A Call for Precision: Benjamin Keil’s Thoughts
Benjamin Keil is a husband, father of three, and Ph.D. Candidate in the University of Kansas’ Philosophy Department. The views expressed in this article are his own; his personal website can be found here.
Like St. Paul of old, I come to you today with two things: My bona fides and a message.
In case you’re not quite up to speed on your pretentious archaic phraseology, bona fides are just testimonials. If you’ve got bona fides, they show that you are an authentic messenger and that what you say is true.
Whereas St. Paul’s bona fides were meant to show that he was an authentic Hebrew (Phil. 3:4-6), my bona fides are much narrower.
I want you to know that I’m one of you.
I was homeschooled K-12. I did both NCFCA debate (as well as HSLDA debate before the change) back in high school. (For those of you who care, my first year was the campaign finance resolution and my last last year I did that awkward LD topic about restricting economic liberty for the general welfare in agriculture.) I even co-coached our local debate club for the “trade policy with Africa and the Middle East” topic.
Unlike some of you, though, my homeschool experience was positive. My parents never abused me, encouraged me to go to college (I’m now finishing graduate school), and let me listen to all kinds of music. They never made my younger sister only wear skirts and encouraged her to go to college also. (She’s in graduate school now too!) But, like most of you, fundamentalistic-style beliefs weren’t entirely absent from my homeschool years: My parents believed in 7-day Creationism, emphasized a hermeneutic of Biblical literalism, and chose the usual sorts of homeschool curricula to help pass on their values.
All of which is to say that I come to HA as an insider, not an outsider.
I recognize commonalities between many of the articles here and my own story. And many of the goals expressed by HA are ones I share. All of which, hopefully, gives me the credibility necessary to offer an admonishment:
Our movement makes three separate types of claims, and the evidence we offer for the three claims needs to be kept separate.
Let me explain the differences I’m getting at.
One type of claim that can be made is empirical – claims about the larger world or interrelationships between significant parts of the larger world. The second type of claim involves stories. Personal testimonials are smaller slices of the world but not less valuable – stories are how we make sense of our small and short lives. (Perhaps that’s why autobiographies are one of my favorite non-fiction genres?) The third type of claim is philosophical – claims about beliefs or belief systems which inform how we live our lives.
All of these are valuable and all have a significant place in our movement.
It is important (essential!) that we have empirical evidence to bolster our movement’s claims. It is important (essential!) that we have stories and we tell them to each other. And it is also important (essential!) that we present and defend philosophical arguments to demonstrate the insufficiency of belief systems. All of these types of claims are important and our movement would suffer if any one type were missing or overemphasized.
But although all three types are valuable, they are nonetheless distinct and thus should be distinguished from each other. To demonstrate an empirical claim, you need good empirical research (replicable research from a representatively large randomized sample where the methodology is designed to block confounding effects). To demonstrate a story, you need to convey it accurately. And to demonstrate a philosophical claim, you need to give arguments.
Let’s look at some examples.
Suppose one claims that child abuse occurs more frequently in homeschooling contexts than in public schools. That’s an empirical claim and to demonstrate it you’d have to operationally define homeschooling and child abuse, conduct empirical studies on the child abuse rates in homeschooling, and compare those rates with the child abuse rates in public schools. Then you’d know where abuse occurs more frequently.
Or suppose you claim that being raised in a fundamentalistic homeschool lifestyle harmed you. That’s a narrative story claim, and to show its truth you’d explain your upbringing and truthfully relate its negative effects on your life.
Or suppose you claim that parts of your parents’ belief system is wrong. To demonstrate this you’d have to accurately describe your parents’ belief system, describe the best possible arguments in its favor, and then show why those arguments are incorrect.
All of this is fairly straightforward.
But our movement will suffer if we’re not clear about the kinds of claims we’re making and the evidences we’re giving for those claims.
For example, if you claim child abuse rates are higher among homeschoolers than public schoolers, you can’t demonstrate that claim by telling your life’s story. In fact, you can’t take your life story, combine it with the life stories of ten other people from HA, and conclude that child abuse rates are higher among homeschoolers than public schoolers. That’s anecdotal evidence, and anecdotal evidence (while very valuable in its own right!) isn’t scientific evidence and can’t be used to establish empirical claims.
If you think parts of your parents’ belief system is wrong, what you ultimately need to provide are philosophical arguments to make that case. Relating your life story, by itself, doesn’t show that your parents’ belief system is wrong – although your life story might relate arguments, it’s the arguments themselves and not the story that does all the philosophical work. (After all, there’s an obvious difference between an autobiographic story of how you discovered an argument, and what your reasons are for thinking the argument itself is true.)
(All of this obviously oversimplifies for the sake of clarity – a story is almost certainly going to contain philosophical arguments [whether implicit or explicit], and empirical claims often rely on philosophical notions [for example: what, precisely, is child abuse?] So I am aware that any one type of claim will have some interactions with the other two types. But if one’s primary purpose is to make an empirical claim, then empirical evidence is called for. And if one’s primary purpose is to tell a story, then no larger empirical claims can be drawn solely on the basis of that story alone or that story combined with other people’s stories.)
My goal, obviously, is to strengthen the true parts of our movement – not to detract from any one person’s story, or empirical claim, or philosophical argument.
All are valuable and all have their place. But unless we clearly identify the type of claim we are making, and unless we are clear on what type of evidence would support our claim, our claims will be weak. And if there’s one thing I learned from homeschool debate, it’s that weak claims are inevitably discovered and, when discovered, should be discarded.