“A Tale of Two Attics” or “What Sherlock Doesn’t Know Won’t Hurt Him”

A Literary Indulgence

Permit me, if you will, to begin with a rather lengthy quote from the Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Here we see Watson describing his new roommate, Sherlock Holmes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

To fans of Doyle’s “Great Detective,” the revelation that Holmes doesn’t know the earth revolves around the sun is not particularly new, but this forms the basis of my question, and my argument, for this week’s post.  I wanted to explore a question posed in our introduction to 21st century learning. In this module, we have been encouraged to investigate what a 21st Century learning activity looks like.  To that end, we are encouraged to first ask ourselves, “What skills and competencies do our students need to be successful in college and their careers?”  The subsequent question, “What are the characteristics of learning activities that will help students develop critical skills?” flows logically from the first and drives the rest of the endeavor, but my question goes back to the first foundational question.  It’s a problem I’ve partially addressed before, but one of our “guiding questions” for this module asks us, “What are the pitfalls, or dangers, of using this definition in your work?” and it is the potential dangers and pitfalls in this approach that I intend to explore in this post.

The Tidy “Brain-Attic”

To go back to Sherlock Holmes for a moment, he is undoubtedly one of the most popular characters in all of literary fiction – and it’s not just literature. There have been countless film and television portrayals of the character as well. And I think it would be fairly safe to say that he is almost universally admired (his mild cocaine addiction notwithstanding).  Holmes’s intellect is astounding, his powers of deduction are amazing, and his ability to solve the seemingly unsolvable is equally incredible and entertaining.  Within the scope of the fiction he is celebrated and very successful – the absolute pinnacle of his profession who is sought after by common people,  Scotland Yard, various ministries in the cabinet, and heads of state both foreign and domestic.  It is no wonder he is so widely cited, imitated, and referenced throughout our culture.  But is he who we really want to be?  Is he who we want our students to be?  Consider again his shortcomings based on Watson’s list from the aforementioned book:

1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
2. Philosophy.—Nil.
3. Astronomy.—Nil.
4. Politics.—Feeble.
5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna,
opium, and poisons generally.
Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Geology.—Practical, but limited.
Tells at a glance different soils
from each other. After walks has
shown me splashes upon his trousers,
and told me by their colour and
consistence in what part of London
he had received them.
7. Chemistry.—Profound.
8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears
to know every detail of every horror
perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Would we want to produce a student who didn’t know the earth revolved around the sun?  Or a student who knew nothing of literature?  I realize, of course, that Holmes is a fictional character and that the traits Doyle created in him exaggerated and are designed to facilitate a specific set of narratives in which he practices his profession, but I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t the end result of our 21st Century learning philosophy. Aside from a few indulgences that spark his interest (think student-centered education) Holmes knows everything he needs to know to do his job – and not much else. His “brain-attic” (to use his words) is tidy and neat. Everything fits just so, so that he can find what he needs at a moment’s notice.  His profession has almost entirely driven his education.  It’s almost as if Holmes’s 19th Century learning and our 21st Century learning started with the same question.

While Holmes may be fictional, I am not the first person (by a long shot) to connect 19th century education and 21st century education with employment.  I have already addressed Sugata Mitra and his award-winning TED talk on “The School in the Cloud” in a previous post, but I think it’s worthwhile revisiting it as he draws the same comparison I am making – but in a more positive light. He argues that the 19th century Victorian educational systems produced clerks who could write nicely and do math, but says that system is obsolete.  Now we need the schools of the 21st century to produce students for a different type of job – one that requires the adept use of computers. “We don’t even know what the jobs of the future are going to look like,” says Mitra, “We know that people are going to work from wherever they want, whenever they want, in whatever way they want. How is present-day schooling going to prepare them for that world?” Mitra is looking at the issue of education solely from the perspective of employment – which is reiterated in the first question we should ask as we look at creating 21 Century learning activities (albeit our 21st Century goals allow for “college” paths as well – but what is this but a road to a more prestigious profession?).  I’m not trying to say that education shouldn’t prepare students for a job, and I’m certainly not disagreeing with some of the pedagogical implications of his approach. I’m merely posing the question, is that ALL education should do? This seems to be the heart of Mitra’s argument.  Mitra and his approach are incredibly influential in education today (as an example, he is cited in our reading for this module), but I can’t help but wonder if the pendulum has swung too far the other way.  The current emphasis on STEM education is also a product of this approach and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mitra’s educational background is entirely in science – not education, and Mitra is not the only one. There are a rising number of influential leaders in education who by training and profession are not educators, but come from the fields of business and science and technology. This is not to say they have nothing to offer, but it does impact how they think and they think education is for.  Education is more than a means to a job.  Anyone who has taught any length of time can tell you that teaching is about helping students acquire knowledge and attain skills that transcend what a job may ever require.  It is somewhat myopic to think that the purpose of what we do in our classrooms as teachers is merely to train future employees (or entrepreneurs) of some company.

