Monthly Archives: February 2016

Knowledge and Information

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

These two famous questions were asked by T.S. Eliot in 1934. That’s in the very, very early days of television and 55 years before the invention of the World Wide Web. I remember reading somewhere that Eliot used to say he didn’t read the newspapers because they were “too exciting”.  These days it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to take a break from the excitement of social media. Where’s the information, we me might ask, that we’ve lost in the outrage?

Libraries are often associated with the notion of “information literacy” and I’ve written about my doubts about this “metaphorical” use on the notion of literacy before. I think something is being lost in the idea that sifting through the vast amount of information that is available “at our fingertips” is on par with reading and writing, i.e., literacy proper. To apply the metaphor, when we teach (and preach) “information literacy”, I worry that we’re now teaching students something akin to using the Dewey decimal system to locate a book in a library but not teaching them how to read the language it’s written in.

I got a sense of the problem recently when I was part of a team teaching writing and library skills to a group students who were beginning their master’s dissertation writing. I noticed that they got a bit restless when we started teaching them how to use the library’s databases to survey the literature and locate sources. There wasn’t anything wrong with the advice we were giving them; it just didn’t seem to satisfy their curiosity.

It got me thinking that maybe the students reach a point, not of information overload, but information fatigue. The wisdom of knowing what you don’t know is replaced by the knowledge that comes from being informed about how much information there is (i.e., too much). In the end, the students’ awareness of how well-informed they are (i.e,. how much access to information they have) becomes a hindrance to the formation of proper beliefs about the practices they are studying. Indeed, it undermines their ability to form justified, true beliefs, i.e., to know things.

So I want to consider an alternative approach. Perhaps at a certain level of education (a master’s program and certainly a doctoral program) we should begin with what the students believe and teach them how to use their access to inform those beliefs. This will often, of course, mean challenging what they think is true.

The idea would be to get them out of the sort of naive open-mindedness that seems to guide their early engagement with the Internet. Recognizing that they don’t know something and that someone “out there” probably does, they go looking for someone to replace ignorance with knowledge. “Information literacy” here becomes the competence of recognizing a trustworthy source. But as they advance, they need us to help them replace false beliefs with knowledge, and to better support true beliefs on their scientific basis. This last is important in any effort to refine what is known, to study it further.

In this mode, students would go the databases with much more specific questions. The question is no longer “What has been written on this subject?” but “Is this claim true, and if so, how do we know?” This sort of inquiry will invariably lead them to research that is critical of what they thought they knew, and to competent practitioners of the methods that are normally used to test the relevant claims.

Instead of sifting through thousands of pages of “information” about a subject, students might now engage with dozens of scholars who are knowledgeable about particular claims about the world. What we have here, indeed, is a version of the distinction between being merely “literate” and being actually knowledgeable. In the end, we’re trying to give students the ability to know things, not just to find sources. We want to help them locate, not just the information, but the conversation.