Two Kinds of Knowledge - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Two Kinds of Knowledge

There are two very different kinds of knowledge taught in text books and classrooms.

Let me illustrate with a little story -- a true story:

A few years ago a friend of mine decided that she would like to go to college. She had married soon after graduating high school and had never had a real chance to go to college as a young woman, but now that she was middle-aged the opportunity presented itself.

The college she attended allowed students to skip introductory classes that were normally required for a degree if the instructor agreed that the student already knew the basics of the subject from personal study, life experiences, or whatever. One class she thought she might skip was an "Introduction to Politics" course. So she went to speak to the instructor, and told her that she believed she knew a fair amount about politics. The instructor said, "Okay, let's see." The instructor pulled out a copy of the text book, browsed through it a bit, and then pulled out a "pop quiz" question for her: "What are the seven functions of a political party?". My friend rattled off seven functions that she could think of. The instructor said doubtfully, "Well, that's three of them ..." My friend struggled to come up with the answer the instructor was looking for, and finally gave up. She conceded that perhaps she did not already know what this class would teach.

I find this story amusing because my friend had spent many of the years between her high school graduation and her entrance to college as a lobbyist, head of a Political Action Committee, and as an elected official herself. She hob-nobbed with senators and governors and her advice and support was regularly sought by all manner of state and national politicians. But a teacher decided that she didn't really know very much about politics because she couldn't give an answer to the question, "What are the seven functions of a political party?" that matched the list given in a text book.

The problem, of course, was not with my friend's knowledge of politics. The problem was with the question.

As I believe this illustrates, there are two very different kinds of knowledge taught in text books and classrooms. Let me call these "fact knowledge" and "analysis knowledge", or simply, "facts" and "analysis". (I am inventing these two terms purely for the purpose of this article.)

By "fact knowledge" I mean individual facts, facts that are, at least in principle, provably true or false. By "analysis knowledge" I mean analysis, interpretation, and organization of fact knowledge.

Suppose in the above story the teacher had asked, "Who was vice president under George Washington?" This is a question with one simple right answer. This is fact knowledge. If my friend had said anything other than "John Adams", she would have been wrong, period. (Personally I don't think the ability to answer such a question correctly tells us a lot about a person's understanding of the political process, but that's not the point here.)

Fact knowledge doesn't have to be simple, one- or two-word answers. If the teacher had asked, "According to the U.S. Constitution, what process must a bill go through to become law?", that would still have been fact knowledge. It's a narrative question so we wouldn't expect everyone to give a word-for-word identical answer. But it would be fair to say that a correct answer must include the basic ideas of the bill having to pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the president, or if vetoed by the president go through the veto-override process. If she had said that a bill must pass the Senate and had forgotten to mention the House, or if she had said that the Secretary of State must approve a law or that new bills must be printed in People magazine before they can be voted on or some such, she would have been wrong. Simply, clearly, wrong.

But a little thought will show that a question like, "What are the seven functions of a political party?" is in an entirely different category. It does not have one right answer. If you put ten of the nation's leading experts on politics in a room and asked them to list the functions of a political party, it would be highly unlikely that they would all come up with the same list. The leader of the Democratic National Committee or the Republican National Committee would probably start with something to the effect that a political party is a vehicle for raising campaign money, or that it serves to attract and recruit quality candidates. The first thing that would occur to a member of Congress might be that it provides the leadership to bring people with similar goals but different ideas together behind a single program. Another expert might observe that, when there are many candidates campaigning and the average citizen doesn't have the time or resources to make a detailed study of the positions of each one, a candidate's party affiliation at least gives a clue about his general philosophy. And so on.

Analysis knowledge often consists of classifying or categorizing things. In order to make sense of a mass of information -- fact knowledge -- we have to organize it in some way. We identify ways in which things might be distinguished, and then divide them into groups.

When I say that a statement of fact knowledge is provably true or false, let me clarify that I do not mean that it is always clear which it is right now. Quite the contrary. If someone says, "There is intelligent life on a planet orbiting the star Rigel", that statement is either true or false. I don't know which it is, and I strongly suspect that you don't either, but it is one or the other. (Assuming we have a precise definition of what constitutes "intelligent life", but no statement is meaningful unless we know exactly what all the words mean.)

I'm sure that if you read other political science textbooks they would have very different lists of the functions of a political party. I can't help but wonder how this instructor would have reacted if my friend had come back with another textbook that had a different list. Would she have insisted that that other book was wrong, because this book had the "right" list?

