The future, according to Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra blogged earlier today six years ago (!) that “The future is not in learning“; the future lies, instead, in “unlearning.”  This sounds awfully like another example of the geek anti-intellectualism that I love to hate; we’ll see about that.  Since that’s how the post comes across–beginning with the title–it has already gotten a lot of attention.  Geeks just love to hear that, in the future, they won’t have to learn things.  They just love to talk about how they’ll be able to upload their memories to the Internet, how Internet search makes memorization a waste of time, how they just can’t make themselves read books anymore, how the intellectual authority of experts is passe, and how the liberal arts and college generally are a waste of time.  For all the world it seems they really hate learning.  So when Kathy Sierra says that the future is not in learning, they start salivating.

In fact, Sierra’s main message is excellent, one that is not at all anti-intellectual.  She’s saying that since the times they are a-changin’ so much, we have to roll with them faster and faster, as change accelerates.  This is itself very old news, but it’s always nice to be reminded of such perennial wisdom.

Too bad that, as a premise, it hardly supports the post’s dramatic title or its opening pseudo-historical timeline.  Her timeline asserts that in the 1970s, the question was (somehow–who knows what this means?) “how well can you learn?”  In the 1990s, it was “how fast and how much can you learn?”  But today we have evolved!  Now it’s about how quickly you can unlearn!

If we take the latter claim in any general sense, the argument is fallacious, of course.  It is true that in the 1970s education theorists talked a lot about how well we learn; they still talk about that.  It’s also true that there was a movement to accelerate education, especially among young children, which had its height in the 1990s and in the heyday of NCLB.  But when Kathy Sierra next points out the homey, perfectly old-fashioned truth that we must change our habits to keep up with the times, she is changing the subject.  The following argument contains a fallacy:

1. We should unlearn habits that do not conform to new developments.
2. New developments are now coming fast and furious.
3. Therefore, the important new virtue is not learning, but unlearning.

The premises (1 and 2) do not support the sweeping conclusion (3).  I do not contradict myself when I maintain that we should still learn quickly and a lot (allegedly the “1990s” virtue–I thought it was an ancient virtue, but maybe that’s just me), even while maintaining that we should change our habits as they become outdated.  The premises do support a much more modest conclusion, that being fast and flexible in how we change our habits is a new virtue.  But to say so entails neither that “the future is unlearning, generally” nor that “the future is not learning, generally.”  So this is a plain old logical fallacy.  I leave as an exercise to the reader to name the fallacy.

Lest I be accused of misconstruing Kathy Sierra, let me add this.  I know that she spends most of her post explaining how we should unlearn certain outdated habits.  I agree that this is excellent and timely advice.  But that does not stop her from titling her post “The future is not in learning…” and contrasting the new virtue of “how fast you can unlearn” with the old virtues of “how well you can learn” and “how fast and how much you can learn.”  But the fact of the matter is that unlearning outdated habits is a very, very different kind of learning (or unlearning) from learning facts.

Besides, even if you say that what we should unlearn is certain facts, the facts tend to be about narrow, practical, and necessarily changeable fields, viz., technology and business.  Just because technology and business are changing quickly, that doesn’t mean a lot of our knowledge about other topics is becoming uselessly outdated.  If that’s the argument, it too is obviously fallacious.

So does Kathy Sierra deserve to be called an “anti-intellectual” for this argument?  Well, on the one hand, one can’t take her argument at all seriously as an argument against “learning.”  On the other hand, she does seem to have something of a disregard for logic, and if she doesn’t literally believe her title, she does seem to pander to the anti-intellectual sentiments of certain geeks.  I hate to be uncharitable, and I wouldn’t want to accuse her of encouraging people to stop learning so much, but look–the anti-intellectual sentiment is in the title of her post. Yes, maybe she is merely gunning for traffic by pandering to geek anti-intellectualism.  But why would she want to do that if she didn’t share their biases against learning?

UPDATE: see below.  Kathy Sierra responds to point out that this is a six-year-old post.  I don’t know quite why I thought it was posted today!  But I’ve already made a fool of myself, and I’m not one to stop doing so after I’ve done it publicly, especially at someone else’s expense.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

6 Responses to "The future, according to Kathy Sierra"
  1. Reply Kathy Sierra January 9, 2012 17:12 pm

    Not sure what sort of posting /date error has happened here, but you do realize that I made that post at least 6 years ago? Not “earlier today” as blog post claims. I did not assume anyone would take what I said very seriously, let alone so *literally*. I tended then (and perhaps now, as well) to NOT add qualifiers to everything I wrote on a blog post. Of course, I have not blogged more than twice in the last five years and have had a chance to sit back and see how much of what I said was taken out of context, and how that was nearly always my own fault through sloppy writing and thinking.

    But then, it is exactly this fact that sucked the joy from blogging. What began as a simple place to express opinions, challenge beliefs, offer new perspectives, and most of all–share knowledge and ideas– became a place where every word was scrutinized from every possible direction, assumptions about my motives drowned every tiny idea, and nearly everything I said took on far more weight than it ever deserved. Your resurrection of this post just reminded me of all the reasons blogging became less appealing. Not saying that you are wrong in your assessment, though.

    • Reply Larry Sanger January 9, 2012 17:49 pm

      Kathy, thank you for the response. Oh my, was I ever wrong about the date. Well, I’ll leave the post up there, just to show that I am occasionally clueless about things like that.

      For what it’s worth, obviously, the post is still very timely. But then, you’re giving sound, timeless advice, as I said. (I know you didn’t ask for one.)

      Well, it’s nice to know that you weren’t serious. I understand what you mean regarding posts getting scrutiny. It does take a certain sort of intestinal fortitude to keep up with blogging, especially if you’re very opinionated and popular, as you were. Frankly, I used to be more popular, and I am actually enjoying not being so popular anymore. It means that I can speak my mind with fewer people getting all crazy on me about it.

      I’m not 100% sure a retraction is necessary on my part–I know you didn’t ask–but for the record, I’ll assume I was wrong to imply that you were endorsing a view that makes light of learning in the future. Even as humor this illustrates again the then- (in 2005!) growing popularity of references to what sure looks like anti-intellectual sentiment.

  2. Reply Kathy Sierra January 11, 2012 18:23 pm

    Actually, I think learning is monumentally important. But my view on what that actually means has changed dramatically. At the time I wrote that post (and through the life of my blog (ended in 2007), I was focused on “brain-friendly learning”, trying to use whatever research might possibly apply to helping people learn specifically tough technical topics. My older programming books are still the #1 and #2 longest-running computer/tech best sellers on Amazon (measured in days on the bestseller list), so helping people learn is something I have taken VERY seriously.

    But the way I feel about “learning” today has moved away from “getting better at helping people learn and know more” to the helping people develop greater expertise. I spent most of my career helping people learn and know more, when I now recognize that I should have been helping people DO things better.

  3. Reply sjf January 12, 2012 08:57 am

    It is interesting that Kathy’s post was also picked up here http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2012/01/learning-unlearning-and-relearning.html on the same day.

    Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

    • Reply Larry Sanger January 12, 2012 10:14 am

      Aha, that’s where I came across the Sierra post!

  4. Reply iNGENET Bitácora | Sitio de la semana: Larry Sanger July 26, 2012 16:28 pm

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