The Decline of General Knowledge

The Press, October 11, 1997

Denis Dutton

News that barely half of University of Canterbury students can recognise the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, even when his name is given to them as one of four in a multiple-choice list, won’t surprise many academics. University students represent the best and brightest young New Zealanders, but in presenting university-level material to them, lecturers these days can assume nothing. So far as reliance on general knowledge goes, it’s always back to square one.

Only four out of ten Canterbury students could identify Gutenberg as having made the first printing press (some thought George Gershwin invented it), a third thought Stalin helped Marx write the Communist Manifesto, and ten percent guessed the sun rose in the west. How did we arrive this point?

As a philosopher, I’m used to the accusation that contemporary philosophy has no effect on society: but it certainly makes a difference in education theory. The abandonment of teaching a broad base of factual knowledge in schools is part of a policy fashionable here and in the U.S. and Britain for the last generation.

The attack on general knowledge comes from both ends of the political spectrum. From the clammy, politically-correct left of the teachers colleges, we’re told the “traditional” notions of memorization, recitation, and even sitting quietly are, in the words of one educational theorist, characteristic of a “closed authoritarian system” that stifles children’s natural creativity and enjoyment of learning. It’s all part of an oppressive, European patriarchy, you see. Much more important than the possession of mere knowledge is that students achieve self-esteem.

In some American schools children now sit in self-esteem circles, saying things like “I feel good about myself,” and “my hair and clothes are nice.” This is how you produce a culture of well-coiffed ignoramuses.

But the political right, with its vocational view of education as business training, is equally for dumbing down. It too preaches a message of “relevance” — not to the politically-correct social designs of the left, but to the economic life of business. The vital and richly textured life of the mind is of little use to the practical aims of commerce.

Both sides of this political divide are united in the delusion that knowledge is advancing so fast there’s little point in teaching information that will soon be outdated. The internet, that chaos of disorganized and often dodgy information and infotainment, is supposed to be our children’s salvation.

The computer is yet another false god of education theory. Surfing the internet for solid information is a time-wasting exercise for youngsters, compared to reading a well-organised text. Information, no matter its quantity, is not knowledge. It’s not knowledge until somebody knows it, until it is part of a human mind and its outlook. There is no available (or even foreseeable) substitute for the learning that occurs in the slow, meditative absorption of the ideas available from books and from live contact, along with fellow students, with an enthusiastic, well-informed teacher.

A few years ago I complained to an a former education official that students came to university seeming to know so little in the way of specific information — such as, I remarked, the year of the French Revolution. “They don’t need to know that,” she snapped. Okay: maybe not the year, but how about the century? Do students need to know it took place before the First World War?

Chou En-lai was once asked his opinion of the significance of the French Revolution. “It’s too early to tell,” he answered. Are we satisfied with a generation of young New Zealanders who are incapable of feeling shock at the irony of Chou’s response? As things stand, a quarter of our students think the Vietnam War preceded the Korean War. Do they even know who Chou was?

The idea that any ministry official, businessman, politician, or teacher might somehow know in advance what students need to know, and that it doesn’t include the year of the French Revolution, should give us pause. One teacher told me that he thought students were better prepared today and that he was taught lots of “useless” things in school. Asked to name some of the useless things he’d learned, he had trouble remembering, which seems to indicate he hadn’t actually learned them at all.

Educating for skills instead of content, what is called “learning how to learn,” has amounted to a kind of knowledge replacement therapy practiced our unsuspecting young . Except that I’m not certain what all that factual knowledge has been replaced with. (It’s certainly not any familiarity with spelling and grammar.)

No one was ever politically oppressed or had his or her creativity snuffed out by memorising a poem or an ordered list of the prime ministers of New Zealand. To the contrary, once absorbed into consciousness, such mere facts are organising signposts in a vast, internalised web of knowledge. Developing mastery of content — facts and information — excites young minds to want to know more. Knowledge forms a system of endless interrelationships. The more you know, the easier it becomes to absorb new knowledge.

Self-confidence and self-esteem are not conditions to be reached in order to gain knowledge. Just the reverse: it’s actually knowing things that gives young people confidence and self-esteem.

As Aristotle so eloquently stated over two thousand years ago, “All men by nature desire to know.” It’s a message I wish could get through to the education ministry. But they probably think that “men” is rather sexist. Or that I mean Onassis.