Monday, June 3, 2013

In Defense of 'Useless Knowledge'

I had a conversation with my head teacher a while ago in which he told me his thoughts about how the education system is likely to evolve in the near future. He feels that education is moving away from the learning of facts and more towards the development of skills. This is perhaps undeniable - for example TOK itself is supposed to develop the skills of critical thinking rather than rote learning. Eventually the role of the teacher (at least in the way we understand it today) may become redundant. Knowledge is so easily accessible today that it is becoming externalised (specifically to the internet). This means that students are becoming freer to concentrate on subjects that interest them or those which will be more useful in their chosen career.

A few interesting things occur to me here. Firstly, the externalisation of knowledge is reminiscent of European society prior to the Renaissance. At that time, the population at large was happy to leave (religious) knowledge in the hands of the Church, and in a previous post I discussed how St. Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in changing this and introducing the basic ideas of scientific thinking. Does acceptance that general knowledge should be left in the hands of others really therefore represent progress? After all, many teachers would say they are currently fighting a losing battle against insidious 'wikipediaism'. Secondly, will the society of the future be made of people with very specific skills but very little general knowledge? At the very least, that would certainly make games of trivial pursuit rather boring.

My feeling is that total dependence on skills-based education could lead to diminishing the enjoyment of learning for its own sake (although perhaps this is a bit extreme). I also have given some consideration to the idea of how we decide what knowledge is 'useful' or 'useless' for our students (or perhaps whether there is such a thing as 'useless knowledge'). This reminded me of an essay by Bertrand Russell, which I've reproduced below. Interestingly, he worries about the pressure that society at that time was putting on students to learn skills rather than gain knowledge. Upon reading, it does appear dated now (he published it in 1935). He consistently refers to the education of 'boys' rather than 'children' and his representations of women come across as a little sexist. He defends the assimilation of knowledge for its own sake, the satisfaction that learning brings and the dangers that a lack of knowledge pose in a society. It is, of course, a product of the time in which Russell was writing - Europe had been through a World War less than a generation before, and Nazism was on the rise. Russell was a pacifist (at that time) and a fervent opponent of Nazism. He felt that the rise of Hitler and increased militarism was brought about by lack of knowledge within the German populace.

I came across a nice anonymous quotation recently which is relevant here:

'[Specialistists are] people who know more and more about less and less, until they know all about nothing.'

from A Short History of Everything, by Ronald Wright, Carroll and Graff (2005).

Bertrand Russell - Useless Knowledge 

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