Status anxiety

Knowing things isn’t ‘20th century’, Justin Webb. It’s the foundation of a successful life

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

It’s scarcely possible to open a newspaper or magazine these days without reading an article about how the latest technological gizmo has rendered traditional education obsolete.

According to Justin Webb, a presenter on the Today programme, it’s no longer necessary to commit any facts to memory thanks to the never-ending miracle that is Google. ‘Knowing things is hopelessly 20th-century,’ he wrote in the Radio Times. ‘The reason is that everything you need to know — things you may previously have memorised from books — is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.’

The same view was expressed by Ian Livingstone CBE, one of the pioneers of the UK games industry. In a recent interview with the Times, he said he intends to set up a free school where children will learn how to ‘solve problems’ and be ‘creative’, rather than forced to memorise ‘irrelevant’ facts that can be accessed ‘at the click of a mouse’.


I challenge this argument in a pamphlet I’ve just written for Civitas called ‘Prisoners of The Blob’. Google’s not much use if you can’t read — and roughly 20 per cent of British children leave school functionally illiterate. Even if you can read, finding something out on Google depends on knowing stuff already. I’m not just talking about typing in the right search terms. How can you interpret the results if you don’t know what the words mean? The American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, a defender of traditional knowledge, gives the example of a child who searches the word ‘planet’ and comes up with ‘a non-luminous body that revolves around the Sun’. Not terribly illuminating if you don’t already know what a ‘non-luminous body’ is. To find out what ‘planet’ means using Google alone, the ignorant schoolchild would have to search the internet forever, like putting a monkey in front of a typewriter and hoping it’ll come up with the complete works of Shakespeare.

Another form this argument takes is to point out that the pace of technological change is so unbelievably fast that schools can’t possibly predict what sort of knowledge will prove useful to children when they eventually enter the workplace. It follows that teaching children traditional subject knowledge is pointless because it will soon be redundant (if it isn’t already). Much better to focus on the ‘skills and competencies’ that will enable them to seek out and process knowledge themselves — how to use Google, for instance. It’s the how of learning that’s important, not the what.

The problem with this is that the traditional curriculum isn’t in the process of becoming obsolete. It really doesn’t matter how rapidly the frontiers of knowledge are advancing in the field of technology, the date of the Great Fire of London will always be 1666. Pythagoras’s theorem is as true today as it was in the sixth century bc and Newton’s laws of motion, first set out in 1687, still explain the movement of snooker balls. Subject knowledge is being added to all the time, but these advances depend upon mastering what’s already known. As Newton said: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’

The reason we have such high youth unemployment isn’t because children have been taught ‘obsolete’ subject knowledge at school. It’s because they’ve been taught absolutely bugger all, including how to add up. A fifth of school leavers are functionally innumerate as well. That’s one reason British employers prefer Poles. They’ve received a traditional education.

What’s really galling about the anti-intellectualism of these Google worshippers is that they ignore the role that science has played in the technological revolution they’re constantly celebrating. Just think where we’d be if Tim Berners-Lee had wasted his time at Emanuel School studying how to learn rather than maths and science. Instead of inventing the world wide web at Cern, he would have been just another oxygen thief trading gossip about BBC executives in the Groucho Club.

The worst of it is, they’re nearly all science graduates themselves, these techno cultists. It’s Einstein’s theory of relativity for them and ‘collaborative problem-solving’ for the masses. And you can bet your bottom dollar that these critics of ‘obsolete’ subject knowledge will be sending their own little darlings to top independent schools.

Toby Young is an associate editor of The Spectator, and a founder of both the Modern Review and the West London Free School.

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Show comments
  • Duke

    I both agree and disagree.

    Traditional education still has its place, as done committing facts to memory. Children also certainly still need structured and disciplined teaching in the basics such as maths and English since these are fundamental skills for many jobs.

    But you haven’t distinguished by subject. The science subjects like maths, physics and chemistry are based on ‘fact’ and the fundamental laws don’t change (though they do evolve) so the facts will continue to be useful. Pythagoras’ theorem is a good example.

    On the other hand, social sciences and humanities progress with time, and much fewer people will use this knowledge in their careers. The fact that the Great Fire of London was in 1666 is irrelevant, and is simply not useful knowledge. It can also be looked up easily by any interested child who has an ability to use the internet, and it won’t take them ‘forever’. Wasting time teaching kids about irrelevant history just takes away from time that could be spent improving their writing, or learning academic subjects like science, english, technology or economics. Even more ‘life’ learning such as civic responsibility, personal finances or sex education would be more useful. (Please note I think a lot can be learnt from history, it can also be really interesting and the subject’s approach is very robust. I would also like to see more global history taught at schools, so my issue is more with the idea that children should be learning random facts like when there was a battle during tudor times, which is completely pointless)

