There was a time when everyone in education knew that if you wanted to master a subject, you needed to work hard, practice frequently and memorise large amounts of information. No one has ever forgotten these basic points in practical areas, because to do so would clearly lead to disaster. I’ll never forget how hard my first year flatmates at university had to work. They were studying engineering, and it was like a job! They had to learn loads of stuff, while I loafed about with hardly anything to do on my English degree.
It used to be obvious that if you wanted to master literature or history then similar levels of sustained effort would be required. Then the progressivists came along and ticked off those nasty schoolmasters for filling the children’s heads with facts, and sternly insisting that they learn them thoroughly. The law of effort had been repealed, and we were now going to unleash our natural potential by, to use Walt Whitman’s words, loafing, and inviting our souls at ease.
This revolution was the equivalent of engineers announcing that they had repealed the law of gravity. Now their bridges would not have to follow the tedious rules slavishly obeyed by their forefathers. The results were also comparable and predictable: widespread collapse of the fancy structures erected by those who had defied the laws of nature.
The cognitive scientists who have reminded the world of education of what everyone used to know anyway — that memorisation is necessary, that learning takes effort and repeated practice — are like a physicist coming to spoil the fun of the revolutionary engineers. The physicist would humbly point out to them that the law of gravity cannot be repealed, and that their bridges are likely to collapse if they fail to observe it.
Kind of obvious, you might think. So why won’t educators listen to the cognitive scientists? Why are we not seeing a large scale revival of hard work and subject knowledge mastery through repeated practice?
The barriers are philosophical, and moral. In order to justify his desire to live exactly as he pleases, modern man has concluded that human nature is exempt from any objective law whatsoever. While he fawns upon the scientists who unlock the secrets of external nature (because they make his life so much more comfortable and convenient) he creates a strict barrier around his own nature, and forbids entrance to anyone who would presume to use the methods of reason and logic to arrive at certain conclusions. Philosophy traditionally understood — the search for what is good, true and beautiful — has been abandoned, or marginalised to the point of irrelevance. Modern man’s freedom must be unconstrained, so he must remain in blissful ignorance. He therefore plugs his ears while his impossible constructions, his castles in the air, collapse around him.
Reality bites back, but so many of us have departed so far from it, taking the drugs offered by the Romantics, that we are unlikely to notice its revenge. As far as human affairs are concerned, we simply don’t believe in the existence of objective reality. The scientists can make discoveries until kingdom come, because we know better. Human nature must be a blank canvas on which we can paint whatever we choose. If it turned out not to be, how could we continue doing whatever we liked and refusing to accept that there will be consequences?
The Matrix is a great metaphor for our times. And we need to take a large blue pill before we are going to be able to profit from the discoveries of cognitive science.