Another brick in the wall

The first state-operated public education system in Europe—or at least the first recognisably “modern” one—was introduced by the Generallandschulreglement, a decree of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in 1763.1 The decree was intended to establish schooling for all Prussian children in a curriculum based on state-provided textbooks. In 1788 a final examination, the Abitur, was introduced. By 1812 it was implemented in all Prussian secondary schools, and it was extended to the rest of the German Empire following unification in 1871.2 From 1834, passing the Abitur became a requirement for attending university, entering the ‘learned professions’, or attaining a position in the civil service.3

The effectiveness of the Prussian system could hardly be understated—it eviscerated illiteracy, enabled the State to measure the capabilities of its subjects (because Prussia in the early nineteenth century was far from being a nation of citizens), ensure that only the best got into positions of influence, and made certain that the majority of those subjects had some grounding in areas of knowledge deemed important by Prussia’s policy-makers. The efficacy of the Prussian system meant that it was widely emulated: the clearest example of direct copying is Meiji Japan, but the Prussian model also had a significant influence on the United States, and was adopted by Norway and Sweden as well as the governments of Finland, Estonia and Latvia within the Russian Empire, although it was rejected by the Russian Tsar.4 Great Britain and France, meanwhile, lagged behind. In France education became a focal point of the competition for loyalty between the Church and State: the Church wanted to instil conservative Catholic sympathies, and the State wanted to promote republicanism. In Britain, meanwhile, the wealthier classes sought to preserve their educational advantages over the working class, and various local groups—particularly churches—were unwilling to let go their monopoly on education, which they saw as an important boost to their congregations. As a result, compulsory education was not fully implemented in either country until the 1880s.5

Certainly, the Prussian model of compulsory education was efficacious and forward-thinking in the context of the nineteenth century. It produced graduates with a grasp of several things:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Christian doctrine and practice; how to be a good Christian
  • History, philosophy and other manifestations of the so-called ‘classical education’: information deemed important by policy-makers.

In the context of nineteenth-century Europe, these results were unquestionably valuable. The average literacy rate throughout the German States in 1800 was approximately 45%. In Britain it was closer to 50%, in France it was somewhere around a mind-boggling 35%.6 Literacy was increasingly viewed as an important skill (the growing bureaucracies of the period, after all, relied on literate clerks), so anything that worked to improve general literacy in the populace could only be positive.

However, that was the nineteenth century. By 1900 not one of those countries had a literacy rate below 70%; today more than 80% of the global population can read and write, and the lowest literacy rate in Europe belongs to Malta, at 92.8%.7 Numeracy is demonstrated to have a close correlation with literacy rates, and can be inferred to have improved comparably.8 Christian doctrine, practice, and morality are no longer an important element of education in a society underpinned by the separation of Church and State, and has been becoming to an ever greater extent outright illegal.9 The great pillars of education provided by the Prussian system, so important to nineteenth century states, are increasingly outmoded. Even the final (and most resilient) element of the Prussian education: memorised information (or ‘knowledge’), has reached a point where it is simply no longer, in and of itself, any use at all.Calvin & Hobbes - History Test

The value of rote-learned information—dates, king lists, word-for-word quotes, the precise steps and order of geological processes and so on—has always been somewhat questionable, at least when that information is being imparted to students who are unlikely to enter careers that will leverage it. Now, though, rote-learned information has passed beyond the realm of ‘probably not much use’ and into the treacherous waters of ‘laughably worthless’. Think on this for a moment:

There are approximately 819,417,600 hours of video on YouTube right now, with 300 new hours of video added every minute.10 If the average length of a YouTube video is 4 minutes and 12 seconds, there are roughly 198,000,000 videos on YouTube, with the number growing by the minute.11 There are 4,998,013 articles on the English-language Wikipedia. There are 190 million posts on Reddit across 853,824 subs, 37 million blogs hosted on WordPress.com, 256 million tumblr pages and more than 300 million questions on Yahoo! Answers.12 That’s just big-name sites. The JSTOR archive contains more than 500,000 documents, most of them academic articles and books. Google, as of June 2010, had scanned more than 12 million books into its own archive and announced its intention to track down and scan the remaining 117 million.13 There are tens, hundreds of thousands of niche websites and forums packed full of information about every topic under the sun: in 2013, Google was searching 30 trillion web pages a pop in a split second. And there are, no doubt, many millions—billions, trillions—more now.14

As I write this, the vast majority of schoolchildren (in New Zealand, at least), have smartphones in their pockets that are capable of quickly and easily accessing the internet.15 An even larger portion of them have laptops or access to computers, and internet-capable device ownership is increasing at an explosive pace.16 They could, if they wanted to, be reading this very article with a hand-held device that sits in their pocket. Or they could be perusing any of the aforementioned vast reservoirs of human knowledge that are just a few taps away. Instead they’re sitting in classrooms being taught facts about tectonic plates, or the history of Tudor England, or the finer points of Shakespeare’s Othello, or the functions of punnet squares or something. They might be getting taught hugely interesting stuff: ground-breaking historical research, new and intriguing facts about the water on Mars, anything at all, but it is still worthless. Schoolchildren in the twenty-first century carry, essentially, the entire wealth of human knowledge in the pockets. They have all the information that could ever be imparted to them in their pocket. And yet schools still insist on trying to teach them facts. It’s like bringing a glass of water to a drowning man.

