‘Truth’ falls by wayside in this post-rationalist world – The Irish Times – Thu, Feb 12, 2009

Our new religion has no official title; you can call it whatever you like or nothing at all, just so long as you learn to abide by its rules. I tend to think of it as post-rationalism.

The countercurrent to what is described here as ‘post-rationalism’ is what I tend to think of as post-rectalism. That is, the act of pulling something out of your ass and using it to perform social criticism.


There is no such a thing as personal failure either, just a failure by society to ensure that every individual reaches his or her full potential and achieves happiness. Hence, in Northern Ireland, we are told by opponents of academic selection that children do not fail exams, but, rather, that exams fail children.

There seems to be two underlying ideas at play here.

First, there is a belief that with proper scholastic nurturing there is no limit to any child’s academic potential. Examination results tend to buck this theory so, for that reason alone, exams have to be dumped.

Second is the belief that a child will be psychologically damaged by the experience of having failed at something (or, if you prefer, damaged by the experience of something having failed him or her).

This latter conviction has led inexorably to the point where in many schools it is now virtually impossible for children to fail at anything, even sports. On school sports-days, there are only first winners, second winners, third winners and so on. How all of this is supposed to prepare young people for adulthood, of which failure and disappointment are an intrinsic part, has not yet been fully explained, but doubtless it will be.

So opponents of academic selection are a) in thrall to ‘post-rationalism’; b) think there is no limit to a child’s academic potential; c) motivated by the same concerns as people who promote first winners, second winners and so on at sports days. The problem with this is that a), b) and c) are demonstrably false.

First of all, it is on the basis of reason, not its rejection, that academic selection is opposed. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it is appropriate to determine a child’s future aged 11 on the basis of a school test, the system of academic selection militates against children from poorer backgrounds. So in the parliamentary constituency of Lagan Valley, where David Adams stood for council election, 2% of children in grammar schools receive free school meals, but for secondary schools it’s 19%. It may be perfectly rational, narrowly speaking, to support academic selection on the grounds that you do not want poor people to go to the same school as your child, but it is also perfectly rational to oppose academic selection because you think equality of opportunity is a good thing.

Second, the word ‘comprehensive’ means encompassing the whole ability range. This is what Circular 10/65 noted:

A comprehensive school aims to establish a school
community in which pupils over the whole ability range and with
differing interests and backgrounds can be encouraged to mix with each
other, gaining stimulus from the contacts and learning tolerance and
understanding in the process.

You can’t recognise variations in children’s academic ability and at the same time believe in the unlimited academic potential of every child.

Third, opposition to academic selection is not opposition to the experience of failure as such (almost no-one opposes exams), but is in part opposition the fact that, because of the system in place, children are labelled as de facto failures at age 11, which is inhuman. It is equally inhuman, by the way, to label children as de facto successes at age 11, but the effects are not as punishing.

The rest of the article is post-rectalism of a stripe that does not merit much attention. Bar this:

Other words have been stretched almost to breaking point in their
everyday application; one such is “truth”, which is essentially
meaningless now.

As if he’d know.


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