Monday, 25 February 2008

Knowledge Loses Its Luster

Here in the UK, the sunday papers tend to be a much of a muchness, preferring quantity over quality. An unending volume of supplements and junk inserts hardly send out the right environmental message. However there is one virtuously slim insert that comes with The Observer (the sunday sister publication to The Guardian) which I have been consistently impressed with - and that is The New York Times. The perspective is refreshing and reminds me that where ever we are in the world we tend to see things through a peculiarly regional lens. The internet is clearly changing this – I can access numerous feeds that originate from all over the planet and that certainly helps me achieve a different sort of perspective than I would otherwise have with just my local media.

So, notwithstanding Marc Andreessen's (of Netscape fame) recently announced "death watch" campaign against print media, the NYT in particular, I have valued the highly edited version I get to see. This week I've been struck by the harmonious resonance of several short reports which I'll post on over the coming days. Here's the first:

In the US Knowledge Loses Its Luster
Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason" has observed a growing generalised hostility to knowledge. Citing the example of Kellie Pickler failing to know that Hungary is a country in Europe instead believing Europe itself to be one country, Jacoby senses that there are two worrying trends of anti-intellectualism (the belief that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism (the idea that "there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion").

In short, people just don't think that this knowledge matters. In 2006 a poll found that nearly half of 18-24 year olds thought it unimportant to know where countries in the news are located. Only 23% could locate Iraq, Iran and Israel despite dominating the news and political agenda over recent years.

My immediate reaction is to defend these young Americans as I would say that not many Europeans could place many of the states that make up the US. And perhaps more importantly, what awareness do we all really have of the rapidly growing economies of India and China outside of a few major cities?

Jacoby partly blames a failing education system saying "although people are going to school more and more years, there is no evidence they know more".

This is interesting as maybe it's not as important to know these facts when you can look it up at the point of need, even fly in on a specific place in the world with Google Earth. When I need to know, I can easily get to the answer. Indeed, if you define learning as traditional education, then may be too much is a dangerous thing in this new networked, globalised world we live in.

The second trend of anti-rationalism is perhaps more worrying. However in a world which is changing at an ever increasing pace, in many respects the concept of fact being a static concept begins to weaken. What you knew to be true yesterday may not be true today. With such shifting sands, it's no wonder that evaluating the prevailing opinion is a more practical skill than vainly holding onto facts that may be irrelevant before you get a chance to apply it.

So what do you think? Does knowledge matter? Are these trends of real concern?


Dan said...

The problem seems to be the balance - yes, we can look anything up that we need to know, more or less when we need it, but that is not the same as simply having enough knowledge "on board" to make sense of events around us.

Without having context - for example knowing something of the difference between Sunni and Shia, or that Muslims are worshipping the same god as Jews and Christians - then it is more or less impossible to get a sense of what is going on.

You cite a couple of examples, but these aren't anything new - I remember the cover of an American snowboarding magazine 10 years ago with the headline "Europe - a strange country", a misconception that the article didn't seem to clear up. Even further back, I was amazed that half of my GCSE Geography class couldn't name a couple of countries on the Pacific Ocean (or identify it on a map even!)

I find this utterly baffling, but then education only has enough space to teach a finite amount, so focusing, as it alleges it does, on skills that last, rather than specific facts, seems sensible. But if they can't fire up the desire to learn, then getting a sense of context is nigh on impossible.

Lars Hyland said...

You're right Dan - the examples used are nothing new - they came from the article that triggered the post.

What I'm interested in are the trends being identified. That people were not even concerned about not knowing these things. And then after that not distinguishing between fact and opinion, in fact valuing the latter more.

Anonymous said...

what really is knowledge? is it the packaged information that universities sell to people? or is it the tacit knowing we develop over our years of experience? is it more a question of why some people choose not to develop their skills, and therefore the new knowledge they would gain in the process?
why are people so disengaged from the world? why are they not curious?

i have so many questions about 'knowledge' and human nature..