Knowing what aint so

Written by retired teacher, Peter Joyce
25 February, 2020

The following article was sent to us by retired English teacher Peter Joyce, who wrote it some 20 years ago for the NZ Education Review. The article illustrates effectively many of the problems that still grip education today. Because of this, we have re-published it here so it is available to a wider audience.

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

T.H. Huxley, letter to Charles Kingsley


Everyone’s truth is their own.

Shirley MacLaine


Recently Bruce Hansen, a student researcher at Canterbury University, quizzed his fellow students on their general knowledge. They did not know very much for an educational elite. This may surprise and shock educated members of the general public, but I doubt that it would raise the eyebrows of many teachers.

A year or two ago, when my fourth formers were working on an essay in class, a student approached me and asked, "How do you spell Swiss?" My ears cannot pick up what they used to, and I needed to confirm what he had asked. I said, "Do you mean Swiss the nationality?" A pause. "The people?" He was absolutely mystified. He answered, "No, I mean like in army knife." The boy knew the word, but only because he presumably owned a Swiss army knife. He had knowledge of the word only in terms of the shrunken horizon of his immediate experience and concerns. One job of education is to take students beyond that, not because education literally means "leading out", but because it is unquestionably worthwhile to do so. One way this can be done is by making sure they know some facts. Such as who the Swiss are­.

One of the most convincing failures of modern education is that students do not know very much. And not just in New Zealand. Jaime O'Neill, a high school English teacher in Washington state, was shocked at his students' appalling general knowledge. They believed, among other things, that Sid Caesar was an early Roman Emperor, that Christ was born in the Sixteenth Century, that Cape Town is in the USA, and that Thomas Jefferson was a guitar player for Jefferson Airplane.

Factual knowledge has been unfashionable in educational circles for some years. We should, of course, be encouraging our students to be inventive, adaptable, bold. It is the process, not the stuff, that matters, and that is why our students must learn how to learn. This is not a new idea. Emerson wrote that what happens in schools is not education, but the means to an education. I agree with this, to a point. But the process is flawed if the students do not, at least incidentally, pick up some hard knowledge. They must have some knowledge to participate in or understand the Great Conversation of human affairs. They must have some facts to programme in this great information age we are told we are entering. They must have facts as a basis for informed opinion, and to understand allusions. There used to be a butcher's truck driven around Christchurch with "The Meat Moovers" painted on the side. Is it still around, or has the company changed its slogan because too few people can spell well enough to get the joke?

A little knowledge can also be a protective thing. Educationalist Neil Postman wrote of the need to provide students with a good 'crap detector': a way of discerning and rejecting the untrue, the gross, the fallacious or the meretricious. The foundation which can provide this is sound factual knowledge, combined with rigorous rationality. Yesterday I read a full-page advertisement in a community newspaper hawking the astrological talent of Sylvester Stallone's mother. Have we presented our students with crap-detectors sufficient to see through such flummery? I doubt it

It is not always possible to say which facts count as part of the Great Conversation and which do not. However, the concept is useful even if a grey area blurs it a little. For example, I consider it appalling that many high school students, when asked to take one-and-a-half away from ten, cannot get the right answer; that they would be hard pressed to name a country which borders Italy; that they could not begin to explain what communism is (or was); that they know nothing of Copernicus, Einstein or Galileo. I use two criteria for believing that students should learn about these things in school. The first is that they are important to function as educated human beings. The second is that most young people are not going to find out such information elsewhere.

I believe that, in this era of student-centred learning, we are not doing enough to lead young people away from their immediate lives and interests. School is becoming more and more like the students' own lives outside school. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we may in the future have schools which are indistinguishable from real life. But then what is the point of education? School is not home, computer game or disco. Far from making school like life, we should be teaching things in schools which the students are not going to learn anywhere else, but which we believe are necessary to make them refined and intelligent citizens of a developed society. This is what we used to do. Admittedly, we may have dragged students by the hair and screaming, but we usually managed it nevertheless. The challenge for modern education is to do it and make the students like it.

One reason for students' appalling lack of factual knowledge is that we no longer see error as a part of learning. Rather than tell students they are wrong, we assert their right to own whatever mistaken notions they hold. Students are seldom corrected when they are wrong, lest we damage their eggshell egos. Facts humble us; the naive confidence fostered by current Shirley Maclaine-style education allows us to be masters all the time. We hear a lot these days about confidence and self-esteem; it is considered a sin to damage a student's self-esteem. But what should we do when a student is wrong?

