The Truths We Hold

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Do we?

I get why the framers had to include a Creator in the first sentence. “Many philosophers and theologians have accepted a view that construes every statement or belief about objects and events—past, present, and future—as prerecorded in the mind of God. Hence, there are truths independent of the human mind, and people must discover them. When people do discover these truths and can justify their beliefs, the may properly lay claim to knowledge. Knowledge is that subset of truth that has been acquired by human investigators” (Noddings, 2007, p. 113).

This aligns to an essentialist philosophy in education. This philosophy has given us content standards, mandated curriculum, and standardized tests. I’m not really a fan. I accept that there are common cognitive structures we humans (and all mammals) share, so that’s cognitivism, and I accept that there are facts. I’m not an adherent of alternative facts.

What I have come to understand is that it is of more consequence for our daily existence and the actions we take, how one takes in, incorporates, understands, and makes sense of the “truths” or facts that then establishes the knowledge that one possesses. This probably puts me in line with John Dewey and elements of constructivism philosophy. “In [Dewey’s] framework, a statement p may appropriately be called knowledge if it is useful in inquiry. This view, too, fits our commonsense attitudes toward both science and everyday investigations. We are quite sure, for example, that much of what scientists “know” today will some day be overturned, but we still refer to what is currently used as knowledge. The more p has been tested and used successfully, Dewey said, the greater our warrant for asserting it” (Noddings, 2007, p. 118).

Where am I gong with this? I’m not really sure yet, but, something connects here.

Alfie Kohn tweeted this today. “Learning should be seen as qualitative change in a person’s way of seeing, experiencing, understanding, conceptualizing something in the real world – rather than as quantitative change in the amount of knowledge someone possesses.” – Paul Ramsden.

I’m a fan of Kohn’s work, which is why I follow him on Twitter. This tracks in our shift in what we have learned about how the human brain is structured, takes in new sensory information and makes sense of it in the context of pre-existing memories, emotions, and experiences. This is why much of education pedagogy has shifted toward methods of teaching based on research rooted in a mixture of constructivism and cognitivism (with constructivism the label that is more commonly used to describe not only learning theory but also education philosophy and even a whole branch of philosophy).

There are of course observable facts. However, how one makes sense of those facts, incorporates them into their own worldview and schema and then uses those facts to spur on more inquiry and enact their daily lives is dependent on the individual and a result of their construction of knowledge based on those facts. Blue light has a specific wavelength, but how I respond to blue color might be unique based on my experiences.

Yet, our education policy is firmly rooted in essentialism. There is a set base of information all individuals need to be productive in society, though often it seems that only that basic rote-learned information is all we are concerned about. For the most part education policy is determined by lawmakers not educators or education researchers. There’s a reason what we teach is so contentious. And it gets more contentious when those without power begin to push back against the established norms.

Again, from Nel Noddings (2007):
“If we argue that knowledge is both a source and tool of power, it is reasonable to recommend that all students have access to the knowledge once reserved for a few…[I]f the knowledge is associated with privilege is just that—knowledge with an elitists stamp of approval on it—then members of the dominant group are likely to shift the locus of their power to something else…Distributing elite knowledge more justly will not in itself effect the redistribution of a society’s material goods, and the effort may well act against redistribution by causing (1) a redefinition of elite knowledge, (2) deprivation of knowledge that could be  genuinely useful to oppressed groups, and (3) a widespread sense that society has ‘tried’ and that the failure of groups who must do the ill-paid work of society is their own fault” (p. 126).

I think this helps explain the current kerfuffle over critical race theory, which fits under the larger umbrella of critical theory. Any kind of critical theory is an approach critiquing society and culture for the purpose of understanding power structures and endemic qualities of society and culture held in place by those power structures. As researchers view history through the lens and from the perspective of those subject to oppression in a society, society responds as any system disturbed and pushed off balance will respond—it digs in and resists that perturbation.  

So, how does this connect to the Declaration of Independence? If our truths and knowledge are dependent on circumstances and experiences, we don’t hold these truths as self-evident. Some individuals do not have the same rights as I enjoy. Not because of a Creator (or lack of) and not because of choices they’ve made (or not), but simply because of the circumstances of their birth—the country’s borders in which they were born, the parents’ wealth and power to which they were born, the color of their skin which evolved in their ancestors, and then laws and societal norms under which they now live.

We have chosen to make these things the truth that really matters by what we do and what we don’t do.

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