These are all the Blogs posted on Saturday, 8, 2006.
Saturday, 8 April 2006
A little learning is a dangerous thing
...if you've never heard of Pope, argues Charles Moore in today's Telegraph. Today's schoolchildren are tested far more than we were, but for what?
Exams today - with their modules, their coursework, and their questions requiring only bite-sized answers - have come to resemble a pervasive aspect of grown-up, office life: the obsession with "compliance".
If you work in a bank, or a government department, if you do voluntary work with children, if you are trustee of a charity or director of a company, you must comply with numerous procedures. In the name of certain principles, such as "transparency" and "accountability", you must fill in innumerable forms. Your governance policies and CVs and mission statements must prove your compliance.
Some of the principles invoked are good ones, but the demands of compliance are so great that it quickly becomes an end in itself. Huge amounts of time are devoted to proving your theoretical virtue: less and less time is available for practising it.
So it is with exams. As the former chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, complained in this newspaper this week, marks can be granted in some of our current exams only if certain key words are used. The idea of the "right answer" is not so much a straightforward factual one - for example, that the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066, not 1067. Indeed, pure knowledge itself is often disparaged in favour of "skills". No, the "right answer" is merely the words that comply with what the exam requires. The appropriate guff can be downloaded, undermining the integrity of coursework. This is the adolescent equivalent of the culture of "box-ticking". In fact, in GCSE exams, it often is literally box-ticking.
One result is stupefying boredom. What you have to do is arduous, but it does not make you think. It requires only that you take your place on the production line.
A growing obsession with "relevance" also means that the scope of what can be taught narrows all the time. All specifications for GCSE are currently being redrawn, and in September the new science ones come in. They insist that science can be taught only by deriving from specific, current examples, e.g. studying CCTV cameras to find out the science behind them.
The idea that there are general scientific principles worth teaching in their own right has been abandoned...
There's a lovely bit in Boswell's Life of Johnson where the great Doctor falls into conversation with a street urchin. "What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?" Johnson asks. "Sir," the boy replies, "I would give everything I had." If that poor boy were alive today, how many state schools would gratify his thirst for knowledge? How many would even applaud it?
A grammar school might have catered for him at one time. Now only children of the wealthy are taught about the Argonauts. The others must content themselves with the Argos catalogue, which is, after all, far more "relevant" to their lives.
Again and again, one is struck by the deliberate avoidance of the key principles or structures or texts of any subject. If you take religious studies, for instance ("Use examples from two religious traditions," say the GCSE papers), you see that what is not studied are the sacred books. You could come top of the class without ever having opened a Bible or a Koran. In English, you don't know grammar; in history, you don't know dates; in sciences, you don't know laws.
Hardly a day passes without some government minister blathering about the importance of the "knowledge economy", yet knowledge is precisely what we don't teach.
In our search for knowledge, we are becoming more like casual tourists than serious students. We want to travel a bit, see the sights, try a few foreign dishes. But we don't stay long, learn much, or do anything that is difficult or dangerous. We buy short breaks, with secure return tickets, and so come back little the wiser.
I couldn't agree Moore, Charles. Charles Moore assumes that most Telegraph readers will recognise the quotation from Alexander Pope. In this he is almost certainly right, but for how much longer?
On a lighter note, one of my abiding memories from studying Rape of the Lock at school is of one of my classmates writing about Pope's "heroic cutlets". Perhaps she was thinking of Lamb's essays.
Posted on 04/08/2006 5:51 AM by Mary Jackson
Saturday, 8 April 2006
Now children, it's story time. A long, long time ago in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a strange and wonderful people called the "truth-seekers." In fact, these people were so interested in finding out the truth about things they developed a whole method of inquiry just to learn more and more about everything they could.
But, as they learned more and more about things, they forgot the admonition of their forefathers to "know thyself" as well and soon they forgot more and more of the old wisdom that had led their fathers to become truth seekers in the first place and because their new method of finding out about things was so successful and gave them so much power, they soon knew all about how things worked but, in their pride and arrogance, totally forgot to inquire about why things were and in even more egregious error, they completely forgot how things should be.
Their knowledge increased, but their wisdom disappeared and soon the old code of honor, adherence to truth in word, thought and deed, became a just another distraction which no one thought he could afford.
Then the deceivers appeared among them and sought to confuse the people in order to gain power over them and to take away their freedom. They deceived them about the nature of their ancestors, the original truth-seekers, whom the deceivers called hypocrites. And the people lost faith in themselves.
Then there appeared a few representatives of the old wisdom, who had studied the old books, and learned the old ways and who could point the way toward truth once more, for indeed children, the stream of mind runs in only two directions: toward truth and away from error, or away from truth and toward error.
The poor people had been walking in circles of desolation but after hearing the restorers, quickly perceived Truth and vowed once more to pursue and treasure it above all things. They remembered the old wisdom for it rang like a bell in their hearts and eventually they rose up as one and cast out the deceivers.
Then the people became known as truth-seekers once again and they lived happily ever after.
Posted on 04/08/2006 3:41 PM by Rebecca Bynum