April 12, 2002
One of the recurring stories in American media is that our kids don't know very much about history, religion, science, math, literature, nutrition -- the list goes on and on, as middle aged reporters and readers congratulate ourselves on how much better we were educated.
LEARNING BY ACCIDENT
But were we really? After all, it's easy for us to think about what we know and assume we always knew it, but how much of that did we know when we were only eighteen? For that matter, how much of what we know did we learn in school at all? Very little, is my guess.
It seems to me that we learn in several different ways. We learn (or don't) what is drilled into us in school. We learn the things that have an immediate pay off for us, which is why business students, for instance, are more likely to remember what they learned in accounting courses than in their required course in western civilization. We learn what we are passionate about, whether it's Brad Pitt, genealogical research, baseball, or the art of writing novels. I suspect that many kids who are thought to be suffering from ADD can concentrate for hours at a time on something they care about, like mastering the free throw or Myst.
But we also learn things by sheerest accident. We learn some stuff because it's simply unavoidable; it surrounds us, booms at us from TV, radio, conversation at the water cooler. Young people tell poll takers that they get the majority of their news from Jay Leno and David Letterman and MTV. Even people who are intentionally oblivious to popular culture can't avoid knowing the most recent scandals about celebrities, because they can't avoid seeing the tabloids at the checkout counter or the celebrity stories that sneak their way onto the news.
There are things we learn because they matter to the people around us. I know a great deal about how city government works, not because I chose to learn it but because my father was a city planner, and building codes, traffic management, and zoning laws were common topics of conversation in our household. When I married a man who played antique instruments, I learned about recorders, crumhorns, shawms, rauschpfeifes, and kortholts. It's through my son's musical tastes that I learned to love Moxy Fruvous, Jim's Big Ego, Captain Sensible, and other favorite bands. When my son became interested in baseball, and wanted me to play board games based on baseball statistics, I learned how to read a box score and calculate batting averages. [To this day, I can talk one ERA to a feminist because of my own interests, and a different ERA to a sports nut because of my son's interests.]
We learn things incidentally, from books and movies and TV shows we watched or read simply for the pleasure of an exciting story. Today's students almost certainly learned more about the Kennedy assassination by way of Oliver Stone's movie than through their history books. Any reader of regency romances picks up an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the historical personages, events, costumes, and social life of the British aristocracy between 1811-1820, and I can recite in order the names of the kings and queens of England since 1066, not because I learned them in school, but because after years of reading historical novels, I had mentally constructed a chronology.
I was never good at science, but I have a good idea of how scientists work. From years of reading murder mysteries, I have learned how forensic pathologists analyze crime scene evidence, how the FBI profiles serial killers, and how anthropologists deduce from bits of bone that the dead person was a European male from the 18th century who died from a gunshot wound. Because I read thrillers, I know how plane crashes are investigated, how victims are unearthed from earthquake debris, and how medical researchers track an epidemic.
Perhaps now more than ever, we learn things from each other, in conversation with friends as we always have, but also in conversations with strangers. We still trade ideas and questions and answers at trade shows and conventions and workshops, but we also ask questions in chat rooms and discussion forums. In the process we get answers not just to the questions we asked, but to questions it hadn't occurred to us to wonder about.
Many of us have deliberately arranged for accidental knowledge to happen to us. Instead of going out searching for information about the things we care about, we maybe read a few trusted zines and blogs every day, or even arrange for chosen news, listservs and subscription lists and RSS feeds to simply appear on our computers or PDAs.
If kids these days seem ignorant to us, it's because they aren't much interested in the bodies of knowledge we want them to master. On the other hand, they HAVE mastered the bodies of knowledge that interest them (which most of us couldn't pass a test about).
Our educational system presents students with a body of knowledge and says, "learn this, you might need it some day." I think what our Google-using kids have done is turn this on its head. They don't assume that what is being taught them is important. They search for, and master, a body of knowledge only when it is interesting, or when it is clear to them that they need to know it. In a way, students now are more like librarians, who have always said, "I don't have to know everything, I just have to know how to find out when I DO need to know something.
Now, if my perceptions are right, that has implications for how we teach kids what WE want them to know. Can we make it essential information that allows them to do something that interests them more, or gives them a chance to feel important? As a hook for teaching history, for instance, might we have them interview elderly people to capture their recollections of historical events on tape, or trace their own family history,or re-enact historical events? Can we build more incidental knowledge into our teaching, using exciting books and stories centering around the knowledge we want to teach? Can we find in anything we want to teach the aspect of it that will appeal to each child's innate interests and talents -- biologists and artists may look at a bird differently, but they both recognize that they need to learn anatomy.
It seems to me it's worth trying, for a couple of reasons. One is that it's cruel to "sentence [kids] to twenty years of boredom," to paraphrase Leonard Cohen.
The other is that the things we want them to know really do matter, and with their haphazard method, they may never learn it at all, or may learn it inside out and backwards from clever, entertaining twisters of the truth.
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