The ‘Useless’ Knowledge


Over two months ago

24th April 2020. Britain just passed the peak. Statistics broadcasted live at the press conference from Downing Street show an increase of over 5.500 cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours. It is lower than earlier in the week and, on top of this, more good news. The PM has made a full recovery from his encounter with the virus and is expected back in the swing of things.

Analysing newspapers’ front pages from 24th April 2020, I find headlines suggesting how a ‘grateful Britain’ (Daily Mirror) was slowly ‘taking back control’ (The Daily Telegraph), with the help of ‘mass testing to get Britain back on her feet’ (Daily Express).  At the same time, hospitals were struggling with significant PPE shortages, with ‘failings in the privately run virus test centres’ (The Guardian) and were ‘running out of dialysis kits’ (The Independent).

A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ (The Scotsman) in April, when things were bad and better at the same time. The sigh of relief from governmental departments was so loud, I could almost hear it from the Midlands in the lockdown quietness. Weather was good but the angst caused by the emergency stop on economy was wearing many out. As my professional and social life moved online, days and nights blended into each other, in a confusing melange of obsessive handwashing, sleeplessness, overeating and virus paranoia. I would have believed anything as long as it brought hope.

The worst had passed and social media took comfort in the heavily quoted words of Pastor Olawale Daniel who’d prophetically anticipate the arrival of ‘a time to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the next phase of our existence’. I admit I have not heard of Pastor Olawale before the pandemic and, looking at his website, I am still unable to trust the source, but for a while his quote went viral on social media. Maybe it spoke to a yearning for social change, in a moment when, having had lockdown time for reflection, we realised that we had been going in the wrong direction even before COVID-19.

Over a month ago

25th May 2020. I’d already been introduced to the science behind the R number. The press conference in Downing Street is chaired by the PM himself who announces an increase in number of COVID-19 cases with only 1,600 in 24 hours. Britain’s records show that 36,900 people died infected with COVID-19, but I’m re-assured that things are ‘being controlled’.

Unfortunately, trust in the government’s concerted narrative ‘together against the virus’ suffers a big blow following the Cummings-gate media revelations. Newspapers’ front pages explain how the PM’s aide, ‘a cheat’ (Daily Mirror), offered ‘no apology, no explanation’ (The Guardian) for breaking the lockdown rules. While some newspapers report that ‘he acted responsibly, legally, and with integrity’ (The Daily Telegraph), others call for ‘aide’s sacking’ (The Scotsman) and the public opinion begins to split, reigniting the arguments which fuel the narrative ‘them and us’. My professional and social life is still booming online, weather is good, and then something else happens.

On 25th May 2020, George Floyd is killed in Minneapolis at 9.07pm. Britain was asleep at the time (3.07am) and about to wake up to an even newer version of the ‘new normal’; a social normality taken back to the ‘drawing board’ by the inequality and the injustice which stained our existence before the COVID-19 pandemic, and our existence before that, and even earlier than that, as back as history can remember.

Finally, the ‘useless’ knowledge

When the statue of Edward Colston is toppled and removed (7th June 2020) by protesters supporting the ‘George Floyd Movement’ in Bristol, the British Home Secretary points the finger at destructive ‘mobsters’. The debate in the House of Commons heats up with MPs recognising the urgent need to improve our education system. We have not learned enough from the past, nor thought enough about a future free from racism, discrimination and injustice. At this point, I turn up the volume in my headphones.

It is a mistake.  A mistake, for I can hear Sam Terry (MP for Ilford South) saying how ‘UK universities must be valued as part of the frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic, […] and recognised for the role they can play in their local economies in terms of retraining and reskilling their local workers during any recovery from the pandemic.’

The hope for fresh beginning in the ‘new normal’ gets crushed.  Shouldn’t universities be recognised for all their roles, for their contribution to nurturing thinkers as well as writers, artists, musicians? With public libraries closing, with philosophy, literature and art courses being scrapped in many British universities, our children’s chance to reflect on and to learn from past mistakes is significantly undermined. Not that economic recovery is irrelevant, far from it; but looking at the underlying societal disease caused by ‘outcomes’, it seems that we are moving backwards not forward. We are almost as back as 1935 when Bertrand Russell observed a similar symptomatic failure in the education system:

Educational commissions point out that fifteen hundred words are all that most people employ in business correspondence, and therefore suggest that all others should be avoided in the school curriculum. (1935, p.34)

Russell criticised the education system which was tasked to avoid ‘useless’ knowledge, without practical applicability and immediacy, pointing out the insurmountable value of philosophy and literature, for instance, in creating better visions for the future. 

Surely, I think, in almost a century we moved beyond the fifteen hundred words; surely our world-leading higher education system looks nothing like the system described by Russell in 1935:

Knowledge everywhere is coming to be regarded not as a good in itself, or a means of creating a broader and human outlook on life in general, but as merely an ingredient in technical skill. Educational establishments are not allowed to spend their money as they like, but must satisfy the State that they are serving a useful purpose by imparting skill and instilling loyalty. (In Praise of Idleness, 1935, p.38)

As he was writing In Praise of Idleness, Russell had the experience of the Great Depression which was followed by the Stock Market Crash of 1939. Despite his opposition to war, he witnessed how the society, skilled by the education system, was unable to resolve the crisis of the 20th century in any other way but war.

As for us, things are surely different.

© Maria Stadnicka, 27th June 2020

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