Education may be the most fractious and faction-ridden activity we undertake. There is no end of uninformed opinion out there, so – taking cognisance of my previous blog (“Leadership”) which extolled the value of expertise – I’ll add to the pile. I’m mostly concerned with Primary and Secondary educational levels here.
In a situation like that it’s advisable to step back and take in the long view. What is education for? What is its point, what is the desired outcome for all the money and effort spent? The best I can come up with as a core common goal is “to prepare children to be able to live well in our society”. A number of current problems in Western education systems come down to a proliferation of aims, or priorities, within this overall goal:
1) to impart necessary basic skills such as literacy and numeracy – English and maths
2) to inculcate good values
3) to equip them with mental tools to deal with life’s challenges – philosophy, logic, ethics (aka moral philosophy), critical thinking, the scientific process
4) to teach the facts of mankind, the world and the universe – science, history, geography
5) preparatory training for currently desirable jobs/vocations/professions
6) to associate with socially desirable peers
Few would argue whether the first four are desirable; the last two are more debatable – and more argued about! The problems with them are that 5/ as the job market changes ever faster specific job skill training will be obsolete before the student reaches the job market (or shortly after at best) and 6/ associating with a restricted set of people – that is of attitudes and opinions – produces close-mindedness and intolerance, and so a lack of exactly the mental flexibility students will need as they move into their futures. I was raised in an exclusively right-wing world and I well remember the shock when, at the age of 16 – 16! – I met my first Labor voter; ironically enough one of my teachers at my exclusive private school.
If we have agreement over the first four items but not the last two, it’s clear they are where we should focus our efforts and it only remains to prioritise them. I’ve placed them in a deliberate order; each is necessary to absorb the next (#2 and #3 have significant overlap of course, and may well be considered as one).
The absolute minimum the school system must impart to any capable student is the ability to split a restaurant bill, to do a simple tax return, and to understand how ridiculous the odds on any form of gambling are. To be able to read a daily newspaper and make sense of any story in it, and to write a simple coherent letter or email.
As those skills are being bedded down they can be used to take in the wisdom of the ages as expressed in classic texts of various sorts – here I include everything from the ancient Greeks to the bible to Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, and use them as bases of discussion on how to live a good life – most especially what it means to live a good life.
This naturally leads on to the intake of wider material on the nature of thought, and in particular how to make sensible decisions on the numerous matters that all students will come across in their lives – who to marry if anyone, whether to take this job or that or none, how far loyalty to friends or relatives ought to extend, who to vote for, and so on. How likely is this claim I’ve just seen on an internet chat site – how can I determine that? We must empower people with confidence that they can make good decisions about these day-to-day matters rather than trusting instinct, what they’ve just read somewhere, or what some salesperson tells them. We need to train people to be skeptical but not reflexively cynical.
From there students have a sound base for considering the sweep of history; not just the events but the human thinking and motivations that propelled such events, whether glories or disasters. Why science proceeded as it did, when it did. Why people were swept along by a particular religion or political movement at a particular time.
What we end up with is an interwoven curriculum where fundamental skills are provided to enable ethical understanding, which then leads to thinking about thinking, which then – only then – leads to examination of what actually occurred and why. Year by year this process builds students’ ability to absorb and understand knowledge, and only then takes them through that knowledge itself.
Consider the typical progression of a child’s interest in science and nature, which too often moves from fascination to utter boredom in a few years. My contention is that knowledge without context, without the basis to understand and absorb it, is not only useless but boring and, in the end, harmful. We need to impart the basis of knowledge as well as the facts themselves, or they sit in isolation and the student cannot bring what they’ve learned to bear on every-day life. We are faced with the spectre of people who decry science but use it to find their way around in the form of GPS – which only works because of the Theory of Relativity. Who decry evolution yet eat food and own pets that have been deliberately evolved by humans. Who decry vaccination yet live in the safe world that it has created.
We’ve ended up with a society where everyone uses and depends on the output of science and technology but most have no understanding of how it works and how it has contributed to their life, and cover up embarrassment at their ignorance with disdain for it. The problem is I think that they have just been told these facts in a way that does not differentiate them from falsities that others tell them, and quite understandably they don’t see the difference; science and pseudoscience are indistinguishable when science simply asserts things and do not provide the listener with the underpinnings (pseudoscience has of course no such underpinnings). The process I’ve outlined above specifically equips students with the knowledge of such modes of thinking as the scientific process, logic and ethics, and shows why they are reliable guides to factual truth where instinct is not.