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Truth and Power in Education

Bharath Vallabha


The initiation rituals in early human communities suggest the following things:

 a)  Growth involves a rupture (children being separated from their parents for days), old patterns being discontinued.

 b)   Growth requires the enforcement of a new narrative which will reinforce forgoing the old habits and strengthen the new habits.

 c)   (a) and (b) require a shared communal sense that the rupture and the enforcement are actually good for the kids.

 d)   (c) makes the people teaching the kids not feel bad about enforcing their views on the kids because they know that they are not enforcing their personal views but the values of the general community.


 The basic fact of contemporary society is that the community has grown so inclusive that there are no deep shared stories. It is hard to point to any ideas which are shared across the board by the parents of the children who go to school and college. (Also related is the society’s focus on each person thinking for themselves.)

 This diversity in the community has the following effect on education:

 1) Rupture and enforcement now seem like abuse and indoctrination. If the values of the students’ homes are in conflict with those at the school, the student and her family will experience the school as exerting raw power over the students rather than creating rupture and enforcement which is actually good for the students. (It is as if in the early human communities, the family of a child being taken by the community resisted; then the child will not go with the flow of the educational experience.)

 2) Because of (1), the teachers take one of two paths. They either continue to affirm the traditional categories with the sense that this is what the students ought to be learning and if the parents don’t see this, they ought to learn it also (this is the one story model); or they forgo affirming any categories with the sense that they will not enforce any values upon the kids so that none of the unconscious drives of the kids will be hindered by the authority of the traditional story (this is the infinite stories model). The problem with the former is that it stifles the kids through being unresponsive to their education from home and the values in their community. And the problem with the latter is that it stifles the kids through being unresponsive to their current need for rupture and enforcement.

 3) Because of (2), education ends up being an amazing experience only to the students for whom the home structure and the school structure don’t radically conflict. For the greater part, students see the conflict between the home and the school, and attuned to that conflict, they do not do their best. They either side mainly with the family, side mainly with the structures at school, or (and this is the most common) they lose trust and confidence in both the family and the school structures. Especially this last leads to the students not being initiated into any mode of being for their lives, and so they experience the education as unhelpful.


 What can be done in education to counteract these forces?

 The main thing has to be to create for the students two things:

 i) continuity with their past so that they do not feel a deep discord between their educational context and their family context.

 ii) rupture from their past so that they can tap into the excitement and the anxiety of the learning process

 So there has to be continuity and rupture. How can that be achieved?

 I think the crux of it has to do with the attitude the teacher brings to the classroom.

 The teacher has to recognize the situation the students are in and act like the bridge between the students’ home life and the school life. This doesn’t mean that the teacher has to learn about a student’s home life or be the counselor of the student. What it means is that the teacher has to be a stand-in for the continuity and rupture which the student is experiencing. In other words, the teacher has to convey (in gesture and perhaps not in words) that the school is a continuation of the students’ background even while it is a rupture from it.

 The way the teacher can do this is to embody the value that there is a deep unity between all people, even those who differ greatly from each other in values, life styles and culture. Thus the teacher has to be a living expression of the truth of diversity in unity and unity in diversity. If the teacher doesn’t stand for something, if the teacher doesn’t say there are some things which are good and some bad, then the students will not have the rupture which is essential for growth. And if the teacher stands for some things without worrying about the student’s background, then the student will not have the continuity essential for growth.

 In other words, the teacher has to be an embodiment of Truth, Value, Meaning. They cannot as teachers be the embodiment of particular truths, values and meaning which happen to be their pet views and their axes to grind.

 Here the distinction between truth, Truth and TRUTH is crucial. Let us define these terms as follows. TRUTH (with all capitals) is a belief which corresponds to how the world in fact is objectively. Truth (with a capital T) is a belief which everyone in a conversation accepts as the TRUTH. In contrast, truth (with a small T) is a belief which a particular person thinks is the TRUTH. If I think religion is bunk, then that is what I believe is the truth. But what I believe is not the Truth because it is not shared by everyone in the classroom conversation. There might be a TRUTH about whether religion is bunk, but that is different both from truth and Truth.

