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Knowing things isn’t ‘20th century’, Justin Webb. It’s the foundation of a successful life

Google doesn’t make traditional lessons obsolete. In fact, you’ll struggle to get the most from it without them

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

It’s scarcely possible to open a newspaper or magazine these days without reading an article about how the latest technological gizmo has rendered traditional education obsolete.

According to Justin Webb, a presenter on the Today programme, it’s no longer necessary to commit any facts to memory thanks to the never-ending miracle that is Google. ‘Knowing things is hopelessly 20th-century,’ he wrote in the Radio Times. ‘The reason is that everything you need to know — things you may previously have memorised from books — is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.’

The same view was expressed by Ian Livingstone CBE, one of the pioneers of the UK games industry. In a recent interview with the Times, he said he intends to set up a free school where children will learn how to ‘solve problems’ and be ‘creative’, rather than forced to memorise ‘irrelevant’ facts that can be accessed ‘at the click of a mouse’.


I challenge this argument in a pamphlet I’ve just written for Civitas called ‘Prisoners of The Blob’. Google’s not much use if you can’t read — and roughly 20 per cent of British children leave school functionally illiterate. Even if you can read, finding something out on Google depends on knowing stuff already. I’m not just talking about typing in the right search terms. How can you interpret the results if you don’t know what the words mean? The American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, a defender of traditional knowledge, gives the example of a child who searches the word ‘planet’ and comes up with ‘a non-luminous body that revolves around the Sun’. Not terribly illuminating if you don’t already know what a ‘non-luminous body’ is. To find out what ‘planet’ means using Google alone, the ignorant schoolchild would have to search the internet forever, like putting a monkey in front of a typewriter and hoping it’ll come up with the complete works of Shakespeare.

Another form this argument takes is to point out that the pace of technological change is so unbelievably fast that schools can’t possibly predict what sort of knowledge will prove useful to children when they eventually enter the workplace. It follows that teaching children traditional subject knowledge is pointless because it will soon be redundant (if it isn’t already). Much better to focus on the ‘skills and competencies’ that will enable them to seek out and process knowledge themselves — how to use Google, for instance. It’s the how of learning that’s important, not the what.

The problem with this is that the traditional curriculum isn’t in the process of becoming obsolete. It really doesn’t matter how rapidly the frontiers of knowledge are advancing in the field of technology, the date of the Great Fire of London will always be 1666. Pythagoras’s theorem is as true today as it was in the sixth century bc and Newton’s laws of motion, first set out in 1687, still explain the movement of snooker balls. Subject knowledge is being added to all the time, but these advances depend upon mastering what’s already known. As Newton said: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’

The reason we have such high youth unemployment isn’t because children have been taught ‘obsolete’ subject knowledge at school. It’s because they’ve been taught absolutely bugger all, including how to add up. A fifth of school leavers are functionally innumerate as well. That’s one reason British employers prefer Poles. They’ve received a traditional education.

What’s really galling about the anti-intellectualism of these Google worshippers is that they ignore the role that science has played in the technological revolution they’re constantly celebrating. Just think where we’d be if Tim Berners-Lee had wasted his time at Emanuel School studying how to learn rather than maths and science. Instead of inventing the world wide web at Cern, he would have been just another oxygen thief trading gossip about BBC executives in the Groucho Club.

The worst of it is, they’re nearly all science graduates themselves, these techno cultists. It’s Einstein’s theory of relativity for them and ‘collaborative problem-solving’ for the masses. And you can bet your bottom dollar that these critics of ‘obsolete’ subject knowledge will be sending their own little darlings to top independent schools.

Toby Young is an associate editor of The Spectator, and a founder of both the Modern Review and the West London Free School.


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