Limitations of Beeby’s Mythology

In document Beeby – the brains behind the blackboard : a philosophical biography (Page 191-195)


7.5 Limitations of Beeby’s Mythology

Beeby’s criteria for educational myths has three significant limitations: its linearity, its unity principle, and its explanatory gap. Firstly, the criteria assumed a form of linear progress, where one myth gradually morphs into another. As Beeby wrote:

There is a continuity in myth, however different they may appear. Seen against the background of a changing society, [William] Renwick’s ‘equality-of-results’ myth is a linear descendant of the ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ myth under which I went to school [1908-1919].757

The linearity assumed here is that Myth A becomes Myth B, which then becomes Myth C. However, Beeby did not show why this linear descent must necessarily be the case. There does not appear to be any concept of cause and effect to explain the development of myths nor what he could mean by a myth dying ‘a sudden death’.

Beeby’s criterion does not accommodate the contemporary educational myth not being a continuation of the previous myth. For example, the emergence of a new myth may just represent the ascendency of one competing educational discourse over another. The Beebian can argue that even in these cases each discourse can still track its mythic heritage back in time, just like a family tree to a common ancestor. Even if so, an educational myth could still break linearity by proceeding from an ‘uncle myth’ to a ‘nephew myth’. Furthermore, the Beebian has not shown that there is a single ancestor. Just as ‘parallel evolution’ can posit multiple human ancestors, ‘parallel mythology’ could explain the presence of multiple educational discourses in New Zealand’s

756 Beeby, letter to Professor Lawrence A. Cremin, 4 December 1991. 757 Beeby, 1992, pp. 302-303.

mythological ancestry. As much as myths might only be linear in geographical or conceptual terms, these do not explain the paradigm shift aspect of the mythology.

Next, Beeby’s criterion also cannot easily accommodate the observation that there may be multiple ongoing and competing educational discourses. An example of this might be that one discourse may be dominated by another during a particular period but retain the ability to resurge at a later date. Thus the appearance of an educational myth being transformed into another myth may actually be a shift in the power struggle between competing discourses, and even that all transformations are just shifts in power between different discourses. Several competing theories might be considered as being under a wider umbrella theory. The problem with doing so is that this undermines the unity principle chronologically if these theories and their descendants are also to be analysed as different paradigms yet all the same unified theory.

Finally, the use of an essentially descriptive, rather than prescriptive, criterion leaves the Beebian vulnerable to insularity. Perversely, by relying on ‘public aspiration’ for the conception and ‘flexible’ language for support, the Myth may end up expressing a broad range of sentiments without any specific detail. By permitting a wide range of interpretations of the myth, the threshold for finding supporting evidence is lowered and the myth may become unable to explain the mechanism behind myths changing. Furthermore, the easier is it to find reinforcing evidence that the myth is effective, the easier it is to keep justifying the myth. For example, if many people have the aspiration of X then X can become the educational myth, leading to people believing that X is the case. So while the aspirational myth may provide a descriptive criterion for practical guidance, it may also prevent progress towards that goal due to a lack of specific prescriptive stages.

Beeby’s criterion also permits the possibility than a definition of a myth can be so broad that it becomes essentially meaningless. However, it appears that Beeby’s approach of using specific generalisation was part of a deliberate calculation. In 1984, to the new Minister of Education, Beeby wrote:

I have followed for nearly 40 years a remark, at a Unesco Conference, of that wise old Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain. … After half-an-hour of bedlam, Maritain rose and said, ‘In a long lifetime I have found that men and women of good will can often agree on a line of action, but rarely on their reasons for it. I suggest Mr. Chairman, that you put the original motion’. It was done, and 30 seconds later the meeting ended amicably. … For me, it was a revelation, and so I am all for your idea of concentrating on priorities, which constitutes a programme of action. You will, of course, need what you call a ‘philosophical statement’, but I think it should be brief, general enough to be

interpreted in rather different ways by different groups, but tight enough to exclude lines of action that would deviate too far from the [Labour] Party’s central faiths.758

Given that ‘for nearly 40 years’ covers much of his Directorship, Beeby succinctly describes both the strength and weakness of his mythology. If the definition enables different political parties with contradictory policies to both claim that they are acting in line with the myth then the myth may become a purely descriptive tool. An example of this would be if one political party increased the amount of competition in public schools in order to increase educational equality, and then the following political party decreased the amount of competition in public schools also to increase educational equality.

