Wednesday, January 14, 2004

abstraction :: distraction

I just read an interesting and relevant essay about how we have lost the ability to discriminate between symbols and the things for which they stand.

Modern education could serve to clarify the difference between symbol and thing, except that much of modern education depends on just that confusion -- you aren't in school to acquire knowledge, you are there to get a degree. And mistaking a degree holder for an educated person is possibly the commonest confusion of symbol and thing in modern times...

The true goal of modern education, stripped of all pretense, is to provide a reasonable outward appearance of scholarship -- this is an easy task, it can be done on a small budget, and virtually anyone can be shaped to fit into the costume. As a result, we have "educated" people who know there are three branches to the American system of government, but can't explain why. We have "educated" people who know what inflation is, but can't explain what causes it...

For each fact there is an underlying idea, and it is the idea that creates scholarship, not the fact. A fact only symbolizes a particular example of an idea. But this distinction has been lost -- in modern education, we have replaced idea-based training with fact-based training.

A bit simplistic, but there are some gems in the essay.

Before I went to university I somewhat naively thought I would spend most of my time there learning important ideas. As it turned out, I was often too busy doing the coursework (verification that I had learned the 'facts') to actually absorb the ideas. I remember numerous occasions when I was studying some additional materials, beyond the 'required' stuff, and a sentence or diagram would suddenly make a whole quarter of (for instance) electromagnetic theory make sense. I got A's in everything... but all that proves is that I know how to take tests.