Monday, September 28, 2015
Will we be learning in greater breadth?
Consider the worm, the lizard, the shark and the bear. What do they have in common? They are loners. Each one has to be prepared to meet every challenge that he is likely to encounter in a lifetime because there is no one else there to rely on. Each needs the full breadth of knowledge and skills to live a lizardly existance or a sharkly existance or whatever kind of life the loner will encounter.
Now consider the ant, the elk, the wolf and the human. We live in groups and get some survival benefit from the fact that others of our kind are usually nearby to help us out of a jam or to take on challenges that would be too much for a single individual. And when we can count on the group being around, we can specialize. Ants have queens, drones, soldiers, scavengers and farmers. We humans have taken specialization to the extreme.
We typically strive for knowledge and skills in depth. We try to be better at some particular thing than anyone around us is. Our success in society often depends upon our knowledge and skills in depth.
The Internet presents a new opportunity: easy learning in breadth. We may need to learn in depth to create a valued contribution to society, but why not learn broadly too? In the past, learning has been hard. Everyone has limited time for learning so learning in depth, the socially valuable learning, took precedence over learning in breadth.
Learning in breadth was called a liberal education and the notion was advocated by the ancient Greeks. In particular, the wealthy Greeks who had slaves to do all their work for them. They had no need to find a way to make useful contributions to society. They were more concerned with how to use their abundant leisure time all the while not appearing "useful" -- that's what slaves did.
The Greeks found pleasure in their liberal education, coming to understand much about the world around them. But today, without slaves, we have largely sacrificed the pleasures of a liberal education for the practical benefits of a useful education.
The Internet has made vast amounts of information easily accessible. It is so much easier to learn subjects a mile wide and an inch deep any time and any where just by picking up a tablet or smartphone and searching. The pleasures of a liberal education may be coming back.
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