Friday, January 1, 2010

Thinking about Thinking in A New Year!

Hmmm. It is nice to be back. I had a nasty bout of illness over the holidays that just left me rather flat and weak. I am beginning to get back into the swing of things.

OK, over the next several blogs I am going to try something dangerous.

We are going to explore a "Theory of Knowledge." I am going to do this without a textbook, I promise. I know courses exist on epistemology. I am going to do some "feeling around" about knowledge, what we see it as, how we use it, what components make up "knowledge", and just generally *how* we "know" things.

But as important as knowing things has to be, something with potentially even more significance is knowing the state of your knowledge and reacting to it. So you have studied those history dates. Do you know them? If you answer yes, how do you know that you know them? Well, how would I know that you know?

Questions like those fall under a category called "metacognition" or "thinking about thinking." Sounds fancy, but it is really a very significant topic and enormously useful if approached right.

Well, what else? We will need to see what happens when we put knowledge together with other knowledge. We will need to see what kinds of knowledge have been the most significant in human history, and well, …

IF I GET THROUGH AN UMPTIETH of this, I will have done a good job.

But why, you ask, am I so worked up about this?

Well, I find that in some ways, people are becoming more susceptible to a "soft-knowledge" mode of thinking. Yes, that is essentially the same thing as saying that their brains are full of mush, but with the hint that there might be some external forces at work helping to mushify the thought processes.

This leads to all sorts of problems. People make all sorts of easily avoidable mistakes they would never make if they were thinking properly. People are easy prey to advertising which promotes emotion-based decision making instead of knowledge-based decision making.

I mean, doesn't it make you cringe when you hear some general explaining the reason for years of failed military and political progress in the Iraq War was a failure to understand the culture? Why would we send troops in with no cultural training? (We did!) Why would anyone in their right mind think that Iraqis would want to be just like the US anyway, as if they had no culture of their own, and no local or national pride?

Or how about the strange case of Governor Sanford who went off "walking the Appalachian Trail"? What kind of muddy thinking made him say he was trying to work on his marriage and yet call his mistress his "true love"? And what kind of thinking allowed him to be so strident in demanding that Bill Clinton resign because of his affair and attendant sins, yet insist that God wants him - Mark Sanford - to remain in office? Hypocrisy is a sign of muddy thinking, too.

Ultimately a culture cannot maintain a level higher than its general ability to think. That means that the American people are in more trouble than they realize.

So, hopefully we will get this project going. Stay tuned!

In the mean time, I will be preparing for a new batch of eager (or less than) math students.

No, I haven't said anything about New Year's Resolutions. You've had too much of that already.

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