Home > history, politics > Knowledge is a quest

Knowledge is a quest

When I began striving to speak Politics late last year, I had the notion that “politics” was a separate subject distinct from all others. The first few months, then, it was very easy to practice; everything I read was new to me and fairly easily summarized, and so I wrote almost daily.

After a few months, I started feeling like politics wasn’t really separate or distinct from anything else. Rather, it was a part of everything, and everything was a part of it. The “politics” books on my bookshelf weren’t on separate, discrete topics, but on different aspects of an interconnected everything I could only barely fathom and definitely could not articulate. The books’ covers only created an illusion of disconnectedness between the books themselves, as well as everything they attempted to represent.


The beginning

I found it much harder to write about politics once I discerned politics wasn’t an isolated body of knowledge. Before, I’d thought politics was one thread running through a quilt. After I saw that politics was made of many subjects, moments, feelings, and experiences, I despaired of distinguishing what was related and what wasn’t, because each thread within the quilt contained elements of different subjects.

Where would I start, and where would I leave off? I had no idea, but that didn’t seem like a good reason to stop. If I persevered, I might get better at seeing which threads ran closest together, and someday expressing those connections with any clarity.

Several times recently, I’ve written about former NYU professor Neil Postman. Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was required reading for three of my husband’s American Studies courses at Yale. As I began my quest for understanding, Anthony told me I’d really appreciate the book.

The more Postman I read, the more I’m grateful Anthony had that insight months back. Beyond that, I’m grateful he was then able to pick up a copy of the book at a book sale a few weeks back. In Postman, I found expressed–wryly, with passion, compassion, and humor–the idea that “subjects” were a strange abstraction, and probably not the best way to organize learning. I found appreciation for questions over answers, quests over destinations, and the myriad ways history illuminates the future, particularly with regard to technology.

Since reading Amusing Ourselves to Death, I’ve finished Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, The Disappearance of Childhood, and, yesterday, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve our Future. Reading Postman feels like listening to a well versed friend consider life, the universe, and everything over a campfire.

Night talk has always felt different than day talk to me, with less urgency and distraction. Night was always my favorite time to talk to my sister, Rachael, with whom I often shared a room during childhood. As I read Postman’s works, I feel less like I am reading someone’s dictates and more like I’m at summer camp with Rache, experiencing worlds of nighttime reflection and connection beyond anything we could share in even bedroom night talk.

The last chapter of Building a Bridge to the 18th Century blew my mind. As I listened to Postman reflecting on education with neither urgency nor the expectation I agree with his every sentiment, I felt ebullient. He spoke to questions I’ve had for ages, but assumed I’d never find anything like answers for.

Longtime readers of my former blog will recall how aggravated grammar and spelling policing make me. I’ve wondered, of all the things to learn in the world, why is that supposed to be most important? Why is that the thing worth policing? Who made you an arbiter of such things anyway, imparting upon you the freedom to ignore magnificent content to show your, what, mastery of something as comparatively superfluous as grammar?

These questions relate to concerns I expressed in “What report cards can’t report.” There, I concluded that “[n]o piece of paper–none–could ever tell me more about [Li’l D, my] little boy than what I already see when I watch him interacting not with scissors, paper, or glue, but with the vast and glorious wonderland that is this world.”


From that 2013 post

I revisited these concerns with Li’l D’s first grade teacher last year. Near the end of the year, she expressed mild concern with a couple of areas as Li’l D moved toward second grade. I told her I appreciated her concerns, but that I didn’t share them.

I clarified that I didn’t mean to belittle her concerns or the things she measured. Instead, I explained, I felt people lean too heavily on measuring what can be measured, even when that’s possibly the least important or relevant to, well, anything.

I explained that I want to see two things grow in Li’l D as he proceeds through his mandatory education: critical thinking and compassion. Since I’d seen both of those grow in leaps and bounds his first grade year, I was satisfied with his first grade adventure for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with the measurements sought by U.S. education bureaucrats.

When Li’l D began second grade, my husband and I emphasized for him what we do value. We weren’t greatly concerned with his grades, we told him, but with his efforts and questions. We’d be far more interested in seeing what he put in and put together himself than on letters printed on one sheet of paper at the end of any term.

Postman, bless him, spoke directly to all of this as we gathered around a campfire that only looked like a book on what thinkers of the 18th century can teach those in the 21st:

Twenty-three hundred years ago, educators devised a pattern of instruction whose purpose was to help students defend themselves against both the seductions of eloquence and the appeals of nonsense. The pattern was formalized in the Middle Ages, and came to be known as The Trivium. It included logic, rhetoric, and grammar. This tradition survives among modern American educators in a truncated form: They teach the one subject among the three–grammar–that is the least potent, the least able to help students do what we call critical thinking.

He explained that there’s “a clear and positive relationship between the study of semantics and critical thinking [that] is well established in the research literature.” Words not only express our perceptions, but shape them, so that people would be well served to have critical awareness not only of grammar, but of the deeper linguistic and cognitive complexities obscured by focus on grammar:

These ideas–that people create meanings by the names they use, and that we are free to reject the names that are given (whether in the realm of politics, commerce, or religion)–are central to language education, and are one’s principal source of defense against a culture in which propaganda is the largest industry. 

