04 February 2010

You should know this.

As most of my friends and acquaintances these days are academics, it doesn't surprise me when, in conversation, someone admits unfamiliarity with one of the more common aspects of popular culture (i.e., Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, etc).

What does surprise me is when, in conversation with the same type of people, they indicate astonishment or disdain when revealing unfamiliarity, uncertainty, or misconception about a scientific concept. OK, it's funny when we have brain farts, and say something about bird chloroplasts, gorilla tails, or yeast being mammals...but science, especially biology, has an enormous content basis that is overwhelming at best and intractable at worst.

I've had an interest in meta-thinking for many years, and have often wondered what the future of education will be. We're expected to know much more information related to science, history, math, etc in primary and secondary education, so how is the extra information conveyed? Are we learning at a faster pace, or are some areas of content being expunged?

I'm much more comfortable with the idea of removing content. As someone who has an awful memory, and who does not care much about memorization, I balk at the idea that more "stuff" needs to be shoved into my brain. It's much more important to me that I have the ability to think, to consider, and to evaluate. I'm not impressed by someone who can recite digits of pi, or who can name all of the authors, publication year, and experimental methods of all academic papers relevant to their field.

I am impressed by people who can ask insightful questions, and who can communicate about topics they really don't know much about. Those two skills kind of go hand-in-hand...and the real crux of the issue is knowing how to seek out information.

The source of my contemplation lately is a number of recent experiences in which a peer insinuates or even literally remarks, "You should know this." Well, maybe, but probably not. I really should know how to read. I really should know how to get out of bed, put on clothes, and get to work in the morning. I should know how to eat food and drink water to keep my body going.

My current work encompasses many elements: phylogenetics, molecular biology, cytogenetics, plant biology, taxonomy, bioinformatics, etc; all united under evolutionary theory. Am I an expert in any of these topics? I really don't think so. Should I be an expert in these fields? Well, I guess it might be nice, but that means I could be an expert.

The method in which we learn and think always comes at a cost. The cost tends to be breadth of a subject, or depth of a subject. Right now, I prefer to know a little bit about lots of different things. It compliments my mental strengths, which are synthesis of information and "big picture" thinking, as my boss would say. And I'm comfortable with that.

I apologize for not conveying any vital piece of information you should know. Wait...there is one. Kitties are cute.

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