Demanding Precision II
Bill Long 8/7/09
The Rest of the Story
I still haven't written a book on Joseph's family dysfunction though it is deeply "in me." But I recall the fervor and energy I devoted for about six or seven days to the close reading of 14 chapters of the Hebrew text, the "fleshing out" of dozens of directions that sermons/talks could go from the narrative, and the pure enjoyment at my rediscovery of the story of Joseph. I remember having to "limit" my thoughts to just three or four sermons, which I delivered that Fall. I remember also thinking at the time that this was my way of learning. If I was called upon to deliver a few talks, I would go exhaustively into the subject and have the talks reflect just the slightest tip of the iceberg of my knowledge. The practical meaning of this in my reading of the Bible, for example, was that I would never just look at the lectionary text for the morning but that I needed to know "cold" the entire book, in the original language, in which the story or text was found". I had to do this for my own sake, to have a deep enough "well of knowledge so that I could derive maximum pleasure and benefit from the text.
It is this method of "complete" knowledge mastery as well as the presentation of it in precise formulations that really has been foundational for my later learning attempts. If the professors when I was in law school from 1996-1999 gave us a case to read, I would also want to read, or at least know the relevant facts of, all the cases cited in the first case. If I didn't fully understand a concept, I would construct vast histories of it to see how the idea evolved, since I was convinced that if I was confused by a subject it was probably because confusion was introduced as the subject was considered somewhere along the line. I had to ferret out the confusion, and see the precise place where a decision was made to take an interpretive detour that confused me today. Only later did I also conclude that much confusion in ideas exists because authors and editors don't present material in a way that aids understanding.
Branching to Other Fields
Gradually, as I began to employ this "precision" method in my work, I saw that I began to discover fields "on my own," and that I needed fewer and fewer books to "help" explain things for me. I realized that everything in learning was really quite simple; that there were no "complex" issues--even though there frequently were issues that were poorly presented by the "experts." You just had to take your time, identify the steps you needed to take to learn something and then find the information that satisfied your needs. There always would be further directions to take your learning, and so a decision needed to be made about how deeply to take any project. But all these things were easy calls once the basic structure of learning and information was available. I tended increasingly to avoid books on a subject because books are too hard for almost anyone to write.
Because so few people can explain a subject well or even know it very thoroughly, I decided that in most of my intellectual endeavors I had to/have to "build it" on my own. The reason? I just want to take too many "detours" along the way when I am reading someone else. Or, to put it in different language, I have internal demands for knowledge that don't seem to be met by many books. Or, what happens more frequently, I find an imprecise or unclear reference, a fact that does not build upon another fact or argument, and I become discouraged. Why fight against someone who is supposed to be making something clear for you?
Thus, my life is based upon fairly detailed and wide-ranging studies of things that form the basis of my writing and speaking. I am driven in my study by questions of my own making. I know how to raise questions in my mind in order for things to "make sense" to me. I know how to build knowledge at a rate and pace that works for me. I know when to introduce additional layers of abstraction or complexity so that they actually are not abstractions but serve as practical ligaments to "tie down" my knowledge.
An Example of Present Learning
An example of the latter emerges from my current study on the identification and appreciation of flowering plants. There are about 400,000 species of these things around, according to most scholars, and they carry with them deep lessons about life and learning. They also, of course, so show off their beauty that I am completely entranced by them. But I need to pursue my knowledge of them in a way that "works" for me. This means that I begin with the "practicalities"--the plants themsevles. I see one right before me; I touch it; smell it; look at it; make notes about it; impress it on my mind; go home and look it up with pictures and further descriptions of it; learn the Latin names; inquire why it is so named and what the name means. I do all this so that I can get precise information about the plant. But then, somewhere along the line, I will want to branch out to the families of plants--the 450-460 "groupings" of like plants that "explain" this part of the world much better. But I don't move to "families" until I know enough of the particulars so that the "family" concept makes complete sense. Indeed, I think this is the method that will be useful to "revamp" categories/families of plants in the future, along, of course, with fresh DNA knowledge of plants.
Early in my teaching career in Sterling, KS (1990-96), I recall a meeting with a faculty committee which included one of the senior members of the faculty. I had just made a point about something, and he responded, in a good spirit, "We will try to provide the precision that Bill has requested." I know the issue didn't have to do with how one framed knowledge, but I recall my colleague's response to me. Already, by 1990 or 1991, then, my quest for precision was taking over my life. Nineteen years later, I am extending that to every area of my investigation. Now the two major tasks, with respect to precision, are how to present all things I know in a beautiful way to readers/hearers and how and whether to "call" others on their lack of precision...