The last blog (No. 11) pointed out that to embark on the Renewal of Reason Project will be to start a long hard, taxing journey, but one which is essential if civilisation is to survive. Without the help of reason, civilisation risks collapsing under the weight of its multiple contradictions, waywardnesses and competing priorities. Reason involves taking on board more mental discipline and behavioural restraint than has been common during the last four Post Modern (“Anything Goes”) decades. This is not an easy Ask. Indeed it is probably the most difficult kind of Ask there is, because we are all very reluctant to give up our egotistic notions, urges and licences.
The alternative, though, is the kind of endless pain, misery and chaos which follows when civilisation breaks down (for example, after the fall of Rome).
The solution can only be, in the widest possible sense, education. But the word ‘education’ has been damaged and degraded by the Managerial Paradigm for Schooling which was imposed onto schools in many countries after the fiasco of Progressivism in schools failed around 1980.
What passes for ‘education’ today is a form of ‘pressured managerial’ schooling which is tightly tied to crude black v. white assessments. Marks are given for correct recall of facts and correct recall of process moves, but anything involving sentiment, values, allusions, understanding, culture or mental energy is ignored. This is supposed to be more ‘scientific’ than traditional examining, but it is also threadbare, because it fails to pick up any signs whatever of the very things the average parent or employer is looking for —namely initiative, confidence, flair, thinking-power, imagination, understanding… Soundbites associated with standard items of understanding do get ticks, but of course the soundbites can be easily rote-learnt, and we cannot assume that a candidate, who trots out a correct explanatory soundbite, has actually understood the item concerned in the ordinary sense of ‘understood’.
The fact that children are being encouraged and pressured to cram the listed facts of their curriculum for this purpose —to get as many marks as possible in the examinations— is not a secret in schools. On the contrary, this is supposed to be the chief “advance” introduced by managerialism. (It claims to be less “elitist” than traditional education, prioritising the best possible examination result for every pupil.) This is supposed to be the great motivator for candidates. They are no longer expected to try to make as much sense as they can of conceptual tangles. Their task is now much more focused —onto simply memorising the relevant, stereotypical facts needed in the all-important examination.
There is though, inevitably, a downside.
It starts with two banalities: (a) that the stipulated facts only need to be crammed, (b) that the main reason for cramming these facts —and known to the students— is to get loads of marks. The downside begins with the matter that once the examination is over, there is no need for the student to continue to remember these crammed facts. These crammed facts, which have only been “learnt” superficially, tend soon to disappear. The raison d’etre for memorising them was to get marks in the examination. Once the candidate leaves the examination room, the raison d’etre for this so-called “learning” vanishes. It is part of our evolutionary heritage that our ancestors knew that it is OK to forget things you no longer need.
It is also, let’s remember, an agreed maxim in life that <<Lessons need to be learned>>. The word ‘learned’ here clearly means ‘permanently retained’ and ‘taken to heart’. Memorisation, though, is only a transient accomplishment, in which partially understood soundbites are committed, with effort, to short-term memory.
There have been various attempts by researchers over the years to try to measure this inevitable post-examination memorisation loss which results from this cramming practice. The results do not make happy reading. Three research projects known to the author were L. R. B. Elton’s (a very early example), a similar project at Monash University Physics Department, and one conducted at UEA (Norwich) in the Biology Department. In each case the results were similar. They showed that the average student had already completely forgotten much of the content tacitly credited to them by their examination certificates. This had happened during the gap between leaving school and starting university.
One would expect scholars naturally to value their acquired body of knowledge, and especially in the particular circumstances when they know it is going to be the necessary basis of their university courses. To find that, on the contrary, they have casually neglected to remember large swathes of it, is shocking indeed.
Inquiring into this disconcerting phenomenon is not, however, a type of research which has been much favoured by professional educational researchers. They have tended to steer well away from it: no doubt because the results are likely to cause dismay, to the researchers themselves, to their sponsors and stakeholders. In each of the three cases mentioned above it was University lecturers who undertook the knowledge-retention inquiry.
It may be remarked, too, that we are talking here in each case about students of above-average ability, who were heading towards professional careers in demanding sciences. What was revealed was not a learning deficit among less talented members of the school cohort: there one might expect an occasional lack of diligence.
