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Generation Why

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on February 7, 2009

(This is a longer version of a letter that was published in the TES, Friday 13th February 2009 as a response to Tim Birkhead’s article the previous week – see below.)

I agree with Tim Birkhead (We’ve bred a generation unable to think TES Comment Feb 6th) that the education system has not been producing independent thinkers by being far too proscriptive with the learning agenda. A colleague of mine who has worked in the philosophy department of a prestigious university commented to me that the expectations of the students have become more and more consumerist with each passing year. So not content to be set an essay question and some reading they have been demanding to know what the six main points are that they need to include in the essay in order to pass. Their position being: ‘I paid for this course so I demand to know what I need to do to pass it.’ What ever happened to philosophy as a subject of inquiry and exploration? Perhaps a little like Willy Wonker in Roald Dahl’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The department’s answer to this should be: ‘You have failed already by making that demand.’

There is also a climate of anti intellectualism in this country and by the sound of Professor Birkhead’s article it is worsening. Bertrand Russell celebrated the British intellectual attitude when he said, “The British are distinguished among the modern nations of Europe, on the one hand by the excellence of their philosophers, and on the other hand for their contempt for philosophy. In both respects they show their wisdom.” Unfortunately, perhaps the virtues to which Russell was referring have dissolved into vices.

I work with teachers and children in primary schools and I am tackling this problem head on by doing philosophy with children and by bringing thinking skills (including questioning and discourse skills) into the classroom. I have found that, certainly at the primary level, children are naturally very good thinkers and all they need is a nudge in the right direction. The sad fact is that all too often they don’t even receive a nudge. Terms like ‘independent learners’ and ‘learner-centred’ are common  features of teacher-speak, but there is not enough evidence that it is being implemented in the classroom.

With regard to the critical thinking ‘A’ level, it is of little use if good thinking is not being taught at an earlier level. Good thinking is a disposition, it can’t be crammed in a short time (and as far as I am concerned one or two years is a short time to develop one’s thinking), it has to be naturalised earlier so that an ‘A’ level in critical thinking is honing those skills and not trying to introduce them. It would be like expecting a student to be able to do an ‘A’ level in a foreign language without having done any previous studies in the subject. Another colleague of mine who runs the ‘A’ level in critical thinking tells me how difficult it is to run with the current thinking abilities of today’s students. Surely thinking should be thought of in the same way as we think of nutrition, it must be addressed at the early stages of a student’s formation and cannot be introduced arbitrarily at the later stages and be expected to have a significant effect. One is left wondering if good thinking/independent learning really is recognised as the value education purports it to be. 



2 Responses to “Generation Why”

  1. Red Baron said

    I think your article here in fact already answers your concluding question.

    At university now the principle aim is to pass your degree, once you have ticked this box you move onto the next stage be it graduate recruitment etc. Hence the move in some institutions to a 2 year Bachelors degree. Institutions themselves are embedding with industry which serves only to mean that the enterprise-facing courses are more heavily funded and can offer greater facilities and the prospect of internships etc. at the end. In this respect I thoroughly disagree with the New Labour idea of 50% of people going to university. It is a classic example of quantity over quality. That is not to say I am not in favour of tertiary education being a right for all but it has to be seen as education and not vocational training which is very different.

    The causes of this are numerous, in part they date back to the 1980’s and Thatcherist consumerism, the current set of students were born into a Britain that has been convinced that individual gain and materialistic wealth is the sole pursuit of life. Coupled to this are the rising costs of tertiary education in that environment, people require a dividend and a return on their investment. they do not see education itself in an ethereal sense as being that return.

    The last UCU strike is a case in point, students that had received the education they paid for were more concerned with the grade they got and saw themselves as having been conned and defrauded of “their” money, the example was even raised of “if we went to Tesco’s and what we bought didn’t work we could ask for our money back”

    In this regard catching children young and teaching them the merits of thought and educational development, and teaching them to question is perhaps the only way to possibly stem that tide of selfish consumerist wankers.

  2. Martin Hargreaves said

    As someone who’s in industry, I think it’s interesting – we run a computer based company, running a couple of bit of critical national infrastructure. We need good IT people, ideally with some business sense. The enterprise-facing courses seem to fail utterly at this. If we look at the best people in terms of usefulness, creativity, ability to write and speak well, and technical knowledge the enterprise-facing course like Computer Science, Business courses are dwarfed by the numbers from “irrelevant” sciences – we have chemists, astronomers, geologists, lots of physicists and mathematicians.

    We do have people taken from the enterprise type courses, but they tend to have certain problems with thinking around things (blinkeredness, bluntly) or they’ve been in the industry a while and presumably experience has taught them – I can’t think of any that I’d think of as being in the A team though.

    I’ve been freelance and seen this pattern repeated in 20-30 workplaces with almost no exceptions (media companies had more ex-creative technical people, but enterprise-aimed courses were still low).

    This is my data point, I have my interpretation of it, but what’s yours?

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