Part of the attack on knowledge which still strongly persists is the labelling of ‘mere’ factual knowledge as ‘lower order’ in the style of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Such a distinction is often based on a false separation of the two and a belief that you can have skills without knowledge.
But the problems with Bloom’s theory are not only pedagogical; they are also cultural and economic. The classification of knowledge as ‘lower order’ privileges the administrative over the technical. A manager can quickly get a general idea of how a piece of equipment works, or how a scientific principle applies to his business. Having got that general notion, he can move rapidly on to coming up with all kinds of ‘creative’ plans for how to make more money using said technology or science. He can sit around with his fellow managers brainstorming all sorts of innovative ways of selling, marketing and promoting the product. There’s no need for him to get down into the ‘weeds of detail’. He would scorn to get his hands dirty with the fiddly facts. All the while, he can preen himself on how he is engaged in ‘higher order’ thinking, not like those grubby minions who actually make the stuff.
This type of senior manager, with his degree in PPE from Oxford and his lofty separation from the pesky details of the actual work to be done, can thrive in large corporations or government departments which have fast track graduate programmes to recruit and promote those with supposedly ‘higher order’ skills. This often means not much more than cultured articulacy and a knack for concise generalisation.
Meanwhile, Britain has a shortage of engineering graduates. You have to work hard on an engineering degree, in contrast to the three genteel years of expensive skiving on offer in the humanities. On an engineering degree, you have to study hard, because you actually have to know something by the end, otherwise you won’t be able to design bridges that stay up or machines that work. I shared a flat with some engineering undergraduates in my first year, and it was astonishing how long they spent in lectures and how much studying they had to do. It was like having a job! I was much more comfortable in my second year, when I lived with fellow humanities students. I never knew it was possible to waste so much time watching daytime television until that revelatory year. I knew one undergraduate who actually had a full time job at the same time as studying on a ‘full-time’ degree.
I considered myself fairly conscientious. I did the work required, actually read the books and even did a bit of reading around in the library for my essays. And I graduated first class, without ever having to break a sweat. It just wasn’t very demanding.
Should it be any surprise that we are short of skilled engineers, that our manufacturing productivity remains relatively low, that we have a persistent balance of payments problem because we don’t make enough stuff and prosperity sucks in ever more imports? Generations of Britons have received fact light education, and now we even praise ‘creativity’ over facts. Why bother putting the effort into slaving your way through an engineering degree? If you’re smart, you’ll get a nice smooth ride through a trendy humanities course, then a fast track up to the heights of administration, whether it’s in corporations or in civil service departments. You can get high pay, high prestige, influence and power, all without the tedious bother of having to study hard.
One exception to the exaltation of the administrative over the technical is medicine, where it is the top consultant doctors who have the most prestige. But even here, management culture has been swelling in recent years. And of course, we are short of doctors as well as engineers. Everyone knows a medical degree is serious hard work, and evidently that’s putting off too many people who prefer easier options.
I know there are universities where you must study hard in the humanities as well as STEM subjects. I believe Oxbridge is more rigorous. But I went to Manchester, supposedly a top Russell Group university. If I’d had to pay for it, I would have felt ripped off. Some American friends who were spending a year in the UK commented on the light workload. They were from good private colleges where they actually had to work hard.
There should be no easy options at university. Everyone should be working their socks off to master a large body of knowledge, whether it is literary, historical or scientific. And if they’re not interested in doing that, why are they at university?
Because if we continue to idolise so-called creativity and scorn facts, there won’t be much left to manage, except warehouses storing millions of pieces of plastic from China, or perhaps government departments where scores of bureaucrats scratch their heads very creatively about our intractable economic problems.