International College Hong Kong
Dec 09, 2020

Ignorance and Want: How they can be combated by a reconfiguration of school

As a child, I did what I imagine many children do at Christmas or during similar festivals that come to represent an opportunity for magic in their lives. I invented traditions.

Tradition is a marvelous technology for intensifying experience and, as I loved Christmas and the many well-established traditions that already associated with Christmas, I believed that the best thing to do was add still more.

One of the yuletide traditions I invented was to read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every year, starting on the first of December, with the aim of having finished it by the last day of the school term. The intention was to start the Christmas holidays in what I considered to be “the right frame of mind” – which Dickens, I felt sure, had distilled to crystalline purity. The right frame of mind could be summed up as: being perfectly open to having a good time.

Initially, I enjoyed A Christmas Carol for its magic and its mood. It was only as I grew into my middle teens that I came to appreciate its message, too, as part of Dickens’ wider oeuvre, as having political and social dimensions. Returning to it as an adult reader there remain moments that, even with the passing of time, deeply resonate.

One such moment comes halfway through the story. Scrooge, already deeply shaken by two awful appointments – the first with the spirit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, the second with the Ghost of Christmas Past – now meets with the Ghost of Christmas Present, who takes him on a whirlwind tour of the holiday’s festivities. Together, they witness a kaleidoscope of the human condition – the wealthy, the destitute, the privileged, the dispossessed, the healthy, the suffering, the attached, the alone. A wild assortment of scenes, but each shares a common thread: the sparks of joy and exuberance that Christmas enlivens unites them all.

The festive mood of celebration and gratitude is powerful and contagious. Scrooge ends his interview ready to embrace the personal change that will lead to his own improvement, and, by extension, to the improvement of those over whose lives he exercises an influence. But, Scrooge discovers, it is not quite so easeful a matter. The Ghost of Christmas Present is to deliver a further lesson – a warning.

It comes in the form of two children – “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” – who lurk beneath the skirts of the Ghost’s robes. “Do they belong to you?”, Scrooge inquires of the spirit. No, he is told, “They are Man’s. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

Ignorance and Want – humanity’s Doom, Dickens warns, its twin nemesis, “unless the writing be erased”. But how should we combat them?

Within forty years of A Christmas Carol’s publication in 1843, universal primary education was introduced in the United Kingdom. This was followed by universal secondary education in 1944, which was followed in turn by the raising of the school leaving age to 18 in 2008. Education piled on education, heaped on education. And yet Ignorance and Want remain obdurate foes.

The reason, I would venture, lies in the wrong form of education being extended and multiplied. Being of the wrong form, getting more of it makes no positive difference.

Ignorance remains the same problem as it was in Dickens’ era – that is, a problem of knowledge not being received or not being processed or not being internalized, and certainly not being acted on. But the reasons for Ignorance have changed. No longer is Ignorance based on scarcity of information, for there has never been a time at which so much information was so freely available. We suffer, if anything, from a glut of information. And no longer is Ignorance based on a failure to process or internalize knowledge, because, if nothing else, all that education, with its countless tests and exams, demonstrates that people are, certainly, gaining all kinds of knowledge. It’s just that they are forgetting it or ignoring it shortly after. Ignorance now, we can say, is more about the alienation that attends being swamped with information and having no idea what to do with it, than the condition of being denied information. It is not about being kept in the dark, it is about shutting down the thinking faculties as a response to overload.

Meanwhile, Want has wholly changed its character. For Dickens, Want was a continuation of a basic existential reality: the economic system had, throughout history, struggled to meet the bare needs of the human population. Economic problems were exclusively supply side deficits. There wasn’t enough to go round – hence, the poor were always with us and, periodically, following floods or droughts or other natural calamities, they starved, often in great numbers.

However, the extraordinary improvements in agricultural and industrial technologies - material and immaterial - over the past one hundred and fifty years transformed all that, at least potentially. We know there is now sufficient global production to meet every individual’s needs, wherever they live, more than modestly. We know, too, this does not happen. That it does not happen is due to the new form of Want, for Want has not gone away. There remains a lack, but it is not found in a dearth of material goods to meet material needs; rather it is found in a failure of the imagination to devise a system to provide for this to happen and a failure in fellow-feeling to insist that it should.

How, then, can education usefully address Ignorance and Want – in their new guises of alienation and lack of both imagination and fellow-feeling? The answer lies in re-configuring school to achieve two allied aims, whose strength lies precisely in their capacity to power one another in a mutually reinforcing loop.

School must aim to engage students above all – to do everything possible to offer an experience of learning that energizes, galvanizes, animates, and compels. This means going well beyond what the traditional curriculum has encompassed. And it should achieve this through an apprenticeship in learning that prioritizes creativity, resourcefulness, innovation, self-understanding, and perseverance – leading to Mastery. In this aim, the message of A Christmas Carol still speaks to us across the years and, paraphrasing the Spirit of Jacob Marley, a school might say, “Business! Mankind is our business. The common welfare is our business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, are all our business. The dealings of trade are but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of our business!”

ICHK tries to be such a school; with an appropriately comprehensive project, one with its own rewards and challenges - and, I believe, one of which Charles Dickens, had he witnessed the peculiarities of our unprecedented times, would have approved.

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