The Problem With Knowledge Part 1

February 8, 2015

Because progressive education is actually a fairly loose set of ideas, and ones which are constantly represented as something new rather than the continuation of old arguments, traditionalism seems very monolithic and coherent by comparison. While there may be those who think traditionalism in education is about corporal punishment or selection, it is fair to assume that somebody is a traditionalist, if they see the following beliefs as central to the educational enterprise:

  1. There is a body of knowledge (a tradition) that is to be passed on;
  2. The teacher has the legitimate authority, and a personal responsibility, to do this;
  3. It is generally best to do so by direct means (such as explicit instruction or repeated practice).

Progressives will often seek to fudge some of this, usually redefining some of the words (“authority” or “knowledge” are particularly prone to this); adding qualifiers that actually undermine the points or claiming that they can’t be progressive if they acknowledge some subset of the points. However, it’s usually fairly clear what is a traditionalist point of view. Attempts to subdivide this into distinct ideologies have been fairly unsuccessful and largely ad hominem. The age, contemporary prominence, willingness to refer to science and empirical evidence, gender, routes into training, subject, years of time spent teaching, and political affiliations have all been used to attempt to identify supposedly important differences between traditionalists with the hope of identifying one group as a passing “neo-traditionalist” fad rather than the re-emergence of old arguments that had been temporarily suppressed in recent years.

But while I reject the idea that traditionalism of today is of some different stripe to the traditionalism of the past, and will not look for generational differences, I do wonder if there are fundamental disagreements that might be important among those who, nevertheless, still subscribe to the axioms of traditionalism I identified above. In particular, I have started to wonder about the aims of traditional education.

Progressive education has always adopted new aims, and recycled its old ones. So much so that lists of the aims for schools written by progressives can seem almost endless (e.g. our old National Curriculum or Every Child Matters) and yet say very little about anything that is clearly the responsibility of teachers rather than parents. Progressives frequently disagree on what education is meant to achieve, or alternatively they accept that it has many purposes and refuse to acknowledge the necessity of choosing between them. By contrast, because traditionalists support knowledge-based education, there is quite a clear belief that education is about the academic and the intellectual, and I had assumed that this limited the scope for disagreement. While some caricatured traditionalism as being about passing tests (an utter straw man) and others have suggested it is about the needs of the economy (a position I suspect might actually be held by a handful of traditionalists, but still far more common among progressives) most traditionalists seemed fairly consistent. While some traditionalists considered knowledge to be “power” or “capital” I could still accept those as referring to the powerful, or well-endowed, intellect that resulted from knowledge. So much so that I, perhaps, had failed to realise that not all traditionalists agreed with my position, which I shall now elaborate.

My position, (which I have laid out at length before) is that just as it is better to be healthier, or physically fitter, it is better to be cleverer. My position is that there is an intellectual domain, familiar to all of humanity, and it is a good thing to have a more developed intellect. My belief is that this development, this process of making kids cleverer, is as clearly the purpose of education, as it is the purpose of a hospital to make people well, or a gym to help people get fit. Trying to nail down a specific purpose for being cleverer is as pointless to me as trying to find one for being healthy or physically fit. Education might help you get a job, but just as a hospital has not failed if a patient they treated is well but doesn’t return to work, a school has not failed if their students do not take particular career opportunities. Similarly, our personal lives and future happiness might be affected by our teachers and our doctors, but they have no responsibility for any aspect of them that is not derived from our intellects or our health, respectively. I valued cleverness for its own sake, and if I accepted it as having any instrumental value it was in the broadest possible terms. It might give one more humanity, autonomy or opportunity but these were remarkably generic values rather than particularly specific ends for education.

By contrast, I valued knowledge, not for its own sake, but because I was convinced by specific arguments that knowing things makes us cleverer. Precisely what we need to know might vary between cultures, but knowing more of those thoughts, ideas and discoveries that are considered best in one’s culture made one cleverer by the standards of one’s culture. And it is here that I think there might be other traditionalists who disagree. I think there might be traditionalists who, while being equally sceptical about education as a means to the non-academic ends so beloved of progressives, might actually think that I have gone too far by seeing knowledge as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I think there are some traditionalists who value knowledge because it is worth knowing for its own sake, rather than because knowing it leads to a developed intellect. I consider thinking, rather than knowing alone, to be the highest end of education, I’m just convinced that knowing leads to thinking.

In my next post, I will explain why I have come to believe this difference actually matters.



