H. G. Wells called civilisation a race between education and catastrophe, and I don’t think this is mere hyperbole. Our education defines how we interact with the world as (hopefully) mature adults, and the very course of society can thus be changed by educational reforms. Whether hotbeds of indoctrination or liberation, it is our early learning experiences that set the stage for our role in civilisation. Of course, I do not believe that the patterns laid down in childhood education are immutable, but they are the key reference point to which all our later learning experiences are related to.
My previous two posts refer to connectivity and relationship as key components in maintaining civilisational balance, and indeed technology is bringing us more ways in which we can remain connected, but as with all new developments there is a potential sting in its tail. In his latest book, David Kidner argues that children of today are no longer learning information itself, but rather the address of that information- in other words, children in a high-tech environment may well be expert researchers, but how much knowledge will they actually retain for themselves? Or put differently, there is no cultivation of wisdom and common-sense. In terms of personal development this has huge ramifications: with the ever-increasing pace of change and information transmission on the internet, high-tech students of today are hyper-sensitive to present trends, but easily remain ignorant of the historical context. Considering that our sense of ‘self’ (or ‘self-realisation’ in the tradition of Naess) comes from our appraisal of external representations of our cultural environment (see Henri Bergsen), our understanding of the context of this cultural environment has a direct influence on the way in which we mature and interact with others in the world. In lacking internal cultural references (i.e. historical literature, art and music) such a student is in a constant state of response with no realisation or security. In compensation for this lack of internal reference the external response itself becomes conditioned and habitual- something that in the internet culture of today can best be termed as cynical.
One does not need to look far to find examples of how this is already happening in mainstream culture. Peruse any music blog that caters to young teenagers, and you will find a marked lack of knowledge of where their music is actually coming from. Speaking to many teenagers today one would think that the world didn’t exist before they plugged into the internet as small children.
Now this observation in music culture may seem fairly trivial at first, but when I see the same knowledge failing in other sectors of life it becomes more serious. Cast your mind back a several months to the highly controversial viral campaign of ‘Kony 2012’. In case you missed it, in the early days of the campaign’s release it was shaping up to become the textbook example of viral marketing used for social activism and change, with an estimated 50% of american youth viewing the video within a few days of its release. In the wake of the campaign, the organisation responsible came under increased scrutiny, and the noise created by the campaign quickly died down under the glare of harsh criticism. This rapid die-off of interest is another symptom of the increasingly viral nature of the internet, but this was not what alarmed me most.
As many of the early detractors of the campaign were quick to point out, the proposed plan of stopping an African warlord was deeply flawed and suspect. It did not take much knowledge of the history of the area and present-day social conditions there to realise that the story was far more intricate than could possibly be explained in a five minute video. Yet young people across the developed world were swept up in a brief post-colonial fervour that was best summed up by one journalist whose name I forget: a revival of the white man’s burden. To me, the response of many young people betrayed a gross failing in their education regarding colonial and post-colonial Africa. Equally, the swift vitriolic response that followed the fervour displayed how quickly today’s culture jumped on the cynical bandwagon. On the whole, there was very little reasonable and informed response from young people.
All is not lost however- whilst the prerequisite knowledge for assessing the campaign was lacking, the necessary information is all there online. Whilst teaching students to learn how to acquire information, we must also teach them how to judge that information and contextualise it.
To give a more widespread example of how this change is coming about, look no further than the slowly shifting attitudes towards Wikipedia in academic circles. Beginning with the universities, department heads are coming out and saying that Wikipedia is now a great stepping-stone in research, provided it is nothing more than a stepping-stone. The accepted form of research has markedly shifted since I began writing academic essays, when one could not even admit to reading Wikipedia. If we can somehow cultivate the ability to find information alongside the more traditional attitude of memorisation it may be possible to create a culture of informed and reasoned research to sociocultural issues that emerge.
Maybe it is a little old-fashioned and romantic, but I expect a student to be able to conduct cutting-edge research with the latest technologies and quote Shakespeare and Keats. It is the role of education to maintain the connection with past civilisation so that we might better shape the civilisation of today, and recognise the catastrophes potentially facing us.
I recently came across a documentary about a school in Texas that brilliantly explores this idea… it comes across as a little dated now, but the ideas are a solid application of the idea of valuing memorised learning.