"What you know, you know, what you don't know, you don't know. This is true wisdom."
- Confucius or 孔夫子 (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.)
On East 125 St. in Harlem there was a run-down storefront that I never visited. But? Whenever I rode the M-60 bus on my way to LaGuardia Airport, or returning home from a trip, I made sure to look out at the sign over the storefront offering "The Knowledge That You Know, But You Don't Know That You Know".
Logic told me that anyone selling that kind of true wisdom would have a better location. (The same process still has me suspicious of those neon signs offering psychic advice on the seedier sides of town.)
Nevertheless, I remain intrigued by that Harlem "Knowledge" sign. And worried.
Am I spending too much time pursuing what I don't know (apparently vast)?
Or? Put another - more foundational - way? Am I focused on the right things? What do I already know that is truly valuable? And what do I need to learn? And how should I learn? Can my personal learning and my teaching of others emphasize more internal and less external?
Why am I writing this today?
A provocative new (Sept. 2018) book by historian Yuval Noah Harari rekindled some of these lingering thoughts. E.g., How do I discern the useless knowledge that I already know from the useful knowledge that I already know? And? Is there knowledge that I might soon know? If only I knew how to access it?
In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Hararai writes that today's educators are wasting valuable time: Lecturing about substantive knowledge that is growing out-of-date faster than it can be learned.
One of Harari's key arguments is in favor of reshaping education's current emphasis on quickly outdated substantive knowledge with the ‘four Cs’ - critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
OK. This may not be easy. But the sentiment rings true to me.
First, let's consider the downside: Would the world fall apart (or improve?) if teachers shifted their emphasis as Harari suggests to teaching how to "tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all, to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
Second, let's consider the benefit of a radically different approach on the lives of today's teachers.
One of the paradoxes my fellow educators are dealing with right now? We are paid to transmit knowledge but we know that new technology is making old ideas and old truths irrelevant at an amazing clip.
Thoughtful teachers realize this. And as the most-dedicated (those who haven't simply given up) struggle to keep up with the tide of new information, I see many good young teachers burning out.
The ocean of available information (driven by mobile device connectivity, AI, social media, etc.) is threatening to inundate many old academic disciplines.
Perhaps students need to be exposed to a multidisciplinary approach - co-taught by teachers from different departments - in modules where critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity are encouraged. And teachers aren't required to share a corpus of facts.
After all, when simply sitting quietly to acquire knowledge yields rapidly diminishing returns, what do teachers and students really need to know?
Maybe the answer is NOT to teach substantive knowledge at all. But instead? A new approach to learning.
A (close to home) example? Students enrolled in communications and cultural industries programs, if they are lucky enough to have a teacher who understands the current technology and business (rare), will almost certainly find their teacher exhausted. And the "information" the teacher can impart? That's already out-of-date at the end of a student's first year of employment. (Ha. A full year of employment? Straight out of college or grad school? In a cultural industry job? As the "gig" economy changes old ideas about work and compensation at an astounding rate?)
Another (final, I promise) example? It isn't just global warming that's causing the oceans to rise. The tides of new tech and data are washing away entire professions. I know. As someone who holds a law degree, I suspect there will still be people calling themselves a lawyer in 2030. But will many (most?) of them still be doing what a 2018 lawyer does? I doubt it.
Perhaps, I'm wrong. And the Old School teachers will ultimately prevail. As William Blake (1757-1827) wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793):
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”
But me? I think educators at the very least need to have a vigorous dialogue about this. After all, William Blake also wrote:
"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence."