Everybody is a Socrates now

22nd June 2007 at 01:00

Education "begins with the awaking of the mind to the need for criticism, to the uncertainty of the principles by which it supposed itself to be guided". So wrote John Anderson, the great Australian philosopher. This is what criticism in the original and proper sense meant. From a position in which you have knowledge and understanding of a subject, you question your principles and beliefs.

I'm not sure about arguing for criticism any more. The reason is that everyone seems to be a critic. Criticism used to be something that only a few thoughtful and dangerous people did. Now, everyone has become Socrates.

One popular type of criticism is "constructive criticism", which is not about criticism at all. It "helps us meet our goals" but doesn't reject or undermine them. But real, negative criticism is also increasingly popular. Here are some types of criticism I have spotted in FE, and what's worrying about them.

Criticism as the politicisation of education Many left-wing lecturers and writers on further and adult education use the term to mean introducing social and political criticism into classes. All very right-on, but it puts students off because they see education as involving submission to political propaganda.

Criticism as critical theory Those who use the term most freely often align themselves with "critical theory" and seek an ideal classroom with open communication between students, and between students and lecturers. This is seen as radical and subversive as it attempts to create a "safe space" for discussion. In fact, it is just therapy and wastes everyone's time.

Criticism as political correctness A course textbook argues that we need more critical students because they often have confused and prejudicial ideas. This means getting them to adopt the correct ideas about "multiculturalism" or "diversity" that no one dares question. No debate is allowed, despite growing evidence from left and right about the dangers of the politics of diversity in creating social divisions.

Criticism as cynicism Worst of all is the criticism of standards or ideals. This expresses distrust of any commitment to politics, religion, or high culture. Two Australian academics were recently disciplined for taking to task postmodernism and relativism. "No standards" and "No truth" are the slogans of postmodernism and relativism respectively, and it is ironic that they have become unquestionable. They provide a radical gloss for cynicism - probably the most common meaning of the term "criticism" today. "I am very critical" means "I have no political, ethical, or epistemological values, and distrust those who have them".

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University

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