Did You Know?

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Nifty 5-minute video a friend sent earlier this year:

I haven’t verified the interesting facts in the video, but I know teachers are showing it to their high school students, and the facts seem plausible enough (in an “implausible just ten years ago” way). A few of the facts that grabbed me:

**The top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004;
**Four exabytes of unique information will be generated this year;
**The first commercial text message was sent in 1992; today, the total text messages sent in a day exceeds the planet’s population;
**In 1992, there were 1 million internet devices; in 2008, there were 1 billion;
**Technological information doubles every two years . . . for students earning four-year degrees in technology, half of the information they learn as Freshmen will be outdated by their Junior year.

At the end, the video asks, “What does it all mean?”

A person could induce all sorts of general ideas from those facts, but in the sphere of education, I think they point to a paradox: the wave of cutting-edge technology means we should stop studying technology.

Over thirty years after this death, the dinosaur education ideas of Robert Hutchins should (probably won’t, but should) make a comeback.

Hutchins’s models of a collegiate education were the medieval Trivium—rhetoric, grammar, and logic—and Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Technical knowledge was to be strenuously avoided: “Facts are the core of an anti-intellectual curriculum,” he observed. “Facts do not solve problems. . . . The gadgeteers and the data collectors have threatened to become the supreme chieftains of the scholarly world.” The true stewards of the university, said the career administrator, should be those who deal with the most fundamental problems: metaphysicians. Link.

If, as the video says, technology is increasing at exponential rates, what’s the use of dedicating four years of college education to learning today’s technology? If you do, you’ve merely spent four years learning stuff that won’t be relevant. In a society dominated by malaria, it would be like spending four swatting flies, instead of spending those four years learning how to avoid flies altogether, innoculating yourself against fly bites, and learning how to treat malaria. If you spend those years swatting flies, you’ll no doubt be quite good at it when you’re done, but you’re scarcely poised to make meaningful advances against the problem in general.

The traditional liberal arts education readies you to deal with the flies: to conquer them, to understand them, to use them (okay, my analogy is strained, but you see my point). In the words of James Schall:

[The liberal arts] enable us to better see what is there. . . [T]hese ‘freeing’ or ‘liberal’ arts are not simply a body of books to read, but a way of life enabling us to be free enough to know the truth of things. When we do know something ‘for its own sake,’ we also know its truth or falsity.

The liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished. . . Without preparation in such disciplines . . . we lack the intellectual tools to understand the world. Each discipline [of the three roads–trivium–and four roads–quadrivium] was worthy of study in itself, but once all were acquired, the student was ‘free’ to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act.The Life of the Mind (ISI Books, 2006), pp. 24, 31, 32.

The exclusive pursuit of technological information is a sign of skeptical arrogance. It says, “I already understand the higher things . . . to the extent they’re worth knowing. I’m 19 years old and graduated from high school. I read a lot of stuff on the Internet. Higher things to learn? I know them or they don’t exist or they’re not relevant. What do you want to teach me? How many angels can dance on the head of a pen [chortle]?”

No one, according to medieval scholar Etienne Gilson, ever debated the angels-on-a-pin issue (I think it was a flippancy by Voltaire, kinda like Kinsey’s statement that the Vatican has a huge porn collection: both filled with modernist fallacious thinking, both funny in their modernist way, both devoid of any factual accuracy whatsoever). More important, the existence of angels makes it plausible that there’s more to study than just spirits in the cyber-world. If there are higher and eternal beings, doesn’t that imply we ought to try to obtain some knowledge about them, even if it’s only of the slenderest sort . . . especially if our alternative is to learn something with the life span of a gnat?

Of course, the youngster might deny the existence of angels, but no matter. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s studying gnat-life stuff. And unless he wants to deny the existence of all higher things–whether it’s God or love or hope or courage or prudence–he needs more than bytes of information tossed at him like darts. That swarm of dart-ish information will never amount to a dartboard, but if you have the underlying knowledge and sense of goodness and truth that comes with the underlying knowledge, you might be able to make a dartboard out of it . . . and even understand why a person would want useless-but-fun thing like a dartboard in the first place.

Does all this mean that technological information is worthless? Not at all. I want my children to experiment with computers, to learn what they can. I think it’s a great hobby that can bring them practical skills.

I even hope my sons and daughters take a semester or two of technology courses while in college . . . but not until their Senior year. In law school, I was encouraged to delay Trial Advocacy until the third (final) year. Trial Ad skills don’t deal with the substance of law, but rather with showmanship, with its road-meets-rubber application. Trial Ad is important–and crucial to your client in heated litigation–but it’s not a building block. The same, I believe, applies to technological information: crucial, but not a building block for education . . . and definitely not a building block to understanding life and reaching for the higher things of human existence.

Are you going to learn the four exabytes of unique information generated in 2009? Me neither. We’re not even going to hear about them, much less understand them. Do you need to know about them to live a meaningful life? Not at all, and if you have a broad-base of education at your feet, the couple of bytes you do hear about will have a semblance of meaning. Your broad-base education won’t allow you to put it altogether, but such an education, when combined with cultivation of some virtues, will allow you to make a bit of sense of it and preserve your peace of mind.

And that, according to wise men from Rome to Russia, is what really matters:

“Serenity is the principal happiness in this world. Without peace of mind, nothing is pleasant to us.” Tikhon of Zadonsk.

“The happy life is having a mind that is free, lofty, fearless, and steadfast–a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire.” Seneca

Related links:

Ataraxy in the Age of TMI