Knowledge Discovery and Creation I
Bill Long 11/1/10
An Adjunct of Clear Thinking
It helps little to be able to think clearly about things if you have no knowledge with which to equip your clear mind. The person who will accomplish much in life and be admired far and wide is a clear thinker who also has amassed loads of knowledge in one or many areas. Because a clear thinker is able to express ideas with crystalline perspicuity, the addition of a deep knowledge will bring a flavor, conviction, and an angle on learning and interpretation of the world that will find loads of adherents. In these essays I will discuss how you amass the kind of knowledge that, when combined with clear thinking, makes you the most impressive person at or on the school/office/planet.
Three things are necessary to be this kind of person: lucid thinking and expression; assembly of stores of knowledge; awareness of how to organize the knowledge. I will speak about the middle one (assembly of stores of knowledge) in these essys and hope to get to the last topic (the organization of the knowledge) at a later time. I have already discussed some of my ideas in my book It's All the Basics: Teaching and Learning for the 21st Century.
A person who does these three things would be like a Jack LaLanne of the mind. I hope you know of Jack (1914-). This 96 year-old has been, for 70 years, the voice of physical fitness, nutrition and extreme expenditure of physical effort in order to live a good life. My contention is that you can become a "Jack LaLanne of the mind" through the triple-disciplines of clear thinking, knowledge amassment and knowledge organization. Let's talk in these three essays about knowledge amassment or accumulation.
Knowledge for the Sake of Knowledge?
I often run into people who wonder if I am just talking about accumulating knowledge "for the sake of knowledge." I ask them what they mean and they either don't know what they mean or they say that they mean knowledge only for the sake of accumulation and not for the good of anyone in particular. I say I am as much into knowledge for its own sake as a person who works out is interested in "exercise for its own sake." Of course we believe that exercise helps the body and that such exercise is good for us--whether or not it is "for its own sake." Why not adopt the same philosophy regarding the exercise of the mind? It may be good to stave off Alzheimer's. It may be good to keep you alert. It may be good to enable you to connect with other people regarding their lives. It will gives you understanding of the world. It will gives you visual or verbal pictures to help you understand realities from your sphere of living that were confusing to you. You accumulate knowledge because you know that it is as vital to good health as is a trip to the gym or a lap around the track. If you don't do it, you suffer. Thus, let's lay aside this "knowledge for its own sake"-type of answer. Though knowledge accumulation may be overdone, just as one can injure the body with too much exercise, it rarely is. And, as I will argue below, the habit of knowledge amassment is the finest way to spark creativity that I know. Just as physical fitness in general allows you to do all kinds of physical activities, so knowledge amassment leads to all kinds of hidden benefits of understanding, insight and communication.
Three Types of Knowledge Amassment
Knowledge is most often intentionally gained in three types of situations or venues: (1) as an adjunct of your daily life employment or activity; (2) as a special study undertaken for a specific reason; or (3) as a process of intellectual "wandering" or "exploration" without any apparent goal in sight. Knowledge is, of course, something that we accumulate in much less intentional ways, but that isn't my interest here. In order to maximize the knowledge acquisition and retention, you need to balance these three venues of learning. Let's talk about each, in reverse order.
Often overlooked is the importance of type (3) learning. By (3) I mean a time for wandering in the corridors of learning, so to speak, pushing doors gently that open to rooms you haven't yet investigated, being totally open to the words and phenomena that come from this seemingly undirected manner of learning. Or, to change the analogy, this is like wandering in the library and randomly taking down books from the shelves, digging into them and becoming "lost" in the worlds they describe. I try to devote about 1 day of this type of learning for each 15 of the others, and each time I do this I discover both the most amazing things (next essays will describe some of my learning) and the most mundane things that actually make me a better learner, a more creative person, and a more careful and precise thinker. You really have to be quite confident in yourself in order to take one whole day (or a large part of it) just to do this, for unless you are extremely self-confident you will hear inner voices, or an important person in your life, trying to dissuade you from "wasting your time" on "useless" activities. But you need to work through those accusations because some of the learning in these days is the most precious you will ever do.
(2) suggests a kind of learning that either equips one to be better able to do (1) or is undertaken so that one might develop an expertise in an area not particularly related to "work." The former might be a course of study to improve one's possibility of earning a higher wage. The latter might be something to add to one's pleasure in life, such as undertaking a study of French wines; or broaden the scope of one's acquaintances and understanding, such as learning a new language or becoming an "expert" in an area beyond your work. For years there was a tradition in British learning where a professional person would also develop such specialized and expert knowledge in an area beyond his/her work that s/he would become almost a "world expert" in the new subject. For example, early in my career (about 35 years ago), I met a retired professor of religion who just happened to be one of the world's expert on WWII-style submarines. I am not suggesting that one has to do that; I am saying that people often devote a lot of attention to developing a secondary area of knowledge, whether or not there is a direct economic benefit for doing this.
(1) is the learning you do as a result of your employment (work) or your status (student, stay-at-home mom, etc.). You are generally either paid to learn things here or you pay for the privilege, though you can also be a volunteer. This is the kind of knowledge we usually honor in our world. The people who have been litigation attorneys for 25 years, for example, are the legal commentators to explain to everyone what a particular case is about. We ask professional economists about the future of employment, housing prices, etc. Most people consider this learning to be the most valuable because it is remunerative and it allows opportunity for professional recognition and advancement. Each knowledge-area has its own language, materials, journals, conferences, mini-celebrities, assholes and pecking order.
Now we are ready to look at them more closely, especially (3).