Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why do we learn what we learn?

There is a question that has been nagging me for awhile. It pops its head up any time I see a particularly ugly or contentious debate or comment section. The question does not involve visceral reactions, but more with the actual knowledge that forms our basis for the arguments.

Why do we learn what we learn?

I am sure there are many facets to attempting to answer this question: developmental psychology, physiology, worldview, cultural influences, morality, and even ethics. For now, however, I would rather clear up the question itself.

None of us do not learn. We could not operate daily without learning.

Have you ever longed for a new cell phone, only to get it and then are frustrated with how it is different than your previous one? You have to learn how the new phone operates differently than the old one. For some, this is fun while others it borders on torture.

We read, we write, we watch movies, and of course we work. During my stint as a Project Engineer I was saw the integration of learning practically and theoretically. Designs and plans for the water treatment plant had to be constructed, but they also had to be adapted and adjusted to fit the unforeseen unique situations that occurred in construction. Even though the superintendents would say architects and engineers were idiots they also knew they needed blueprints. Reinforced concrete required a certain way of being made depending on its intended use and the forces being exerted on it. Yet it still had to be constructed by workers who had learned an entirely different set of skills. It all came together in a finished product.

Such is life. We all learn towards both practical and theoretical means. Returning to the question, an element of this is why do many devalue the other ways people learn? Why is education looked down on by many who deem it "impractical?" Its just a different focus of learning, is it not?

On to a second point, one that is best illustrated by the arguments and debates I mentioned above. Not all learning is hard science or math. Much of learning is theory, morality, ethics, and subjected to a certain way of thought. Actually, even science is debated!

Let me illustrate this point in a religious context. There are many different Christian denominations and traditions that hold to proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. (Which personally I agree with!) Yet, they define what this means differently. That is why there are so many different denominations and traditions! Differences of opinion and theories of doctrines exist. There is Calvinism and Arminianism.

I know both Calvinists and Arminians. I can affirm that members of both groups are seeking God with their entire beings - mind, heart, body, and soul. Yet their conclusions are different. Or, in more spiritual terms, the truths God has revealed to them about Himself and His purposes are often nuanced differently. I do not believe that some are being faithful and others unfaithful simply because of these conclusions.

To switch gears slightly, hot-button topics or controversial subjects are the realm in which the question is most readily seen.


Why do we learn what we learn?


What leads some people to a solution on one side of an argument while other people find the solution in another way?

Why do many books portray the trains of thought and then present a third option?

More troubling to me is why does it often seem people will only learn from writers, experts, news networks, and pastors who proclaim what they already believe?

I see this in the Climate Change discussion. Many people are already set that humans have some responsibility, while others are set that they do not. Then, they will find, highlight, and argue their position on those scientific studies, rhetoric, or other facts which support their preexisting belief.

There is a term I ran into a couple of years ago which address the phenomenon. It is called Epistemic Closure (or Deductive Closure). Read the link for a detailed explanation! Essentially, its application is that many people feel that because they already know something, they also know the consequences that this held knowledge holds.

Returning to climate change, epistemic closure are the people that already KNOW it is or is not happening and thus selectively learn, support, and teach out of this knowledge. Particularly, this applies not to the people who are doing the research for their knowledge, but for people whose field is in other things but holds deeply their knowledge. A scientist who has been doing research for 30 years on changes in climate might know a lot more about whether humans are or are not impacting climate change - this is not epistemic closure. Rather, the people who read the findings of 30 years of work and then either hold it up as a beacon of proof for their already held belief or dismiss it as erroneous or tainted, are often caught up in epistemic closure.

They already know what they know, and so only those arguments and studies which support what they know are heeded while the other discredited. (Perhaps not that simply put in their own mind, but it is true)

Is there anything we can do about epistemic closure? Can we hold ourselves open to uncertainty until adequate research and reason have led us to a conclusion and even then still hold the possibility for change?


Why do we learn what we learn?

I take this question to heart. As I mentioned, its been nagging at me for the past couple of years now. I have seen many people, myself included, learn and grow. Sometimes we grow closer together in thought on a subject, while other times this grows apart as differing theories shape our beliefs. 

All education is about such learning, which presupposes theories within the framework of education. If it is a different framework, people lament or condemn the teaching. How many people have heard of worthlessness of graduate work or it elitism? Conversely, what about the uneducated masses or ignorant?

I am positive I do not have an answer to this question. All I know is that it bothers me. I believe God has called me to be a peacemaker, someone who helps to unify. Yet I have learned (ironic?) that unity does not me assimilation of all people to one and only one thought. We do not know everything, although we all seek knowledge in one form or another. 

Are we open to changing our minds or admitting we are wrong? 

Can we admit that some things take faith without it becoming a reaction against learning something that differs from what we currently know? 

Wisdom. Perhaps this is the solution. 

Wisdom involves the thoughtful application of knowledge.

Wisdom listens. 

Wisdom sees both sides. 

Wisdom is able to illuminate the real issues at hand. 

Wisdom is humble, acknowledging that knowledge is limited in this lifetime.

Wisdom understands that something I know is wrong...guaranteed. I just do not know what it is.

Wisdom is to be sought more than knowledge.

Wisdom helps resolve conflict and differences.

Wisdom understands balance, justice, and mercy.

Can we bring wisdom back into the forefront of our society? Can we stop formulating more and more complex thought patterns and then claiming that only those who believe and do exactly this are the solution to all of our problems, whether religious, political, economic, or relational? 

Why do we learn what we learn?

I still ponder this question. But I know I must submit myself to trying live wisely.

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