Sunday, July 10, 2011

Knowledge Dissemination

A while back I asked one of my frequent readers -- Mark Miller -- if he had any suggestions for possible posts. His reply was:

The only topic suggestion I can think of right now is how universities at the undergraduate level are focusing more on career training, and are getting away from their core mission to cultivate "good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, and steadiness of view,” and, “[the] force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect,” which would enable people to enter “with comparative ease into any subject of thought” and take up “with aptitude any science or profession.”

It’s a good issue for me to discuss right now since I’ve been delving into various works of cognitive sciences. My recent set of inquiries has been driven by a reoccurring interest in how our intelligence relates back to mathematics and computer science. The three all share some fundamental properties, but that is probably a topic best handled in my other blog The Programmer’s Paradox. I’ll get around to it someday, but I’ve got much more to learn and digest before I can discuss it reasonably.

In terms of how we learn, I’m probably not a good example. I struggled with boredom all through high-school and it wasn’t until I got past ‘introductory’ level courses in university that I became engaged. For computer related issues I prefer to learn on my own, but for theoretical ones a good lecturer often leaves a more lasting impression.

I definitely agree with Mark that the role of university should be towards teaching people how to think clearly and to inspire a need to continually learn throughout our lives. A higher, more theoretical curriculum helps to give us a stronger set of skills that are transferable as the state of the world changes underneath. A necessity in any field that is still growing and changing.

I remember one friend being disappointed with a more theoretical curriculum in university, and so choose to change to a more applied program at a college. In the short term it helped his job prospects, but as time wore on it worked against him. Much of what he learned in college quickly became obsolete and since he wasn’t taught the skills necessary to absorb the changes quickly, he soon fell behind.

Applied knowledge may be more immediately useful, but we have seen great advances in our knowledge and technologies, particularly with computers. To be able to keep up with these changes one needs to understand the high-level ideas that drive the practical applications. Expertise in a very limited, specific area is great, but we no longer expect that any such domains will remain static for long. We’ve moved into a period of humanity were we have more time and more people available to focus on extending what we know. We have better tools and can disseminate our understandings widely to larger audiences. All of this means that what is applied knowledge today, runs a real danger of being obsolete tomorrow. Things change quickly.

Internally I believe we form models of the world around us. Many of them often contradictory. Sometimes we are able to bring these together, but generally they just litter our brains with disjoint fragments. Getting a good theoretical foundation, however gives us a solid place to hang our applied understandings. It also makes it easier to generalize our experiences, or to creatively link related ideas.

Knowledge is only such if it changes the way we react to the world around us. That is, if you memorize a book of facts, it is only useful if you can do something practical with them. They might help you in a game of trivial pursuit or provide an interesting conversation in quieter moments, but unless they alter your behavior with respect to being able to accomplish something specific, they remain as facts, not knowledge.

In some sense it doesn’t matter what the facts are, it only matters in how they’ve changed your thinking patterns. One thing that was clear from my university experiences was that it forced me to put some structure over how I think. If nothing else, being able to decompose problems into their basic elements and then reassemble them into something coherent is a powerful lesson learned from the more abstract, difficult disciplines like pure mathematics. When that structure has been opaquely hidden in the incoming facts, it is harder to realize its importance and to learn deeply from it. Understanding the structure is as important as understanding the facts themselves.

Our long and distinguished history of learning perhaps started when our ancestors began messing with fire. No doubt it went from being a dangerous and mysterious substance to a ‘technology’ that they could utilize. As this understanding evolved and spread, we became increasingly able to shape the world around us. As we added further ancient technologies to our roster -- clothes, housing, farming, etc. -- we built up higher levels of our internal models and increased our abilities to pass them on from generation to generation. This trend towards manipulating the world around us has increased in peaks and valleys over the millennia. And as it has grown, to continue being able to pass it down, we’ve had to abstract it to higher and higher levels. It would be too much to comprehend if we just listed out every conceivable circumstance, fact or special case. Theory, generalization and abstraction are what have allowed us to continue this intellectual growth, accelerating as we go, to each next technology.

So in a long-term perspective, not only is it important that a significant portion of our population learn first at a higher level, but is is also very important that we continually abstract farther up the ladder with each new generation. Specialization is necessary given how much we currently know as a species and how deep it goes, but the more we can bring diverse fields together, the better we can creatively find the patterns that apply to the whole. We must continually go higher towards a more advanced model of the world around us. The details are always important, but fitting them into the overall context is necessary to be able to go beyond them. This construction of vastly superior mental models has been such a long and slow process, often extending over many generations, that few people perceive it or its course. We often assume our knowledge is just a smooth linear process from our ancient perspectives, but it actually ebbs and flows across generations, evolving as it goes. If we are to improve the lives of future generations then we have to increasingly learn how to pass on such a massive volume in bite-sized abstract chunks that are easily digestible. That process, which has been ongoing since our first tinkering with fire, is vital for our species to continue the path it has embarked upon.

So, not only is it better for our higher institutions to focus on teaching more generalized curriculum, it is also a necessity for our species to continue to grow and thrive. We need to teach more people how to learn, and how to abstract what they experience into coherent understandable ideas that can then be disseminated. It’s a continual process.

It is also easy to see that in some of the more hostile parts of our world today, a key ingredient in the turmoil is the lack of education. Civilization clearly depends on insuring that people don’t just blindly follow the strong, mean or confident. To keep things from spiraling out of control there has to be a large enough population that can look beyond what they are told to what really lies beneath. An uneducated population is easy to corral, while an educated one can often see through the propaganda. Education, in this sense, is often see as an obstacle to control. And control is what underlies power. The more control you have over the masses, the more power you have acquired. Thus powerful people often seek to constrain education, since it is in their best interests.

Another factor that is growing in importance is the commercialization of knowledge. With the invention of computer technologies, mediums like the Internet make it easy to quickly access facts, but as already stated, facts are not knowledge. The Internet simply parrots what we’ve typed in, without being able to build on this base. The ready availability of cheap facts drives a lot of people to mistake this for a genuine understanding, but also puts pressure on academic institutions to compete. If you can just skim it quickly on the Internet, why spend any effort really trying to absorb it in an expensive course? This transformation of course, will cause more and more problems where people act on too shallow of an understanding. They may have access to a larger array of facts than ever before, but failing to understand the overall context or the depth will always allow for unexpected side effects. Thus we’ll see more instances where the people in charge will horribly oversimplify the situation and thus make it far worse, not better. A trend that will no doubt last a few generations.

All in all, it is better for both the individuals and society to teach higher-level skills. Education times will be longer of course, but we need knowledge in order to be able to adapt quickly to the world around us. As we create a more complex world, we’ll need to adapt to it at a faster rate. Skills that teach better learning, thinking and communicating capabilities are considerably more important than just limited applied knowledge. We need to learn to learn before we can successfully master learning about our shifting environment.