Slighting knowledge

The image above is of ‘Labradorite’; a rock on display at the British museum. The card above it states that:

“The large polished slab below was presented in 1777 by Reverend Benjamin Latrobe from the Moravian mission in Labrador. According to Inuit legend, the Northern Lights were once trapped in the rocks of Labrador. They were freed by the blow of a warrior’s spear, but some remained – they are actually layers within the rock’s crystal.”

Now let us visit Skipton Castle in Yorkshire. This was the last stronghold in The North for the royalists during the English civil war. They held out impressively before eventually negotiating a surrender, after which the victorious parliamentarian forces ‘slighted’ the castle – they reduced the thickness of its walls so that it could never again withstand the onslaught of cannon.

I think the concept of knowledge has been slighted.

For instance, we often hear of knowledge being obsolete. Pluto is no longer a planet but older textbooks say that it is. To some, this proves the futility of trying to teach knowledge. Instead we should teach students reified soft skills and critical thinking. These will stay current whilst knowledge decays.

But what of labradorite? What is the status of the beautiful idea that it contains The Northern lights? This idea is not true; at least not according to modern science. It has been superseded and yet it is certainly an interesting and perhaps even useful thing to know.

Knowledge is also slighted when it is reduced to a set of disconnected facts or when it is conflated with mere information in such a way that the profusion of cat pictures on Facebook may be used to support the argument that nobody can possibly absorb knowledge at the rate it is now accumulating.

Knowledge is also slighted when automatised knowledge is called a ‘skill’. Think of learning to drive a car. You may or may not have been told why you should make certain actions but, at one time, you were certainly conscious of the need to make them. That is knowledge. The fact that this knowledge had now passed to your long term memory such that you are no longer consciously aware of processing these decisions does not stop them being made out of knowledge.

Slighting knowledge leads us into error. It leads us to assume that certain things cannot or should not be taught or that they cannot be explicitly declared. For academic objectives, these ideas are damaging fallacies.


4 thoughts on “Slighting knowledge

  1. Stan says:

    Are you sure you are not slighting skills? Some skills look at least in part a lot like automatised knowledge. From a mechanistic point of view there are going to be parts of skills that are hard to disentangle from the associated automatised knowledge.

    But interestingly I am intrigued by what happens when you ask someone who is slighting knowledge how they know what they say is true. It seems they can’t explain themselves without defending some way of knowing something important.


  2. Pingback: Introducing Knowledge Organisers – Assistant Principal's Office Blog

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