Knowledge Discovery and Creation II
Bill Long 11/1/10
Wandering Into Understanding
I think life is happiest when you attempt some kind of balance by honoring of all three of these just-discussed learning categories or venues. Taking my life as an example, I learn things "for work" (category 1) through my help of my clients. I learn things about education in 2010-11; about autism; about politics; about childhood disabilities. I earn enough from a few large clients so that I can also devote considerable attention to (2) and (3). I know of tons of people who have to devote almost all their attention to (1) and would just LOVE to do things in (2) or (3) but, because of their sense of their financial needs, they don't or can't allow themselves to pursue their true loves. My advice is to do all you can to limit your other needs in life so that you can minimize (1) if it doesn't give you particular pleasure, so that you have the time do do (2) and/or (3). Why spend all one's life just earning enough so that we can return to work? Take the bold step, after careful consideration, of plunging into (2) and (3).
At present I have arranged my life so that I have most time for (2) and (3). I would say that I can devote about 80% of my time to pursue these things. So, I spend a considerable time in writing books and studying languages. If someone asks me what I "do," then, I say, "I help clients; I think a lot; I write books; I learn languages." You have to be extremely disciplined on your own to pursue a life where (2) is the major focus. Normally we take on (2) because we need to because of (1) or because we want a "break" from (1). I pursue (2) now as my major (pre)occupation and try to spend time each day in it. So, this method saw me produce four books in 2009; this year it has seen me begin three languages that have scripts, histories and structures that are far different from each other and from Western languages: Mandarin Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit. I love each of them, for different reasons, but each challenges me in incredible ways. Just as the most fit person in the world realizes that his/her workouts have to "kick his/her butt" and make them look as if s/he is about as able as a two-year-old, so my mental workouts each day convince me that I know very little indeed. But, I need to do so in order to shine in the world.
Though there is much to say (and will be said elsewhere) about type (2) knowledge acquisition, this and the next essay will focus on that last form of knowledge amassment--knowledge by wandering.
Again, by "wandering" I mean a type of search for knowledge that doesn't have any particular aim; it simply begins at a certain place, follows through on some searching and ends when a certain time is over. I would like to share the results of one such wandering I did, both because it allows me to solidify what I learned and it shows that through this method interesting and potentially significant discoveries are made.
A "Method" in the Wandering?
Knowledge "wandering" isn't simply driving "ins Blau" ("into the blue") as the Germans say. It isn't simply leaping from one topic to another without trying to absorb material, seek connections, or relate to previously-learned knowledge. Thus, three preliminary points regarding "wandering" knowledge are that: (i) it begins with a subject that has been fruitful for me in the past; (ii) it proceeds by allowing byways into related areas; and (iii) it should be "chunked" in "knowledge bits" so that one does not try to learn more than seven "chunks" of knowledge in the study. I discuss the how seven is an optimal number of chunks of knowledge in my recent book It's All the Basics: Teaching & Learning for the 21st Century.
I begin with a subject that has previously been fruitful because I know it has the potential for further fruitfulness. Let me take, for example, my own situation today. I know that studying plants or animals is fruitful for me for at least three reasons: (a) the Latin (Linnaean) names take me to deeper levels of understanding, both of history and geography; (b) the habits of the plants/animals help me understand humanity better and enlarge my imagination; and (c) as I am looking up the Latinate words in the dictionary for further enlightenment, my eyes fall on neighboring words, and they take me on further beneficial journeys. With this in mind, here are the seven "chunks" of knowledge gleaned today from my "animal" journey.
In my reading (and you should do a lot of it, highlighting pages on the Internet or ideas in a book or article you want to explore further), I marked a page of the "zoo facts" of the Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens on the Island of Hawai'i. I began to read about the reptiles. The first one was "Green Anole Lizard" or Anolis carolinensis porcatus. I was off to the races.
Chunk One: There is a picture, and so I studied the picture and the description. The green lizard has a very interesting fan-shaped dewlap (sagging chin), which it activates when it is afraid or emotionally charged. I found a video online of the dewlap at full extent. Fascinating. Then, I looked at the name. The word "Anolis" is a native name in the Antilles for the lizard, which looks almost like the gecko in the Geico commercial. You can look up how the Antilles (roughly the West Indies) received their name--from a sort of floating island/archipelago West of the Canaries and East of India in medieval European maps. So, the world of medieval cartography may be opened to you if you have energy to pursue it. The word porcatus means a "ridged," and is meant to describe a ridge between two furrows. Thus we know a little about this Antillean lizard, ridged on the back with a large speckled pink dewlap. Good beginning.
Chunk Two: This is my largest "chunk" of knowledge for the day. I went to the next picture, and it was of the Burmese Mountain/Black Tortoise or the Manouria emys phayrei. This enormous tortoise is one of the most primitive of the living tortoises. Aside from learning some basic facts about its life, I wanted to learn about the name. On the way to Manouria, I came across some words, which will be related below. But, upon getting there, I was directed to Manuria and learned that Manuria was an Indian word. So the word points to the region where this tortoise was found. The word emys is the Greek word for "fresh-water tortoise." The emysunwittingly bequeathed its name to the family Emydidae and the group Emydea (tortoises). T.H.Huxley was behind the naming of these tortoises, and I think I now need to do a lot of study on his life, since he seems to have been one of the most influential biologists of the 19th century. Well, there was much more to learn. The word phayrei is meant to honor Sir Arthur Purves Phayre (1812-1885), a British official in India/Burma when the tortoise was named. Phayre's other claim to fame was the authorship of the first modern History of Burma (1883).
As you see, many of these journeys or learnings within "chunk two" could take me much farther afield. But I simply noted them, learned what I could about the Manouria and moved on. But it just shows you how knowledge eagerly sought leads to all kinds of other deep, interesting and ultimately useful knowledge in many other areas.
My final essay describes the rest of the seven "chunks" of learning today--and then gives my conclusion.