Responding to his concerns over the rise of fascism in Europe, Bertrand Russell noted in his 1933 essay The Triumph of Stupidity, that: “the stupid are cocksure, while the intelligent are full of doubt”. His analysis, that people seek comfort in straightforward answers to complicated problems, resonates with us today. It can easily be suggested that the rise of social media exacerbates this problem, making everyone an expert, giving everyone a voice and condensing each proclamation into a limited number of characters or (for even greater impact) a well-crafted meme. Debate over complex issues is reduced to the “hurrah/boo” quality described by AJ Ayer, where ethics is little more than a shouting match.
How should schools respond? This question is asked whenever society faces a conundrum. Issues of significance over the past twelve months require no introduction into this discussion and at every juncture, schools are expected to provide the solution. The list of themes and content that schools should be teaching is endless and if curriculum time were given to each of these, there would be none left to deliver academic syllabuses. That is not to suggest that schools do not play a vital role in the broader education of the next generation. They do. The question of educational aims, however, requires further thought.
At the height of the Brexit debate in 2016, a leading minister, advocating to “leave”, famously asserted that “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Sadly, he was correct. Expertise is not a desirable attribute when offering a solution to a complex problem. It has no place on Twitter and when it does, reducing it to the required character-limit offers no room for nuance or understanding.
Expertise is, however, where we should begin. Educating children to have an appreciation of, and a desire to aspire towards expertise should be the foundation of learning. Knowing that we are on a journey of discovery but that the more we discover, the more complicated something becomes, helps us all to appreciate that rarely is a problem solved with a straightforward solution, or by shouting. A London Mayoral candidate (with a large Twitter following), campaigning on the promise of mandatory five-year sentences for carrying a knife, may discover that the causes of social problems are rather complex and even if they don’t, they might learn that mayors don’t set sentencing guidelines.
Questioning everything should also be at the heart of a learning culture. The quality of questions teachers ask, impacts greatly on the quality of learning. Similarly, students should be encouraged to question, in order to discover. Questioning for knowledge, yes, but also for understanding – a far greater challenge.
In gaining an understanding we must work with a willingness to be wrong, to adapt and to build greater understanding over time. After all, there is little benefit in having a mind if you never change it. Furthermore, some issues of current importance are not fully understood – research, analysis and academic discussions are required before we even begin to opine over things about which we know very little, either personally or collectively.
One such topic could be the learning quality that online, or blended education facilitates. For years we have been told it is the future, mainly by tech companies. Early-adopters have willingly invested in hardware which is almost certainly now redundant. I look forward to reading the research and analysis into this vital debate but would suggest that, from experience, one thing that our screen-obsessed lifestyles appear to stifle, is proper debate. To debate is not to shout. To resolve a debate, common ground must be found and resolutions sought. Underpinning the discussion should be knowledge and understanding; fuelling it should be the willingness to change one’s mind and to question everything, including our own pre-conceived views. The Good Friday Agreement was not achieved on social media and nor would it ever have been.
Wisdom is not a term often used in discussions about modern education, yet it should be. Wisdom is lacking in a society where the vox pop views of people force-fed a targeted diet of opinions via different media streams are regarded as equivalent to that of an expert. Expertise and mastery must not be undermined. Seeking understanding whilst being aware of one’s own lack of understanding; recognising that complexity is wonderfully real and discussing, rather than shouting with our fingers in our ears, should be the climate in which we all learn. After all, as Einstein cleverly noted: “Any fool can know. The point is to understand”.
Written by Tom Arrand, Principal Cardiff Sixth Form College
Published by School Management Plus, 4th May 2021Categories: Articles