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True learning comes from teachers, not screens


DURING this Covid mania, school pupils and university students were denied contact with their teachers (and one another), and they were expected to learn from computer screens. One could be forgiven for thinking this to be a perpetual threat, given the attitude of teachers’ militant unions and staff in some universities who do not want to do the job they are paid for (an attitude encouraged by some fanatical government advisers who want us under permanent house arrest).

A few writers have rightly complained about the damaging social isolation of prolonged ‘home learning’ but as far as I can see there has been no in-depth analysis of the inadequacies of the way ‘education’ is conceived if ‘home learning’ is considered any kind of substitute. I say that in spite of a cynical spark in me which is tempted to say that since schools and universities are not of the standard they used to be, and no longer have the same values, perhaps less contact with those institutions in that respect is not the calamity some suppose. But I’ll put that jaded view aside for now.

The idea that pupils can sit at home ‘learning’ from computers is not only philistine but involves a myopic view of learning, and in the case of universities denying students proper contact with staff is a fraudulent misuse of tuition fees. The problem is that for some time there has been a growing tendency in our pseudo-scientific culture to regard learning as little more than information-processing and to regard knowledge as data.

Such a narrow view has to a certain extent been influenced by our computer culture, but it has also perhaps been acquired via a confining hangover from the way that some analytical philosophers, particularly in the field of epistemology (theory of knowledge),
have promulgated a rather narrow view of types of knowledge. In his influential 1949 book The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle confined us to the narrow tram lines of two types of knowledge – ‘knowing that’ (propositional knowledge) and ‘knowing how’ (skill). Propositional knowledge takes the form ‘knowing that so-and-so is the case’ (as in knowing that London is the capital of England), while ‘knowing how’ is to be in possession of a skill (such as riding a bicycle) which need not depend on the ability to state precisely how the performance is accomplished.

More recent philosophers (including myself) have argued that there is another category of knowledge which we can call ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ (nothing to do with Bertrand Russell’s coinage of that phrase) which can be abbreviated to ‘knowing what’ – e.g. knowing what it is like to be depressed, and, more importantly, ‘knowing what to ‘feel’,which has profound moral implications. All that is quite different from merely acquiring ‘information’. It involves sympathetic imagination, and, often, self-knowledge (different from merely knowing about oneself) which, again, has moral implications.

You would think from the way that some people talk that pupils and students wouldn’t miss out on all that much if they were just plugged into learning machines. But this ignores the vital importance of learning from a human being, in this case a teacher.

Here is the significance of knowledge by acquaintance. To regard a teacher as just another version of a learning machine, only as a means to the end product of acquiring information, is almost as dehumanising as replacing teachers with machines.

I might learn a set of facts or pick up particular skills as a result of someone’s teaching, but that is different from the case in which I want to say that I have learned from knowing him. As the neo-Wittgensteinian philosopher Rush Rhees puts it in his discussion of education, ‘It was not just the things he taught me and the training he gave, I learned from him. And I may want to say “my education has come more from knowing him than from any schooling”.’ (Without Answers, p 149, emphasis original.)

If an over-demanding sceptic were to ask, ‘But what did you learn?’, the answer, insofar as any answer could be given, might consist not in a statement about the knowledge he was a means towards, but of some sort of description of the man himself – one that expresses, say, admiration and respect, and therefore implies that I would be the poorer for not knowing him. It is as if he has become part of what I now am. In other cases one may be more able to articulate what one has gained.

Consider these striking words from Michael Oakeshott:

‘And if you were to ask me the circumstances in which patience, accuracy, economy, elegance and style first dawned upon me, I would have to say that I did not come to recognise them in literature, in argument, in geometrical  proof until I had first recognised them elsewhere: and I owe this recognition to a Sergeant gymnastics instructor who lived long before the days of “physical education” and for whom gymnastics was an intellectual art – and I owed it to him, not on any account of anything he ever said, but because he was a man of patience, accuracy,  economy, elegance and style.’ (The Voice of Liberal Learning, p 62.) 

Notice how Oakeshott speaks of ‘recognition’, not of imitation or copying an example. This kind of learning involves inspiration, something that can change one’s life. It is rather like a conversion. A conversion does not just pull one towards something, it pushes something else away, a content, perhaps, with wilful ignorance or prejudice – a smaller world. Sadly, I fear that there are fewer inspiring teachers in schools and universities than there used to be. But there must be some. The dehumanised way education is now conceived is blind to the transforming power that it was once thought to have when it was regarded as what Oakeshott described as a ‘transaction between the generations’, and an initiation into what Matthew Arnold described as ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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