Sunday, 18 December 2016

Conspiracies against the laity and wishful thinking

Most duties are concerned with or grounded in  right actions. By contrast, an epistemic duty is a duty whose grounding object is belief or knowledge rather than action. My concern here is with a certain epistemic duty had by professionals and their professional organizations. Professionals present themselves in public as being in possession of special expertise and as taking on correlate special responsibilities. They require us to grant them special discretion on the promise of holding each other accountable through professional organizations, which organizations in turn present themselves in public as speaking for their profession.
The epistemic duty that concerns me here is the duty to speak the truth about the success and failure of the deployment of their particular profession’s expertise, and about the success and failure of the professional activities in which they are engaged and for which they are responsible. This a duty which professional organizations are reluctant to fulfil. Bluntly, their message to us is  too often “ we know a lot so shut up, do what we tell you, trust anybody we approve of  and don’t hassle us about them: we’ll let you know if there’s a problem”. Too cynical for you?

Perhaps so. After all, many professionals have real expertise and deploy it to various good ends. But many of them don’t. In this light I think we might examine a couple of items in the news.
First there is the news that the General Teaching Council convicted Alex Dolan of unacceptable professional conduct (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/5048998/Science-teacher-found-guilty-of-misconduct-for-Channel-4-undercover-filming.html) for filming footage that was shown on Channel 4 TV. The footage exposed the extent to which ‘appalling classroom behaviour, including pupils fighting in class, swearing, running on tables and refusing to work’ was occurring in schools, and also exposed schools deceiving OFTSED inspectors by sending bad pupils away during inspection visits. 

Second, there is the boycott of SATS proposed by NUT and NAHT (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/5048718/Teachers-to-boycott-humiliating-and-demeaning-Sats.html). Teachers’ unions have never liked SATS. They say it is because testing children to find out whether they have learnt anything has bad educational consequences. It is claimed that SATS result in teaching to the test—but of course, if the test tests what we want children to learn then  teaching to it is fine.  It is claimed that children are scared by exams. Well, although I certainly remember teachers trying to scare my daughter and her fellow pupils about SATS, the truth is, SATS are a test of whether the teachers are teaching, and so it is the teachers who are on the line, not the pupils. And what was revealed when SATS were first introduced was that a great many teachers are doing a very poor job at educating children, and the excuses for failure based in socio-economic differences of pupils were shown to be false.

So here we have two cases in which professional organisations of teachers are resolutely determined to suppress the truth about the failures of their profession. A shameless derogation of their duty, no? How can they possibly get away with it?  Because we are reluctant to hear such bad news. Because it is very important to us that we are cured when ill and have our children educated we indulge in wishful thinking and each believe that our own doctors and our own children’s teachers are excellent. Doctors and teachers do not wish to disturb us in our belief. Better if we can think that any failure is to be laid at the government’s door.
Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/

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