Thursday, August 22, 2013

Data and Discernment

With another graduation season upon us, educational institutions across our great land are once again forcing students to endure a final, boring “rite of passage” known as the commencement address. Tradition has it that the very best address ever delivered was by Winston Churchill, who is remembered as declaring “Never, never, never give up”, and then sitting down to thunderous applause. Whether the cheers were for his sentiment or brevity I leave you to decide.

But this year there was at least one address that ought to be required reading for every graduate, and every American. On May 19, Leon Wiesteltier, a man of letters, exhorted the graduating class of Brandeis University to rescue the nobility of thinking from the ever-increasing swamp of information that is threatening to re-invent what we understand as knowledge.

Wiesteltier put is very simply: “We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.”

There is no arguing against the reality that we are now more a society of data and information than of knowledge and wisdom. With our computers, smart phones and all the connected information sources at our fingertips, we encounter and process more new data than our forefathers did in decades. I see three dangers we face as a result. First, with all this data, we have little time to think. Second, we have come to believe that having information is the same as being knowledgeable. Third, and worst of all, we are more and more prone to reject as unneeded any data that doesn’t come with immediate usefulness.

When I talk about thinking what I really mean is the ability to take data, push it through the sieve of experience and discernment, and formulate a cohesive and ethical worldview. It once was essential to spend time thinking, reflecting, conversing, writing, and reviewing in order to become knowledgeable, not just about facts, but about life. But we are quickly losing this value. Our fast food nation has become a fast solution nation. We face a problem, dilemma, or question, and immediately ask Google, or Siri or Facebook friends for the answer. We erroneously consider it no longer necessary to build our own storehouse of wisdom given that the wisdom of the ages can be accessed on our iPad. The result is that we are losing that important characteristic that most separates us from the beasts and epitomizes the superior nobility of humanity. We are systematically undermining our minds, and their unique ability to synthesize data into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom.

To understand the dangerous track we’re on will mean recognizing that data isn’t knowledge in the same way that bricks and boards are not a house. The basic materials have to be expertly arranged, according to a design, in order to build something useful. Information informs, but it only becomes knowledge and wisdom through reflection, study, and interaction with competing ideas. A load of bricks does not a wise man make.

Lastly, our belief that information must be immediately useful has fostered our growing addiction to convenience. We’re increasingly committed to believing “If it won’t help me now, I don’t need it.” I remember trying that on my Algebra teacher in middle school. But Mr. Howsin sat me down and gave me the “we’re training your mind to think here, and someday you’ll thank me.” And that day did come, even though for the life of me, I couldn’t solve for X right now. Algebra trained my mind then for what I do now. And while I’ve forgotten the algebraic facts, the patterns of knowledge they etched in me have been very helpful.

The point of all this is that we need to temper our infatuation with facts, and go all the way to passionate thinking about meaning, about truth and error, about what brings real purpose and satisfaction and beauty into life. We must recover the humanity bound up in the study of humanities, all the while making the best use of the technologies available to us. To reject innovation is not wise. But to replace real thinking with bits and pixels is to slough ourselves unknowingly down the path of cognitive suicide.


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