Dor more than three decades, Romanian schools have been facing a decrease in the level of general culture and knowledge among students. It is a phenomenon that does not seem to give rise to administrative concerns and which, as a result, is perpetuated and worsens from year to year. The learning reach of many pupils is shrinking, their knowledge of the fundamentals (literature, philosophy, history, geography, science, etc.) becoming fewer and shallower. The situation extends to the university level as students transition from classrooms to lecture halls (be they virtual, in the age of the pandemic).
The causes of the phenomenon refer to the school, but also involve the individual, the family and society. Speaking of the institutional framework of education, this is undoubtedly a matter of curriculum and approach. By limiting itself to subjects and curricular content treated as in a didactic Procrustean bed, the educational process loses its openness to the wider areas of knowledge. In the current paradigm, the act of teaching does not put information in wider contexts, does not build bridges to other disciplines and fields in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. The information transmitted is fragmented and isolated, without being integrated into a knowledge map, which, as it is realised, reveals meanings, connections and shapes the overall picture. It’s like a puzzle game, in which isolated pieces offer only suggestions and possibilities; when integrated, one by one, into thematic sequences, they progressively form the final picture, the spectacular result of a laborious and creative process. The school does not go beyond its curricular limits, looking at the themes within the strict perimeter of each discipline, without, through connections between notions, going beyond, into other territories of knowledge.
There are other causes. The average person seems to be losing more and more his curiosity to learn, to discover, to know. It’s a paradoxical effect in the age of technology, which constantly brings an avalanche of information from all fields. Amidst the influx of data, the individual no longer acutely feels the need to inform himself and understand through his own curiosity. Since the information comes to him on its own, via the internet and television, why should he make the effort to seek it out? Many thus become passive consumers of information, ceasing to be seekers, which would imply the involvement of thought processes, the tension of searching, the joy of discovery and understanding. The paradox is that they know more, but know less. When the loss of curiosity occurs in children and young people at the age of cognitive accumulation and personality structuring, things are even worse. In compensation, the low curiosity for cultural and scientific information is balanced by interest in minor topics, approached chaotically. Paraphrasing, we could say, “I’m curious, so I think”.
The situation also indicts the insufficiency of the necessary guidance in the labyrinth of knowledge and existence. We live in a world dominated by material values, in an area of consumerism, where man has been transformed from a thinking being into a consuming being. Consumers of everything: information, media content, food, goods, products and services of all kinds, useful or, more often than not, useless. A world like a fairground, under the sign of Black Friday, where everything is sold and bought, where big holidays become holidays of consumption and gifts, a space of manipulation, depiritualisation and deculturalisation. Overwhelmed by information, overwhelmed by commodities, preoccupied with accumulation or simply with taxes, instalments and subsistence, caught up in the whirlwind of unpredictable life, today’s individual no longer has time for culture and knowledge. The interest in cultural or scientific information, the concern for self-education, is declining sharply until it disappears in the face of dominant interests and existential priorities. Everything takes dramatic turns at a time of global crisis like today, when all crises converge: pandemic, economic crisis, energy, gas and oil crisis, war, human crisis.
In such a discussion, we inevitably come to technology and the relationship between the internet and the printed book. We are in the Information and Communications Age, in its infancy, a kind of digital Big-Bang. What’s next is hard to predict at the speed at which things are moving in the areas of innovation. Quantum computing is being perfected, virtual reality is becoming a second reality – which tends to swallow us all – every day, Artificial Intelligence is developing more and more promising and threatening. The Internet today offers us everything or almost everything in terms of information and entertainment. The book, as a source of ideas and knowledge, as a means of escaping into parallel worlds, has to lose out to the phone, the tablet or the laptop. Especially since reading is a time-consuming and neuron-intensive activity that requires concentration and isolation. In the common mind, what you can learn from books you find on the internet in much more dynamic and attractive forms, with pictures and interactive elements, in multimedia combinations, in an endless spiral of information, and not in hundreds of pages that you have to read and are not even sure you understand much of. What’s the point of knowing from the pages of books when you can find out anything – if you’re interested in anything – from the internet? Only – and this is generally ignored – the chaotic use of the internet provides fragmentary and superficial information, whereas reading generates a complex and deep knowledge of the topics covered.
The paradox of today’s world is that, in the Information Age and the Knowledge Society, younger generations (and not only them) know less and less. Even if they do their schoolwork, pass all the subjects and take the baccalaureate, the general culture acquired at school and the area covered by knowledge are increasingly limited. There are students (and not a few, unfortunately) who – at the most beautiful age of the mind, at the most fruitful age of curiosity – they have not heard of important authors and have not read fundamental books, they have no knowledge of the history of thought and civilisation, no notions about trends, theories, personalities and events, about man, the world and the universe.
Since all roads of knowledge lead to education, the solutions to the crisis of general culture are also to be found in schools. Starting from the educational ideal, which aims at the complex formation of young people, from an intellectual, moral and social point of view, developments and programmatic assumptions are necessary at the level of the relevant policies, regarding the mission of the school, the restructuring of contents and the modernisation of teaching strategies. Priority changes, in relation to the demands of today’s society, should aim at opening up the educational act to culture and knowledge in a broad and integrative perspective, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, the involvement of digital technology tools in education. In this context, promoting reading as a way of accessing the world of knowledge, developing an attachment to printed books and getting closer to valuable works are among the fundamental means of returning to culture and recovering the cultural dimension of education.
If things remain as they are, our education system will continue to produce new classes of graduates with a limited horizon of knowledge and a reduced range of general culture. On the current course of development, the high school will continue to send young people to university with a limited knowledge base. Further, the university, which in turn focuses on profile content within increasingly narrow boundaries, often opaque to the universe of culture and general knowledge, will deliver to society graduates specialised (more or less) in one field but quasi-ignorant in others. Education in the third millennium must allow every young person to develop in the direction for which he or she has a vocation and inclination, but at the same time create the framework for the formation of a solid general culture and a comprehensive openness to knowledge. It is the kind of complex education that supports progress, necessary for any developing society, paradigmatic for a world of Knowledge.
Editorial, Education Tribune, No. 27, Series Nine, March 2022