Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Hidden Curriculum

A few years ago some of my colleagues suggested I focus my attention towards the study of the hidden curriculum, a dull sounding educational term that basically refers to the manner in which humans are behaviorally blind to much of their own and each others activity whilst pretending otherwise. The hidden curriculum, it seems, isn't so much a thing in itself as it is the behavior of humans ourselves. In fact the hidden curriculum (formally defined as the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school (it tends to carry a negative connotation)) is, ironically, our own cognitive 'glitchiness', what neuroscience refers to as bias or the minds considerable blind spots. It is a particularly human 'evolved' trait and (biggest irony of all) evolution, as a subject, is treated educationally as if it were optional knowledge, not as it is, the story of how we came to be. Moreover it is this which explains why a hidden curriculum exists at all - because humans are naturally ignorant and deceptive survivalists. We prefer to pretend that consensus is more often right because what looks like (bias) consensus feels safe (survival).

The hidden curriculum attracts researchers from within education, in all its varieties - primary, secondary and professional - and in our case it is the hidden curriculum of heath care professionalism in particular (most of this research has been conducted within medical education and training). The irony (it never stops), quite a spectacular one, is that health care education is, obviously, built upon a foundation of the biological sciences and that is squarely and only, in a contemporary sense, underpinned by evolution and it's theoretical framework, natural selection. So, quite simply, if we teach biology and claim to be evidence based, we have to teach all of it and this includes its Theory - Natural Selection and it's somewhat awkward philosophical significance. And the hidden curriculum itself is the study of human behavior. In effect, all of it, education and the study it how it operates 'behind the scenes' (hidden), is the study of biology. And the theory? Natural selection. The theories used however are largely speculative, often based upon the whimsical postmodern notion that all of this is a creation of society - that society creates biological behavior. Pause a moment for reflection - that is the premise and belief that everything, down to what particular genetic traits you inherited from mum and dad, was produced by society. That society doesn't actually exist before we do seems to have slipped past the minds of a considerable number of highly educated people. How could that be?

The consequence of being alive is that we die. We also possess a highly emotionally mediated natural mind that can imagine what might be. And if one can imagine the possibility of consolation (the miracle of escaping death) one can feel it. And since what feels true feels just like something that is true, believing we make sense when we clearly do not is as effortless as having an imaginary friend, quite the most popular class of human belief. If a mind can convince itself of (actually) cheating death (by feeling strongly about it), believing you understand a hidden curriculum by never understanding the mind at all is another effortless self deceit (the mind can 'deceive' itself that what it believes is knowledge (cognitive illusion)). A hidden curriculum is there because of the way cognition operates and that is explained by natural selection and no other way. In all of health care education, certainly most of school education, evolution remains effectively hidden due to the significant social 'controversy' of it. The argument is nothing but this - Sure we're all gonna die but are we? And since the mere suggestion of survival (a Deus ex machina moment (a god plucks us from certain death)) is enough to lure any survivalist (we all possess a biology literally built to do this), we freely choose to embrace what is required to believe it - we pretend that what we rationally understand is unfounded (it's as philosophically compelling as any other childhood imaginary friend) is in fact the equivalent of wisdom. Humans do this on a daily basis. Evolution's theory technically refutes (it doesn't include), any and all hypothesized supernatural mechanisms or explanations. Yet the process built us to be 'teleological' thinkers, that is, we operate intuitively; able to use reason and imagination when we wish to, but far more adept at reaction, guesswork and the emotional significance of ideas, not necessarily the truth of them. You may think you understand evolution but very few are taught it in depth and they include educators who are quite prepared to tell you that they understand how to interpret biology. That is like doing any complex task without any other 'map' except intuition. The equivalent of teaching biology without a focus on theory is like maths without formulae or pilots without a license. I should stress that again - the reason we do not teach children about their origins is because it conflicts with a hundred 'origin stories' that their parents have become attached to! We can't bare to tell children that entire traditions failed to explain anything about reality. We either lie or we agree to have them lied to. Personally I leave people to their own beliefs but I do not accept that it is anything but moral revisionism (selfishness) to insist that the next generation be sold myth as explanation. It also demeans the impact of the myths themselves which either poetic attempts at understanding or an excellent study in its opposite. Notice the difference. People are free to believe but we are not free to tell children that we know what we cannot know to be true or false (while ignoring what we know to be true).

