Wednesday, 7 October 2009


(This post was inspired by a wonderful piece by Jack of Kent. Thanks Jack!)

Back before I began teaching, there was a thought-provoking question in a textbook. It stated that at some point in your career, a pupil will get bored and ask: "What do I need to know all this for, my mum says I'm only going to work down at Asda, I don't need to know this stuff to do that." It said that each teacher will have their own individual answer - and you need to decide in advance what it is.

The question never came up during my course. But that didn't stop me mulling it over for some time. I decided to reject such obvious answers as "Well you still need to pass your exams" and even "You might not work at Asda". I decided to go deeper. I decided, should I ever be asked that, to respond with a deep challenge: namely, "Tell me, X, what do you think about child labour?"

When the pupil had condemned it (I don't think I planned what I'd do if they supported it!), I'd make this point: that you don't really need anything you'll learn in school to work at Asda - you merely need to be able to push a few buttons, which any four-year-old can do, and to have a need for the money (and that's why people from all walks of life get jobs at such places). Therefore, theoretically, you could leave school very young indeed if that was all you were going to do. Because education is not just to prepare you for jobs. It's to train your mind.

In Haruki Murakami's bestseller "Norwegian Wood", one of the heroines, Midori, asks the protagonist out of the blue if he can explain the difference between the past and present English subjunctive. He says he thinks he can. (I certainly can't, although I find grammar fascinating. A Spanish professor at university says that English does not have subjunctives!) Midori asks: "Tell me, what use is that kind of stuff in everyday life?"

"It's no use at all," replies the hero. "It may not serve any concrete purpose, but it does give you the kind of training you need to grasp things in general more systematically."

Midori finds this insight "amazing", and wonders "if her whole life has been a mistake" because she hasn't bothered to remember information she thought of no use to everyday life. But I don't think this goes far enough, because the protagonist's comment refers even to outstandingly dull exercises and information (he decides to think of university as "a period of training for techniques in dealing with boredom") - how much further could you go with information that is interesting. I find it heartbreaking that so many people feel compelled to apologise for wishing to know something simply for its own sake.

Newspapers report that more and more students opt for courses designed for a specific career path, and that purely intellectual studies are a luxury for the rich. This is not because having a job is so noble and more rewarding than knowledge, it's because education is so costly that you have to have to find a way to pay for it afterwards. The message being sent out is that you can't learn a job by doing it, but you have to pay if you want a good one - and therefore, additional learning is an unnecessary extra expense many of us can't afford.

To me, this feels like the murder of our greatest abilities, our realest selves. People write on the Galaxy Zoo Forum that this is the most interesting thing they have ever done, that they would no longer feel right - or even like themselves any more - if they could not classify galaxies, contribute to research, and learn astronomy from each other. You ever hear anyone say "I don't know what I'd be without my shiny desk/senior management position/pay increase"?

Now, I'm not saying there should be no training courses for the workplace - far from it. Many of them sound terrific, and more than one person I love and respect very much are doing such courses right now. But they've made a choice as adults that this is the career they want: not felt, after nine or eleven or thirteen years' schooling, that they would be stupid not to do it because knowledge itself is worthless. Education is a journey, and the workplace should not be the one worthy finishing line. Most job skills come as one of many by-products of good education, just as a healthy skepticism and feel for methodical research comes as a by-product of people having a great time clicking on galaxies and chatting on forums together, because they have ideas for new research projects and argue with each other about how best to collate the data.

Good old Paul Lockhart writes: "Just because a subject happens to have some mundane practical use does not mean that we have to make that use the focus of our teaching and learning. It may be true that you have to be able to read in order to fill out forms at the DMV, but that’s not why we teach children to read. We teach them to read for the higher purpose of allowing them access to beautiful and meaningful ideas."

So when I heard that the inventors of CCD chips and fibre optics had won the Nobel prize for Physics this year - and exulted in the board's description of volunteer science projects which reminded us of something - I felt both amused and sad to read this Discovery article light-heartedly mocking the "impracticality" of these inventions.

Other Nobel prizewinners just happen to strike precisely the same chord. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and John Szostak won the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine for their work on the mechanisms of chromosomes to resist decaying as they divide again and again as the body ages. Someone in my family heard one of them speaking on the radio: she said that they had no particular goal in mind, but simply wanted to know what the chromosomes were up to! I have no link, but this article contains the remark: ''[It was] really a tribute to curiosity-driven basic science", from Carol Greider.

Galaxy Zoo 1 had specific things to find: blue ellipticals, and the ratio of clockwise to anticlockwise spirals. But we found hundreds more things than that. Galaxy Zoo 2 has a much vaguer goal, namely to place all the galaxies along Hubble's tuning fork - but they're assuming that a great many more questions will be answered than they had even thought of asking, not to mention more questions asked for the first time! The result? So many papers in the pipeline that it's frightening. I know the full number already planned, but I don't think it's public knowledge yet, so I'll leave you curious for the time being.

1 comment:

Sakib said...

Iam ecstatic about the inventor of the CCD chip winning the Nobel prize! Imagine what amazing pictures would never have been produced by observatories if it wasn't for this tiny little chip! Can you imagine the Hubble Space Telescope with a massive film camera? Without CCD, amateur astrophotography wouldn't have reached the phenomenal level it's at right now, so many hard working amateurs are producing epic works of cosmic art that are even better than professional observatory images from 20 years ago! The Discover article irked me, only inventions that affect the entire population are valid? What about following your dreams and discovering the unknown and satiating your curiosity? Thats what life is about, the sense of exploration and discovery of the universe around us, not just being passive consumers of technology.