FactsApril 29, 2011
Previously (i.e. here) I argued that developing the intellect was about passing on an intellectual inheritance that, to adopt the terminology of Matthew Arnold, could be called “culture”. This implies engagement with a particular body of knowledge. However, there is a difficulty to deal with here about the nature of knowledge, one that came to the fore as a real concern in the nineteenth century, and has been used as an excuse for dumbing-down ever since. Probably the most famous description of this problem comes from Dickens’ (1854) ingenious portrait of the classroom:
‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’
‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.
‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’
‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.
‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’
‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’
Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?’
‘If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.’
‘You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?’
‘Oh yes, sir.’
‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’
The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.
‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’
‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’
The problem is that once we accept the importance of knowledge then we open ourselves up to the claim that we only favour the learning by rote of lists of facts. Our notions of culture and knowledge have to be wider. Some part of education is indeed about storing information; but at least some part must be about thinking. In the words of R.S. Peters:
‘education’ must involve knowledge and understanding and some kind of cognitive perspective, which are not inert. [my italics]
It is a genuine problem, but does it invalidate the role of culture and knowledge in education? Well let’s return to Arnold (1869)’s view of culture. Arnold believed that culture was an answer to the problems of his time, but when I quoted him talking about this before I did not put it into context:
culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits [my italics]
Another great nineteenth century philosopher of education distinguished between “acquisition” (of facts) and a wider notion of “Knowledge”:
When I speak of Knowledge, I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea. It expresses itself, not in a mere enunciation, but by an enthymeme: it is of the nature of science from the first, and in this consists its dignity.
While we can indeed identify a nineteenth-century problem of an over-reliance on memorising facts, Arnold and Newman were still quite explicit about stating that the educated needed to acquire a store of information, one considerably more demanding than that required by schools today. Have a look at how Newman would conduct an interview for university entrance if you want to see how incredibly high his standards were. Since the nineteenth century the tide has turned. I doubt there is a state school educated child in the country who could pass Newman’s university entrance exam nowadays (and I hope to look at the extent of dumbing-down in a future blog post). By their standards there would be no problem in schools today of children learning too many facts.
However, even though I think over-emphasis memorisation is now a non-issue, relevant perhaps only to classes engaged in excessive preparation for exams, I mention this nineteenth century concern about memorisation because a parody of it is often the inevitable response to what I have outlined so far about the aim of education. Advocates of dumbing-down will apply the words “nineteenth century” or “Victorian” to our current education system in order to pretend we are still teaching largely by rote. Their claim often appears to be that almost any amount of knowledge, and certainly any explicit commitment to its value is a bad thing. The recall of information is to be rejected in favour of other intellectual virtues, however, unlike the Victorian critics of rote-learning, these virtues are not a complement to memorised facts, or a part of knowledge; they are to be taught instead of knowledge. They put forward aims of education that devalue all content. I have already discussed those aims that are not remotely academic. They also come up with aims that are academic, such as a) understanding b) thinking skills c) creativity d) autonomy and e) inspiration, but suggest that they can be divorced from content. We will be looking at these ideas, and their contribution to dumbing-down, in future blogposts.
Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1869
Dickens, Charles, Hard Times,1854
Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, 1873
Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966