Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Don't Believe the Experts

There is a natural tendency in America to unobstructedly believe the experts. To make up our minds, we need know little save what the PhD's tell us to think. There is obvious good and bad in such a tendency. It's right that we value what educated people say about things they study alot. There's an appropriate humility in such deference. Yet we must also balance our trust of the experts with careful analysis of what they say. Do their findings accord with reality? Such is the question we must ask. It is not rare, I think, that we find the experts' discoveries, or the conclusions they draw from their discoveries, to be lacking.

We see one such example in the opinions of educational experts who tell us that the current generation of Americans cannot concentrate in an educational setting for longer than 20-25 minutes. Yeah, that's what the PhD's say. But I think it's bunk. I myself am somewhat hyper and able to multi-task. I love research, which is what I am paid to do, because I can mentally flit all over the place, discover new things, and actually be thanked for it all. I profit from my hyperness. That's a beautiful thing. And yet I regularly sit in lectures that last 90 minutes without a break. Do I find such experiences unbearable? Do my cognitive faculties shut off at the 30 minute mark? Do my eyelids flutter uncontrollably such that I cannot take notes? To each of these questions, the answer is a snorting "no!" Yeah, I get a bit squirmy. Yeah, I have to concentrate hard to stay with the professor. Yeah, I would love to get up and run around every twenty minutes. But that's ridiculous. How can I learn anything if I'm constantly switching my mind off and changing to a new task? Far from what the experts say, it's actually a really good thing that I, a self-confessed hyper person, sit and listen.

As with all of life, there's a deeper issue here. There are certainly psychological and physiological factors at work in the task of concentration, but the primary factor is that of patience. Put frankly, noone wants to be patient anymore. And noone is willing to step up and tell children that they must pay attention--or else. Over against past educational theory, which emphasized the authority of the teacher, it seems the student is the authority nowaday. The student's whims and wishes drive education. Such a philosophy works for shopping. Businesses structure their products according to consumer taste. But this ought not to be so for education, where there is a body of learning to be handed down to students. They ought to be given propositional content to consider that is selected and delivered as best serves their educator, in order that they might profit from their education. The educator, not the twitchy ten year-old, knows best. What happened to such thinking? Let the teacher set the time limit for the lessons, and let the moldable attention spans of the youth follow suit. Trust me--they'll learn. They'll pay attention. Just look at movies--noone has a tough time getting kids to bore their eyes into a film for two hours. Oh wait--what do the experts say about that?


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