Thursday 13 March 2014

The peculiar bias against 'knowledge'

I found myself delving deeper into Croydon’s peculiar library service yesterday, and I have to say I'm even more confused than I was before.

The service is flexible and human and able to order me books from anywhere and send them anywhere. Their people in libraries are brilliant and helpful. But there remains a mystery.

I was reminded of it when I was searching for a copy of Gulliver's Travels in Croydon's central Library.  There wasn't one in any of the branch libraries (except one) and I had to order a battered old copy of Swift's collected works from the reserve, a dusty room evidently a long way away.

Swift has long since made way for the latest autobiography by Cheryl Cole's ghostwriter.

I ventured into Thornton Heath Library, recently revamped so that it won an architectural award.  I ventured into Norbury Library only last week and the mystery is the same: where on earth are all the books?

Last time I blogged about this, I discovered that there was a whole website dedicated to solving the mystery: what has Croydon done with the books, let alone the shelves (I can't find it now)?

But, more recently, I have realised that this is actually a symptom of a deeper problem. You might call it the Flight from Facts, or perhaps an extreme scepticism about content and knowledge.

Most educationalists agree these days that the point is not to fill children’s minds with facts, but to light a fire to encourage learning. It is not to mould them into encyclopaedias but to give them the tools to find out what they need.

But you don't really have to throw out these truisms to be a little worried about where it is taking us.  Because it can and does go too far – especially when the internet gurus, and corporate interests behind them, get hold of the idea and boil it down to the point of dangerous incoherence.

Why, they say, do children need to know anything very much, apart from how to use a search engine?  Why not just obsess about the pathways in our brains where we connect knowledge, and forget about the knowledge itself?

It is all a bit like encouraging children to be healthy by obsessing about their intestines, but never feeding them.  The two actually belong together, and if you stop giving people food their intestines shrivel up.

The result has been an undebated bias among librarians and educationalists against the basic knowledge that our children might once have learned, about history, geography, science and much else.  The result is empty shelves in the libraries, while people who can't afford their own screens stare hopelessly at YouTube - and hardly anyone you meet seems to know anything much.

I'm not saying the ideology is wrong.  I met a Polish historian recently who was shocked that her UK lecturers knew so few dates – Polish historians can still reel them all off.  Maybe we don't need to obsess about dates.

But there is a deeper problem here, because you can't draw an absolute line between the means to get knowledge and the knowledge itself, between knowing how and knowing what. Without any knowledge, people lose the ability to tell sense from nonsense. They fall prey to any kind of rubbish.

As Chesterton once said about Christianity.  When people stop believing in orthodox religion, they don't believe nothing; they start believing in anything.  The same kind of thing is true of knowledge: if people don't have any, they are not free-thinkers - they become no-thinkers.

Michael Gove isn't right about everything, God knows, but he is right about this. And I'm afraid those empty bookshelves in our libraries is becoming a metaphor for our empty minds.

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