No School Like the Old School?

“What we’re entering is a world in which we can’t even tell our students what they should know 5 years from now. Because in fact we’re entering a world where the average half-life of a skill is moving from about 30 years to 5 years.”

This is a quote from a commencement speech delivered at Singapore Management University by Professor John Seely Brown, one of many startling things he said as he spoke about the trends he and other academics have begun to observe in industry, health and education, trends now being referred to collectively as ‘The Big Shift.’

His view? The world, married as it is to the vast information highway of the internet, is moving so quickly it’s barely allowing time for those in it to catch up, whilst bodies of all kinds — businesses, charities, schools — as well as culture itself, drags along like a road-buffeted tin can tied to the bumper of the newlyweds’ car.

Exciting and scary in equal measure, and, strangely, the kind of thing I found myself thinking about as I walked along the streets of York recently.

York is one of the oldest cities in the UK, founded in the first century by the Romans and built upon by the successive conquests of the Saxons and later, the Vikings.

Walking around its streets, the thing that strikes you most is, of course, the architecture. The way the city’s history weaves seamlessly in and out of the more common markers for post-modernism you’d expect to come across in any 21st century urban setting.

Like: There’s McDonald’s, there’s the 24 hour supermarket, oh, and there’s a 1000 year old barbican.

I’ve included some pictures to give an idea.

One thing they have plenty of in York? Tea rooms.
The remains of the west corner of the Roman fort of Eboracum. The original fortifications were built around 71AD when York was first founded.
The good dame is indeed a daughter of York. Who knew?
St Wilfred’s Catholic Church
The South Corner of York Minster Cathedral. One of the largest of its kind in northern Europe.
The better known 76-foot tall Great East Window of York Minster Cathedral. The largest span of medieval stained glass in the world.
Interior of Holy Trinity Church. One of twenty surviving medieval churches in and around York’s city centre.
The Chancel window of Holy Trinity Church.
One of my favourite things about York? You can be walking down a street, almost any street, and pass a pub, a restaurant, then perhaps a bookmakers… and then a historic landmark.

As I left the city I found myself thinking about the relationship that exists in all contexts — architectural, societal, whatever — between old and new, because, well, let’s face it, ‘old’ can often seem a dirty word. Whether you’re talking about technology, people, institutions or even values, the idea of ‘old’ is often associated with obsolete; no more than an inconvenient barrier to the noble forward march of progress.

The usual message, unspoken yet often repeated, is that old means redundant.

Yet some of my favourite things are old, like the old style telephones where you had to stick your finger in the ringer and wind it round to dial it (I realise a certain number of you will read that last sentence and think – ‘huh?’). There are certain sweatshirts I have that I just can’t ever imagine getting rid of, they just fit me that well, perfectly in fact. And books, it’d be a rare thing for me to discard a book just because I’d finished reading it, or to think any modern SFX horror flick more sinister than a classic Ray Harryhausen stop-go animation. And so I ask myself –

Is fashion the only test of worth? Is newness the ultimate mark of value? Can those things that belong to the past — whether they are customs, skills, items, even ways of life — have a use beyond merely providing the props for our nostalgia?

Or are all things, once they reach a certain age, destined to be no more than dilapidated remnants of some place or people that time will estrange us from?

What do you think?

Do you have items you’ve kept hold of despite their age? Old things you count superior to their newer counterparts?

Or is the future always an improvement? And the things that are, better than those that were before?

Let me know your thoughts below. (No way Dragonball Z is better than Thundercats back in the day. Just sayin’).


2 thoughts on “No School Like the Old School?”

  1. I don’t miss those old-style telephones. I always forgot which numbers I had already dialled and had to start all over again. But at least we knew each other’s phone numbers in those days.


    1. Ha so true! I can just about remember my own number but as for anyone else’s, not a clue. You’re right though, those old-style telephones were unwieldy and inconvenient things, and I’m probably looking back at them with rose-tinted spectacles, but, whenever I come across one now – in the lobby of an old hotel or wherever – I can’t help but bounce over to it to coo and ahh and fondle the thing like some kind of rare and precious animal. Which, yeah, I know is pretty weird and maybe even kinda creepy, but I just think they’re so cool.


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