David Puttnam, Chancellor of the Open University, gave a short talk at the Master's Lodge tonight, and it got me to thinking...
When I was in high school a decade ago, the teachers there told us something that proved all too prescient: For us, the young people coming age now, what we must learn is not the accumulation of facts. Facts, indeed all the knowledge of the world, will be instantly available at our fingertips. No, the burden of responsibility upon the school rather is to teach us how to navigate this new information-saturated world, how to process and evaluate that information, how to filter it, how to decide what to ignore and what to take on-board, how to use it effectively. In other words, they taught us how to be flexible. And boy oh boy but have I become a spectacular laborer in this sped-up, insecure world.
Now that I am a teacher (supervisor in introductory sociology, to be specific--more precarious, contingent labor in a new field), I tell my students much the same thing: I view my task as two-fold. Yes, there is information which you will need to master for exams, and this information may or may not come in handy down the road after Cambridge. But your task is also one of process--to evaluate the facts available to you and to develop your own considered opinion on it. I want you to learn how to formulate a good argument, how to persuade, how to express yourself clearly. This sort of learning will serve you no matter where you go in life.
Unfortunately, when I look back now on what my high school did, I cannot help but feel a stab of doubt. Obviously, they were right about the future, and they taught us well how not to drown in information overload. The skills which they instilled sure make us good at surviving in the "new" world. That same flexibility of mind lends itself to flexible, precarious labor, for instance, and any other number of new inequities. As I reflect back on my education, I realize I was never taught how to go about effecting change. I was taught really well how to change myself but never how to change the world around me for the better.
And upon further reflection, I am troubled. Knowing what I know now about the way the world is, knowing what it's like to be downwardly mobile with no chance of the opposite, can I in clear conscience just teach as I have been taught? Do I want my students just to become good, industrious critters in a cruel, unequal world? Yet I don't know what the alternative is! I don't know how to give my students the tools to effect progressive social change.
Needless to say, even David Puttnam had no answers for me. And anyway, I was keeping him from his dinner.
Speaking of dinner, I suppose I need to go rustle up some for myself. Can't subsist on ideas alone, alas.