The "times-are-changing, specific-knowledge-is-unnecessary" canard

I don't know how many times I have read, "The world, and research findings, are changing so fast that it is pointless to insist on learning particular bits of knowledge.  Much of it will be outdated soon.  So the only really important thing to teach children is how to think."

This is dangerous nonsense.  It is partly responsible for educators' ambivalent attitude toward substantial knowledge, which is in turn responsible for so much ignorance in American society--I chalk it up to schools dominated by the various 20th-century "progressive" educational methods.  After all, just think of what it means to say that it's pointless to insist on learning any particular subject.  It's pointless to learn math?  Reading?  Writing?  Science?  History?  There are truly excellent and I daresay objective reasons that these, and others, are important subjects to study.  I recently gave some reasons to study geography, a relatively "fast-changing" field.  In fact, exactly to the contrary of the above fashionable canard, I think it's important to learn a lot about the whole world--far more than most elementary students learn.

Imagine someone saying to a child 75 years ago, quite accurately, that in your lifetime the world will change radically, and much new knowledge will be discovered and things that are relevant in 75 years are today unknown or unemphasized.  Would it follow, 75 years ago, that we had no idea what we needed to know or learn?  Of course not.  There is no need to throw the curriculum out the window simply because the world is changing.  Consider the elementary school subjects (or what should be such subjects) and ask yourself how many of them have changed much in the last 75 years, despite the fact that the most revolutionary technological changes in all of human history happened in this period: reading; penmanship; arithmetic; world history since ancient times; national histories; geography; science; art; music; and various others to taste.

What new subjects have become important for elementary students to know?  Typing and computers, and that's pretty much it.  The only things that have become even possibly outdated are cursive handwriting and Latin (though Latin was already mostly out, 75 years ago).  National history has had 75 more years' worth of facts, but a similar observation could be made 75 and 150 years ago, and that wasn't a reason not to learn history.  Same is true of geography--we don't not learn geography because borders will change in our lifetimes.

What gives this meme (actually, I hate the concept of "memes" but it fits in this case) its teeth is that science and technology changes and develops so fast.  But the vast bulk of these changes are relevant to students at higher levels, in high school and college.  And even then, we should not tell students, "You don't have to learn brain science because the field will look totally different in 20 years."  We should say, "You really ought to learn brain science because it's such a hot field with fascinating discoveries being made all the time."

This is not to mention a point well discussed by E.D. Hirsch Jr. in Cultural Literacy that specific knowledge greatly enhances one's ability to reason; if one does not have specific knowledge, then one can neither mount a defense of one's claims nor evaluate others' arguments for their factual content.  All that formal logic by itself can do, of course, is evaluate the formal logic of an argument, and most fallacies that people commit are informal, not formal fallacies--and informal fallacies often require some specific knowledge to identify.  More to the point, the soundness of arguments requires the ability to evaluate the truth value of premises, which is a matter of factual content, not logic.  The more knowledge one has about a field, the better one can reason and judge the reasoning about it.  If you want to teach children "how to think," it is crucial that you acquaint them with the subject of thought and not just its form.


Unobvious concepts that are important, but rarely taught

To understand history, geography, fiction, and a whole lot else besides, it is fairly important that children be taught in considerable depth certain practical yet universal concepts about history that, I think, are rarely explained in much very depth:

Gathering (as in "hunting and gathering")
Animal skins (and tanning)
Nomadic life
Shepherding, spinning, weaving, dyeing
Plowing, sowing, reaping/harvesting
Mining, smelting, smithing
Religion: how polytheist peoples thought of gods, why they turned to gods, and why religion became important to them
Tribe
Lord or chieftain
City-states, small kingdoms and fiefdoms
What "empire" means, and what an empire was like (beyond lines on a map)
Trading and bartering
The marketplace (e.g., agora)
Ignorance: what life was like in the absence of geographical, historical, and scientific knowledge

I could go on. I could make similar lists for other subjects: science, geography, etc. I find a pattern here: these are abstract concepts. Explaining them to children might seem daunting. But of course many of them are no more difficult to explain than telling a story; it just requires a little creativity. I think the reason that schools avoid teaching such things in more depth to students is that--no offense, I hope--most educators are very concrete-bound themselves. They haven't been well trained in thinking conceptually or abstractly, much less teaching their charges to think this way. So textbooks, and teachers using them, are often content merely to offer definitions, which are often themselves ill-understood, when what is needed is a long discussion.

H. and I have read a lot of history in the last year and I get the sense that only now is he starting to get a proper handle on such very basic, crucial concepts as trade and polytheism. If you don't have a fairly firm grasp on what the above concepts really entail, by which I mean more than a poorly-understood definition, you simply won't understand history, period. That is why it will be boring to you.

One of the main reasons we get "deeply" into certain subjects (lately, South America, as we begin our systematic study of geography) is that with each new book on the subject, more of such "basics" become clear. With the first few books, I spend quite a bit of time explaining what various words mean, and even taking breaks to show illustrative videos and such. After the third or fourth book on a subject, we suddenly find ourselves not only understanding much better but enjoying ourselves more and able to learn more quickly. Another example. If you can believe it, I'm reading Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood to 5-year-old H.  Here is a sample:

Then he chose the stoutest bow among them all, next to Robin's own, and a straight gray goose shaft, well-feathered and smooth, and stepping to the mark--while all the band, sitting or lying upon the greensward, watched to see him shoot--he drew the arrow to his cheek and loosed the shaft right deftly, sending it so straight down the path that it clove the mark in the very center. "Aha!" cried he, "mend thou that if thou canst"; while even the yeomen clapped their hands at so fair a shot.

"That is a keen shot indeed," quoth Robin. "Mend it I cannot, but mar it I may, perhaps."

As I re-read this, I think I must be crazy to try to read this to a 5-year-old.  But he has repeatedly declared he likes it, a lot, and has repeatedly requested it and has never said "no" to it.  (We started reading it when I went looking for a simple version of Robin Hood to download, after he had read two even simpler versions to himself; but I found only the Howard Pyle version.  So I said, "Listen to this," and read a few paragraphs.  Then he urged me to go on.)  When we started reading it, I had to explain everything.  Now, a lot of this is a kind of cant and is not hard to interpret, when you understand the oft-repeated archaisms.  Stripped of archaisms, it wouldn't be too hard.  So while in the first couple chapters I had to explain things like "thou canst" and "yeoman," which are used all the time, by the time we got to chapter 5, I was left explaining mostly the things that are conceptually difficult, like "mend it I cannot, but mar it I may."  I simply offer a quick gloss in such a case; I might say, "OK, 'mend' means 'fix,' and 'mar' means 'hurt.'  So he means: 'I cannot fix it--I cannot get a better shot with my arrow--but I can get close enough to hurt it--to hurt the arrow.'"  Then often I'll read the original sentence again.  (By the way, it helps tremendously that we are reading this on the iPad, so we can look up words instantly, with a tap.  I'm not sure we'd have the patience for this without the iPad.)  H. might be a weird kid, but he rarely gets tired of these explanations.

By the way, if you were a zealot for "constructivist" theory, I imagine you might say, "Hey, you're explaining everything to your child.  That's direct instruction.  He won't learn as much that way."  Our experience shows this to be completely wrong.  He reads over an hour a day to himself--right now he's on Harry Potter #2--well, I'll explain more further down.

The point is that even supposedly "advanced" subjects, and texts like Robin Hood, are accessible after just a little explanation of the cant necessary to make sense of it.

This is one of the reasons I'm rather excited about putting the software behind Reading Bear to use creating explanations of the concepts necessary to understand, well, everything.  If I am right, a child who goes through my history concept primer from beginning to end will be able to pick up history books and really start to appreciate and make sense of them.  And again, I hope I'll have time do this for many different subjects, not just history--but then, it's not even quite a sure thing that I'll start the project at all.

I'm also interested in what will happen when I start explaining abstract "philosophical" concepts to children, which I think will not be very difficult to do.  I think we may be very surprised by the increased sophistication of the thinking of children, when they are trained with the right materials.

One last topic in this rambling post.  I'm sure some people (who wouldn't make it this far in the post, probably) would react to all this by saying, "What is the point? Suppose you can teach a child to be able to understand history at age five.  Why would you want to?  Why not wait until they are older and can understand the concepts more naturally, with less difficulty?  Don't you think they'll benefit from the training more then?"

I think about this sort of objection a fair bit, but I really don't find it compelling, because it seems to be based on a confusion, or a false assumption.  The assumption is that the concepts in question are especially difficult, and for this reason it's especially easier to teach them later on.  I deny this.  What's hard about explaining what weaving, for example, is?  Can't a three-year-old, when confronted with the materials and process of weaving, more or less understand what's going on?  I've seen this over and over teaching H., and I am seeing it start again with E.--where a concept traditionally taught much later is introduced entertainingly and effectively early on, in an "age-appropriate" way, and as a result the child is able to understand things that are thought to be appropriate only for older children.

