There Are No Dead Facts


Detail of a carving in Lincoln Cathedral

‘There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.’ (G K Chesterton, Heretics).

Every field of knowledge has its own structure. Only those who do not appreciate the rich pattern of subject specific knowledge can talk about ‘dead facts’. Only those who know very little about literature could consider a memorised Shakespeare sonnet to be an inert lump, an arbitrary weight upon the mind, instead of a seed that will grow and bear fruit, or a branch that has roots in rich soil and will blossom in season.

The patterns of subject specific knowledge themselves should be our guide to developing curricula. It is a lack of attention to these patterns which renders programmes of study fragmentary, and it is this fragmentary nature which can lead pupils, and even teachers, but especially administrators, to regard individual items of knowledge as inert, or arbitrary, and favour instead the mythical transferable skills which are supposed to sit above them.

But when we develop a curriculum based upon the structure of the knowledge itself, then the patterns develop naturally. For example, when we design our literature curriculum chronologically, we see how the literature of the Renaissance develops from a thriving medieval culture. We see the influence of Shakespeare upon Romantic and Victorian authors. We see the roots and we see the branches. We see the patterns inherent in the knowledge itself.

Really focusing on developing a coherent curriculum means that we stand at some distance and gaze upon the whole, wonderful pattern of knowledge in our subject. Everything is interconnected, and we need to build knowledge in our pupils so that this interconnectedness is part of their experience. They should not need to stumble upon it, because the logical arrangement of the curriculum should develop it systematically within their minds.

There’s nothing dull about being systematic. Patterns of knowledge have an intricate beauty which is breathtaking when we really begin to contemplate it, when we stand back and survey the field through which we wish to guide our pupils.

The beauty of the whole is built with individual stones which are in themselves unremarkable, like the beauty of a medieval cathedral; but no one would claim that any of those stones are arbitrary. And like a medieval cathedral, each subject discipline is something which the whole human community has constructed over the centuries, based upon a shared aspiration to something higher.

We need to raise our aspirations, consider the whole, and meditate upon the purposes and principles of our academic subjects. If we do this, then we will realise that no fact is dead.

(Image from Wikimedia)


4 thoughts on “There Are No Dead Facts

  1. Interesting to read as I sit here with 110 11-14 year olds exploring Copernicus and the development of man’s knowledge of space though the writings of Bronowski, Feynman and others. The idea that the sun moves around the earth might be considered a ‘dead’ fact by some. Certainly no longer a fact, but knowing it was once considered a fact is important. And this is where things get interesting. As Feynman said, “science is a culture of doubt” – we can only ever know we were wrong, we can never be certain we are right, he asserted. I think when we see these polarised educational debates emerging on twitter, we’d do well to remember his thoughts. Facts are only what we know, or think we know SO FAR….The crediting of Christopher Marlowe as co-author of some of Shakespeare’s plays is one such example. Fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

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