  1. Thank you for this.

    In Roger Scruton’s ‘Culture Counts’ he takes pains to distinguish between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. The distinction has classical foundations as well as provenance in the work of Gilbert Ryle. Scruton develops the significance of ‘knowing how’ as a crucial part of a traditional education.

    I am wondering whether this is an acceptable distinction in your scheme.

    Thank you.

    • I’d have to know exactly how it is defined. Like contrasting knowledge and skills, it is all in the definitions. Learning to be able to do something is not something anyone is against. The problems come up when the intellectual domain is characterised as a series of skills (evaluating, creating, analysing etc.) that are independent of knowledge or that need some special form of pedagogy to be learnt. Or alternatively, when the intellectual domain is diminished in favour of the types of activities that “kids like these” need.

      • Knowing that is knowledge of a fact. Knowing how is knowledge of a technique. I know how to ride a bicycle is not dependant on knowing a fact. I know how to create an extended jazz improvisation likewise. I am not conflating knowing how with a skill.

        • But you surely need to know some facts to ride a bike or improvise jazz. And why can you not have factual knowledge of a technique? Is solving a quadratic equation a matter of knowing what to do or knowing how to do it?

          • No factual knowledge is required in order to know how to ride a bicycle or create a jazz improvisation. Attempts can be made to codify these knowhows, of course, and another form of knowing established. Yes, you can have factual knowledge of a technique. It doesn’t follow that this is required in order to know.

            • At the very least you need to know to put your feet on the pedals.

          • ‘Need to know to put your feet on the pedals’. Need to know how to put your feet on the pedals.

          • This is wrong, you need factual knowledge in order to ride bike, not only what you believe it piece of the bike does but also what to do in the event of ‘x’

            Formally teaching this to another speeds its acquisition rather than relying on experience as the main source of such knowledge.

            Experience then reinforces the taught knowledge until it becomes tacit.


          • The riding of a bicycle is an example of sensori-motor learning, if I remember my Piaget aright. But most teaching is about abstract intellectual matters – formal operations, in Piaget’s terminology. You might argue that the amount of factual knowledge you need to ride a bicycle is limited – but this analogy does not necessarily transfer to the subject of most education at KS2 and above.

            Take for example the idea in the 1988 History Curriculum that you could teach pure skills like “use of historical sources”. Let us suppose I find a document that purports to be Hitler’s secret diaries. In order to check whether it is authentic, can I take it to someone who has mastered the skill of using and interpreting historical sources, but has no knowledge of Hitler or Nazi Germany? Obviously not. The skill is completely redundant without a deep grounding in factual knowledge.

            The dichotomy between “knowing how” and “knowing that” is unhelpful because “knowing how” is not actually a sort of knowledge at all. “Knowing how” simply means that “you can”, you have the “capability”. In the example of a sensori-motor task, “knowing how” might mean simply having well developed “muscle memory”, as I think the sports trainers call it. But “knowing how” to write a book on Byzantine Art will require extensive factual knowledge about your subject, and “knowing how” to set up a new business requires good contacts, good social capital. We say that someone “knows how” so long as they do – often without knowing how the performance was successfully completed.

            Most intellectual skills require the ability to link facts and, given the small number of facts that can be held in short-term memory, the ability to link facts in almost all cases requires extensive factual knowledge, encoded into long-term memory. The bicycle example is a blind alley.

            • Thank you for this. My perspective is music education where ‘knowing how to make music well’ is I think important and where ‘knowing that’ is of service but not the end. The riding a bicycle example is helpful in the case of music and possibly beyond because it exemplifies the role of tacit knowledge (Polanyi) which is thought to be foundational in good musical performance. So it is a matter of putting propositional knowledge in its place – in the order of things. Music as a domain of knowledge thrives in this way. So perhaps music and the arts become useful outliers in the knowledge debate.

          • Thanks – I agree that music has a strong “sensori-motor” element. though (not having progressed beyond the treble recorder myself), I imagine that the higher levels of expression and creativity become increasingly dependent on one’s knowledge, not just about the theory of music but more especially about the variety of ways in which other musicians express themselves. It may even depend on one’s depth of experience of life and other branches of the expressive arts.

            But the difference between what it takes to “know how” to ride a bicycle, play an instrument, write an essay or lead an outward-bound expedition just supports my earlier point, that “knowing how” is more about the observation of capability than the internal reality of what knowledge is.