It's not just because I want to get my boys learning sooner, so that they can learn more in the long run, although that's definitely part of it.  It's also because I remember, I really do, being frustrated with my teachers, thinking that they should just explain stuff more.  I thought I could have learned a lot more, and I still think so, if teachers and texts had simply taken more care to explain all the various little things that are unexplained.  In this age in which constructivist pedagogy reigns, there is even more of a notion that children should just figure things out for themselves--which sounds rather like they shouldn't be taught.  The pedagogical notion, which back then I found frustrating, seemed to be that children learn best when they are left to figure things out for themselves, heroically.  But a lot of times, kids never do figure stuff out, not ever.  They just end up being ignorant, and increasingly frustrated because they never understood something that someone could have explained to them when they were five.  This is why most people hate history: they simply don't get it.

A "constructivist" argument, as I understand it, would be that the motivation for learning and the quality of understanding are much greater if a child is left free to figure things out for himself.  Now, I do think a child should be asked open-ended questions, given experiments, and generally trained to think a problem through.  But the amount of knowledge there is to learn is massive.  (Knowing this, constructivists end up dismissing substantial learning as "mere memorization," a tendency that causes me no end of frustration.)  If you want a sophisticated understanding of the world, it is a fool's errand--literally--to try to construct it on your own, as if you could reproduce the entire history of thought by yourself, as a child.

Moreover, the more that concepts are simply and clearly explained to a student, the greater his toolset to let him figure things out on his own.  As I said, H. is now reading on his own over an hour a day, and he's reading chapter books well above his grade level.  I regularly quiz him on these.  Not only his memory but his comprehension of what he reads always surprises me.  When I ask him "deeper" questions, regarding things like motivations and general explanations, he is also well above grade level.  The answers seem to come quite naturally to him.  He can also articulate his answers very well, using advanced vocabulary and complex grammatical structures.  I credit my tendency to explain everything to him, so that he has a very explicit understanding of nearly everything he has learned, and especially concepts.  If the constructivist objection to my schemes (at this point I am only imagining such an objection) carried any water, then one would expect to see H. unmotivated and frustrated in his lack of ability to understand what he reads with any sophistication.  But I have no complaints about his motivation level, and his ability to understand is great.  I think that when he's ten or twelve, he'll be reading and understanding philosophy and thinking more deeply than a lot of people.

Anyway, my great curiosity, which I hope to explore with a Reading Bear "concept encyclopedia for children," is whether it is possible to impart "precocious" levels of understanding to very young children about all sorts of things, simply by systematically exploring concepts.  I think so, and I think it's worth a try to see if such a resource is well-used and -liked by people.


Reply to Nathan Jurgenson on anti-intellectualism

Thanks to Nathan Jurgenson for a thoughtful critique of "Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?"  I wish I had more time to respond, especially since it is so earnestly intellectual itself.  The following will have to do.

Jurgenson provides a definition (which he says is based on Hofstadter's discussion in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), which combines anti-expertism, anti-reason, and "unreflective instrumentalism" or the view that ideas must be put to work if they are to have any value.  I think that "isms" are, since they are theoretical inventions, either trivially easy to define (just quote the inventor), or else very difficult.  I don't feel qualified to evaluate this definition, but neither do I want to accept it uncritically.  Instead I'll just skip ahead to the part where Jurgenson starts using it to formulate some interesting questions and claims on behalf of geeks:

...are [geeks] evangelical/dogmatic in their knowledge justification (beyond populism)? Do they appreciate knowledge and thinking for its own sake, or does it always have to be put to work towards instrumental purposes? Neither of these points are substantiated by Sanger (yet).

I would argue that geeks are not dogmatic, but instead typically rely on reason (e.g., they employ reason in their defense of populism and the “wisdom of the crowds”; even if I and many others are unconvinced). Further, geeks indeed do seem to engage in knowledge projects for fun. Part of the success of Wikipedia is that it allows for purposelessly clicking through random entries for no other reason than because learning is fun. However, my task in this essay is to better conceptualize Sanger’s points and not really make the case for a geek intellectualism. I’m only half-convinced myself of these last two points. I’ll leave it to Sanger to describe how geeks are anti-intellectual on these other two dimensions of anti-intellectualism. Until then, the story of geek anti-intellectualism remains mixed.

I haven't encountered geek anti-intellectuals of a fideist stripe--those who regard faith as a cardinal virtue and who criticize over-reliance on reason and science.  Computer geeks are mostly scientistic rationalists, or at least, they try to be.  (Sometimes they seem not to be simply because so many of them aren't actually trained in rational argumentation or the scientific method.  They learned how to argue on Internet forums.)  If there is something weird about calling geeks intellectuals, it would surely be this.  Indeed, geek rationalism actually explains why there was such an interesting response to my essay.  It didn't surprise me that geeks replied in various highly rational ways to my essay.  That's not the sort of response that a lot of religious anti-intellectuals, of the sort Hofstadter studied, would have, if I had made them my target; they probably wouldn't have responded at all.

As to the second point (on "unreflective instrumentalism"), however, I think Jurgenson lets geekdom off far too easily.  Of course geeks "engage in knowledge projects for fun" (so do many religious fundamentalists).  But geeks frequently talk about how the humanities are useless (this ties in to my point (2)) and for that reason, a waste of time.  One of the recent geek arguments for the pointlessness of college is precisely that college features so much abstract theorizing which doesn't have any practical application.  A lot of geeks love books, to be sure, but some of them reject books not merely because they prefer ebook editions over paper books, but because they have become true believers that social media is what Clay Shirky described as an "upstart literature" which promises to become the "new high culture," just give it some time.  Besides, we often hear, books are becoming outmoded because they are not collaborative, and they're boring and irrelevant because they were not made recently.  And if you try to argue that college might have a non-vocational purpose, their eyes seem to glaze over.  They just don't get that.

Here's a couple of points elaborated, also probably related to "unreflective instrumentalism," or as I would put it, to the devaluing of theoretical knowledge.  First, if you diss the classics, if you reject the intellectual basis for Western civilization wholesale, as some silly-clever geeks (to say nothing of culture-warrior college professors) do, then by golly, you're anti-intellectual. This isn't because you are an instrumentalist, it is because you reject the conceptual-historical basis which allows you to think what you're thinking, including even the math and computer science that forms the basis of the computers you're working on.  If you ignore the giant shoulders you're standing on, and pretend to be thinking through issues a priori or innocent of all scholarship, then you'll certainly fall prey to all sorts of significant errors and confusions.  A person who pretends to be able to speak intelligently on the political issues of capitalist democracy but who has not read theorists like Locke, Rousseau, or Marx is almost certain to make various sophomoric mistakes (regardless of his political leanings).  And that's just one example from one field.  If you don't care about making such mistakes based in historical ignorance, and the whole idea of understanding the content of the ideas you're so passionate about leaves you cold, then you are to that extent not intellectual, and perhaps not really as much of a rationalist as you'd like to think of yourself.  If you go farther and say that persons who inform themselves of the intellectual underpinnings of Western civilization are wasting their time, then plainly, your contempt for the knowledge that people get from such study is so great that you do deserve to be called anti-intellectual.

Second, there's my point (4).  If you reject the necessity of learning things for yourself--if you actually endorse ignorance merely because certain things can be looked up so easily now--then you're anti-intellectual in the rather basic sense that you're anti-knowing stuff.  The three-part definition Jurgenson gives is ultimately grounded, I would argue, in this basic concept: an anti-intellectual undervalues knowledge for its own sake.  That's what explains the stance of anti-expertism, anti-reason, and unreflective instrumentalism.   And if you had any doubt about whether there were a lot of geeks who undervalue knowledge for its own sake, just look at the comments on my essay.  There, on Slashdot, and in other places you'll find plenty of people dismissing college not just because it's a poor economic decision but because the sort of theoretical knowledge you get in college is allegedly a waste of time.  The very claim is anti-intellectual.

It would be different if I saw many geeks hastening to add, after dissing lit crit and philosophy and political theory, that they really mainly have it in for an over-politicized academe, while they still do have respect for the likes of Aristotle and Locke, Michelangelo and Picasso, Thucydides and Gibbon, and for those intellectuals who, along with most scientists, continue to work in the old tradition of advancing knowledge instead of deconstructing it.  But I don't come across geeks saying things like this too often.

The people I'm describing use their minds (often professionally, and very competently), and therefore their minds have a life, so to speak.  But many do not go in for, in Jurgenson's phrase, "the life of the mind."  That involves some level of commitment to understanding the world, including the humanistic elements of the world, at an abstract level, bringing the tools of reason and science to bear.  Just because you write computer software and are fascinated by a few geeky topics, it doesn't follow that you have this commitment.

But then, a lot of academics don't, either.  As I said, it's no contradiction to speak of academic anti-intellectuals.  Their influence is no doubt one of the reasons certain geeks are anti-intellectual.


