Friday, October 5, 2012

The Limits of Our Knowledge (Otherwise Known as Learning)

I believe that most people approach learning in one of two ways.

1. They approach learning as a way to bring more facts, figures, information, quotes, rhetoric, and theories to what they already profess to know.

2. They approach learning as a way to understand better the fact, figures, information, quotes, rhetoric, and theories to what they recognize they do not know.

Perhaps this is simplistic, and I hope not setting up a straw man argument, but I feel that the second method is much preferred, and in fact is a necessary understanding, of learning. 

The first way approaches learning as something we use to our own ends, but what prevents these ends from being dishonest or just simply incorrect/wrong? If I already know the answer, then what I am simply doing is gathering more and more data to building scaffolding on what I claim to know. It opens up the possibility, or rather likelihood, that I will pick and choose what information I claim to support. This form of learning is one that is not innovative, as asking the "why" question which forces us to think about our presuppositions is not often there. I think that a lot of us tend to learn in this mode. It is comfortable and practical, but not innovative. 

I would categorize this approach with only looking at whether or not what you are learning is practical or applicable in your daily life. Math, beyond the basic elements of arithmetic and geometry, would easily fall outside of this realm for most people. It also reaches other subjects, such as history. For instance, when we think about the founding of United States, many people already know something about the "founding fathers" as to their religion or intentions, and then highlight only those elements of history which support their belief. 

Yet, continuing to describe the birth of our Nation, using the second approach, we can learn from the entirety of the research and understanding. Were some of these founder's Christian, and others not? Can we wade through what we even mean by making a claim as to the consensus one way or another? Truly, I'm not taking a side on this particular debate, my point is that the debate itself is misguided. Research, development, and critical thinking all truly have their roots in the second question above, which assumes that we do not know something, and want to find out. How do we learn about the founding of our country? 

We can read books, sit in history classes, get a degree, tour historic sites and listen to those who have dedicated their lives to learning about the subject, and even set out to look at source material as well. 

But in doing so we must engage with all the data and material if we are going to remain intellectually honest with ourselves.

Socrates Says "Education is the kindling of a flame,
not the filling of a vessel." (Oops, not this Socrates)
If we only choose to listen to certain sides of the issue, highlight only some source material and ignore other, then we create a dishonesty within our own thought which can lead us back towards the first approach. Do we have biases, opinions, or even hopes, that a certain "thing" is true? Absolutely, but we must also recognize that we might also be wrong on the matter. It is good to not have an opinion on something we don't know. (A side note - could you imagine how much this would change the way politics is done...if Presidential candidates approached the problems of our day not with solutions based on ideology, but on learning to wade through the problems...we'd have presidential discussions, not debates! Also, I'm sure this is happening behind the scenes by people in both parties...so why do we stay with soundbites and stupid rhetoric in the headlines? Enough of that tangent.)

Essentially, why the second approach is preferable is that in it is intellectual honesty that is found in examining our own lives and understanding our own limitations. None of us know everything, not even about a single subject. Daily life is filled with moments where we learn and grow. Circumstances present new and different experiences in which we must be able to critically think. This requires learning. The Mars rover Curiosity would never be on Mars at this time if we did not recognize we had much to learn about Mars, our galaxy, the universe, space travel, and however many other disciplines were involved in making this happen. 

My point is that we have to know the limits of our knowledge in order to learn, do we not? 

Are we able to hear new information, explore differing and sometimes contradicting theories, and  allow the totality of the evidence to guide us? Or do we assume we know the answers, or the ideology, and simply try to support it?

There is a difference, even if we tend to lean towards one aspect or theory, one belief set or policy, than others. This difference is the humility and the acknowledgement that the evidence, the learning, has led you, has led me, to this point. Yet, we never end the learning endeavor, and so we always need to be able to revisit these topics and allow ourselves to weigh in on where we stand.

I can tell you I know of at least five different topics on which my views have adapted and grown over time. In all of them, I had to read, listen, and learn to varying ideas, concepts, and new information.

Lets be honest with ourselves and have a posture of learning that acknowledges we don't know it all. I think Socrates sums up this idea well:
"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel."

Socrates also launches us from knowledge to wisdom (information to practice?)
"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."


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