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"Know to Know No More": Teaching in the Age of Information

The last few years have been a time of particular information (and misinformation) saturation.  The essay below was a response, in 2011, to a school initiative inviting teacher reflections, but its themes feel even more relevant today.  Then, I had recently returned to teaching after four years as a musician and working on political campaigns.  I saw the world differently, and the essay was entitled: “On Going, Knowing, and Coming Back Again.” Same essay below, different title. It has been edited only slightly.

The prompt was: We would like to put together a volume of "faculty meditations" or reflections on teaching in the broadest sense of the word… The most important element of this collection of texts is passion----love of what John Taylor refers to as "the calling."

“Know to Know No More”
On teaching in the age of information


When confronted with international crises and wars overseas, with the usurpation of attention by technology, and with decreasing opportunity for privacy in an increasingly social world, a student in my class—let’s call her Mary—still thrills at being young.  “It doesn’t seem so bad,” she says. “It’s the world we’ve grown up in.  It’s all we know.”  To her left, another student—let’s call him Will—cheerfully shrugs.

Pressed, they explain.  They defend their detachment from the news, their occupation with their immediate surroundings: with the music that transports them, the classes that compel them, the friends who engage them, and the technology that stimulates them.  For most, the world is still quite small.  They are young, after all.  Can’t they hold on to that, they ask, while they are in school, before worrying about the great woes and evils of the world?  The dynamism of childhood has, after all, only just been exchanged for the self-consciousness of adolescence.  Must the discovery of their own identities be defined by the world’s waterfall of worries?

More often, they relish in opportunities to play.  Whether structured in the classroom and on the field or unstructured in the dormitories or elsewhere, their play is the discovery of how to relate to each other, how to engage ideas, how to raise their voices and achieve personal goals.  They are impressed by the accomplishments of their peers.  They revel at the opportunity to be together, to practice together, and to witness and participate in successes with each other and over challenges.  They seek definition and understanding, passion, energy.  They appreciate beauty, which they actively seek, for it brings joy.  Beauty—pleasure of sense or senses—drives them.  Surely, they don’t think of it this way, but their words and actions show this to be true.  They crave beautiful music, movies, food, friendships, ideas.  Their definition of beauty changes day-by-day, from pulsing beats and driving bass one moment to light and quick guitar picking the next.  From dining hall chicken cutlets one day to caesar salad another.  From an elegant theorem one day to a rhymed couplet the next.  But mostly, they crave happiness, because it feels good, and they know that what they want most is to feel good.

Mary and Will try to define what makes them feel good, but it’s difficult.  Certainly music does, and friends do.  Playing does.  School does—because here at a boarding school they can play, hang out with friends, and listen to music almost all the time.  They love learning, too.  Even studying, but moreso when with friends.

If something sounds pleasurable, they’re up for trying it.  Eager, even.  If the pleasure is delayed, it takes practice to maintain focus and interest.  This is adolescence.  And if there doesn’t appear to be any hope of pleasure—of beauty, whether in sense or senses—their action feels less and less compelling, less and less like something their friends would really be interested in.  And then, it feels more and more like the kinds of things their parents, their friends’ parents, and their teachers are always talking about and reading about on the news, that waterfall of worries that they’d love to put off a little bit longer.

Many students remain oblivious to that waterfall.  Many others don’t have the privilege; the worries of the world find them, have found them.  Even then, they often seek escape.


I wonder often about this, about why it is that many students, like Mary and Will, resist that outside world. I wonder about the effect of knowledge: what our capacity is for absorbing and containing it, what obligation it implies.  I wonder about what knowledge we should promote, what knowledge promotes itself, and when and how we might seek to preserve innocence from knowledge.  More and more, I find myself wondering, specifically, about knowledge as we are growing to understand it in the modern experience—about information.


I wonder where we are in the life cycle of ideas.  Ideas spark innovation.  Innovation sparks application.  Application sparks debate; “We have created something new,” we say to each other. “How do we engage it appropriately and responsibly?  Do we have to redraw the parameters of our lives?  Of our society?  Of our world culture?”  In an ideal setting, we take the time to consider these applications and questions.  In an ideal setting, these questions lead us to an ethical understanding of our modern experience.  Surely, every physical and intellectual innovation demands that we ask these questions.  And in order to reach an ethical understanding of them, we must ask these questions thoughtfully and deliberately.

