14 February 2006

On learning to distrust experience

(Apologies, Jim. This was originally a post just to you, but on reflection I thought this edited version might be of more general interest, and I'm into "reusable learning objects". Wonder if it will get any comments?)

What students learn by default in what we call the education "system" is distrust of their own experience. I remember, in the '50s, doing science experiments at school in what was of course then a seriously under-funded system (but I don't think funding has changed it much). The experiments always came out "wrong" (OK, chemistry experiments were more reliable, but physics stuff never worked because all the equipment was worn out); so we did them and wrote them up, and then the teachers told us what ought to have happened, and the results we should have got. The scientific method was turned on its head! So what we learned was that really that science was what the teachers told us it was, and any efforts on our part to test the hypotheses were bound to fail. What kind of message was that? Precisely the message that our schools and universities are now set up to convey.

In the '60s, I kid myself that I could have got a 1st (rather than my 2:1) if I had actually been able to read what the literary critics said about the works we were set to read. As it was, I was arrogant enough to rely on my own reactions to the primary texts; but more to the point, lit. crit. was and remains quite incomprehensible to me. Lord knows how I should fare on present-day courses!***

I'm complicit. I have just done some marking of assignments which require student teachers to draw upon their own (often extensive) experience, and I have complained in more than half of the cases that they do not do sufficient justice to the literature (despite good accounts of their practice, which are critical, analytic and reflective). Why should they? Much of what passes for "literature" (i.e. what someone has managed to get past an editor and much-vaunted "peer review") is trite rubbish, saying little about the subject, but more about the writers ("I'm an academic--I'm determined to be noticed!" [By whom?]) or their situation (it's publish or be damned in UK universities today, with the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 looming.)

Academe has always been a game. Cornford (1908) (yes, the date is correct) set it all out in bitter detail, including this little gem which I happened to find on the web while searching for the date;

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case....Every public action which is not customary either is wrong, or, if it is right, it is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
(From his wonderfully astringent "Microcosmographica Academica") It's worthy of Sir Humphrey! (Character in the sitcoms "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" -- in fact I half-remember that he quotes this gem.) I actually (tongue-in-cheek) wrote something to this effect on someone's essay.

The bottom line of the hidden curricula in so many courses is--"don't think for yourself!" and unless somebody else said it first and got it published, it doesn't count. Frightening!

So once most students escape from this game (apart from those who go on to be academics, who think that the game is the same as "life") they are firmly and surely inoculated against both original thought and testing against evidence.

Dick Cheney may have a problem with his aim. Academics' aim is better; they are firmly aligned on their own feet.

Now I'm going to take something for my dyspepsia!

***Actually, I'm kidding myself. I might still not have got a first, but I really blew it because I did not read the rubric on my very last paper in finals which told us to answer four questions, rather than the three required on all the preceding twelve papers. Am I bitter? Forty years on? Yes!

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