Allow me to digress for a moment. In The Tribes Triumphant, Charles Glass discusses the Arabic education system with a highly educated Jordanian tour guide. Although the speaker is talking about education in his own country, the points he raises are extremely apt:

Arab education prepares the young only for examinations, the tawjihi. Pass the exams, and you continue to university. Fail, and you stay in the village or the slum. The tawjihi system produces students who memorise set answers to set questions, not students who think or question or look at things in an original way.

Now, does that sound at all different to the Prussian system? Or to NCEA? Or the systems in place in America, Australia or the United Kingdom (my knowledge of non-Anglosphere education is sadly lacking)? Our education systems are still running on a model designed in the late eighteenth century and finalised in the nineteenth. They produce graduates who, like Calvin, rote-learn ‘facts’ and then immediately forget them, not educated, well-rounded people who think and challenge and adapt and shake things up. The Prussian system and the existing system are a good basis, a groundwork, a foundation, but they are also no longer adequate. How can we, as a culture, laud innovation and creativity while perpetuating a form of ‘education’ that actively stifles them?

The role of education, as well as its shape, needs to undergo fundamental change. We have established that teaching facts is worthless and teaching Christianity is outdated, which leaves literacy and numeracy… But students are (to a minimum degree) literate and numerate by the age of about seven. Such a minimalistic education system would produce people who could read and write, certainly, and it would negate the current problem of wasting student’s time, but would confer no benefits whatsoever over the existing model. The end result, in fact, would probably be even worse. Stripping away useless layers of the education system isn’t sufficient—it needs to adapt.

The reason that teaching facts has become obsolete, as we have established, is that students essentially have all the information in the world right on hand. Instead of giving yet more facts to people who already have (virtually) the entire wealth of human knowledge at their fingertips, we should be teaching them how to access that wealth of knowledge. It’s all very well saying “Google it”, but in a cyberspace composed of more than 30 trillion webpages, using Google to find exactly what you need is a tricky business; having the ability to quickly and reliably find useful stuff in that avalanche of data is a vitally important skill—a skill that, all by itself, renders all the rote-learned information of traditional education systems obsolete—and it’s a skill that we do not teach in schools. This needs to change. Education is supposed to prepare students for the real world, but as it stands the sum total of ‘real world’ scenarios that school prepare their students for are the weekly pub quiz (“Yes! Finally! That mnemonic we learned in year ten about the names and order of Tudor monarchs actually came in useful! $30 bar tab for me!”). Meanwhile, schools aren’t teaching the single most important skill you can have to operate in the modern world. If that’s not ass-backwards I don’t know what is.

So, put simply, schools need to be teaching kids how to navigate the internet and find information.

Just finding information on the internet, though, isn’t sufficient. I could quite easily, right now, set up a free wordpress.com site and fill it with information about how, oh, Cortes conquered the Aztecs with ease because he had help from an alien race. The internet is packed with misinformation of exactly that kind, whether it comes in the form of crazy wingnut Gavin Menzies-esque websites, jocular or ‘troll-ish’ pages and articles or just badly-informed people debating in forums and comment threads. The ability to internalise the information one finds, think critically about the debates one comes across, and discern the good and reliable from the bad is an equally valuable skill. In my experience its a skill that falls entirely in the lap of first-year-of-university philosophy courses, which hardly anyone bothers to take (I mean, philosophy? Arts? But that’s another post entirely…), and that’s a shame. If schools truly want to prepare their students for the ‘real world’ then a basic grounding in critical thinking and evaluating the vast quantities of data they will deal with in their adult lives should be a central element of the curriculum.

Schools need to be teaching kids how to internalise and evaluate the information they have found.

The final necessary skill for interacting with information is the ability to synthesise it. All throughout life one is called upon to present, to communicate things “in a nutshell”, to skim and paraphrase and explain. The ability to take a vast quantity of complex information—for example the gigantic body of stuff, academic and non-academic, brought to light by searching Google for “Russo-Japanese War” or “Construction of the Self” or “Dune-building processes on West Coast beach foreshores”—and synthesise that disjointed vastness of pure information into a focused, concise, coherent piece of writing—or verbal explanation—is invaluable. Admittedly, the existing education system in many countries already does put some emphasis on the construction of essays and papers, but not enough by half: in my experience, even when studying subjects like the ambiguously named “English”, the focus of exams and tests is on content—remembering facts and quotes—rather than on the quality of the essay itself.