Our new educational goals are often psychological states rather than knowledge. I cannot treat confidence-building, for example, as an educational goal. Reasonable confidence, in school as in the real world, is naturally a virtue. If we teachers see that a student's progress is hampered by an obvious lack of confidence, we should try to correct that. However, we should do it not because we are teachers, but because we are human beings. In such a case confidence-building is a praiseworthy means to real educational ends. However, it is not an end. Our business is knowledge; it is not personality. There is something suspicious about any kind of knowledge which respects personality. If our students cannot sometimes be told politely that they are simply mistaken without turning into whimpering rejects, then we should all put the chairs up and go home.

The result of our naive kindness is that most students are incapable of the kind of intellectual humility which Huxley implored learners to have (as a biologist, Huxley was referring to the realm of natural science, but what he said can be more generally applied). The combination of ignorance and self-assurance is fatal to learning, because it renders doubt impossible in the situation where it is most necessary. With the exception of the highest achievers, our students hold the glib belief that what they know now, and what they can do now, are all they will ever need.

What has happened to doubt? Josh Billings, a Nineteenth-Century humorist, wrote that it is better "not to know so much than to know so many things that ain't so." Ignorance is better than mistaken belief. Even more disturbing than students' lack of knowledge is their certainty that they are right when all the evidence worth any attention is against them. I have noticed an increasing trend for students never to acknowledge pure ignorance. Rather than say they didn't know where Paris is, they would say, "Oh, I thought Paris was in Brazil." It is as if they are claiming that they did have some knowledge; they "owned" a belief about Paris, which had some value in their minds.

I teach English. In my subject I sometimes believe that everything logical has been sacrificed to the great god of creativity. Every year I find more students whose written expression is appalling because they apparently have never been corrected. They have learnt to treat writing as a totally imaginative act, which it is not. Much has been said about the deterioration of students' spelling in the last couple of generations, and we keep getting told that tests have shown that spelling ability is as good as it ever was. However, the kinds of mistakes students make now display a new and staggering ignorance of the structure of our language. I am referring to mistakes such as in though's days, or agensed (for against, as if it is the past tense of the verb to agense). Even a dreadful speller of a generation ago would have known that ambulints looks like a plural.

However, spelling howlers do not hamper understanding as much as punctuation errors. Ignorance of how punctuation works is the best example of how unbridled creativity has affected students' expression. We have a whole generation of English students whose main instruction in writing appears to have been "Go!" However, punctuation asks us to stop, or at least to slow down. It has rules which require rational skills, and knowledge of objective concepts. In punctuation, it is possible to be wrong. In the (spoken) words of one student, almost incoherent in writing because of his punctuation: "Oh-Mr X at intermediate believed in creative writing." Most fifth-formers have little idea of when to end a sentence, and generally use punctuation as a kind of garniture. Many even add it afterwards. There are high school students incapable of writing a two-clause declarative English sentence without appearing to be a recently-arrived exchange student.

I find a logical inconsistency about the way we blindly accept creativity in education. Imagine a student says to me: "Why do we bother with all this story writing stuff? I'm not going to be a writer. I may have to do some writing in the job I end up with, but it won't be creative writing. I'll probably write reports or letters." This is a fair question. No one has ever asked me that in my twenty years of teaching, which shows how readily students (even unmotivated ones) accept the creative premise. Our likely reply would be that the creativity learnt in writing will transfer to other aspects of the student's life. In other words, we accept that creativity in education is always worthwhile and somehow relevant. There is something almost sacred about it. Few English teachers seem to assume that writing creatively is useful only in making someone a creative writer. However, it does not seem to be accepted that rational skills will transfer, in an equivalent way, from the field in which they were learnt to other aspects of someone's life. Does the rigour of mathematics or English grammar make students more precise and methodical in their later careers as architects, pilots or dancers? I cannot claim that it does. However, I see no reason to assume that creativity is any more versatile.

For schools to justify their existence, they must be able to demonstrate that children are learning something special; something they would not learn without schools. To do this, it may be necessary to make education a little less student-centred, and to go back to making young people learn some of the things which we adults know have shaped civilisation, and which continue to be a part of it. Philosophically, it should not be too painful a shift; after all, the very fact that we have schools at all shows that we consider the young need guidance and correction. Students would like to own education, but no doubt they would also like to get their hands on AK47s and Harley Davidsons. The question is, can they be trusted with such power?


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