“Liberation Day”, the title story of George Saunders’ latest collection new collection, describes the existence of Jeremy, a kind of human ornament who can be “pinioned” into a rigid position and used as a vessel for whatever variety of dramatic speeches the host of the house imagines will entertain his guests. Jeremy and his fellow Speakers are manipulated through dials that increase their volume, lower their prolixity, or force them to speak in iambic pentameter.
At one point in the story, they are upgraded with a “Knowledge Mod”, a shiny red device that provides sudden access to a much higher degree of specificity:
Being on a Knowledge Mod is, let us say, different. It is not just us emptily riffing, as usual, on general concepts such as Nautical, such as City. Now we are given facts. Real facts. Which are helpful. In making compelling structure. It is like walking down a tight hallway, constrained on either side by gray walls of fact. It is like stumbling through a desert and suddenly a mist of knowledge rains down composed of the exact details you have been craving but did not previously know you craved.
Most teachers don’t view their students as mindless puppets to be manipulated into entertaining tableaux, gushing a torrent of verbiage they barely understand.1 But just like these Speakers, students need gray walls of fact in order to generate meaningful analysis.
We know that literacy cannot be isolated from contextual knowledge. When it comes to understanding a story about football, an understanding of the offside rule weighs more than overall fluency.
Source: The Family Firm by Emily Oster
As E. D. Hirsch puts it: “The fastest way to learn words is to learn about things”. But knowledge also underpins the kind of thinking we tend to elevate above the acquisition of language: analysis, evaluation, creativity.
The design of Bloom’s taxonomy encourages teachers to aim students towards these higher echelons, making it easy to overlook the foundational importance of knowledge. According to John Sweller, we tend to underestimate the importance of existing knowledge when we think about creativity and critical thinking, because we take its existence for granted, so instinctively do we draw on our long-term memories. Instead of trying to teach them as universal capabilities, we should recognise that creativity and critical thinking skills are specific to particular domains, and make sure students are equipped with sufficient knowledge to activate them.
The May 2022 IB English Literature Paper 1 (Time Zone 1) provided one striking example of how knowledge enables analysis. The text was an extract from Perfidious Albion, a satirical novel by Sam Byers. In a testy encounter between two men who are grappling for dominance beneath a exterior of polite respect, one character takes “a ruminative sip of his negroni”. Some of my students might have spotted a transferred epithet in Byers’ decision to reassign the adjective “ruminative” from the character himself to the action of his “sip”. But none of them, I suspect, would have recognised the implications of the drink itself. The presence of negronis tells us something about the venue (this is a fancy bar, not a local pub) and the character (he probably fancies himself as a more sophisticated sort of drinker, a refined palate, someone who knows his cocktails). The negroni, according to The Guardian “embodies sprezzatura – an Italian mood of nonchalant, urbane elegance.” A student who recognises these connotations is not necessarily a more capable analyser of literature than the student who doesn’t. But their knowledge opens up a wider range of potential insights to pick from when it comes to constructing their answer.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
What, then, can teachers do to ensure that our students have a sufficiently broad and sturdy foundation of knowledge? We can try our best to design a knowledge-rich curriculum, yes, but even the very richest will struggle to accomodate classes on the history and culture of cocktails. The Knowledge Mod that will best serve our students is the one that they construct themselves, when their curiosity is activated and they are motivated to pay attention to the world around them. We must strive to catalyse these qualities, through our teaching but also through the behaviour we model in the classroom, the attitude we project in all the small day-to-day encounters that seem so small but mean so much.