Magic: Education’s Sister

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This is the title a poetically minded editor gave my 2008 Czech newspaper article originally entitled “Education as Voodoo.” This blog will continue to explore the ideas and examine examples of magical thinking in education. My aim is to do this dispassionately. I don’t intend to decry anything (not even voodoo) or show what the world would be like if only people “got it”. I just want to play with ideas.

Education and magical thinking go together. Education is not unique in this but since so much of our time and money goes into it, it might be worthwhile to explore the role discourse based in sympathetic magic plays in our assumptions about what education is for, what are its individual and collective benefits. This blog sets out to do that. See the About page for more details about the origin and future aspirations.

The conclusion to which I am repeatedly drawn is that the conceptual and factual foundations for claims about education as an individual or collective good are very shaky; indeed often the same conclusions being drawn from contradictory facts or contradictory conclusions being drawn from identical facts. Many of them follow the magical formula: “this instructional content is similar to a particular behavior, therefore it will change the shape of the society as if that behavior (or content) were projected into it.” For instance, if we tell more people about science, our society will make better decisions about scientific issues such as global warming. Or if we teach more people better problem solving, our society will be better equipped to solve difficult problems”. Often the conclusion is just implied because when spelled out it looks a bit more shaky but it’s generally there.

But, how can we reconcile our claims for science education knowing that “Not a single person on the Wright brothers‘ team had a college education, not even Orville or Wilbur.” or that the “Industrial Revolution” was not done as a result of the work of the Royal Society but by craftsmen and tinkerers? Popular scientific education wasn’t necessary to drive some of the most transformative periods of the industrial society. Why is it necessary now? I don’t mean that individuals who want to invent new polymers don’t need to study the foundations of polymer science but why did we need to tell the rest of the population about polymers? The closest I can compare this to is a gnostic ritual. The IT revolution preceded any sort of consistent IT education by 20 years and even now it’s not clear that innovation in IT is in any way driven by education. Why do we imagine that innovation in science will be? Magic of similarity is the only explanation. A lot of something forces a shape onto things to which we make it connect. Nobody goes on to ask why there are so few professional literary critics and historians compared to scientists even though the educational careers of most people included as much or more exposure to history and literature than science. There is a lot of literature on the benefits of education much of it very compelling but none that I found that would account for some of these paradoxes.

I want to make one thing very clear: I have no intention of proposing any educational reform whatsoever. For instance, I don’t advocate the removal of polymers from secondary science curricula. If I have any claim to make about the state of the educational system at all, it’s that it’s just fine the way it is, including its constant ebb and flow of reform. I’m only interested in exploring the shortcomings of educational theory as a way of thinking about social interactions. This is part of my bigger thought project of looking at the types and uses of knowledge generated by the social sciences and humanities.

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