Geek anti-intellectualism: replies

My essay on "geek anti-intellectualism" hit a nerve.  I get the sense that a lot of geeks are acting--quite unusually for them--defensively, because I've presented them with a sobering truth about themselves that they hadn't realized.  Consequently they've been unusually thoughtful and polite.  This is quite new and startling to me--I mean, there's something about this discussion that I can't remember ever seeing before.  Anyway, it must have seemed relevant, because it was posted live on Slashdot within minutes of my submitting it--something I'd never seen before--and proceeded to rack up 916 comments, as of this writing, which is quite a few for Slashdot.  It was also well discussed on Metafilter, on Twitter, and here on this blog (where I've had over 160 comments so far).  What struck me about these discussions was the unusually earnest attempts, in most cases, to come to grips with some of the issues I raised.  Of course, there has been some of the usual slagging from the haters, and a fair number of not-very-bright responses, but an unusually high proportion of signal, some of it quite insightful.  Reminds me of some old college seminars, maybe.

First, let me concede that I left a lot unsaid.  Of course, what I left unsaid ended up being said, sometimes ad nauseam, in the comments, and a few points I found to be quite enlightening.  On the other hand, I find a lot of geeks thinking that they understand aspects of higher education that they really don't.  I'm not sure I can set them right, but I'll try to make a few points anyway.

I am going to do what I've always done, since the 1990s, when something I've written elicited a much greater response than I could possibly deal with: make a numbered laundry list of replies.

1. How dare you accuse all geeks of being anti-intellectual? I didn't; RTFA.  I know there are lots of very intellectual geeks and that geekdom is diverse in various ways.  I'm talking about social trends, which are always a little messy; but that doesn't mean there's nothing to discuss.

2. There's a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-academic. Maybe the most common response was that geeks don't dislike knowledge or the intellect, they dislike intellectuals with their academic institutions and practices.  First, let me state my geek credentials.  I've spent a lot of time online since the mid-90s.  I started many websites, actually learned some programming, and managed a few software projects.  You'll notice that I'm not in academe now.  I have repeatedly (four times) left academe and later returned.

I agree that academia has become way too politicized.  Too many academics think it's OK to preach their ideology to their students, and their tendency to organize conferences and journals around tendentious ideological themes is not just annoying, it is indeed unscholarly.  Moreover, speaking as a skeptically-inclined philosopher, I think that some academics have an annoying tendency to promote their views with unwarranted confidence, and also to pretend to speak authoritatively on subjects outside of their training.  Also, in many fields, the economics of academic advancement and publishing has created a tendency to focus on relatively unimportant minutiae, to the detriment of broader insight and scholarly wisdom.  Also, I completely agree that college work has been watered down (but more on that in the next point).

Having admitted all that, I'm still not backing down; I knew all that when I was writing my essay.  Please review the five points I made.  None of them is at odds with this critique of academe.  Just because some experts can be annoyingly overconfident, it doesn't follow that they do not deserve various roles in society articulating what is known about their areas of expertise.  If you deny that, then you are devaluing the knowledge they actually have; that's an anti-intellectual attitude.  If you want to know what the state of the research is in a field, you ask a researcher.  So even if your dislike of academics is justified in part, it does not follow that their word on their expertise is worth the same as everyone else's.  Besides, most of my points had little to do with academics per se: I also had points about books in general, classics in particular, and memorization and learning.

3. Just because you think college is now a bad deal, economically speaking, it doesn't follow that you're anti-intellectual. Well, duh.  I didn't really take up the question whether the present cost of college justifies not going, and I'm not going to get into that, because I don't really think it's relevant.  Let's suppose you're right, and that for some people, the long-term cost of college loans, combined with the fact that they won't get much benefit from their college education, means that they're justified not going.  My complaint is not about people who don't go to college, my complaint is about people who say that college is "a waste of time" if you do go and are committed.  Maybe, for people who don't study much and who don't let themselves benefit, it is a waste of time.  But that's their fault, not the fault of college.  I taught at Ohio State, which is not nearly as demanding as the college I attended myself (Reed), and I saw many students drifting through, not doing the reading, not coming to class, rarely practicing their writing skills.  I also saw people who always did the reading, always came to class, participated regularly, and were obviously benefiting from their encounter with great writing and great ideas.  Moreover, how college affects you isn't "the luck of the draw."  It depends on your commitment and curiosity.  This is why some partiers drop out and come back to college after five or ten years, and then they do great and finally enjoy themselves in class.

Finally, may I say again (I said it first in the 1990s, and also a few days ago), it is possible to get a degree by examination from programs like Excelsior College?  This way, you bypass the expense of college and pick all your instructors for a fraction of the cost.  This entails that you can get intellectually trained, as well as earn a real college degree, without going into debt.  This would be my advice to the clever ex-homeschoolers who claim that it is college that is, somehow, anti-intellectual.  Put up or shut up, home scholars: if you really are committed to the life of the mind, as you say, and you've already got experience directing your own studies, why not get a degree through independent study with academic tutors, and then take tests (and portfolio evaluations) to prove your knowledge and get the credential?

4. The people you're describing are not true geeks; they are the digerati, or "hipsters," or leftist academics who were already anti-intellectual and then started doing geek stuff. Uh, no.  I mean, you're probably right that some anti-intellectual thinkers who weren't geeks have started talking about the Internet a lot, and they have a big web presence, so now they might appear to be part of geekdom.  But they aren't really, by any reasonably stringent definition of "geek."  Besides, if you look at my article, you'll see that that's what I said (such people fall into the category of "digerati").  My point is that claims (1)-(5) started circulating online among geeks, and they are, each of them, commonly spouted by lots of geeks.  Take them in turn.  (1) Anti-expert animus is a well-known feature of the geek thought-world.  Wikipedia became somewhat anti-expert because of the dominance of geeks in the project.  (2) Of course, the geeks at Project Gutenberg love books, but all too often I see comments online that books went out in the 20th century, and good riddance.  One of the leading idols of the geeks, Clay Shirky, essentially declared books to be a dying medium, to be replaced with something more collaborative.  (3) It is obvious just from the comments here on this blog, and elsewhere, that some geeks find the classics (that means philosophy, history, novels, epics, poetry, drama, religious texts, etc.)  to be a waste of time.  They don't have the first clue about what they're talking about.  (4) The first time I saw the idea discussed much that Internet resources mean we no longer have to memorize (and hence learn) as many facts was among Wikipedians in 2002 or so (when it was totally dominated by geeks, even more than it is now).  (5) The whole college-is-a-waste-of-time thing is a not uncommon geek conceit.  It's not surprising in the least that a founder of Paypal.com would spout it.  It's easy for computer geeks to say, because they can get well-paying jobs without degrees.  In many other fields, that's (still) not true.

5. But I'm an intellectual, and I know that learning facts is indeed passe.  The things to be learned are "relationships" or "analysis" or "critical thinking." Oh?  Then I claim that you are espousing an anti-intellectual sentiment, whether you know it or not.  I'm not saying you're opposed to all things intellectual, I'm saying that that opinion is, to be perfectly accurate, a key feature of anti-intellectualism.  Look, this is very simple.  If you have learned something, then you can, at the very least, recall it.  In other words, you must have memorized it, somehow.  This doesn't necessarily mean you must have used flashcards to jam it into your recalcitrant brain by force, so to speak.  Memorization doesn't have to be by rote.  But even if you do a project, if you haven't come to remember some fact as a result, then you don't know it.  Thus I say that to be opposed to the memorization of facts is to be opposed to the learning, and knowing, of those facts.  To advocate against all memorization is to advocate for ignorance.  For more on this, please see my EDUCAUSE Review essay "Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age."

I know that this is an old and common sentiment among education theorists--which is a shame.  Indeed, the educationists who say that it is not necessary to memorize the multiplication table are implying that it is OK for kids to be ignorant of those math facts.  (No, it's not OK.  They should know them.)  Anyway, it might have started with misguided educators, but it is becoming far too common among geeks too.

6. The Internet is changing, that's all.  Most people are anti-intellectual, and they're getting online. No doubt about it, the Internet has changed greatly in the last five to ten years.  And it might well be the case that the average netizen is more anti-intellectual than in the past, in the very weak sense that more stupid people and uneducated people are getting online.  This might have been clever to say, if my point had been, "Folks online seem to be getting anti-intellectual."  But that isn't at all what I said or meant.  If you will review the evidence I marshalled, you'll see that the people I'm talking about are not the great unwashed masses.  I'm talking about geeks and the digerati who presume to speak about geeky things.  And their influence, as I said, has been growing.

7. Americans are anti-intellectual.  Geek anti-intellectualism is just a reflection of that. Think about what you're saying here; it doesn't make much sense.  I claim that geeks are increasingly anti-intellectual, or increasingly giving voice to anti-intellectual sentiments.  This is a trend, which many people are discussing now because they recognize it as well.  American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon, goes back to colonial days, and was rooted in our distance from the erstwhile European sources of intellectual life as well as the physical difficulty of frontier life.  The pattern of anti-intellectualism I discern is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has grown up especially with the rise of the Internet.

8. Conservatives never were the anti-intellectuals; it was always the liberal lefties! Glenn Reynolds linked my post, and so some conservatives grumbled about my line, "Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing."  Well, I hate to wade into politics here.  I used the passive voice deliberately, because I did not want to endorse the claim that anti-intellectualism is the mark of "knuckle-dragging conservatives" (I don't endorse this phrase, either).  All I meant to say is that this is one of liberals' favorite things to say about American fundamentalists.  I was about to, but did not, go on to say that actually, among the home schooling crowd, liberals and libertarians tend to go in for "unschooling," which is relatively (and not necessarily) hostile to traditional academics, and it is conservatives who go in for  uber-academic Latin-and-logic "classical education."  I didn't say that, because I knew it would be distracting to my point.  So I'm kind of sorry I made the remark about conservatives, because it too was distracting to my point.  Suffice it to say that there are plenty of knuckle-draggers, so to speak, everywhere.

