Knowledge is porridge

(…unless you don’t like porridge).


On learning at school, at university, at work and beyond.

We the web kids vs what went before

I don’t know how many of you have read the article We the web kids but it’s one I recommend you read in full – especially if you’re a teacher or the sort of person who’s into education policy and the setting of exams. This world is a very different world to the one I  was familiar with during the dying years of the last millennium. (The late 1990s).

I took a “year out” (we didn’t call them ‘gap yahs‘ in those days) because in the run up to my A-Level exams I genuinely had no idea what my results were likely to be. (I failed my Geography mock exam – as did 40% of us – only to bring it up to a “B” within six months). Basically this was not the stuff anyone could be basing a university application on. It was a result of that experience amongst other things that convinced me the system of applying to university with predicted grades needs to be scrapped. This was a world where learning materials were limited – Blair and Brown had not yet increased spending having only just been elected, and even then it would take time for that spending to see results on the ground.

Accordingly, I moved from an educational institution where the culture seemed to be one of not using the internet at all, to using almost nothing but the internet by the time I got to university. One of the first things one of my house mate’s did when I got to university was to set me up with a web-based email account. One of my childhood friends who ended up doing computer sciences at Cambridge managed to find out my email address before I did, meaning that when I logged onto the system for the first time, there was an email from him waiting for me.

Adapting to the internet

In those days, my mindset of essay-writing was one where if someone had written something and had published it somewhere, you could cite it. It didn’t matter whether the institution was credible or not, & it made the business of writing essays far more straight forward at a time when my mental health was imploding. Rather than reading through pages and pages of things, far better to decide what you want your conclusion to be and search online for quotations of people who will back up your argument. These tactics got me through university with a 2:1. While it might get you through university, it won’t get you through policy world. We found that out with the Iraq war with policy-based evidence-making rather than evidence-based policy-making.

There was one essay – on the impact of corruption on economic development – which I did  score highly on. The difference with that one was I was genuinely passionate about the issue and read widely first before formulating a conclusion. This was to be a well-learnt lesson – one that I mentioned to my line manager about making policy recommendations to ministers when I felt I did not have all of the information I needed in order to make a sound recommendation. I was to find out that much policy-making in the civil service is inevitably based on incomplete information.

Towards history and away from economics

During much of my time at university I was buried in history books. I could afford to given that most of my first year at university seemed to cover far too much stuff I covered during my A-levels). Had I had the courage I’d have dropped economics – and my university at the time & reapplied somewhere else to do history, the subject of my heart. But I was a coward. In some regards, I think I still am with some of the decisions I have or haven’t taken in recent times. The area of history I focussed on was Europe 1871-1914. It was how I found out about Kaiser Friedrich III – the finest emperor Germany never had. In all of that reading, one thing that really stood out for me was just how ‘real’ these people were. Having also seen pages and pages of photographs and images of the individuals concerned, it makes dramatisations of events of that time difficult viewing. “He didn’t look like that! Sack the stylist!”

It was on the back of all of that reading that, after graduating, I switched over to a contemporary history post-graduate course at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge that sadly they no longer do. In my final six months in undergraduate-ville my view was to graduate, get the photo for my parents’ mantel piece and be done with economics. Even back then I had a feeling that there was something rotten at the heart of economics as an academic subject. Inside Job went and spectacularly proved me right not so long ago. At the same time, I no longer have the passion or desire to go back and re-explore any of the more detailed concepts. I feel ‘cheated’ by the whole thing – the authors of some of the core macroeconomics textbooks being compromised up to their necks by the financial institutions that brought the world to its knees. Hence why in part I feel my first degree’s barely worth the paper it’s printed on.

Do we stop learning when we leave formal education?

It’s a bit of a loaded question really. Since leaving the civil service I’ve tried to get into the habit of reading and learning far beyond my traditional areas of interest – history, politics and social policy. It was one of the reasons why I enrolled on the Open University course Engineering the Future. (I’m currently averaging over 90% on my assessed assignments, which is…frightening). I’ve made the deliberate choice to branch out in social media too, though procrastination is a horribly persistent curse that keeps coming back.

It must be right because Professor Brian Cox said so!

On wider reading, I’m also trying to branch out into areas I’ve not touched since secondary school. The one physics question in the GCSE paper that had me stumped was on what red shift was. I found out what it was all about because Professor Brian Cox told me in his book The Wonders of the Universe. When I read his book, I don’t hear a value-neutral voice, I hear his strong but soft Oldham tones. The book itself is more than a book about science. It is a rich tapestry of literature, history, religion and science all woven into one…written as if explaining something one-to-one, which is one of the many reasons why he’s such a popular broadcaster. Having the knowledge is one thing. Being able to communicate it is quite another.

What was really frustrating about both physics at GCSE and physical geography at A-Level was I was blessed with kind but hopelessly incompetent teachers. Fair play to the latter for jumping before he was pushed, realising that after 2 years things were not working out for him, leaving to retrain in IT. But by then the damage was done. At primary school I was fascinated by dinosaurs and space. Yet both of these areas were notable by their absence in syllabuses. I found a number of aspects of physical geography – in particular atmospheric systems to be incredibly stimulating. But there was no one to harness any of that. Hence why I jump up and down about the importance of mentors from outside of the world of education being brought into it.

