Teach them nothing but philosophy

The government’s exam regulator declares that the view of history taught by schools is too narrow, with a bias towards the Tudors, and Adolf Hitler. Accompanying these reports comes the inevitable cry from commentators that our children are not being taught properly. Our schools are merely day-centres for the ignorant. We hear that QCA is now developing modules for the DfES that give pupils a broader range.
The array of knowledge we have to cram into the heads of our innocent secondary-school children is vast, and inconveniences such as puberty distract pupils from the task of absorbing even a fraction of it. The problem with human knowledge is that there is an awful lot of it. Many historical facts are disputed, and there are several possible interpretations of those facts we can agree on. Everyone will leave school ignorant of some of the key figures and events that have shaped our world, and there is nothing we can do to change this.
We also hear that children in Key Stage 2 spend vast parts of their time training for tests. This is the most annoying aspect of the report. It is as if exams are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end. Indeed, for an over-worked teacher who is threatened with another Offsted inspect, good test scores for her pupils could be the only thing that matters!
Children should be trained to be philosophers. Philo and sophos, a Love of Knowledge. Perhaps it is not important what facts they know, just that they take an interest in the world around them. They will then seek out knowledge for themselves, naturally. I am paradoxically both ashamed and proud that there exist books on my university reading list that I did not read until after I graduated. Whenever I encounter a word or reference I do not recognise, I look it up and plug the gap. With increased access to the internet, this gets easier to do every day. I find the power of Wikipedia to be breath-taking, and surfing through to random articles is a secret, solitary pleasure. Only last week I found myself immersed in an explanation of the Reimann Hypothesis and its place in the history of mathematics. I only read the biography of Field Marshall Karl Dönitz a few days ago, and I have no recollection of how I came to surf to those pages.

4 Replies to “Teach them nothing but philosophy”

  1. If we don’t learn *about* history, there’s no way we can learn *from* it, though, is there? Is it a good idea to rely on school leavers to have the luxury of time and resources to pursue such knowledge in their own time, when work or family related demands on their time become considerable? I think we owe them more than that.
    Also, it may be true that we cannot escape our subjectivity, but that’s no reason not to try to interrogate the available evidence at all. I’m not suggesting you were saying that, but wrt to disputed historical “facts” and multiple interpretations of agreed-upon facts, a large part of what the study of history actually is, involves an awareness of precisely these two points. That’s one of the things that A-Level history gives you, whatever particular period you study. What’s important about learning history is not just the “factual” content, but also the discipline of analytical and critical thought. I think it would be a shame if we didn’t offer our school-children the option of that.
    And I also would suggest that we actually need to know a little more than just how to use a web browser, specifically, how to critically evaluate what we read on the internet, in terms of its accuracy, reliability, authenticity etc. Maybe in your post that was taken as read, but I’m constantly amazed at the failure of first year university students to even consider such aspects of online sources that they use.
    Great post, and I love the idea of the bowels of government.

  2. Sadly, kids don’t really have much interest in the back waters of knowledge. Or for discovery as opposed to instruction. Its just a case of bunging it in and hoping some sticks.
    I still remember my excellent form teacher attempting to explain even the most basic non syllabus topics to her rough comprehensive class, with little response. “What business is London famous for?” Silence. Finally the Japanese exchange student put his hand up and said “Banking.”

  3. Robert,
    I often wondered why I was taught things like the Five Mile Act and stuff like that. We were certainly taught by rote, and there was no attempt made to suggest that the historical perspective was informative to avoiding similar stupidity now. If knowledge is not, at the very least, useful as a means of avoiding error then it seems to me to be a waste of time to teach it. It might be more to the point to get history teachers to tell everyone that the whole human race was reduced to about 30 people at one point in it’s history. And then explain that we are all, every last man jack of us, descended from that group. It is, after all, about the size of a class and even thick pupils might make something of it. But that’s the problem with historians, they have such a short perspective.

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