Friday, January 16, 2009

Facts vs. Knowledge

So, this is the part that I was really going to post, when I posted that other long one about having fun.

This is from the Gateway to the Great Books, "A Letter to the Reader," written by Robert M. Hutchins, in 1963 (my own emphasis added to the quote below).

(page 7)
"Reading can be boring... The only thing that keeps reading from being boring is learning, the discovery of possible worlds.

It is of course possible to make learning boring. What has given learning a bad name is textbooks. This is not ordinarily the fault of the writers or publishers. There is a widespread impression that knowledge is facts. If education is the acquisition of knowledge, it must consist of the memorization of facts. Therefore textbooks must consist largely of lists of facts to be memorized. Add to this that examinations, which are often tests of the facts memorized, hang over the heads of teachers, pupils, and textbook writers alike, and you will understand that it is almost inevitable that textbooks must be boring.

Whatever claims can be made for textbooks, nobody ever ventured to suggest that they were inspiring. They are said to be accurate, or complete, or up-to-date. But the most flamboyant publisher will seldom go so far as to assert that they are interesting."

(I'm going to skip over part here and come back to it in the next entry to keep this one about facts vs. knowledge.)

(page 9)
"The curse of facts, combined with the curse of adjustment (the part I skipped over), makes learning boring...
...we may some day understand the role of facts in education. Clearly facts are not knowledge. We do not have knowledge until we have organization. A possible world is an organization of ideas and facts. The facts are made intelligible only through the organization. A telephone book is knowledge only in the most limited sense. Such sense as it has it acquired through its alphabetical organization.

A good many years ago the President of Columbia University and the President of the American Statistical Association announced simultaneously, but independently, that so many new facts were being discovered that it would be necessary to prolong adolescence at least until age 45 in order to pour them all into the students. These scholars would have been nearer the mark if they had said that so many new facts were being discovered that it was useless for the layman to try to learn them. What the citizen, not the specialist, has to do is to formulate some general ideas into which any new facts that me be discovered can fit. The question for the citizen is not, what are the latest discoveries in science? In order to answer that question he would have to devote all his time to the scientific journals, of which there are now (in 1963) 36,000. The question for the citizen is, how do I understand the latest scientific discoveries? He can answer this question if he understands what science is about and what the leading ideas in it are.

When I was going to school, I do not remember hearing any teacher say what any subject was about. In general, I was taught to get some facts into my head so that I could pass an examination and go on to the next course. I never quite understood why I was supposed to take the courses I took rather than some other courses. All I knew was that they were required for graduation, or for my major, or as a prerequisite to something else.
Some subjects are at first sight less attractive than others, because they employ languages that are special and sometimes repulsive...
When I was a boy, my father happened to remark to me that he hadn't liked arithmetic when he was my age. I had to make it a matter of filial devotion not to like it either. The result is that I have been permitted to glory in the possession of an 'unmathematical mind.' I know now, when it is too late, that, if I had been given some faint glimpse of what mathematics was about, my father's example, powerful as it was, could not have prevented me from understanding the fascination of mathematics.

In other words, I needed a proper introduction... The world of mathematics and science becomes intelligible, and then exciting, when presented by the great men who in these papers transmit their own excitement to the uninitiated."

1 comment:

The Bec-ster said...

how to inspire my kids and teach them so they understand all this...that is the question~