These Students are not as Smart as Last Year's!
A Reflection on Deformation Professionelle in Schools

Douglas P. McManaman
October 18, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

As a teacher of the theory of knowledge in an International Baccalaureate World School, I will often hear at some point during the year that the incoming group of senior students are not as "smart" as the current ones. I am now skeptical of such claims, only because they rarely pan out, but that some teachers continue to make such claims is interesting from a theory of knowledge point of view. Indeed, a group of students might not enjoy as high a class average in a particular subject area as a previous group of students (i.e., chemistry), but to conclude on this basis that such students are "not as smart" is somewhat unwarranted.

Truth, from a definitional point of view (as opposed to the "criterial"), is a particular kind of relation to the real, a relation that we designate by the word "correspondence". What I apprehend, I propose (formulate a proposition), and what I propose, if true, corresponds to the real (to what is) - at least this is what I am committed to. But reality is multiaspectual; it exceeds my limited apprehension in a myriad of ways. It is always larger and deeper than my own intellectual scope and penetration of it.

All knowledge indeed begins in sensation, and thus is limited by matter (by place and time); but all science begins with the question, a particular quest rooted in a particular interest. This interest may be purely speculative, or it may be practical, but the interest bears upon problems that the knower would like to solve (for their own sake, or for the sake of some practical purpose). A question gives rise to a particular line of inquiry, that is, they position or pose the thinker in a particular direction. By virtue of the limits that sense perception imposes on human intelligence, that line of inquiry will expose the knower to aspects of reality that he or she would otherwise not have been exposed to, and these aspects will most certainly give rise to further questions.

But radically different questions rooted in different interests open up lines of inquiry that are necessarily different, that take the knower in a different or opposite direction - and in time dispose the knower in a particular way - , and that direction or line will expose the knower to aspects of reality closed off to those walking a different line (as is the case geographically as well). Moreover, these questions may take place on a completely different level of abstraction. For example, mathematical questions - a rather high level of abstraction - bear upon a delimited aspect of reality, namely the quantitative; mathematics deals in abstracted quantities and their relations. Biology (less abstract than mathematics) studies living things, their parts, how they function, etc., while chemistry concerns itself with the properties and structure of substances, living, organic, or inorganic, etc. Psychology is interested in human behavior, which is a very complex phenomenon - human beings are far more complex than numbers. This is not to suggest that numbers are not important, but mathematical deduction requires much less experience than would the inductive process involved in coming to understand the human person and all his many quirks. And, of course, ethics is interested in the normative aspect of human behavior (not so much what I do, but what I "ought" to do), and virtue epistemology is interested in the relationship between character and one's ability to understand certain aspects of reality, etc.

There is always an epistemic gap between the data made available to me by my senses and the inference I make about the reality of what I perceive; the reality always exceeds the available data. For example, I see an apple on the table, but the data provided to my senses falls short of my judgment that it is an apple; I know this because many times I have discovered that the apple that I see on the table is nothing more than a well-crafted fake. And reality is always more than what we currently know of it - a biologist knows much more about the trees in my neighborhood than I do, and how much more is there for her to know?

The reason for this limit is that what we know of the real is rooted in very specific interests, and our ability to penetrate it depends upon the data that is available to us at the moment - which is always incomplete it seems - and the questions we are able to ask on the basis of that information. Some questions simply cannot be asked, because the epistemic conditions are not present that will give rise to those questions: i.e., Galileo could not have asked questions about the wave properties of the electron, and there are questions that we will be asking in the future that simply cannot be asked at this time, because the conditions are not yet present that will give rise to those questions.

What does this mean in terms of our students? One cannot measure the quality of a mind on the basis of its ability to grasp one aspect of reality (i.e., the focus of a particular science). To do so is to commit the fallacy of reductionism, which involves reducing the real to one aspect - usually the one aspect that the reductionist is interested in (i.e., physics). This is the logic behind déformation professionnelle , which is the tendency to look at all things exclusively in terms of one's own "profession" or angle. This tendency is, I believe, the habit behind the logic of fundamentalism, or dogmatism. It involves an exclusivity that is unwarranted, namely conflating a material implication (if p, then q) with a material equivalence (p if and only if q). The latter is can be translated as: "[(If p, then q) and (if q, then p)]. We often see this conflation in religious fundamentalists, for example, [(if you are a faithful x, then you will be saved), and (if you are saved, then you were a faithful x)]. In terms of material implication, p implies q, but q does not necessarily imply p (i.e., If x is a man, then x is an animal, but it does not follow that if x is an animal, x is a man). Hence, if you are a faithful x, then you might be saved, but it does not follow that if you are saved (made it to heaven), you were a faithful x - you might have been a faithful y or z. Similarly, the following is unwarranted: "If you are x proficient, then you are smart (s), and if you are smart, you are x proficient." If x is a particular science, then we've left out quite a bit, such as literary, musical (artistic), and philosophical genius, among other types of genius (i.e., the brilliant historical mind, the highly intuitive, mystical knowledge, one with a brilliant mind for business, the deeply inquisitive, administrative genius, etc.).