“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to know that way?”

Just added to the blogroll is the blog of Baylor philo prof Alexander Pruss, who recently posted an incredibly interesting entry with the name Epistemic norms are a species of moral norms. As a teacher, I can appreciate the spirit of this post.

Quick summary: There is something about imperatives directed at how we acquire reliable knowledge that puts them in the category of moral norms. When I say (to use one of Pruss’ examples), “Don’t accept the testimony of unreliable witnesses,” I must be giving you that imperative for a reason or it is relatively useless (like Pruss’ conditional “If you don’t raise your right arm, at most one of your arms will be raised”). The reason that underlies epistemic imperatives is “Knowledge is good to have,” and that is at base a moral injunction.

In the comments, it is pointed out to Pruss that this idea of knowledge being at least intrinsically good (often with obvious extrinsic goods) somewhat begs the question. But I think that this argument is at least highly plausible for the average person because knowledge is seen as something worth having for the sake of having it. For the person who does not accept this, it will be a hard argument to win because the idea is somewhat based on values as well as pragmatic considerations (e.g. it’s been much better for society to have more knowledge about the universe because it has helped us find better ways to live).

This idea has profound implications for education. For one, I feel very strongly that educators need to value knowledge and learning (at base knowledge acquisition, which is not limited to mere propositional fact). The loss of that value is in my estimation the reason for declining attitudes toward liberal education, and teachers ought to promote learning of any kind, whether it is stats from a baseball card, how to change a tire, or the names and DNA codon arrangements of amino acids. Secondly, it is the loss of this value that presents such a dramatic obstacles even for teachers who do value education as intrinsically valuable; for the students must also share that value. To that end, one might say that a teacher’s primary goal is as value-inculcator: to cultivate prosperous students as well as well-adjusted citizens and individuals.

What I am setting forth is essentially a humanistic requisite for teachers: If you want to be a good teacher, you must do your best to model and espouse sound moral values. Being a good person isn’t just about doing your part for society and your community; it is also about doing your part for yourself and doing everything you can to learn about the world we live in. Everything else about teaching is secondary, from lesson planning to discipline. If you don’t try to convince your students to love learning, to get a test of knowledge and make them hunger for it the rest of their lives, then there is a significant part of the job that you simply haven’t gotten. Who knows? Maybe this attitude really would transform the way our students think, act, and live.


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