“Fear of truth” clarified

In an earlier blog I argued that the vice opposite courage is “fear of truth” because, by virtue of being true, truths should be accepted, not feared. Addicts, for example, “fear truth.” Psychologists say they can’t overcome addiction until they confront the truth that they are addicted — the truth they fear the most.

The point of this blog is that fear of truth is not a moral failing, but a barrier to courageous action. Here are three truths, followed by the courage we don’t see because the truth is feared. The first is from politics, the other two are from education:

Truth #1 – Since the late 19th century, when industrialism and materialism began to drive American life, our democratic process and politicians have been purchased by the highest bidders.

Courage we don’t see — Fear of this truth prevents candidates from saying: “If elected, I will do everything I can to please my campaign contributors because, they won’t fund my next campaign, if I don’t make them happy.” We all know this is true. It is what all politicians do. But they never say this, and citizens don’t demand that they say it because this truth frightens all of us. It means we live in a corrupt republic, instead of the greatest country in the world. It takes courage to accept this and say it.

Truth #2 – College student evaluations from one class cannot be compared to those from another class. If Professor X averaged 3.2 on his student evaluations, and Professor Y averaged 3.6, we cannot conclude anything about their relative teaching goodness. All we can say is, “Professor X averaged 3.2. Professor Y averaged 3.6.” One thing we know for sure is that concluding Professor Y is a better teacher than Professor X is a misuse of these data, which, ironically, is usually our conclusion.

Courage we don’t see – Few (if any) university faculty and administrators, and state legislators argue that comparing faculty averages for classes in which no controls have been applied is misusing data. Fear of this truth means supposedly smart people misuse data to draw unwarranted conclusions all the time. It’s simple. Student Likert responses and the averages they render are just as likely to be distortions of relative teaching skill as reflections of it. But it takes courage to explain this to university faculty and administrators, and state legislators, who are believers in the ridiculous — that objective is better than subjective, and that numbers (almost any numbers) make judgments objective.

Truth #3 – Teaching is an art. This truth terrifies those who believe that anybody with desire and schooling can become a good teacher.  If teaching is an art, however, only people with special talents become good teachers, just as only people with special talents become good musicians, artists, singers, playwrights, etc.  In the case of teachers, only those who are highly educated, themselves, are good teachers because young people learn how to be educated by watching adults, more than by doing school activities.

Courage we don’t see – Fear of this truth prevents us from improving K-12 schools by:

  1. Seeing that teaching is about appreciation and being appreciated, not about “effectiveness.” Measure an art (including teaching) completely misses the point of the art.
  2. Moving university teacher education programs into departments of fine and performing arts.

Instead, we are trying to measure “effective” teaching, and use the social science improvement paradigm to improve what is not an applied social science. It takes courage to argue that aesthetics, not social science, is the path to improving education. It is our ahistorical and aphilosophical Americanism that prevents these discussions. Education has always been a philosophical discussion, alongside topics like “the good life,” virtue, and aesthetics.

We all admire courage. It starts with overcoming our “fear of truth.”

Comment with your own truths and fears.


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