The Importance of Delusion in Education

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2015


Humans survive much better when they learn things. The importance of learning is much higher for humans than for other species living on Earth, and it is even more important for humans living in Industrial Age lifestyles than it is for those living in Agricultural Age lifestyles. This is why universal education and college degrees are both considered worth spending a lot of money on.

But education is hard to quantify -- it is really hard to tell what makes any particular topics or techniques good educating. Mixing in with this is The Curse of Being Important (my term) -- lots of people have strong opinions on what is good education and what is bad education.

This mix -- of being considered important, and hard to quantify -- means that delusion is an important part of the educating process. That is what this essay is about.

Defining delusion

Delusion is when a person or community believes something is true, but it isn't. The classic example of this is a mentally ill person who thinks they are hearing a voice in their head, and that the voice is Jesus talking to them. But delusion covers much more than that. It covers any time a person's thinking becomes disconnected from reality. An example of this that comes up in the education context is teaching Creationism in one of its various forms. There is a lot of evidence in many fields of science that the universe was not constructed in just seven days, but this still gets taught in many classrooms.

Creationism is an example of delusion that is not linked with mental illness. A person can be a Creationist and still function just fine in day-to-day living in modern America. It is also an example of why thinking about the relation between delusion and education is important -- the two get mixed together a whole lot.

Why mixing delusion and education is easy

Formal educating is the learning of things which are not obvious -- the obvious things can be learned without all the fuss and bother. Think of a child learning multiplication tables: In their young minds when will they ever use that skill?

The good news is that the human brain can learn such arbitrary things. And it turns out there is a lot of benefit to be gained from mastering these what at first glance seem to be quite arbitrary skills. Examples are the benefits that come from mastering mathematics and science topics. The mastery of these has lead to the Industrial Revolution and the prosperity we experience today around the world.

The bad news is that because education is so arbitrary to the learner in its early stages, the learner can't tell the difference between good and bad learning -- "good" meaning topics and techniques that will become valuable in later life, "bad" meaning a total waste of time, or worse, something at gets in the way of subsequent good learning. Likewise it is difficult for the parent of a young learner to tell what is happening in a classroom because they aren't in it watching the teaching happening.

And this child-parent distance grows even larger if the children are learning topics the parents never learned themselves -- this happens when the parents are raised in an Agricultural Age lifestyle and their children are learning topics that are important to living an Industrial Age lifestyle.

What this distance leaves room for is teaching a lot of delusion -- a teacher can teach all sorts of things that have no connection with reality. The temptation to do so comes from the teacher's enthusiasm for urban legend-style ideas. If the teacher doesn't know the difference between reality and urban legend, it is likely he or she won't be teaching reality any more often than they teach legend.

This does not cause an acute problem in the classroom because the kids can't tell the difference, either, and their parents aren't likely to notice. But it will become a problem for the kids, and the community, as they use their educations to cope with the real world they come to live in.

...sometimes, but often it won't make a difference.

When delusion doesn't matter

Delusion doesn't matter when it is not going to effect how well the children learning the delusion cope with their real world when they grow up.

Creationism, mentioned above, is a good example of this. If a person can make good day-to-day decisions while still believing that the universe was created in seven days... what's the problem?

In this case the problem is clearly a small one because Creationism endures and is popular. Which brings up another issue: Why is this particular delusion so popular? The answer: It's a Pillar of Faith.

Pillars of Faith

One reason delusions endure in the classroom is the Pillars of Faith concept (my term). Pillars of Faith are related to the Chosen People style of instinctive thinking. Chosen People are "us" while those who are not chosen are "them". This "us" versus "them" designation affects some powerful instinctive thinking about people inside and outside the community. People who are "us" get thought about, and treated differently, than people who are "them". Pillars of Faith are a way of distinguishing "us"'s from "them"'s -- if you believe in the same Pillars of Faith that I do, you're an "us" and welcome to being part of my Chosen People group.

Creationism is a Pillar of Faith for many kinds of Christian believers. This is why it endures in the community, and in the classroom.

When delusion matters

Delusion in the classroom matters when it affects how well the students cope with the real world after they leave and grow up. If the delusion is helping them make poor choices, it matters.

One place this shows up a lot is in politics. If people in the community have learned lots of delusions they will have a hard time voting for good leaders. This is because one of the foundations of democracy is well-informed voters. If the voters aren't well-informed -- if they are delusional -- then they won't make good choices. The most common error that pops up from this problem is supporting a populist leader who puts the community on a Slippery Slope (my term) and ruins the community by spending its resources poorly, and by over-spending them.

What can be done?

This is a big challenge. The heart of the challenge rests on three issues:

o On any particular topic: What is real and what is delusion?

o How to monitor teachers in a meaningful way?

o How to allow tolerance and free expression in the classroom?

Mastering all of the above is going to take more experimenting.

But, in recalling my own classroom experiences, there is one even-bigger issue that must be embraced:

Teachers should be teaching how to think, not what to think. Learning how to think about issues, learning how to deal with urban legend, learning how to deal with other people's opinions. That is the most important skill that needs to be taught. This is the most powerful cure for delusion in the classroom.


Delusion and education mix a lot. The consequence of this mixing can range from irrelevant to damaging. The most effective cure for the damaging aspects is to have teachers spend more time on teaching students how to think, rather than what to think.


--The End--