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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Information

Last night I read in the Duke alumni magazine that the rise in asthma rates during the last 25 years may have been caused by the folic acid that pregnant women have been taking in their prenatal vitamins. Have I mentioned that my daughter has asthma and possibly my son? And I was one of those dutiful expectant moms who never missed a vitamin. So instead of being able to feel a little righteous indignation that the asthma and our high pharmacy costs were just caused by pollution, now I feel a more complicated mix of emotions, especially after reading that folic acid was added to prenatal vitamins to prevent birth defects, which my children don’t have, thankfully. The possible side effects of folic acid are certainly important for scientists to evaluate, but for me, it’s too late and a little hard to process this news, which isn’t definitive anyway.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much information is good for a person to know. For example, I’m not sure I need to know that one Facebook friend has a cold, another is answering email, and another is visiting churches (or was, whenever she last updated—information I did not absorb). I can’t imagine that anyone cares that I was up early this morning (my own most recent Facebook update). Of course, none of this is news anyone actually has to remember, so it’s easy to read and dismiss. The stuff that is really messing me up is the information that is supposed to stick, like when the kids are due to see the dentist or when the cookie dough fundraising form is due. I have to remember to water the plants and turn down the heat before we leave for Thanksgiving, not to mention stopping the mail and the paper, booking the dog in the kennel, and making sure he is up to date on his shots first. All these little things I’m expected to remember seem to be cluttering the closets of my brain. Recently I realized I had to write a list of online user names and passwords for the ridiculous number of accounts I have because I just can’t keep straight anymore whether the credit card that I pay online has the six letter password or if that was the company from which I purchased my domain name. (I also realized that if I died suddenly, our banking and bill payment history would be a total mystery to my husband.) So I wrote out the list and hid it in a brilliant hiding place that no thief is likely to discover. Except now I have to remember where I hid it whenever I forget a password.

This may have something to do with the aging process, but I have a sneaking suspicion my leaking brain is also a sign of times when our brains are constantly bombarded with stuff we don’t need to retain anyway. Who cares that I know the Nestle’s chocolate chip cookie recipe by heart when I’m sure I could find it online in a click or two. I don’t need to remember many of the things I do remember, like the date Nixon announced his resignation, or the Zulu word for hello. A friend who is a teacher and the parent of an eighth grader remarked that she was more interested in high schools that taught students to think than to memorize information that they could look up anyway. I agree, but as a college teacher myself, I think it is hard to teach people to think outside of a general base of knowledge. It’s not just that my students don’t know names and dates from history; they don’t know the big picture either. In the age of Google, how do we distinguish information from knowledge?

A quick search for the word knowledge shows that there is no agreed on definition of knowledge, but that the word implies something about understanding. It seems to me that knowledge somehow brings more value to our lives than information. It’s the stuff we don’t forget so easily, whether it’s a sense of history’s importance or the knowledge of how a friend is really doing. Maybe that’s why I can’t help glancing at people’s status updates whenever I’m on Facebook, even though most of them are silly. I am happy to know that one friend has finally made it to Zambia, after years of waiting. Another friend is sharing the news of her engagement. This kind of information does seem important because it helps me feel connected to people and helps build community, off line as well as on.

Among the things I don’t want to forget as we prepare for thanksgiving are the many blessings for which I am grateful. Sometimes they slip through my mind as easily as my Target user name, but they are among the things that are worth remembering.

6 Comments:

Blogger Robin M. said...

The good thing about the chocolate chip cookie recipe is that it's always on the back of the bag.

I've decided that Facebook or Twitter updates are like reading People magazine or the gossip column in the newspaper, except that it's about people I actually know, at least a little bit. Nobody needs to know who Paris Hilton kissed last, or who was up early this morning. But it seems like we're programmed to want to know. At least I'd rather have useless information about people in my real life.

3:24 PM  
Blogger naturalmom said...

Information vs. Knowledge -- you are on to something here. Information is like a pile of bricks and wood. Knowledge is the structure you construct with those materials. It is possible to endlessly collect bricks and beams without ever building much of anything. I think this is the danger of the information age -- too many bricks, not enough houses. It must be possible to have both, but I think we (collectively as a culture) haven't learned the best way to balance it yet.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

In Bloom's Taxonomy, knowledge is basically what you mean by information - the facts, that anyone could look up. What I think you mean by knowledge is what Bloom calls comprehension. As a teacher, I am personally very frustrated that even though they tell us to teach at the higher levels of the taxonomy - teach critical thinking, etc. - the tests we really must teach to are all about the low-level knowledge memorization. I am very good at teaching the higher level concepts in history - WWI becomes patriotism vs. prejudice - what's the difference? How do alliances complicate things? In Texas history we discuss the fact that Goliad is referred to a a massacre but San Jacinto is not, even though the Mexicans were sleeping when attacked. Why? How else do you think what you are taught might be influenced by who the history is written by? How did what we did to Germany at the end of WWI contribute to Hitler's rise to power? But I don't have time to both teach these things and drill them on the memorization of tiny little details that I wouldn't remember myself if I weren't having to go over them all the time. These tests are killing us.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks all. Totally agree about testing being the wrong emphasis for teaching. Now teaching in college I assign more papers than tests, which comes closer to evaluating a student's understanding of the big picture, but when I was in the Peace Corps I taught in a system that was all about the standardized test. Students memorized trivia from novels we read without understanding them at all. It was disheartening.

By the way, I forgot to return our DVDs to the library and turn down the heat before we left town. Argh!

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

I haven't gotten that much spam on this blog, fortunately, but the above comment was clearly mass broadcast and not quite targeted, shall we say. I don't particularly want to moderate, so I'm taking the intermediate step of barring totally anonymous commenters, though open ID is still OK. If others have figured out a better way to deal with this sort of thing, please let me know.

9:46 PM  

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