Romanticism & the Enlightenment: Meta-beliefs in education

//Romanticism & the Enlightenment: Meta-beliefs in education

“Confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses.” James Baldwin

Before claiming, as so many seem wont to do, that the dichotomy between progress and tradition is a false one, it’s worth exploring how our beliefs about education have been shaped. In the early 18th century the ideals of the Enlightenment – scientific method, logic and reason – were in full swing. Everything could be counted, weighed, measured and objective truths about the world discovered, quantified and neatly labelled. As always, whenever the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it inevitably swings back. Romanticism – the belief that man should live in a more natural, prelapsarian state – was a reaction to the extremes of the scientific Enlightenment. The Romantics espoused spontaneity, hidden potential, and the benevolence of nature. These two ways of seeing the world have become super memes or ‘meta-beliefs’ in education.

A meta-belief is one which has taken on a life beyond the facts we believe about the world to become the prism through which the world is viewed. They make up the very fabric of our thought and lie at the centre of an inter-connected web of other, associated beliefs. We fail to think about these beliefs, instead think with them. They exert an unseen gravitational pull which affects all we do and think.

In education we rely on a whole set of largely unexamined Enlightenment and Romantic meta-beliefs. An example of an Enlightenment meta-belief is that everything can be understood through science, or that reason and logic can be brought to bear to explain any problem. In fact the human brain is such a powerful fetish that just showing a picture of it can make an audience 50 percent more likely to accept a statement as scientific fact.

Routinely cited as evidence that exercise is good for our brains

This image is routinely cited as evidence that exercise is good for our brains:

Whenever we cite research we are drawing on the meta-belief that evidence is sufficient justification for action. When we uncritically accept the word of academics or authority figures over our own experience we acquiesce to a meta-belief that those who are best qualified are most qualified to offer an opinion. We see Enlightenment meta-beliefs in action in the pseudo-scientific jargon used to advertise shampoo, and maybe some of the worst examples of mumbo jumbo in education come dressed in neuroscientific jargon (There have been theories suggesting that listening to Mozart can boost intelligence, foot massages can help beady behaved students, fish oil boosts brain power and, I kid you not, that breathing though your left nostril will enhance creativity.) This might perhaps explain why we were so completely taken in by Brain Gym®.

As professor of developmental neuropsychology, Dorothy Bishop says here,

Neuroscientists can tell you which brain regions are most involved in particular cognitive activities and how this changes with age or training. But these indicators of learning do not tell you how to achieve learning. Suppose I find out that the left angular gyrus becomes more active as children learn to read. What is a teacher supposed to do with that information?

Romantic meta-beliefs tells us that anything ‘natural’ is good and anything processed is bad. This suspicion of ‘unnatural’ intervention leads to Sir Ken’s well-documented revulsion of the “factory model of education” (There’s an excellent debunking here.) and convinces us that education should be as natural as possible. Any form of coercion is appalling but even teachers passing on their hard-won expertise can be seen by some as somehow interfering with the natural order. Children should find their own way and be guided by their natural curiosity. Some education experts express an almost mystical reverence for the natural goodness and wisdom of the prelapsarian child, whereas anyone who has to actually teach real kids knows only too well that they hunt in packs and can be savage in their interactions, both with each other and with any authority figure.

Anyone who talks about unleashing or unlocking children’s hidden potential is acting on Romantic meta-beliefs about the world. This goes some way to explaining the totemic power of personalisation, differentiation, independent learning – all these movements have at their heart a belief that children are special, unique and subject to mysterious hidden forces which can be harnessed if only we’re willing to strive to understand, love and accept each and every child and their special way of comprehending the world.

The point with both these sets of meta-beliefs is that there is always at least a kernel of truth at their heart. Children are unique and some types of learning are innate; science can help us understand, and reason and logic can improve aspects of our lives.

We can of course state that we believe both in the ideals of Romanticism but still use Enlightenment precepts to reason coldly of our grievances but there is always a point where one set of values wins out over another. No one can put two things first; refusing to make a choice is just abdicating responsibility.