Some of you will be familiar with the William Arthur Ward quotation:

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

What we’re lucky to have now is the ability to bypass some of the negative impacts of mediocre teaching. As We the web kids explains, the great teachers that inspire are making their learning available – for free. Here’s Professor Cox on stars. Would the mathematical equivalent made a much better job of teaching me calculus? Would the geological equivalent done a better job of explaining Britain’s jurassic coast? The internet and social media has given me access to the work of some of the finest writers, bloggers and communicators I could ever wish to read and listen to. And you know what? I don’t need a qualification for any of it.

It’s mind-blowing to think how far we have come in such a short space of time.  As our seemingly unending search for greater knowledge continues, lets hope that humanity will make some significant improvements on what we do with that knowledge.


2 thoughts on “Knowledge is porridge

  1. The challenge is that teaching is no longer about educating. Moreover educating is no longer about teaching someone to think or wonder about the world. We have succumbed to the pragmatic revolution suggested by Dewey and other education reformers.

    The internet allows us to find information, but it does not help us understand it nor does it provide meaning. As a result, we rarely get past the surface of an idea to understand what it means. Children and universities no longer teach people to think for themselves to ask questions so that they can understand for themselves.

    We no longer start with fundamental questions like, why is there something and not nothing? What is the best way to live? Are we living the best way? If not, why not? All of these seem decided. Yet, these are not idle questions, nor armchair philosophy questions; they are the lifeblood of our day to day life, our society, and our politics. Instead we are taught pragmatism, find the information, with the hope that somehow this will be turned into some sort of knowledge about how best to live. As if more information found on the internet will allow one to make a better choice. The NHS debate, for example, is shallow and nearly meaningless because it is reduce to pragmatic alternatives. We do not see nor do we look to understand how the reforms or lack thereof will change the shape of society and what the government’s means within society. It is as if those fundamental questions have been answered (satisfactorily) and we are just arguing about the different pragmatic approaches.

    As people are not taught to think, to ask questions, they accept the popular opinion or whatever passes for intellectual shorthand. Children and students have more information than anyone alive in history, and yet, they are more likely to make shallow and superficial decisions because they have not been trained to find or meaning or make sense of what the information means.

    I am constantly amazed to have discussions with atheists on Twitter. They seem unaware that their apparently radical and innovative stance is actually warmed over Heideggerian existentialism. They never stop to consider what it means to not believe in god. In effect, they profess an anti-religiosity or anti-established religion rather than the nihilism that is true atheism. Heidegger’s intellectual stepfather, Nietzsche, argued the consequences of such a belief was corrosive to society and its political structure. We have seen firsthand, with the Nazi and the Communist tyranny what happens when a believer in atheistic nihilism takes political power. The issue though is not simply whether atheism is the right way to live, but rather what that belief means within society. For example, instead of atheism what would happen if the person said they were a racist or a cannibal? Would we be able to explain or understand why that was wrong beyond saying that there are laws against those beliefs and acting on those beliefs?

    The issue of education is not reserved to a political philosopher. The question is practical and real, it fits our day to day life. Why do we obey the law? Is the law simply good because a majority believe it is? If so, can that opinion be changed? What if that opinion about the “goodness of the law” is wrong? If there is no authority beyond man, and man is the measure of all things, what limits are there on man? Even if we seek to follow our reason, how many of us are taught the rudimentary skills to do so? We appear to be educated just enough to accept what society offers. Pragmatism as an educational philosophy does not allow us to move far, if at all, beyond the currently accepted wisdom. We seem unable to explore why it is that how we live is the best way to live? If it is not the best way to live, we then do not ask the follow up questions of why we live that way nor how do we live the best way.

    When schooling is focused on a pragmatic philosophy, people cannot make political (moral) choices with any coherence beyond a pure cost benefit calculation. We seem to accept the maximum for our politics that if it feels good do it. If the sum of politics is simply about doing the best for the majority, what is it that makes that right? Again, we are hard pressed to understand that argument because we are not taught to understand the danger of a majority rule without protections for the minority, which itself is a relatively modern invention. In the end, the pragmatic education we receive in schools today reduces the human experience because it cannot tell us what it is to be human. How can we encourage others and ourselves to greatness, to achieve, to dream for wider horizons when we appear to be reduced to a life that is simply satisfying our genitalia? Is it any wonder the celebrity culture is such a powerful attraction, when that is considered to be the height of human achievement? Be a celebrity? Yet, what is that life, what does it mean? Is it a life that fulfils us as a human being?

    Returning education to training people to think, not simply to problem solve, is about teaching them what it means to be human. What is it about the human condition that drives us forward beyond some crude biological destiny? Such a discussion is not about elitism, it is about enabling the average person, the citizen, to participate fully as a human being in the political world around them where these questions are decided whether they understand them or not.
    If we educate people about the best way to live, to live in accordance with the laws, to understand why the laws are good, and what a good law is, we may encourage law abidingness. If we educate people what it is to be human, the intrinsic worth of a person, we may encourage a respect for the elderly and the young. If we educate people to think through the best way to live, we would see that our political choices have to expand. We could move beyond a pragmatic choice of what’s in it for me to a wider understanding that any political decision has to be measured against what it means for the common good.

    Our education does not stop at school and that gives us hope that we can begin to wrestle with the big questions so that we can understand the day to day world better and make choices that help us fulfil our humanity and enrich the common good. An education like that would change our society forever.

  2. I love this post because I have had a very similar experience. The mental click of actually *enjoying* learning has been akin to being given a second chance. Like you, I’m passionate about the importance of mentors – both in terms of having a mentor (or several who offer you different things) and of being a mentor where you learn just as much, if not more. I don’t know about you but there are times when I feel I can’t read fast enough, learn enough. On that note…

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