            That doesn’t mean that “knowing how” is not important. In practice, everything resolves to “knowing how”. Knowing *that* Paris is the capital of France is only demonstrated by showing that the student knows *how* to answer this question. We never get to observe directly how the neurons are lining up.

  2. I would, these days, also consider myself a traditionalist. For example, I do agree with your 3 tenets near the beginning.

    However, I think that there can be a distinction made between traditionalist means and traditionalist ends, and it would seem that in the latter, I am clearly rather more progressive than you.

    My own definition of the purpose of education would be “to enable the fullest access to the richness of human discourse and activity”, with the goal of humans becoming “happy, productive, good citizens”. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for us to have ultimate aims like this, rather than thinking it’s nothing to do with us; we’re just here to “tool you up intellectually” and let your family and popular culture give you the rest.

    I can certainly support the pursuit of “cleverness” as a fundamental part of this, but the fact that progressive education keeps reinventing itself time and time again should tell us that we are selling humanity short by just saying that really, cleverness is our only remit.

    I know that you don’t think that character education is possible (and from this post, presumably not desirable anyway), but if we’re going to have children for 7-8 hours a day, 5 days a week for most of the year, for maybe 16 years of their life, it is pretty naive to think that we don’t have a fundamental effect on their characters whether we think we should or not. We can’t escape it.

    • I think this can be challenged on several points.

      Firstly, “the fullest access to the richness of human discourse and activity” may stem from knowledge.

      Secondly, the goal of being happy, productive, good citizens” is not clearly an educational one. If people are happier living in ignorance, or more productive if they have limited horizons, should schools collude in that?

      Thirdly, the challenge of progressive education is not met by agreeing with it. That education is about the intellect is not selling humanity short, as long as we recognise that education is only part of life. To say that schools should not take responsibility for parts of life better provided by parents, communities, doctors, priests etc. is not to diminish education but to give it meaning.

      Finally, what we affect indirectly and what our purpose as educators is, are two different things. As schools are communities we may well influence character, or provide opportunities to develop it. But it is not the point of schools.

      • Thanks Andrew. However…

        “Firstly, “the fullest access to the richness of human discourse and activity” may stem from knowledge.” Not all of it. Even if appropriate ‘attitudes’ can emerge from knowledge, effective behavioural habits take training. We are animals at many levels, whether we like it or not.

        “Secondly, the goal of being happy, productive, good citizens” is not clearly an educational one. If people are happier living in ignorance, or more productive if they have limited horizons, should schools collude in that?” Not sure I follow you. We educate so that people are in a position to make the most powerful free choice regarding what will bring them happiness and how they wish to be productive or otherwise (whilst not messing-up the lives of the rest of us). Why else make them ‘clever’?

        As to your third and fourth points, I think it would indeed be very convenient to say schools are just about making people clever. It makes it much easier to defend our teaching methods. However, it’s a bit like a prison warder who firmly asserts that prisons are simply there for the purpose of retribution… or correction…or deterrence… or to keep criminals away from the public, disowning responsibility for the other areas. Firstly, it doesn’t actually make it so, and secondly, who is he actually to say this is the case? It is actually up to society in general to decide what schools are for, not teachers.

        If a child tells us they’re ‘stuck’, how we respond prepares their character for life, as well as ‘unsticks’ them in that moment. We are at the very heart of that ‘community’ you mentioned. We cannot just wash our hands of responsibility for the thousands of hours of character education we inflict on children during their childhood because ‘it’s not what we’re really here for’. Can farmers ignore any responsibility for the British countryside because they’re ‘just there to make food’?

      • Hi again Andrew. Being keen on this sort of thing and also to get to the heart of a matter, I’m still trying to wrestle myself round to your way of thinking, which I know will have a lot of wisdom behind it. :)

        Would it be fair to say from your opinion that we shouldn’t see schooling as trying to set pupils up to ‘succeed’ in life, but rather as simply trying to ensure that if they ‘fail’, it shouldn’t be due to ignorance? I think I can possibly get behind such a limit on our role.

        However, then I wonder what the knock-ons might be of saying “Our only purpose is to develop cleverness; character and values are the responsibility of parents.” (there’s no point in saying the ‘wider community’ as, other than police & social services it may not be present). Does it conversely allow parents to wash their hands of any responsibility for their children’s academic development? I can’t help feeling we still need to expect parents to support our academic efforts, whilst continuing to acknowledge our strategic position for supporting character development.