The Whole Child and Civic Education


If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I’m a history and government teacher. My bias lies firmly in the humanities, and as a graduate of a liberal arts college I suppose I’m completely out of step with many popular ideas in current educational theory.  But there are others who argue that maybe we’re missing something with the current emphases in education.  I would argue that progressives in education going all the way back to John Dewey have argued for the education of the “whole child.”  The whole child education advocacy group ASCD argues that, “All students who have access to challenging and engaging academic programs are better prepared for further education, work, and civic life. These components must work together, not in isolation. That is the goal of whole child education.”  The addition of the “civic life” component is an important one.  It falls outside of work and education, but is equally important in our democracy – arguably, it has never been more important than now.

Harvard University conducted a panel in 2011 where the case for civic education was made quite clearly by several experts in the field .  Elizabeth Lynn, a senior research fellow at Valparaiso University defined civic education by saying, “It’s aiming at the development of a citizen. It’s the person on the school boards, community boards. It’s every person in civic life.” (Mason 2011). Civic life is not simply voting, but rather, participating in our democratic institutions at many levels.  Sadly, however, many of the opportunities for participation have disappeared over the years. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Learning and Engagement and research director at Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service said at the same conference, “There used to be a lot of institutions — labor unions, political parties, churches — that recruited you without asking you to be civically educated.  All these have been shattered.” There is “nothing that has that same function that turns you into a citizen outside of schools.” (Madison 2011). The decline of other social and cultural institutions that supported and reinforced democracy have left the schools at the forefront of civic education. Thus, we have a responsibility to instill these virtues regardless of prospective employment or future education.  Juan Carlos De Martin, a Berkman Faculty Fellow and director of the NEXA Center for Internet & Society at the Politecnico Di Torino, Torino, Italy gave an interesting, if not predictive, explanation of what happens when we fail in this regard. “If you know the facts, it allows you to ask deep questions about issues,” De Martin said. “We’ve seen in Italy someone like [recently resigned Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi come along and manipulate democracy.”  In 2011, there was no way that De Martin could envision the many ways our democracy today is under assault in this country, but responsibility for making our students “know the facts” and ask “deep questions” still lies with us.  I think it could be argued that our failure to do so has led, in part, to the current political climate in which we now find ourselves.  Ultimately, civics education is a crucial part of our lives.  Jonathan Zittrain, (professor at Harvard Law School (HLS), a professor of computer science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society) made the argument which brings us back to the whole child approach I started the section with, “Civics is not something you learn, it’s something you live” (Madison 2011).

The Jumbled “Brain-Attic”

Civic education is important, but it is not the end of the matter. I would humble propose that the great Sherlock Holmes (and by extension Sugra Mitra) is wrong. The jumbled “mind-attic” is the more desirable “mind-attic.” Perhaps “jumbled” isn’t the right word, but the point is still valid. Holmes and Mitra advocate for a mind devoted to training for a profession. Everything that is learned must be relevant to that end or it is discarded. To apply this to our 21st Century learning mindset, if it’s not relevant to future jobs or education, it is not worthy of being taught. That is the starting question of every effective learning activity according to the standard. But if we look beyond immediate employment or educational advancement, we can see the bigger picture – the whole child.  We can see that education must include social and civic elements as well.  And what about the arts?  Admittedly Holmes played the violin “well”, but that was a diversion for his strained mind. Very few of us ever “use” our art education directly in our jobs.  If we were given greater leeway in school to choose our content based on what we thought we were going to use in our jobs or in college, I doubt I would have taken most of my art classes – and I certainly wouldn’t have played baritone in 6th grade!  And the list goes on, why did I have to read Shakespeare? Why did I take algebra?  Why did I learn all those proofs in geometry?  What was I doing in a mine mining gypsum in for my college geology course? None of these things tied directly to my future career.  Yet I would argue they were all important.  They all gave me a bigger picture of the world that I use whenever I consider anything – when I look at a problem, when I think about who to vote for, how to hang a picture, how and what to teach my students.  If I was given more of a choice, I don’t know if I would have done any of those things.  Of course, I like to learn new things, so maybe I would have, but the fact remains that when we’re young, we often don’t know what we’re going to do – or think we do, but will end up doing something completely different.  I recently came across this video about how engineer Eiji Nakatsu solved a very difficult technical problem based on a lecture he heard about birds:

