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WORRYING: Most children, generally, are clueless about the world
A FEW people wrote to me last week about my April Fools joke. "Buffling?" said one, "it doesn't exist in the dictionary." "Well done, Sir," said another, "you caught me there."
Some of the best jokes are unintended and I wasn't, by that one, trying to capture your mirth. Buffling does exist even if its origin is obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary does not recognise it though, not yet, but some are already celebrating its glory as a portmanteau word formed from "business" and "waffling" which surfaced in a survey commissioned by the Ramada hotel chain in 2008 to find the most annoying jargon of our time.
You don't have to go very far to find it, it's here inside the box. Our paradigm's set and our mind's fixed, but ninety per cent of the time, the answer's there, within the box itself. There's a lot of fashionable thinking nowadays outside the box but we need to remind ourselves constantly of Hamzah Fansuri, the mystic in our own backyard, who went out in search of answers to intractable questions only to find the solution right there in his own shed.
Which brings me to my favourite subject in my own box: the amount of outside the box thinking in education: phonics and teacher-facilitator and almost everything that's computer aided. Someone I know who's trying his best to help the underprivileged in his own backyard says that he sees so many changes come and go that the result would have been comic had it not been so tragic. The building of super-schools and its terrible twin brother, the weeding out of the underachievers, the introduction of books that children can relate to, and the constant desire to hook on to anything that spells out Bill Gates. Well, okay, let's now have Steve Jobs, too, now that he's dead.
The result is all too easy to see: inarticulate, potentially bright young children, with an iPad in the backpack dreaming of some cloud computing heaven that will be the repository of all knowledge. They are clueless about the world, generally, and indifferent to poetry or the classics and haven't the googliest idea if the Zambezi is a river or an insect-eating stick. But there are no shortage of fads out there from smart schools to schools for the elites built on the graveyards of low-achievers who are fallen by the wayside.
How do you spot a fad? Easy, says writer Patricia Kean. "First, look beyond the warm and fuzzy rhetoric that envelops most of them (one quick way is to count the number of times the word "empowerment" is used). Next, check the price tag. Because fads typically exalt technique over content, they require a vast array of goods and services, turning schools into suckers for salesmen hawking some truly silly "educational" products. Finally, consider the claims made by supporters. Do they sound vaguely messianic? If advocates promise the moon and are backed by the latest in social science research, be afraid. Be very afraid."
Thinking is all the fad too nowadays but please all you thinking beans out there before you throw that brick. I am not an anti-thinking faddist, perish the thought, but thinking cannot exist on its own, knowledge can only be built on a foundation of facts. We memorised poetry and read and enjoyed Dickens and Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stevenson and memorised the times tables and our mind took in and absorbed all that. In the case of good writing they became models for our later use and at the very least they lifted our spirits. Exercising the memory, too, has its value and place.
Never, never underestimate the power of learning by rote, said the Tiger Mother Amy Chua and that's one of the things she said that's worthy of note.
And now here's the real April Fools joke. At a recent association of teachers and lecturers conference in Manchester, England, a voice railed against the teaching of facts in classrooms because all that can be replaced by the smartphone. What then is the gnomon? The answer is now at your fingertip.
Smash, bang, crash and a thunderstorm and the power's down and your smartphone goes on the blink. Remember the old cathode ray TV set and the voice that accompanied its fuzzy screen? "Temporary picture problem, do not adjust your television set." And that's the extent of your knowledge.
Algazel (alGhazali) the medieval philosopher-theologian was riding in the countryside with his load of books. Out popped a robber.
"Oh, please don't take my books, that's my knowledge," pleaded Algazel. Whereupon the robber laughed and said, "What kind of scholar are you when your knowledge can be taken away by a robber?"
"Many a true word comes out of a robber's head," Algazel ruminated.
Before thinking, before all that street-smart savoir faire, children -- everyone -- need that hinterland of knowledge. How else will the child know that it's dangerous to stand under a tree during a thunderstorm? asked a wag.