We Have to Rethink What It Means to be “Educated” in a Post-Truth World

Special Focus : Learning to Live and Work Together
Higher Education November 08, 2017

It used to be fairly easy to explain what it means to be educated. Education involves schooling, and as a general rule, the more schooling you have, the better educated you become. Unfortunately, as I will argue below, that answer may no longer be sufficient; there is evidence to suggest that the causal link between schooling and education, if not already broken, is seriously frayed.

First the evidence: A recent report on the BBC explored the linkages between educating women, and the immunization of children against preventable childhood diseases. The report cited several authoritative studies carried out across the developing world showing a positive correlation between levels of education and rates of immunization.

In other words, the better educated the mother, the more likely it was that she would have her children immunized. So far so good. The report however, also cited a US study, and a large global survey carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, that showed an inverse correlation in the US and several advanced European countries. It turns out that educated mothers, particularly those with college-level degrees, are less likely to vaccinate their children than those with only secondary education. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this phenomenon is not limited to vaccines. On topics ranging from climate change to evolution, there are many individuals with advanced schooling, who hold counter-factual views. This elevation of opinions and feelings over facts led Oxford Dictionaries in 2016 to name post-truth as its word of the year.

What might explain this phenomenon? Simply put, for the last 500 years or so and despite record levels of schooling, as individuals, we are unfortunately becoming more ignorant in relation to the aggregate stock of knowledge that we as humanity collectively possess. The principal culprits are evolution, and information technology. Evolutionary change is a very slow process. Modern humans have existed as a species for around 200,000 years. During this time, our basic biology, including the size of our brain, has remained largely unchanged. Information technology on the other hand, has been changing exponentially particularly in the last 500 years or so.

Prior to the introduction of the movable-type printing press to Western Europe by Johannes Guttenberg in the 1440s, the spread of knowledge, even in relatively literate societies like those of Classical Greece and Rome, was severely constrained by the need to write and copy books by hand. The printing press changed all of that. In the fifty or so years after its introduction, more books were printed than were copied by hand in the preceding one thousand years.

This explosion in the amount of knowledge that could be captured, stored, and transmitted, was a major trigger for the scientific, and industrial revolutions that were to follow. Subsequent population growth, and the economics of specialization (the division of labour) fueled further exponential growth in knowledge creation which in turn led to significant technological advances. In more recent times, the spread of computers and the Internet appear to be having the same effect. Moreover, unlike books, computing power has also further accelerated the speed at which new knowledge is being created, not just disseminated. Calculations and analyses that used to take weeks or months to perform by hand, can now be rendered in minutes or even seconds.

While there is no readily available, accepted measure for the stock of human knowledge, Google estimated in 2010, that some 130 million individual book titles had been written thus far in the world. Even if only a small subset of these comprise discrete knowledge objects, it is clear that a single human being, in a single lifetime, can only hope to absorb a minuscule fraction of what is available. To paraphrase the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, the inconvenient truth is that most us are unable to distinguish advanced knowledge and technology from magic. More worryingly, Clarke also speculated that the growing divergence between collective versus individual knowledge and understanding could ultimately doom humanity to self-destruction.

If we are to arrest and perhaps even reverse our decline towards ever increasing levels of relative ignorance, we need to rethink and reinvent the way we do education. While there are no simple, off-the-shelf answers, the following ideas can hopefully begin to stimulate much needed debate about what, how, when and where, and why we teach and learn.

What we teach and learn

Our current education systems are geared towards producing specialists in fairly well-defined academic disciplines. Consequently, as one advances through the education system, curricula become progressively narrower and more specialized at the expense of general knowledge and understanding of key concepts. We therefore need to reverse that trend and identify the key concepts around which to construct a high quality general education for everyone.

The physicist David Deutsch in his 1998 book The Fabric of Reality argued that despite the exponential growth in knowledge, it was still possible for someone to know everything there is to know, at least at the level of being in possession of the tools of interpretation, if one gained an understanding of four key concepts: quantum physics and the many universes interpretation; the theory of evolution; the theory of computation; and the theory of knowledge, explanation and understanding (epistemology). We can of course question whether Deutsch’s list of key concepts is complete or even correct; but what seems logically unassailable, is his idea that in a world where knowledge is growing exponentially, the tools for acquiring and interpreting that knowledge are at least as important as the actual knowledge itself. I hope to explore and elaborate on this idea further in my forthcoming book, What it means to be educated: Ideas for rethinking education for a post-truth world from which this article is adapted.

How we teach and learn

There is not enough science in education. Our education systems were designed before we knew very much about the science of learning and in particular about how our brains work. That is now changing and we need to harness our newfound understanding of neuroscience, and the possibilities offered by information technology, to learn better and faster.

In his highly entertaining and insightful book Brain Rules, the molecular biologist John Medina convincingly argues amongst other things that when it comes to acquiring information, vision trumps all other senses, and that our brains are naturally wired to learn through physical exploration. In other words, we learn best when we see and do. And this is where information technology comes in. Simple yet powerful simulation tools like those developed by the WISE Award-winning PhET Interactive Simulations of the University of Colorado, Boulder show considerable promise when it comes to conveying relatively difficult concepts in science and maths. And we have only just begun to scratch the surface. Imagine what might be possible were we to combine sophisticated gaming technology with virtual reality in order to develop fully immersive learning experiences!

When and Where we teach and learn

Education can no longer be confined to a distinct phase in our lives—from ages 6 to 18 or 22—but ought to become a lifelong endeavor. There is clearly an economic imperative as the jobs market becomes less predictable and more fluid. In this regard, efforts to democratize education and make it easily available through MOOCs like those provided by platforms such as EdX, or Coursera are to be encouraged. So too should innovative efforts to restructure qualifications around nanodegrees (offered by Udacity) or short, skills-based courses (offered by WISE Award-winning Alison.com). Indeed, the internet is now arguably the single most important repository of knowledge and information ever constructed by man. This places a special editorial responsibility on the custodians of the Internet, organizations such as Google, Facebook, and others to do more to regulate the quality of knowledge and information that is stored and conveyed.

Why we teach and learn

Education is above all else a state of mind informed by a set of core values. If we as individuals are to keep pace with the ever-growing accumulation of knowledge that makes and is in turn made possible by advances in technology, we need to engender within ourselves the desire to remain educated in the same way that we want to remain fit and healthy throughout our lives.

To do that we need to adopt a set of core values chief amongst them being respect for the substantiated truth. Through the scientific method, good education elevates fact over opinion. But it also acknowledges that the search for the truth can be never-ending and often involves a contest of competing ideas, a contest that is best resolved through open enquiry and rational discourse. Through the social sciences, good education abhors absolutes, recognizing the inherent trade-offs involved in complex human societies. Through the humanities, good education allows us to experience the world through the eyes of others, to see, hear, and feel what they did, to empathize. Through games and sports, good education emphasizes the importance of collective effort and the need to sometimes subordinate the self for the good of the team. And through meditation, good education makes explicit the mind-body connection and the possibility of mastery over one’s emotional state. Without these core values, we cannot claim to be educated.

This article first appeared in Quartz