        I know that schools tend to get unfairly blamed for the anti-social failures of young people, and so it’s tempting to draw the line and say “you shouldn’t be expecting this of us”. But this is a buck which can easily just be passed round and round without finding any single point of failure. I can’t really write a letter of complaint to ‘society’. I have 4 sons aged 8 to 18. I often ponder how much of their strengths and weaknesses in character have come from our parenting, their schooling and just plain old genetics. I know I’ll never find an exact measure, but I do know there are times when I’m glad of the influence of one of those things in the face of deficiencies in the other two.

        Thanks for the opportunity to discuss and think through my thoughts.

        • To be honest, I think there’s a limit to which anyone can be blamed for the character of others. I believe we have free will. School could only ever be an indirect influence on a child’s character, but it could be the main source of their knowledge.

  3. Two thoughts. The first from the ed-tech perspective: that one of the problems with ed-tech to date has been its reluctance to specify learning objectives. This raises the to my mind interesting question of how you do this. Short rubrics (the basis of criterion referencing) did not work because everyone interprets the criterion differently. My argument is that what Tim Oates calls the “constructs” – the things that compose the curriculum – or what many in the ed-tech world would call “competency definitions”, or what I would call “capability representations” can only be understood if they are expressed by reference to examples of type of performance that could be associated with that capability. In other words, not only is “teaching to the test” OK, so long as the test is well-designed, but this is the ONLY way by which we can understand what it is that we are meant to be teaching. If follows from this position that there is no real difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how” – and I will be interested to see how you argue the relationship between knowledge and thinking.

    Second, I think you define the traditionalist position very well as the belief in need to hand down a tradition. I recently published my 1990 PGCE thesis on this topic at http://edtechnow.net/2014/10/29/should-education-socialize/. Though I agree with you that the progressive position tends to become more fragmented that the traditional one, I think it could be also be boiled down to the belief that education is about facilitating individual development, driven by an internal roadmap. Hence their hostility to learning objectives of any sort. Traditionalists also believe in development, of course, but do not see this as antagonistic to the influence of society and its traditions. In the words (more or less) of Seymour Papert, a big name in ed-tech who disagreed with his mentor Piaget, “we all have to build our own intellectual structures, but we have to build them with bricks baked in the kiln of society”.


    • Having just read jfin107’s comments on “knowing how” and “knowing that”, I should perhaps elaborate my suggestion that they are fundamentally the same thing.

      First, the only way we can determine that someone “knows that” Paris is the capital of France is if he “knows how” to answer a question on that point.

      Second, “knowing how” depends on a wide range of factual knowledge. The notion in the 1988 History Curriculum that you could directly teach generalisable skills, such as the use of sources, without the factual knowledge required to interpret sources, was flawed.

      I do not mean to suggest that we should not continue to bear in mind the two expressions, as at least different perspectives on the problem. From the point of view of the teacher, this means that we should not be content just with rote learning, but set exercises in the manipulation and application of knowledge to solving problems and creative exercises (cf. Bloom). This comes back to the distinction (and perhaps more importantly, interdependence) between knowing and thinking, which Andrew promises to explore next time.

    • The reason I see progressive education as more fragmented is that a rejection of any of those characteristics of traditionalism would be seen as progressive, even if the others were accepted. So you could have a form of progressivism that accepted the need to hand on knowledge, and the authority of the teacher, but insisted on the value of using “progressive” teaching methods in the form of avoiding explanations or practice. This would be very different to those who reject the importance of knowledge, or rebel against the authority of the teacher, but would still be progressive.

      • So you see progressive theory as a sort of protest vote – a rainbow alliance of discontents?

        I would agree that there is an element of protest in the progressive agenda – but I suspect that the protest is more cohesive than that. At its heart, I think, is the problem (problem, at least, from the progressive perspective) that Plato identified – the implication that being an authority (i.e. having knowledge) is associated with having authority (i.e. power). Knowledge sits uneasily with the egalitarian principle.

  4. I agree with this and have always liked the idea of human flourishing as an end for education.
    However the explicit and direct teaching of intellectual skills by embedding this teaching in the content needs to be added. This improves the learning of facts (and skills) as high quality evidence shows. See here

    • I have read that. To be honest I thought it was a dreadful exercise in obfuscation that made me wonder if you have even read Daisy’s book. You appear to be using all the different definitions of “skills” at once in order to confuse matters and while paying very little attention to what Daisy actually argued.

