The Illusion of Knowledge

Recently, I’ve read more and more on both sides of the “debate” about whether the internet/world-wide-web is a “good” thing.  One ardent advocate dragged out the old
“Greek” argument that even writing was “bad” because memory would atrophy… and, of course, look how far we’ve come from the time of the Greeks, how much knowledge we’ve amassed since then.

And… in a cultural and societal sense, that accumulation of knowledge has, in fact, occurred, but I’m not so certain that we now don’t stand at the edge of a precipice, where, if we choose incorrectly as a society, we will slide down the slippery slope into ignorance and anarchy, if not worse. Some people already believe we’ve started to slide so much that we’ll never recover.  While I’m not that pessimistic, not yet, at least, I would like to point out a fatal flaw in the idea that technology results in a more knowledgeable society.

To begin with, let us consider the very meaning of “knowledge.” Various dictionary definitions begin with:  (1) a product of understanding acquired through experience, practical ability or skill and (2) deep and extensive learning.  The key terms here are understanding and learning.  The problem with the web and electronic technology in general is that most users fail to understand that access to information or facts is not at all the same as understanding those facts, their use, or, especially, their significance.  True understanding is impossible without a personally learned internal database.  Being able to net-search things is not the same as knowing them, and very few individuals can retain facts looked up unless they have a personal internal knowledge base to which they can relate such facts.

All too many educational “reformers” either tend to equate the learning of specific, often unrelated facts, processes, and discrete skills with education or knowledge, or, at the other extreme, they emphasize “process” and inter-relations without ever requiring students to learn basic structures and facts.  Put another way, information access is not knowing or knowledge, nor is learning processes and systems ungrounded in hard facts. Both the understanding of process and systems and a personal integrated factual “database” are necessary for an individual to be educated and knowledgeable, and far too few graduates today possess both.

The often-too-maligned educational system of the early and mid-twentieth century had a laudable objective:  to give students the basic knowledge of their society and the basic skills needed to survive and prosper in that society.  Did it often fail?  It did, and in many places, and far too frequently.  But that didn’t mean that the objective was wrong; it meant that all too often the techniques and means used were not suited to various types of students.

What followed that system is certainly no better, and possibly much worse. When something like 40% of high school graduates cannot explain against whom the American Revolution was fought and why it was important, those students cannot be classed as knowledgeable.  Nor can the 60% who cannot write coherent complex sentences or understand them be considered educated.

A culture that exalts the ability to use technology over the ability to understand it and over the ability to explain even what society is, why it exists, and what forms of government benefit who and why is in deep trouble.  So is one where the process of accessing information is elevated over understanding what that information means and how to use it. That, by the way, is also known as thinking.

And yet, every day, and in every way, our society is encouraging an ever-increasing percentage of our young people to communicate, communicate, communicate with less and less real knowledge… and without even being able to understand truly how little that they know about the basis and structure of the world in which they live.

And concerning knowledge… that is the greatest illusion of all.

4 thoughts on “The Illusion of Knowledge”

  1. Steve says:

    While I believe that the Internet is increasing the overall knowledge of people, their wisdom is decreasing due to reliance on it as an information source. To me wisdom is the sucessful application of knowledge or more simply put, street smarts versus book smarts. The truly frightening thing is how much on the Internet is contradictory and that people lack the skills to discern the kernels truth from everything else.

  2. hob says:

    You could argue that any society that has a good amount of people well educated/knowledgeable/skilled, is one which is engaged in open wars periodically(keeping in mind for that in my opinion, all wars are economic based).
    By open war I mean that the general populace has been made aware of the need to participate as opposed to say, a complex trade war as is playing out against the euro. One of the by products of the global integration of economies and the parallel developments of weapons that cant really be used(except as deterrents or against demonstration targets), is that the wars don’t really need the participation of ones civilians.
    True education and passing of skill is expensive and requires the time of learned people who mostly are unlikely to be motivated by altruism but like the rest of us would be concerned for the future of their children/family etc.

  3. I feel somewhat as Steve does: that while we daily drown in information, wisdom is in very finite supply. Especially in our most learned and powerful sectors, where people seem almost drunk on information, yet make and carry forth with decisions that would make my grandparents roll in their graves.

  4. That is nice to definitely find a site where the blogger knows what they are talking about.

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