After a long flight, I’ve finally finished rereading War and Peace and, if you were in any doubt, it is a masterpiece. I found so much I’d either entirely forgotten or hadn’t understood from my first reading over 20 years ago. What particularly struck me was the final chapter from the Second Epilogue. Throughout the book, Tolstoy has been advancing his theory of history as being far more than the will and actions of ‘great men’. We are, he rather thinks, all slaves to circumstance and our attempts at writing history are mere post hoc rationalisations of what happened. In this final chapter he draws a comparison between history and astronomy. Here, I wish to draw a further comparison with education.
Of astronomy, Tolstoy observes
From the time the law of Copernicus was discovered and proved, the mere recognition of the fact that it was not the sun but the earth that moves sufficed to destroy the whole cosmography of the ancients. By disproving that law it might have been possible to retain the old conception of the movements of the bodies, but without disproving it, it would seem impossible to continue studying the Ptolemaic worlds. But even after the discovery of the law of Copernicus the Ptolemaic worlds were still studied for a long time.
Ideas take time to settle in. Even after we’ve firmly established beyond reasonable doubt that a thing may be true, people will disbelieve or misunderstand the new paradigm. We believe what we believe because it feels right not because it’s logically correct. If new information creates discord, we’re likely to reject it. But, like the inexorable advance of a glacier, new ideas slowly change the world. And now no astronomer would dream of studying the Ptolemaic worlds.
Tolstoy saw the same struggle to understand the lack of free will in determining events as similarly problematic:
The struggle between the old views and the new was long and stubbornly fought out in physical philosophy. Theology stood on guard for the old views and accused the new of violating revelation … Just as prolonged and stubborn is the struggle now proceeding between the old and the new conception of history, and theology in the same way stands on guard for the old view, and accuses the new view of subverting revelation.
While theology tends to hold little sway in the education debate, we can see the role faith still plays in guarding old views and accusing the new of ‘violating revelation’. The scientific consensus on the way memory works and human beings learn is clear and yet many educators see this as a violation of what is natural and obvious and comfortable.
But Tolstoy is a good bit wiser than most. He points out that “on both sides the struggle provokes passion and stifles truth. On the one hand there is fear and regret for the loss of the whole edifice constructed through the ages, on the other is the passion for destruction.” This is a fair point’s all very well to mock those who stubbornly refuse to accept the evidence on explicit instruction and cognitive load theory, but in so doing, we run the risk of destroying much that is good.
To the men who fought against the rising truths of physical philosophy, it seemed that if they admitted that truth it would destroy faith in God, in the creation of the firmament, and in the miracle of Joshua the son of Nun. To the defenders of the laws of Copernicus and Newton, to Voltaire for example, it seemed that the laws of astronomy destroyed religion, and he utilised the law of gravitation as a weapon against religion.
Those of us who’ve been labelled as ‘neo-traditionalist’ are seen as using research and evidence as a weapon against child centred education. We may be right about the best way to learn, but does that mean that everything branded ‘progressive’ is wrong? As we mock Robinson, Mitra and Claxton, we should always remember that creativity is worth nurturing, that technology is changing education, motivation is important, and that aiming for ‘world class education’ can only be a good thing. It’s just that these things cannot be achieved in the ways many of their advocates hope.
Tolstoy deftly identifies the root change in the paradigm shifts in astronomy and history:
As in the question of astronomy then, so in the question of history now, the whole difference of opinion is based on the recognition or nonrecognition of something absolute, serving as the measure of visible phenomena. In astronomy it was the immovability of the earth, in history it is the independence of personality – free will.
What then might be the absolute on which the ‘whole difference of opinion’ in education is based? It could be the observation that ‘learning’ is not a visible phenomena. Or maybe it’s that while all children and special and different, the human brain learns in broadly predictable and similar ways?
As with astronomy the difficulty of recognising the motion of the earth lay in abandoning the immediate sensation of the earth’s fixity and of the motion of the planets, so in history the difficulty of recognising the subjection of personality to the laws of space, time, and cause lies in renouncing the direct feeling of the independence of one’s own personality. But as in astronomy the new view said: “It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws,” so also in history the new view says: “It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws.
Maybe in education we should be prepared to accept that “It is true children learn in predictable and understandable ways , but by focussing just on observable individual differences we will arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our similarities and accepting the idea that learning depends mainly on the quantity and quality of prior knowledge, we can arrive at laws.”
In the first case it was necessary to renounce the consciousness of an unreal immobility in space and to recognise a motion we did not feel; in the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognise a dependence of which we are not conscious.
In education we need to renounce differences which are irrelevant and recognise similarities of which we are not always aware but govern how we learn all the same.
But before we get to the peace, we probably need to go through a bit more war. And then something else will come along and we’ll done the whole thing over again.