The pretence of knowledge

This week, in between essay marking, I read on a friend’s facebook page: “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”

I actually think this sentence is less paradox than it sounds. The age of information has flooded us with so much knowledge at a mouseclick that choosing ignorance sounds like a rather logical choice for the intellectually daunted. The constant flow of televised, colourful, fast-paced information that rains down on us, as pointed out decades ago by Ray Bradbury (in “Fahrenheit 451”) and Neil Postman (“Amusing ourselves to death”), has caused the disappearance of active, slow, uninterrupted thought – which is the basis for any sort of actual knowledge.

So, since many have foregone that actual knowledge, and as we still feel that knowledge is indeed something desirable, we resort to the pretence of knowledge. And the longer we pretend that we know, the more this false understanding becomes accepted in society, the less do we realise that there is a difference between knowledge and factoids.

Thus, a high-ranking politician who is found out to have plagiarised nearly 100% of his doctoral thesis is able to wave it off as a “mistake” at first; and though he is later forced to lay down his office, there are sneering voices almost from the start who condemn the academic flak as completely overblown; two years later, there are voices that say he should really be allowed to do a comeback now, after all the fuss has died down.

As our politicians are allowed to wave off such faults as minor transgressions, if a student googled a complete analysis, all I can legally do is dock three points of a total of 150 for “citation infringement”.

Thus, students assigned set texts to read feel completely at ease when they read Internet summaries, and are taken by surprise that this is not considered acceptable by the teacher. This is a difference to the eighties, when I went to school. Yes, we skived off homework too. Yes, we might read a summary instead of the whole book as well. But we were mortified by it. We lived in constant fear that we might hit upon some of the things that we missed out because we’d taken the easy way out. We knew there was more to “The Great Gatsby” than a ten-page summary or a movie with Robert Redford. Today, students don’t. In a Year 8, you stand a good chance that one or two students will tell you, frankly and happily, that no, they’ve never read a book in their lives.

Of course, the students have a hard time. In order to be internationally competitive, Germany has shortened education to twelve school years. Some teaching content has been vaporised, some has been cut, and one of the foremost of these seems to be independent thought.

Our students read political speeches, and while vaguely understanding most of them, they are unable to put their findings into words again. To gloss over this shortcoming, they insert into their texts so-called “connectives” given to them by teachers. Suddenly, an absolutely inane analysis is abrim with “furthermores” and “moreovers”, which now serve as disconnectives in the worst degree, while the students honestly believe that these little words magically turn their texts into something meaningful.

When they are unfortunate enough to get me as their teacher, they say, “But we were told to use “moreover” and “furthermore”! Now you say we mustn’t? What do you want us to use instead to make a text coherent?”

I reply, “Your head.”

Other teachers, feeling at once frustrated by the short attention span and non-existent willingness to work hard of their students, and at the same time wanting to make their lives easier (and claiming they want to make the students’ lives easier), just go and tell them exactly what to write in the next exam so they won’t have to think for themselves. Some of their students get really good marks as a result but can neither draw the faintest bit of information from a text in front of them nor translate Latin. And woe to them, and to me, if they ever end up in one of my classes later.

How can we get people to think again? Can a teacher even achieve that, or do I just have to give it up as a bad job when I realise that they have never had to think for themselves in their entire lives?

Or do we have to accept the fact that most people are not supposed to be independent thinkers? Sixty years ago, only 6% of an age-group passed their Abitur; today, by international pressure and demand, it is a massive 49%. I venture a guess that Germans have not become more intelligent since 1950.  Am I supposed to turn out little mindless robots who can function in today’s society as long as you don’t ask too complex questions, and am I to pretend that I am turning out independent thinkers?

If that is the case, I don’t know how I am to prevent myself from becoming one of those bitter old teachers who hate their job with a passion. Or one of those teachers that nobody takes seriously, who have long accepted that they’re fighting a losing battle, and to preserve their peace of mind leave the next exam lying around in the class, copied a couple of times, to make sure the students have all got it.
I’m not sure which is worse.

