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Conspiracies against the laity and wishful thinking

Most duties are concerned with or grounded in the significance of actions. By contrast, an epistemic duty is a duty whose grounding object is belief or knowledge rather than action. My concern here is with a certain epistemic duty had by professionals and their professional organizations. Professionals present themselves in public as being in possession of special expertise and as taking on correlate special responsibilities. They require us to grant them special discretion on the promise of holding each other accountable through professional organizations, which organizations in turn present themselves in public as speaking for their profession.
    The epistemic duty that concerns me here is the duty to speak the truth about the success and failure of the deployment of their particular profession’s expertise, and about the success and failure of the professional activities in which they are engaged and for which they are responsible. This a duty which professional organizations are reluctant to fulfil. Bluntly, their message to us is often “ we know a lot so shut up, do what we tell you, trust anybody we approve of  and don’t hassle us about them: we’ll let you know if there’s a problem”. Too cynical for you?

Perhaps so. After all, many professionals have real expertise and deploy it to various good ends.  In this light I think we might examine a couple of items in the news.

 First there is the news that the General Teaching Council convicted Alex Dolan of unacceptable professional conduct (here ) for filming footage that was shown on Channel 4 TV. The footage exposed the extent to which ‘appalling classroom behaviour, including pupils fighting in class, swearing, running on tables and refusing to work’ was occurring in schools, and also exposed schools deceiving OFTSED inspectors by sending bad pupils away during inspection visits. 
    Second, there is the boycott of SATS proposed by NUT and NAHT (here ). Teachers’ unions have never liked SATS. They say it is because testing children to find out whether they have learnt anything has bad educational consequences. It is claimed that SATS result in teaching to the test—but of course, if the test tests what we want children to learn then  teaching to it is fine.  It is claimed that children are scared by exams. Well, although I certainly remember teachers trying to scare my daughter and her fellow pupils about SATS, the truth is, SATS are a test of whether the teachers are teaching, and so it is the teachers who are on the line, not the pupils. And what was revealed when SATS were first introduced was that a great many teachers are doing a very poor job at educating children, and the excuses for failure based in socio-economic differences of pupils were shown to be false.

So here we have two cases in which professional organisations of teachers are resolutely determined to suppress the truth about the failures of their profession. A shameless derogation of their duty, no? How can they possibly get away with it?  Because we are reluctant to hear such bad news. Because it is very important to us that we have our children educated we indulge in wishful thinking and each believe that our own children’s teachers are excellent. Teachers do not wish to disturb us in our belief. Better if we can think that any failure is to be laid at the government’s door.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Michelle Hutchinson

    As you represent it, isn’t aren’t the duties at hand ones regarding actions, rather than epistemic duties? The problem is what the Teaching Council, and the individual teachers are doing – convicting a person, and misleading the public about SATS. They may well be failing in their epistemic duties, say by engaging in self-deception so that they believe that SATS are in fact bad for children. But the impression you seem to be giving is that they know the truth full well, but are failing to act as they should. While taking measures to mislead the public is concerned with belief and knowledge, in that it inspires wrong beliefs and knowledge, it is also concerned with action, in that it is an action. Therefore, it seems to me that the duties these teachers are failing do are not importantly different from other duties – not most usefully classified as epistemic duties.

  2. You are right that I think their contravention of epistemic duty is their attempting to suppress the truth (rather than their being self deceived). Your suggestion seems to be that what I’ve called epistemic duties are not such because their fulfilment involves action, whereas epistemic duties as you conceive them are internal duties to regiment one’s beliefs. I think that is too narrow a conception of epistemic duty and that is why I said that such a duty is one whose grounding object is belief (or knowledge). Also, since thinking is a mental activity actions are involved in your conception of epistemic duty as well.

    What I have in mind is a contrast in duties correlate to the contrast between our concern with action in general and our concern with belief in particular. Some actions do indeed take their significance from our concern with belief, but in general they take their significance from a concern with something else. A traditional way of drawing the contrast I am interested in would be to distinguish duties to truth and duties to the good. I’m not wholly happy with that way of expressing it.

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