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The higher nonsense: some persistent errors in educational thinking

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The British prime minister Harold Macmillan once reported one of his tutors in the classical languages and humanities as saying: 'Nothing you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life- save only thisthat if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education' (Kenny, 1997: 20). In quoting this statement, the philosopher Anthony Kenny, a recent Master of Balliol College, Oxford, adds that Russell Meiggs, another distinguished classicist, pre-eminently gave his students this ability: an ability to see through what he called the 'higher nonsense'. (Essentially comparable is Ernest Hemingway's notion of an internal 'crap-detector', subsequently taken over by Postman and Weingartner (1969) in their Teaching as a Subversive Activity; so this is by no means the exclusive concern of Oxford classicists!) I, too, believe this to be at the heart of education. Unfortunately, not only are educational systems in Canada and many other countries failing to nurture this ability; they are themselves rapidly becoming repositories of the 'higher nonsense'. In what follows, I shall attempt to locate seven, to some extent interrelated, errors in thinking that contribute directly to the dearth, not to say death, of education in society.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/002202799183197

Publication date: February 1, 1999

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