Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Victims of our Own Success

Phew! I just read through a rather fascinating discussion over at Sir Francis' place. I must admit, I barely had enough of a frame of reference to understand most of the points made.

One theme that all the participants involved agreed on is that Canadians are not properly educated on the history that should matter to them. They all disagree on who's fault that is.

This is a common lament, heard quite frequently from various quarters, the most strident one being The Dominion Institute. A common refrain is that Canadians are too distracted by "technology" or have "short attention spans" etc. etc.

I think we may be dancing around the truth here. As individuals or as a society, we don't suffer from a lack of knowledge, or even raw information. We suffer from too much of both.

I freely admit that what I don't know far outweighs what I do know (or think I know). The more I read, the more this becomes apparent. (And to make Sir Francis sigh in exasperation. England had a civil war? Who's Milton?) Which is why I'm online blogging and reading. It is a means to fill the gaps in my knowledge. However, relying on Blogs and Wikipedia is relying on a vast online Coles notes edition of all of human understanding. Even so, I'm still overwhelmed.

Many/most Canadians don't understand their own history, they don't understand their form of government. In many of my posts I've tried to illustrate how many/most Canadians don't understand the Internet. You watch Holmes on Homes on TV and you learn that many/most Canadians do not understand how a house is built, and therefore are at the mercy of unscrupulous contractors. Financial people decry the fact that many/most Canadians do not understand how to properly mange their finances and their debt. It goes on and on and on. Each expert in a field is at pains to teach everyone a basic, fundamental understanding of that field.

Each is right. If "it" is something that we rely on or use, a more thorough understanding of "it" will allow us to utilize "it" more effectively. I'm reminded of a discussion I had many years ago. A co-worker was ranting that she had a raccoon problem. She had called the humane society and they politely informed her that they don't deal with those kind of things. She was quite irate and asked in exasperation, what are they good for then? I politely informed her that no, the humane society does not do wildlife control. That's the responsibility of the municipalities animal control division. She asked me how to contact them. I pointed out that it was in the blue pages, in the phone book. "Really? I never knew what those were for!" was her reply.

Who's fault is it that we do not know our history, how homes are built, what the blue pages are for? Our education system? That's always the easy obvious target. But get any group of people together and try to come up with a list of things we should be taught, the subject list would require more hours then there is in a day to teach. So necessary subjects get trimmed, become electives or cut altogether. That's not to say our education system is perfect, but it never will be.

Add in that we all have different interests (after all, that's how someone becomes an expert) and live in a rapidly changing world; and it becomes apparent that each of us has an impossible task before us to stay informed, educated, and knowledgeable on what matters to us.

And succinctly, that is why we fail these knowledge tests. Consider that the sum of human knowledge is constantly being refined and expanded, its obvious it will only get worse. Each of us will become even more isolated in our spheres of expertise where our only common ground will be sports, coffee and timbits.

I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing. We are creatures quite considerable and yet limited ability. Our emotional, physical and menatl limits constrain us all in various ways. All we can do is share what knowledge we have and hope that it helps others when they need it. Accept that no one knows everything. So share, discuss, learn and teach when you can spare the time.

In the meantime, how about them Blue Jays? Nice to have a winning team in Toronto right now isn't it?


Saskboy said...

I'm glad you threw in sports and entertainment into that :-). Mind suckers, or required distraction from being overwhelmed?

I think there should be a test for how WILLING someone is to learn important information, not to test what information they know.

Catelli said...

I find my willingness to learn varies day-to-day and hour-to-hour.

Probably because I'm in IT, anything I know now could be irrelevant tomorrow, so I constantly have to relearn everything I know.

Its exhausting. So sports and entertainment are REQUIRED distractions. As are booze and good cigars....

Saskboy said...

I wonder if that's because booze and cigars damage our ability to want to learn ;-)

Catelli said...

If so, that's a price I'm willing to pay!

ADHR said...

Adam Smith originated the classic defense of division of labour, and his ideas apply to knowledge just as well as manual labour. We can't know everything; but, insofar as we know things other people want to know, we can exchange what we know for the things they know that we want to. And thus we all end up better off than if we individually tried to be experts in everything.

Where it falls down, of course, is in systems which have a high tolerance for free riders. Home construction is a good instance of this, as Mike Holmes acknowledges when he mentions that there are very few "ugly" contractors, but many "bad" ones -- that is, very few who are actively destructive, but many who are simply too incompetent to do what they're trying to do. Home construction still chugs along, though, despite the existence of all these bad contractors.

The internet is another good example. You don't really have to understand how it works in order to use it effectively. And we can apply that to politics as well, as the political system doesn't collapse when voters are generally uninformed. (Indeed, in politics, there's a certain incentive for those who do care about it to keep others from knowing too much, as that consolidates their own power.)

So, I don't think the solution is to try to learn everything ourselves. I think the solution is to try to impose greater costs for ignorance. Most people are pretty capable when it comes to feeding and clothing themselves, as not being any good at it has pretty significant and immediate consequences. Most people are also pretty good at paying their bills -- again, there's a severe and quick consequence to not being good at it. Neither of these are systems that tolerate people free-riding on others' knowledge, unlike home construction, the internet, and politics.

If politics, say, is something that should be done from a position of a certain level of knowledge, then we need to change the system so there's some sort of cost to try to free-ride. Otherwise, people being at least mostly rational, people will figure out the ways to work the system and get away with being ignorant.

That's all pretty off the cuff, so I'm not sure how much sense it makes.

Catelli said...

It made a lot of sense.

Immediately I thought of the system of government from the movie, Starship Troopers (I never read the book). Only individuals that have served in the military can aspire to full citizenship with rights to participate in elections and run for government. Though it doesn't apply to the ignorance idea, its a concept where participation is rewarded.

Unfortunately with politics, a lot of it is subjective, which would make a test of ignorance fairly difficult to implement. So punishing ignorance and rewarding knowledge would be open to abuses as the lines distinguishing between the two are fairly blurred. (Thus the appeal of rewarding service).

But I think that the system may be sefl-correcting and doesn't need such a formalized approach. People that choose ignorance also self-punish. Many people I know who do not bother to vote, do so because they don't care about politics and choose to remain ignorant. So they remove themselves from the system and cede authority voluntarily.

At times I envy them. They enjoy the same lifestyle I do, but don't get worked up over the idiocy that occurs in parliament. I must admit, when we get together we often have a hard time finding something to talk about....