16 thoughts on “The pretence of knowledge

  1. It is a very hard question that you are dealing with. I don’t know how much freedom you are given, in terms of teaching and grading methods, but I guess, the only thing that helps in making your students think is giving grades only on individual thoughts and nothing else. Instead of expecting full analysises (?) you may only ask for a few lines about what emotinos or thoughts did the text induce in them, and only after they can talk about a short story or poem fluently, you can expect them to fully analize a piece of literature by themselves.
    Sadly, most literature teachers didn’t think this much in their whole lives.
    If you give it up, these kids will lose all their chances to be independent thinkers one day, so keep up the good work :)

    • I teach in a way that does satisfy myself and that students do tell me helps them in the long run. The problem is that students won’t be very motivated to work if only a fraction of teachers at the school works in that way…

  2. It surprises me to hear that there is so little punishment at your school for people that plagiarize. If one of my professors even thought I might have plagiarized I wouldn’t get a score for the assignment, and if it was bad enough or I did it again I would be expelled. I fear even accidentally regurgitating words that sound too much like anything I have read, particularly when I know my essays will be run through programs checking for such things.

    On the other hand, I know that many of my classmates won’t read books, they only read the summaries. Those people don’t tend to do well in school. As a student, what I have seen be most effective to get people to do the reading, is when people start doing assignments outside of class together. The best thing I have seen to spur that is competition. (For extra credit points, for candy, for a privilege, grades between classes). A competition within a class doesn’t help as much though, because it turns the students against each other.

    I obviously don’t know of a solution, I just have a few observations from school in the US, up through college and a short time at a university. I’m sorry if I rambled a bit too much. By the way, I’m not sure if I have actually said this before, but you are an amazing artist, I really like your Tolkien based work, and I am a big fan.

    • Thank you! ;)

      “Those people don’t tend to do well in school.” Of course they don’t, and the really frustrating thing is when marks and pass levels are adjusted because otherwise, nobody would pass :/

  3. Having had these sort of discussions with both teachers and colleagues, I’m not sure there are easy answers to your questions. Compulsory education means that a percentage of your class will just do as much as they believe they need to do to scrape through; the trick is to balance their needs with those of the students who are genuinely interested in the subject and prepared to put the hard yards in (and who are likely more enjoyable to teach). The idea that performing a task well is an end in itself, or that you are learning self-discipline (and maybe other skills), even if you personallly do not view the end-result as being of intrinsic value is possibly a bit of a stretch for most children and adolescents. I recall groaning internally on being told “It’s good practice” or “It’s good for you – character building!” whenever we moaned to our teachers about difficult and seemingly pointless exercises. In retrospect, they were probably right. Damn them. ;) Maybe a small comfort now, but there’ll likely be some of your students who will look back and be glad you cared enough to not give them the easy way out, or who get what you’re trying to do – probably that 6%.

    When you find out how to teach people to think, please, do let me know. Some of the calls I get from junior colleagues make me want to weep. It is disturbing, the trend away from actual understanding of a subject or issue towards a more superficial smattering of knowledge and factoids (or my own personal favourite bit of bureaucro-speak ‘learnings’). More worrying is, as you say, the acceptance of this; we have schools here which declare proudly that total e-learning is their aim (less heavy paper for poor young backs, how good are we?!?), despite mounting evidence that reading from an actual physical page leads to greater retention, understanding and reflection than reading the same text from a screen, particularly once you add in distractions such as hyperlinks and other multi-media features. Still, if you manage to get a few of your students (and your kids) actually thinking, it’ll stand them in good stead once they’ve left formal education – from where I sit, there’s definitely a demand (and an advantage) for people who can interpret and apply knowledge, even when that knowledge is freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

    • Already, my own children are oddities in many ways for being read (not yet reading) books that most kids in their school only know as “a movie I’m not allowed to watch”. They’ve fully endorsed my and my husband’s ideas on learning and the cautious handling of electronic media. They’re happy with a minimum of watching TV and an hour of computer games every two or three weeks. My family is my safe haven that may help me brave the world outside.

