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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Curriculum: Truth and Beauty

A while ago I said that science has a unique claim to truth. I was wrong.

After reading Christine Counsell’s article “Taking Curriculum Seriously” I have come to realise that all human endeavour, and therefore the subjects we teach in our schools, are a search for truth, and that the reason we have so many disciplines and subjects is that truth is complicated.

Imagine a person standing in a tall box, with a hole at arm height.

The person can’t see out of the box, but they can reach out, and, holding a piece of modelling clay, press it into the surface outside. They can then draw it back into the box and examine it. The natural world has made an impression on the clay, and conclusions can be drawn from it. If the clay has lots of thin lines on it we might conclude there is grass out there. If there are dimples we might infer pebbles. We can’t be sure of  our conclusions, and we might seek more elaborate ways of examining the clay, maybe getting a microscope inside the box, or getting some different clay that takes more detailed prints, but we can seek truth about the world in this way because the world outside of ourselves makes effects that we can observe. This is the sort of truth-quest we have in science.

Imagine now that the person in the box has their right hand tied behind their back.

Their left hand is sticking out of the box, holding the modelling clay. There is a hole now at eye level, allowing the person to see straight out but their left hand is not visible from this angle. This arrangement has been in place since the person’s birth: they have never seen either hand. The person seeks to find out about the shape of his own left hand by pressing the modelling clay into it. When the person gives a signal, a helper will come and lift the clay to eye level, so that the person can see the impressions on it and try to draw conclusions. This is what it is like to seek truth in our social sciences: the goal is the same, to find out about the objective nature of an object, but because the object is ourselves it is the subject as well,  so it is harder to get consistent results, and there is more of a role for personal interpretation.

Let’s leave the boxes now but keep the clay. Your old-fashioned radio might struggle to receive a signal with any position of the aerial unless the radio is held at a funny angle. You don’t want to stay holding the radio in position but if you put it down then you lose the signal. A solution to this problem exists. It hasn’t yet been made, but when it is, it will fit neatly into the problem-space created by this situation. The solution has coordinates on a map of possibilities. You take your modelling clay, and make a little wedge, just the right height, for the end of your radio to nestle into… and you have found your truth. It was out there even though it wasn’t, and you hunted it down. This is the kind of truth we seek with technology and engineering and it is just as noble and beautiful and, in its own way real, as the truth in the sciences.

Now for perhaps the most obvious use of modelling clay. Let us make something with the clay and call it Art. Let us put it in a gallery and see what people think. Art becomes a part of humanity when it resonates and is validated by people: whether they think it beautiful, clever, witty, moving, or shocking. This quest for legitimation by people is the way the arts seek truth and again, it is a glorious undertaking.The resonation happens because the artist has found a truth, again a set of coordinates, this time in a different space to the technology one, a freer space with aesthetics, humour, and emotion as dimensions. Art is creative but in some sense its products are already there, hanging in the space where possibilities and the collective consciousness meet, waiting to be found even before they are conceived. Not everything that is created in the name of art moves its audience. The pieces that do, are the pieces that have found a truth.

There is nothing more defining of humanity than these quests and their products. If you could see consciousness and intellectual endeavour from space our planet would be radiant. And our schools are where we share this wonder with our children, induct them, and prepare them to contribute! Is there anything more exciting on this earth?! This exaltation, this rapture, for human thought and ingenuity, must be at the core of our thinking if we are to do this job justice. We must attend to the details and the dramas of curriculum, and we must eschew instrumentalism and genericism. With our many truth-quests, our schools should be like opals, a beautiful, shimmering riot of difference. If we fail to think properly about curriculum, they will be more like concrete.

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