Growing Up Is Great

Is life an upward or a downward slope?

‘These are the best years of your life’: it’s so often said to children and to teenagers. Adults think they are encouraging young people to make the most of their opportunities, to live life to the full.

But it’s a terrible message to give. It’s dangerous and damaging in so many ways.

The idea that childhood and youth are the best years of your life is based on the Romantic myth of inherent human goodness. Following Rousseau’s lead, Romantics such as Wordsworth saw childhood as sacred, and lamented the corruption and artifice imposed by adult society. They believed in the noble savage. In doing so, they inaugurated an anti-intellectual, naturalistic ideology which has done incalculable harm over the last two centuries.

The traditional view is that children are working towards adulthood. They are developing the virtues and acquiring the knowledge that they will need in order to live fruitful and happy lives. It is an upward path towards greater happiness and freedom. The struggle to overcome one’s selfish whims and the effort to acquire important knowledge both lead to ever greater abilities to think and act rationally. The child becomes ever more human as he climbs the steep and rugged path upwards towards adulthood.

This traditional view is serious, positive and realistic. Instead of placing the child on a pedestal, it presents adulthood as a worthy and noble goal towards which the child must struggle. It gives adults their proper dignity and authority in the eyes of children, who do, in fact, wish to emulate them, unless they are educated out of this natural tendency.

We are raising adults, not children. But if we repeatedly tell them that childhood is better, that they are currently experiencing ‘the best years of their lives’, they will end up believing us, and lose the motivation to struggle upwards towards the happiness and freedom that comes with fruitful, responsible adulthood.

(Image from Wikimedia).

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The Quest for Knowledge

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

The principles of a liberal education are actually rather simple. Pupils will encounter the greatest minds of the past, and from this encounter they will gain the insights to seek after truth and goodness for themselves. Liberal education equips pupils to ask the most fundamental questions: ‘What is man?’, ‘What is the good life?’, ‘What is the good society?’

The principles are indeed simple, but in practice it is very difficult to offer or to a receive a liberal education in twenty-first century Britain. Why is that?

Firstly, we are cut off from the past by a mistaken idea of relevance. Teachers are reluctant to foist ancient material on pupils, thinking that they will reject it as unconnected to their lives. But this lack of connection is only at the most superficial level. Relevance properly understood transcends the immediate concerns of the present. The greatest thinkers are always relevant, because they address the most important human questions, the questions which are of deep relevance to every human being: questions about significance and purpose in the face of mortality, for example. Last time I read the newspaper, death had not yet been abolished, and we are still just as mortal as Socrates.

The second key barrier to a liberal education is relativism. If there is no truth about the human condition, then we cannot expect to benefit at the deepest level from reading serious books, so why put forth the effort?

E D Hirsch is right to point out that exposure to a generous sample of great writers is vital to build cultural literacy, and allow our pupils to gain admission to the civilised conversation of our society. He is right that the ability to read effectively depends upon a good store of core knowledge built up through familiarity with the great legends and myths which have shaped Western society. His arguments are compelling from the point of view of social justice, as they must be accepted if we are to offer equal chances to those from homes that lack cultural capital.

E D Hirsch is right, but his arguments will not be enough to revive liberal education. The principles of core knowledge are attractive partly because they neatly sidestep the philosophical questions. They put to one side the question of whether we will find truth in the great writers of the past, and offer a pragmatic reason for studying them regardless.

The philosophical neutrality of Hirsch’s arguments are both their strength and their weakness. It is certainly eminently sensible and rational to propose the study of core knowledge in order to improve cultural literacy and open up the life prospects for poorer pupils, but is it really exciting, in the way that the discovery of truth is exciting? True liberal education appeals to the eager desire for truth that is in every child. It is the eros of the mind, yearning for consummation. There is all the difference in the world between proposing to study something because it is useful, and proposing to study something because it is true.

The search for truth is what makes us take books seriously. Every time we open one, we might discover something that will change our life. Mere entertainment or practical utility are pale shadows in comparison to the thrill of discovering the truth, and the liberation it brings.

Are General Ideas Superior to Specific Detail?

Michael Fordham and Greg Ashman have recently blogged about the distinction between knowledge and understanding, a distinction which has often been used to denigrate what is referred to as ‘mere’ knowledge.

Michael Fordham points out that the supposedly ‘higher’ cognitive phenomenon which is labelled understanding actually means more detailed and more complex knowledge, as well as the knowledge of how one fact links to another. At the highest level, this detailed and complex knowledge, along with the knowledge of relevant connections, is achieved by experts over many years of study.

In contrast, the type of abstract of conceptual knowledge which is often labelled ‘understanding’ is low on detail. It might be termed generalised knowledge, and it is actually much quicker to master than the large amounts of detail which a genuine expert has at his fingertips. It’s so short on content that you might even learn it through group work, with a few prods to point you in the right direction.

Even at a basic level, we can see this in operation. If we consider arithmetic, we can say that mastering the concept of addition requires very little specific knowledge. On the other hand, it takes lots of laborious practice to make number bonds truly automatic, because there are so many, and automaticity takes so long to build.

The idea of addition, the concept that by combining two numbers you end up with a higher number that is the sum of the numbers added, is quite abstract, and it might seem more sophisticated to articulate this concept than to memorise number bonds. But a general definition is much less valuable than the ability to return an answer to a number bond automatically, without thinking. And as Michael Fordham points out, these are not two fundamentally different things, knowledge and understanding: they are just two different types of knowledge, one generalised and abstract, the other much more concrete and applicable to specific situations.

The idea that generalised concepts are somehow higher than specific applications, and that general knowledge is more valuable than large amounts of detail, is an idea which privileges managerial over technical ability. It is not an idea which encourages hard work and application; instead, it elevates those who present smooth and credible vagueness and generalisation and leave the hard work of the details to others.

Ultimately, praising so-called conceptual knowledge over hard, specific information encourages us to live in a fantasy world, in which the boring details can always be left to somebody else. In fact, it is the world of television and film, which always edit out the tedious effort of piecing together details in a criminal investigation, or piecing together evidence in scientific research. Instead, a fictional Stephen Hawking gazes into glowing coals and the next day has a eureka moment and comes up with his theory of everything.

This is the fantasy of the individual Romantic hero, questing for the transcendent and the sublime, or the revolutionary guerrilla, transforming society with just a Kalashnikov, a colourful bandanna and a few glamorous slogans; it is dangerous nonsense.

As Hannah Arendt does, we should ask the deeper question about why these ideas are so popular. Why should a culture embrace concepts that undermine hard work and the mastering of objective knowledge? Could it be that we have privileged the subjective over the objective, and ceased to believe that there is any definite and certain knowledge to master?