Sunday, 11 March 2007

14. Can education destroy knowledge?

Many people assume that the purpose of education is to make us think. We live in historically unusual societies where this is indeed often the case. Yet education can just as well be seen as a device to constrain thought. It is often used to direct people to think acceptable ideas, so that the only thoughts which are thinkable are those which one’s teachers (and the society as a whole) consider appropriate.

Knowledge has been passed on through most of history by word of mouth. This does not allow much criticism. Nothing is written down, so different versions cannot easily be compared. There is no external Truth or Way which provides an orthodoxy against which there can be deviations. Formally recognized differences came later with the development of writing. Such writing was again usually monopolized by the rulers in order to preserve the status quo. It was not an instrument for questioning the system.

The tendency thereafter was for those who developed writing systems to use them to instil traditional and accepted wisdom. The educators concentrated on the classics, whether religious, Buddhist sutras, Sanskritic texts, the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, or secular, the writings of Confucius or Aristotle. The assumption was that the truth had all been revealed long ago. The task of education was to instil this truth in young minds through repetition. There was no questioning, just some explanation, elaboration, teasing out obscure meanings.

This tendency is re-enforced as wealth increases. There are more priests and teachers, the ability to pass the examinations on the texts becomes ever more important as the key to power and status, the period of education becomes ever longer. Nowadays, where once a good school grade might get you a reasonable job, then a good Bachelor of Arts or Science at University, now you need a doctorate as well, so it was even more so in the past.

In this expansion and formalization of education there is little pressure towards independent, questioning, thought in the sense of encouraging originality, doubt and difference of opinion. Mental worlds are, if anything, increasingly closed. Truth is asserted and given sanction by being written down. Knowledge of the world is unquestioned and what is read is self-evidently true.

This tendency, as we see it developing in many great traditions of scholarship, ended up after some centuries in an almost total lack of change. There is nothing new to be said or thought. The aim is not to lose any of the accumulated wisdom. The charismatic founder’s thought, Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, is distributed to his followers who earn a reasonable living by interpreting it and passing it on to their pupils.

The tendency shows itself in the appeal to authority and the learning of things by heart without really understanding them. Persuading, intriguing, encouraging young minds is very strenuous work; much easier to assert and dominate using authority and telling students merely to copy down the wisdom.

If changes are to be made, they must be so small that they are invisible to the teachers. Tinkering on the edges of knowledge, ‘shifting the mental furniture around’, is all that is allowed. Since this requires much less mental effort and often brings prizes and even serious wealth, tinkering is often preferable to trying to make advances in deeper understanding even today.

Another widespread tendency is towards a situation where for every really creative thinker, there are dozens of less talented critics. It is often easier to live by destroying other people's ideas than generating many of one’s own. The 'frogs in a well' syndrome, where humans, like frogs, down any frog escaping from the well, the misery of all is better than the escape of a few, according to an Indian proverb, is widespread. It is combined with the growing ethic of ‘limited good’, where it comes to be believed that another's success does one down, another’s failure pushes one up. These are insidious pressures working against the increase of knowledge. Many have experienced this in schools when peer pressure will soon create an anti-work, anti-achievement ethic where a ‘swot’ is picked on.

Why does knowledge dry up?

Knowledge tends to become private. Yet over-privatization, over concentration on intellectual property rights, sets individual against individual, organization against organization in a world of secrecy and excessive competition. Good science usually operates best in an open market for ideas and through co-operation

There are periods when an individual or institution may be forced into secrecy for a while, as in the famous case of Charles Darwin’s concealing of his theory of the evolution of species for over twenty years because of fear of upsetting the religious hierarchy. But the ultimate aim is to publish the results and earn praise and gratitude by providing a rung upon which others can climb.

In contrast, in many societies all deep knowledge is by definition esoteric (specialist and secret). It is developed by a particular family, sect or organization and the widespread feeling is that it should never be made generally known. Yet all this is the opposite to modern science. Here where findings are, in theory, published and open so that the hypothesis can be fully tested by colleagues. The scientists and philosophers of Europe lived off their ability to spread their knowledge. The intellectual or priest in many societies lives off his monopoly of secret knowledge.

All this works against the rapid expansion of reliable knowledge. In a world of falsehood and deception, of secrecy and privatization, where is the 'reliable' to come from? For most people nothing can be relied on, least of all information from non-related strangers. Why should others tell us the 'truth'?

Knowledge is usually costly to acquire. Once gained, like other capital it should pay dividends. Those who have worked themselves up to the top of the knowledge tree are hardly likely to favour radical thinkers who are hacking away at the trunk. Established systems of knowledge are not dislodged by rational argument but because the older generation die off or their theories just feel stale and out of fashion. In many societies the senior generation ensures that its successors are so indoctrinated that they never threaten the system.

Why do we know more and understand less?

A hunter-gatherer did not need huge libraries, encyclopaedias or computer databases to store accumulated information. He or she could probably remember well enough all the important things that had occurred in the previous week. If she wanted to catch a new animal or climb a strange tree, most of the general skills learnt as a child would be enough for the task. We are different.

You may think that as a species we have perhaps become more intelligent over the last fifty thousand years, individually more likely to discover new things using more powerful intellectual tools. This is undoubtedly the case at the level of the whole society. But, at the level of single individuals, I do not know of convincing evidence that there has been such obvious progression. Our brains have not grown, nor is there evidence of new mental processes.