It isn’t exactly accidental that the U.S. educational program emphasizes the most limited form of learning, favoring teacher-asked questions easily answered while quietly discouraging more complicated, learner-asked questions:

What happens, of course, is that students not only learn “history,” “definitions,” and “facts” (which Bloom and Hirsch want them to learn) but also learn where these things come from and why (which Bloom and Hirsch don’t care about). Such learning is at the heart of reasoning and its product, skepticism. Do we dare do such a thing? Have you heard anyone talk about this? The president, the secretary of education, a school superintendent? They want our students to be answer-givers, not question-askers. They want students to be believers, not skeptics. They want to measure the quantity of answers, not the quality of the questions (which, in any case, is probably not measurable).

Neither is it coincidence, as he and Charles Weingartner explore further in their 1969 Teaching as a Subversive Activity, that subjects are artificially segmented from each other, or that “history” is taught as a separate class instead of intrinsic to every so-called subject. As reflected here over the campfire,

I regard history as the single most important idea for our youth to take with them into the future. I call it an idea rather than a subject because every subject has a history, and its history is an integral part of the subject. History, we might say, is a meta-subject. No one can claim adequate knowledge of a subject unless one knows how such knowledge came to be. I would, of course, favor “history” courses (let us say, in American history), although I have always thought such courses ought to be called “histories” so that our youth would understand that what once happened has been seen from different points of view, by different people, each with a different story to tell.

Exposed to so much insight and even wisdom over this heart-felt campfire, it’s hard to pluck a few statements out of the air and present them absent their full, vibrant context. But it’s important to me, too, because of how these particular statements intersect with a journey I set out on several months ago. As I wrote in my first entry on this blog,

The last few months, I’ve tried to grow my political vocabulary by speaking where I once feared to speak, certain I didn’t have enough credentials to have anything worth saying.

I failed to appreciate that the only way to learn to express myself–and to build my ability to see clearly enough to do so–was to practice. To work on finding words for the patterns I witnessed, and to begin expressing them with the understanding I’d likely get it wrong. Often.

That’s part of learning.

I’m only now really beginning to understand how much I’ve learned on my journey to date. But there’s something I would’ve missed had I not been reading Postman: the affirmation that knowledge is a journey, not a destination.

no mistakes.png

Through college and even law school, I (mis)understood knowledge as a destination. In each case, the destination was some knowable, provable fact, capable of being marked in a multiple-choice bubble or put down in a paragraph or two. I was more concerned with letter grades at the end of any given course than what I actually learned within it, or how I might integrate it into my life after final exams were finished.

I began learning in earnest when a woman named Tara hired me to negotiate software contracts more than a decade ago. Answers weren’t absolute and gradable within contracts, but arrived at by consensus of individual actors in individual negotiations. Context and characters mattered, so that there wasn’t one right answer across contracts. In each case, what was important was finding what worked there.

In almost every chapter I read now, Postman or otherwise, I find reason to rejoice. I had the choice to keep standing where I was, in The Field of Probably Adequate Knowledge, or to move on and see if there was more I was missing beyond its borders.

I chose to explore, which left me heartsick, anxious, and overwhelmed at first, since my explorations led me to grim truths I’d never before faced full on. I’d seen them scampering in my periphery, sure, but I’d never tried to look them full on.

When I did, I thought I might break. That’s not an exaggeration; I felt my world rippling.

I didn’t break, though, and I kept right on looking.

From the outside, it might look boring, dry, or painful to spend so much time immersed in old books and not-really-new reflections. Truly, it’s anything but! As I’ve gotten over the initial shock of understanding that I’d previously misunderstood virtually everything, I’ve had cause to celebrate coming to see more clearly what is going on around me.

Before, I chose not to see, and didn’t even realize I was making a choice. This was so despite my oft-stated commitment to seeing what really is, and to, thereby, not perpetuate violence by my denial.

There is still so much I don’t know and might never know. I’m less concerned now by what all is unknowable than by working to know more of what is knowable about this world. What’s increasingly important to me is that there’s still so much to see, if I keep looking. There’s still so much to learn!

I hope I have many decades left to continue this wonder-filled knowledge quest.

[Orwell] concluded that Shaw was right [that “we are more gullible and superstitious today than people were in the Middle Ages]: that most of his scientific beliefs rested solely on the authority of scientists. In other words, most students have no idea why Copernicus is to be preferred over Ptolemy. If they know of Ptolemy at all, they know that he was “wrong” and Copernicus was “right,” but only because their teacher or textbook says so. This way of believing is what scientists regard as dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the exact opposite of scientific belief.

Ptolemaic astronomy may be a refuted scientific theory but, for that reason, it is useful in helping students to see that knowledge is a quest, not a commodity, that what we know comes out of what we once thought we knew; and that what we will know in the future may make hash of what we now believe.

This 4/2/17 post transferred from L2SP 6/1/17

  1. June 1, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    I am frequently (and simultaneously) appalled at how little I know, and delighted at how much there is to learn.
    A lifelong quest I will never conquer.
    We need questioners – probably even more than we need answers.

  2. June 2, 2017 at 5:05 am

    Great post!

  1. June 3, 2017 at 7:55 am
  2. June 4, 2017 at 8:40 am
  3. June 17, 2017 at 8:13 am
  4. July 21, 2017 at 4:13 pm
  5. August 26, 2017 at 5:38 am
  6. August 26, 2017 at 7:03 am

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