A New Enlightenment for Education?

I have recently finished reading Dancing at the Edge (O’Hara & Leicester, 2012) and it had many useful insights, some of which will no doubt reappear in other blog posts. However, for this post I want to focus on one point they raise – the current crisis around our ideas about knowledge.

The authors argue, and I tend to agree, that our key ideas about knowledge derive from the Enlightenment – the extraordinarily creative period in the late eighteenth-century in Europe and North America.  The general approach to knowledge of Enlightenment thinkers was to reduce things to their constituent parts as far as possible, then analyse them to see where they can be improved. Thus we have, for example, Adam Smith’s famous pin factory which is made more efficient by specialised processes and workers. We have analytical approaches to medicine and engineering being introduced.

There can be no doubt that these approaches led to enormous benefits for humanity. New industries arose, economies flourished, the human race was (largely) lifted out of poverty and we now enjoy comforts and conveniences which we unimaginable 250 years ago. But the signs are multiplying that this way of thinking may have run its course and its benefits reducing. To take two examples:

  • The free market is a great wealth-creating machine, which has comprehensively defeated other approaches to organising our economies. But I think it is hard to overstate the importance of the financial crisis and the stagnation in living standards that has accompanied it. Our faith in rational consumers and managers creating a better world for all has been dealt a severe blow. I for one doubt it will ever recover fully.
  • Modern approaches to medicine have eliminated many diseases and helped us all to live longer. But consider this – the three top causes of absence from work in the UK in 2013 were:
  1. Back, neck and muscle pain
  2. Minor illnesses such as coughs and cold
  3. Mental health problems such as stress, depression and anxiety (Office for National Statistics, 2014)

Two of these “top three” conditions, back pain and mental health issues, are conditions which modern medicine struggles to treat. The approaches to medicine we have developed simply do not work very well for our current diseases.

To put this another way, I have previously blogged about Dave Cormier’s use of David Snowden’s Cynefin framework to discuss learning in conditions of uncertainty. The analytical approaches of Enlightenment thinking work very well for problems that are simple or complicated. But more and more of our problems now are complex or chaotic. Cause and effect are unclear, and the problem needs to be approaches more holistically, and with more humility.

If we need a new enlightenment, what might it look like? O’Hara & Leicester think that part of the answer is to recognise that knowledge is not an abstract “thing”. Modern thinking in multiple disciplines, from behavioural economics to neuroscience, is finding that knowledge cannot be separated from experience and that emotion as well as reason plays a part in what we “know”. As the authors put it:

“…we come to recognize that all knowledge is local, colored and framed by culture and context.”

This might sound pure relativism, but I do not think that is what they intend. Of course there are “facts” which, if they are not comprehensively proved by the evidence, get pretty close. But there may be fewer than we think, and in the sphere of human interaction (which includes disciplines like management), there may be barely any.

If we are going to rethink knowledge, we will of course need to rethink education too. One of the many inventions of the Enlightenment is not widely known but had profound implications. In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman mentions that the system of assigning marks to student papers was invented in 1792 by an obscure Cambridge academic called William Farish. The idea of assigning a grade or number to a piece of academic work is now utterly fundamental to the whole way we think about education and whenever I have a conversation with my childrens’ schoolteachers it is all about levels and grades. However, it is worth reflecting that formal education was around for two thousand years or so in many forms without this idea. And when you think about it, the idea of assigning a number to the output of someone’s thought processes is a bit odd. And that is before you consider all the problems it raises such as teaching to the test, grade inflation and cheating.

An education system that recognises emotions, appreciates that knowledge may differ according to context and where we do away with, or at least downplay, the idea of grading? It may seem an impossible vision, but in fact there are many signs that we are making a start. I will aim to explore these in future blog posts.


Office for National Statistics (2014) Full Report: Sickness Absence in the Labour Market, February 2014 [online]. Available at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_353899.pdf

O’Hara, M. & Leicester, G. (2012) Dancing at the Edge: Competence, Culture & Organisation in the 21st Century, Triarchy Press, Axminster

Postman, N. (1993) Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage Books, New York


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