Way back in the day when the gatekeepers kept the gates closed to so many of us, allowing only a privileged few through the hallowed portals, knowledge was certainly power.
Exams started with the Eleven-Plus and funnelled the sections of the school population into three distinct areas: Grammar; Technical; and Secondary Modern educational models. From there on in, there was a relatively trouble-free route into ‘O’ Levels; Vocational Qualifications; or CSEs. On top of that, you could progress to gain absolutely nothing as those were the days when one’s personal aptitude and indifference would be respected. Back in the day, you were allowed to fail if you merited it.
Some of the main skills required for passing examinations were aptitude, natural talent, hard work, and memorisation. The latter was a godsend for those who wished to wend their way into the wonderland of a university education. And let’s not forget the teachers. A bright and knowledgeable teacher, who could engage with young people, was the most excellent of escape-routes, unless said teacher was predisposed to that most dreaded of ideologues, ‘the love of learning for its own sake’.
We were up at Durham this week with our middle daughter who has received a rather good offer to study Archaeology. I had never been to Durham before, so it was all new to me. I knew that Durham was one of the best universities in the country and I was happy that our middle daughter had the chance to study there. It was a well-needed tonic and an ‘away-day’ from her issues with self-esteem.
Now that it has become a real possibility, she is going to have to work and work in order to polish her skills at passing examinations…extremely well. You see, there is a point when knowledge alone counts for nothing. At crucial times, it’s about demonstrating what you know and applying it to certain questions. After you have done well in A Levels, you can forget what you have learnt so that you can learn some more. There’s only so much one can be expected to regurgitate at any one time.
And yet what impressed us about Durham University was its standing as a pre-eminent gate-keeper. Saint Bede’s remains are there in the Cathedral. Eminent scholars fill the lists of alumni. The doors opened to those who were willing to go that extra mile and would then lead onto doors that led to endless possibilities. They were gates that my wife and I had never passed through, but our children are now doing so. Yet there was something else that Durham had that was unquantifiable; it was the ‘love of learning’. And what best exemplified that was the study of Archaeology; the study of the past for the sake of discovery, for the sake of learning something new.
So the question that this all gives rise to is whether or not education and knowledge should be in need of an end-product. My response is, yes. We learn to make sense of the world around us. We learn to move forward. We do learn from our mistakes as much as we learn from our successes. It has to be applied.
Nevertheless when explorers risked their lives to chart a new ocean or continent or planet, are they doing so to provide valuable information that can be used by later generations or are they lost in the moment of discovery, of being the first one there, of leaving a footprint or fingerprint on something that was previously pristine and unimagined?
From The Telegraph Friday 16th February 2018. By Allan Massie
Professor Andrew Hamilton, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has spoken up in defence of “apparently useless” study. He points to research done by the university’s Department of Earth Sciences estimating the body masses of 426 species of dinosaurs. They concluded that those with the lowest body mass had the best chance of survival. Accordingly, those did survive and became birds. “Now,” he said, “unless you are a budgerigar wishing to trace your family tree, that information is of precisely zero value. But it’s brilliant research, and somehow I feel better just for knowing it.”