I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.
The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”
This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.
When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.
Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?
Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.
This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.
And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.
What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.
Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.
Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .
Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”
For those with access to a library and prepared to enter and read, information is readily available and always has been. The internet is of course now making information even easier to access. This can be helpful but also a problem because along with information comes a tremendous amount of unfiltered, not peer reviewed in any way to assess its validity, misinformation.
A standard Google search will find something on almost anything. But this is only the surface of the web. There is also the deep web and in addition the dark web, much of which is encrypted information. Early estimates suggested that the deep web is 400 to 550 times larger than the surface web. However, since more information and sites are always being added, it can be assumed that the deep web is growing exponentially at a rate that cannot be quantified.
With so much information and misinformation is knowledge one of the filters we should use to determine what is useful. And if so how do you determine that the first knowledge gained is valuable in acting as that filter?
Thanks Bill, two thoughts, firstly one of the responses often given when people are asked what to believe on the internet is that to a certain extent its self-regulating. The best or should I say the most popular will rise to the top. This may of course be okay for booking holidays but not ideal if you are looking for the “right” answer. Yet if all those seeking the right answer were knowledgeable would it not be close enough?
Secondly making sense of something does of course requires basic tools or filters? Howard Gardner in his book Five minds for the future suggests that we should be teaching students how to do things i.e be creative, disciplined, respectful, ethical and synthesising. It is this last one I think might help. He provides guidance on how to synthesise when faced with masses of information using classification systems, rules, and aphorisms, taxonomies etc. True these need to be learned and so could be considered knowledge but they are a more a tool of helping us get to a more reasoned and balanced view than a chunk of knowledge that itself may be skewed or biased in the first place.
Hi Stuart – no doubt you have already listened to it but the previous headmaster at Wellington, Anthony Seldon, who was responsible for some very forward thinking methods of educating and probably started the scheme you mention above, was on desert island discs recently. Very interesting: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06w6ty4
Thanks Maryla I do remember listening to this but didn’t make the connection between that and this month’s blog – thanks. Will definitely listen again