9. Are you crazy?  Geeks are smart, and you're calling geeks stupid by calling them anti-intellectual. You didn't know that "anti-intellectual" does not mean "stupid," apparently.  There are plenty of anti-intellectual geeks who are crazy smart.  They aren't stupid in the least.  You also must distinguish between having anti-intellectual attitudes or views, which is what I was talking about, and having anti-intellectual practices. There are plenty of intellectuals in academia who are anti-intellectual.  (There are Jewish anti-Semites, too.)  Just think of any progressive education professor who inveighs against most academic work in K-12 schools, describes academic work that involves a little memorization and practice as "drill and kill," wants the world to institute unschooling and the project method en masse, has nothing but the purest P.C. contempt for the Western canon, advocates for vocational education for all but those who are truly, personally enthusiastic about academics, wants academic education to be as collaborative as possible rather than requiring students to read books, which are "irrelevant" to the fast-changing daily lives of students, and channeling Foucault rails against the hegemony of scientists and other experts.  Well, such a person I would describe as an anti-intellectual intellectual.  The person might well write perfectly-crafted articles with scholarly apparatus, read classics in her field, and so forth.  It's just that her opinions are unfortunately hostile to students getting knowledge (in my opinion).

10. But the liberal arts are a waste of time.  Studying Chaucer?  Philosophy?  History?  The vague opinionizing is pointless and facts can be looked up. If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any really educated person will disagree with you.  Once you have received a liberal education, your mind expands.  You might not understand how, or why it's important, but it does.  That's why people devote their lives to this stuff, even when it doesn't pay much, as it usually doesn't.  If you haven't studied philosophy, you can't begin to understand the universe and our place in it--I don't care how much theoretical physics you've studied.  There are aspects of reality that can be grasped only by critically examining the content of our concepts.  Similarly, if you haven't read much literature and especially if you are young, then you are very probably a complete babe in the woods when it comes to the understanding of human nature and the human condition; that's why people read literature, not so that they can sniff disdainfully at others over their lattes.

11. What you call "anti-intellectual" is really "anti-authority."  You're merely defending the prerogatives of snooty intellectuals whose authority is on the wane. This is one of the most common and often snarkiest replies I've run across.  But it's also a very interesting point.  Still, on analysis, I'm going to call it flimsy at best.  I'm going to spend quite a bit of space on this one.  Feel free to skip to down to the end ("In Sum" before "Conclusion").

Let's distinguish between being opposed to knowledge in its various forms, on the one hand, and being opposed to the prerogatives of intellectuals, on the other.  I claim that the path many geeks are headed down really has them opposed to theoretical and factual knowledge per se. I think the evidence I offered supported this reasonably well, but let me try to make it a little more explicit.

Consider point (1), about experts.  ("Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.")  That certainly looks like it is about the prerogatives of experts.  If for example on Wikipedia I encountered people saying, for example, "Experts need to prove this to us, not just assert their authoritah," that would be fair enough.  That's not anti-intellectual at all.  But going farther to say, "You merely have access to resources, you don't understand this any better than I do" and "You're not welcome here" is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe.  If you can't bring yourself to admit that--and I submit that the stripe of geek I'm describing can't--then your attitude is anti-intellectual.  (Some people are refreshingly honest about just this.)  Then what you're saying is that specialized study and experience do not lead to anything valuable, and are a waste of time.  But they lead to knowledge, which is valuable, and not a waste of time.

Point (2) (that books per se are outmoded) also, admittedly, has a little to do with intellectual authority--but only a little.  One of the reasons that some geeks, and others, are welcoming the demise of books is that they resent a single person set up as an authority by a publisher.  They say that publishing can and should be more like a conversation, and in a conversation, there shouldn't be one "authority," but rather a meeting of equal minds.  So perhaps those who are pleased to attack the medium of books couch their views as an attack on authority.  Perhaps.  But when I defend books, I really don't care about authority so much.  Of course, when thinking adults read books, they don't read them it in order to receive the truth from on high.  They are interested (in argumentative books, to take just one kind) in a viewpoint being fully and intelligently canvassed.  As some of the geeks commenting do not realize, and as some people don't realize until they get to graduate school, it frequently requires a book--or several books--to fully articulate a case for some relatively narrow question.  Scholars should be praised, not faulted, for being so committed to the truth that they are willing to write, and read, discussions that are that long.  The fact that publishers have to pick authors who are capable of mounting excellent arguments at such length doesn't mean that their readers are supposed simply to accept whatever they are told.  At bottom, then, to oppose books as such is to be opposed to the only way extended verbal arguments (and narratives and exposition) can be propagated.  An indeterminately large collaboration can't develop a huge, integrated, complex theory, write a great novel, or develop a unified, compelling narrative about some element of our experience.  If you want to call yourself intellectual, you've got to support the creation of such works by individual people.

Point (3), about the classics, has almost nothing to do with the prerogatives of authority.  The shape of the Western Canon, if you will, does not rest on anybody's authority, but instead on the habits of educators (school and university) as an entire class.  You're not rebelling against anybody's authority when you rebel against classics; you are, if anything, rebelling against the ideas the classics contain, or against the labor of reading something that is demanding to read.  In any case, anybody who comes down squarely against reading the classics is, to that extent, decidedly anti-intellectual.  Face it.

Point (4), which has us memorizing as little as possible and using the Internet as a memory prosthesis as much as possible, has absolutely nothing to do with authority.  If you're opposed to memorizing something, you're opposed to learning and knowing it.  That's quite anti-intellectual.

Point (5) concerns college, and on this many people said, in effect, "I oppose the stupidity of an overpriced, mediocre, unnecessary product that rests on the alleged authority of college professors."  Then it looks like you're criticizing the authority of professors, and so you think I'm defending that.  Well, to be sure, if college professors had no significant knowledge, which (as I think) gives their views some intellectual authority, then there would be no point in paying money to study with them.  But I can defend the advisability of systematic college-level study (I choose these words carefully) without making any controversial claims about the authority of college professors.  I do not, for example, have to assume that college professors must always be believed, that they are infallible, that we should not be skeptical of most of what they say (especially in the humanities and social sciences).  After all, most professors expect their students to be skeptical and not to take what they say uncritically; and only a very dull student will do that, anyway.  If you didn't know that, it's probably because you haven't been to college.  So, no.  I am not merely defending the authority of college professors.  I am personally quite critical of most scholarship I encounter.

In sum, I know that libertarian geeks (I'd count myself as one, actually) love to rail against the prerogatives of authority.  You'd like to justify your anti-intellectual attitudes (and sometimes, behavior) as fighting against The Man.  Maybe that is why you have your attitudes, maybe not.  In any case, that doesn't stop said attitudes from being anti-intellectual, and your issues don't mean that I am especially concerned to defend the prerogatives of authority.  I am not.

Conclusion

I think I've hit most of the high points.

One thing I didn't discuss in my original essay was why geeks have become so anti-intellectual, especially with the rise of the Internet.  Here is my take on that.  Most geeks are very smart, predominantly male, and capable of making an excellent livelihood from the sweat of their minds.  Consequently, as a class, they're more arrogant than most, and they naturally have a strong independent streak.  Moreover, geeks pride themselves on finding the most efficient ("laziest") way to solve any problem, even if it is a little sloppy.  When it comes to getting qualified for work, many will naturally dismiss the necessity of college if they feel they can, because they hate feeling put-upon by educators who can't even write two lines of code.  And the whole idea of memorizing stuff, well, it seems more and more unnecessarily effortful when web searching often uncovers answers just as well (they very misguidedly think).  What about books, and classics in particular?  Well, geek anti-intellectual attitudes here are easily explained as a combination of laziness and arrogance.  The Iliad takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is quite abstract; instead, they could read a manual or write code or engineer some project, and do a lot more of what they recognize as "learning."  The advent of new social media and the decline of the popularity of books are developments that only confirm their attitude.  It doesn't hurt that geek is suddenly chic, which surely only inflates geek arrogance.  If they admit to themselves that there is something to philosophy, history, or anything else that takes time, hard study, and reflection to learn, but which does not produce code or gadgetry, then they would feel a little deflated.  This doesn't sit well with their pride, of course.  They're smart, they think, and so how could they be opposed to any worthwhile knowledge?

So it shouldn't be surprising that some (only some) geeks turn out to be anti-intellectual.  This is no doubt why many people said, in response to my essay, "This is just what I've been thinking."


Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?

Is there a new anti-intellectualism?  I mean one that is advocated by Internet geeks and some of the digerati.  I think so: more and more mavens of the Internet are coming out firmly against academic knowledge in all its forms.  This might sound outrageous to say, but it is sadly true.

Let's review the evidence.

