Thursday Thoughts
9 August 2018

In response to yesterday’s post, The Curse of Cursive, I received this comment.

“I have always blamed my own illegible (except – well sometimes – to me) scribble on the hours sitting in college lectures attempting to make a record of what was being said. Consequently, I could only ever record about every 3rd sentence. Something which I claim accounts for all those gaps in my learning.”

This comment merits a Thursday Thought.

First thought: the whole process of note-taking. One of my professors in Bristol University, where I did my undergraduate degree, was in the habit of sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream while munching his sandwiches, consequently his post-lunch thoughts were always most enlightening. Here is his post-lunch declaration on knowledge: “Knowledge is that which passes from my notes to your notes without passing through anyone’s head.” This statement was followed by a closing of the drowsy eyes and an enormous hiccup.

For me, the art of note-taking goes way beyond the copying down of another’s ideas. As  note-takers, we must sift the incoming information, break it into salient and important features, and get the main drift of the argument down on the page. And not just the argument, but our own questions and challenges as well. Much of what I was taught at the various schools I attended was, frankly, nonsense. However, I learned a great deal about teaching from those who taught me that nonsense. A dictated note from an early geography class, preserved for ever in the young student’s mind: “The earth is geoidal, ie, earth-shaped.” Good one, teacher. “Please sir, if the earth is earth-shaped, what shape is the moon?” “Don’t be cheeky, boy, I’ll see you afterwards.”

When I received my first important teaching award I realized that it came to me on account of what I had avoided (all those inadequate lectures and lessons) and that what I was doing was engaging students and challenging them to challenge me by developing their own questions and ideas, by doing their own background checks, and by establishing their own thought processes, rather than trying to imitate somebody else’s dictated and regurgitated notes with their partial pictures of (in)complete and often antiquated knowledge, and all this often dredged up and recycled in the form of ancient, dusty scrawlings from pre-historic graduate courses.

I realize that this is unfair to several lecturers I encountered over the years who were able to deliver riveting and thought-provoking adresses. However, these were few, very scarce, and much appreciated. Their names and ideas are engraved on my mind. They and their methods are not forgotten, even now, but, as I say, there weren’t many of them.

As for knowledge, it is so personal and becomes an integral part of who we are and what we do. I know people who received everything they knew about life with their first degrees. They thought they possessed everything, the complete tree of knowledge in one rolled up certificate. Alas, many of them spent their lives never progressing, standing still and contemplating their known world, neither learning nor needing to learn anything else.

Our knowledge is incomplete. If we are at all ‘thinking people’, we know this. We also know we can never get enough knowledge. A PhD is great: knowledge Piled higher and Deeper. But often it is Reinforced Ignorance, the false knowledge that this knowledge is the only knowledge, well, the only knowledge that matters to the individual who, at a substantial living wage, ekes it out with great care and tests other people on their ability to reproduce it in its exactitude. “And I never-ever thought for myself at all” (I am the Monarch of the Sea, the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy, HMS Pinafore).

And here we enter the world of clichés: life-long learning, an everlasting thirst for enlightenment, for more light, more knowledge. The only real knowledge that we simply must transfer to our students, our followers, is how they can gain knowledge and even more knowledge for themselves. A love of and a desire for life-long-learning is the teacher’s greatest gift. If the teacher can pass that on, then the world of ideas will not fail, knowledge will not become carved in stone, set in concrete, entrenched in notes ‘that pass from my notes to your notes without going through anyone’s head’.

Here ends my Thursday Thought. A rant, really, and a very satisfying one. Thank you, Roland of Roland’s Ragbag, for turning on the tap and allowing these refreshing waters to once again flow.

Comment: Opening photo, knowledge set in stone. One of the Bulls of Guisando (Province of Avila, Spain), with graffiti carved by a Roman legion.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge

  1. I have been in classes with other students so obsessed with note taking they aren’t really ‘hearing’ the lecture – so your professor’s statement rings true! Nevertheless, the examination process forces us to regurgitate facts, figures, names and dates. While I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of those details, having the overall idea of a thing committed to memory is so much more satisfying. AND learning ‘how’ to learn, how to think and reason gives you skills that will carry you through a lifetime!

    Liked by 1 person

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