The modern economy, we are told, is a knowledge economy and in order to have a knowledge economy you need to have a learning society. Sounds nice. But it’s pretty clear that our society for the last little while has been incapable of learning. The last two years have been a useful case study of this larger trend. The powers that be doubled down and then tripled down on a series of public health measures that hadn’t worked the first time to stop the spread of a respiratory virus. That doesn’t sound like learning. It sounds like not learning.
Of course, we were told those ideas were based on “science”. But science in this context means “knowledge”; the end product of the scientific method which is a itself technique for learning. So, another way to look at the last two years was that we continued to rely on knowledge rather than learning. This is not really true, however, as we threw all the existing public health knowledge about how to deal with respiratory viral pandemics out the window in March 2020. But that was the party line and most people seemed to believe it. We ended up with the worst of both worlds; neither learning anything nor relying on past experience and knowledge. Now that corona appears to be coming to an end, there is no evidence that we will learn anything from it. Instead, we are stumbling straight into the next emergency. It’s a useful time, then, to reflect on the meaning of the concepts just to remind ourselves what learning and knowledge really are. In doing so, I will set the stage for a mini-series of posts that aim to deal with the archetype of The Orphan in more detail (see my post on The Orphan in my coronapocalypse series for more background).
Let’s begin by doing one of my favourite activities which is looking at the etymology of the words themselves. These gives us an insight into the evolution of language and meaning over time. The words learn, know and knowledge all have cognates in Old English and proto-Germanic. This fact is not trivial because the English language often uses Latin words for abstract concepts reflecting the history of both Roman and French domination as well as the fact that Latin was the lingua franca for much of European history. Learning and knowing are such core concepts of human life that the Latin words did not dislodge the folk forms at those historical junctures.
The word learn used to have the meaning of “follow a track”. We can still find this connotation in modern English phrases like “learning pathway” which gets used in the education sector. Similarly, you might go to a conference and join in the “economics track” or the “accounting track”. In Old English, learn could also be used in the sense of modern German “lehren”. Thus, you could say “I am learning you Spanish” meaning I am teaching it to you. The teacher is the one leading the student down the track which hopefully leads to a mastery of Spanish. Later came the meaning that we still have to this day which is to think about, read about, become cultured etc. In this way, the meaning of learn follows a very common pattern in the semantics of languages where a tangible, physical meaning like following a track is metaphorically extended into an abstract domain like coming to know about something. (You can take my word on this one. I wrote an honours thesis in linguistics on the subject. Trust the expert).
The word know is from Old English cnawan which meant “to perceive”, “to distinguish” and “to identify”. We are told that seeing is believing, but actually the phrase “seeing is knowing” is more faithful to the historical meaning of know. Like the old word for learn, cnawan had the meaning of seeing with your own eyes; experiencing for yourself. In this way, cnawan was equivalent to modern German “kennen” and “erkennen” but not “wissen” (the English word wit has its origin in the same word as modern German’s wissen). To know meant the ability to recognise, to distinguish, to identify by perception. It implied something directly experienced.
Translated into philosophical terms, we can see that both learn and know had a strong empirical bias in common language. This made perfect sense as there weren’t many philosophers around back then and most people couldn’t read and didn’t go to school. Most of things they knew, they knew by virtue of seeing it for themselves. For things that they were told, there was another word: believe.
The earliest meaning of believe was “to care”, “to desire” and “to hold dear” and those connotations are still present in modern religious and ideological belief. When somebody gets triggered, it’s because their beliefs have been violated; things they care about. Later, belief came to mean something like “be persuaded of” or “to be made to care”. You believed something somebody else told you but which you did not see for yourself. This distinction is very important and we start to see why so much of modern education and modern life in general is based on belief and not knowledge in the old meanings of the words. Most of what we refer to when we say we “know” something actually falls under belief. We did not see it with our own eyes. Somebody else told us. The distinction was described by Descartes at the beginning of his Meditations where he realises that most of what he thought he knew about the world was just stuff he had heard and a lot of that turned out to be wrong on closer inspection. He set about wondering how he could put his on understanding on firm ground (another metaphor).
What about the word “knowledge”? If cnawan was about seeing with your own eyes, shouldn’t knowledge be the result of that seeing? There doesn’t seem to be any record of that. The earliest meaning of knowledge had the connotation of honour. We distinguish a person from the crowd. We recognise them and thereby we honour them. It was later on that knowledge received its modern connotation as the awareness or remembrance of facts.
To reiterate, in learn, know and knowledge we see a semantic shift over time from concrete, empirical experience to abstract forms based on study of second hand materials, facts communicated by others, book learning etc.