 The teacher is not mainly in the business of TRUTH or truth. To think that the teacher is in the business of TRUTH is to think that she knows what the facts are and is simply passing them on to the next generation. This might be the case with teaching the alphabets or doing addition (though I doubt this is the case even here). But it is certainly not the case with the kinds of issues that a teacher starts to deal with as students grow older. A teacher who sees herself as simply passing on the TRUTH is ultimately not conversing with the students but is only using her power to fills the students’ heads with what she thinks is the case. That teacher is abusing her power. Here rupture is abuse, enforcement is indoctrination.

 It is the same with a teacher who thinks she is in the business of truth, of telling the students what she thinks is the case while acknowledging that others might believe other things. For a teacher who says “this is just what I believe, there are other ways to think” and makes that the basis of the classroom is naïve to think that her power as a teacher can be set aside so easily. What the teacher believes to be the truth comes across to the students as the TRUTH no matter how independent and self-reflective the student is. An independent student has to exert extra energy to not see what that teacher is saying as the TRUTH because the teacher herself is taking the easy way. To say “this is what I believe is the truth” is for the teacher to assume, rather than to create through hard and fun work, a space of equality with the students.

 A teacher who, seeing the problems with the above two approaches, gives up on Truth altogether is no better. For such a teacher might forsake talk of truth in any form, but this is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Now all there are stories upon stories in the classroom and the teacher sees it as her business to help them flourish. This is better in some ways than the previous two approaches, but ultimately it doesn’t help the student. For it doesn’t give the students the necessary rupture needed for real soul searching and growth. Like with approaches which favor TRUTH or truth, it works only for those students who happen to be in the same psychological space as the teacher, and the rest are left with the sense that what they wanted in education will go unfulfilled. Having let go of any version of truth, this teacher leaves the growth of the student pretty much completely in the student’s hands as the student happens to feel about it at the moment. But at the time of being a student a person is in a volatile, transformative stage, and to leave their education in their hands only is to leave it pretty much to the wind.

 One can gloss this as a spirit of Zen in education, but I think this might be misleading. For whatever a Zen attitude is meant to cultivate, it is something that a person has to adopt for themselves when they recognize that education in the formal, communal sense has reached its limits with respect to them and that the person is from then on going to let their inner being and soul be the true guide and teacher for their education. Thus to adopt a Zen attitude is to let oneself be one’s teacher and topic of inquiry. This is a wonderful ideal and it is up to each person to determine at what point in their lives they will take up this charge. And it seems to me a pity if a person doesn’t ever take up this charge, and that in fact the sooner a person takes it up the better. But, and this is the point relevant for now, this is not a charge that can be left to the student by the teacher in a formal educational setting. One is in school as a student precisely to gain from others’ knowledge and perspectives which can help shape one’s self which in due course of time can be the focus of one’s own unending, personal education. So an educational context which gives up on truth altogether might help some students but will be an obstacle for the growth of most students.

 If a teacher’s job isn’t mainly concerned with TRUTH or truth or leaving any sense of truth behind, then what is the teacher’s job mostly concerned with?

 Truth, I would suggest. Truth (in the sense defined above) is by its nature not something which can be easily possessed by people. Given the diversity of cultures and the startling complexity implicit in each individual, having beliefs on important topics which can be endorsed by everyone in a conversation can seem next to impossible. Imagine a group of twenty students talking about healthcare policy, given each student’s upbringing, personal reflections, future job aspirations, level of interest in the topic, sense of being tired from doing other things in her life – take all that individuality and put twenty such people together and ask them to see if they can come to occupy a shared space of agreement on one or two aspects of healthcare policy. This is a gigantic task of juggling complexity for the students and the teacher.

