Why skepticism is important

I was reading Mark Moran’s excellent article about “The Bixby Letter” in the Finding Dulcinea blog. It made me think about the importance of not taking so-called “facts” for granted and the way that education is often seen as a matter of irrefutable fact being spoon fed to children who need to know them.

Now there may be some irrefutable facts such as water being made up of hydrogen and oxygen and the River Nile floating out to the Mediterranean Sea. But as the Bixby letter proves there are a lot of “facts” that need to be looked into.

I loved the way that history was looked at as being analogous to a detective looking for clues and then double checking to make sure of the voracity of the information that they manage to find.

The point is well made that education based on a collection on facts, dates, places and times is purely about training the memory. I have to admit that I always found dates a problem and would spend many many hours trying to commit these “facts” to my rather poor memory.

But there is essentially a bigger question here. What kind of thinking do we require our children to do at school.Is it to learn a body of “information” or do we want to develop a healthy skepticism (as the Bixby blog states).

I feel that the answer from the leading edge companies around the world would be the latter. They want employees who do not accept that there is a definitive answer to all things and that there is a different and possibly better way. They want innovation not stagnation and they know they have to compete in a world where more and more countries (even China!!) are endeavouring to produce the type of student who challenges the status quo (as long as its not political in China).

So why do our schools persevere with a “Mr Gradgrind” attitude to education thus:

Mr. Gradgrind, whose voice is “dictatorial”, opens the novel by stating “Now, what I want is facts” at his school in Coketown. He is a man of “facts and calculations.” He interrogates one of his pupils, Sissy, whose father is involved with the circus, the members of which are “Fancy” in comparison to Gradgrind’s espousal of “Fact.” Since her father rides and tends to horses, Gradgrind offers Sissy the definition of horse. She is rebuffed for not being able to define a horse factually; her classmate Bitzer does, however, provide a more zoological profile description and factual definition. She does not learn easily, and is censured for suggesting that she would carpet a floor with pictures of flowers “So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you? Why would you?” She is taught to disregard Fancy altogether. It is Fancy Vs Fact. (my emphasis…. quote from Wikipedia).

I would contend that schools find facts measurable and many are not comfortable with “fancy” but the skeptical, imaginative person will inherit and thrive in Dan Pink’s “right brain centred” new world  that we have moved into (see his article “Revenge of the Right Brain“).

I think that it will take many years for our schools and more importantly our politicians to catch up with this but I feel they undoubtedly will one day. Well done to Mark Moran for continuing to focus our attention on the skills we will need to have and for his continuing efforts as CEO of “Finding Dulcinea” to provide the sort of search engine (i.e. Sweetsearch and the materials on the main “Finding Dulcinea” site.

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