So the Managerial Paradigm for Schooling, which has enjoyed four decades of virtually unqualified governmental and business support, has a glaring, existential flaw. It is, in effect, currently In the Dock: because the Pandemic has shown that it has failed to equip countless millions of individuals with the ‘learnt lessons’ they ought to have securely acquired during the years when their young minds were particularly receptive. It has failed in its most basic task –-to equip successive generations for their adult life in a very baffling, complex, sophisticated world. The challenges of adult life are about disentangling concepts, not memorisation chores.
So if education is to be the main agency which can restore the habits and disciplines of reason to the intelligent population, it will have to be a form of schooling of a much more satisfactory kind.
A new paradigm will be needed in education.
A starting point in conceptualising this is to get the meaning of the word ‘education’ right. It is surely extremely self-evident that a form of schooling can only count as being ‘education’ when the teaching it offers is so memorable, so authentic and so affecting that the average student will naturally internalise it. We can then be satisfied that it is capable of lasting a lifetime. Shallow, superficial and short-term learning has no place in an ‘educational’ establishment.
[Of course students will also work on ‘practice’ examples and ‘passing’ problems, the content of which no one will expect them to retain, though some items may “stick” in the minds of some receptive students.]
We know that schooling can only, at best, provide an outline of the many things the young person will need to know. So curricula inevitably normally represent a small selection from the best, most memorable, most culturally significant, thought-provoking, bits of knowledge.
The first requirement for genuine education is that these items should be taught with the feeling of worthwhich led to them being selected in the first place.
It is a serious indictment of the Managerial Paradigm that this requirement has not been met —in those schools which slavishly follow the Paradigm. On the contrary, teachers in such schools have been led to believe the unlikely story that <<information transfers itself!>> as a result of mere presence —like a camera. The managerial norm is that teachers should avoid expressing feelings in class.
The Managerial Paradigm was imposed onto schools after the abject failure of progressivism. It is completely bereft of the features needed to educate the youthful mind. So we need urgently a Paradigm which embodies these features.
The central problem in creating such a new paradigm is a long-standing vacuum of leadership coming from the DfE and Government. This could be managed, as it was in the past, if there were an alternative source of leadership and authority. But this, too, is absent. We have now passed through four wayward Post Modern Decades when all the dominant voices announced that such ‘leadership and authority’ was no longer possible. They also went round spreading the mantra <<There is no such thing as Truth!>>, though it is doubtful whether they actually thought this claim they were making was true.
This problem looks heavy, and a proper solution will have to await the gradual dissemination of the exciting new Actimatic interpretation of science aired in these blogs. But much could be done at once by convening a committee of sensible public intellectuals like David Attenborough, Melvin Bragg, Trevor Philips, Simon Blackburn, Richard Pring, Bill Bryson, Rowan Williams, Marcus du Sautoy… to prepare a public pronouncement about the accepted —largely uncontroversial— quasi-consensual values needed, if feeling is to become the basis for worthwhile teaching in schools. Incidentally Marianne Talbot managed to get a striking cross-cultural consensus on such values at a major conference about 30 years’ ago.
[The curriculum should also be combed-through to remove emotive, highly controversial stuff. It is essential that students are encouraged to think, reason and form synoptic judgments… but within relatively politics-free areas. Disciplined imagination is the great source of challenging thinking. The notion that thinking can only be stirred into existence by airing radical and subversive political agendas is nonsense.]
A good analogy for this is the plight of a food processing plant which has relied for many years on water taken from a local spring. Now the water has become polluted, and there is no way in which its products, produced in the firm’s traditional way, can meet minimum Health & Safety standards.
The plant is facing an existential crisis.
Not necessarily! The rational way to deal with this situation is for the plant to introduce a 100% reliable water de-contamination system —prior to any use of the water in the firm’s products. Water taken from the Spring by others will still be polluted, but that used within the firm will be as clean as it is possible to be.
A Values Pronouncement issued by the “Attenborough”-type committee envisaged above won’t, like a magic wand, suddenly stop society being Post Modern. It will simply clean-up the situation in schools, where post modern sloppiness, left untreated, blocks anything properly describable as ‘education’ from happening.
The first priority in designing a curriculum to renew reason is to reform the teaching of maths. This will be the topic of the next instalment.