Living formal learning

I

About ten years ago, one of my favorite children’s librarians explained the utility of algebra to me so compellingly that, in all the years since then, I have regularly been grateful both for her explication and the fact that that branch of mathematics had managed to stick upstairs even though I had no appreciation decades earlier when its principles were dinned into my twelve-year-old brain.

“Our entire workdays are solving for X,” she explained (with more patience than I recall Mr. B showing that 8th grade class). “We work our ways through projects with some knowns and the possibility to derive the unknowns from them. And we write out proofs in our evaluations, showing ourselves whether we put the right values in the right places.”

In all the years since that illuminating conversation (which, as I recall, took place as we marched in September’s heat in an annual civic parade celebrating silliness, for which we had had to plan and execute silly costumes for the library contingent), I have found myself willingly turning to rooting out that elusive X when faced by major planning, personally as well as professionally: what do I know for certain? How can what I know be combined to express a path toward what I need to know?

II

Even earlier than that life lesson, I had the great good fortune to be a library school student of Michael Ochs. There are lessons I learned both in his long ago Reference Methods course (circa 1978) and Reference of Literature and the Humanities (same era) that have remained true guides to me in situations that have nothing to do with addressing someone who has put a reference question before me (although plenty of other learning from those classes has been plowed into plenty of years of active reference service).

One such classroom based knowledge acquisition speaks to the need to remain aware that data can reveal only what those who designed the data query used in their collection actually asked. In library resource awareness terms this principle ¬†underscores the fact that demographic conclusions cannot be reached using statistics that did not pose exactly corresponding questions: if drug testing results report how the drug affected those who used it prescriptively, and all the users are over 65, largely white, middle class and covered by health insurance, the data can’t support what may be known about the drug’s effects on children, for instance.

In the personal world, this means that I have to check myself against subscribing to a conclusion based on information derived by someone who didn’t have quite my circumstantial need in mind when developing that information. He or she has, or may have, perfectly good and valid information, and yet I still need to judge whether the information on offer actually fits with the information gap I have. Should I wear a sweater outside this morning? I can ask someone who has already been outside the door. Unless we have similar metabolisms, however, the forthcoming information could be a lousy guide.

That’s a simplistic example, of course. Here’s something more nuanced: I am apartment shopping and take along a buddy to look at three. We discuss the relative merits of the kitchen cabinet set-ups, my buddy expressing concern that two of the places have considably less cupboard space than the third. Before I allow myself to get wrapped up in whether this observation is one I can use in my decision process, I need to think through whether my cupboard needs are in a general way similar to my buddy’s. If they aren’t, then that information, while nice to offer and welcome as an expression of support in the apartment hunt, doesn’t provide me with a C/a to plug into the algebra equation I should have in mind for finding the “right” apartment. (Lest anyone who has ever gone apartment hunting with me be questioning whether I am ungrateful, let me assure you that that is not the case; we are talking evaluating data here, not the reassurance one derives from having a friend along when home hunting!)

Another, and equally lasting lesson I learned in Michael Ochs’ classroom is the difference between translation and interpretation, and how the plasticity of the latter trumps the mechanical and stultifying qualities of the former. When we take possession of an idea, an insight, a question someone else has felt or spoken, we had better interpret it. Otherwise, we are stuck with something that is closer to piracy or stultification. To hear is to interpret. To speak a pure translation is the work of a parrot.

While I am far opposed to the popular conflation of higher education with job marketability, I do stand on my belief that the formal lessons we have had in school can open up worlds to our future selves. It’s just not about passing the qualifying exam by ticking the appropriate boxes. It’s about the very real mind changes those lessons can burn into the way we see our possibilities and efforts.

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