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Gibberish sprinkled with question marks: in nonsense is strength

Early on in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, the narration turns to the setting of the story: the United States of America. Vonnegut transcribes the first verse of the national anthem and concludes of America:

“There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [America] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.”

Vonnegut goes on to say (of the national anthem as well as various other symbols of the country):

“Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength.‘”

In nonsense is strength. It’s a motto that can be applied to some of the casual commentaries on education that spring up every now and again in the national press. By casual commentaries, I mean those statements of address on the state (or future) of education from those outside of the education sector. Such commentaries are often from writers who have a weekly column to fill, but are sometimes from business leaders or entrepreneurs who have chosen to enlighten us with their unevidenced assumptions (see: TED talks).

One such example of the former is George Monbiot’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘In the age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant’, which opens with this rhetorical flush:

“In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?

We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

Governments claim to want to reduce the number of children being excluded from school. So why are their curriculums and tests so narrow that they alienate any child whose mind does not work in a particular way?”

To borrow from Vonnegut, this is “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”. People have been making claims that jobs in the future are going to be so radically different to today for decades. If we’d have listened to the futurists of 1900, we’d have stopped training people to cut and style hair as, according to those futurists, hairdressers wouldn’t be needed by the year 2000:

Indeed, Monbiot is adding himself to the list of futurists claiming that the 21st century job is somehow peculiar to jobs of the past and present in needing “creative, critical and socially skilled” people. Even when I worked in fast food restaurants, I worked with people who needed and used those skills. (They also needed to be literate and numerate, despite what many people might think.) Quite why Monbiot thinks being creative, critical and socially skilled belongs exclusively to the future is beyond me.

Monbiot goes on to make other claims which simply don’t stand up under scrutiny, repeating the same old unsubstantiated assertions that commentators have been throwing out since the Romantic period: allusion to factory models, teachers ‘stuffing’ kids with facts, children learn in different ways, etc. These complaints are all answered with the same ideas that have echoed through time: let kids choose what they should learn, children’s brains are different so they shouldn’t have to learn the same things as each other, and that old classic: why can’t they just Google it?

Today, Caitlin Moran gave us her own cover version of this old standard in a Times column titled, ‘Why I should run our schools’ (£). For Moran, “jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation”. Again, how does that differ from jobs today? She iterates “two facts: (1) the 21st century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.” Of course, (1) is nonsense and (2) is another claim that we can just Google it. Monbiot and Moran both overlook the evidence that, as E.D. Hirsch says in summarising cognitive psychologist George Miller’s research, “to be able to use [Google] information – to absorb it, to add to our knowledge – we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.” Daisy Christodoulou explains in detail why just you can’t just Google it, here.

Monbiot and Moran are both hugely intelligent people (I’ve enjoyed much of their writing on a myriad of topics), but they fall into the same trap as many amateur commentators on education in repeating the same old “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”, gibberish that appeals to and seduces casual observers of education. They certainly aren’t the first to do so, and they definitely won’t be the last. Because in nonsense is strength.

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