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Mondays with Miss Mason – On Knowledge vs. Information

Note: this post is part of an ongoing series. For more information on Charlotte Mason and Mondays with Miss Mason, please read the first post.

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From School Education, Part XX:

Knowledge versus Information.––The distinction between knowledge and information is, I think, fundamental. Information is the record of facts, experiences, appearances, etc., whether in books or in the verbal memory of the individual; knowledge, it seems to me, implies the result of the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it. Great minds, a Darwin or a Plato, are able to deal at first hand with appearances or experiences; the ordinary mind gets a little of its knowledge by such direct dealing, but for the most part it is set in action by the vivifying knowledge of others, which is at the same time a stimulus and a point of departure. The information acquired in the course of education is only by chance, and here and there, of practical value. Knowledge, on the other hand, that is, the product of the vital action of the mind on the material presented to it, is power; as it implies an increase of intellectual aptitude in new directions, and an always new point of departure.

Perhaps the chief function of a teacher is to distinguish information from knowledge in the acquisitions of his pupils. Because knowledge is power, the child who has got knowledge will certainly show power in dealing with it. He will recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words. The child who has got only information will write and speak in the stereotyped phrases of his text-book, or will mangle in his notes the words of his teacher. (emphasis mine)

Are we asking our students to reflect the attainment of knowledge or of merely information?

Are we asking them to “recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words” or are we asking them to spit back pre-chewed information?

If it is the latter, then we should not be surprised that they grow up to be unable to gather knowledge for themselves or to express it eloquently or clearly.  If all they have ever really been asked to do is parrot back the same information they were given to prove the “size of their mental hard drives,” then we can’t fault them for being unable to synthesize and draw connections on their own.

Unfortunately, synthesis and narration take time. They don’t test easily.  They can be measured, but not with the same yardsticks the Department of Education chooses to use these days. Fortunately there are a number of good teachers out there pushing on with deeper learning, but even they are fighting uphill as the testing mandate continues on.

Of course, to get knowledge you have to be acquainting them with living books and living ideas but that is for another day.


Nothing but Facts

Whenever I think about “just the facts” I am reminded of Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasised his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the school-master’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base. while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s month, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum-pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders,—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,— all helped the emphasis. “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” The speaker, and the school-master, and the third grown person present, all backed a little,  and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until them were full to the brim.

[Chap. 2] Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir—peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always (in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, nonexistent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind—no, sir!

In such terms, Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words “boys and girls” for “sir,” Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.

Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanising apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.

May our classrooms never look like this!

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