Introduction to Learning in Depth


One of the constants in the sequence of human generations, as far back as we have records, is the older ones bewailing the ignorance of the younger ones. Another constant is the older ones saying that they know that all previous older generations bewailed the ignorance of their younger successors, but that this time it really is uniquely, cataclysmically bad. Our younger generation is demonstrating ignorance on a scale that dwarfs that of all previous ignorant generations; our younger generation has them all beat when it comes to minds of desert-like vacuousness. “The kids these days” know nothing, except the words of pop songs drilled into their brains through wrecked ears from jabbering iPods. Our younger generation, to a degree like none before them, has been the victim of years of successful cretinizing by TV, which has served huge numbers of them in the place of family life, interactions with other knowledgeable adults, and experience of the natural world.

Those who have taught many years of undergraduate students in universities, where one might expect better-educated younger people to show up, claim that the ranks of recent years really do take some beating. “It’s not,” one professor recently complained to me, “that they don’t recall the provisions of the treaty of Versailles, they don’t recall there had been a treaty, or why it occurred, or what a treaty is, or ‘Who’s Versailles anyway?’ and on and on, exposing a seemingly unbounded abyss of ignorance, and they are entirely content in the abyss, concerned in a generally friendly way that I am troubled by their ignorance of pretty well all the history they were taught in school. It isn’t, they tell me, relevant to their lives now. And in all their school years clearly no one has shown them how it might be relevant to their lives.”

Certainly all those college students have been taught about the Treaty of Versailles in their school years, and a huge amount of other things they seem not to know. Dividing fractions, proving that interior opposite angles are congruent, composing grammatical sentences, analyzing arguments, identifying countries on an unmarked map of the world, and on and on, have been taught to all students, but the knowledge, if it rested in their minds at all, disappeared like frost on a spring morning. Look at the curriculum guides for all those years of school: they are like a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge. But it is as though all that knowledge was taught to students in a foreign language for all the effect it has had on their minds by the time they leave school—according to the results of tests. A few years on, and even the knowledge successfully learned for tests that were triumphantly passed, has faded away, slid into the abyss, unattached to anything that can keep it alive in their minds. They are like incontinent amnesiacs at full throttle.

Well, I guess I don’t need to labor this—you’ll be familiar with the jeremiads. (Who’s Jerry?) Easy to moan, but what are we going to do about it? In this book I want to outline a simple proposal, relatively easy to implement, for solving a significant part of the problem. It is, as far as I’m aware, a new idea. If implemented, it just might have a transformative influence on young people’s education. The strategy isn’t some new method of teaching everything, but rather a proposal for teaching something in depth. I’ll describe the proposal in Chapter Two, after sketching in more detail than I have here the nature of the problem I think this proposal can address.

In the expectation that some hard-hearted readers might have doubts that a simple and relatively easily implemented idea might have a major impact on one of the most intractable problems of schooling, I’ll use Chapter Three to examine what seem like the main objections to the proposal. Then I’ll respond to each of the objections in Chapter Four. In Chapter Five I’ll describe a key feature of the proposal in more detail. In Chapter Six I will offer some principles and practical suggestions for how we might guide students’ through this new component of the school curriculum. Then, in Chapter Seven, I’ll suggest steps we can begin to take tomorrow to get this plan underway. Then I’ll conclude, and we can all go home.

Learning in depth has usually been a kind of educational luxury reserved for high-achieving students; teachers mostly work hard to ensure some adequate coverage for the mass of students of the breadth of knowledge a modern citizen might require. So this proposal might at first seem aimed at the higher set of educational achievers. But that is not the case. This proposal may have a much more beneficial impact on lower achieving students; it may do most to transform for them the experience of schooling.

Kieran Egan


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