    • I do agree with Andrew here Geoff. I tried to place a comment on your article on Thursday querying your interpretation of what Daisy actually wrote, but it’s still awaiting moderation.

  5. I think that allowing people to access as much of the richness of life is as good an aim as we need. I’ve increasingly come to understand that by leaving its remit indistinct, traditional education draws no boundaries around its potential uses. By being for nothing in particular, it is also for everything.

    I also think that it is an essential element of democracy that the individual be left to make what use of education they can or choose. It is anti-educational for outsiders (even teachers) to stipulate what any one individual’s education ‘should’ be for.

    • Presumably though, you would want them educated in the legitimate ways of participating in such democratic society? Or indeed in what democracy is all about? Hmm… this seems similar to the relativist position of “you can believe in anything as long as it includes the right to believe in anything”.

      • I think that is still covered by knowledge of what is best in our culture.

        • I wasn’t using ‘democratic’ in a specifically political sense. I meant the ability/right of people to be self-determining. Societies work best when they are consensual and there is a fine balance between promoting collective values and unquestioning perpetuation of the status quo. Equipping people with the information and means to make up their own minds seems to be the best compromise to me.

          Relativist seems a dismissive term; how else should one approach academic matters? With a closed mind?

          There should be no problem whatsoever with teaching people a generally accepted canon of information and ideas, but it seems reasonable at least to make them aware of the possibility of critically questioning those norms as well, otherwise it is simply indoctrination.

          • Thank you – I have no problem with that at all. I’m a big fan of trying to find that ‘fine balance’.

      • p.s. note I said “education should be *for*” not “education should be *about*”.

  6. as well as what?

    • You need to know your feet go on the pedals as well as how to put them there.

      • To know that your feet go on the pedals is knowing that. But not a form of knowledge prior to know how.

        • Really?

          • All this is beside the point. Before you can ride the damn bike, you need the factual knowledge of what a bicycle is, what it does and what it is for. Only then can you put your feet (or hands or knucklehead) anywhere near the pedals. The same kind of thing applies to saxophones.

            Mr Fin should stop wasting everybody’s time, and try doing some actual teaching.

  7. Observation of children.

    • Still teaching and finding distinctions between knowing that, knowing how and knowledge by acuaintance helpful. Observe children.

  8. […] and progressive education shows no sign of abating. Earlier today, Old Andrew posted a reflection on the role of knowledge in education – which is perhaps widely seen as the totemic difference between the two […]

  9. But tacit knowlede can never be spoken – our first hand knowledge of music, for example. Polanyi is helpful on this.

  10. Great analogy (if that’s the right word) about the obvious benefits of being healthier or fitter.

  11. Thank you. Interesting. I suppose I am seeking to value ‘practical knowledge’ as well as other forms of knowledge. I don’t see much valuing of practical knowledge in the thinking of the traditionalists. To pluralise into ‘forms’ of knowledge appears to be viewed with suspicion, as obsfucatory even and a drift towards relativism. I hardly dare mention ‘aesthetic knowledge’.

    Knowing how to do things well has both ethical and aesthetic quality. I like that.

    • If the old ‘declarative’ vs ‘procedural’ knowledge distinction starts to seem too blurry, could we perhaps instead usefully differentiate between knowledge which we draw on consciously, vs knowledge which we draw on unconsciously?

      In learning the violin for example, you could go through levels of habit forming whereby your conscious attention is initially on accurately placing fingers and bow, and as this becomes habitual, your mind is freed to focus more on immediate dynamics, and as you get used to that, your mind can be freed to focus purely on overall mood of the piece etc.

      In more ‘fact-orientated’ knowledge it would be equivalent to thinking about vs thinking with.

      • Problem with that is a lot of the knowledge we draw on without thinking is simply what we have become fluent in, but we nevertheless learnt it directly and only became fluent through practice. It’s not necessarily distinct in itself. Generally what is or isn’t “a fact” can be tricky. The distinction between knowledge in the form of an idea and knowledge in the form of a list of facts can often just be in the presentation.

        • Yes, I agree with this. I think nevertheless that it’s worth highlighting the clear difference between knowledge which we consciously think about, and that which has become invisible to our conscious attention, as it seems central to so many attempts to distinguish how people come to acquire declarative and procedural knowledge (or, let’s say it, skill). Particularly when schemas have had behavioural responses gradually sewn into the habit formation.

