The Purpose of Education

Stupid educationists have invented for the educational process the profoundly inadequate term “knowledge transfer”, suggesting a uni-directional stream of knowledge towards an accumulating recipient, who becomes monotonically more knowledgeable. I consider it a caricature at best. The trouble is that it may have stuck in some of your minds, thereby creating an extra barrier for the unlearning process. It makes some people totally unprepared for the recognition that among what they have acquired so far is possibly a lot of junk that is more a burden than an asset and that they should be happier without. One cannot be cautious enough with the choice of one’s past.

Introducing a course on mathematical methodology, Edsger W. Dijkstra

Brian and Stephen are having a discussion on whether the role of education should be to teach you information, or teach you to think.

It is impossible to know how to think, without having enough accompanying knowledge to which this can be applied. However, it is possible, and all too common, to have the knowledge without knowing how to think about it.

The question, then, is when the ‘thinking’ should be taught. In my educational history, I think there was an undercurrent of acceptance of the distinction between the two concepts, but it was too often muddled.

For example, when I studied English Literature for O-Level, it was never made clear what I was actually meant to know or do or write about. I suspect that I may have found the subject a lot more interesting, and also done much better at it, if it had been taught (and examined) more as “the study of the history of interpretation of English Literature”.

Then we could have seen how literary criticism actually worked, and how it evolved, and how it was applied to the sorts of works we were reading. And the best pupils, those who were likely to continue the subject to A-Level or University Level, would have been the ones who were able to add their own thoughts and ideas onto the top of this. Whereas the rest of us, who were only doing the course because it compulsory, would have at least learnt something about the area, and have gained enough knowledge to be able to achieve a decent grade, even if we weren’t able to contribute anything interesting ourselves.

However, it seems that we were only really expected to contribute our own thoughts, without any knowledge of how to do so. For example, we “studied” Animal Farm (for some definition of “studied”). We weren’t taught anything at all about the normal analysis of it – we weren’t even taught that it was a political satire! To us it was just a fable of human nature. No matter what approach you take to education, this surely cannot be it.

Although this is the extreme case, much of my education was similar. You were taught a viewpoint, but not told that it was only that. It was if everyone in the world agreed on a certain interpretation of Macbeth, or of the Industrial Revolution, or of whatever the things were that we were supposed to have learnt in Geography that have long since faded from mind. And we were expected to be able to work out, from first principles, what this interpretation was. (I could never do this, and so was steered down the path of Mathematics, Languages, and the Sciences, where your answers were clearly right or wrong.)

If this is the school system trying to teach thinking, it’s completely back to front. Being able to critically analyse something from first principles is a highly advanced skill, only really available to experts in the field. But because it’s the approach we’re taught, everyone thinks they can do it. At an abstract academic level, this is bad enough. But in the commercial world, it’s recipe for disaster.

Confronted with a new idea, most people either accept it (usually in a modified form, filtered through layers of experience and an often invisible belief system) and work with it, or reject it. Few attempt to research it, or see what the state of knowlege in this area actually is.

Only the very best can become giants in any area. But there’s no excuse for even the smallest dwarf to see further by standing on the shoulders of the many giants who have come before.

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