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Monday, October 01, 2012

The Cloud of Unknowing

What kind of social event are you attending? Listen to the dinner conversation. If the host is being complimented on the the excellence of the food, it is an event for middle-income or low-income guests. High income guests do not compliment high income hosts on the quality of the dinner because both guest and host know the host did not prepare the food.

A similar dynamic can be applied to what constitutes scholastic cheating.
Let me explain.

In Plato's day, when reading and writing were expensive hobbies, your mental agility was not measured by how many books you had read, but by how many memories you had created. The science of mnemonics required its practitioners to memorize large chunks of material and reproduce those memorized chunks on demand. Remember (he wrote, piquantly), the Iliad and the Odyssey were both originally memorized, not written works. Indeed, nearly everything we consider an "ancient work" got its start as a memorized work, not a written work.

What would Plato say of the modern reliance on books? Well, we already know what he would have said, because he already said it:
'Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.'
Plato said using books was cheating.

Why do I bring this up? Because "cheating" has become a serious problem in all the best schools.  Unfortunately, it isn't necessarily clear that this is cheating.

We use use books to store knowledge now, not just our memories. This use of books is no longer considered cheating. So, to what extent is it cheating today to collaborate on answers to an exam? [Editor's Note: Before you accuse me of ulterior motives, I have NOT undertaken this action since 4th grade, when I glanced at a fellow student's math test, wrote down his answer and STILL got it wrong. From that point forward, I decided the candle was not worth the game. I could get it just as wrong on my own without any risk, so why bother outsourcing the job?]

Who You Know Matters
Just as books debased the value of memorized material, so the web has debased the value of books as a means of storing knowledge.

In Plato's time, the focus was on facts - you memorized the rendition of a passage or the facts of a matter, the specific authorship of the passage or the facts were merely supporting material. Since Plato lost the fight and books triumphed, authorship became more important. Today and for centuries prior, we have shown our erudition by referencing the book from which our material came. Even St. Paul felt compelled to remind his readers, not once, but twice, that what he was saying was already mentioned "somewhere in Scripture." (Letter to the Hebrews: somewhere).

When I was young, I disliked the fact that people got jobs based on the fact that they knew someone in the company. I felt people should be hired based on knowledge and skill level, not connections. In short, I was young and stupid.

Now that I am older and wiser, I recognize the fact: who you know is part of what you know.  People are often hired precisely because of who they know, the connections they can make for the company. Indeed, that's why upper management gets paid more than the line worker. Upper management knows people who can get the product attention and sales. The factory worker does not. Anyone can make a product, but selling it? That's a much tougher proposition.

So, in times past, we footnoted our papers to show that we had "met" a bunch of dead people by virtue of having read their books. That’s what all of academics teaches. The “who” in academia is simply about footnoting dead people in your papers instead of texting living people on your iPhone. According to the academics, if you know the Great Books or the Politically Correct Books, then you know the right people, even if you’ve never met them. You footnote them in order to “prove” that you “met” them.

But dead people don't network much, so footnotes are becoming less and less important. And, for that matter, so is the information being footnoted.
When 90% of any of the information you want is just a web search away, is the possession of a specific fact necessarily any more important than the dead person who could tell you the fact?

Stuyvesant and every other upper crust school teach primarily one thing – who you know is as important, more important, than what you know. In this post-print sense, collaborating on an answer via iPhone is the next logical step in the sequence. We began by moving information from personal memory (as Plato required) to book memory (what books have you read?). Now we move information from book memory to the "cloud" of interpersonal memory (who do you know that can get this done for us?).

In a society that values lobbying and social connections, people are (rightly) hired for their social connections more than the book knowledged that can be Googled at the speed of light. Using books would have been “cheating” according to Plato. Now using iPhones is “cheating” according to us old fogeys.

Is it cheating? Socrates presents Plato as someone who sought out every person who could in an ultimately futile attempt to remedy his own ignorance. These students do the same. Would Plato approve? That's a good question...


Ron Van Wegen said...

I think it was Einstein who said that (paraphrase) there was little point in memorizing something that could be looked up. I guess I should have looked that up.

GOR said...

I would tend to agree with Einstein over Plato – particularly with advancing years. For some time I intentionally do not commit to memory things that I can easily look up – phone numbers, license plates, dates, etc. Despite having six licensed vehicles in the family (two-wheel and four-wheel), I could not tell you the number of one of them. But I can easily walk out into the garage to check them. Why clutter up the increasingly aging mind with non-essential memorization?

But for the young the ease with which information is superficially acquired can be a detriment. Just as the calculator replaced memorization in mathematics, modern technology permits the young to skip ‘learning’ in favor of ‘momentary retrieval’.

Information is not knowledge. We have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.