Archive for March 26th, 2008

Is Knowledge Relative?

March 26, 2008 @ 8:09 pm | Filed under: ,

I just spent all my posting time writing another really long comment in the patience/unschooling thread. Is it cheating if I post it here as well? (Cheating what, Lissa?)

Maybe not cheating, but nepotism perhaps. (Can nepotism apply to one’s own self?) There have been so many good, wise comments on that post, and I keep pulling excerpts to paste into a post—two posts, one on parenting and one on learning/unschooling—but the posts would be almost as long as that comments thread. Besides, excerpts are not as good as whole comments, in context.

This comment was a reply to one of many questions asked in that thread.

Wendy asked,

“Does unschooling mean we give equal weight to everything our children are interested in? For example, is reading a Star Wars novel (which my 10yods is now doing, aloud, for his 8yo brother) just as valuable as reading, say, Scotland’s Story? I know I must be missing something, but it seems like relativism to me to say that it is.”

That depends on what you mean by valuable, and by relativism. Relativism in this context sounds bad, like moral relativism. (You can tell I’m not a moral relativist because I think moral relativism is bad.) But I don’t see how it could be moral relativism to say “this bit of knowledge is just as valuable as that bit of knowledge.” Valuable for what purpose? In what context? Here are some things of value I see in a boy reading Star Wars aloud to his brother:

learning to read with inflection (useful in many professions)

gaining deeper understanding of dialogue including how to punctuate it, how conversations unfold

deeper understanding of pacing, rising action/falling action, conflict, character development, description, subplots, metaphor and imagery (all very valuable in my particular profession!)

deepening of bond between brothers; warm happy memory for them, shared knowledge for games and in-jokes

experiencing the good feeling of doing something nice for someone, discovering the joy of charitable acts

science stuff about space, planets, gravity, engines, weapons, etc

Star Wars usually conveys a message that is decidedly NOT moral relativism: good is good, evil is evil; good fights evil (and prevails: hopeful message); it’s not ok for a good guy to do something bad even if he has a good reason (ends do not justify means); even the worst of bad guys can repent and try to make amends

other Star Warsy themes are the importance of working as a team, playing off each other’s strengths; perseverance; sacrifice

And probably a lot of other things I’m not thinking of.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be either/or with Star Wars and the Story of Scotland (not that Wendy was saying it did; I’m just developing a thought)—both books might capture a kid’s interest at different times, or at the same time. Jane had a three-year Boxcar Children passion; she read that series so many times she could identify all 100+ titles by number. At the same time she was reading lots of books from the classics lists. If there wasn’t something valuable about formula fiction, there wouldn’t BE formula fiction. No one would buy it; it wouldn’t get published (by the millions). There is something deeply satisfying about reading a story that unfolds in a reliable way. It’s comforting, but it can be exciting, too, knowing that the next twist is due and making guesses about the plot, puzzling out the mystery or solution to the conflict.

And in a way it’s impossible to put a value on knowledge because you don’t KNOW what you’re going to need to know in the future. (If you don’t know it already, and a pressing need arises, you’re going to learn in a hurry. I knew next to nothing about the War of 1812 when I was offered the Charlotte books. The first book was set in the middle of the war, and I had four months to write it. And historical accuracy was imperative both to the publisher and to my sense of integrity. So you can bet I took in an enormous amount of knowledge at a rapid pace!)

I think it is so, so hard for all of us who were schooled to break down the boxes that school put knowledge into. School has to decide what information to present when, and to whom. It says “this is important for all people of X age to know.” (But though it can present the information, it can’t guarantee that all the students will wind up “knowing” it.) School says that certain knowledge is more valuable than other knowledge. But you know what? Knowing how to fix a toilet would have saved me a lot of money, but school never presented *that* potentially valuable knowledge. I can draw really pretty circles with a compass, though. I’ve had more plumbing problems in my life than occasions requiring perfectly round circles.

In typing class I learned to put two spaces after every period. That was a valuable piece of information when I took timed typing tests for temp agencies during college. Later, when employers needed word processors instead of typists, I had to “unlearn” that habit. Only one space after a period, in computer typing. Knowledge that formerly had value became disadvantageous. Circumstances change.

The value of knowledge *is* relative, isn’t it? “Is this important” depends on “for what?”

That isn’t the bad kind of relativism, moral relativism. It’s practicality.

I place a very high value on beautiful prose and well-crafted fiction. I value some types of poetry (Elizabeth Bishop) over others (Hallmark greeting card). Hallmark sells millions more greeting cards than Elizabeth Bishop sold books. And yet, I say her work is “better” (a relative judgment) than a Hallmark card. I say it, and I believe it, and I can tell you why, syllable by syllable. But it’s possible that my grandma (if I still had one living, that is) would be far more moved by the sentimental lines on her birthday card than Elizabeth Bishop’s rapturous meditation upon a very ugly fish.

Another way to think about it is: who is learning more—the kid who is passionately interested in Boxcar Children, or the one who is patiently enduring Great Expectations?

(That same child might, however, find herself captivated by Great Expectations a few years later—her appreciation of suspense fiction having been honed by dozens of Boxcar Children books.)

Charles Dickens knew the “value” of words—he got paid by the word. When he read his own work aloud, he stripped out most of the adjectives; he’d just put them in to pay the bills.

We (having been well schooled) might say that classical music and opera are “more important” or “better than” cartoons. But most of the kids in my generation first (and maybe only) encountered opera in the cartoons. Ohh Bwunhiwda, you’re so wuv-wy…Yes I know it, I can’t he-e-elp it… 🙂

My kids discovered Strauss through Tom & Jerry. I discovered Strauss through That’s Entertainment!

To come back to the question: do we give equal weight to everything our children are interested in? I think yes, we do. School has to decide what to present how, and in what way, but at home, we don’t. We aren’t bound by a calendar year or test date. We don’t have to squeeze knowledge into someone else’s boxes. Way leads on to way!