1. The evidence

Programmers have been saying for years that it's unnecessary to get a college degree in order to be a great coder--and this has always been easy to concede.  I never would have accused them of being anti-intellectual, or even of being opposed to education, just for saying that.  It is just an interesting feature of programming as a profession--not evidence of anti-intellectualism.

In 2001, along came Wikipedia, which gave everyone equal rights to record knowledge.  This was only half of the project's original vision, as I explain in this memoir.  Originally, we were going to have some method of letting experts approve articles.  But the Slashdot geeks who came to dominate Wikipedia's early years, supported by Jimmy Wales, nixed this notion repeatedly.  The digerati cheered and said, implausibly, that experts were no longer needed, and that "crowds" were wiser than people who had devoted their lives to knowledge.  This ultimately led to a debate, now old hat, about experts versus amateurs in the mid-2000s.  There were certainly notes of anti-intellectualism in that debate.

Around the same time, some people began to criticize books as such, as an outmoded medium, and not merely because they are traditionally paper and not digital.  The Institute for the Future of the Book has been one locus of this criticism.

But nascent geek anti-intellectualism really began to come into focus around three years ago with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, when Nicholas Carr asked, "Is Google making us stupid?" in The Atlantic. More than by Carr's essay itself, I was struck by the reaction to it.  Altogether too many geeks seemed to be assume that if information glut is sapping our ability to focus, this is largely out of our control and not necessarily a bad thing.  But of course it is a bad thing, and it is in our control, as I pointed out. Moreover, focus is absolutely necessary if we are to gain knowledge.  We will be ignoramuses indeed, if we merely flow along with the digital current and do not take the time to read extended, difficult texts.

Worse still was Clay Shirky's reaction in the Britannica Blog, where he opined, "no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting," and borrows a phrase from Richard Foreman in claiming, "the ‘complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality’ is at risk."  As I observed at the time, Shirky's views entailed that Twitter-sized discourse was our historically determined fate, and that, if he were right, the Great Books and civilization itself would be at risk.  But he was not right--I hope.

At the end of 2008, Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics, got into the act, claiming that Google makes memorization passe.  "It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings," Tapscott boldly claimed, "without having to memorise that it was in 1066.  [Students] can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google."

In 2010, Edge took up the question, "Is the Internet changing the way you think?" and the answers were very sobering.  Here were some extremely prominent scientists, thinkers, and writers, and all too many of them were saying again, more boldly, that the Internet was making it hard to read long pieces of writing, that books were passe, and that the Internet was essentially becoming a mental prosthesis.  We were, as one writer put it, uploading our brains to the Internet.

As usual, I did not buy the boosterism.  I was opposed to the implicit techno-determinism as well as the notion that the Internet makes learning unnecessary.  Anyone who claims that we do not need to read and memorize some facts is saying that we do not need to learn those facts.  Reading and indeed memorizing are the first, necessary steps in learning anything.

This brings us to today.  Recently, Sir Ken Robinson has got a lot of attention by speaking out--inspiringly to some, outrageously to others--saying that K-12 education needs a sea change away from "boring" academics and toward collaborative methods that foster "creativity."  At the same time, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel sparked much discussion by claiming that there is a "higher education bubble," that is, the cost of higher education greatly exceeds its value.  This claim by itself is somewhat plausible.  But Thiel much less plausibly implies that college per se is now not recommendable for many, because it is "elitist."  With his Thiel Fellowship program he hopes to demonstrate that a college degree is not necessary for success in the field of technology.  Leave it to a 19-year-old recipient of one of these fellowships to shout boldly that "College is a waste of time."  Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

2. Geek anti-intellectualism

In the above, I have barely scratched the surface.  I haven't mentioned many other commentators, blogs, and books that have written on such subjects.  But this is enough to clarify what I mean by "geek anti-intellectualism."  Let me step back and sum up the views mentioned above:

1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.  Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.  (Cf. this essay of mine.)

2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.  In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded.  They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can't be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes.  In short, they are boring and irrelevant.

4. The digitization of information means that we don't have to memorize nearly as much.  We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities.  We can answer most general questions with a quick search.

5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek.  You don't have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

If you are the sort of geek who loves all things Internet uncritically, then you're probably nodding your head to these.  If so, I submit this as a new epistemological manifesto that might well sum up your views:

You don't really care about knowledge; it's not a priority.  For you, the books containing knowledge, the classics and old-fashioned scholarship summing up the best of our knowledge, the people and institutions whose purpose is to pass on knowledge--all are hopelessly antiquated.  Even your own knowledge, the contents of your mind, can be outsourced to databases built by collaborative digital communities, and the more the better.  After all, academics are boring.  A new world is coming, and you are in the vanguard.  In this world, the people who have and who value individual knowledge, especially theoretical and factual knowledge, are objects of your derision.  You have contempt for the sort of people who read books and talk about them--especially classics, the long and difficult works that were created alone by people who, once upon a time, were hailed as brilliant.  You have no special respect for anyone who is supposed to be "brilliant" or even "knowledgeable."  What you respect are those who have created stuff that many people find useful today.  Nobody cares about some Luddite scholar's ability to write a book or get an article past review by one of his peers.  This is why no decent school requires reading many classics, or books generally, anymore--books are all tl;dr for today's students.  In our new world, insofar as we individually need to know anything at all, our knowledge is practical, and best gained through projects and experience.  Practical knowledge does not come from books or hard study or any traditional school or college.  People who spend years of their lives filling up their individual minds with theoretical or factual knowledge are chumps who will probably end up working for those who skipped college to focus on more important things.

Do you find your views misrepresented?  I'm being a bit provocative, sure, but haven't I merely repeated some remarks and made a few simple extrapolations?  Of course, most geeks, even most Internet boosters, will not admit to believing all of this manifesto.  But I submit that geekdom is on a slippery slope to the anti-intellectualism it represents.

So there is no mistake, let me describe the bottom of this slippery slope more forthrightly.  You are opposed to knowledge as such. You contemptuously dismiss experts who have it; you claim that books are outmoded, including classics, which contain the most significant knowledge generated by humankind thus far; you want to memorize as little as possible, and you want to upload what you have memorized to the net as soon as possible; you don't want schools to make students memorize anything; and you discourage most people from going to college.

In short, at the bottom of the slippery slope, you seem to be opposed to knowledge wherever it occurs, in books, in experts, in institutions, even in your own mind.

But, you might say, what about Internet communities?  Isn't that a significant exception?  You might think so.  After all, how can people who love Wikipedia so much be "opposed to knowledge as such"?  Well, there is an answer to that.

It's because there is a very big difference between a statement occurring in a database and someone having, or learning, a piece of knowledge.  If all human beings died out, there would be no knowledge left even if all libraries and the whole Internet survived.  Knowledge exists only inside people's heads.  It is created not by being accessed in a database search, but by being learned and mastered.  A collection of Wikipedia articles about physics contains text; the mind of a physicist contains knowledge.

3. How big of a problem is geek anti-intellectualism?

Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing.

How serious am I in the above analysis?  And is this really a problem, or merely a quirk of geek life in the 21st century?

It's important to bear in mind what I do and do not mean when I say that some Internet geeks are anti-intellectuals.  I do not mean that they would admit that they hate knowledge or are somehow opposed to knowledge.  Almost no one can admit such a thing to himself, let alone to others.  And, of course, I  doubt I could find many geeks who would say that students should not graduate from high school without learning a significant amount of math, science, and some other subjects as well.  Moreover, however they might posture when at work on Wikipedia articles, most geeks have significant respect for the knowledge of people like Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins, of course.  Many geeks, too, are planning on college, are in college, or have been to college.  And so forth--for the various claims (1)-(5), while many geeks would endorse them, they could also be found contradicting them regularly as well.  So is there really anything to worry about here?

Well, yes, there is.  Attitudes are rarely all or nothing.  The more that people have these various attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think.  The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he'll actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy.  Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes--no doubt already has become--a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding.  We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people getting smaller.

But isn't this just a problem just for geekdom?  Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals?

Well, the question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large.  One does not speak of "geek chic" these days for nothing.  The digital world is now on the cutting edge of societal evolution, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among geeks back in the 1980s and 1990s are now mainstream.  Geek anti-intellectualism can already be seen as another example.  Most of the people I've mentioned in this essay are not geeks per se, but the digerati, who are frequently non-geeks or ex-geeks who have their finger on the pulse of social movements online.  Via these digerati, we can find evidence of geek attitudes making their way into mainstream culture.  One now regularly encounters geek-inspired sentiments from business writers like Don Tapscott and education theorists like Ken Robinson--and even from the likes of Barack Obama (but not anti-intellectualism, of course).

Let's just put it this way.  If, in the next five years, some prominent person comes out with a book or high-profile essay openly attacking education or expertise or individual knowledge as such, because the Internet makes such things outmoded, and if it receives a positive reception not just from writers at CNET and Wired and the usual suspects in the blogosphere, but also serious, thoughtful consideration from Establishment sources like The New York Review of Books or Time, I'll say that geek anti-intellectualism is in full flower and has entered the mainstream.

UPDATE: I've posted a very long set of replies.

UPDATE 2: I've decided to reply below as well--very belatedly...