I sincerely doubt Mr. Nakatsu went to that lecture to with the intent of discovering a way to make bullet trains more quiet and fuel-efficient, but that was the result. He learned something for the sake of learning it and then applied it to his job. We don’t know what we’re going to end up using in our lives. How many lost opportunities will there be if we start specializing right away? If all of our learning is driven by career or college?

I began with one of my favorite fictional characters and I’ll end with one of my favorite real-life characters.  I had the opportunity a few years ago to see Mythbusters live and I got to hear Adam Savage speak about his life and educational experience.  I was surprised that he talked about his own education at such length and I was even more surprised at the thoughtfulness of his analysis. He talked about being a “generalist” and how he enjoyed learning many new skills, but only mastered them to a certain degree and then moved on learn something else.  At first he thought this was a defect – that he couldn’t follow anything through, but eventually he learned to embrace his varied skill set and parlayed that into into a career on television.  In 2012 Savage gave a commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College (a liberal arts college!) which touched on many of the same themes he said during the show:

I started to imagine about what I, a college dropout, might have to say to a large gathering of the opposite. I thought about why I was invited to be here. I mean, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  This is the first question adults love to ask kids isn’t it?: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid. To specialize so early.

Of course Sarah Lawrence is famous as a Liberal Arts college. Both in name and in politics. But I think that there’s actually a better term for the educational philosophy here. What you’ve gotten here is a foundational education. A foundation. A broad base. A platform from which to launch an idea, a building, a movement, a way of thinking, generational shift.

As a generalist and a Jack-of-all-trades, I agree completely with this paradigm. The broadness of my interests gives me an excellent perspective to do what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way…

When you’re an expert in one thing, your lens on the world is often limited to that of your field. This is, of course, illuminating in important ways, but it can also be restricting.

When solving a problem as a generalist (or to use a more arcane term: a polymath), I can compare the many fields I’ve dabbled in, their techniques, their philosophies, the ways in which they alter the lens through which I see things, and I can gain a literal perspective on what I’m doing.

This turned out to be the exact reason for my success in film special effects, and eventually on MythBusters.

Steve Martin has a lovely quote in his autobiography Born Standing Up, where he recounts being told at the beginning of his career: “you will eventually use everything you’ve ever learned.” This is entirely true.

Link to entire transcript: https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/news-events/commencement/archives/2012/adam-savage-commencement-keynote-address.html

Will we all use everything we’ve ever learned?  I find it to be a compelling argument. We never know what we’re going to use and we often don’t even know it when we’re using it. How many lessons have we subconsciously put into practice without even realizing it?  Of course, it’s impossible to quantify, but I’m certain the answer is more than zero. Savage is right. The specialization we expect at such a young age cannot be healthy.  We risk losing many foundational concepts if education only focuses on work or college.

I realize that my question for this post is a bit of a conceit.  I realize that the 21st Century learning question prompt probably meant more than skills and competencies linked to only college and careers…but it doesn’t say that.  And there are forces at work in academia who either through omission or intention reinforce the idea that education should be only about future careers or higher education. This is a mistake.  For the future of our country and the intellectual development of our society, education must be more. Our work doesn’t define who we our. It’s our shared humanity and maybe that’s what we need to learn more about.



ASCD (2012). “Making the Case for the Whole Child” Retrieved from: http://www.wholechildeducation.org/assets/content/mx-resources/WholeChild-MakingTheCase.pdf

Doyle, Arthur Conan (1887). A Study in Scarlet. USA: Quality Paperback Club 1994 edition.

Foltos, Les (2013).  Peer coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Mason, Edward (December 7, 2011). “The Import of Civic Education.” The Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/12/the-import-of-civic-education/

Peer-Ed (2015). Defining 21st Century Learning.  Accessed from: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1x6hkuLvVKoXb3FCOn_rOtMKDi08Ryr3gMKko_LyZSz0/edit

Savage, Adam (2012). Commencement Address at Sarah Lawrence College.  Retrieved from: https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/news-events/commencement/archives/2012/adam-savage-commencement-keynote-address.html