The Spirit of Inquiry

July 20, 2010

My favourite word since childhood is ‘why’. When overused in childhood it is a cause of exasperation or amusement but in adulthood, it is vital to retain that spirit of inquiry, to never stop asking ‘why’.

Most of us have a natural curiosity, a need to discover, to probe and prod, to suss out the whys and wherefores of any given situation or phenomenon.

Unless one is privileged to attend a school with a strong modern liberal arts or classical foundation, or to be schooled at home thusly, that spirit of inquiry is often decapitated with the double-edged sword of rote learning (mindless memorisation) and regurgitation. If one is really hapless it is not swift decapitation that occurs but a slow sawing until one is resigned to function without a head above the neck. We call it gruesome, barbaric, horrendous when witnessed upon a human body but is it any less so on the spirit?

Instead of education nurturing and developing that natural curiosity, as it should, it has and is now forcing upon children a dread of learning through mind numbing memorisation and regurgitation.

There are of course many factors at play here, not the least of which are political expediency and economic gain. In her impassioned but somewhat unoriginal manifesto, Martha C. Nussbaum makes a case for returning to the modern liberal arts curriculum at various points in history espoused and developed by Alcott, Dewey et al. What is more striking though is her (very accurate) assessment that education nowadays is for profit instead of NOT for profit. It is a means to an end, whether expedient or nefarious it will be evident, and meanwhile we are producing generations upon generations of excellent parrots and sheep, who through ‘training’ (the irony is keen) know nothing except to characteristically repeat and follow.

I don’t know that higher education is any better. The current assessment system in many Universities appears to reward regurgitation rather than originality (which Dave highlighted in earlier blog posts about Creating Excellent Sheep and The Tyranny of the Abstract Symbolic). I understand the need to learn to learn, but that is a basic which should be covered in childhood and young adulthood (I do not believe in the modern invention of teenagehood). Ok, full disclosure, I have been on the receiving end of such an attitude from lecturers and tutors, and it irritates me in the extreme. It makes me feel as if I am paying someone to make me regurgitate facts, which would sound very ridiculous were I paying for any other service or good. It almost makes me feel as if I am regressing instead of progressing, because in high school I was expected to express my thoughts and ideas and opinions in coherent arguments and well-constructed essays, and I was rewarded for my effort. Such is the reality of higher education nowadays and I see no other way round it if I want my piece of paper.

If we wish to preserve this spirit of inquiry at an institutional level then I see very few alternatives except a return to classical methods and the liberal arts.

For the many who have asked why I advocate a return to classical education in the primary and secondary years, in which the Trivium and Quadrivium are mastered as basics, this is why – you do not teach a toddler to run before he is able to walk. The natural impulse is to run, and the toddler will want to start to run – but he must be taught and trained to walk first or fall flat on his face. Far from eliminating the natural impulse to run, classical education first trains the mind to deal with the complexities of language and to ensure that one’s reasoning is sound, then expands the mind by introducing various subjects, by which time the young adult mind is adept and sophisticated enough to grapple with abstract concepts and theories, and in time formulate his own.

That is what education should be about. As long as it is pursued for profit, we are pretty much doomed to having a generation of parrots and sheep inherit the earth (I won’t even hope for geeks), and as selfish as it sounds I’m very glad I won’t be around for that.

– Dorothy Sayers wrote an excellent piece about classical education which was as relevant half a century ago as it is today.

Not for Profit by Martha C. Nussbaum highlights why education should not be for profit as it is now in many developed countries.

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