The old idea of learning was to follow a track and this is still used in science (although less and less) in the concept of reproducibility. The great physicist, Richard Feynman, advised all scientists to reproduce the work of others rather than just believe it for themselves. In other words, to follow the track others had gone down. In science education we could, for example, take the student down the same pathway Aristotle took to show that the earth is round. This would require traveling to different longitudes to observe the night sky, seeing that the stars change and then reasoning about these observations. Another way would be take students to the shoreline and observe ships coming over the horizon via telescope. (Note: the Wolfram demonstrations project has an interesting version of this – https://demonstrations.wolfram.com/ShipSailingOverTheHorizon/).
This learning by repeating is precisely how apprenticeships work. It’s how martial arts get taught. It’s how musicians learn. The student joins the path and the pathway leads somewhere. Given that it is built into our scientific method, how can it be that we have seemingly dropped it altogether in our education methodology?
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that education systems once implied a larger pathway or track for the student. For example, there was a system that produced the English gentleman. That education wasn’t just about teaching maths or English, it included how to dress, how to speak and how to behave. You needed to be able to tell the difference between the soup spoon and the dessert spoon so you didn’t make a fool of yourself when the Duke and Duchess came over for dinner. You were on a pathway which was a life path: the path of the gentleman. Your education was the preparation for this pathway just like an apprenticeship is a preparation for a trade you will have.
In the old world, the pathway for each individual was more or less fixed at birth. You were born a gentleman or a peasant or what have you. Nowadays, we have the opposite problem. We have no idea what pathway you are on when you are in school and you don’t either. Thus, when you finish your schooling, you still don’t know what to do. We can’t educate students in the old-fashioned way so we throw a bunch of knowledge at them in the hope that some of it might come in useful at some point. This makes sense when you consider that the modern education system was developed as a response to youth unemployment in the late 1800s. Young people used to go to work but then the work dried up and we needed to find something for them to do. So, we sent them to school. Ever since then, school has been not much more than a glorified child care facility which plays up to the vanity of parents and the underlying need of humans to form by dominance hierarchies by ordering children according to numerical grading. (To be fair, the old reading, writing and rithmatic did serve a useful function but that was in place by the end of primary school).
There is an idea that is fashionable nowadays that you can learn how to learn. This is mostly used as a marketing gimmick by the higher education sector to try and encourage adults to continue to spend their money on education. Nevertheless, I think there is some merit in it but I would frame it in the old fashioned sense. Once you have walked the path of learning once, it’s easier the second time and you can start to see the patterns that exist in learning. One of the patterns is that learning comes when it wants and not when you want. While you are walking the path, learning jumps out from the bushes like a group of bandits with pistols drawn. Learning costs you something although it is rarely a financial cost. Learning isn’t something you plan and it’s almost never something you want, at least in the short term.
Let’s take a concrete example from my own experience. Some years ago I decided to start walking the path of the backyard fruit and vegetable gardener. Along the way, I have learned many things about insects, birds, fungal disease, bacterial disease, soil, sun, pH, rainfall etc. Almost all of this learning happened when something went wrong and that crop of tomatoes I was expecting never eventuated because I wasn’t watering them enough or the apple cider I planned to make in autumn got eaten off the tree by a gang of cockatoos three months beforehand. I hadn’t planned to learn any of these things, but I did. Mother nature learned me gardening and she continues to learn me on a daily basis.
There’s another kind of learning which comes out of walking the path. You start asking yourself whether or not you really want to keep going. You ask whether you are on the right track. You learn something about your real motivations and your real will as opposed to the thing you imagined in your mind. This learning also comes when it wants, usually when some random pest has wiped out yet another crop and you throw your hands up in despair and wonder whether it’s all worth it.
If learning is something that happens to you and will pop up when you least expect it, it follows that learning cannot be controlled. Sometimes you learn a small lesson. Sometimes you learn a lesson that will shake the foundations of your entire belief system. Not all learning is equal. Our education system glosses over all this and sets up elaborate systems of grading with exams and essays and multiple choice questionnaires and we assign numbers to the results so everything looks scientific and quantifiable. Of course, the numbers have as much to do with learning as the current stock market valuation has to do with the economy.
In the last two years, some of us have learned a lot. Some of us have had the foundations of our beliefs about the world shaken. Many others have not. Those people have clung to their “knowledge” like their life depended on it. Even as the content of the knowledge changed from one week to another they still declared it to be knowledge. Of course, we know from the old meanings of the words that they weren’t referring to knowledge but to belief; the belief that the world makes sense, that the experts know what they are doing, that the government is doing its best to help.
Real learning calls both knowledge and belief into question. It challenges both what you think you know and the emotional and probably even physiological substrate of your mind. Every time you learn you are learning that the knowledge in your head was wrong. Once you’ve had that experience enough, you learn to be sceptical of your own knowledge. So, yes, you can learn to learn and it gets easier with time.
We can deduce from all this that we don’t live in a learning society. We don’t live in a learning society precisely because our education system does not put people on the pathway of learning. Rather, it is a substitute for that pathway. Modern education is the pathway for people who don’t know where their path is; and that is most of us.
It follows that the most needed thing right now is for people to start finding a pathway. To find firm ground again. More on that in the next post.