Dystopian literature can be fun and sometimes informative to read, but thinly-disguised predictions of a glorious future to come can also be quite enjoyable. H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, which I have been delving into recently, belongs in the latter category.
In this work as in his other future-themed books, Wells was wrong about almost everything, but in this he is no different from most “futurists” of all eras. And the Fabian socialist daydreams that pervade the book were not just popular, but practically obligatory among the intellectual class in the period when the book was written. The Shape of Things to Come makes an excellent companion piece to the dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley and Evgeny Zamyatin, two writers who (I would argue) understood human nature much better than Wells.
Not surprisingly, Wells’ comments on education (or those of his fictional diarist, Dr. Raven) caught my eye in particular. Like many of those before him and innumerable education academics after him, Wells all but explicitly states that the education of his time, with its apparent focus on God and country, needed revolution rather than evolution. The following passage gave me a particular chuckle, given all the current “21st-century learning” clichés:
[Faber] sweeps aside almost contemptuously the claim that the nineteenth century was an educational century. We are misled, he argues, by a mere resemblance between the schools and universities of the past and the schools…of the modern period…our education is an introduction to the continual revolutionary advance of life. But education before the twenty-first century was essentially a conservative process. It was so rigorously and completely traditional that its extensive disorganization was an inevitable preliminary to the foundation of a new world.
Sound familiar to anyone?
The central plank of the new, scientific scheme of education envisaged by Wells’ various mouthpieces is a new “permanent system of ordered knowledge”, incomparably superior to any such compendium of the past:
What people knew in those days they knew in the most haphazard way…there was no such thing as a Centre of Knowledge in the world. It is remarkable to note how long mankind was able to carry on without any knowledge organization whatever…nor was there any conception of the need of a permanent system of ordered knowledge, continually revised until the twentieth century was nearing its end. To the people of the Age of Frustration our interlocking research, digest, discussion, verification, notification and informative organizations, our Fundamental Knowledge System, that is, with its special stations everywhere, its regional bureaus, its central city at Barcelona, its seventeen million active workers and its five million correspondents and reserve enquirers, would have seemed incredibly vast.
This is one of Wells’ predictions which was actually, in a way, broadly accurate. We have our Fundamental Knowledge System – it is called the internet. Google and Wikipedia are our Barcelona. And dreamy-eyed Ed visionaries have, for the past quarter-century at least, been predicting a new golden era of knowledge and understanding now that children have instant, miraculous access to the vast compendium of human knowledge. (I vividly remember one particularly silly academic rhapsodizing in 1996 about the great levelling of knowledge that would be occasioned by the rise of the internet. It was an unforgettable piece of self-parody.)
Now that “kids can Google it“, we can concentrate on more elevated aims than the transmission of mere disconnected facts. Or, erm, can we?
I think that if you were to ask teachers who have been in the profession for a couple of decades whether the general knowledge of students had increased or declined over the course of their career – a period which covers the increasing ubiquity of the internet and the deification of Google – the vast majority would say that it had declined.
Anecdotes may be odious, but I would like to share one which had a particular effect on me.
A couple of years ago, two of the students on my Year 12 class showed me a quiz that they had found online, in which a world map was provided with national borderlines included but country names blanked out. The aim was to put the names of fifteen countries (most of them fairly “well-known” ones) in the right places on the map.
These were two very bright students at a selective government high school. How had they done on the quiz? They had not been able to place a single country correctly. Not one.
It is not just in the area of geography; regular conversations with students have suggested to me that students are less conversant with basic historical, scientific and literary knowledge than at any time in recent memory. And every teacher of my acquaintance, when I have asked them about it, has concurred with this conclusion. Again, this is only anecdotal. But when the anecdotes accumulate beyond a certain point…
And yet this is the period in which students have their wonderful Barcelona to refer to. But the question is, of course, what use do they make of it?
It would not, in fact, be all that surprising if the “kids can Google it” attitude has gone hand-in-hand with a decline in general knowledge. If the assumption is simply that children can fill in the gaps in their basic knowledge by themselves, and internalize it by themselves, thus freeing the classroom for more vaguely-defined activities, teachers new to the profession are far less likely to ensure that children are equipped with such knowledge; let alone to consider “drilling” children in it. A science teacher at a high-performing school in the UK recently attracted some predictable, if belated, Twitter abuse for advocating the use of drills.
Furthermore, and here we reach the real point of this post, the mooted changes to the Australian curriculum – with much content knowledge apparently set to be ditched in favour of “deep understandings” and the like – are indicative of the “kids can Google it” attitude, which I am tempted to dub “Schleicherism”. I am all in favour of simplifying the flabby mess that is the Australian curriculum, but this should be done by stripping away the vague generalisations, not the important domain knowledge.
Yes, we have our Barcelona. But, to extend the metaphor slightly, it is up to the teachers to provide the road map.