      • ‘Oddities’ is relative – our oldest was in the same boat……… until recently. Her classmates have long listened to her enthusiasm, seen her read the books in class, looked at her associated treasures (including your pictures) and about three months ago at least half a dozen started reading the series – mainly with parents, but some on their own. And they’re hooked – I get comments from other parents (some amazed at the discovery that their child can tackle such books), and many do broach the issue of the films. Our rule of reading the book before you see the movie has caught on, and others are finding their experiences are similar to ours – their children are noting that bits in a film are ‘not how they imagined it’ or don’t want to watch the films because they themselves recognise that things that they can cope with on a page might be too much on screen. They’ve also started recommending and sharing other books amongst themselves. With luck, your children will not be ‘oddities’ but trailblazers for their peers. And hey, in our small bit of the world you’ve certainly contributed to an interest in reading rather than movies!

        And I agree with you – limiting time in front of screens is essential if children (or anyone else) are to develop other interests and skills. The depressing thing is that, even in a community where it is affordable, many are not given that chance, or are never presented with ideas or material that are remotely challenging.

  4. I read each and every word of this post and nearly cried. You put into words not only what I fear as a future educator but what I experienced growing up. I have a high work ethic and love to sit and think and immerse myself in thought, but school only required me to memorize what the teacher gave me long enough to ace the test. This frustrated me to no end. There’s so much truth in your words and your plight is one many educators are facing. Albeit bad teachers who don’t care exist, my experience is that many do but are forced to teach the test to meet demands. We’re slowly deteriorating our society and in essence robbing youth of a valid education. I work overtime on college to make up for what I felt I missed out on in 12 years of public schooling. However, not every student is lazy or unintelligent, that I can assure you of. But I repeat, those of us with enough of a brain to want to learn are not allowed to. Instead we’re held back with the kids who don’t care…it’s scary, and it won’t get better unless schools alter curriculum. It’s a group effort but if we force kids to do or fail, they will eventually wake up I think. Okay rant over.

  5. Actually, that is what happenning not only in your country… The problem is that if student do not want to think, you cannot teach him to. It is only his choice. Also, the system (at least in my country, in Russia) now encourages more to train repetative skills than thinking, and it is a pitty. It is sad that it is hapenning not only here.
    But as thinking is a one’s choice, there is still hope that someone would ask questions and seak for answers. Nothing could stop humanity in the past. Let us believe that the age of that quick information would not either.

  6. There are countries which have a reputation (whether true or not I can’t say) for encouraging rote-learning instead of problem solving, but Germany has always prided itself (again, no idea whether rightfully) on turning out its nation of poets and thinkers. Right now, it doesn’t feel like that…

    • Actually, our country was also praised for its educationsl system… But now, together with serious changes in cirriculum and exam system… I wonder where are we going to be in future. I wonder if it is the same all over the world…

  7. Interesting topic, thank you!

    Looking at my own children, and at the children we see in scouting, I think I’d describe the situation in Denmark slightly differently.

    What is creeping in is, in my Danish experience, a kind of mental laziness: the young people readily accept that you need to spend several hours every day training if you wish to excel in a sport, but when the ‘sport’ is no longer a competition, but rather a matter of knowledge, mind-skills and deep thought, they seem to believe that such doesn’t require an effort – or at least they are unwilling to make that effort or even to openly acknowledge its necessity.

    A lot of the symptoms are the same: young people watch a summary on YouTube instead of reading the book, and they readily copy from what they can find on the internet rather than spend the time and effort it requires to come to your own conclusions and write them down in a cohesive manner. However, when I put some pressure on them and make it clear that I am genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say about the issue, they very often surprise me positively. They can usually think for themselves and can actually see quite complex relations / contexts, though they may need a little (but only a little) help with their untrained vocabularies.