What could possibly go wrong? We teach top level biology by wrote learning and gut feeling. My daughters own year 11 biology text mentions the theoretical framework once (4 words) in one sentence in a 500 page book! 499.9 pages of wrote learning, no complex thinking required only the cognitive ability (also explained via theory) to have a high WMI (Working memory index or short term memory). Here's another insight due to being aware of theory. The reason some autistic people are savants possessing extraordinary but isolated talents (such as flawless memory), isn't because they are thinking, it's because their brain is processing one type of data. But it can easily 'look like' thinking to other minds that don't understand natural selection and it's tendency to build us with a mass of cognitive blind spots. Imagine any 'expert'  of human behavior refusing to understand basic principles of their own field. It's also why a scientific method often eventually works when the aim is knowledge building whereas intuition, or 'faith thinking', is quite demonstrably a much faster way to think but can carry considerable bias (it's often wrong and if used in isolation can only build wrong things (faith refuses revision)). I should explain that by faith thinking I refer to the manner in which our minds operate not just 'religion'. When we make rational decisions about things and events that we perceive as being potentially beneficial or risky, we 'back check' our initial feelings. If we sense that carrying on might damage our future prospects (going to bed with the woman or man you feel suddenly attracted to for example), we might alter our beliefs or actions but it's important to understand that the main driver of most behaviour, including what looks rational, is based upon this 'faith thinking', making a guess and back filling with confirmation (bias, or what we feel or predict is true (but isn't). Science methods (as distinct from scientists (people) go the other way - counter intuitively riding roughshod over our precious hypotheses. That's why we didn't really begin to accumulate knowledge about how the world worked until relatively recent times with the unexpected advent of the formalized testing of our ideas or hypotheses. Humans thought, quite naturally hoped (still largely do), that naturalism (science) could be a great way to finally work out that what 'I already believe is true' is true. That was the famous physicist, Richard Feynman's, simple advice - take a guess, he honest as to what you should observe if your guess was true. If the observations don't match you are wrong. Start again, because,

"you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

Knowledge building primarily leads to explanations (Theory) which are, unlike the data, the story which makes our observations comprehendable. It's often assumed that 'real truth' isn't something that theory deals with (it's just 'theory') but some theories are demonstrably true. Geocentrism, the idea that the Earth is at the centre of the universe is false, superseded, never found, not a reality, an historical footnote on our way to further understanding. Heliocentrism is true. We and the other planets and solar 'gravel' orbit the sun. It is true because only a fool would claim that both it and geocentrism could be equally, possibly true. Vitalism is false. It is a word used to give the impression of an explanation for life. Around 1800 it was thought to be the explanation for the observation that living things lived and others didn't seem to because (theory) they possessed a vital spirit/force/thing/?. Vitalism was a proposed mechanism but since then what has been found are not vitalisms but the whole extraordinary process driven by and explained through natural selection. It is continuously claimed that two categories exist - one is natural and the other supernatural. The former can be known by observing nature doing its thing. The other is claimed to be 'more than' or in addition to or even causing the other. So what we appear to be doing is providing labels for our ignorance and feelings to give ourselves the impression that we have an explanation or knowledge of some description. That seems innocent enough until we realize that it's epistemically quite dangerous to pretend to know something we do not know. Claiming 'more than' or 'in addition to' is nothing but false knowledge. Instead of admitting ignorance (I don't know), we make elaborate attempts to paint a metaphorical picture that we hope our audience is unable to discern from a real explanation. Humans don't like to 'not know'. Surveys even exist that make that behaviour quite clear - humans will self deceive if they feel it's necessary to maintain their perception of themselves (as a person who knows things). Of course we do it habitually, believing we do know. It's easier than having to know anything and in many cases it is simply too difficult, financially ruinous or dangerous to admit we were wrong. Upton Sinclair may not have understood the details of cognition but he recognized the human condition.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

