Explaining the “Pain Fetish” to Mr. Rotherham

Dan Willingham has written a must-read piece about third-rate huckster Alfie Kohn. But we’ll get to that later.

The gall, the gall! says Andy Rotherham. In “Breaking News: Psychologist Dan Willingham has a pain fetish,” Rotherham writes:

Seriously.  Why else would he take this on?

That’s the extent of the post.

Rotherham is apparently so stunned, so shocked and so confused about why one would enter this debate that I think he deserves a brief explanation. Here goes:

Dear Mr. Rotherham,

Professor Willingham will ‘take on’ this topic because he has a commitment to intellectual honesty and a strain of courage which a great deal of education thinkers lack.


Matthew K. Tabor

It’s that simple, Mr. Rotherham.

Criticizing the likes of Kohn is fairly painless. The professional blowback is a bit like being attacked by thousands of self-professed educators wielding peacock feathers. It never hurts, but occasionally it tickles so darn much that you strain a muscle or two from the laughter.

UPDATE: DW isn’t the first to deliver a few inconvenient truths to Kohn – D-Ed Reckoning weighed in on Kohn back in 2006. Read’em both.

4 Responses to “Explaining the “Pain Fetish” to Mr. Rotherham”

  1. allen says:

    It’s worth considering and trying to characterize the audience to whom Kohn appeals and what they find appealing.

    After reading a couple of pieces by Kohn some years ago I came to the conclusion that he’s the educational equivalent of Eric Von Daniken in that he takes some small observation or fact and, in order to create an entertaining storyline, inflates it beyond all recognition. The difference between the two men though is that while no reputable archaeologists, physicist or historian would give Von Daniken the time of day, there being a body of knowledge which has suffered at least an approximation of the scientific method in those fields, there’s no such body of knowledge in the field of education.

    Since Von Daniken didn’t have any appeal to professionals in the field. His appeal was solely to dilettantes. People whose interest might be caught by the outrageous and unlikely thereby providing the opportunity to present the facade of scholarship – and even better, novelty – without the bothersome work involved of real scholarship.

    Kohn however, does have considerable appeal among professionals in the education field and the conclusion I draw from that observation is that the sort of ruthless discarding of previously well-thought of theories that attends the scientific method isn’t part of the educational landscape. Nothing gets discarded – evidence the reading wars – because nothing has value.

    Like some obsessive-compulsive stacking carefully-bundled newspapers until they fill every nook and cranny, the education field is filled up with the detritus of the past none of which is ever discarded because it all has equal value which is to say, none. The teachers, and the methodologies, that reliably teach kids to read are valued no more highly then the teachers and the methodologies that reliably turn out illiterates.

    So Alfie Kohn’s like the parakeet in the coal mine in that he indicates the presence of toxic gases the difference being that Alfie Kohn thrives on those toxic gases.

  2. Michael says:

    Matthew, I think you need a refresher in humor. Lighten up, man. Really.

  3. Gretchen James says:

    Matthew and commenter Allen both need to read Kohn’s response to Willingham, for a look at that a clear and logical thinker Kohn is. Better yet, read the first 25 pages of “The Schools Our Chlidren Deserve” and be amazed at the importance of what he says, and the support he offers to back it up. The current fiasco in education needs the wisdom of Kohn to point out how far afield we’ve wandered!

  4. Gretchen,

    Already read it. When I linked to this piece on Twitter, I also linked to Kohn’s response. I don’t find his analysis compelling and his response was certainly not “clear and logical.”

    You mentioned the ‘straw man’ in another comment; if we were to play a drinking game where we read Kohn’s response and took a shot each time he committed a logical/argumentation fallacy, our livers would shut down by day’s end.

    Please, don’t assume that one isn’t familiar with an argument just because they don’t endorse it.

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