Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Major essay book review of KNOWLEDGE AND FALLIBILISM: ESSAYS ON IMPROVING EDUCATION, by Ronald M. Swartz, Henry J. Perkinson, and Stephenie G. Edgerton. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets].


Kenneth R. Conklin, Major essay review of Ronald Swartz, Henry Perkinson, and Stephanie Edgerton, KNOWLEDGE AND FALLIBILISM (New York: New York University Press, 1980), in FOCUS ON LEARNING, IX, 2 (1983), pp. 83-96.


Knowledge and Fallibilism: Essays on Improving Education, by Ronald M. Swartz, Henry J. Perkinson, and Stephenie G. Edgerton. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Reviewed by Kenneth R. Conklin.

To save space, and to avoid confusing the concepts of "knowledge" and "fallibilism" with the title of the book, I shall refer to the book as SPE (the initials of the authors' surnames). Although this essay is a book review, it is also (perhaps even primarily) a review of the general philosophical position known as Fallibilism.

How the SPE Book is Organized

If the numbers three, nine, and ten are astrologically auspicious, then this book is destined for greatness. It contains ten essays; an introduction plus nine essays, with the three authors each writing one of three essays in each of the three sections. A harmonious balance is further ensured by rotating the order of the authors within each section: ESP, SPE, PES. It does not require extra sensory perception to recognize the further auspiciousness of invoking the goodwill of the Society of Professors of Education and the Philosophy of Education Society.

The first three and last three essays were previously published, while the middle three were printed for the first time in SPE (although they were pre¬ sented orally at the same session of the annual convention of the American Educational Studies Association in 1976). Cognoscenti will immediately unscrew this oreo to get to the "new" cream in the middle, while most readers will crunch through the top and bottom layers as well. Everyone should read the introduction, not merely because it comes first and is completely new, but also because it is an excellent piece of work.

Although every essay in SPE contains interesting ideas, there is absolutely no interaction among the nine essays following the introduction. Even the middle three newly published essays do not take account of each other or of the remaining essays. The forty-seven page "Introduction" is an independently written free-standing piece of scholarship with only the final four pages offering half-hearted announcements of the titles and contents of the nine separate essays to follow. The numerous footnotes in each author's essays seldom refer to the writings of the other two authors of SPE, refering instead to major figures in the history of philosophy (Hume, Dewey, Russell) or to major figures in the contemporary Fallibilist movement (Popper, Agassi, Bunge. Lakatos, et. al.).

One must wonder why a collection of unconnected essays should be slapped together between two covers. The authors are working out of a common set of underlying principles which they call Fallibilism. They wish to use SPE as a textbook in their own courses, and they hope other professors will adopt the text. Also, they hope to promote the cause of Fallibilism by calling attention to essays whose contents might otherwise lie forgotten in dusty archives containing old issues of small-circulation journals and private notes from speeches at conventions. The existence of the present essay review of SPE

[End page 83 / Begin page 84]

shows that the ability to get a book published does indeed call attention to the ideas inside. Just as the authors of SPE use this book to revive interest in previously published ideas, I shall use this review to revive interest in my previously published criticisms of Fallibilism which the authors of SPE have largely ignored.

Because the ten essays in SPE are so totally independent, I shall briefly describe and criticize them one by one. Later I shall criticize SPE concerning whether it does a good job of presenting an overview of Fallibilism and whether it is a good textbook. Finally, I shall criticize Fallibilism itself.

What the SPE Book Contains: A Brief Summary and Evaluation of Each Essay

The introduction by Ronald Swartz, "Toward a Fallibilistic Educational Perspective," constitutes about one-fourth of the book's content. This is no ordinary introduction. It is an attempt to describe Fallibilism by comparing Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and Karl Popper's views on the purpose of science and the nature of scientific method. A history of Fallibilism is briefly sketched, including the lineage from Hume to Mill to Peirce, James, Dewey, Russell, and Popper.

Professor Swartz overstates his case by claiming that these mainstream Empiricist and Pragmatist philosophers were Fallibilists. Perhaps they can be claimed as precursors of Fallibilism in the same way as the Roman Catholic church claims Plato and Aristotle as precursors of Christianity. In both lineages, the writings of the precursors directly influenced the development of the followers' theories, but the followers made important changes. I think that Hume, and even Russell and Dewey, would be as surprised to hear themselves called Fallibilists as Plato and Aristotle would be to hear themselves called Christians. Why the Cynics, Skeptics, and Apostle Thomas are not claimed as Fallibilists is unclear.

However, it is very clear that all the philosophers claimed as Fallibilists are unanimous in their zealous adherence to the "scientiic method" as the one valid way of getting knowledge, and most of Swartz's "introduction" to SPE is really an analysis of the agreements and disagreements among Hume, Russell, Dewey, and Popper concerning the purpose and method of scientific inquiry.

This emphasis upon scientific method to the exclusion of other modes of inquiry is one of the chief characteristics (and one of the major flaws) of Fallibilism. Kant's distinction between noumena and phenomena, and between analytic and synthetic, together with Hume's observation that observed phenomenal pattern cannot yield certainty of prediction, have given rise to numerous schools of philosophy. For example, Existentialists would seem to fit into the Fallibilist camp if it were not for the Fallibilist stress on scientific method. The focus of Existentialism is the claim that we can never be certain of anything, and that attempts to justify action are doomed to failure, and that we suffer constant anxiety over the uncertainty of our predictions and the rightness of our actions. Fallibilists claim to be rational because they endorse the scientific method while Existentialists are said to be irrationalists; yet it could be argued that adherence to scientific method to the exclusion of other ways of knowing is just as irrational as Existentialism, and probably more dangerous.

