June 12, 2007

WILU Opening Keynote: Thinking vs. Knowing: Where Does Information Come in?

(Reposted from here.)

By Rick Salutin


A pretty typical Salutin talk, rambling, discursive, lots of digressions but interesting and engaging. Salutin starts by telling us he's going to talk to us a student, teacher, reader, writer and a parent, he's going to talk about teaching and writing, information, knowledge and understanding. He notes that he learns as much from teaching as being taught, something his teaching mentors told him would happen. You learn the most from magic moments with the profs, more than from their books. He spent a lot of time in libraries as a student and has recently rediscovered libraries and librarians with his young son. He wonders if books are a way to escape from people, because they are who we truly learn from via discussion. People come to librarians for help, as supplicants for a session of "laying on of the hands."

His great teacher Harold Innes strongly emphasized the oral tradition and practically founded media studies. Of the oral vs. the written, Innes greatly preferred the oral tradition. Written tradition has a bias towards information and facts while the oral can find truth via back and forth, round & round in an exchange that can get quite deep. The oral dialectic is the best way to discover new information and is the best and only way to truly explore the deepest ideas. But, of course, it's not the best way to disseminate those ideas. Plato's Dialogue though poorly written gave some intimation of the complexity of discussion, books are a pale shadow of dynamic, vital interaction. The Talmud also gives some idea of the vitality of oral tradition.

What's happened to the oral tradition? Has it gone away? It truly remains in two modern institutions: teaching and therapy, both of which are irreducible, which much happen live and in person (although Salutin surmises that there must be some forms of online therapy out there to go with attempts at online and correspondence education). Salutin has taught all his life, since he was a teenager. He's done a half course at UToronto for 30+ years; teaching is part of what it means to be fully human, we all do it in our lives especially with our kids. The oral tradition has no definitive model for this human interaction, it can't be formalized. He had Conrad Black in one of his recent class session and was impressed with Black's presence, the way he made a kind of presence in society real for his students in a way that contradicts all that lesson plan/methodology stuff. No one knows what we want from education, we only discover that in open ended moments of human interaction.

On the content side, the print tradition, kids can read the same book a hundred times (or watch the same movie). Perhaps we should take their example and instead of always trying to read something new we should just select the best texts and go over them repeatedly, gaining new understanding each time. We're not good at knowing, we're a lot better at thinking/pondering. Hannah Arendt said, "we mistake the urge to think for the urge to know." We should just continue to use our minds.

What kind of an institution should a university be? Should it be in the service of social wealth and power or should it be a source of criticism, thought and outside the power structure? Marcuse: the "power of negative thinking" can be a positive force. Fighting against bad things is a positive action.

It's worth noting that many of the speakers for the rest of the conference mentioned Salutin's oral/print tradition dichotomy and it's implications for instruction.

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