I tend to read (that is, listen to audiobooks) fairly indiscriminately in my spare time. I’m currently caught between reading fantasy novels with my son, re-reading the Iliad, two Sarah Vowell books and a pop-anthropology book called Sapiens. I know i’m not going to remember most of what i read in 12 minutes drives to and from the grocery store so i mostly like books that i can drop in and out of. I also like to be entertained by people’s ideas… regardless of whether they are ‘accurate’. Threaded through the wild and rollicking ride of conjecture, research and really snappy one liners that is Harari’s book Sapiens, are some very entertaining ideas. One of them is a particular view of how we are knitted together by our myths.
He sees myths as shared stories that we use to allow us to communicate and relate to large numbers of other humans. His argument, in part, is that the success of homo sapiens as a species is in our ability to create large scale fabrications that we can all believe in – money is a good example. Money doesn’t really ‘exist’ as a thing, it only works because we all believe it works. He makes the same argument for things like gods and corporations. They aren’t things in the world like you and I and my cat Clementine. They are shared delusions that we make real in order to cope with the complexity of our culture. All myth is, in a sense, a reification – treating an abstraction as if it were a real thing.
The thing in the container
The word ‘content’ is exactly this kind of abstraction. It’s a word that is used by almost every english speaking educator, but in many different ways.
- The ‘content’ of a course may be topic of the course – introductory chemistry.
- It may be the ‘materials’ (speaking of abstractions) like a laundry list of published articles
- It could be a textbook (grrr…)
- It may be the whole curriculum of a course – everything that happens
- … lots and lots of other things
And yet with all these varied ways of looking at the word, we use it to generally refer to ‘the things that are studied in that class’. They are ‘the things in the container’ of the course. But what does it mean for a course to have content? What does it mean for there to be things that are/should be in a container of first-year chemistry, or medical ethics or educational theory? These things change all the time. If you looked at the ‘content’ of courses from 50 years ago, or from another country, or even from one course to another we see a totally different things in the container.
So what dave? People teach different things. (i totally just said that in my head)
The so what here comes from our ability to choose between one ‘piece of content’ and another to include in our course. The ways in which those particular pieces of content become more popular is a weird social process. Einstein’s theories of special relavity made it to general acceptance because Max Planck supported them. They could be called ‘Universy roundy bouncy’ and be totally differently conceived if Max had found someone else first. But lets leave deep, i really don’t understand it, science aside for a moment. The laundry list of content that we read in any field is as much a matter of who popularized and named what concept at one time. It is the story that someone (or more likely, lots of someones), somewhere told. Whether it was then written down, and we forgot who wrote it, the fact remains…
We are actually just choosing the different stories that actual people have told to tell to someone else. We are choosing between people. Which is fine… it just means that the ‘content’ is actually people.
Content is people
I seem to think that this is profoundly important for learning. If we are journeying through the ideas that are made by different people, it doesn’t really matter where we start that journey. We start from the people we know, from the people we are familiar with… from a touchstone that grounds us in who we are. From there we grow out to the next piece we find and the next. The job of a teacher/instructor/guide/mentor is to continue that process of introduction as best we can manage. We may not know all the people that you might want to know, there may be two different people with the same story to share, but that’s not hugely important. We introduce you to a group of people who believe a certain way, who have a particular story to tell…
What is important is that you come to know enough of the stories of a particular field in order to be able to function in that field. As you continue to learn, you’ll acquire more stories, more ways of looking at things, more people to grow your own story with. This could the story of how you see the points of tension in your medical profession (things like prevention vs. medication), how you look at management, how you apply your own ethics to the way you vote or how you parent. As we become part of a community of knowing, our stories continue to grow. The community is always the curriculum.
— Simon Ensor (@sensor63) April 28, 2015