We say 'Can't teach an old man/dog new tricks' to explain our observation that with age comes resistance to new ideas. But is that true? Does it explain it or recognise something that requires further explanation? In the hidden curriculum we end up in knots believing we can explain it via the observations we make without theory. Or is it that we insist that children follow suit and maintain the 'epistemology of faith', to suit their parents ideology, to make us (whatever has become a cherished belief) feel safe (from interrogation)? And we need not do that overtly since we already know that natural selection 'chose' the ability to learn mostly via mimicry without the need to think - efficient. And the easiest explanation (also the real one) - since we are animals built for reaction, not easy elaborate thinking, we must learn the benefit, the wisdom of doubt. If we are not taught that in childhood, we will resort to our natural strengths - we will make shit up and believe it to be a form of knowledge. Give someone rote learning about biology but no considered education about the ramifications of its Theory and you will get a great deal of bullshit in return. You will produce individuals who believe that critical thinking relies on personal feeling and little more. You will produce the cognitively arrogant not the intellectually flexible. So perhaps you already see the problem. Humans hate to discuss their gut feeling, subjective opinion, 'faith thinking' , ability to lie and deceive, if that means revealing it (what we often believe is 'knowledge') to be, at best, a personal matter, and that it is not a method to be used if one is simultaneously claiming to want to know something. Knowing, as opposed to believing, involves not only the gathering of reliable data, but using the correct narrative or Theory, by which to interpret it. By correct (if that is even too confronting a term) we can just as easily refer to that which isn't correct. Even though we might not know everything about a subject (and we never do) it is quite insufficient to claim that a correct explanation is reduced simply, naively, obtusely to preferences or tradition. Omitting this vital step (and considering theory to be just 'opinion') ensures that the profession itself (my chiropractic one) remains backwards, and professionally unethical, in principle. If the 'theory' is some version of 'an invisible being/force did it' (essentially 'what my gut feels is good enough') we are clearly replacing knowledge not only with opinion but our stupidity. Theory acts as a filter for our data and in biology it allows us to clarify what the data is telling us (if it could speak). But remove Theory (as happens so often in health care education and certainly in the research on the hidden curriculum itself) and you remove the equivalent of mathematical theorem - you will reduce academics to tribalism and, ironically, misinterpret human behaviour in the process (we are tribal). You will get the answer wrong most of the time and you will not only be unaware of it, you will tend to become increasingly angered when anyone insists on correcting you. This is the analogy I used in classrooms inside a public university. It was not my job, as I was often accused of it being, to force anyone to believe anything in particular. If an individual was religious or liked the idea of vitalism, then that was their right. However, to become a professional, now responsible for the public, and use personal faith as knowledge is unethical. And that simple fact did not go down well with 'adults', staff, the 'old dogs'. It was too easy and too confronting to admit that our species has always understood that we just avoid difficult subjects for no reason than it feels difficult or confronting (and ultimately confusing). But as I said above, there would be no need (for me) to bring it up if the stated goal of education was to promote a non evidence based form of knowledge, one which could only conform to tribal norms. Must I repeat the word 'irony' - that our ignorance of what we are and our reluctance to discuss it, IS the hidden curriculum. What we then say (explicitly) we believe (we want to get rid of a hidden curriculum) is implicitly not what we believe. Implicit beliefs are those we hold and act upon which often do not even match what we state. That is how bias operates. That is what natural selection builds. That is what we must discuss and learn and teach (if what we claim to want is what we really desire). Currently what we claim to know need only conform to what we feel is true. And if that is the goal, to just be that simple tribal species, then forget about science or philosophy altogether as neither is required in the game of survival.

I offered the same example, a practical thought experiment, in another article, to explain why using ones own preferred and random 'theory' would lead to a wrong answer. In maths you can't get the right answer by using random formula and in biology you will not get a cogent one by being ignorant of natural selection (and most people are grossly unfamiliar with it (because it is hidden)). To quote from 'Inside Jokes - Using Humour To Reverse-Engineer The Mind':

"The phenomena of evolution are not as simple as they are often portrayed. It is not just a matter of the natural selection of "genes for" this or that - whichever feature of living things catches the attention and curiosity of the researcher."

Meaning it is very common for people to think that a gene has to be 'for something' (a teleological thought) as if they are selected (for you) by a person down at the markets (or a God on his cloud). That is, ironically again, just how we relate to the world and is itself a naturally selected behavior. So we are naturally selected not to interpret our own behavior incorrectly, it is that natural selection operates in such a way that being able to accurately interpret exactly why we do things a particular way doesn't occur. It is far too slow and inefficient. It would not build good survivors and so it (we) is not built that way. When neuroscience investigates the central nervous system it finds no biology that can be an efficiently slow, deliberate, natural thinker. It finds no 'philosopher' so one must be nurtured, taught how to think, in order to develop and maintain their own independent minds.

