How Do You Know?


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March 21, 2016
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Growing up, I loved school and I loved learning; I was thirsty for knowledge. That hasn’t changed. Now a grown woman, and a mother of four children (three of whom are currently home educated), I find myself reflecting on knowledge. Lately I feel that it is less important what my children know than how they know. Let me explain.

In his book called Boys Adrift, author Leonard Sax talks about two different ways of knowing. In English, we really only have one word for knowledge. By contrast, many European languages have two separate words, to describe two different ways of knowing. In Spanish, the verb saber refers to head knowledge, while the verb conocer is used if you know a person. In French, similar verbs are savoir (for head knowledge) and connaître (for knowledge of a person). In German, says Sax, the word wissenschaft refers to knowledge from books, while kenntniss refers to knowledge of a person or place.

Perhaps partly because of our lack of distinctive words in English, we tend to equate the two types of knowing—knowing about and knowing from experience. But when we distinguish between the two meanings, it’s fairly obvious that as a society, we are skewed toward the “knowing about” type of knowing. We can read about a topic, or watch YouTube videos about it, or listen to a lecture about it—and then feel like we know the subject. Living in a digital world skews us even further. As computers and mobile devices bring more and more information to our fingertips, we have less reason to interact face-to-face or in person with the people around us or with the rest of creation. We can “Google” to find an answer to practically any question.

Just to be clear—there is nothing wrong with head knowledge. Books are a wonderful way to encounter ideas and information (and even experiences) that would otherwise be out of our realm of experience. But by itself, head knowledge is incomplete. Ideally, we would nurture both types of knowledge and they would enhance each other.

It seems to me that this distinction between knowing about and knowing relationally applies to more than just the nonhuman creation (or nature, if you will). It also applies to our relationships with others, with ourselves and with God. For example, it is possible to understand human psychology, but not have a healthy relationship with a real person. Likewise, you can know a lot about God (and have a correct theology), yet not know Him personally.

The importance of experiential knowing and knowing about is relevant for all of us. Dr. Sax (aforementioned author of Boys Adrift) frames his discussion about these two types of knowing specifically in terms of education. In general, education for us tends to be more focused on knowing about; this is the kind of knowledge that is tested on standardized tests. I can think of several reasons for an educational focus on head knowledge.

First, it is easier, in almost all ways, to convey information through books, lectures, or digitally. In a classroom situation, less hassle and expense are associated with these approaches than there would be in coordinating a class trip to learn first-hand about a subject. When a field trip is planned, the logistics of making an experience accessible to dozens of children at the same time means the experience will be somewhat artificial.

Even in my family’s situation, with a 3:1 student to teacher ratio, and with great flexibility in terms of our schedule, it is often easier to rely on books than to seek out an experience. I sometimes need to give myself an internal pep-talk to push myself to actually do a demonstration or experiment with my kids, rather than just reading with them about what is “supposed to” happen.

A second reason for an overemphasis on knowing about at the expense of experiential knowledge is that it is easier to quantify head knowledge. Tests can reveal whether or not an individual has memorized facts or understood a concept. But how do you evaluate the impact of the more nebulous kind of knowing that comes with experience?

Answers are emerging when it comes to our relationship with the non-human creation. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the impact of a lack of interaction with the non-human natural world. He describes a correlation between less time in nature and higher rates of anxiety and depression; attention deficit disorders; and diseases connected to a sedentary lifestyle. Louv goes on to argue and illustrate how time in nature can improve emotional and physical health; reduce stress; heighten senses; and nurture creativity.

As I mentioned, I love ideas, and I love learning. Books are my “go to” resources when I want to learn about something. But I find it sometimes exhausting to live so much of life in the realm of head knowledge. I make conscious efforts to “fight back” in a number of ways. Here are a few, specifically related to knowing the non-human creation, which might also be helpful for you:

  1. Take a hike. Our family, with a group of other home educating families, has gone hiking on Wednesday mornings for years now. We sometimes cancel our hike if it is raining or bitterly cold, or if roads are bad from a recent snowfall, but otherwise we are out every week, summer or winter. Weekly hikes offer a chance for kids to run off some energy, for moms to chat, and for all of us to have a mid-week break from ordinary routines. But they do more. The kids and I come home from hiking with a sense of well-being, after being out in the fresh air. We know our favorite hiking spots intimately, having encountered them in all seasons.
  2. Learn a hobby. This might start with head knowledge; you might read a book about a potential hobby or look online for information about it. But then be sure to go further and actually try it out. This past year, I learned how to make soap. I had learned about the process of saponification long ago in a college chemistry course: a strong base is added to triacylglycerides to produce glycerol and the salt of fatty acids. Recently I enjoyed seeing the process in action, as I added a hot lye-and-water mixture to clear, liquefied fats and oils. My daughter and I watched it turn yellow and creamy right in front of our safety-goggled eyes. In a few weeks, when the soap has cured, we will use the end product of that reaction to clean our hands.
  3. Plant a garden, or at least plant a seed. My husband loves to plant seeds and watch them grow. Our large backyard garden provides us with fruits and vegetables for many months of the year. It is also a source of wonder, and of the knowledge that comes with experience. Every year, our children each choose a packet of seeds to plant in their very own sections in the garden.

Rachel Carson, a biologist most famous for her book Silent Spring, wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” Perhaps this is just one more way we are to “become like little children,” as Jesus instructed in Matthew 18:3. Love—for people, for creation, for God—flows from a relational, experiential kind of knowledge.

About the Author
  • Dawn Berkelaar lives in southern Ontario with her husband Edward and their four children. She is a scientist, editor, writer, teacher and home maker.

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