Martin Robinson skewers the problem here:

Values and ideals are important, for without them, what are we? So the next time someone argues that progress and tradition are a false dichotomy, think why would they argue this? They are either lying and are using this argument to hide the fact that they are either on one side or the other. They might be saying ‘what works’ or ‘the evidence says’ but in their classroom it is clear that they belong to one side or the other… or it might be that they have given up on their values altogether and have sold out to pure instrumentalism and are letting the machine drive them like a driverless car, no longer caring about what happens to the children in their care, they follow the data and make all their decisions based on that. In this case the decision they have made to wash their hands of the dilemma and only obey the orders handed down to them, means that the decisions on the dichotomy between tradition and progress is made by other people.

To a large extent, we are our beliefs. If we have no idea where these beliefs come from or how they’ve been shaped we are a slave to the ideas of long-dead thinkers. It is only through excavating where our ideas come from that we can liberate ourselves from the mistakes of the past and start learning from new mistakes.

This post is adapted from p.123-5 of my book, What if everything you knew about education was wrong?



  1. David Longman February 6, 2016 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    I am not sure what your point is in this post.

    While you end by saying “No one can put two things first; refusing to make a choice is just abdicating responsibility.”

    (i) do you dodge the choice yourself? What side do you choose?

    (ii) surely at the cognitive level as well as the social level we put two things first all the time (and probably many more than two).

    • David Didau February 6, 2016 at 2:28 pm - Reply

      1. Regular readers of my blog will be familiar with my values. For the record, I am, broadly speaking, a traditionalist and value empirical evidence over nice ideas.

      2. Do we? I can’t think of an instance when I put two things first. I can think of lots of instances where I have competing priorities and some where these priorities can be held in tension. But where there is conflict – and sooner or later there will always be conflict – one value wins out out over others. But, I may be wrong and I look forward to this being demonstrated.

      As I said in the post, this post is based on a couple of pages of my book – I explore all this in much more detail there.

      • David Longman February 6, 2016 at 4:38 pm - Reply

        Being both a “traditionalist” (a rather vague term) while also “valuing empirical evidence” seems like an example of holding two priorities. You can’t really be both … or can you?

  2. Anthony Radice February 6, 2016 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    We are currently living with a perpetual contradiction between two extreme views of human nature: that of Hobbes, that it is evil and must be forcefully controlled; and that of Rousseau, that it is wholly good and must be left alone to flourish. Thus, you can do whatever you like, but you must be kept under constant CCTV surveillance.

    This battle between materialism and idealism is evident in your competing meta-beliefs here.

    We will be forever torn between these two extremes until we recover a traditional view of human nature.

    • David Didau February 6, 2016 at 3:16 pm - Reply

      Isn’t ‘recovering a traditional view’ always going to be a contested way of putting it?

  3. cowang February 6, 2016 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    So I guess the idea is to do what works — wait a minute, that’s almost a definition of science.

    The problem is that it’s so easy to finesse what little the science actually says and claim that it says whatever you want. Add to that the fact that none of us are actually scientists in all the fields that we need to act on, so must rely on experts — who are who exactly? Probably not the ones who claim to be the most expert. You must be almost an expert in the field, yourself, to know who the experts are.

    It sounds so weak and unhelpful to say, “Just do the best you can, with a little skepticism”.

  4. […] Romantic meta-belief that children are all little angels corrupted by the adult world is a dangerous but powerful […]

  5. […] is an essentially Romantic worldview in which man in his pre-lapsarian state is a noble savage and any attempt to curb our natural […]

  6. […] The fact is, we’re influenced all the time by arguments of which we’re unaware. Meta beliefs about education operate beneath the surface of our consciousness and dictate many of the choices […]

  7. […] slow and incremental. We are often unaware of the power of these attitudes to shape our thoughts. I’ve written before about so-called ‘meta beliefs’ such as those we can trace back to Romanticism or the Enlightenment. It’s hard for us to now […]

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