The Knowledge Factory (or why education is cleverer than you think)

I was lying in bed early this morning (bloody summer – the daylight often wakes me at 5am through cracks in the bedroom curtains) and an odd thought struck me.

What I now do for a living is what I’ve always done.

I’d better explain. What I do for a living, writing historical novels, uses exactly the same process that I used as a university student thirty years ago. It is the same process I employed as an undergraduate anthropologist in Indonesia, and the same process I used as a foreign correspondent in India and elsewhere.

I collect knowledge, information and human experiences (data).

I process that data, evaluate, compare it, sort it and sometimes simplify it.

I reproduce the data in a more easily digestible form for the end-consumer.

That’s it. Collect. Process. Reproduce. CPR*.

As a student, I read loads of books on Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy and so on. I collected the knowledge in those books. Then processed the knowledge in my mind and I wrote essays for my tutors – reproducing that knowledge to show I had understood it and pass my exams. CPR.

I didn’t know this then – indeed, I quite often thought I was wasting my time – but I was learning a valuable skill. I guess this is why they make you do this stuff. It is a key skill in so many areas of life. The further education system, I now have to admit, is a lot cleverer than I had thought.

Edinburgh University sent me off to do field work in Indonesia in the 1980s as part of my Masters degree in Social Anthropology. And in a little mountain village in Bali, with no electricity and no English-speakers, with some difficulty I collected knowledge of the Balinese culture and religion; I processed that info and I reproduced it as a dissertation, which earned me my degree. CPR.

As a journalist, I went out and talked to people, I collected their quotes, read about the subject, looked stuff up, processed it in my mind and reproduced it as newspaper articles. CPR.

Now I read history books, research stuff on the internet, walk over old battlefields, look at maps. I collect masses of information about the events that took place during the period I’m writing about. Then I process it, turn it into a ripping fictional yarn, and reproduce (publish) it as a novel. CPR.

Three completely different jobs (OK, they all involve me writing stuff) and yet they all use the same basic process. And I’m calling the system CPR. Maybe I should wrote a non-fiction book about that!

Anyway, it seemed like a revelation at 5am this morning. But maybe everybody knows this already, maybe this is blindingly obvious, and I am the last guy to figure it out.

Tell me what you think . . .


* Yeah, I know CPR is already a thing, resuscitating people who have stopped breathing. Maybe tomorrow I’ll think up a different acronym. In bed, at an annoyingly early hour!

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