Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Burnside Writes

John Burnside on his first classroom experience of 'real' information.

I remember my first history lessons as rather dull. At that time, teachers emphasised the importance of dates, as if those were the only facts that mattered, (looking back, I can see that these are the few 'facts' history has to offer). Though never an enthusiastic student, I managed to find something of interest in most subjects, but until a year before 0 Levels I contemplated the Tuesday afternoon double history period with foreboding. There were times, in that class, when I actually believed time had stopped.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. A new teacher arrived, who made me see, for the first time, that knowing the dates of kings and queens was nothing more than a framework, a kind of map which allowed me to place the events that really mattered - Vermeer's paintings, Bach's partitas, Newton's discoveries, the composition of Shakespeare's plays. For the first time, I saw things in context. The framework of European history showed who was working when, which writers or painters or physicists were contemporaries, what forms of government and society fostered artistic or scientific endeavour. From being a study of facts and dates, history had become an enquiry into culture.

This is how information works. Facts can be dull, to be learned by rote, or they can be enlivened by context. No single piece of information is worth more than any other, unless it is invested with significance. The problem with education, or rather with systems of education, is that knowing, the possession of information, is never enough. I remember all the exams I have ever taken as exercises in recollection. Nobody ever tested my understanding. A good system of education would be one that encouraged in students the ability to think and to understand for themselves. I occasionally wonder if that is a realistic aim, or only some vain ideal, to be constantly circumvented by politicians.