Empty-headed know-nothingism not good enough, says educator
This is a long post, but it is, I think, worth your time. There is no subject that could be more important than this—and I bring good news…
I was overjoyed to see Associate Professor of Education Elizabeth Rata writing in the Weekend Herald about a serious affliction brought on by the Ministry’s national curriculum. Knowledge, she says, has been removed from school curricula, “increasingly abandoned for a misguided focus on skills and the process of learning.”
I was overjoyed to see her say that—not because I’m happy it’s happened, but because it’s long overdue that a well-placed educator has the courage to speak out against it, and because the paper on which her well-targeted criticism was based won the won the 2012 British Educational Research Journal paper of the year. Indicating both the problem, and the growing opposition to it, is worldwide.
- Knowledge lost from our kids' learning: expert – Elizabeth Rata, WEEKEND HERALD
Let's bring knowledge back into schools – Elizabeth Rata, WEEKEND HERALD
Rata’s thesis is blunt, well-written and cogent. And it is desperately important. She begins…
One of the great puzzles in education today is what has happened to knowledge.
Bewildered parents suspect something has happened in schools but are not quite sure what. Knowledge is after all what schools are about, surely - so what is going on? Why does our national curriculum not mention content knowledge? Why is it all about skills, competencies, and values?
That a problem does exist can be seen in the general unease felt by many parents…
Knowledge is actual content … a lesson forgotten at our peril. We need to learn it from those who know the content. Good teachers are knowledgeable teachers. When we remember this we will value them again. But it is a status that must be earned. A teacher who says "I co-inquire with my students", "I learn from them", "we construct knowledge together" does not deserve that status. If we are to value teachers again, we must first value what teachers have (or should have). This is the academic knowledge found in school subjects that most parents don't have at home … it is misguided to believe that "dumbed down" knowledge or using technology can compensate for the hard graft of knowing what you didn't know.
To deny children academic knowledge is to deny to the very children who need the knowledge the most the means by which they can succeed in life. Worse still is the return to the belief that some children can't handle knowledge..
All children deserve the chance to know more than what their culture and community can teach them. It is true some will go further than others but all must have the opportunity. Let's bring back content knowledge into our schools, before … there is no knowledge left to teach.
Elizabeth Rata is spot on. But it is hardly a puzzle.
To help solve this puzzle is to understand that this educational is hardly confined to New Zealand, as this one illustration from an American newspaper clearly suggests …
Washington, D. C., Oct. 10. Following in the footsteps of “No Child Left Behind,” the Department of Education is considering new requirements applicable to all colleges and universities benefiting in any way from federally financed programs, such as student loan and dormitory-financing programs. Continued eligibility for participation in the programs would require graduates receiving a baccalaureate degree to demonstrate at least a 9th-grade level of reading ability and a 7th-grade level of ability in mathematics…
For those encumbered themselves with a level of arithmetical ability less than that required, that means that 21- and 22-year-old graduates are now required to demonstrate they have at least the reading and mathematical level of, respectively, a 14-year-old and 12-year-old.
The educational fungus is everywhere.
As educators continue every day turning what would have been minds to mush, this is an issue of the utmost importance. Many folk fail to recognise that the failure to educate is not solely a local phenomenon. It is widespread, worldwide, and ongoing. There are many as well as look-guess-lady Dame Marie Clay at fault. If the finger of blame were to be pointed properly, it would probably rest more than anyone on John Dewey, whose system of “progressive” mis-education” first began producing mush where students’ minds should have been.
From his “laboratory” at the University of Chicago, his base for world conquest, Dewey posited in his enormously influential Democracy and Education (1916) that the operative unit of education is not the individual, but the collective—and the purpose of education was not the inculcation of knowledge, but indoctrination in “the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the [group].” For Dewey, socialisation in the values of the group trumps knowledge—“otherwise the group will cease its characteristic life.”
By this way of thinking, it is not so important that every student knows how many stomachs a cow has, but that every student (empty of content) is able to engage in a process of “discovery” about cow’s stomachs—with a group of heads equally empty of content—a process in which a consensus of opinion is formed, with no facts on which to form that opinion, on the subject matter of cows’ stomachs. Or whatever.
What is important in Dewey’s “progressive” classroom is not the facts about cows’ stomachs, or whatever, but the process by which agreement about the “facts” is found, a process of agreement formed by folk without necessarily any knowledge whatsoever of the subject.
The gold standard here is not knowledge, it is consensus; not facts, but fitting in; independent judgement it out, agreement with the group is all.
If this sounds like the basis for widespread mis-education when applied in classrooms, teachers colleges and worldwide curricula, then you might begin to understand where modern-day mis-education came from, and why it’s been so damaging. Philosopher Stephen Hicks talks in more detail about Dewey’s philosophy of mis-education here:
So Rata’s point is well-made. Over the last half-century or more the emphasis in education has been to de-emphasise the importance of knowledge, of memorisation, of actual learning—of making as few demands on students brains as possible—of filling their heads with as few facts as possible—of demanding less and less of them while grading them higher and higher.
If education is about knowledge, then students are leaving schools and universities with hands full of diplomas and degrees, and heads full of little knowledge at all except of how to fit in—knowledge not of the subject matter in which you might have your degree in economics or climate science or history, but of how to “think like” an economist, a climate scientist or a historian. How to fit in.
In other words, students leave their “place of learning” as “simple, uneducated men,” moulded by leaders to be followers.
The state's high-school education curriculum, at which Rata takes direct aim, is quite literally the curriculum you have when you don't have a curriculum: it is explicitly a curriculum without content. At the time of its introduction its cheerleaders proudly boasted it “focuses on the process of learning, rather than content"; that “it will teach pupils how to hold a conversation or ask for help rather than remember facts, historic dates or periodic tables."
Who needs to learn pesky facts, they crowed, when you can download all the facts you need at the push of a keyboard button. We don’t teach “facts” anymore, they say, we teach “involvement.”
For example, social science students will be marked for taking action to make their community a better place to live, rather than remembering facts about a society on the other side of the world. Science students might be tested on whether they know how to design an experiment, rather than whether they remember what the result should be. Mary Chamberlain, overseeing the project for the Education Ministry, says that although people are ‘rattled’ by the changes, ‘there's no use (students) being little knowledge banks walking around on legs. We've got computers, we don't need people walking around with them in their heads... People just have to get used to that.’"
People have got used to that. We know that most of today’s students are precisely the opposite of “knowledge banks on legs”—and they are that way because of the failure of alleged educators like Mary Chamberlain—a leading example of the empty-headed educational model she herself upholds.
But Chamberlain and the mis-educators of today are nothing new: this process has been going on for years–-just as this latest news of the results of mis-education would suggest.
At a time when Kindle readers, iPads and a flood of cheap electronic books has made reading easier than it ever has been at any time in history, especially reading the classics in each field of study, actual reading of those classics—or even reading at all for study—has never been lower.
As a result, while the proportion of students engaged in tertiary studies of some kind or other has never been higher, the amount of knowledge being inculcated is at an all-time low.
University professor, economist and cultural commentator George Reisman reckons by the time a student finishes an undergraduate degree, he should have in his head the contents of well over a hundred major books of his field, integrated and organised in his head, and understanding the merits and demerits of the ideas contained therein.
This idea however has long been out of philosophical fashion. A keen example of this is recent American research, said to be reflected here in New Zealand, indicating that university students are working less hard now than they were around half a century ago.
Figures indicate that a decline in study hours among university students in the United States has been mirrored in New Zealand.
“Research from the University of California found students in 1961 spent an average 40 hours per week on academic work, including attending lectures.
“By this decade, the average time spent on studying had fallen to 27 hours.
“An education consultant, Dave Guerin, says figures for the same period in New Zealand are similar.”
Says the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
The authors figure that 21st-century students spend an average of 10 hours fewer every week studying than their 1961 counterparts. Over the course of a four-year college career, that would add up to something like 1,500 fewer hours spent hitting the books… From the paper: ‘The large decline in academic time investment is an important pattern its own right, and one that motivates future research into underlying causes.’
The cause is philosophical.