The first series of three essays is called "On Learning." Classroom teachers, or students who plan to become teachers, are in for a big surprise if they think these essays will discuss how to help students learn. All three are philosophical discussions of the relationship between experience and knowledge: learning by induction, conjecture and refutation, justiication vs. criticism, verification.

Stephenie Edgerton's essay," 'Learning' by Induction," mentions that some of the new social studies textbooks

[End page 84, Begin page 85]

claim to use an "inductive" or "inquiry" approach. But virtually all of the article is a discussion of the concept of induction in the work of Bacon, Hume, Dewey, and Popper. I believe that teachers and textbook writers normally conceive of an inductive approach as the simple heuristic device of presenting numerous examples to help students grasp an overarching idea. The so-called "inductive" approach to social studies, science, mathematics, etc. is not a serious scholarly attempt to prove general principles, nor does it seek to prove to students that what is taught is true, nor does it seek to force students into the habit of reasoning by induction. Rather, the inductive approach to curriculum content is little more than a procedure of ostensive definition: it is explication, not formal explanation. This is especially clear in the area of mathematics, where everyone acknowledges that the subject matter itself is analytic and deductive, yet good textbooks and teachers persist in using an inductive approach. Edgerton's essay thus appears irrelevant to the real concerns of educators. The task of a textbook in an introductory education course or a methods and curriculum course is less to focus upon complex issues in the philosophy of scientific method and more to make clear the educational relevance of those issues.

Chapter 2, by Swartz, is entitled "Mistakes as an Important Part of the Learning Process." Swartz says that instead of presenting a curriculum as a collection of verified truths, teachers should be sure to acquaint students with some classical mistakes in each subject, why they came about, how they were discovered and rectified, etc. Not only would students learn valuable subject matter in this way, they would also learn that nothing is certain, that people do make mistakes, and that people can learn from their mistakes. Swartz seems certain that nothing is certain, and he seems certain that it is good to indoctrinate students with the view that nothing is certain.

In Chapter 3, "Against Learning," Henry Perkinson points out that the task of getting students to learn predetermined content unavoidably cast teachers in an authoritarian role and promotes dogmatic commitment to the truth of what is learned. By contrast, Perkinson proposes that teachers ask students to tell what they already know or perform whatever skills they already possess, then offer criticism and help students recognize inadequacies in knowledge or skill, and finally persuade the students to try again. Whether dealing with knowledge, skills, or moral and aesthetic dispositions, students would be implementing the Popperian scientific method of conjecture and refutation: a hypothesis is offered and criticized, leading to rejection of faulty assumptions or removal of flaws.

One criticism of Perkinson's criticism of the authoritarian nature of conventional schools can be found in two essays I published several years ago.[1] I argued that developmental psychology indicates the existence of sequences of developmental stages which all people must go through in the same order. There are such sequences of developmental stages not only for bodily skills and language development, but also for emotional needs (e.g., Freud), moral reasoning (Kohlberg), cognitive growth (Piaget), confrontation of death (Kubler-Ross), and perhaps also spiritual growth (Abraham Maslow, Jacques Maritain, Teilhard de Chardin, D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Gail Sheehy, many others). The existence and universality of these developmental tracks makes it possible for educational authorities to ensure that they are benevolent when they impose curriculum and instructional methods upon their students.

Perkinson's essay is very easy to read, interesting, and directly relevant to classroom practice. The clear connection between Popper's conjecture-refutation theory of scientific method and Perkinson's speak-or-act-and-be-criticized

[End page 85 / Begin page 86]

theory of instructional method enables both Popper and Perkinson to be criticized simultaneously. My basic criticism is that any criticism of a scientific hypothesis or a student's words or actions must ultimately be accepted or rejected on the same authoritarian (and perhaps irrational) basis as a justification. Under what circumstances does anyone acknowledge that a criticism has succeeded in rejecting a hypothesis? Only if the criticism itself is accepted as being both true and relevant to the hypothesis. Of course Fallibilists would say that no criticism is absolutely decisive, but may be tentatively accepted if it survives criticisms of itself. The process of criticizing criticisms of criticisms leads to an infinite regress which permits no decisive actions unless the regress is terminated. Such a regress can be terminated only in the same way as an infinite regress of justifications.

If all this sounds a bit complicated, Perkinson's lucid essay provides a way to make it clear. Imagine that a student has offered a "hypothesis" in the form of a statement or action, and is in the process of receiving the "criticism." How will the student judge whether the "criticism" requires a rejection of the "hypothesis"? For example, the hypothesis might be the spelling of a word, and the criticism would be looking it up in the dictionary. Should the dictionary be accepted as authoritative? Who says so? Which dictionary? Why? If the student rejects the dictionary's criticism, how will the student's rejection be criticized, and will that new criticism of the rejection be accepted or rejected? Another hypothesis might be that two plus two equals three. The criticism would be to add two blocks to the two blocks already on a table, and count the total. If the student now counts a total of three, who is to call him wrong? Why should he believe in that authority?