Many other examples of the misinterpretation of evolution and natural selection (the common story of all of life (the most contentious statement)) exist. The one above demonstrates that the process has to select surviving and replicating individuals by definition and can only do that if they, obviously, survive. But survival is not due to some neat 'intelligent' process (most of life's attmepts actually fail), as if a human hand (and the extrapolated 'human like god images' we create) had done it. Those stories are part of our cultural mythology, by no means unimportant, but by no means explanatory of biology. We are not even an 'evolved species', as is easy for our naturally selected pattern seeking mind to believe, but, more accurately, a species which is one of the many parts of the process of evolution. This is, after all, why we share genetic material with grass, let alone other mammals, because the process has taken place over such extraordinarily long periods of time. And all forms of life, ultimately, are part of the same evolutionary family. Even that sounds preposterous. Family?! How absurd. No wonder Darwin was ridiculed in cartoons as an Ape. Human animals can't easily relate to what looks unfamiliar (another evolved behavior which tends to make us good (short term) survivors). To say that natural selection is underpinned by evidence is a scientific and philosophical understatement of magnificent proportion, and yet it is hidden. Like any infant species we hide from what feels as if it could hurt us and the prospect of death, and our natural biological inclination to avoid it, is that very thing. Even our distaste of the idea of natural selection is explained by it! So it is not only understandable but entirely predictable that we would, as a species, be easily convinced that we should despise the Theory or at least be indifferent to it - it takes away our immortality - and have it removed from our own education (now we can bask in the glory of our own opinions about what is real and true). Our species (all of us) truly is like an intellectual infant, finding it difficult to ask questions of itself. We cannot bare the idea of dying and so we invent invisible companions. But since it is what children naturally do is it quite dysfunctional for adults to retain the habit. We enter and leave this life alone so who wouldn't be drawn towards the comfort of such ideas? But are they really necessary or do they actually compound the problem, make our brevity worse? Why do we feel the need to invent metaphysical 'trapdoors' (hells)? How compassionate is that? It's pathetic that once we are convinced of our ability to talk to the creator of everything (think about that!) that we are unsatisfied unless we have company (to share our need to fantasize) and we do not even care how we gather it. Therefore all such traditions come with 'warnings' about love - if it's unrequited (unless you accept 'stalking' as a type of love ('He' always seems to be watching) your love will unlove you. Humans can be quite hysterical about their relationships even those with invisible friends (which, when we think about it, is mental masturbation, philosophical solipsism. We are so besotted with our own imaginings that they become the principal rationalization for dispute and war but we are just as likely to call it 'peace' or 'love').

People are terrified to think that someone might come along and educate them in such a manner that they are then able to examine their own beliefs to see, for themselves, if they come close to being classified as knowledge. Once we have grasped the illusion of (eternal) freedom (which is claiming to be able to manufacture knowledge from thin air) we are not likely to even examine it let alone entertain the prospect of casting it aside. The task of thinking really is prevented almost entirely by that one hurdle (our own fear). Whole religious and secular movements, even forms of academic scholarship, are committed to arguing as to why it is beneficial for us to remain ignorant of our own nature, that it is both wise and moral to hide the Theory or at best so discredit it as to make it appear another 'idea', authoritarian, even a conspiracy. In short, my own professions need to remain unaware leads, with the same predictive power that the Theory itself holds, to the repetition of entirely non evidence based craft theory and witheringly insane conspiracy theorizing. We bleat that we want 'evidence based' practice. Why should we deserve that when we are completely unwilling to teach it in the first place? What would natural selection predict? That we are cognitively credulous. That we easily swallow hearsay, logical fallacy and guru ism and end up making sweeping and professionally unethical claims, all because no one bothered to teach us how to think about biology with more than gut feeling and base appeal, all because education abandoned us for the security of the illusion of 'consensus'. We have the knowledge to begin trying to escape pure primitivism, a task made almost impossible by the irony that we possess a biology that makes us too blind, arrogant and scared to even make the attempt to look.


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