Graham Hills: When knowledge crystallises, it becomes dogmatic

From a lecture by the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde to the Royal Society of Arts, in London
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The Independent Online

From a lecture by the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde to the Royal Society of Arts, in London

I wish to argue that where once we saw it our duty to impart as much knowledge as possible to our pupils and students, it is now our duty to impart as little knowledge as possible. That is not a new notion. For generations teachers have rebelled against the idea of pouring knowledge into the head, as the Australians say, from the jug into the mug. Long ago Plutarch reminded us that a child's mind was not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. But the essential intellectual instruments to effect that reform simply were not there. They are now.

I was educated (as were all of you) to acquire as much knowledge as I reasonably could, principally so that I would pass my examinations. I therefore wish now to convince you that the real purpose of education is to acquire as little knowledge as possible commensurate with your being capable, intelligent and, of course, wise.

The influence of the internet is most felt by the regime of explicit knowledge, the know-what. The internet, still in its infancy, is the wonder-child of education. It knows everything that is to be known. It forgets nothing. It is the intellectual equivalent of Aladdin's lamp. It will do anything within reason that you ask it to do and without question. It therefore absolves human beings from spending their lives accumulating knowledge as information. It therefore denies the hitherto accepted purpose of education.

Since explicit knowledge is inescapable, it accumulates in use and in society regardless of its value and its veracity. But from the moment of acquisition it is threatened by obsolescence. More insidiously, the accumulated volume of old knowledge is repellent to new knowledge. As the knowledge within the head crystallises, so it becomes dogmatic and in the end fundamentalist.

This is the great danger of explicit knowledge, unsullied by reason, by reality and buttressed by belief. This is the knowledge which is luggage. It is the greatest threat to human happiness. It is why I advocate that we travel light.