The value of knowledge - the anti-intellectualism problem versus the philosophers' problem

I need to complain about my fellow philosophers.  But maybe I'm confused.  Maybe some philosophers out there can set me straight, somehow.

In recent years, as my interests have turned away from encyclopedia-building and toward education, I have become increasingly interested in the whole social phenomenon of people appearing to devalue academic knowledge.  This is unfortunate enough in students, but it is disturbing among adults who shape the attitudes of children, and positively alarming among educators--precisely the people responsible for imparting knowledge.  This trend is part and parcel of anti-intellectualism--and, by the way, it has recently gotten a fresh shot in the arm from the rise of the Internet.  Let's call this the problem of anti-intellectualism.

Concern about this problem has led me to read, among other things, Susan Jacoby's pretty interesting book The Age of American Unreason.  I've been thinking of writing an essay on the topic, and making a defense of knowledge as such, and in particular, why it ought to be the centerpiece of our goal statements of education.  Education is, first and foremost, about the getting of knowledge, or improving our understanding.  Toying with this idea, I decided to look into what some of my fellow philosophers have said about it.  Philosophers frequently say that knowledge is an intrinsic good, something sought for its own sake.  But, of course, there is far more that can be said about the value of knowledge than that, even if it is an intrinsic good.

I was not too surprised to learn that a currently trendy topic in epistemology is now the value of knowledge.  But when one looks at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject, attractively titled "The Value of Knowledge," one discovers that there is very little indeed on the problem above-described.  Instead, it is all about the relatively technical problem of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief.  I decided to search the page for the words "anti-intellectual" and "anti-intellectualism."  They do not occur in the article.  In fact, there is no significant discussion of "anti-intellectual" or "anti-intellectualism" anywhere in in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Well, I can't say I'm surprised.  This is how all too many philosophers water down what could be truly fascinating questions: they identify some vaguely related technical issue connected to the interesting question, and then compare technical theories on the technical issue.  Now, don't get me wrong; I studied with many analytical philosophers and I strongly prefer analytical philosophy to Continental philosophy.  Moreover, the philosophers' "problem of value" is actually interesting to me.  But, sadly, the "relevance" critique does have some purchase.

Here by the way is my own current view, the view I might want to expand in an essay.  Knowledge--or more precisely, amassing a large body of knowledge, and coming to understand many different aspects of our world, personal, social, and natural, abstract and applied, theoretical and practical, historical and current, mathematical and verbal--is valuable because it improves us.  Having good writing and speaking skills makes our communication more efficient and effective.  Being able to read texts accurately makes it possible to understand instructions, evaluate arguments, and make sense of explanations.  Acquaintance with literature and psychology makes us more worldly, or able to relate smoothly to a wider variety of personalities.  History and politics make us better citizens.  Math ability has not just obvious practical consumer uses, but also allows us to make sense of the more abstract aspects of the world, which are sometimes the only way to come to an accurate, nuanced understanding of why things are as they are.  Or in other words, science.  Science, especially at the more advanced levels in which we understand not just observable facts but begin to grasp the deeper reasons for things, ultimately forms the basis for engineering marvels as well as technocrats' policy decisions, which, in massive bureaucratic states such as we have now, are widespread.  Philosophy and logic can (or should) greatly improve the clarity with which we think about the world.  Mastering all of these subjects generally improves one's ability to understand and make oneself clear on various other subjects.  Education makes it possible for us to get stuff done in a complex world.  I could go on and on, of course.  I'm pretty sure that with more thought (or research) I will be able to pull together these various disparate advantages into a few general themes.  I'm sure eventually I'll sound themes of liberal education, that education in general broadens the mind, liberates us, and so forth.

The multi-faceted ways in which knowledge quite obviously improves us are precisely why schools were invented in the first place, and why people have continued to support the institution of education vigorously.  Indeed, I submit that without reference to the virtues imparted specifically by knowledge, one cannot begin to make sense of education as an institution.  This is why I say that the purpose or goal of education is, first and foremost--regardless of whatever other goals it might have--to cause students to have knowledge, or to improve their understanding.  This is the most basic, ur-explanation of the existence of education and hence schools.

Well, I'll leave it at that for now.  I'm not ready to write the essay just yet, if I ever will be.

 


On Robinson on Education

This very striking video has been circulating, and I'm inspired to reply to it:

First, let me say that the video design is very cool.  Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker.  Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties.  But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong.

The typical comment made about this video is that it represents a radical new proposal for what education should look like.  But there's very little that is new about it.  Indeed, many school teachers and education professors, I'd wager, find a lot to agree with here.  Many of the progressive "reform" proposals look like this.  The problem is that they endlessly run up against the facts of reality.  And I don't mean political reality, although that's fierce enough.  I mean the reality of what education really means and what it accomplishes.

So let's try to understand a few things that Robinson is trying to argue.  He basically makes the point that the education system was designed in the 19th century, and its methodology is stuck in the 19th century.  It needs to be updated, he says.  This, by itself, is a rhetorically powerful message, and an effective way to position his proposed reforms, especially for all those people out there who pride themselves on being cutting-edge in everything.

But what exactly, according to Robinson, is educationally backward and now wrong?  Several things, all dramatically denied (and quite amusingly illustrated):

  • 1. Work hard, do well, get a college degree, and you will be rewarded with a good job.  (Our kids "don't believe that" and "they're right not to," says Sir Ken--why?  Because a college degree doesn't guarantee a good job.  I spy a fallacy.)
  • 2. The "Enlightenment view of intelligence," that real intelligence consists in the ability to do deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics, or what (he says) we think of as "academic ability."  (I think of academic ability as far more than this.  Also, I can't recall coming across either of these as strongly advocated for in my public school education, and these have if anything become even rarer in schools.)
  • 3. There is not enough collaboration in schools.  (There sure was an annoyingly large amount of groupwork in the public schools I attended from 1973 to 1986, and now, I gather, such methods are still all the rage.  So I'm not convinced on this point.)
  • 4. Schools are too standardized: organized on factory lines, scheduled, regimented, studying compartmentalized subjects, with people of the same ages graduating at the same time.  (Here is where I agree with him--except for his complaint about the separation into specialized subjects.)

There are three main points in the rest of his argument, as follows.  First, the modern student is constantly being bombarded with stimulation, from computers, television, handhelds, and so forth.  This can be expected to reduce their level of attention.  But, second, this leads to a ridiculous over-diagnosis of and over-medication for ADHD.  This is supposed to be an epidemic, but it is really a fictitious epidemic.  The problem at base is that kids are made to look at "boring stuff" (Sir Ken actually uses that phrase, to cheers from teenagers on YouTube), which they simply can't do unless they are "anesthetized" with ADHD drugs.  Third, an important element of intelligence is "divergent thinking," or the ability to think of different interpretations of questions and produce many different answers.  Schooling, for reasons above stated, gradually kills this ability off, which is much stronger in kindergartners.  Our creativity is educated out of us.

What should we do instead?  At least in this speech, Robinson is annoyingly cryptic.  For instance, he says: "We should be waking them up to what is inside themselves" instead of "anesthetizing them."  (OK, so how do we do that?  What does this even mean?)  Also, we should get rid of the distinction between academic and non-academic, and between abstract, theoretical, and vocational subjects.  (But...these are reasonably coherent and useful distinctions.  You can't get rid of the distinction, in practice, without getting one of the things distinguished.  I'm guessing Sir Ken is all for getting rid of the "boring stuff," which I suppose would include the allegedly soul-killing "academic" stuff.)  Also: "Most great learning happens in groups."  (Not in my experience.  I associate group learning with precisely the standardization and anti-creativity groupthink that Robinson was bemoaning earlier.  And supposing he's right and I'm wrong: how, exactly, should we harness groups to make "great learning" happen?)

Sir Ken is a charming character, but he is mostly wrong.  I think his views, far from being especially novel or radical, reflect the mainstream of educational theory.  This pattern of educational theorizing has been going on for generations now, and one of the things that people say again and again, ironically, is how innovative and cutting-edge they are when they reheat such stuff for the umpteenth time.

But, you might ask, if Sir Ken's theorizing is mostly old hat and mainstream among educational theorists, why aren't we living out an educational utopia of self-realizing, non-academic, collaborative kids who only go to college when they really want to?  Because, of course, the theory is impractical.  It is poetic justice that somebody who thinks that we should jettison the distinction between theory and practice would be impaled on that very distinction.  Another way to put it, however, is that it is incoherent--in some cases, with itself, and in some cases, with common but often unmentioned beliefs, also known as common sense.

