Learning takes a lifetime

The older we get, the more we realise what we need to know

After being sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan recorded in his diary (later published as The Insider) what he called his "first proper week living normal civilian life". He writes, "I got the car MoT'd and serviced without the help of my driver; I sent my first letters for ten years and discovered that stamps these days are self-adhesive... I forgot that the [London] congestion charge exists, and got an £80 fine... I even managed to buy and set up a new computer and printer."

These were not high-level skills but, cocooned in a corporate world, where legions of assistants await the executive's every command, people can be deskilled in the most extraordinary ways. Many cabinet ministers and captains of industry would not know how to make a mobile phonecall or to pay a cheque into a bank; notoriously, they rarely know the price of a loaf of bread. Think, too, of what would happen to us all if food and fuel supplies suddenly collapsed, as they might after a terrorist attack or some devastating computer virus. How would we cope with finding food, cooking it, keeping warm and so on? A time traveller from the Middle Ages, suddenly plunged into today's world, wouldn't survive a week. If we made the journey to the Middle Ages, we might do even worse.

This is not a plea for everybody to go on a survival course. Rather, I am trying to suggest that, as individuals, 21st century human beings typically live not in a state of knowledge but in a state of ignorance. Before the invention of the printing press, there were probably about 25,000 book titles in the whole of Europe. With long life, good eyesight, and much burning of candles, it would have been possible to read most, if not all, of them. You could reasonably aspire to acquaint yourself with the sum of human knowledge. Or, if not, you could attempt a plausible imitation of omniscience. As Moliere observed in 1659, "People of quality know everything without ever having been taught anything."

How to pass as an expert

Two hundred years later, a claim to know everything would have marked you down as a fool. Yet the information age allows the trick to be pulled off again. Type any subject into Google and you can learn just enough to pass yourself off as an expert, at least to non-experts. Journalists do it all the time. But as Alexander Pope observed (and, yes, it is Google that allows me to check these quotations, passing myself off as an expert on 17th century French playwrights and 18th century poets), "a little learning is a dangerous thing". We all, I suspect, think we know and understand far more than we really do.

It is a truism that it is no use learning non-transferable skills. But I'm not sure that transferable skills are any better. For one thing, I've never been clear what they are. People usually mutter something about the capacity to search and retrieve information. But as search engines become more sophisticated, finding information could become about as easy as preparing a meal in KFC. Will foreign language skills be made redundant by machines that can translate instantly from speech or print? Will data handling skills matter any more than manual long division as computers and calculators become even smarter?

The truth is we don't know; we're ignorant even about where and when we can afford ignorance. That is why we need to think hard about lifelong learning. We've been talking about it for 20 years, but I suspect we haven't even begun to get to grips with it. As any teacher will tell you, it's a struggle to teach children in their final years of secondary school because they often cannot see the point of what they are learning.

Ten, twenty, thirty years on, they may know exactly what they need to learn. My elder son had minimal enthusiasm for his German lessons at school; in his twenties, he learned the language fluently enough to work in Berlin as a teacher and translator. I'm a lifelong technophobe, scarcely able to change an electric light bulb. Now, thrown back on my own resources as a freelance journalist, I'm modestly competent with computers. It's not always work that creates a need to learn new skills. Unexpected spare time - retirement, unemployment - or marriage breakdown can stimulate learning too.

We need downtime

A paradox of our society is that, as our learning grows, our ignorance grows faster. Try to absorb everything known about quantum theory or vegetables and you may become a top physicist or the star on your local allotment but you could be flummoxed by the latest in flat-screen TVs or "Third-Way" thinking. We're in constant danger of information overload. We need downtime.

Throughout the 20th century, we thought the answer to more complex knowledge was to extend the period of initial education. Now, for many, initial education continues at least until 21. Perhaps we should be thinking of cutting initial education by several years, and replacing it with learning sabbaticals at intervals throughout life. Then we could, if nothing else, take regular stock of what we don't know. Nearly three hundred and fifty years after Molière, a person of quality admits ignorance.