This was something that came up a bit more in conversation than it did in the online comments. I’m going to use these two words – which were occasionally used by others – two separately define two ideas:
- Organically: Learning that happens naturally, or by chance, as a person goes through life. This is as opposed to learning that happens because an authority tells a person that they must, should or are going to learn it, despite it being of no immediate use to that person
- Holistically: Learning of facts such as ‘names of countries’ that happens amidst, simultaneously with, and as part of learning much more about that country besides e.g. climate, flag, culture, religion, recent history, relation to our world
The issue of learning holistically I will address in the next post.
Why we can’t learn organically
This one came up a few times when speaking with friends who weren’t in education. Most of these friends had pretty good geographical knowledge. Some had taken to Sporcle throughout university to amass their knowledge, some had picked it up through the news and media etc. and some had had to ‘learn lists of facts’ like the countries during their time in school, and now resented it.
That last point obviously worries me; I don’t want a school system that people grow up to resent, but I think it’s an issue worthy of its own separate post. Also, others have gone through a similar process and deeply value the result, so I suspect it was more a function of the school environment and the pupil relationship with the teachers than it was about the act of ‘memorising lists’ per se.
It’s the second point that’s worth picking up on now: some had amassed their knowledge through news and the media.
Their argument is that people will learn all that they need to learn from taking an interest in the world. This will be more natural and less stressful than having to learn it at school, and they will learn the things that are important for them to know, when they become important, rather than having a dead weight of unused knowledge that was a waste of time to learn.
This all seems fair enough. So why doesn’t it work?
It leaves education to chance. Some people might learn a lot this way, some will learn little or nothing. I for one learnt little or nothing. Rather than having been the victim of a dice roll, I would prefer to have left school knowledgeable about the world.
How willing would you be to roll the dice on your own children’s education?
And that’s really all there is to that. It assumes something about human nature that isn’t true, or at the very least, does not apply to every person. It’s a nice idea; I too wish we could just leave it to ‘life’ to bestow the knowledge upon everyone, with ease, without the toil of study. It is essentially wishful thinking. In 1798 the economist Thomas Malthus deconstructed similar arguments made by the Utopians.
A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to show that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating… And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shown, it is surely lost time and lost eloquence to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state.
If it were the case that everyone learns these things organically, as suggested, rather than a minority, then we would find that everyone knows it all already. That is clearly not the case.
If we decide not to make it a priority at school, most people won’t learn it.