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Manipulation in Education

There is a fundamental power asymmetry in education. Teachers understand what they are teaching, learners do not. Learners, by definition, cannot have a full appreciation of what they are about to learn, of its value and of how it will change them. If they did, they would not be in the position of learners. The only way you can ignore this is if you are mislead into accepting the banking metaphor of education (education as information transmission, teachers as content providers, students as receptacles to be filled).

One implication of this power asymmetry is that the authority and responsibility of the teacher cannot be abdicated. Students should not be left to ‘decide for themselves’. Sure, students can pursue their own path of inquiry, but teachers should be there to persuade and guide them. For a teacher to pretend that they are letting students ‘make up their own minds’ is simply a denial of their role, an obfuscation. Of course it is important that people can decide for themselves, but students’ autonomy is not icreased by a lack of teacher manipulation of their choices. All our choices are conditioned by our past, our environment and by other people. Free choices are still conditioned choices.

A discussion of this in relation to the morality of manipulation is provided by Buss, S. (2005). Valuing Autonomy and Respecting Persons: Manipulation, Seduction, and the Basis of Moral Constraints. Ethics, 115(2), 195-235. doi: 10.1086/426304. Buss only touches on the topic of education in a footnote (no. 71) but the implications of the general argument for education are clear: we cannot avoid affecting other people, manipulation without informed consent of their free chocies is inevitable, and so we cannot pretend that it is possible for teachers to avoid making choices for their students, or that full informed consent of students in the content of their education is desirable or possible.

2 replies on “Manipulation in Education”

Good point, well made. I coined the phrase ‘teaching like hippies, marking like fascists’ to point out the immediate problems for assessment when students are left to ‘decide for themselves’, But as you point out, the problem is more fundamental than that. One teaches because one is an authority on a particular subject.

On a related note, somewhere in (I believe) Zen Flesh, Zen Bones , it claims that enlightenment is ‘a phenomenon of gold and dung: gold to those who have not yet acquired it, dung to those who have.’ This concept may have wider application – though the converse is also often true.

I think this argument has been going on at least since Plato… so as a customer I might not yet understand quantum mechanics or how you are going to teach it to me, but I do understand that people graduating from your school have useful reviews to give me of their experiences, and I can look up how well they do in life afterwards (using whatever criteria I care about: publications, money, enlightenment, power, tenure, whatever) and use them to rank your school against others. If we do prelim exams each year or have multiple tutors on the same module then I can compare the preformance of a particular teacher within a course against the others to see how well they are doing. So not that different from say buying a car, which I don’t know how the engine works, but I can read Which magazine, talk to other drivers, watch Top Gear or whatever to help me choose which one to pick.

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