since persuasion and exchange of ideas are presumed to be impossible. This has led to a decline in the sort of humanities education that examines particular as well as common goods in favor of a curriculum that claims value-neutrality. This neoliberal curriculum promotes a thin quantitative account of truth according to which achievement is ultimately measured in terms of individual wealth. The Israeli core curriculum that emphasizes mathematics, Hebrew and English is a case in point. These subjects are chosen primarily for their utility in the workplace.
This curriculum is not neutral; it prizes financial over other forms of well-being, and should be examined in school in dialogue with other perspectives, not serve as a criterion for what to examine. Centering the curriculum on this limited concept of truth has contributed to a retreat from truth altogether, in the public square as well as in school, not only in a broad qualitative sense in the service of common goods, but even in the narrow quantitative sense, as in counting votes, for example. This retreat paves the way for increased authoritarianism accompanied by violent challenges to democracy.
The writing is on the wall, stained with the blood of those who died or were injured in the recent Washington riots. Particularly in Israel, which is rife with disagreement over what might count as a good life and with those who seek to impose their concepts of the good on others, education should oppose the threat of tyranny. It should engage truth, roughly speaking, through enriched curricula that promote robust dialogue among alternative moral visions in order to construct common goods that promote peaceful coexistence.
The writer is professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Haifa, and chair of the committee on Values Education: Guidelines for Measurement and Evaluation convened by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.