Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How to Know Things

Most undergraduates today enter university on the understanding that it will have a profound impact on their ability to realize their dreams. In a straightforward sense, they expect that going to college will influence how much money they will be able to make and how much power they will be able hold. They may, of course, be entirely humble about the first, and entirely noble about the second. So, if you ask them what they mean by "money" they may say that being wealthy means knowing when you have enough, and if you ask them what they mean by "power" they may tell you it is the ability the make the world a better place. Their university education, in any case, is expected to put them in control of their future. They are practical people, our students.

But universities do not, of course, first and foremost distribute money and power, wealth and status. If they do distribute these things, they distribute them indirectly, through something called "knowledge". And if you ask students what they mean by that word you are not likely to get as clear an answer as you would in the case of the other two. If they do have an answer, it is likely to be altogether more "theoretical" than their take on money and power.

I try to approach knowledge as something you acquire through practice. After all, we don't just come to know things in school, we learn how to know things. We become, if you'll permit the pun, knowledge-able, "able to know".

My definition of this notion has three parts. First, being knowledgeable is the ability to form justified, true beliefs. After going to school you should be able to efficiently "make up your mind" about what is true or false, without having to resort to some quick and easy prejudice. But being knowledgeable is not just a state of mind. It doesn't just happen in your head. The second part of my definition insists that being knowledgeable is also always the ability to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. It's a social affair that involves both speaking and listening.

But not even that is enough.

Being knowledgeable is not just the ability to make up your mind and then to speak it to others. You also have to be able to write it down. Knowing something, finally, is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it in—wait for it—27 minutes. That's a minimum of six sentences and maximum of two-hundred words that make a single, well-defined claim (to know) and supports it (with knowledge) at a rate of two an hour. And this sets up my entirely practical piece of take-home wisdom: you are no more likely to become a good writer (nor a good talker, nor a good thinker) than you might become a good pianist without practice.

Approach your studies as a training regimen for your mind. You are trying to get into shape.

Life, however you define it, is all about acquiring love and money and power and knowledge, however you prioritize them. Your time at school will not provide you with even a small part of all the knowledge you will ever possess. As in the case of money and power, the real achievements come after graduation. But school can very definitely make you knowledge-able if you let it. If you do, you will never regret the effort.

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