‘To think, or not to think, that is the question.’ This paraphrase of Hamlet’s opening sentence in his soliloquy – (with which I commenced the last blog) – introduces a crucial problem facing contemporary education.
I could make this the shortest of blogs ever – and leave you to draw your own conclusions as to what I am getting at – by now simply by quoting the Spanish philosopher Miguel De Unamuno, Rector of the University of Salamanca in the 1930’s, when he wrote 'To think is to converse with oneself.' And just leave it at that.
Yet obviously I must become more explicit and point out one very significant way in which education nowadays is – (as is said) – ‘missing the boat.’
Looking back nowadays to the time when I was a lad of some six years, I remember walking across a field one Saturday afternoon with my dog and talking loudly to myself – as to just how I would present my stepfather with the reasons why I should not have to go to Sunday School every week. He always encouraged me to have a reason to support any argument – and I found that the only way to achieve this was to talk things out with myself: initiate a self-dialogue that exposed the ‘pro’s’ and ‘cons’ of the situation. For only by struggling to find the words in this way – thinking, no less – could I come to organize my feelings, and really clarify my thoughts concerning any issue that presented itself as important. (Even now, I walk the dog in order to best converse – sometimes out loud with myself: and he will often stop and turn to look at me quizzically as if agreeing or disagreeing with my argument.)
Consequently, I have always believed that the fundamental purpose of education – at every level – is to ensure that students come to think for themselves: first, in mentally seeking to understand and categorize the facts pertaining to the subject matter under discussion; second, have them write short essays to verbally ‘shape’ and evaluate the conclusions to which they have arrived; and finally (size of class permitting) get them 'talking’ – personally expressing their point of view. For, as Emerson put it, ‘The aimless collection of facts is not enough.’
Example 1: Secondary School, England, in the 1930’s in a Classical Studies lesson. Reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the original Latin – Monday morning in class after weekend homework – keeping one’s head down. No good. “Collier, on your feet boy, translate first paragraph, page 38.” Stumbling upright: “Yes Sir. Er, Caesar addressed the crowd and…” Interruption from G.M: ”The word is not ‘crowd’, Collier, it’s ‘throng’. Now there’s a difference between a ‘crowd,’ and a ‘throng’ Collier, don’t you think?” “Yes, I suppose there is, Sir.” “Well, what is it boy?” “Er, well Sir, I think a ‘throng’ would be more orderly than a ‘crowd,’ Sir.” Old G.M. as we called himreflectively stroked his cheek. “Not bad Collier, not bad. But tell me, how do you think the Gauls would have responded to Caesar’s speech?” “Well Sir,” I responded, “I think they would have approved.” “Oh, and why is that? Old G.M. shot back. I thought for a moment. “Well, with the Huns crossing the Rhine and terrorizing the Gauls, and the Normans coming down from the North and doing the same thing – I think the Gauls would have been glad to get a bit of Roman Law and Order, Sir.” Old G.M. stroked his chin, looking me in the eye challengingly. Then: “Ah Collier, so you’re a Law and Order man, are you? I’d never have thought it!
Example 2: Coffee Shop, University Town, U.S.A., in 2012 at lunchtime. Students pouring in – all with laptops; no books to be seen. Student at table behind me plugs in his computer; starts clicking away. I turn round and ask, “Do you mind telling me what you’re doing on that thing?”
“I’m accessing information”, he replied. ”It’s for a Course.”
“On what?” I asked
“Global Warming,” he relied.
“And what do you do with it when you’ve got it?” said I.
“I print it.”
“And then….? I asked.
“I hand it in.”
I took a sip of iced tea before responding. “Now, just a minute. Aren’t you expected to make some kind of response to this ‘information’ – contrast and compare it, for example, with other facts that might be out there; express your own thoughts and opinions as to its credibility, how it relates to the general body of facts pertaining to the subject: at least write something like a short ‘editorial’ essay revealing what ­you think and feel about the significance of this data you’re accessing today? ”
He looked at me blankly. “Oh, nothing like that, he replied.
And so we talked in general terms about the local weather, and I told him I had traversed much Antarctica’s South Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastline, and how the calving of extra-large icebergs from the Ross Ice Shelf – a body of ice the size of France – could affect Global Warming. He had not heard of it. But said he would access information about it.
“And then what?” I asked.
He grinned, and went on clicking away.