Solar Ricardo

Solar Ricardo

Thursday, November 29, 2012

“You Can't Learn Less” : Academia, The Media and Education by Choice

A friend of mine mentioned recently that he was beginning to doubt his fathers old saying, “you can't learn less”.

He was referring to a recent news article about a Farleigh Dickinson University study that found  people who relied solely on Fox News (and MSNBC) for their information faired worse on a news quiz than did New York Times readers, NPR listeners, and even people who cited the Daily Show as their primary news source. My friend mused that perhaps Fox viewers were learning less than nothing.

Curious about the origin of the saying “you can't learn less”, I went to the source of all “learning”, Google. There, I found that the saying is attributed to R. Buckminster Fuller, the visionary architect of the mid 20th century. This made perfect sense to me. Bucky  Fuller is, coincidentally, a personal hero of mine. Although some of his techno-utopian visions of the future seem somewhat dated now, his basic ideas about mimicking the highly organized systems of nature still make a lot of sense to me. It didn't surprise me that the quote was from Fuller- his books can be wordy and sometimes difficult to read, but they always full of highly quotable ideas. “Education by choice, with its marvelous motivating psychology of desire for truth, will make life ever cleaner and happier, more rhythmical and artistic,” Fuller wrote in his 1928 book, 4D Timelock .

Fuller, who died in 1983, believed very strongly in the potential of television and radio as tools of learning. What would Bucky Fuller think of the current state of mass media as teacher? How would he have felt about 24 hour cable “news”, or more importantly, the internet, with it's vast store of quasi-facts and disinformation?

The Fairleigh Dickinson report stated that: “People who report reading a national newspaper like The New York Times or USA Today are 12-points more likely to know that Egyptians have overthrown their government than those who have not looked at any news source. And those who listen to the non-profit NPR radio network are 11-points more likely to know the outcome of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. However, the best informed respondents are those that watched Sunday morning news programs: leading to a 16- point increase in the likelihood of knowing what happened in Egypt and an 8-point increase in the likelihood of knowing what happened in Syria.”  Of course, another great American thinker, Mark Twain once wrote “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Interestingly, Fox News attempted to deflect the criticism by attacking Fairleigh Dickinson's academic record rather than calling into question the study's methodology. ““Considering FDU’s undergraduate school is ranked as one of the worst in the country, we suggest the school invest in improving its weak academic program instead of spending money on frivolous polling – their student body does not deserve to be so ill-informed.”

This pissing match between academia and the media is nothing new, but it does clearly illustrate the current state of “knowledge” and “learning”. Academic research is in large part funded by corporations and the “scientific polls” used endlessly by the media are designed specifically to stir controversy and advance political agendas rather than advance truth-seeking. These bastions of academic learning and institutions of news and information gathering have gradually devolved into production facilities for politically driven disinformation.

It would seem that my friend might be right -people may actually be learning less, or more accurately un-learning- shucking meaty and troublesome “big thoughts” in favor of pre-chewed intellectual pablum. In times of economic uncertainty and social unrest, it may just be easier to accept this un-learning process. Dealing with climate change seems an insurmountable problem, so it's simply easier to deny it's existence than to study the research. It's easier to accept the “fact” that America is the greatest nation on the planet rather than to study different political systems objectively. It's easier to search for bible quotes on the internet that support your predetermined position than it is to read the entire book and study the historical context in which it was written.

  In the current “information age” it seems to be more difficult than ever to achieve Fuller's vision of a self-motivated seeking of truth. Looking for the needle of truth in the haystack of corporate propaganda is made even more daunting when the internet offers nearly infinite haystacks to search through. Still, there are opportunities out there. Education by Choice can still be achieved without incurring a lifetime of student debt or giving up and handing your brain over to talk radio hosts. The Free Skool, unschooling and maker movements, Citizen Science, open source technology, online forums and yes- the good old public library are all available to aid self-guided learning. Education by Choice is a subjective process, though, and can easily digress into the ghettoization of knowledge that occurs when people don't look outside of their own echo chamber for information. A good spectrum is necessary. Religious fanatics are an example of people who may be highly educated, but lack a full spectrum of learning. So to are plant geneticists who can't think outside the industrial agriculture paradigm and believe that only increased yields can solve hunger. Learning in a vacuum, where subjective information is mistaken for truth, can take one “down the rabbit hole” in a hurry- conspiracy theorists and even some environmental activists can begin to parrot factoids culled from other like-minded amateur researchers, rather than doing the reading, or even better, having a first-hand experience for themselves. As the wonderful writer/philosopher/humorist  Robert Anton Wilson once put it: “Is", "is." "is" — the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don't know what anything "is"; I only know how it seems to me at this moment...”