Schools need to be teaching kids how to synthesise large quantities of raw information into concise, cogent, transmittable forms.

This list, however, is focused solely on skills that students graduating from an effective education system should possess. While that is certainly a good start, the role of education should not be limited to providing useful skills. While the provision of skills is important and serves to (or helps to) build an effective, capable workforce, it goes no further than that. We would still be facing the same problem underlined in The Tribes Triumphant: a system that does not produce “students who think or question or look at things in an original way.”

To that end, a functional system of education for the modern world needs to fulfil one final role: it must engender and encourage curiosity. We need an education system that fosters and nurtures inspiration in students, inspiration to be interested in things—all things, any things—to be curious, to think and question and probe deeper. To want to find out, not have to remember. Marilynne Robinson writes in Gilead that “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” and it’s in the educational establishment where they spend the vast majority of their time that children will learn to be interested. This, I would argue, is the single most important role of the teacher (and what sets great teachers apart from merely good ones)—to motivate interests in all kinds of disparate things, and push their students to explore those new interests. In a society that encourages and applauds innovation, promoting curiosity and a taste for exploration can only be a good thing.

We need to give students the skills to navigate the oceans of knowledge that make up our modern epistemology. We need to give them the ability to harvest useful information from that ocean, to separate the wheat from the chaff and pass on a distilled version of what they’ve learned… But first they need to be inspired and made curious; they need the drive to want knowledge before they will seek it.

The time for Prussian-style schooling, for rote-learned-soon-forgotten facts and precisely proper uniforms is far in the past. They are no longer an effective way of preparing modern students for the modern world, no longer an effective way of measuring or teaching the skills and types of intelligence that are needed in modern employment, no longer a relevant institution—no longer, in fact, good enough. The refrain that our children can “do whatever they want to do” is heartwarming, to be sure, but it only holds true if they are provided the skills and inspiration that they need. As things stand they are not.

Society and technology are moving forward in leaps and bounds, held back only by the archaic trappings of their old forms—systems and organisations that are no longer relevant or effective in the modern world, but remain unwilling to change. All in all, like the rest of those outmoded institutions, the education system is just another brick in the wall.

References   [ + ]

1. James van Horn Melton. “Absolutism and the Eighteenth-Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria”. p. xiv.
2. Brian Milne. “The History and Theory of Children’s Citizenship in Contemporary Societies”. p.84.
3. William Clarke. “Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University”. p.125.
4. Ellwood Patterson Cubberley. “The History of Education: Educational Practice and Progress Considered as a Phase of the Development and Spread of Western Civilisation”. p.506.
5. Yasemin Nuhoglu Soysal & David Strang. “Construction of the First Mass Education Systems in Nineteenth-Century Europe”. Sociology of Education 62 (4): 278.
6. Max Roser “Literacy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: http://ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy/.
7. (U.S.) Central Intelligence Agency. “Literacy”. Published online at CIA.gov. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2103.html.
8. James O. Bullock. “Literacy in the Language of Mathematics”. The American Mathematical Monthly 101 (8): p. 742.
9. New Zealand Herald. “Assembly prayers illegal, schools to be told”. Published online at nzherald.co.nz. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10397697.
10. Greg Jarboe. “YouTube Changes at a rate of 33% a Year”. Published online at reelsio.com. Retrieved from http://www.reelseo.com/youtube-changes-33-percent-a-year/.
11. Sysomos. “Inside YouTube Video Statistics”. Published online at sysomos.com. Retrieved from https://sysomos.com/reports/youtube-video-statistics.
12. Craig Smith. “60 Amazing Reddit Statistics”. Published online at expandedramblings.com. Retrieved from http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/reddit-stats/2/.
13. Joab Jackson. “Google: 129 million different books have been published”. Published online at pcworld.com. Retrieved from http://www.pcworld.com/article/202803/google_129_million_different_books_have_been_published.html.
14. John Koetsier. “How Google searches 30 trillion web pages, 100 billion times a month”. Published online at venturebeat.com. Retrieved from http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/01/how-google-searches-30-trillion-web-pages-100-billion-times-a-month/.
15. Emily Rogers. “Smart Phone and Tablet Usage Data for New Zealand”. Published online at HapticGeneration.com.au. Retrieved from http://www.hapticgeneration.com.au/smartphone-and-tablet-usage-data-for-new-zealand/Note: data is for 2013; smartphone ownership has continued to increase explosively.
16. Research NZ. “A Report on a Survey of New Zealanders’ use of smartphones and other Mobile Communication Devices 2015”. Published online at ResearchNZ.com. Retrieved from http://www.researchnz.com/pdf/Special%20Reports/Research%20New%20Zealand%20Special%20Report%20-%20Use%20of%20Smartphones.pdf.