Any child who goes to a school in a Western country is going to be taught many ideas as if they were facts, for instance the Darwinian view of evolution, the idea that we have evolved to pinnacle of civilisation surpassing all that has gone before and probably the view that the Earth in warming due to an increase in carbon dioxide causing a greenhouse effect, just as a few examples.
At university students are taught views that have been handed down through generations of teachers. Typically, a lecturer or a professor at a university gets a job because they have achieved certain qualifications. They have passed exams which were set by the lecturers and professors who preceded them. If their opinions differed markedly from the people setting the exams, they would have failed. And so ideas are passed on not necessarily because they are true, or the only truth, but because they have become the accepted wisdom.
A phrase attributed to Isaac Newton is “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In other words, we build on wisdom that has gone before us. We don’t question that wisdom once it has been established. I could give many examples but if we look back into the history of science we can see many ideas that were established wisdom, only to be discarded. It would be reasonable to assume that many ideas that are established today will be discarded.
For instance, Alfred Wegener postulated the idea that has now become the tectonic plate theory and the established idea of continental drift. When he first proposed it in the 1920’s it faced hostility and many critics were scathing. It could be argued that this is science at its best: the idea was after all, subsequently accepted. However, it takes someone with a lot of resolve to withstand this and today the forces that keep established ideas going are much stronger then they have ever been, to the point where I think many ideas would be impossible to overturn. There is simply too much much of a mass of opinion to allow them to be rejected.
The other problem with this view of science as a building up of knowledge which takes us nearer and nearer to ‘the truth’ is that it assumes there is one ‘truth’ out there. Do Western trained doctors have the ‘truth’ or do doctors trained in Chinese medicine? What science calls truth is actually a picture which can be used to explain a situation and predict future events.
Probably when you learnt about the solar system you were shown a diagram of the order of the planets. This diagram of course is a representation – it shows scale of sizes and relative distances from the sun only. This diagram shows sizes but in any real terms (except as a picture of models) is completely ridiculous. However, each has its place. A representation doesn’t have to be real. So if we form a picture of the body that uses the Chinese medicine idea of energy points and yin and yang, and another that incorporates Western thinking they are not necessarily contradictory, they are simply different pictures to illustrate ways of seeing the body.
And so it should be with all scientific ideas. There is not one truth out there but different ways of understanding and we should be seeking out different ways of seeing rather than condemning them because they don’t fit in with established wisdom. However, when we educate children we don’t teach them this. We teach the established ideas as facts. This teaching limits children.
I have a friend who dropped out of school early and after some drifting time set up as a graphic designer. She became very well known. What surprised her was that when she talked to people who had gone to college to do graphic design they were, in her view, very limited in what they could do. College had taught them skills but had also taught them limitations. “This is what a normal person can do”; “This is how normal people think”.