Professing Education
Dec,2002.Vol 1.No.1 P.9-P.11

Professing Modest Claims in

Carmen Schifellite

University of Toronto

In 1969, I remember, as an undergraduate, reading a passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five (1969, pg.114-5). In the passage, the Trafalmadorians, those prophetic standpoint theorists, describe the limitations of human perception. From their standpoint, we are described as beings who for all intents and purposes have our heads encased in steel spheres, while tied to moving railway cars, unable to move our heads and able only to see by looking through one eye down the barrel of "six feet of pipe". Vonnegut sums up our sorry state thusly: Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, "That's life." As I read this book, I was also in the midst of completing an undergraduate degree in Biology and Psychology and being trained in the ways of the scientific method and empiricism. But this passage felt like the right kind of challenge to the ears of the closet epistemologist I was and the 21st century epistemologist I was becoming.1

In my thirty plus years in the academy, I have come through modernism, Marxism, feminism, structuralism, postmodernism, social constructionism and constructivism to name a few intellectual cycles. Through all, I have never lost the passion both for trying to understand how we know what we know and for wanting to judge the quality of that knowledge. I am now, by credential, a sociologist of education who likes to ponder the changes that have occurred in the social assumptions we have about the quality of knowledge we encounter and, in turn, how we judge the reliability of these knowledges. As these ideas concern science and science education, I am especially interested in the ways in which the social constructionist movements in the social sciences and constructivism in education have begun affecting our perceptions of science knowledge.2

The trick, I think, in navigating these epistemological rapids is not to get hung up on positivist shorelines or plunge recklessly down some relativist Niagara Falls. Most teachers, science and non-science alike, know little of these controversies and discussions. This is understandable. Most teachers do not have the luxury to spend years pondering these issues and have not likely spent much time on them in their teacher training. Yet, I would argue that they and their students deal with the fallout from these debates and social trends just the same. At this point most of us have become suspicious of the tera-wads of information flying at us daily. Information, sometimes cynically manipulated, masquerades as knowledge changing rapidly and often in contradictory fashion. Study after study appear, with the latter appearing to contradict their predecessors positions until finally people throw up their hands, give up on trying to evaluate the `facts' at hand, and retreat to comfortable emotional or political positions. As I write this I am listening to a radio commentator who reports that 70% of people surveyed believe X, 65% believe Y and 75% don't believe in surveys. The final numbers reported, it seems, deliver the relativist coup de grace to any listener trying to work with this information.

It is one thing to understand that self-interest can play a part in the creation of research and in the `facts" that emerge from this research and another to try to make informed evaluations - let alone to try and teach others to do the same. There are sinister sides to these issues as well. Gelbspan (1998) has chronicled the way in which oil and gas companies mounted huge public relations campaigns designed to promote the positions of a discredited minority of scientists who challenged the accuracy of the majority of scientists whose research has emphasized the causes, dangers and consequences of global warming. They did this because they knew that the media, as players in what Tannen (1999) calls "The Argument Culture," always looks to present oppositional sides to issues. In this case, the companies' tactic has succeeded because Gelbspan observes that now whenever global warming is presented in the media one or more of these dissenting opinions is usually presented as well. The net effect has been to generate confusion and skepticism about science and diffuse action against the oil and gas companies.

Skepticism as an agent that immobilizes our ability to evaluate knowledge claims has replaced skepticism to be used as an evaluative tool. Many of us are wondering how to help teachers deal with this new epistemological terrain. John Novak (2002) recommends focusing on the development of leadership that invites dealing with philosophical differences in ways that promote integrity and ever-deepening democracy in all facets of life. Richard Bond (2002) has suggested that in a postmodern context we should be teaching teachers to expand their "problem-solving capabilities" and "increase tolerance for ambiguity." I would agree that these are important dimensions. I would add that we must, in professing education, not only invite teachers to grapple with the slippery terrain on which all knowledge now seems to perch, but also invite teachers, and in turn students, to pursue a modest wisdom in these matters.

To me, professing education needs always to involve first, challenging students "realities"? i.e., those formulations we make as we ride the rail cars and peer through our individual and collective pipes. Second, it involves introducing an element of epistemological chaos into the ways we can think about knowing and knowledge. Finally, and this is certainly the hardest part, it involves presenting ways of thinking about our post positivist and post postmodernist worlds that allow for a materially-based and what Helen Longino (1990; 2000) calls a "modest" (but definitely not relativist) epistemology from which active teaching and learning makes sense. This last part requires the development of a wisdom that can coexist with a world that includes, among other things: the existence of socially, not personally determined, standpoints; material reality _ for example, bombs that explode no matter what we think of the science behind them; and the possibility of contradictory fact and theory that can be incommensurable and apparently accurate.


Novak, John. (2002). Inviting educational leadership: Fulfilling potential and applying ethical perspectives to the educational process. London: Pearson Education.

Bond, Richard. (2002). Teaching teachers teaching: The postmodern apprenticeship. Brock Education, Vol. 11(2), Spring 2002, 73-80.

Vonnegut, Kurt. (1969). Slaughter-house five. New York: Dell Publishing Company.

Longino, H. E. (1990). Science as social knowledge: values and objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Longino, H. E. (2000). Towards an epistemology for biological pluralism. In R. Creath & J. Maienschein (Eds.), Biology and Epistemology (pp. 261-286). Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gelbspan, Ross. (1998) The heat is on: The climate crisis, the cover-up, the prescription (Updated Edition).

Perseus Publishing. Tannen, Deborah. (1999). The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words. New York: Ballantine Books


1. In a parallel, serendipitous and surely Vonnegutian moment, I was reading this, when I was also living down the hall from the real-life son of Bernard V. O'Hare, Vonnegut's war buddy who figures prominently in the text and in Vonnegut's own war experiences. You might say that this added a dose of "reality" to my reading of the text.

2. In the social sciences this discussion has been heated and has taken the form of "science wars" with both sides facing off in traditional positivism vs. social relativism debates. Within science education these issues have taken the form of debates and discussions about what is the `nature of science.'