Content is a print concept

I’ve been saying annoying things like “I don’t believe in content” and “what do you mean course ‘content?’ I don’t even know who’s going to be there” for a number of years now. There’s a part of me, as George Station will attest, that just likes the sound of certain words put together.

The bigger part of me has always struggled with the word.

There are fundamental claims made, I think, when we use the word content. We have decided what someone ‘needs to know.’ I always think back to the forklift driver’s course that I took when I worked at the lead/silver refinery. They taught us the ‘correct’ way to drive a forklift – a driving method I’d never seen anyone use before…nor have I seen it since. While there are good legal reasons for teaching us the government approved approach… I’d probably be fired if I tried to ‘thoroughly look over my forklift’ every single time I was about to use it. Those lessons were the content that needed to be covered, though. To what end, I wonder… and when exactly did we start thinking of courses as having ‘content?’

I have this idea (totally unverifiable) that our current educational use of ‘content’ came to us from print – that it is a concept that only makes sense when arguments are, as Socrates would say, ‘no longer able to defend themselves.’ When they are written down. I might use the word ‘content’ when talking about a conversation I had with someone, but I, at least, would never use it to describe what was going to happen BEFORE the conversation had happened. A conversation, ideally, is the coming together of two or more people’s ideas. What comes out of that conversation is to some degree always going to be a surprise.

Why don’t I say writing, you might ask, instead of print? I think of writing as being partially to blame, but not the real culprit.

When Europe starting peeking its way through the veil of the dark ages, one of the first things we hear about learning comes from the court of Charlemagne. Turns out the large majority of priests in his day couldn’t really speak Latin. This did not stop them from ‘saying’ Latin phrases. Those phrases did things like make marriages official and make sure babies didn’t go to hell… so they were important phrases… but the priests were speaking them from memory. Turns out Charlemagne thought God could only speak Latin, and figured that if they said the phrases wrong the wouldn’t work. So… he figured he would take a shot at fixing that.

You can totally see why he wanted to make sure people did EXACTLY as they were supposed to. I mean, if you believed as he believed, there were people GOING TO HELL because they were mis-speaking Latin phrases. So he released the ‘Charter of Modern Thought’ that led to all kinds of things, including better education for bishops, enforced education for priests and, eventually, schools to be opened at monasteries for kids. We don’t know exactly what happened at those schools…but there is one slightly terrifying story of one pupil who burned down the monastery to avoid being disciplined for a now forgotten crime. In almost every case, however, they’re all still learning about things God said and things other people (Boethius, Plato, Augustine) said.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, we see the vague beginnings of the modern university. We see, at almost the same time, the birth of thought control at universities. There is one school of historical thought that sees the birth of universities as directly tied to the desire for thought control. In their version, the church/local rulers encouraged their formation to avoid the tedious problem of local smart people educating people at random and causing trouble (see Peter Abelard). Aristotle’s Physics were banned at Paris, for instance, because they taught an origin story that conflicted with church teachings.

The desire to repeat things exactly and the desire to control what people learned met their perfect weapon in the printing press. Not only did it mean we were now not going to get those irritating errors that keep cropping up when one (sometimes illiterate) person tries to copy someone else’s copy of a copy of 20 or 50 thousand words, it also meant you could create bunches and bunches of them. It also meant that things less important than Augustine and less important than the Bible could get turned into a book.

We take up our incredibly brief history of content in 1798 with my favourite educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He had a dream… and what a dream. He wanted to teach the entirety of Switzerland to read (and rite and do rithmatic). Tricky problem… he didn’t have any teachers to work with. In his book “How Gertrude teaches her children” he talks about his crazy solution. Imagine, he says, if we took all the things that people needed to know and broke them into small pieces. Pieces so simply defined that ANYONE, whether they understood what they were doing or not, could teach someone else how to do something. Lets just go ahead and call it a ‘textbook’.

We’ve gone from
‘oh my god they better just memorize it so no one goes to hell’


‘lets make sure we figure out what they’re teaching so people don’t get funny ideas’


‘lets dumb this down to the point that anyone can understand it’

From there we have the splintering of learning into different disciplines, and an ever increasing % of the population learning. We move from people talking about things as learning – a discourse (our boy Socrates) to learning being an accomplishment of specific predefined tasks. Tasks that could only be defined in this way because they could be written down. Tasks that form the ‘content’ of learning designed in a schoolbook that as Pestalozzi would say “is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one].”

So… here’s the think piece.

Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn. It is a standardization engine for learning, both to allow for spreading of authorized messaging and to allow for ‘uninstructed teachers to teach almost as well as an experienced one.’

I can certainly see where it’s useful. Particularly when you are only invested in surface level understanding of something. I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it. Our current connectivity allows us to actually engage in discussions at scale… can that replace content?

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