Thursday, September 27, 2012

Abolish Education: Knowledge and Cultural Snobbery

For me one of the big problems with education is the way we fail to distinguish between intelligence and knowledge. We seem to have this belief that if someone knows a lot then they're very intelligent and well educated, and if they don't then they aren't. This is obviously not the case.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we have this cultural snobbery about what people should know and what they shouldn't. Or rather, what we think educated people should know. For example, someone with an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare is thought of as being very intelligent, whereas someone with an extensive knowledge of British sitcoms, let's say, is just thought of as an average person who's watched a lot of telly. Why is one set of knowledge more worthy than the other?

Why is a knowledge of fine wine more impressive than a knowledge of lager? Why is a love of Mozart seen as being an indicator of intelligence and education, but a love of Pink Floyd not? Why is an appreciation of impressionist art seen as being more remarkable than an appreciation of Hollywood movies?

Really the value of knowledge should be judged on either its practical merits or its personal value. Or more to the point, is the knowledge useful to the person that holds it and does it bring them joy.

No one should be reading Shakespeare to impress another human being. Really, reading Shakespeare should be viewed no differently to watching a movie or going to a football match. People should be doing it because they have a genuine joy and interest in it. If you get no joy from it don't read it.

But the fact is, our education system is built upon the idea that we have to impress other people. And people in education are acquiring knowledge not because they have a genuine appetite for it, but because they need to take it on board in order to climb the social ladder. In this regard passing an exam is really just jumping through one of the many hoops we're expected to jump through in order to get on in life. This is especially true of any subject that has a strong cultural dimension - English Literature, History, Philosophy, etc. Although to some degree it's true of all education.

The TV show University Challenge is a great example of all this. Week in, week out they ask questions, all essentially on the same subjects - Ancient Greece, Romantic Poets, Classical Music, Renaissance Art, Latin, English Literature. The vast array of things in the universe they could ask about, yet time and time again it's the same subjects that get touched upon. It's not so much a test of general knowledge, but more a test of your general knowledge in regard what we expect well-educated people to know.

Of course, these days they occasionally throw in the odd popular music question (with a nod and a wink) to mix things up a little, but it's still the same deal.

The message is simple. We do have social mobility and you can get on in life by embracing education, but you have to embrace the sophisticate culture of the upper-middle classes as well. And the western world's English-speaking upper-middle classes at that. No champagne, no game ...and you need to have an extensive knowledge of that champagne as well 'cause you will be asked about it.

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