Ultimately, learning is the life-long process of decorating one's own reality tunnel. You can choose to paint it one color, or paper it with one pattern, or you can make it a bulletin board- a dynamic collage of constantly updated and improved tidbits, which hopefully, eventually become a pattern that offers you a life that is  “...ever cleaner and happier, more rhythmical and artistic.” 

The information is all out there, in those haystacks. To begin the search for the kernels of truth, you need the tools to winnow away some of the chaff. 

Here are five suggestions for beginning your own trip down the road to Education by Choice :

Five Suggestions for Learning More, Not Less

1. Learn to learn/think/express yourself

There have been a lot of studies done about how people learn, and it's worth finding and reading some articles about how people learn. Experts on learning often break learners down into three groups- visual, auditory and tactile- and discuss how different people learn best using these types of cues. Which type are you? I suggest trying/using all three. A lot of recent books and websites call these “mind-hacks” or “brain-hacks”, and offer fun exercises for organizing information and learning habits.

It's also important to learn to express yourself accurately, and avoid semantic laziness. Because of the rapid standardization of communication due to digital technology, written text shorthand cliches like “IMHO” take the place of more complex expressions, and spoken cliches like “at the end of the day” or “literally...” offer lazy thinkers definitive statements to stop further examination of a given topic.

An interesting exercise is to read about and explore “E Prime”. Invented by Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, E Prime is a style of english that does not use any form of the verb “to be”. Using E Prime helps avoid definitive proclamations and bases statements on the speaker or writer's actual experiences.  Try going a day without using the words “am, are, is, was, were, be, been or being...” for example, don't simply pronounce “this coffee is good!” Say “I really like the flavor of this coffee!”

2. Read real books

This is not some sort of Luddite judgement call- I love the internet as a research and communication tool, and an ebook reader can definitely offer great possibilities for taking a lot of information along when you are on the go. However, researchers have found that information retention is still better among those who read physical books.  Books offer a physical and tactile experience that helps the brain retain information. More importantly, books do not offer the distractions available on an e-reader of computer. There are no hyperlinks to chase, no email or facebook to check. I suggest reading a book, making physical notes as you go, and when you are finished, re-visit those notes and do additional research online.

Also- explore old books. There are endless great ideas in them that may have not found their way into the digital realm. Also, the process of going to the library, or to a used bookstore, will bring you into close physical proximity with other “book people”. They might be older people, or simply people with a different set of life experiences from those of your friends, roommates, work colleagues, etc.

3. Work with your hands

Learning doesn't happen solely in your mind. Exercising your body and honing your manual dexterity are important to the learning process. I could never understand math as a high school student, but a few years as a carpenter brought into clear focus the reality of geometry and algebra.

Work is exercise, and not the meaningless vanity-driven exercise of the stair-master. Digging, planting, harvesting, chopping, carving, building, repairing, cleaning, all can build the muscles and skills, clear the mind and offering real-life lessons. A broad range of physical and intellectual experience is critical to how you think and learn. Robert Heinlein wrote: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. “

4. Be a teacher and a student

I love online forums, hackspaces and free skools.  I love any place that I can interact with other people of similar interests, share information and experiences, and learn from each others successes and mistakes. It's a great feeling to reach a level where you have something to share and you can take on the role of teacher. It's a great way to put your ideas and knowledge to the test. An education needs to be a shared experience.

I also love hands-on workshops and other opportunities to interact with people who are a knowledge level or two above me and my fellow citizen scientists.It's important not to be comfortable with the level you are at in the learning process, and to remember that there is always more to learn. Face-to-face interactions with good teachers are critical, and that doesn't have to happen in a classroom.

5. Write/draw every day

My father wrote in his journals every day that I can remember. He processed those thoughts into great poetry. I, on the other hand, am a lousy journal writer. I understand, though, that ideas stagnate and dwindle if they are not stored, re-examined and refined. Try to find a system that works for you- a journal, a sketchbook, a camera or voice recorder- whatever fits your style. If you are a social media user, think of it as Tweeting to your future brain.

My way of addressing this need is to use some of the techniques of Lion Kimbro from his book How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought you Think (which can be downloaded for free online.) Basically I keep a notebook or “catch” to grab my ideas- I scribble down a subject idea and a hint. Sometimes I'll scribble in some sketches, or tape in a scrap of paper or clipping. Then, later in the day, or at the end of the week,  I'll go back through and flesh out some of the ideas when I have more time.