    At this point I cannot but think of Tolkien’s words in a letter to his aunt Jane from November 1961: “Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogeneous collection of immature persons, varying, as persons do, in their reach, and in their ability to extend it when stimulated. As soon as you limit your vocabulary to what you suppose to be within their reach, you in fact simply cut off the gifted ones from the chance of extending it.” (Letters no. 234). Reading books — actually reading them, closely and with attention to every word — is an excellent way to extend your mental reach and even more the reach of your ability to express your own thoughts.

  8. I am surprised that the tolerance for plagiarizing is so high in Germany! I live in Sweden and most of my teachers require of us to mail any longer essays to an e-mail client which runs the document through a filter to make sure it is not copied from anywhere on the Internet. I do not exactly know the punishment for copying, but I guess you would have to re-do the essay, possibly without the opportunity to get high grades on it.

    But what really sent chills down my spine are the possible consequences for pupils that are taught this shallow way. If they never learn to think, how will they ever discern between right and wrong? If they do not develop an intellect of their own, who will think for them? They will be like sheep, following whatever everyone else does and not caring where they are herded. Of course that is a worst case scenario and I do understand that most of those students will end up alright, but it is still a fact that an unthinking person is far easier to manipulate than one who is used to analyzing and criticizing.

    I would like to encourage you to continue with what you are doing, even though it feels like a Sisyphus work. As a student, I very well know the importance of a good teacher and I am sure that you make a difference for your pupils!

  9. Jenny,

    It is easy to get discouraged (or un-heartened, the literal meaning) when attempting to teach those who will not, or cannot, think, because they’ve never been required or encouraged (in-heartened) to do so. I am a senior professional geologist who is often responsible for mentoring younger colleagues. Our corporation receives graduates from the top scientific University in the country (I live overseas in the Middle East, but am from the US) on a yearly basis, and I can safely say that maybe only 20-30% (perhaps I am being generous) of each incoming class have the actual capability for critical, independent thought. Some of this is cultural, some of it is inherent. I am viewed as a difficult mentor by most, due to the fact that I absolutely require intellectual rigor and honesty when working through a problem, in a culture where this is not strictly valued. I respond by saying that the most demanding teachers I had, both in high school and at University, were my most favorite, and from whom I learned the deepest lessons. Don’t beat yourself up over your attempts to deepen your students’ critical thinking skills. Do what is right, not what is fashionable, or even politic. Your students will be better for it. Not all of them, but at least some of them. Revel in those successes. Don’t worry overmuch about the “failures;” YOU did not fail THEM (except, perhaps, in scoring their grades :-) ).

    I came to your website through a variety of Tolkien links. I have always been amazed and impressed by watercolor artists, and at their ability to work with shadow, texture and dimensionality in a medium that seems ot lend itself to smearing, mixing and brown-out (which may merely be a commentary on my own initial childhood attempts at watercolor!). I like your works. You seem to have a fascination in your artwork primarily for the Elves, Tolkien’s “Beautiful Faeries;” the influence of Art Nouveau (which, fittingly, seems to fit the Elvish style), as well as anime or manga, and maybe even some references to Alvin Lee and John Howe, seem to me to be apparent in your work. As a mother and an educator (judging from my wife’s viscerally negative responses to same in both the books and the films – she is both a mother and an educator, as well), I suspect you might have trouble as an artist portraying Orcs, Ringwraiths, Balrogs or any of the darker side of Tolkien, without the lyrical elegance present in your illustrations. As a possible challenge, and drawing from your portrayal of Morgoth, who in no way seems threateningly evil in your gallery drawing (to me, anyway), have you ever considered doing a truly menacing character study of Sauron, or one of the Uruk-hai, or the Witch King of Angmar, or Shelob? I say this not to discourage you, but to encourage you, as an artist, to attempt to portray varying shades of “evil” as well as you have done the Children of Light. Your Ancalagon the Black is getting there, I think. Keep up the artwork, it’s lovely.

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