Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Education and Entertainment

This morning's Business section on the BBC News Web site has an article by Education Correspondent Sean Coughlan based on an interview with Jimmy Wales. This is likely to set up any number of red flags for many readers, beginning with the idea of an article about education classified as "business" and following through with the controversial subject of the interview. While I remain skeptical about the value of Wikipedia, I seem to have developed a reasonably reliable set of work practices for putting it to use, particularly when doing my writing for (I like to provide readers with hyperlinks to details for particularly obscure matters. Because Grove Music Online is behind a paywall, I like that hyperlink to point somewhere accessible to all readers.) However, I feel it is important to distinguish between how Wikipedia works and how Wales thinks, or at least how he talks about what he thinks (which is not always the same thing).

I would thus like to call attention to one of the sentences captured in Coughlan's interview:
I thought at that time, in the future, why wouldn't you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people's heads?
This provoked me about as much as I had been when I heard Wales talk about the virtue of search results on Genghis Khan giving priority to his role in a battle that included Alexander the Great and Napoleon, even though that battle was a fabrication of Marvel Comics. It is not that I am opposed to entertainment. I like being entertained as much as anyone else. However, entertainment takes place in what I have called the "private reality" of the individual being entertained, which does not necessary have any relevant consistence with the reality of the social world in which that individual lives.

I would therefore like to argue that education is something that must, out of necessity, take place in both "private reality" and "social reality." Thus, just about all of the education that supported any of my most extensive research projects, as both a student and a professional, was grounded in a massive amount of reading and note-taking. This all took place in my private reality. Indeed, much of that reading involved Mortimer Adler's idea of the reader engaged in a conversation with the author; but any such conversation clearly existed only in my private reality. However, it then equipped me to emerge from that private reality to have real conversations about the ideas taking shape in my head.

Looking back on my undergraduate life, I sympathize with Wales dismissing large lectures as being tedious and boring. However, I worry more about the fact that undergraduate education is grounded on a considerable amount of reading, perhaps beyond the level of cognitive overload. Can one really relish the many poetic virtues of Homer's Odyssey when one also has to be fathoming the mysteries of angular momentum to prepare for two different classes the next day? To this day I am thankful that I did not have to read Marcel Proust as an undergraduate. I could only really appreciate him by reading him without external pressures, letting his text unfold at the pace I set for myself.

Entertainment does not solve this problem of cognitive overload. At best is masks it with an appealing surface, but that surface is distracting. The best teachers are the ones that allow you to make the transition from those conversations in your private reality into conversations in the social world. This cannot happen in a large lecture hall, nor can it necessarily happen in a video recording.

Wales' vision is one of education without effort. However, experience has taught me that one is only informed through the effort one exerts, whether the mental effort of wrestling with a text or the physical effort on trying to get your fingers around a late piano sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven. Yes, education needs to be reformed. However, that reform will require providing more social engagement of a higher quality; and entertainment is unlikely to contribute very much to creating and facilitating such engagement.

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