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soon be outdated.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
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
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.