  12. Yes, that can be a way of thinking about it.
    In terms of thinking there can be a thinking in sound (is this the same as ‘with’? No, I don’t think so.) and a thinking about the sound (this is closer to ‘with’).
    Good to pluralise this ‘knowledge’. Thank you.

  13. Yuhudi Menuhin perhaps got close to the truth of L. A Reid’s ‘experience knowledge’ with ‘Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you wont quite get the music. Knowledge embodied.

    • Snag with knowledge is that its manifest in human genius is so much more than arbitrary taxonomies associated with traditional subject domains even if it depends on drawing heavily from those domains.

      • Why is this a snag?

        • Success in life is about making good decisions. That is dependent on knowledge but not exclusively so.

  14. […] Teaching in British schools « The Problem With Knowledge Part 1 […]

  15. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  16. I think that a “tradition” is more than a body of knowledge – there is implicit a “way of knowing”, a practice and understanding of good adaptation to change and an imperative to pass the tradition on. These things cannot be abstracted from the body of knowledge, it is true, but are significant. The problem seems to be in the practice and understanding of good adaptation to change when the change is occurring at a faster pace than when the tradition was developed. I’d like to see the argument rather differently framed.

    • Tradition smacks more of religion and culture than evidence based practice. It might be that traditions have evolved over years to define the best way of doing things but in many other fields there are many examples of this not being the case. eg poisoning people with mercury to “cure” them, testing witches on ducking stools, fgm etc etc.

      • This seems to deliberately misunderstood a pretty straightforward concept.

        • Or maybe your understanding of the word tradition is just different from mine. Most of these discussions fail on different understanding of what words mean or failure to specify context.

          Knowledge is new to you the first time you come across it. What motivates individuals to learn new things is dependent on the context they are in.

          • Or maybe your understanding of the word tradition is just different from mine. Most of these discussions fail on different understanding of what words mean or failure to specify context.

            That’s why I started by defining it.

    • I think that one of the biggest mistakes in education is to confuse the way in which “new” knowledge is created, discovered or recognised and the teaching of knowledge. What scientists do is not necessarily the same as what students of science do. What historians do is not necessarily the same as what students of history do. And while we may consider the processes of a discipline, and the characteristic practices of experts in the discipline to be part of the knowledge in a discipline, it is not necessarily the most important part of the discipline to know.

      • Tradition – the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.

        That’s the normal definition. Customs and beliefs rather than knowledge. Customs and beliefs might depend on knowledge but they are more than knowledge in the sense of truth.

        • Tradition means roughly “that which is passed on” and so what it refers to depends on the context. In this context I was pretty clear I was referring to a body of knowledge.

  17. […] The Problem With Knowledge Part 1 | Scenes From The Battleground ‘My position […] is that just as it is better to be healthier, or physically fitter, it is better to be cleverer. My position is that there is an intellectual domain, familiar to all of humanity, and it is a good thing to have a more developed intellect. […]

  18. Some things are more worth passing on that others and some things are just plain wrong and better not to be passed on at all.

    • Yes. And?

      • So don’t rely too much on tradition :-)

        • Are you still trying to take my use of the word “tradition” out of context? Given that what is to be passed on is the tradition, then the choice of what is to be passed on determines, rather than relies on, the tradition.

          • No, I’m just using the generally accepted definition of tradition. Traditions get passed on largely for cultural, religious and belief systems not because there is some systematic rational process to decide what is valid. The exception is in pure science and I don’t think your context specified that as the specific focus.

            • Then can you please pay attention to the context in which I used the word.

          • I think the heart of what Ingotian is trying to get across is the following:
            ‘Tradition’ is needed to ensure that the accumulated wisdom of previous times is passed on, rather than requiring each generation to have to find out for themselves.
            Therefore, we also need, at least in part, to use tradition to decide what tradition should be passed on – we can’t fully scrutinize all the details for ourselves!
            There is of course a need for us to rationally keep re-considering what really counts as the ‘best that has been said and done’, but don’t expect there ever to be any real agreement on this in the vast majority of areas. Hence why we need to rely to some degree on tradition to tell us…

            • Its part of what I was saying. There is an element of natural selection in that traditions that work get passed on. But we have to be cautious because we know that if we rely on that exclusively we will a) pass on some bogus knowledge and b) miss opportunities to develop new ideas and ways of doing things. If you look at the classic adoption curve for a new innovation, it follows a pattern. Innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards. At the innovator end there is the Edison “finding 10,000 things that don’t work”. Clearly people are needed at this end but its actually a small minority. Early majority take stuff up that is tested and fairly safe. Late majority avoid things and only do it when its safer to do it than not to do it. The laggards are the ones being dragged kicking and screaming. There is no point in wasting time trying to sell to laggards. You only sell to late majority if the early majority have made it safe to come into the water. The way innovation is adopted is related to both motivation and tradition and all three are related to knowledge development in quite complex ways. So I don’t think it is valid to try and analyse them separately as if they have no effect on one another. The really interesting stuff is the interactions between these things and how that varies in different contexts.