    Also, I think solving problems and building ‘competencies’ is a positive step in the curriculum. What we have in the UK is a clear skills gap amongst our young people in useful areas e.g. engineering or (bio)technology (maths and science are more about skill than knowledge, and even though they are sciences they also can be incredibly ‘creative’ e.g. building software). What we don’t have is a knowledge gap in random information that has no use.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      In the first instance, the so-called “Social Sciences” are nothing of the sort unless qualified with a good deal of biological and statistical theory which makes them unsuitable to teach scientifically but starting from a 6th form level. Moreover, the “Social Sciences” are a completely distinct branch of knowledge to History, whom they must serve and never overmaster.I think you are misrepresenting the teaching of History. Historical knowledge is not a mere collection of ill-connected dates to be dusted off and exibited at parties to impress. Teaching history should be about teaching enough coherent facts around a fairly well defined point in time, such that a a historical context can be understood and appreciated. The following point is often explained incorrectly, but I shall try to do it justice: History is important to the individual because from an understanding of it we can glean an understanding, of both a structural, and a particular nature, of the whole broad spectrum of human activity ranging from the simplest to the most complex of things. Moreover, there is all the difference in the world between abstract manipulation of symbols (mathematics) and the sciences, which rely, and will always rely, on experimental (historical) evidence. A point you could have made was that theories and trends in the social sciences are not firmly fixed, and tend to fall out of fashion. To which I can reply: the ideas at the top may change, but the analytical structure rarely does, even though the way it is employed tends to go as the theory. Economics, by the way, unlike History, is a Social Science and therefore subject to exactly the same problems, unless stripped to bone in terms of theory and approached as an analogue to biology, which is also concerned with the distribution of scarce resources and subject to similar driving and perturbing forces. As a final point, to claim that Mathematics and the Natural Sciences are naturally more skill than knowledge oriented is to speak rubbish, since the creativity displayed by the experts in these fields is the result of an intimate connection to a vast body of specialized knowledge. One does not approach any 20 year old and expect him to solve the Einstein Field Equations or derive say even basic Thermodynamic relations out of thin air. P.S. Classes in social responsibility, personal accounting and sexual education are are a perfect means of indoctrinating a yound and gullible population, wholly bereft of the rudder of History, and moulding them into the desired form by a so-intentioned government, and are usually nothing more than a way to propagandise current ideas. A good class on evolutionary selective mechanisms as a tool for analysing past, present, and future human behaviour seems to me a far better idea, but would be too challenging and broad ranging to be implemented in a school and too narrow a subject for a university.

      • pearlsandoysters

        The history is a grand subject, unique & indispensable in the process of education. I’d add philosophy instead of this evolutionary thing, since philosophy helps to develop the mind whilst evolutionary theory is all about determinism and potentially might be reconsidered by some next generations.

        • ClausewitzTheMunificent

          I broadly agree with you, except for your last point. Evolutionary theory is patently not about determinism, but is , rather, statistical at its heart. Strange people may build strange arguments on top of anything, but this doesn’t mean that the foundations aren’t solid.

          On Philosophy: Philosophy is undoubtedly very important, but it is also not a child of the Void – one may posit the existence of God as its source, but this tends to create as many difficulties as it solves – thus I think one would benefit from studying Philosophy both inside the subject, and outside it, perhaps wondering why certain people at certain times advocated what they advocated. This is not to say that useless and frivolous interpretations and misguided deconstruction (usually grounded in the current ephemeral and often superficial popular ideologies) are to be encouraged. The latter study is thus too delicate a matter to be put in the hands of educational institutions and in any case the questions tend to come on their own to the thinking mind. Thus I come to agree that the least that can be done is to directly teach the subject matter of Philosphy in schools, without necessarily worrying about the tricky how’s and why’s.

      • Duke

        I think we are actually in agreement about history. I would
        never for a moment question its value in teaching us about historical contexts, which in turn inform our understanding of the Social Sciences. My point is that the author of this article does seem to think that teaching history as a set of ill-connected dates and facts is a good idea. At the end of the day this is probably how it is taught at the primary school level and I’m not sure this is ideal. My concern is also with the implied Anglophone bias coming out in the article. My preference is for the subject to be taught based on its relevance to the modern world, not just because of the way it has been taught as part of a ‘traditional education’.

        I also completely agree with you on your point about
        analytical structures and this is what I was trying to get at when defending skills and competencies. What children and other young people require are the thinking skills to interpret information and form arguments. The ideas at the top do indeed change, so what is the point in teaching them at the expense of the former?

        Now to defend my view on Maths and Science. You are right in
        a sense; the idea of ‘skill’ and ‘knowledge’ here is a false distinction, as both necessarily build on one another. But I still hold that these subjects are more about skill than knowledge. There are many scientists and professors in the world but only a handful are making ground-breaking discoveries. Yes, this is because they have the requisite knowledge, but more so (in my opinion) because they have the intuition and creativity to try the right things and take the right risks. These are skills that might be inherent, or might be learned, but either way they are indeed skills and are relevant to all pursuits (including the social sciences). These are the things we should focus on.

