Sunday, September 5, 2010

Information vs. Knowledge

My remedial writers often tell me that they love to write for themselves, about themselves; they love to write poetry, journals, short stories, and other forms of writing that expresses how they feel. As soon as they "have" to write for school, they hate it. The problem, then, is not that they can't write, but they have nothing to write about. The challenge, for me, is to show them first that emotions are not enough and then that what they should be striving for in order to make writing easier is knowledge. 

I want to go back to the Platonic dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias on the nature of the sophists. Socrates admits to knowing the answer/conclusion to his line of questioning, but continues to question Gorgias for the benefit of Gorgias and all those listening. What is that benefit? Why not just tell everyone the answer and save us the trouble of listening to/reading the seemingly repetitive and mundane line of questioning?

This is at the heart of the Socratic Method, repeatedly inquiring, asking, refuting, and restating more precisely the same idea until a real conclusion is drawn. It is hard, painstaking work, often leading in directions that you didn't expect or even like. It is rooted, for me, in a quest for knowledge. I prefer the word to using what Socrates would use (truth, right) because in our postmodern world, those terms have been largely discredited, or at least pushed aside. But at the end of the day, I find myself trying to get my students to understand that they should be inquiring, rather than simply remembering information.

Information is something that we accept on faith. Someone tells us the information and we either accept it or do not, rarely because we did much thinking about it to begin with. Information is easy; we assume someone else has done the hard work for us. And we like easy. I see it already in my three-year-old daughter. "Just tell me, mom," she begs me when faced with a particular challenge that she knows I can easily solve. I refuse to tell her because I want to her to do the work to figure it out. How many students sit in class, having only half-heartedly done the homework or readings, knowing that the teacher will simply give them the answer, and simply wait for it, write it down, then forget the moment after the exam? 

University (or education more generally) is not about the piece of paper you get after jumping through a prescribed number of hoops; it about the next 50+ years of your life. Information is an important part of building knowledge; for example, you need to know the basics of the structure of the US government in order to build a deeper knowledge of how the government works. You also need skills, such as basic literacy (traditional or otherwise), to help acquire both information and knowledge. But at the end of the day, knowledge comes from hard work, work that isn't always fun in the moment, but deeply satisfying once attained. It also, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, never ends. If you learn how to acquire knowledge in all its forms while you are in school, then you will be prepared for whatever life happens to throw at you.

I understand that I need to practice what I preach, which is why my students will eventually be designing their own curriculum for a course of their choosing or creation, complete with a justification of content and assignments therein. I will give them some information on different theories or philosophies of education, show them how to do research in order to supplement what we have already read and discussed, but at the end of the day, they need to take what I provided for them and create their own knowledge. They'll never be at a loss for words again.


1 comment:

  1. I teach in highschool and most of my students take information for granted "Information is something that we accept on faith. Someone tells us the information and we either accept it or do not, rarely because we did much thinking about it to begin with. Information is easy; we assume someone else has done the hard work for us. And we like easy." got me thinking because in the information era, we're often very uninformed. How can we push our students to validate whatever they read?
    (Sorry about my english, I'm mexican and haven't practiced in a while)

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