Stressing knowledge in the information age

by Donna Runnalls

The recently submitted Report of the Task Force: Towards a New McGill once again has raised for me the question of how to assess the effect of the information revolution on the teaching and learning task of the University.

Like so many other publications, the report suggests that "technology and the information revolution are modifying the means for transmitting knowledge."

It is my opinion that the continual semantic confusion between "information" and "knowledge" is confirming in the mind of the public a mistaken view of the purpose of the interaction between teacher and learner: that it is for the transmission of information rather than for the acquisition of knowledge which is affective as well as informative.

The consequence of this constant rhetoric is the undermining of basic elements of the educational purpose for which the university should exist and a resulting loss of public commitment to our enterprise.

A major strand of thinking about education, at least since the Greek Classical Period, has been that knowledge means, above all, self knowledge: "Know thyself" was the teaching of Socrates. Socrates saw it as his task to be a "midwife" who gave birth to knowledge in others.

In my opinion this remains the task of the teacher. We should be concerned that our students develop an intellectual freedom in which they can be laid hold of by the evidencing realities of both the discipline they are studying and the society in which it is placed.

It is not simply a body of information which may be expected to make some kind of timeless impact on their minds, but rather an integrated knowledge which is part of the flow of nature, history and the experiencing self.

This knowledge includes information, but information processed through the mind which is involved in an individual and social struggle for understanding.

Clearly, technology can assist the teaching-learning process, but it cannot provide for important elements of an appropriate interpersonal learning environment wherein the student can come to a deeper understanding of self.

The Socratic ideal included a second assumption which may appear particularly perverse and paradoxical in a time such as ours: an assumption that no one does wrong willingly.

In an interview last spring on CBC's "As It Happens," an economics professor from Cornell described his research which had shown that students of economics are less cooperative (and possibly more dishonest) when they complete their studies than when they begin. (1) If this is so, should we be surprised at the level of parental concern and public cynicism about higher education?

It is crucial that the questions on our agenda should not only be what is the "information" that we are teaching and is it up to date with the latest research, but also are we teaching it in a way that ensures that the affect on students is toward the good and not toward evil.

For this reason, our present knowledge should be acquired in the process of a continued and relentless criticism of past knowledge, and a pressure to establish the basis, evidence, and assumptions of any truth claim in any subject area; doubt remains a critical component of the search for knowledge.

The well educated student will learn that all professed infallibilities and asserted inerrancies that deny their own historical character must be subjected to rigorous critical examination; surely this includes the rhetoric of the information age as well!

How does a student learn this? In my opinion the primary purpose of the interaction between teacher and learner is to encourage every student to become intellectually free and confident in acquiring critical ways of understanding.

It should also be the role of the teacher to encourage every student to understand that the critical principle itself is historical and relative so that, at each moment, he/she must have the confidence to subject all learning to ongoing examination through at least three lenses, those of intuitive imagination, tradition, and practice.

Intuitive imagination allows persons to recognize both the "logic of facts" and to see that the "facts" do not encompass truth: a human being is more than the facts of anatomy; a city is more than the facts of a particular population distribution.

The test of tradition ensures that each generation of students learns that the historical experience of people through the ages is a bearer of truth about the human condition; often what is thought to be new knowledge is only knowledge that has been forgotten.

The test of practice ensures the constant assessment of the Enlightenment view that knowledge is innocent as to its ends, and ensures a recognition that cognitive endeavours serve whatever is the power in society.

If we in educational institutions forget this, we hide ourselves from our complicity in the societal agendas of those in power and we do not equip our students for their future assumption of leadership.

The acquisition of knowledge should confront every student with the constant recognition that the world is not oneself. While most people might feel uncomfortable with this discovery, our students should learn that irritation is the condition under which the oyster creates a pearl. Freedom of thought brings the unwelcome news that our society is in trouble, and those engaged in various university disciplines contribute to that trouble as well as to its solution.

Because all societies, like all individuals, are always in trouble of one kind or another, the news should cause our students to grow and flourish, not despair and die.

I am suggesting that the way we teach (and who we are) is as important as what we teach. Every teaching/learning experience will have an "affect."

I believe that it is important at this particular time that we become self critical about the nature of the "affect" that both classroom teaching and other interactions, including those of technology, have on students. If we do not pay attention to this issue, we may find that, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Hosea, we will have "sown wind" only to have reaped "the whirlwind."

1. Robert H. Frank, Thomas Gilovich, and Dennis T. Regan. "Does studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?" Journal of Economic Perspectives(1993) 7,159-171.