Most of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions possessed by any human being are very properly acquired by relying upon the authority of other people or the authority of written documents. Each generation advances beyond previous ones precisely because it is able to rely upon the heritage of past generations and does not need to waste time rediscovering and reverifying that heritage. In all cases of so-called "conventional" knowledge, what is known is accepted precisely for the reason that it is commonly accepted, and issues of ultimate truth or rightness do not arise. The most basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic clearly belong in this category: We speak the language as it is spoke (sic), and each occasion of usage is immediately accepted or rejected by referring to the authority of common usage, dictionaries, or publicly certified good speakers (i.e., teachers). Indeed, some philosophers believe that all knowledge, even in science, is conventional. We are fortunate that children do not enter the world as Robinson Crusoe, needing to discover everything anew without help from any society. Perkinson must acknowledge that even the act of directing a student's attention to something is authoritarian. Why should the student obey? Why should a teacher have authority to direct a student's attention to one thing rather than another?

Of course, students' hypotheses do not occur only in areas generally accepted as conventional. What if a twelve-year-old child hypothesizes that sex is wonderful, or that the moon is made of green cheese, or that protons are made of quarks and decay with a very long half-life, or that watching television is preferable to reading books? Considering educational problems like these makes it quickly apparent that at some point authorities are relied upon either to justify a student's action or to accept the refutatory power of a criticism.

The second set of three essays deals with the general issue of educational reform. The question seems to be: How should people go about the process of

[End page 86 / Begin page 87]

improving schools? Chapter 4, by Swartz, is entitled, "Liberalism and Imaginative Educational Reforms." Swartz reminds us of the distinction between thought and action. He says, in effect, "Let imagination run wild, but beware of foolhardy implementation." Some reforms might be dangerous, and the zeal of some reformers or minority groups is a form of authoritarian repression. Fallibilism advocates piecemeal experimentation within socially acceptable limits, as Hayek, Popper, and others recommend. Such piecemeal experimentation and pilot-program innovation allows reforms to be tested as hypotheses while avoiding the devastating consequences of full-scale implementation of a bad idea.

What Swartz says is good common-sense. Even successful totalitaians like Nazi or Soviet central planners must acknowledge the usefulness of trial balloons and limited-scale pilot studies. What makes Swartz's essay interesting is the clear linkage between his educational proposals and the Fallibilist epistemological doctrines. While conflicting philosophies might endorse Swartz's practical proposals for different reasons, it is good for students of education to see the clear connection from a philosophical theory to the educational practices which it entails.

In Chapter 5, "How to Improve Your School," Professor Perkinson claims that arguing in favor of proposed reforms by citing their purposes is not helpful because there will probably be unforeseen and unintended consequences. Reforms should be judged not by their purposes (the teleological approach) but by their actual consequences (the ecological approach). Perkinson says that "a bad school is one that people complain about; a better school is one where the evils specifically complained about have been eliminated or diminished." As Perkinson points out, his approach does not help us to make better decisions in the first place, it only helps us citicize decisions that have already been implemented. And we cannot know whether a change is actually an improvement until much later, when we can judge whether the specific evils complained about have indeed been eliminated. Perkinson does not object to having school policies and curricula initially established by administrators and teachers, as at present. The initial set-up is, of course, analogous to a hypothesis. The ecological approach to improvement then requires openness to criticism. Anyone adversely affected by existing arrangements must have access to the decision-makers to convey complaints; all criticisms should lead to critical dialogue; and unrefuted criticisms should lead to changes. Perkinson describes how each of these requirements can be institutionalized in a friendly, non-threatening manner.

Like the previous essay by Swartz, this one contains a lot of good commonsense. Even Nazis would acknowledge that a bad school is one that people complain about and that improvement is measured by reduction in complaints. It is good public relations to be open to criticism and to make changes which mollify the critics. The serious questions are whether the changes do indeed remedy the complaints, whether the changes constitute an improvement or a greater evil, whether a particular criticism is serious and valid, or frivolous, or misguided, or utterly false. Perkinson's essay is useful as a textbook illustration of how Popper's theory of conjecture-refutation scientific method gets translated into a method for criticizing and changing existing school policies, and as an illustration of how Popper's definition of "improvement" in scientific theory gets translated into a description of how to "improve" school practices. Unfortunately, as Perkinson himself admits, his theory cannot tell us whether a particular change is really an improvement, whether a particular citicism is actually valid, etc. His essay should be entitled, "A Fallibilist Definition of the Word 'Improvement' as Applied to Schools," since all Perkinson

[End page 87 / Begin page 88]

accomplishes is to give a commonsense definition and approach to education that even his opponents could accept. He clearly does not tell "How to Improve Your Schools."

Chapter 6, "Skepticism and Schooling" by Professor Edgerton, describes two main types of skepticism and their effects on school children. She endorses intellectual skepticism as an application of Bertrand Russell's variety of Fallibilism, and she opposes psychological skepticism as damaging to a child's emotions. Edgeton points out that "children hold their ideas as part of themselves ... They hold their ideas with conviction and see intellectual decisions as a matter of commitment ... errors [are psychologized] into feelings of failure ... [they see] penalties as punishments, and any criticism of ideas becomes a case of ridicule." Although Edgerton's densely written essay is difficult to read, I think she simply means to caution Fallibilists to be gentle when criticizing children's hypotheses. But I fail to see why her essay is in a section of the book devoted to techniques of improving the school as an institution, and I doubt whether the students who read this "textbook" will be able to make sense out of her essay.

The third series of three essays is entitled, "On Educational Innovations." That title is misleading. None of the three essays attempt to discuss how innovations originate or get implemented or how they should be judged. What the essays have in common is that each draws inspiration from Fallibilism to propose allegedly new purposes for education or new ways of teaching reading or new ways of viewing authority and responsibility. The title of the third section would better be called "Some Fallibilist Proposals to Improve the Schools."

An interesting contradiction arises here. In Chapter 4 Professor Swartz had recommended certain safeguards when implementing educational innovations, including piecemeal planning and the use of pilot studies. In Chapter 5 Profes¬ sor Perkinson had urged that whatever practices occur should be held open to criticism, and that procedures should be institutionalized to encourage students to offer criticisms and require teachers and administrators to address the criticisms responsively. Yet only one of the three proposals for educational innovation in this final section contains any cautionary limits. Two out of three are proposals for sweeping changes to be implemented universally without provision for criticism. This may unfortunately be typical of the Fallibilist movement. They are certain that certainty is impossible; they dogmatically oppose dogmatism; they demand that every hypothesis remain open to criticism while they refuse to take criticisms of Fallibilism seriously (unless offered by other Fallibilists). While I have never sat in a course taught by Swartz, Perkinson, or Edgeton, I clearly recall my own frustration as a student of philosophy while taking courses from two well-known Fallibilists who dogmatically refused to discuss criticisms of their course content, teaching methods, or the doctrines of Fallibilism. Their courses in Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy of the Social Sciences, were carefully-orchestrated propaganda vehicles promoting Fallibilism, and the professors handled opposing views with initial dissembling and eventual repression, much as the Soviet and Polish authorities handled the Solidarity labor dissidents.

In Chapter 7, "Education and the New Pluralism." Professor Perkinson discusses the social purpose of education in modern mass society. He notes that the oiginal social purpose of education in America was to assimilate the huge masses of immigrants; i.e., to make them adopt American folkways. But in recent times, Perkinson observes, Head Start and Upward Bound have notably failed to assimilate minority groups who increasingly cherish their heritages and resist the mainstream. The recent trend toward multicultural education to

[End page 88 / Begin page 89]

preserve and extend subcultural identities is widely endorsed by those minorities.

But Perkinson correctly points out that multicultural education involves authoritarian imposition of subcultural identity upon minority youth just as the melting pot approach previously sought to impose mainstream cultural values. Perkinson proposes that schools adopt the minimal social function of helping everyone learn how to protect himself from subtle cultural imposition or overt pressure to conform to either mainstream or subculture. He advocates a critical approach to social studies, whereby students would study the history of oppression and the successful and unsuccessful techniques used to overcome it.

While I agree that it would be good to help students learn how to protect themselves, and to study the history of oppression and of resistance techniques, I cannot agree that such topics should be the core of the social studies curriculum. I believe it is important for all members of a society to understand the mainstream culture well enough to pretend successfully to abide by its folkways when necessary for survival.[2] I have also argued elsewhere that current social controversies should be made the core of the social studies curriculum, and that both Plato and Dewey would be likely to welcome this proposal (although for conflicting reasons).[3]

Chapter 8, by Professor Edgerton, is entitled "Induction, Skepticism, and Refutation: Learning through Criticism." This essay is an analysis of some problems in teaching students how to read effectively. Readers come to an essay with theories and assumptions which function as prejudices to influence how meanings get interpreted. In saying this, Professor Edgerton is applying Popper's "searchlight" theory of the mind, according to which scientists seeking evidence come to the empirical world with theories and assumptions already in mind, which influence how experiments will be designed and how data will be selected and interpreted.

But Professor Edgerton does not mention Popper's searchlight theory or its relevance to her analysis of reading, and this failure is, I think, inexcusable in a textbook whose purpose is to acquaint students with Fallibilism. Out of respect for her students, and for other professors who might like to use the textbook but are not closely familiar with Popper, Edgerton should have taken time to rewrite some of her work for textbook use. Indeed, one thing all Fallibilists of my acquaintance stress to students is the importance of having the characteristics of an audience clearly in mind when writing an essay (this prescription is also clearly an application of the searchlight theory). Swartz, Perkinson, and Edgerton badly violate this commonsense principle by taking previously published essays out of scholarly journals and slapping them between covers to create a textbook. Edgerton does connect her proposals for teaching reading more explicitly to Fallibilism when she urges teachers to encourage students to investigate the background and credentials of an author. She points out that an author's background and credentials do not guarantee the truth of the writings, but knowing them can help a reader interpret what is meant and realize that authors are fallible human beings.

As with several previous essays in SPE, I must say that the specific proposal is commonsense and is endorsed by many educational theorists for a variety of reasons. In Edgerton's essay the connection to Fallibilism finally becomes clear when she urges teachers to have students explore an author's background as a prod toward recognizing that authors are fallible human beings. But the important connection to Popper's searchlight theory was never set forth, so the essay stands as evidence that even a disciple of Fallibilism can make the mistake of losing an opportunity to propagate the faith.