Curricula without content and courses making few demands on their students—that’s been the dominant trend now for years, the result of the dominant anti-knowledge philosophy. And curricula without content and courses unencumbered by facts have succeeded in delivering students without real learning—and without any need to spend hours on the laborious task of memorising anything beyond what they need for the next open-book exam.
We’ve all seen them, haven’t we: those empty-headed graduates of today’s universities who seem to know less than they did when they entered; emerging unable to understand, or even to articulate, the leading principles of their chosen discipline—or the leading historical figures who developed that discipline—or the facts on which their discipline is based.
These empty-headed know-nothings all around us are no accident, because in teaching today’s students, today’s teachers have been explicitly devoted to delivering education without any content, and with few real demands on students.
Writing in The Free Radical a few years ago George Reisman (who would have been in that 1961 cohort himself) summed up the trend:
With little exaggeration, the whole of contemporary education can be described as a process of encumbering the student’s mind with as little knowledge as possible."
That, right there, is the problem.
Trends like this do not emerge fully grown. In his incisive dissection of modern mis-education, Reisman explains that this nonsense goes back even before Dewey…
It is sometimes observed that most of today’s high school and college graduates have very little education in science and mathematics and thus do not understand and cannot properly appreciate modern technology. There is considerable merit in these observations, but the problem goes much deeper. Namely, from the earliest grades, the prevailing methodology of contemporary education systematically encourages irrational skepticism ...
The prevailing methodology of all education across all disciplines is the same: it considers facts to be unimportant, leaving students prey to the irrational skepticism we also see all around us.
But today’s mis-educators insist that facts are unnecessary; students need to keep their heads clear in order to be creative. (This is the direct result of the mis-educators and ‘Romantic’ philosophers to whom they subscribe.)
But the fact remains: if your head is empty, what do you have to be creative with?
The problem can be seen when we compare today’s high-school curriculum (whose methodology is replicated across the sector) with what good education actually should look like.
Now, properly, education is a process by means of which students internalize knowledge: they mentally absorb it through observation and proof, and repeated application. Memorization, deduction, and problem solving must constantly be involved. The purpose is to develop the student’s mind—to provide him with an instantaneously available storehouse of knowledge and thus an increasingly powerful mental apparatus that he will be able to use and further expand throughout his life. Such education, of course, requires hard work from the student.
But hard work is now unfashionable. Students have got that message. But hard work is what good education requires.
Seen from a physiological perspective, it may be that what the process of education requires of the student through his exercises is an actual imprinting of his brain. Yet … contemporary education is fundamentally opposed to these essentials of education. It draws a distinction between ‘problem solving,’ which it views as ‘creative’ and claims to favor, and ‘memorization,’ which it appears to regard as an imposition on the students, whose valuable, executive-level time, it claims, can be better spent in ‘problem solving.’ Contemporary education thus proceeds on the assumption that the ability to solve problems is innate, or at least fully developed before the child begins school. It perceives its job as allowing the student to exercise his native problem-solving abilities, while imposing on him as little as possible of the allegedly unnecessary and distracting task of memorization.
“In the elementary grades, this approach is expressed in such attitudes as that it is not really necessary for students to go to the trouble of memorizing the multiplication tables if the availability of pocket calculators can be taken for granted which they know how to use; or go to the trouble of memorizing facts of history and geography, if the ready availability of books and atlases containing the facts can be taken for granted, which facts the students know how to look up when the need arises. In college and graduate courses, this approach is expressed in the phenomenon of the ‘open-book examination,’ in which satisfactory performance is supposedly demonstrated by the ability to use a book as a source of information, proving once again that the student knows how to find the information when he needs it.
“With little exaggeration, the whole of contemporary education can be described as a process of encumbering the student’s mind with as little knowledge as possible. The place for knowledge, it seems to believe, is in external sources—books and libraries—which the student knows how to use when necessary. Its job, its proponents believe, is not to teach the students knowledge but ‘how to acquire knowledge’—not to teach them facts and principles, which it holds quickly become ‘obsolete,’ but to teach them ‘how to learn.’
