Theory: A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.
I’m a theorist. I have to be to be able to provide training courses. It is necessary for me to completely understand the ‘something’ and also to know ‘the general principles independent of the thing’. Often overlooked, is the complex methodology of conveying the information in a way that allows differing styles of learning to access it relatively equally.
What often interests delegates more though, are my own credentials as a salesperson and the answer to the question, can I do it myself. Luckily, I entered this way of life on the back of a very good track record in sales, but it was always the theory that interested me most. Why did that work? How is that a better way? Is there an even better one?
Principles and theory are the basis of academic education and that is a fairly recent phenomenon. In England, schools appeared as early as the sixth century, Scotland from the twelfth, Wales from the fifteenth, but there weren’t many and access was reserved for the wealthy, the privileged and of course, you had to be male. Why, why, why?
The first proper schools we know about were started by Greek philosophers around 500BC. They were democratic, not elitist but focused on physical exercise, strength and stamina. This was partly because the schools – known as gymnasiums incidentally – were preparation for military service, but also because the Greeks believed that fitness was desirable for improving one’s appearance now, and for health in later life. Music and dance, lyrics and poetry were soon added, and within a hundred years, tutors who were both Greek and foreign, paid and unpaid, were adding more academic topics. It was a model of education to admire and copy. At the time, there was opposition from some dark and dusty quarters who feared that educating the masses would cause a breakdown in society. It didn’t.
That should have been the start of something incredible, but it was not to be. The fear that widespread, democratic education would lead to civil unrest was felt in the Vatican in the sixth century, a whole thousand years later. Teachers and teaching needed to be limited for reasons of control. Manipulating knowledge granted them power.
In the Middle Ages, monks were busily hand-copying books, including the intricate designs and illustrations that marked the era. Not only were they inherently expensive, but they were heavily edited and distribution was strictly restricted. The numerous Greek and Aramaic religious texts were first reduced to an approved twenty-seven books, then carefully transcribed into Latin. Translation into other languages was not permitted because even though few souls among the great unwashed could read, limiting The Word to the Vatican’s own tongue reduced the chances of it falling under the wrong eyes. To manage things still further, the Catholic church banned the laity (that’s you and me) from reading the bible at all, so even if we could read, we weren’t allowed to. Believe it, obey its doctrines, but don’t be getting above your station and expect to read it yourself. We will tell you all you need to know during your thrice daily, bent-knee, head-bowed visits to church – all donations welcome, thank you! As late as 1527, William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English.
This denial of education for the population at large lasted for a millenia, although schools were beginning to appear in places as diverse as Morocco and Sweden (modern names for the locations), but nowhere did they spring up in such numbers as in England. The real turning point came with Henry VIII’s self-appointment as the head of the Church of England and the establishment of large numbers of schools with the support of the church. By this time, the Vatican’s position was shifting too, which was just as well because an enterprising German called Thomas Gutenberg had recently invented the printing press and relieved all those monks of their rather exhausting shift. They could rest their smouldering, withered quills and return to brewing ale and whatever else took their fancy.
Academic education now meant some learned fellow would instruct a class of young boys using books, chalk and blackboard, pen and ink. The lessons might sometimes include objects for demonstration but were generally one-step removed from the world they explained. That’s the nature of a classroom lesson, it’s mostly theory, it sometimes has practical elements, but it’s rarely the real thing. Education was for boys; the future workforce, because the law restricted women’s rights with regard to education and pretty much everything else – a complex matter also rooted deeply in the religious beliefs of western and middle-eastern regions.
For those still excluded from the limited number of schools, the best they could hope for was an apprenticeship and parents did much to get their children ensconced with a tradesman. Child labour was typically free; the price of eventually learning how to be a shoemaker, chimney sweep, bookbinder or blacksmith. And the resulting skill-level of the post-graduate apprentice would be a combination of natural talent and the skill-level of the master, not only to perform the art but to pass it on. Put a promising pupil with a great master and spectacular things might happen. Think Socrates and Plato, Plato and Alexander the Great, Graham and Damon Hill (there are lots of other father-son F1 dynasties), while in musical circles there’s Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson, Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus, Neneh Cherry and Mabel or for the more classically minded, Johan Strauss I, II & III.
Not all teachers have Dolly Parton’s assets. Simply being able to do a thing to a high standard does not guarantee being able to pass on that skill. And so, even the best pupils would struggle with poor teachers. A few hundred years ago, if you were lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the great cobblers of your region, your future might seem assured, but what if that great talent did not have the wherewithal or patience to teach? I remember maths lessons with one master at Grammar school where I felt I understood less about mathematics when the bell rang to end the lesson and rescue us than when we were ushered into the dingy chamber of horrors forty-minutes earlier. I also knew a plasterer who insisted his labourers left the room when he did the actual plastering because he didn’t want them to acquire the secrets of his highly paid skill. He’d spent a few months teaching one lad only to have him leave and set up in competition, “Never doing that again!” And there’s another thing – a process is needed; somewhere to start, what to do next, how to progress to higher levels, for what if the master’s teachings were too advanced and what you needed was something a bit more basic? Ladybird Book 1 existed for a reason and is a better way to start your life as a bibliophilic than Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History Of Time’. You can save that one for a rainy afternoon.
We are now so used to formal education being the norm, that the idea of learning directly from the master of the art itself seems like something else entirely, and yet on-the-job-training is a part of many development programmes and apprenticeships are on the rise yet again as the need for skilled workers, particularly in engineering, has grown. In that workplace arena, selecting the right mentor to pass on their skills is as crucial as it ever was.
One way of thinking about formal, academic education is that you find the very best chimney sweeps you can find, form them into a panel with the most senior in overall charge, agree the underlying principles of chimney sweeping, commit the knowledge of processes, best-practice and everything else a sweep might need to know to book-form. Write lessons, make it a process which accelerates the learning of a lifetime into a much shorter syllabus. And remember, this isn’t simply the accumulated knowledge of your average, local chimney sweep, it is distilled from the best chimney sweeps in the land. This way you can reach a larger audience and share higher-quality, peer-verified information. This is ideal as long as you keep in mind that what is being shared is mostly theory.
One other change is that in recent generations jobs have become more specialised. When Einstein was young it was still considered just about possible, to know a lot about everything. Those blessed with a very-above-average brain might be able to learn much of that which an expert might know in his or her field and then add all the other major fields of learning too. This means having extensive knowledge of each branch of science, of history and geography, literature and music, philosophy and art and being an expert in all of them. Einstein himself struggled with mathematics and sought to remedy this as an adult, feeling it was his weak point.
But Einstein himself predicted he would be among the last to come close to this; that discoveries were occurring at an increasing rate and that fields of science were becoming increasingly focused. He said that the future would be of specialists with high levels of knowledge in narrow fields and not only is that where we are today, but it’s still where we are going. Whether it’s programmers and their particular code/language, plumbers who know about some boilers and not others, vehicle mechanics who can do electrics and adjust valve-gear but not rebuild a gearbox or doctors who specialise in one particular area of medicine to name but a few examples. Meanwhile, I always thought navel doctors were the most specialised until I realised they were actually naval doctors. Naval, not navel – a shame.
With so much to learn about a particular thing, professionals are constantly being trained and retrained and this is where Von Clausewitz comes in. The Prussian Major-General of Cavalry wrote a great book about military strategy upon his retirement and although still unfinished at the time of his death, it has been much quoted (and courtesy of some dubious translation) mis-quoted, since. This particular one, “What genius does is the best rule and theory can do no better than show why and how this ought to be the case,” is a reminder that classroom lessons, when done well, are the sharing of the work of geniuses. They are not the teacher’s opinion, but something far more important; the agreed highpoint of the matter in question. The original source may be on another continent, may have lived and died in another century, but through the academic process, their knowledge, discoveries and the short-cuts to acquiring their talents may become available to us, preferably via a talented intermediary. It may be a while since the military instructor himself rode a horse in combat, but no matter, what the student needs to think about is the efficacy of the information.
The D-Day assault on Pegasus Bridge in France by a glider-borne company of the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry is still taught in military academies around the world. Such was its significance to the D-Day landings, the precariousness of the battle itself, the bravery and skill displayed by those who took part and the near-perfection of the operation from start to finish, that it stands out even among so many worthy examples. And yet, would the lessons be clear without another ‘expert’ to break it down step-by-step and explain it?
Were I to take my guitar off the wall and recommit to learning how to play it, I’d like to fill in the many gaps around my attempts at mimicking the style of Gary Moore. A lack of natural talent might be a hindrance, but simply watching the late, great man play on video isn’t enough, I would need a sympathetic (and extraordinarily patient) teacher. Gary Moore was the genius, the teacher becomes the conduit. It helps if the teacher can do what Gary Moore did, but the most useful thing is he can convey the ‘how’ in a method that works for the student. So, let’s sum this bit of wisdom up: