The Pursuit of Knowledge
Contributing Editor of Attain, Tim Johnson, wonders whether the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself is outdated nostalgia, or if we actually need a touch more Gradgrind in the classroom.
The prospect of imminent fatherhood, much like that of being hanged in the morning, tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Having drifted through nine months of pregnancy happily able to convince oneself that this whole childbirth thing is really happening to someone else (which of course technically it is, although I don't plan on saying this to my wife) it takes those little last-minute tasks to focus the mind. Things like setting up the crib, washing the baby clothes and gutting and renovating your entire flat. Stuff like that. Once these trifling tasks are concluded, one can then start to think about the things that matter. When holding a baby does one use the traditional method, or the trickier Australian palms-up technique? How early can one reasonably buy a Scalextric?,p>Unlikely as it might seem, however, there are more serious concerns: worries about what sort of father I'm going to be (it's all about me; as a child of the 1980s everything is about me). I doubt whether I have the gravity, dignity or inclination to be a stern Victorian paterfamilias. But then I don't want to be an ueber-trendy, first-name terms sort of father either. And there are a few things that I want to be able to pass on to my children as well as my rugged good looks and natural sporting ability. I have a mind like a cross between a box-room and a filing cabinet, littered with half-remembered quotations, 'interesting' (in a pub-quiz sort of way) facts and, obviously, acres of sporting knowledge. Possibly it is a characteristic of the male mind, but I love the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge for its own sake.
I am not alone in this either. The Mayor of London recently wrote in praise of the rote-learning of poetry, citing his own (admittedly atypical) knowledge of reams of poetry by everyone from Virgil to Auden. There is, however, a bit of a difficulty with this: it conjures up images of Thomas Gradgrind, with his 'little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.' There is already a sort of cultural memory of history lessons (especially history lessons) as consisting of a boring man in a worn tweed jacket standing in front of a blackboard chanting a mantra of dates and facts, kings and queens, without a thought to the interest of the children or to the applicability of the knowledge being imparted.
It is for fear of this that educational trends have moved so far away from talk and chalk techniques and solidly factual syllabuses in the last twenty years. A few years ago The Daily Telegraph published the entrance exam for King Edward's Birmingham from 1898, to be sat by eleven-year-olds. The History questions required knowledge of such recondite figures as Egbert, Robert Blake and Frederick the Elector Palatine. The Maths questions included 'add together #132 4s. 1d., #243 7s. 2d., #303 16s 2d., and #1,030 5s 3d; and divide the sum by 17. (Two answers to be given)' which might as well be in Persian for all the sense it makes to me.
Of all subjects, History is the most vulnerable to the 'de-facting' approach. Unlike, say, Maths or Latin, History lacks the requirement that the basics must be taught first or the pupils will simply not be able to understand anything about the subject. History is in English, and is sufficiently all around us that we all think we know it. As a result it is in History that educationalists have had the freest rein. The style of teaching it has changed dramatically, and the role of facts has been deliberately downplayed in favour of a more generalist, thematic approach. A mere factual recitation of history does not engage children, it does not enliven the classroom: it isn't, in short, much fun.
Far more entertaining is the construction of thematic interpretations, or of empathetic imaginations. They have become a bit of a bug bear among traditionalists, but the sort of 'imagine that you are a medieval peasant' questions that have crept into the syllabus have a more serious problem. As the teaching of History descends into a self-referential series of post-modern deconstruction and meta-narrative study, what is lost is precisely that knowledge that should be underpinning it.
And that knowledge is important for two reasons. The first is that, with the best will in the world, it isn't possible to 'imagine what it is like to be a Victorian char-woman' if you don't know who Queen Victoria was, or what was happening in British society in the late nineteenth century. Secondly, thematic history is actually more difficult than it looks. Discerning a pattern in the chaotic noise of history is not straightforward - in the words of Alan Greenspan, if something turns out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood it. Which makes following a syllabus based on thematic interpretation much like teaching journalism: first simplify, then exaggerate. John Martin Fischer has said that knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification. This is perfectly true and important, but you cannot attack the second limb of this without first having mastered the first. It's said that the difference between A Level and undergraduate history is that at A Level they ask you what the answers are, and at university they ask you what the questions are (once you get to doctorates they don't even ask you that). Before you even get to the answers stage, you need to have a good basic level of factual knowledge. When was the Spanish Armada? Who was Titus Oates?
Which brings me, belatedly, to the Townsend-Warner History Prize. In a brief shimmy through last year's paper, undertaken in strict exam conditions in a restaurant in South Kensington, the Editor of this august publication and I, together with my wife and the Editor's fiancee, mustering an impressive array of degrees and qualifications between us, would not, shall we say, have been entirely confident that our performance would have caught the eye of the selectors. But the questions were the right ones. They covered precisely the sort of factual ground that I have been talking about. And they included one question that no-one I have asked, including my mother who is as close as you can get to Kleio on this earth, knew the answer to ("what was the heptarchy?"). Whoever wins this prize has my undiluted admiration, as well as the certain prospect of a string of pub-quiz victories in the years to come.
Britain is a society almost uniquely engaged in its own history. Name me the French historians with a public profile like that of David Starkey, Simon Schama or Niall Ferguson. The historian in British society is the acceptable face of intellectualism. But the pursuit of historical knowledge is not, in fact, important only for its own sake. Boris Johnson's argument rested not only on the beauty and abiding importance of good poetry, but also on the cultural store of knowledge that has made Britain. The King James Bible, along with Shakespeare, colours our language, and our ways of thinking. Having a repository of common cultural knowledge is a large part of what makes a nation. Having an equivalent repository of common historical knowledge is even more important. In the current climate of multiculturalism, when everyone seems to be striving to work out what Britishness means, if indeed it means anything, that debate simply cannot proceed without a grounding in history. How can we know who we are, unless we know why?