What if “epistemology” were written on the whiteboard on the first day of school, and referred to every day after that? What if “To know how you know what you think you know” were universally understood as the point of a curriculum? What if every test required not just knowing, but articulating how you know? What if discussing your epistemology with others were built into the conversation all day long? Is anything more important these days?
THE WEAK HEART OF A BAD EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
Epistemology (how you know what you know) should be at the heart of any curriculum. That it isn’t is the weak heart of a bad educational system—a system that tells you not to be an inquisitive, critical thinker, but to learn what teachers and texts tells you is true. Schools are often environments where questioning truths could put you at risk.
This failure of epistemology is, in turn, at the core of how American government has come to such a sorry pass. Apparently, we are not very good at discerning truth. “Alternative facts,” often seem to have the same standing as actual facts. Politics isn’t based on truth, but rather what you can get people to believe. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” is the deception that all epistemologies are equal valid.
HOW CAN WE TELL IF THE KING IS TELLING THE TRUTH?
Democracy can’t work if the people don’t know when they are being lied to. If “truth, justice and the American way” is what America stands for, then making America greater rests on everyone knowing the meaning of epistemology and committing to the never-ending pursuit of truth.
The American democratic experiment grew out of the enlightenment, that “Age of Reason” when the human race made great leaps forward in how to distinguish truth from falsehood—rapid improvements in our reality-testing mechanism. How do we know the earth revolves around the sun? How can we tell if the king is telling the truth? The process must continue, or we’re doomed.
THE YOUNG HUMAN BRAIN IS THE BRAIN OF A SCIENTIST
Children are more devoted to the truth than adults. The job of disclosing that the Emperor wasn’t “wearing anything at all” fell to a child, because adults tend to be more embroiled in the busy-ness of pursuing agendas and defending actions. Those in power are more interested in accomplishing their goals than telling the truth. But human progress is built on the foundation of a childish commitment to uncovering the truth, and the bedrock of democracy is a people who can see when the Emperor has no clothes.
My children have always been working to improve their epistemology. For instance, when Lizzie was in first grade, she came to me with a stack of invitations to her birthday party and asked, “Dad is this how you spell Liza?” (The envelope on top was addressed to “LISA.”)
“Sure,” I said.
Lizzie gave me suspicious look that said: “Dad, don’t lie to me.”
Cut to the quick by that look, I corrected myself, “No. Liza is spelt LIZA.”
Forty-some years of working with children has taught me that all kids are working on their epistemology all the time. Alison Gopnik and her colleagues at U.C. Berkeley have learned the same thing. They have discovered that the young human brain is the brain of a scientist: collecting data, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses, and revising them based on new data, to construct an accurate causal map of the world.
No class period should go by without someone in the class asking something like:
- It is true?
- How do you know that?
- What’s your evidence?
- Is that a fact or an alternative fact?
- Did you look that up, or just hear it on TV?
And all children should enter second grade able to define epistemology and use it in a sentence.
Besides, what six-year-old wouldn’t love to come home and impress her parents that she knows something they don’t know, like the meaning of “epistemology?”