Face the facts: without them we know nothing

Attacking Gove's new curriculum for emphasising facts betrays a philistinism that impoverishes understanding, Claire Fox argues

Claire Fox

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The news of actor Richard Griffiths' death has put Alan Bennett's The History Boys back in the spotlight. As an ex-English teacher, one of my favourite scenes features the maverick, inspirational teacher Hector (played by Griffiths) taking a student through Thomas Hardy's Drummer Hodge. It is a masterclass in the sensitive imparting of knowledge. But it also - shock, horror! - makes a plea for a bit of unfashionable rote learning, recently denounced as "calamitous" by teaching unions.

Hector makes a virtue of committing poetry to memory: in reply to his student's declaration that "I don't always understand poetry", he replies, "I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you will understand it . whenever." Maybe the NUT conference should pass a motion condemning the fictional teacher as Gradgrind in disguise.

Griffiths' brilliant dramatic rendition of a moving, humble and humane teacher-student exchange also reveals an important pedagogic insight: that transmitting knowledge logically comes before understanding. So it is dispiriting that the traditional building blocks of understanding, whether reciting poetry or learning factual knowledge, are now the subject of educational disdain offstage, especially in response to education secretary Michael Gove's new curriculum. Of course there is much to argue against in Gove's reforms, but I am worried that too many arguments betray muddled thinking about the transmission of knowledge. And, on occasion, opponents are depressingly philistine about the relationship between facts and understanding.

To coincide with the debate on the curriculum at the NUT's annual conference last month, a poll of more than 2,000 members found that two- thirds strongly opposed "the emphasis on facts". However, this dismissal of the "excruciatingly boring . transmission and regurgitation of `facts' " caricatures facts as little more than lifeless lists, unrelated to the richer world of analysis and imagination. One much-cited respondent said: "I do not want to create a society of robots who just know stuff." But why should those who "know stuff" be written off as unthinking automatons? It's true that learning stuff can be difficult, monotonous, require concentration. But this is not an alternative to being creative; rather, it is a necessary precondition.

Without factual knowledge, childish creativity can be little more than ill-informed flights of fancy. As to the much vaunted critical thinking skills agenda, "knowing stuff" is precisely what provides a framework on which interpretation can hang. And without "knowing stuff" none of us could appreciate those clever historic and literary allusions so beloved of our leaders. When Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, used her conference speech to compare Gove and his coalition allies to the headstrong leaders in The Charge of the Light Brigade, how would today's students have got the point if they had never heard of Tennyson or the Crimean War? References assume knowledge of facts; without them, we leave children rudderless and ignorant.

Passing it on

Of course, no teacher actually dismisses facts out of hand. It's just fashionable to argue that teachers are no longer their main purveyors. At the NUT conference it was claimed that rising exposure to the internet means that today's Google generation "do not need to be carriers of information any more" because facts are available at the "click of a button". But do teachers really believe that downloading data is the same as assimilating ideas; that using a search engine is equivalent to research?

Ironically, you need some good, old-fashioned, basic facts to make the most creative use of technology. Don't bother learning all those spellings, girls and boys - you have the iPhone's spellcheck. Except, oops, the only students who can use a spellcheck effectively are those who already know how to spell. And surely it's a schoolboy error to equate factual knowledge with information. It seems a far more Gradgrindian approach to treat facts as dislocated bits of data that digital natives can fill themselves up with, rather than the building blocks of understanding, given meaning in a context provided by subject disciplines.

NUT executive member Anne Swift's explanation for why "teachers do not need to teach these facts" is telling. When she argues that "it's out of date and desperately needs dragging into the 21st century", she echoes a widespread prejudice that in our digitally enhanced society all the pedagogy and syllabuses of the past are redundant. This approach can only breed a short- termist, provisional attitude, forcing the curriculum to become beholden to contemporary fads or priorities, with little regard for any inherent intellectual value. No surprise then that shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg - without a hint of irony - dubbed Gove's history curriculum "backward looking", stating that it should "get young people ready for a challenging and competitive world of work and not just dwell on the past". Accusing history of being an outdated relic really is a philistine "end of history" scenario. And what message will this Year Zero approach send to the young? Not only that learning facts is outmoded but also that there's little point in studying 16th-century monarchs or Jane Austen's novels if they are irrelevant now.

A changing world should not mean that the fundamental educational needs of students alter substantially in order not to be "outdated". That could only result in denying generations the rich legacy of past insights, and leave them befuddled, fact-poor and stuck in the present. The most important piece of advice Hector offers his departing students is: "Pass it on, boys . Pass it on." Indeed, passing it on - transmitting the cultural and intellectual achievements of humanity to date - is surely education's defining mission. Facts and all.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas.

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