The power of knowledge in every century

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“Knowledge is power,” Sir Francis Bacon famously said. Although he may have had a more pragmatic, empirical approach in mind, Bacon’s words bear repeating in our own time, and especially as the school year begins. Why does the importance of knowledge need stressing in schools? Aren’t schools all about that anyway?

Recently, a writer for Education Week claimed that schools do not need to emphasize knowledge, since the really important things are the soft skills of collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity — the so-called 21st-century skills. All three are, of course, important. But these skills simply do not have much traction without knowing a great deal about a wide variety of things.

Soft skill advocates insist that “mere” facts must give way to the pressing needs of the modern workplace. In one sense, this viewpoint is at the heart of the Common Core vs. MCAS controversy. While MCAS focuses on what you know and proving you know it, new PARCC (Common Core) tests tout the crafting of arguments, non-fiction (“real life”) reading, and explaining your work instead of acquiring the fundamental principles of math problems. See the point? The first approach says students should demonstrate some achievement or mastery of knowledge, while the other lays greater stress on the pragmatic, get-it-done-now, world of work. But the dichotomy is not a real one.

The problem with the new method (“knowledge-plus” according to one school superintendent) is that it really amounts to no knowledge at all. It does not consider that to work well with others, a person is only effective if he or she brings something substantive to the table. Lacking that, the “collaborator” is simply a dead weight, as anyone knows who has suffered through a group project with unprepared colleagues.

The reading of non-fiction, while of dubious value when literature gets dropped as a result, is even less valuable when the rich vocabulary and background knowledge for understanding it are absent. Both of these are best gained through an immersion in good literature, especially from authors whose works have withstood the test of time.

Young students need specific knowledge that opens up the almost infinite richness of the world. When I taught fifth-graders natural history, there was no end of fascination with exploring the anatomy of the dragonfly on a September day. The insect’s eyes alone were a marvel of complexity and beauty. A well-illustrated book and an insect net provided hours of real learning and real knowledge. After those lessons, we knew why insects were defined as having six legs and three main body parts, but more importantly, we knew the splendor of a real phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta. We knew something and it was with us for good.

The benefits of this achievement were immediate and far-reaching. For these students, any future reading or discussion of insects, whether via the plagues that beset ancient Egypt, or the bizarre musings of Kafka’s more unusual protagonists, is now alive with meaning. Connections can be made between real points of knowledge: the more connections made, the deeper and more penetrating the understanding. A student who spends years making associations by acquiring specific facts will be ready to think critically when confronted with any new subject. Conversely, a student with very little information will have only the poorest ability to discern or think critically, since all thinking, critical or otherwise, implies a large reservoir of knowledge about many things. And the more detailed and vibrant the knowledge, the better.

So when you ask your young scholar the question, “What did you learn in school today?” listen closely to the answer. The knowledge your child gains today is the foundation of the critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity of tomorrow — and not just for the 21st century, but for any time and any place.

Joseph McCleary has been a teacher and school administrator in both public and private schools for more than three decades. He currently serves as the Executive Director of a large public charter school in Massachusetts. 


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