The decline of knowledge

The road between Dublin and Galway is not the most exciting so it is always nice when there is something stimulating on the radio. The other day, as I was travelling, the time flew by, such was the quality of the discussion on both the Sean O’Rourke show on RTE1 and the Pat Kenny show on Newstalk.  O’Rourke was chatting to Ireland’s best known historian, UCD’s Diarmuid Ferriter, about Eamonn DeValera’s 18-month trip to the US just after the First World War. It was fascinating stuff and made all the more engaging by Sean O’Rourke’s obvious knowledge of Irish history. Over on Newstalk, Pat Kenny – a chemical engineer by training – was chatting to one of Ireland’s greatest ever scientists, Trinity’s Luke O’Neill, about off-label prescribing. Again it was intelligent, engaging radio, and largely because the interviewer and interviewee were so knowledgeable.

While listening to both shows I thought about my father. He never went to university but he was what used to be termed an “educated man”. He read a lot and he knew a lot. And people who know a lot are often interesting people: they’re the sort of people you want to sit beside on a long haul flight.

And then I started thinking about this exchange in the Irish Times (here and here). Mike Lyons, a teacher from Cork was bemoaning the fact that our education system is increasingly de-emphasising knowledge acquisition in favour of what can best be described as “process”. So, for example, instead of emphasising actual knowledge of history, modern curriculum designers tend to want to emphasise what it means to be a historian. Or instead of emphasising the acquisition of scientific knowledge, curriculum designers are inclined to emphasise activities like scientific inquiry because that’s what scientists do. The NCCA deny this reduced emphasis on content but their denials don’t hold much water. Consider this ‘curriculum’ for Junior Cycle Science and this curriculum for the now discontinued Junior Certificate Science*. The difference is striking and any reasonable observer would conclude that there has been a major shift away from education as (primarily) knowledge acquisition towards education as…what exactly?  That is the key question. What exactly is education for? Is it to enrich people’s lives by making them knowledgeable about the world and capable of making sense of it, while at the same time becoming well-rounded adults capable of conducting a conversation? Or is modern education no more than a (futile) attempt to turn young people into those illusive critical-thinkers who know very little but have spent large chunks of their precious time in formal education trying to mimic the ways of scientists, historians and whoever else. Think of this: why do we teach 14 year-olds science? Is it so they can appreciate the scientific method and what scientists do? Yes of course but it’s far more than that. We teach 14 year-olds science because they need to know some science to be able to navigate the modern world. And contrary to what many believe, having scientific knowledge (in your head) is more important than ever in this Google age. The best way to combat “fake news” is to be knowledgeable.

The long term outlook for Irish education is worrying. My fear is that when the Senior Cycle is revamped, students will arrive in university, perhaps having had an “engaging” education at second level – lots of short courses and the like – but lacking the basic knowledge required to push on and master Level 8 material.


*Specifically, consider this extract from the Junior Cycle documentation on the aims of the junior cycle science curriculum; the order of the various aims is… interesting:

  • to develop a sense of enjoyment in the learning of science, leading to a lifelong interest in science
  • to develop scientific literacy and apply this in cognitive, affective and psychomotor dimensions to the analysis of science issues relevant to society, the environment and sustainability
  • to develop a scientific habit of mind and inquiry orientation through class, laboratory and/ or off-site activities that foster investigation, imagination, curiosity and creativity in solving engaging, relevant problems, and to improve their reasoning and decision-making abilities
  • to develop the key skills of junior cycle to find, use, manage, synthesise, and evaluate data; to communicate scientific understanding and findings using a variety of media; and to justify ideas on the basis of evidence
  • to acquire a body of scientific knowledge; to develop an understanding of Earth and space and their place in the physical, biological, and chemical world and to help establish a foundation for more advanced learning.

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