Hear, See, Do
Article — December 24, 2016 — learning, language
“Education” is the most dangerous word in the world.
Every problem is solvable through education. Not only that: it’s really obvious that every problem is solvable through education. It is so obvious, in fact, that it’s obvious even to people who have no clue whatsoever of how to educate.This is written mainly from the perspective of a student. Tips for teachers will have to wait for another article.
There’s a mangled snippet of ancient Chinese wisdom floating around in the English-speaking world which goes something like, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” The original formulation of this thought was probably something written by Xunzi.Why do I know this? Because I check my sources.
It goes like this:I love Han characters. This is my translation, so, be warned: I do not know Chinese. I make a guess in the last line, writing “work” instead of “do”, because I think that captures the sense of “行” (xíng) better. The same character is also used to mean “move” and, tellingly, “profession”. It might also mean “be able to do”, depending on how you interpret it, but I like “work” better.
|不闻不若闻之，||Not to hear is not as good as to hear it,|
|闻之不若见之，||to hear it is not as good as to see it,|
|见之不若知之，||to see it is not as good as to know it,|
|知之不若行之。||to know it is not as good as to work it.|
Let’s assume there are fourOr five, depending how you count. The “zeroth” kind of education is no education. To be exact: it’s the state where you don’t know that you don’t know. If you’re learning to be a carpenter, this means you have never heard of wood. I agree with the venerable master that this is not as good as the alternative. Although, again: I do not know Chinese. Quite possibly Xunzi isn’t even talking about education, here. Could be he’s talking about toast. The character for “hear” (闻) is the same as for “smell” (闻), so it’s plausible. kinds of education: one for each of these lines.
The first kind of education is most of what’s called “education”, today. It’s what you get from books and lectures. Although it’s better than total ignorance, it’s still mostly useless. If you spend more than a day or two on it in the course of learning something, you are most likely wasting your time, and the amount of time people spend on this today is outright pathological.
To quote Richard Feynman on education in Brazil:
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!I remember a LessWrong article about this, too. It’s a more challenging read, but says more explicitly what the advantage of deeper learning is, whereas Feynman is mainly saying, “You dumbasses!”
This kind of education isn’t really education at all. Someone who wants to be a carpenter, and therefore spends two years intensely studying the theory of carpentry, is acting on the mistaken belief that knowledge is a kind of substance which can be acquired via consumption. In reality, the exact opposite is more true. I do not gain knowledge by putting something into myself; I gain knowledge by bringing something outThe etymology of education goes back to ēdūcō, “I draw out”, in Latin. That always seemed surprisingly intelligent to me. As far as I know, school in ancient Rome wasn’t any better, but maybe I’m just showing my ignorance here. of myself.
The second kind of education is what you get by physically going and looking at what you want to learn. The would-be carpenter finally gets fed up with endless droning lectures about dovetail joints, and visits an actual carpenter to see what on Earth is being talked about there.
If you seriously want to learn something, it’s a good idea to observe it, directly, as soon as you possibly can. This goes for every profession. Don’t bother taking a course first. This is the curse that afflicts the whole world of permaculture, where, for every practitioner, there are a hundredI derived the very precise figure “a hundred” from my own speculative baseless opinion. teachers and consultants.I could just as well name academia, here, but I think right now we need skilled permaculturists especially urgently, compared to, say, physicists. I prefer to use the example that irks me more.
Permaculture is far from the only discipline that suffers from this phenomenon. What causes it? I think it’s the way we educate ourselves and others. When you take a permaculture course, you’re only gaining the first kind of education in permaculture, but you’re gaining the second kind of education in teaching. You are hearing (闻) about permaculture, and you are seeing (见) a teacher at work. To hear it is not as good as to see it (闻之不若见之), and so, at the end, you become a better teacher than permaculturist.It shouldn’t be surprising that you make more money practicing the former profession than the latter.
The third kind of education is something along the lines of science and mathematics. An interesting thing happened, after the invention of logic. Before that, this kind of education couldn’t have existed. At some point I began to notice a terrible thing among the most highly educated people I knew: they were so convinced of everything that they were impervious to further learning. They think they already know it, because they can prove that they know it, without actually demonstrating it.I still make this mistake, sometimes.
It’s very easy to stop learning once you know (知). I hope there are very few carpenters who have the misfortune of being in this state. I know all too many permaculturists are. You can talk on and on about guilds, and you’re even able to have new and creative thoughts about how different plants and animals can work together,Unlike the ones who only heard about it or saw it, and can parrot back what they heard, or describe what they saw, at best. but actually, when you try planting the three sisters in your own garden, the beans die, the maize turns purple, and the squash gets friggin’ huge. Hopefully you have the good sense to be confusedConfusion is always cause for celebration. This touches on another LessWrong article. at that point, but, if you know (知) too much, you might find yourself in the perverse situation of being able to convincingly explain why things didn’t work out how you intended.
Permaculture, as a concept and as a movement, was influenced by Masanobu Fukuoka. There is a tragic irony in this. Permaculture, in my view, is essentially “agriculture via systems theory”. Fukuoka himself became a farmer because he had an unspeakable revelation,What was the revelation? Well, it was unspeakable, and it’s also unwriteable, but I can say this: after you have it, you can’t really take systems theory seriously anymore. after which he needed to demonstrate to himself that he wasn’t crazy by actually using it.
In The One-Straw Revolution, he wrote:
Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood just one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all …” I felt that I understood nothing.
The fourth kind of education is the only thing I can really call education, and it’s only possible when you don’t know anything. I should mention that just because I’m numbering these different kinds of education doesn’t mean the best way is to do one after another, in order. The order is about which kinds of education are better than the others, and the better ones do not depend on the worse ones as prerequisites.
While the would-be carpenter was studying joints and frames and so forth, someone else just started to work (行) with wood, knowing (知) nothing about it. Who do you think became the better woodworker?
The precondition for educationThat is: education without qualifiers. Real education. is something very difficult to capture in writing. You won’t reach it simply by skipping the theory and moving directly to practice, as long as you still know something. It’s more about unlearning, than about learning; the learning happens by itself, once you get all the junk out of the way. I’m quite sureIn fact, I know (知) it! this is how Ramanujan learned mathematics, how Rajendra Singh learned water management, and how Masanobu Fukuoka learned farming.
Later in The One-Straw Revolution, Fukuoka tried to explain the difference:
The reason for all the confusion is that there are two paths of human knowledge – discriminating and non-discriminating. People generally believe that unmistaken recognition of the world is possible through discrimination alone. Therefore, the word “nature” as it is generally spoken, denotes nature as it is perceived by the discriminating intellect.
I deny the empty image of nature as created by the human intellect, and clearly distinguish it from nature itself as experienced by non-discriminating understanding. If we eradicate the false conception of nature, I believe the root of the world’s disorder will disappear.
In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure.
There is no way in which non-discriminating knowledge can be realized except by direct intuition, but people try to fit it into a familiar framework by calling it “instinct”. It is actually knowledge from an unnamable source. Abandon the discriminating mind and transcend the world of relativity if you want to know the true appearance of nature. From the beginning there is no east or west, no four seasons, and no yin or yang.
In the end, there aren’t four kinds of education. There’s only one.