irrelevant facts


In yesterday’s post, I touched on how the natural world is changing and how, while words I learned as a child are being lost from children’s vocabularies, there will presumably be a need for new words for the invasive species that are making their way to the UK common.

This got me thinking about how so much of what I learned in school has been superseded.

I’m not sure whether dinosaurs really count as biology or as the very early end of the history curriculum, though I’m pretty sure it was as the latter that I studied them.

Aged about ten I knew dozens of dinosaur names, and read all I could about them. Since then, received knowledge on the subject has undergone huge changes. I gather that the brontosaurus was the subject of dispute long before I learned about it and we should really have been taught about the apatosaurus. Now, though, they have decided these two creatures are actually different, so at least the name brontosaurus is valid, even if the habits I was taught – including the fact that they lived in swamps or shallow lakes – have also been largely reconsidered.

The archaeopteryx is an equally confused subject. We were taught it was the first winged dinosaur: the link between dinosaurs and modern birds. But then in the mid Eighties there was a great deal of fuss about the feathered fossils being faked. More recently, it turns out that in fact many dinosaurs were not scaled like modern lizards, but had feathers.

And, of course, it isn’t only in the world of animals that the “facts” I learned in school have been shown to be wrong. We knew that the atom was not indivisible, inasmuch as we learned about electrons, protons and neutrons. But quarks and gluons certainly hadn’t made it into school textbooks at that stage.

Thinking back to those science classes, I remember our teacher proudly bringing in a length of fibre-optic cable, probably less than a foot long (yes, I was still thinking in imperial, even if SI units were used for measurements in the lab.) Despite her enthusiasm, she singularly failed to inspire us with the vast potential of fibre-optics and I suspect we felt justified in our indifference when their first everyday appearance in our lives was in the form of fronded mood lights.

As far as history is concerned, it wouldn’t be too surprising if facts changed, as distance adds clarity and objectivity as well as seeing the release of official documents; perhaps the fact that I can’t think of any examples from my own education just goes to show that I wasn’t paying attention in class as it was my least favourite subject.

As for geography, the globes I grew up with would be of no use now. Not only is the political world no longer dominated by the pink of the Empire, but borders have shifted and countries have appeared and disappeared, combined and separated, or simply changed their names. No doubt the Mercator projections used in the atlases are no longer politically acceptable, but I’m pretty sure I was no longer studying geography by the time my father gave me a Peters World Map.

Finally, I suppose I must say something about English, which in my day was taught as two separate subjects: language and literature.

In the latter, I’m not sure whether the books we read would still be acceptable as the classics clearly reinforce stereotypes of race, class and gender. I remember one class reading of Shakespeare where one of the girls complained that her copy of Shakespeare was different from what the rest of us were reading. That’s when I learned about Bowdler. Thinking about the current moves to adapt some of the best-loved classic stories and make them comply with modern political correctness, it occurs to me that I was privileged to live in the UK in the brief period of history when children were allowed to read unabridged literature.

Statue of Hamlet with Yorick's skull

As for the English language, well, that’s what started this whole reflection: the way that vocabulary is changing and words are changing meaning, being lost or being introduced into the language. But I still have a few friends who write ‘phone and ‘flu with an apostrophe, use the right diacritics for café, fête and façade, and hyphenate to-day, so the old ways have not entirely disappeared.

I’m sure there should be a conclusion to be drawn from all this rambling, but I’m not sure what it is. Maybe that there really is no such thing as a fact. Or maybe just that education shouldn’t be about learning facts but about providing a glimpse of possibilities and teaching us how to learn.

However much I think the things I was taught in school were mostly irrelevant, I do think education is vital. Here, then, is an old poem:

Secondary education

Thirty years ago, I failed
at school. Since then, washing lines
and roller blinds have taught me
all I need to know of pulleys
– more than ever Mr Roberts (maths)
was able. I’ve found that sound
is energy, as every tug resisted
turns to squeak.
I sort the clothes
in sets, but socks still disappear
through worm holes in the wash
or wrap themselves in möbius chains
(though less so, now I’ve mastered
static electricity and use conditioner).
No doubt
Miss Jones (domestic science?
history?) would be proud
of my monarchial skills: I can tell
King Edward from William
or Victoria, and I know
the ways they should be served.
I can divide five baking spuds
between six unexpected guests
– the answer is a bowl of mash,
of course, or chips – and Mrs Jones
(biology) would be amazed
at how unfazed I am when faced
with filleting a fish
3D geometry’s
a snip when pans don’t fit
the recipe – as easy as apple pie –
and scaling up to feed the ever-growing clan
is second nature now. I have acquired
the social skills of any international diplomat
and can prepare four-coloured seating plans
for Christmas – children as buffer states
protect the tribal borders.

All the grandkids moan: they don’t understand
why Nan’s so keen they study hard when she
was such a dunce; but then, it’s only now I realise
how relevant the core curriculum can be.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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