Leif Schulman: Knowledge is not preserved without education

“Think about it, here we stand in our Sunday best queuing for the buffet under a mammoth!” This was exclaimed by a recipient of a dissertation scholarship, a male scholar of the humanities, to his equally fortunate neighbour at a celebration held at the Finnish Museum of Natural History by University of Helsinki Funds.

He was uttering his enthusiastic words beneath the trunk of Elmeri, our preserved African elephant. Undoubtedly, the young gentleman was a worthy scholarship recipient, and the research carried out with those funds will increase our shared knowledge, but he may have lacked in knowledge concerning the secrets of natural history. Otherwise he might have recalled that the woolly mammoth, which died out as the last Ice Age ended, was thick-haired, not bald and grey like its still very-much-alive elephant relative from Africa, of which a specimen stands in the lobby of the museum.

Another world: two years ago I was leading a field course for secondary school pupils from Espoo at the University of Helsinki research station located in the Taita Hills of Kenya. Mwadime Mjomba, the station manager, invited our group to visit his small farm in the lowlands. Slightly shocked by the extremely arid landscape, we wondered how farming was even possible there. “Nowadays it's easier, since some years ago we got elephant fences to protect our fields,” Mwadime explained. “Earlier we often had to witness how the animals appeared and destroyed our fields in an instant.” The giants roving the savannah were an even greater worry than the lack of rainfall. As, earlier that day, we had had the opportunity to admire elephants from just a few metres’ distance, this comment made the young Finns listen with a serious face and consider, slightly terrified, what it would be like to drive those giants away from the corn fields.

Many things that are self-evident to me, you or an African farmer are anything but to many others. Even though the collective knowledge of humanity is continuously growing, each new generation must be initiated into knowledge and understanding, as well as their distillate, education. If we were to stop accruing new knowledge today, the work of education would still never end. And we will not stop; rather, knowledge, or new necessary information on the state of the world, will only accumulate at an increasing rate. And that is all for the good, as the challenges faced by humanity are at present greater and more complex than perhaps ever.

Speaking of self-evident matters, we are quick to forget how science and research have provided us with almost all of our civilisation: our social system, food, health, housing, transport, clothing, technology... (for the rest, we have art to thank). It is difficult to imagine how we could have ended up with all this without autonomous universities, those peerless producers of new knowledge. That is why these days I consider science and universities, more than anything else, educators of new generations. Making the producers of knowledge and the champions of the thirst for knowledge – children and young people – come together through methods of diverse scientific education is the most valuable manifestation of the public impact of science and universities. Without this interaction, we will regress to troglodytes – and won’t even understand what that means.

#Researchmatters, #scienceeducationmatters, and therefore diverse and sufficient funding for science!

Leif Schulman is the Director of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, an independent insitute within the University of Helsinki responsible for the preservation, accumulation, and exhibition of the national natural history collections and for research and education relating to them.

In the series Science Advocates, people describe the significance of research and research-based teaching for themselves. Read the other instalments on the Researchmatters website (scroll down).