On Education and Information Overload

When I was a senior in high school, I studied the most advanced form of math available at my school (integrals). I was pretty proud, because my older (and more adept at all matters logical) brother hadn’t studied this subject until college. I discussed it with my teacher at the time, who shared that during his undergraduate studies, this level of math belonged to graduate school curriculum.

Five years later, I was a senior in University and I was trying to wrap my mind around tensor math. It was the first time I’d felt what seemed like a mental limitation that prevented me from ”grasping” a logical subject. I later did find out that it was mostly physical limitations that got in the way (poor sleeping schedule and psychological overload, but that’s a different topic). But when I experienced that mental block, I envisioned how in twenty years, high school students would be breezing through tensor math and having a grand time with it. In moments like these, I would feel rather hopeful. I would feel as if I was living in the proverbial future.

Fast forward ten years. Here I am, sitting and reading some articles on materials advances and so forth (for work). I typically can follow most concepts in physics, but I’ve been out of the theoretical side of things for a while now, so every so often I bump into some unfamiliar term that I need to research in order to reason through. The information, at least on an intermediate level, is readily available if you know where to look for it. But hardly anyone, unless they are employed in the respective field, would ever seek it out. And in moments like these, I think back to the times when I still believed that the world marched alongside the advances in math and sciences.

And gone is the joy. That feeling that we’re standing on the threshold of the future.

Science and technology are progressing. Every day, someone in a lab somewhere finds a new answer and a new question. Every day, someone puts a new concept to practice. We see the results in consumer electronics. Someday, hopefully soon, we’ll see them in energy and biotechnology.

But how many people actually understand the underlying principles behind how even simple, every day items function? And let’s forget the “hard” sciences. How many people smirk (or, alternatively, cringe in horror) when they hear “organic chicken”? How many people understand that genetic engineering has been in humanity’s repertoire from the day a human chose to plant the seeds from the bigger cucumber or leave the stronger lamb to breed? How many people realize that recycling isn’t a magical process that reverses the recyclables to their original raw state without any use of energy and leftover byproduct? And I won’t even touch subjects like history and psychology.

And here, I’m only talking about people who take pride in being considered progressive and educated.

This was a rather long lead into the subject that’s been bugging me for a while now. I recently argued with a friend about availability of information, its effect on people’s decision-making abilities, and the purpose of education.

My friend’s point was that the excess of available information causes confusion – and people then tend to either become susceptible to opinions of people they “trust” without thinking through the implications, or altogether fail to make logical decisions. And, in his opinion, the culprit was the availability of too much information, and too many opinions based on this information. (And his solution was that people kept their opinions to themselves, which is another discussion altogether)

Now, I think that the problem lies in a large number of people not being adept at sorting and reasoning through information. And, with an education system that’s more and more geared towards making kids feel good about themselves (i.e. balancing their school curriculum to fit their interests/strengths and lowering standards), we are only deepening the problem. Sure, we might be making kids happier in school – but school isn’t a babysitting service provided by the state or respective private organization (or, at least, it’s not supposed to be). It’s supposed to be an institution that educates young people and ideally turns them into intellectually well-adjusted adults. And that’s not an easy – nor is it supposed to be a “happy” – process.

And one of the most important parts of education, especially in this new world where almost any piece of information is readily available, is training the ability to process information and be capable of making decisions based on it. No, training critical thinking isn’t easy, nor is it pleasant. It requires effort, it requires exposure to tons of information, as wells as effort to understand that information and apply logic to sort through it. It requires challenging limitations and teaching focus even on subjects that might not be interesting to the particular individual. It requires both depth and breadth. It requires developing the basic human abilities to think and to learn and building experience and comfort using them.

So, when someone tells me that people are overloaded with opinions and facts, and it’s unfair to expect them to be capable of making decision by themselves, so let’s make sure they only get a few ”sanctioned” opinions and “necessary” facts to wade through – all I can see is someone saying that people are dumb and I’m evil for saying that no, they aren’t dumb, they are badly educated and that, if we shield them from the evil overloads of a world better geared to people who have been taught to think, we’d be doing society an even greater disservice.

So, yeah, I’m in the camp that thinks it’s okay to raise the standards in schools to where it isn’t easy to excel, no matter how much this hurts parents’ pride – because, let’s face it, if every update of the standard to excel sets its requirements at average, you get a downward slope, both in your standards, and in your average.

Plus, it should be in the natural evolution of things that parents are dumber and less educated than their kids (and they should be proud to be so). And, if we do make sure this is so, maybe in a few generations, we’ll have a majority of people who are capable of reading a few articles, identifying facts vs. opinions in them, and forming their own (reasonable) opinions from what they’ve read. And maybe then, the world will once again walk in step with scientific and technological progress.

I know it’s wishful thinking, but a girl can dream…