Gary Day

April 7, 2006

Look, I am a teacher. I'm supposed to repeat myself, OK? I say this to ward off the charge that what I am about to say may have been said before. I am referring to the idea that skills are more important than subject knowledge.

Oh really? What is the point of being able to communicate if you have nothing to say? Samuel Beckett, whose centenary it is this year, made a career out of precisely this point. But in the process he managed to say something significant about human existence. His artistry was to make nothing out of something, whereas your average policy-maker - well, you can finish the sentence yourself, can't you?

I simply don't understand why, in education, there is a persistent campaign against knowledge. What have we come to when Alison Wolf, a professor no less, writes in The Times Higher that she advises her students not to read Marx? A colleague tells me it's to do with democracy. Apparently, if you think knowledge is important, you are an elitist. So I suppose if you prize ignorance you are an egalitarian. And this is spreading.

An acquaintance of mine needs an operation. She wasn't sure whether or not to have it, so she asked the consultant for more details about the condition. He advised her to look it up on the internet and then come back to tell him what she had decided. I suppose that's what's meant by patient choice. Doctors. I don't know. All those years at medical school just to learn how to play golf. At least doctors of philosophy are supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge, although that requirement is fast vanishing in the brave new world of taught PhDs and "professional knowledge", whatever that is.

As far as I can gather, it's, say, how your doctor greets you, not how she or he treats you. It doesn't matter if you walk into the surgery with your leg hanging off and are asked, "what seems to be the trouble?" - as long as he or she smiles nicely. This must be what we want, otherwise it wouldn't be happening, would it?

I really should follow the advice of Monty Python and always look on the bright side of life. I mean, if I'm not actually expected to know anything (and I still have difficulty getting my head round that since we're always being told we live in a knowledge economy), then I can be anything from an astronaut to a zoologist. There's lots of things I've wanted to try - being England manager for instance - and now's my chance. Imagine. I can be a particle physicist today and a professor of theology tomorrow. If I had to know about these things, I wouldn't be able to do them. Yes, I can see now that knowledge is a limitation - a barrier to my ambition. All that stuff about it liberating us from religion, superstition and deference was just so much propaganda.

Those who gently move us away from the book are not sinister figures but kindly officials who understand that "he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow". This same concern for our welfare inspires the customer service philosophy of the Travelodge chain. In each room you will find a card explaining why they don't provide biscuits, bathmats, toiletries, hairdryers or irons. It's to keep the cost down. Oh, and you can't phone reception for the same reason. They managed to keep the cost of my room down to £60, but I'm sure they could've improved on that by not providing a bed.

One reason to read Marx is that he is capable of joined-up thinking. And that's one of the things a university ought to cultivate in its students.

But it can't do that if it dismisses knowledge. The Government doesn't. On the contrary it wants to know as much about us as it can. But it will have to work hard to keep up with the supermarkets that apparently know far more about us than Whitehall does. For now, at any rate.

If we continue to erode respect for knowledge, we shouldn't be surprised if students don't value it either, which may or may not be a factor in the growth of cheating. The impulse behind this shift from subject to skills is modernisation: "Subject knowledge is so 19th century, you know." What proponents of this view don't seem to realise is that a great deal of knowledge, the law of gravity for instance, is true for all time, unlike any teaching and learning initiative you care to mention. Or perhaps their real objection is not to knowledge as such, but to the humanities - since, with their annoying habit of viewing people as ends not means, they get in the way of progress. Well, something should. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the humanities still believe in the possibility of a better society. That's one truth that can't be repeated often enough.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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