On the way down here to the VSTE conference, I had the chance to catch up on some of the podcasts in my queue that I never seem to get down to during the daily commute.

One that has been running around in my warped little mind since that drive was a discussion with historian James Burke on a program that’s new to me called Hardcore History.

I’ve been a fan of Burke’s work for many years, going back to his Connections series from the 70’s and 80’s and today with his Knowledge Web project.

At one point Burke discusses our current education system. He claims that we have a “medieval education system”, one where to be considered intelligent you must have a PhD declaring the narrowness of your knowledge.

But he’s not finished.

Learning all there is to know about a certain area of knowledge (chemistry so you can become a chemist, or physics or music, etc.) is all a plot to make life easier for teachers. In other words when you divide knowledge up into neat boxes, it makes it easier for teachers to grade.

You give a set of questions to a student and they have one correct answer. Charles II did what Charles II did and nothing else and if you get it right you pass the exam and you get whatever it is you get.

This is an anarchtic approach since that’s not how history happens, that’s not how life happens, that’s not how knowledge happens. It is all immensely interconnected and as you make your way through knowledge you pass in and out of many different disciplines, many different subjects, many different boxes.

I also love his perspective on the concept of the “dark ages”.

One might argue that we’ve always lived in a dark age up until about 50 years ago since the vast majority of the population was illiterate. We could say that in many countries today where the literacy rate is very low people are living in a dark age.

The term “dark ages” is actually a misnomer since, for the people who had the knowledge, it wasn’t dark at all. For the people who didn’t [have the knowledge], they didn’t know they didn’t.

The “massive, world shaking events” we study for most of the historical record only happened to half a dozen people because the rest of them had lives that were nasty, brutish and short, and illiterate.

Burke and his host Dan Carlin have much more to say (and the quotes here are paraphrased) about the way we approach the study of history, and knowledge in general.

Well worth 45 minutes of your drive time.

james burke, history, knowledge, education