Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Education versus the Art of Learning

The present Government has a bee in its bonnet regarding education: witness Tony Blair’s emphasis on ‘Education, education and education’ at the Labour Party Conference in 1996.

I have great difficulty with such dogma and would prefer that young people were not "educated" but taught the "art of learning", a subtle difference perhaps, but an important one.

By consulting the New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE) we are presented with the following definitions:

Education: ‘The process of giving or receiving systematic instruction.’

Learning: ‘The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught.’

The former implies a passive process and does not necessarily result in the desired outcome. The latter, however, is very much an active process and does ipso facto achieve the aim. I ask you at the outset, whom would you consider the more intelligent or wisest of men: the "educated man" or the "learned man"?

It could be construed that education is a process of loading the brain with the specific information the teachers, schools and, increasingly, the Government (consider The National Curriculum) wish the population to be programmed with. This has shades of George Orwell’s 1984, wherein the state controls every aspect of daily life.

This was touched on by John Dryden who, in The Hind and the Panther (1687) said: ‘By education most have been misled…

On the other hand, being taught the art of learning implies being given the ability to acquire information for oneself, perhaps in accordance with one’s needs and desires. It implies the ability to think for oneself and fosters curiosity. This in turn can prove to be a valuable asset throughout life and not just a process undertaken whilst at school.

Naturally, guidance does need to be given to young people in the earliest days of their schooling. They do need some essential foundations upon which they can then build their own knowledge base. The manner in which the teachers put across those key skills is all-important. Consider the following words from William Arthur Ward:

‘The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.’

The first three teachers are able, with varying degrees of success, to fulfil the need of educating their pupils. However, the fourth teacher is the one who will instil within them the art of learning.

The film Dead Poets Society (1989) touched on the subject of teachers who could inspire, demonstrating the heights to which the pupils could intellectually ascend if unconstrained by rote learning. In the film, the teacher, Keating, exhorts his pupils to ‘Seize the day’ and to ‘Make your lives extraordinary’.

In one particularly memorable scene, Keating says to his pupils:

You are souls at a critical juncture. Either you will succumb to the will of academic hoi polloi, and the fruit will die on the vine – or you triumph as individuals….learn to savour language and words because no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world.’

He continues:

‘You must strive to find your own voice. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Why be resigned to that? Risk walking new ground…never be ordinary.’

As the American poet, Robert Frost said in his poem The Road Not Taken (1916):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I argue that education alone does not empower people to achieve the ability to be those individuals. It is the willingness to constantly question and learn which does. There is a danger that we fall into the trap of believing that, because we have educated our young people in accordance with The National Curriculum, then our job is done. It is not. It has only just begun. Have a National Curriculum. However, do not make it the end-point. Rather, our task should be to ensure that education is simply a means to the far more important aim of arming our youngsters with the skills and ability to undertake life-long learning and thereby have the courage to take the road ‘less travelled by’.

I leave the final words to Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Ernest (1895):

‘The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.’

Perhaps those who decide on the political agenda of this country should take note and be prepared to think again.

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