What Do We Really Need to Know?

thumbby Hap Aziz

For much of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the process of learning; how people come to know what they know, why some people are able to learn some things more easily than others, and what might influence people to want to learn or not want to learn about particular topics. This fascination is what motivated me to study Artificial Intelligence through the lens of Marvin Minsky’s own reflections regarding the human mind, and how we might understand how the mind works by examining machine models. Ultimately, I came to the field of higher education where I would be able to consider the mysteries of learning as part of my daily work and life’s passion.

It seems ironic to me that when students choose to continue their academic journeys past high school is the question, “Why are we learning this?” so often expressed. Formal education after high school graduation is pretty much a voluntary decision (certainly in the United States), yet there is so much push back against the curriculum that students themselves decided to take. Of course, I can understand much of this push back in the context of the outcomes expected by many of today’s students. Marketable skills leading to good jobs is often the end goal, and with that destination in mind it becomes easier to see why students might hold up different pieces of their curriculum and wonder how, precisely, those pieces move them closer to where they want to be. And that thinking is not unique to students themselves; with the cost of education becoming such a concern, even the Federal government has weighed in and added concepts such as “gainful employment” to the conversation.

In any event, there are a number of apparent reasons for students to be so focused on particular outcomes that they question the wisdom of what has been part of the traditional liberal arts education process. Students continue to ask why they need to learn things that they do not see as relevant to their acquisition of skills, and educators look for ways to convince students to buy into the broader theme of education. Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living, yet how can we even begin to examine our lives without broad knowledge of the human condition as a basis for comparison?

With every generation of students transitioning into higher education, the question continues to come up, and educators continue articulate the value of a liberal arts education. Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley addresses the issue in a post on Quora, specifically talking about what students could (or should) be learning by studying both Shakespeare and Geometry:

In my mind, Shakespeare and Geometry teach the most essential lessons needed for a productive and successful life. Properly taught, they teach you to think, to take in the evidence, to analyze, and to deduce.

While I agree with Prof. Muller in principle regarding the value inherent to Shakespeare and Geometry instruction, there are two points of exception I’d take with his premise.

  1. Shakespeare and Geometry are too narrow. To suggest that there are particular subject matter areas that serve as keys to unlocking the mind does a disservice to the idea that learners are individuals that enter the teaching and learning environment with their own strong preferences. Prof. Muller isn’t explicitly stating that Shakespeare and Geometry are the only paths for students, but his argument does imply that it would be wise to route students through particular subject matter areas, if not these in particular. Why not Heinlein instead of Shakespeare? Why not Computer Science instead of Geometry? That leads to my second point:
  2. Shakespeare and Geometry are too late. By the time students have the requisite background education and cognitive maturity to contextualize Shakespeare and Geometry, they are old enough that their learning preferences have already been formed and quite likely solidified… which means they’re already going down the path of deciding what subjects have relevance in their lives. The love for learning needs to be kindled much earlier, and the lesson that all things are relevant needs to learned in a non-academic framework.

When I first started teaching undergraduates in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to conduct a seminar on the creative process for the incoming students. I shared with the students that the essence of the creative process was in taking seemingly unrelated ideas and bringing them together in new combinations. It was the combination of those ideas that marked eureka moment and invention took place. And in order to have those opportunities to combine ideas, the creative individual had to have a deep repository of ideas to begin with–which meant learning a lot about as many things as possible.

That line of reasoning appealed to many of the students, but I wanted to break it down into something perhaps easier to understand, and that’s when I hit upon a justification that would make sense even to–or perhaps especially to–younger learners. I talked about the structure of comedy, and how it was all about juxtaposing ideas that seemed to have no relation with each other. The joke often was a set up that introduced the component ideas, and the punchline was the mechanism that connected those ideas. Therein lies the humor, and that resonated with the students. It’s not difficult to see younger learners have a natural grasp of the essence of humor–even if they haven’t mastered the mechanics. Listen to a 4-year-old tell a knock-knock joke:

Child: Knock, knock.
Adult: Who’s there?
Child: Elephant.
Adult: Elephant who?
Child: Elephant with an umbrella! Hahahahaha!

There you have it: elephant and umbrella, two unrelated items combined in an unexpected way. Hilarity ensues, at least from a child’s point of view. But it is the essence of humor, even if it’s not that humorous to those of us old enough to tie our own shoes. The argument for learning things you think you don’t need to know becomes fairly straightforward, then, and it doesn’t depend on making a case for particular subject matter areas in order to understand logic or the human condition. It really comes down to fact that the more you know, the more likely you are to get the joke–no matter what that joke might be. No one wants to be the person who doesn’t get the joke, after all. And to be able to go through life seeing humor everywhere is one of the keys to examining life. I’d be willing to bet that Socrates was probably a pretty funny guy.



Filed under artificial intelligence, gainful employment, Hap Aziz, higher education, humor, Socrates

2 responses to “What Do We Really Need to Know?

  1. I suspect that Prof. Muller specified Shakespeare and geometry because those were stated in the question he was answering, but I agree that he should have done more to broaden those to literature and mathematics (and other subjects) in his answer.

    I’ve heard people (extremists, imho) say that we should only teach something if we can tell a student where and when and how they will use that knowledge. I reject that as a fundamental misunderstanding of education.

  2. Yes, I was picking on him about the subjects he used, but I think there is a bit of danger in being too specific.

    That idea that we should only teach if we can tell the students where, when, and how is fatally flawed. What, actually, defines how skills or knowledge are being “used”? How can we possibly know ahead of time if a particular skill might be of use?

    It’s like those tire-running exercises that football players do in practice. Those players could pipe up and say, “coach, whey are we running through tires on the ground? We’re never going to do that while playing a game!”

    Of course, that’s absolutely true, yet they have that drill anyway. It’s because often we learn some skills even if we don’t use those skills exactly as taught. But in a broader sense, they help us succeed at whatever it is we’re trying to do… or aspiring to be.

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