I seem to regularly find myself embroiled in various polarised debates, and invariably, at some point in the discussion, someone butts into to dismiss the entire exchange as a ‘false dichotomy’. (And hence, a waste of time.) The answer, they claim lies not at the margins but somewhere in the centre. In this way we can dispense with the futile bickering between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’, and those who champion either the teaching of knowledge or skills because they are both right. We just characterise our adversaries as occupying an extreme position but no one really believes something so diametrically oppositional. Do they?

Let’s first explore the idea of a false dichotomy. This is logical flaw committed when we present only two options when in fact there are others. Typically we would then go on to construct a straw man argument which demonstrates that anyone holding the ‘only other option’ is clearly delusional. Darren Chetty sent me this link which contains some nice examples of false dichotomies: 

Either you let me go to the Family Values Tour, or I’ll be miserable for the rest of my life. I know you don’t want me to be miserable for the rest of my life, so you should let me go to the concert.

Either you use Speed Stick deodorant, or you will stink to high heaven. You don’t want to stink, so you had better buy Speed Stick.

Either I keep smoking, or I’ll get fat. I don’t want to get fat, so I better keep smoking.

Either we keep Charles Manson in jail, or we release him, thus risking murder, carnage, and mayhem. We don’t want murder, carnage, or mayhem, so we had better keep him in jail.

Each of these propositions has been set up to in order to present only rational choice but in each case we can easily work out that there are various other possibilities which would not lead to the negative consequences we would rightly wish to avoid.

But, this is where I think lazily brushing aside someone’s considered opinion as being a false dichotomy is problematic. You see, some dichotomies are real. The positions taken by ‘progressive’ or traditionalist’ educators lead to all sorts of seemingly unrelated disputes and confusions. If I genuinely believe that the best way to educate is to be guided by the inclination of the child and to respond to their impulses as a supportive guide then it makes complete sense that I will recoil in horror from a word as loaded with authoritarian meaning as ‘obedience’. But equally, if I think the best way for children to learn is to be instructed by an expert then it’s obviously desirable for them to be obedient to that expert’s instructions.

The problem comes when we try to compromise. In the spirit of taking the best of both, many people believe are possibly of committing what I’ve come to think of as the ‘and fallacy’. But you can’t always eat your cake and have it. Some positions really are mutually exclusive: medicine and, say, faith healing. Or Christianity and atheism. You could attempt to argue that there’s a possible compromise between these positions but you’d be wrong. Medicine depends on the rigour of science whilst faith healing requires no such ‘proof’ to be considered efficacious – we just have to believe in it. It’s no good just to dismiss this dichotomy by saying that there’s a ‘time and place’ for both. There might well be a time and place for both but these times and places exclude each other. They do not overlap.

Likewise, a belief that you can cherry-pick the best of both from progressive and traditionalist ideology is flawed. If you believe that teaching  content-free, generic skills is impossible, then it never makes sense to teach them. But of course we’ve entered an age where ‘no one’ really believes that anymore, haven’t we? So instead we have people suggesting that it makes sense to do a bit of Direct Instruction here and a bit of discovery learning there. Now, obviously you can do this, but it isn’t really of coherent position. If you believe that DI is the most effective way to teach and that discovery learning is one of the most ineffective ways of teaching, why would you do it? You can only really hold this view if you think that one way of teaching is as good as another, or that variety is more important than efficiency.

But let’s return for a moment to the dichotomy between medicine and faith healing. I could claim that a patient might benefit from being treated with faith healing every now and then for sake or variety. Or maybe they will feel more motivated to get well if given a choice? Most of us are probably content to acknowledge this as nonsensical. Clearly we would expect to be treated in the way that was most likely to make us healthy as quickly and as efficiently as possible. If we believe faith healing is the best way, then why wouldn’t we always choose faith healing?

But that is, I think, the crux of the ‘and fallacy’: children will benefit by being taught by a variety of methods, or that they will be more motivated to learn if given a choice about how to learn. Now, I’m not arguing that one position is better than the other (although I think most readers will be aware of my biases) just that they are mutually exclusive. You can’t do child centred learning and teacher led instruction at the same time. You have to choose. Martin Robinson argues in Trivium 21c that ‘grammar’ or the teaching of knowledge is at odds with ‘dialectic’ or the questioning of knowledge. Can you teach that a thing is true and undermine the truth of it at the same time? Won’t things very quickly fall apart? The process of asking ‘why?’ is inherently destructive and ultimately reduces all knowledge to rubble. If you are choosing to do a ‘bit of both’ you’re failing to acknowledge that these positions are antithetical. You basically saying that sometimes it’s OK to do faith healing rather than medicine. And why would this be?

I think, and these are just my thoughts, that when push came to shove, if our lives were on the line, the overwhelming majority of us would choose medicine over faith healing and damn our principles! Few of us would have a deep enough conviction in faith healing to risk not being prescribed some scientifically tested medicine. The difference is, our lives aren’t on the line. It’s not us who will suffer if we do a bit of both.

The point, perhaps, is this: arguments polarise because the most interesting thinking often happens at the extremes. The middle ground is exactly that: the meeting of two competing principles. And compromise is, as I’ve said before, the refuge of the unprincipled. You can always choose to do both a AND z, but you will do neither well.

I look forward to having my flaws and failings pointed out below.

Related posts

Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’
It’s not what you know… oh, hang on: it IS what you know!