But we are not so lucky as to have the time.  The past century and a half was a steep, geometric arc of unparalleled innovation and creation in human history.  Pace of life rocketed with it.  Mass production (people, material, ideas), rapid transit (people, material, ideas), and telecommunications have launched us into an era of growth in which intellectual and physical property is created, consumed, and rendered obsolete before we have barely finished asking necessary questions about their place and proper use—and every year the pace grows faster and faster and the reach extends farther and farther, and progress and innovation keep compounding, and we keep taking it all in without fully answering the questions that we need to answer to ensure an ethical understanding of what we’ve just done.


The narrator of Milton’s Paradise Lost cautions Adam and Eve, “Know to know no more.”  Know when enough knowledge is enough. With innovation’s unending arrival on our doorstep, I thrill at the access and stimulation that have arrived with it, but I wonder about how we cope with it, about what we learn from it.  And I wonder about how we cope with its byproducts.  I wonder, for instance, about schools with metal detectors.  I wonder about airports with liquid-free travel and computers with parental controls; and I wonder why, in so many cases like these, we keep putting the training wheels on instead of taking them off.


One terrible, but notable, exception: on October 2, 2006, a waterfall of worries named Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.  Many of us remember the tragedy that followed.  Pretending to have lost something, Roberts entered, looked around, mumbled a few words to the teacher, and went back outside to his truck.  He returned with a handgun, and then shot and killed five children before taking his own life.

I was in my first month of graduate school when this happened.  I had left teaching to pursue music and the world outside of academia, but I had missed the energy and optimism of the classroom and applied to graduate school with the thought of heading back into the broader field of education.  The shooting at the Amish schoolhouse quickly became a topic of discussion in the media and in our classrooms.

After the initial horror had passed, what struck many people was how the Amish community responded to the shooting.  They invited Roberts’ parents to the funerals for the dead children, welcoming them to their mourning.  They forgave Roberts and attended his burial, too, offering prayers and consolation to his family.  Then, in the days that followed, the Amish tore down the schoolhouse, and, as a community, erected a new building on a different site nearby, leaving no marker of the old building, no memorial, only naming the new building the New Hope School.  They chose not to post guards, add checkpoints, or arm their teachers, but instead they returned to life as it was lived before the incident.  In so doing, they sought to forgive and move on, rather than remember.

In the face of terrible knowledge, this community sought to effect a return to their previous state, without hostility and without new fears. Their response reminded me of Milton’s narrator’s admonition: “Know to know no more.”  But this time with a secondary meaning: know to know no longer—know to forget.  Surely their lives, like ours, are fraught with decisions that others find objectionable, but in this case of isolated and grotesque violence, they seem to have embraced a traumatic act of coldness, and cleansed themselves of it.


Is there a way back to cultural innocence?  To simplicity?  Can we step from a more complex world to a less complex one?  Probably not the way the Amish have.  Would it, in our case, necessarily be desirable?  Innovation brings opportunity as much as it brings complexity and conflict.  But perhaps we can find a cultural way to understand and evaluate our innovation, to step back from the moral edge we are drawn to tiptoe (or trample) over and about.  Perhaps we can better engage the novelty and thrill that Mary and Will seek, the novelty that drives much of our innovation, but perhaps we can also learn something from the Amish about how to cope with our failures and how to know when to know no more.

This, I think, is the challenge and necessity of teaching in the Age of Information.  And in my mind, it is not only an ethical obligation, but increasingly an existential one.  Can there be a more important reason to teach?


When hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Egypt, I was, at first, only vaguely aware of the incidents unfolding there, far across an ocean and a continent.  But one article in the New York Times reported a particularly compelling narrative: several young organizers had recorded a video, a four-minute long impassioned plea by a young woman, and posted it on Facebook.  While their message was borne out of desperation, it used the language of hope and empowerment.  In response to the post, 90,000 people on Facebook said they planned to attend, and over 100,000 people showed up.

Here was a revolution started optimistically by a group of young people.  Soon, they planned a follow up protest, three days later. “Protest’s Old Guard Falls In Behind the Young,” read the headline.  Numbers more than doubled, and similar gatherings appeared in other cities across Egypt.  In short time, veteran organizers and opposition candidates contacted and began teaming up with the young organizers so that the protests crossed lines of age and belief. During the 18 days it took to unseat Hosni Mubarak, the long-sitting president, the overwhelming feelings on the ground were of hope, elation, and pride.

I suspected this would appeal to my students.  In class, I shared with them the Times article and several other sources.  Over the next few days, they (virtually) witnessed peaceful activism, they read about an army defending protesters’ right to speak, they saw leaders answering to public rebuke, and they recognized people not too different from themselves in age engaging the challenges of their time.  They were inspired.  Several asked if they could write letters or articles about it, about what the US could or should do.

