Genealogy of the Criteria of an effective Educational Myth

In document Beeby – the brains behind the blackboard : a philosophical biography (Page 187-191)

SECTION III: BEEBY’S LEGACY

7.4 Genealogy of the Criteria of an effective Educational Myth

The gradual process of refining his concept of educational myths gave Beeby the opportunity to reflect on concerns he’d held since training to be a teacher. Shortly after writing the above 1981 letter to Kaye, Beeby sought out advice regarding his new idea from an academic friend, a professor at a Teachers College in New York, writing:

The problem on which I am now begging your advice is rather different. In reading Bill’s account of the period (1934-60) during which I was close to the forming of educational policy in New Zealand, I found myself in general agreement with most of what he said. My main difficulty was in explaining certain blind spots that I had in the years that I controlled – or imagined I controlled – that policy. How could I have failed to see what is now so obvious? …

I have no desire to defend what I thought or did forty years ago, but I had to understand it. So I took refuge in a device that I called an ‘educational myth’, (pp. 5-7), which dominated the thinking of a whole generation. As the idea developed, it gave me a new slant on another problem I had felt uncomfortable about ever since my student days (1921-1922) at a teachers college. I have always been uncomfortable about pontifical statements on the ‘aims of education’, which generally read to me like highflown grocery lists that can be totted up to an unconvincing total. But seen as myths, they begin to make more sense to me, and become essential to the politician’s and the administrators planning, if not to the theorist’s thinking. On pp. 38-40, I suggest that myths play, in the study of education and its objective, the part that Kuhn’s paradigms do for the physical sciences. Complete nonsense? …

The two questions on which I should value your opinion are:

1. Is there anything really new in my thesis of the place of myths in educational thinking or planning or am I merely expressing a relatively commonplace idea in different words? Is the idea worth pursuing further, or am I chasing an already caged bird?

2. Even if the idea is relevant to N.Z., and even to some developing countries I know, (also with centralised school systems) which have taken the wrong turning by importing foreign myths, has it any significance at all for countries like the U.S where the control of education is decentralised? …

It is scandalous that a newly elected Foreign Associate of the N.A.Ed.748 (and

Emeritus at that) should have to ask such questions, to which, as an accredited scholar, he should know the answers. But, as I explained in my latter of 31 May, I am a bogus scholar in the library sense, and I now have so little time for writing that I can’t afford to waste it on a completely mythological myth. … If you can exorcise my Myth, you will free me to get on with writing on subjects I know something about.)749

Beeby did in fact go on to use the idea of myths in many future publications. However, the above letter reveals the lack of theoretical background that Beeby possessed when he began to consider his theory, in that he discounts himself as an historian, a ‘scholar in the library sense’ and an educational philosopher. Beeby never does describe himself as a historian or a philosopher, specifically saying so several times, which is why his idea about educational myths is not a topic that he knew ‘something about’.

The Myth’s Evolution

While writing an introduction for Renwick, Beeby took the opportunity to explain the necessary conditions for the successful establishment of educational myths. His 1986 criterion is both based on the ideas derived from seminar he gave in 1982, at the University of Papua New Guinea, and is the base for a reiteration of his idea in his own 1992 book. The gradual changes in his criteria provide some insight into the development of his theory. His 1982 seminar included notes for the audience, which state:

Characteristics of a Myth

To be both acceptable and effective, a myth on the aims of education must meet certain conditions:

a) It must be in general accord with some strong – though not necessarily clearly defined – public aspiration.

b) It must be expressed in language flexible enough to permit a reasonably wide range of interpretation, and yet specific enough to provide practical guidance to administrators, planners and teachers.

c) It must leave some place for the irrational in human nature.

d) It must be unattainable, at least for a generation, if it is to sustain 25 years of change without being constantly and confusingly modified.

e) It must be unattainable in another and more subtle sense – by the time it is close enough to be seen clearly, its weaknesses will have become apparent, and a rival myth will be edging its way into the centre of vision.

748 The National Academy of Education (located in the United States). 749 Beeby, letter to Lawrence A. Cremin, 4 December 1981.

f) The final paradox is that the key people working under the myth must believe in it so completely that they will fight for it in its youth – and perhaps in theirs – must hold to it, though more critically in its middle age, and yet eventually be prepared to see another myth set up in its place when it has served its purpose. A myth may remain dominant for a quarter of a century or more, and, unless there is some political upheaval that goes beyond the routine of changing of democratic government, it rarely dies a sudden death. Even when the two are in partial conflict, the old myth, like many ancient faiths, is quietly absorbed into the new with a fresh interpretation of terms.750

In 1986, Beeby refined his criteria:

To be both acceptable and effective, a myth has to meet certain conditions: it must be in general accord with some strong—though not always clearly defined—public aspiration; it must be expressed in language flexible enough to permit a reasonably wide range of interpretations, and yet specific enough to provide practical guidance to administrators, planners and teachers; and it must be unattainable, at least for that generation, if it is to sustain twenty-five years of change without being constantly and confusingly modified. With the wisdom of hindsight, we now know it is unattainable in a more subtle sense, that, by the time it is close enough to be seen clearly, its weaknesses will have become apparent, and a rival myth will be edging its way into the centre of vision. The final paradox is that the key people working under the myth must believe in it so completely that they will fight for it in its youth (and perhaps in their youth); must hold to it, though more critically in its middle age, and yet eventually be prepared to see another myth set up in its place when it has served its purpose. A myth may remain dominant for a quarter of a century or more, and, unless there is some political upheaval that goes beyond the routine of changing of democratic government, it rarely dies a sudden death. Even when the two are in partial conflict, the old myth, like many ancient faiths, is quietly absorbed into the new with a fresh interpretation of terms.751

Although a significant majority of the two versions is identical, the 1986 version makes some significant changes. Firstly, the 1982 version refers to myths on the aims of education, while the 1986 version only refers to myths. This change shows a shift from a narrow application of his idea from just the aims of education to a more general application to education.

The 1986 version also completely drops the ‘human nature’ clause which stated ‘It must leave some place for the irrational in human nature’. Beeby may have dropped this clause simply because he did not want to, or was not willing to, incorporate a specific theory of human nature. However, he may have come to believe that myths should not have to accommodate rationality. This second interpretation is supported by his 1938 argument that:

The ultimate aims in education are not given by reason, but by a feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. Sooner or later in life, one must say, for no very obvious reason, “I believe in X,” and never challenge it again. But when it comes to deciding on the means towards X, give me a reason. I suspect individuals who go on having

750 Beeby, Myths on the Aims of Education, 1982, p. 1. 751 Beeby, forward to Renwick, Moving Targets, pp. xiv-xvi.

feelings in the pits of their stomach, sort of ad hoc intestinal inspirations that tell them what to do in every situation. Thatways [sic] lies all the sloppy, modern, sentimental religious faiths—and that way too, Hitler.752

Finally, his 1986 version modifies the ‘unattainability clause’ from ‘a generation’ to ‘that generation’. While this may just be a minor syntactical change, it may also show Beeby intentionally changing the implicit ownership of each myth. While the 1982 version is merely indicating the passage of time, the 1986 version ascribes the myth to the generation that created it, a point then reinforced in the final ‘paradox’ clause.

Beeby also addressed the necessary conditions for educational myths again in his 1992 Biography. There were two pertinent changes. The unattainability clause changes from:

and it must be unattainable, at least for that generation, if it is to sustain twenty-five years of change without being constantly and confusingly modified.753

to:

and it must be unattainable in the near future if it is to sustain many years of consistent change without being constantly and confusingly modified.754

This change adds more vagueness to his set of criteria by removing any specific chronological references. By doing so, Beeby abandoned any limitation on his passage- of-time criteria so that the limitation on unattainability could be much shorter or longer in length.

The 1992 version also removes the ‘dominancy clause’ which had read:

A myth may remain dominant for a quarter of a century or more, and, unless there is some political upheaval that goes beyond the routine of changing of democratic government, it rarely dies a sudden death.755

The removal is consistent with removing the above clause as twenty-five years is a quarter of a century. However, if that was the only motivation then only the first clause in the paragraph needed to be removed (or replaced). The removal of the rest of the sentence removes from his criteria the possibility of rapid change, which could contradict his idea of gradual change in accordance with the ‘public aspiration’.

All three versions of Myth criteria maintain a similar sense of vague progress. According to Beeby, each myth is founded in the desires of the general public but as that society’s education system gets close to achieving that myth they find its weakness,

752 Beeby, letter to John A Lee, 16 July 1938. 753 Beeby, in Renwick, Moving Targets, p. XV 754 Beeby, 1992, p. 302

presenting an opportunity for a new myth to arise, which absorbs the old myth and starts the process anew.

Beeby’s explanation of how the dominant educational myth change is curiously reminiscent of the explanations for changes in scientific theory by both Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Beeby’s himself notes:

How could I have failed to see what is now so obvious? (I realize this is no new problem to the historian, but it’s novel to the poor devil of an administrator who looks back over his shoulder at his own thinking … half a lifetime earlier.) … I took refuge in a device I called an ‘educational myth’. … I suggest that myths play, in the study of education and its objectives, the part that Kuhn’s paradigms do for the physical sciences. … I am a bogus scholar in the library sense.756

Given that Beeby’s theory of myths seems to adapt and incorporate Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, Beeby may not be as of a bogus scholar as be professed.

In document Beeby – the brains behind the blackboard : a philosophical biography (Page 187-191)