[End page 89 / Begin page 90]

In the final essay, "Authority, Responsibility, and Democratic Schooling," Professor Swartz argues in favor of the policy of personal responsibility (PPR) and against the policy of expert authority (PEA). PPR can be formulated by the statement, "All school members, including students, should be viewed as fallible authorities who are personally responsible for making decisions about their school activities and many of the policies that govern a school." Swartz makes it clear that PPR is supported by Fallibilist doctrines, and that PPR should be implemented by creating schools that are run as democratic communities where administrative policies and curriculum contents are decided by majority vote (even though adults may be outnumbered twenty or thirty to one). Swartz concludes his essay by urging that at first only a few schools should adopt his proposals in some well-planned pilot programs. Thus, unlike some of his Fallibilist colleagues, Swartz acknowledges that his own proposals are fallible and could produce unforeseen negative consequences.

The policy of expert authority, which Swartz opposes, states that "Teachers, school administrators, ... and other socially certified experts are reliable authorities who should determine and control what students learn and do in the classroom." Swartz says PEA "should be rejected because it makes the unreasonable claim that some people can be viewed as consistently reliable authorities." Elsewhere he goes so far as to state that PEA claims that authorities are infallible, or that authorities can be and at time are perfect.

Since Professor Swartz repeatedly refers to me as a foremost advocate of PEA, and cites my work to support his description of PEA as claiming that educational authorities are infallible or perfect, let me set the record straight. I have never claimed that ordinary teachers, administrators, or expert authorities are infallible or perfect. I have met thousands of teachers, admin¬ istrators, professors, and government bureaucrats, and have never yet known a single one to be infallible or perfect.

I have often written about Platonic philosopher-kings who know Absolute Truth, who are unable to tell what they know because it is ineffable, and who infallibly make wise decisions affecting large-scale social and educational policy.[4] When I advocate the authorities of trust, charisma, tradition, example, and communities of persuasion, I am indeed thinking of such benevolent people as Socrates and Buddha, as Swartz correctly infers. The point is that in writing about people who know ineffable Absolute Truth and who infallibly make wise decisions that their charisma inspires their followers to implement on faith, I am making what mathematicians and scientists call a "limit argument" or "limit case." I believe philosopher kings can actually exist, but are extremely rare. Furthermore, the knowledge they deal with is not the sort of knowledge most people deal with in most schools. But as in all limit arguments, analysis of the situation at the limit gives valuable insight into what happens in ordinary cases. Every sentient being (perhaps including animals and extraterrestrials) possesses a greater or lesser degree of wisdom. Thus I endorse a policy of expert authority which I believe is the theoretical (idealized) support of conventional authority relationships in schools, but which is not PEA as described by Swartz.

The Conklin policy of expert authority says that each person in a given institutional setting possesses a degree of wisdom which determines his rightful position in a hierarchy of decision-making authority.[5] For most ordinary schools, the degree of wisdom concerns only such mundane things as knowledge of subject matter, a skillfulness in pedagogical or administrative technique, and conventionally accepted moral or aesthetic dispositions. Ineffable knowledge of Absolute Truth

[End page 90 / Begin page 91]

and leadership by charisma are of practical significance at very high degrees of wisdom which are of concern primarily in religious training, self-realization or human potential institutes, or very high levels of overall social authority. Nevertheless, at all levels of education, people are more or less advanced and are entitled to (indeed, are obligated to exercise) correspondingly more or less authority.

I believe the policy of expert authoity as generally practiced in conventional schools is as I have described it for lower degrees of wisdom in areas of conventional knowledge, skills, and dispositions. I know that my own policy of expert authority is as I have descibed it here for all levels of wisdom. Thus Professor Swartz is guilty of a straw man argument, although I am confident it was unintentional. PEA as he describes it simply is not endorsed by me, is not practiced in most conventional schools, and deserves to be demolished. I will even go so far as to endorse Professor Swartz's policy of personal responsibility for virtually all ordinary educational situations if it is regarded as a statement of fact and not as a prescription for Fallibilist educational innovation. I regard virtually all school members, including students, as fallible authorities (possessing various degrees of wisdon) who are personally responsible for making decisions about their school activities and many of the policies that govern a school. Students are already responsible for school policies in the sense that no government can ultimately remain in power without the practical consent of the governed. And everyone is unavoidably personally responsible for what he learns or knows, as I have shown previously in an essay directed specifically at one of Swartz's articles on the issue of personal responsibility.[6]

Is SPE A Good Presentation of Fallibilism and A Good Textbook?

When three disciples of Fallibilism get together to publish a collection of some of their essays, the book must be presumed to be an accurate presentation of Fallibilism. Although what is in the book accurately presents Fallibilism, what is not in the book raises questions about its comprehensiveness. I think there is enough in the nine chapters so that a reader who had never heard of Fallibilism would get a good overview of the main doctrines by osmosis. Professor Swartz's introduction is an interesting attempt to describe Fallibilism by tracing its lineage through Hume, Mill, Peirce, James, Dewey, Russell, and Popper, with emphasis upon a comparison of the latter three philosophers' theories concerning the nature and purpose of scientific inquiry. Professor Swartz prefers to stress disagreements among the Fallibilists, and even hints darkly that there are important disagreements among the three authors of SPE; but on the whole one gets the impression that the similarities outweigh the differences sufficiently to warrant a common name for this group of philosophers.

