SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Moving house

BILL KIRKMAN

Years ago, would anyone of us have imagined that this could happen?

Years ago, would anyone of us have imagined that this could happen?  

IN the Cambridge Evening News there is a regular column called "Looking Back". It is prepared by a local historian, who chooses several examples each week. One of this week's choices was from August 1928. It was a letter from a Member of Parliament, now long forgotten. He was writing about "the talking film", about which there had apparently been a lengthy correspondence.

"There is very little likelihood of any such startling innovation," he declared authoritatively. "The public would not want it, the difficulties of training whole casts of actors whose vocal abilities were not commensurate with their facial gifts would prevent it."

To be so dramatically wrong seems laughable, with the benefit of hindsight. This MP was probably a reasonably intelligent and well educated man.

Getting things wrong when making predictions is common. I can think, for instance, of many labour market forecasts — made by experts — in the past 50 years that were totally detached from reality.

The fact is that judgments are inevitably based on the knowledge available at the time. I remember at school in the 1950s, for example, learning science (not, admittedly, at a very high level) when the received wisdom was that travelling to the moon was a matter only for science fiction. A quarter of a century later, I took my children to see some moon rocks, brought back to earth by the first cosmonauts to go there.

I am currently deeply immersed in nostalgia. The reason is simple; we are about to move to a new home, more appropriate in size now that our children are all grown up. We have been in the present house for 35 years, and as an inveterate and incurable hoarder I have been faced with the need to sort things out, and decide quickly what must be kept, and what can sensibly be thrown out at last.

Inevitably I have been tempted to re-read things, among them letters from my former headmaster who, for several years after I had left the school, wrote to me about the things that I was doing, and the things that were happening in the school. He was a busy man, but his letters were handwritten. They were a good reminder of an important truth about education: it is about teaching people, not teaching subjects.

Many of the things I learnt I have subsequently forgotten. Some of the knowledge itself has been superseded. The important thing was that my contemporaries and I in this school were encouraged by staff who were interested in us, and in what we did with our lives. Their concern was to provide us with the mental equipment to learn, and continue learning, and to apply what we learnt to changing circumstances.

There is nothing unique about this. Essentially it is true of any good education. What is worrying, at least in the U.K., is that some current attitudes to education seem to ignore this truth, and are obsessed with the measurement of outcomes.

To say that, I recognise, is to risk appearing as a reactionary, someone constantly harking back to a mythical golden age. I strongly refute the charge. My concern is that the manic measurers themselves tend to be backward-looking, regretting that students today do not acquire the "basics" which earlier generations acquired. Each year, when the `A' level results are published, we hear this refrain. The exams, we are told, have been dumbed down.

I am sceptical about this. It may well be true that today's `A' level students would have difficulty in passing the Higher School Certificate that was my school leaving exam. (Yes, I know it dates me.) I am quite certain that I would have great difficulty in passing some of the `A' levels, without an intensive period of study.

Frankly, I don't think it matters. What does matter is getting the balance right between the knowledge that is acquired, and the ability to use it to cope with constantly changing circumstances — which is a good description of real life. There will undoubtedly be perfectly sensible people today, as in 1928, convinced that some great invention will not catch on. What, after all, did people predict, only a few years ago, about the use of mobile phones, or about the internet?

Getting it wrong, I would argue, is acceptable.

What is not acceptable is being so convinced that one is right when getting it wrong that one's mind is closed to the possibility of error — and of change.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at wpk1000@hotmail.com

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