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Updated: August 7, 2010 14:15 IST

Cambridge Letter: A welcome change

BILL KIRKMAN
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An ease with computers: Necessary in today's world. Photo: Bloomberg.
An ease with computers: Necessary in today's world. Photo: Bloomberg.

Most younger people are far more at home than their seniors with information technology. Computers, for example, are as mundane a part of their experience as notebooks and pencils were of ours.

In Britain, whenever two or three people aged over fifty are gathered together, they are quite likely to deplore the dumbing down of education. This can be attributed in part to the “things were much better in my day” syndrome, in part to an innate suspicion of change.

I am wary of assumptions that change is always for the worse. From my own educational experience, I certainly know that many things have improved. My contemporaries and I were taught a great many facts, some useful, some not – and some not really necessary. At one time, for example, I could prove all of Euclid's theorems. It was not difficult for me, as I was a quick learner, but of course I cannot do it now. Even at the time, it struck me that it was a pretty pointless exercise, because Euclid had already proved them.

Other pieces of factual information have stuck with me. I learnt the multiplication tables – as we were all expected to do. It was not exciting, but I can still do mental arithmetic more quickly than many young people today. That certainly is useful.

Approach to language

Similarly, our generation learnt the rules of English grammar, and the different parts of speech, and how to analyse sentences. When my (now adult) children were at school, that had gone out of fashion, and as they are all interested in words, they found themselves at a disadvantage. Many young people today would have no idea what you were talking about if you referred to the subjunctive, or to the difference between direct and reported speech.

Does this matter? Possibly not, though the knowledge certainly helps anyone learning a foreign language.

Of course, most younger people are far more at home than their seniors with information technology. Computers, for example, are as mundane a part of their experience as notebooks and pencils were of ours. There is no difficulty in understanding why this is so: computers were not around when we were young.

That illustrates an important point that should be remembered when we make sweeping statements about what education is like now and what it was like in the past. It has changed, certainly, but if it had not, the effect would undoubtedly be that it had been dumbed down.

As I look back at my own school days, the real value that I recognise is the acquisition of reasoning skills, and the ability to learn new things – to learn, for example, how to use the information technology that is now a crucial factor in modern life.

My main concern is that far too many people seem not to have been encouraged to develop their critical faculties. Try getting a big service organisation – a bank, or an energy supply company, for example – to sort out an error. The response, all too often, is to hide behind “the system”. “You are not in the system”, or “I'm afraid we cannot change that, because it's in the system”.

That kind of reply is trotted out with a zombie-like authority, as if it were an adequate and incontrovertible answer. It is trotted out by someone who is undoubtedly not a fool, but who is programmed to see “the system” as infallible. The intelligent reaction, surely, would be to recognise that “the system” might have a flaw in it. The complaint about an error should evoke the response: “I need to check”, rather than: “It's in the system, and the system cannot be wrong”. When people in charge of organisations allow that to happen, they are demonstrating a failure to use their intelligence, and a failure to ensure that their employees use theirs. That is not the dumbing down of education. Let me illustrate my point with an anecdote. When I ran the university careers service we were able to benefit from then new technology and produce our annual employment statistics by computer. It obviously speeded up the production, and removed the drudgery of the old manual method. I looked at a sample set, and said to our (very able) technical specialist: “That table is wrong”. “It can't be, it all adds up perfectly”, came the reply. Admitting that I knew little about the technology, I insisted that the table was wrong, because in that particular category there were more women than men, and the table showed the reverse. We quickly realised that there had been an error of coding. The system was fine. The error was in what we had fed into it.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

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