The More Things Change

2012-10-15 – Don’t read this book: The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman, because everything in it that is true today will be false tomorrow. So why bother. (If you are interested, I put a couple of reviews at the end. Reviews are great because when the facts in them become false, you have less to forget.)

This guy’s premise is that there’s a lot of research going on. New facts are coming into the world. Some of the new facts contradict old facts. So don’t even bother learning facts. Just Google them when you want them. He does some math things to support his thesis, but it’s like multiplying by zero. The answer is still zero.

My beef with this idea is the beef that I have with a lot of academia. They think that what goes on within ivied walls is all the knowledge there is in the world. So when the fashions of academic knowledge change, it is a cataclysm.

But as French academics say (and they are the worst kind): plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same).

To me academic facts are like hair. The hair on my head is about 3/4 of an inch long. Hair grows at about a half an inch per month. So the hair on my head is completely different in no more than two months. My wife Kit’s hair is maybe 18 to 24 inches long. Her hair takes up to four years (48 months) to completely change. Yet change it does.

But what is the significance of the change? You can still recognize us. And we can still recognize you. What’s on our heads may be a little grayer (my head actually, since Kit’s hair doesn’t get gray), but our heads are basically the same.

And here’s the important point. The people who manage this change – barbers, hair stylists – are not the same people you’d go to to manage your head. (Barbers used to do surgery, but we’ve gotten past that, haven’t we?)

My field of education is a case in point. Educators divide up the world of knowledge into what is called “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” Bloom’s Taxonomy has six levels of learning: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Within each level is a list of verbs that instructional designers use to build effective instructional strategies. I’m not going to get too deep into that here, but if you want to see a sample list of these verbs click here.

The thing about these lists is that they basically describe what people do in academia. If you do click into this document, you will not see a single verb relating to cooking a steak, or kicking a soccer ball, or playing the piano, or welding pipe, or sawing a piece of wood, or harvesting wheat, or speaking your native language, or riding a bike, or soothing a child, or giving birth, or catching a train, or shopping for shoes, or driving a car, or negotiating a contract, or playing Scrabble, or fighting a just war.

I guess these are just a few oversights.

But a lot of the knowledge involved in these activities are not included in Arbesman’s study. They don’t have expiration dates. I’m not saying that this knowledge is static. It lives and breathes, but it is stable. And it is necessary to live.

And did you notice that very little of this is taught in a school?

* * *

Here are two reviews of Arbeson’s book, as I promised at the beginning of this post:

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