Minding Some "P's"
Still More "P's"
Lord of the Flies I
Lord of the Flies II
Caponiere to Yapp
Some "F" Words I
Some "F" Words II
What the "H" I
H Words VII
H Words VIII
H Words IX
H Words X
Sublime To.. II
Saturday Words I
Saturday Words II
Saturday Words III
2009 Kids Bee I
2009 Kids Bee II
2009 Kids Bee III
2009 Kids Bee IV
Bill Long 12/12/08
When you study words in earnest, you learn at least two things right away. First, you realize how paltry, inadequate, and ideological your formal education was. Second, you understand the importance of "browsing" as a tool for learning. Let's talk about each for a moment before diving into hatchment and heloma, words that illustrate each of the two "lessons" of the day. It will take me three essays to do this...
Our Inadequate Formal Education
Our formal education is, of necessity, limited and focused. Until the last few years the only feasible way to do education was where everyone in the same class basically learned the same thing. This is a reflection of our deep educational history. For example, in the mid-19th century, when only one copy of the book was available, lectures were given and students copied, because that was the only way to make sure that a common content was mastered. When multiple copies became available in an inexpensive way, especially through the paperback book and the mimeograph/xerox machine about 50 years ago, the nature of learning ought to have changed, but it really didn't. Still there was a basic curriculum that people believed ought to be mastered in order for one to be equipped for a field--communicated through an increasingly outmoded but still-practiced form (the lecture).
Now, with the advent of the Internet, we have a third potent way of distributing information but, unlike the first two "revolutions," the Internet holds the possibility of bringing the "whole library" to the fingertips of anyone. Thus, in the past 150 years we have gone from one book that is "shared" by many, to several books that are owned by each, to the entire library that can be immediately accessed by anyone.
But despite the dramatic changes we have experienced in information availability, we believe that a subject matter still ought to be taught in a certain way, with graded exercises and a standard "curriculum." I guess that this is an appropriate way to proceed in some fields, such as learning languages or perhaps musical instruction. You need to develop some basic skills and knowledge before you can "plunge in" to the depths. But, for most fields, I think that the "survey" and then "seminar" method really isn't very useful anymore. The point is that any relatively smart person should be able to plunge in to almost any field at any "level" and make sense of it pretty quickly. And, the Internet availability of knowledge should feed this approach to education. Just dive in; the material is there; slowly disentangle the threads that may be confusing; begin with assertions you know are true; build upon it; learn what you want.
Make desire the foundation-stone of learning, rather than someone's thoughts on how a field ought to be organized and presented. Why not, for example, if you are studying tax law (God forbid!), start with the nature of a supporting organization under IRS Code 509(a)(3) and then begin to build upon the knowledge of the three kinds of supporting organization by adding knowledge of how it differs from a private foundation, how it is part of a family, so to speak, of ways to preserve your money after you die, etc. Then, you can get into the history of the 1969 Act that differentiated private foundations from supporting organizations, you can study the history of that time to learn what the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation were doing at the time that led Congress to want to act, you can build on your growing philanthropic knowledge by inquiring into the nature of non-profit boards of directors, etc. That is, we are set up today, with respect to knowledge, so that a person can take almost any thread from almost any field, and, if patient enough, can draw that thread gradually so that an understanding not simply of the specific entity or body of knowledge is gained, but so that an entire world opens before you.
Not only is this a good thing to do from the perspective of educational theory (i.e., you let people study the things they are inclined to study, within the general subject matter of the class), but you will encourage people to look at knowledge in new ways. So, for example, the "normal" way to teach tax law is to begin with the concept of a "treasure trove" because there is some 19th century legal opinion that is well written that talks about the distinction between something that is owned and something found (as far as I recall) and then "morph" into the notion of income. The assumption is that if you study tax law that the most important thing people will want to know is what income is. But why should you assume this? It may be that the 35 people who study tax in your class come into it with 35 different interests, or with none at all. Well, they should be encouraged to follow their interests or, if they have none, to root around for a while until they find them. This would have the salutary effect of putting the onus of learning where it should be--the student.
Thus, I would propose (and this essay really is getting out of hand--I was going to tell you about hatchment!), that teachers who teach material in our modern age should first ascertain student interest in the field. If that interest is well-formed or has a focus already, then the student should be put on a course of study that enhances it. The student will, in general, be his/her own teacher, but will have periodic meetings with the teacher to discuss what s/he discovers. Class sessions can be mutual-discovery sharing times. But if a student has no clue as to what his/her interest is, then they must be encouraged to start studying. Perhaps the professor can be of help at this point in suggesting some interesting "current problems" in tax; perhaps the professor is aware of some historical issues in tax or perennially-debated issues that might interest some students. In any case, the student who doesn't know where s/he is going should be given a few weeks to find that direction. If they don't have it, then either lop them off or, if you let them continue, do so with the understanding that it is the student's responsibility to find an area of interest.
Students are bored, by and large, because they are infantilized in class. Let them learn. Let the professor function as a "road-block remover," so to speak, or a questioner who will take ideas and respond to them. The professor must be deeply involved in his/her own quests in order to be an effective questioner of student interests.
The upshot of all of this is that if students are encouraged to pursue their learning in ways that are philosophically consistent with the available technology today, then we will revolutionize fields. Pure and simple. We will look at fields according to the dozens of ways that students of this generation want to look at fields. Certainly the professors and those who have experience in the fields will struggle to "control" it and write about it in the way that makes sense to them, but that is what is always done. Each new generation, however, will see the field slightly differently. Thus, a professor recognizes his/her obsolescence even as s/he sees his/her indispensability. The professor's indispensability resides in the ability to ask skillful questions and make gentle suggestions, to get people over hurdles that they face as they look at new material. The professor's obsolescence is obvious--the next generation wants to look at things in ways that are consistent with their own values, experience and way of seeing the world. Thus, the really smart professor realizes that s/he is utterly out of step once s/he reaches the top of his/her "game." It is one of life's little delightful ironies.
Well, what does all of this have to do with hatchment and heloma? And, why are we only on the first principle? Well, let's turn to the next essay for an explanation.