11 October 2013

On knowing what to look up...

A few weeks ago, Harry Webb had a piece at WebsOf Substance on the 'The myth of the myth of the myth that “you can always just look it up”'. (I didn't quite get the 'meta-myth' construction in the title.) It involved the place of factual knowledge in education in the world of Google.

I was reminded of a rambling recent post of mine which, come to think of it, shared that meta-construction in the title--'On reflection on reflection...' But it concluded with a reference to Nietzsche, in the interests of rubbishing critical theory (Frankfurt School version). I was quite proud of it at the time, although as so often in my writing, on reflection it was tainted with academic pretension and posturing.

What I had enjoyed about writing it, however, was an old-fashioned sense of being able to reach into memory and find the the idea and the reference--and the delight of being able to pick up the right physical book from my shelf (Walter Kaufmann's The Portable Nietzsche New York, Viking, 1954) to find the note. I knew where to look it up. There wasn't really a key-word, or a concept I could have Googled; there is a vast universe of knowledge out there that I don't know I don't know, so I would have nowhere to start, but in this case my first steps were based in memory. And that is absolutely necessary.

I have some slightly odd ideas (see this page and its links, for an example) which fascinate me, and I am sure that they are far from original. There must be a body of scholarship about them, but somehow there does not seem to have grown up any generally recognised terminology with which to label and access them, so all efforts to set up a conversation about them are pretty well doomed. (That's leaving aside the probability that the ideas lack merit or validity--but even then one would expect them to be attacked. Unless no-one feels qualified to attack them because they don't know what else is out there...)

It was the same with the ideas which underpinned the topic of my doctoral thesis; I found brief mentions of what I eventually called "learning as loss", they came from theology, anthropology, psychology, psychotherapy, management... (and not much from education), but none of them had "legs". They were entertained and then dropped, probably because the absence of a shared language suggested these brief florescences were outliers.

Why? Is this a consequence of the fragmentation of disciplines into silos which do not communicate? And the impossibility of interdisciplinarity? The absence of a shared cultural base among researchers?

I only know that despite Descartes, you can't start from knowing nothing.

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