Monday, May 07, 2012
Over the last fifteen years, I've had the pleasure of investigating the way in which students theorize about knowledge. The odd thing is that the more they think about what they know and how they know it (or how they think they know it), the less coherently they express this. It's almost as if they have drunk too deep of the stuff and are repenting in the gutter.
That has to be the reason why I'm seeing a particularly disturbing phenomenon more and more. Essays my students write tend to be linear and at best two-dimensional, despite the many thoughts they seem to have in the classroom. It's as if they are deliberately putting on blinkers in order to avoid distractions, in order to plough a long, lean furrow.
This leads to essays in which a line of argument about knowledge is advanced and pursued through thick and thin, but without a broader context and without much engagement with other aspects of knowledge.
At the end of the line, one finds a single glowing point of conclusion, like the last glow of an ember before the dark snuffs it out. It's all rather depressing.
My theory is that students are afraid of looking at knowledge. It is as if, having grown up in an atmosphere of air, they are suddenly having to think about breathing, about fighting for every breath and attempting to scent the aromas of nitrogen and oxygen. It is as if they think they will die if they cannot adequately chart the movement of air through every alveolus in the lung. And so, they fall back on a description of process, rather than a picture of relationships.
A 1500-word essay on breathing would be beyond them, but a 1500-word chocolate-box assortment of linked facts amounting to a description of how air passes into the lung and emerges depleted — ah, that is what they can do with some confidence.
That is why, the day before the essays are due, students can still ask me questions like, "What's my conclusion supposed to be?" or "Are there any implications to what I've said?" or "What is my knowledge issue?" They've forgotten how to think, because they're thinking too hard and too narrowly about thought. Like the millipede who became paralysed after being asked, "Which leg do you move first when you wake up?" they are paralysed by having to describe how they know how they know.