I'm not sure that Sir Ken mentioned any actual academic subjects such as history or mathematics.  But if you are going to castigate academics as "boring stuff," then let's get clear: you are opposing history, mathematics, science, classical literature (OK, so that was mentioned), and various other subjects.  In the same vein, when clever would-be educational reformers say that we need to get rid of the orientation around memorizing facts, they rarely specify which facts they think students shouldn't learn.  As Sir Ken himself says in this talk, he doesn't want to lower standards--of course not, that's just obvious.  But if, in the limited amount of time we have to teach our children before they're all grown up, we start emphasizing vocational subjects, then we're talking about teaching less history, less mathematics, less science, etc.  De facto, standards regarding the amount of such learning are lowered.  You can't really argue with this; it's a hard, cold fact.  The practical consequence of less emphasis on academics, on "boring stuff," is to de-emphasize teaching knowledge that, it so happens, society in general naturally prizes.  You set yourself up in opposition to school boards and parents who understandably want to raise standards so that U.S. schools remain competitive with other countries.  But, you say, what's wrong with that?  They are simply mistaken about what our educational goals should be and so, sure, you do oppose them.  Perhaps; but, again, let's get clear: are you really in favor of reducing the amount of math and history that is learned in schools?  I'm sure there are some people who follow the consequences and say "yes" to this.  But most people are like Sir Ken, who says, smugly and cracking a joke, that he, too, is in favor of raising standards.  He, like so many educational theorists, wants to have his cake and eat it too: he doesn't want to teach so much "boring stuff" in school.  But he also doesn't want to lower standards.  He no doubt wants our kids to do just as well in math and science...just without all that studying, which unrealistically requires ADHD kids to pay attention.

Similarly, just as the U.S. is in the process of adopting national education standards--i.e., taking a bold leap toward ever-greater standardization--he states that he firmly opposes standardization.  Well, I do too, which is why I'm homeschooling my boys.  But in the same speech he says that we learn best by learning in groups, collaboratively.  It is hard (not impossible, but hard) to do that very much apart from a school system.  And what is the politically practical way to create a school system without the sort of standardization Robinson dislikes?  I doubt there is any.  The government cannot and should not do anything without being accountable to the people; and how can it be accountable without adopting some reasonable rules and standards against which its performance is measured?  Besides, quite famously, the U.S. educational system still (as of this writing) lacks a national educational curriculum, and in that respect is remarkably less standardized than other countries.  The point is that as long as government is in charge of education, there are natural pressures toward the standardization that Robinson--and so many, many other staunch supporters of public education and collaborative learning--bemoans.  Again, we can't have our cake and eat it too.  If we want public schools in modern democracies, we must face up to the fact that the quite proper requirements of democratic accountability will make our public school systems greatly standardized.

Not all students should get on the academic track and go to college--opines both Professor Robinson, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of London, and a passel of other highly-degreed academic theorists.  Well, of course this is true, in general.  There are still many jobs that do not (and should not) require a college degree, and there will always be people who, for whatever reasons, won't be competitive enough either as students or in the job market to be very competitive in getting jobs that do require college degrees.  It would simply be cruel, and economically illiterate, to advise everyone to try to get a college degree.  This should be obvious to anybody who has been on the "front lines" of teaching the sort of college freshmen who quickly drop out because they should never have been admitted in the first place.  So, given that this is a truism (at least under present circumstances), why does Robinson, like so many others, feel it necessary to attack a culture in which many people are getting college degrees?  What, exactly, is the point of doing that?

If I were being very charitable, I'd say that Sir Ken simply hated the thought of people making poor life choices, being overambitious, and paying for it in the form of high debt and dashed hopes.  But, having heard his speech, I think another explanation is more likely.  His contempt for the ladder to college comes in the context of a complaint that pushing education on children "alienates" them.  He says that he was taught as a school boy that by working hard, doing well, and going to college, he'd get a good job.  (It worked out that way for him, now didn't it?)  But "our kids don't believe that," he says.  And yet "our kids" are still going to college in record numbers, so if they don't believe it, they're acting irrationally.  Anyway, he seems to be saying that the reason you shouldn't go to college is simply that the academic track features "boring stuff" which will snuff out your creativity.  Yes, as amazing as it might sound, that is what he says in his speech.  He doesn't put it in so many words, but that's essentially what he says.

While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true.

In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.  If you come out against academic education in the sense of liberal education, you really have to explain why you aren't also coming out against keeping a lot of people relatively stupid.  Sir Ken seems to have forgotten that a good, indeed, academic education changes minds; it liberates them, which is where we get the phrase "liberal education" from.  It needn't kill creativity, it can just as easily channel it and strengthen it.  But more importantly--because understanding is more important than creativity, I will be so bold as to say--it develops our understanding of ourselves, our society, and the universe we live in.  Having such an understanding does not merely make us much more employable, which it certainly does; and of course being more equal in this respect was indeed the reason for the egalitarian ideal of universal public education. But it also tends to make our minds and our lives so to speak broader or larger. To pretend that liberal education does not have this effect, to dismiss academic education as an artifact of the 19th century, is to ignore precisely the sort of training that made Sir Ken the speaker and writer that he is today.

Robinson would, I think, have a reply to this.  In his speech he says it is wrong to equate "smart" with "academic" and "non-smart" with "non-academic."  So I seem to be trading on that outdated equation.  This sounds very egalitarian, and especially nice when he says that many people who are brilliant are convinced they are not, merely because they are not "book smart"--a lovely, gracious sentiment.  After all, everybody knows smart and wise people who have relatively little book learning--and people full of book learning who lack wisdom or good sense.  So, sure, that's true; education has its failures, like any institution, and sometimes it isn't really necessary at all. But whoever denied these things?  It hardly follows that academic education doesn't tend to make people smart.  Of course it does; if it didn't, people wouldn't value such education.  When people go to school for a long time, and work hard and conscientiously, they tend to become better readers, better writers, better at math, and in general, possessed of better minds, than they had before, or than they would have in the absence of their education.  And this is, of course, ultimately the reason why people get an academic education.  I know it's rather obvious to say this, but it is, after all, an important bit of common sense that Robinson is ignoring.


25 Replies to Maria Bustillos

In a recent essay, in The Awl ("Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert"), Maria Bustillos commits a whole series of fallacies or plain mistakes and, unsurprisingly, comes to some quite wrong conclusions.  I don't have time to write anything like an essay in response, but I will offer up the following clues for Ms. Bustillos and those who are inclined to nod approvingly with her essay:

1. First, may I point out that not everybody buys that Marshall McLuhan was all that.

2. The fact that Nature stood by its research report (which was not a peer-reviewed study) means nothing whatsoever.  If you'll actually read it and apply some scholarly or scientific standards, Britannica's response was devastating, and Nature's reply thereto was quite lame.

3. There has not yet been anything approaching a credible survey of the quality of Wikipedia's articles (at least, not to my knowledge).  Nobody has shown, in studies taken individually or in aggregate, that Wikipedia's articles are even nearly as reliable as a decent encyclopedia.

4. If you ask pretty much anybody in the humanities, you will learn that the general impression that people have about Wikipedia articles on these subjects is that they are appalling and not getting any better.

5. The "bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia" is a pretentious yet brain-dead mob best likened to the boys of The Lord of the Flies.

6. It is trivial and glib to say that "Wikipedia is not perfect, but then no encyclopedia is perfect."  You might as well say that the Sistine Chapel is not perfect.  Yeah, that's true.

7. It is not, in fact, terribly significant that users can "look under the hood" of Wikipedia.  Except for Wikipedia's denizens and those unfortunate enough to caught in the crosshairs of some zealous Wikipedians using the system to commit libel without repercussion, nobody really cares what goes on on Wikipedia's talk pages.

8. When it comes to actually controversial material, the only time that there is an "attempt to strike a fair balance of views" in Wikipedia-land is when two camps with approximately equal pull in the system line up on either sides of an issue.  Otherwise, the Wikipedians with the greatest pull declare their view as "the neutral point of view."  It wasn't always this way, but it has become that way all too often.

9. I too am opposed to experts exercising unwarranted authority.  But there is an enormous number of possibilities between a world dominated by unaccountable whimsical expert opinion and a world without any experts at all.  Failing to acknowledge this is just sloppiness.

10. If you thought that that Wikipedia somehow meant the end of expertise, you'd be quite wrong.  I wrote an essay about that in Episteme. (Moreover, in writing this, I was criticized for proving something obvious.)

11. The fact that Marshall McLuhan said stuff that presciently supported Wikipedia's more questionable epistemic underpinnings is not actually very impressive.

12. Jaron Lanier has a lot of very solid insight, and it is merely puzzling to dismiss him as a "snob" who believes in "individual genius and creativity."  There's quite a bit more to Lanier and "Digital Maoism" than that.  Besides, are individual genius and creativity now passe?  Hardly.

13. Clay Shirky isn't all that, either.

14. Being "post-linear" and "post-fact" is not "thrilling" or profound.  It's merely annoying and tiresome.

15. Since when did the Britannica somehow stand for guarantees of truth?  Whoever thought so?

16. There are, of course, vast realms between the extremes of "knowledge handed down by divine inspiration" and some dodgy "post-fact society."

17. The same society can't both be "post-fact" and thrive on "knowledge [that] is produced and constructed by argument," Shirky notwithstanding.  Arguments aim at truth, i.e., to be fact-stating, and truth is a requirement of knowledge.  You can't make sense of the virtues of dialectical knowledge-production without a robust notion of truth.

18. Anybody who talks glowingly about the elimination of facts, or any such thing, simply wants the world to be safe for the propagation of his ideology by familiar, manipulable, but ultimately irrational social forces.  No true liberal can be in favor of a society in which there are no generally-accepted, objective standards of truth, because then only illiberal forces will dominate discourse.