 The three proposals we consider above effectively refuse to take on the challenge of this complexity; they think implicitly that it cannot be done. They think that the individuality and complexity of each student can’t be combined with some meaningful core ideas they can all agree on. A teacher who thinks this is not possible will fall back on TRUTH or truth or forgoing truth to guide the classroom.

 When I think of a great teacher or the archetype of a teacher, I think of one who accepts that this complexity can be handled, that the unity in the diversity can be found without sacrificing the diversity. I think of a teacher who doesn’t proclaim to already know how that unity can be found; who doesn’t proclaim that some perspectives should be abolished if such unity is to be found; who doesn’t proclaim that finding such unity which can bind the people in the conversation together is a hopeless dream; who doesn’t let one’s own fears or anxiety or previous failed attempts overcome the desire to find such unity; who doesn’t use the least that others expect of them or doing simply what is written in the job contract as an excuse for not standing for such unity. To echo Kierkegaard, the great teacher stands for the seeming absurd, for what on the surface seems impossible. But she stands for it because when she sees each student she tries to see the universal in that student through all the particular details of the student. She sees all the students in her class in terms of both the deep particulars which make them the particular individuals that they are and the universal elements which make them people as such and which unites them with all people throughout history. And the job the teacher takes on is to use the classroom as a space in which she and the students can ideally bring to the communal consciousness of the classroom this synthesis of the particular and the universal, which is normally beyond both the students and the teacher and which will make them all better as people.

 When the teacher embraces Truth in this sense and makes it the central focus in the classroom, then continuity and rupture become possible for each student. Continuity is possible because they know that their background no matter how idiosyncratic or underrepresented in the general community is respected in the classroom and is taken seriously by the teacher and the general spirit of inquiry in the class. Rupture is possible because in our current society we don’t actively try to find commonalities among diverse people. The very spirit of Truth and the focus on it in the classroom marks a rupture for the students, and makes it clear that their normal ways of relating to people different from themselves will not be tolerated or cherished in the classroom. The focus on Truth makes the classroom itself a space of rupture from the hub and flow of familiar activity which characterizes everyday world normally. The student initially experiences this rupture as the search for something amazing, far off and seemingly impossibly difficult, and is thus both unnerved and excited and focused. In such a classroom focused on the Truth, which we need to live harmoniously together but which seems impossible for us mere mortals to achieve, each student embarks on, in Joseph Campbell’s words, their hero’s journey. The classroom thus becomes one of their starting points for their life long journey to do their part to create a community which they can be amazed and humbled to be a part of. This vision of a classroom, which I take to be that of a liberal arts education, is impossible without the focus on finding the Truth which unites people in their diversity.

 Why is it so hard to hold on to Truth in this sense? It is because historically we are apt to conflate Truth with both TRUTH and truth.

 In early human communities, there was no distinction drawn between Truth and truth. That is, in ancient times what an individual believed was not in effect different from what the community as a whole believed. This was the function afforded by myths. In ancient Indian villages, for instance, a person who believed that Krishna is God incarnate didn’t believe this as opposed to what the person next to them believed. Her believing it and her village believing it were effectively the same. This is because the continuity of the group required that those who started to think differently from the group on fundamental issues were either banished, killed or punished in order to think the same. It is hard to judge that this is a horrible society when one sees that the alternate seemed to be the destruction of the village.

 It is only where there was no fear of the destruction of the community that a society could afford to mark the distinction between Truth and truth. But once there is a distinction between what a person believes and what a community believes, it is also natural to think of the distinction between what one believes and how the world really is. Thus the distinction between Truth and TRUTH arose as the distinction between Truth and truth came about.

