December 19, 2009

Why Go To School? Not for Facts

"In the future," a friend suggested to me a few weeks ago on a 3am walk across the Plateau and Mile End, "everyone will know everything. We'll have all of human knowledge in a chip in our heads or something. Like wikipedia in our brain. There'll be almost no facts left to learn."

I imagined families in the rural West sitting around their supper tables with all of human knowledge at their fingertips. My family.
"So what will people talk about?" I asked, as we passed a lineup of jockish McGill students and half-naked girls outside some meat market.

"Exactly." Which isn't a response at all.

I thought of 2001:A Space Odyssey, and of my friend Joel -who is always asking the biggest possible questions.

I felt unrealistically hopeful.


I've been thinking and reading a lot about the West Coast and London during the late 60s.


Anonymous said...

We'll always be talking about the mystical, spiritual, emotional.

p.s. Thank you so much for Duddy Kravitz!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"Mystical,spiritual,emotional." Yes!

Functional/inauthentic/practical things are what they are, and they must be done/said/endured/raced through, but questions of God and the mind and the limits of consciousness are what I hope I will always be able to keep coming back to.

Yay Duddy Kravitz!

Boyda said...

I absolutely disagree that "everyone will know everything" in the future. As a historian, I firmly believe in taking different approaches to the same material of the past - to analyze things to the infinite degree, to follow the line of signification in language forever. We will never know exactly what happened in any situation, EVER, because we can't read minds, we can't document all the evidence, and the 'facts' are forever negotiable.

Perhaps these are obvious statements, but I am a firm Derridian, and I react strongly to things like this. However, in terms of the 'big questions,' I do have a tendency to believe that we stand at the end of history, and there is very little left to create - these beliefs may seem contradictory, but I assure you, they are not.

So, like you, I am hopeful, partially.

Jon Coutts said...

It is a strange delusion of our time if people equate access to facts with knowing.

I agree with all that was said above, but, "we stand at the end of history"?

Boyda said...

Ha, I know. The idea that 'we stand at the end of history' is just a general sense that I have, not based on any real knowledge. My husband absolutely disagrees, and as much as he argues with me, I just can't seem to kick this unfounded, semi-apocalyptic worry. It has to do with nostalgia for the past, basically.

I feel kind of silly for my long comment, because I didn't really clue in to the title of your post, Matthew, until later.

Colin Toffelmire said...

What exactly is a fact anyway?

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

What is a fact? I don't know. But there sure are a lot of them. It'd be nice to have access to them all without trying. Then we could focus our intellectual energies -not on compiling, but on analyzing.

you wrote,
"I firmly believe in taking different approaches to the same material of the past."

Yeah. Me too. That's why this utopian vision of everyone having all the facts at their immediate disosal is so exciting. Six year olds can comb through the history of Slovenia in a millisecond -looking for something that interests them. Imagine the implications of that!

It would allow us to spend our energy on trying to negotiate the facts, rather than on trying to simply record them -on paper or in our minds.

So much of my schooling was/is dedicated to memorization. And so someone else, necessarily, was making the judgement for me as to which facts were worth knowing and which were not. Because of the context of our society that meant that I ended up getting certain prejudices brought into my education. In my friend's utopian vision those prejudices might be able to fade away a little. We could think for ourselves a little more.

End of history? How postmodern of you. I think we are approaching the end of a certain type of history: the type where there are a limited number of narratives to follow.

Equating access to facts with knowing them. Hmmm. Yes. It's the 'Good Will Hunting' thing, where you can know all about the Sistine chapel, even if you don't REALLY TRULY know it.

Boyda said...

Wow, Matthew, I totally read your post wrong!! You are actually excited about the possibility that we will carry all knowledge in our heads! I thought you were "unrealistically hopeful" about...the possibility that your friend might be wrong, or something.


There is something about the idea of a six year old knowing all facts regarding the history of Slovenia that frightens me. I am now picturing a generation of superhumans, with many [more] people vying for world dominance, and I'm picturing people growing TIRED of probing history because they believe they already understand it. I don't want to know everything!! Not. At all. Life would be a strange mixture of total boredom and vicious combativeness.

This is how it would be, to my mind, right now.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...



You read it wrong, I suspect, because I wrote it a little too ambiguously. That's the problem, I guess, with trying to present an idea in a narrative format: it makes misinterpretation easier. Not that I regret presenting my friend's ideas as I did.

A generation of superhumans sounds good to me. Mostly. Because I'm feeling optimistic about humanity lately.

People already think they understand history. Stupid people. Dogmatists and demagogues.

And you wouldn't know everything. Not KNOW in the sense that Jon drew the distinction between knowing and having access. You just wouldn't have to look the information up. It would be immediate. Goodbye google.

I love dialoguing with you. It never tips over into full on argument.

Jon Coutts said...

I am not sold on this idea of having not only ever "fact" at our disposal (whatever that is), i.e. google, but having them literally (what?) "hardwired" into us? What facts would get to be in? All of them? What would we do with them? Would a six year old ever care about Slovenia? One of the great things of life is learning. I'd hate were the active part of that taken away. And since "fact" and "mystical, spiritual, and emotional" reflection on those facts are so intricately intertwined, I'm not sure where that'd leave us. Maybe we'd have more time for the reflection, but I imagine we'd be more paralyzed than enabled.

Your excitement about this possibility is interesting to me, though. I guess I can see what you are saying. As with all things, it would depend on its use whether it was a blessing or a curse, and I'm not sure what other innovation of either the industrial or technological ages has been without its tragic side effects.

Not trying to rain on the parade, it is an interesting idea, and might be a preferred future. I just can't help thinking about implementation, and it is there that it implodes, I think.