Burn, heretic, burn!

Once upon a time in the West, if you believed in the transubstantiation of bread and wine during Holy Communion and you lived in one part of Europe you got burned at the stake. If you denied this small fact and lived in a different part of Europe you also got burned at the stake. It didn’t matter if you agreed on 99% of the other details of your religion, you still killed those with slightly different views. Humans do that darnedest things to each other based on the most trivial of differences.

Thankful we are all humanists now to a greater or lesser extent (whether you accept it or not) and therefore it isn’t acceptable to burn each other. In his books Noah Yuval Harari charts the course of the three great humanist traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries: liberalism, communism and facism. All of these traditions placed mankind and the human experience at the centre of their creeds, as opposed to an almighty, thats what makes them humanist.

We now live in the area when liberalism has triumphed against the others, according to Harari. Even as a conservative you are a liberal, in the sense that you believe in the rights of the individual, freedom of the individual, and the equality of individuals. Democracy is the flowering of liberalism in politics. Everyone’s vote is equally valid.

Like all religions, humanism and, specifically for this thought trail, liberalism has its schisms. We humans love to be tribal and to argue. In someways it is what makes us human. Identifying who isn’t in our tribe helps us identify who is. We depend on our social interactions within our tribe.

Indeed Harari, likens the intellectual differences and squabbles between  humanist tribes to be not too dissimilar to the tribalism that erupted in Europe within Christianity, best exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition, which murdered hundreds of people over differences in the interpretations of the bible.

If you have spent any time on Twitter as a teacher you can’t possibly have avoided the prog/trad squabbles, rows and playground name calling, highlighted this week by closure of Debra Kidds account.

It’s a shame that the greatest CPD tool for teachers also highlights so much of our  worst social natures.

Despite the protestations of some, the debate between progressive education and traditional education (the prog/trad debate) doesn’t just exist on Twitter. It’s obfuscated because teacher training courses don’t teach education history (to my knowledge) and generally they aren’t balanced in discussing pedagogical approaches (again in my experience).

Any honest reading of the history of the ideas in education can trace the debate back to at least the early 1800s. Hirsch provides a decent overview in the appendix. In the wake of the American war of independence and the French revolution new ideas about the progression of humanity began to take hold. Nothing happens in a vaccum. As the ideas of the intellectual founding fathers of liberalism, communism and fascism spread, they were also to influence ideas about education.

I don’t intend to recount that history here, as much better has been written about it but with the, sometime vehement, differences in opinion between proponents on both sides of the debate, it is easy to forget that, ultimately, according to Harari, wether you identify as trad, prog, trad/prog, atradprog, we are all children of the great intellectual revolution of liberalism.

We all believe in the rights of the individual. We all believe in equality. We all believe in the individual freedoms of adult members of a civilised society. We just disagree on methodology and approaches of indoctrinating and raising adults into this society.

Those advocating a traditional approaches do not do so because they are sadists. They do so because they believe these are the best methods of reducing inequality, and helping all individual children fulfil their potential.

Those advocating progressive approaches do not do so because they have a hidden agenda to keep an elitist society propped up. They do so because they believe that these are the best methods for ensuring individual freedom and individual expression, as well as helping all individual children fulfil their potential.

And to be honest, I think most people would probably describe themselves as mods.

In a sense this debate is simply a practical outworking of the inherent tensions within liberalism: those of ensuring individual freedom and of ensuring equality. It’s hard, in any society, to have both.

So next time you feel like throwing a stone, just remember, you’ve got more in common that you think. It also might be worth remembering that without tone or body language the written word can be so easily misunderstood.

At least no teacher in the Twittersphere has literally burned another teacher at the stake for professing different views….yet.

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