“Its job, its proponents openly declare, is not to teach geography, history, mathematics, science, or any other subject, including reading and writing, but to teach ‘Johnny’—to teach Johnny how he can allegedly go about learning the facts and principles it declares are not important enough to teach and which it thus gives no incentive to learn and provides the student with no means of learning.
“The results of this type of education are visible in the hordes of students who, despite years of schooling, have learned virtually nothing, and who are least of all capable of thinking critically and solving problems. When such students read a newspaper, for example, they cannot read it in the light of a knowledge of history or economics— they do not know history or economics; history and economics are out there in the history and economics books, which, they were taught, they can ‘look up, if they need to.’
“They cannot even read it in the light of elementary arithmetic, for they have little or no internally automated habits of doing arithmetic. Having little or no knowledge of the elementary facts of history and geography, they have no way even of relating one event to another in terms of time and place. Such students, and, of course, the adults such students become, are chronically in the position in which to be able to use the knowledge they need to use, they would first have to go out and acquire it. Not only would they have to look up relevant facts, which they already should know, and now may have no way even of knowing they need to know, but they would first have to read and understand books dealing with abstract principles, and to understand those books, they would first have to read other such books, and so on. In short, they would first have to acquire the education they already should have had.
And that’s the major problem of the education students are receiving today. To know what we’re talking about, we need to have integrated our knowledge. But to integrate our knowledge, the content of knowledge needs to be in our heads, not just out there in cyberspace.
And to put it there requires hours of study, and many, many hours of reading and thinking—reading and thinking that just isn’t being done now.
Properly, by the time a student has completed a college education, his brain should hold the essential content of well over a hundred major books on mathematics, science, history, literature, and philosophy, and do so in a form that is well organized and integrated, so that he can apply this internalized body of knowledge to his perception of everything in the world around him. He should be in a position to enlarge his knowledge of any subject and to express his thoughts on any subject clearly and logically, both verbally and in writing. Yet, as the result of the miseducation provided today, it is now much more often the case that college graduates fulfill the Romantic ideal of being ‘simple, uneducated men.’
Such a process of miseducation is so far advanced that few now really see it--particularly not those already mis-educated; or those like Ms Chamberlain who’ve been doing the mis-educating. It’s only when concrete research like that published today highlights some part of the problem that some awareness of there being a problem is in evidence. In all other respects, parents and students alike are simply blind to what's happening right underneath their noses.
No wonder the prevailing worldview today is one of irrational skepticism (for evidence of that look at any blog comments thread, and the membership of the Green party).
Contemporary education is responsible for the growing prevalence of irrational skepticism. The students subjected to it do not acquire actual knowledge. They have no firm foundation in a base of memorized facts and they have not acquired any solid knowledge of principles because their education has avoided as far as possible the painstaking processes of logical proof and repeated application of principles, which latter constitutes a vital and totally legitimate form of memorization. Such students go through school ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They are forever ‘winging it.’ And that is how they go through life as adults.
“It is impossible for them to have genuine understanding of anything that is beyond the realm of their daily experience, and even of that, only on a superficial level. To such people, almost everything must appear as an arbitrary assertion, taken on faith. For their education has made them unfit to understand how things are actually known. Their failure to memorize such things as the multiplication tables in their childhood, makes it impossible for them to understand whatever directly depends on such knowledge, which, in turn, makes it impossible for them to acquire the further knowledge that depends on that knowledge, and soon. With each passing year of their education, they fall further behind.
“Ironically, their failure to memorize what it is appropriate to memorize ends up putting them in a position in which to pass examinations, they have no other means than out-of-context memorization—that is, memorization lacking any foundation in logical connection and proof. Because they have never memorized fundamental facts, and thus have no basis for developing genuine understanding of all that depends on those facts, they are placed in the position in which to pass examinations they must attempt to memorize out-of-context conclusions.
“It is because of this that a growing proportion of what they learn as the years pass has the status in their minds of arbitrary assertions. They are chronically in the mental state of having no good reason for most or almost all of what they believe. Thus, in their context of actual ignorance masked by pretended knowledge, they are prime targets for irrational skepticism. To them, in their mental state, doubt of everything can only seem perfectly natural. Such students, such adults, are easy targets for a doctrine such as ‘environmentalism.’