Just before adolescence, the brain undergoes a rapid tree-like growth of synapses that are pruned during the teenage years.  It starts the greatest period of development in the prefrontal cortex.  The aggressive trimming that follows lasts late into one’s twenties, and it is during this period that the brain learns to make decisions, to balance its passions with reason.  The patterns built at this age typically last a lifetime.  And so as a teacher, I see one of my central challenges as accessing and shaping our students responsibly and ethically. Understanding the task and performing it are two different skills, however.


I started teaching because of an instinct to be in the classroom.  I left teaching because I felt called to music and to the city.  I returned to teaching because I missed the classroom, but also because while in the city, I recognized that we have a moral obligation—a social imperative—to educate each other and ourselves.  It is perhaps the most important thing we do.

And yet, saying this to students is a sure way to translate shining faces into blank stares.  For any number of reasons, our students’ moral and decision-making capacities are not intrinsically driven by a sense of societal need.  We can impress upon them the dire complexity of the world and the urgent need for their involvement, but this often feels to me like motivation through fear.  It might inform, but as Mary and Will suggested in my class, it doesn’t feel like it would inspire.

Vi Hart, a young woman who teaches complex geometry through hand-made movies that she posts on YouTube, has figured out how to inspire.  Her YouTube channel, hosting videos with titles like “Doodling in Math Class: Binary Trees” and “The Gauss Christmath Special,” has over two million hits, and the majority of her registered visitors are teenagers.  Hart’s interest in math came at age 13, when her father took her to a conference for computational geometry.  “I was hooked, immediately,” she said to the New York Times. “It was so different from school, where you are surrounded by this drudgery and no one is excited about it. Any gathering of passionate people is fun, really no matter what they’re doing. And in this case, it was mathematics.”  No wonder of it: any gathering of passionate people most closely accesses the state of an adolescent’s biological mind and peer group.

Is Hart a model for all teaching?  Certainly not.  But Hart recognizes that passion is meaningful to students.  When I started teaching, I knew only vaguely that teaching well meant capturing interest through creating and revealing beauty in content—and channeling that interest into finding pleasure in intellectual discovery, thoughtful reflection, and deliberate expression.  I didn’t know this explicitly until much later, but I knew that a classroom full of students engaging a topic was like a ball of energy that, as a teacher, I could fuel and shape and temper and help refine, sometimes by containing and directing it, other times by simply getting out of the way.  The classroom was a playground for the intellect.

When I returned to teaching, however, I came back with a purpose.  The dynamic in the classroom was the same, but I saw that the playground was part of a much larger context.  Discussions became something much more important than a conversation about a concept, a skill, a book, or a theorem.  It became the point of intersection between the past, the present, and the future—between the past culture, context, policies, and goals into which the classroom is born; the present influences and aspirations of the figures in the classroom; and the future of the state, the economy, and our greater sense of fulfillment well beyond our classrooms.

Can anything be more important, more sober than this?

And yet, the central figures in this process, year after year, remain adolescents, who know so little of the great wave of knowledge that awaits them.  How can they be expected to understand all this, much less carry it forward?  How much should they know about what they will face when they move outside of our sheltered community?


One morning I walked into my classroom and the sentence “We all grow up” was written on the board.  The previous teacher’s class had been exploring the idea in a particular text.  Seeing it, I paused and thought that it’s a perfect thought for a school, and so as my students walked in, we talked about it.

We all change; we mature, we become something different than what we currently are.  But what makes us “grow up”?  What makes us enlarge our understanding?  What is the knowledge that moves us from innocence to experience?  Is it the combined effect of a curriculum: math and science, the arts and humanities?  Is it the gradual creep of the larger world into our day-to-day lives?  Is it the responsibility of another person: a significant other, a family?  Or is it a biochemical shift that simply changes our frame of mind?

And when that change comes—whatever that change is—what is it that we need to know?  What must we be able to do?

I like to think that good teaching—to students of all ages—preserves the optimism and idealism of youth while preparing the intellect to engage the challenges of adulthood.  It unites feeling with thought.  And through this, we prepare our students to step out into and shape that outside, adult world full of challenges, rather than deny it or merely respond to it.  Seen this way, we, then, embark daily on a fundamentally hopeful act, an act performed in parts by individuals, but an act which, through the collective efforts of a school full of teachers, of a curriculum full of content across disciplines, prepares adolescents to dynamically understand and engage the world that they will soon enter.  It is thrilling and daunting work.  And, more than ever before, for me at least, it is essential, unavoidable, and driven not only by the pleasure of teaching and learning, but also by the recognition that with them comes hope for a more thoughtful, ethical, and optimistic engagement with that waterfall that waits right outside our door.



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