Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Belshaw’s World: Information, access and the transmission of knowledge

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 26 August 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I was surprised to discover in a conversation with eldest that she had not been aware of the constitutional difference between the states and territories. Apparently the matter came up in a Politics’ tutorial discussion on gay marriage and the ACT.

I am not sure why I was surprised. You only have to look at things such as the debate on the republic to see just how thin real constitutional knowledge is. Still, it got me musing on the way knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the next.

All societies have mechanisms for transmitting knowledge, ideas, attitudes and beliefs between generations. These are central to society’s stability and continuity.

In oral societies such as the Australian Aborigines, transmission relied on memory, the transfer of the memory of the older generation to the younger. This was carried out in a variety of formal and informal ways, immersing the young in a still living past.

The invention of writing created another transmission mechanism because it allowed knowledge and beliefs to be recorded independent of memory. With writing came concepts such as schools, tutors and teachers, creating new transmission mechanisms.

Writing also brought new suspicions and discontents because it facilitated the spread of alternative views.

The religious schisms within the Byzantine church spread because alternative interpretations became more readily available, in time adding a new word – byzantine – to the English language.

Many of those in power were deeply suspicious of writing and indeed of schools. Ideas must be controlled in order to preserve social order and the true way.

The Reformation, one of the defining events in European history, centred in part on the desire to make the bible available to all. This helped drive the spread of printing, a further transmission mechanism.

Those promoting the new ideas were in fact just as zealous in defending the true beliefs as those on the other side. People must have access to the bible, but which bible?

One outcome was the King James bible, one of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the English language.

The influence of the reformation continued in the growing support for schooling. Again this was seen as a way of access to the bible and the truths of the Christian faith.

The industrial revolution brought a new phase. Increasingly education was seen in terms of its contribution to competitive economic performance among nations. The concepts of economic efficiency and of education as training had arrived.

This new increasingly secular education marked a completely new stage.

Increasingly, the education system came to be seen as the central mechanism for intergenerational transmission of knowledge, attitudes and ideas. However, the focus was utilitarian and on the now. Concepts such as the wisdom and role of the elders were relegated to history’s scrap heap.

Recent debates over values in education reflect social concerns about the role of education. However, to a degree they miss a key point.

Values cannot be separated from education. Yet the thing that drives longer term change is not so much debate about value, but what gets included/excluded from the curriculum.

Given that the education system is now the dominant inter-generational transfer mechanism, that which is not included dies, although the effects may not be immediately apparent.

This explains the personal venom of Australia’s recent culture wars. These wars may sometimes have been expressed in terms of opposing values and indeed disputes about facts and interpretation, but the real issue was just what information about our past should be included.

Such a simple thing, information, yet so important and so little seen.

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