 But still society normally conflated Truth with TRUTH because it was assumed that what everyone agreed on must in fact be how the world is. But this assumption was challenged from two quarters: religion and science. Even before science or the advent of rationalistic philosophy, what we now think of as religion (Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.) made a sharp break from earlier mythologies. These religions said that even though every one agrees that killing for revenge is ok or doing things from pride and power is ok and in fact to be valued, they are in fact not ok. These religions basically introduced the idea that communal agreement is not a guide to how the world in fact is; that everyone in a community can basically be wrong, for everyone can accept living a life based on bodily urges but still, that is not the right way to live. When science and rational philosophy came on the scene, they thus simply applied religion’s tactic to religion itself: they said that even though everyone might accept religion, that doesn’t make it right. In fact, this is why in both religion and science there is the myth of the lone genius, the one who sees how the world is even though the society as a whole is deluded.

 For present purposes, the main point is that these kinds of historical developments have left fossils of arguments and disagreements in our culture which are felt to this day. Once TRUTH was distinguished from Truth and truth, people who sought power sought to align their views with TRUTH. And disagreements which before were decided by who could kill whom started to be decided by who could bludgeon the other’s version of the TRUTH. Whether it is disagreement between religions, or between religion and science, or just simply disagreements between people, the presumption that one knows the TRUTH has come to be the way in which one expresses one’s frustrations and allegiance to the TRUTH the excuse one has to vent negative emotions towards others. This is no less true of current disagreements about whether there is such a thing as TRUTH.

 Even with this din of constant physical and intellectual fighting and mock revolutions, I think good people throughout history have lived by a few simple ideas:

 1) TRUTH is a mystery which only the arrogant presume to grasp.

 2) TRUTH is the essence of life, but as it is a mystery, our very life is also a mystery.

 3) The best way to get to the TRUTH is through Truth; that is, through what every person in the community can accept. Religious ideals of conscience and compassion, and the scientific ideas of the rational method are just different versions of this idea.

 4) The best way to get to Truth is to think about truth; that is, to think hard about what one believes. Truth can’t be gotten through mere communal agreement but has to cultivated and fostered through each person’s thinking about what they think is true. Community harmony is built through each individual’s personal reflection.

 5) A constant danger a person faces is of thinking that their truth is the TRUTH and so should be the Truth. This is the essence of vanity and source of wanting to impose one’s will on others for their own benefit. The good person is sensitive to this vain-glory within themselves, and tries to live life without succumbing to it.

 So the thing that each person is closest to is what they think is true. The next thing which they require tremendous effort to discover is Truth, what other people different from them can also accept. And then together a community can perhaps progress from Truth to TRUTH.

 Normally the classroom, however, is treated as if it functions in the opposite way. The students can just be given TRUTHs (nuggets of how the world is) and told Truths (what everyone believes) and then from these info, the students have to figure out what they think. No wonder then that most students don’t thrive in this setting, for most of them are overwhelmed by the weight of the TRUTHs and Truths which they have to learn to get to actually thinking for themselves.

 Students thinking for themselves becomes especially hard when academia itself becomes a battleground for what the TRUTH is. And this is by far the main reason why we fail to focus on Truth in the classroom at present. For those who think they have already discovered the TRUTH presume that the classroom is their space to pass on magnanimously their hard won gold, and in this way teachers who presume to pass on TRUTH unconsciously exercise power over students and thwart those students who see the world differently. Those teachers who want to avoid such arrogance think that the best way to do so is to not present what they think as the TRUTH and to make the class and inquiry in general a Truth free zone. But as noted above, this leads to its own problems.


 I think a classroom functions best when it is aimed towards the Truth. That is, when everyone in the conversation shares the aim of finding what they all can endorse together while acknowledging and developing the many perspectives each person brings to the conversation.

 A classroom dominated by TRUTH has no future it is living into because it is only the stale repetition of out dated discoveries. A conversation dominated by truths has no future it is living into because it is only a cacophony of multiple voices sharing a room.

 A classroom aimed towards Truth has a future it is living into because the Truth itself is that future. What a wonderful and inspiring space! A space in which each person’s distinctive growth is cherished and in which that growth also unites each person with every one else.


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Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Bharath Vallabha


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