ON FOUNDATIONAL KNOWLEDGE
27 July 2017
As I am at the moment thinking about the next move in my career, one job that appeals to me is that of a professional quizzer. Now, obviously I am saying this in jest (I am far too passionate about my work in education), but I am only semi-joking. If you watch quiz shows like “The Chase”, for example, where amateur quizzers pit their wits against those of professional quizzers, you cannot help but envy those who make their living simply from acquiring an impressive range of general knowledge. They spend their working days reading books on all sorts of topics (history, science, linguistics, geography, arts), they study maps and globes, learn the names of even the most obscure island nations and their capitals, scan lists to memorise Nobel prize winners or birth dates of famous composers, and all of this in the name of research. In other words: they spend their time reading and rote learning, and once they have maybe successfully won a couple of high-profile quiz shows, they are discovered by talent scouts who offer them lucrative contracts as TV quiz gurus. Not a bad way to spend your life.
Sometimes these quiz gurus are admired as incredibly brainy or intelligent. Personally, I don’t think that rote learning in itself (or even the possession of the most fabulous memory with terabytes of storage capacity) defines intelligence. For somebody to be qualified as intelligent, they should possess other skills as well as the mere retention of facts: the ability to analyse these facts, to see them in context or to think critically about the knowledge they have acquired and its possible application. Reciting lists, knowing all the capitals in the world or being able to remember every football player who ever scored a decisive penalty at a world cup may be impressive, but does not make you an innovative thinker. There is, however, nothing to stop you from doing a bit of both: acquiring a wide range of factual and general knowledge, as well as specialised in-depth knowledge in a field that you are really passionate about and where you develop the skills to apply your knowledge critically, intelligently and creatively. There does not need to be an antithesis of these two different ways of acquiring and applying knowledge.
When I was at university, one of my professors frequently lamented the lack of, as he called it, “recallable knowledge” in the young generation. This was in the eighties when increasingly education professionals maligned rote learning, blaming it for raising uncritical and unquestioning young adults and often even holding it responsible for the disastrously unquestioning obedience of so many people in Nazi Germany. Being forced to recite Latin conjugations and declensions, being trained in the multiplication tables in military drill style or learning poems or dates by heart was almost likened to fascism. I still remember, as a pupil in the seventies, having to recite grammatical tables in unison, or (usually as a punishment for being late to music classes) having to learn by heart the birth and death dates of famous composers. Many of these I still know by heart today.
I must say (at the risk of sounding old-fashioned) that I am still grateful for the way in which I was taught. Every History homework included learning 10-20 key dates by heart, and you were tested on these regularly. You had to learn Latin vocabulary rather than rely on the use of a dictionary in an examination – and it meant that you could use the time on working out the complex sentence construction rather than wasting it looking up every single word in the dictionary: “just to make sure” or because you had never felt motivated learning the words in the first place.
Pupils nowadays do exciting things. They analyse history sources in a critical and independent way. They can write professional bibliographies and footnotes (a skill I only learned at university). They conduct elaborate science experiments in high-tech labs, whereas we often just watched the teacher do them while copying notes from the board. They compose music themselves rather than analysing the techniques of Baroque composers. They are rewarded for their artistic creativity rather than marked on their competence to copy, painstakingly, Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ or Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’.
All of this is marvellous progress, but it does not replace the need for a sound knowledge base, a framework of facts and dates, an awareness of those who went before us and their achievements. We cannot competently analyse historical sources if we have no understanding of the history of the time and the key dates of the era we are studying. We cannot understand (and even less analyse) the great art works if we don’t have the knowledge that is needed to interpret them. As far as Western art is concerned, we need to have an understanding and knowledge of the Christian tradition as well as ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology, the two foundation stones of the Western world. If we don’t know the history of the aboriginal population of Australia and the country’s colonialization, which includes the key events and key dates of Australia’s history, we cannot meaningfully engage with the process of reconciliation.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Dr Faust, in his scholarly desire to understand what holds the world together, entered into a pact with the devil to acquire some higher-order knowledge by making use of Mephisto’s powers of magic and witchcraft. He felt that all his learning in a multitude of disciplines had still not given him that depth of knowledge and that holistic understanding of the world. His desperate monologue, where he comes close to suicide, has been quoted on speech days by generations of pupils (and sometimes headmasters!) as an expression of the shallowness of meaningless rote learning that leads to superficial knowledge rather than deep understanding. This is presumably the reason why so many educators have worked their magic to make learning more engaging, to ban rote learning and to advocate independent thinking.
However, as we all know, even the most independent thinkers need something to think about. Otherwise their efforts will lack substance. Even if you can easily look up most facts and dates online at the click of a button these days: if you have to do this too frequently, your knowledge will remain disparate and disjointed. I once wanted to entertain my Latin class in Italy with a seasonal multi-lingual activity, reading the Christmas story in Latin and then listening to its German musical version in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I asked my class at the start what the Christmas story was all about. There was a long silence until finally one boy raised his hand and offered a tentative: “Is that the one with the three Arabs?” I had to explain patiently that three Arabs did indeed feature, but that this was not the main event of the Christmas story.
I always get great joy out of reading a novel and knowing exactly what happened in history or art or music at the time the novel was written or is set. If you have the key dates of Scottish history and the Jacobite rebellion readily available, you will read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped with a different level of understanding. If you know how and when perspective was discovered in painting, you will never look at art in the same way again. If you read about Napoleon’s or Hitler’s attempts to conquer Russia, you can understand the extent of their megalomania better if you can immediately visualise the map of the world and the sizes of the respective countries. You will understand much more deeply the challenges that Galileo Galilei faced, if you are aware of some key dates of church history in the 16th/17th centuries. If you have to look all these things up every time you read a novel or a biography, you will not necessarily develop the same depth of understanding.
This “recallable knowledge” has several practical advantages, too. A cashier who has been drilled in mental arithmetic will not be fazed if technology breaks down and they have to do the sums in their head. I was recently in a coffee shop where the assistant had to get pen and paper out to add $3.80 and $4.50.
I sometimes exercise my brain by recalling lists in my head, such as that of all US presidents, or all the winners of the FIFA world cup, or all the countries in the world and their capitals. (Yes, I can recite them all). I can tell you straightaway that there are 27 world capitals that start with the letter ‘B’. Is this useful in itself? Probably not. But learning for learning’s sake is great fun. It is satisfying to know things. It is rewarding to understand art, music and literature in their historic context. The fantastic students who appear on Britain’s brainiest quiz show, University Challenge, have an amazing ability to recall a wide range of factual knowledge and apply it creatively. It is great to be able to access your brain on demand and open the right drawer to find the appropriate knowledge to make at least some sense of the world. It provides you with the scaffolding and foundational knowledge for higher-order and independent thinking.
Let us not malign rote learning or the acquisition of factual knowledge. It is possible to find the ideal balance of teaching towards the retention of facts as well as towards the skills to transfer factual knowledge to more creative thinking. And even if you, my reader, are not convinced by any of my arguments: you can always become a professional quizzer!