Friday, January 08, 2016

Everybody Knows

If you're reading this blog you are probably already an academic, which is to say, a specialist. (This is true even if you're an undergraduate. You've enrolled in a particular program of study and that is an act of specialization.) You are participating in a particular community that maintains a particular body of knowledge. It may be finance or organization, criminology or psychiatry, literature or history. These words are too imprecise to indicate a formal "discourse" or "paradigm" but they certainly distinguish one species of curiosity from another and, therefore, albeit in very broad strokes, one group of readers from another.

Interestingly, however, most people, also outside academia, know a little about all of these areas. There's something called "general knowledge". All reasonably educated adults, lets say, know what a mortgage and a corporation are, how thieves and madmen live, what poems are and what wars do. They know it in such a general way that they are not usually entrusted with teaching the subject, nor are they given grants to study it further. But that does not mean that they don't know that a mortgage puts up a property as collateral for a loan, that a corporation's directors are beholden to their shareholders, that to steal is a crime punishable by jail, that there are states of mind so "abnormal" that they require clinical treatment, that Shakespeare wrote some exemplary love sonnets, and that the second world war was fought mainly in Europe and the Pacific between 1939 and 1945. When you think about it, that's actually pretty impressive for "everyone".

Now, consider the relationship of the scholar in business, social science or the humanities to any of these pieces of general knowledge. What does their competence as a scholar do for them in relation to the "everyday" knowledge that "everyone" has. Well, my suggestion is that they should be a little better at talking about it and, of course, writing about it. Even if it is not something they are concentrating their research on at the moment, they should be better able to state the simple, well-known facts than the "average" person.

Note that there is nothing automatic about being good at stating a well-known fact. Just as a fact does not make itself known, merely "knowing" something in this general way does not make you a good communicator of it. This is what the first of the three exercises I suggested yesterday is about.

Make a list of facts that you are an expert about and that "everyone knows". This is not something you know and others don't but something you know better than everyone else. You can talk about it clearly and easily, with greater confidence than most people. You will, of course, be aware of details that others either never knew or have forgotten (or could recall but only at great effort.) You can answer questions that they can't. But when you talk about it you are saying things that ordinary people will find familiar. Believing you will not force them to revise their views on the topic, or rethink their place in the world. In that sense, they already knew what you are saying. You're just more articulate about it.

Spending 27 minutes writing at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words about such facts is excellent exercise for your style. Here knowing is not the problem, so writing can be. Enjoy it.

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