“They are totally unprepared intellectually to resist any irrational trend and more than willing to leap on the bandwagon of one that caters to their uncertainties and fears. Environmentalism does this by blaming the stresses of their life on the existence of an industrial society and holding out the prospect of an intellectually undemanding and thus seemingly stress-free pastoral existence, one which is allegedly ‘in harmony with nature.’ The destructive work of contemporary education carried on against the development of students’ conceptual abilities from the earliest grades on is compounded, as their education advances to the higher grades, by the teaching of a whole collection of irrationalist doctrines that constitute the philosophical substance of contemporary liberal arts education... These doctrines constitute a systematic attack on reason and its role in human life...
… and the result has been the befouling of both human life and human thought.
[The] methodology of contemporary education [has] totally fouled the ‘intellectual mainstream.’ The kind of education I have described—if it can still be called education, consisting as it does of an unremitting assault on the rational faculty and every rational value—is responsible for the hordes of graduates turned out over the last decades who have had no conception of the meaning and value of [for example] the Constitution and history of the United States, of the meaning and value of Western civilization itself, or indeed of the meaning and value of membership in the human race.
“It has been responsible for the decline in the quality of government…, as, unavoidably, many such mis-educated graduates have found their way into the halls of Congress and the state legislatures, and into major offices in all the other branches of government, and, of course, into all the various branches of the news media and publishing... Thus, in what may prove to be the greatest tragedy in all of human existence, we see at the end of more than two centuries of man’s most dazzling success, the proliferation of heirs who as adults possess less than the mentalities of children. We see a culture of reason and science being transformed before our eyes into one which more and more resembles a culture of primitive men.
Those students are our heirs; unless halted, the lack of content in their brains, caused by the fundamental tenets of the mis-educators, will continue to be the cause of increasingly irrational skepticism, and and increasing decline in our civilisation.
Which is why it’s with education that our battle for civilisation really starts.
Thanks goodness there are a few like Elizabeth Rata who are aware of the stakes being played for.
QUESTION FOR READERS:
I know many of you regular readers have had the misfortune of enduring years at university. How does that gibe with your own experience?
In other words:
Q: How much of the essential content of how many major books did your
brain hold after you graduated?
We all know that many students emerge from universities knowing less than they did when they entered; graduating with heads full of random, unintegrated bits of information and arguments they’re aware (deep down) they’ve never really mastered.
We know you can leave today's universities without every having heard of the giants of your chosen field; that you can be given an economics degree having never read (or read of) Adam Smith; or an architecture degree without ever getting to grips with Frank Lloyd Wright; or a philosophy degree without ever encountering or wrestling with Aristotle.
We know all that—or do we?
How does your own experience gibe with any or all of these observation? I’d love to know.
Just to make it easier, I’d really appreciate readers answering these three questions for me:
Q1: How many major books were you required to read in your uni course?
Q2: How much of those did your brain hold after you graduated?
Q3: How many of the leading figures of your discipline were you introduced to (both contemporary and historical figures), and in what depth?
For my own part…
- I studied at two architecture schools, the first of which (Victoria Uni of Wellington) was lucky to even own one-hundred architecture books. Fortunately, that particular situation was improved at Auckland, though one was more encouraged to read magazines on post-modernism than actual books. So I’d have to say that I was required to read very few—but between them the Auckland architecture and main libraries allowed me to read several hundred (which somewhat made up for the paucity of the education on offer).
- I’d like to think I managed to digest them all, but a more integrated course would have helped. (It could hardly have been less) .
- Aside from historian Russell Walden, the lecturers I encountered at the Wellington school in my day seemed completely unaware that any architects existed apart from Ian Athfield, Roger Walker and the luminaries at the Ministry of Works (yes, possums, that does show my vintage). And in Auckland, if you didn’t subscribe to a mongrel combination of Le Corbusier and the Deconstructivist-de-jour you might as well have been dead—which pretty much describes the response if any enthusiasm for learning more about Frank Lloyd Wright was shown.
So those are my answers. How about yours? (Here the very few responses I received last time I asked this question.)