Unfortunately I cannot recommend SPE as a good textbook. Aside from the fact that Fallibilism as a collection of doctrines is internally inconsistent, mostly false, and probably socially dangerous (see the next part of this essay), the book itself is not sufficiently clear or well organized to serve as a textbook. It would not stimulate the interest of undergraduate students or even of graduate students unless they have strong backgrounds in philosophy. Let me explain (or rather, explicate) SPE's failings as a textbook.

Although Professor Swartz's introduction is interesting to me as a philosopher, I doubt that it would be interesting to most students of teacher education. It would also mislead students who have little background in philosophy into believing the Fallibilism is a generally-known label for a school of philosophy comparable to Empiricism, Pragmatism, or Existentialism; and it would mislead students into thinking

[End page 91 / Begin page 92]

that Hume, Russell, and Dewey are generally known as Fallibilists. Swartz's introduction says almost nothing about education, so that a student in a course on education might be forgiven for thinking the book irrelevant; and the "introduction" does nothing to introduce the remaining nine essays other than to identify them by title, author, and three or four sentences describing each one. It is as though a person who knows nothing about sports but has been given a ticket for a football game gets invited to a pre-game party where the host introduces him to twenty all-star players, saying only, "Meet Harry Foote, punter for the Simian Simpletons, who wears number 00; meet Dick Studd, tight end for the Middlesex Swingers, who wears number 69;" etc. The guest at such a party might be forgiven if he misunderstands the host's explanations and decides not to go to the game.

One would expect a textbook to have substantial implicit continuity and explicit interaction among its chapters, but there is none of that in SPE. The authors merely slapped their previously published separate essays between two covers. The introduction does not compare and contrast the essays that follow, there is no postscript or epilogue or conclusion, but at least there is an index. However, most of the items in the index have page references that take the reader to only one of the essays. The grouping of three series of three essays, with one essay by each author in each series, with the order of authors rotated, is clearly an artificial attempt to achieve balance or equality. Since all the authors are still among the living and all presumably see each other or correspond occasionally, it seems inexcusable that there was no serious attempt at collaboration in SPE.

No doubt the authors themselves can do a good job of using the book in their classes, and perhaps other Fallibilists or philosophers familiar with Fallibilism could interpret the philosophical background and practical application of each essay. But lacking a strong background in philosophy, professors of courses in methods and curriculum, or general overviews of foundations of education, would have a hard time teasing out many of the potentially beautiful strands connecting theory to practice. A set of review questions or homework exercises following each chapter might help, but I know this very useful practice is seldom followed in college textbooks in the humanities.

Finally, this textbook fails to give much of a hearing (let alone a fair hearing) to theories other than Fallibilism. I personally do not object to this. I believe that students of philosophy, even at the introductory level, need to learn how to think philosophically, and that this is best facilitated by inundating students with various applications of a single philosophical viewpoint. I believe that a student in an introductory philosophy course should be required to immerse himself in one philosophy, and to demonstrate that he understands it by successfully pretending to agree with it.[7] If a student can successfully pretend to espouse the "correct" approach to some current issues and correctly cite the reasons from the "official" philosophy of the course to substantiate his arguments, then that student has learned to "do" philosophy and can transfer his skills to the espousal of his own approaches to current issues based on his own actual beliefs. But many professors would regard my teaching techniques as a form of indoctrination, and would consider it important to provide balance through the study of a variety of opposing viewpoints. I am surprised to find the three Fallibilist authors of SPE using my techniques of one-sided teaching and textbook writing, especially since Fallibilism would seem to endorse the importance of always being open to opposing views and of soliciting criticism. One would almost expect a Fallibilist textbook to end by saying, "Now that we have stated our theory, we

[End page 92 / Begin page 93]

invite you to send us your criticisms of it, which we pledge to publish in the next edition of the book. We promise we will print all your criticisms, and we will either criticize your criticisms effectively or else change our views and our essays to eliminate our errors when we are unable to criticize your criticisms effectively." But such is the stuff dreams are made of.

What's Wrong With Fallibilism:
Some Old Criticisms Reasserted

The publication of a collection of previously published philosophical essays must be viewed as an attempt to revive interest in the underlying philosophic ideas. Since I believe that Fallibilism is both false and socially dangerous, I welcome the opportunity to revive interest in my previously published criticisms and to offer additional criticisms. I must confess some irritation, however, since most of these criticisms were published in 1971[8] and 1977[9] and have not yet been answered. Fallibilists appear to function like the disciples of any other dogma, preferring to develop their own theory and criticize opponents' theories without feeling a need to refute externally generated criticisms of their own basic doctrines. What follows is a brief indication of some of my most important criticisms. Fallibilists who wish to refute these criticisms may be able to do so easily if they refer only to the brief statement that follows. Honest refutations must take account of the more complete explications of these criticisms published previously.

1. Fallibilism is a firm commitment to the notion that we should make no firm commitments. Fallibilists dogmatically oppose dogmatism. They are certain that certainty is impossible. Thus, Fallibilism is prima facie self- contradictory.

