More on not so obviously useful knowledge

The Education Secretary’s announcement that efforts would be made to encourage Latin in schools has divided opinion. Some people have immediately welcomes this as an important part of raising standards and removing the stigma of Latin as an elitist subject. Others have argued that this is a waste of time, learning a dead language is pointless.

My own view is that this is a positive development. Now, cards on the table, I never had the opportunity to study Latin and that hasn’t stopped me living a fulfilled and enjoyable life until this day. Latin has not proved an essential knowledge or skill.  However, at the same time, I can see the benefits. There have been times when knowing a bit of Latin would have provided me with a short cut to understanding a whole host of terms. I can also see how people who have had a classical education benefit from the rigour of understanding its grammar. Latin is foundational as well to romantic languages such as French, Spanish and Italian.

There is at times an assumption that we should be able to see an immediate and obvious application to knowledge and as I said in a recent post, this is an unhelpful approach to education.  Another example is the approach we often see to mathematics. I’ve lost count of the times that someone has argued that much of what is taught in maths is a waste of time. Who needs to understand statistics, algebra and other complex of maths. We should make the subject relevant by teaching children about money.

Yet, those “irrelevant” aspects of the subject are essential to physics, engineering and other disciplines. Of course a child may not wish to explore those disciplines and potential career paths but if we don’t teach them this foundational knowledge then we are reducing the number of options open to them.

So our desire for immediate application to knowledge may well be a hindrance in a number of areas of life. If we want to produce better linguists, scientists and engineers or even just reduce the number of nonsensical newspaper reports about COVID where a statistic has been completely misunderstood then we will need to get away from the requirement for instant relevance.

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