In many ways we seem, individually, to know less and less about how the world works and find it more difficult as individuals to make a major discovery. Indeed, it could be argued that there is more ignorance, forgetting and wasted research effort in the world today than there has ever been in history. If this is the case, why is it so? Why do many societies and individuals seem to choose paths which lead their minds to become more closed and how, occasionally, have individuals and civilizations briefly escaped from these paths?

As knowledge increases through the rapid accumulation of a mass of details, it becomes more and more difficult to see the overall pattern. This is why, for example, a number of enormously learned people have produced so little and tend to produce less and less as they grow older.

Each new piece of information, when added to a complex, inter-acting system, alters all the existing information. Thus to add a new piece becomes more and more difficult. We know this from our practical experience of storing our belongings. With one drawer with ten things in, it is not difficult to decide where to store or to find objects. With ten drawers, each with twenty objects it is far more difficult. Indeed the difficulty of the task grows at an increasing rate.

To find an item amongst ten thousand objects is much more than ten times as difficult as finding it amongst one thousand. These laws explain why the 'advancement of learning', the increase of knowledge, is so very difficult and seems to become increasingly so.

In our early days or when starting a new discipline, it is easy to be radical, to make large advances, everything is open and fluid, the returns on a little labour are great. The easiest advances are made first and difficult terrain can be avoided. But after a time the best mental land is occupied and one has to move to marginal areas. Furthermore each new piece of information has to be fitted into an increasingly complex pre-existing set of information. Even minor changes come up against vast entrenched obstacles. It seems only possible to tinker at the boundaries. And we may know in our hearts that as the philosopher Karl Popper put it, ‘Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.’

Do computers help?

The problems of knowledge storage and retrieval become greater and greater. Each major stage reaches a ceiling of what can be held and achieved efficiently. Oral cultures can only hold a very small amount of reliable information about the world. Writing created the possibility of libraries of information. Printing extended this possibility enormously through multiplication of texts. By the end of the nineteenth century the system of hand-indexing using slips of paper had reached its limits. Only in the 1960s, with the development of computers, were new potentials for storage and retrieval reached.

At the moment, we are in the position that the increase of computing power (speed, size of storage media, searching methods) is in advance of the increase in information. The laws of information overload and saturation have been temporarily suspended by technological developments based on science.

Yet there is another area where computers do not help much. Radical innovations become more difficult because the time and energy it takes to master all the professional expertise needed to understand and then change a system starts to exceed any human being’s normal capacity. At the start of a new discipline, an amateur can make huge advances by pursuing what is really a part-time hobby. By the late nineteenth century, it required highly organized and disciplined teams to carry out major research.

The increasing complexity is one reason why we often see that conservatism, routinization and ritualization increases. This happens when processes become more complex, yet the understanding of the way in which they work, that is the reliable knowledge content, does not increase proportionately. This is the trap shown for example by the history of the making of Japanese swords. This technique reached a peak by about 1200 and was scarcely improved over the next five hundred years. In a situation such as this, the only way to make sure such complex processes continue to work is not to change them.

This 'lock-in' occurs in all forms of knowledge. It occurs in secular processes (making things, education) and also in most religions (ritualization and formalism) and politics. Thus the knowledge component levels off or even decreases; the almost exclusive task is to remember how to repeat the words and actions which were passed on by the ancestors and seemed to work. This is the opposite of innovation and invention which deliberately force us to forget, superseding previous knowledge, making it 'out of date' and irrelevant. Very few civilizations have avoided this tendency towards conservatism for more than a few hundred years.

What blocks our thought?

One well known difficulty in finding new things has been termed by the cognitive psychologist David Perkins the ‘oasis trap’. Knowledge becomes centred in an ‘oasis’ of rich findings and it is just too risky and expensive to leave that still productive and well watered zone. So people stick to what they know. This is what happened to a certain extent in China and Japan over many centuries. The huge physical distances between centres of knowledge in China, and the fact that even if one made the effort to travel to another it usually turned out to be little different to that which one had left, discouraged exploration.

In Europe in the last eight hundred years there were numerous oases, separate national cultures a few hundred miles apart, yet each with a very different intellectual flora and fauna. This network of ‘oases’, each independently developing thoughts and then communicating with other oases is perhaps the ideal one for the development of new ideas.

Another way of putting it is that in order to advance one often has to go backward, go down hill before one can go up. It is not possible to proceed steadily up the slope of increased knowledge for it becomes necessary to make a costly detour.

To do so requires great faith, self-confidence and ample patronage. These are assets which many Europeans seem to have had at certain points in history. Yet they are pretty unusual in general. In order for an entirely new technology to come up and replace an old one, such as a new weapon or ship, there may be quite a long period when the new is less efficient than the old, even though its potential is far greater. There is a long, loss-making, period when the older views can outpace the new, untried and inexperienced ones. Who is going to bear the long development costs?

This difficulty also applies to scholarly progress; often the older, experienced, intellectuals can effectively destroy the half-baked, if ultimately more powerful and 'true' new ideas. Very often, the innovators give up, discouraged. Or they are left hanging from some literal or metaphorical cross. As Oscar Wilde noted, ‘An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all’. Yet, if it is dangerous, we have to be careful. Sometimes the risk is not worth taking.

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