2. Fallibilists might deny that they are dogmatically committed to Fallibilism or that they regard it as certain that there can be no certainty. (I think this denial could be empirically shown to be false!) Fallibilists might avoid the superficial self-contradiction by defining Fallibilism as a temporarily accepted working principle that we should not make firm commitments. Fallibilism would then be the hypothesis that we should hold all hypotheses (including this one) open to criticism and possible rejection, and that we should accept as temporary working hypotheses whatever can be tested and has been well tested and has not been rejected. But such a hypothesis of Fallibilism is not itself testable or subject to falsification procedures, and therefore could not be entertained as even a tentative working hypothesis according to its own criteria.

3. Fallibilists criticize the usual process of seeking justifications for beliefs or actions by showing that each justification must in turn be justified, leading to an infinite regress which either continues forever (thus producing no complete justification) or is stopped by an irrational (i.e., unjustiied) commitment. Fallibilists avoid this infinite regress by not seeking justifications. But I argue that the Fallibilist process of criticism also produces unavoidable infinite regresses. No criticism succeeds in refuting a hypothesis unless it is accepted as both true and relevant to the hypothesis. But any criticism can be criticized as to its truth or relevance. And the criticisms of the criticisms can also be criticized etc. The regress of criticisms either continues forever (in which case nothing is settled) or is cut off with an irrational acceptance or rejection of a criticism. Fallibilists might claim that later stages of criticisms converge to more and more trivial issues that can safely be ignored, but such a claim would be factually false, and in any case the exponentially increasing multitude of interconnected criticisms may amass a weight sufficient to smash any particular hypothesis or criticism in the chain.

4. Fallibilism, like Pragmatism,

[End page 93 / Begin page 94]

seems to mirror the general contemporary irrational faith in science. Fallibilist epistemology seems entirely based upon a particular interpretation of scientific method. But why must all hypotheses or criticisms be empirically testable? Why should we assume that the method used by scientists to answer empirical questions must be the correct method for emotional, ethical, aesthetic, or social problems?

5. Fallibilism captures the contemporary fear of commitment to ideologies, institutions, or personal intimacy. Fallibilism both results from and produces a general loss of trust or community. Fallibilism says that either there is no such thing as Truth or Goodness, or else we can never be sure that what we have is not Error or Evil instead. This robs people of hope for improvement, and leads eventually to personal despair and social chaos as each person seeks to do whatever he temporarily conceives to be his own thing. The combination of increasing scientiic power with moral relativism will eventually give strong people efficient power to impose their most selfish wishes upon the weak. If scientific theories or moral viewpoints are to be judged according to the accuracy of their predictions or the welcomeness of their consequences, then Fallibilism would be rejected on account of its disastrous consequences to personal and social integrity. Schools operated according to Fallibilist principles would indoctrinate children with scientific materialism and moral relativism by their very manner of operation, more quietly but just as powerfully as Nazi schools indoctrinated German youth with loyalty to Hitler and hatred toward Jews.

Some Additional New Criticisms

6. Fallibilism requires that a hypothesis be offered, but seems to take little interest in the procedures used for generating hypotheses or the manner in which some hypotheses are initially selected for serious consideration while others are ignored. Fallibilism's unconcern for the process of generating and selecting hypotheses stems from a belief that no process can guarantee or justify the merit or lack of merit of what is created: roses grow on dungheaps, and saints produce excrement. But there are serious practical consequences depending upon which hypothesis is selected for consideration while others are left untended, or how a hypothesis is framed.

For example, consider criminal procedure. Shall we adopt the Napoleonic approach in which the accused is considered guilty until he can prove innocence, or shall we adopt the American approach in which the accused is considered innocent until proved guilty? Fallibilists undoubtedly (!) have a strong preference for the American system, and abhor the Napoleonic system because of its associations with dictatorial regimes. Yet. the Napoleonic system seems more appropriate to Fallibilist epistemology. We have no interest in pursuing four billion hypotheses of innocence; the interest lies entirely in the one hypothesis that a specific person is guilty. Fallibilist procedure would seem to require that we temporarily adopt the hypothesis that the accused is guilty, until that hypothesis can be successfully criticized. The Popperian procedure of accepting a hypothesis temporarily so long as it cannot be disproved may mean keeping an accused criminal in prison for a "temporary" period of many weeks or months until the hypothesis of guilt can be disproved (such incarcerations actually occur in Mexico in cases where someone is injured in an automobile accident). At the opposite extreme, under the American system a Fallibilist judge or juror might never feel sufficiently certain of a traffic violator's guilt to impose a five dollar fine and insist upon final payment.

7. Fallibilism appears to be both an accurate description of our everyday commonsense skepticism and a perverse

[End page 94 / Begin page 95]

prescription that we should violate our commonsense dependence upon bureaucratic authority and sensory experience. That is, at its best Fallibilism is a highflown, elegant way of making commonsense doubt seem profound while at its worst it destroys the confidence we need to take a single physical footstep or a giant spiritual leap.

