I encountered a really thought-provoking Tumblr post today. The writer shared an interesting quote they’d heard from a professor:
“Education is the process of diminishing deception.”
It’s true that deceptive simplifications predominate in the early stages of learning a subject. When we teach kids about how the sense of taste works, we give them a strange chart where only certain parts of the tongue hold certain types of taste buds — hence there is a “bitter” part of the tongue, a “salty” one, etc. Kids immediately test this model out, using their own tongues, and find it wanting. It is not a compelling or useful simplification. Yet teachers have taught taste that way for decades.
That’s a really simple example, but there are instances in every field: Intro Biology Students are taught there are only two sexes, despite the preponderance of animal species that do not follow a binary sex system, the panoply of nonbinary and trans identities that exist in human society, and the existence of intersex people. Psychology majors are taught in 101 classes about a litany of disorders, but the process of defining what is “disordered” and how to diagnose it is not openly grappled with until a student’s final undergrad years, if at all. The shifting standards of diagnostic categories and differing international standards are probably not mentioned at all, until graduate school.
Of course, many of the deceptions we are taught at the rudimentary levels of a subject are probably unnecessary. Kids don’t have to be told that different flavor-perceiving taste buds sit on different places of the tongue. Intro Psych students could be taught about the fraught history and slippery taxonomy of mental disorders, rather than being given a list of discrete-seeming conditions. Into Biology students could be told about intersex & trans identities and exceptions to the gender/sex binary in the animal kingdom.
As instructors, teachers, mentors, or hell, even parents, we often choose to oversimplify to the point of deception. We do this in part because it is easy and elegant to teach rules; it is harder to teach a discipline’s logic and philosophy and flaws. That does not mean we should not do it.
So perhaps we could rephrase the original quote, to cast it in a more hopeful and normative light. Instead of “education is the process of diminishing deception”, how about “education is the process of establishing trust”?
Right now, under the “diminishing deception” model, education is often a dispiriting and jading experience. We learn flaws, lies, exceptions, and errors far too late in the practice of a subject. If we followed the “establishing trust” model, and were forthright about all these drawbacks right out the gate, the process of learning would be one of slowly seeing the vitality and essentiality of a field as we became more embroiled in it.