The Lost Tools of Learning 1943
That I, whose experience of teaching is extremely limited, should presume to discuss education is a
matter, surely, that calls for no apology.
It is a kind of behavior to which the present climate of opinion is wholly favorable.
Bishops air their opinions about economics; biologists, about metaphysics;
inorganic chemists, about theology; the most irrelevant people are appointed to highly technical
ministries; and plain, blunt men write to the papers to say that Epstein and Picasso do not know how
Up to a certain point, and provided the the criticisms are made with a reasonable modesty, these activities
Too much specialization is not a good thing.
There is also one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about education.
For if we are not all professional teachers, we have all, at some time or another, been taught.
Even if we learnt nothing--perhaps in particular if we learnt nothing--our contribution to the discussion
may have a potential value.Â Â
However, it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.
Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of
governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment.
For they amount to this: that if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their
intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress
some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object,
towards the end of the Middle Ages.Â Â
Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase--reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator
temporis acti (praiser of times past), or whatever tag comes first to hand--I will ask you to consider
one or two miscellaneous questions that hang about at the back, perhaps, of all our minds, and
occasionally pop out to worry us.Â Â
When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let
us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own
affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and
adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day?
To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological
complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual
or to society.
The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period
of education generally is there there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages.
This is partly true, but not wholly.
The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actually know more?Â Â
Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout
Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the
influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?
Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made
propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area?
Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good
than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?Â Â
Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted
by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute
the arguments of speakers on the other side?
Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee
meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees?
And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees,
have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?Â Â
Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently
writers fail to define the terms they use?
Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will
assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has
already defined them?
Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about?
And, if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?Â Â
Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only Workshopt most of what they
have learnt (that is only to be expected), but Workshopt also, or betray that they have never really known,
how to tackle a new subject for themselves?
Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a
book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously
none of these things?
Or who cannot handle a library catalogue?
Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages
relevant to the particular question which interests them?Â
Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a "subject" remains a "subject," divided by
watertight bulkheads from all other "subjects," so that they experience very great difficulty in making
an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal
and the price of salmon--or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and
economics, or chemistry and art?Â Â
Are you occasionally perturbed by the things written by adult men and women for adult men and
women to read?
We find a well-known biologist writing in a weekly paper to the effect that: "It is an
argument against the existence of a Creator" (I think he put it more strongly; but since I have, most
unfortunately, mislaid the reference, I will put his claim at its lowest)--"an argument against the
existence of a Creator that the same kind of variations which are produced by natural selection can be
produced at will by stock breeders."
One might feel tempted to say that it is rather an argument for the existence of a Creator.
Actually, of course, it is neither; all it proves is that the same material
causes (recombination of the chromosomes, by crossbreeding, and so forth) are sufficient to account
for all observed variations--just as the various combinations of the same dozen tones are materially
sufficient to account for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and the noise the cat makes by walking on the
But the cat's performance neither proves nor disproves the existence of Beethoven; and all that
is proved by the biologist's argument is that he was unable to distinguish between a material and a
final cause.Â Â