Thursday, June 05, 2008

Learning to think

This little interlude appears in Brave New World, by way of explaining the problems the Fordists found with hypnopaedia, their way of teaching/indocrinating their babies and children by playing and replaying the same texts:

(A small boy asleep on his right side, the right arm stuck out, the right hand hanging limply over the edge of the bed. Through a round grating in the side of a box a voice speaks softly. [end p. 20]
‘The Nile is the longest river in Africa and the second in length of all the rivers of the globe. Although falling short of the length of the Mississippi-Missouri, the Nile is at the head of all rivers as regards the length of its basin, which extends through 35 degrees of latitude...’
At breakfast the next morning, ‘Tommy,’ someone says, ‘do you know which is the longest river in Africa’ A shaking of the head. ‘But don’t you remember something that begins: “The Nile is...”’
‘The-Nile-is-the-longest-river-in-Africa-and-the-second-in-length-of-all-the-rivers-of-the-globe...’ The words came rushing out. ‘Although-falling-short-of...’
‘Well now, which is the longest river in Africa?’
The eyes are blank. ‘I don’t know.’
‘But the Nile, Tommy.’
‘The-Nile-is-the-longest-river-in-Africa-and-the-second...’
‘Then which river is the longest, Tommy?’
Tommy bursts into tears. ‘I don’t know,’ he howls.)

Obviously, Huxley was making his own point about the future civilisation, but doesn't that story also stand starkly as a warning about education by rote. John Stuart Mill would have shaken his head in silent understanding and regret. Our government would probably rue the lost opportunity of the failed experiment. And try again.

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