Simple truth miscalled simplicity


It’s interesting: the older I get, the more I prefer the doing to the done; the learning to the knowledge; the journey to the destination. That’s backwards isn’t it? Counterintuitive. All these years I have been told that the reward is in the prize, not the race… Where have I gone wrong?

Even the very concept of wrong itself, presupposes a judgement after it is all over; a summation only possible once there is enough evidence to arrive at a conclusion -itself a destination… Or, having survived this long, am I merely saddened that I, too, have almost finished the race; that I am forced to look back with envy at those who are still in the midst of the journey -those who are still in the gerund of their lives…?

Reminiscence may be all that is left for some of us, and yet there is value in leafing through the album, identifying those who are not quite us anymore, realizing that we may never arrive to judge their progress. Still… who are the most alive -those who merely look back in time, or those in the picture still living it?

I have to admit that this somewhat morbid analysis was occasioned by an essay I happened upon quite by accident. It was entitled ‘Imagine you could insert knowledge into your mind: should you?’ written by John Tillson, at the time a senior lecturer in the philosophy of education at Liverpool Hope University in the UK. Drawing upon ideas from the famous The Matrix movie, he wonders whether schooling may be a waste: https://psyche.co/ideas/imagine-you-could-insert-knowledge-into-your-mind-should-you

Whether, in essence, ‘there’s an enormous opportunity cost to the time spent consuming all that information and building all the skills demanded by compulsory education’ -especially if there were a way to bypass it. In other words, does the value of what is learned reside in the end result -the skill, or the knowledge- or in the process of its acquisition? Does earning a prize –deserving it- in fact constitute the value of the prize? I am reminded of that species of baseball game for very young children where the ball is propped on a little plastic pole and the batter need only hit it to enable them to run to first base. I’m sure it serves its purpose of including each and every child no matter their ability -it would be very uncharitable for me to suggest otherwise- and yet I wonder about the value of a prize if everybody gets one.

But back to Tillson’s essay. As he says, ‘It’s the value of insertion, rather than the value of knowledge itself (or of other desirable states), that I’m interested in here. So whether knowledge insertion is desirable depends on the relative merits of simply having knowledge put in your head, as opposed to arriving at it in other ways.’ He picks away at the arguments that acquisition of knowledge is a value in and of itself, quite apart from any wisdom that results. Unfortunately, the author doth protest too much, methinks (with apologies to any gender disparities with Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). For example, he dismisses the value of the time it takes to learn something  even though it may expose the learner not only to chance -and unexpected lessons- along the way but also to the personality and influence of the teachers and parents who administer the knowledge.

One  argument he dismisses is the one held by most educational researchers about the ‘intrinsic value of the emotional, intuitive, imaginative, engaged, attentive and responsible aspects of the pedagogical relationship. Not only might it be good for teachers to teach, but it might be good for their students to be taught; being cared for, attended to, and coming to maturity through a history of having one’s attention directed and redirected by trusted and trustworthy others could be good for us. There seems to be inherent value in guiding and being guided towards knowledge in relation with others, rather than merely having or stumbling across it.’ But if, he reluctantly concedes, ‘missing out on such relationships was an appreciable loss, then perhaps we should forego some inserted knowledge (and the opportunities it creates) in order to preserve them.’ Uhmm, perhaps I sense a tiny crack in the otherwise sturdy foundations of his (and the Matrix) hypothesis.

But, it seems to me that another major objection to the effortlessness of knowledge insertion is whether the individual thus injected would recognize themselves. Indeed, Tillson accepts that ‘it would certainly seem unwise to download a comprehensive and abrupt set of changes to what one believes, values, desires and remembers. In these circumstances, it would be hard to regard yourself as having survived knowledge insertion.’ Indeed, ‘It’s true that our journeys sometimes form part of our goals: when our purpose is to climb a mountain rather than simply be at the top; to score a goal rather than just place a ball in the back of net. In those cases, knowledge insertion might not help us achieve what we want… we can still appreciate that teacher-student relationships are valuable in themselves, and that our efforts and achievements are valuable precisely because they’re unavoidable for reaching our goals.’

It seems to me that the act of reading and evaluating his hypotheticals -his thought experiment- is a good example of why the journey as opposed to the destination is so important. So valuable. The process of understanding and weighing alternatives to his arguments underscores the merit of learning and deciding on appropriate pathways on the route to whatever knowledge lies patiently waiting for us at the end.

As I suggested at the beginning of this jeremiad, there’s an intrinsic value in finding one’s way along the route, exploring detours, and maybe even getting lost occasionally, that rewards the finish line with more than garlands: because there is never a finish line -not really. Knowledge leads only to more questions, more journeys, more learning. The goal, surely, is not so much holding the ribbon in your hand, but reaching for it  -forever reaching…

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