Monday, March 30, 2015

Common core and common rancor

My most recent thing in Bloomberg touches on the Common Core standards for learning. It's amazing how some things that ought to be pretty good for everyone can be controversial, but...

Learning how to distinguish between fact and opinion would seem to be a pretty fundamental piece of any education. In the bizarre world of U.S. public schools, though, it's proving to be controversial.
For several years, schools across the U.S. -- with significant help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- have been putting in place something called the Common Core, a set of standards on what students from kindergarten through 12th grade should learn on topics including English, mathematics, science and history. Along the way, they’ve faced ample criticism, some of it reasonable. Teachers, in particular, think they haven't had adequate preparation.

Common Core

One strain of criticism in particular, though, sounds more like an assault on learning itself. Consider the argument of philosopher Justin McBrayer, of Fort Lewis College in Colorado: ...
Read more here.


One thing that deserves a comment is the criticism, voiced by one philosopher in the comments, that teaching kids to know the difference between fact and opinion is somehow confusing them into thinking that opinions, if they're not the same as facts, must be false:

The reason that someone might criticize the teaching of a fact/opinion distinction is quite obvious: such a distinction is specious.

I am constantly criticizing this distinction when my students try to make it in my philosophy classes.
The main problem with the distinction is that it makes it seem like all opinions are subjective or not well-supported.

But it is my opinion that the earth revolves around the sun. That is my opinion. I really do believe that. It also turns out that such an opinion is true and well-supported. It is a fact that the earth orbits the sun. Thus, the fact/opinion distinction is specious. It doesn't tell us anything important about either the facts or the opinions involved. Some opinions are about factual matters.

Philosophers don't talk about a supposed fact vs. opinion distinction because it is not a valid distinction.

I find this rather strange. The distinction between fact and opinion is specious? As in meaningless? Saying that two words are not identical does not imply that they therefore refer to opposing, disjoint sets. We may talk about some mathematical equations as being beautiful, and others as being true, and agree that truth and beauty are not the same thing, but this wouldn't make anyone think that the beautiful equations must be false, or that the true equations must be not beautiful. We simply have two categories with partial overlap.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I equally do not think that teaching kids to distinguish the notion of "fact" from the notion of "opinion" will make them think that there's no overlap between the categories, with some opinions being facts, and others not. Come on. Kids aren't that silly.