The Reductive Fallacy; the Expansive Reality

Einstein is reported to have said, “Everything should be as simple as can be, but not simpler.” Einstein got it right, but the tendency to get it wrong—to make things simpler than they can be—is called the Reductive Fallacy[1].

Not all uses of this fallacy are whimsical: In education we suffer from a spreading rash of reductionism whose consequences are anything but whimsical. Much of the blame can be laid on the use by educationists of “proxy values” that are said to “represent” something unquantifiable. The problem comes when people start thinking they are that quality or other unquantifiable value. A good example came up in a recent New York Times article about talking to babies and toddlers. It discussed a twenty-year-old study showing that children from disadvantaged backgrounds hear 20,000,000 fewer words than their more privileged contemporaries by the time they get to kindergarten. The reductive fallacy is that all upbringing and education of young children are wrongly subsumed in the proxy value “number of words heard.” Some people took this reductionism so far as to rush into saying lots of words at Junior, or having screens say them. Such things as play, banter, peek-a-boo and love were sloughed off in the rush to word count.

The current reductionist myth is that school is to prepare students to take multiple-choice tests, and that teachers are to be rated by how successful the students are on those tests. The fallacious reduction is to say that performance on such tests is a proxy value for a successful education. The result is to throw away all other kinds of assessment, including some that are better able to assess the varieties of learning.

But there is an even worse effect: This focus on reductionism leaves education impoverished. Sometimes that impoverishment is at a fundamental level, as a BBC article notes in discussing the value of musical education. It turns out that disadvantaged students who study singing or play an instrument have an easier time learning reading.

I don’t want to be an instrumentalist about learning music: it is great for its own sake too. Earlier this week one of my students, who is in my school’s Senior Choir, came into my classroom singing Schubert’s Ständchen, a song with love lyrics by Ludwig Rellstab and a wonderful lilting tune. Whisper who dares!

And earlier this month I went on the school’s Drama Camp, which took place over the long holiday weekend. One of the dramatists is writing his Extended Essay under my supervision: I was surprised and delighted to see that the quiet gravity with which he approaches this less-than-favorite task was entirely replaced by a charismatic verve as he went through his dramatic work. He was the most notably differentiated student on the camp, but others were nearly as keen and talented. What can schools (and education departments) be thinking by abandoning this kind of learning for more multiple choice preparation? The answer is that they are thinking reductively.

Further wrong-headed reductionism occurs when we say that this kind of “enrichment” is only for “elite” schools. Today I went to see a movie called My Voice My Life, a Cantonese-language documentary about the production of a musical play in Hong Kong with a cast of blind students and (what pass in Hong Kong for) troubled teenagers from “Band 3 Schools,” as they used to be called. Though the documentary might leave unanswered questions, there is surely no question that an education with such an opportunity is better than one that has had such opportunities reduced out of existence.

[1] The usual form it takes is to say that something “is only” some other, seemingly more fundamental, thing. If you say, as Bertrand Russell did, that people are nothing but “chance collocations of atoms,” you ease the burden of reflecting on life, but you miss something. Take, for example, Romeo’s first sighting of Juliet on the balcony: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun.” Let us whimsically apply Russell’s reductionism: “But soft! What chance collocation of photons through yonder gap in a chance collocation of atoms breaks? In that arbitrary direction ‘Juliet’ is another chance collocation of atoms.” Thus is love reduced to physics.

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