        And government indoctrination- give me a break! You are
        clearly a smart individual but don’t assume that everyone has the ability to think at your level. Basic knowledge about sexual health and personal finances is too low amongst young people and needs to be communicated in some way, whether it be school or otherwise. Academics are great, but sometimes we also need to think about the practicalities.

  • transponder

    Jesus. 5th of April, writing about education no less, and he still thinks ‘the reason is because’. This is exactly the same as saying ‘the because is because’. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you’ll never fix this in your writing, as well. Otherwise, I agree. The techies in this instance are morons.

    • sarah_13

      I agree with Toby. i’m sure many techies have built their empires on the shoulders of giants. They themselves may or may not be dyslexic but the structure of knowledge beneath them has been sturdy enough to withstand the odd free-rider. Too much free riding however and there will be no structure left.

  • anyfool

    So this paragon from the BBC thinks that it would be acceptable in a discussion in reply to something general, to pull out a tablet and Google the answer to reply too or ascertain what the person is talking about.
    Witless nitwit comes to mind.

  • rtj1211

    You can gather information through Google, but in order to interpret it, to judge its value, you need to have experience in the field.

    Wise mentors in science thirty years ago advised graduate students against reading too much, as it would prejudice their experiments without them having the experience necessary to digest and process such reams of information successfully. The time for processing the thoughts of others is when you have some thoughts of your own too.

    Learning things per se is part of the jigsaw, but it isn’t enough. Sooner or later you have to learn to make judgements and in the real world, that usually involves doing so with imperfect information. There will always be more information out there than you can commit to memory, even for the most sponge-like of brain, so sooner or later you have to learn to think and, when you know what information you need based on that ability to think, you go out there and start looking for it.

    One of the reasons all the climate change nonsense has been exaggerated so much is because too many people read stuff without being able to examine it critically. They do not put the reality of scientists into context (they are human, they are ambitious, some of them cut corners, some over-interpret data in ways which are inappropriate, some egg things up too much to the Press, some papers with flaws get through the system, grant funding streams are not always neutral, some people can make a lot of money with certain scientific lines being prominent etc etc). The only way to do that is to have the drive, energy and desire to really start to learn about the subject, which often includes asking awkward questions which someone not constrained by the ‘rules of the establishment’ can ask as they have no tenure to retain, no grant applications to write and no powerful enemies to care about.

    Learning things and searching for things are part of the equation of being an enquirer.

    But ultimately, the ability to break problems down into discrete questions which can be answered or accepted as unanswerable, the ability to synthesise understanding from disparate data sources are key.

    Finally, at the top level, being selective with what you reveal is necessary in the cut-throat world of plagiarisers, copy-cats and those who see original- but kindly people as perfect patsies to bleed dry through bringing them under their coercive control…..

  • Mark

    The internet has changed nothing. One has always been able to “just look it up on the internet”, only the internet used to be called the library. Knowledge was stored in scrolls, then books, now the internet. Quicker to access, no doubt, but that’s all. It remains necessary to feed and furnish a living mind. Human brains are not computers. If everyone’s just “looking it up”, who exactly’s going to be creating the content for which they’re searching? And, more worryingly, if a child has never been taught that something happened – a historical event, say – how would he or she know to look it up anyway? Keep fighting the good fight, Toby. This stuff is dangerous, anti-human nonsense.

    • dado_trunking

      Yet we have, perhaps like no other nation in the developed world, afforded us an uneducated underclass. 20% illiterates leaving education? We *wanted* that underclass, we never wanted them to be educated. Now we are scared as to what they might think and do. It’s a vicious circle really.

  • country_exile

    Good piece. Look forward to his column every week. Disagree with his view on the Tory party though. Bunch of liberal pansies.

  • The Red Bladder

    So is the whole object of our education system to be aimed towards turning out reasonably decent pub quiz teams?

  • Retired Nurse

    With a generation whose approach to information is ‘retrieval’ from the internet, rather than ‘storage’ or ‘processing’ in their own minds, conversation has certainly become a lost art……..as has scholarship. I had a wonderfully boring chat about WW2 with a 20 year-old recently ..full of incorrect factoids from Wiki entries that appear to have been edited by Lord Haw Haw…. all the ‘stuff about Hitler and the disabled’ is ‘total bollocks’ I was told…if only my generation had been on Twitter!

  • Terry Field

    Nobody told the teaching profession that kids need to know things – and LOOK how successful the `british education system is.
    It is WORLD CLASS.
    It knocks North Korea into a cocked hat.
    AND the Taliban cannot TOUCH it for qwolitee.

  • pearlsandoysters

    Inability to commit things to memory does impair ability to think. The main danger is that the structure of knowledge becomes increasingly fragmented and fractured to the extent that

  • Bonkim

    Regardless of subject area the essence of using knowledge is to be able to link cause and effect. That comes with experience and familiarity with human and natural behaviour.

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