Monday, September 7, 2009

Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom


In the last posting I suggested that a discipline system includes knowledge, skills and values as its basic content. A master or teacher of that discipline has a mastery of all three forms of content and passes that system to a disciple or student. Each is important and I will speak of each in turn but today will address knowledge. It is in some ways the most basic and easily misunderstood content of a discipline.


Knowledge is information that is the substance of the discipline being learned. It includes facts, persons, history and concepts of the discipline being studied or mastered. Knowledge is an essential but not sufficient part of learning in relationship to a discipline. That means that knowledge retention is important but not equal to mastery of the discipline. This is a problem today where information and education are treated as equivalent. Knowledge is not education.

The learning of knowledge follows a basic sequence that sorts and contextualizes relevant information. At the lowest level of learning is identification of information. We learn what things are and we learn to describe them. We then commit this information to memory. This is learning but it is minimal learning. And this learning is temporary in most cases. We are exposed to information and may retain it for a few days or a semester but then lose it as we are exposed to other information. We may remember it if it is unusual or fits other memory triggers but most of the information that we come into contact with is lost.

A disciple must address this problem. He or she must work at retaining information by memory in the brain or by writing (or electronic memory) so that it can be accessed when needed. A lack of information is problematic. But too much information in an unordered and disconnected form is also a problem. At present, we are becoming able to access, at least electronically, more and more information but we fail at two important aspects of retaining information. These are sorting and connecting. We must sort it with regard to significance and connect it with other knowledge.

Sorting the knowledge of a discipline is the job of a master or teacher. A student must be guided into what knowledge is significant, what knowledge is important and what knowledge is incidental. Without guidance in this sorting process, the student has no basis from the discipline to sort appropriately and may hold to an inverted or insignificant hierarchy of the information. This renders the knowledge useless. Our classes are filled with unsorted details of information from classical books to Wikipedia. But most of it is useless except for identification on a scantron answer sheet. Therefore, the master must underscore the irreducible minimum of the knowledge base so the student or disciple is guided in that knowledge and so that what is significant is retained. This is often lost in our educational system. Students are given massive amounts of knowledge and usually not guided into what is significant for life. Rather, they are guided toward a standardized exam.


The other use of knowledge is connection. Putting knowledge pieces together brings a fuller understanding of a discipline. Understanding is the second level of learning. We are exposed to knowledge through information which must be sorted and connected under the guidance of a mentor. Once that information is committed to memory we must engage it toward the point of understanding. Understanding is having a working knowledge of the subject. It means we are capable of thinking about the known information and consider alterations and manipulations of that knowledge which infer possible implications of its manipulation toward real life circumstances. This critical thought cannot be done with introductory knowledge alone. Struggling with that knowledge in the experience of real life context serves as a laboratory that facilitates critical thinking. Thus, experience and critical thinking against real life problems creates a working knowledge more profitable than having an encyclopedic knowledge that repeats without understanding. Thus our goal is not leaning facts and knowledge but learning toward understanding. As with initial learning, understanding is gained best with an experienced guide who knows when to assist and when to allow the student’s private struggle. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach and demonstrates why standardized learning and formulas always leave some learners out.


One more step is necessary for mastery of a discipline in the area of knowledge. As knowledge increases and understanding in real life context takes place, one gains the result of a mature knowledge. That result is wisdom. Wisdom is gained through a lifetime of experience in learning knowledge, sorting and connecting it, critically thinking about it and applying it to life situations creating experience. As this is internalized, the human being begins to process and adapt one’s understanding both by ritual and creative behavior, into a mastery of a particular discipline related to life. He or she becomes competent in that discipline and through relationships with other competent practitioners, begins to serve as an elder, or master, or teacher of the system. At this point, the person is more valuable to the community, than the community is to the person. But I have much to cover before addressing that. Wisdom is the reward of learning and understanding and applying understanding to life. We have deluded ourselves and our students into thinking that knowledge is power and choice. That is not true. Without wisdom, power and choice is in the hands of a fool, knowledgeable or ignorant.

Knowledge today is being treated as an end in itself. It is not. It must be discovered, contemplated and passed on in meaningful and significant connections. We must seek the retention of significant information, being open to changes as more is discovered. We must struggle with information to gain understanding. And we must strive toward wisdom. For without wisdom, a community will not survive. And without community, no one will survive.

No comments:

Post a Comment