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.