            • Thank you ingotian – the adoption curve is a fascinating tool to use to look at many of the ideas that we squabble over, and the idea of using it to view the way we go about selecting ‘the best that’s been said and done’ is one I find very appealing.

            • The idea that passing on knowledge stops us trying new things seems, on the face of it, absurd.

          • Actually, that wasn’t necessarily what Ingotian was saying, but I think it is worth clarifying anyway!

  19. […] Following this, Andrew Old has reasserted the case for schooling to simply focus on the creation of ‘cleverness’, and ijstock similarly on the ‘academic’, and Oliver Quinlan has pondered the question ‘What […]

  20. No more absurd than the notion that exploring things that are new to us prevent us from learning effectively. As I said at the end, the interesting stuff is in the complexity of the interactions, not the extremes. I don’t think I have ever said passing on knowledge stops us trying new things – well it could if it was done to an exclusive extreme because everything has an opportunity cost but that is not very common so it’s not worth dwelling on too much.

    • Whaty you said was “But we have to be cautious because we know that if we rely on that exclusively we will a) pass on some bogus knowledge and b) miss opportunities to develop new ideas and ways of doing things.”

      This certainly did seem to suggest that passing on existing knowledge would stop us trying new things.

      • I used the words “cautiously”, “exclusively” and “some”. To any reasonable person without a personal agenda of confirmation bias, I’d suggest those words mitigate any suggestion that in normal practice passing on existing knowledge is a bad thing. Equally assuming it is the *only* means of learning is clearly bogus since if it was exclusively only that, nothing new would be revealed to build a new knowledge base. Mechanistically it might be thought that only geniuses develop new knowledge so it is out of scope of the school curriculum but there are so many examples of people with relatively low academic achievement inventing useful new things that this is just plain daft. Percy Shaw is a classic example. For those motivated by learning things passed down and uninterested in freedom to experiment and try new things of their own and who have in their own terms been successful by doing this, it is not surprising that they would push for more of it. Other people would find this deathly boring and indeed there is much evidence to support that. This is why motivation can’t be ignored. The things that got me interested in science at school were blowing things up, spontaneous combustion, building a radio, not sitting reading books – actually come to think of it I don’t think I have ever read a science text book cover to cover. Maybe I’m unusual but if so I’m pushing an agenda to make sure that kids like me don’t get turned off science but at the same time they do learn the key knowledge that they need to underpin their curiosity. It’s not an either or it’s a both. A difficult balance to achieve when different individuals are motivated by different things as is clearly demonstrated in this discussion.

      • Ingotian said only if we rely on it “exclusively”.

        We shouldn’t do away with tradition per se because it is the accumulated wisdom of our culture.

        BUT we must apply current reasoning to it, as some tradition was based on ignorant assumptions, different situations and we have the tools to take all things forward.

        HOWEVER, we don’t have the wisdom to know for sure the value of every bit of tradition, otherwise we wouldn’t need tradition in the first place.

        Martin Robinson gets to the heart of this uneasy relationship in Trivium 21c

  21. While I like the idea of cultivating the intellect just for its own sake I can’t entirely detach that in my mind from the fact a good intellect is useful, even if I don’t have to define specifically why, it clearly is.

    More than this I have realised I do also value knowledge beyond its use to cultivate the intellect. I choose to teach our yr10 students Weimar Germany because it touches on such an large number of useful concepts that I want my students to know about for their broader education. I get special pleasure teaching the topic because I am helping my students understand the nature of power, democracy, political ideology etc and I justify the teaching of history because it provides a well contextualised introduction to these important ideas. Although I love earlier history I would probably choose to teach a 20thC GCSE because of the way it more obviously helps explain the world today to my students which is useful for them.

  22. […] Andrew makes the case here for pursuit of knowledge not always as the end in itself, but as the means to help people become […]

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