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30 years ago

The renowned and controversial educationist R F Mackenzie announced in a TES Scotland article (April 23, 1976): "I have made a discovery." He continued:

The greater part of what is written in books and newspaper articles and spoken from television screens, university lecterns, pulpits and political platforms is incomprehensible to most of us. This awareness of extensive incomprehension, or rather of partial comprehension, has been lingering on the periphery of the consciousness of many people for a long time . . .

One reason is that . . . we would rather clean the sparking plugs and charge the battery (and hope that that works) than face a major overhaul.

The universities think, for example, that if they introduce basic tests in mathematics, French, German, chemistry and physics for first-year students, they will be on the way to successful education. The malady is deeper than that. Drill in memorising mark-earning answers is not the same thing as understanding, even in physics.

The other reason to account for our failure to admit the existence of large-scale incomprehension can be illustrated by the pupil whose partial deafness escapes detection. He believes that what he hears is everything the teacher says. I went through school and university only partially understanding what I was taught. I thought it was of the nature of education to be muzzy; and, just as the partially deaf pupil learns devices to help him keep up with the others, I learnt forms of words that got examination marks but concealed my lack of comprehension.

And the use of posh words is increasing. But I was delighted and reassured recently when, during a late-night television discussion the editor of the Sunday Times said to the deputy editor of the Observer: "Why do you use a word like parameters when all you mean is limitations?"

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