American Elephants


We Need a Remedial Course in Knowing, How to Retain Knowledge and What to Do With It. by The Elephant's Child

library_the-old-library-trinity-college-dublin-thomas-burgh

One of my perennial worries is about the state of knowledge. The world is, of course, always changing, but what has changed most dramatically is the flow of information.

We seldom give it a thought, but in the early days of the republic, news was transmitted by horse and rider, or coach.  And then the town crier  cried the news —and the simple word of mouth. Most people didn’t  have books, except for the Bible. The Revolution, the making of the Constitution, the War of 1812 all happened without telephone or radio to spread the news. The new Capitol in Washington D.C. was burned by the Brits, and it took days or weeks for anyone to find out.

The great Civil War took place entirely without a radio or a telephone, no newsreels, but there were newspapers and magazines, and even new photography, which has left a first visual record for us. There were railroads, and canals and roads.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Most people thought it was little more than a toy, but they soon began to install telephones in their towns, homes or businesses. The first one appeared in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1877 when a banker ran a line from his home to his bank.

The first transcontinental telephone call took place in 1915 from New York to San Francisco. In 1948 Bell Labs’ Claude Shannon published a landmark paper on “a Mathematical Theory of Communication” which provided mathematicians and engineers with the foundation of information theory which sought to answer questions about how quickly and reliably information could be transmitted.  Direct long distance dialing came about in 1951, and the first transatlantic telephone cable was installed between America and Britain.  It took 3 years and $42 million to plan and install using 1,500 miles of specially insulated coaxial cable.

The first television was introduced at the World’s Fair in 1939, but TV didn’t become common in people’s homes until the 1950s and sixties. The first public tests of a cellular phone system took place in 1978, and it wasn’t till the year 2000 that we finally reached 100 million cellular telephone subscribers.

Even the millennials probably know a little something about the history of the computer, but the kids in college who are protesting freedom of speech, don’t want to hear disagreeing words, need “safe spaces” and think buildings or statues, or crests that remind us of people who thought incorrect things in the past, should be removed.

Even Democrat Attorneys General and Rhode Island’s Senator Whitehouse are out to stamp out the utterances of those who have the gall to deny that a warming climate is going to destroy the earth.

The absurdity in the nation’s colleges and universities is happening at the rare time in our history when we are completely connected to all the information in the world, in an instant, at our fingertips. They are connected to networks of friends wherever they are and to thousands of people they only know through their devices.  Mine’s a tiny computer — roughly 2¾” by 5½”— and I can carry it around in my pocket, and talk to anyone in the world, and call up information from practically anywhere. But how am I supposed to know what is true and what is false?

We had to find out for ourselves how to deal with this flow of information and the even greater flow of advertisements and enticements and lies and scams. But we have had all the years of our lives to get used to things gradually.

Our schools, which are supposed to be the foundation of knowledge, have drifted off into realms of “social justice” and “diversity” and “white privilege” and women’s studies and black studies and college tuitions that range upwards from $50,000 to $60,000 a year and more, to receive less and less in the knowledge department.

Yet they are not only NOT teaching how to manage this flow of words and pictures and ideas, but don’t seem to recognize that the world has changed and they need to fill the kids on the past and how we got here as well as how to cope with the present and plan for the future.

Handwriting is out, ancient history is gone, what use is geography when you can call up Google maps in an instant? Social Justice isn’t even real. There is only one ‘justice’ which is found in the Constitution and the body of laws and in the courts. Students at Stanford (Stanford!) have petitioned for the return of Western Civ. Shakespeare is mostly gone, and Churchill is completely out of fashion. Yet there are more remedial courses in colleges than ever before, because too many students arrive unprepared to do college level work.

A political campaign is a bad time to bring up this subject, but it is the moment of our highest awareness. You can’t help but notice. When Hillary is attempting to make equal pay for women a central part of her campaign — and is unaware that it has been the law since 1963, She mentioned last year that Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism, more than once, in spite of the obvious facts of 9/11, Paris and Brussels. Bernie Sanders is espousing the most discredited political system the world has ever known, which is failing before our eyes in Venezuela, and Cuba, and other countries around the world.

I picked up a book a while back called Too Big To Know by David Weinberger, read some bits and put it aside to read later. Guess I’ll have to read it now.Here’s one paragraph from the Prologue:

So we are in a crisis of knowledge at the same time that we are in an epochal exaltation of knowledge. We fear for the institutions on which we have relied for trustworthy knowledge, but there’s also a joy we can feel pulsing through our culture. It comes from a different place. It comes from the networking of knowledge. Knowledge now lives not just in libraries and museums and academic journals. It lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain  knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network, and the network embraces businesses, governments, media, museums, curated collections, and minds in communication.

I wouldn’t have chosen the words ‘exaltation of knowledge’, nor described it in quite those terms, but I’ll have to read the book. I’ll report back when I have.

*The photo is of the Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin, and those are the stacks.


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: