A quest for the truth? Whatever!

27th August 2004 at 01:00
A spectre is haunting the education system. It's called veriphobia, or fear of the truth.

What's really worrying is that the best students seem most likely to be affected by this malaise. I became aware of the extent of veriphobia when I was a judge in a schools' debating competition. Some of the brightest sixth-form students in the country seem to be affected by veriphobia, which otherwise seems quite indiscriminate, affecting young people equally, regardless of race, gender and class.

When pushed in an argument, many of the students retreated, without even a defensive gesture, to declarations such as "that's my opinion" or "that's my perspective".

To today's students, truth has become simply a matter of the expression of one of many equally valid viewpoints. Outside of a competition designed to encourage young people to put forward a reasoned defence of the validity of their beliefs, veriphobia dominates the classroom and lecture theatre.

Two immediate expla- nations for the ubiquity of veri- phobia come to mind. Students might think that this approach is inoffensive, and the etiquette of not giving offence is high on the list of today's social and educational priorities. No one seems to want to upset anyone. Or students may feel that they are being open-minded. But veriphobia is exactly the opposite of being open-minded. In the words of Professor Richard Bailey, who popularised the notion of veriphobia in Britain to rail against the influence of relativism and forms of post-modern nonsense in educational thought: "There's a big difference between an open mind and a hole in the head."

What never crosses the mind of students who have contracted veriphobia is that, far from making them appear equitable and open-minded, it exhibits itself as a form of mental disease, of a weak and ridiculously self-contradictory way of thinking.

The philosopher Roger Scruton has described relativism or indifference to truth as "the first refuge of a scoundrel". Once you are afflicted by veriphobia, you don't really have to defend your beliefs. This is also true of lecturers and managers who happily accept lots of perspectives and viewpoints. Think of all those staff development and other consultations that welcome your "views" which are then ignored. Or think how easy it is to simply accept all the different views of your class.

Veriphobia may therefore seem benign in that it removes conflict and produces a safe and almost therapeutic expression of opinions.

But if you are indifferent to truth and the pursuit of knowledge, then you are indifferent to education. If the facile and epistemologically debilitating acceptance that different viewpoints are equally true is now the norm in colleges, then they have abandoned education.

In this situation it will not be surprising to find a lack of morale. For if you are in education and don't believe in the pursuit of truth, then what is the point of studying or teaching? Fortunately, the origin and transmission of veriphobia is straightforward and easy to understand.

Lecturers catch it from teacher trainers who are carriers themselves, having come across assertions in key texts that, without any sense of self contradiction or absurdity, declare knowledge and truth to be "problematic".

Or they may have caught it from the real carriers, the so-called "leading thinkers" in the educational field who are, almost to a person, veriphobes, believing that "there is not one truth, there are many".

As the new term begins it is worth undertaking some self-examination (veriphobic self-examination or VSE) to see if you are suffering from veriphobia and if you have passed it on to your students.

Do you find yourself saying things like "I respect your views" (although you privately think them nonsense).

Do you use teaching methods such as small group work and "brainstorming" that value all expressions of opinion as equally valid, however contradictory?

Do you find it difficult to object to expressions of other people's values or beliefs as factually wrong or immoral in case you give offence? Do you find it amusing and even subversive to criticise all strongly held views?

Do you prefer sitting on the fence and criticising everyone else - colleagues, politicians and college management alike?

You may be developing serious veriphobia!

Do your students get defensive if their assumptions are challenged? Do they get upset when criticised for errors of thinking or logic? Do they find facts and statistics "questionable"? Do they query the need to read more and to read carefully? Do they appreciate and seem amused by your criticism of everyone and everything?

They may be developing into veriphobes!

Veriphobia is a far more serious and widespread problem than obesity or the need to produce active but compliant "citizens". We might expect government intervention, but there will never be a campaign against veriphobia involving the exposure and denunciation of veriphobes, as this would be too close to self-disclosure. To politicians, devoid of values that they can confidently defend, and always on the look out for fashionable ideas, veriphobia is a godsend.

There is, however, hope of a cure. As the Government pours money into projects aimed at bringing citizenship education into FE, there may come a unique opportunity in citizenship classes for lecturers to challenge veriphobia.

Dr Dennis Hayes is the editor of The Routledge Falmer Guide to Key Debates in Education

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