In fact, it is almost meaningless to ask if a statement of analysis knowledge is true or false. At most it could be said to be "useful" or "not useful" in a given context. For example, suppose we are considering how to classify all the different types of methods of transportation that exist in the world. We might classify them by their source of power: "animal powered", "internal combustion", "steam engine", "nuclear", and so on. If we are looking at, say, what sort of maintenance and repair facilities are needed this could be a very valuable classification. One could surely design an airplane and an automobile that used common parts -- spark plugs, hoses, and so on. It is unlikely that you could use the spare parts from an automobile to keep a horse working. On the other hand, if what you are thinking about is what means of transportation could be used to get you between two specific points, the fact that a boat and an automobile use similar engines is pretty much irrelevant.

Analysis knowledge is not opinion, at least not in the normal sense of the word. The statement, "Medieval England was ruled by a king" is fact knowledge. "The three basic types of government are monarchy, aristocracy, and republic" is analysis knowledge. "The best form of government is a constitutional republic" is an opinion. Analysis knowledge is about organizing and classifying information, not about judging it. On the other hand, there is an element of opinion to all analysis knowledge: an opinion about which facts are most important and which are side issues. In the "vehicles" example, one classification system is based on the opinion that, for at least some purpose, the important attribute of a vehicle is its source of power. Another quite rational classification would be based on the type of terrain this vehicle is suited for. Yet another ight be based on what tax laws apply to it. In both cases, it is likely that factors such as manufacturer and color would be considered unimportant.

My point in writing this is to encourage people to understand the distinction between these two types of knowledge.

First, people often confuse analysis knowledge with fact knowledge: They think that one classification system is "right" and others are therefore "wrong"; that analysis knowledge is true or false.

The instructor from my story at the beginning of this article is a case in point. She apparently thought that the list of "seven purposes" from this particular textbook were some sort of universal knowledge, that anyone knowledgeable about politics would inevitably agree on.

I have read and heard many pointless arguments about which system of classification is "right". People routinely declare someone else ignorant or biased because they used a different classification system.

But this is, well, wrong. For example, I have often heard the Biblical story of Jonah criticized because it refers to a whale as a "fish". But, the critic triumphantly points out, the whale is not a fish, but a mammal, because it breathes with lungs and not gills. Whatever one might think about the credibility of this story, this criticism is simply silly. Of course the Bible was not originally written in English, so when a Hebrew word is translated “fish” this does not mean that we can apply all the technicalities of our definition of the English word to the original Hebrew word. I make no claims to being a Hebrew scholar, but if they had a word to describe a class of animals that live in the sea, regardless of their manner of respiration, it is meaningless to say that that definition is “wrong” because modern American biologists classify creatures differently. Future biologists may come up with some yet different classification system (by common groupings of DNA, perhaps). There is nothing inherently wrong about classifying creatures by environment. There is nothing inherently wrong about classifying creatures by their means of respiration and reproduction. They are just different systems of classification.

Second, educational settings often present analysis knowledge as ultimate truth, and devote far more time and effort to teaching the student a particular classification system or means of organizing facts than they give to the facts themselves. But analysis knowledge is only useful to the extent that it helps us to understand fact knowledge. It has not inherent meaning itself.

I was recently required by my employer to take an in-house training course, followed by a test to insure we all learned the material. The test was almost entirely on the analysis knowledge included in the class: "What are the four kinds of ..." "What are the five steps to ..." and so on. But who cares? If someone divides the steps in getting a job done differently and comes up with only four, as long as he gets the job done, does it matter?

Perhaps this is done so often just out of laziness. Another complaint I have about education is that it often concentrates on recitations of unimportant facts. Maybe there's a connection: Trivia and classification are easy to teach and easy to test. When you're writing a test, it is easy to flip through the textbook or your lecture notes and pull out some questions like, "Who was vice president when the War of 1812 began?" and "What are the twelve types of international diplomacy?" It's easy to grade such a test. But such questions tell us almost nothing about a student's true understanding of the subject. A student might remember some names and dates while having no idea why events happened the way they did. A student might not recall the textbook's full list of the types of something while having an excellent grasp of the concepts. A test that asked, "Explain the circumstances leading up to the War of 1812, and suggest an alternative strategy that the U.S. could have followed to avoid the war" would tell us a lot more about the student's knowledge, but it would be much more difficult to grade objectively.

This is not to say that analysis knowledge is worthless. Quite the contrary, it may well be essential to our understanding the world around us. Indeed, the whole point of this article has been to classify all knowledge into two types: fact knowledge and analysis knowledge. That's classification, hence, analysis knowledge. My point is that we have to be careful to understand that fact knowledge may be universal truth. Analysis knowledge isn't. Analysis knowledge is useful only to the extent that it helps us to understand fact knowledge.

© 2003 by Jay Johansen


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