Readers familiar with my views will know that I am not committed to commonsense or sensory impressions, since I endorse a kind of mystical Platonic idealism. Nevertheless, I believe that any good epistemology must acknowledge the appropriateness of relying upon commonsense and sensory impressions for ordinary situations. In the World of Appearances, right opinion is suficient for success, even though knowledge of absolutes would encompass right opinion and be superior to it. Newton's theory of mechanics explains ordinary phenomena completely and with an accuracy that cannot ordinarily be challenged, although Einstein's theory of Relativity is deeper and more comprehensive. The deeper truth of Einstein's theory does not make it wrong to teach Newton's theory to children as a stepingstone, nor is it wrong to rely on Newton's theory when building roads or airplanes. Fallibilism is appallingly pedantic when it says that Newton's theory is not a suitable authority or that children should hypothesize and test their own version of physics rather than being taught the Newtonian (or even Einsteinian) version. Empirical evidence concerning the invariance and universality of developmental stages in physical skills, language, emotion, moral reasoning, and other areas can reasonably be relied upon to ensure the benevolence of the curriculum we autocratically (but pleasantly and lovingly) impose.

Everyone acknowledges that eyesight may fail or roadsigns could be mistaken or even tampered with; yet, even a Fallibilist drives at 50 mph with life-risking confidence that the road will not deadend in a wall or precipice around the next curve. Any honest person must confess that everything he "knows" could possibly be mistaken, including his own name or the fact that he is awake. But even Descartes finally acknowledged that he existed. The same night that David Hume wrote that he was not sure whether the sun would rise again, he probably set his alarm clock to be sure of getting up on time the next morning.

In philosophy, science, education, and everyday life, we routinely rely upon countless facts, values, and dispositions based upon sensory experience, habit, written documents, or the teachings of authorities. We are right to rely upon such things. Later generations are able to have a more advanced civilization by accepting certain givens handed down from previous generations. School children should not have to "discover" independently all the things that previous generations of scientists have discovered (see my criticism of Perkinson's Chapter 3 in SPE). It would be foolish for a teacher to waste time on the pretense of Fallibilist openness to criticism when he merely wants the children to learn the facts of the multiplication table. It would be appropriate to solicit Fallibilist criticism of the multiplication table if a professor is teaching a post-doctoral course in logical foundations of mathe¬ matics. The postdoctoral student who challenges the logical foundations of mathematics is obviously uninhibited by the fact that a dictatorial teacher required him to memorize the multiplication table in the first grade.

In ordinary, everyday affairs it is proper to rely upon authorities. As in a civil lawsuit, the burden of "proof" (or criticism) shifts between authority (defendant) and client (plaintiff), depending upon whether hypotheses or criticisms are questioned or taken on faith, and whether they are considered trivial or important. The preponderance of evidence or opinion is sufficient to

[End page 95 / Begin page 96]

decide commonplace issues. Controversial, difficult, important issues must be resolved beyond a reasonable doubt, as in criminal cases. Unlike the Fallibilists, I believe there are limits to the reasonableness of doubt. As a limit argument it is possible to be certain about certain things, and there are occasions when wise people attain absolute certainty about important truths. My arguments in favor of the Conklin policy of expert authority (see my comments on Chapter 9) thus should be taken not only as a substantive proposal of my own but as a criticism of the Fallibilist doctrine that we should never rely upon authorities.


1. Kenneth R. Conklin, "Developmental Psychology vs. The Open Classroom" Educational Forum, XXXIX, 1 (November, 1974), pp. 43-47. Also Conklin, "Scientific Control vs. Humanistic Freedom: A Synthesis With Regard to the 'Discipline Problem,' " Focus on Learning, IV, 2 (Fall/Winter. 1975) pp. 21-27.

2. Conklin, "Due Process in Grading: Bias and Authority," School Review, LXXX1, 1 (November, 1972), pp. 85-95.

3. Conklin, "Education for Social Reconstruction in a Democracy," Focus on Learning, VI. 2.

4. Conklin, "Knowledge, Proof, and Ineffabiiity in Teaching," Educational Theory. XXIV, I (Winter, 1974), pp. 61-67. Repinted in Melvin Silberman, Jerome Allender. and J. M. Yanoff, eds.. Real Learning: A Source Book For Teachers (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), pp. 84-88.

5. Conklin, "Due Process . . ." op. cit.

6. Conklin, "A Defense of the Teacher as Taskmaster (Choreographer of Student Learning)" Science Education. LIX, l (Jan/Mar 1975), pp. 107-111 Response by Swartz in Vol. LIX, No. 3.

7. Conklin, "Due Process . . ." op. cit,

8. Conklin, "Fallibilism: A Terible Mistake," Educational Forum, XXXVI. 1 (November, 1971), pp. 35-42.

9. Conklin, "Knowledge and Hypothesis" read to annual national convention of Philosophy of Education Society, Nashville. April, 1977. Published in Philosophy of Education !977: Proceedings of the Thirty-Third Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, ed, Ira Steinberg. Worcester, Mass.: The Heffernan Press. 1977, pp. 111-119.

[End page 96 / Begin page 97]


KENNETH R. CONKLIN has published extensively in major professional journals in the areas of education, mathematics and philosophy. Currently teacher of mathematics in Norwood, Massachusetts, he has taught foundations of education courses at Oakland, Emory and Boston University. Dr. Conklin completed graduate work in mathematics at the University of Illinois where he also received his Ph.D. in philosophy of education in 1967.

[end of article]


Send comments or questions to:

You may now look for another scholarly article published by Ken Conklin before he came permanently to Hawai'i



(c) Copyright 2012 for this website, by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved