‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’
Thomas Gradgrind is the very model of Victorian self-satisfaction as he addresses ‘the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts’. Dickens carries his point: education is more than facts; schoolchildren need more than filling.
But where exactly has Gradgrind gone wrong? What should education be about, if not facts? In recent decades educationalists have suggested that skills are the real object of education; after all, if facts can be Googled they need not be memorised. As a headteacher I’ve watched many a lesson in which children were left to flounder in their native ignorance, only to be reassured by the (generally young) teacher that, ‘It’s OK; this is a skills lesson.’
The emphasis on skills, made in reaction to facts, falls into an equally grave error: skills involve putting knowledge into practice; it’s impossible to become skilled without first knowing something.
Instead of focusing exclusively on either facts or skills, Gradgrind should have worked on building understanding. Understanding involves the ability to draw connections between facts – to see unity in diversity. We may know a fact about each of Wainwright’s Lakeland fells without benefiting from that knowledge; understanding how the 214 summits are connected to each other allows you to navigate with confidence: to find the quickest and safest way to a summit or to enjoy a magnificent ridge walk. Understanding, not merely knowledge, is power.
We say we understand something when our knowledge takes the form of a mental map, a spider’s web of interconnected information. The more connections we can draw between facts – the more threads our spider’s web has – the better our understanding.
The students at Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary are studying to understand theology; it isn’t enough for them to know what justification is; they want to understand how it relates to sanctification, how each person of the Trinity is involved, and where the doctrine appears in Scripture. They need this understanding because their calling is to preach the full counsel of God.
But to understand the truth is the birthright of every Christian. That’s why Westminster has launched its School of Theology, opened earlier this academic year by pastor Geoff Thomas, who spoke with typical warmheartedness and love for Christ. In ten Saturday morning sessions across the year we are studying the loci of systematic theology, learning to see Scripture as a single unified story told in 66 books, and examining ten topical ethical issues. These disciplines – systematic theology, biblical studies, and practical theology – will help us to understand the Bible better.
But even this is not enough. Knowledge, in Scripture, while it’s certainly more than just facts, is more even than understanding how the facts connect. Knowledge is personal, relational, experiential. The motto of Westminster’s School of Theology is ‘head, heart, hands’: we want knowledge to start in the head, move rapidly to the heart, and flow out of our lives in worship of God and service to others. ‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ That’s the ‘why’ of our School of Theology: to deepen our relationship with God.
All Saints Presbyterian Church, Newcastle, is the venue for in-person scholars, but sessions are livestreamed, with an international audience interacting with our teachers. Why not join us? Find out more at https://presbyterianseminary.org.uk/school-of-theology/
Jonathan Winch is Executive Director of Westminster Theological Seminary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.