Education has killed the word ‘Discuss’.

Jamie Rycroft 19 May 2014

It would seem that our current educational culture has something of an obsession with ‘discussing’ things in the form of an essay, within a time limit, for it to then be graded, tabulated, and reduced to a letter (or, in the case of Michael Gove’s new GCSEs, a number) that will probably determine your income bracket and living standards for the rest of your life. However, in this essay I would like to argue this system hugely constrains the things we can talk about, is a major factor behind the failures of this country’s teaching system, and, above all, tends to make every discussion look pretty much the same.

Firstly, one should consider the fact that our generation has been continually examined, every summer, year after year, since we were midway through secondary school. The way we are examined seems to strongly favour short-term ‘cramming’, as opposed to the long-term, incremental gathering of knowledge necessary to actually understand and, perhaps, even love a subject. Needless to say, the endless slew of testing, the idea that we should only read Lord of the Flies to excavate quotations on savagery, rather than as entertainment, or should learn circle theorems by rote rather than appreciate the beautiful, graceful proofs that lead to their universal applicability, leads to apathy from students who may well have benefited from such material.

Furthermore, the structure that most essay-writers are prescriptively and rigidly forced to adopt, and the discourse markers they are made to regurgitate (e.g. ‘Firstly’, ‘Furthermore’, ‘In conclusion’) result in a noticeable homogeneity in both essay questions and answers. It is difficult, for instance, to look at Tripos papers for most humanities subjects without feeling like a rather irritating friend is firing bizarrely specific questions at you, then moving on to the next topic before you even had time to ‘discuss’ the last one. George Orwell wrote that you should never use a figure of speech that you are ‘used to seeing in print’ – known as a ‘fixed expression’, or, in other words, a cliché. Writing in this turgid and hackneyed style not only results in ‘discussions’ which are stultifying to read, but create a kind of insincerity in tone that can lead to a dangerous indifference when someone is trying to discuss issues that actually matter. When a politician says that they promise ‘change we can believe in’, for example, or that they will be ‘tough on crime’, it’s hard not to tune out, but it is precisely this which leads to the kind of directionless political detachment which might cause more harm than good in the long run (cf. Russell Brand).

In conclusion, it is strange that our need for continual examination and essay-writing has become so deeply rooted, considering that it is really only a recent phenomenon in the history of education. Perhaps the best way forward is not to try and imitate China’s rigid, militaristic teaching methods, as Gove wants to do, but to adopt a more humanistic approach, as we have done in the past. On the other hand, one might argue that such a method would be predominantly biased towards the middle classes, but, on the contrary, I believe that the current system alienates those from disadvantaged backgrounds to a more significant extent, hence the dearth of this demographic in ‘elite’ universities, like Cambridge. Overall, when all is said and done, at the end of the day, in summation, changing the way we discuss matters won’t be easy, and if we are to have any chance of succeeding, we’ll have to think a little outside of the box.