A Beebian could claim that the apparent contradiction above would be impossible as one action would ‘deviate too far’. However, this objection seems to require the assumption of some kind of impartial spectator or ideal observer—a neutral,

universal judge who could determine whether a policy meets a given criteria.759 It is not clear what the descriptive limits of an actual observer would be because, like general Utilitarian theory, it is using a subjective assessment method against an objective statement of value. Thus, the outcome of excessive broadness is that it enables supporters of the myth to claim that the myth is supported by both parties in a more meaningful way than initially outlined above.

Furthermore, Beeby appears to disregard the power that myths can have in framing educational debate. More than just aspirational statements for the future, once a myth is integrated into the wider social conscience they can then, in turn, become an assumption in future discussion. Ian Middleton gives an example of such a modern myth. He argues that the ability for private schools to select academically able students combined with the earlier myth that academic results represent school quality had led to the myth that ‘private schools … give superior education’.760 He wrote:

[T]hese schools are creaming off some of the highest performing pupils from state schools and … they are consequently depressing the performance of the state schools that these pupils may have otherwise attended. … [But] there is little

758 Beeby, letter to Mr. Russell Marshall, 4 April 1984.

759 Adam Smith and David Hume espoused early versions of these theories and both influenced the early

British Utilitarian thought. See Noonan, 1999.

760 Middleton, Iain (2008) Secular Education in New Zealand. Humanist Society of New Zealand.

evidence of performance differences between state and private schools … [and] the argument that state funding of private schools and state integrated schools is justified because they give superior education must fail.761

In Beeby’s case, the myth that the New Zealand education system is based on equality of opportunity just became a baseline assumption.

One of the critics of aligning educational goals to an abstract objective concept is Beeby—although only in hindsight. By 1973 Beeby was more critical about the use of abstract, subjective language to objectively guide education. He wrote:

One trouble is that the issues become blurred by the use of semi-magical words and phrase that give an illusory sense of certainty. We are told, for example, that education, like other publicly provided services, must be ‘accountable’. … The fashionable dictum that ‘education should be relevant’ is equally unhelpful. Relevant to what? As used by the politicians and planners in developing countries, the underlying assumption is usually that it should be relevant to economic development, and I suspect that it has something the same flavour for many planners in rich countries. … [A]n education admirably relevant to economic growth may, in some respects, run counter to … national unity, equality of opportunity, and the maintenance of the country’s social and cultural heritage.762

In 1992 Beeby had somewhat formulated a counter argument to the charge of linguistic looseness in his mythological definitions. He wrote:

The myth of equality of opportunity has been criticised in the grounds that, in the 1940s and’50s, it was too loose to give principals and teachers the guidance they needed, and allowed some schools to adopt practices that did nothing to further the cause of equality or even ran counter to it. … [However, t]he myth of equality of opportunity, as we began to understand it better, provided the criterion for judging our success or failure.763

Beeby’s counter argument attempts to shift the focus of the myth from guide to evaluator – from foresight to hindsight. The problem is that while this solves the problem of having a vague criteria to follow, it replaced it have having a vague criteria with which to judge the implementation of policy. Just as any left or right wing government could say that their policy will improve equality, under the new conception they can just as easily say they have improved equality. The other objections still apply, Beeby’s argument has merely shifted the problem from the past to the future; further, a lack of knowledge about who will be doing the judging actually could even make the myth even less of a reliable criteria.

761 Middleton, Iain (2008) Secular Education in New Zealand. Humanist Society of New Zealand. (accessed 13/5/2015).

762 Beeby, 1974, p. 12 763 Beeby, 1992, p. 303.

Nevertheless, keeping with Beebian tradition some modern educationalists have continued to offer new education myths. For instance, in 2004 John Clark proposed a new myth based on fairness and freedom. He wrote:

It is the right of every citizen to become an educated person and to fully participate in and contribute to a free, fair, and democratic society; it is the duty of the state to be organised so as to freely provide the resources and direct their use to equitably meet the social needs and economic interests of all its citizens.764

In document Beeby – the brains behind the blackboard : a philosophical biography (Page 191-195)