19. Expert opinion is devalued on Wikipedia, granted-and maybe also on talk radio and its TV spin-offs, and some Internet conversations.  But now, where else in society has it been significantly devalued?

20. What does being a realist about expertise--i.e., one who believes it does exist, who believes that an expert's opinion is, on balance, more likely to be true than mine in areas of his expertise--have to do with individualism?  Surely it's more the romantic individualists who want to be unfettered by the requirements of reason, including the scientific methods and careful reasoning of experts, who are naturally inclined to devalue expertise per se.

21. Wikipedia does not in any plausible way stand for a brave new world in which competing arguments hold sway over some (fictional) monolithic expert opinion.  There have always been competing expert views; Wikipedia merely, sometimes, expresses those competing expert views when, from some professors, you might hear only one side.  Sometimes, Wikipedia doesn't even do that, because the easy politicization of collaborative text written without enforceable rules makes neutrality an elusive ideal.

22. Um, we have had the Internet for more than 20 years.

23. The writing down of knowledge is more participatory now, and that's a fine thing (or can be).  But knowledge itself is, always has been, and always will be an individual affair.  The recording of things that people take themselves to know, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, and findable via Google, does not magically transfer the epistemic fact of knowledge from the recorder even to those who happen to find the text, much less to all readers online.  Knowledge itself is considerably more difficult than that.

24. Ours is an individualistic age?  Don't make me laugh.  People who actually think for themselves--you know, real individualists--appear to me to be as rare as they ever have been.  It is a delight to meet the few who are out there, and one of the better features of the Internet is that it makes it easier to find them.  The West might be largely capitalist, but that doesn't stop us from being conformist, as any high school student could tell you.

25. The real world is considerably more complex than your narrative.


Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

Off and on, for the last 2.5 years, I have been answering questions from poet and critic Dan Schneider, who has conducted a series of long, interesting interviews.  My interview, posted a few hours ago, is #27 in the series; Schneider himself gives the interview four stars (out of five).  That should tell you something about the Schneider: he's the kind of guy who asks questions that take hours and hours to answer, and then has the audacity to rate the answers.  The questions cover my life, Wikipedia, Citizendium, philosophy, and my reactions to various idiosyncratic puzzles that Schneider has come up with.  If you were to ask why I agreed to do an interview that ended up being 40,000 words long, without any compensation or anything, I'd say that I didn't know it was going to be that long, and Dan Schneider was very persistent.  And maybe this reveals just how vain I really am.


A common error of school lessons, or, why I'm homeschooling

Here is one reason why I'm homeschooling, and why I would probably never send my children to a school--even most private schools.

I was looking over some instructional material recently (something I do often these days).  It was a sample curriculum for teachers, explaining how, in one lesson, they should teach Kindergartners the principle that we say aloud one word for each word we see written down.  Immediately I had the thought that this would be a pointless waste of time for most children.  Many children would have already gotten that lesson, and it would be boring to go over it; and if any child hadn't gotten it, it seems unlikely that any amount of time trying to teach it would likely be wasted, because the principle in question is highly abstract.

Indeed, because the principle is so abstract, both categories of children--those who understood the principle implicitly, and those who hadn't--would probably be puzzled by the attempt to explain something so abstract explicitly, and then during lesson time, they would instead focus on other aspects of the words and sentences discussed.  In other words, they would simply take what was supposed to be careful, by-the-hand explanation of some features of letters, words, and sentences, and instead use it as fodder for whatever random ruminations they have about letters, words, and sentences.  The result will be, on the one hand, a combination of dull head-nodding and robotic participation, and on the other hand, puzzlement about this or that aspect of the language on display which a student happens to notice, but is not explained.  The smarter (or luckier) students will learn much from the examples, regardless of what the ostensible lesson of the day is; the duller (or unluckier) students will not glean so much, and simply find the whole exercise boring.

Evidently, the curriculum designers had carefully analyzed, conceptually, the steps that a child must have gone through in order to learn how to read.  The idea is that each step is, then, to be explicitly taught to children.  "After all," the designers must be reasoning to themselves, "what better way to guarantee that a child understands a principle than to try, creatively of course, to teach the principle?  Once a child has been exposed to all the different principles needed to learn language, they'll be fluent readers!"  The designers even evidently prise out principles that are used, but probably never grasped explicitly, by children--such as that there is one spoken word for each written word--and attempt to teach those explicitly.

You might think that I am criticizing the curriculum designers because they are having the teachers teach explicitly, that they are being "instructivists" instead of "constructivists."  But that would be wrong; my criticism has nothing to do with instructivism versus constructivism.  It has to do with the order in which things are taught and the folly of standardizing what can't effectively be standardized.

There is a similar and well-discussed problem with the now-old movement called the "New Math," in which very abstract principles of mathematics, some of which were heretofore not discussed until high school or college, are taught to children.  The suggestion was that it would make children deep thinkers by teaching them about set theory and variables and other extremely abstract stuff when they are in early elementary grades.  The geniuses behind this movement evidently looked at the mathematics curriculum, noticed that, conceptually, it can be analyzed as Russell and Whitehead did in Principia Mathematica, and then had the brilliant idea that by teaching such principles to young children, one would give them a deeper understanding of mathematics.  A more boneheaded pedagogical notion can scarcely be conceived.  The entire movement, like that reading exercise I saw, is based on a very simple-minded error:

It is most efficient to teach children according to the order in which we, abstract-thinking adults, break down and analyze things logically.  Doing so ensures that children understand the matter deeply and critically, as we adults do; they cannot fail to comprehend if simple but powerful principles are introduced explicitly.

That, I'm saying, is wrong, but a lot of educationists seem to believe it and design our children's schooling based on it.

This is also what phonics workbooks and curricula often do--thereby giving phonics a bad name, when in fact as a method it is the best available.  You just don't have to get children to learn the abstract theory of phonics, of course, nor do you have to expect every child to learn the same phonics rules at the same time.

Anyway, in the grip of this widespread error, curriculum designers proceed to lay out scripts, in textbooks, workbooks, and lesson plans, that teachers and their charges are supposed to follow.  Students thereby systematically absorb the knowledge that the designers have broken into convenient, bite-sized chunks, presented in creative, fun, engaging ways--or that's how it's supposed to work.  But it doesn't work that way.  This kind of pedagogy obviously can work at the high school and college level, when the students are capable of abstract thought and gleaning abstract principles efficiently, but it obviously does not work for younger children.

As everyone (who has not been confused by college professors) knows perfectly well, children learn abstract principles gradually, by inferring from many instances.  Exactly when any given child happens to grasp a principle--when the light goes on--is completely unpredictable.  You simply cannot guarantee, for a classroom of students, that all of the lights will go on at once.  Now, I don't doubt that this can happen, and probably has happened, but only occasionally and with a really brilliant teacher and under highly contrived circumstances.  But if I am correct and children do learn different abstract principles at different times and under different circumstances, mainly by reflecting on many instances, then attempting to lead a whole class through by the hand, getting them all to grasp the principles at the same time and in the same order, is a fool's errand.

This is true not just of learning to read and mathematics, subjects which can be, after all, highly abstract.  Something similar is also quite true of more concrete subjects such as history and literature.  Different children fail to understand different pieces of vocabulary, all of which are essential to understanding a narrative.  Moreover, some children are ready to read a certain book, or are highly interested in it, while others aren't prepared (they don't have some basic concepts) or will never be interested in it.  What they need, of course, is individualized attention to the vocabulary of texts and individualized choices of texts.  The error (similar to the one identified above) seems to be:

We have a rough-and-ready idea of what children should read, and what topics they should study; we've got the book list and standards all mapped out.  The way to guarantee that students learn these texts and topics is quite simply to prescribe them and lead the children through them all at once, teaching the things they need to know.

Wrong.  As an advocate of liberal education, I of course agree that it's important to read certain books; I have nothing against book lists or even standards, per se.  But when books are best to read, and when certain standards are addressed, is, like it or not, a highly individual affair.  I'm merely pointing out a fact about the minds of children: they are ready to absorb things at different times, and the best way to teach them those books and topics differs greatly because abilities and proclivities develop differently.

When you get down to it, the problem really lies in a system that attempts to prescribe, centralize, or standardize the development of the human mind, which is necessarily an individual affair.  This, ultimately, is why we're homeschooling.  Most schools operate on the notion that the learning process can be scripted and applied to all equally, and that the script is best written by replicating some theoretician's abstract analysis of subject matters and skills, and then requiring all students to build up their mental contents by following the script.  Homeschooling allows the parent and child to work together to determine what the next best thing to learn is, and what the best way to learn it is.  It is grounded in the reality of what an individual boy or girl understands and appreciates right now, and builds logically on that.  Indeed, as a philosopher, I am very much a fan of system-building and abstract analysis, and as my own son's knowledge grows, I find myself thinking constantly about which part of the "edifice" should be constructed next.  In this way, a wholly individualized, ad hoc approach to education can still be fairly systematic.  But the thing that should be systematic is not the curriculum, but the child's mental development.